9 thoughts on “Paper topic

  1. Suggestions:

    Choose one; It should be 750 – 1000 words.

    1. As a newly hired teacher in the Nanaimo school district you have been asked to make recommendations to the Board on the “value” education approach to be used by the district. Recent events in the district: violence, drug use, protests, absenteeism, lack of respect for authority, and disregard for school rules have prompted the Board and Administration to consider ways of using education to deal with these problems. The Board has chosen you because you are young, recently graduated, and have an interest and some course work in philosophy. Given the conditions as outlined in the paragraph above, prepare a brief to be presented at the next Board of Trustees meeting in which you argue for an educational approach based upon your considered philosophical position.

    2. In the context of discussing whether or not one ought to speak out against Nazism, one author critical of utilitarianism argues:

    “Imagine the case of an old man in Nazi Germany who is hostile to the regime. He is wondering whether he should speak out against Hitler. If he speaks out, he will lose his pension. And his action will have done nothing to increase the chances that the Nazi regime will be overthrown…How would the utilitarian calculation go? The benefits of the old man’s speaking out would, as the example is presented, be nil, while the costs would be the loss of his pension. So the costs of the action would outweigh the benefits. By the Utilitarians’ cost-benefit calculation, it would be morally wrong for the man to speak out. To those who believe that it would not be morally wrong for the old man to speak out in Nazi Germany, utilitarianism is insufficient as a moral view.”

    Is this a good criticism of utilitarianism? Why or why not? Does this example really show what it claims to show?

    3. The following is a variation on a well known example in modern philosophy used by Phillipa Foot and responded to by Judith Jarvis Thomson and other contemporary philosophers:

    Suppose you are the driver of a trolley [train like vehicle on fixed tracks]. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workers, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five workers down. You step on the brakes, but they don’t work. Now you see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five workers on the straight track ahead. But there is one worker on that spur of track. He can no more move off the track in time than can the other five, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto that spur. Is it morally permissible for you to turn the trolley onto that spur? Is it morally obligatory for you to turn the trolley onto that spur? What decision would you make? Why? [Notice that you are required to either turn or go straight; you cannot stop or fly away or anything else!]

    Now suppose further that after you have made your decision and the consequences are known to all a hearing is held to decide if you made the RIGHT decision. By the wonder of modern science John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant are able to attend the hearing as expert witnesses. What would each say about your decision? [Assume that both speak English or French as fluently as you do.]

    4. Ann Thorpologist is a confirmed cultural relativist. She does some research to discover what Canadians believe about capital punishment. She discovers that 50% are in favour and 50% are opposed. She reasons as follows:

    “If I am under an obligation to do X, and I am under an obligation to do Y, then I am under an obligation to do both X and Y. Therefore, since moral relativism is true, it follows that if half the people think that the government is under a moral obligation to execute murderers by means of the electric chair, and half the population think that the government is under a moral obligation not to electrocute anyone no matter what they have done; then the government’s obligation is to electrocute and not electrocute a murderer. But, since this is logically impossible, the government’s obligation is clearly to put the murderer in the electric chair, at a lower voltage than is usually used, and leave it up to chance whether or not she/he gets electrocuted.”

    Does this argument make sense? moral sense? logical sense? any sense?

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  2. I was going to suggest the trolley problem, too, but a current version of it. There is a really interesting discussion currently happening in the context of autonomous, self-driving cars, that effectively mirrors the trolley problem. This version of the trolley problem could conceivably be much more widely applicable than the thought experiment, given that autonomously driving cars might well be a staple on our roads in the not so distant future. See http://www.technologyreview.com/view/542626/why-self-driving-cars-must-be-programmed-to-kill/.

    Besides the parallel to the trolley problem, there’s a whole discussion to be had about whether cars are ever moral agents or not. You could ask students to play devil’s advocate and to argue for or against cars and their computers as moral agents. For example, a student could argue that, when you design systems, in this case the software that interprets sensor data and determines what reaction to make, you don’t design moral agents at all, you design systems that are able to respond to certain situations and that can trap and avoid specific types of error conditions, such as a collision. An untrappable fatal error condition, quite literally, would be one where the autonomous car encounters an irrecoverable situation where a collision is unavoidable and it’s going to pick something or someone to hit. Does that software ever make a moral choice? And if not the machine, then what about the programmer who creates the decision making algorithms that decide over life and death? Should he or she be held accountable at a trial for the choices that an autonomous car made that killed?

    (And if I pay extra for a luxury car, should I reasonably expect that car to protect me or my family better, say, to the effect that if I have the option of hitting a family member’s car or a stranger’s, should it hit the strangers? 🙂 )

    There’s also the issue that talk about designing moral algorithms might be an overlay of our own moral discourse–here the trolley problem–over the design of autonomous machines. This might put you firmly back into thought experiment territory, with the claim that moral discourse is an anthropomorphism not shared by machines. But there’s a generational gap: When we ran the philosophy programme at GrandKids University this past summer, there was a clear age difference between those who thought that machines could possess intelligence and those who thought they could not. By and large, the parents or grandparents thought not; the kids more or less thought they could and didn’t really question the idea of intelligent machines. If an intelligent machine is possible, why not a moral one?

    (In the article I linked to, I got a chuckle out of “the new science of experimental ethics”–the practice of posing ethical dilemmas to people is hardly new, though the scale might matter somewhat. 🙂 )

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  3. Here’s another one: Get students to work through effective altruism, that is, the movement or idea that we ought to try to improve the world in the most effective way possible, which is an offshoot of utilitarianism. Giving to a charity that keeps a good chunk of the money? Not effective. Volunteer tourism? Mostly for the benefits of the volunteers. What about sponsoring a child in a third world country? What about the cycle of dependence that often comes with international aid? Etc.

    If you look at what happens on popular sites like reddit, there’s a feeding frenzy when a philosopher like Peter Singer shows up for an AMA (‘ask me anything’, see https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/32lnif/im_peter_singer_australian_moral_philosopher_and/). Effective altruism is one of those popular topics that pervades public discourse and shows up readily around us, like getting kids to do volunteer work or fundraising in school as a matter of practice, and it’s one of those topics that people immediately can relate to (either for or against).

    There are arguments against Singer’s effective altruism, say this one https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/peter-singer-charity-effective-altruism/, which claims that effective altruism really just masks a greater problem of our own making and that we ought to fix the system rather than respond to the symptoms.

    Could be a good discussion! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, all! You have provided me with hours of material to think about and I deeply appreciate it. You have helped to make the class more interesting.


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