Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category


Ethics, Policy, & Environment Vol 14, Issue 1

April 2, 2011

Our March issue is up. Check out the editorial by Andrew and me.Ethics, Policy & Environment


Odenbaugh and Jamieson

September 30, 2010

Jay Odenbaugh and Dale Jamieson discuss climate change and ethics on teh philosophy teevee. Worth your time:

In this conversation, Jamieson and Odenbaugh discuss how climate change raises novel philosophical concerns and underscores traditional ones.  Climate change, they explain, poses a challenge for both consequentialism and its alternatives, and brings out questions about our obligations to future generations and about the moral status of non-humans. Further, the public controversy over climate science involves questions about the epistemology of testimony, the value-neutrality of science, and action under uncertainty.


Looking Back

September 26, 2010

Kwame Appiah has a very nice and provocative article in the Washington Post today. He asks what future generations will condemn us for. His conclusions? Prisons, Industrial Meat Production, the Institutionalized and the Elderly, and the Environment. He doesn’t say much about these issues, but it’s provocative nevertheless.

Condemnation may not be the appropriate term. Perhaps disapprobation is better. The idea, of course, is that we can gain some insight into the moral permissiveness of our actions simply by reflecting on the things for which we might be held accountable in the future.


Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen…

September 20, 2010

Oh how I love the comments to this article by Jeff McMahan, an accomplished and well-respected ethicist at Rutgers. They remind me so how not atypical my undergraduates are. (Say what? Yes, you read that correctly.) Here are some gems. Maybe on Monday I’ll actually address the content of the article:

Joe: “this is incredibly flawed, the world of animals and all organisms are only able to survive because of such brutal competition, if there was nothing to fight for, what would it be worth?”

The other guy: “I came away with the same feeling as when I first read Zeno’s “dichotomy paradox” in college, That is, “What was he smoking?” That was also the time in my sophomore year where I swore the stuff off.”

Erika: “The argument you present is offensive.”

Socrates: “Horrifying article.”

into the fire: “Unbelievable, but alas not surprising, that this could be written by someone paid to profess at Rutgers or Princeton.”

Peter: “Mr. McMahan is right to expect to be vilified when intelligent people see his article. It is the height of ignorance.”

Vance: “The amount of large words does not counter the fact that these arguments are from a child’s mind.”

Linda: “This is an astounding example of ivory tower thinking that is totally out of touch with the real world.”

They go on, dear readers! I’m only on page two. Love, love the comments. So wonderful.

Philosophers are crrr-azy!


RoME is Finally Over

August 11, 2010

It was, as usual, a smashing success. Check out pictures here. As a counterpoint to the Opinionator blog at the NY Times, I think you’ll see that while we do have our fair share of ugly, we also have our fair share of decently-well put together.

RoME IV will be coming up soon — August 4-7, 2011 — and the CFP will be distributed soon. Abstracts are due on Feb 1, 2011.



July 9, 2010

Revkin interviews Don Brown (Penn State) about environmental ethics and climate ethics. Not a terribly substantive interview, but worth a few minutes of your time, at least. Here’s one quote of interest:

We like to say if we get the science and economics wrong, we will likely get the ethics wrong. More importantly, to do this work well one must follow climate change policy controversies as they unfold. Most ethicists don’t typically do this kind of work and only a few universities allow their ethicists to do this kind of “applied” environmental ethics. I am lucky to be at Penn State.

Don seems to have flipped things on their head here. I think it’s more likely that if we have the ethics wrong, it doesn’t matter if we get the science or the economics right or wrong. The problem with the holocaust wasn’t that the Germans got the science and the economics wrong (though they did that too), is that they were completely ass-backwards with regard to human rights.

True, though, that many universities traditionally don’t smile much on applied environmental ethics. Fortunately, there are many now that are starting to see the value in interdisciplinary collaboration on these applied issues, so there are a growing number environmental ethics outposts. All told, we’re pretty late to the game.


