Due Friday, May 14.

The scientific community has warned of the high likelihood of rapid anthropogenic climate change. Should such change occur over the coming decades, the consequences might include:

  • rising sea levels and the inundation of low-lying coastal areas
  • intensification of droughts and desertification
  • water shortages in places that depend on glacial meltwater for drinking water and irrigation (such as parts of India)
  • an increase in the frequency and scale of flooding in some areas
  • a change in growing season that will affect agriculture and wild plants and animals in ways that might lead to results such as pollinator life cycles being out of step with their food sources and an increasing rate of species extinctions
  • ocean acidification and the possible collapse of marine food chains
  • increased heatwave-related deaths
  • increased malnutrition and starvation in areas without food security
  • increased ground-level ozone in urban areas and thus increased asthma deaths
  • altered distribution of infectious diseases
  • an increase in environmental refugees

Addressing climate change is generally framed as a political problem. Certainly there are many considerations that are far beyond the scope of this class. But there are also ways of evaluating the problem from an ethical viewpoint. For instance, some people have claimed that addressing climate change through the reduction of personal carbon emissions and/or through political action is a priority. Another ethical consideration is that some people are likely to suffer while some are likely to avoid suffering or even benefit.

Is there a moral duty to address climate change through individual action and/or through political action? Are there ethical grounds for preferring some responses to others? Is the distribution of suffering likely to be fair—or is that even a concern? If addressing climate change would require reducing people’s basic liberties, then should it be a moral priority or not?

Frame a single, narrow ethical issue and propose a way of working through it based on one of our four ethical frameworks. The action/response you propose may be broad (e.g., that people living today have a moral responsibility not to ignore the problem of climate change) or it may be specific (e.g. that the U.S. should invest in reconfiguring the electrical grid in ways that encourage the development of renewable forms of energy). If you choose to  evaluate a specific policy proposal, then please give a citation to a source of information about it. [Hint: narrower, more focused problems usually make for more successful arguments because there is less confusion about what the issue is.]

The ethical frameworks we have studied include deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and the justice framework. I encourage you to try to apply a framework that you have not used so far because working through this assignment is one way of preparing for the final exam.

This outline is different from previous ones in that you may use up to 5 sentences to describe the issue. Please continue to write concisely. You may find that you can describe the issue you are framing in only one sentence. That would be fine. But a very specific policy proposal may require more background.

You may perform additional internet research, but please cite your sources and use your own words. Additional research is not required, but you do get credit for extra research that improves your work.

Finally, a note on the politics of climate change. The point of this exercise is to use a complex social problem to practice the application of our ethical frameworks. This topic provides a good opportunity to investigate the justice framework. Some people continue to be skeptical about the existence of climate change, or skeptical that humans can do anything about it, or skeptical that we should attempt to do anything about it even if we can. However, climate change has been identified by scientific, political, and religious authorities as a serious concern (the Pope has spoken movingly about the moral duties the problem raises). For the purposes of this exercise, if you are one of the skeptics, you may think of it as a hypothetical science fiction scenario, but one which incorporates the assumptions listed above.


John Rawls was concerned with what we call distributive justice and the question of what we should do about inequalities in society. Should goods be distributed equally to everyone? Should we permit vast differences in social and economic status? How are justice and socioeconomic opportunity tied to each other?

Rawls argued that individual liberties, social equality, and economic improvement are all important and should exist in balance. In a perfect world we could have all of these. But if conflicts arise among them, then which are most important? Rawls’ conclusion was that liberty is the most fundamental of these social values. Further, the foundation of social justice is that liberty, respect, opportunity, and wealth should be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution would be to the advantage of everyone in the society. (That is, not just a higher average happiness, as in utilitarianism, but a higher quality of life for the people who are worst off.) Moreover, if some positions in society offer high benefits, then those positions ought to be available to anyone. Justice is based on fairness and is the opposite of arbitrariness.

In this class, we’ve talked about issues having to do with the distribution of environmental goods (domestically and globally),  and to a smaller extent about the distribution of economic goods. The article we read a couple of weeks ago on food security issues tied these two issues together. (A summary and discussion of that reading can be found here.)

