Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Mountains Without Handrails"

Gee, you think the National Park Service likes Sax's book? They've posted it in its entirety on their Web site:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Environmentalism is a Conservative Concern

As luck would have it, from today's Guardian at .

An excerpt:

Why Environmentalism is a Conservative Concern
Conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change.
The Tea Party movement struck its first electoral blow in the recent US elections. But consider this: 30% of tea party supporters think, wrongly, that President Obama was born outside the US and therefore is not a legitimate president, while just 12% think global warming is a serious problem now.
In the US, anti-environmental beliefs have gained traction on the right, which views action on climate change as "big government". Indeed, such views are considered "conservative". But they are not conservative beliefs.
The reality is that conservative thinking provides a deep well of arguments for protecting the environment and tackling climate change. I would argue the long political and philosophical heritage of environmentalism is in essence, conservative rather than radical. If the action needed to enhance the security of our own and future generations seems radical, that is merely a reflection of the extent to which we have collectively lost touch with the conservative tradition.
The right in the US has abandoned this tradition. But it is a tradition to which the leadership of Conservative party here in the UK seems to have returned. Being the "greenest government ever" is consistent with a conservative creed. But, crucially, the case for looking after the planet is rarely put in terms that appeal to the right or centre right.
Good government has always been concerned with improving people's quality of life and protecting their futures. This responsibility to safeguard the resources we have inherited is a feature of conservatism that has been more often associated with the preservation of political and religious institutions, finances and culture. Yet the same principles apply to the environment.
As the grandfather of modern conservative political thinking, Edmund Burke, put it: we are "temporary possessors or life renters" of this world and have a moral obligation not to squander our natural inheritance, lest we "leave to those who come after … a ruin instead of a habitation." Respect for the past and responsibility to future generations creates a duty to conserve our resources and protect the environment.

Read the rest here. Additional discussion at

Thursday, November 4, 2010

If Henry Could See Us Now

an excerpt:
"Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?" So writes Henry David Thoreau in the first chapter of Walden, in the middle of a lengthy disquisition about the meaning of shelter in mid-19th century America. Using white pine from the shores of Walden Pond and lumber salvaged from an old shack, Thoreau stimulated his own poetic faculties by constructing his 10- by 15-foot dwelling at the outset of his famous sojourn.
With Thoreau’s exhortation and example firmly in mind and the blessing of the college administration, the department of environmental studies and sciences undertook the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin as our contribution to Ithaca College’s First Year Reading Initiative for 2010. The president had selected Walden as the text that would be sent to all incoming first-year students. Few books could serve as so stimulating a provocation in our hyper-mediated age, when it is harder than ever "to front the essential facts of life," when more people than ever seem to be living lives of quiet desperation. Reconstructing Thoreau’s cabin, therefore, not only resonated well with my department’s values, but would offer students an opportunity to, in Thoreau’s own vision of higher education, "not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end." (Emphasis original.)
Over the course of the summer everyone we contacted about helping with the project was enthusiastic. The local timber framers who had the tools and expertise to lead the build, the salvager who would provide us with the wood, and the local re-use center where we would get the windows and which would help us with the de-nailing — all leaped at the chance to participate, in many cases offering their services free or at a steep discount. Students, faculty, alumni, and community members who learned about the project all expressed a desire, even a craving, to become involved, to be able to build with their own hands. Their answer to Thoreau’s question, "Shall we ever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?" was loud and clear.
And so sketches were made. A crew of students and faculty spent a day and a half pulling hemlock boards and timbers from a collapsed 120-year-old barn. The campus site for the build was selected. We sent the hand-drawn sketches to an architect friend to be rendered as computer-designed drawings.
And that was the moment when the magic of creative possibility conjured by Thoreau dissipated in the reality of 21st-century America. We can't say we weren’t warned by Henry himself, who had observed even in the 1840s that human institutions often serve those who created them in unwelcome ways. Our well-meaning friend innocently inquired, "Are you sure you won’t need a building permit for this project?"
An educational project temporarily occupying a space for a year, a 150-square-foot cabin? Surely not.
But, alas, once even our innocent inquiries were made, the Town of Ithaca bureaucrats scampered into their iron cages and set about their regulatory duties — duties, it should be said, the people have charged them with. Unable to see how irrelevant modern building codes were for this project, the director of code enforcement immediately declared our plans as drawn were a menace to public health and safety. The entire thing was transformed from frustration to farce when he insisted that the cabin would need ... a sprinkler system.
At least as frustrating was the inability of the college’s own bureaucracy to either defend the principle that this project was not even subject to review (there were precedents for such an argument) or to advocate for an expedited process. Not without reason, the college administration was fearful of alienating the local government over a project that was a low priority compared to the massive building projects under way and anticipated. No matter how powerful the experience of reconstructing the cabin might be for a few hundred students, no matter that such a project conforms more closely to the vision of higher education I believe in (and Thoreau seems to have as well) than the new 130,000-square foot athletics and events center, no one was willing to challenge the town’s misapplication of rules, at least not in time to make a difference.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trolleyology in the news

