Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A fun question

On the SWIP list, someone asked what reading you would recommend to a 13-year-old who has expressed an interest in philosophy.

I'm trying to recall what I might have been reading when I was 13. Around that age, I loved mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I especially remember reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin in 5th grade.

I read the Symposium and the Crito when I was 14. Although I found them stimulating, I think they were too difficult for me to follow.

What age group reads Sophie's World? Is it at the right level for teens? I doubt that I could have maintained interest in such a long book back in those days. (Oh yeah, I guess I still avoid reading books that are more than 300 pages long!)

Are there some Borges short stories that are not too sophisticated? It's been years since I read them, but I loved "The Library of Babel" and "The Circular Path."

Friday, October 24, 2008

CFP: IASTS Conference

The 2009 annual meeting for the International Association for Science, Technology, and Society will be held at RIT! I expect to organize a session, but I haven't decided yet how to conceive of the topic. The possibilities revolve around sustainability, biodiversity, and ecosystem management. Then again, I might try to organize one on values in science, such as a successful session that we had at 4S a few years ago. If you're interested, please send me a note!

****** CALL FOR PAPERS ******

International Association of Science, Technology & Society
24th Annual Conference
April 2 to 4, 2009
RIT Inn and Conference Center
Rochester, NY

Paper proposals are invited by December 1, 2008 on themes addressing the relationships between science, technology, society and the biosphere or on specific aspects of STSB, as described on the IASTS website.

Two special themes will be featured:

* Retrospective on the thought of Jacques Ellul. A recent French book described him as “the man who foresaw almost everything,” and yet his work has not received the attention it merits as one of the most important thinkers in STSB.

* Perspective on efforts to creating sustainable energy utilities.

Paper proposals of no more than 450 words should describe the subject matter in sufficient detail for referees to make an informed decision. Please send these proposals as rich-text files to Professor Pamela Mack:
Please indicate IASTS in your subject line. We encourage early submissions, and will provide notice of acceptance, acceptance with suggested modifications, or rejection, within one month. The last date for receiving proposals is December 1, 2008.

This week's thoughts on women in philosophy

I haven't posted much on women in philosophy lately, but the concern is always operating there in the background. My current research is not in feminist theory, the course I'm teaching includes only a handful of women authors, I don't even run into my female colleagues on campus. But the concern is always there, and here are some of the ways it has been popping into my head lately:
  • We just had winter quarter registration, and my philosophy of science course has 1 woman out of 32 students. I've had 6 additional requests from people who want to get into the course, and all of those have been from men. 
  • I mentioned this dearth of women to a colleague, who said "well, what do you expect? RIT is 2/3 male." I'd be satisfied with a class of 32 that had 10 women in it! The background ratio doesn't come close to explaining why women students don't take upper-level philosophy classes. And the fact that it's philosophy of science? The ratio of male:female students in the sciences at RIT is more equal than the student body as a whole. Look at it this way: I have more deaf students in my courses than women.
  • I also mentioned it to our program coordinator, who responded that the gender imbalance will probably correct itself since I was hired last year and another female professor starts next quarter. Having a few women professors in the department is important, but it's not enough. And recruiting women should not be all on our shoulders.
  • Most of the attention to the gender gap elsewhere in the profession has been in reference to the hiring of women professors. But I do believe the (incomplete) data indicate that one significant difference between our leaky pipeline and the pipeline in the sciences is that most of the leakiness is at the undergrad level. How can I fault our program coordinator for having no plan to recruit women except to cross his fingers and wait? Because I'm not sure that anyone has a clear idea of how to do it.
  • At least at RIT, the lack of interest among women is not due to the unclear or unlucrative career path for philosophy students. We just got a major this year, so nearly all the students in the upper-level philosophy courses take the course to fulfill a liberal arts requirement.
  • I was trying to pick a textbook for the class, and I had the same frustration I have every year: every single textbook in philosophy of science contains only selections by men or, if it does contain some selections by women, they are writing as "feminist" philosophers of science.  This is true even of the textbook put together by a woman (Janet Kourany's). Why? We women make up between 10 and 20% of philosophers of science, so why don't we make up between 10 and 20% of the authors in the textbooks? Those of us who write on feminist philosophy of science write on other things, as well.
  • Finally, I'm looking forward to the women's caucus at the Philosophy of Science Association annual meeting in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CFP: Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering Conference

Call for Papers

Philosophical Inquiry into Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering

May 14-16, 2009
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon

The conference will be primarily philosophical in focus, but we also invite interdisciplinary scholarship from fields outside of philosophy including, but not limited to, sociology, psychology, women’s and gender studies, and health care related fields.

