Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Culture and Morality

From guest blogger, Zach.

In today’s society, culture and customs vary immensely worldwide. These customs span from dress, to religious beliefs, to gender roles. Food and its ingredients are a major difference among cultures. Delicacies such as the cheeseburger are mouthwatering to most Americans, while utterly offensive to most in India, where cows are sacred. While we keep dogs as pets in America, some are horrified to find out that dog meat is common in places such as China. This shows how hard it would be to set baseline moral principles regarding eating meat from certain animals, because animals are valued differently worldwide. 

Personally, I believe that all customs should be respected and honored. However some practices, such as shark fin soup, target animals who are becoming endangered. I believe that we have a moral obligation to protect animals who are endangered, and that this moral principle trumps cultural tradition. Meat can be substituted or supplemented easily. While this may not hold the same exact meaning as before, cultures can shift. Besides, if a culture’s culinary practices rely on an endangered animal, the practice would have to be shifted once the animal inevitably becomes extinct. Therefore, byproactively altering custom, a culture arrives at the same result they otherwise would have, all the while saving an animal species from extreme endangerment or extinction.

More On Norcross

From guest blogger, Zach.

In his article “Puppies, Pig, and People” Norcross discusses ignorance, and when it is okay to use it as an excuse for perpetrating the suffering of animals. Norcross explains that there are two types of ignorance: forgivable and unforgivable. Forgivable ignorance is an instance in which an individual has no knowledge of the suffering that they are buying into, and no means of accessing this information, such as a child. Unforgivable ignorance is when an individual may not be informed about the choices that they’re making, but have the resources and capability to be.

I agree with Norcross on this principle. I think that children exhibit forgivable ignorance, and quite frankly shouldn’t be held accountable for worrying about what they’re eating. This is not to say that they cannot make a difference, however. Parents directly control what their children eat, so if a parent knowingly feeds their child factory farmed meat, they are making the decision to perpetuate torture for them and their child.

The concept of unforgivable ignorance, I believe, is more controversial. In today’s society, with the internet and comprehensive food labeling, “not knowing” where your food is coming from is not possible unless by choice. Individuals often assume that being educated about what they eat is a choice they aren’t willing to make. Wrong, it is a choice we make not to seek out the origins of our food, not the other way around.

Under this philosophy, most of us are unforgivably ignorant to most of the food that we eat.

Fred's Basement and Norcross's Argument Against Meat-eating

From guest blogger, Zach.

In Norcross’s paper “Puppies, Pigs, and People," he argues that it’s wrong to cause a great deal of suffering purely for gustatory pleasure. I strongly agree with his argument, and think that gustatory pleasure is not a justifiable excuse for factory farming. 

Norcross uses the analogy of torturing puppies for chocolate consumption. He explains that “Fred” tortures puppies so he can eat chocolate. When arrested, Norcross claims that what Fred did was no different from individuals eating factory farmed meat.

To Norcross, enjoying the products of suffering is just as immoral even if you didn’t cause the suffering directly. This can be applied to most modern-day food consumers, who buy meat at grocery stores and restaurants. There aren’t any clear indications of suffering in the meat these people buy, but a great deal of suffering has most likely occurred. These consumers, in Norcross’ eyes, are morally in the wrong.

One of the two major arguments against Norcross’s piece is the disanalogy between what Fred did and us as humans, eating meat. I disagree, I think that what Fred did translates perfectly to us eating meat. Torturing animals and raising them in terrible conditions just so we can have gustatory pleasure (i.e., eating chocolate) is wrong. The second major argument against this principle is to simply deny it, stating that your taste trumps suffering. There isn’t really much of a possible rebuttal against a statement as apathetic as this, except to point out that if the situation were reversed, you would want someone to vouch for your interest not to suffer, as well.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Three Solutions to the Global Food Crisis

From guest blogger, Suzie.

One solution to the global food crisis is to reduce the world’s population. If there are fewer people in the world to feed it follows that there does not need to be as much food produced.

This presents many moral problems. For example, who would the burden of lowering the population fall on? Wealthy countries, like the United States and Germany, already have declining birth rates and are nearing or are below replacement level. However, we cannot place the burden of lowering population on people in less-developed nations. These populations often have high infant mortality rates and limited knowledge of birth control methods. While education and medicine can play a large role in fixing these problems, it would be a long and slow fix. Additionally, many of the high birth rate countries are in rural areas that are very agricultural. Families here need additional hands to help out with their farms or businesses. Causing these families to limit the amount of children they have would cause economic hardship, which in turn would cause suffering.

