Everyday Ethics
Stickies

What is Ethics?

Home > Newsroom > Posts

Newsroom

Posts

by rjp218 Apr 01, 2015
by SKeira Jul 21, 2015
by khepler Apr 07, 2015
Contributors: Mark Fisher
by SKeira Jul 22, 2015
by krr5072 Apr 18, 2017
by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
by khepler Apr 07, 2015
Contributors: Mark Fisher
by SKeira Jul 22, 2015

The US Academy of Sciences' Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

by SKeira Jul 21, 2015
Earlier this month, the United States Academy of Science issued its most recent report on the science of climate change that once again concluded that human-induced climate change was a very serious threat to humans and ecological systems around the world. This Report was entitled "America's Climate Choices 2011" (US Academy, 2011) Among other conclusions, this report found:

I. The US Academy of Sciences Thirty-Year Record in Warning the US About the Risk Of Climate Change.

Earlier this month, the United States Academy of Science issued its most recent report on the science of climate change that once again concluded that human-induced climate change was a very serious threat to humans and ecological systems around the world. This Report was entitled "America's Climate Choices 2011" (US Academy, 2011) Among other conclusions, this report found:

Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks. In the judgment of this report's authoring committee, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks posed by climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts. " (US Academy, 2011)

This is not the first US Academy of Sciences report on climate change. In fact the US Academy gas been warning Americans about climate change since international interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions grew dramatically in the late 1970's as computer modelers began to use new computing tools to construct climate models that were capable of predicting temperature changes caused by human-induced climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the National Research Council a branch of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. (White, 1978)

A report prepared by the Carter administration a few years later in 1981 declared that "[t]he responsibility of the carbon-dioxide problem is ours-we should accept it and act in a way that recognizes our role as trustees for future generations." (Charney et al., 1979) This report also estimated that the amount of warming that would be experienced from a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of CO2 would be 3 degrees C, very close to the amount that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would predict almost 30 years later." (Charney et al., 1979)

For over thirty-five years, the US Academy of Sciences has warned the US about the enormous threats of climate change with each successive report making stronger claims that human caused climate change is a serious threat to civilization. If the United States can be accused of failing to live up to its ethical responsibilities to the rest of the world on climate change, one cannot blame the US Academy of Sciences for failing to ring alarm bells. US citizens cannot claim that their most prestigious scientific institutions have failed to take a position on the seriousness of climate change.

ClimateEthics has previously explained that that the failure of the United States to respond to climate change can be attributed in largest part to a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign. See, for example, A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?:The Fossil Fuel Industry's Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change(Brown, 2010a) ClimateEthics has also repeatedly argued that the failure of the United States to respond to its ethical duties for climate change may also be attributed to the almost complete failure in the United States of the media and even climate change policy advocates to acknowledge that climate change raises not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. See, for example, Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net. (Brown, 2010b)

II. Ethics and The National Academy of Sciences.

If climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical issue, can the US Academy reports on climate change be criticized on ethical grounds??

The US Academy reports acknowledge that climate change has serious adverse world-wide impacts, that is impacts outside the United States. For instance, in its most recent report, the US Academy concluded that climate change would cause the following world-wide impacts:

• Water availability will decrease in many areas that are already drought-prone and in areas where rivers are fed by glaciers or snowpack;

• A higher fraction of rainfall will fall in the form of heavy precipitation,
increasing the risk of flooding and, in some regions, the spread of water-borne illness;

• People and ecosystems in coastal zones will be exposed to higher storm surges, intrusion of salt water into freshwater aquifers, and other risks as sea levels rise;

• Coral reefs will experience widespread bleaching as a result of increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.

(US Academy, 2011)

Yet, the Academy report for some understandable reasons does not acknowledge that what a nation should do about climate change is an ethical question. Instead the report encourages policy makers to frame climate change as a risk management problem. Such a framing suggests climate change is a matter of national self-interest, not obligation.

If duties and obligations should drive climate change policy, this would change or at least expand the kind of science needed for climate change policy making to include such things as disaggregation of climate change impacts, including associated uncertainties, in order to facilitate debate about obligations and responsibilities. In other words, ethical questions about obligations will drive the science of climate change to consider facts that don't need to be examined in the absence of ethical obligations.

The dilemma for the US Academy of Sciences is that the role of the US Academy is to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive. The US Academy's role does not allow it to take positions on ethical debates about climate change policies, but it can and should anticipate those debates, present data, portray uncertainties to facilitate discussions of equity and other ethical issues. This will allow negotiators, decision makers, and other stakeholders to ground important ethical discussions in relevant science.

