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Who Should Get an A?

painting of crowded schoolhouse

The New York Times reports that for every 10 grades assessed to undergraduates at Yale during the last academic year, 8 were either an A or an A minus: corresponding to an increase in average GPA by nearly 0.3 points since the turn of the century, up to 3.7 from 3.42. This comes after similar patterns were uncovered at Harvard in early October, and a series of university professors were fired over their poor grade distributions: including one at Spelman College last month and a high-profile case last year at New York University.

There are many ways in which to understand these popular controversies: perhaps the problem is grade inflation, or students are struggling following the pandemic. Such theories are important to discuss, and significant attention has been devoted to them since the pandemic. However, there is an observation which we might make here, raising questions with implications spanning pre-K through graduate school: disagreements over low test scores and increasingly high grades are often disagreements over the very purpose of education, and the role it plays in our larger society. The question at the heart of the matter is deceivingly simple: who should get an A?

When asked this question, two categories of answers may come to mind. The first, and perhaps most common, is: the students who understand the material exceptionally well. The entire idea of grading on a curve is based on this premise: for any given class, a group of students will understand the material exceptionally well, a group will understand it exceptionally poorly, and most will fall somewhere in the middle. Under this scheme, grading — and, by extension, education — functions to stratify students: it supposedly identifies the best and most deserving individuals. And, by assumption, someone must always be on the opposite end of the spectrum — for someone to be the best, someone else must always be the worst. This idea, for better or worse, has had an incredibly deep impact on how we, as a society, understand both grades and education more broadly. When grades function to stratify, good grades become the instrument of meritocratic advancement up the socioeconomic hierarchy.

The logic here will be familiar to any high school student, having been echoed for years. To get a good job, you need good grades in college, and to get into college, you need good grades in high school; and to get the best grades in high school, you need to do after school tutoring in elementary school, learn to read as early as possible, and so on. When good grades are a primary vehicle for socioeconomic security, education becomes a bloodsport for which training must begin as early as possible. On this view, the awarding of A’s or A-‘s to 80% of students – as Harvard and Yale and others have done –  is an unacceptable obfuscation of who has won; grades no longer function to establish the differentiation which our broader economy relies upon.

But mixed in our social consciousness is another concept of grading, built on a different idea of education. Perhaps the student who should get an A is the student who satisfied, to the fullest extent, the expectations of the course. The key difference between this notion and that described above is that, here, everyone can get an A so long as all students satisfy those expectations. Imagine, for example, you’re teaching a class on accounting, designed to introduce students to basic concepts in Microsoft Excel and prepare them for higher-level coursework which will require a basic set of skills and a common vocabulary. If this is the goal of the course, then there is no reason that every student shouldn’t get an A: if the goal is for students to develop certain skills, then it only matters that the goal is met, and the degree to which those goals are surpassed is superfluous to the purpose of the course. With realistic goals, proper teaching, and appropriate effort, every student will develop those skills, and the course will have fulfilled its educational mission. Under this scheme, grading functions to indicate competency, and education functions to cultivate it; education is not about sorting students, but rather, uplifting them as a group.

This may seem to be a radical idea of education’s purpose, but I’d argue that the idea is more common than one might think. The idea of educational standards, both at the federal and state level, is built on this idea of education: that a graduate of high school, for example, should have certain competencies. It is also why grading entirely on a curve is uncommon — if the best student gets a 98% and the worst gets a 95%, it hardly seems appropriate to award an A to the former and an F to the latter — and, further, why educators are often blamed for their student’s poor grades: we expect professors to teach all students a set of material, not merely succeed in stratifying their students into the best and worst.

Across education, we can see these two ideas of the educational mission — education as stratifying and education as uplifting — coming into conflict with one-another. Perhaps they even co-exist within most grading systems, where a C is intended to indicate competency and an A indicates exceptional understanding. But even though we may be intuitively familiar with both, I think there’s reason to take the conflict between them seriously: I would argue that not only do these two concepts of education conflict, but that they’re fundamentally at odds with one another. If stratifying students requires always failing some, then education cannot simultaneously function to uplift all students; and if uplifting all students requires providing second and third chances, then grades and education cannot play their fundamental role in our society’s larger economic system. This is exactly what has happened in medical education when the first United States Medical Licensing Exam was transitioned from a scored system to a simple pass/fail: when this change was finalized, residency program directors lost their primary metric for deciding which medical students to interview.

