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Frederick Douglass Prize Winner will be the 2015-2016 Schaenen Scholar

The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics is proud to announce that Christopher Hager will be the 2015-2016 Nancy Schaenen Endowed Visiting Scholar of Ethics.

Dr. Hager received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Currently he is Associate Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches courses in American literature and cultural history and, for the past three years, has co-directed the Center for Teaching and Learning. He is the author of Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013), a study of the writing practices of enslaved and recently emancipated African Americans, which won the Frederick Douglass Prize and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize. Professor Hager’s research has been supported by fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society, among others.

A scholar of nineteenth-century American literature and history with expertise in slavery and the Civil War, Hager researches the lives and writings of marginally literate people. At the Prindle Institute, he will be considering the ethical problems of historical knowledge, of understanding the past predominantly through the eyes of highly literate people. In addition to teaching in the English department and collaborating with members of the Prindle community, he will be researching the history of illiteracy in the U.S. and working on a book manuscript, “I Remain Yours: Common Lives in Civil War Letters.”

In the fall semester he will teach a course on American Writers (ENG 238). The class will survey American Literature, but as the Schaenen Scholar, Hager will construct the survey in a way that has a focus on moral questions. Students will be encouraged to consider ways that particular ethical problems get addressed by a “constellation of texts over a period of time”.

Hager says, “My working plan is to focus the course on the classic tension between individualist and collectivist impulses in American democracy — to each his own, or e pluribus unum? —  and on the migration of ethical concern between individualist (“conscience”) and collective (“reform”) frameworks.”

“I’m thrilled to have Hager joining the team here at Prindle,” said Prindle Director, Andrew Cullison. “His work sheds interesting light on history and literature, but it also speaks to ethical issues related to marginalization and shame in contemporary society. His work also highlights that constructing narratives about the past can have a very serious moral dimension, particularly when you make decisions about which voices to include and which to ignore. It’s going to be great having him around to help facilitate discussions on these topics.”

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

State Senate Bill 101, recently signed into law by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, has not just Indiana, but the entire nation up in arms. Also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it proposes to equally protect everyone’s religious beliefs. Supporters have compared it to a bill that grounded a ruling which allowed a Muslim prisoner to keep his beard (part of the religious code of his sect), as it was not a security concern.

In a nutshell, the bill states that unless the government has a compelling interest, they will be unable to restrict someone from acting according to their religious convictions in the workplace. For instance, a Catholic could wear the ashes on their forehead from Ash Wednesd, a pro-life nurse would not be legally required to assist in an abortion, and a dress code banning hats at the office can’t stop an Orthodox Jew from wearing his yarmulke to work.

Where the problem lies, for some, is in how broad the law is. An example that has been in the news is the issue of LGBQT rights. Those who oppose the bill state that it gives government support to discrimination. If your religion tells you homosexuality is an abomination, the law could potentially allow you to ban them from your business. Some of the opposition see this bill as an attempt to push back against recent battles won in the area of gay rights, though the Governor and state legislators claim that is not the case.

Regardless, it has been viewed by some as a nod and a wink to bigoted groups, even called a “license to discriminate” which is ironic, given the purported intent of treating all religious claims equally under the law. This isn’t just an issue for LGBQT persons, though. If a Christian firefighter believes Muslims are evil, he might not be required to assist in putting out a burning mosque; a Jewish business owner could ban all non-Jewish clients; a doctor could refuse to prescribe birth control, give vaccinations, or perform an abortion in a life-threatening pregnancy, and so on. Anyone who believes in something different than you now might now have legal ground on which they can discriminate, or this law might give religious people the ability to live more freely according to their moral code and beliefs.

Others argue that this fear is misplaced on the grounds that these other groups are a protected class and that, to date, similar laws have not been successful in defending discrimination.

What do you think the result of this law will be? When, if ever, should the practice of one’s religious beliefs be allowed to impact the lives of others? Is it ethical for religious beliefs to impact the lives of others?

Crystal Mess? – New Email App Predicts Personality of Recipients

Crystal sells itself as the best thing to happen to email since spell-check.

You should communicate with empathy, and the way you communicate with empathy is trying to understand what the other person you are communicating with is like.

Crystal, an email extension for Chrome and Gmail, tries to help users do this by data-mining information about the person you are communicating with from publicly available information about that person on the web. It then generates a personality profile for that person, and gives the user recommendations for how to communicate with that person.

The app even offers suggestions about what kinds of phrases to add and what kind of phrases to delete.

On the surface it looks like this is a useful tool. It would be nice to avoid miscommunication by knowing in advance how someone will receive your words.

But is this a kind of technology we should be worried about? People have freely shared information about themselves online for the past decade well before they had any idea that sophisticated technology like data mining and advanced information processing could be used to generate an accurate psychological profile that could be used against them.

This is now information that anyone can have access to and neatly analyzed in the form of a psychological profile.

People shared information about themselves and made it public in an age when they likely thought certain kinds of access to that information would be difficult.

This raises a number of interesting moral issues. Is it wrong to gather this information about people, if you know that it would make people uncomfortable to have that information be gathered about them? Should people have the right to opt out? Or do we simply say that these persons knowingly took a chance by making certain things about them publicly available, and it is simply too bad if they do not like the results that they couldn’t forsee?

