Cecil the Lion and Eating Meat

Today, Yahoo Health posted an article titled “Why Even Meat-Eaters Are Outraged by Cecil the Lion’s Killing”.  I found this article on Facebook, along with this caption (presumably authored by Yahoo Health’s social media expert): “Why meat eaters can justify what they eat, but are furious over 13-year old lion Cecil’s death.” I knew this was a curious caption, mainly because I know that the vast majority of meat eaters can’t successfully justify what they eat–regardless of what happened to Cecil the Lion. So, I know that this was going to be good. Let’s see what the justifications were.

The central question for the author, Korin Miller, is: “why is there such outrage over the death of an animal we’ve never met — outrage that seems to be shared by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike?” This is a very sensible question. In fact, there are actually two related but very different questions here: (1) a descriptive question about why some meat eaters are outraged by the death of Cecil, and (2) a normative question about whether a meat-eater is inconsistent in demanding justice for Cecil while participating in a system of misery and injustice for millions of farm animals that have roughly the same capacity for suffering as lions.

Miller only attempts an answer at (1). She asks psychologists, and these psychologists give answer like “[the killing of Cecil] touches on our cultural and societal beliefs around themes of injustice and victimization — and these beliefs are certainly not limited to people,” or

“Killing an animal to eat feels much more ‘just’ in our minds than killing an animal for a trophy…many people consciously or unconsciously disassociate the bacon on their plates from the pig they see in a field [but are] able to feel OK about it knowing that the animal died for a reason (i.e. to feed us), rather than sport.”

Psychologists may be good at giving answers to questions about descriptive morality. What does culture X participate in practice Y? That’s a great question for a psychologist, sociologist, or anthropologist. But, as the caption to this article hints at, this is not the only question being asked. We also care about how meat eaters might justify their meat-eating, and still be outraged at the Cecil murder.  This is a question that we (or at least me and the social media expert) want answered as well. But Miller didn’t interview any ethicists of philosophers to try and answer this question. This fact is telling; culturally, we seem to respect the views of psychologists because psychology is, in some sense of the word, a science (although psychology, like a few other sciences, is having a tough time with certain scientific gold standards like reproducibility and disinterestedness). Perhaps we don’t interview ethicists because philosophy isn’t a science. But, no matter what Sam Harris says, the simple fact is that science alone does not decide questions about right or wrong. David Hume taught us long ago that just because X is the case (e.g., it is the case that some countries in Africa practice genital mutilation) doesn’t imply that X ought to be the case (e.g., that it is morally permissible to practice genital mutilation). To answer the question about whether meat-eaters are justified in their outrage over Cecil while at the same time eating meat, is a question about oughts–and it’s a question for an ethicist.

The arguments against eating meat–especially meat from factory farms, where the vast majority of meat in the US comes from–are spectacularly good. I won’t restate them here. But I will note that the psychological answer above clearly don’t answer the ethical question (question (2), above). Just because we happen to disassociate the bacon on our plates from the pig we see in a field says absolutely nothing about whether that disassociation is justified on ethical grounds. What is morally relevant, according to ethicists, is that (a) pigs feel pain, (b) they are basically tortured everyday on factory farms, and (c) the vast majority of us have plenty of other healthy (and tasty) food options. Given these facts, our disassociation is not at all justified. Just because we don’t want to admit that a certain atrocity is happening doesn’t imply that it’s not actually happening.

And then there’s this video of a presidential candidate cooking bacon with a machine gun. If you are calling for Dr. Walter Palmer to be brought to justice for his actions, what shall we do to Ted Cruz?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reflections on Teaching Workshop

This week I’m attending a summer teaching workshop at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Today, we discussed learning objectives and student assessments. One theme that seemed to run through both of these discussions is the concept of measurability. When writing learning objectives for a demo lesson (to be given later in the week), we were instructed to make sure that the objectives could be measured in some way. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy, one may write a learning objective for a given “level” of knowledge that uses a measurable verb. For example, consider the following learning objective:

At the end of the lesson, students will be able to restate the Intermediate Value Theorem.

