Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where is your food grown?

I just came across this cool map. It shows where organic farms, vegetable farms, dairies, and orchards are located across the U.S. 

It's not surprising that on the "total farms" map, western New York doesn't look particularly agricultural, but on the individual maps we're in one of the richest locations for locally grown and organic foods. Who knows? You probably won't live here forever, so enjoy it while you can!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Argument Outline 3

Due Wednesday, May 13

Consider these activities of animal rights activists:

1. There have been several firebombings of the homes of research scientists in California in recent years. Although no one has claimed responsibility, the police believe that they are the work of animal-rights extremists. There have also been many cases of personal threats, harassment, and vandalism of researchers’ private property. For instance, last February six masked intruders tried to force their way into the home of a UC-Santa Cruz researcher during a birthday party for her young daughter. One of the researchers targeted by a firebomb is a neurobiologist who uses mice in studies of how the mouse’s visual system develops (see handout).

2. The anti-whaling organization Sea Shepard attempts to damage the property of whaling ships which operate in a legal grey zone or illegally. The organization has said, “"Yes we have sunk whaling ships, rammed whalers and drift netters, boarded poaching vessels and destroyed equipment used for illegal exploitation of the oceans.”

3. In 2004 animal activists illegally broke into a private egg production facility owned and run by Wegmans in Wolcott, NY. The facility housed 750,000 laying hens in battery cages and, other than being a very large farm, was similar to other egg farms across the country. The activists filmed the conditions, including dead and sick chickens in unsanitary conditions, and made the film widely available. The animal activists were sued by Wegmans, and Wegmans eventually sold the egg farm (though still uses it as a source of eggs).

4. A number of animal rights activists have created alternatives to animal dissections in schools and colleges. These include models, videos, and interactive computer simulations.

Pick one of these activities of animal rights activists and evaluate whether it can be ethically supported. If it cannot be supported, explain why. If it should be supported, evaluate whether doing so is an obligation or merely a consideration (that is, a nice thing to do but not a moral duty). Depending on the case you pick and your argument supporting it, you might need to distinguish whether your position is in the realm of personal responsibility (individual action) or public policy (collective action). Support your view with one of these ethical frameworks: Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, or the justice framework.

Keep your position and your support as focused and specific as possible. Also, be realistic about what is at stake and what various parties actually do. For example, although some academic researchers who experiment using animal models are contributing directly to curing human disease, many animal researchers have other scientific goals. Also, some animal dissections are used to train future surgeons, while most are performed by students in middle and secondary schools.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Examining Environmental Problems through Film

While I'm thinking of it, let me share a list of documentary films on various environmental themes. Ethics is amenable to learning through the film medium because learning to think philosophically is not just about amassing knowledge but about identifying and thinking through problems and observing how others frame ethical problems.

Here are some of my recommendations for films that are related to the issues raised in Deep Economy and other problems in environmental sustainability. Many of these have trailers available on the web. I’d love to hear your further suggestions!

About our energy economy:
Who Killed the Electric Car?

About climate change:
An Inconvenient Truth

About wildlife:
Being Caribou

About local economies:
WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price

About food:
The Future of Food
Super Size Me
King Corn

About industrialization and natural environments:
Manufactured Landscapes
Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi

Film on Food for Extra Credit

I found one final extra credit opportunity.

It's off-campus, and it's not free, but I encourage you to go see this film at the High Falls Film Festival about industrially-produced food. Plus, attending the film festival is a way of participating in Rochester's rich cultural life, centered on imaging and film.

Friday, May 15, 2009 6:30 PM
Little Theatre - Little 5

Documentary, US, 2008, 93 minutes
Director/Producer: Robert Kenner
Producer: Elise Pearlstein
Featuring: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser

The processing of the food we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous ten thousand. That’s a direct quote from FOOD INC., and if it doesn’t make you stop and think, the rest of this revealing and disturbing documentary will. Filmmaker Robert Kenner exposes how the food industry, controlled by a handful of corporations, and with the consent of regulatory agencies, often puts profits ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers, and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, and tomatoes that won't go bad, but we also have new strains of e coli, widespread childhood obesity, and an epidemic level of diabetes. Featuring interviews with experts like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and entrepreneurs like Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirshberg, FOOD, INC. is the real “naked lunch,” the truth about what we do three times a day, told with elegance and verve.

Update: The schedule for the High Falls Film Festival also lists a movie called RIP: A Remix Manifesto showing at RIT on Friday, May 15 at 7:15. But I've been unable to find out more information about it. I would count attendance at this film for extra credit, provided that in your write-up you connect it to some of the themes in the course or in the book Deep Economy, such as support for local creative endeavors.

Monday, May 4, 2009

John Rawls and Deep Economy

John Rawls was concerned with what we call distributive justice and the question of what we should do about inequalities in society. Should goods be distributed equally to everyone? Should we permit vast differences in social and economic status? How are justice and socioeconomic opportunity tied to each other?

This is relevant to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy in two ways.

1. First, we can use the justice framework to make the case that our social system (that is, our system of social policy, ethics, and economic exchange) is conventional. We have a certain social/political/economic system and it produces certain results. But we don’t have to have that system. It might be the most just system, or it might undermine justice. If it does not produce the maximum degree of justice, then we should try to change it so that it is more just. In particular, we should always be working to try to improve the status of those that have the least, and we should always try to give people equality of opportunity.

This observation supports McKibben in his attempt to rethink economics, and in particular in his attempt to replace some market trends with a deeper concern for community. He argues very much like someone in the justice framework would: he argues that deeper and more robust communities will make people happier and will be more economically stable. This last point is important, because in the justice framework, people are risk-averse.

2. A second way that Rawls’s justice framework can be linked to the book is McKibben’s recognition that for people who are living at a subsistence level, access to global markets makes more sense than pursuing deeper, local economies. That’s because McKibben, like Rawls, knows that the concerns of people who have the least social status and economic goods will be different than those who have plenty.

If you're interested in more of my thoughts about what Deep Economy gets right (and wrong), you can read what I've written here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Citizens and Consumers

In class yesterday we watched a video about Carrotmob.org. The idea behind it is that people want to do good, and one source of average people's power is the money they spend. So the company behind Carrotmob does the footwork of organizing ways to help people create good effects by deciding where to spend their money. In the video we watched, one food market agreed to put 22% of their Carrotmob-acquired profits toward increasing their energy efficiency.

I asked for your critical response to the video, and there were several good insights. One was that people might be traveling so far to participate, that it effectively wipes out the environmental good that's created. Another is that it can be inconvenient to participate, taking some extra time. And if it does take extra time, one wonders what else could be done with that time instead, such as some kind of service or personal action (don't we all have ways we could make our own lives energy efficient, if that's what we're into?) rather than standing in a checkout line. That is, does it create change in the right proportion to the perception of creating change?

In general, this sort of effort raises some difficult questions. Should there be skepticism about a for-profit company set up to facilitate environmental and social activism? Or is this a case where the people behind Carrotmob should be applauded for finding a way to set up a company that makes profits (well, presumably they will profit if the model works) by encouraging people and businesses to make a better world?

A different video that I've shown in class before--one which is perhaps more radical and more thought-provoking about economic and social arrangements--is "The Story of Stuff." Implicitly, this video criticizes the Carrotmob approach by questioning the culture of consumption and showing that it is a historical, intentionally created social arrangement. This gives a political valence to DIYers, MAKErs, and hackers, such as Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair, who visited RIT last month.

