Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Environmental Ethics

One important issue in environmental ethics, brought to the fore of our social consciousness by the BP oil spill, is the question of responsibility in response to disasters. This question can be asked in a different ways. First, one could focus on who is to blame and argue that those people have the duty to repair their disaster. Or, one could focus on the government as an agency with a duty to protect its citizens. Examples of these lines of thought are presented in the following articles:


This opinion piece from the LA Times argues that the government bears a responsibility to solve the crisis in order to protect its citizens from harm. The editorial board obviously believes that the duty of response lies on government in such large scale disasters, even though BP might be at fault for the spill itself. They obviously believe the government is the party with the most responsibility (after the scale of the disaster was known) for clean-up and relief because the citizens depend on its protection.


This story brings to light the legal issues of liability, showing that, according to our current system of law, BP may only be responsible for a limited financial amount. The other companies involved--Anadarko, Mitsui, and Transocean--have all tried to place legal liability on BP or limit their own. Andarko claims BP was “gross[ly] negligent,” which would remove their own liability. Mitusi promised all of their revenues would go to relief efforts, which this article suggests may be in an effort to “shield it[self] from liability.” And Transocean claims, simply, that BP is contractually obligated to assume all liability for pollution and contamination by their drilling agreement. The legal battle this article lays out displays the implicit ideas of responsibility and blame acting in our legal system right now. We should investigate these ideas by asking whether or liability should be reliant on who is blame, or if it is determined by who profits from the risk, or if it can be determined by contracts. This is further explored in the issue of shareholder blame, as discussed here:


The various views offered in this piece all discuss whether or not the shareholders of BP, the legal owners and those who profit from BP's activities can be held financially responsible for the spill. The arguments offered vary widely. One writer claims that shareholders risk their investments when they buy stock, and can therefore be penalized by the loss of those investments when the company’s actions lead to a disaster. Another claims that we cannot punish BP by more than the $75 million they are limited to paying by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, even though the cost of clean-up will be far greater, because doing so would do too much damage to the rule of law. Another argues that not paying dividends to its shareholders would demonstrate BP’s good intent to the public. Another asserts that BP should pay those harmed by the spill because they have an ethical duty to do so. All of these arguments, as well as the rest in the piece, demonstrate various ideas on responsibility. We must ask ourselves whether or not those who caused the disaster should be made to undertake the response, or if those who profit from the enterprise, such as the shareholders, are the ones who are responsible for that effort. Or, we must decide whether the government’s duty to protect its citizens places the burden of response of it, and the issue of blame is only secondary, with no impact on how the clean-up is done. The way in which we respond to the BP oil spill demonstrates our thinking on these issues.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Opt-Out Organ Donation?

The New York State Assembly is considering a radical new policy regarding organ donation in an effort address the needs of the more than 8,000 New Yorkers in need of life-saving organs: make everyone an organ donor unless they explicitly opt out.

The new "presumed consent" law would automatically enroll everyone who applies for a driver license into the state's organ and tissue donation registry unless the applicant declines to be registered. Read the actual bill here.

There are a number of interesting questions here, not the least of which involves the significant paternalistic overtones of the proposed policy. Then there are questions of socio-economic equity: it is easy to think that those with poorer and/or less-educated backgrounds will be less likely to know about opting out and therefore less able to do so.

Regardless of whether this bill makes it to law, it is sure to raise consciousness about the severe need for donor organs, so it's pleasing to see both supporters and detractors discussing ways to increase organ donation.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Philosopher's Stone

NYTimes.com has launched a feature focused entirely on philosophy. It's in their "Opinionator" section along with Stanley Fish, Olivia Judson, and Robert Wright. Simon Critchley is to be the editor of The Stone.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Baby Justice

Paul Bloom writes about the moral judgments babies make.
A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.
But the morality babies have is, according to Bloom, shot through with in-group preferences.
... 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions...
And, as Blooms says:
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology.
The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

Photo Credit: Nicholas Nixon for The New York Times

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Second graders at a charter school in Springfield, Mass., take time from math and reading to engage in philosophical debate."

Here's the New York Times article.

A few times each month, second graders at a charter school in Springfield, Mass., take time from math and reading to engage in philosophical debate. There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism. Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.

Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark for the New York Times

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Philosophy on TV!

Moral philosopher Jonathan Dancy on Craig Ferguson's show. If it's not fitting then watch it on youtube.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Economist Reports on Survey of Philosophers

Anthony Gottlieb at the Economist reports on PhilPapers.org's survey of philosopher's philosophical positions and beliefs.

With regards to aesthetics and ethics:
By a fairly narrow margin, today’s philosophers believe that judgments of artistic value are not merely matters of individual taste: 41% said aesthetic values are objective, 34% say subjective, and a quarter gave some other answer. They were not asked directly whether moral values are objective, but the responses to related questions suggest that most philosophers believe they are. Some 56% incline towards “moral realism”, which has no precise definition but implies that ethical questions have objectively right (and wrong) answers, and nearly two-thirds endorsed moral “cognitivism”, which suggests that they believe there are moral facts or truths.
When asked which dead philosopher they most identified with, a clear winner emerged, with 21% of the votes: David Hume, the 18th-century thinker, historian, sceptic and agnostic who was a close friend of the economist Adam Smith. Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein took second, third and fourth places. The next six spots went to philosophers from the 20th century, most recently Donald Davidson, an American who died in 2003. Plato made 13th place and Socrates limped in at 21st.