Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

There is a recently published article on Scientific American, “Are Men the Weaker Sex?” This article has been getting a good deal of attention in my Facebook feed. From the article:

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species. These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers (Source)

I agree with many of the things in this article, but I find it a little hard to read. It seems to be doing something similar to what Emily Martin identifies in “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles.”

The article is full of normative comparisons of non-normative developmental events. For example, it says that the male foetal development is “more complicated” and that

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples).

Fair enough that ‘female’ is default, but does that necessarily imply “simpler?” Sure males have nipples as a result of vestigial similarities, but also (according to Elisabeth Lloyd) women have clitorises and orgasms as a developmental vestige of male reproductive function.

The article states:

The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

But is that empirically true that the male reproductive tract is “more complex”? Each seems to have their own unique complexities.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as a bit creepy. Can’t we acknowledge differences without trying to rank them as “more complex, “more advanced,” “simpler,” or “more basic?”

In fact, women and men evolve at the exact same rate. That is what sexual recombination is all about. One is not more simple or more basic and the other more complex or more advanced. This seems all kinds of distorted.

I am emphatically not saying that we should not look at particular vulnerabilities that men might face. I think we should. In addition, we should also look at particular vulnerabilities that women might face. I just don’t see why in doing so we have to rank these differences.

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In any given news cycle there is likely to be a story about someone who said something or told some joke that is described as “offending” some persons. Earlier this summer there was the “rape joke” told by Daniel Tosh. This week Pam Palmater wrote about a racist joke in an Royal Canadian Legion newsletter.

Usually after such occasions the person or organization issues an apology “for offendingthe group or individual in question (or in the case Palmater describes, fails to apologize at all since “only one” person was offended).

I'm Sorry

I’m Sorry

In fact, this response is so common that Wikipedia even has an entry on it titled “The Non-Apology.” The Wikipedia article focus mainly on the apology as lacking the requisite contrition or admission that something was wrong. I think that is right, but I also want to focus on something else: the “I’m sorry I offended you” line misses one important target group for the apology.

You see, I am not so worried about those who were “offended.” Sure, it sucks to have to live in a culture that is basically a mine field waiting to explode with “humour” that reinforces one’s lesser status. But at least those who were offended recognize what was wrong with the statement. I am also worried (perhaps more worried) about those who were not offended.  As Palmater writes:

 Racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada is so ingrained that some in society can’t even identify it when they see it. (Source)

Those in the group who were not offended are the ones who really concern me because they are so blind to racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. that they were not even able to be offended by the alleged humour. So in addition to apologizing to those groups who were “offended” by the racist/sexist/etc. “joke” I think there should also be an apology to those who were not offended.

Perhaps something along the lines of:

I am sorry my hackneyed attempt at humour reinforced ideas of racial (gender, class, etc.) superiority among those who were not offended by the alleged “joke.” I am sorry that what I said perpetuated and reinforced your privileged blindness to the racism (sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.) so prevalent in this society…

Because in addition to hurting those who are offended and reinforcing their lesser status in a given culture, such “jokes” also have the harmful effect of reinforcing arrogance and ignorance among those who failed to see what was wrong with the “offensive” “joke” in the first place.


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On Sunday July 22, 2012, the Québec Student Strike (grève générale indéfini, #ggi or Indefinite General Strike)  resumed protesting after a brief pause in June to give students some time to rest.

Student Protest on July 22, 2012

Students marching in the streets on July 22, 2012.

The Student Unions that organized the #ggi in Québec used the summer pause to travel to Ontario for a “Solidarity Tour” to help educate Student Unions there about how to organize a successful student strike. The Canadian English media’s coverage of the tour has been astonishingly poor. Take for example Tasha Kheiriddin’s article in The National Post: “We don’t need no solidarity with Quebec students.” Here is an excerpt from her piece:

Rather than inviting Quebec students here to infect them with their protest virus, the Ontario students would be better off going to Quebec, to see the effects of all this mayhem there. I played tourist in Quebec City and Montreal last week with my partner and his teenage children, and we had no trouble getting into any attractions because there were few big crowds. In June, hotels reported that business in Montreal was down by $5.8-million from the May of the previous year, with 5%-10% of bookings cancelled. While it might be great for vacationers who do show up, it is bad news for tourism operators and merchants — and for their employees.

