Philosophy in the News (October 2017 Edition)

Philosophy in the news!

Welcome again to another Philosophy in the News! This is the blog segment where we cover real news articles that either relate to philosophy or have a philosophical angle. Since this blog had a dearth of news coverage last month, this edition will feature more stories than usual. Given that we’ve moved to a biweekly schedule, feel free to take your time with these articles and really ponder their implications. Some of the topics brought up here will definitely be featured in future blog posts.

Is a Life Without Struggle Worth Living? Adam Etinson writes in The New York Times’ The Stone about a formative period in the life of 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill. At the age of 20 Mill, who would go on to become one of philosophy’s most influential thinkers, had a nervous breakdown. Etinson reflects on a few of the reasons Mill would later give for his breakdown, some of which seemed to emerge from a fear of achieving his goal of improving the world. Why did Mill have this fear? Etinson uses Mill’s reasoning to unpack some of the subtle tensions between our expectations and the attainment of some higher goal or ideal. He concludes that like Mill eventually did, maybe we can find satisfaction and meaning outside of just our struggles and triumphs.

All zoos should be closed – other species have rights On the heels of a damning report about animal mistreatment at South Lakes Safari Zoo, Philip Hoare makes the case that zoos, in general, pose a danger to animals. In his article, Hoare questions if zoos can be anything but exploitative to animals given that humans’ relationship with animals, at least within city environments, necessarily centers around domestication and containment. While he accounts for the benefits zoos provide — education for humans, and ironically, some degree of conservation for animals — his article reveals the contradictions that conservation under our terms creates. Captivity, forced performance, and the potential for mistreatment might not be better than simply letting animals fend for themselves. He finally suggests that with new and emerging technologies promising to provide humanity with the power to radically change itself, maybe we can learn to change the way we see animals.

Is It O.K. to Give Cigarettes to a Homeless Person? In The New York Times’ The Ethicist Kwame Appiah answers some interesting questions. As the title of the article implies, the first question is whether or not it’s wrong to give cigarettes to a homeless person. Appiah’s response is somewhat disappointing in my view, but the post is worth reading simply for the other questions answered in the article. Regarding the article’s primary question, I’ve pondered something similar given that I live in a town with a large homeless population. My grandmother always advised my family to give people food rather than money, because money could easily be used for drugs or other non-essential goods. But even my grandmother’s intuition can be questioned. Assuming one does feel obligated to give to a homeless person, what exactly is the nature of that obligation?

brains In this article, 3:AM Magazine interviews distinguished Dartmouth Professor of Philosophy Adina Roskies. The interview can’t fully be summarized here, not well enough to do it justice at least. Roskies area of focus is cognitive science, so the interview touches on a myriad of issues like “brain movies” (something created at my alma mater), free will and agency (…of course), belief and motivation, neuroscience and how it should be used in the legal system (something I personally studied very briefly at my alma mater), as well as thoughts and sensations and their “location” in the brain. The interview also delves into other topics like experimental philosophy, philosophy and gender, and a few personal questions.

The death of languages As minority languages face extinction are there reasons to want to preserve them? Rebecca Roache succinctly articulates the dimensions of this issue in a post in Aeon Magazine. Roache does an amazing job of highlighting weaknesses in the critiques of preservation which attack the notion as both “sentimental” and a barrier to progress. She also reflects on the importance of both sentimental and scientific reasons for wanting to study and preserve as many languages as possible. Finally, she briefly reflects on the opportunity costs associated with preserving languages, as well as those associated with learning languages in general. By addressing preservation skeptics, the article encourages the reader to expand their notions of the usefulness of certain types of conservation efforts.

Is Talking About De-Extinction a Moral Hazard? This article takes us away from the extinction of languages and moves us into darker territory. Writing in Nautilus Magazine, Britt Wray talks about emerging sciences like species restoration and its potential long-term ethical implications. While some of the scenarios she presents might sound like science fiction, we are definitely not very far from reviving creatures as distant as the Woolly Mammoth, and schemes to revive species that we’ve either endangered or will potentially endanger — including ourselves — are serious talk in some circles. But do these intentions, however noble, pose a moral hazard? By trivializing the severity and destruction of extinction and by promising its reversal, are we essentially giving ourselves the license to trash the planet and/or disregard the role we play in safeguarding our own future as a species?

An Oxford philosopher’s moral crisis can help us learn to question our instincts In a conversation with philosopher Jeff McMahan, Olivia Goldhill reflects on the nature of moral philosophy and ethical intuitions. The article is as much about McMahan’s seemingly eccentric behaviors (some of which conjure images of the stereotypical philosopher) as it is about understanding how and why we form moral beliefs. The breadth of the article can’t be covered here, but needless to say the long-read touches on some extremely interesting topics, some of which we will eventually be covering on this blog.

Honorable mentions (I won’t go into too much detail about these, just read them):

What Would Happen If There Were No Number 6? While this article is about the metaphysical implications about an entire reality without the number 6, if you’re curious about what’s it like to have no conception of the number 6 (and you love minority languages 😉) check out the documentary The Grammar of Happiness or the book Don’t sleep, There are Snakes. They’re about linguist Daniel Everett’s experiences with a small tribe who, among many things, have only two “numbers” in their language.

How natural is numeracy? Speaking of numbers, are they real or are they a construct that just emerges from the way our minds work? This is an age-old and bitter debate we’ll likely get into on this blog someday.

Not nothing A philosopher explores the boundaries of life and death through the question of whether or not it’s okay to murder one of the lowliest creatures on earth — the fly.

Mass. General Dilemma: Separate Conjoined Twins To Save One, Or Let Both Die? This real and tragic story is pretty self-explanatory, but it sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel or a philosophical thought experiment.

Watch The Moment A Dying Chimpanzee Recognizes An Old Friend Given that animal ethics was mentioned in quite a few of the articles here, I thought this was appropriate to share. I won’t spoil anything but it’s beautiful. 😢

Public Engagement Is a Two-Way Street Adam Kotsko argues that academia is more accessible than ever with technology and public-facing initiatives. Is he right?

Frankenstein in the Age of CRISPR-Cas9 This article talks about remaining realistic about the purpose and limitations of scientific knowledge.