HUM 400: Ethics, Fall 2022

A tale from The Decameron, by John William Waterhouse

Why did I post this painting? Read about how the wealthy passed the time during the Black Death pandemic, in early 14th century Italy. (Link)

Syllabus

Revised Syllabus (11/7)

Zoom Link

Link to Sign-Up Sheet for Student-Led Discussion Days (Groups of 3): 8:00 a.m. class

3:30 p.m. class

Discussion Days Instructions

Open Access Textbook: Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics 

created by Frank Aragbonfoh Abumere, Douglas Giles, Ya-Yun (Sherry) Kao, Michael Klenk, Joseph Kranak, Kathryn MacKay, George Matthews, Jeffrey Morgan, and Paul Rezkalla; it is edited by George Matthews and Christina Hendricks, and produced with support from the Rebus Community. The original is freely available under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license at https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-ethics/.

Online Textbook (requires login): Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions, by Peggy Morgan and Clive Lawton, Edinburgh University Press, 2007

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library (requires login): Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values, by Michael C. Brannigan, Lexington Books, 2010

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library (requires login): Politics: Made Simple, by J.R. Thackrah, Heinemann, 1987

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library: Ethics & Capitalism, by John Douglas Bishop, University of Toronto, 2000

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library: Global Ethics: An Introduction, by Heather Widdows, Acumen, 2011

Glossary of Terms Used in This Course

Problem? Question? Something not working on the site? Email me: jchisholm@csum.edu

Course Home

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the Personal Essay is due

  • Friday, December 9:  Movie

    Essay Exam #3

    Due:  Sunday, December 18 @ noon, to BrightSpace

    Watch the Black Mirror episode, “Metalhead,” (Netflix) and answer the following questions in a single-spaced page:

    1. Reviewers have commented that the quest to get the teddy bear for the dying “Jack,” is an act of charity (humanitarianism), but is a high-risk/low reward situation.  Would Peter Singer agree that the three protagonists are obligated to take on this quest?  Why or why not?

    2. Would the “dogs” in this episode pass the Just War Theory test?  Why or why not?

    3. The dogs are examples of pure rationality in action.  How does this episode illustrate the ethical limitations of machines, and therefore rationality?  What ethical qualities or frameworks does it imply are superior?

    4. The world in the episode is post-apocalyptic, it seems.  Make an argument, by looking carefully at the setting, explaining which economic system–extreme socialism vs. extreme capitalism–has led to this state, and support your argument with evidence from the episode.

  • Friday, December 2: Student-Led Discussion (the last one!)*

    8:00 a.m. video

    3:30 p.m. article

    3:30 p.m. article

    Homework: Take this survey. Then, read below and take Quiz #18 (the last one!)

    Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.” –Data scientist Cathy O’Neil, The Social Dilemma

    Technology means “tool-making” in Greek. Tools help us get stuff done faster and easier. Is faster and easier better? Heck yeah, says a tech dude in The Social Dilemma: You need a ride and 30 seconds later, you have one! It’s like magic! Are their ethical downsides to technology? Heck yeah!

    Here are some key ideas you should know if you’re going to think about the ethics of technology:

    Empiricism: a belief system that privileges sensory knowledge over “abstract reason” (and science, over abstract subjects like religion/philosophy/the arts). Empiricism’s narrower focus engenders toolmaking, which leads to faster discovery…and more toolmaking. Cool, huh?

    Positivism: another belief system, one that asserts even more strongly that Science is the Only Valid Kind of Knowledge: you shouldn’t let morality get in the way of discovery.

    Ahh, guilt-free toolmaking, then! (Remember, these are belief systems, not truths.)

    Scientific Determinism: There is a pattern to the universe, and if we’re smart enough, we can learn it and then…predict the future! (Free will is an illusion seen by dummies, I guess.)

    Wait, haven’t we heard all of this before? Let’s check in with a postmodernist, who has been shaking her head since the assumption “science > arts.” But ok, so what if some people are really into solving puzzles and making tools? Like, to the point of obsession? And they’re really good at it? When they control the Instagrams and the Facebooks and the Amazons, can we trust them to remain “rational”?

    I think you know the answer to this question.

    “Magic caveman monetize you!”

    The German philosopher Martin Heidegger weighed in in 1949, and I think his conclusions are pretty good:

    Questions to consider:

    Is the progress of toolmaking inevitable (determined)?

    Has your quality of life increased with the use of the tools we currently have at our disposal?

    How should we choose which tools to use and avoid?

    How important is a tool’s usefulness or convenience?

    Who should make decisions about the use of a particular tool?

    Do our tools give us control over the natural world? Do they give us control over the future?

  • Wednesday, November 30: Ethics of Helping Those in Need (Humanitarian Aid)

    Housekeeping: Essay Exam #2 will be returned and Essay Exam #3 will be assigned on Friday, Dec. 2

    Homework: None

    “I’m Garrett Hardin, reincarnated as a dolphin. Do you have a moment to talk about overpopulation?”

    Today’s topic asks whether or not helping others in need should be mandatory or optional, or whether it’s even ethical at all.

    A perfect case study for this question is happening right now in Ukraine. Last March, Americans were wondering how our country can help…without starting WWIII, that is. Last week, this article appeared: in regard to “aid,” the US seems to prioritize weapons. Is this ethical?

    What about this, from the U.N.?

    The chapter you read for homework begins and ends with the assumption that giving to people in need is an ethical act, and most people, to some extent, would agree with this. However, not all people…and not all ethicists agree!

    P.S. AI and humanitarian aid: here’s something my friend is working on in Rwanda.

  • Monday, November 28: Ethics of War–The Just War Theory

    Homework: Read Chapter 7 (through p. 163) in Global Ethics. Take Quiz #17.  

    Stolen from this website, which stole the quote from cartoonist Walt Kelly

    Today’s Article: “Possible First Use of AI-Armed Drones Triggers Alarm Bells,” Voice of America, 6/7/21

    When, if ever, is it ethical to inflict bodily harm on another? People have wondered this for centuries, since they’ve also been killing each other for that long. The Just War Theory, which is the subject of today’s study, is what you end up with when you want to feel better about using your fists instead of your words. Seriously. There are so many ethical injunctions against taking a life, both on rational and revelatory grounds–it’s obviously a big no-no–but humans tend to do it anyway.

    Maybe the best we can do is a. try really hard not to kill others, and b., if we have to, determine which kind of killing is worse and which is better, and then try to stick to the better? Some of the questions that the JWT attempts to sort are “Can I start a war if I feel like it?” and “If I can, can I wipe my enemy’s country off the map?” and “Do civilians count?”

