Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Environmental Decisions: No Easy Answers

As sustainability and conservation become more prevalent concerns, there is no hiding the ways that some environmental values conflict with other environmental values. While such conflicts could be used to help us refine our sense of what matters and why, ethical reflection is likely to be swamped by politics.

Serenity, a student in my environmental philosophy class, passed along this article on the environmental value of the Mojave Desert. Senator Feinstein has proposed that 570,000 acres of federal land be set aside as a national monument to prevent the most pristine lands from being developed. Who would want to develop land in the desert? Companies who would like to capture solar energy.

The argument for preservation seems to hang on Feinstein's assertion that there are other, better places for siting solar power facilities:
“While I strongly support renewable energy, it is critical that these projects move forward on public and private lands well-suited for that purpose. Unfortunately, many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert.”
Certainly, there are multiple options for energy production and conservation, and only the one shot at preservation. But it can also be difficult for environmentalists to convince others that deserts, which seem to be wastelands, have ecological and aesthetic value.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tips for Would-Be Philosophers

Here is a philosopher's letter to his Intro to Philosophy class, explaining what philosophy is and how to do it.

"Welcome to My Philosophy Class"

After sharing guidelines for how to read philosophy and write a paper for a philosophy class, Wayne Buck points to the value that can be found even in lower-level classes:

There are practical benefits to be gained from studying philosophy. First, it will improve your ability to reason, and to think originally. In reading and writing about abstract problems, you practice and develop analytical, critical and argumentative skills which are useful in many other endeavors. In turn, this will give you confidence in yourself and in your ability to think through problems and come to your own conclusions. It will make you less dependent on others and their thoughts, and put you in a better position to understand yourself and others.

Second, you will learn something about the philosophical tradition. Philosophy has been and still is a central force in Western culture and intellectual life. It is philosophers who have most clearly and thoroughly elaborated the values, ideals and theories which shape the way we live and think, even today. This is true not only for morals and religion, but also for the natural sciences, for political science, for economics and for literature.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Making Wise Choices About Environmental Goods

In my environmental philosophy class, this week we discussed preference utilitarianism, cost-benefit analysis, and whether we should trust people's stated preferences about how highly they value environmental goods.

I tend to be skeptical about economists' measurements of preference, though I don't know of a better and simpler tool that can be substituted.

Preferences can be discovered (only) by introspection, so it seems illogical to say that someone could be mistaken about what they prefer. The claim that someone can be mistaken rests on several observations:
1. Sometimes our actions do not follow our expressed beliefs. Which is the real preference: how we act or what we say?
2. People change their minds depending on how a choice is presented.
3. What we think will make us happy does not always, in fact, make us happy. Predictions of future happiness and unhappiness are wrong in systematic ways.

We talked about some of the mistakes that people make in estimating the value of their preferences and watched this video, from 6:00 to 12:54. I think Leroy's lottery ticket fallacy is particularly telling.