For instance, policy makers and scientists need to understand that how scientific uncertainty is approached raises normative and ethical questions because such questions as who should have the burden of proof to reduce uncertainties are ethical questios not simply scientific issues.. These normative questions need to be expressly identified so that they are not hidden in scientific descriptions of impacts of human actions. This is particularly true in cases when there are scientifically plausible but insufficiently understood serious and irreversible consequences of human actions, and in such cases ethical questions about the scientific uncertainty should be acknowledged. .

One important ethical question raised by climate change science that needs to be expressly acknowledged in reports about climate change science is the ethics of scientific uncertainty. Doing this an a US Academy report is most likely resisted because there is a potential conflict between the US Academy's role to synthesize the peer- reviewed scientific literature, which normally requires high levels of scientific proof before drawing conclusions, and the ethical duty to act entailed by the precautionary principle that is in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This principle requires governments to act despite scientific uncertainties.

The United States bound itself to the precautionary principle for climate change when it ratified the UNFCCC in 1993. A precautionary science would identify all scientifically plausible impacts, not only those impacts that can be identified with relatively high levels of scientific certainty. If the precautionary principle is to be taken seriously, then decision-makers should be informed about all major potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts of climate change. If the US Academy does not have the mandate to do this, someone in the US scientific community should be given the responsibility to do so and US Academy should make it clearer that it is relying on scientific conclusions in the literature that have reached relatively high levels of certainty. It should, at a minimum, also acknowledge ethical questions raised by scientifically plausible but uncertain impacts. It can do this without taking a position on what should be done in the face of uncertainty by simply acknowledging that ethical questions arise in such matters.

Since the United States government expressly adopted the precautionary principle when it ratifies the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a case can be made that the US Academy should identify all scientifically plausible impacts and particularly those that are experienced by those most vulnerable to climate change. If it were to do this, the US Academy should of course be clear that these impacts are less certain than others.

The US Academy could resolve its inherent conflict between its duties to stick to the science and avoid taking positions on ethical matters by simply acknowledging the ethical issues raised by climate change science. This would be an improvement on current practices of ignoring the ethical questions while encouraging Americans to see climate change policy options as risk management decisions alone.

For this reason, ClimateEthics recommends that the National Academy simply acknowledge ethical issues raised by climate change science. Without doing this, the Academy gives the false impression that US climate change policy is a matter of national interest alone and nothing needs to be done until all uncertainties are resolved. .

III. Ethics and the US Obligation for Climate Change

When the US Academy of Sciences reached issued its first report on climate change science in 1977, CO2 atmospheric concentrations were approximately 330 ppm. Now CO2 in the atmosphere is over 392 ppm. As ClimateEthics has frequently explained, the duty to take action on a problem like climate change is triggered long before all uncertainties are resolved because climate change is a problem that waiting: (a) makes the problem worse, (b) makes the ability to take action to avoid catastrophic harm more difficult, and (c) is not justified without consulting those who will be most harmed by waiting.

As we have asserted in previous posts, a strong ethical argument can be made that high-emitting countries and individuals have a strong duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions once threshold scientific knowledge establishes that the failure to take action can increase the harm. Not only is it not necessary to have absolute proof about climate change impacts from human activities before duties arise, asking what science tells us to do about climate change and only considering proven scientific facts in so doing is a wrong question as an ethical matter.

This confusion is at the core of why policy makers, the press, and environmental groups may have been tricked into asking the wrong question for over 30 years about science and climate change. This is so because decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises profound ethical questions not only "value-neutral" scientific questions. Ethics would make us responsible for our behavior once we are on notice that there is a sufficient threshold of scientific evidence for concluding that what we are doing is dangerous and that our behavior is putting others at risk. That is ethics would have us ask not only what do we know about climate change impacts, but what impacts are possible. Yet, frequently when climate change impacts at the upper end of predicted scientific ranges are quoted they are categorized as "alarmist" even though these possible impacts are relevant as an ethical question once it is established that they are plausible scientifically.

For these reasons, the United States had an ethical duty to begin to take actions to reduce the threat of climate change over thirty-five years ago when the first Academy of Sciences report on climate change was issues.

By:

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University,
Dab57@psu.edu.

Brown, D. 2010a, A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry's Disinformation Campaign On Climate Chang. http://sites.psu.edu/rockblogs/2010/10/24/a-new-kind-of-crime-against-humanity-the-fossil-fuel-industrys-disinformation-campaign-on-climate-change/

Brown, D. 2010b, Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net. http://sites.psu.edu/rockblogs/2010/08/15/are-ethical-arguments-for-climate-change-action-weaker-than-self-interest-based-arguments-why-taking-ethical-arguments-off-the-table-is-like-a-soccer-team-unilaterally-taking-the-goalie-out-of-the-ne/.