from today's Practical Ethics:
In the October edition of Prospect magazine, Practical ethics blogger David Edmonds provides an accessible and thoughtful insight into "Trolley problems"
A shocking memo leaked to Prospect, drafted by civil servants from the treasury and the department of health, exposes the stark reality of future cutbacks. Harsh decisions are inevitable, says the memo; in one NHS trust people on life-support systems are to be “finished off” on 1st November—either by smothering, or by having the plugs pulled out. Their organs are then to be used to save the lives of others on transplant-waiting lists, who have themselves become a considerable burden to the taxpayer. The total saving to the trust is estimated at £2.3m a year.
Hogwash, of course. But the government will make some tough choices in its spending review on 20th October, and these will cost lives. Whether “efficiencies” are made in the department of transport, the military or the NHS, there will be victims, even if they are unidentifiable. Governments always have to prioritise—choosing, for example, between a cheap medicine which benefits few people a little, and an expensive one which benefits many people a lot. But in hard financial times, such predicaments become more acute.
Moral philosophers have long debated under what circumstances it is acceptable to kill and why, for example, we object to killing a patient for their organs, but not to a distribution of resources that funds some drugs rather than others. To understand the debate you need to understand the trolley problem. It was conceived decades ago by two grande dames of philosophy: Philippa Foot of Oxford University (click here to read more about Foot) and Judith Jarvis Thomson of MIT.
David sums up both the nature of the burgeoning philosophical field of analysis of the trolley problem and its variants, but also the bigger questions about the role of such thought experiments in moral philosophy
The most vehement of trolley-phobes believe this whole approach to ethics is profoundly wrong-headed and, in a most fundamental way, mischaracterises the nature of morality. The world is too complex, judgements are too multifaceted, and the qualities of virtue and wisdom too subtle, for us to peel off intuitions from the trolley scenarios and usefully transplant them onto the real world. The riposte is that it’s hard to know how to do applied moral philosophy any other way. If it is indeed right to kill the spur man but wrong to kill the fat man, we need to untangle the principles at stake. Judith Jarvis Thomson once referred to the trolley problem as a “lovely, nasty difficulty.” Solving this lovely, nasty problem has repercussions for how we regard actions that weigh up lives.
Is the trolley problem a useful tool for moral philosophy?
If our intuitions lead us to not push the fat man, but to divert the trolley - does that mean that we should embrace the doctrine of double effect (or some variant of it), or does it mean that we should reject our instinctual responses to these questions?
Jim here: the trolley problem finds its way into countless public policy discussions--I'd be interested in collecting more examples if anyone runs across any.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"I mean, how much can you really say about ice melting?”

And you think reading Thoreau is tough? Teaching Thoreau is tough. Check it out:
Note to Educators. Thoreau, one of America's most important and inspiring philosophers, can be tough to teach. It's not easy to dispel his stereotypes as a curmudgeon and hermit, or else a nature-gazing cloud-head, when you have only a few classes in which to present his works and thoughts.
  • Worse yet, the opening chapters of Walden can be seriously off-putting to many students. Better to choose among the more subtle and eloquent chapters, like "The Pond in Winter" or "Former Inhabitants" or "Spring," for an introductory assignment.
  • But which chapters always turn up in the anthologies? The off-putting ones.
    Click here to read astounding examples of student reactions.]

