Monday, January 30, 2012

Why don't people act morally?

This is a piece written by Peter Singer (an author we'll see quite a bit of in my Philosophy and Public Issues course this term). One of the central questions addressed is:

Why are some people prepared to risk their lives to help a stranger when others won’t even stop to dial an emergency number?

I'm curious what readers of this blog think about the connection between biology and morality/moral behavior. How much can folks thinking about ethics learn from the sorts of experiments described in the article?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Graduate School Workshop on 1/28

I'll be leading a workshop with Nicole Amrhein ('08 grad/currently an attorney) on applying to graduate school. This will take place tomorrow at 11:00 in Swarts 111. This is part of the annual "Backpack to Briefcase" event at UPB.

Friday Paradox:

Zeno put forward a number of paradoxes. The upshot of many of them is that motion is impossible. This is a pretty startling conclusion, but his reasons seem fairly plausible.

Suppose I want to go out to eat and I decide to walk to the restaurant. Let A be my house and B be the restaurant. In order for me to get from A to B, I must cover half the distance between them. So I must get to point C. But in order for me to get from A to C, I must cover half of that distance. So I must get to point D. But in order for me to get from A to D, I must cover half of that distance. So I must get to point E... you get the idea. The issue is that there are an infinite number of "halves" that I have to traverse and so I'll never be able to get the full distance. How can one ever traverse an infinite number of points? So I can never actually get to the restaurant. Of course, we can generalize this and so it looks like all movement is impossible. So, contrary to the way things appear, nothing is really moving!

This wonderful clip explains another of Zeno's paradoxes (sometimes called "Achilles and the Tortoise") quite well. It has quite a bit in common with the one I describe above and the visual representation of the issue might be helpful.

Now, of course, most of think motion is possible. So the trick is identifying where Zeno's argument went awry.

Good luck and enjoy the weekend!

David Lewis, the Philosophical Conservative

Steve Pyke is a photographer that took a number of philosophers' pictures. He asked many of them to provide a few sentences about their approach to philosophy. David Lewis was one of them. He remarked:

"I am philosophically conservative: I think philosophy cannot credibly challenge either the positive convictions of common sense or the established theses of the natural sciences and mathematics."

In a famous book of his called Counterfactuals, Lewis writes:

"I believe, and so do you, that things could have been different in countless ways. But what does this mean? Ordinary language permits the paraphrase: there are many ways things could have been besides the way they actually are. I believe that things could have been different in countless ways; I believe permissible paraphrases of what I believe; taking the paraphrase at its face value, I therefore believe in the existence of entities that might be called ‘ways things could have been.’ I prefer to call them ‘possible worlds’" (page 84).

We discussed Lewis' ideas about possibility in my Metaphysics and Epistemology class. His view was that possible worlds are real and that they're just as real as the actual world. Here and here are more information about this view (now called modal realism).

Is Lewis' view philosophically conservative? Does he depart from the "positive convictions of common sense"? It doesn't seem conservative/like common sense to me. Of course, this doesn't show that his view is false. It's just not something that someone like my mother would propose as an explanation of possibility.

We only briefly touched on this in class, but a possible paper topic can be found here. I wonder what your thoughts are regarding modal realism and whether you think some alternative theory about possibility is more plausible. (This would likely have to be the long paper due at the end of the term, since it requires so much stage-setting and exposition.)

Here's one of the pictures that Pyke took of Lewis:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Did Socrates' death cause his wife to be a widow?

I'm teaching a class celled Metaphysics and Epistemology this semester. One of the books for the class is by John Carroll and Ned Markosian and it's entitled An Introduction to Metaphysics. A number of students found the example of the passage below perplexing (this appears on page 29):

"When Socrates drank the hemlock and died in the Athenian prison, his wife, Xanthippe, became a widow. Did Socrates' death cause Xanthippe to become a widow?... Many philosophers find this conclusion unacceptable. The worry is that any relation holding between these two events is bound not to be of the tangible/physical sort one normally expects causation to be. The connection seems to be too much a conceptual matter. To drive home this point, sometimes it is argued that, since Xanthippe was not in the prison with Socrates, his death could not have caused her to become a widow. She became a widow the instant he died. Since there is no instantaneous causal action at a distance in a world like ours where no signals travel faster than light, his death didn't cause her widowhood."

