Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Harvard Justice: John Rawls & What is a Fair Start?

The first statement of the two principles reads as follows:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

John Rawls Theory of Justice (1971)

Today we’ll be looking at John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and reflecting upon how this theory informs discussions we’ve been having thus far in the unit, as well as how it adds to (or undercuts) previous theories of justice and morality put forth by John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

A few questions to spark our thinking:

  • First of all, what are your impressions of Rawls’ theory next to concepts of Utilitarianism and/or notions of the Categorical Imperative?
  • Second, do you agree that everyone should have the same basic liberties, whether they are a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, part of the minority or part of the majority? And if you do, what basic liberties should everyone have?
  • And third, how do you see Rawls’ theory applying to the discussions we have had around systemic oppression in the last week or so? What insights might the theory offer for those looking to combat a misogynistic or racially discriminating culture? Are there other groups or conditions to which Rawls’ insights may oppose?

Those of you who are currently (or have in the past) studied economics may have unique insights into how Rawls’ theory works (or doesn’t) within our modern capitalist economies. What do the prevailing theories of modern economics make of a system guided by Rawls’ principles? Are these systems of thought congruent?

 

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Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement

Image from the First Peoples Guide for Newcomers, published by the City of Vancouver (2014)

In 2014, the City Council of Vancouver voted unanimously to recognize that the city was built – and exists – on unceded aboriginal territory. The statement from the city reads in part:

“Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender.”

Earlier this month, HG Hamilton wondered in the Mainlander what may lay beyond this formal acknowledgement, especially given councillor Andrea Reimer’s admission that the acknowledgement wouldn’t effect the legal practices of the city, “because Vancouver is not involved in treaty negotiations and has no such authority over land.”

Hamilton notes that:

Vancouver City Council and other political parties are praised for their formal acknowledgement of the city’s occupation of unceded territory, even if it does little to change the everyday conditions of Indigenous peoples (poverty, dispossession, criminality, premature death). This gesture is what Tuck and Yang would define as a “settler move to innocence,” a strategy or positioning that attempts to relieve feelings of guilt or responsibility of a settler without the settler giving up land, power, privilege or changing much at all.[4] Gestures of remorse or acknowledgement may endow the settler with “professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware.” For example, David Schaepe, director and senior archaeologist of the Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre and technical advisor for the Sto:lo Xwexwilmexw Treaty Association, has congratulated city council on its formal recognition and called it a “very positive development.” Despite the fact that the formal acknowledgment has been received positively in the media, Tuck and Yang warn that settler moves to innocence are hollow and only serve the interests of settlers. Such actions lend false legitimacy to settler governments, allow the ongoing work of dispossession, displacement, and settlement.

In addition to connecting to our visit this coming Friday with UBC professor Dr. Mark Aquash, the case provides a local look at our ongoing discussion of systemic oppression.

Hamilton continues:

“You’re never going to gain the full recognition of your freedom from your oppressor,” argues Glen Coulthard, member of the Dene Nation and author of Red Skin, White Masks, in an interview. “They will only recognize you to the extent that it serves their own interests. The effect that that recognition being given to you has on the dominated or the colonized is that they come to see that gift of recognition as a form of justice or decolonization itself. You think recognition is actually freedom and decolonization, but it’s really colonization in a new form.” The recognition that Vancouver city council has offered to Indigenous peoples only extends to the acknowledgement that Vancouver occupies unceded territory. This primarily benefits Vancouver city council and other political parties because it creates a semblance of sensitivity and self-awareness. The formal acknowledgement falls short because it only acknowledges one aspect of settler colonialism rather than the multitude of ongoing violence and traumas. It does not recognize the historical or ongoing role of Vancouver city council in settler colonization through practices such as policing and community dispersal of the Downtown Eastside community, where economically marginalized Indigenous peoples are over-represented.[4] Nor does it begin to engage in the difficult work of moving beyond metaphors and gestures and towards changing the material conditions underlying the daily warfare of colonization.

