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Should We Measure How Ethical We Are?

image of three-star rating

We like to rate each other. We rate restaurants on Yelp, drivers on Lyft, and movies on Rotten Tomatoes. And these ratings can help us make decisions. Google Reviews can guide me away from the worst coffee shops, and IMDB can tell me that the fourth Jaws movie was a flop (okay, maybe I could have figured that out on my own).

With all of this rating going on, wouldn’t it be helpful if we rated how ethical other people are? Not only do we already personally keep track of who treats us well and who doesn’t, but this would help us make better decisions. Knowing the moral scruples of others could help us make friends, choose who to date, and avoid getting ripped off.

But even though lots of ratings are useful, I don’t think that giving each other a moral score is a good idea. In fact, I think it might make us even more unethical.

There are many different kinds of ratings systems. Yelp, Lyft, and IMDB – all of these are crowd-sourced and numerical. Grades are also ratings of a sort, scoring how well a student did in a particular class. But grades are not crowd-sourced, and instead depend solely on the decision of the instructor. Other ratings systems make use of expert opinion, like judges for figure skating or the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while yet others, like the MCAT or the LSAT, hire employees to produce exams and scoring rubrics.

One rating question that has been gaining traction recently is how to measure virtue. Psychologists interested in moral character have been working on how to score virtues like honesty and humility, using strategies ranging from self-report surveys to ratings supplied by close associates. And it would undoubtedly be helpful to know how ethical people are. Not only would this information help us to decide who to trust, it could also assist us in designing interventions to become even better. But is developing such a measure possible?

With all rating systems comes the worry of “value capture.” Value capture redirects our attention from what we originally cared about to the rating itself. Maybe I enrolled in a class because I was interested in the material, but now all I care about is getting a good grade. Or maybe I got on Instagram to share pictures with my friends, but now I’m just in it for the likes. In these cases, chasing the ratings co-opts and corrupts my original goals and desires.

But just as ratings systems come in many varieties, the severity of the issues created by value capture can differ as well. In some cases, a rating system can very well encourage the kinds of behavior we want to see. Restaurants that are pursuing higher Yelp reviews will likely be more attentive to their customers, and AirBnB ratings can drive down prices while increasing the quality of a weekend vacation.

But the problem of value capture makes other kinds of ratings systems almost useless. Imagine, for example, a system that rated hotels but only allowed one rating from the owner of each hotel. Because the owners have a strong financial incentive to rate their hotels highly, there would be little to learn from these scores.

And not only are some ratings systems borderline meaningless, but others can make things worse than if no rating system had been introduced in the first place. Social media “likes,” while encouraging further engagement with the platform, may be helping drive a youth mental health crisis.

So what about measuring virtue? Like in our other examples, introducing a rating system can create a value capture problem. Instead of aiming at actually being a good person, we may start to aim instead at just getting a good score.

But it may be even worse. When it comes to ethics, we are already primed for a value capture issue. If we know others are watching, we are less likely to cheat, lie, and steal. This reveals that often we don’t desire to be ethical, but merely to appear like we are ethical. And this makes sense. Appearing to be a good person allows us to get all the benefits of having a great reputation with none of the costs of doing the right thing when no one is looking.

Because we want to appear virtuous, however, this makes the value capture potential of virtue scores even more potent. But how seriously should we take this concern? Does this value capture problem generally improve our lives, like the ratings for Airbnb stays, or does it make things worse, as with likes on social media?

An ethical rating system has the potential to not only sidetrack our values, but also to make us less ethical. An important part of being a good person comes down to our motivations. If someone regularly does the right thing because they care about others, then this can gradually mold them into a better person. On the other hand, if someone regularly does what they think other people want to see, this can actually make them worse, undermining their integrity and making them more deceptive.

In this way, virtue scores could actually make us worse by corrupting our motivations. Those who start out wanting to appear virtuous will only become more duplicitous, never doing the right thing for its own sake. And those who start out wanting to do the right thing will slide, slowly but surely, into doing it because they want to achieve a high score.

Because the concerns of value capture are even more acute in the ethical domain, we should think carefully about how we rate the virtues. It might be possible to measure how ethical we are, but by introducing such a measure, we might also just make things worse.

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.

Bedside Conceptual Engineering

What is “obesity”?

The answer you’ll find in medical textbooks is simple. Divide one’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters: if the answer is over 30, then they meet criteria for obesity. But as is always the case, the joints of reality are not cleanly carved by a single equation in a textbook: the reality of obesity, and the depth of the question at hand, is much more complex.

