New Interesting Podcasts

SCI PHI is a weekly philosophy of science podcast hosted and produced by Nick Zautra, a Joint Ph.D. student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University Bloomington. Check out the latest episode with York alumni Serife Tekin.

Open Questions: An Ethics Podcast is a project hosted by Jeremy Davis & Eric Mathison who are associated with the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Listen to the inaugural episode featuring Gwen Bradford talking about achievement.



How to Solve the Moral Problem of Climate Change

by Michael Montess, York University, September 2017

Climate Change is an incredibly difficult problem that we are simply not doing enough to solve. The problem, however, has both a practical and a moral dimension. The present climate change narrative focuses on the practical dimension of the problem, but unless we consider the moral dimension, we will not be able to seriously commit to practical solutions. We desperately need to respond to climate change with efficient and cost-effective solutions, but we are not as committed to these solutions as we should be given the consequences of inaction. Climate change activist Al Gore recently released An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to the groundbreaking climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In the film, Gore argues that there has not been enough progress on solving the problem of climate change because of a lack of popular, political and corporate will. This is precisely why we need to consider the moral problem of climate change, because engaging with the complicated moral dimension of the problem is how we will be able to really inspire serious action on the practical issues.

The moral problem of climate change is complicated for several different reasons. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner outlines some of these in his book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. First, it is a global problem; the responsibility for climate change and its negative effects are spread out across every country and every person on the planet Earth. Given the scope, it is not always clear who is responsible for acting on climate change. Even international institutions, like the United Nations, are not well-equipped to respond to the crisis effectively because they are unable to really enforce international pacts like the Paris Agreement.

Second, climate change is also an intergenerational problem. Not only does climate change affect every being living on the planet today, but it also affects every subsequent generation. We are only beginning to experience the negative effects of climate change today, but our actions will have devastating effects on future generations who can’t yet speak for themselves. The scope of the problem is immense because it extends so far across space and time. According to Gardiner, the convergence of these problems leads to a third problem: moral corruption. We are failing to do enough to stop climate change because we are giving in to moral corruption, which includes things like distraction, complacency, selective attention, delusion and hypocrisy. We are allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the global and intergenerational problems; we are allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the scope of climate change. By engaging with the moral dimension of climate change we are forced to ask, how can we possibly motivate ourselves to solve a problem of such magnitude?

“The problems that affect [minorities] seem to affect many of us directly and this really helps motivate those of us who have these connections to take these social problems seriously. The climate movement, however, lacks a human face.”

Solving the moral problem of climate change involves realizing that it is not just humans who are being affected by climate change. We usually engage with climate change on anthropocentric terms, that is with a bias towards humans, but it is non-human animals, plants and ecosystems who are actually the frontline causalities of climate change. Acknowledging this, however, only increases the incomprehensible scope of the problem because even more of the planet is in danger. So, instead of focusing on getting people to realize the additional problem of anthropocentrism in the climate change narrative, we can use anthropocentrism as a tool to get people to take climate change more seriously. Even if the powerful images of polar bears trapped on disappearing ice flows and melting polar ice caps are some of the most prominent symbols of the negative effects of climate change, many of us don’t really care about these non-human causalities because we lack the imagination to empathize with them. Therefore, we ought to begin by limiting the scope of the problem, so we can see the problem locally before we try to understand it more globally. Since many of us can relate to other humans, especially our friends and family, more closely than polar bears or polar ice caps, if we revise the climate change narrative in both activist and popular contexts to focus on the humans affected by climate change, then maybe we can better motivate ourselves to actually solve the problem.

Already, social movements like LGBTQ Pride, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have demonstrated what is possible in terms of motivation when humans are the focus of social problems. Although these movements have their own challenges, we can learn two important things from these movements that will help us solve the moral problem of climate change. First, these social movements are effective because they focus on moral issues that involve humans; these social movements have human faces. Many people know LGBTQ, black and indigenous people; they are family members, friends, colleagues or coworkers. The problems that affect these minorities, therefore, seem to affect many of us directly and this really helps motivate those of us who have these connections to take these social problems seriously. The climate movement, however, lacks a human face. Although there are countless humans already suffering and dying because of climate change, especially in countries particularly vulnerable to climate change like those in Africa, South East Asia and the South Pacific, the climate change narrative is not yet shining the spotlight on them. In fact, climate change will largely affect poor and marginalized communities more viciously than others, as the recent flooding in New Orleans and Houston is showing us. It seems like the closer to home the negative effects of climate change, the more seriously we take the problem. Therefore, we need to learn how to empathize with humans around the world, using new technologies like social media to enhance our interconnectedness, and we need to actively revise the climate change narrative in order to help us learn this quickly.

