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)
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
Problem? Question? Something not working on the site? Email me: email@example.com
hours minutes seconds
Your Personal Essay is Due
The Last Discussion
- Virtue Ethicist
- Any Revelatory Ethicist
Monday, April 25: (The Last) Dilemma Day
“…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”)
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?
- 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
Monday, April 18: Reflection Day!
Imagine humane technology: What ethical frameworks fit the best with the recommended principles in this document? Which do not?
Monday, April 11: The Ethics of Technology
“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.
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?
Friday, April 8
Essay Exam #3
Due Friday, 4/15 @ 11:55 p.m., on BrightSpace
In one single-spaced page, answer the following questions:
- Germany, the EU’s most powerful member state, is uncomfortably reliant on Russian natural gas. Its economy would sink if it turned off the pipeline, but leaving it on makes it complicit in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This article suggests several options for Germany: which would appeal to a moderate socialist (think Bernie Sanders) and why?
- Norway is not part of the EU. Its massive oil and gas reserves have made it one of the wealthiest countries on the European continent, and the Russian oil and gas embargoes promise to make Norway even richer. Some Norwegians feel a little guilty about profiting from the Russia/Ukraine tragedy. Read this article and explain what obligations a laissez-faire capitalist might feel that Norway owes to its people (remember, its oil and gas companies are owned by the state) vs. its European allies vs. the Ukrainian people, and why?
- How much of Norway’s extra oil and gas profit would ethicist Peter Singer want to be given to the Ukrainians on humanitarian grounds, and why?
Wednesday, April 6: Ethics of Helping Those in Need (Humanitarian Aid)
Homework: Read Chapter 7 (through p. 163) in Global Ethics. Take Quiz #17.
Housekeeping: Essay Exam #3 will be assigned here on Friday, April 6.
This week’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. Many Americans are wondering how our country can help…without starting WWIII, that is.
The chapter that I’ve assigned 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!.
Monday, April 4: The Just War Theory
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 this week’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.
For the week: please read Chapter 8 of Global Ethics (link in left margin), pgs. 173-192 (skip the “Humanitarian Intervention” section: we’ll read that next week). Then take Quiz #16 (it’s a long one).
Wednesday, March 30: Dilemma Day! & Personal Essay Assigned
Homework for Monday: None. Have a great “Spring Sneeze”!
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?
Length: 3-5 (double-spaced) pages. Due Date: Wednesday, April 27 @ 11:00 p.m. Submit to BrightSpace.
Prompt: Describe the ethical frameworks that have resonated most with you this semester. How has thinking about ethics helped you navigate This Crazy Year, or how might what you’ve learned help you through the remaining months before life (hopefully) goes back to normal?
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.
Monday, March 28: Corporate Ethics
Friday, March 25: Capitalism Discussion
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.
Essay Exam #2: Due Monday, 3/21
Read this article and answer the following questions in one single-spaced page:
Social media companies make lots of money when they let their platforms go unregulated, but the ideological echo chambers that result are an ethical problem. This article suggests that regulation of some kind might be the answer. Imagine that a utilitarian, an egoist, a deontologist and a postmodernist each read the article and weigh in. Would each agree that regulation of social media is warranted? Why or why not? If so, which type of regulation would fit their ethical frameworks best?
March 14: Marxism & Socialism, Continued
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:
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.
March 11: 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.
March 7: Alternatives to Rationalism: Postmodernism
Homework: Read/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:
- 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).
- All religions are valid, but the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ (for example) as being the only way to God are problematic.
- Postmodern ethics is pro-underdog: it defends the causes of historically disenfranchised groups (e.g. women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQIA+).
- 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?
March 4: Alternatives to Rationalism: Feminist Ethics
Homework for Monday: Read Chapter 7 of ItPE and take Quiz 12.
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.)
You’ve probably noticed by now that we haven’t discussed a single female philosopher yet, 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!
March 2: Rationalism–Deontologism
Homework for Friday: none
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.
February 25, 2022: Rationalism
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.
Egoism is all about self-interest. I guess it’s kind of true that we are always looking out for number one; ethical egoists want to legitimize this as a moral stance! (If you’re an Ayn Rand fan, you will relate.) Read about this at the beginning of Chapter 4; I’m curious how important egoism is to you…I’ll ask you about this later.
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:
Please read Chapter 4 and take Quiz #10
Monday, February 21: Dilemma Day
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)
- What is the ethical situation?
- What stands to be gained or lost in this situation?
- Who are the potential winners and losers?
- How would the different sides of the argument argue that their position is the “right” or “moral” one?
- Would the situation change if “Big Jack” were a woman? Or a pregnant woman? Or a child?
- Is it more important that the most people get out of the cave (consequentialism), or that whatever choice made is ethical (deontologism)?
Homework: Read Chapter 5 of ItPE: “Utilitarianism.” Take Quiz 9
Wednesday, February 16: Virtue Ethics
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
Friend A has decided that a behavior of Friend B has become intolerable and they can no longer hang out or be friends with B. They tell you (Friend C) that if you want to continue to be their friend, you need to stop associating with Friend B, too. What do you do? What do you say immediately to Friend A? How do you answer Friend B when they ask you if you know why Friend A does not return their phone calls? Who do you invite to the movies or your birthday gathering? Who do you call first to share good news or bad?
ESSAY EXAM #1 Assignment
Due Sunday, February 20 @ 11:55 P.M., to BrightSpace
Prompt: Read this article and answer the following questions in no more than a single-spaced page:
- Would Thomas Aquinas have a problem with “God [fitting] inside an iPhone” (ostensibly instead of a church)? Why or why not? Use his Natural Law Theory to support your answer.
- Which, if any of the Ten Commandments in the Bible is 21st century digital culture violating, to Albom? Cite his words in your analysis.