In the clinical setting, obesity is often thought of as a disease. But even if we assume that we have a good grasp on what a disease is, there is significant resistance to thinking of obesity as one: some argue that such a claim ignores personal responsibility and encourages unhealthy behavior, while others argue that thinking of obesity as a disease stigmatizes the people who live with it and further propagates the discrimination which they already face in our society. Others argue that obesity isn’t a disease, but a risk factor: they point out that obesity is associated with conditions classically understood as diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, but it is not a disease per se. Still others argue that the medicalization of obesity is, in and of itself, a mistake: that akin to a disability, defining obesity as a risk factor or a disease is pathologizing a mere difference in the human experience.

This year, The Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, convened a commission composed of 60 expert clinicians and scientists to tackle these questions. The answers they consider to these questions warrant our attention, whether we are clinicians, philosophers, or laypeople. The Commission on the Definition and Diagnosis of Clinical Obesity takes an approach with a clinical tilt but a deeply philosophical history, and reveal something important about the words we use and the ways in which we use them: preliminary reports are that the commission didn’t just turn to the science to answer these very difficult questions, but sought to change the questions themselves.

*  *  *

The philosopher David Chalmers defines conceptual engineering, as a first pass, as “the process of designing, implementing, and evaluating concepts.

Chalmers uses the example of a bridge – a structure designed to serve a particular purpose. Plans are implemented, the bridge is built, and, over time, the bridge is assessed for any faults which have developed. Conceptual engineering is much of the same, but with words instead of bridges. Take a word which I’ve spent time thinking about: harm. Philosophers write papers designing concepts of harm, often with a particular purpose in mind (whether it be resolving wrongful-life lawsuits or the non-identity problem). Those concepts are then implemented, whether theoretically or in practice, the results are assessed, and improvements are designed and implemented. This is a very common pattern in philosophy, with metaphysics being applied to practical philosophy and ethical practice.

But conceptual engineering is not just something for philosophy journals: in everyday life, concepts radically shape our political and social environments. Take the concept of “citizen”: the question of who is and is not a citizen has fundamentally shaped political life for centuries, and still does. Think of the most saliently divisive political conflicts of the modern day. In most cases, the fundamental disagreement revolves around the definition of basic concepts (life, gender, etc.).

Though perhaps less obvious in everyday discourse, the concept of obesity is no different. Current projections are that 1.4 billion adults will be living with obesity by 2035, with a global economic impact of $4.32 trillion in the same year. 30 years of research has shown that healthcare providers are implicitly biased against people living with obesity. The relationship between stigma, obesity, and poor mental health outcomes has been extensively documented, especially in children. Understanding this concept is not just important for medical practice, but for our society as a whole.

The Lancet’s commission was convened exactly for this reason. Interestingly, their stated approach was to redefine obesity. In an interview with MedScape, Dr. Francesco Rubino, the project lead, said: “renaming ‘obesity’ is very important. The word is so stigmatized, with so much misunderstanding and misperception, some might say the only solution is to change the name.” He notes, further, that the commission focused on the concept of “clinical obesity” rather than obesity more generally, noting how the two may differ in the same way the concepts of “depression” and “clinical depression” might differ. By establishing a definition, then, Rubino and the commission hope to improve access to care and reduce stigma.

As of writing, the commission has not yet released their final report. But the approach that Rubino and the commission intend to take is clear: that of the conceptual engineer. The WHO recognized obesity as a disease 80 years ago, and that concept has been implemented over the intervening time. We see very clearly, though, that there are cracks in the foundation. The concept of obesity has become wrapped up in stigma, doesn’t reliably track a state of disease, and has proven ineffective in guiding research and clinical management. Rubino and his colleagues, just like the engineer who assesses the bridge, have found the foundation lacking, and seek to change the concept of obesity to better serve our purposes.

We shouldn’t lose track, however, of the important insight which can be found here. Concepts are tools which humans use, and often define. In the philosopher’s vocabulary, obesity is not a natural kind: obesity, rather, is a concept designed by humans for human reasons. Charitably, physicians seek to help people live fulfilling lives, and obesity may impede human thriving; more realistically, physicians have pathologized a group of people who already experience discrimination within and beyond healthcare. Seeing this reality, Rubino and his colleagues have hinted at a moral argument for changing the definition of obesity: the concept of obesity propagates harm and is ineffective at producing human good, and, therefore, we should consider changing it.