Among those employees, of course, are students working summer jobs to pay their tuition. Between May and June, employment in the hotel and restaurant sector fell by 9% — at a time when it usually increases to serve the high season. Meanwhile, student unemployment overall stands at 16% compared to 14.5% for the same period time last year. And even if they find jobs in July, students have to head back to class in August to recoup class time lost to the strike, precluding them from holding full-time employment for the rest of the summer. (Source: The National Post)

It is not clear to me why Ontario students would be expected to take advice about their solidarity interests from a Whitby-based journalist who is unlikely to share the same interests as them since she is no longer a student.[1]

But even more striking in this quote is the lack of understanding of what a strike is, what a strike is for, and how one might measure the success of a strike: It is even less clear to me why Ontario students should take advice from a journalist, like Kheiriddin, who could not even be bothered to research strike actions and their history before writing about them in a national newspaper.


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An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

An Origami Heart folded from a US one dollar bill

I find it very bizarre that during a time of economic upheaval the Globe and Mail is running a series on “Giving.” Is Charity the answer to our economic woes? Some seem to suggest that it might be. For example, Ed Clark, CEO of TD bank (whose salary rose by 9% last year, while inflation is at 3% according to the consumer price index) said:

“We live in a market economy,” which means that paying executives less than the market rate will make it hard to attract the cream of the crop, he [Clark] said.

“Personally what I’ve always said is… what you do with your pay matters. You can solve this problem on how you behave personally in terms of charitable donations and things like that, and try to reconcile that dilemma.” (Source).

Clark believes the problem of CEO pay would be difficult to address directly (by lowering or limiting it), or we would not be able to attract “the cream.”[1] So the solution is for CEOs to act charitably.[2] Again, a similar refrain to the Globe section, I linked to above.

This suggestion seems problematic to me. There is a moral difference between equality achieved through rights (as a matter of what we are owed as persons) and equality achieved through charity (as a matter of the beneficence of others). Immanuel Kant discusses the danger that charity poses to the self-respect and dignity of the recipient in The Metaphysics of Morals.  Although I have some quibbles with Kant’s discussion in these sections, I think it is right in the broad outlines.


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I work in health care ethics, and there is a saying in the hospitals, “Nurses Eat Their Young” (see for example this podcast from the radio show “White Coat, Black Art” on the topic of nurse bullying). Well it seems to me that the same can be said of left-wing activists. Once again a bunch of young activists from a “left” perspective are trying to do something and raise awareness about the economic injustices currently occurring and the (allegedly) “left-wing media” seems incapable of figuring out what is going on. The same thing happened after the G20 in Toronto, and I wrote about that here. I am a philosopher, and what we do is analyse arguments, so I am going to comment on the ridiculousness of mainstream commentary on the occupation. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.”

I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.

The sections I examine are as follows:

1. I Demand One Demand (this post)

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless

3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!

4. Those “Smelly”  “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed

5. Focus on What They are Wearing

6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?

Bibliography:  Link Round-Up of Decent Places to Follow the Protest

This list will grow as I read and run across new inane commentary in the media. Guess what journalists, I am an oldster, well out of my 20s, I earn well over $100K per year, and not only can I figure out why there is a protest, but I also think the protesters have a legitimate point.


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Utilitarianism is basically the moral view that in order to judge whether an action is good one should consider the consequences and then evaluate whether the act provides the most good to the greatest number of people. (It is more complex than that, as you can see from the description at this link, but the nuts and bolts are as above).

This summer I began a new job as an assistant professor at a university. I was thinking about which textbook to order, and I applied a kind of utilitarian reasoning to my selection process. I began by reading the texts and I selected only those that I thought would do good by providing educational benefit to the students. After this process there were three texts that were about tied in terms of educational benefit.

Next, I thought about how I could make the students happy, and decided they would like a low-cost text book. So I went on amazon and looked up the price of the three texts. One was around $90 and the other two were around $40. This narrowed it down to two, and the selection between them really would have resulted in probably a more-or-less equal amount of benefit at lowest cost to students, so I selected the one that had a faster shipping time (1-2 days).

I also support local bookstores and so I ordered the text to a local bookstore so the students could have immediate access to the text without having to wait for the shipping time.