    Pacifists, who hold the absolute view that all killing is bad would reject the JWT from the get-go, and political realists (different from philosophical realists) hold that ethics has no place in international relations, that power and self-interest…ahem, trump concerns about right and wrong, so fire away, guilt-free….

    Further complicating things, any in-depth exploration of the criteria for a just war reveals how subjective and squishy the assumptions underpinning them are. For example, how do you determine (and who gets to determine) “legitimate authority” in a civil war? If you are going to legitimize a right-wing militia, then don’t you also have to legitimize its left-wing counterparts? Where does that leave the actual government? In a civil war, how would we know who is on which side, who is a combatant, and who is a civilian? Can you imagine trying to figure out who to shoot in a civil war that starts tomorrow?

    A tougher question is determining just cause/right intention, say, in a civil war. Though the righting of wrongs is usually considered an ethical reason to enter into conflict, how “wrong” does the wrong have to be? Concepts like “personal liberty,” “preserving tradition,” “racial injustice” or “social welfare” must be weighed and ranked accordingly. Again, who gets to decide this? Any good postmodernist would remind us that those with authority bring their grand narratives to the table: whether they privilege, say, the individual (e.g. capitalism) over the group (e.g. socialism), or rationalism (e.g. science) over revelation (e.g. religion) will show up in their ruling. We are already seeing this battle taking place in our highest court of law.

    It’s so much easier when it’s country v. country, being judged by powerful others. (And when it’s not your country, to be sure. ) At any rate, one question behind the question of just/unjust war is deontological: what happens when some people stop following the rules that define an entire civilized nation? Can you stop following them, too? What happens when we all stop? If I can just pick up a gun and shoot you and you me, then what happens to “us”? Who is “us,” again?

    Today, at least in HUM 400, let’s continue to use our minds instead of our fists and try to stay civilized.

  • Wednesday, November 23: Dilemma Day!!

    Chapter 8 of Global Ethics, pgs. 173-192 (skip the “Humanitarian Intervention” section). Then take Quiz #16

    by political cartoonist Darrin Bell

    “…A corporation is allowed to own property and enter contracts. It can also sue and be sued and held liable under both civil and criminal law. […]Because the corporation is legally considered the “person”, individual shareholders are not legally responsible for the corporation’s debts and damages beyond their investment in the corporation. Similarly, individual employees, managers, and directors are liable for their own malfeasance or lawbreaking while acting on behalf of the corporation, but are not generally liable for the corporation’s actions….” (Wikipedia, “Corporate Personhood”)


    Dilemma:

    Your family business (now incorporated), started by your grandmother, sells California seaweed, which you have a unique permit to harvest.  Your profits have skyrocketed in the latest health food craze.  Lately, your sister, a marine scientist, has discovered minute, but growing levels of radiation in your product, which is probably a result of the Fukushima disaster.   If your entire family’s assets are invested in your corporation, what do you do?​ Can you tie your decision to a specific ethical framework?

    Some Options​:

    • Immediately close the company and lose any future revenue​
    • Sell the company immediately, without disclosing the risk, for a major profit​
    • Keep the company running until you can liquidate major assets (say one year), then close abruptly​
    • Keep the company running until the radiation levels catch the eye of other science researchers (say three years), then close​
    • Keep the company running until you are sued (say fifteen years) by a customer with cancer, all the while funneling your profits offshore.  Then file bankruptcy
  • Friday, November 18: Student-Led Discussion

    Homework: none

    8:00 A.M. article

    3:30 P.M. article


    Personal Essay

    Length: 3-5 (double-spaced) pages. Due Date: December 12 @ . Submit to BrightSpace.

    Prompt: Describe the ethical frameworks that have resonated most with you this semester. How has thinking about ethics affected your thinking or decision-making?

    The use of first-person is fine. Please cite your sources consistently using the documentation style you are most comfortable using. Also, give a hoot and spell-check before you submit.

  • Dr. Chisholm’s alter ego?

    Wednesday, November 16: Capitalism

    Today’s article

    We are looking at capitalism this week.

    During the pandemic, income inequality has widened in the U.S. The rich have become richer. After an initial crash in early 2020, the stock market has made incredible gains during Covid…for those who could still afford to invest. Demand for real estate in scenic, less-crowded places has skyrocketed because well-paid white-collar workers have been able to work remotely (has anyone tried to rent or buy a house in Tahoe or Joshua Tree lately? Yikes!). What about the rest of Americans? The poor have become poorer, despite sporadic stimulus payments by the U.S. government over the last year. Many have risked their health so they can continue to put food on the table; some, deemed “essential workers,” haven’t really had a choice. Such is life in a country where social safety nets are weak, where losing a job can also mean losing health benefits, and losing both can lead to homelessness.

    Are living conditions in such a high-stakes political environment ethical? For some individuals, yes.

    For one, capitalism is an egoist’s paradise! If self-preservation is the most ethical thing one can strive for, then by all means one should take full advantage of the situation! These examples are extreme, but the entrepreneurial spirit is an important part of the capitalist ethic.

    The New York Times takes a more measured “invisible hand” approach in lauding a seemingly symbiotic relationship between government and the private sector. This is the age-old argument that without the free market there is no incentive to work hard/fast: we should thank the profit-seeking biomedical corporations for developing our vaccines in record time.

    You will also notice contractarian roots in the capitalist ethical framework (often labeled as a “partnership”): if everyone honors the terms of a deal willingly, then it is by definition ethical.

    Homework: Read pgs. 1-25 (Chapter 1) and 91-100 (Chapter 3) in Ethics & Capitalism (link on left) and take Quiz #15.

  • Monday, November 14: Dilemma Day!

    Homework: Finish Essay Exam #2

    The Lifeboat Dilemma

    A ship with 100 people on board sinks in open ocean.  25 people, including you, manage to get into a lifeboat and 75 are in the freezing water.  The nearest island is two weeks away, if the sea and wind conditions are perfect.

    –If only 25 are onboard the lifeboat, there is enough food for a month, and everyone is almost sure to survive.

    –The lifeboat can hold 50 max, but with that many passengers, the rations will last only two weeks.

    –The lifeboat will sink when more than 50 people get in (depending on the weight).

    –The people in the water are sure to die.

    If you were in the lifeboat, and you were in charge, what would you do?  And why?