Let us know what you think?

Obama seen as ‘enemy’ to press freedom

This message was posted on Twitter recently by a prominent member of the media: “The Obama Administration is the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” Another tweet from this source read, “I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo the damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and (Attorney General) Eric Holder.”

It might figure that such pointed postings came from a right-wing talk show host or a conservative analyst on Fox News Channel. Instead, they came from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen. The Times, of course, is generally sympathetic to White House causes. Risen, however, has been threatened by the Justice Department with jail time for his refusal to reveal the sources of his stories about national security.

Newly retired ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton also criticized the administration when she recently received a First Amendment award, saying, “At the White House, too often presidential moments are reported only by those who hold office, while the free press, the main street professionals credentialed in the White House press corps are excluded.”

Veteran journalist Susan Milligan wrote an article for the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review in which she asserted, “The relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in half a century.” It is worth noting that Richard Nixon was not yet president a half century ago.

At the root of this press consternation is the Obama White House’s overall lack of transparency. This administration came into office with high expectations for the free flow of information needed in a democracy. The president announced on his first day in office that his administration would be the most transparent in history. His press spokesmen have repeated that claim for six years. Obama recently told CBS’ Bill Plante on “Face the Nation” that, indeed, his was the most transparent administration.

But crowing about transparency isn’t the same as being transparent. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “Power is like being a lady … if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” That applies to the administration’s idle boasts about open government.

Now the Associated Press is having to sue in court to get access to emails and documents from Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. The AP is not some agenda-driven, anti-Obama organization, but rather is the largest news-gathering organization in the nation. The State Department has sat on a number of AP document requests, including one that is five years old.

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in announcing the lawsuit, “The Freedom of Information Act exists to give citizens a clear view of what government officials are doing on their behalf. When that view is denied, the next resort is the courts.”

The prestigious Society of Professional Journalists has publicly announced its support for the AP lawsuit, providing further evidence that journalistic frustration with the executive branch is not isolated to a handful of cranky reporters.

Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth this month denounced the Environmental Protection Agency for its “disregard” in meeting Freedom of Information requests from the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation. The judge implored the agency to treat FOIA requests “with equal respect and conscientiousness” and “regardless of the political affiliation of the requester.”

This constant haggling between the administration and press is totally unnecessary. The government and press are not adversaries. Presumably, both government and the press have citizens’ interests foremost in their minds. Any government agency that won’t willingly follow FOIA law can only be assumed to be covering somebody’s backside. This tug of war could be solved instantly if the president simply articulated that press access is a high priority – and meant it. With his pen and phone, Obama can dislodge information from any agency he orders to dislodge it.

The press can be very demanding of government and at times acts like it can never be satisfied. But the press shouldn’t ever be satisfied. Reporters serve the constitutional charge of a free press, serving as the public’s surrogates in holding our government officials accountable. Government officials who want to fight the press over access to documents the public has a legal right to see are actually fighting the citizens they are supposed to be serving.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Indianapolis Star

What Should You Do in the Face of Moral Disagreement?

Are we entitled to trust our moral judgments over the judgment of others? That is the central question taken up in this article by Ben Sherman, a philosophy professor at Boston University.

Sarah McGrath, philosophy professor at Princeton University, argues that we should be very worried about moral disagreement. Sherman examines McGrath’s argument, and then makes the case that perhaps things are not as bad as McGrath thinks.

McGrath’s argument relies on two assumptions. The first is that we ought to give the opinions of people we regard as epistemic peers equal weight to our own. Epistemic peers are people whom we have reason to think are equally smart and informed about a particular subject. Disagreement with them should cause us to revise our own opinions.

The second assumption she relies on is that we ought to regard any other person as an epistemic peer with respect to moral matters. Because we have no independent way to identify moral experts, McGrath argues that we should regard anyone as epistemic peer on moral issues.

Those two assumptions taken together ought to make us be very worried about whether or not we have a right to any of our moral opinions in the face of disagreement.

Sherman rejects this latter assumption, and offers several reasons why someone might be able to not regard some people as peers on moral issues.

There are a variety of situations involving beliefs about non-moral in which we can identify possible biases people might be experiencing. Sherman argues that we can recognize these in cases of moral disagreement and sometimes be in a position to judge that someone is not a peer on moral matters. Sherman says,

there are a wide range of intellectual errors that are hard to escape, or even spot, without specialized training, including cognitive biases, implicit prejudices, misunderstandings of statistics, predictive errors and uncharitable interpretations of positions. It seems to be widely accepted in the relevant fields that people are prone to confirmation bias, endowment effects, unconscious stereotyping, hasty generalization and the straw man fallacy, to give a few examples.

The possibility of these kinds of potential errors might give us reason to think we shouldn’t automatically regard anyone else as a moral peer.

But it’s important to note that we would need to examine ourselves carefully to spot these potential cognitive errors in our own case. If we can reasonably believe that we’re not experiencing these biases, and we can’t as easily determine whether someone who disagrees with us isn’t experiencing these errors, then perhaps treating them as a peer shouldn’t be the default.