Based on these problems, it does not seem like a reduction in population is a moral solution to the global food crisis.

A second solution to the global food crisis is to intensify agriculture. If we can produce more food globally, then we do not have to worry about the population.

There are many issues that come along with agricultural intensification. It requires increased inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, which increases environmental harm. Fertilizers and pesticides can also be toxic to humans and other animals. These two problems can reduce quality of life and increase suffering. Another problem that arises with agricultural intensification is the need for more land. Many agriculturists believe that we cannot sustain the current and future population with the amount of farmland we have right now. However, there is not much land left to expand to. Creating new farmland often requires deforestation, which destroys important environmental habitats. Additionally, who would be displaced in order to create new farmland? There are many logistical and moral problems that come along with agricultural intensification.

However, there are benefits to intensification as well. One solution seems to be genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These can increase yield while decreasing land, pesticide, and fertilizer use. Although they are very controversial, GMOs have the potential to change the world by increasing the number of people that can be fed while using the same amount of land.

While there are some aspects of agricultural intensification that seem to cause suffering and are not feasible, GMOs seem like a possible, ethically responsible solution to the global food crisis. If no one is harmed in the creation or consumption of GMOs, they seem to be a perfect answer to the current food problem. 

A third solution to the global food crisis is not a new invention like GMOs, but a change in the way we consume food. If wealthier people consume less, there will be more food available for the hungry. This does not harm the wealthy and is only beneficial for the people who will be receiving more food.

This solution seems to be morally acceptable in every facet. Wealthy people changing their consumption patterns only risk losing some gustatory pleasure. Additionally, it helps other species as well as humans. If less meat is consumed so more corn and other grains can be used for food instead of as feed, factory-farmed meat will be economically impacted and could possibly be reduced.

The reduction of factory-farmed meat could also open the door for more local, organic farmers. This would help food be locally available everywhere instead of needing to be shipped around the world.

All in all, it seems that reducing consumption is a morally acceptable way to solve the global food crisis. It harms no one and only has positive potential moral outcomes.

Culture and Food Policy

From guest blogger, Nina.

Many concerns regarding culture and food revolve around what people are eating and why, but I would like to conclude this series of posts with an examination of policy.  One thing is for sure: the government of a particular state should set food related policies that do not favor one culture or religion.  Though in many cases, we see that this seemingly obvious concept is violated.

In my own experience, the American government gives immense food policy preference to the average American and forgets about the impoverished. The Oglala Lakota Sioux that I serve on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are given hardly a second glance when it comes to food distribution.  Throughout the entire 3500 squared miles that the reservation lies on, there is but one grocery store.  Any other food that can be found is at a sprinkling of convenience stores on the reservation.  Ultimately, the Lakota people eat cheap, processed foods (if and when they can get them) leading to the reservation having 8 times the diabetes rate than the rest of the US.  I don’t pretend to know much about politics or how policy is set, but I do know that such injustice and inequality is disgusting and what is worse is that the government turns a blind eye to Pine Ridge. 

There are many other cases other than Pine Ridge when a culture is disrespected or not given attention when it comes to food related policy, though what my argument boils down to is that food policy can cause great amounts of suffering too.  Whether that suffering is from lack of adequate nutrition, economic loss as a farmer, or the feeling of deep disrespect for one’s culture, the pain food policy causes is present and obvious.  In cases such as this, cultural differences should be given the utmost respect.

Cultural Practices and Food Choices

From guest blogger, Nina.

The concept of cultural practices can be spun in different ways depending on which light a person wants to shed them in.  One food related cultural practice is the avoidance of beef consumption in the Hindu religion.  Some of the reasons they do this are because of their belief in minimizing harm done to any living thing as well as the idea that when a person consumes meat, they are also consuming the emotions the animal felt during its slaughter (presumably pain and fear).  These two reasons align with moral principles we have studied including not eating meat as it causes a great deal of suffering, and to not cause a great deal of harm without a just reason to do so.  When put in this frame, cultural practices can be a positive example for why we should respect the culture for having the beliefs it does. 