Charney Jule et al, 1979, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, Report of an Ad-Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979 to the Climate Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, http://www.atmos.ucla.edu/~brianpm/download/charney_report.pdf

US Academy of Sciences, 2011, America's Climate Choices (2011), http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Americas-Climate-Choices/12781

White, Robert, 1978, Oceans and Climate -Introduction, Oceanus, 21:2-3

 

The Third Man: Questions for Reflection

by khepler Apr 07, 2015
Contributors: Mark Fisher
The novelist E.M. Forster wrote "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What does The Third Man have to say about betraying one's friend? Is the betrayal of a friend always inexcusable? Are there more important loyalties - to one's country? One's family? One's religion? Etc.

The novelist E.M. Forster wrote "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What does The Third Man have to say about betraying one's friend? Is the betrayal of a friend always inexcusable? Are there more important loyalties - to one's country? One's family? One's religion? Etc. 

 
Anna and Holly have very different responses to Harry Lime's crimes. How do you account for their different reactions? Why does Anna choose not to leave Vienna? Why does she choose not to benefit from the capture of Harry? What do we know about Anna's life during the war? What do we know about Holly's? Do their different experiences of the war affect their responses to Harry? 
 
What do you make of the film's final shot?
 
Why does Holly write Westerns? Will he continue to write Westerns after his time in Vienna? 
 
Critics have often said that the city of Vienna is a character in The Third Man. How is the city used as not only a setting but as a character? 
 
 
Although Orson Welles is on screen for very little of the film, he is often remembered as the star of The Third Man. Is Harry Lime an attractive character? Are his arguments defending his criminal behavior compelling? Repellent? Understandable? Does Harry love Anna? During the chase through the sewers, are we rooting for Harry? Do we want him to escape the police? 
 
Why is the scene in the hospital filmed the way it is? 
 
Katie reminded us of the important differences between proximity and distance when making ethical decisions. How does The Third Man address these differences? 
 
Does The Third Man make you reconsider your response to the Sandusky scandal?

The Rock Ethics Institute and Critical Philosophy of Race

by SKeira Jul 22, 2015
Racism is not just a matter of personal feeling. It is deeply embedded in the structure of and institutions of our society and of the world in general. It is reflected, for example, in the distribution of wealth, of health resources, and of educational opportunities.

Racism is not just a matter of personal feeling. It is deeply embedded in the structure of and institutions of our society and of the world in general. It is reflected, for example, in the distribution of wealth, of health resources, and of educational opportunities.

The Critical Philosophy of Race (CPR) seeks to develop the philosophical tools necessary to meet the ethical and intellectual challenges posed by new forms of racism as well as the legacy of the inherited racisms. It also turns the spotlight on philosophy itself, its history and the shocking lack of diversity within many philosophy departments today.

The CPR initiative of the Rock Ethics Institute seeks to:

  • promote the recruitment, retention, and graduation of racial minorities both at the graduate and undergraduate levels;
  • sponsor workshops on contentious issues with a view to promoting interracial understanding;
  • be a clearing house for resources that promote the study of the history and current state of race thinking and racism;
  • mentor young philosophy faculty toward tenure;
  • become a site for interdisciplinary engagement with issues of race both in the Penn State system and more broadly;
  • set up global as well as local partnerships at every level with a view to promoting a better informed discussion of racial issues.

The Richard B. Lippin Lecture Series: Moral Development in the Context of Group Games

by krr5072 Apr 18, 2017
On April 20, Dr. Carolyn Hildebrandt will discuss the comparative benefits of cooperative and competitive games, and the importance of allowing children to create and regulate their own games within democratic, constructivist classrooms.

Carolyn Hildebrandt headshot

By: Lindsey Hogge

Over the past four years, Michael D. Burroughs, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute, senior lecturer of philosophy, as well as vice president of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), has organized the Richard B. Lippin Lecture Series for the Rock Ethics Institute. Since joining the Rock, Burroughs has focused the Lippin Lecture Series on topics relating to moral development and ethics education. Burroughs explained that “My interest in facilitating this lecture series is that the Rock is in large part an educational institute. A big part of our mission is education and outreach.”

As part of the Lippin Lecture Series, Carolyn Hildebrandt, professor of psychology at University of Northern Iowa, will be lecturing on moral development in the context of group games. Hildebrandt’s interests in social and moral development, musical development, and constructivist approaches to early education will be featured during her talk, which will be held on April 20, 2017 at 3:30 p.m. in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on the Penn State University Park campus. 

