Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Weekly Flip

To the first class meeting of each week (normally Tuesday), each student will bring a brief, thoughtful Flip, printed (in manuscript format) on one side of a single page. We will often use these in class discussion, after which I will collect them to review. A thoughtful, good-faith effort will receive a check, and a check every week earns an A for that segment of the course. A check-minus indicates some significant problem, such as imprecise citation, inadequate editing, or uncareful reading, whereas a (rare) check-plus suggests exceptional perceptivity about the reading, or skill in discovering possible value in unfamiliar ideas.

I.                    Identify an idea (a claim, a practice, a background assumption, or an ideal) in the text that strikes you as unfamiliar, and seems somehow mistaken (based on a misdescription of things; unlikely to foster human thriving; or in some other sense just plain wrong). Explain what you take it to mean. You need only explain very briefly, perhaps in a single sentence, your reasons for thinking it mistaken -- we can discuss that in person.

II.                 Give a full, detailed citation of the particular text and commentary in which you find the errant idea, one that will enable any reader to locate it and identify its source in context directly.

III.               Now set aside your strong intuition about the error, and construct a credible defense of the idea to which you object in part I. The aim here is to explore, at least provisionally, an interpretation of or wider perspective on the offending text, in light of which it is at least worthy of serious consideration.

Example (note that this is not in manuscript format):
Flip #1, September 13, 2016
Somaphilus K. Estudiante

I.  Mengzi argues that “Humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others,” suggesting that the capacity for empathy is a defining feature of our humanity, and thus that we are all equipped by our nature, with the proper education, to live compassionate lives in harmony with others. But perhaps one person in a thousand, by one popular estimate, apparently lacks the emotional capacity to understand or care how others feel. Perhaps Mengzi is mistaken, at least with respect to sociopaths, about human nature and the potential for harmonious society.

II.  Mengzi argues for the essential similarity of human sensibilities at 2A6, appearing in Joel J. Kupperman, Ed., Human Nature; A Reader (Hackett, 2012), pp. 77-8.

III.  Mengzi need not claim that everyone is equally empathetic by nature, and our tendency to respond to others’ pain or need certainly comes in degrees. Indeed, his developmental program for a harmonious community proposes to identify precisely the degree of fellow-feeling we have and build on it, widening our sphere of concern (as in the example of King Xuan in 1A3). It is difficult to imagine a harmonious or effective human community that does not rely on a basic emotional potential for benevolence, so if there really were sociopaths who had zero sense of others’ feelings, and were unable to learn, perhaps he would be correct to say they are not human in the relevant sense.


In accordance with official college policy, I expect students to attend all scheduled classes. By enrolling in the course, you make a very strong commitment to do so, and it is especially important in light of the nature of this course. Since our process is conversational rather than didactic, our relations and discussions as a group are key to the learning experience – absence affects not merely your individual work in the course, but the classroom dynamic itself and thus the other students as well.

I have a principled objection to the rest of the official attendance policy, which sets out in detail what constitutes an excusable absence. As legal and moral adults, neither the college nor I have any business adjudicating your life choices. So as far as this course is concerned, should you ever decide to absent yourself, your reasons are entirely your own concern. What is a legitimate concern is the effect that an absence, whatever its reason, has on your educational experience, and on that of your classmates. I thus respectfully request that:
a) You never absent yourself from a scheduled class meeting for any but a very compelling reason, according you your own judgment.
b) If you must be absent, remain in close communication with your classmates, so that when you return you will be completely up to speed with everything that we did and said in your absence.
c) Proactively consult with me, and with your other professors, if a personal circumstance will affect your completion of the course as a full participant.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Some Good News

Just as we were discussing the Northeast Direct Pipeline yesterday, the plan was suspended. The company didn't cite citizen resistance as the reason, of course, though they had earlier conceded that they had never experienced such significant pushback as they did in Berkshire County. Here's the story in the Berkshire Eagle:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Betsy Kolbert on reefs and forests

In a thoughtful bit of reporting on efforts to develop resilient corals and chestnut trees, Kolbert here nicely frames some of the ethical dilemmas involved in managing catastrophe.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lynn Margulis

This is the scientist I was talking about on Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

More bad news

This article overstates the case slightly (this past February can hardly have been the warmest month on record; more likely it was the warmest February on record), but is legitimately alarming.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Wolves change rivers

Here's a video about the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Maybe we can watch it in class.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Here's the Jonathan Franzen piece I mentioned. Like much of his work it's a little overwrought, but consider whether he might have a point about global versus local or individual concern (not unlike Regan's concern for individual animals).

Hunting and Conservation

One further thought about the Sierra Club and other organizations that Singer takes to task for not opposing hunting: they were able to build large popular constituencies precisely by crafting a big tent for various supporters of the natural world. Prominent among those supporters were some of the people who spend the most time appreciating it -- hunters and fishers. Thus their appeal was to nature at large, not individual animals in particular. Depending on what their actual beliefs were, this might have been a principled decision, or it might have been a compromise of their principles in search of support. Singer's critique might be more nuanced if he teased out which it was.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Latest on Exxon from Bill McKibben

Aldo Leopold

It appears that Leopold actually died in 1948, so my childhood memory that he was still at the University of Northern Iowa in the mid-1960s appears to have been a fantasy. I suppose his Sand County Almanac felt so fresh to me at the time that I projected a sense that he was still alive and working.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Environmental Racism

The interest in racial matters in some of your posts suggest that one topic we might investigate this semester is environmental racism -- the disproportionate placement of polluting industries and toxic dumps in predominantly minority areas. The ethics of this is perhaps a tad obvious -- it's wrong on Kantian, Millian, and Aristotelian grounds (though perhaps for somewhat different reasons for each). The economic, political, and social dynamic that perpetuates it, and the growing resistance to it, however, are more than worthy of an ethicist's attention, and it would also be helpful to locate it in other discussions about the environment (for example as in my last post, not dropping local concerns in preference for global ones, but integrating them).

Monday, February 15, 2016

Localized pollution vs. climate disruption

The environmental movements of the 1960s and '70s tended to emphasize relatively local pollution issues, whereas now much of the focus is on global disruption. We have to hold the two in balance, however, for they're not ultimately separable (though issue-by-issue they can play out rather differently). Here is a shocking statistic on mortality due to air pollution:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Climate Displacement

One of the reasons we cannot seriously discuss environmental ethics outside of a wider ethical context is because everything is embedded in the wider environment. The ecosphere is also an ethisphere. Interestingly, the attached article makes the claim that perhaps we should legally define displacement due to climate disruption as a form of political persecution...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Latest from Bill McKibben

Here's a recent piece that operates on the border between moral psychology, political strategy, and environmental ethics, by noted environmental writer Bill McKibben (who published the first popular book on global climate change, in 1988: The End of Nature).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Environmental Ethics

I will use Skeptiblog mostly for Environmental Ethics postings this semester.