What do you think? Is McGrath right? Should moral disagreement lead us to reconsider our moral opinions? Should we default to regarding anyone as equally qualified to judge on a moral matter? Or is Sherman right? Do we sometimes have reason to favor our own judgments over those who disagree?

Disney CEO kept Steve Jobs Cancer Secret

The new Steve Jobs bio says Disney CEO kept Jobs’ cancer remission a secret, which he learned about just an hour before Disney announced its acquisition of Pixar.

The deal made Steve Jobs the largest shareholder, and gave him a seat on the board.

At first, one might think this is no big deal. Jobs has a prima facie right to privacy, and what we have here is a case of one friend keeping a harmless and personal secret.

However, it raises two serious issues concerning shareholder rights. One might think that a privacy right gets diluted the more a person plays a prominent decision making role that has the potential to affect the well being of a lot of people. The health of the largest shareholder with a seat on the board, might be potentially relevant information for shareholders.

The other issue (and perhaps more worrisome) is equal access to information. Assuming the Disney CEO was a shareholder, he now had privileged, inside information. He would be in a position to benefit from the spike in share prices. If he thought the later disclosure of Jobs cancer became public would hurt share prices, he could sell before the other shareholders knew. We have a situation that is dangerously close to insider trading.

But the case is made more interesting from a moral standpoint because the shareholder right to information doesn’t often involve potential disclosure of very personal and private information about an individual’s health.

What do you think? Did Disney’s CEO act wrongly in keeping Job’s health condition a secret from shareholders?

Who Should Get The Winnings in a Casino Error?

A judge recently ruled that gamblers need to return the $1.5 million they won at a casino from games that used unshuffled decks.

The gamblers are appealing and asking a judge to let them keep their winnings.

It raises an interesting question as to whether a casino is entitled to a refund of winnings if the winnings are a result of an error or mistake on their end. As the claimants contend, this could put a chilling effect on any jackpot. No winning is a guaranteed winning if casinos can sue people years later to get the winnings back, even in cases where the winners are not at fault for the error that caused the winning.

The specifics of this particular case are even more interesting, and one might argue that the persons are not entitled because they are at least a little to blame. According to this article, the gamblers recognized the odd patterns that favored them and immediately upped their betting from $10 to $5000. They won 41 hands straight, so they clearly had evidence that there was a mistake and that the decks were fixed.

That raises a second interesting moral issue. To what extent are gamblers obliged to disclose when it seems like there is an error on the casino’s part that is giving the gambler an advantage? One might argue that part of the skill of gambling is recognizing a flaw in the game play of the opponent and exploiting it until they catch it. For example, if a blackjack dealer is playing poorly and is playing the hands in a way that the gambler knows the casino wouldn’t want the dealer to play them – you might think that this is the casino’s problem. It’s the casinos job to ensure that the games are played the way they want them to be played, and part of the risk on their end in the gambling industry is losing money when smart players see that the games they’re playing are being played in a way that disadvantages the casino.

However, one might think that the casinos have some rights in cases where their dealers or (in the above case) the card manufacturing companies are grossly negligent and result in playing a game that is, by the state’s own standards, an illegal game.

What do you think? Should the Golden Nugget casino get their winnings back? Under what circumstances are gamblers obliged (if at all) to not play a game that they know has given them an advantage over the house?


Art of Awareness 2015 Winning Photos

DePauw is well known for its many off-campus classes, faculty-led excursions, and high rates of students who study abroad. Whether DePauw students choose to stay on campus or venture off campus through the many opportunities afforded them, many learn to view the world around them with a critical and questioning eye. The entries to Art of Awareness exhibit this high level critical thinking that is crucial in noticing the ethical issues in every-day situations.

We would like to congratulate the three winners of the 2015 Art of Awareness:

First Place: Taylor Zartman

Second Place: Samuel Caravana

 Faculty Vote: Nathaniel Fox

The winners will receive framed copies of their winning photos and a monetary prize. Please enjoy their thoughtful photos featured below.

As you explore the world around you throughout the next year, keep your eyes open, your cameras out, or your paintbrushes poised to capture ethical situations around you for next year’s Art of Awareness 2016!

First Place:


Brined and Smoked Bacon
Black and white film photograph
At the Bloomington farmer’s market, I noticed the stare of a young boy. On the ground under the market tables, he patiently sat as his mother picked produce. Photographing in a public space leaves a hefty amount of power in the photographer’s hands. In this public space, I have the right to take this photograph. Legally, I do not need the consent of these subjects. Yet, this young boy is the only subject aware of my photo taking. And the photographing of children raises the questions – Are they able to give consent? Is it justifiable to take a photo of someone who is unable to agree or deny? And this can lead to the whole discussion of “truth,” what does the courtesy of requesting a photo mean for artistic integrity and the capturing of a moment?

Second Place:



This photo was taken at the International Bazaar in Freeport, Bahamas. Since the Princess Hotel in the background closed and tourists began flowing to a different part of the island, the bazaar has become an overgrown ghost town. Besides a few tiny stores near the weed-ridden parking lot, all the business have been abandoned and boarded up. Although this image is in black and white, it was originally taken in color. I made the decision to remove the color in order to accurately portray the situation I witnessed. The restaurant’s pastel paint aroused feelings of happiness, a sentiment not felt by the poverty stricken shopkeepers in this forgotten place. Thought the colors would have accurately portrayed the building, they would not have transmitted the desperateness of the area. The monochrome version of the image transmitted this desperateness to the viewer more affectively and thus told a truer story than if it had remained in color.