But we can also understand this conflict at a different level. Take the perspective of a professor. Very few educators want to be the gatekeepers of socioeconomic privilege, and most find the idea of failing students unpleasant, especially when those students make a genuine effort: most professors want to teach, to uplift their students, share their passion for the subject they have devoted their life to studying. Take the perspective of a student. In a stratifying educational system, students are actively punished for helping their classmates, and are tacitly encouraged to undermine other students to increase their standing in the grading hierarchy; in an uplifting system, no such incentives exist, and collaboration is tacitly encouraged.

Grading controversies are, fundamentally, a debate which happens between these two, radically different ideas about education and the social role it should serve. Should education uplift all, or determine who can go on? Should education be rigorous and challenging, or designed to accommodate the flourishing of students? These are not easy questions, but they are questions which we will continue to face until the contradiction inherent to modern education is resolved.

Smoking and Limitations on Liberty

close-up photograph of defiant smoker in sunglasses

At the end of last month, the recently elected coalition government in New Zealand decided to scrap a world-leading policy implementing an effective ban on smoking nationwide. The legislation – passed in 2022 and set to come into force in July 2024 – would have raised the smoking age annually, so that someone who was 14 years old at the time of the policy’s implementation would never be able to legally purchase a cigarette. The pioneering approach subsequently inspired the proposal of similar legislation in the U.K. amongst other jurisdictions.

The chief reason for the axing of this policy was financial. Tobacco sales generate revenue, and the incoming government of New Zealand needs this revenue in order to fund its many promised tax cuts. However other concerns played a role, including the familiar specter of the nation becoming a “nanny state” that dictates how people should live their lives. But are these concerns sufficient to justify the overturning of a policy that would have reduced mortality rates by 22% for women, and 9% for men – saving approximately 5,000 New Zealand lives per year?

At its core, this policy – like others that limit our ability to imbibe potentially harmful substances – becomes a debate about whether we should take a paternalistic or libertarian view of the role of government. Paternalists see the government in a parental light, and – as such – believe that the government is justified in restricting the liberty of its citizens where doing so is in the citizens’ best interests. Libertarians, on the other hand, see freedom as being of paramount importance, and endorse the government restricting personal freedoms in only very limited scenarios. What kind of cases might qualify? One approach the Libertarian might take is to apply something like John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, which holds that our freedoms should only be limited where our actions will cause harm to others. Could, then, a Libertarian justify an effective ban on smoking? Perhaps. The harms of secondhand smoke (i.e., the inhaling of cigarette smoke by those who do not choose to smoke) are well-known. In the U.S. alone, secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 premature deaths every year. This is precisely the kind of harm that might justify a limitation of our personal freedom under a libertarian approach.

But suppose that an individual manages to smoke in a manner that creates no harm whatsoever for anyone else. This isolated smoker consumes tobacco exclusively in a private, sealed environment so that the only harm caused is harm to themself. Might the state nevertheless be justified in restricting the liberty of this individual? Here, the libertarian will most likely say “no.” The paternalist, on the other hand, might endorse a liberty-restricting policy. But on what basis?

There are myriad ways in which the paternalist might justify the infringement of an individual’s liberty, even where no harm is done to others. One method comes via an application of utilitarianism (also popularized by John Stuart Mill). At its core, utilitarianism claims that the right thing to do is that which maximizes welfare – i.e., how well people’s lives go. How are we to measure this? One way (and the way which Mill himself adopts) is hedonistically. This approach involves tallying up the total pleasures and pains brought about by different options, and choosing that which maximizes pleasure (or, at the very least, minimizes pain).

What would this hedonistic utilitarian make of the isolated smoker case above? Well, chief among their considerations would be the pleasures (presumably) gained from the smoker’s enjoyment of their cigarettes. But these pleasures would then need to be weighed against the pains caused by this same activity: specifically, the detrimental effects that smoking has on one’s health. Now, some of those pains might not be immediate – and some might never occur. In this case, the calculation of pains might need to take into account the risk of those harms eventuating – discounting them according to how unlikely they are to occur. Ultimately, the question posed by the hedonistic utilitarian will be do the pleasures of smoking outweigh the actual (and potential) harms? Where they do not, the state might find moral justification in preventing that individual smoking, since it will not be the action that maximizes their welfare.