Many concepts which we encounter in our daily lives can be analyzed in this way: they are human inventions with human intentions and human faults, and we can redraw the lines of these concepts for moral reasons. We decide what our words mean, and, in most cases, the concepts which we rely on can be changed to make the world a better place, whether our concerns be utilitarian or deontological. Our concepts were designed to serve us, and when they fail to fulfill their role, we should ask if they might be changed for the better.

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


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!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.)


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

Interrogating the Sunk Cost Fallacy

photograph of cruise ship sinking

It’s Saturday afternoon. You are lazing on the couch, thinking about your evening. You had planned to attend a concert, but you’re feeling tired. You realize that you would, on the whole, have a much better evening if you stayed home. So, you decide to skip the concert.

I think we can all agree that this would be reasonable. But let’s add a detail. You already purchased a concert ticket for $400, which you can’t recoup. Should you go to the concert, after all?

Regardless of what you should do, many of us would go to the concert, in full knowledge that staying in would be time better spent, because we have already paid for the ticket.

This is an example of what’s often called the ‘sunk cost fallacy.’

Here’s another example. Your family has booked an expensive vacation to Yosemite with the intention of having a fun, relaxing vacation. Unfortunately, though, Yosemite is on fire. You know that if you take the vacation as planned, you will be forced to stay indoors on account of the smoke and will experience virtually no fun or relaxation. Yet the money you spent on booking can’t be recouped. The only other option is a staycation, which would be low-grade fun and relaxing.

A family that decides to go on vacation simply because they have already invested resources into that vacation honors sunk costs.

Psychologists tell us that humans regularly honor sunk costs. That this tendency is irrational is often considered axiomatic and taught as such. For example, the textbook Psychology in Economics and Business proclaims:

Economic theory implies that historical costs are irrelevant for present decision making and only [present and future] costs and benefits should be taken into account. In everyday life, however, this implication of economic theory is frequently neglected thus forming another instance of irrational behavior.

The underlying idea is something like the following. The rational actor aims to promote the best possible outcome. This requires him to attend to the potential consequences of his actions. But sunk costs are by definition unrecoverable. So, the rational actor shouldn’t take them into account in deciding what to do. Someone who foregoes better outcomes simply because he has incurred costs that are irretrievably lost irrationally leaves goods on the table for nothing in return. He compounds, rather than recoups, his losses.

This seems reasonable enough. But things are not quite as simple as they seem.

First, the claim that “historical costs are irrelevant for present decision making” can easily be misunderstood.

Sometimes actors should attend to sunk costs because those costs constitute evidence bearing on the likelihood of future success.

A firm that has invested extensive resources into a fruitless project would be foolish to ignore those investments when deliberating about whether to continue dedicating resources to the project, since the sunk costs may constitute good evidence that future investments will also be fruitless.

Moreover, sometimes what looks from the outside like honoring sunk costs is really something else. Suppose you know that if you choose not to go to the concert, you will inevitably feel bad about wasting money. In this case, it might be perfectly rational for you to attend the concert in order to avoid this feeling. Or suppose you know that skipping the vacation will cause family conflict to bubble up down the line. Again, it might be all-things-considered best to go to Yosemite despite the smoke. True, the underlying dispositions may be irrational. But individuals can’t always control their emotions, and families can’t always control their dynamics. A rational actor must act within the constraints that apply to him. To those who are unaware of those constraints, a rational action can look irrational.

All this can perhaps be acknowledged by the defender of sunk cost orthodoxy. However, several philosophers have argued that this orthodoxy is mistaken.

One reason for being suspicious is that the tendency to honor sunk costs can be leveraged in useful ways. The philosopher Robert Nozick has argued that it can be utilized to counteract the tendency to act against one’s considered judgment about what one should do. Suppose that on Friday you think that you should go to the concert on Saturday because it will be educational, but you anticipate that once Saturday afternoon rolls around you will have trouble mustering the motivation to get off the couch. If you know that you have a tendency to honor sunk costs, then you can, on Friday, increase the likelihood that on Saturday you will do what you think you should do by purchasing the ticket in advance. Similarly, the tendency to honor sunk costs can be utilized to convince others that you will do something. You might be able to convince an incredulous friend that you will attend the concert by showing them that you have already purchased a ticket; if your friend knows that you tend to honor sunk costs, this will give them good reason to believe that you will attend the concert.

There’s more. The doctrine that present actions can’t touch past events, which is implicit in the sunk cost orthodoxy, is not entirely true.

