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PHIL1013 Introduction To Ethics

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1.a. What do you make of the neurological research below?

Joshua Greene, a neuroscientist, has used fMRI machines to examine what parts of the brain are activated when faced with particular moral choices. He claims that the “rational” part of the brain is activated when making cost/benefit choices, such as choosing a course of action that involves one person getting killed in order to prevent the death of several others. This is consequentialist reasoning: do whatever maximizes the good (or, in this case, minimizes the bad). Greene claims that deontological responses on the part of his test subjects were associated with emotional regions of the brain. When they quickly refused to kill one person directly in order to save the lives of several others, they seemed to be responding on the basis of an emotion. If Greene is correct, then perhaps deontology is not grounded in reason but is instead a non-rational emotional reaction (with some reasoning brought in ex post facto).

Is it plausible that utilitarianism reflects rational thinking while deontology really just reflects emotional reactions? If so, does that mean that one of these theories is more justified than the other?

b.  A man is convicted of murder and is sentenced to life in prison. While serving his sentence, he has a change of heart and shows himself to be an excellent physician’s assistant, successfully treating many prisoners in the infirmary and even saving lives. Prison officials know that the man is sincere, now completely harmless, and would probably save many lives if allowed to continue his work outside of prison. Suppose there are only two options:  the man can serve out his life sentence, or he can be released from prison to work in a clinic serving poor people. Which is the right choice?

c. What do you think of the permissibility of using truth deceptively. Is it generally wrong? Is it ever right?

2.a. Is the egoist ethical ideal plausible and commendable, or would it make one’s life miserable if one followed it?

b. Hobbes has a pretty bleak view of what life would be like if we had no government, police, or laws.

Hobbes famously described the state of nature as a state of constant war, but a war in which everybody is against everybody else and in which everybody is vulnerable. In such a situation, no one lasts long, which is probably a good thing since life in the state of nature is pretty miserable to begin with. Since everyone eventually loses in the state of nature, it is in everyone’s interest to agree to limit their freedom and establish a Sovereign who will hold people accountable for their agreement to the social contract.

Is his view plausible? Or would people find ways to cooperate or live relatively peacefully even without a government? Explain your answer.

c. What do you think of Anscombe’s criticism of Britain’s entry into World War II?

As she explains, there are seven conditions that must each be satisfied in order for a country to enter a war justly. Britain has failed three of them: just aims, just means, and likelihood of an outcome that is sufficiently better than the alternatives. The gist of her point is this: it is evil and therefore wrong to intentionally kill large numbers of people just because some legitimate targets are included among them. She is no pacifist—she thinks that Britain could have entered the war justifiably. But doing so involves, among other things, a commitment to avoid civilian casualties. Just war theory, then, forbids the wholesale destruction of cities, the intentional slaughter of civilians, and bombing residential areas.

Are her standards too stringent, or are they plausible requirements for a war to be just? If they are plausible, is she correct that Britain has not met all of them?

3.a. Is virtue ethics a more promising moral theory than the others we’ve looked at? Why, or why not?

b. Is Vaughn’s three-principled moral theory (respect, justice, beneficence) a useful way to think about ethics? Or is it too vague and imprecise to be rationally convincing? Why?

c. Does Horowitz actually give us a “moral operating system?” If so, what is it? If not, what do you think he would say it should look like?

Horowitz argued that technology makers should be thinking as much about their “moral operating system” as their mobile operating system. He emphasizes “we have more thinking to do”. Ethics requires thinking. He indicates a way to improve our thinking: talk to people who come from different backgrounds. There is actually much research that shows that groups make better decisions when they have input from different kinds of people (and different levels of ability). By having meaningful conversations about ethics with people who look at the world differently, we get a different view of our own beliefs, and that gives us a chance to improve them or realize that we may have been neglecting something important. Horowitz, who was trained as a philosopher and now works for Google, thinks that this is part of the value of an education in the humanities. It gives students many different perspectives and frameworks to use in thinking about problems in whatever field they may end up in.

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