But utilitarianism isn’t the only moral theory we might apply. Immanuel Kant’s approach is decidedly different, and focuses on a respect for human dignity. His Humanity Formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that an action is right if and only if it treats persons as ends in themselves and not as a mere means to an end. Might the Kantian object to restricting the liberty of the isolated smoker? It would certainly seem that the state is using the individual as a means to an end – that being the end of promoting health. But are they using the individual as a mere means? Arguably not. If I befriend a classmate for the sole purpose of having them help me write an assignment, I am using them as a mere means. If, however, I pay a mechanic to work on my car, I am not using them as a “mere” means, since my treatment of the mechanic happens to facilitate their end of gainful employment.

The same might be true in the case of liberty-limiting legislation and smoking. While the state is using the individual as a means, they might be doing so in a way that promotes the ends of the individuals. What are those ends? We can take our pick from the many things that the smoker values in life: waking up each morning to enjoy the sunrise, engaging in physical exercise, watching their grandchildren graduate. All of these ends are threatened by their smoking, so that preventing this individual from smoking might in fact respect those ends.

Whether or not the state is right to limit their citizens’ ability to engage in harmful behavior is a conversation both complex and nuanced. It’s unfortunate, then, that in the case of New Zealand this decision seems to have been made largely on the basis of financial considerations and political pragmatism. Instead, careful attention should be paid to how we see the state: whether its role is paternalistic, and – if so – what kinds of moral principles might justify its intervention in our lives.

Test Subject Guide

Diverse group of Indiana high school ethics bowl students working on a case.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum. Fabio vel iudice vincam, sunt in culpa qui officia. Salutantibus vitae elit libero, a pharetra augue. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.

Rumination and Wronging with Cat Saint-Croix

Most of us care deeply about the way our loved ones think of us. And when they fail to give us the benefit of the doubt in certain situations, it hurts. On today’s show, we’re discussing this phenomenon with the philosopher Cat Saint-Croix. Their work explores the role that attention plays in epistemic morality.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Cat Saint-Croix, “Rumination and Wronging: The Role Attention Plays in Epistemic Morality

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Funk and Flash” by Blue Dot Sessions

Rambling” by Blue Dot Sessions

Myisha Cherry: Failures of Forgiveness

If you were asked to define forgiveness, what would you say? My answer would be pretty vague–something along the lines of forgiveness means letting the past go and letting go of anger. My guest today, philosopher Mysiha Cherry, argues that forgiveness is actually a much more multifaceted concept.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Myisha CherryFailures of Forgiveness
  2. Listen to Myisha Cherry’s excellent show The UnMute Podcast!

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Funk and Flash” by Blue Dot Sessions

Rambling” by Blue Dot Sessions

Taking Offense with Emily McTernan

Imagine sitting in a staff meeting where one of your co-workers makes a joke about people with disabilities. You’re offended, so you roll your eyes and cross your arms in front of your chest for the rest of the meeting. You might worry that your reaction was pretty insignificant, and didn’t really do any good. My guest, philosopher Emily McTernan, argues that taking offense and showing disapproval, even in small ways, can actually be a force for social good.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Emily McTernanOn Taking Offence
  2. Amy Olberding, The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy
  3. Sarah Buss, “Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners
  4. Cheshire Calhoun, “The Virtue of Civility
  5. Joel Feinberg, Offense to Others

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Funk and Flash” by Blue Dot Sessions

Rambling” by Blue Dot Sessions

How Much Should We Expect of Ourselves? with Marcus Hedahl and Kyle Fruh

We’re exploring the philosophical problem known as “demandingness” with Kyle Fruh and Marcus Hedahl. We discuss how much we should expect of ourselves when it comes to fighting climate change, and how to meet moral demands without giving up our lives to do so. 

