Tag Archives: ethics

Foundations of philosophical thought (not)

A set of episodes or angles on how I might teach “Foundations of Philosophical Thought,” relayed as a 54-minute video given that I won’t have time to write up the thoughts I had during a walk this morning: http://youtu.be/G5MnPXZSi0E

(Comments welcome, including pointing out all the articulate writers [philosophers included] who have dealt with issues I raise and those I overlook or brush past.)

Ecology and ethics: From conservation to capabilities to cultivation

In a chapter just submitted for an anthology on Earth Stewardship I raise the possibility of translating the non-equilibrium view of ecological complexity (Pickett 2013) into a view of ethics and social action. This leads me to introduce five ideals for a “dynamic flux ethics”—engagement, participation, cultivating collaborators, transversality, and fostering curiosity.  I unpack these a little below, but something I realized after writing the chapter is that two shifts were involved: Continue reading

From the soul to morality: Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing?

Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing, to formulate and choose alternative paths, to identify a problem and design a response?  This line of questioning seems to have a connection to deep conceptual assumptions about agents inside agents.  Let me explain.

When a religious person claims that life begins at conception, they may say this is a scientific fact, not a religious doctrine.  Yet this is not science; the egg and the sperm are already living, even if conception marks a qualitative shift in the pace and quality of their development.  The statement of fact is a cover for what the religious person has faith in, namely, that the soul enters the fertilized egg at that point—or at a very early stage of embryological development, such as implantation.  This soul is given by God to complete something that the parents—the sperm, egg, womb, placenta providers—cannot provide.

Let us put aside the issue of whether religious faith should dictate laws and policies.  What can be seen here is a deep conceptual assumption of an agent within any agent.  The living being does not develop without being directed by something else.  A famous example is Richard Dawkins’s theory of selfish genes (http://bit.ly/18EMokR):

“Now [the replicators] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

That Dawkins is an outspoken atheist invites us to ponder what is shared by opposing intellectual armies (borrowing here from Raymond Williams in his 1980 essay “Ideas of Nature”).  In this spirit, we can note that proponents of women’s reproductive rights point to personhood as something the law grants only at birth.  We can, however, ask why not later, or why at all?  The fetus depends on the mother to be able to keep living, but the newborn also is also utterly dependent on others.  Indeed, much law grants parental control over minors; they are not deemed ready to make many decisions for themselves.

Suppose it were held that lives are dependent at all times.  From that perspective, the urge to decide on a point at which a life is responsible for directing its own development might then seem to be a holdover from the deep conceptual assumption that something not observable, something distinct from ourselves, has to be directing our development and lives.

Another item of religious faith is the existence of a Consciousness that transcends any particular human life.  If there is no such Consciousness, what, it is often said, is the point of living?  What is to hold off the chaos resulting from all of us simply pursuing our own selfish satisfactions?  Again let us put aside the issue of whether laws and policies should be dictated by the standards and norms that any given religious group claims to be mandated by such a Consciousness.  What we can see in this line of thinking is a deep conceptual assumption that there must be some standard external to us in order for us to know what we should do.  The directing agent within any apparent agent is mirrored by the directions that we as agents follow.  It is an assumption shared by the intellectual armies that oppose the religious foundations to ethics, as is evident when philosophers and other scholars propose a systematic view of what is right and wrong to do.

Suppose it were held that, even if agents tried to stay focused on following some principle of morality or rationality, or sought to optimize some metric, such as their profit, they could not calculate how to do that given the interdependency of their development with that of many others.  From that perspective, attempting to define the standard from which all action ought to be derived might then seem to be a distraction from the challenge of engaging contingently and flexibly within what might be conceptualized as heterogeneous intersecting living processes (Taylor 2005).

Return now to the original question: “Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing, to formulate and choose alternative paths, to identify a problem and design a response?”  The very framing of this question and the hold that the deep conceptual assumptions have on us seem to call for answers of the form “we do that to satisfy our most basic human needs or to gain more pleasure or to feel a greater sense of our own creativity or generativity.”  If not something like that, what is the source of the necessity of changing, of not continuing along previous lines?  The challenge then, if we want to escape from the assumptions of agents within agents and externally given directions, is to reframe the question and develop a different kind of answer.  I could add, tongue in cheek, “that is, if you want to try to do something different.”  Except it remains to be seen whether the reframing rests on such a first step…


Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. Problems in materialism and culture. London, Verso: 67-85.

