Category Archives: moral reasoning

Brian’s Links 16 April 2012: Can You Find a Theme?

“Riding the Booster.” This video is simply amazing – the solid rocket booster goes up and it comes back down again. I must say, I got a bit dizzy after booster separation. But worth the ride!

Benedict XVI has been dubbed “The Green Pope” for his environmental concern. I like it, and not just because my last name is Green. Here’s a report from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Climate Change.

Ever wondered if your brain was messing with your ability to judge and reason correctly? Well, it is: here is a list of cognitive biases. And the bias I address in some of my research, teleological bias, isn’t even on this immense list. (Teleological bias is the tendency to infer purposes where there are none, e.g., the lightning striking your dog really was a random accident, not because you named your dog Zeus.)

The thought experiment of “ethical autocorrect.”

So, all your traceable purchases are being traced and compiled in myriad computers.  The easy way to stop store-centered ones is to pay cash (like a criminal) and never use those store “clubs.” But the internet is tracking you too! Here are some more sophisticated responses for the internet. And if you tell your Facebook friends to warn them, it just gives the trackers more info on you!

The Nobel Peace Prize committee is under investigation for straying from the prize’s original purpose…

Contagious twitching. A very strange case.

Muggers just need a nice dinner and some conversation.

The case of the Millionaire Metaphysician. For more info see

The Guerrilla Grafters, surreptitiously turning non-fruiting city trees into fruiting ones. I like it.

Is it wrong to father 400 children through sperm donation? (And if not, then where is the cutoff? Is there one?) Because of sperm banks, some guys are “fathering” (in a biological sense only) an immense number of children.  This is not insignificant; this is the human gene pool being altered here, not to mention people’s lives.

English Muslim baroness warns Christians to stand up for their religion.

And how to prove the absurdity of the Supreme Court case “Citizens United”? Colbert is on it. Because Mitt Romney is a serial killer. Corporation are people. Bain Capital repeatedly bought and broke up corporations, killing them. Therefore Romney’s a serial killer. I love absurdity. This link to the Colbert Report will get you the video in case the embedded video below has failed. (The embed is a mirror copy of the original (removed for some kind of YouTube terms violation) and likely won’t be alive for long.) This is a few months old, but still just as pertinent.


What Kant Can Teach Us In The Catholic Church vs. HHS Mandate Case

Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective.  Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about.  

I doubt that Immanuel Kant will be able to convince any of my conservative Catholic friends that the HHS mandate with the Hawaii exception is a workable compromise for an imperfect system.*  (Well, maybe Kant himself could, but my use of Kant probably won’t convince anyone). At the same time, I am teaching Kant this week in my intro Ethics course and so I have the categorical imperative on my mind as the HHS mandate question rages on.  Thus, I thought it might be helpful to apply Kant to this conundrum and see if there was not something to learn from the 18th Century German philosopher.   I am by no means a Kantian, but I do think his emphasis on the universality of moral law is something we need to always keep in mind, and this case is a perfect example.

For those not familiar with Kant’s work, here is a quick and dirty summary:  Kant said that ethics boils down to one’s duty to do uphold what he called the categorical imperative.  That’s just a fancy way of saying a universal duty – a duty that applies to everyone, always.  There is only one categorical imperative for Kant: that we should never do any action that we wouldn’t want everyone else to do.  It’s a modification of the golden rule.   So Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if we lie when “it is necessary” then we would have to allow everyone to lie when necessary.  If we allow everyone to lie when necessary, the we would never know if someone was telling the truth or lying out of necessity, and the whole institution of trust would break down.  In short, our actions are only morally legitimate if we can say that we would want everyone else to do the same action.

So lets think about Kant in terms of the health care mandate.  What is the maxim that is at stake here?

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The Illusion of Validity vs. Phronesis

Last night I was lucky enough to catch KQED’s Forum with Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. One of the most interesting concepts that he mentioned last night was what he calls the “illusion of validity.” The idea is that oftentimes the stories we know, tell ourselves, and interpret our experience through can be misleading (perhaps that’s really not so earth-shattering). Even in instances where we may really think we see something, interpret it, and are highly confident in our interpretation, our conclusions can be totally wrong (he points this out especially among financial advisors who often cannot predict market directions regardless of knowledge).