There are at least two ways that social contract theory and a Rawlsian theory of justice are relevant to these issues:

1. First, we can use the justice framework to make the case that our social system (that is, our system of social policy, ethics, and economic exchange) is conventional. We have a certain social/political/economic system and it produces certain results. But we don’t have to have that system. It might be the most just system, or it might undermine justice. If it does not produce the maximum degree of justice, then we should try to change it so that it is more just. In particular, we should always be working to try to improve the status of those that have the least, and we should try to give people equality of opportunity.

2. Second, it is in our best interests to build strong, resilient communities. Although natural resources may have limits, social and human resources can be increased and improved. People are more resourceful when they have more education and when they have more freedom to experiment and create. Likewise, the social capital that is made up of community relationships is strengthened by social trust and weakened by fear and competition.

It is also worth noting that although Rawls defends inequality as necessary, some critics argue that equality is more important than he realizes.

We covered a lot of ground in a very short discussion of No Impact Man this morning! I wish we had even more time to talk about the issues raised in the movie.

Here are some of my thoughts, and I hope that you’ll post some of your own in comments (just click “leave a comment”–they can even be anonymous–and it counts toward class participation).

One of my thoughts early on in the movie is that Michelle (Colin’s wife) has a key role in the film. Since he’s the one that is committed to the change, she represents the internal conflict any of us might have when contemplating a lifestyle change.

But more than that, she represents something morally significant: a loss of liberty or individual choice. Any moral framework has to take a loss of liberty seriously. Even utilitarianism would have to weight the benefits of a low-carbon economy to the environment against both the good things that are produced by a high-carbon economy and the increased options we have in this economy. A utilitarian like Mill might argue that people OUGHT to change their life-styles to reduce consumption but also argue AGAINST any coercive measures that would force people to do so unwillingly.

One thing I liked in the movie was when Colin was asked whether he thinks individual action is important, especially considering that this experiment was no walk in the park. What he said was “It gets people to be engaged.” What does he mean by that?

Also, and working against depending entirely on individual action, he emphasized that collective action is vital. Many of the things we take for granted now, like recycling beverage bottles, would not have happened if there were not a deposit law in NY. Colin says that individual actions (like his) support collective action by building community. People can share ideas and can support each others’ endeavors. I want to point out: this is virtue ethics at work. Virtue ethics holds that the virtue of individuals is bound up with the virtue (virtuosity?) of their communities.

Random thoughts:

  • Technology is a big deal for No Impact Man. Some of it fails (the pot in the pot), some is lo-tech (the tricycle), some is hi-tech (the solar panel).
  • The sacrifices and the benefits are apparently not easy to anticipate, are inseparable from one another, and depend on perspective and attitude (the laundry scene).
  • Why did he and his wife get so much criticism? Someone said “What you’re doing is extremely dangerous.”

Finally, do you have any thoughts about how the issues in this movie map onto the (stereo)typical political spectrum? It strikes me that although there are some historical ties between liberals and the environmental movement, current environmental issues are post-political. That is, they raise some issues that are problematic for liberals and other issues that are problematic for conservatives.

In philosophy, we typically think of rational arguments as being the preeminent means of reasoning and of communication. But it would be a mistake to ignore other modes of understanding (just as it would be a mistake to ignore the connection between emotion and moral action). Artistic, visual representation can help us “see” what the rational mind otherwise can’t picture.

Artist Chris Jordan creates representations of consumption. They’re beautiful pictures, but in addition to that, they are thought-provoking. Here’s that link again: http://www.chrisjordan.com/. Click through and browse through the “Running the Numbers” exhibits–you’ll be glad you did because these images are amazing. I wish I had time in class to show this 10-minute video in which he discusses his work: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/08072009/watch3.html (yes, there’s a transcript on that page, too).

The TED talk in the post below provides less insight into the development of Jordan’s work but makes up for it in the number of provocative images.

TED Talks Artist Chris Jordan shows us an arresting view of what Western culture looks like. His supersized images picture some almost unimaginable statistics — like the astonishing number of paper cups we use every single day.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Chris Jordan pictures some shocking s…“, posted with vodpod

Some minor adjustments to the syllabus:

On Monday we’ll discuss the in-class carbon footprint exercise and the movie from Friday. I’ll hand back argument outlines, and although we won’t spend as much time on them, they will inform our larger discussion. For instance, we’ll talk about how well virtue ethics supports this issue of reducing carbon impact. Thus, there is no reading assignment for Monday, but there is an excellent short video I’ll discuss in my next post.

On Wednesday, I’ll lecture on John Rawls’ justice framework, and the reading is available through both MyCourses and library reserves, whichever you find easier.