  • Monday, November 7: Student-Led Discussion

    8:00 class article

    3:30 class article

    New! Revised Syllabus


    Essay Exam #2: The Social Dilemma and Rationalist Ethical Frameworks

    Here are three quotes from the movie.

    [Tristan] We’re pointing these engines of AI back at ourselves to reverse-engineer what elicits responses from us. Almost like you’re stimulating nerve cells on a spider to see what causes its legs to respond. So, it really is this kind of prison experiment where we’re just, you know, roping people into the matrix, and we’re just harvesting all this money and… and data from all their activity to profit from. And we’re not even aware that it’s happening.

    [Chamath] So, we want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. You know, Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it.

    [Sean Parker] I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a… that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in… in human psychology. [chuckles] And I just… I think that we… you know, the inventors, creators… uh, you know, and it’s me, it’s Mark, it’s the… you know, Kevin Systrom at Instagram… It’s all of these people… um, understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.

    Answer the following questions, in no more than a single-spaced page:

    1. Explain how a deontologist and a utilitarian might find themselves agreeing that the social media companies acted unethically, but for different reasons.
    2. Explain why an egoist might not have so much of an ethical problem with the social media companies’ actions.
    3. Who might a social contractarian feel is behaving the most unethically in this situation, and why?
    4. What “grand narrative(s)” might a postmodernist say is/are behind the unethical actions of the social media giants?
  • Friday, November 4: Marxism and Socialism

    Homework: Read Politics Made Simple, Chapter 7 (in its entirety) and Chapter 8 (just the sections on Marxism and socialism) and take Quiz 14.

    Today’s discussion: (8:00 class) Article

    Today’s discussion: (3:30 class) Article

    Who’s Afraid of Karl Marx? from overthinkingit.com

    As you know, a cornerstone of Western politics is rationalism. Look how the world’s oldest democracy (once again, Ancient Greece) implemented the utilitarian principle of making the most people the happiest: by plunking pebbles into urns and seeing who had the most votes. Thomas Hobbes posited that a governing body is needed to stabilize social cooperation and to make honoring agreements (following the established rules/laws) a rational pursuit. John Locke set up the idea of a constitutional social compact, and Rousseau spiked it over the net by bringing democracy back in: let’s vote on who rules over us. Sounds reasonable, eh?

    Well, any good postmodernist would point out the historic voting restrictions based on race, gender, wealth, etc. in the U.S. and the myriad ways in which people are still being kept from voting, or their votes from counting, today. To a postmodernist, these efforts are meant to keep a powerful minority, well, in power:

    Notice anything odd, here?

    This week, we’re going to look at the ethical aspects of socialism and communism, two political systems (often conflated) that are often seen as antidotes to oligarchy. For an overview of these two systems, please read Chapter 7 (in its entirety) and Chapter 8 (just the sections on Marxism and socialism) of Politics Made Simple (link on the left) but please note that there is a lot of new vocabulary to learn, so take it slowly. If you are confused by the difference between the two systems (you will be!), check out the first half of this video (15 minutes) by Richard D. Wolff, a Marxist economist.

    Where it fits: socialism is a check on both laissez-faire capitalism and egoism. Its concern with the underdogs/minority groups of society (especially women) make it more palatable to postmodernists and feminists alike. Though Karl Marx wasn’t exactly anti-religion, he decried its use as a tool to pacify the powerless. (For this reason, Communist governments in the former Soviet Union and in China, during the Cultural Revolution, declared themselves to be atheistic countries and banned all religious practice for a time.) However, some say that Jesus Christ was the first real socialist, which puts an interesting–divine?–twist on things!

    At its heart, socialism is another humanistic, rationalist ethical theory with similar assumptions about human nature and predictability. The most gentle forms of socialism are largely utilitarian, as the intention is to benefit the common good, and when socialism is voted in (rather than imposed on people), it’s also contractual.

    Pure communism, however, is a whole different story, but I’ll let Dr. Wolff explain that.

  • Monday, October 31: The Social Dilemma

    I’m so sorry to report that I’m still Covid-positive.  And I’m feeling mostly ok!   Because I can’t be in live class, we will postpone today’s presentations and instead watch the movie I have scheduled for the end of the semester, tomorrow.  I am going to try to do a “watch party,” which may not work right since I’ve never used it, but why the heck not?   You will need to do two things: make sure you have the Chrome browser installed on your laptop, and then download the Teleparty add-on here: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/netflix-party-is-now-tele/oocalimimngaihdkbihfgmpkcpnmlaoa?hl=en.  I’ll send you the unique link to my watch party at about 7:50 a.m. (morning class) and 3:15 (afternoon class), and then wait for you to join.  I’ll also be on Zoom for the first 10 minutes, if my computer will handle it.  

    If it all goes to hell, please watch the first hour of “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix.  If you don’t have Netflix, you’ll have to come to my watch party because you don’t need Netflix for it.  

    Happy Halloween!

  • Friday, October 28: Alternatives to Rationalism–Postmodernism (note: we’re on Zoom again today)

    Homework: Review/watch below and take Quiz 13.

    For the last ten weeks, we’ve watched a 2000-year ethical wrestling match. During the “pre-modern” era (roughly, before 1500), religion had Western man in a headlock of divine command, but as time moved toward the Renaissance (1500-1700), the optimism and confidence of humanistic Greece returned and allowed us to slip out of religion’s grip and declare independence from god. This, in turn, spawned the Enlightenment Era (1700-1800s), with its emphasis on reason. Fast-forward 150 years, and we were nearing the end of a long period of full and unbridled scientific and technological power and progress. This “modern era,” defined as the time between 1800-1950 saw the industrial age, big, bloody wars (including WWI & WWII), and the first signs that the planet’s resources were rapidly depleting. Suddenly, some began wondering if rationalism needed to be checked.

    Is there a limit to rationalism? Postmodern (“after the modern”) philosophers think so. In the video below by citizen-historian Lewis Waller (his YouTube channel Here and Now is fantastic), the problem with the “grand narratives” [alternatively, “master narratives” and “metanarratives”] underpinning the modern era is that they “become structural, present themselves as eternal, universal, rigid. This sort of [realist] narrative can lead to an abuse of power by those that think they’re serving some universal truth. The kings, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the religious fundamentalists of the world always justify their actions by claiming to be the servants of some higher truth. So we need to heed these warnings, while thinking about opening spaces and narratives about the future that don’t claim to be the only truth. We need plenty of different futures.”