This learning objective is not objectionable (at least I don’t think it is!) because it uses the measurable verb restate. One can measure to what extent the learning objective has been met by measuring to what extent the theorem has been correctly restated. Often in these conversations, measurable verbs are contrasted with the paradigm example of a non-measurable verb: understanding.

I found this discussion of measurable verbs, and particularly the relegation of understanding, really striking. It reminds me of Heidegger’s distinction between exact thinking and rigorous thinking:

Exact thinking is never the most rigorous thinking, if rigor receives its essence otherwise from the mode of strenuousness with which knowledge always maintains the relation to what is essential in what is. Exact thinking ties itself down solely in calculation with what is and serves this exclusively.

In the context of learning objectives, I think what Heidegger is getting at is this: what we really care about understanding, thoughtfulness, reflection, etc.–what Heidegger calls rigorous thinking. These are qualities that separate humans from everything else (other animals, computers, and inanimate objects). But understanding is not measurable, and thus, we cannot assess whether our students actually understand anything. So, instead, we assess things that are measurable, like whether they can restate, apply, or prove a theorem–examples of what Heidegger calls exact thinking But in the switch from rigorous to exact thinking, one loses something essential. As John Searle convincingly argues, the fact that an entity (e.g., a computer program) can restate, translate, apply, or even prove a theorem is not sufficient evidence that the entity actually understands the theorem.

I wonder then, if, in stating measurable learning objectives, we are aiming at the wrong target–albeit an easier target to hit. Perhaps those who object to learning objectives are really pointing at something profound: that real thinking (rigorous thinking) can’t always be measured, and that’s OK. This raises all sorts of questions about how we might keep students accountable, how we might assign grades, etc. But these questions shouldn’t stop us from thinking clearly about what, in many cases, we really want students to do: understand!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Toughen Up

But even when one is dead and gone
It still take two to make a house home
I’m as lonesome as the catacombs
I hear you call me name and no one is there
Just a feeling in the air

‘Cause you and I both know that the house is haunted
Yeah you and I both know that the ghost is me
You used to walk around screaming, all slamming all ‘dem doors.
Well I’m all grown up now and I don’t scare easy no more —Shakey Graves

Here’s an interpretation of this song…

The people we lose (to death, or for other reasons), if we love them, haunt us after they are gone. But really, what haunts us is the fact that we allow ourselves to continue to think of them. That is, we allow ourselves to “scare easily”. The word “allow” implies that there’s an individual choice involved here. We can, if we want, “grow up” and not “scare easy no more”. Ya know, like toughen up, and join the real world where pain happens, and where we devise mechanisms to cope with this pain.

I get that, for our own health, we need to devise such mechanisms to cope with the pain of losing someone, but something irks me about it. If these losses are really haunting (and they are), then “growing up” just sounds like abandonment or the suppression of an important, painful, and very real feeling. Is suppression the right response? Is toughening up the right response? Maybe. I don’t know. It seems to me that, in general, we’re already tough enough, and that often, we’re too indifferent to pain and suffering. Maybe the world needs less toughness.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Place for Philosophy

In 2004, the city of Memphis celebrated the “50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” attributing the roots of rock to Elvis Presley’s 1954 recording of That’s All Right. Some have rightly taken issue with this; black artists were playing what sounded like rock music for years before Elvis. Perhaps the origin of rock music is better attributed to Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88, recorded in 1951. This event seems to be just one in music history where white artists capitalize on the talent of lesser-known black artists. Still today, some argue that white artists are more successful at pushing boundaries simply because they are white.

Just as the achievements of black artists sometimes go unacknowledged, philosophers are often not acknowledged for their past and ongoing contributions to furthering knowledge (scientific or otherwise). Moreover, scientists rely on philosophical thinking in their work but often don’t acknowledge it as such. In what follows, I hope to convince the reader that philosophical thinking has a central place in modern science and academia and that we ought not marginalize philosophy in favor of pure scientism.

Science as we know it today developed out of philosophy. Galileo and Isaac Newton were known as “natural philosophers.” It was not until the modern period that science began to separate from philosophy. Even after this separation, there was plenty of interaction between the two disciplines. The formalization of calculus was occasioned by a philosopher and many philosophers made contributions to modern mathematics.  However, science does not just owe a tip of the hat to philosophy for its origins; many modern scientific theories, such as string theory, rely on reasoning that goes beyond physically observable phenomena–what I think of as philosophical reasoning.

