Human cultures as self-creating systems

Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities -- their "human nature". Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action -- and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology …

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians -- Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick -- held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness -- whether in the …

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether …

Evil in the Peloponnesian War?

Recent posts have focused attention on the topic of the evils that occurred in the twentieth century: genocide, deliberate mass starvation, mass enslavement, and totalitarian dictatorships. I have been inclined to argue that these evils are sui generis -- that the bad events and actions of the past were indeed bad, but they were qualitatively and morally …

Issues of ethics in philosophy of history

Most writings in the philosophy of history have focused on issues of epistemology, method, and explanation. But our history as human beings is thoroughly invested with moral significance, and the philosophy of history needs to reflect on the moral issues raised by historical experience. Historians themselves have moral responsibilities; but perhaps more compellingly, all of …

Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as "the ethics of technology"? There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like …

Ethical disasters

Many examples of technical disasters have been provided in Understanding Society, along with efforts to understand the systemic dysfunctions that contributed to their occurrence. Frequently those dysfunctions fall within the business organizations that manage large, complex technology systems, and often enough those dysfunctions derive from the imperatives of profit-maximization and cost avoidance. Andrew Hopkins' account …

What is the role of character in action?

  I've been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor …

Ethics as culture

Gabriel Abend has recently published The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics, a remarkable book on what seems initially to be a small subject -- a history of the academic field of business ethics. I say "seems", because in Abend's hands this topic turns out to be a superb subject for …

Amartya Sen’s commitments

A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen's arguments about "commitments" in "Rational Fools" (link).  Sen's essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe …

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