If I were taking the class, I'd be tempted to write one of my papers on something related to this example. There are some fascinating questions that are raised in this short passage. Can there be instantaneous causation at a distance? Does causation require a "tangible/physical" bond between two events? If she became a widow the instant he died, then what (if not his death) caused this effect?

I'm hoping readers will make some suggest some answers to these questions and shed some light on these issues.

Enlightened Brazilians

Brazil has required high school students to take philosophy courses since 2008 because it is "necessary for the exercise of citizenship." Here's a recent article from a Boston newspaper on the program.

What I find especially interesting about the article is the discussion toward the end about perceptions of justice.

(Thanks to Brian Leiter for posting the link on his blog.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Union

Obama gave his State of the Union address last night and a main thrust of his speech was an issue addressed in a previous post on this blog having to do with economic inequality and justice. He made a variety of comments directed at giving each person a "fair shot" and he insisted that everyone must play by the "same rules." Regardless of one's political leanings, I think it's hard to reject a call for fairness. One might wonder, however, what particular policies are in order to assure such fairness. Obama did offer some particular examples of such policies. These related to tax reform, rules related to politicians owning stock in certain companies, campaign finance reform, etc. I wonder what you think about his suggestions. Also what (other) policy changes do you think are in order?

The difference in coverage of his address is worth noting. Compare, for example, this and this.

[Obama also had a bit to say about energy policy. I plan on writing a post on this topic next month when I cover energy in my Philosophy and Public Issues course. So keep an eye out for that.]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Paradox:

We often say that certain things don't exist. Santa, unicorns, Sherlock Holmes, and Atlantis are a few examples. But consider the sentence "Unicorns do not exist." This sentence seems to have a subject-predicate form in that there is a subject--unicorns--to which a predicate or property--non-existence--is being attributed. Consider other subject-predicate sentences: Sarah is tall. John doesn't like mushrooms. Liza does not have a car. By saying that these various people have these various properties, we are implying that these people exist. But aren't we then doing the same thing when we say of unicorns that they do not exist. Aren't we saying that unicorns have a certain property; namely, the property of non-existence? If so, then what are we talking about that have this property but unicorns? There has to be a subject of the sentence. Here's another way to put this: To be able to truly claim of an object that it doesn't exist, it seems that one has to presuppose that it exists, for doesn't a thing have to exist if we are to make a true claim about it?

Mechanically Separated Meat--Yum

We were discussing the relative merits of the food at McDonald's yesterday in my Philosophy and Public Issues class. One student remarked that the food there tastes much better than that of our cafeteria at UPB. One of the topics that we'll address in my class is the moral implications of the food we eat, and we'll consider ways of eating more sustainably/morally. As an introduction to this topic, I thought I'd post an image of, well, I'm not sure what to call it-- chicken custard. It's what composes the bulk of various chicken products in fast-food restaurants.

A blog called Fooducate has a nice caption for this pic: "Someone figured out in the 1960s that meat processors can eek out a few more percent of profit from chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows by scraping the bones 100% clean of meat. This is done by machines, not humans, by passing bones leftover after the initial cutting through a high pressure sieve. The paste you see in the picture above is the result."

Here's another description of the process:
"Basically, the chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve—bones, eyes, guts, and all. There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color."

Jamie Oliver is a famous chef that was recently in a television show/documentary aptly titled Food Revolution. Here's a great clip. And here is an apparent industry-produced clip of a chicken nugget production line (with fantastic music for your viewing-pleasure). It's worth checking out the comments below these clips. The vast majority of folks see nothing wrong with the process. What do you think about it?

I think a good question to ask is whether taste is all that we should be worried about when it comes to deciding what to eat. You'll likely suggest that other things like our health, cost, the effect that food production has on our environment, and the quality of the life of the organism being eaten are things that also matter. But how much do these other considerations matter? How heavily do you weigh these other factors? Do these things even cross your mind when you're thinking about what to have for dinner? Should they cross your mind?

UPDATE 2/1/12: You might be interested in this piece from Michael Pollan (author of many books including The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire). If you don't know what the "food movement" is, you really should check this out.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Hedonism is the view that pleasure/happiness is the only intrinsic good. This means that the only thing that is good "in-and-of-itself" is pleasure/happiness. Other things might be instrumentally valuable--that is, valuable as instruments or tools to get other things. Examples of instrumentally valuable things include money and cars. Money is good for buying things that one wants and cars are good for traveling from one place to another. But they don't have intrinsic value. It's not as if money is good for its own sake. It's only good in order to acquire goods/services.