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Kyle Fruh and Marcus Hedahl, “Coping with Climate Change: What Justice Demands of Surfers, Mormons, and the Rest of Us

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Etude 7” by Blue Dot Sessions

Motherhood and Ethics with Sarah LaChance Adams

We’re discussing motherhood with philosopher and director of the Florida Blue Center for Ethics Sarah LaChance Adams. She argues that we romanticize mothers, and in so doing ignore the pain and failure that come with caregiving. In her work, she explores the ambivalence of motherhood and what it can teach us about ethics. We discuss the ethics of parenting, Simone de Beauvoir, and much more on this episode of Examining Ethics.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Sarah LaChance AdamsMad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence
  2. Care ethics

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Etude 7” by Blue Dot Sessions

Authenticity and Gender Norms with Rowan Bell

On today’s show, we explore the complicated relationship between gender, authenticity and ethics with philosopher Rowan Bell.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Rowan Bell, “Being Your Best Self: Authenticity, Morality, and Gender Norms
  2. Dr. Phil gets real about authenticity
  3. Ramón Grosfoguel, “Epistemic Extractivism

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Timid Luxor” by Blue Dot Sessions

Apple Spice” by Blue Dot Sessions

Predatory Grooming and Epistemology with Lauren Leydon-Hardy

Grooming is a practice used to lure victims into an exploitative relationship. The philosopher Lauren Leydon-Hardy explores the ways that predatory grooming can interfere with the very way that a person thinks about themselves and the world. She calls this form of harm “epistemic infringement.”

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Lauren Leydon-Hardy, “Predatory Grooming and Epistemic Infringement
  2. Forensic research psychologist Ian Elliott
  3. Rachel Denhollander’s testimony in the trial of Larry Nassar

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions

Reproductive Ethics with Camisha Russell

Camisha Russell is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon. On today’s episode of Examining Ethics, she explores the connections between Black Lives Matter and her work in the ethics of reproduction. She’s here to discuss her article, “Which lives matter in reproductive biomedicine?”

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Camisha Russell, “Which lives matter in reproductive biomedicine?
  2. Françoise Baylis
  3. Buck v. Bell

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Lowball” by Blue Dot Sessions

Moral Burnout

photograph of surgeon crying in hospital hallway

Many workers are moving towards a practice of “quiet quitting,” which, though somewhat misleadingly named, involves setting firm boundaries around work and resolving to meet expectations rather than exceed them. But not everyone enjoys that luxury. Doctors, teachers, and other caregivers may find that it is much harder to avoid going above and beyond when there are patients, students, or family members in need.

What happens when you can’t easily scale back from a state of overwork because of the moral demands of your job? It might lead to a specific kind of burnout: moral burnout. Like other varieties of burnout, moral burnout can leave you feeling mentally and physically exhausted, disillusioned with your work, and weakened by a host of other symptoms. Unlike other varieties of burnout, moral burnout involves losing sight of the basic point or meaning of morality itself.

How could this happen? Many people enter caregiving professions out of a desire to help people and do the right thing — out of a deep commitment to morality itself. When people in these professions find that, despite their best efforts, they cannot meet the needs around them, it can be easy to feel defeated.

Over time, the meaning of those moral commitments can become eroded to where all that is left is a sense of obligation or burden without any joy attached to it. The letter of the moral law has survived, but not its spirit.

Moral philosophers often try to defend morality to the immoralist who only cares about themselves and maybe the people around them. But it seems to me that there might be an equally strong challenge from the other side: the hypermoralist who tries to follow morality’s demands as best they can but who is left cold and exhausted, no longer seeing the point of morality though still feeling bound to its dictates. What might the moral philosopher say in defense to this kind of case? It seems that it depends on diagnosing what exactly has gone wrong.

So, what has gone wrong when “moral burnout” appears? First, it seems that, like in normal cases of burnout, the person is not receiving enough support or care themselves. This might be from a systematic failure, such as doctors being unable to get their patients the care they need due to injustices in the healthcare system. It could be from an interpersonal failure, where friends and family members in that person’s life fail to see their needs or adequately support them. Or perhaps it is from an individual failure, such as the person failing to reach out for or accept help.

The main problem is that there is a significant mismatch between the amount of morally significant labor that the person gives and the amount of support and recognition they receive.

This mismatch alone, however, is not enough to explain why the hypermoralist is left cold by morality. Sure, they may feel exhausted and disillusioned with their job or the people around them, but they might say something like “morality is still worthwhile; it’s just that other people aren’t holding up their end of the deal with me.”