While it’s true that present actions can’t have a causal impact on past events, present actions can change the meaning of past events in ways that matter to us. And as Thomas Kelly has argued, this can make it reasonable to attend to sunk costs.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provides an illustrative example. Anna leaves her husband and beloved child to start a new life with her sybaritic lover, Vronsky. The new relationship fails terribly. In a famous discussion, British philosopher Bernard Williams points out that this failure seems to retroactively tarnish Anna’s decision by showing it to have been unjustified. In contrast, had her relationship flourished, this would have vindicated the cost she incurred. The intuition that success or failure can retroactively vindicate or tarnish a costly choice is not uncommon in human life. It’s not hard to imagine that Anna would have preferred that the cost she paid to start her new life with Vronsky not turn out to have been fruitless. And if she were to have such a preference, this would give her reason to take the fact that she paid this cost into consideration when deliberating about, say, whether to try to salvage her relationship with Vronsky. Thus, sometimes it seems to make rational sense to honor sunk costs.

Then there is the issue of moral sunk costs. Suppose you are a general in charge of deciding whether to authorize a mission to rescue two hostages. You know that the rescue mission will very probably succeed but also cost the life of one soldier. Let’s assume that you are morally justified in sacrificing up to one life to save the two hostages. You authorize the mission. Unluckily, the mission is unsuccessful, and a soldier dies. Then another opportunity arises. You can authorize a second rescue mission, which you know is guaranteed to succeed but will cost the life of another soldier. The question is this:

Is it morally acceptable to authorize this second mission, given that one soldier has already died and we stipulated that you are only justified in sacrificing up to one life to save the hostages?

In other words, should we honor moral sunk costs?

Ethicists disagree on this issue. Some think that assessments of moral costs and benefits should be prospective, ignoring sunk costs. On this view, you should authorize the second mission. Others argue that there’s an overall limit to the moral costs that can be justifiably incurred to achieve a worthwhile objective, meaning that moral sunk costs should be taken into account. On this view, you shouldn’t authorize the mission. Still others adopt an intermediate approach. The point, for our purposes, is that the answer to this question is non-trivial. To treat one answer as axiomatic is a mistake.

All this is to say that authoritative pronouncements decrying the tendency to honor sunk costs as clearly irrational are misleading at best. It’s not at all obvious that “[a] rational decision maker is interested only in the future consequences of current investments,” as the esteemed economist Daniel Kahneman put it. There are cases, like the original concert example, perhaps, where this is true. And it may always be irrational to choose an outcome merely because one has incurred sunk costs. But in many cases, it seems to make perfect sense to account for sunk costs in deliberation. We just need to be reflective about how and why we do so.

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


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


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

Treating Psychopathy?

photograph of 1896 sketch of the brain and it's parts

Most of us are familiar with the idea of the psychopath – emotionally vacant, devoid of empathy, and possessing poor behavioral control. Despite psychopathy not being a recognized mental condition in its own right (or at least, not in that exact terminology), as personality disorders go, it is almost undoubtedly archetypal. Many of the names we attach to the idea of evil certainly qualify for the label, including Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Berkowitz. Beyond the real world, the psychopath is also a staple of fiction, with some of the most heartless villains being written with the disorder in mind, including Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes, Patrick Bateman, and Norman Bates.

However, despite these colorful examples, not all psychopaths stalk the night looking for victims. Most real-life psychopaths navigate the world without making the headlines for slaughtering the innocent or starting nationwide manhunts. For every John Wayne Gacy, there are countless more who, while being manipulative and callous, get through their lives without turning their neighbors into a rug. Indeed, estimates place the prevalence of severe psychopathy in the general population at around 1%. That means, statistically speaking, you probably know a psychopath. And while this is the general prevalence, some groups of society appear to have more psychopaths than others, such as those in corporate leadership positions (≈12%) and prisons (≈20-30%).

Several studies examining the brains of psychopaths have found that they appear to have abnormal neurological structures and functionality. Specifically, the areas of the brain associated with empathy are underdeveloped and lack an average level of responsiveness to external stimuli. Some suggest that this is evidence of a neurological basis for psychopathy and that the abnormal brain structure is why psychopaths behave in the way they do. Following this, others argue that, if possible, we might be justified in using medical techniques and technologies, such as neurosurgery, to alter the brains of criminally violent psychopaths, thereby removing the psychopathy and instilling a level of empathy previously absent.