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A bibliography

In a 2011 graduate course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology,” students were asked to add an annotated reference or resource (=person, organization…) to the evolving googledocs bibliography each week.  (Annotations were to convey the article’s key points as well as its connection to the student’s own inquiries and interests.)  The result is as follows: Continue reading

Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World III

Looking back on “Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” (the 14th Cary Conference), I wondered what might have happened if ecological science rather than ethics took the lead.  Let me explain.

The scientists and philosophers (and some hybrids) who gathered all accepted that we shared a concern with environmental degradation.  What to do to stem that degradation?  One model is that people need to have a different ethic about non-human nature to govern their actions (which assumes that a person’s ethics governs their actions and not vice versa or some contingent, inconsistent interplay).  This model was evident in the reference early and often to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, but also in reference to animal rights.  A variant of this model is to pay attention to religious views about nature, highlighting the ones that seem to be pro conservation and/or stewardship and downplaying the views that favor exploitation of resources.  Religions promote ethical frameworks and they have the authority and numbers to make their views count—to effect actions.

A second model is that economics governs people’s actions, collectively as well as individually, so push for an economics based on a different set of values, namely factoring in the benefits of “services” provided by non-human nature—by ecosystems—rather than taking them for granted and placing costs to the environment outside economic calculations.

Neither of these models stem from any theory about ecology (even though the argument for ecosystem services involves ecologists doing research to explore how they might be measured).  One of the organizers of the meetings, the ecologist Steward Pickett, spoke about paradigms in ecology leading up the current situation, which he calls a dynamic flux view.  In brief (as I describe elsewhere):

Since the 1980s ecologists in general have become increasingly aware that situations may vary according to historical trajectories that have led to them; that particularities of place and connections among places matter; that time and place is a matter of scales that differ among co-occurring species; that variation among individuals can qualitatively alter the ecological process; that this variation is a result of ongoing differentiation occurring within populations—which are specifically located and inter-connected—and that interactions among the species under study can be artifacts of the indirect effects of other “hidden” species.

The thought experiment I am proposing then is to translate this picture to consideration of how humans in their contingent, changing social organizations, are able to direct and redirect their actions.  This might go like:

We become increasingly aware that situations—social organization/s—may vary according to historical trajectories that have led to them; that particularities of place and connections among places matter; that time and place is a matter of scales that differ among co-occurring social groups and institutions; that variation among individuals can qualitatively alter the social and environmental process; that this variation is a result of ongoing differentiation occurring within populations—which are specifically located and inter-connected—and that interactions among the groups and institutions under study can be artifacts of the indirect effects of other “hidden” groups and institutions.

Ethics then becomes a contingent snapshot of what appears to be directing an individual or group, something that the people may or may not make explicit, discuss, debate, and use to negotiate their actions.  Even if this is a radical recasting of how ethics is theorized, the experience of ecologists as scientists—as against their concerns as environmentalists—could have informed the substance of discussions at the conference.  (We would also have been more likely to have addressed the four challenges I identified before arriving at the conference.)

Developing an ethical framework for participatory processes that integrate environmental concerns, ecological science, values, and action, with special attention to interaction among diverse social agents

One outcome from a Cary conference discussion group on ethics of participatory process. The link describes the processes leading to this (and other) outcomes; the result below is necessarily cryptic, but maybe explored in future posts as a starting point for a “enactable, contingent social theorizing.”

Outreach to listen & engage with diverse others, risks notwithstanding Embrace difference so far as to destabilize privileged position/ing Embrace difference in theory & practice so moving forward deconstructs privilege as it constructs through collaborative projects Mindful, reflective action in a changing world needs ideas, action, and positions to be put in tension with those of others so that theory and action are dynamic and deeply participatory
First priority to empowering vulnerable & less powerful
Build connections among diverse parties as a basis for planning & conducting practical environmental projects
Walk the talk in actions as consumers that lessen our footprint If some local actions are consistent with Big Visions, other actions are grounded in specific places A changing world needs a dynamic ethics that allows for but goes well beyond Big Visions and local actions
Keep Big Visions in tension with action grounded in specific places
Nudge ethical theorists to be dynamic: No theoretical difference without difference in (messy) action Scientists & ethics both committed to dynamical theory of ethic in action in a changing world
Scientists become explicit about their ethics for knowledge-making in specific places
Reflective practice: Listening, probing, creating new connections, reflecting, opening questions Mindful, patient cultivating of practice that is critical, reflective & generative
Take the time & silence it takes to prepare us to participate

Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World II

During the first two days of talks at “Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” there was no reference to challenges 1, 2 or 3—on accountability at a distance, participatory process ethics, and translocal interventions (see previous post).  Does this mean I should start working on challenge 4 (i.e., interpreting and responding to frameworks that do not pay attention to the first three challenges)?