However, certain cultural practices can be problematic.  In China, shark fin soup is a highly revered meal both for its symbolic and medicinal powers.  The problem here though is that sharks are hunted by the tens of millions, to be stripped solely of its fin and the rest of its body discarded.  On one hand, if we are respecting their culture’s right to make shark fin soup, we can at least be frustrated by the tremendous amounts of food waste created (eat the rest of the shark if you are going to hunt them!)  Though, in an ecological lens, it is difficult to respect the culture for what it is.  The hunting of sharks is decreasing their population massively, especially because their reproductive cycles are very slow.  This decrease in their population causes a decrease in biodiversity and screws up the food chain massively because the top predators are no longer there to regulate the population sizes of others.  When a cultural practice becomes an ecological problem, it is hard to respect it and we come to a stalemate of sorts in terms of balancing our concern for the environment with being respectful.

Moral Relativism and Culture

From guest blogger, Nina.

Frequently this semester (and in philosophy in general), a counterargument to many moral claims is using culture as a reason to adhere to said moral principle.  Boiled down to its most basic form, this is the concept of moral relativism.  This concept states that there are no objective moral truths and that morality is relative in the sense that “moral truths” are true only relative to a person’s or group of people’s attitudes. 

Initially, this may seem like an easy claim to accept.  It seems right that people should be able to form their own opinions based off of what knowledge they possess and the world view they hold; however, it is surprisingly easy to unravel this principle.  One approach is to ask what are some basic moral principles people can all agree on?  An is one is that harming others is bad.  Moral relativists would say that such a claim is only applicable to someone if they choose it to be.  When put in that frame, the argument sounds pretty lame and weak if you ask me.  You basically are giving people the power to do whatever they see fit.

So why do we let people get away with certain behaviors because of their culture?  To be sure, culture is something that should be respected, though in many moral cases, it can be put on a pedestal too high.  In the following two-blog posts, I will discuss the role culture plays in the realm of food ethics.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Reply to an Argument Against Genetically Modified Animals

From guest blogger, Haley:

For the argument against Genetically Modified Animals, I agree with some aspects but others I strongly disagree with. I don’t believe that selective breeding or artificial insemination (AI) is a bad thing. In fact I believe it has its own advantages. However, I do not agree with genetically modifying any animal in such a way that it takes away from things they do naturally.

For the past 50 years on my family’s farm we have used artificial insemination for numerous reasons. When we switched from dairy to beef this became more of an important aspect in some areas. For “first-calf heifers”, it’s in the name. This will be their freshening or their first time having a calf. If they’re bred by the farm bull, it could cause difficulty for the heifer when she gives birth, especially if the bull is known to “throw” large calves. Difficulties can include loss of the calf or the calf getting stuck which can require human intervention. Human intervention means tying a chain to the calf’s hind legs and pulling. All of this effort can lead to even more problems. This is where AI can help. When we AI these heifers we specifically breed them to a calving-ease bull which means their first calf will be a smaller one that will cause less difficulty. In this case selective breeding can be a good thing.

For genetics selective breeding is also a good choice. In some breeds, there has been campaigns to out breed a gene that can lead to problems with the animal quality. To “out breed” this gene you have to selectively breed to a bull that has passed a screening for the gene. This is an example of selective breeding being a good thing. Another example of good selective breeding would be doing it to maintain a genetic line. Some cows have show potential or high meat quality potential and to maintain this you can’t just breed them to any bull. The AI bulls have gone through numerous screenings to find out their qualities so you can be sure exactly what you’re getting. Also, if you come from a multi-breed farm such as myself, with some of the cows you want to keep purebred offspring and we don’t always get that breed of bull. So instead of buying multiple bulls which can be quite expensive, we AI.

As for the downsides of genetically modified animals, I don’t believe they should be modified in such a way that takes away from the things they do naturally. In our book they mention pigs and chickens being genetically modified to not support a mental state or physiological experience. I get how it could reduced suffering but it’s also unnecessary. I also see it as they may not know they are suffering but they still could be. With the way animals are now we can at least know that they are suffering and can stop to let them relax before moving forward or to help us know what we have to change in our process. If they were genetically modified in this way, we may never know if they are still suffering. I also don’t believe its right to take away a turkey’s brooding habits. This is a natural occurring process and for them to not have it is very unnatural. It may cause problems in CAFOs but why should we stop turkeys from natural behaviors to make our lives easier? It isn’t fair to the animal to take away their normal mannerisms. That takes away from their quality of life. If humans couldn’t form relationships with others, our lives wouldn’t be as fulfilled. All in all, we need to take these details into consideration before we genetically modify animals. 