“What makes Dr. Hildebrandt unique is that she does developmental research which means trying to better understand how children develop an understanding of moral concepts and how to internalize those concepts,” said Burroughs. “She does a lot of focus on education and educational programs, particularly through the use of games and music and how that influences moral development.”

In her lecture, Hildebrandt will discuss how group games are a vital aspect of constructivist early education, as well as social and moral development. According to Burroughs, “the idea of a constructivist education is that people learn by engaging with an authentic problem, developing potential solutions, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Through that process, you acquire knowledge about yourself, about your world, and you develop capacities to problem solve in the future”.

Similar to Hildebrandt, Burroughs uses the constructivist approach to understand how children think about ethical issues. As the co-founder of the Philosophical Ethics in Early Childhood (PEECh) project, Burroughs collaborates with children and teachers to better understand forms of philosophical and ethics education that promote moral development in early childhood. “A really interesting challenge in working with young kids is that they don’t have the language abilities that we do”, said Burroughs. “They can’t just tell you these ethical distinctions are important to me.” Burroughs says that you can watch children experience ethical conflicts, for example, when sharing and playing cooperatively with peers. Also, similar to Hildebrandt, Burroughs understands the importance of using games in his work and research: “by developing games, using puppets, and activities that they’re interested and engaged with, you can learn a lot about how they think of ethical issues and the limitations there”.

“One thing that’s really interesting is that a lot of times people don’t think of ethics as being a robust part of childhood life, said Burroughs. “What I think Dr. Hildebrandt’s talk will really highlight well is how even from a young age, kids are really grappling with ethical questions. I think for people interested in education, she’ll have a lot of interesting things to say about different approaches to learning and working with students. That could be applied to multiple ages, not just young kids”.

The Lippin Lecture is free and open to the public. For more information and to register, visit the event page.

 

 

 

 

The Question of Honor

by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
As an Honors student writing my Honors thesis and purportedly adhering to numerous Honor codes at Penn State, I am obliged to reflect on the concept of "honor." What does it mean to be honorable? Should I be honored because I am in the Honors College, because of academic success...or is it more than that? The term "honor" appears to me to have two very distinct uses. First, there is the honor associated with academic distinction, athletic performance, and extracurricular leadership. But then there is also the honor that can't be written down, formatted and pasted on a r�sum�, the kind of honor that requires integrity and strength of character. Unfortunately, this more profound sense of honor, this deep-seated self-assurance and conviction of purpose is not something that can be easily identified; this sort of honor can only be affirmed by observing an individual's actions over time and in critical moments of mental and physical duress.

As an Honors student writing my Honors thesis and purportedly adhering to numerous Honor codes at Penn State, I am obliged to reflect on the concept of "honor."  What does it mean to be honorable?  Should I be honored because I am in the Honors College, because of academic success...or is it more than that?  The term "honor" appears to me to have two very distinct uses.  First, there is the honor associated with academic distinction, athletic performance, and extracurricular leadership.  But then there is also the honor that can't be written down, formatted and pasted on a r�sum�, the kind of honor that requires integrity and strength of character.  Unfortunately, this more profound sense of honor, this deep-seated self-assurance and conviction of purpose is not something that can be easily identified; this sort of honor can only be affirmed by observing an individual's actions over time and in critical moments of mental and physical duress. 

Now, while in practice the assumption is that those who achieve distinction possess this integrity, it is certainly not always the case.  We frequently hear about the debauchery of distinguished politicians, the perversion of high priests, and the corruption of decorated law enforcement officers in the evening news.  And we are extremely reluctant to call them honorable, despite their impressive accomplishments.  Equivalently, students who have gleaned a certain degree of distinction - whether in school, on the field, or in the community - do not necessarily possess the high degree of integrity required for this more profound sense of honor.  And this becomes an issue for the faculty and administrators of the Honors College, as they undoubtedly do not wish to produce merely accomplished students, but truly honorable individuals. 

For the Honors College, the question then becomes -- how can instructors and advisors instill students with this more profound variety of honor?  Should coursework be delivered in a broader context - that is - perhaps a broader political, economic, and moral context?  Should more emphasis be given to the implications of certain practices, rather than to their mere execution?  How can students be encouraged to reflect on their values and to develop an internal moral compass?  Moreover, how will they know when they have succeeded?

As for the students, we should be asking ourselves - what do I value?  What do I consider my virtues? Am I truly committed to any ethical paradigm, or do I just pretend to subscribe to a general sense of morality without really considering the implications of my views and actions?  Would I really consider myself an honorable person?