Yet, Kahneman differentiates this from expertise. Over long periods of time, if we are engaged in a practice that involves trial and error wherein we can learn from our mistakes and there is a regularity in the phenomenon we are looking at, we can develop a skill–something akin to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis (or practical wisdom).

I find Kahneman’s work interesting and intend to look into it further. The concept of the “illusion of validity” will be of interest, perhaps, to those also who utilize Bourdieusian theory in their work. Bourdieu’s notion of “illusio” (i.e., a socialized interest in the particular culture and social position within one lives) combined with his concept of “misrecognition” and Kahneman’s “illusion of validity” are worth comparing and maybe even integrating.

If these stories we tell ourselves or these internalized social schemas really filter and organize the internal and external stimulus we experience, there are interesting implications to explore in the realm of practical ethics and even in the study of how religious beliefs may either affect behavior or at least the interpretation of behavior.

Brian’s Links 5 October 2011: Religion, Freedom, Science, and Abortion

How to get light in your dark shack? With a soda bottle and some ingenuity.

A post-natural history museum.

Apparently not even Jesus could run a religious organization according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

A debate on free will in the journal Nature.

The militarization of America’s police. And more and more crimes and less and less proof needed to convict you on them.

Dinosaur feathers! In amber, just to make them extra-amazing. Discover and National Geographic.

Dinosaur Feathers in Amber (from National Geographic)

Wrongful birth lawsuit wins Florida couple $4.5 million. They would rather their child be dead, so give them money.

Kiryas Joel, a curious place where 70% of the population is below the poverty line but no one is poor, there is no crime, and everyone is educated and well-fed. Why? Because they care for each other. Because their religion tells them to.

It’s a “fourth trimester abortion.” Fordham professor Charles Camosy comments.

Italian scientists on trial for failing to predict earthquake. Yes, they could not tell the future, so curse them to jail.

The Return of the Elwha, in the NYTimes. This is the most significant dam removal so far in the US.

When intense belief kills. Yikes. Sleep paralysis + belief in nocturnal spiritual attack = death.

The city of San Juan Capistrano fines couple for having friends over to read the Bible. How to respond… Free exercise clause? Privacy? Property? Anything? And don’t think that just because you’re in Canada you can get away with it, eh?

Finally, fly over the Americas in the space station. Amazing.

Japanese Retirees Volunteer to Clean Up Fukushima Disaster

I have been meaning to point out some exemplars of virtue for some time now.  They are not your average people by any means. They are retirees in Japan, ages 60 to 78, doing what extremely virtuous persons might do when radiation from a melted-down nuclear power plant threatened others: they are volunteering to go in first, because they have fewer years to live – and lose – anyway. I highly recommend you read their story. These are an impressive group.

Their logic is impeccable.  They are less likely to experience the effects of radiation because they are already closer to the ends of their lives.  Cancers usually take a while to develop.  And even if they do get cancer they have fewer years to lose than a young person would.

This logic is clear to a virtuous person.  And their virtue makes them unafraid to follow the logic they have discovered.  They are the ones to act.  They know that they are the ones who should be in there, protecting the young from danger.

The heroism is mind-boggling. Some think they are crazy. Some think they are “Kamikazes.” I think they are a combination of smart and courageous. Smart because they know they are at less risk.  Courageous because they are willing to actually act on what they know. Others in the same situation might not know they were at less risk.  And even if they knew it, they might decide it wasn’t their problem. But these folks get it. They feel compelled to act, because it is the right thing to do.

This movement has been building for a while, from 200 volunteers in late May to over 300 now. Many were engineers or scientists before they retired.Their aid has not yet been accepted. Perhaps it will not be.  But they are ready to go if the government and power plant will let them.

In any case, they have already shown their mettle.  These are logical, honorable, good people. Rare in their virtue.  I feel proud just to know they exist.