- Which of the Muslim Commandments are being broken by today’s churchgoers, according to Albom. Cite his words in your analysis.
- The Taoist sage Lao Tzu goes to Catholic mass, where he sees almost the entire congregation on their phones. Mitch Albom, sitting next to him, rolls his eyes in disapproval. What might Lao Tzu say to him? Would he support Albom? Explain your answer.
- Might the Buddha see the smart phone as a burden or boon for Buddhists? Explain.
Friday, February 11, 2022: Buddhism, Taoism & Confucianism
Homework for Monday: Read Striking a Balance (left), Confucianism (pp. 167-193) and take Quiz 7
Essay Exam #1 assigned (will be posted later today–come back!)
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!”
Wednesday, February 9, 2022: Islam Discussion and Hinduism
Homework for Friday: 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.
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).
Friday, February 4, 2022: Student-Led Discussion Day!
Homework: Read EISRT, Section A. Hinduism, subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority and 6. Questions of Right and Wrong. Take Quiz 5.
Wednesday, February 2: Judaism (cont.) and Islam Discussion
Homework for Friday : none
Article #2 (video)
Did you know that Muslims consider Jews and Christians to be part of their religious paradigm? Yes, these religions have a lot more in common than most people think. All three are monotheistic and revelatory (via a prophet or prophets); all three base ethical behavior on similar sets of commandments; and all view ethics through the lens of piety.
Monday, January 31: Judaism and Christianity Discussion
Note: Now that we are back face-to-face, I’ll stop holding office hours on Zoom and will now be in my office from !0:00-11:00 MWF (FAC 216). Come on by!
Homework: Read EISRT, Section F: Islam, subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority, and 6. Questions of Right and Wrong. No quiz.
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.
Here are two articles for today’s class discussion:
Some questions raised in class: Is it better to focus on what Christians should do (e.g. love thy neighbor), or what they shouldn’t do (e.g. sin)? Article #1 contends that contemporary Christians are too concerned with sin, and not enough with love…the constant finger-wagging between Christians is not only dividing the church but is also scaring away potential converts. This puts the future of the entire religion in danger. How important is doing good, vs. just not doing bad, in your book? Put another way, is ethics something you practice more proactively, or reactively?
We’ll talk about the second article on Wednesday.
Friday, January 28: Student-led Discussion Day
Read Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (EISRT), Section D: Judaism and Section E: Christianity. Take Quiz 4
Today’s article: ‘Indelible mark of shame’: L.A. pivots to clearing homeless camps amid Covid surge, housing crisis, NBC News
Wednesday, January 26: Revelatory Ethics
Home for Friday: none
Today’s discussion reading: “Want Faith? Go to the Homeless…”
Monday, January 24: The Ring of Gyges
Homework: Read Chapter 2 of ItPE, “Can We Have Ethics Without Religion? On Divine Command Theory & Natural Law Theory?” and take Quiz 3
Friday, January 21: Relativism/Realism Discussion
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 also discussed the differences between–and the paradoxes inherent to–moral realism and relativism.
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?
Reading for today’s discussion: Will California’s plan for clearing homeless camps work?, by Manuela Tobias, Cal Matters, 1/15/21
Wednesday, January 19: Dilemma Day!
Homework for Friday:
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
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:
- Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
What is the right thing to do?
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”?
- The one person on the tracks is your child?
- There’s no switch, but you can push a car onto the tracks with a lone driver inside?
Friday, January 14: Discussion about Discussions
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 Thursday
Review Quiz #1
Semester topic pick–vote here
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has a handy infographic 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:
- Read once for basic comprehension. Write a one-paragraph summary on the back of the paper. I’ll check in when you’re done.
- Number the paragraphs for easy reference during discussion.
- 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.
- Let’s discuss. I have questions!
Today’s article: “Why is Ca. Gov. Newsom Facing Recall? Frustration with Covid Orders Led to Election,” Associated Press, 9/13/21
- Is the recall process ethical in a democracy? If the majority of voters approve a law that allows minority groups the opportunity to replace a majority-elected politician, is that ok? Should election laws be tweaked to prevent this Machiavellian loophole from being exploited?
- Should elites (the powerful, rich, super-smart, etc.) be allowed to violate rules that the rest of us have to follow?
- (Is it worse when elites violate rules that they themselves made up?)
- Was Newsom’s forcing people to lock down in the spring of 2020 an abuse of power, or an appropriate use of it?
Wednesday, January 12: Choosing a Topic for the Semester
Recordings of our Zoom classes are being stored on BrightSpace (for privacy), on the Calendar page, for those who are absent.
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, Margot!)
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, January 10: Welcome!
I’m Dr. Chisholm (pronounced CHIZZ-um). You can call me “Dr. C.” Here’s a short video in which I introduce myself:
We’ve had the rampant virus/no known vaccination/totally online semester. We’ve had the delta/vax/booster/in-person semester. Now we’re about to experience the omicron/vax/booster/everyone gets sick b/c it’s so darn contagious/start online and finish in-person semester. Can we please catch a break?
We will be holding live, synchronous class via Zoom until February 1 (recorded and posted on BrightSpace for those who get sick). After Feb. 1, we’ll go back into the classroom for real face-to-face class!
Regardless of the course modality, 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 lecture 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, including all major assignments and their due dates.
First is a permanent link to our Zoom room, which will also be where I hold my office hours.
Under these two buttons is the course syllabus, which is obviously full of important information. There is also a sign-up link for Student-Led Discussions, which I’ll talk more about in class.
Under the syllabus/discussion sign-ups 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 the recorded Zooms 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
Under the glossary is a link to the rubric I’ll use to evaluate your essay exams. I’ll talk about my expectations for these exams later.
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!