    Check it out:

    “I define postmodernism as incredulity [disbelief] towards metanarratives,” wrote postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, and this “anti-metanarrative metanarrative” is an assumption underlying postmodern ethics. To postmodernists, there is no such thing as absolute truth. The notion of truth is just an illusion, misused by people and special interest groups to gain power over others.

    Traditional authority is false and corrupt; it should be “deconstructed” in order to disempower it. Here’s a great little video on the Jacques Derrida, another French postmodern philosopher, that will tell you how it’s done.

    Postmodern ethics can be frustratingly anti-dogmatic, but has fair intentions:

    1. Morality is relative, so it can’t go beyond the personal. Morality is each person’s private code of ethics (without the need to follow traditional values and rules).
    2. All religions are valid, but the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ (for example) as being the only way to God are problematic.
    3. Postmodern ethics is pro-underdog: it defends the causes of historically disenfranchised groups (e.g. women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQIA+).
    4. Postmodern ethics is pro-environment: it blames the powerful for the destruction of nature.

    One criticism often lobbed at postmodernism is that it’s a philosophy of subtraction, so it doesn’t have a lot to say about how to act after deconstruction ends (because that would be its own master narrative!). Below, writer David Foster Wallace complains that this vacuum has resulted in a proliferation of non-redeeming self-reference, self-deprecation, irony and cynicism. The video goes on to analyze some recent and current TV shows that you’ve probably seen. Ever wonder why some of those shows are sometimes funny and sometimes grate against your soul?

  • Wednesday, October 26: Alternatives to Rationalism–Feminist Ethics

    Today’s article: “When Good Algorithms Go Sexist,” Genevieve Smith and Ishita Rustagi, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 3/31/21

    By now, maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, this rationalism thing sure sounds sensible! Why don’t we hear about it more today?” I’ll tell you: because it only works when everyone behaves rationally. Consider the kid losing at checkers, who gets mad and upends the table. Or the leader of a country who can’t forget that the leader of another country insulted his father a long time ago…so invents a rationale for starting a war. How does rationalism endure under irrational conditions? (Spoiler alert: it usually gets its butt kicked.)

    Even when people know that an impartial, disinterested stance usually yields the best decisions, we often have trouble maintaining said stance. I might ask the first three people who arrive at my pizza party to vote on the kind of pizza to order…because I’m really hungry and know that their favorite is the same as mine! Or if I am rich enough to buy my son’s way into a college that he doesn’t have the grades for, I might opt for that out of blinding love, even if I know it’s unfair. We are often inconsistent, unscientific creatures, even though we don’t like to admit it.

    Aside from being frequently irrational, humans (most notably in positions of power) also have trouble giving all people equal status, especially when different groups have different needs, and when these groups don’t look or behave like them. Sometimes bias seems like an innocent oversight; other times, it’s downright insidious. Among other examples, racial profiling, gerrymandering, apartheid, and miscegenation laws distort notions of who deserves what in a group. (We’ll talk more about race next week.)

    You’ve probably noticed by now that we haven’t discussed a single female philosopher yet (ok, except for Ayn Rand), and we’re almost halfway through the class. Coincidence? Is it possible that in 2000 years, there has never been a single woman with a good idea? Or could there be something else going on? This article (among many others) argues that the ancient Greeks–the founders of Western philosophy and ethics–also laid the foundation for centuries of misogyny, by viewing women (50% of the population!) as being incapable of comprehending/cultivating eudaimonia. In ancient Greece, philosophical discourse took place in public spaces where women weren’t allowed. Many women were illiterate; none could vote, own, or inherit land. Young girls were passed from father to husband, and were expected to procreate and raise children, not philosophize, make laws or contribute to the public good. Women’s names were forbidden to be mentioned in public (!), and women were expected to cover their face and neck when leaving the home. In ancient Greece, “the good life” was much “gooder” if you were a guy!

    The inimitable Mel Brooks

    In looking at later Western philosophers, feminist philosopher (yay!) Susan Bordo reveals that Age of Enlightenment luminaries such as Hegel and Descartes reinforced the Greeks’ misogyny by, among other things, associating men with the intellect/mind/spirit and women with the body/emotion. (Unbearable Weight, 4) Within this paradigm, privileging a concept like rationalism allowed these philosophers and their readers to both a. make it seem like dudes were better suited to be thinkers and b. categorically deny the validity of any thought by any woman. Even today, many ideas and opinions pitched to a seemingly “universal” audience only make sense if the viewer is a (usually straight, white) male with autonomy over his body and agency in his life choices.

    Feminist ethics came about, firstly, to point out that one by-product of all of this omitting and devaluing of women was that women were not “fully developing as people and citizens” (Wollstonecraft, qtd. in ItPE, 63). As it evolved, feminist ethicists began investigating neglected topics germane to women: “reproductive rights, domestic and sexual violence, paid maternity leave, and equal pay in the workplace.” (ItPE, 64) Finally, feminist ethicists became interested in the very aspects of women’s experience that historically had been delegitimized, especially those about care and connection with others.

  • Monday, October 24: Rationalist Theories of Ethics–Kantian Deontology

    Homework for Monday: Read Chapter 7 of ItPE and take Quiz 12.

    What if everyone just had to follow the rules, regardless of the outcome? This is deontologism and its quest for categorical imperatives.

    Once again, reason is key to figuring things out. In Immanuel Kant’s view, mankind can know the laws of the universe and derive universal rules for behavior, and is duty-bound to follow them. The catch is that the rules must apply to everyone, without exception…hence, the universality test: “What if everyone had to live by this rule?” (This is a more logical twist on the Golden Rule–if it only works for me, then it’s not universal. If it works for everyone, then its consistent with natural law, and is therefore ethical.) If universalization would lead to contradiction or negation of the original reason for making the rule (see ItPE for examples of this), then it shouldn’t be followed. Note that this has nothing to do with our feelings, or about good or bad. It’s about using logic to direct behavior, towards a common “kingdom of ends.” Kant is not a total robot, though. His concept of good will–which translates to me as “meaning well”– is an important key to making the right decisions.

    Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative is a riff on the first one: don’t treat people like things, like stepping stones to getting what you want. Treat them as though their wants and needs are equal to your own, and have the same value. That way, you can impartially determine the most ethical ways for all to behave.

    Here’s a video that deftly handles the major aspects of Kant’s ideas about ethics, with some biographical info, too.

    Video for today: A Robot with Deontological Values

    Let’s apply the ethical decision-making framework, from Santa Clara University.