Experiential Learning Project: Assessment

This is a reminder that the Ethical Experience Project is due on Monday. It is worth 20% of the final course grade.

In grading the project, I’ll be looking for several things:

1. the quality of your activity. Did you have an original idea? How much time and effort did the activity require? How challenging was it to you, or how far out of your comfort zone? Does it open up ideas or opportunities for future ethical actions?

2. the quality of your written description of the activity. Is your story interesting to read? Do you provide enough background information so that I understand the context of your activity? Do I get a clear picture of what you did, why you did it, and how it affected your thoughts and actions? Was the activity what you expected, or did it present unexpected challenges or surprises? Does your narrative give a vivid picture while excluding unnecessary or irrelevant detail?

3. the depth of your reflections. Have you made the relevance to the course topic (ethical frameworks and/or Deep Economy) apparent? Do you make use of the experience to examine a difficult question? Did you learn something or expand your horizons, and have you reflected critically on what you learned? Can you relate something about your experience to one of our ethical frameworks or to one of the ethical problems that we’ve discussed? Do you use it to highlight some particular conception of “the good life” or of “right action”? What impact did your activity have on other people, now or in the future? Were your attitudes transformed as a result of the experience, and if not, what were the obstacles to transformation? Is there something you wish you had done differently, or do you have advice to pass on to me and future students about this activity?

Monday, April 27, 2009


"All for One, and One for All": we discussed the benefits of tight communities--and the disadvantages, such as a loss of privacy, of options, and (sometimes) freedoms.

We can see McKibben's argument as being implicitly utilitarian: that local economies produce more satisfaction and less harm for more people than our current economy. How would someone argue with him on this point? Probably, it would have to be done on the basis of showing that his calculation of the benefits and disadvantages left something out.

One such disadvantage (which we did not discuss) is the possibility that tighter communities are related to higher levels of conflict between different communities--nationalism, racism, and the policing of ingroup/outgroup loyalties.

It's also plausible to see McKibben as relying on an argument from virtue ethics. You might read his argument not as a strict calculation of utility or preferences, but rather as an argument that says that certain qualities make for more virtuous communities and certain communities lend themselves to the flourishing of a certain kind of good character. He thinks our material and economic culture value things, people, and services that are "fast, cheap, and easy." Instead, he thinks we should build cities and economies which are deliberate, valuable, and lasting. This would promote virtues which are currently neglected, such as loyalty, responsibility, creativity, etc.

A question to consider is whether the only way to achieve the postive results that McKibben attributes is to cultivate cohesive communities that are local in geographical terms. Does technology permit us to participate in communities that are tight and supportive but distributed in space? Although McKibben is concerned with the transport of goods and the environmental toll of transportation, our economy is increasingly based in services, and knowledge and communication are no longer bound by space.

Along these lines, last fall I heard a report on NPR that, for a variety of reasons, local banks are much less affected by the banking crisis than the large conglomerates are. You can listen to the story here.

Also, a former student passed along this interesting timed map of WalMart's spread.

RIT Sustainability Conference

For more extra credit opportunities, there is a conference on philosophy and sustainability this Friday. Most of the presentations will consist of interviews with environmental philosophers or other academics who have taken a stand on the ethics of handling environmental problems. The conference runs all day, and attendance at any one of the presentations (plus a summary and critique) can be used for extra credit.

Friday, May 1st, Carlson Auditorium

8:45-9 Opening Remarks

9-10 Braden Allenby (Lincoln Professor of Engineering & Ethics, Arizona State University)

10-11 Bryan Norton (Distinguished Professor in Public Policy at Georgia Tech)

11-12 David Orr (Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics,
Oberlin College)

1-2 Paul Thompson (W. K. Kellog Chair in Agricultural, Food, & Community Ethics,
Michigan State University)

2-3 William Shutkin (Director, Initiative for Sustainable Development and Chair in
Sustainable Development, University of Colorado at Boulder)

3-4 Panel of Commentators, Moderator: Robert Ulin, Dean, Liberal Arts
Randall Curren (University of Rochester), Sarah Pralle (Syracuse University), and
Erin Taylor (Cornell University)

4-5:30 Panel of Presenters, Moderator, Jeremy Haefner, Provost
Braden Allenby, Bryan Norton, David Orr, Paul Thompson, & William Shutkin

These presentations are free and open to all.
Directors: Ryne Raffaelle, Wade Robison, Evan Selinger
For details go to http://www.rit.edu/cla/ethics/Sustainability.html

Monday, April 20, 2009

More extra credit opportunities

These are from SEAL (Student Environmental Action League), a campus organization.
This is Earth week, and Earth Day is Wednesday.
Either of the lectures could be used for extra credit in this course (see the syllabus).

Thursday 4/23:
Speaker - SEAL has brought in Jim Tappon from the Climate Project to speak in the library's Idea Factory from 6pm to about 7pm.
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" Showing - SEAL is co-sponsoring a showing of the film as part of CAB's Thursday Night Cinema Series. The movie starts at 10pm in the SAU Cafeteria.

Friday 4/24:
University of Rochester Speaker - Stephen Schneider from Stanford University will be talking at U of R on climate change and sustainability, starting at 3pm in Hutchison Hall Lander Auditorium. If you are interested in attending, please let us know (sealwww@rit.edu), and also if you would be willing to drive. We are currently planning on meeting by the Sentinel at 2:15pm and leaving shortly after that to attend the event.

High-tech or Low-tech?

The article we discussed about carbon footprints raises the question of what policies and actions will be most effective in curbing fuel consumption and, therefore, carbon emissions and global warming.

Do we need innovative policy instruments? Forward-thinking (or even backward-looking) economic plans? Or will we make our way through this crisis with creative high-tech?

Many researchers suggest that, in fact, lo-tech is the way to go.
One study found that the high energy use of air-conditioning could be greatly reduced if we replaced black roofs with white or reflective one. Changing the color of a 1000-square-foot roof on an air-conditioned building could offset ten metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

How Is a Cow Like a Nuclear Bomb?

An extreme comparison, I totally agree.

But check this out and keep in mind that Mark Bittman knows food, and knows good food.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What do you eat if you don't eat meat?

The word 'vegetarian' came into use in English in the 1840's, but vegetarians have been around for quite awhile. The first prominent vegetarian was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived between 490 and 430BC.

How many vegetarians are there? Less than 1% of the global population is vegetarian by choice. Many more people than that eat meat rarely but only because it is not available or is too expensive.

Vegetarianism is more popular in the U.S., where high-quality vegetable protein is available and affordable. A 2008 Harris Interactive poll found that about 1 million American adults are strictly vegan (that's about .5% of the adult population). 3.2% of the adult American population identifies themselves as completely vegetarian. And another 10% say their diet is mostly vegetarian.

India is the country with the highest proportion of vegetarianism, where it is tied to culture and the Hindu religion. In India, strict vegetarians make up between 20 and 42% of the population, and fewer than 30% of the population regularly eat meat.

Here are some links for anyone writing their argument outline on vegetarianism.