This past week, I attended Denver’s third Nerd Nite. Kayla Knopp, Rachel Miller, and Lane Nesbitt, clinical psychology students at the University of Denver, spoke about the way in which both biology and culture influence our understanding of sexual behavior. Although they didn’t state their conclusions explicitly (more on this below!), I take one of their main conclusions to be that (C) the set of all morally permissible sexual activities is larger than the set of all culturally accepted sexually activities. After what I think was an honest assessment of their talk, I took the argument for (C) to be the following:

P1. In nonhuman animals, there exists a set of sexual activities that our culture would find unacceptable if practiced by humans (e.g., one member of this set is deer threesomes!).
P2. We have evolved to enjoy (some) activities in this set.
P3. Since these activities are part of our natural evolutionary heritage, we ought to explore them (i.e., they are not immoral).
C. The set of all morally permissible sexually activities–i.e., the set of culturally acceptable activities plus the set of “natural-yet-culturally-unacceptable” activities that we ought to explore–is larger than the set of all culturally accepted sexually activities.

To be clear, I agree with (C); it is the argument for (C) that I take issue with.The problem with this argument–as many philosophy students may pick up on–is that P3 is fallacious: just because an act is natural doesn’t mean that that act is right, moral, or ethical. There are many examples that illustrate this fact. For one, we have evolved to eat meat—i.e., it is natural—but it’s not at all clear that eating meat is ethical; there are very strong arguments that support the claim that eating meat is unethical. To consider a more relevant example, sex between adult and juvenile animals occurs naturally among certain types of weasels and primates. But, among humans, such acts are considered immoral by most (and for good reason, since these relationships in humans often cause significant harm to at least one party, they are often non-consensual, etc.).

I notice this fallacy often in scientific discussion, and it is sometimes made by scientists. But philosophers have been warning us about making this mistake so much that they’ve given it a name: the appeal to nature fallacy. Generally speaking, my (admittedly anecdotal) experience suggests that philosophers are more careful with the form of their reasoning than scientists are. As further evidence for this claim, philosophers are notorious for writing their arguments and conclusions explicitly and very carefully; they sometimes even number their premises in the way that I did above. Philosophers follow this practice because they think it removes a lot of potential ambiguity and misinterpretation. Scientists follow this practice less often but I think that, in many instances, doing so would make their work more clear. After all, if explicitly outlining arguments was a standard scientific practice, then I wouldn’t have had to create my own (possibly misinterpreted!) outline of the sex-talk argument above. The point here is that, in so far as scientists use arguments in their work, they are doing philosophy in some sense, and that scientists may have something to learn from philosophers about how to present their arguments more effectively.

This week’s Radiolab provides another example of how philosophical thinking fails to get the credit that it deserves. It’s worth looking at the description of the episode:

The “mind” and “self” were formerly the domain of philosophers and priests. But in this hour of Radiolab, neurologists lead the charge on profound questions like “How does the brain make me?”

The connotation here (if I’m not being overly sensitive to the science-philosophy tension) seems to be that, for centuries, philosophers have spun their wheels with the question of personal identity, but that no serious work has been done until brain scientists caught on to the question. This kind of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, in an incredibly complicated area such as personal identity, just formulating the right set of questions is difficult. In many areas, philosophers deserve credit for formulating the right questions. Second, as philosopher Alva Noë has argued, neuroscience operates under the philosophical assumption that consciousness and the self are cognitive phenomena that are to be found by studying neural activity in the brain. This assumption is not empirical or “scientific”; it has roots in Cartesian philosophy (and I don’t think it is at all obviously true). Noë’s position, which builds upon work by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is that we are missing something of fundamental importance if we do not try to understand the self in terms of our embodied existence. Finally, the idea that discoveries in neuroscience (and many other disciplines) are reliable has been called into question by epidemiologist John P. A. Ioannidis. Ioannidis, in the celebrated paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” argues that, in “hot” fields where there are small studies, small effect sizes, or great financial interest, many findings are likely to be false (arguably, neuroscience falls into each of these categories). While Ioannidis is not a philosopher, his arguments attack the (poor) statistical reasoning of some scientists. Since statistics is really a formalization of inductive reasoning, it can be understood as a sub-discipline of philosophy. Thus, I think Ioanidis’s criticism of scientific findings is largely a philosophical criticism.