But can medical techniques reducing or eliminating psychopathic tendencies be justified, or are we medicalizing a group of people out of existence to satisfy societal desire?

We often think that medical interventions, be they as minor as a course of antibiotics or as radical as brain surgery, should only occur when said intervention benefits that person. This requirement is one of the central components separating treatment from research; the former benefits the individual while the latter benefits society (and maybe the individual). While there are exceptions to this rule of thumb – living organ donation, for example – the idea that medical treatment must have some individual benefit is both widely accepted and intuitively appealing. For instance, it would be unjustifiable for a surgeon to operate on you if that operation knowingly provided no beneficial outcome. The idea of an intimate link between a medical treatment’s justification and its potential for a positive result is one of the central pillars underlying one of the most influential theories in medical ethics – principlism.

As conceptualized by philosophers Thomas L Beauchamp and James F. Childress, and formulated in their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics (now in its 8th edition), beneficence is one of the four fundamental concerns when it comes to the ethical permissibility of medical interventions; the others being autonomy, non-maleficence, and justice. According to Beauchamp and Childress, each principle is equally important when looking for ‘reflective equilibrium’ (a coherence between the principles). However, here we’ll focus on beneficence, and specifically positive beneficence, which requires persons to provide benefits wherever possible.

So, would treating psychopathy have a beneficial effect on the psychopath?

This question can be broken down into two parts: (i) do psychopaths suffer as a direct result of their psychopathy?; and (ii) do psychopaths suffer as an indirect result of their psychopathy?

Whether psychopaths suffer as a direct result of their psychopathy is, to a degree, disputed for several reasons.

First, it is unclear whether psychopathy is an illness or a disease. While we might think it causes people to act in less than desirable ways from a social standpoint, this is very different from claiming that psychopathy represents an impairment to health on behalf of the person with psychopathy. If the disorder is of a social (rather than medical) basis, then it would seem highly inappropriate to try and use medical techniques to remedy what is socially disvalued.

Second, even if we accept that psychopathy is predominately medical in nature, that doesn’t mean that its removal would provide a direct benefit. This is because the psychopath would need to experience relief from suffering in a subjective sense for such a direct benefit to occur. Much like how taking a painkiller can’t ease your suffering if you’re not in pain, psychopathy’s removal cannot provide the individual with relief if it didn’t cause suffering in the first place. From the evidence available, it’s not clear whether psychopathy does cause direct suffering. Unlike having a broken bone or terrifying delusions, there’s no clear casual line between psychopathy and suffering. Just because psychopathy is a disorder, doesn’t mean it is harmful.

However, psychopaths don’t exist in a vacuum. Like all of us, they’re situated in the world around them, alongside its complex social, economic, religious, educational, and legal systems. And psychopathy might cause suffering by separating the individual from those systems and, more generally, from society. For example, I suspect many of us would experience suffering if we went to prison for committing a crime. This type of suffering exists regardless of our personality, whether ordered or disordered, because prisons are subjectively unpleasant environments that frustrate our life plans. This is just as true for psychopaths as for everyone else; psychopaths generally don’t want to go to jail. So, by eliminating the root cause of psychopathy, we might be able to prevent psychopaths from being sentenced to prison and thus, help them avoid the indirect suffering they would otherwise experience.

This line of arguing applies beyond prisons, though. Without their psychopathic tendencies, those persons might be better equipped to engage with society, find meaningful connections with others, and empathize with the rest of humanity.

However, appeals to such indirect suffering avoidance are rarely effective for justifying medical treatments in other contexts, especially when the therapy offered has the potential to alter one of the foundations of a person’s personality. For example, we wouldn’t think that someone who lives on the street as a matter of personal preference should have their mental state altered because a result of their choice is the ostracization from society’s mainstay.

We might think their choice is odd, and we might try to convince them that they would be better off living another way of life. But this is very different from using their disordered lifestyle as a justification for a medical procedure based on the idea of harm prevention and reduction.

So what does this mean for our psychopaths? Other arguments might justify medical intervention. For example, it could be that removing psychopathy may restore that person’s autonomous decision-making (although psychopathy’s coercive potential is disputed). One might argue that, as psychopathy is so prevalent in prison populations, its elimination from that sector of society might reduce the pressure on valuable social resources (although this opens up a can of worms regarding the value of autonomy vs the interests of the state).

At the end of the day, if the availability of psychopathic-centric media is any indication, the question of how society handles psychopaths isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither are the psychopaths.

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


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


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)