  • Monday, October 17: Rationalist Theories of Ethics, Continued (Egoism)

    Ayn Rand, 1905-1982, radical egoist

    Today’s discussion article: “Silicon Valley’s Most Disturbing Obsession,” Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair, 10/5/16

    Homework: None

    Note: Quizzes 1-10 are open until noon tomorrow. They will be shut permanently after that.

  • Wednesday, October 12: Rationalism

    the ultimate rationalist

    Homework: read Chapter 4 of ITPE and take Quiz #10


    Today’s articles:

    There’s Just No Doubt That it will Change the World: David Chalmers on VR and AI,” New York Times, 6/18/19

    The Martial Art of Rationality,” Eliezer Yudkowsky, Less is More, 11/22/06

    This week we launch into rationalism, which is a continuation of the humanistic tradition: once mankind grabs authority away from religion, what tools does s/he possess to figure out the world? Rationalism is the belief that the exercise of “reason” underpins all of ethics/ethical behavior…as opposed to “superstition” or “emotion.” How are these things different? Rationalism is all about remaining calm, cool and collected while basically applying the scientific method to life: observe, hypothesize, test and build theories, rules, laws, political systems…. Mr. Spock, from Star Trek, is a great example of a pure rationalist: he claims to possess no emotion. (To Spock, emotion is why everyone on the Enterprise keeps getting into trouble. Of course, one of the biggest subtexts of this franchise is that no one wants to live in a purely Spockian universe; for one thing, there would be a lot less romance!) Proponents of rationalism assert that when people behave rationally, they also behave predictably; a belief in a common human nature is a foundational assumption.

    If you truly believe in rationalism, you can make great strides in science and technology (every major technological boom in the world came after some kind of commitment to rationalism–look it up), as the fear of God’s wrath is off of the table, and the messy noise of “emotion” is ignored. But what about ethics? Can we learn how to behave by looking at ourselves as a bunch of Spocks, and going from there? Well, actually, yes we can, and yes we have. Concepts like “the rule of law” and “democracy” are based on the assumption that if people are “rational,” they can actually get along without resorting to violence…wouldn’t that be cool? Great civilizations like Han Dynasty China, Ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe are called great because they were able–for a time–to maintain enough stability to build culture on top of subsistence. This can only happen when people put down their weapons and agree to find common ground.

    This week, we’ll look at three ethical theories with rationalist assumptions. You will no doubt recognize them, because all are very much in play in the U.S. today. You’ll read about two of the cornerstones of Western law and politics: Utilitarianism (Chapter 5 in ItPE) and Contractarianism (Chapter 4). Both of these theories aim to help people get along. We’ll also look at egoism, which is also a rationalist theory.

    Utilitarianism is all about being useful: its main tenet is that whatever makes the most people the most happy, is the most ethical. Hence: democracy! A good example of this is when a group orders a pizza. They ask, “What does everyone like?” and one by one, the toppings disappear, until, nine times out of ten, you end up with either pepperoni or cheese. If the majority of the group is neutral-to-happy with the result, then, to a utilitarian, the decision is ethical. Obviously, you can see the problems: many times, almost no one gets the exact pizza they crave, and the minority group who loves anchovies is out of luck. And then someone gets mad and refuses to pay their share….

    Other problems with utilitarianism include: the impossibility of quantifying happiness (for example, with pizza: is tasty-happy more important than healthy-happy? What about cheap-happy? Which is the most ethical choice–the yummy meat-lovers’ pizza, the gluten-free veggie or the half-off special?) Also, what determines the boundaries of the group? What if I only ask the three people who show up early to the pizza place to vote, even though ten are coming?

    When you judge an act by its end result, it’s called consequentialism; utilitarianism is a consequential ethical theory. How you get there is less ethically relevant than what is achieved.

    Social Contract Theory comes from contractarianism. Essentially, Thomas Hobbes argued that human nature is kind of a sh*tshow when it doesn’t use reason. Basically, we are animals driven between fear and desire (more self-interest) until we die (yay!). However, if we engage our *awesome* reason, we “start to form social conventions based on mutual advantage,” or contracts. (ItPE, 41) If I have eggs and you have bacon, we can arrange a trade that makes us both happy. If everything is done according to our (mutually arrived upon) agreement, then it’s ethical.

    Social Contract Theory is bigger and broader: it has to do with the way people form agreements to live together in peace. We pay taxes to the government and agree to abide by its laws (thereby limiting our wealth and personal freedoms) in exchange for protection (the military, police, etc.) public resources (schools, universities, etc.) and national infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.).

    The extent to which agreements are upheld is how you determine ethical status in contractarianism/ Social Contract Theory. What if I send over a carton of eggs, but you “forget” to send me some bacon? What if I agree to feed your pigs for a week, and then you refuse to pay me? What if I pay 15K in taxes, but the roads I drive on are falling apart? What if you move your business profits offshore in order to avoid paying income tax, but still take advantage of your city’s public education system? These are all violations of agreed-upon contracts, and are therefore unethical.

    Social Contract Theory creates systems of law and commerce that, in a perfect (rational) world, would give everyone a nice balance of interests. Unfortunately, there are problems. People do not always enter contracts on equal terms. What happens if I’m coerced into a crappy contract because I have no other choice? (Think of payday loans or rent-to-own furniture.) In contractarianism, justice doesn’t exist until a contract is signed, so god help you if you get a bad deal! What happens when someone is so rich, they can afford to ignore their contractual obligations, including those with their own government?

    Also, people not part of the contract are in a kind of ethical no-man’s land. Consider people who cross a country’s border illegally: they have no social contract in their new country, so a contractarian ethical framework can’t work. What about an unborn baby? Same.

    Here’s a quick, entertaining video that sums up contractarianism:

  • Monday, October 10: Dilemma Day!

    Homework: Read Chapter 5 of ItPE:  “Utilitarianism.”  Take Quiz 9

    Feeling claustrophobic? from Psychology Spot

    An enormous rock falls and blocks the exit of a cave you and five other tourists have been exploring. Fortunately, you spot a hole elsewhere and decide to let “Big Jack” out first. But Big Jack, a man of generous proportions, gets stuck in the hole. He cannot be moved and there is no other way out.