What else is required to become disillusioned with morality itself? Especially for those who were raised to take all the responsibility on themselves, it’s easy to misunderstand morality as having to do only with duties to others and not at all with duties to oneself. In this case, the person can fail to properly value or take care of themselves, and lose sight of an important part of morality – self-respect. It is no surprise that this kind of person would become disillusioned.

Even for those who understand the importance of duties to oneself, it can be easy to fall into a similar trap of self-sacrifice if no one else will take responsibility for a clear and present need.

Another possibility is that, even though the person recognizes and works to fulfill duties of self-respect and self-care, they may find themselves caught up in a kind of rule fetishism, where morality becomes merely a list of moral tasks to complete. Self-care becomes another obligation to fulfill, rather than a chance to rest and recuperate. In this state, morality can seem to be a matter solely of burdens and obligations that must be completed, without the sense of meaning that one would normally get from saying a kind word, helping someone else, or standing up for oneself. Perhaps the hypermoralist has lost sight of the possibility of healthier relationships with others, or is unable to set healthy boundaries within their relationships or accept friendship and help from others.

Like friendship, morality is not transactional – it isn’t simply a set of tasks to complete. Morality is essentially relational.

Though praising and blaming ourselves and others for the actions we perform is a core part of our moral practices, these norms allow us to analyze whether we stand in the right relation with ourselves and with others. It is no surprise, then, that the hypermoralist has lost the meaning of morality if they have substituted its relational core of love for self and love for others with a list of tasks and obligations that lack relational context.

So, what can the hypermoralist do to regain a sense of moral meaning? The answer to that question depends on a host of considerations that will vary based on the individual in question. The basic gist, however, is that it’s vital to seek meaningful and healthy relationships and advocate for support when it’s needed. For example, a doctor in an unjust working environment might protest the indifference and profit-motivation of insurance companies who stand in the way of their patients getting the care they need. Ideally, this would not be another task that the doctor takes up alone but one that allows them to be in solidarity with others in their position — meeting people they can trust and rely upon along the way. Seeking out those meaningful and healthy relationships (moral and otherwise) can be tricky. But I hope for all of us that we can find good friends.

The Desire for Moral Impotence

photograph of hands tied behind man's back

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Richard Gibson and Nicholas Kreuder recently wrote about humans’ morally troublesome desire for control. The prospect of control is, Gibson notes, “intrinsically appealing” to humans, an “incredible common desire,” concurs Kreuder. Both writers also agree we should be wary of this desire for control. Gibson argues that this desire negatively influences our relationship with nature, while Kreuder argues that it “may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.” I largely agree, but I think there is another equally universal and deep-seated desire that also deserves some consideration — the desire to lack control.

An oft-repeated saying in philosophical ethics is “‘ought’ implies ‘can’.” In other words, if you can’t do something, then there’s no question of whether you ought to do it. Our moral responsibilities only extend as far as our abilities.

Because of this important link between what we ought to do and what we can do, being reminded that something is under our control often also serves as a reminder that it is also our responsibility.

The discovery that one has control is often not as joyous and anxiety-relieving an experience as you might expect given the universal human desire for control Gibson and Kreuder describe. In fact, anger, resentment, and bitterness are all common reactions to being reminded that we are in control of something. We often don’t want control. We yearn for it to be nothing to do with us — someone else’s problem.

Many of our responsibilities are, of course, distinctly moral ones. The world is an imperfect place, and we all have the capacity to make it better to some degree. In fact, many of us have the power to make it significantly better. In other words, most of us actually have a morally significant level of control over how the future unfolds.

Let’s take an example. It costs significantly more than most people think to save a life by donating to the most effective charities — about $2,300. But that’s still only about half as much as the average American spends at restaurants each year.

Ask yourself honestly; could you make a few lifestyle changes and afford the $2,300 needed to save a life? If so, how often? Once in your lifetime? Once a decade? Once a year? More?

How does this make you feel? Are you excited to learn or be reminded of your morally significant amount of control over the world? To discover that you (probably) have the radical power to give another human, a person just like you, the gift of life? Speaking for myself, far from feeling elated, I feel guilty and ashamed. My conscience would be clearer if highly cost-effective charities like this simply did not exist — if they did not grant me this ability to meaningfully reshape the world (at least for that one person and their family). Because having that ability means I have that moral responsibility. In my ordinary life, I act in bad faith. I think and act as though I don’t have the power to save lives with moderate charitable donations. For self-serving reasons, I think and act as though I lack control over the world that I actually possess.