Wikipedia, "Ethics of Eating Meat" and "Environmental Vegetarianism"

The Vegetarian Resource Group (a national coalition)

The EarthSave report on vegetarianism and global warming

The Food Ethics Council (an organization that works on issues of food security and social justice)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

GMO vs. Organic

The organic community has soundly rejected the use of genetically modified crops, and current organic standards do not permit genetically modified crops to be marketed as organic, even if they are grown without harmful pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

The reasons include the fact that genetic modification can come with unknown risks to the environment and that genetic modification alters plants in ways that many people feel are more extreme or unnatural than alterations that are brought about through selective breeding. In addition, genetically modified crops are tied to patents and commercialization which threatens the economic well-being and independence of subsistence farmers.

However, genetic modification also opens up opportunities which can contribute to long-term sustainable agriculture, according to the authors of Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. For instance, if a variety of rice were genetically modified to make it flood tolerant, then instead of using herbicides that might have negative health consequences, farmers could flood fields to kill weeds. There might also be the possibility of genetically modifying crops so that they are tolerant of marginal growing conditions, permitting them to be grown without the use of high levels of artificial fertilizers.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lectures and Extra Credit

In the syllabus, I note that
You may replace one missed commentary or add 10 points to an outline grade by attending a philosophy lecture or another relevant public lecture.
There is a lecture [tomorrow evening] next week that would be relevant:

Rochester Committee for Scientific Information Annual Meeting

Thursday, April 23, 2009,
7:00 PM

Rochester Institute of Technology
Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science
Building 76 – Room 1125

Critical Issues In Climate Change Research

Presented by Dr. Benjamin Laabs
Assistant Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
SUNY Geneseo

Dr. Laabs will discuss how new challenges in climate-change research will help to improve the understanding of the Earth climate system.

Co-sponsored by the RIT Department of Science, Technology and Society/Public Policy

In addition, Shirag had a great idea. The Innovation Festival on May 2 will feature a number of sustainability exhibits. Anyone who visits the festival, searches out exhibits on environmental sustainability, and describes/evaluates them can also earn extra credit.

Locavores and Omnivores

The LOCAVORE movement has become so popular that there is even an iPhone app to support locavores in their search for farmer's markets and in-season produce.

The reasons that people support growing and buying food locally include a desire to build strong communities, accountability, support for small and sustainable farming, reduction of dependence on fossil fuels for transportation, and aesthetic enjoyment. Some people feel that it is a way of putting down roots (so to speak) and finding what is special about the unique place where they live. It is a way of reclaiming regional flavors in a mass-market mass-media world.

Here is a list of 10 ways to increase localism in your buying habits. Many of these are quite easy for people in the Rochester area, especially in the summer. In addition to the Public Market, there are neighborhood farmer's markets all over the Rochester metro area, including one at RIT and the South Wedge Farmer's Market which specializes in foods grown within 100 miles.

We also have many affordable CSA's and organic farms in the neighborhood.

Finally, I would recommend Lento, a local restaurant that specializes in local and organic food. They have a buy-one-get-one-free special for college students on Thursday nights.


But let's take a look at this again....

The transportation of food accounts for 11% of food-related greenhouse-gas emissions. So, while all that transportation does add up, it's not the fastest route to cutting greenhouse-gases.

What's faster? Cutting out meat, especially red meat. 18% of all greenhouse gases are produced by livestock, and 30% of the earth's land surface is devoted to raising livestock or the grain and grass they eat. If you replaced beef with beans one day a week, it would reduce your carbon footprint more than becoming a locavore.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Argument Outline 2: Food Ethics

Due Monday, April 20

Eating is something that we all do several times each day. We eat not just for sustenance, but also as a source of pleasure and, often, as a time of companionship.

Collectively, the choices we make about food have a major impact on our lives, on the lives of others, and on the economy. Until the last decade, farming was the largest industry on a global scale. Agriculture still makes up about 36% of the global economy. In spite of the central place of food in our lives, we tend not to think about what we eat, where it comes from, how it was made, or why we’ve chosen to eat it. Even philosophers have perhaps not paid as much attention to the role of food in human life as they ought.

For this outline, you have a choice from among 4 topics:

Topic 1: Localism
What is an ethical justification for buying local foods? Why should we be concerned about where our food is produced, or how far it travels, or whether it is in season? Why do some people choose “slow food” rather than “fast food”? What ethical framework supports any of these choices, and how?

Topic 2: Vegetarianism
Is vegetarianism/veganism a choice that people make on ethical grounds? Why? What ethical framework supports a choice to be vegetarian/vegan, and how?

Topic 3: Organic vs. GMO
Currently, organic certification for organic farming in the United States prohibits organic crops from being genetically modified. Some people argue that genetic modifications are risky and threaten food purity. Other people argue that the most sustainable form of agriculture might include organic cultivation of crops that have been genetically modified to suit them to specific environments. Do you support this policy or not? On what ethical grounds?

Topic 4: Sustainable agriculture
There is not currently a global food crisis. That is, on a global scale, the modern world has produced more than enough food to feed its population. Food shortages have been local in nature and usually are due to political conflict and war or to distributional problems. However, we might worry about the long-term effects of modern agricultural methods. For instance, fish stocks are falling rapidly, and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is attributed in large part to agricultural runoff from the Midwest. What ethical issues are raised by intensive agriculture or intensive fishing?

As always, the purpose of this assignment is to practice constructing clear, straightforward, and focused ethical arguments. Grading is based on how strong your arguments are and how well they illustrate the ethical frameworks we have studied up to now (deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics).

In addition, this is an opportunity to explore the justification for a position that you may not have thought through before. For instance, you may choose to defend vegetarianism even though you are not yourself a committed vegetarian.

You are responsible for doing any necessary web research. But do not copy anyone else’s words off the Internet—express the ideas in your own way. Cite your sources, please.
And I hope you find the assignment thought-provoking!

Carbon Footprint Measurements

On Wednesday, we'll discuss carbon footprint models in class.
  • How can they be helpful? What is their goal?
  • What do they measure?
  • What are the differences among them?
  • Is there a standard way of measuring carbon footprints?
  • What are some obstacles to lowering carbon emissions?
  • Is the use of fossil fuel an ethical problem or a practical problem or an economic problem?
  • Is the solution to excessive carbon emissions a technological one? A political one?
  • What motivates people to lower their energy use? What are some obstacles?
Reminder: the assigned reading is this article: "Big Foot" from The New Yorker.
And I request that each person measure their carbon usage with both of these online tools:
Model 1: http://www.rprogress.org/
Model 2: http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/

Another comment is due, and you should probably write it on the reading assignment. There are many challenging ideas in this article that are begging for commentary. One question I would like us to discuss in class is: Why does the subtitle say "In measuring carbon emissions, it's easy to confuse morality and science"?

I would also entertain thoughtful comments on the carbon footprint exercise, if you'd rather write about that instead, providing that your comment gets to the substantive and theoretical issues that are raised.

See you tomorrow!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Virtue Ethics

This week we talked about the ethical framework that guides moral actions based on evaluations of moral character. That is, right moral action is based in virtue, and wrong moral action is based in vice.

In contrast to modern theories, it asks not what we should do, but what should we be? Of course,
as Tom pointed out, a virtuous character is based in good acts. One can't be virtuous merely by believing the right thing. But by calling this the "morality of being," we are highlighting that how you act is constitutive of the kind of person you are. If you say you believe in charity for the poor, but never give of your own time or money, then we would not say that you are a charitable person.