    The high tide is rising and, unless you get out soon, everyone but Big Jack (whose head is sticking out of the cave) will inevitably drown. Searching through your backpack, you find a stick of dynamite. It will not move the rock, but will certainly blast Big Jack out of the hole. Big Jack, anticipating your thoughts, pleads for his life. He does not want to die, but neither do you and your four companions. Should you blast Big Jack out? (taken from BBC News)

    1. What is the ethical situation?
    2. What stands to be gained or lost in this situation?
    3. Who are the potential winners and losers?
    4. How would the different sides of the argument argue that their position is the “right” or “moral” one?
    5. Would the situation change if “Big Jack” were a woman? Or a pregnant woman? Or a child?
    6. Is it more important that the most people get out of the cave (consequentialism), or that whatever choice made is ethical (deontologism)?
  • Friday, October 7

    Homework: Read Chapter 3 of ItPE:  “How Can I Be a Better Person?: On Virtue Ethics.” Take Quiz 8

    “All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead. Image is detail from “The School of Athens,” by Raphael, between 1509-11. Public Domain

    The history of human thought often resembles a struggle to determine who makes the rules: a deity or a person. Those whose faith tells them that their God or gods know what is true or right are locked in ideological battle with those who feel that humans are well-equipped to figure things out on their own. Throughout the centuries each foundational assumption about truth has had its time in the sun, only to be vanquished by the other, and so on, and so on. The ancient, spiritual philosophies of the Asian continent were the first (that we know of) to detach themselves from revelatory/realist norms, and engage with the world independently, or humanistically. Almost at the same time, the pre-Socratic philosophers in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) began thinking along the same lines. Do you think it’s a coincidence that at least two major trade routes (both by land and sea) lay between them?

    What happens when one begins with the assumption that he or she has the capability to determine right from wrong, without supernatural help? Virtue ethics is one result (we’ll look at a few others later). Interestingly, virtue ethics (which began across the Adriatic from Turkey, in ancient Greece) bears as much a resemblance to Taoism/Buddhism/Confucianism as it does to the rationalist philosophies that come after it. As in Taoism/Buddhism/Confucianism, virtue ethics strives toward a kind of happiness-through-ethical behavior: what the Greeks call “eudaimonia,” their Eastern counterparts might call “wu wei” or “nirvana” or “superiority.” Each is a fluid state of well-being, nourished by virtue. As in the East, virtue ethics strives toward a balancing of extremes and finding a middle path to walk (the Golden Mean). As in Buddhism and Taoism (not Confucianism), virtue ethics resists laying down hard and fast rules for everyone: all three are comfortable with leaving it up to the individual to weigh in his or her own (rational) mind. Key virtues in virtue ethics are temperance, justice, and prudence…one also must be brave enough to put these virtues into play at all times.

    “Good w/o a God”: End of the Line Humanists of West Chicago

    Today’s Discussions:

    8:00 class: “How Confucius Loses Face in China’s New Surveillance Regime,” Philip Ivanhoe, aeon.com, 1/17/20

    3:30 class: “Confucian Common Sense Meets the AI Revolution,” Bergruen Institute, 8/11/20

  • Wednesday, September 28: Buddhism, Taoism & Confucianism

    Homework for Friday: Read Striking a Balance (left), Confucianism (pp. 167-193) and take Quiz 7


    Today’s article (8:00 class only): “Robot Priests Can Bless You, Advise You, Even Perform Your Funeral,” Sigal Samuel, Vox, 1/13/20

    The Vinegar Tasters (L-R Confucius, The Buddha, Lao Tzu), unknown, Public Domain

    We’re looking at three traditions this week: one began in India (Buddhism–notice that the concepts of karma and dharma in Hinduism found their way into the Buddhist tradition) and two originated in China (Taoism and Confucianism). Now, we need to make a distinction, here: even though I’ve lumped these three traditions under the “revelatory” heading, they are a bit different from the religions we’ve looked at so far. First of all, though there are elements of deism in some sects of each tradition–for example, you can find temples all across Asia where Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Lao Tzu and Confucius are worshipped–in a broader sense, however, these three traditions behave much more like philosophies, or spiritualities, where nothing supernatural is required. Revelation is important, and each tradition has its “prophet,” but the real magic happens inside the mind. Ethical behavior is a key priority in all three traditions, but unlike in the Abrahamic religions, the motivation is not about pleasing a higher power, but about living in “harmony” with a very real universe. In Taoism, for example, when a problem arises, the Tao Te Ching advises people to see it as “a rock in a stream,” and “be like the water that goes around it.” Like Hindus, Buddhists hold dear the concept of karma, or “what goes around, comes around”; therefore, each action is taken with its consequence in mind.

    For Confucius (like Socrates, as you’ll see soon), the intentional practice of virtue is a lifelong pursuit, and though I wouldn’t quite call him a hardcore realist, he was definitely a “rules-for-everyone guy.” His practical, easy-to-implement teachings contrast with the paradoxical, esoteric poetry of the Tao Te Ching, and the seemingly harsh, ascetic aspects of Buddhism. Confucianism is foundational to the community and family-centric culture in most Asian countries, even today (seriously, the man had influence!).

    The image at the top of today’s page is of the three great leaders of Chinese philosophy/religion, after taking a sip of–eww–straight vinegar. Confucius and the Buddha each wear frowns: this is to signify that to each, life is…well, kind of a bummer. Buddhist scripture begins with the assumption that “all life is suffering,” and Confucius’s teachings claim that humans have the potential to become virtuous, but without proper spiritual guidance, could easily turn to vice. The only one who smiles after tasting the vinegar is Lao Tzu, the Taoist master, whose worldview is much cheerier: “You’re fine the way you are,” the Tao Te Ching reassures us: “Just go with the flow!”

  • Monday, September 26: Polytheism–Hinduism

    Homework for Wednesday EISRT, Section B: Buddhism, part 1a. On Being a Buddhist (pp. 61-4); part 6 (in entirety, pp. 91-6). AND Striking a Balance, “Taoist Ethics or Ethos?” p. 136-149 and take Quiz 6.  


    Dhanvantri, the Hindu God of Ayurveda (Health)
    A detail from a miniature painting in the Rajastani style, made by the artist LaLa in Udipur.
    The original uploader was F16 at Hebrew Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

    Here’s a recording of a healing mantra (chant) to Dhanvantari. When chanted it is said by some to heal the coronavirus, or anything that ails one.