There are many other examples of the importance of philosophy in scientific practice: disputes in the foundations of statistics, the interpretation of probability in modern physics, the definition of life in biology, and the understanding of measurements and mathematical models are all inherently philosophical. We ought to  acknowledge that philosophy place such an important role.




1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An Open Letter to Dr. McCallin Re: Pay and Benefits Equality Act of 2014 (HB14-1154)

Dear Dr. McCallin,

I am a part-time instructor in the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) and a PhD student at a nearby university. I want to thank you for your thoughtfulness and dialogue with respect to Community College Pay and Benefits Equality Act of 2014 (HB14-1154). 

This is a tough issue, and as I’m sure you know, one that is receiving national attention. Colorado has the opportunity to lead the nation in providing better conditions for one of the most vital groups on campus–the group that has the most direct impact on serving students–educators. 

I’m sure you know the financial situation of the CCCS better than just about anyone. I trust that if it is possible to allocate future funds to pay educators a living wage, while not putting the CCCS in an absolutely dire position, then you will use those funds to move away from an unjust and unsustainable model that has many adjuncts in a dire position; that treats a large percentage of educators as disposable labor, and as a means to the end of financial (but not social) health. 

Fortunately, my income from the CCCS is supplemental. If I cannot secure one of the few (much desired) full time positions in the CCCS, I’m confident that I have the skills and motivation to be successful somewhere else. But that is a shame. I love teaching in the CCCS more than anything else that I do. Much of the private sector–the big banks and insurance companies in particular, with their unethical practices–don’t deserve the skills that I may be able to provide to them. The CCCS does. Those who serve our community as educators need some sort of reasonable financial incentive to stay. I promise you, it will pay dividends. 



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Paradox of Choice and the Death of God

Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less. –Barry Schwartz

God is dead…how shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?–Friedrich Nietzsche

My least favorite aisle in the grocery store is the cereal aisle. It’s not because I don’t love cereal (I do); it’s because there are too many choices. I know that I probably ought to eat one of the hundreds of low sugar, high fiber cereals–perhaps one of the many kinds of oatmeal. But the hundreds of different chocolate cereals are so damn good. At least for a time. Then I get tired of the sweet stuff and wish that I bought something else. The problem is that I take too much time deciding, and, in the end, I am usually disappointed with choose.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz describes some research that suggests that having too many choices–like I have in the cereal aisle–is actually bad for one’s well-being. His claim is that we feel less satisfied with the choices that we make because we are haunted by the idea that one of the many other options that we did not choose may have been better. Although we tend to think that the more choice we have the better, Schwartz is convincing in arguing that the abundance of choice, even in trivial domains like the grocery store, can make us less happy (he calls this the paradox of choice).

The problem seems to be much more pronounced when we think about the choices related to important existential questions in our lives. Choices about what school we ought to go to, what career path we ought to take, where we ought to live, whom we ought to date or marry, whether and when we ought to have children, etc., can be extremely difficult. To spend a lot of time thinking about these questions is to acknowledge that a lot is at stake; the idea that the chosen career path or mate was the wrong choice is enough to cause us serious psychological harm.


But were these existential choices ever easy? It seems as though people have long been faced with important choices about where to work or whom to marry. There are good reasons, however, to think that the nature of the choices that we face today is different because there really are so many more options available to us. This is not just an empirical claim about the number of potential careers or mates in the world (although it is probably true that there are more possible careers and mates); rather, it’s a claim about a worldview that has slowly pervaded our culture. This new worldview, the philosophical foundation of which arguably began with Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead,” seems to be one in which old models for living are being erased or left behind. For example, getting married used to be a thing that you did as soon as you could; the same with having children. It didn’t even seem like a choice. Everyone just did it. Schwartz writes:

A range of life choices has been available to Americans for quite some time. But in the past, the “default” options were so powerful and dominant that few perceived themselves to be making choices. Whom we married was a matter of choice, but we knew that we would do it as soon as we could and have children, because that was something all people did. The anomalous few who departed from this pattern were seen as social renegades, subjects of gossip and speculation.