By contrast, modern theories focus on decision-making. A utilitarian sizes up a problematic moral situation, calculates the total harms and benefits that would be produced by different courses of action, and picks the one that produces the greatest overall good. Then the utilitarian's moral faculty can go on holiday until the next crisis of decision arises. Not so for the virtue ethicist. She recognizes that ethics has to do with how we live our lives--every day. She sees virtue as a potential that has to be actualized over the course of a whole life. This is a theory of moral development.

The scope of morality includes these questions:
How do you choose your friends?
What do you do on the weekends?
What books do you read?
How have you chosen to live your life?
Is it an admirable life?

Some modern theories influenced by virtue ethics are “the capabilities approach” to ethics, care ethics, and communitarianism.

Virtue ethics is useful for understanding Bill McKibben's views because he seems to be arguing for living well, with virtue, in strong communities--even if he doesn't use that language. Virtue ethics can help to understand the normative aspects of everyday actions of the sort that are often advocated when people are talking about “going green”.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

That's what Socrates says, and so presumably the examined life is worth living, and the film Examined Life ought to be worth seeing! It's a documentary about philosophers and despite its small opening has been receiving rave reviews.

At the Dryden Theater this Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 5pm. Eligible for extra credit!

Look out for Peter Singer mentioning the article we'll read during the last week of class, and Slavoj Zizek visiting a garbage dump to talk about environmental responsibility.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Did you know?

What do we know about the future? How can we make educated guesses?
Here's a presentation of some information that shows how rapidly our world is changing.
And keep in mind--how many other concerns this presentation leaves out!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Many Cool Project Ideas

Wow, am I excited about the project ideas that have been generated in our class! The more I teach this class, the more original and meaningful ideas are generated, and the more I realize that although creativity is becoming a clich├ęd catch-phrase at this university, there really is a fountain of creativity among RIT students.

Pretty much everyone has turned in an idea, but a few people seem as though they are not 100% pleased with their plan and are looking for alternatives. Let me list a few. Some of these ideas came from your classmates and some from students in my upper-level environmental philosophy class. Keep in mind that it is not just OK but even encouraged to work on projects as a team. I do require that each person do their own writing on the reflection paper.

1. Greater Rochester Urban Bounty
GRUB is an organization in Rochester that promotes enriching the natural and social capital of the northeast neighborhood through a farm and educational center. I talked to the RIT faculty coordinator who works with GRUB, and there will be several volunteer work days at The Vineyard (the farm in downtown Rochester) in April. Anyone who would like to contribute is welcome, and the campus contact is Jane Amstey at j.amstey@rit.edu.

2. The City of Rochester's Clean Sweep Program
In this program City of Rochester employees, neighborhood groups, Boy Scout troops, and volunteers pick up trash and tidy up neighborhoods in the city. It has both environmental and community-building goals. The first one is on Saturday, April 25 and is in the city's Southwest quadrant. Information and links to sign-up forms are here and here. Anyone who is interested can sign up directly--or you can contact an RIT student, Jesse Knoth, at jak0965@rit.edu. He is organizing Clean Sweep activities in his 19th ward neighborhood.

3. Go Green Recycle Rally at the Seneca Park Zoo
On Sunday April 19 the Seneca Park Zoo is partnering with Sunnking, an electronics recycling company, to host a recycling event. Families can bring items like sneakers, cell phones, and car batteries to be recycled, and volunteers are needed to help out on that day. The person to contact if you'd like to volunteer is Kimie Romeo. Her e-mail address is kromeo@Sunnking.com, and she has worked with RIT students a lot this year and is very clear and helpful. She knows a lot about recycling!

4. Other Volunteer Programs
Here is a calendar and contact list for a few projects in April. They include working for Foodlink, which is our local food pantry; a recycling project for Habitat for Humanity; and a sorting day at InterVol, which is a local organization that recycles unused medical supplies and sends them to places that desperately need them.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lifeboat Scenarios

The first film clip I showed today was from Powaqqatsi, second film in a trilogy by director Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass. The film was released in 1988, and Wikipedia says:
Powaqqatsi is a Hopi word meaning "parasitic way of life" or "life in transition". While Koyaanisqatsi focused on modern life in industrial countries, Powaqqatsi, which similarly has no dialogue, focuses more on the conflict in third world countries between traditional ways of life and the new ways of life introduced with industrialization.

The first scene is of a gold mine in Brazil, called Serra Pelada, in which the miners carry sacks of dirt for processing. Towards the end of a scene, we see some workers carrying another who has been struck by a falling rock.

The images from this film help put a human face on what it might be like to be one of the people who is not in Garrett Hardin's lifeboat. They also highlight the difference between the material comfort that you and I experience, and the lives of less privileged others.

I also showed this interview with Garrett Hardin.

A contemporary writer whose views are also relevant to the discussion of the connection between political and social actions and our ecological status is Jared Diamond. His book Collapse shows how the collapse of societies is often prefaced by an unsustainable exploitation of their natural resources. From the Amazon.com review:
While Guns, Germs, and Steel explained the geographic and environmental reasons why some human populations have flourished, Collapse uses the same factors to examine why ancient societies, including the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Viking colonies of Greenland, as well as modern ones such as Rwanda, have fallen apart. Not every collapse has an environmental origin, but an eco-meltdown is often the main catalyst, he argues, particularly when combined with society's response to (or disregard for) the coming disaster.
There are two videos of Jared Diamond that I'd recommend. One is an interview on PBS's News Hour on the topic of how nations respond to environmental and economic crises. The other is a talk that he gives at TED.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Utilitarianism has become so entrenched in modern life, and particularly in public policy, that we often don't even realize that an ethical framework is being deployed. Instead, we just assume that the best action is going to be the one that produces the best consequences, and that what counts as the best consequences is human welfare. However, unlike Mill, I think that contemporary society is not very reflective about what outcomes make up "welfare." Bill McKibben makes many controversial points, but one point that is not controversial is that welfare cannot be reduced simply to material possessions (e.g., "Can't buy me lo-o-ove"). Still, what welfare is exactly, is a question worthy of discussion.

It's worth distinguishing utilitarianism from several nearby positions.
1. ETHICAL EGOISM. The ethical egoist claims that morality demands that individuals always act in their own best long-term self-interest. Utilitarianism, similarly, evaluates what is good based on people's interests (Mill referred to the total sum of happiness of all people affected by an action, but modern utilitarians refer to an aggregate of "preferences"). However, the utilitarian does not say each individual should act in their own self-interest. Rather, individuals should do what is required for the good of the group as a whole, and it is the total welfare that determines what that desired consequence is.

2. EPICUREANISM: Utilitarianism does share some elements with ancient Greek epicureanism. For instance, both hold that pleasure and pain are the measure of what is good and bad. And both put a high value on empirical investigation. For both, “the good life” is a life that has a high ratio of pleasure to pain, and so pursuit of pleasure is a basis for moral action. However, one difference is that Epicurus thought that this evaluation of pleasure and pain would lead people to value and pursue tranquility or a state of mental peace. Pursuing tranquility would lead people to withdraw from politics and other stressful situations or concerns. In contrast, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were very involved in politics. Mill was a Member of Parliament for several years and an advocate for women’s rights.