    Hinumisia.ai, an AI that tracks text-based incidents of “Hinduphobia”

    Today’s article: “A Dharma Perspective on AI and Faith,” by Rajiv Malhotra, AIandfaith.org, 4/8/21

    Moving into polytheism, Hinduism is the closest we can get, but it’s not a completely accurate definition. EISRT says, “Unlike other world religions, Hinduism cannot be defined by a central authority or dogma deriving from one spiritual entity or one scripture. Hindus know the theistic concept of the one supreme deity, monotheism, and will often talk about God, while referring to a particular chosen Hindu deity. [See a list of Hindu deities here!] In practice, then, Hinduism is polytheistic and sectarian.” (354) Hinduism is one of the oldest world religions, and first introduced the concept of the interconnection of all things: gods/people/animals/trees/rocks work (we’ll see this next in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism).

  • Painting of Abraham, father of many nations, by Il Guercino (1591-1666) Public Domain

    Wednesday, September 21: Judeo/Christianity and Islam Discussion

    Homework: none

    Today’s article: “AI’s Islamophobia Problem,” Vox, 9/18/21

    1. What is the ethical situation?
    2. What stands to be gained or lost in this situation?
    3. Who are the potential winners and losers?
    4. How would the different sides of the argument argue that their position is the “right” or “moral” one?

    The Commandments or Prohibitions in Islam, from Al Islam.org

  • Friday, September 16: Revelatory Ethics: Judeo-Christianity

    Today’s article: https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/physician-assisted-suicide

    Homework for Monday: Read Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (EISRT), Section D: Judaism and Section E: Christianity. Take Quiz 4


    We’ll look at Judeo-Christianity first, since we’re already thinking within a monotheistic framework.

    EISRT will outline some of the basic ethical tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Both share a part of the same holy text: The Bible. The Jewish God of the Old Testament is all about following His rules, notably in the Ten Commandments (see Glossary for a link to the list) handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. What happens to people when they don’t obey God’s commands? Divine retribution (e.g. expulsion from the Garden of Eden, flood), and possibly punishment after death. Once Jesus comes along in the Christian New Testament, a kinder, gentler side of the deity is revealed. Themes of love and forgiveness of sin set a new tone. You can see how Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory makes Christians feel that they are flawed, but loved parts of a divine machine.

  • Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1508-1512. Wikimedia Commons

    Wednesday, September 14: Revelatory Ethics

    Homework for Friday: none, but check out the first discussion article (8:00 a.m section only):

    “AI and the Importance of Genesis in Understanding Humans,” Irish Times, 7/3/20


    Ethics is so much easier when someone else lays down the rules for how to behave, because all one has to do is

    1. Respect the authority (metaethical assumption = The Authority Exists)
    2. Follow His/Her rules (metaethical assumption = Human Rules are Insufficient)

    When a code of ethics comes from outside of the individual–for example, when a deity hands down inscribed stone tablets on a mountaintop–we call it “revelatory.” Think of a game show, when the host pulls back a curtain to display the prize–surprise! Such is the mysterious, divine nature of religious ethics.

    Today we’re looking at the Western revelatory traditions of Judaism and Christianity, and two concepts that underlie them: Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory.

    First, we have Divine Command Theory and the famous dilemma (here’s a short video description) that results from it. This dilemma comes–like so many great things–from the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. I won’t ask you to read Plato’s 2000-year-old original dialogue, but please check out this modern adaptation (watch with subtitles on–it goes fast) as a cute and creative way to not only understand the Euthyphro dilemma, but to get a sense of how Socrates vexed the people of Athens with his passive-aggressive rhetoric…known today as the Socratic Method. More on that later.

    A little more complex is Thomas Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory, which attempts to settle the dilemma by investing all of God’s creation with moral purpose from the get-go. God has given people the power of reason, so they can discover this moral purpose on their own…they don’t necessarily need to believe in God or know of Him at all to learn their moral purpose (though God still gets the credit for it!). In His divine omniscience, God knows how best to act, and He’s programmed us to imperfectly strive toward His ideals. If you’re confused, here’s a video that sums up the idea.

    Today’s discussion reading: “Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat to Christianity?”, The Atlantic, 2/3/17

  • Monday, August 12: Revelation and AI

    Homework: Read Chapter 2 of ItPE, “Can We Have Ethics Without Religion?  On Divine Command Theory & Natural Law Theory?” and take Quiz 3 

    Today’s article: “Can Religion Guide the Ethics of AI?”

    Some questions:

    “What does it mean to be human? Are we users or are we beings?”

    “Tech is a stereotypically secular industry in which traditional belief systems are regarded as things to keep hidden away at all costs. A scene from the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ satirized this cultural aversion: ‘You can be openly polyamorous, and people here will call you brave. You can put microdoses of LSD in your cereal, and people will call you a pioneer,’ one character says after the chief executive of his company outs another tech worker as a believer. “But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian.'”

    Why do you think this is? What type of metaethical foundation lies under this sentiment?

    Tech companies will “analyze” the issue of religion and AI, for example, adopt religious lingo to describe their work, or hire “divinity consultants,” but is this the best they can do?

    “Who needs God when we’ve got Google?” the article asks.

    “At the end of the day, A.I. is just a lot of math. It’s just a lota lot of math,” one tech worker told me. It is intelligence by brute force, and yet it is spoken of as if it were semidivine.”

    Have humans substituted technology for God? Have you?

    “…is it affecting my soul at all, the fact that I’m able to do this thing that previously only God could do?” 

    Can we know too much? Can we try too hard?

    “There’s cautionary stuff here for me,” Mr. Boettcher said. “You’re getting into people’s memories. You’re getting into the way that they think about the world, some of the ethical positions that they take, how they think about their own lives — this isn’t an area that we want to let algorithms just run and feed people based on whether they … click on the ads next to this stuff.”

    Why is this a problem?

  • Friday, August 9: Relativism/Subjectivism Discussion

    Homework: none

    Today we’ll talk about meta-ethics: the ideologies beneath our ethical stances. These ideologies have their fixed rules and authority figures, and we are better-served when we acknowledge this. We will also discuss the differences between–and the paradoxes inherent to–moral realism and relativism.

    Quick review:

    Realism: The view that morality is objective, that “there are mind-independent facts about ethics that are true and binding, even if we have beliefs to the contrary.” (ITPE, 6-7)

    Descriptive Relativism: “Moralities and ethical codes are radically different across cultures–and we can observe this.” (ITPE, 7)

    Metaethical Relativism: “No standard exists beyond a culture to prescribe good or bad behavior. Thus, culture is king. […] moral truths are actually only true relative to specific groups of people.” (ITPE, 7-8)

    Normative Relativism: “…because no objective, independent standpoint from which to evaluate ethical codes exists, no culture can justifiably say that its morality is objectively superior.” (ITPE, 8)

    Question: Where do you stand on the realism vs. relativism spectrum? Notice how you assign ethical praise or blame as you go through your day, and ask yourself what, if any, realist beliefs lie underneath? How do you handle those who make different ethical decisions than you?