Keynote Speakers:
Eva Kittay, State University of New York at Stony Brook
Lisa Guenther, Vanderbilt University
Invited Speaker:
Andrea O’Reilly, the Association for Research on Mothering, York University

Submit abstracts for papers or panels. Approximately 750 words.
Due January 31 at 5pm.
Email submissions or questions to :
Include a cover sheet with name, institution, department, & contact information.
Document should be submitted in MS Word (.doc file).
For additional information please link to:
Anyone who would like to receive a poster or postcard version of the CFP can email

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Diversity Among Philosophers

Anne Jacobson has posted some thoughts about the barriers to increasing the proportion of philosophers who are women, and she lists some of the available resources.

In comments, Bryce Huebner articulates a well-founded reason for skepticism:
"[W]hether these strategies are likely to help at all is contingent on people in the discipline recognizing that there are implicit biases at play in our psychology that we can’t just suppress and move on. The fact is that non-conscious processes play an integral role in our psychology. Moreover, they are incredibly difficult to modulate. And, unfortunately, this is something that is hard for many academics to recognize."

The 80th Philosophers' Carnival...

is up here, with a special U.S election theme. Rima Basu's collection includes many thoughtful post on the ethics of voting and civic responsibility, not to mention my earlier post on whether there is an ethical argument for buying local. Thanks, Rima!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Local Economies and Ethics

In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben argues in support of local media and in support of distributed power generation. (This is my university's common text this year, and I'm teaching it in my ethics course.)

I’ve long believed that these are important and under-appreciated public problems (together with how recent expansions of intellectual property rights constrain creativity).

McKibben cleverly twins these issues as symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of local control over how we lead our lives. If local media were substituted for corporate nation-wide media, we would have the opportunity to develop our own tastes and ideas, not just swallowing what is mass-produced for everyone to consume. We might appreciate the diversity around us, learn more about our communities, and develop new tastes. If we had the ability to feed to as well as take from the electric grid, we might find pleasure in making this commodity for our neighbors to use:

Instead of something that you buy from far away, energy becomes something you help make and distribute to your neighbors. On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head….Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy…[Perhaps] because people feel both an obligation to and an ability to trust one another… (p. 148)

But I’m left with the question: What is ethical about supporting local economies? Is this just a fancy twist on identifying and supporting what is in our own selfish interests? Sometimes McKibben presents localism as a way of keeping profits in the community: we support our neighbors’ businesses, and then they reciprocate and support us. We benefit by cutting out middlemen who drain profits out of the community.

This may be smart and it may be efficient, but is there any sense in which it could be ethical? Indeed, an emphasis on local communities over the universal public cuts against over 200 years of Kantian ethics and over 100 years of calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I’ve been wondering how to fit this support for local economies into an ethics class. In an earlier post, I argued that virtue ethics can sometimes do the job, since virtue is aimed at guiding people to cultivate the virtues that we most admire in others, including virtues such as charity, friendliness, and living deliberately. Care ethics, in particular, prioritizes beneficence directed toward our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances over beneficence to strangers.

Without adopting a version of virtue/care ethics, it is impossible to say what drives a choice to consume local goods rather than imported ones (excluding, of course, the environmental cost of transportation). In utilitarian fashion, Peter Singer argues that buying food products grown in poverty-stricken areas directs our money to the people who benefit from it the most. He argues convincingly (in The Way We Eat) that this is true even when foreign growers are not participating in fair trade programs. Against this argument, McKibben’s plea to invest in local communities rather than poor communities seems to be supported by little more than self-interest? (Certainly, many of my students interpret it in that way.)