For Friday, I’ll post some more material here about Rawls, we’ll complete that discussion, and there will be a short quiz (note that it was originally scheduled for Wednesday).

In the realm of environmental ethics, virtue ethics can help to understand the normative aspects of everyday actions of the sort that are often advocated when people are talking about “going green.” Sometimes people criticize these efforts, like bringing your own bag to the grocery, as being too small to make a big difference. Others criticize them on grounds of being all show but requiring little effort or commitment.

From the perspective of virtue ethics, though, it’s not only the size of the individual contribution that matters, since the sum of such contributions can motivate a community to resolve a problem of collective action. For many people, doing these little things shows that they care, and that their heart is in the right place. Though green slogans can seem trite, they can also support and express community values. And for many people, doing small things are only initial steps and the little things increase awareness of what else can be done.

At RIT, the smaller actions of groups like SEAL to organize electronic recycling helped show the university administration that there was campus support for larger projects, such as the building of the LEED-certified CAST building and Innovation Center.

As we discussed in class, sometimes technology can play an important role in providing people with the options and the knowledge to act in accordance with their values (which is another way of expressing ‘virtue’). Here’s an example:

Smart Meter

Some studies have shown that a household monitor that shows people (in an easy-to-understand way) what their energy usage is and a website that gives them ideas for cutting it makes a real difference in how much energy people use. One obstacle has been that some power companies are reluctant to give people this kind of information. It’s not in their interests for people to use less power–it would reduce their revenues. On the other hand, the smart meter can be used so that power companies can encourage people to use energy at non-peak times, making their production costs lower and the business more efficient. Some governments are encouraging the technology. In the U.S., the technology is being prototyped in California and in Austin, Texas.

According to the BBC:

The government should require power companies to provide clear visual displays when they install smart meters in homes, says a report.

Here’s a report about how so-called “energy dashboards” give people information that they can and do use to change their energy-use habits. It says:

just knowing what one’s energy consumption is can reduce that consumption by around 15%.

To help you stay organized, let me review what our activities will be this week and the ways in which they differ from what’s on the course syllabus.


We still need to take the quiz over virtue ethics. The way to prepare for this quiz, which was postponed last Friday, is to look over the notes you took during lecture, look over the assigned readings (Aristotle and Bernard Mayo), make sure you understand the (point of the) questions on the in-class exercise, and read the blog post if you haven’t already.

There is a comment due over the assigned reading, which is a New Yorker article by Michael Specter titled “Big Foot.” We’ll probably have time to discuss this for a few minutes, but the bulk of our conversation will carry over to Wednesday.


We’ll finish the discussion from Monday of Specter’s article. One question I would like us to discuss in class is: Why does the subtitle say “In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science“?

The other part of the assignment is to take a look at two ecological footprint models.

The two I recommend because they are easy to compare with each other are:

  1. http://www.myfootprint.org/en/visitor_information/
  2. http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/

It would be nice if some of you would pick other similar quizzes from elsewhere in cyberspace. This will allow us to talk about a wider range of differences between the available models. (Lists of calculators available here and here.)

I will record a grade that takes into account your answers to the questions below and participation in our in-class analysis. For each footprint calculator you examine, record (or print out) this information:

1. The name or URL of the calculator/quiz.

2. The results and the units of measurement (e.g., “4.9 Earths” or “12 tons of CO2”).

3. The average footprint for Americans or for New Yorkers (if your calculators report it–you might need to poke around on the FAQ page).

4. The company or organization that sponsors each quiz.

5. The sorts of questions that each quiz asks. How detailed is it? Does it ask about travel? Diet? Recycling habits? Is your result based on averages of “people like you”?

In class, we’ll analyze footprint calculators in some detail. I’m curious about these questions:

  • How can such models be helpful? What is their goal?
  • What do they measure?
  • What are the differences among them?
  • Is there a standard way of measuring carbon footprints?
  • What are some obstacles to lowering carbon emissions?
  • Is the use of fossil fuel an ethical problem or a practicalproblem or an economic problem?
  • Is the solution to excessive carbon emissions a technological one? A political one?
  • What motivates people to lower their energy use? What are some obstacles?

If you live in a dorm, you might feel unsure what numbers to use for the calculator. One option is to fill it out for your parent’s house. Another is to use this information that a former student got from RIT’s Facilities Management Services:

Our dorm rooms are about 240 sq. ft. and for each square foot, the university spends $1.201 on electricity and 83.1 cents on gas each year. Calculated out, this would mean that $24.02 is spent on electricity, and $16.62 is spent on gas per month per dorm room.