The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods

by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
What is a "private good"? Individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are commonly cited. Health is a fundamental private good. Some minimal level of material well-being is part of the "good life" envisioned by the founders of the country, but it is important to note that in the Classical tradition on which the founders drew, the good life, or "happiness," included more than material well-being. In this tradition participation in the life of society is commonly considered part of the "good life."

This post was written by guest-blogger Donald Thompson, Professor of Food Science at Penn State University Park.

What is a "private good"? Individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are commonly cited. Health is a fundamental private good. Some minimal level of material well-being is part of the "good life" envisioned by the founders of the country, but it is important to note that in the Classical tradition on which the founders drew, the good life, or "happiness," included more than material well-being. In this tradition participation in the life of society is commonly considered part of the "good life."

Pursuit of the "good life" has always been relatively easier for those with the good fortune to have been born into a relatively privileged social and economic situation. Two related ethical questions in a democratic society are "Should everyone have at least an adequate opportunity to succeed in their efforts in the pursuit of happiness?", and "Should success be primarily the reward of effort and talent, rather than from the good fortune of initial circumstance?" The questions are ones of justice. Some individuals have inspiring stories about how they overcame adversity to achieve success. These stories, while they may be true, function as cultural myths, telling us about our aspirations as a society. But are these inspiring stories representative ones, or are they striking because they are exceptional? We never read the stories of those who suffered initial disadvantages, worked hard, played by the rules, and yet did not succeed. Among the many reasons to explain failure in these stories we do not hear, one that is difficult to exclude is that the barriers to success were too great. These stories are either mundane or depressing. They do not tell us what we want to believe about our society. We would prefer to think that those individuals who did not succeed were responsible for the outcome, that they failed as a result of some personal deficiency, that in this respect they are fundamentally unlike the rest of us. For centuries this kind of thinking has been applied as a way of explaining misfortune, whether sickness or economic: it is more comforting to think that people who suffer have somehow deserved their suffering, that it may even be God's punishment. At least then one has the illusion of justice, as well as the illusion of control over one's own circumstances. The converse of this logic is that success serves as verification of deservedness. But do particular people who suffer sickness or who are economically struggling deserve their situation? And if they do not, should anyone else care? If they do not deserve their situation, is there any collective responsibility to right the injustice they experience? Even if they were thought to deserve their situation, is there any obligation to help our fellow citizens? These are ethical questions.

We can and do argue about how well we can sort out causes for the adverse circumstances experienced by grown adults. But for children, one simply cannot argue coherently that they have deserved their situation, whether it be a favorable or unfavorable one. They are simply lucky or unlucky as to birth. So on the basis of justice it would seem beyond reproach that children should have some minimally adequate opportunity to succeed. It is a fundamental question of justice that children be provided with opportunity to accomplish an education. The same can be argued with respect to food and shelter for children: the issue is one of fundamental justice. They have a right to a certain level of private goods.

What is the proper role of government concerning the well-being of its citizens? Minimally it is to provide those necessary goods that cannot be achieved by individuals acting as discrete entities. The common defense is certainly a necessary and perhaps the primary "public good" according to this definition. Provision of clean air is a public good. Minimization of contagious disease is a public good. Construction and maintenance of roads is a public good. Provision of safe drinking water and electricity are recognized in law as public goods, in that these services are provided by public utilities. Maintaining social and economic order through a legal system and enforcing the laws are also public goods. Laws to ensure provision of public goods typically constrain private goods, even with respect to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All these public goods require resources to accomplish, and these resources include individual acknowledgment of legitimate constraints on their private goods, including payment of taxes levied groupwise. There is a tight relationship between the various public goods and the resources required to accomplish them. Before determining the proper relationship, one ought to have an understanding of the value of public goods, as well as of the rationale for their publicness. Thus the question of whether education should be considered an important "public good" should first be framed independently of the question of what level of taxes is acceptable. Once this question and others about other public goods are answered, all the "public goods" and their costs should be then be prioritized and considered against the cost to individuals in the form of taxes. It may well be that all the desirable public goods envisioned will be deemed to be too expensive to accomplish, and careful deliberation will be required to resolve the matter of which are important enough to fund with public money. Taking a position about what is an unacceptable level of taxes without first being clear about the full nature and scope of the public goods in question is simply narrow-minded and short-sighted. It is to be rejected on pragmatic grounds.

Education is an important public good. But education of children is more than a public good with respect to the right to social justice for the individual children. It is also a public good because an educated populace is in the interest of all to ensure mutual economic well-being and to ensure a strong and viable democracy. Public education has a long history in the U.S., with the very idea originating here. This country led the world in providing public access to education in the early 1800s. Public education, funded by taxes, has been a long-standing collective statement that education of children is a public good. Children participating in public education embody by their participation the development of this public good. Providing access to public education has come to be considered a responsibility or duty of government, not a right that must be demanded.