Be sure to read the essay at:

My favorite student reaction:

“The things this dude said made absolutely no sense [and] we get to see what neurosis plagued his diseased mind…. Pages upon pages of vivid description about scenery, the little fighting ants, the whippor-whill, the squirrels under the floorboards, the bees … how they infested his cozy little shack … what do we care about his pests in nature? I mean, how much can you really say about ice melting?”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Groundhog day college student edition

I know the Groundhog day movie showing was more than a week ago but I wanted to share a more college-student version of it in the show 'The tatami galaxy', which is 11 episodes long and can be streamed on youtube here:

I found it interesting, especially in that the protagonist deems various 'campus lives' unfulfilling, similar to how the repetitions of Groundhog day are unfulfilling until Phil accomplishes the 'perfectionist' day and breaks out of the cycle. The show has a bit of a twist ending that deviates a little from Groundhog day's message, and it seems to suggest that one of the most morally valuable factors is 'keeping promises'--the protagonist does some pretty morally questionable stuff, which don't seem as significant as the unfulfilled promise.

Warning: it's subtitled, which can be frustrating since the protagonist speaks extremely quickly. Also, there's some questionable stuff like walls of breasts (it's hard to explain) and interaction with a sex doll (it's not graphic, but still a little disturbing). The show is generally trippy and bizarre, but I recommend it.

Possible publishing opportunity

This may be of more interest than the previous one! anyone thinking of a third paper could actually get it published.
Stance: An International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal

Deadline: Friday, December 17, 2010

Stance seeks reviews of monographs, anthologies, and secondary sources in any area of Philosophy. Reviews may be 750-1000 words. Books reviewed must be currently in print and not part of public domain. Stance prefers reviews of books used in a class the reviewer is currently taking or has recently completed.

-Review authors must currently be undergraduates
-Reviews should be (i) double-spaced (including quotations, excerpts, and footnotes), (ii) in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) format, and (iii) sent as an attachment to
-To facilitate our anonymous review process, submissions are to be prepared for blind review. Include a cover page with the author's name, affiliation, title, and email address. Papers, including footnotes, should have no other identifying markers.
-Footnotes should be kept to a minimum and follow Chicago Manual of Style. For more on proper footnoting see “Footnote Style” at
-Please use American spellings and punctuation, except when directly quoting a source that has followed British style.

People read book reviews to discover if they want to read a particular book. As such, a good book review provides a quick overview of the main ideas in the text. Also helpful is an account of how the book fits into or engages an on going philosophical debate. While not required, a compare and contrast approach can be useful to demonstrate both the main ideas and unique positioning of a book.

An overview for a book review is good when it is broad and concise, including all and only the main points of the text. A good book review evaluates the text and deploys an argument regarding how successful the book is in achieving its goals. This may, but need not, involve substantive disagreement with the argumentation found in the text. Many reviews will be best when they (i) begin with any important background information (e.g. author biography), (ii) provide a summary of the contents of the book, and (iii) end with the reviewer’s evaluation.
The voice in book reviews must be obvious; readers should easily differentiate between the ideas of the book’s author from those of the reviewer. Book reviews for Stance should be accessible to the widest audience possible without sacrificing clarity or rigor. Avoid unnecessary technical or elevated language.

If anyone's interested, let me know, and I will try to help. They are also looking for full-length essays between 1500 and 3500 words, info is on the website as well.

Friday, October 22, 2010


in case any of you are planning on writing really good third papers:

CFP on Eudaimonia and Virtue

Call for Papers
Eudaimonia and Virtue: Rethinking the Good Life
University of Miami, February 25th-27th, 2011
Many ancient philosophers argued that our thinking and behavior should be grounded in a conception of eudaimonia, or human flourishing and virtue, instead of, for example, a hedonistic conception of happiness or a subjective conception of well-being. A growing number of contemporary psychologists and philosophers think that there is something deeply correct about this general eudaimonist approach, even if we may not fully accept all of the specific arguments and views propounded, for example, by Aristotle and the Stoics. 