Faculty Vote Winner:


Street Art and Urban Pressure:

Graffiti as we know here is the U.S. is thought as trash and dirty, stereotypes that are simply not accurate. Graffiti is more than just trash created by the lowly and impoverished. This negative connotation needs to be removed from this artistic form of self-expressionism. If you ever get the chance to walk down the streets of downtown San Jose, nearly every nook and cranny is covered in colorful and vivacious street art. The diversity of street art forms represents the rich diversity and culture of the countries that borrows many traditions from other countries while remaining to hold on to their own. One of the main topics expressed in this street art is political corruption of both Costa Rica and fears of globalization. Also numerous topics include the free trade agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA, or TLC in Spanish); corruption in the government; criticism of specific government officials, including the president; the demand of equality for homosexuals; and protests against wars and support for revolutionary movements in other countries.

The Value of Suffering

A while ago I was about to embark in a long air travel and wanted something to read. I was in a town with one of those increasingly rare old-fashioned independent bookstores. So I felt a certain thrill when I decided to go in and buy a physical book, like in the good old days. I saw Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, skimmed briefly the plot summary, and on an impulse I bought it.

I felt a little nervous, because it seemed to be a melancholic book, possibly an uneasy read. For the past decade, I have been avoiding watching, reading, or hearing about unsettling stories. I used to love books and movies that made me burst into tears, but as I have grown older I have become incapable of enduring those emotional storms. I feel that life is hard enough, and the real world is horrific enough, that I don’t need extra-doses of suffering in my spare time.

But recently I have come to reconsider the wisdom of this self-protection policy. First, because there is only so much I can do to protect myself from pain of various kinds: as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, human goods are fragile and human happiness is inherently delicate. Developing a thick skin seems a wiser long-term strategy than the one I have been adopting. But, second, because there might actually be value in suffering. Emotions such as grief and jealousy, and sensations like pain are instrumentally valuable, since they play essential roles in our physical and psychological well-being, preventing injury, making us aversive to losing, and protective of, those with whom we share genes, and so forth.

Psychologist Randolph Nesse has coined the term “diagonal psychology” to designate the field that studies the benefits of negative emotions and the downside of positive ones. An example of such approach can be found in the work of June Gruber, a psychology professor at University of Colorado Boulder. In her TEDx talk The Dark Side of Happiness, she argues that too much positive affect can lead to decrease of creativity and to risky, harmful behaviors; that those who do not feel emotions such as grief and anger when it is appropriate are less emotionally adjusted; and that the pursuit of happiness itself can become a self-defeating objective. In the words of J. S. Mill: “Those only are happy… who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

In philosophy, a lot of attention has been traditionally and historically paid to the importance and nature of happiness. Recently, however, some philosophers have started thinking more about the value and role of pain. Some of these philosophers can be found in the interdisciplinary team that is behind the Value of Suffering Project. The aim of the project is to investigate the nature and role of suffering and affective experience in general. They even have a blog you might want to check out!

Earlier attempts at re-evaluating the importance of suffering can be found in the work some philosophers (such as Martha Nussbaum) have done on the importance from an ethical perspective of imaginatively engaging with fictions: when we see the world through the lens of a member of an oppressed minority, for instance, and we empathize with their pain, we might be able to see moral truths that were unavailable to us before.

Thinking about the experience of suffering in fictional engagement also suggests that suffering might have not only an instrumental value (as it plays an adaptive function at both the physical and psychological level), but also a non-instrumental one, in particular an epistemic one. Suffering is an unavoidable component of the human experience. If there is intrinsic value in knowing reality, independently from the use that we can do of that knowledge, then eschewing knowledge of a central aspect of reality is not a habit that a person should cultivate.

I might be ready for The Kite Runner.

A Pursuit of Passion: Questioning the Post-Grad Trajectory

As DePauw students, success is the light at the end of the tunnel of exams, papers and countless hours in Roy O. West. From the moment we step foot on campus, we begin pondering our personal trajectories. We explore different areas of study, choose a major, fulfill internships and, by senior year, we are expected to have at least found a career path we are interested in. Some of us dive right into our chosen fields while others take a gap year, or a few, doing service, pursuing internships or fellowships, or traveling the world. Nonetheless, we continue to pace ourselves, never stopping, falling and repeatedly redeeming, until someone gives us a break. My question is: what would it mean to step into the world without the intention of putting our degree to use, at least, for the time being?

I was browsing Facebook one night when an article surfaced, listing several ‘bad’ ideas one has in their 20’s but will never regret. This article delineated my gut feeling that if I put off my own career goals for at least a few years- to travel, bartend, wait tables or pursue the arts- maybe the progress I have made thus far in my college career won’t come to a screeching halt. My career goals will get accomplished… that satisfaction may just come a bit later.

One response to the article criticized this free-spirited mentality, claiming that time spent ‘living’ in this way is wasted because such energy could be spent making gains in the corporate world. I questioned: should I feel guilt over pursuing life in the present instead of long-term career goals for a couple years… to volunteer somewhere in exchange for room and board, commit to a social cause, or work as a farm hand? Do I owe more to a family that needs me?