Reply to the Argument from Animal Suffering

From guest blogger, Haley:

The Argument from Animal Suffering is that animal agriculture causes a very large amount of suffering. In this argument I agree that animals feel pain and they are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. As humans we need to be aware of how much pain we put animals through and be cautious of some of our practices involving our animals. But does that mean farming and agriculture is a bad thing and immoral? I don’t believe so. If we put our best efforts in and do all we can to be humane and reduce pain, then farming and agriculture is a moral practice.

I also don’t believe that all of what we see from CAFOs is true information. There are USDA regulations out there to keep these practices from occurring. Does this mean that farms can still get away with mistreatment of animals? Honestly speaking, yes they can. Some farms can get away with flying under the radar but that also doesn’t mean they should. For today’s society, regulations are pretty strong but they can always be stronger, it will always be that way. It is good to keep in mind though that some of what people put out about these farms is incorrect information and can be taken out of context. When working on a beef or dairy farm, the farmers are working with animals that are 1,000 plus pounds. If they aren’t careful they can sometimes be hurt and being careful sometimes means being forceful. Say if one of those 1,000 plus pound animals is standing on your foot, (speaking from experience) it can really hurt regardless of what footwear you’re wearing. In this situation you have to remain calm so you don’t scare the animal but you also have to get them off, which can mean being forceful. Cattle are also very sensitive to their surroundings which means when you move them they are very alert to the change that is going on and they can be very stubborn. To get this animal moving you may need to give them tap on the rear. It’s not harming them, it’s just to get the job done.

I disagree with premise three of the argument as well: there is no adequate reason for animal agriculture. The agriculture industry as whole is feeding the entire world. We have the resources, people, animals and crops to do it so we should stick with it. What’s more is if we stopped animal agriculture the farmers, the people who work in processing plants, the people who transport the animals and meat will be out of a job. The job loss and the loss of revenue from having meat on the market would also effect economies as well. Agriculture is a large industry worldwide and it’s not fair to the workforce to put them out of job. For some farmers, it is a multigenerational family tradition and their family’s life as well as their own life put into work. Why should they have to lose all they put in?  Instead, we should do our part to learn more about how food gets to our plates and we should also thank farmers for what they do.

Thoughts on Dive!

From guest blogger, Haley:

In response to Dive, I agree that as a society we need to do more to reduce waste. We are a very wasteful society and this is a true fact. Although, I don’t know if I would necessarily dive through a dumpster for my meals to make a point.

When I was showing steers, one of the local businesses that I would approach to come bid on my animal was Lenienkugal’s. I actually got to know Jake and his wife Peg pretty well over the years. After Jake bought my steer for the first time I asked him what his plans were for the meat he had purchased. He told me that there was no way him and his wife could get though that much. So after the meat was processed Jake and Peg would go through it all and pick out what meat they wanted to keep. Afterwards they would donate the rest to local food pantries so they would have fresh meat to give to people. I see this as an example of smart consumerism and this is what a lot of us need to be doing. They realized that they didn’t need it all and donated the rest to the needy.

In Dive when they brought up World War II it reminded me of a story my high school economics teacher told me. His family went over to his mother’s house to help clean and they were going through a few cupboards where they found dog food and a few other things squirreled away. He explained it to us like this: she grew up in the depression era which meant you couldn’t be wasteful and once you had a little economic comfort you still hid stuff and prepared just in case the depression came back again. Society was less wasteful during World War II because the Great Depression just ended and those people knew what it was like to have nothing so they took advantage of every meal. That meant clean plates all around the table and in some cases hiding away extra food just in case a depression hit again. As time moved on and the economy got better people got lazier with clean plates and finishing an entire meal.  Society got away from the “we need to take care of each other and help one another” views of the 40’s and 50’s. Even today food pantries are struggling to get enough donations to help families that truly need it and we need to keep this in mind as we enter the holiday season.