It is possible to advance a broad-brush interpretive schema (such as the one quoted below).  But it would be more interesting to tease out or “map” the intersecting processes that lead to each person’s thought and action, then use that to help them see engagements that might allow them not simply to continue along previous lines.  That’s the step I present in the last part of Unruly Complexity (U. Chicago Press, 2005).  Moreover, in the context of discussions I am facilitating at the conference on ethics and participatory processes, I might now say: Pursue participatory processes in such a way that, instead of periodic self-mapping and identifying possible points of engagement, people should get into the swing of continuous reflective practice, cultivating themselves as collaborators, and “flexibly engaging” so that they support others in their development in those directions.  Indeed, one discussion group member asked yesterday: Can something be ethical unless participatory?  To be continued…


From a multi-person dialogue at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/popdialogue.html

Sociolo: Let me illustrate the connection between science and social action with a simple classification of environmental analyses.

I distinguish three broad analytic orientations regarding environment and society. They differ in the units of analysis-the kind of person or other agent who is involved in phenomenon-and in the implied limit-that makes the phenomenon a problem. Reso’s two-countries story gives us two of those orientations. On one island there were unequal, differentiating units, linked in their economic, social, and political dynamics, facing limits that are primarily social, and only sometimes biophysically conditioned. On the other island were uniform, undifferentiated units, which can be simply aggregated, and which face biophysical limits when they grow. I would add a third orientation, which acknowledges the existence of rich and poor strata, but does not provide an account of the dynamics that generate and maintain inequality.

What’s important is not simply that the “differentiated dynamics” orientation is, as Reso showed us, probably more faithful to the actual complexity of the world. The different analyses suggest different conceptions of what social action is favored. The “differentiated dynamics” orientation, as Activo and Reso discussed earlier, means that different people have to identify where they are positioned-or where they are trying to position themselves-within the particular dynamics of each case. The “uniform units” orientation implies what I would call moral and technocratic political tendencies (Taylor 1997 [How do we], Taylor and Garcia Barrios 1997). In technocratic formulations, objective, scientific analyses-often quantitative in form-identify the policies needed in order to restore order or ensure the sustainability or survival of society or humanity. Individuals, citizens, and countries are then expected to submit to those policies. Moral formulations, in contrast, avoid coercion and rely on each individual to make the change needed to maintain valued social or natural qualities of life. Yet in many senses the moral and technocratic approaches are allied. Both command our attention by stressing the severity of the crisis and threat to our social order. The solutions invoke common, undifferentiated interests as a corrective to scientifically ignorant leadership or corrupt, self-serving or naive governance. Moreover, although the solutions are supposed to apply uniformly to all of us, special places in the proposed social transformations are reserved for their exponents. The technocrat has a place as analyst or policy advisor; the moralist has a place as guide, educator or leader.

Ecolo: The uniform orientation seems like a straw person. Everyone recognizes that there are richer and poorer people and countries that have different effects on the environment.

Sociolo: That’s where the third “stratified units” orientation comes in, but it occupies an uncertain middle ground. Suppose contraception is promoted among the poor to curb population growth and reduced consumption is promoted among the affluent to reduce the disproportionate environmental effect of their slower growing or stable population. Are these or other stratified policies and practices meant to be any different from those given by separate uniform analyses, one restricted to the poor, the other to the affluent? If so, more needs to be said. In particular, how and why are the proposals supposed to work? This question raises the need for an analysis of the dynamics, redirecting us along the “differentiated dynamics” orientation.

Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action

“Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” is the topic of the 14th Cary Conference that starts today.  Before sessions begin, let me post the themes I bring and see how they get modified or developed during the conference.

The first challenge for an ethical framework is enabling us to be accountable for the  effects of our consumption and through that economic production and through that other actions (e.g., military interventions) on people we are distant from geographically, culturally, socio-economically.  (This challenge increases further if we add time to this list.)

The second challenge is bringing into interaction not only a wide range of researchers, but a wide range of social agents, and the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.  This might be called the ethics of participatory process.

A third challenge is how people in the participatory process above address the contributions or resources, intellectual and material, that people outside that heterogeneous collectivity offer or withhold.