In my reasoning I was trying to maximize the good for everyone involved. The publisher would sell a few hundred copies of the book, the local bookstore would have a few hundred sales, and the students would experience educational benefits and cost savings.

Imagine my surprise when my students informed me that the book cost $75 from the local bookstore! I thought:

“What? How is that possible? Why are the textbooks so expensive?”

So I called around to find out what was going on. How could the actual consequences of my action be so different from the consequences I intended?


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One area of epistemology, asks whether it is wrong to hold certain beliefs. William Clifford said:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

The “ethics of belief” is often used in intro philosophy classes to begin debates about God’s existence. The following video also provides an example of why one might want to avoid beliefs based on insufficient evidence:

Apparently UFOs, God and whether people go to restroom all have the same evidentiary status according to this guy. I guess he doesn’t know that shit stinks…


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I am writing this simply to boost the signal on another post “Microsoft Conducts a Home Invasion” over at The MassOrnament. I agree with them about the absolute outrageousness of this commercial:

Note that her computer is only FOUR (4!) years old. Having a four year old computer apparently justifies Microsoft in breaking into your house and harassing you into buying a new computer.

Talk about the high-pressure sales techniques:

“Oh look! we did a B & E in your home while you were out! Don’t call the police, buy a new computer instead! It will cost about $1,000 to $2,000 and it will only last FOUR years! We’re working on lowering the number of years it lasts, by the way! We’ll call it ‘technological advances’ and you’ll want to get yourself another!”

So when a poor person does a B & E and takes your stuff, they get arrested and thrown in jail. But when Microsoft does a B & E, and then coerces you to hand over your computer and a few thousand bucks for a new one, that is somehow caring for their customers?

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Today marks the six-year anniversary of equal marriage in Canada on July 20, 2005 (although it is important to note that same-sex marriage was already legal in most of the provinces and one territory before that). Since the passage of Bill C-38, which legalized same-sex marriage in Canada, there has been no negative effects on heterosexual marriage or the rest of Canadian society:

Nobody has married their car, their tree or their favourite living room chair. No priest has been forced to marry same-sex couples. No pedophiles have married children….

Nor has gay marriage undermined straight marriage…

In fact, according to the article linked above, divorce rates have fallen in Canada. Further, our economy has not crumbled. Things are going pretty well here.

Last year I posted a video by Grimace in which he interviewed Canadians about how the legalization of same-sex marriage changed the life of Canadians. Even those who were opposed to equal marriage said the law had not changed their life (though I assume that is more true for heterosexuals than for homosexuals). Here is another video (an old one from 2006) where Grimace interviews Canadians about whether they would like to reopen the equal marriage debate. Among those interviewed, most seem to think the issue is settled and equal marriage should remain the norm for Canada since “we can’t pick and choose rights.”

Canadians seem satisfied with the current state of affairs, and there have been no negative effects on Canadian society. So yippee for same-sex marriage in Canada.

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When parents discuss their choices about their children’s education and extracurricular activities they often mention that they want the best for their children:

I just want the best for my kids.

I want my daughter to have all possible advantages.

I want my son to have a head start.

This attitude is usually taken to be unproblematic and perhaps even praiseworthy. Government programs for poor children often echo these types of sentiments in their titles: for example, Head Start. So what could possibly be wrong with this view?

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

I want the best for my kids: I want them to stand out above yours

Well, things like “advantages,” “head starts,” and things that are “the best” are positional goods. This means that in order to have them, others need to be kept from having them. We cannot all be “the best” or have “the best,” otherwise it would stop being the best and would be average. We cannot all have “an advantage,” otherwise it would cease to be “an advantage” and become the average. You can only have a “head start” relative to some baseline that is somewhere behind. So whenever a parent says something like the quotes above, there is an implicit statement about other children:

I want your son to have disadvantages (relative to my daughter).

I want your daughter to start behind my son.

I want what is average for your kids.

I seriously doubt that when parents make statements about wanting “the best” “advantages” or “head starts” for their own children that they are also considering the flip-side of these statements. In fact, I think that if many parents were asked about the implicit statements about other children, they would probably deny them. Nevertheless, the first set of statements does correlate to the implicit second set of statements.

To the extent that we believe in meritocracy (that people should get what they deserve through their hard work and talent) and to the extent that we think people should have equal opportunities (or a level-playing field) then there is something troubling about these often-lauded parental sentiments.


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