This conference is intended to bring together philosophers and psychologists who are interested in developing a contemporary eudaimonist approach and in discussing how to best appropriate Ancient views. The conference will focus primarily on theory – to discusss what conception of eudaimonia we should accept, what we can and cannot accept in Ancient accounts of eudaimonia, the relation of eudaimonia to morality, virtue, happiness, meaning, and well-being, and the prospects for future eudaimonia scholarship.  There will also be a secondary, but active interest in empirical investigations of eudaimonia.
We are pleased to announce that the invited speakers will include some of the leading eudaimonia scholars from both psychology and philosophy, including Michael Slote, Eric Brown, Dan Haybron, Talbot Brewer, Alan Waterman, Joar Vitterso, and Corey Keyes,
We invite the submission of papers exploring issues like the ones mentioned above and welcome any interested individuals to attend and join the discussion.
Submitted papers should have either a reading time of 20 minutes with 10 minutes for discussion, or a reading time of 40 minutes with 20 minutes for discussion, and be submitted by email by December 15th, 2010. Submissions and inquiries should be sent to
Further information about the conference is available if you click here.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Meaning of Groundhog Day

Nice article at An excerpt:
Since its debut a decade ago, the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in "Groundhog Day" a reflection of their own spiritual messages. Curators of the series, polling some 35 critics in the literary, religious and film worlds to suggest films with religious interpretations, found that "Groundhog Day" came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective's catalog.
Harold Ramis, the director of the film and one of its writers, said last week that since it came out he has heard from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and that the letters keep coming. "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,' " Mr. Ramis said during a conversation on his mobile phone as he was walking the streets of Los Angeles. "Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years."
There's also an interview with Harold Ramis on Youtube at

Friday, October 15, 2010

three cheeseburgers...

Phil, finally fed up, breaks the chains that bind his predictable life and makes his own choices. Phil thought it was a good idea to drive...and do the talking. He made decisions that gave us a real funny clip. I don't recommend trying this at home (or anywhere for that matter.) I do recommend posting your favorite clip and sharing in some laughter straight from Punxsutawney!

Ethics is ultimately all about Choices

Thursday, October 7, 2010

For the love of poetry

the scene from Dead Poets Society that I mentioned in class today.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The ethics of love vs. the ethics of duty

for your listening pleasure:

an ethical dilemma occurs at 4:32. The ethics of duty kicks in at 7:03.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Saints, Heroes, and Well-Lived Lives

originally posted Sept 23, 2007:

Here is a web broadcast of an NPR program on "Moral Saints" that features an interview with Susan Wolf. Below are the listening notes on the program:

About the Guest

Susan Wolf is Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her primary areas of research are moral philosophy and the philosophy of mind. She is the author of Freedom Within Reason (Oxford UP 1993), where she makes a case for freedom as the ability to act in accordance with one's values and the ability to form one's values in light of an appreciation of the True and the Good. Professor Wolf's current research focuses on the relations among happiness, morality, and meaningfulness in life.

Listening Notes

What are moral saints and heroes? Saints and heroes are people that go above and beyond the call of duty. In philosophical jargon, this is called "supererogation". Most moral theories divide actions into three categories: that which is obligatory, that which is forbidden, and that which is optional. Would we have better lives if we were more like the saints and heroes? Ken introduces Susan Wolf, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wolf defines a moral saint as a person that is as morally good as can possibly be. Wolf says that while it would be good for there to be moral saints, she wouldn't want to be too close to them. Wolf distinguishes two kinds of saints: loving saints, people that act out of love for everyone, and dutiful saints, people that act out of feelings of duty or obligation.

Wolf argues that it would be very hard to be friends with a saint because they would make you aware of your imperfections. Wolf defines a hero as a person that does one act or one kind of act heroically, and she thinks that it would be easier to be friends with a hero than with a saint. War heroes seem to be a special class of heroes. Are they somehow braver or just unlucky? Should we strive to have a maximally moral life as our life goal? Wolf thinks that it may be obligatory to do something heroic, such as a secret service officer jumping in front of a bullet to save the president. This is one difference between heroism and sainthood. John suggests that we need to distinguish two kinds of loving saints, those in love with an abstract idea and those that care deeply about particular people.

Are there situations in which we could be required to do things that are otherwise above and beyond the call of duty? Wolf thinks there are and that we should raise the bar of what is expected of the average person. Wolf thinks that aspiring to sainthood prevents us from having well-lived lives. If you start giving in to the demands of morality, how do you know where to stop? Wolf thinks that the line is determined partly by what you are interested in and is somewhat arbitrary. Wolf distinguishes between moral relativism and moral pluralism.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:35): Amy Standen asks some people on the streets what they think saints and heroes are.
  • Ian Shoales the Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:55): Ian Shoales give a quick biography of his hero, a war hero, writer, and actor.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Warning: Graphic content mixed with humor!