In his discussion of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, Kreuder points out the attractiveness of having more control over our interactions with others. Imagine having more ability to decide how people will respond, being sure that you’re not going to say the “wrong thing.” He suggests this kind of control would provide relief for those “wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness.” This is certainly a desire I can recognize.

But I can also see the inverse: the desire of having less control in our interactions with others, in many cases.

Imagine your younger sibling is going off the rails – drinking too much and partying too hard. Their grades are suffering. Your sibling doesn’t listen to your parents but they look up to you; you know they will listen in the end. So you know that you, and only you, can intervene and make them get back on track. You can sit them down and have the difficult conversation that neither of you want to have. In other words, you have a great degree of control over your sibling.

How would you feel about having this kind of interpersonal control? Far from relieving your anxiety, you might feel deeply burdened by it, and the significant responsibility that it entails. It would be understandable to wish that you weren’t in such a potent position, and that someone else was instead. You might even be tempted to deny to yourself that you have such control over your sibling to avoid having to deal with the moral burden.

Rather than the risks that accompany greater interpersonal control, Gibson is concerned primarily with the negative effect that our desire for (often illusory) control has on our relationship with nature. It influences how we approach debates about “designer babies, personalized medicine, cloning, synthetic biology” and his focus, “gene drives.”

Gibson contends that humans actually have much less control than we like to think. In a cosmic sense, I think he is right. But, at least as a collective, humanity is surely in firm control over much of nature, perhaps even too much. Unfortunately, we control the global climate via our CO2 emissions. We control global fish stocks via modern fishing practices. And now, as Gibson explains, we also control which species we want to continue living and which we want to drive to extinction via the emerging technology of gene drives.

With respect to nature, at least the biosphere of Earth, humanity surely has much more control than most of us would think is desirable.

Our catastrophic relationship to nature seems to me less a symptom of our desire to control nature, and more a symptom of our being in a blissful state of denial about just how much control we have.

To be clear, I think Gibson is right to warn against an excessively domineering attitude toward nature, and Kreuder is right to warn against having too much control over our interactions with others. But we should also be on guard against the equally human tendency to find narratives that absolve us of our burdensome responsibilities. If Gibson is right that, fundamentally, “we’re subject to, rather than the wielders of power,” if we can’t really exercise control over the world, then there’s no reason to ask ourselves the tough question — what should we do? Avoiding this question may feel good, but it would be morally disastrous.

The Science of a Better You with Jim Davies

One of the best and worst things about the field of ethics is that it often takes a lot of thought, discussion and intellectual energy to sort out how to do good. My guest today, the Carleton University cognitive scientist Jim Davies, claims there are some definitive answers about how to do the most good for the most people. His book, Being the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are is about how to live a good life and also how to be a good person. We’re focusing on the second half of his book, where he uses scientific insights to figure out how to maximize the good we can do in the world.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Jim Davies, Being the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are
  2. Listen to Jim Davies and Kim Hellemans’ podcast, Minding the Brain
  3. Remember Napster?
  4. Utilitarianism
  5. Disability-adjusted life years (D-A-L-Y) from the World Health Organization
  6. Effective Altruism
  7. Humane League and Against Malaria Foundation (Please note that these links are in the show notes so that listeners can learn more about the organizations Jim Davies mentions in the interview. The Prindle Institute does not endorse either of these organizations.)