Second, these social movements all involve responses to their respective social problems that seem more manageable for both individuals and institutions. An effective way to solve the problems facing LGBTQ, black and indigenous people is through grassroots political movements that eventually lead to action by national and international political institutions. These complicated social problems ultimately require human rights legislation, criminal justice reform and other institutional actions to make a real difference in the lives of these minorities. However, direct individual actions are also important, especially for keeping people engaged in these social movements. Consistent personal engagement will help solve these social problems by preventing moral corruption on a larger scale. The responses to these social problems seem much less demanding than the responses to climate change because they do not often require expensive, inconvenient or time-consuming lifestyle changes. Instead, they often simply require us to treat each other with respect and support each other by attending marches and rallies, signing petitions and donating reasonable amounts of time and money to protect human rights. In short, these problems and their responses are on a human scale. We need to think about climate change on a human scale too. We need to similarly deploy both individual and institutional strategies in the fight against climate change. Individual strategies include conserving energy, taking public transit and voting for political parties that want to take serious and effective institutional action on climate change. These individual actions will hopefully scale up to institutional actions, like the reduction of green house gas emissions by large companies and governments. The aforementioned social movements demonstrate that individual action, in addition to institutional action, is crucial in order to make progress on any social, political or moral problem because engagement on a personal level is what ensures that we learn to empathize with others and motivate ourselves to find solutions to even the most complex problems.

If we can give climate change a human face and think about it on a human scale by revising the climate change narrative, then we can begin to solve the moral problem of climate change that results from its immense scope. It is overwhelming to think about everyone and everything that is in imminent danger because of climate change. Fear is not always the best motivator though. Instead of throwing our hands up and declaring that it is too late or too difficult to solve the problem, let us use our problematic human tendency for anthropocentrism to help us rethink the moral problem of climate change and ultimately act more responsibly on the practical issues by starting the process of cultivating a greater capacity for empathy. Eventually, we need to learn to extend this empathy to all living things, from bees to lichens to rainforests, because we are all in this fight together. Let us begin, however, by temporarily shifting the focus of the climate change narrative to humans in order to initiate more serious and immediate action on a problem that we can only solve if we care about each other and work together.

How Free? Speech, Liberty and Social Stability

by Dylan Ludwig, York University, Aug. 2017
Print by Emory Davis

‘Free Speech’ is typically thought of as a principle either accepted or rejected wholesale. The ongoing debate that it inspires seems focused, for the most part, on strictly political or legal implications. But the issue is certainly more complex than this, and in the interest of moving forward, it is useful to engage in some cool-headed reflection on the role speech plays in our society more generally.

Language is typically assumed to be one of the crucial evolutionary adaptations that enabled our ancestors to thrive. Its role, in processes like teaching and learning, seems to have allowed early humans to strengthen social bonds in ways that could form a foundation for more complex, robust, and stable social, political, and moral phenomena. For example, the ability to communicate through speech and written text enabled more sophisticated relationships of apprenticeship revolving around tool construction; these relationships were in turn crucial in enabling the collective pooling and efficient transmission of information responsible for early hominids’ exponential technological advancements. While language can and does stabilize social bonds, it can also be used to precipitate instability. Consider how a relatively minor terminological dispute caused the first major schism within the unified Christian population, resulting in centuries of violent conflict. Language, and particularly our practices of speech, are powerful tools with the capacity to either unify or divide human populations.

Today, there is a surge of support behind a notion of “free speech” that is at least tacitly assumed to be in some sense absolute: because we can use language to express the contents of our thoughts seemingly without limit, it is argued that we ought to be able to exercise this ability, construed as a fundamental aspect of individual liberty, without restriction. One underlying worry is that if governments and other institutions are allowed to enforce rules around the use of language, then they could potentially enforce a particular agenda and censor ideas in order to shape opinion or instill ideology in a given population. Indeed, this has been a worry historically, especially for those whose governments are genuinely oppressive, in that they use power and privilege to further marginalize demographic groups who have historically lacked such power and privilege. The US National Guard opening fire on unarmed students at Kent State who were expressing criticism of an unjust and oppressive war is an extreme example of this form of abuse of power. And so, many have framed the issue of ‘free speech’ as a choice between, on the one hand, the fight for an important aspect of individual liberty, and on the other, the call to cultivate empathy for, and eventually account for, the varied perspectives of others in the community. Those sympathetic to the latter take it as obvious that certain socio-linguistic practices, such as respecting others’ preferred gender and identity pronouns or restricting and punishing offensive and defamatory speech, ultimately protect certain unalienable rights.

” Failing to take into account the speech acts that serve to reinforce ongoing systemic oppression, and that justify ongoing violence against marginalized groups…is counterproductive to the very foundational principles of social organization.”