Hamilton’s piece includes a great many references to scholarship and historical research into the British Columbian and North American history of colonialism, and poses difficult questions for those of us who have been contemplating the moral reasoning of John Stewart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

Continuing with the theme of our ethical studies, it is likely best to begin from a place of discussion. And as a means of approaching this local issue, about which many of us likely hold some opinion – however informed or unformed we feel our own views to be – in a critical fashion, let us begin by looking at the lenses of moral philosophy we have been working with this week:

  • How might each of these three moral philosophers approach these recent events?
  • Are there ways in which they might agree?
  • Where do you see their thoughts on indigenous land claims diverging?
 

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Colonialism and Reconciliation in Canada

Image courtesy of the CBC

In returning to a guiding question in our investigation into systemic oppression, we have spoken in class here and there about Canada’s relationship with its indigenous populations. If there are those who are negatively effected by discrimination and oppression, there are those who benefit from this oppression; and with respect to Canadian First Nations, the dominant culture represented by our affluent suburban public school ought consider the question:

Is it possible to benefit from the oppression of others and not be responsible for the perpetuation of that oppression? And if it is, how?

Before reflecting on the ways in which we might approach this most pressing of Canadian problems, Ottawa Citizen columnist Terry Glavin’s contrasting of indigenous Canadians’ plight against that of their African American neighbours deserves consideration, where he admits that “the conditions that torment Aboriginal Canadians to this day are no less a disgrace than the dead-end impoundments so many African-Americans find themselves within today.”

Aboriginal Canadians and African-Americans suffer from a nearly identical suite of maladies: high rates of cancer, of heart disease, mental illness, suicide, spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome and tuberculosis.

The median income of African-American men is about $31,000. Among white American men it’s $42,000. In Canada, the median annual income for Aboriginal people living off-reserve is $22,500 (among those living on Indian reserves it’s $14,000); the average annual income for Canadian wage workers in general is about $48,000.

The unemployment rate among working-age Aboriginal people in Canada is 13 per cent – more than twice the general jobless rate among working-age Canadians. This is every bit as wide a gap as between African-American men and white American men.

Comparing welfare rates makes Canada look far worse. Slightly more than 10 per cent of African-Americans are on welfare, but in Canada, roughly a third of Aboriginal people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.

Canada looks worse again when we look inside the prisons. African-Americans make up only about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, but 40 per cent of the U.S. prison population is African-American. A mere four per cent of Canadians are Aboriginal, but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration rate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people.

Things are going downhill, too. Over the past decade, the Aboriginal population in federal prisons has grown by more than 50 per cent. In Western Canada, two-thirds of the inmates in federal and provincial institutions are Aboriginal people.

That this scenario exists at all is a tragedy of the first order, to be sure. Yet that it exists in a country which has enshrined in its laws the promotion of “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and […] the elimination of any barrier to that participation” is tragically ironic. Though it is not without broad complicity that such a state of affairs is allowed to continue, as Amanda Gebhard highlights in an essay on how “The over-incarceration of Indigenous people is not an unassail­able reality.” Rather, she writes that

It is a violent, colonial project that requires the co-operation and complicity of countless people. Unmaking the situation will require the same sustained and concerted effort. Learning how we are all invited to participate in the colonial project of Aboriginal over-incarceration – and then refusing to do so – is the first step in demolishing the pipeline to prison for Aboriginal youth in Canada.

As Jess highlights in a comment here, with regards to gender discrimination, “the only percentage that matters is that 100% of women have experienced some form of ‘minor’ sexual harassment.” So too do 100% of aboriginal Canadians exist in a country which discriminates against them. In either case it is important to ask: who bears the responsibility to reduce the amount of discrimination and oppression experienced by these groups? Should it fall to the oppressed to liberate themselves from a pervasive society of oppression? Or are we all responsible?

Is it possible for non-indigenous Canadians to benefit from this historical (and continued) discrimination and not be responsible for its perpetuation? By what moral reasoning might they be absolved from acting to end this cycle?

Or must they act?

In a new book Canadian philosopher and author John Ralston Saul notes that “sympathy toward aboriginal people from outsiders is the new form of racism.”