It seems that in the professional world we often assign a sense of guilt where efficiency is absent. We become chiefly recognized by our career choices and, as of recent, by our profiles on LinkedIn. We even build relationships based on networking rather than genuine interest.

By putting off long-term career goals and choosing to take an alternative route, an encounter with our passions and personal causes may be in store for us. We may find a point at which our career goals align with our pastimes, or we may even change career paths. If we work ourselves to our limits immediately out of school, these realizations may remain only in the periphery.

In my own experience, it was only once I stepped out of this cycle of productivity and interned at a cultural center in Central America that the weight of knowing my career trajectory for the next ten years was lifted. While living in Nicaragua last summer, where the first question asked was never, “what do you do (for work)?” I came to see what it means to value one’s credibility solely by their passions- may that be art, music, cooking, researching, farming, sporting or even conversing. By somehow rediscovering this mentality, I hope to explore what it means to commit a year or two to… life.

“Insert Trigger Warning Here” Ethics

While 2013 was declared the “Year of the Trigger Warning,” it is important to revisit the idea of adding trigger warnings to course syllabi and discussions. Some universities have gone as far as to require faculty to warn students of any topic that might “challenge their thinking.” The question of when it is ethical to use a trigger warning and when it is okay not to use one forces us to think about the implications trigger warnings have on every educational environment.

Continue reading ““Insert Trigger Warning Here” Ethics”

Banning “India’s Daughter”

The film “India’s Daughter” has stirred up controversy worldwide over the past few days. The film details the brutal gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, a medical student, on a bus in Delhi in 2012. Rape and misogyny has been a huge problem in India; misogyny is part of the culture. One journalist gives the example of her relative telling her father not to tip the nurses who delivered her very much because she was not born a boy. 

The controversy over the film stems from various sources; some politicians say that the film is unethical because it shows interviews with one the rapists – who currently sits on the death row – that were filmed while legal proceedings were still active. He also places the blame on the victim, and makes numerous misogynistic comments; the Indian government decided to enact a ban because his words were “offensive to women and could set off civil unrest.” Some also said portions of the film could incite violence against women in a society that is already dealing with high levels of rape, domestic violence, and infanticide against females. In the rapists’ former neighborhood, people have began to say that mob justice is the only way to properly punish the man.

However, some are staunchly against the ban as the film highlights the misogyny that goes on in India. It calls attention to the unequal power dynamics in a patriarchal society. The quotes from the rapists prove just how commonplace and detached some are from violence against women, and how they are regarded as subhuman. It shows how deeply the misogyny runs, and displays it to the world and the society in hopes that it can change. While the film had issues with portrayal of the victim – focusing too much on her “goodness” and labeling her as a daughter instead of an independent woman – it brought certain issues back to the public conscience.

Should the government have banned the film? Should restrictions be placed on the media about controversial issues like this, even when they have been acknowledged already? Is it right to stifle certain critiques of a culture? Should the film even have been made, and is it insensitive to other victims for focusing on a specific victim and for interviewing an accused-but-not-convicted rapist?

The Fairness of Science Fairs

The science fair is a common part of the elementary and middle school education; students create a project, like a baking soda and vinegar volcano, and present it with a poster at the school with dozens of other students. In theory, it is a competition amongst students to see who produced the best experiment and followed the scientific method. However, are science fairs really fair to all students, or do some students have a higher advantage?

Parental involvement is a huge factor when it comes to science fair project; as one parent writes in her article for The Atlantic, those students who have parents that have higher education and the ability to be engaged in their children’ schoolwork have better projects. Sometimes it is blatantly apparent that the parents have helped them out. As a professor’s daughter, I am guilty of this myself – when I had to build a DNA model my freshman year of high school, I did enlist my scientist father to help me out with deciding how to go about it. When I didn’t know what kind of project I should do for science classes, I could ask him for ideas. Those students with parents who are able to provide assistance and maybe more sophisticated topic ideas will naturally do better than those in a similar age group who have to figure the project out entirely on their own. One other factor is that science fair project instructions also contain instructions and requirements that some elementary children simply cannot do well on their own; performing extensive research with valid sources is difficult for young students, and creating and testing a valid hypothesis using the scientific method could also be extremely difficult for the average 8-year-old. Some of these projects end up being what my mother calls “parent homework.” Science fair projects also cost money, which is a luxury not all households can afford.

A 2003 study also showed that science fairs tend to not engage students and increase their interest in science, which one of the main arguments in favor of science fairs. The modern science fair structure evolved out of a culture of technological advancement that should begin in childhood and develop the workforce from early on. They were also designed to help foster gifted students to identify their talents. However, they have now come to be a stressful time for both parents and students, unfairly weighted in favor of a certain subset of students. Is it ethical to have students participate in a competition when it is skewed in favor of a select group? Should households be expected to pay for their child’s science fair project? Should assignments be written such that they are nearly impossible for a student to do without parental help? Is the current structure of science fairs ethical? Let us know in the comments.

Prindle Intern Spotlight: Caroline Zadina

Caroline is a junior intern from Glencoe, Illinois. She studies Pyschology at DePauw and is a member of the varsity women’s soccer team.