Philosophy as Plumbing and Saving the Environment

English philosopher Mary Midgely is known for several things.  She didn’t write her first book until she was 55, and now she’s 91. She went to Oxford with several other great women philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Warnock (and I think I’m forgetting someone). She’s criticized Richard Dawkins. She has a sharp tongue. And she sees philosophy as being like plumbing.

Philosophy is like plumbing? Why plumbing? Well, Midgely gives a whole host of reasons.  Both are everywhere but not obvious. Both are extremely complex and have been often irregularly cobbled together. Both are typically unnoticed until something goes wrong, and then they make a mess and you have to call a specialist. Both are absolutely necessary if we want to have the kind of society that we currently inhabit. (All in her essay “Philosophical Plumbing”, from The Essential Mary Midgely, p. 146-7)

She goes on to say that while all acknowledge the need for skilled plumbers few even realize there is a need for skilled philosophers. Bad ideas just creep in and mess up our thinking and we don’t know what is going wrong. I can think of economics as a field that could use a few specialists who actually know what they are doing, for example.  But what about some other philosophical ideas in need of thought?

The question of whether nature is neutral or good I think is the greatest (or close to it) philosophical question of our day. The environmental crisis and everything about the human relationship to the natural world, including our own human nature hinges on this question. If nature is neutral, then we get to treat it as we see fit: it has no intrinsic worth, only instrumental value to us.  But if instead nature is good, then it has intrinsic worth and humans need to respect it.

Some may complain that this is an exclusively Christian view of nature (that creation is good) but it is not. Aristotle came up with it completely independently.  Nature is good because every living thing has its own purposes that it seeks to fulfill. They have their purposes whether humans exist to witness them or not. The study of purposes is called teleology, and Western science decided to throw out teleology back in the time of Francis Bacon (the 1600s). With no intrinsic purposes, nature had no “good” to seek. Nature neutralized. David Hume picked it up and spread it to ethics, and the bad idea has been growing ever since.

Now Hume’s law – the “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'” – is considered gospel truth. Science has no relevance to nature, and good is whatever we decide it to be. This gives us license to wreck the Earth, among other things. Too bad for the environment.

And yet we sit here in the midst of an environmental crisis acting like we don’t know what’s wrong, like we don’t have the tools to fix it. Well we do. We admit that nature is good to go about it’s business, and that our role as humans is to respect nature, not shove it into our own little preconceived notions or destroy as we see fit. We could just say “nature is good” and work with nature rather than against it. That would take some convincing and some willpower, but it could be done.

There are many more things to be said about this. It’s not quite that simple, after all. But the basic problem is bad mental plumbing. Our ideational pipes are broken and the house is flooding.  Time to figure out what went wrong.

Brian’s Links 27 June 2011

The Study of Character: an academic website dedicated to the topic. Very interesting; and a prestigious group of faculty too.

California and Texas.  America’s two renewable giants? And for completely different reasons.

Those politicians in Washington are somewhat educated. A map and statistics for how educated your state’s politicians are.

Ah, the old kidneys + jellyfish = lasers trick…

New website on climate change in California.

Rationality is just for winning arguments, a new study asserts. Not everyone agrees, as you might expect.

Google searches for “Catholic” falling worldwide. Interesting data.

David Sloan Wilson’s Binghamton project as described by the journal Nature.  Can we use Darwin to make our cities better places to live? It’s worth a shot.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak predicts robots will conquer the Earth.

The 10,000 year clock is under construction in West Texas… Inside a mountain, wound by the heat of the sun warming the mountain, and made of parts meant to endure the millennia.

Mmmm, industrial tomato. Indestructible, none of those darn vitamins or flavors, just what America wants from its food. Good story about how out tomatoes turned into crud.

Cornell West and Robert George together, united against pornography on the Princeton campus.

Finally a little bunny in Japan with no ears. Some people think the Fukushima disaster (discussed previously on this blog in terms of radiation and technological ethics) may be at fault, and they might be right.  Radiation does weird things. But it also might be unrelated. Anyway, here is the sorry little bunny…