It allows many of us to feel good about discounting their importance and the richness of their civilizations. Sympathy is a way to deny our shared reality. Our shared responsibility. Sympathy obscures the central importance of rights.

The other day the idea was raised that both oppressors and the oppressed are trapped within a society reliant on systemic oppression, and yet we still find ourselves seeking a means by which the beneficiaries of that discrimination might be absolved. Given the realities of our past and future as a nation which contains multitudes, and which prides itself on the “full and equitable participation” of those multitudes, isn’t it our shared responsibility to fight for a system and a society other than the one passed down to us?

These might seem rhetorical questions, but I pose them with the hope that they provoke critical thoughts about a scenario that envelopes us as Canadians whether we like it or not. As Michael Sandel observes, moral philosophy challenges us to make the familiar distant, and in so doing come to understand our reality in new and profound ways.

“Once the familiar turns strange, it’s never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence: however unsettling we find it, it can never be un-thought, or un-known.”

Now that it has become known, if we can agree that it has, how do we move forward, together?

 

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Part of the Problem: Talking about Systemic Oppression

Cartoon via Amptoons.com

Yesterday I shared the following quote with the face-to-face Philosophy 12 group:

Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behaviour of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behaviour directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of black and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behaviour. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.

As we have recently begun to define the notion of Justice in class as the pursuit of a society that seeks to eliminate discrimination, the above definition provides a troubling circumstance to extricate ourselves from as a society, whether we find ourselves as part of the oppressor or oppressed class. A question resulting from our reading and discussion yesterday that deserves further reflection during our unit may be

Is it possible to benefit from the oppression of [racial minorities, other genders, classes, regions, religions] and not be deemed responsible for such oppression? If it is possible to be ‘innocent’ in such a case, under what conditions does such innocence exist?

These are difficult questions to confront, perhaps even moreso in an affluent suburb with many of the advantages that we enjoy here in North America. However, as events involving police brutality in the United States (something some would argue that we have little right to feel smug about in Canada), or recent revelations about CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, or at Dalhousie University’s dental school may attest, we can be seen to exist within a violently oppressive culture.

This is a contentious point to make, I realize, and smacks something of the question of how does one convince a fish that it is swimming in water if it is all the fish has ever known? But I would hope that these recent events, and the provocative questions raised by reflecting on institutional oppression create a space to debate and discuss the ramifications of these realities, supposing we can accept that these are in fact realities.

To that end, do you (participant, commenter, or reader of this blog and post) feel that this is in fact a reality? Why or why not?

If you do see this/these events as part of a system of oppression and violence, how ought we proceed toward that “just” life? And is it possible for the beneficiaries of various forms of oppression to fight for not only their own innocence, but the equality and freedom from discrimination of all peoples?

For your further consideration, the original definition of institutional oppression comes from a  longer piece rebutting the contention that “not all men” are responsible for violent manifestations of the patriarchy, by Michael Laxer. You can read that article here.

 

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Harvard’s Justice and the Morality of Murder

To introduce our study of ethics and social/political philosophy, we’ll be viewing the introductory lecture(s) by Michael Sandel in Harvard’s JusticeIn addition to the introduction to the two major schools or moral reasoning – consequentialist and categorical – Sandel’s brilliant facilitation throughout the series stands out as a remarkable feat of intellectual discourse. By highlighting the guiding principles underpinning our ‘gut’ reactions to the thought experiments, the lecture/discussion serves as a model of respectful dialogue, as well as an invitation to engage everyday topics with an open mind.

Upon completing the discussion, Sandel poses three questions I would like to pose here for our own debate and introductory musings on morality and ethics. Please add your thoughts to one or more of the following prompts in the comments to this post:

  1. Do we have certain fundamental rights? (Follow up: What are they? Why can we assume that they exist?)
  2. Does a fair procedure justify any result?
  3. What is the moral work of consent? In other words, Why does/can consent make the amoral moral?
 