However, I think that support for local economies, local power generation, local media, and local agriculture can be justified in one more way. It can be justified on the grounds of the psychology of responsibility and on the limits of knowledge. Looking for justification from ethical theory is to look in the wrong toolbox. Instead, we should look to social epistemology and to moral psychology.

The greatest benefit of localism is that it functions to establish accountability. McKibben sells localism as a route to greater happiness—we are more likely to have friendly, meaningful conversations at the farmer’s market than the supermarket. But another benefit of localism is that it’s easier to know what’s going on in a limited sphere, and we are more likely to take an interest in it. “NIMBY” is a phrase that’s used to denigrate elites who would prefer exploitive, dangerous, unsightly, or polluting operations to be located out of sight, in other communities or overseas. But there’s a positive side to NIMBY movements, too. If something is so unpleasant or harmful that no one wants it, there is motivation to change our practices or improve our technologies or accept higher prices. When products and power come from under our noses, it's much more difficult to hide or externalize costs.

Perhaps McKibben's best example is of local, sustainable logging. In the forestry industry, it is efficient to clearcut an area and then replant it. One reason this is efficient is that it takes all of the value now, and thus hedges bets against an uncertain future. Another reason is that sustainable logging is more labor and equipment and time intensive. In fact, with the economy going the way it has been (barring global recession, that is), it is more economically efficient to harvest the value from forests now and to reinvest the profit. Any standard investment will reap a greater economic return over the time that it takes to regrow a forest than to actually regrow the forest. But this is a viable strategy only if you don't mind eradicating your forests, and forests have more than economic value. In McKibben's example, people are more willing to pay a higher price for sustainable forest products if those products come from woods that they know and enjoy.

The ethical aspect of McKibben’s localism is that it activates responsibility.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

CFP: Evidence, Science and Public Policy

It is high time that philosophers of science became more involved in bridging theory and policy problems. Science and technology policy now extend to many issues, most of which, other than medical policy, have received less attention than they deserve. I hope a conference like this one emerges soon stateside. I know that I can't justify the time, expense, and carbon expenditures to make it to Australia in the middle of spring quarter.


Sydney-Tilburg conference on

Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science
26-28 March 2009

Conference website:


KEYNOTE SPEAKERS: Mark Burgman (University of Melbourne), John Quiggin (University of Queensland) and John Worrall (London School of Economics)

ORGANISERS: Mark Colyvan (Sydney), Stephan Hartmann (Tilburg), James Justus (Sydney) and Jan Sprenger (Tilburg)

The relationship between science and public policy is complex. Good public policy on matters such as the environment, climate change, health, the economy, and justice must be informed by good science. But this science needs to be conducted in ways amenable to the needs of the policy makers and the results communicated in ways accessible to both the policy makers and the public at large. Public policy issues might even impinge on the science itself. For example, acceptable levels of error might be thought to be determined by the consequences of the decisions to be made using the scientific findings. This raises many interesting philosophical questions about the relationship between science, evidence and public policy. Should science remain independent of policy decisions and concern itself only with evidence? Is this possible? What is evidence-based medicine and does it live up to its advertising? What is evidence-based public policy and what does it offer above standard policy making? Our goal in this conference is to bring together philosophers of science, political philosophers, policy makers, and other researchers interested in the science-policy interface. We welcome papers on any of the above questions as well as papers on broader issues concerning evidence, especially in applied contexts (e.g. legal, medical, and environmental).

We invite submissions of
extended abstracts of up to 1000 words by 1 December 2008. Decisions will be made by 15 January 2009.

CFP: Technology, Culture, and Globalization

My colleague, Evan Selinger, has passed on this CFP for the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Technology. I couldn't help but notice that most of the conference organizers are men, although the subject of the CFP is very relevant to feminist issues. This would be a good research area for feminist philosophers, and especially FEMMSSists and FEASTers to develop.