I'm curious what you think about Hedonism. Is there anything else that is intrinsically valuable besides pleasure/happiness?

It's worth mentioning that some things might be both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable [e.g., one's health or the beauty of a piece of art (?)]. My intuitions about these examples aren't clear. Are there examples that you find puzzling? Perhaps a discussion of the puzzling cases will shed some light on the debate over whether Hedonism is true or false.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Discussion Group

Wednesday's topic for discussion will be: justice and wealth. You'll want to check out my previous post on this topic. Richard Wilkinson's TED talk is especially interesting. You'll also find a handful of comments from various readers of this blog. This topic should make for a lively discussion.

Again, we're meeting tomorrow (1/18) at 6:30 at the Aud.

Undergraduate Conference

There will be a conference in May at Western Michigan University having to do with bioethics. Those of you that have taken my Ethics, Bioethics, or Philosophy and Public Issues courses should consider submitting a paper. I'd be happy to help you it up before you submit it. Also, I suspect that you could get some funding via our Undergraduate Research Award to attend the conference. Let me know if you're interested in this and I'll help you complete all the forms.

Undergraduate Biomedical Ethics Symposium

May 5, 2012
Hosted by University Center for the Humanities
2500 Knauss Hall

Biomedical ethics papers should be 3000 words (about 20 minutes presentation time) and prepared for blind review (name and identifying information should appear nowhere on the paper). Attach your paper and separate cover page that contains name, address, phone number, e-mail address and school affiliation as a Word or PDF file to the e-mail. The e-mail subject line should read “Undergraduate Biomedical ethics Paper Submission”

Submission deadline March 1st, 2012

Accepted authors will be notified by March 15th. Papers not prepared for blind review will be rejected. We respectfully request that we receive submissions only from those who plan to attend the conference if accepted.

e-mail submissions to

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Paradox:

This one is from Bertrand Russell.

The Barber Paradox
A certain village has a barber named Saul. Saul is an affable fellow and is liked by everyone who knows him. But Saul has a peculiar practice from which he never waivers. He shaves all and only those adult male villagers who do not shave themselves. Now Saul is an adult male who lives in the village and he is clean-shaven. So an interesting question arises: Does he or does he not shave himself?

You might think that Saul does shave himself but this would contradict his practice of only shaving those individuals that do not shave themselves. Alternatively, you might think that Saul does not shave himself but this would contradict his practice of shaving all those individuals that do not shave themselves. Something has to give!?

* I should mention that Saul is a "normal" adult male and would have a beard if it were not for the fact that his face is regularly shaved.
(No cheating now... try to solve it on your own.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Causes vs. Background Conditions

Consider a typical case of causation. Lucy strikes a match to light her grill. It's a beautiful sunny day and there's not a hint of wind. Not surprisingly, the match ignites and she is able to start her grill. I take it that it is the striking of the match that causes it to light.

But there are (what some might call) background conditions that are required for the match to light, like the presence of oxygen and a lack of rain and gusty winds. If the match were wet, then it wouldn't light. And if it were too windy, it wouldn't light. So here's an interesting question: Do the background conditions (also) cause the match to light? This might sound odd. We don't say things like "The striking of the match and the presence of oxygen caused the match to light."

Various theories of causation seem to entail that we should say that these background conditions count as causes (See, for example, David Lewis's view in his essay "Causation" and J.L. Mackie's view in his book The Cement of the Universe, among others). Some folks take the above to be a direct challenge to such theories while others bite the proverbial bullet and simply insist that such background conditions are indeed causes. What do you think about this?

If you think the background conditions are not causes, how exactly do you distinguish between the two and explain why these background conditions aren't causes?

If you think they are causes, then how do you explain our practice of not treating them as such? Why are so many people tempted to say that there's a metaphysical difference between causes and mere background conditions? How do you show that this is a mistake?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Paradox:

I'll occasionally post a paradox or puzzling case on a Friday. Today's is an old one--4th century B.C. It's from Eubulides.

The Horn Paradox:
(1) You don't have horns.
(2) If you have not lost something, you still have it.
(3) You have not lost any horns.
(4) Therefore, you (still) have horns. (This follows from (2) and (3))
(5) But (4) contradicts (1) and so we're saddled with a paradox.

If you think you've got a solution to the paradox, please share it with the rest of us by making a comment to this post.