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The Meaningfulness of Lives

While running

In what I have called an age of economics, it is even more urgent to ask the question of a meaningful life:  what it consists in, how we might live one.  Philosophy cannot prescribe the particular character of meaning that each of us should embrace.  It cannot tell each of us individually how we might trace the trajectory that is allotted to us.  But it can, and ought to, reflect upon the framework within which we consider these questions, and in doing so perhaps offer a lucidity we might otherwise lack.  This is as it should be.  Philosophy can assist us in understanding how we might think about our lives, while remaining modest enough to leave the living of them to us.

Todd May writing in the New York Times 

I left a link to the story quoted above on Liam’s post about the nature of life’s meaning if not provided from an external ‘god’ force or intelligent design. But many of the conversations we have had – and will have – are the logical extensions of many of our metaphysical concerns.

It is no random act that organizes our philosophy course in the order that it does, as questions about What is, and What is it like naturally lead us to consider what we can know objectively (or personally/subjectively) in such a world, and then onto – based upon that knowledge – what it is that constitutes a good life.

This assumes of course that a ‘good life’ is in some way connected to life’s purpose. Though perhaps that is a debate worth having as well.

 

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Peter Singer, Liberation, and Animal Intelligence

Australian Philosopher Peter Singer

Australian Philosopher Peter Singer

After writing my blog post “Are We Really Smarter?“, it was not difficult to find real philosophers that agreed or had similar ideas to the questions I posed. After briefly researching some different philosophers, I decided to look more in depth into Australian Philosopher Peter Singer. Many of his known works, such as his book “Animal Liberation” (1975), pertain to issues involving ethics, especially with animals. In his book, he talked about animal intelligence as well. He argued that animals do have a lower intelligence than the average human, however that some animals show intelligence of that of human children. Therefore, he believes, intelligence should not be a basis when providing treatment of nonhuman animals any less than when considering the treatment of children. Thinking of the way we treat animals, would it also be an ethical way to treat children? In my earlier post, I mentioned SeaWorld, where intelligent animals such as dolphins and orcas are kept in small tanks for our entertainment. However, would it be socially accepted to do the same with human children? I think not.

Peter Singer 2Singer also argued that there is a larger difference between an oyster and an ape than an ape and a human. He says that calling a great ape, or other intelligible animals, an “animal” is truly arbitrary. I feel that this solidifies my own argument that as humans, we may not be the most intelligent animals on the planet. Because, truly, we are animals too.

To my disappointment, I could not find anything in my research about Peter Singer’s opinion on animals conscience, as it is a large portion of my metaphysics questions. I wonder if Singer even considered animal conscience, as it was not as well known about when he wrote his novel “Animal Liberation” in 1975. I feel that it would only support his arguments further.

When researching, it was difficult to find a philosopher specifically on animal conscience. I found articles about the opinions of marine biologists, neuroscientists, and other animal specialists. The majority of philosophers that had anything to do with animals focused mainly on ethics. Ethics does come into play with my metaphysics post, as with the idea of animals having intelligence and a conscience, one must think about the way we are treating animals, and if it is “right” to do so if they are equal with us.

To finish, Australian philosopher Peter Singer has ideas (along with many other opinions on ethics) that solidifies my own metaphysics arguments. Similarly to myself, he argued that animals have a similar level of intelligence to us as humans, and therefore must think about if the ways we treat animals is ethical. Unfortunately I was unable to find any writing about Singer’s opinion on animal conscience, as it is a large part of my metaphysics project, although I found multiple articles about the opinions of neuroscientists and animal experts.

 

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Logic Assignment Introduction

Logic Lane, Oxford

Photo of Logic Lane at Oxford by Andy Hough on Flickr.

As we move into our unit on logic, the face-to-face participants in Philosophy 12 have been reading about the Basic Concepts of Logic (pdf), which may be defined as “the science of reasoning.” Delving into statements, premises, propositions, as well as truth, validity and soundness, our hope is to greet the weekend with a host of blogged examples of logical arguments in their natural habitat. In past years, the tasks around logic have involved a similar feat of strength, and participants have generated multiple examples of logical arguments and tested them for form and content. Occasionally this has sparked interesting discussions of both the merits of this or that argument, the cultural implications (or origins) of such thinking, and by amending the unit assignment this week hopefully we will see more of this type of discourse emerging around our logical examples.

