Thursday, March 12, 2009

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 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.

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