    Today’s article: “AI-Generated Art Won A Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy,” New York Times, 9/2/22

    Q: Is it morally wrong to use AI to generate art and then expect it to have the same creative status as an original painting? Why or why not?

    Q: How would the different schools of moral relativism interpret this use of AI?

    Q: Would a metaethical relativist find it fair to allow an AI painting to compete with an “original” painting in a contest? Why or why not?

    Q. A moral realist in favor or AI-generated art might argue that those who don’t approve of it are simply lacking in knowledge about how it’s made. What do you think of this?

  • Wednesday, August 7: Dilemma Day!

    “Congratulations!” To see this and many more trolley problem memes, go here.

    Homework for Friday (same as last week’s–my mistake):

    Read Chapter 1 of Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (ItPE). “Aren’t Right & Wrong Just Matters of Opinion?  On Moral Relativism and Subjectivism.” Take Quiz 2 

    Final vote on semester topic!

    Final discussion group formation. Sign up!!



    What’s an ethical dilemma and what are its characteristics?

    Today, we’ll look at one of the most famous and studied ethical dilemma: “The Trolley Problem”:

    There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two (and only two) options:

    1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
    2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

    What is the right thing to do?

    Take a poll.

    What is/are the ethical situation(s)? Why is this a dilemma?

    What stands to be gained or lost in the situation presented? And who are the potential “winners” and “losers”–aka “stakeholders”?

    What if:

    1. The one person on the tracks is your child?
    2. There’s no switch, but you can push a car onto the tracks with a lone driver inside?
  • Current situation in Russo-Ukraine War (from Euractiv.com)

    Friday, September 2 : Discussion about Discussions (Zoom)

    Homework: Read Chapter 1 of Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (ItPE). “Aren’t Right & Wrong Just Matters of Opinion?  On Moral Relativism and Subjectivism.” Take Quiz 2  before class on Wednesday.

    Semester topic pick–vote here

    The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has a handy pdf for “Ethical Decision Making,” and today we looked at just the first two steps: first, we must be able to recognize the ethical issue(s) in any situation. We should ask ourselves two questions: What stands to be gained or lost in the situation presented? And who, according to the author, are the potential “winners” and “losers”–aka “stakeholders”? The next step is to gather and verify as much evidence as we can to support claims from the different viewpoints involved (a good piece of writing always will provide sources). Only then can we most effectively consider what actions and outcomes might be right or wrong, and for whom.

    Let’s talk about a close reading strategy for our discussion days:

    1. Read once for basic comprehension.
    2. Number the paragraphs for easy reference during discussion.
    3. Read it again, marking the text as you go: underline key words/ideas, mark things you do or don’t understand, anything that seems to have an ethical or moral dimension.
    4. Let’s discuss. I have questions!
    5. Today’s article for discussion: “Russia’s Occupation of Nuclear Plant Gives Moscow a New Way to Intimidate,” New York Times, 8/30/22
      • Some say that “All is fair in love and war.” Should “normal” rules governing right and wrong be suspended during wartime? Why or why not?
      • It was incredibly effective for Putin to use the Ukrainian nuclear plant to shield his troops, but is it ethical? On what moral grounds would you base your answer?
      • The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriach Krill, has endorsed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying, “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” a war that involves “eternal salvation.”  (U.S. Institute of Peace). How does this justify what Putin is doing?
      • What are the ethical obligations of the rest of the developed world, in this matter? Do direct stakeholders (e.g. Poland, the EU) have different ethical obligations than indirect stakeholders (the U.S., for one)?
  • Wednesday, August 31: Choosing a Topic for the Semester

    Homework: none



    Is your news biased? Here are two well-known media bias charts, which I’ll employ in presenting the most “centric” of articles for our discussions. Some of you may ask, “But couldn’t these interpretations of bias be biased themselves?” Of course they could! Bias is natural, and in small doses it doesn’t significally distort the evidence presented. It’s like dressing on a salad: it shouldn’t be the main ingredient of what you’re reading, but can add a lot of flavor to the experience.
    (Our library has a handy page about avoiding bias when you are reading or conducting research. It’s actually a companion guide for EGL 220: Critical Thinking, but it’s useful for this course, too. Thanks, Library!)

    Did you know that you have a free educational subscription to the New York Times? Let’s get you set up with that.

    Google News is also good.

    Here are some topics from past classes: Drones, The Melting Arctic, E-Cigarettes, The Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Concussions in the NFL, Covid.

    Let’s crowdsource a topic here.

  • Monday, August 29: Welcome!

    Homework: Please review the syllabus and this website and take Quiz 1 on its contents by the start of class on Friday (9/2).


    I’m Dr. Chisholm (pronounced CHIZZ-um). You can call me “Dr. C.” Here’s a short video in which I introduce myself:

    In this ethics course, we won’t be spending our time together in the traditional lecture–>take notes format. Instead, we will discuss and debate articles that I’ve collected on the topic of the semester (TBD by you)–and you will read and be quizzed on the reading material outside of class. This is called a “flipped classroom,” and the format allows us to treat our thrice weekly meetings more like a forum of sorts. Bring your coffee and get ready to engage in discourse!


    Please make sure to subscribe to this site so you get an reminder email every time I update (usually, once or twice a week):


    Important links are listed in the left margin of this page: first is the course syllabus, which is obviously full of important information. There is also a sign-up link for Student-Led Discussions, and a handout explaining how to do these underneath.

    Under this are links to the textbooks for this course. These are all online, open source or library e-books (read: FREE) texts. All other reading or viewing materials will be linked within each weekly module. Links to each module’s lecture/readings/assignments will be posted on this page as we move through the semester. For each reading, there will be a multiple choice quiz using Google Forms (links will be posted each week). These quizzes are open-note, and you can take them as many times as you like. Only your highest score will be counted.

    Under this is a link to a glossary of mostly philosophical terms. I’ll be throwing these around a lot; plus, they’re pretty great words to know, in general. When these words appear on this site, I will highlight them


    For your first assignment for the class, please review the syllabus and this website and take Quiz 1 on its contents.

    There’s a lot there! Don’t get left behind!


“Let this grisly beginning be none other to you than is to wayfarers a rugged and steep mountain.”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron


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