The idea that people are “too sensitive” or “easily offended” is another underlying assumption made by those who advocate an extreme notion of free speech. But these advocates are being dishonest if they fail to admit that everybody can be offended by something. Everyone values certain things about themselves and lacks confidence in others, and there are always certain speech acts that can be used to attack and degrade those valued things. Speech acts, first discussed by the philosophers Paul Grice and J. L. Austin, are linguistic performances that in certain contexts have consequences in action. An example of a speech act that certainly has unsavory consequences is screaming obscenities at the funeral of a loved one. In this context, there is an almost infinite list of things one can image saying in an outburst of “free speech” that could inflict deep emotional wounds on those present. These kinds of speech act initiate conflict that threatens the basic harmony of a particular community; a harmony that ought to be a basic guiding principle of our social practices. In this way, the context within which language is used is ever-important. Consequently, some disagreements about free speech arise when we fail to realize how context-dependent our practices of speech are.

We have rules in place, albeit typically implicit rules that are loosely determined via ongoing social interactions, that discourage people from making such an outburst at a funeral or in other social contexts. These are social mechanisms that discourage engagement in speech acts that directly or indirectly cause violence. They emerge in the service of upholding some measure of civility in our social practices, and ultimately in maintaining stability in the community. If someone insisted on their right to make an outburst in contexts like the funeral of a dear friend, chances are that we would step in to try to remove the disruption, and if our “free speaker” were putting up too much of a struggle, we would resort to the necessary means in order to ensure their removal.

The difference between funeral practices and more problematic social contexts, like those underlying systemic oppression as in racialized or gendered contexts, is that the things that cause offense to members of the oppressive group are not built into the fabric of our institutions, into the very mechanisms of thought and social practice, in the same way that they are for oppressed groups. We who have privilege aren’t forced to regularly confront the things that disrespect what we value or make us uncomfortable about ourselves, and we owe it to ourselves to imagine what that sort of experience of being in the world might be like for those without the same privileges.

So, it seems that the worry about governments contributing to oppression through the regulation of speech acts is confused and misguided, so long as this regulation happens in the name of alleviating oppression and maintaining the wider social stability. Failing to take into account the speech acts that serve to reinforce ongoing systemic oppression, and that justify ongoing violence against marginalized groups, as for example when artists insist on using racial slurs or sexist imagery, is counterproductive to the very foundational principles of social organization. In contrast, Jordan Peterson’s refusal to acknowledge preferred gender pronouns on the grounds that it impinges on one’s ability to speak freely, is counterproductive to the very process of taking responsibility for our social (and hence linguistic) contexts. The fear that there is a wider academic and political conspiracy aimed at state sanctioned censorship and ideological warfare is unfounded, and the general backlash against cultivating safer spaces (i.e. social contexts where language and actions that contribute to oppression are discouraged) is, in the same way, counterproductive to fundamental principles of human organization.

We all share the same worry about government intrusion and misuse of power, but there are only laws limiting absolute free speech when this is the last resort (or the best we’ve got) for attempting to root out systemic oppression, and for doing what is best for the stability of the larger community. This is why there are legal protections against hate speech, for instance. If we don’t want governments involved, then we should take it upon ourselves, from within our own positions of power and privilege, to uphold standards of respect and dignity in the social practice of speech.

APA Public Philosophy Op-Ed Winners

The APA Committee on Public Philosophy has picked its winners for the best Op-Ed pieces in 2017. They’re all really cool, check them out:

Katalin Balog (Rutgers University–Newark)
‘Son of Saul,’ Kierkegaard and the Holocaust
The Stone (The New York Times)

Andrew Fiala (California State University, Fresno)
Without Faith in Humanity, Cynicism Grows and Democracy Becomes Mob-Rule
The Fresno Bee Newspaper

David V. Johnson (Stanford University)
A Democracy Deficit Plagues the U.S. and the European Union

Ian Olasov (Graduate Center, CUNY)
How Did ‘All Lives Matter’ Come to Oppose ‘Black Lives Matter’? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In

Michael Robillard (University of Oxford) and Bradley Strawser (U.S. Naval Postgraduate School)
Are Soldiers Morally Exploited?
Ethical War Blog (Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace)

The next nomination deadline for the award is April 15, 2018. The cash award is 100USD, plus bragging rights.


Mark Sanders Public Philosophy Award

The Mark Sanders Foundation is accepting unpublished essays (between 3,000 and 8,000 words)aimed at a general audience. The winner will recieve 4500USD, as well as publication in Philosopher’s Imprint. Runner-up will be published in Aeon. The deadline for submissions is 15 September 2017. All are encouraged to submit. One purpose of this blog is to provide a space for our peers (students and profs) to workshop papers in preparation for submission.