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Nasty, Brutish and Short with Scott Hershovitz

Joining me on the show today is the philosopher Scott Hershovitz, whose new book explores philosophy and ethics through the lens of questions raised by his own children. But as Scott explained to me, his sons Rex and Hank aren’t interested in philosophy just because they’ve been raised by a philosopher. In fact most children are natural philosophers.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Scott Hershovitz, Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids
  2. St. Augustine on time
  3. Jane English, “Sex Equality in Sports
  4. Angela Schneider
  5. Phillipa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect
  6. Trolley problem
  7. René Descartes and dreams
  8. Chris Sununu and climate skepticism

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Capering” by Blue Dot Sessions

Hungaria” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

The Life Worth Living with Joel Reynolds

We’re discussing the fascinating and complex world of disability and ethics on the show today. My guest Joel Reynolds is an assistant professor of philosophy and disability studies at Georgetown University and their new book, The Life Worth Living: Disability, Pain and Morality explores disability from a philosophical perspective.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Joel Reynold’s other work
  2. Aristotle and disability
  3. United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  4. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  5. More information on phenomenology
  6. S. Kay Toombs, “The meaning of illness…” and “The lived experience of disability
  7. More on the social model of disability

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Golden Grass” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe D’Automne” by Latché Swing is from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Why Moral Psychology is Disturbing: Regina Rini

Regina Rini holds the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition at York University. She joins us today to discuss why we might be disturbed when we learn about the role that psychology plays in our moral decision-making.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Why moral psychology is disturbing” by Regina Rini
  2. Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene
  3. Deontology
  4. Consequentialist ethics
  5. Kantian theory
  6. The trolley problem
  7. Radiolab episode mentioned in the discussion
  8. Robert Sapolsky
  9. Aristotle’s ethics
  10. Nicomachean ethics
  11. Bernard Williams
  12. Charles Stevenson
  13. Friedrich Nietzsche
  14. Christine Korsgaard and her thoughts on agency
  15. Nic Bommarito
  16. Case developed by a philosopher Nomy Arpaly

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Coulis Coulis” by Blue Dot Sessions

The Kindness of Strangers with Michael McCullough

How did humans turn from animals who were only inclined to help their offspring to the creatures we are today–who regularly send precious resources to total strangers? With me on the show today is Michael McCullough, who explores this difficult question in his book, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Michael McCullough, The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code
  2. W.D. Hamilton and the gene for altruism
  3. Robert Trivers and reciprocal altruism
  4. Ancient Mesopotamia
  5. Humanity’s turn to agriculture (the Neolithic Revolution)
  6. The Code of Hammurabi
  7. The Axial Age
  8. The Golden Rule
  9. Peter Singer

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Silk and Silver” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Ashley C. Ford and the Ethics of Love

Ashley C. Ford is a prolific writer whose work covers the intricacies of relationships and love. In the fall of 2019, we sat down together to discuss her thoughts on–and the ethics of–self-love, relationships and family. Her new memoir, Somebody’s Daughter is out now from Flatiron Books.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Partly Sage” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Silk and Silver” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Is It Possible to Be Too Good?

Is it possible to be too good? Is it possible that thinking about morality could cause clinical levels of emotional and mental distress? On today’s show, Christiane talks to two philosophers who explore a disorder known as Scrupulosity. People with Scrupulosity are obsessive about morality, checking and re-checking to make sure they haven’t done something wrong. Our guests, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Jesse S. Summers, explore the philosophical implications of these obsessions with moral behavior. Christiane also talks to Dr. Laura Crosskey, who treats patients with Scrupulosity.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Clean Hands: Philosophical Lessons from ScrupulosityWalter Sinnott-Armstrong and Jesse S. Summers
  2. Dr. Laura Crosskey
  3. More on “genuine belief
  4. More on “moral judgment
  5. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, Mental Health America has lots of resources to provide help
  6. If you’re in a mental health crisis and need help right away, call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, or text MHA to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Partly Sage” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Cloudline” by Blue Dot Sessions from sessions.blue (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Sparking Joy: The Ethics of Medically-Induced Happiness

Photograph of a sunflower in sunshine with blue sky behind

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Happiness is often viewed as an ephemeral thing. Finding happiness is an individual and ever-developing process. Biologically speaking, however, all emotions are the simple result of hormones and electrical impulses. In a recent medical breakthrough, a team of scientists has found a way to tap in to these electrical impulses and induce joy directly in the brain. This kind of procedure has long been the stuff of speculation, but now it has become a reality. While the technique shows a good deal of promise in treating disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress, it also presents an ethical conundrum worth considering.