Call for Papers

Converging Technologies, Changing Societies

16th International Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology

July 8-10, 2009

University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands

Deadline for abstracts: January 5, 2009

SPT 2009 welcomes high quality papers and panel proposals in all areas of philosophy of technology. Given the focus of this year’s conference, papers dealing with converging technologies and their social and cultural impact are especially welcomed. SPT 2009 will include 15 tracks, including:

12. Technology, culture and globalisation. Chairs: Charles Ess and Evan Selinger

Globalized innovation facilitates new forms of experience and engenders dilemmas that call for critical philosophical inquiry. We invite analyses that explore the diverse interactions between technology, culture, and globalization. Suggested—but by no means exclusive—thematic possibilities include inquiry into:

* culturally-variable values, beliefs, norms, and practices as interacting with the design (expressed as affordances), implementation, and response to emerging / converging technologies (including, but not limited to ICTs) implicated by globalization;
* diverse cultural and philosophical perspectives on the globalizing roles and uses of technology – for development (including ICT4D); in efforts to overcome the Digital Divide; in possible diffusion of democracy, gender equality, freedom of expression; in conflicts occasioned by globally-distributed ICTs (e.g., the “Muhammed Cartoons” episode), etc.;
* how philosophical views on cosmopolitanism, post nation-state politics, the capabilities approach to justice, universal ethics, and the phenomenological experience of artifacts, may enhance our understanding of how cultural hybridization is emerging in relation to innovative uses of technology;
* how ICTs enable new industries, types of work, management styles, and financial markets to emerge, and along with them, the introduction of new goods, services, and priorities, as well as identifying categories, such as “knowledge worker” and the “information economy.”

Descriptions of all the tracks can be found on our website

Papers will be accepted on the basis of a submitted abstract, which will be refereed. An abstract must be between 500 and 750 words in length (references excluded) and submitted via email ( as embedded plain text or an attachment in RTF or WORD (no docx) or PDF format. It should also contain the name and number of the track to which the abstract is submitted. Abstracts must be submitted no later than
January 5, 2009. Authors will be informed of the decision of the referees by March 2, 2009.

Panel Proposals. We will also accept proposals for panel discussions, also to be submitted by
January 5, 2009. Panel proposals must include a statement of the general topic and an overview of the specific questions or issues to be addressed. In addition, the proposal should include a list of the panelists involved, their expertise in this area, and whether they have indicated that they are willing to participate.

Using Edublogs

I've been using a blog at to supplement my Intro to Ethics class. I post the assignments so they're available electronically, I post interesting links or thoughts that didn't make it into the lecture, and students have posted comments to continue our in-class discussion. As a method, the course blog is a superb fit with my teaching style, the course content (timely environmental issues), and RIT students' predilections (lots of time online). 

As a platform, has lost my support. The positive aspects are that it's free, that it's run on Wordpress (which provides many superior design options compared to Blogger), and (supposedly) it creates an educational community. I haven't seen much community, except for Brandon Watson's excellent ethics course blog.

Problems started a couple of weeks ago when I had trouble posting. The site posted an announcement that there would be an interruption of service for a couple of hours in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The interruption continued through the entire weekend, making it impossible for my students to access their assignment, the reading schedule, etc. From Monday through Wednesday, I was able to access the site only on occasion, with a lower than 10% success rate. At times, it was offline completely; at other times, I could view but not post.

I located the blog of the founder, James Farmer (interestingly, not itself hosted on edublogs), which had a note about the extended outage issues. In a comment, I asked 
Can you give me a reason that I shouldn't migrate to Blogger? I like the wordpress design and the educational community, but reliability is everything.
The response I received was:
Good luck with migration issues.
Hard to imagine a clearer blow-off!

I was truly hoping to hear some good reasons that would save me the trouble of moving to another host (the sunk-cost fallacy had me in its hold), but now I'll be on my way as soon as this quarter winds down.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Candidates Who Support Science

At the Your Candidates, Your Health website, you can see answers that the two major party presidential candidates and some Congressional candidates have given to a questionnaire about health and science policies.

The questions are along these lines:
Do you agree or disagree that it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure all Americans have basic health care coverage?

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "The U.S. is in danger of losing its global competitive edge in science, technology and innovation." If you agree, what approach would you take to change this trend?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cultivating Good Ideas

I read a New Yorker article not so long ago about how the process of insight works, and since then I've been noticing how and when different kinds of my ideas originate.