No reading assignment. Argument outline #2 is due (which might require some online research), and we’ll watch the feature film No Impact Man in class.

Argument Outline 2: Topic #3 — Organic vs. Genetically Modified

The organic community has soundly rejected the use of genetically modified crops, and current organic standards do not permit genetically modified crops to be marketed as organic, even if they are grown without harmful pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

The reasons include the fact that genetic modification can come with unknown risks to the environment and that genetic modification alters plants in ways that many people feel are more extreme or unnatural than alterations that are brought about through selective breeding. I would put this in terms of “purity,” a concept like “natural” or “disgusting” which seems to relate entirely to the eye of the beholder.

In addition, genetically modified crops are tied to patents and commercialization which threatens the economic well-being and independence of subsistence farmers.

However, genetic modification also opens up opportunities which can contribute to long-term sustainable agriculture, according to the authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. For instance, if a variety of rice were genetically modified to make it flood tolerant, then instead of using herbicides that might have negative health consequences, farmers could flood fields to kill weeds. There might also be the possibility of genetically modifying crops so that they are tolerant of marginal growing conditions, permitting them to be grown without the use of high levels of artificial fertilizers.

What should be the ethical considerations in attempting to respond to the problems that genetic modification and organic farming raise? This is a creative question that has no clear answer but could probably be productively examined from a utilitarian position–or maybe from a virtue perspective.

Argument Outline 2: Food Ethics

Due Friday, April 30

Eating is something that we all do several times each day. We eat not just for sustenance, but also as a source of pleasure and, often, as a time of companionship.

Collectively, the choices we make about food have a major impact on our lives, on the lives of others, and on the economy. Until the last decade, farming was the largest industry on a global scale. Agriculture still makes up about 36% of the global economy. In spite of the central place of food in our lives, we tend not to think about what we eat, where it comes from, how it was made, or why we’ve chosen to eat it. Even philosophers have perhaps not paid as much attention to the role of food in human life as they ought.

You have a choice from among 3 topics:

Topic 1

Are some foods better (or more ethical or more virtuous) than others? What are some criteria for picking one kind of diet or one kind of food rather than another? Is choosing food just a matter of health or of identifying which foods pack the most nutrition for the least cost? What is an ethical justification for buying local foods? Why should we be concerned about where our food is produced, or how far it travels, or whether it is in season? Why do some people choose “slow food” rather than “fast food”? Some food is considered healthy and some not: is some food better and some worse–not as a matter of its taste but for some other reason? What ethical framework supports any of these choices, and how?

Topic 2

Is vegetarianism/veganism a choice that people make on ethical grounds? Why? What ethical framework supports a choice to be vegetarian/vegan, and how?

Topic 3

Currently, organic certification for organic farming in the United States prohibits organic crops from being genetically modified. Some people argue that genetic modifications are risky and threaten food purity. Other people argue that the most sustainable form of agriculture might include organic cultivation of crops that have been genetically modified to suit them to specific environments. Do you support this policy or not? On what ethical grounds? (Links in my next post.)

As always, the purpose of this assignment is to practice constructing clear, straightforward, and focused ethical arguments. Grading is based on how strong your arguments are and how well they illustrate one of the ethical frameworks we have studied up to now (deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue ethics). I think topics 1 and 2 lend themselves well to arguing from the perspective of virtue ethics. To do that, you can name a virtue that motivates an action, or you could relate your position to the principle of the mean, or you can discuss a choice in relation to moral character.

In addition, this is an opportunity to explore the justification for a position that you may not have thought through before. For instance, you may choose to defend vegetarianism even though you are not yourself a committed vegetarian.

You are responsible for doing any necessary web research. But do not copy anyone else’s words off the Internet—express the ideas in your own way. Cite your sources, please—and I hope you find the assignment thought-provoking!

Here are some additional links. I don’t myself advocate the sometimes polarized views in these linked articles, but they do show what some of the issues are:

— vegetarianism
— buying local agricultural productsreducing food miles, and slow food
— organic farming
farm subsidies
— food security (including access to food, control over pathogens, and control over toxics)
fair trade (here’s Peter Singer’s view)
overview of agricultural ethics
treatment of farm animals