The history of public education in the U.S. is not limited to primary and secondary education. The Morrill Act of 1862 was a striking statement by the U.S. Congress that higher education is also a public good. By virtue of this Act, the U.S. Congress declared that higher education for those not part of the economic and social elite was a public good. This Act made a strong contribution to the economic well-being of a large part of the U.S. population, and the success of these people contributed to the larger well-being of American society. This Act established a route by which many of the less privileged could work hard and achieve success. It was in the spirit of the American dream, an opportunity for hard work to pay off, for upward economic mobility not to be limited to the inspiring stories of the few who manage to overcome great disadvantages.

If we are solely responsible for our successes in the pursuit of happiness, perhaps we could even defend keeping all our resources for personal use. But if we are not solely responsible, then to the extent that we are not, it is as if we were given the happiness we have. Our collective sense of justice, as well a specifically Christian ethic both say that much is rightly expected of those to whom much is given. Those who have done well in their pursuit of happiness have some obligation to help those who have not done well. Those earning more should pay a disproportionately greater share of the taxes to support public goods. Taxes to support the public good should not fall disproportionately on those less well off.

Public education is important in this country for two reasons, both of which speak to "public goods." The first public good is justice, of reasonably equal opportunity for all, especially children, who are willing to work hard. The second public good is the collective economic good. Reduction of public investment in public education is a reduction in the public good in both senses.

The extent of the role of government in our lives should be considered pragmatically, not ideologically. A pragmatic view judges the value of government actions by the outcomes. One outcome of a minimal role of government is a minimal ability to accomplish public goods of many types. A decreased prioritization of public goods is in effect a diminished sense of social responsibility among citizens. Another outcome would be a greater share of one's income being available for the accomplishment of one's private good. Considered solely from the perspective of the individual in the short term, it is hard for an individual not to see an appeal in this outcome. But the proper role of government, determined by a resolution of the tension between level of taxation and level of public goods, should not be determined without a full consideration of the role of government with respect to the public goods to be valued. Resolving this tension is a matter for careful pragmatic consideration. What appears to be in the interest of an individual in the short term may well not be even in that individual's interest when the sum of private and public goods experienced by that individual are considered.

I suspect that many in this country have taken for granted the ready availability of public goods of many types, losing the ability to perceive these public goods for what they are. Without a clear consideration of the value of public goods it is easy to reduce the level of contributions we ask of ourselves collectively to produce these public goods. I hope we will consider the entire scope of our collective democratic project, and "measure twice" before cutting. Because what would be cut is not limited to taxes and not limited to particular public goods; it involves our individual relationships to our collective society. We run a serious risk of diminishing our collective selves as a people, which may be the most important public good of all. This broad form of public good may be invisible from a myopic view focusing on private goods. I predict that if dramatic reduction of the role of government is accomplished without careful consideration of public goods that are in fact important to all of us, the reduction of public goods will eventually be apparent, visible once again even to those citizens who think that this reduction is a good idea today. Yet even presuming the accuracy of this prediction, I worry about the time it will take to realize what will have been lost and the additional time for remedies to be instituted and accomplished. Of course, my prediction may be wrong. Our diminished sense of the public good may diminish us as a people so thoroughly that we cannot recover the public-spiritedness that has contributed to the greatness of this country.

The Practical Significance of US Congressman Waxman's Achnowledgement That Climate Change Is A Moral Issue

by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
On March 7th, US Congressman Henry Waxman, speaking at the Center for American Progress, encouraged Americans to see US action on climate change as a moral responsibility. To our knowledge, Congressman Waxman is the first US elected national politician to speak about the moral dimensions of climate change despite the fact that climate change must be understood as essentially a problem that creates a host of civilization challenging ethical issues. For this reason, Congressman Waxman should be commended.

I Introduction.

On March 7th, US Congressman Henry Waxman, speaking at the Center for American Progress, encouraged Americans to see US action on climate change as a moral responsibility. To our knowledge, Congressman Waxman is the first US elected national politician to speak about the moral dimensions of climate change despite the fact that climate change must be understood as essentially a problem that creates a host of civilization challenging ethical issues. For this reason, Congressman Waxman should be commended.

Congressman Waxman did not, however, discuss the practical implications of understanding climate change as moral matter and for this reason this post identifies some of the logical conclusions that necessarily follow from seeing climate change as a moral issue. If these principles were followed it would transform how climate change has been debated in the United States.