3. COMMUNISM: It seems ironic that utilitarianism has close relations both with the evaluative practices of capitalist economics, particularly cost-benefit analysis--and also with communism. In structure, the socio-economic theory of communism resembles Bentham's utilitarianism in that both prioritize the good of the group over the good of the individual. However, the two theories differ at many points as well. For instance, redistribution of goods to create social and economic equality is a central tent of communism. But a common criticism of utilitarian theories is that they don't necessarily pay attention to distributive justice. Indeed, Karl Marx was a prominent critic of utilitarianism.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

More vs. Better

Earlier this week we discussed the first chapter of Bill McKibben's Deep Economy in class, in which he examines the economic rationale for continued growth, considers some problems with economics, and lays out the framework for his book's argument. He promises to show us that there are alternatives to economic growth that are more environmentally sustainable over the long run and that don't sacrifice happiness or social stability. Will his arguments and examples be convincing?

We should keep our eye on the three points he promises to develop. These are challenges to the idea that there are no limits to economic growth (p.11).
1. One is political: growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress.
2. [T]he second argument draws on physics and chemistry as much as on economics; it is the basic objection that we do not have the energy needed to keep the magic going, and can we deal with the pollution it creates?
3. The third argument is both less obvious and even more basic: growth is no longer making us happy.

The central claim of this chapter is that for 19th century utilitarianism (which is the foundation of our contemporary economic outlook), when society aimed at “MORE” economic growth and material wellbeing, it could ultimately achieve the ethical aim of "BETTER" human welfare and opportunities to pursue happiness. McKibben claims that in the U.S. at the beginning of the 21st century, getting "MORE" stuff and achieving a “BETTER” quality of life are no longer aims which are in sync with one another.

Utilitarians measure what is good according to the total of human happiness. That is, overall happiness provides the criterion for morality. If we had a science of happiness, it would contribute to a science of ethics.

Interestingly, we do now have a science of happiness which has been developed mostly by psychologists, but also by economists, anthropologists, and political scientists. They've found out that people are often mistaken about what will make them happy. It turns out that we're not very good at predicting our future happiness. There is a difference between what people anticipate will affect their happiness and what really makes them happy. If you think this is an interesting question, you might like this bloggingheads.tv interview with Eric Weiner, the author of a book on happiness.

Any further reactions to this chapter?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Argument Outline 1: Population Control

The current global population is over 6.5 billion people. There is much evidence that at rates of Western consumption, the current population size cannot be sustained. Global population is forecast to reach 9 billion by 2050, and then to keep growing. At the most efficient rates of consumption, the upper limit for a sustainable population is estimated to be right about 9 billion.

Population size is an important issue for environmental ethics. Some argue it is the most important issue because all other policies are moot if the size of the global population is not brought under control. If current rates of population growth are not reversed, then famine and disease will limit population size. Nearly all problems of resource use and environmental degradation are in one way or another linked to population size. However, limiting population growth is a difficult issue because many policy options involve violations of what many believe to be non-negotiable individual freedoms and reproductive rights.
Give an ethical argument supporting or criticizing a means of controlling population size through national policy. Limit your support to arguments that would be expressed either by a deontologist or a utilitarian.

For instance, you might choose to support China’s one-child policy and do so for a reason that a Kantian would approve of. (The objection need not be expressed according to any particular ethical framework.) Your position will be stated in #2. Also state the framework you are adopting in #2 or #3. For the general outline format, refer to this page.

You may base your argument on the assigned reading, “Reaching the Limit,” or on material you research independently on the internet. Not everyone will have exactly the same topic or approach it in exactly the same way.

Here are a few links, but feel free to seek out your own or to refer to the reading assignment.

Global population size: what the problem is

Treehugger: “The Elephant in the Room: Overpopulation

Hoover Institute: “The Population Bomb Redux

Wikipedia: “Malthusian Catastrophe

Population Clock

China’s One-child Policy

Wikipedia: “One-child Policy

BBC News: “Has China’s One-child Policy Worked?

The U.S.

CSMonitor: “Fuse on the ‘Population Bomb’ Has Been Relit

Salon: “Ask Pablo, population control

Other nations

Wikipedia: “Population control

Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment: “Resources on Population Control

Argument Outline Format

The goal of an argument outline is to present a thesis (a claim) in a crystal clear format, to show why someone would support that claim, and then to defend it against an attack. Debating ideas in real life is more complex than this, often including fallacies such as changing the subject or failing to be clear. The more we can practice a simplified and formalized method of presenting and defending claims, the better we will become at expressing and supporting our beliefs in the less-than-ideal circumstances of real life—and the better we will become at spotting others’ failures to support their claims.

Each argument outline should be between 5 and 10 sentences long. It should fit on a single page. Use complete sentences. Your points should be perfectly clear and devoid of ambiguity. Use examples if necessary.

For each of the assignments, I will provide you with a specific topic or choice of topics, a source of background information (you may also do your own research), and some constraints on the ethical position you may choose.

1. Issue Statement (1 to 3 sentences)
State what the problem is and why we should be concerned with finding a solution. This is the place to provide factual, historical, or political background. Do not take a stand at this point or offer a solution. You may wish to define the options. Keep the issue, as you set it up, narrow and concise. Cite your sources. Do not copy this from the assignment sheet! Formulate the problem in your own words, making it more specific if necessary.

2. Position Statement (only 1 sentence)
State your claim. You will use a word like “should” or “ought.” Be very clear! If you use the word “we,” make sure it is clear who falls into the category of “we.” Is it everyone alive? Everyone in the U.S.? College students? Utilitarians? Keep the claim focused and specific. Usually you will be referring to a specific policy action that a government should pursue or a specific behavior which individuals should engage in.

3. Support (1 or 2 sentences)
Provide one reason in support of your position. This is ethical support, not factual support, and it answers the question “Why?” not the question “How?” If you have referred to an ethical framework, then the support must be congruent with that framework.

4. Objection (1 or 2 sentences)
Consider a reasonably good objection to your position. This is difficult to do, admittedly. A rule of thumb is to pick the strongest objection you can think of. If it is so strong that you cannot find a way of responding to it, that may be a sign that your position is overstated or that you are not really committed to it. If you pick an objection that is too weak, you will miss an opportunity to strongly support your position. The objection should be one that someone might actually try to use to undermine your position.

5. Response to the objection (1 or 2 sentences)
This should respond specifically to the objection and should not be merely a restatement of #2 or #3.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Is Experiential Learning?

Ethical Experience Project Plans are due tomorrow! Why are we incorporating experiential learning into this class?

The philosophy of experiential learning holds that there are some things that can best be learned by doing. As a teacher, I believe that as information has become more and more easily accessible, there is less need for any of us (teachers or students) to remember exact information that can be easily looked up. This frees us to spend more of our time achieving deeper understanding, integrating knowledge from diverse fields, creating new work, and allowing knowledge to transform our sense of ourselves and the world we live in.

Philosophy is quintessentially a method rather than a defined subject area. Just among my colleagues here at RIT, our research has to do with eastern religion, death, mental causation, the promises and dangers of nanotechnology, and the qualities of art. Because philosophy is a method of analysis and questioning, it requires personal involvement. And ethics, especially, has to do with matters of experience.

Experiential learning involves taking on an activity with a commitment to learn something new and to relate it to a preconceived framework. The structure is necessarily open-ended, because it relies entirely on a student's willingness to start a new learning experience that can be based on their personal experience and beliefs. The role of the teacher is to provide suggestions, help students overcome obstacles they face, and to encourage and guide reflection in a way that guides the student away from mis-educative or empty experience.