Would I dive through a dumpster to get food for my table? Most likely not, unless it was absolutely necessary. I was raised and am still a firm believer in the fact we should use what we have before we get more.  I think what he and his friends are doing is interesting it just might not be in the best way. Instead of over stocking on things it would take him years to use up, he could be donating it instead. There are people out there in California that need it way more than him. Every week he could take two or three night’s worth of dumpster dives to a local homeless shelter or food pantry instead. He has way more than his family could ever need even though they are being thoughtful with it and freezing it. He also could afford to go grocery shopping but instead he essentially steals from the trash. I don’t sees this as the right thing to do either but if this is what he likes to do and sees it as what he should be doing, then who am I to say he is wrong or shouldn’t do it. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Another Argument for Ethical Vegetarianism

* From guest blogger, Arden.*

One argument on behalf of Ethical Vegetarianism that I find to be particularly weak is the argument from the sexual politics of eating meat. This argument states that there is a problematic relationship between men and women in Western and non-Western cultures, in which men are empowered over women. It further explains that there is a cultural connection between the conception of manliness and meat eating that asserts, expresses, embodies, and helps perpetuate this problematic relationship and the associated cultural practices that the relationship creates. Therefore, because eating meat contributes to this problematic relationship, we ought not to adopt a non-meat diet.

I whole-heartedly agree with the argument represented above, in that I believe that we do live in a patriarchal society in which women are routinely objectified, subjected to sexism and gender discrimination, and placed into problematic gender roles, expectations, stereotypes, and unrealistic ideals. However, the reason why I think that this argument is weak is because it is hard to say, much less prove, that not eating meat could affect such a large social concern. I agree with the fact that there is a cultural connection between manliness and eating meat, but I believe that it plays a very minute role in contributing to sexism and sexual discrimination as a whole. I also think that making the claim that people ought to not eat meat, in order to discourage gender inequality, is a fairly radical claim that could have an equally radical counterpart that would argue that one ought to eat even more meat in order to challenge these stereotypes. Therefore, I think that it is important for individuals to challenge the association between masculinity, power, and strength to eating meat, however, I have trouble justifying the claim that we are morally obligated, or ought to adopt a non-meat diet in order to discourage seuxual and gender inequality overall. 

On The Animal Welfare Argument for Vegetarianism

* From guest blogger, Arden*

I found one objection to the argument from animal welfare to be quite interesting because it addresses the fact that the argument has a limited scope, and only shows that certain types of agricultural practices are ethically problematic.

The argument focuses particularly on industrialized farming, and does not discuss traditional herding, pasturing, or free-range animal agriculture. The argument states that we ought not eat meat in consideration to the large amount of suffering that it creates, however these practices mentioned above can be done in ways that are extremely considerate of animal welfare. In addition to these alternative practices of animal agriculture, the argument from animal welfare does not apply to hunting that is done in ways that minimize animal suffering or  to individuals who do not have easy access to nutritionally adequate non-meat diets.

I think that this displays an inconsistency in the animal welfare argument because it does not warrant that people ought not eat meat produced agriculturally. Instead, I believe that it validates the conclusion that people ought not eat meat produced by factory farms or Concentrated Feeding Operations. 

An Argument for Ethical Vegetarianism

* From guest blogger, Arden.*

One argument that supports Ethical Vegetarianism is made on the behalf of animal welfare. Two 
premises of this argument assert that animal agriculture results in large amounts of suffering, and because we ought not cause suffering to others for no apparent reason, we ought to adopt a non-meat diet.

This argument is primarily based on how animals are standardly treated in large-scale farming operations, especially concentrated feed operations (CAFOS), and emphasizes the empirical claim that animals are sentient creatures that have the capacity to suffer and feel pain. This claim is supported by evidence obtained through physiological and behavioral science, as well as evolutionary biology, that justifies that animals have the same underlying physiology- e.g the neurological system- and express the same behaviors as humans when they are in situations that cause pain. Sandler discusses how animals in CAFOS are deemed and treated as parts of an industrial process to produce the most meat possible for the lowest cost possible. These practices along with the high concentration of animals, results in animal suffering.

Causing such large amounts of animal suffering for no apparent reason is not morally permissible. Animals are not choosing to suffer in the same ways in which we do by going to the dentist or getting flu shots. They have no choice in the matter, and  rendered to an unnecessary amount of suffering under the oppressive environmental conditions that are created by concentrated feeding operations. Humans are the only individuals who benefit from animal agriculture. I believe that we ought to not eat meat, especially not any that is produced by an industrialized farm, considering the amount of suffering it causes for mere pleasure of consumption.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Affordability of a Healthy, Vegetarian Diet

In my class yesterday, we discussed whether eating a healthy, vegetarian diet was financially possible for lower-income people in the U.S. I mentioned that there are a variety of legumes which are very high in protein (soy, lentils, etc.). These tend to be inexpensive relative to the cost of meat. A quick look online reveals that a pound of chicken, for example, costs about $1.50 and a pound of black beans costs about $1.12. It's worth noting that beans and legumes are not as high in calories, saturated fat, and other things which can have a negative impact to one's health.