A fourth challenge is to interpret and respond to frameworks that do not pay attention to the first three challenges, that put forward Big Themes that do not delve explicitly or directly or primarily into the messy politics of participation among diverse social agents, e.g., “We must act now to save the earth,” “All sentient beings have rights,” “Trees have standing,” “Humans have to see ourselves as one species among the millions,”  “Maintaining biodiversity is essential for human survival.”  These themes may seem interesting to debate and refine or reject, but the fourth challenge calls for them to be measured by the ways they shape practice that does or does not address the first three challenges.  (An analogy: Conservationists might be genuinely concerned about the species lost as the tropical rainforest is cleared, but what are they learning and doing about the social and economic dynamics that embed the people who are clearing the forest?)

One Big Theme that I have invoked is the idea, which I draw from John Berger’s essay “Why look at animals,” that the changes in what humans do to animals prefigures the changes in the ways dominant human groups treat subordinate human groups (in Berger’s essays, peasants and immigrant workers are such subordinate groups).  If we ask how this transfer from human-animal to dominant-subordinate human relations happens in real socio-historical practice—and what we might do about that—I think we quickly get back to the first three challenges.  If not, then this Big Theme invites interpretation in the spirit of the fourth challenge.

Biology says human life does not begin at conception.

Biology says human life does not begin at conception.  The sperm and the egg are already living, functioning, human entities.  They are certainly not dead; nor are they non-human.  Yuval Levin (“A Middle Ground for Stem Cells“) could, therefore, extend his “profound moral case” for equality to every sperm and every egg.  In vitro fertilization gives most eggs a chance—a right?—to be fertilized and move into the next phase of living.

As a matter of public policy, this extension of Levin would require colossal interference in the menstrual lives of females.  (And the right of every sperm to continue living-let’s not spell out what that would entail!)  Society would then need to decide which women would then be implanted with those fertilized eggs—even in Levin’s “age of biotechnology” embryos need a women’s womb to develop until birth.  And to decide who would then look after these human lives, given that every baby needs nurturing adults to grow and develop as a person…

I doubt that Levin wants the logic of his argument to be played out this way.  But doing so exposes the political position taken by most people who oppose stem cell research on so-called moral grounds, namely, support for laws that subordinate the lives of women to the embryos they may not always choose to carry.  No bioethical or “moral” considerations can make this position just.

(an unpublished letter to the editor in response to A Middle Ground for Stem Cells)

Changes in mammogram guidelines: Responding to the personal-story response III

How does the new trolley scenario (see previous post) provide a different angle to approach the incommensurability of the individual experience and the net social benefit? (The need for a new angle arose because allocation of health care funds according to benefit/cost calculations [see earlier post] cannot be expected to satisfy the person with the story about screening saving their life. )

Unlike the original trolley scenario, this one corresponds somewhat to a situation found in the real world and allows us to reframe how people can think ethically about benefit/cost calculations for a population versus the story about screening saving an individual person’s life. I say somewhat because there is no guarantee that the savings if group F took the track B choice would be used to provide the track A choice to group P. Perhaps they would go to more insurance coverage for viagra use! Working to direct savings to group P would be part of the ethical choices and actions this new trolley problem asks of you.

In case the translation isn’t obvious, group P are the poor who don’t get routine screenings at any age and group F are the under fifty year olds, including women under 40 who don’t get routine mammograms and those in the 40-49 year who the USPSTF proposed should no longer get them. The choice you are asked to make in the new trolley scenario is for all women, which includes those in group P who didn’t get routine screening in their 50s or 60s and died from breast cancer, not only those with a screening-based diagnosis in their 40s who lived to write letters against changes to guidelines. The choice is not a matter of someone, such as USPSTF, devaluing the life of the letter writer (or of a 40-49 year old woman who can imagine routine screening allowing her to live to write such a letter), but of someone looking at the option to have such a choice coming at a cost to others. Indeed, taking the choice may devalue the lives of women who do not have a voice in the debate, some of whom may die for lack of routine screening in their 50s and 60s.

You might protest that there need not be such a trade-off—funds should be made available for everyone to have the same basic health choice. However, ethics has to factor in the actual world, not assume some hypothetical or possible future world. Or, at least, that’s the line of thinking that the new trolley scenario aims to draw the reader into.

Now that I’ve invented the new trolley problem, I’m not sure if wouldn’t be better simply to state the ethical problems directly. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post.