Teaching philosophy

      What is it that we expect students to learn when we teach philosophy? Is philosophy an arcane and charmingly useless vestige of a nineteenth-century university education?  Or does it have something crucial to add to the liberal education of the twenty-first century -- whether in the arts and sciences or in pre-professional …

The moral sentiments

One of Adam Smith's contributions to the study of philosophical ethics is his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is an interesting work, one part descriptive moral psychology, one part theory of the emotions.  Here is the opening paragraph (link): How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his …

Democracy and agency in development ethics

Development ethics is an area of applied ethics that attempts to explore the moral issues involved in global social and economic transformation.  Key to the urgency of the field is the fact of massive global poverty, hunger, and inequality.  The current situation of the world's poor -- in Egypt, India, Mexico, Sudan, or Brazil, for …

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls's A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for "meta-ethics" in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of "moral constitution" for a just society.  The theory …

Disaffected youth

Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth -- school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are …

Rawls’s schematic sociology

John Rawls offers an interesting thought along the way in his development of the theory of justice, on the question of the stability of a well-ordered society.  Basically, the idea is that a set of principles of justice need to satisfy a condition of publicity and social stability: the principles need to be such that, …

Philosophy and society

How does philosophy intersect with the social world? How does philosophical thinking contribute to better understanding of society? (At the right we see Jurgen Habermas teaching philosophy in 1960.)It is possible that philosophy is not a well-defined discipline. But philosophers regard themselves as having something of a method, and something of a subject matter. The …

Agency, action, and norms

How do norms influence behavior? More fundamentally, what is a norm? The question arises for two separate reasons. First, we are interested in knowing why people behave as they do (agency). And second, we are interested in knowing how large social factors (moral and cognitive frameworks, for example) exert influence over individuals (social causation). The …

Reasoning about agents

Rational choice theory usually advances a highly abstract theory of decision-making -- utility-maximizing choice among discrete options -- and then draws deductive conclusions. But actual human reasoners don't look much like this abstract ideal. It is interesting to consider how much one can explain while weakening the heroic assumptions about agent rationality. It turns out …

What is a "moral intuition"?

We have all had this experience: we hear of a complicated social or personal event, and we think inwardly, "that's wrong!" A co-worker tells us an embarrassing private story about another co-worker; we hear on the news that the number of children in poverty has increased; we read about a mining company that has dumped …

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