According to Wikipedia, the educator David Kolb has outlined 4 requirements for experiential learning:

  1. the learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  2. the learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  3. the learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  4. the learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.
Experiential learning encourages students to take an active role in their learning activities (even more active than the ubiquitous "think-pair-share" that's found in so much of RIT's curriculum). It encourages taking risks and encourages students to find incentives for learning experiences beyond the incentive of the graded paper.

I'm curious whether you've done open-ended projects like this in other classes. Were they research projects? Building projects (in engineering classes)? How are you encouraged to be creative? Do you find them satisfying or stress-inducing?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Kantian Ethics

Some key ideas from the lecture:
  • Kantian ethics responds to the need for moral truths to have an independent justification which depends on reason and not just on intuition or implicit agreement.

  • Kant argues that if a law is to be morally valid, then it must follow with absolute necessity.

  • He provides such an algorithm in the form of the Categorical Imperative.

  • The Categorical Imperative is similar to--but more universal and less subjective than--the Golden Rule.

  • The core of morality is not what we do but why we do it. What matters is that an action is motivated by ethical reasoning. Acting out of duty is moral; acting in accordance with duty is not enough.

  • Principle-based ethical theories are called deontological; Kant's ethical theory is the best known example but many contemporary ethicists are also deontologists.

If you have any questions, feel free to raise them in the comments section.

Now just for fun, what would a political attack ad against Kant be like?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to Philosophize

Here is a philosopher's letter to his Intro to Philosophy class, explaining what philosophy is and how to do it.

"Welcome to My Philosophy Class"

After sharing tips for how to read philosophers and write a paper for a philosophy class, Wayne Buck points to the value that can be found even in lower-level classes:

There are practical benefits to be gained from studying philosophy. First, it will improve your ability to reason, and to think originally. In reading and writing about abstract problems, you practice and develop analytical, critical and argumentative skills which are useful in many other endeavors. In turn, this will give you confidence in yourself and in your ability to think through problems and come to your own conclusions. It will make you less dependent on others and their thoughts, and put you in a better position to understand yourself and others.

Second, you will learn something about the philosophical tradition. Philosophy has been and still is a central force in Western culture and intellectual life. It is philosophers who have most clearly and thoroughly elaborated the values, ideals and theories which shape the way we live and think, even today. This is true not only for morals and religion, but also for the natural sciences, for political science, for economics and for literature.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Upcoming Events

Here are two book discussion events that are coming up on the calendar. Reading a book and then contributing to a community discussion would be the foundation for a project. These events are open to the public.

Monday, April 13, 7-8:30 pm
Unitarian Church, 220 S. Winton Rd. in Rochester
— Sierra Club Book Club, a discussion of Van Jones' The Green Collar Economy.

Tuesday, April 14, 12-1 pm
Kate Gleason Auditorium in the Rochester Central Library, 115 South Ave.
— "Books Sandwiched In," a book discussion of Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, led by RIT public policy professor Anne Howard

Another upcoming event is the "Food Forum" organized by the Sierra Club and involving other local environmental organizations. This might be something to attend, but I can also put you in touch with the organizer if you would like to volunteer, for example by handing out programs at the door.

Thursday, April 16, 5:30-9pm
Earth Day Forum: "Local and Sustainable—Local Food Choices"
Unitarian Church, 220 S. Winton Rd. in Rochester
The focus of the Environmental Forum is to educate our community that every aspect of environmental wellbeing is touched by how we eat and to help to provide a link to the local options that are available to everyone. Daily dietary choices are some of the most critical decisions that we make as a human population. In our lifetimes, we are directly responsible for what these daily choices do to our planet, our health, and our future generations. Because of this we strive to eat as healthy and environmentally sound as possible.

Experiential Learning Project: Project Plan

In a little over a week, a plan is due that lays out what you expect to do for your experiential learning project. It counts 5% of your final course grade.

What should that plan include?

1. in a sentence or two, a description of what you plan to do;

2. an estimate of the amount of time you think you will spend planning and engaging in the activity (not including follow-up research or preparing your written report) and a tentative date or time-frame for performing it;

3. in a sentence or two, why this project is ethically valuable or is relevant to environmental sustainability;

4. depending on the proposed project, one of these two:
a. one or two questions you intend to answer through the experience
b. a statement of how this experience will extend your horizons.

That's it!
I've suggested that you pursue a project that connects with your pre-existing interests, skills, or opportunities; however, since the project is intended to widen your experience, you might also try something you’ve never thought about before!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Littering: Good or Bad?

When we focus our attention on environmental problems, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by their scale. How big a problem is climate change? Global. Wow, that's about as big as it gets. Some problems seem impossibly complex and solutions, even if they exist, seem outrageously expensive.

However, it can help to get some perspective. We have curbside recycling. Thirty years ago everything went in the trash. The hole in the ozone layer is repairing itself, thanks to the Montreal Protocol.

And here's what Peter Hessler writes in the New Yorker about working for the Peace Corps in China in 1996:
Most of us taught at small colleges in remote cities, and there wasn't much direct contact with the Peace Corps. Only occasionally did a curriculum request filter down from the top, like the campaign for Green English. This was a worldwide project: the Peace Corps wanted educational volunteers to incorporate environmental themes into their teaching. One of my peers in China started modestly, with a debate about whether littering was bad or good. This split the class right down the middle. A number of students argued passionately that lots of Chinese people were employed in picking up garbage, and if there wasn't any litter they would lose their jobs. How would people eat when all the trash was gone?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Philosophy Club

This Friday, March 20th will be
the grand reopening of the Philosophy Club at RIT
from 3-5
in the Idea Factory (first floor, Library).

Anyone is invited, including professors and people with no background.

The topic of discussion will be "What is philosophy?"

Everyone is encouraged to bring anything that they feel will shine a light on this question.

For further information, contact Max Herrera (mjh2455).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Psychology of Morality

In class on Wednesday, we considered two scenarios published by the moral psychologist Jon Haidt.

In one exercise, we evaluated how we felt about a set of comparable scenarios. (Would you rather stick a pin in your own palm? or the palm of child you don't know?) Haidt argued that if people are only motivated by self-interest, as classical economics assumes they are, then they would rather stick a pin in someone else's hand.

However, most (or all) of us would rather stick a pin in our own palm than in a child's palm. Also, there were a number of situations in which a "rational" person would have no particular preference, but people with particular moral outlooks do. For instance, some people would never slap their father, not even with his permission or as part of a comedy skit, though they would have no problem slapping a friend in that situation.

What this exercise showed is that many people have moral commitments that are distinct from their own rational self-interest. One such moral commitment, founded on a shared emotion, is that incest is wrong even if it creates no deplorable consequences. On a rational level, it's hard to explain why it would be wrong. But on an emotional level, the reaction is very strong and immediate. It would not be surprising if there were a biological and evolutionary reason for such an emotion.

If you're interested in Jon Haidt's work, here is a TED talk called "The real difference between liberals and conservatives" and here is a Bloggingheads interview on "Happiness and the Foundations of Morality."

I also promised to pass along a fascinating article on psychopaths. It is by John Seabrook and published in The New Yorker. Seabrook says that psychopathy is
the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population. (Female psychopaths are thought to be much rarer.) Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call “severe emotional detachment”—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed.