Empathy and Meat

June 3, 2010

For many years now I’ve been suggesting that you don’t have to love nature to be green; and by extension, that you don’t have to love animals to be a vegetarian. Peter Singer himself says as much in his introduction to Animal Liberation. Many other ethicists presumably feel the same way. I’m even writing a book about it, tentatively titled The Wicked and the Wild: Why You Don’t Have to Love Nature to be Green (coming out with the University of Chicago Press sometime in 2011). And yet, it turns out that, at least descriptively speaking, empathy is what sets vegetarians apart from the rest of the nonvegetarian population.

The hypothesis behind this study is based on the observation that Vegetarians and Vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds. Assuming that Vegetarians and Vegans – because of their underlying moral philosophies – show greater empathy towards animal suffering, it is very well possible that these differences in empathy extend beyond the animal domain and show up as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards other humans also; even at a neurological level.


The first main finding of this study is that, compared to Omnivores, Vegans and Vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

A worrisome thesis indeed. Maybe I need to revise my subtitle.

Or, on second thought, maybe not, given that my hope is to inspire the non-empathetic among us to acknowledge that even if they don’t maintain the right psychological apparatus–and perhaps possess the apparatus of selfish bastardism, for instance, among many other psychological pathologies that would leave a person feeling that she can run roughshod over the earth–they still need to respect the basic tenets of environmentalism.

The true test will be whether I can persuade the sociopath that he needs to start advocating on behalf of the earth. I don’t expect much success on that front, so I’ll settle for the fence-sitters, the urbanites, and the otherwise environmentally disinterested progressives.


New Ethics Blog

May 28, 2010

There’s a new ethics blog on the block, this time from Oxford. Looks like they have the appropriate admixture of extremely prolific folks and applied philosophers to make this one work. (As a one-man show myself, it’s hard sometimes to keep up the content.) To further support this conclusion, it has evidently been around long enough to have a substantial archives. Wonder what took it so long to pop up on the radar.

Be sure to link…


Thompson and Bendik-Keymer on Virtue

May 18, 2010

Two of my friends and colleagues, Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, answer questions on environmental virtue ethics. This is a fun interview and well worth your time. Both Allen and Jeremy are leading lights in the burgeoning movement in environmental philosophy called “environmental virtue ethics.” Frankly, I think virtue is mostly hogwash, but it’s my job to think it’s hogwash. You can make your own determination by reading what they have to say.

Allen: Exactly. Talk of “virtue” in the academy as well as in national political discourse is usually just about traits of an individual’s character. But when Aristotle thought about virtue -which was simply another word for human excellence – he folded his discussion of personal character into a systematic examination of politics.

Jeremy: Allen and I want to be true to this insight. For example, part of climate change is that it’s one of the main drivers of “the sixth mass extinction” currently underway. I don’t know if most people are aware of this, but in this century about half the life forms on Earth are under the hatchet. There are many reasons for this -overpopulation, climate change, poor resource use, and so on. Now, the problem is that most people have enough respect for life to not want this to happen. Respect for life is part of every major world religion, and most nonreligious ethical people embrace it. We all want to bring our kids up in a world that is full of life. Maybe not with lots of mosquitoes, but they seem to be doing fine. Yet even with this attitude, most of us unknowingly contribute to mass extinction every single day.

Allen: What Jeremy’s saying is that our individual characters are not the only problem. Even reasonably good people – people whose environmental sensibility may seem all right – are still contributing to something that they recognize, on reflection, is really bad -killing off half the species on the planet. So what’s the disconnect?

One problem is that adapting individual character alone won’t cut it. We need institutions that positively shape our collective effect on other forms of life. Good environmental character won’t snap into place effectively until our collective presence, via political and economic approaches, does as well. In some cases, that even means key elements of our organizational systems -such as our institutional approach to the global commons or the valuation of non-human beings, must alter. Like we said, we have to change who we are – both individually and collectively – to deal with the problems of climate change.

IMHO, Allen and Jeremy are right to expand the virtue discussion well beyond traits of character. I completely agree that we need to develop institutions that address our environmental issues. I just can’t past the action guiding problem.

In the end, this is more-or-less an inside-baseball discussion. (Go Yanks! Sorry Sox.) I agree, for the most part, on their conclusions.

Sorry, btw, for the dearth of posts. I am totally, totally on vacation this week.