II. The Significance of Waxman's Ethical Claim

After riling against many efforts underway in the Republican controlled US House of Representatives to prevent the US government action on climate change that are based upon fraudulent scientific views propagated by some fossil fuel interests, Congressman Henry Waxman said:

We are at a pivotal time in which every member of Congress will decide whether they will be on the right side of history or the wrong side of history," Mr. Waxman said. "Civil rights in the 1960s was a moral issue, and there was a right side and a wrong side. Climate change is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue. But it is also fundamentally a moral issue. (Broder, 2011)

.

If climate change is a moral issue it is important to identify the practical significance of this understanding. If climate change is a moral issue then, at minimum:

1. High-emitting nations and individuals may not make decisions about greenhouse gas reductions by looking only at self-interest alone. Any position on climate change must respond to duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others.

2. A nation that is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions may not refuse to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of increased domestic cost alone.

3. A nation may not refuse to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that put others and the ecological systems on which they depend at risk of harm on the basis of some scientific uncertainty once it is established that great harms are possible.

4. A nation must limit its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. In deciding what is fair, a nation must look to ethically relevant criteria for being treated differently than others.

5. Some of the economic analytical tools that are often used to judge the acceptability of public policy such as cost-benefit analysis are ethically problematic when harms and costs are greatly disaggregated among those who would bear costs of action to reduce the threat and those who experience harms of non-action as they are in climate change.

6. Those who cause damages to others have a duty to compensate them for their harms.

7. National policies on greenhouse gas emissions must take into consideration their responsibility to limit their emissions to their fair share of global emissions that will achieve safe levels of levels of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

8. Before setting domestic climate change policies, nations must consult with those who could be harmed by non-action on climate change.

9. Nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals have responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.

If climate change is a moral issue as Congressman Waxman has asserted that it is, then it follows that how the climate change debate has been conducted in the United States must be transformed. No longer can the climate change debate focus exclusively on whether proposed climate legislation or policies are in the US interest alone. The US must consider its duties, responsibilities, and obligations it has both to living people around the world and future generations. So far, ethics is the missing crucial element in the US debate about climate change because the US climate change debate has up until now focused exclusively on whether climate change legislation and policies are in the US interest alone.

By:

Donald A. Brown, 
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law, 
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu

References:

Broder, 2011, Waxman Angrily Assails G.O.P. 'Science Deniers', New York Times, March 7, 2011, http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/waxman-angrily-assails-g-o-p-science-deniers/

The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as an Ethical Problem.

by SKeira Apr 15, 2015

Why is practically important for policy-making to see climate change as an ethical problem?

ClimateEthics begins with this entry using YouTube technology to explain the ethical dimensions of cliamte change. The following is our first attempt to do this. This video explains why it is practically important to understand climate change policy issues as ethical questions. We hope to improve our ability to do this in the future. This entry is 16 minutes long. It argues that it is practically important to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4uHUoO5HwY&w=420&h=315]

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu

The Nun's Story: Questions for Reflection

by khepler Apr 07, 2015
Contributors: Mark Fisher
The Nun's Story is about the possibility of achieving perfection. What would it mean to be a perfect human being? Would your version of a perfect human being resemble the woman Sister Luke attempts to become?

The Nun's Story is about the possibility of achieving perfection. What would it mean to be a perfect human being? Would your version of a perfect human being resemble the woman Sister Luke attempts to become? 

 
Should human beings aspire to be perfect? Should Christians aspire to be like Christ? Are either of these possible? 
 
Why must Sister Luke shed her personality and her memories in order to achieve perfection? 
 
One critic has written that unlike other films about religion, "this film does not treat the audience as the choir that will receive the preaching." How does The Nun's Story treat its audience? 
 
The Nun's Story has been compared to a war movie - "the near military discipline of the novices, trained to proclaim their guilt for breaking the rules and abase themselves in penance, has the psychological reality of enduring boot camp." Is this a fair comparison? How is violence conveyed in this film? Does the movie embrace religion? Attack religion? Is the religious life "against nature"? 
 
Is Sister Luke fighting her own nature in order to be a nun? 
 
 
Consider Audrey Hepburn's performance. How does it differ from other Hepburn performances? Is her Sister Luke sentimentalized? Ennobled? Do we understand why Gabriele has chosen this life? Do we need to understand her reasons in order to appreciate this film? 
 
The editor of one of Fred Zinnemann's later films wrote that the director "loved it when actors bumped into the furniture, when they were not yet familiar with the scene and didn't know where they were going. He loved that kind of randomness. He said, in life, events are always happening for the first time, they're not happening for the seventh time." Do we see evidence of his love of randomness and improvisation in this film? 
 