Ethical Experience Project

Moral judgments are based in both emotion and in reason. Both of these aspects of moral judgment are influenced by our life experience. Humans tend to feel more sympathy or compassion with people to whom we feel connected, and we feel a higher level of concern about issues that affect us directly. Similarly, we can reason more clearly about a moral issue when we know more about it, and especially if we can draw on experiential knowledge.

For these reasons, a major assignment for this class (worth 25% of the course grade) is to engage in an activity that will provide some sort of experience that you can relate to the issues in practical ethics that we will discuss, and then to write a 3- to 5-page reflection on that experience, due May 4 (the 9th week of class).

Such an experience can take many forms. One form that I especially encourage is “service” or volunteer work. Another form is an interview with someone who has specialized knowledge, such as an organic farmer. I will provide some specific ideas for activities (some below and many more in separate posts) and some specific questions to answer in your written reflection.

Project Design

I strongly encourage you to design your own project. If you are not certain if it would meet my requirements, then don’t hesitate to ask! In general, an experiential project must meet these criteria:

* an activity that you would not otherwise do
* a hands-on physical experience or a social experience
* an ethical aspect which can be related to the topics in Deep Economy and to an ethical framework

Here are some examples of activities which do not meet these criteria:

1. a week eating a vegetarian diet when you have already been vegetarian for 2 years
2. watching Al Gore’s movie about climate change on DVD in your apartment
3. helping your aunt with babysitting and calling it “service”
4. drinking a bottle of New York wine
5. driving an ATV around in “nature,” which you regularly do with friends
6. refraining from your usual habit of drunk driving because doing so is ethical.

Since our class is focused on environmental problems, most of the ideas I offer have that theme, but you may instead generate other ideas or service projects which have a clear ethical component. You may also find service opportunities through the Campus Life office.

You may collaborate on an activity with other class members, so long as you each do your own writing and reflection.

Projects which are original receive the highest credit. When designing a project, think about ways to extend your own interests or to make use of unique resources that you have access to. For example, for a past project a student whose brother is an engineer working on hydrogen-powered cars was able to conduct an interview and test drive a model hydrogen truck. A student who knew someone making artisanal cheese in the Finger Lakes visited the dairy farm and interviewed the cheesemaker. A student who knew an organic farmer spent a day working on the farm. A student who needed to spend time looking after his young niece organized environmental education activities for her and documented the change in her level of environmental awareness. A student who loved animals volunteered at the zoo for a couple of weekends.

You will have to cross out of your comfort zone to complete this project. That is how learning happens! And it may take a significant amount of time. For service projects, I expect 4-6 hours of work. For projects that weave a lot of pure fun into the assignment or which are integrated into daily living, even more time may be reasonable.

Some Project Ideas

— Local markets activity: Compare shopping at a farmer’s market to shopping at a grocery store. Cook a meal made entirely from local products. Reflect on what McKibben has to say about local agriculture.

— Biodiversity activity: Visit the Seneca Park zoo. Do you experience any moral emotions? How does the zoo convey a conservation message? Examine the value of zoo visits to the education of schoolchildren. Does it increase their knowledge? Their sympathy? What is the zoo’s mission? How does the zoo pursue a conservation agenda? Think of your own questions to ask and answer.

— Conservation activity: Conservation is one focus of attempts to minimize climate change. Explore a website that motivates conservation, such as http://carbonrally.com. Try some of their suggested actions. Are there actions that you are unwilling or unable to take? Evaluate the overall effectiveness of these changes and of the website.

— Wilderness activity: Take a hiking or camping trip and notice various human effects on the land and whether there are invasive species. Why do people enjoy hiking/camping? Do outdoors activities provide a moral benefit? Why would many people rather hike in the woods than through downtown? Consider going with the RIT Outing Club.

— Food ethics activity: Try eating a vegetarian diet for a week. What are the ethical aspects of meat-eating? How does such a diet impact your aesthetic enjoyment? There are many ways to personalize this, e.g., calculate how a vegetarian diet affects your carbon footprint.

Reflection Paper

The paper should be at least 4 pages long (about 1000 words). You can use the questions below as a writing guide. Be sure you explain what you did and why, explicitly connect the activity to Deep Economy or to ethical problems, and analyze one of the issues raised according to an ethical framework.

Use the skills that you are learning in your other classes to deepen your report and to make it more creative. Are you a photographer or illustrator? Consider whether your report could be complemented by visual images. Are you an engineer or scientist? Consider whether some of the information you present would best be shown in a table or chart. I’m open to all forms of communication-you could even direct me to supplementary materials you post to the web.

More tips: Don’t be afraid to let your project change if your experience pushes you in an unexpected direction. And do look up supplementary research if you need to. Although this is not primarily a research paper, certainly most investigations will require some basic research!


1. What did you do for your project? Describe the activity and why you picked it.
2. What did you learn during the activity? (You might say something about how learning from experience compares with learning from books.)
3. Were any controversial issues discussed during the activity? What were different people’s viewpoints? How were conflicts resolved?
4. What issues of right action or “the good life” were highlighted? How does your activity relate to topics from the course, e.g. duties to future generations, human rights, coordinating social action to achieve public goods, the value of communities?
5. What aspects of the experience will you remember? Did it change or enhance your previous commitments? Have you (or will you) change your behavior as a result of this experience?

Disclaimer: As an outside of class assignment, this project may entail certain risks and responsibilities. Before committing to a service activity, you should find out if the organization has liability coverage or insurance for its volunteers; if it does not, you should understand that RIT assumes no liability for your participation. Also, you should consider yourself a representative of the RIT community and follow RIT’s rules for student conduct. Students are responsible for fees to participate in certain activities, such as film screenings, and for transportation to and from events.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How to Eat Local in Rochester, NY

Eating local foods is something we'll talk about in a few weeks. Why eat local foods? Bill McKibben argues that by eating local we:
1. strengthen the ties in our communities;
2. are more likely to be supporting sustainable farming practices;
3. aren't using petroleum to ship our food (food travels, on average, 1500 miles from point of production to your plate);
4. come to appreciate the place we live in and the foods we eat.

Rochester Public Market

But how and where can we eat local in Rochester, NY?

Professor Christine Kray and her anthropology courses have created a website to help answer these questions:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Assignment Schedule

Mon 3/9 Course Introduction

Wed 3/11 Moral Emotions
Hume’s Moral Philosophy, Stanford Ency. of Philosophy, Secs. 7 & 8
M 3/16 Subjectivism, Relativism
Moral Philosophy (MP): Pojman, pp. 38-52
Comment #1 due
W 3/18 Egoism
MP: Rachels, pp. 79-86
Comment #2 due
M 3/23 Ethical Framework: Kant
MP: Kant, pp. 194-201
W 3/25 Sustainability
McKibben, Ch. 1
Comment #3 due
M 3/30 Ethical Framework: Utilitarianism
MP: Mill, pp. 141-146
W 4/1 More on utilitarianism
McKibben, “Reaching the Limit,” library reserve
Comment #4 due
Ethical Experience Project Plan due
M 4/6 Application: Lifeboat Ethics
MP: Hardin, pp. 335-343
Comment #5 due
W 4/8 Ethical Framework: Virtue
MP: Mayo, pp. 260-263
Argument Outline #1 due
M 4/13 Food Ethics
McKibben, Ch. 2
Comment #6 due
W 4/15 Application: Food Ethics
Michael Specter, “Big Foot

Also, take both of the following quizzes to measure your carbon footprint. The two models are slightly different, so print out your results and be prepared to discuss them in class. I will collect these. If the format does not work well for you (because you live in a dorm, for example), consider taking the quiz in the role of our parents or in the role of what you believe a “typical” American is like.