It'll cost you an arm or a leg

Section three deals with harm, the concept of constraint, and the differences between doing and allowing. Kagan discusses the ethical dilemma of whether it is permissible to cut off George's leg in an attempt to save his life. (see bottom of pg 86) The consequentialist will permit this act only if the end result is the ideal outcome. The absolutist would disagree. Do you consider the final outcome to weigh more heavily than the intent of the act itself?

In further reading, section four widens the scope of constraint, and begins by dealing with the act of lying. Sure, most can agree that lying is "bad" or "wrong." We were taught this at very young ages. But upon reading Kagan, I was enlightened. (1st para top of pg 114) He specifies a very different point of view than the standard opinion of lying. He says, "...the constraint against lying should not be confused with a requirement to tell the truth." In other words, we are not entitled to say something one way or the other and therefore (by virtue of this argument) the act of saying nothing is not in itself lying. So, does 'withholding the truth' still constitute lying in your opinion? If you pretend to do something is this just as bad as having committed the act itself?

What if the act happens to be a faked suicide?? Has this just broken your threshold because it is only directly affecting one person? Getting back to good 'ol George of Chapter 3, if cutting off his leg only saved him then the die hard deontologist would balk. If it saved a thousand - now that's acceptable. Kagan continues after George to use yet another example: Harold & Maude. Cut off his leg to make a serum to save her life! Is Kagan possibly using a rare, and grossly underrated, 1971 movie reference? Unlikely, but nonetheless, I encourage you to seek out this film. In the meantime, I've provided the original trailer. Oh yeah - and you were warned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shelly Kagan

We talked about this in my section, but just so everyone else knows Shelly Kagan, is a man. His picture is to the left. I mentioned this in my section as well, but i wanted to ask it to everyone. What are the ethical implications of naming your son Shelly? Or for that matter how does a name influence a person and what is the ethical implications for any name that is given?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I can't drive 55

well, I misspoke in class this morning. It was President NIXON, not Carter, who signed into law the National Maximum Speed Law of 1974 , which established a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour as an energy conservation measure. "Wildly unpopular," as the Wiki article says, the law inspired Sammy Hagar of Van Halen (not David Lee Roth as I said in class) to write the 1984 hit song, "I Can't Drive 55."

Here, for your musical and ethical edification, is Mr. Sammy Hagar singing about the ethical dilemma he faces in trying to subordinate his selfish individual preferences to the greater good of society. Enjoy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Truman lived under a paper moon

One of my all time favorite movies is Paper Moon. While Nat King Cole sings it best it is the lyrics that really embed the meaning. (worth looking up for those interested - movie and lyrics)

What is real to us? Do we ever truly know our friends or acquaintances? How do we verify if our surroundings are even concrete? Just because we can touch, feel, see - are we actually experiencing reality? Or is it just a fleeting glimpse of someone else's design? And if so, who? What? These questions have been pondered by some of the greatest minds that have ever pondered. But are we any closer to the answers??

Truman was brought up to think his world was real. His entire 'reality' as he knew it was a construct of his creator, Christof. Christof designed this elaborate world to disguise the outside REAL world from Truman. Truman could even taste the salty air surrounding his menagerie, and yet it wasn't true. So eloquently put: "We accept the reality of the world in which we are presented," responded Christof in interview. If Emerson were alive today, I think he would have retorted with one of his lines: "The mind does not create what it perceives, anymore than the eye creates the rose." R.W. Emerson

What are your thoughts?

Morals of money Part I

This clip is essentially a bit of a slight of hand trick mixed in with just enough jabber to confuse anyone trying to count out bills. In life - and especially in the South during Great Depression - you can never know who to trust. Watch as Moses Pray pulls one over on an unsuspecting shopkeeper. He makes it out with a free ribbon (for Addie) and some dough along the way... $5 for $10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Welcome to Ethics and the Environment, 2010!

Hi everyone,
welcome to the class blog for NTRES 3320.  Have fun with posting items of interest and discussion of issues that relate to the course.