One critic has written that "the typical Zinnemann film reaches a climax when a clock ticks away the seconds while the protagonist struggles with the enemy within, and somewhere close by there's a locomotive coming. In his body of work there are notably few guns but many trains, remarkably little romance or outright comedy, but much searching for consequences and externalizing of interior dramas." How appropriate is this as a description of The Nun's Story?

The Mystery of the Food Pyramids

by SKeira Jul 22, 2015
A friend of mine is involved in the HealthWorks, a program at Penn State whose purpose is "to promote health among Penn State students." After getting back to our apartment from one of her HealthWorks classes, while deciding what we were going to make for dinner, she asked me, "Did you know there is a second food pyramid?" I told her that I didn't, and she began explaining what she had learned that day: Harvard had released a corrected and healthier food pyramid a few years ago that differed from the pyramid issued by the US government. As she was explaining the differences to me, I was shocked. I was shocked not about the dissimilar constructions but by the fact that I had never heard of any of it before. So I did a little research.

A friend of mine is involved in the HealthWorks, a program at Penn State whose purpose is "to promote health among Penn State students." After getting back to our apartment from one of her HealthWorks classes, while deciding what we were going to make for dinner, she asked me, "Did you know there is a second food pyramid?" I told her that I didn't, and she began explaining what she had learned that day: Harvard had released a corrected and healthier food pyramid a few years ago that differed from the pyramid issued by the US government. As she was explaining the differences to me, I was shocked. I was shocked not about the dissimilar constructions but by the fact that I had never heard of any of it before. So I did a little research.

 
First, I looked up My Pyramid, the food pyramid issued by the US government. It was released in 2005 and serves as a guideline to plan eating choices based on the government's report on dietary guidelines for Americans. We all know it, the pyramid with the little man running up the stairs on the left with the rest basically a sideways version of the pyramid we grew up with: grains, fruits, veggies, meats and other proteins, dairy food, sweet and oils.
 
After the refresher, I looked up Harvard's food pyramid. Named the Healthy Eating Pyramid, there are several differences you notice right away: the food groups are reorganized and arranged in a different configuration, with the base group of exercise, not a food. Exercise is also included in My Pyramid, but I'm still not used to it since it was not included in the more familiar pyramid from my childhood. In the government's old pyramid, it wasn't included at all. Additionally, Harvard also includes guidelines for daily vitamins and alcohol in moderation. All in all, it looks very different from My Pyramid. Why all the differences? Who can we trust?
 
Harvard attempts to explain their reasoning: "There was the U.S. government's Food Guide Pyramid, followed by its replacement, My Pyramid, which was basically the same thing, just pitched on its side. The problem was that these efforts, while generally well intentioned, have been quite flawed at actually showing people what makes up a healthy diet. Why? Their recommendations have often been based on out-of-date science and influenced by people with business interests in their messages."
 
An interesting proposition, this influence based on business interests. I'd never thought of it like that before. If you go to the government's website, you'll notice that the pyramid is not issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) but by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Why is that? What makes the USDA more qualified than the DHHS? Is the pyramid issued by the USDA formed to promote the business in the areas of agriculture that are featured in the pyramid? Even if it is, should we support our industries anyway? Is it based not on science but on the availability of food in the US? Should that be the basis? How important is availability? Even if there is an official "right' pyramid promoting truly healthy eating choices based solely on accurate scientific evidence and not on industry or availability, if we can't access the foods being prescribed, would the pyramid be all that useful?
 
Then I got to thinking about Harvard and their pyramid. Why had I never heard of it? Harvard is admittedly a respected institution not only in the US but worldwide. If that is true, why wasn't their pyramid feature more prominently? What makes Harvard more scientifically accurate (a claim made on their website) than the US government? I tried searching around to see if there was outside support for either pyramid, and I could find almost nothing for supporters of Harvard's pyramid. A few professors at scattered universities across the country brought up influence of agribusiness on My Pyramid, and there are several sites for organization raising the same questions (such as Healthy Eating Politics). But there was not much to be found by way of academic papers or published research papers. Where is all this evidence proving any of the claims made by Harvard or the USDA? Why can't I find the actual studies or their results?
 
Finally, the best point I think raised amongst all these conflicting ideas is that, despite healthy eating guides and movies like Supersize Me and Food, Inc., obesity is still rising in the US. Even with these food pyramid guidelines, however biased or unfounded in fact they are, nothing seems to be working. Beyond trusting the USDA to tell us what is healthy, or trusting Harvard, or any of the other available pyramids that are out there, there seems to be an even bigger issue regarding the overall state of health in the US. Does the government even have a role in addressing the health of its citizens? Can a government actually do anything to affect our diets? Who even has the authority to institute the changes that so many people seem to think are needed? What will it take?