The Assignment 

  • Summarize and describe an example of a logical argument you have uncovered in a variety of settings: current events, popular media, personal anecdotes or hypothetical thought experiments. Be sure to include enough back-story for people unfamiliar with the milieu of your example to digest the logic at work, and provide links, video, or attached materials so that your audience can follow up or extend their inquiry into your example with ease.
  • Dissect the argument and its form by representing it as a syllogism.
  • Evaluate the argument for Truth, Validity and Soundness and explain your judgements.
  • Reflect upon the origins or implications of your selected argument. Where does it (or others like it) come from (in society, culture, etc)? What are the consequences of the conclusion drawn, or from the argument being framed in this way?

Post your example on the class site no later than Tuesday morning, and be sure to include the proper Category: Logic and Scientific Philosophy.

For your reference and preparation, here is an example of a response to this assignment:

Prime Ministerial Logic 

Image via Transitions, an Advocate for Sociological Inquiry

Following the discovery of Tina Fontaine’s murdered body in the Red River, in August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced reinvigorated calls to launch a federal inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada. On the heels of reports from the special rapporteur to the United Nations, as well as the RCMP, which each discovered that aboriginal women in Canada face significantly higher rates of violence than non-aboriginals, Harper’s federal Conservative Government continued to reject pressure to better understand the root causes of this trend. The Prime Minister himself stated that “we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.”

The Prime Minister’s statement might be seen as an argument broken down to the following premises and conclusion:

Premise 1: The murder or abduction of aboriginal women is a crime.

Premise 2: Crime is not a sociological phenomenon.

Premise 3: A federal inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women would rely on sociological practices of inquiry.

Conclusion: Therefore, a federal inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women would not address crimes against aboriginal women.

By evaluating the various premises’ truth and/or accuracy, we might be able to reveal the soundness of the Prime Minister’s argument.

  • Premise 1 can easily be accepted as true.
  • Premise 2 can be more easily contested, as the study of criminology itself is a branch of sociological inquiry. While it is the government’s prerogative to define and combat crime in terms it was elected to uphold, practitioners in the fields of both sociology and criminology would likely contest the Prime Minister’s assertion that “crime is not a sociological phenomenon.”
  • Premise 3 can be seen to be true, as an inquiry into the trend of murdered and missing aboriginal women would “study social behaviour, its origins, development, organization, and institutions,” which Wikipedia defines as sociology.

As we can see, the flaw in the Prime Minister’s argument is contained in Premise number two, and damages the conclusion reached. While the argument’s form may be valid, an error in its content damages both the truth of its premises and the soundness of the conclusion.

The origins of the Prime Minister’s logic are difficult to trace, though they might be seen in the political ideology of Neoliberalism. Writing in the Toronto Star, Jakeet Singh noted that the Prime Minister’s remarks were

“clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems.”

The effects of this logic being brought to bear on crime and punishment in Canada can be similarly difficult to witness (somewhat ironically even, as the evidence to be found would reside within the sorts of sociological inquiries the Prime Minister is denying). However, Singh’s article describes the casualties of Mr. Harper’s ideology as our societal ability to perceive and confront injustice. “You see,” he writes, “Sociologists often differentiate between “personal injustices” and “systemic” or “structural injustices.” Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often willful, and have a relatively isolated victim.”

Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these “social inequalities.”

By refusing to view crime as a sociological phenomenon, those accepting the Prime Minister’s argument do so within a broader context which should trouble those who believe in our collective responsibility for one another’s well-being. “When we paint all social problems as individual problems with individual solutions,” Singh writes, “we also lose any sense of the social responsibility, rather than personal responsibility, that we need to address them.”

 

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Ethics Unit Feedback & Reflection

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Discussion: Multiculturalism, Social Darwinism and the Project of Democracy

Today’s final Ethics Discussion, introduced by Julie, Aman and Emily here:

 
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