  1. Tell us about an ethics/social justice issue that is particularly important to you.

Ethics in athletics and competition is of great importance and interest to me. As a college athlete, I have learned a remarkable amount from my commitment to soccer, and have grown into the person I am today because of my experiences on the field with teammates and coaches. One particular aspect that has captured my attention lately is the ethics behind coaching. The role of a coach has a tremendous impact on the development of an athlete, and can either be positive or negative to one’s development. On the cusp of recent athletic scandals regarding college athletes, my hope is that one day there will be a greater commitment by the sporting world to treat athletes with respect and dignity, just as any human, whether competing or not, deserves.

  1. What upcoming Prindle event are you most excited about?

The Undergraduate Ethics Symposium hits the top of my list of my favorite Prindle events. I am really looking forward to this year’s event titled: Value and Virtual Spaces. I am excited to explore the moral questions raised by the virtual world as technology touches my life daily. This year, Prindle has four highly accredited speakers coming to share their experiences and knowledge on this topic, and I am really looking forward to listening and contributing to the conversations.

  1. Which class(es) at DePauw have most challenged and expanded your worldview?

The most challenging class I have taken at DePauw was Sociology of Hip Hop. It not only challenged me academically, but also personally. I listen to hip hop music regularly. Every time I run on the treadmill hip-hop music is blasting in my ears. Because of this, I expected to be familiar with the topic, yet in actuality, there is much more to hip hop music then what reaches the ear. The historical roots and the stories captured in the lyrics, when truly recognized and understood, are incredibly moving. I have gained a whole new perspective and lens in which to listen and interpret hip-hop through. It is no longer just fast and catchy beats and lyrics. I appreciate it more, and listen to the stories and thoughts it conveys whenever I hear it now.

  1. What’s the coolest thing you’ve heard about in the past week? This could be something you read, listened to, watched, talked about, etc.

In interpersonal communication class this morning we saw a video that focused on eye contact, and the power of eye contact. Before actually taking the time to think about it, I did not realize how powerful eye contact can actually be. When making eye contact, if you put in the time and the effort, you can learn a lot about a person and notice things you may have never taken the time to see. In the short clip we watched in class, couples were asked to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Viewers observed how at first these couples were resistant, felt “weird” and “awkward” and lots of fidgeting was going on. It can be challenging to actually stare into someone’s eyes if you think about it, as eyes are believed to be windows to the soul, which can be frightening to some. However, by the end of four minutes, these couples shared how much they enjoyed the activity because they had never looked at each other like that before. It was an opportunity to really see each other, and appreciate the importance of their relationship. Each couple’s heartfelt reactions to this activity moved me. It has inspired me to take the extra time and make my eye contact matter. Instead of just looking, look with meaning. Here is the video if you want to take a look.

  1. Tell us about one of your hobbies, interests, or passions.

I do love soccer, however that is something most people know about me already. A hobby of mine that is not so well known, is my love of photography. I took photography class in high school and instantly was hooked. I have never been good at drawing or painting, so photography is an outlet where my creativity can shine through. My favorite thing about photography is its ability to capture an important moment, relationship, or a passing expression of emotion.  Photographs make it possible to hold on to fleeting moments that you never want to forget.

Learn more about Caroline here.

The Ethics of a “One-Cure” Solution

Breast cancer and the push for finding “the cure” for cancer are not new. We race for the cure, walk for the cure, bike for the cure, and do just about anything you can think of to raise money to fund cancer research; the one way society as a whole works to combat this disease. In the months leading up to losing her 13+ year battle with cancer, former LA Times staff writer Laurie Beckland tells a different story of how cancer can be combatted in a February op-ed, As I Lay Dying.

Beckland writes, “Promise me you’ll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.”  Her article explains that there are other resources, such as databases detailing patient experiences that other patients can learn from.  This would include invaluable advice to current patients who are making decisions about their own individual “trial” as Beckland refers to it.

Cancer patients are not required to report their metastatic diagnosis, so many times, individuals die of other diseases and official death records are in no way reliable instruments for evaluating or counting cancer-related deaths.  Beckland even goes as far as to say not using Big Data to the advantage of cancer patients is criminal and that a lack of participation in such a project by both patients and doctors would be unethical. This brings about a slightly different question: Is it unethical not to create a way for patients to voluntarily (or even anonymously) spread and share information with one another/with doctors?

Additionally, while we are waiting for researched “cures” to meet the gold standard approval of researchers, we are losing valuable time and resources, which could aid patients, potentially prolonging their lives in other ways. Is it unethical for society to continually support the “one cure” mindset, funneling money into research that might not be doing as much as it could be for the cancer patients it claims to support? Should we reconsider the ways in which we fight this currently incurable disease?

Could Fur Be Ethical?

A man selling furs on the street

Fur has been a popular luxury product for centuries that presents an ethical dilemma. All furs were once the skin of a living animal; therefore, animal rights activists and many other people say that it is unethical to wear fur since an animal must die in order for the fur to be used. However, despite this, the overall demand for fur has been growing worldwide. According to The Atlantic, global fur exports have more than doubled, from $2 billion to $4 billion. With a growing demand for furs, is it possible for the industry to be ethical?