Footprint Model 1 is at http://www.rprogress.org/
Footprint Model 2 is at http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/

Comment #7 & print-out of carbon footprint quiz results due
M 4/20 Individualism & Communities
McKibben, Ch. 3
Comment #8 due
Argument Outline #2 due
Work on Ethical Experience Project
M 4/27 Local Economies
McKibben, Ch. 4
Comment #9 due
W 4/29 Ethical Framework: Justice
Rawls, library reserve
M 5/4 Future Generations
McKibben, Ch. 5
Comment #10 due
Ethical Experience Project due
W 5/6 Framework application: Activism
MP: Singer, pp. 344-352
Comment #11 due
M 5/11 Framework application: Activism
Katchadourian, “Neptune’s Navy
Greenwood, Ringold, and Kellogg, “Dying for Science?” library reserve
Comment #12 due
W 5/13 Film and Review for Exam
Argument Outline #3 due
W 5/20 9am Final Exam

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Intro to Ethics Syllabus

Philosophy 0509-211-02

RIT Spring Term 2009
Mon./Wed. 12:00-1:50
Bldg. 12 (Business), Rm. 3225

Contact Information
Dr. Evelyn Brister
Office: Bldg. 17 (MicroE), Rm. 2541
Office Phone: 475-4291
E-Mail: elbgsl@rit.edu
Office hours: M/W 2-3:30. Also drop-in and by appointment.

Course Description
This course is an introduction to moral reasoning. We will survey important ethical theories and apply them to social problems. Throughout the course, we will be analyzing our own beliefs about responsibility, duty, justice, and the good life while we try to make our belief systems consistent. This course section is oriented around analyzing ethics in environmental sustainability.

Course Objectives
The principal goal of this course is for each student to become more aware of moral reasoning and to become more proficient at evaluating and producing sound moral arguments.

The aims of the course include the following:
a. To be able to identify moral arguments, which is reasoning intended to convince someone that an action is right or wrong.
b. To develop the ability to critically evaluate the assumptions and values which ground such arguments.
c. To practice supporting moral arguments with coherent, relevant, and sound reasons.
d. To communicate thoughts clearly and precisely.
e. To become familiar with the history of ethical thought in the western tradition.
f. To learn about pressing moral questions concerning environmental issues.
g. To come to see yourself as an active part of your community, with rights and responsibilities.

1. Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, Holt, 2007.
2. Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy: A Reader, Hackett, 2003.

The primary goal of the class is to gain skill in reading and thinking critically and systematically about moral issues. We will approach moral reasoning from two directions. From the perspective of the past, we will learn about ethical theory. For millennia, philosophers have developed systems of ethical reasoning to answer questions about which actions are right, which actions are wrong, and how we can tell. We will read short excerpts from historical texts and learn the general outlines of important ethical theories. From the present and with an eye to the future, we will discuss moral problems we face as individuals and as a society. We will use ethical theory to clarify these problems and to suggest solutions.

Most class time will be either lecture or discussion, with a few small group activities and, rarely, short videos. I place a high value on interesting discussion, and the key to a good discussion is to come to class prepared. Preparation requires having completed the assigned reading, and it requires more. Good preparation requires anticipating what ought to be discussed and what questions need to be addressed.

30% Homework: Argument Outlines (three at 10% each)
5% Ethical Experience Project Plan
20% Ethical Experience Project
20% Preparation (almost daily comment/question)
10% Participation
15% Final Exam (or Paper)

Homework — Three “simplified” argument outlines, each up to one page in length, are due this quarter. I will provide you with a format and example. Homework is due in class and in printed, not electronic, form.

Ethical Experience Project — Ethics is the theoretical study of what is “good,” “right,” and “just.” There is no denying that there is a subjective component to making ethical judgments, in part because we best understand other people’s viewpoints when we have some shared experiences with them. Because the focus of this course is on the ethical problems we face in environmental decision-making, a significant part of the grade is based on a self-defined project to extend your relevant experience and to evaluate the usefulness of this experience to moral judgment. The project will require you to 1.) engage in a relevant project outside of class (I will provide some ideas) and 2.) to write a 3- to 5-page report and evaluation. Sample projects include volunteering for an environmental organization or a food bank, shopping at the Public Market and cooking a meal with local foods, or visiting the zoo to find out about their conservation programs. Early in the quarter I will collect a short statement of what you intend to do for your project.

Preparation — Reading assignments are due before coming to class. Since discussion is the medium through which philosophy is practiced, it is essential that we are all prepared to take full advantage of the time during class. At the beginning of a class meeting, I will collect a brief comment or question that you have on the day’s reading. It may be as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph. These will be graded as excellent, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory. What you write should demonstrate that you have read and thought about the day’s assignment. I hope that these will provide the foundation for interesting discussions.

Participation — Dialogue and reflection are key components of philosophy: we share ideas with others and then use their critique to improve our arguments. For this reason, informed and reflective discussion is central to the success of our class.

I will be a discussion facilitator. Although I will frequently be a participant as well, my ideal would be a discussion that is lively and considerate and does not require my involvement to keep going. Skills that I emphasize include:
• speaking up in support of your moral beliefs;
• remaining respectful of others;
• being open-minded about the possibility of altering a belief;
• inviting others to engage in dialogue, and supporting their chance to express themselves even when they disagree with you; and
• keeping the discussion focused and on topic.
I will attempt to help a number of people speak each time we hold discussion.

Final Exam — Our final exam is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20. The exam will take no more than 1 hour, so we will not meet until 9am on that day. The final exam is cumulative and will emphasize ethical frameworks. Those students who prefer written work to exams or who have scheduling conflicts may write a term paper instead of the exam. I will distribute the paper topic a week before the paper is due. Final papers must be dropped off at my office (printed format!) before the exam.

Missed assignments — I do not accept late discussion comments under any circumstances. I will accept late argument outlines, but with hefty deductions which start immediately after the due date. You may replace one missed commentary or add 10 points to an outline grade by doing one of the following assignments.

Option 1: Attend a philosophy lecture or another relevant public lecture. Philosophy lectures are listed on the philosophy department webpage (http://www.rit.edu/cla/philosophy/), and I will announce them in class. I will sometimes announce other relevant lectures. If you know of one, then please inform the class. In addition to attending the lecture, write a one or two page analysis of it, in which you 1.) summarize the lecture topic and 2.) evaluate or critique one of the speaker’s arguments. The idea is for you to engage with the speaker’s ideas, not just tell me whether their talk was appealing to you. There will be a full-day philosophy conference on sustainability taking place on May 1.

Option 2: Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper (or news magazine), presenting a moral argument in letter form. (Past students have had their letters published!) If you submit a letter to the editor of a newspaper by e-mail, please include me as a Bcc. Look at the “Letters to the Editor” page for examples of style and topic, but keep in mind that not every published letter is an argument! I will evaluate your letter as an argument.