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.