Continue reading “Could Fur Be Ethical?”

Language Ethics and Government Accountability

“Many of the ensuing problems call for solutions that cannot wait for the world to agree on a universal right to move, some of them of an ethical nature.”

This quote is taken from an article by Florian Coulmas which discusses “The Ethics of Language Choice in Immigration,” and sheds light onto a topic that is rarely discussed: the ethics of language.  We use language all the time, however, we rarely discuss the originations, usage, or particular implications of the ways in which we can talk and actually speak about dilemmas such as immigration.  We also rarely address the ways in which language can become unethical.

The article also poses two main questions:

1. Should language rights be understood as collective rights or individual rights?

2. Do language rights entail active endorsement of immigrant languages on the part of the state, or only passive toleration in the private sphere?

Coulmas expresses the importance that language has for society; “high-level communication is key for most operations” and successes in the world as we know it.  The  emergence of a “national language” trend, post-French Revolution, however, inevitably repressed already linguistic minorities by transforming the English language into an extension of state power and control. Not to mention, Native American languages, which were the true first language(s) of the “United States” are now considered insignificant next to English.  English-speaking elites have successfully colonized not only the land we now call America, but the language of this place as well.

What is the responsibility of the government or society as a whole when it comes to including the language(s) of immigrants? Viewing language rights as a collective responsibility would make it ethically imperative for a government to actively endorse all minority languages, providing linguistic support for these people when it comes to law, medical care, etc. Keeping the languages of immigrants in mind would also be a smart move for authoritative bodies, as it is in their favor to have an informed working class and electorate.  Coulmas’ advise for balancing this slippery slope is that, “To treat individual immigrants fairly and to prevent collective discrimination are obligations of a just society that the state as its agent cannot disregard.”

What do you think? Should the United States be held accountable for supporting all minority languages, especially realizing that European-based/the English languages was once a minority language itself?


Threats on Social Media are Still Threats

The social media world is a crazy world, indeed, sparking firestorms over petty things, such as the color of some dress in Scotland. Most social media postings connect people to ideas, news, fun and each other. There is, however, a dark and demented corner of social media where posters threaten and scare individuals. This leaves law enforcement with the challenge of sorting out which online threats to take seriously and which goofy rants to ignore. In a society in which free speech is valued under the First Amendment, this is quite a quandary.

The Supreme Court is deliberating a case that could help law enforcement assess threats delivered through social media. Oral arguments were heard this winter for a case in which a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was convicted for posting threatening messages on Facebook. His posts appeared to target his estranged wife, his former place of employment and even elementary schools in the area. One such post, believed to be directed at his wife, read, “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” Other posts were equally as frightening.

For his conviction to stand, the Supreme Court must find these social media rants were “true threats” in the eyes of a “reasonable person.” Elonis’ attorney tried to convince the court that his client had no intent to cause fear, and that Elonis’ wild-eyed, online outbursts were somehow the stuff of art and self-therapy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to sympathize with that argument, asking “How does one prove what’s in somebody else’s mind?” Well, for one thing, you look at the words that somebody uses. Words have meaning. A person’s words give a clear window into what that individual is thinking. A reasonable person could easily see a real threat in online posts that talk about the ex-wife’s head on a stick, her shallow grave and “a thousand ways to kill you.”

Justice Samuel Alito dismissed the artistic/therapeutic rationale, “This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it.” Justice Antonin Scalia incredulously asked Elonis’ attorney, “This is valuable First Amendment language that you think has to be protected?” That is the key question for the Court to answer. There are very few categories of speech not allowed under the First Amendment. The Court must decide if threats delivered through social media should be included as protected.

The Supreme Court’s guidance is much needed to determine how threatening a digital message must be to actually break the law. Online threats pop up routinely these days. A 17-year-old in Brooklyn was arrested recently for a Facebook post that included an expletive-filled threat against police and a cartoon image of a policeman with three guns pointed at him. The charges were later dropped, with the teen’s attorney saying his client never intended to act on the threatening post. The decision didn’t sit well with Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, who said in a published report that the message was “easily interpreted by any reasonable person as a call for violence against police officers.” The NYPD has recent sad history with violence against its officers.

Bomb threats posted on Twitter in recent weeks have been taken quite seriously by authorities, leading to the grounding or emergency landings of several airplanes. Those threats might not have been serious either, but the FAA and the airlines could hardly shrug them off.

In the Elonis arguments, Justice Elena Kagan reminded fellow justices that “the First Amendment requires a buffer zone to ensure that even stuff that is wrongful maybe is permitted because we don’t want to chill innocent behavior.” True enough, but it is hard to see how stopping social media death threats chills worthwhile speech. Staunch First Amendment defender Justice William Brennan wrote in 1957, “The unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance.”

The upcoming Supreme Court decision must provide guidance to social media users and law enforcement about the boundaries of online threats. The key should not be the poster’s intent, but rather the effect of threatening posts on the receivers. Online threats are still threats.

Do you have a moral responsibility to “Go Green”?

DePauw is reaching the end of its annual three-week-long “Energy Wars:” a competition between the major housing buildings on campus to reduce the amount of electricity and water that students use in their day-to-day lives. In 2010, DePauw students made the largest reduction in energy out of all of the nearly 40 campuses that participated, and each year students continue to do their homework by window-light and take fewer showers to win the energy-reducing competition.

