Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Ethics Discussion Threads on the Go

Metaphysicians

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?
 

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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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Contemporary Moral Problems: Right Acts, Rawls & Inequality 11.26.13

The second installment of our discussion of Contemporary Moral Problems, beginning with “What makes right acts right?” and continuing into Rawls’ “Theory of Justice.” Enjoy!

 

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Contemporary Moral Problems Discussion 11.25.13

The beginning of our learning about Ethics with discussion of John Stewart Mill‘s UtilitarianismKant‘s Categorical Imperativeand points in between. It is the first of two discussions on readings which also includes John Rawls‘ Theory of Justice

 

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Rorty’s Duct Tape, Part 1

“Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.”

-Richard Rorty

For this reason, I must highlight Rorty. For Rorty’s brand of duct tape seems to *stick* out from the bunch.

With no reasonable doubt, Rorty was raised into the impressive nature philosophy he seemed to instinctively present. Rorty’s mother was raised into socialist politics, and was popular during her age for writing periodicals, books, and more. For more intellectual concretion, his father was a socialist. The majority of his father’s life was spent criticizing specialization, academic distinctions and isolation in politics; he was a generalist. To sum it up, he was brought up in high literacy, political passion, and analysis. This apple, Rorty, never left the tree.

The topics which Rorty covers range in many, many directions, including epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, liberalism, philosophy of the mind and much more. Furthermore, he wrote a myriad of books, illustrating the ideas he pursed in his lifetime. This is explicable in four main categories:

  1. Philosophy regarding society
  2. Philosophy regarding philosophers
  3. Philosophy regarding philosophy
  4. Philosophy regarding self-knowledge

Of course, his pursuit of knowledge was far broader and branched much further than the few outlined above. These are just a few building blocks in the pyramid which is Rorty’s Philosophy.

The first and most important step, he believed, was what philosophers concern themselves with in this advanced age. Rorty believed that modern epistemology is constantly trying to “mirror” independent, external reality. He states that in order to accomplish this, a large portion of the existing philosopher-population uses foundationalism as a tool. Simply stated, he disagreed. He believed that foundationalism is a faulty progresser in the world of philosophy and that it impedes the progress of the disciplines. Instead, Rorty took on a “Kuhnian” approach to the goal of philosophical inquiry; that being to act as a “philosophical gadfly”, trying to trigger a new approach and a revolutionary breakthrough in philosophy. In addition to this, the goal of philosophy should no longer be questioning whether beliefs properly represent reality. In opposition, he stated that the pursuit of knowledge should be concerned with using these beliefs to progress. At last, a practical philosopher! In order to accomplish this, he believed that philosophers should use whatever method of discovery the day best employs. In other words, don’t continually fall back on science, simply because others have criticized your attempt at change.

As for how philosophers attempt this, Rorty was led to create “ironism“. This is outlined in his book Contingency, Irony, and SolidarityIronism, in the words of Rorty, is

  1. She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered;
  2. She realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts;
  3. Insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.

In short, he said that philosophers should be in pursuit of newer vocabulary, and should not criticize others.

In terms of the mission for philosophers, Rorty believed that philosophers should be divided among themselves to philosophize for either the public or the private. He felt that each philosopher should devote their time to either societal issues, or issues concerning personal growth and self knowledge.

In a societal sense, Rorty was one of the first to simplistically state that personal ideals and standards of truth are not important. He mirrored Rawl in the sense that there should be a balance/coherence among beliefs, arrived at by mutual adjustment in general principles and particular judgements. He stated that humans have a very general sense of moral judgement and motivation, and this general sense could allow for a synchronized and civil society, if people could focus on the bigger picture, rather than pointless details in their personal philosophy. By Rawls, this is summed up as a “reflective equilibrium“.

On a personal level (private), Richard Rorty covered self-knowledge in a very bleak, simplistic manner. He stated that there is no answer to “Who am I?”, nor should there be. In unison with other philosophers examining the self (like Sartre), he believed the self is ever changing. As for describing the self, Rorty had a very unique approach:

“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that. ”

His major belief was that we cannot definitively describe ourselves, but we can relentlessly try. He believed that because the self is ever-so-dynamic, we have the opportunity of using newer, more justified language to describe ourselves over time. These new words would be no more objective, but hold greater value in terms of the way they are used.

Rorty considered this process of self-definition “self creation”. He initiated the theory that the process of coming to know one’s self, one’s contingency causes the creation of one’s self.

Rorty’s involvement in philosophy impressed upon me a great interest in the role of philosophers and philosophy in society. Rorty concerned himself with not only solving problems, but how we should be solving these philosophical problems. His practicality, range of topics, as well as personal endeavours in philosophy all impressed me greatly.

 
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