But this doesn't answer the question at hand. Can a poor person in the U.S. afford to eat a healthy vegetarian diet? I think it's certainly difficult if not impossible to eat well on a very low income. To put things in context, the poverty line in the U.S. in 2014 was set at $23,850 for a family of four and the average family spends about 10% of their income on food. Though lower-income families likely spend a higher percentage than this, it seems that such families simply don't have sufficient resources to eat well--regardless of whether their diet includes meat. But the point I tried to make in class was that it's more expensive to eat meat than it is to eat no meat and eat vegetables, legumes, etc. instead. In addition, one can get a great deal of protein and other nutrients one needs to be healthy without eating meat.    

Readers of this blog might find this website and this one of interest.

Friday, September 25, 2015

WMU Grad Conference

The WMU Graduate Student Association of Philosophy is pleased to announce its 9th Annual Graduate Conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan on December 4-5, 2015. 

We are excited to have Helen Frowe (Stockholm) and Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers) join us as our keynote speakers this year.

Submissions by graduate students in any field of philosophy are welcome, but special attention will be given to papers on the keynote speakers’ areas of specialization.  Please keep submissions to no more than 4000 words.  Submissions must be sent to  Please include your name, affiliation, and paper title in the email, and please have your submission prepared for blind review by removing any identifying information from the body of the paper itself.  The deadline for submission is October 1, 2015.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Makinga a $1500 Sandwich

This guy made a sandwich completely from scratch (including the cheese and he made salt from ocean water). It took him six months and $1500 and I'm sure he learned a lot in the process. 

So, did it taste good? After his first bite, he said, "It's not bad. That's about it. Six months of my life... were not bad..."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Vertical Farming

We had an interesting discussion in my Food Ethics course today. Part of it turned to vertical farming and whether such agricultural techniques could be used as an alternative to contemporary agriculture and whether such farming could adequately feed the world.

Here's an interesting article about vertical farming that appeared in the NY Times. The author, Dickson Despommier, is a professor of public policy at Columbia who also has a book on the topic. He contends that vertical farming is a viable source of a tremendous amount of food, especially in urban areas. It seems (from a brief perusal of his book) that vertical farming isn't as input-intensive as we had said in class. In fact, he claims that it's a highly efficient way to farm. If readers of this blog have other resources related to this issue--especially those critical of vertical farming--please let me know.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ethics and Future Generations--Call for Papers from CJP

The Canadian Journal of Philosophy announces a call for papers for a Special Issue edited by Rahul Kumar

Ethics and Future Generations

Traditionally, albeit with a few notable exceptions, moral and political philosophers have either neglected, or treated as a matter of peripheral concern, questions concerning our obligations to future generations.  But that is rapidly changing.  Faced with the now-vivid threat of catastrophic climate change, the public officials and social scientists involved in shaping climate-change policy increasingly look to philosophers for guidance. This has prompted philosophers both to take an active interest in how the tools of traditional moral and political theorizing can be employed and extended to help us better understand what we owe to future generations, and to develop new approaches for assessing what morality demands of us with respect to securing their interests.

The purpose of this volume is to bring together fourteen original papers that address a range of issues concerning ethics and future generations.   We particularly welcome submissions rooted in theoretical or applied ethics and political philosophy.   Theoretical questions of interest include: to what extent might the tools of ethical theory and political philosophy help us to formulate our obligations to future generations?  Are our current tools equal to this task, or do we need to approach the ethical implications of our current choices for future generations in wholly new ways?  Problem-based questions include: Do our obligations to future people extend beyond refraining from creating foreseeably miserable lives to include a positive duty to create lives of a high rather than just decent-quality?  Are there moral reasons to try and ensure a certain population size in the further future?  How should we weigh the interests of those who will live in the next few generations against those of distant generations in both moral theorizing and policy-making?