On initial examination, it is difficult to point out anything particularly wrong with causing “artificial” joy. Ethical hedonism would prioritize happiness over all other values, regardless of the manner in which happiness is arrived at. However, many people would experience a knee-jerk rejection to the procedure. It bears some similarity to drug-induced euphoria, but unlike illicit drugs, this electrical procedure seems to have no harmful side effects, according to the published study. Of course, with a small sample size and a relatively short-term trial, addiction and other harmful aspects of the procedure may be yet undiscovered. If, as this initial study suggests, the procedure is risk-free, should it be ethically accepted? Or is there cause for hesitation beyond what is overtly harmful?

The possibility of instantaneous, over-the-counter happiness has been a frequent subject of science-fiction. Notable examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which featured a happiness-inducing drug called “soma”; and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into the film Blade Runner), which included a mood-altering device called a “mood organ.” Both novels treat these inventions as key elements in a dystopian future. Because the emotions produced by these devices are “false”—the direct result of chemical alteration, rather than a “natural” response to external conditions—the society which revolves around them is empty and void of meaning. What is the validity of this viewpoint? Our bias towards what we perceive as “natural” may be simply a matter of maintaining the status quo–we’re more comfortable with whatever we’re used to. This is similar to the preference for foods containing “natural” over “artificial” flavoring despite nearly identical chemical compositions. While we are instinctively wary of the “artificial” emotions, there may be no substantive difference to the unbiased feeler.

Of course, emotions exist for more than just the experience of feeling. The connection between emotions and the outside world was addressed by Kelly Bijanki, one of the scientists involved in the electrically-induced happiness study, in her interview with Discover Magazine: “Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us.” Just as pain helps us avoid dangerous hazards and our ability to taste bitterness helps us avoid poisonous things, negative emotions help drive us away from harmful situations and towards beneficial ones. However, living in a modern society to which the human body is not biologically adapted, our normally helpful sensory responses like pain and fear can sometimes backfire. Some people experience chronic pain connected to a bodily condition that cannot be immediately resolved; in these cases, the pain itself becomes the problem, rather than a useful signal. As such, we seek medical solutions to the pain itself. Chronic unhappiness, such as in cases of anxiety and depression, could be considered the same way: as a normally useful sensory feedback which has “gone wrong” and itself become a problem requiring medical treatment.

What if the use of electrically-induced happiness extended beyond temporary medical treatments? Why shouldn’t we opt to live our lives in a state of perpetual euphoria, or at least have the option to control our emotions directly? As was previously mentioned, artificial happiness may be indistinguishable from the real thing, at least as far as our bodies are concerned. Human beings already use a wide variety of chemicals and actions to “induce” happiness–that is, to make ourselves happy. If eating chocolate or exercising are “natural” paths to happiness, why would an electrical jolt be “unnatural”? Of course, the question of meaning still bears on the issue. Robert Nozick argues that humans make a qualitative distinction between the experience of doing something and actually doing it. We want our happiness to be tied to real accomplishments; the emotion alone isn’t enough. More concretely, we would probably become desensitized to happiness if it were all we experienced. In the right doses, sadness helps us value happiness more; occasional pain makes our pleasure more precious.

If happiness in the absence of meaning is truly “empty,” our ethical outlook toward happiness should reflect this view. Rather than viewing pleasure or happiness itself as the ultimate good, we might instead see happiness as a component of a well-lived life. Whether something is good would depend not on whether it brings happiness, but whether it fulfills some wider sense of meaning. Of course, exactly what constitutes this wider meaning would continue to be the subject of endless philosophical debate.

Finite Responsibility and Infinite Hope with Joel Reynolds

Caring for other people can be difficult. Whether it’s your own children, your parent, or a friend, care work is emotionally complicated and can be physically messy and uncomfortable. Today’s guest, the philosopher Joel Reynolds, argues that the entanglements and complexities of care work are ethically significant. This insight came to him through his own work as a caregiver to his grandfather. His scholarship combines care ethics with response ethics through the lens of caregiving, producing “finite responsibility with infinite hope.”

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Joel Reynolds, “Infinite Responsibility in the Bedpan: Response Ethics, Care Ethics, and the Phenomenology of Dependency Work
  2. Deontology
  3. Consequentialism
  4. Virtue ethics
  5. Emmanuel Levinas
  6. Care ethics
  7. Ideal vs. non-ideal theory
  8. Radical alterity and Levinas

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions

Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions

A Certain Lightness” by Blue Dot Sessions