Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Ethics Discussion Threads on the Go


Peace, Joel.

To bring together the various threads of discussion and dialogue we’ve been engaged in as we work through our initial introductions to the principles of moral reasoning put forth by John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, I’ve collected links to many of the prompts and posts from the unit below. Follow the links in the headings through to the original posts and share your thoughts on the questions and comments emerging in these various discussions.

The Morality of Murder 

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

Part of the Problem: Talking about Systemic Oppression

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?

Colonialism and Reconciliation in Canada

…who bears the responsibility to reduce the amount of discrimination and oppression experienced by [indigenous] groups? Should it fall to the oppressed to liberate themselves from a pervasive society of oppression? Or are we all responsible?

Iowa rules Legal to Fire Woman for being “Too Attractive”

“The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday stood by its ruling that a dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he found her too attractive and worried he would try to start an affair.

“Coming to the same conclusion as it did in December, the all-male court found that bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, even if the subordinates have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior. The court said such firings do not count as illegal sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.”

Systemic Misogyny or Over-Sensitivity? 

  • What do you feel are the merits of these two arguments?
  • Similarly, where do you feel that either of the arguments is vulnerable or weakly articulated?
  • Have you seen others make either case better?
  • Are there further perspectives that these two essays may be leaving out?

Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement

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

Rawls and What is a Fair Start? 

  • 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?


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?



Jennifer: When Can I Grab My Purse?

We live in a world of abundance. From ipods to Purdy’s chocolate to ornamental shrubs, objects that far exceed the basic requirements for life (and for happiness) are commonplace. Meanwhile, fellow citizens in our own backyard and around the world are suffering from preventable diseases, malnutrition, and exposure.

This solemn reflection should pull on our heart strings and cause us to reevaluate, then significantly alter,  our lifestyles. But somehow, we remain largely unaffected. Most people, myself included, have the ability to quickly avert their eyes and ears, turning away from the plight of other human beings and back towards the tech toys, the chocolate, and the fake plants. This disturbing attitude caused me to wonder: How can we compartmentalize, blocking out the needs of others in order to satisfy our own desires? When is it okay to do this, if it is at all?

In the middle of the flight you are on there is a change in cabin pressure, triggering oxygen masks to drop down from a panel above you. As per the instructions given at the beginning of the trip, you put on your mask before assisting the child beside you. Many people would argue that this action is not selfish because you must take sufficient care of yourself before beginning to help another person. In a larger context, we are fully righteous in assuring that we are feed, housed, and healthy in advance of giving aid. But wait a second? I never even suggested that fulfilling our own needs could be in any way wrong. It is our desires that are in question.

After putting on your own mask, you reach up to help the child who is travelling alone by grabbing their oxygen bag and helping secure it to their face. You’ve done good. The action you just performed was thoughtful, caring, and morally right, just like the volunteer hours and charitable donations shared by millions each year. Despite the dire situations billions of humans are subjected to, many still have been assisted by the kind hearts and giving souls of those who find themselves in more fortunate circumstances. Sensing a need, tons of people are willing to pitch in, do their part, or help the best that they can.

Now, you’ve helped one child, but you see that another a row back can’t reach their mask either. Suddenly,  the pilot’s voice is in the cabin, warning of more stormy weather ahead. The kid will probably be helped by someone else, you think. I’d rather grab my purse and make sure I have everything I need, just in case.

In the words of moral philosopher Peter Singer, “Should [you be praised] for giving so much or [criticized] for not giving still more?” Where do we draw the line? How much does a person have to give to have given enough? Does “fair share” matter?

First, let’s discuss the idea of “doing our part.” Personally, I think that that statement is ridiculous, just a high-and-mightly approach to humanitarianism. Compared to what we have and what we have the ability to do, most of us in the position of helping aren’t doing crap. And since this is the reality of most, someone doing their “fair share” will still see a massive hole not being fixed. Would there really be more children than capable adults on the plane? No. But just because you’ve done your part does not mean that the other child is not still aimlessly reaching for air.

In the airplane analogy, nothing in your purse was probably of enough consequence to justify ignoring the needy youngster; similarly, nail polish or a gold wristwatch are unlikely to be as important as the purchases a Red Cross of World Food Programme could make with the same sum. Yet, we make those trivial purchases all the time. They make us feel good as buyers or make others smile as receivers. They make our lives easier or add beauty to a space, just as the designer of the item intended. But how can we compare any of those outcomes with the life we could have saved?

Adding another layer to an already complex debate, there comes the idea of saving for a purpose. What if the money someone is neglecting to donate is going towards their retirement, or their child’s university, or even an emergency fund? There is no assurance that giving it all away means that we’ll be cared for in the event that we need aid ourselves. However, some people are willing to take that risk. A few years ago, a man named Zell Kravinsky decided to donate his kidney to a random stranger after he learned of the horrible wait list times. But what about the risk? Well, “he says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers “obscene.” ” Shall we consider Kravinsky to be the new Mother Theresa?

I agree with Peter Singer that, as paraphrased by Wikipedia, “people living in abundance while others starve is morally indefensible.” Building on this statement, it only seems logical to conclude that luxuries are wrong and “we should keep on donating money until the cost to ourselves is more than the benefit we would give.” Singer knows that many people feel that such restrictions are too demanding, or are too great of a change to their current lifestyle. I think I fall in the second boat, practically. However, I also feel strongly about aligning my actions with my thoughts. Right now, the “shameless idealist” in me is trying to figure out where to go. Is it ever okay to grab my purse?