Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world. Continue reading

Darwinian Humanism

In honor of Darwin Day 2015, I would like to revisit an odd paper I had published in Environmental Values in 2007, titled “Darwinian Humanism: A Proposal for Environmental Ethics“. I would here like to offer a few – I hope tantalizing – excerpts from my final typescript.

In hindsight, it was an odd and audacious paper, but one the right of which helped me to sort out my thinking about some basic distinctions in ethical theory.

According to the abstract:

There are two distinct strands within modern philosophical ethics that are relevant to environmental philosophy: an empiricist strand that seeks a naturalist account of human conduct and a humanist strand rooted in a conception of transcendent human freedom. Each strand has its appeal, but each also raises both strategic and theoretical problems for environmental philosophers. Based on a reading of Kantʼs critical solution to the antinomy of freedom and nature, I recommend that environmental philosophers consider the possibility of a Darwinian humanism, through which moral agents are understood as both free and causally intertwined with the natural world.

Along the way, I devote some attention to Darwin’s treatment of “the moral sense,” especially in The Descent of Man. Here’s an extended excerpt: Continue reading

Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.

Reading Old Books with Engineers

In yesterday’s post I described an approach I developed for encouraging and helping students to read old books and, more to the point, to derive understanding from them.

In a political theory course, last semester, I tried something different. In the first half of the course, I set students to work together on understanding three texts in democratic theory: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

I provided relatively little guidance, other than ideas on how to use books to develop understanding. After they had worked through each of the books, I set them an in-class, individual exercise I dubbed a distillation, in which they could use only the book and a pen or pencil in filling out a worksheet on which they were to set down an interpretation of the core ideas of the book.

I was impressed and encouraged by the way students took up the task. They would spend whole class sessions flipping back and forth, reading passages and debating their interpretation.

In the syllabus for that course, I described the distillation exercise as follows: Continue reading

Reading Aristotle with Engineers

Since I switched to problem-based learning in my ethics classes, I’ve been experimenting with different ways of introducing my students to ethical theory as such and helping them to develop a working knowledge of a small handful of particular theories.

Part of my struggle in the past has been with trying to have them start using three different theories at once, at least so far as to be able to make distinctions among the good, the right, and virtue. For this, I used Anthony Weston’s 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (Oxford), especially the chapters on families of moral values and subsequent chapters on theories.

Since the courses were arranged as a kind of spiral, and because ours was to be a practical engagement with theory, all they needed at first was a broad approximation, with further refinements coming along later as we dug more deeply into more complex problem situations. Continue reading


Recent posts have turned my attention back to the role in ethical experience of recognition between people, and from this has emerged a new theme I’d like to explore: How we greet one another.

The possible importance of greeting came out in the story of the toddler in the farmers market:

“I’m here! I’m here!”

But I thought, yes, child, you are here!

Here you are! Welcome!

It also figured in my thoughts on encountering human drivers as distinct from self-driving cars: Continue reading

Saving St. Aldo

There is a long-running debate in the field of environmental ethics between Bryan Norton and J. Baird Callicott over the meaning and the legacy of the works of Aldo Leopold.

I have been a near observer of one side of this debate, as Bryan’s office was, until his retirement last year, just around the corner from mine.

To throw around a lot of technical jargon, while Callicott reads Leopold as a moral monist espousing a form of ecocentrism, Norton reads Leopold as instead seeking to foster a pluralistic pragmatism that is compatible with or encompasses the more generous varieties of anthropocentrism.

In more ordinary terms, Callicott thinks environmental ethics needs to produce a single, compelling moral theory (that’s “monism”) that includes acknowledgement that non-human living things, and especially, ecological systems have value in themselves (that’s “ecocentrism”). Continue reading