Submissions (10,000 words strict maximum) and a brief abstract should be submitted here. Follow the link for ‘Future Generations’. Submissions must be received by January 15th, 2016. Inquiries should be sent to Rahul Kumar at

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is morality relative?

It may be that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people think that Chagall's paintings are masterpieces while others don't see what all the fuss is about. Some find Wagner to be a marvelous composer while others prefer to listen to 50 cent. (Woody Allen once joked that he couldn't listen to Wagner for longer than a few minutes since he'd start to develop the urge to invade Poland. I wonder how he feels about 50 cent.) Perhaps, then, one ought to conclude that there is no objective truth about whether something is beautiful. Rather, it may be that what counts as beautiful is simply a matter of opinion or personal preference. And, of course, it may also be that one's culture contributes a great deal to what one finds beautiful.

Plenty of things are thought to be matters of taste or opinion. Taste is a trite example. Some people like coffee and some don't. Etiquette is clearly relative to culture. In some places bowing is an appropriate greeting and in others it's considered rather odd behavior.

One might be tempted by the idea that morality is relative. But is morality a matter of taste? Does morality depend upon personal opinions or cultural context? Could it be that there aren't any objective moral truths that hold independently of one's beliefs or culture? Are there no moral "truths" at all? Is each person's (or culture's) set of moral attitudes equally valid? If you answer in the affirmative to these questions, you're a moral relativist. If you answer in the negative, you're a moral objectivist.

One can be an objectivist about, for example, humor. One might think that Anchorman is a funny movie and that anyone who thinks otherwise is just wrong. According to this sort of person, it's a fact that it's a funny movie and even though there might be room to dispute this fact, it nevertheless remains a fact. Many philosophers say something similar about morality.

This is a podcast with a contemporary moral philosopher named Simon Blackburn. He discusses whether morality is a matter of opinion and he offers a number of reasons against moral relativism. What do you think about his arguments? Are you convinced by his position that there are universal moral principles that bind us all, no matter where we're from or what our personal beliefs might be? More generally, what sorts of reasons do you find persuasive in settling this dispute between moral relativists and moral objectivists?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Trolley Problems

I'm about to start a course on Food Ethics in a couple of weeks. On our first day, we'll discuss how philosophers go about trying to solve moral problems and we'll begin talking about various thought experiments. For example, we're going to discuss "trolley problems." Here's a short description of some of these kinds of cases.

Some people complain that cases like these are too far-fetched or improbable that they can shed no light on morality or how we ought to make moral decisions. But others disagree and insist that thought experiments like these are good at isolating our moral intuitions and helping us get clear about what sorts of things really matter, morally speaking. I fall into the second group. It seems to me that we can use these sorts of thought experiments to tease out various moral principles (e.g., "one is always morally obligated to save as many lives as one can" or "it is morally good to save five people even if doing so requires that another person die") and see whether they ought to be accepted. This work is a bit easier, I think, at an abstract level. And, of course, the idea is that we can employ what we've learned from such thought experiments to solve "real life" moral problems. So even though such cases are far-fetched, they still seem to have some import on actual moral issues which we face.

Monday, July 20, 2015

John Oliver on Food Waste

John Oliver comments on the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S.

He noted that in 2013 nearly 50 million people in our country lived in food-insecure households while we wasted over 1/3 of the food produced here--which would have filled 730 football stadiums! As he put it, that's an appalling amount of "garnish for landfills."

Friday, July 10, 2015

An Argument Against the Existence of Atheists

Si Roberts, from the TV show "Duck Dynasty," recently claimed that, "There's no such thing as an atheist." He went on to say: "I'm serious, because there's too much documentation. Our calendars are based on Jesus Christ. Whether you believe in him or not, every time you sign your calendar, you add down the day's date, you're saying he's here, OK? That's documented." 


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Eastern Philosophers vs. Western Philosophers Rap Showdown

Warning: There's explicit language.

Playing Hide and Seek With a Three-Year-Old

My son, Sam, still thinks that if he can't see me, I can't see him. It's terribly cute, but it makes for a quick game of hide and seek.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

East Wash Jukes

I joined a band recently and we have our first gig on Friday, 6/26, at the Club Tavern in Middleton, WI. We go on at 9:30. If you're in the area, we hope you can make it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Brighouse Gets Grant for Education Policy

My colleague, Harry Brighouse is working on a really great project on education policy. Congrats on the grant, Harry!