However, once the three-week Energy Wars ends, our lights come back on and students cease thinking about whether or not they unplugged their computer charger to reduce electricity usage. The three-week period of Energy Wars, instead of setting a standard, is an example of how environmentally friendly living is often seen as “extra”—for example, we might applaud the actions of someone who brings their own, reusable bags to the grocery store, but we generally consider using the plastic bags provided to us by the store as standard and acceptable.

On the other hand, people seen blatantly littering on the street may find themselves the target of dirty looks or even the recipient of a fine. Littering—although not considered socially unacceptable in the past, is now less prevalent due to social pressures and legislation.

This interesting contrast highlights how beliefs about whether or not an action is morally required can affect our behavior. Furthermore, as Stanford professor Rob Willer points out in a recent article for the New York Times, this phenomenon can explain why there is such a large difference in the way our political parties approach environmental policy.

Essentially, while a large portion of people who identify as Republicans report believing that global warming is a significant problem, the Republican party has historically made far fewer efforts to combat climate change. According to Willer, this disparity may be due to the fact that liberals tend to view environmentalism as a moral issue, whereas conservatives do not. Therefore, conservatives are more likely to view an environmental program as just one program out of many proposed social programs that are all potentially beneficial but also are all costly. Ultimately, if one doesn’t view an issue or action as morally necessary, one is less likely to be willing to make it a priority.

Part of the problem seems to be that liberals and conservatives have different values that guide their moral inclinations, and arguments for environmental policy have traditionally been grounded in liberal values, like protection from harm. When Willer and Matthew Feinberg conducted a study in which they gave conservative participants an argument for environmentalism grounded in the traditionally conservative value of moral purity, they found that participants given this message reported much greater support for environmental legislation.

What can we take from this information? Essentially, the first step in significant environmental policy change is making it clear to citizens—liberal and conservative alike—that environmentalism is not merely a problem of logic and cost-benefit analysis, but of ethics. On a smaller scale, as students, we can hold each other accountable for actions. Even after Energy Wars ends, congratulate your friend for turning off their light, and smile at someone you see opting to walk to the library instead of drive.

Ethics of Anonymity Online

When your name remains detached from something, most of the repercussions from saying certain things seem to disappear. The issue of anonymity online is nothing new – people have been sending hateful comments to people from behind a computer screen for years. Cyberbullying is a hot topic and a major issue among children, teens, and beyond. On college campuses, including DePauw, the anonymous app Yik Yak has become a breeding ground for hateful comments whose authors are concealed behind the shelter of anonymity online.

Yik Yak has caused numerous problems, closing high schools due to bomb threats, spreading racist hate, and bullying messages calling for specific students to kill themselves. The app has breed far more hate than it has funny, parody messages like the developers say the app was intended for. Despite geofencing attempts to prevent the app from being able to be used near high schools and instead used by college students, the app still has many issues. The reason behind the app being so popular is understandable; the ability to post whatever you want without concern is tempting, and you may receive validation from people who have no idea who you are that your content is funny, correct, or interesting. Prindle Director Andy Cullison was quoted in an article for Atlanta Magazine as saying, “the approval of strangers seems authentic in a way that approval from friends, who might feel social pressure to support you, does not.” With anonymous apps such as Yik Yak, you can receive bulk validation or rejection.

The cost of online anonymity is something to consider. Is it ethical to hide behind the Internet? What’s the price of this ability? Join us this upcoming Monday, March 9th at 11:30 AM in the UB Ballroom for a presentation and discussion on the topic of anonymity online. Lunch will be provided on a first come, first serve basis.

Ethics in Research: Is the Government Catching Professors Cheating?

At the 2015 Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) conference a few weeks ago, I went to a breakout session on ethical research that is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The presenter leads a division of the NSF called Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM (CCE STEM), which essentially oversees the ethical provisions of NSF grants given to universities.  The presenter’s main point was that perhaps too much slack is given to faculty members who head up large-scale research projects, at least when it comes to ethics.

The NSF seems to have a clear commitment to ethical standards. Pertaining to ethics training, the grant application states: “The institution must have a training plan available upon request for students and post-docs, and all new applications to NSF must include a mentoring plan if any post-docs will be employed.” Missing from the requirements is any type of ethics training mandate for faculty members, not to mention the vague language around the training plan, which are allegedly lacking at many schools. Faculty are presumably exempt because they are already well-versed in ethical research and conduct.

Yet, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found an increase in the instances of ethical red flags in their grantee’s research projects. The number of cases of plagiarism, peer review confidentiality breaches, misrepresenting of funding sources, etc. is on the rise. The OIG even speculates that 1,300 of 45,000 NSF proposals could contain plagiarized content. These instances of “cheating” are not being done by the undergraduates or post-docs, but by the faculty members in charge of the project. This begs the question of whether faculty really should be exempt from ethics training, that which their subordinates are required to complete.

Students are graded based on their papers and tests. Developing research projects and publishing based on the results is the equivalent for faculty members. The academic community abhors cheating from students; in fact, plagiarism can often result in suspension or expulsion. Shouldn’t faculty members be held to the same ethical standard?