We all have flashes of insight at unusual times--not the times that we're thinking about a problem--but times when we're somewhat relaxed. For me it's when I'm waking up or going to bed, in the shower, on the longish walk between my car and my office or, most typically, when I'm out for a run. These are not times when a pencil or computer is handy, and I'm always nervous I'll forget them. Why the bad timing?

According to the neuroscientists interviewed in the article, there are different brain pathways for cranking through a routine problem and for finding solutions to non-routine problems. The latter requires the brain to explore all kinds of cognitive resources, and the flash of certainty we get with an insight is due to the unconscious cognitive work that we've already done, not just generating an idea but checking its fit, as well. (And this raises questions about how much of our "selves" we are actually aware of!) The process of insight requires that the brain relax and that the conscious mind pay attention to the weaker and more distributed signals it gets from unexpected quarters. This happens when the soft voice of what we might call the insight module is not drowned out by the insistent and confident voice of the grinding module. Naps help.

Knowing how the insight process works and which kinds of problems need insight rather than grinding should help us to work more productively. All creative work feeds off of some insight. I do think that in philosophy, there are some routines or scripts that are used to generate ideas, such as the many iterations on "A Kantian Analysis of..." the latest social problem in the headlines. The most interesting ideas, though, have more unique forms. Interdisciplinary work also requires bringing ideas that have not yet met each other into contact, and that resonates with the insight process.

Most of my work is of the grinding along nature. I have systems and reminders set up so that my lecture planning gets done on time. Also, the research writing that I'm doing right now is on some scientific research that is already completed, so that when I have the time to work on it, the process involves just describing what I did and what the results are. All the truly creative work came in the doing.

Blogging often feels creative to me, and sometimes driven by insight. Surfing others' blogs, perhaps because there is an element of the unexpected in what I will find, helps to turn on my own insight machine. In blogging (and for some, perhaps in writing their facebook updates), I pay attention not to something that I'm reading, but to my reactions about what I'm reading. I read something and then, an hour or day or week later, notice that I'm still thinking about it and that I have something to say. Knowing that there will be an audience is the motivation for thinking it through.

A piece on digital identity and security in the New York Times points out that many of us go through this process:
It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves.

Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site — “What are you doing?” — can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?)

Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.
It occurs to me that this is a valuable and underappreciated effect of Web 2.0: it increases self-knowledge and reflection.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Ethical frameworks and sustainability

I'm teaching an Introduction to Ethics course with an emphasis on examining environmental sustainability. Although I've assigned a textbook that has some collected readings on ethical theories, the class is relying predominately on reading about environmental issues as they come up in non-philosophical venues.

I've had some difficulty illustrating the usefulness of Kantian ethics in the context of environmental problems. Any suggestions that readers have for how to apply Kantian ethics to such problems would be appreciated!

For instance, the class did work through the problem of overpopulation, achieving the insight that if everyone had large families, the human population would quickly exceed the earth's carrying capacity. But the implication that each and every one of us has a duty to limit family size to 2 children or fewer did little to guide recommendations for how that duty should be enforced or encouraged. Utilitarianism, by contrast, seems well suited to problems of global scope; increasingly, environmental and economic problems do have that scope.

Another problem that loomed was how to give theoretical ethical support to the lifestyle recommendations in Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. I happened across Peter Singer's recent book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, which provides utilitarian support to some, but not all, of McKibben's views (a review here).

Singer, for instance, does not find an ethical justification for buying locally-grown foods. He acknowledges the environmental reasons to support buying foods grown nearby rather than those transported across the US. But he also believes that we are doing more good for others by buying foods imported from poverty-stricken countries than buying US-produced food, even when products are not the result of fair trade practices. Also, I find the utilitarian argument against speciesism to be, well, specious.

I think virtue ethics, though, is ideal for justifying the kinds of actions that McKibben endorses. Even its derivative, care ethics, can make sense of why people choose to buy local: people who have definable relationships to us, who live in our communities, have a greater claim on our consideration.

Peter Singer, by the way, is speaking at RIT tomorrow on "A Better, More Sustainable World" at 2:30 pm in Golisano Auditorium. All are invited.