Today it is hardly the case that those who don’t have children are renegades. Many people make a deliberate choice to not have children. But the problem that comes along with shaking the old existential models–e.g., grow up, get a job, get married, have a child (or several)–is that there aren’t corresponding replacement models for existential decisions; instead, we are faced with a myriad of ways to live our lives, and, prima facie, many of these ways seem equally good (notice that is not to say that some aren’t bad…). If this analysis is accurate, then it seems as though we are faced with the same dilemma that I faced in the cereal aisle: knowing that there were other options available to us makes the option we chose less satisfying. Perhaps it would have been better to have children, or to be a teacher rather than researcher, one might reason. If we have destroyed the old existential models (perhaps for good reason), then how are we supposed to live? Or, equivalently, if God really is dead, then how shall we “murderers of all murderers,” comfort ourselves?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rationing by Price

Last month, hepatitis researchers made an astounding breakthrough in the fight against hepatitis C.  A drug named sofosbuvir is claimed to cure hepatitis C  in over 90% of patients with very few side effects. Given that hepatitis affects millions of people in the US and globally–many times more people than are affected by AIDS–this is great news. However, sofosbuvir’s manufacturer, Gilead Sciences Inc.,  is expected to sell the drug for $1,000 per pill. Since the treatment is expected to take several weeks, experts estimate that a full treatment–that is, a cure of hepatitis C–will cost, on average, $84,000.

This hefty price should raise a number of questions about access to healthcare. For one, even acknowledging the fact that Gilead Sciences Inc. has invested large amounts of money into developing this drug, we should ask ourselves whether this is a fair price for a disease that causes suffering to hundreds of millions of people. I think that, independent of what ethical theory that you ascribe to (e.g., utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics), there are strong arguments to be made that this is not a fair price. But, here, I’d like to argue for another claim that is often overlooked by proponents of free market healthcare and those who criticize healthcare rationing: charging $84,000 to cure a disease is rationing healthcare (by price), and further, rationing healthcare by price is at least as unethical as rationing by age, pre-existing condition, or employment type.

The verb ration means to “allow each person to have a fixed amount of a particular commodity.” So, to ration healthcare means something like “to allow each person to have a fixed amount–and perhaps that fixed amount is none–of a particular medical treatment.” In recent debates about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), opponents of the act claimed that it will lead to rationing of healthcare, particularly to seniors. They argue that government bureaucrats will be the ones deciding whether the costs of a particular treatment (perhaps tens of thousands of dollars) will outweigh the benefits of the treatment (perhaps only months of additional low quality life). It may be the case that government healthcare will lead to forms of rationing; perhaps some government decision makers will decide that a $50,000 treatment for an expected six months of extra low quality life is not worth the cost, when that same cost can be spent in much more efficient ways (perhaps by extending a higher quality life by many, many years). But opponents of this kind of rationing are silent about the form of rationing that is standard practice. We already ration healthcare in the US. When a cure for a condition like Hepatitis C costs $84,000, we are rationing by price: if you do not have the money, your allotment of sofosbuvir is zero. When an insurance company decides that it won’t allow those with pre-existing conditions into the risk pool–a practice allowed before Obamacare–we are rationing by pre-existing condition (got cancer? Oh well!). The question we ought to ask is not, “Is  it permissible to ration healthcare?” since some form of rationing scarce healthcare resources will always take place; rather, we ought to ask, “What form of rationing is most permissible?” Those who think that rationing by market forces is most permissible seem to implicitly assume that those who don’t have the money for a treatment must have not worked hard enough to deserve it. Even a basic understanding of the kind of systematic inequality and lack of social mobility that exists in the US seems to suggest that this is seriously mistaken.

Proponents of rationing by price may rightly ask, “Does the existence of a cure imply that the cure ought to be available to everyone?” To this question, I ask another: if you have the ability to easily save someone’s life, say, by administering a medical treatment, but don’t, are you responsible to some degree for that loss of life?

Leave a comment

January 12, 2014 · 11:54 am