Grounding Morality In Science

May 4, 2010

Ranger RickA turned me on to this fantastic blogpost over at DiscoverMagazine. I’m a bit bummed that I’m only just learning of it now. Sean Carroll, the author, undertakes to dismantle this turkey, by arguing that “morality is not part of science.” His first few posts are spot on, but since I’m entering this game late, I’m afraid I’ll have to start halfway through.You should really read the whole string. Here’s a snippet from Carroll’s most recent missive (to be read with exasperation):

What would it mean to have a science of morality? I think it would look have to look something like this:

“Human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call “well-being” (although it might be called “utility” or “happiness” or “flourishing” or something else). The amount of well-being in a single person is a function of what is happening in that person’s brain, or at least in their body as a whole. That function can in principle be empirically measured. The total amount of well-being is a function of what happens in all of the human brains in the world, which again can in principle be measured. The job of morality is to specify what that function is, measure it, and derive conditions in the world under which it is maximized.”

All this talk of maximizing functions isn’t meant to lampoon the project of grounding morality on science; it’s simply taking it seriously.

Carroll then goes on to say this:

The point is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. (If that’s not the point, it’s not science.)

I disagree with a fair bit of how Carroll characterizes morality, but I will agree that most of the project of ethical justification doesn’t admit of scientific analysis, and that Sam Harris — the aforementioned turkey who kicked it all off with his TED talk — is bumbling through the brambles of ethics with what can only be described as a cacophony of blind assertions. (For starters, I’m not at all sure that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks. Moreover, I’m not at all sure that even if we don’t have obligations to rocks, then the reason that we don’t have obligations to rocks is because rocks “don’t suffer” — which is only the very beginning of the noise that he clangs on about. As it happens, suffering is exactly what I was doing as I listened to Harris’s meaningless belching; but hey, he was wearing a nice purple shirt, which left me one dolor shy of Pain’s Royal Flush. Harris pulls some other crap shortly thereafter about the relationship between well-being and the brain, and he goes on ad barfium about it, but it’s way too stupid to analyze. Plus, it’d be unfair — like shooting undergrads in a barrel. What is it with these TED talks?)

I have to agree with Carroll’s observation that there are many more ways to slice the salami than to isolate a consequentalist predilection for human or animal welfare, and then, somehow, to draw conclusions based on empirical observations about welfare. Kudos to him for pushing this position. I just want to correct Carroll on one small point.

Here’s where he starts to go a little haywire:

It is true that the tools of science cannot be used to change the mind of a committed solipsist who believes they are a brain in a vat, manipulated by an evil demon; yet, those of us who accept the presuppositions of empirical science are able to make progress. But here we are concerned only with people who have agreed to buy into all the epistemic assumptions of reality-based science — they still disagree about morality. That’s the problem. If the project of deriving ought from is were realistic, disagreements about morality would be precisely analogous to disagreements about the state of the universe fourteen billion years ago.

That’s not, actually, the problem. One can also find numerous people who agree about the morality, but still disagree about the metaphysics and epistemology.

The problem, in part, is that metaphysics and ethics are fundamentally different enterprises, just as he says. One aims at truth, and the other at the right. There’s some substantial overlap, to be sure, so I guess on that count, Harris isn’t entirely off base, but it’s not clear (to me, at least) even that the project of uncovering the right, or isolating the right, is one that can be conceptualized as one that admits of the “true,” in the realist sense of the term. Harris seems to insist upon this, so he’s obviously wrong. Carroll doesn’t challenge this, but instead pushes hard on the is/ought distinction, thereby accepting the view that ethical claims have a truth value in the same way that truth claims have a truth value. Maybe claims about the right are just…right.

The other problem, and I think this is a big one for the scientific community, is that the nature of the truth engaged by the empirical sciences is by no means established.  That’s what this whole journal (among many, otherjournals) is dedicated to unearthing. It’s not like, after all, science has settled the question of truth. People still work on those questions too… and they’re not all scientific realists with a few crazy solipsists thrown in to screw things up. There is substantial disagreement among the parties.

I’m only just getting caught up in this whole sordid affair — and wouldn’t you know it, it happens to strike immediately during exam week; damn you, students! — so I have only very little time to address these concerns now. Still, you should also head over to Massimo Pigliucci’s blog and see what he has to say about Harris.