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Atlas Society Announces 2013 Graduate Seminar in Applied Ethics


The Atlas Society has just announced its 2013 Graduate Seminar on Applying Ethics (aka “Applied Ethics”), July 28-August 2 at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Instructors include The Atlas Society’s own David Kelley, Shawn Klein (Rockford College), Will Thomas (Atlas Society and SUNY Albany), and yours truly. Early application due date is May 20, 2013, and final due date is July 5, 2013. To access application materials, click the first link in this post.

I’ll be doing three sessions at the seminar, and mentoring some student presentations as well. My first session is on the use and abuse of thought-experiments in applied ethics, modeled on classes I do in Phil 445, the methods seminar that I teach at Felician. I’ll ask TAS grad students to read the first twenty pages of Kathleen Wilkes’s critique of (bad) thought-experiments in her Real People: Personal Identity without Thought-Experiments; we’ll use her discussion to think about what makes for good and bad thought experiments, and then analyze a bunch of thought-experiments in the classic and contemporary literature, including various States of Nature, Nozick’s experience machine, Judith Jarvis Thomson‘s abortion thought-experiments from “A Defense of Abortion” (violinist, people seeds, etc.), and eight or ten more, including Rand’s immortal robot and eye lottery examples. (The eye lottery example, often ascribed to Nozick, actually originates with Rand. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick borrows Rand’s eye example without attribution, giving some credence to her complaint that she was plagiarized by libertarians.)

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah

A second session will focus on racism, taking Ayn Rand’s “Racism” (from The Virtue of Selfishness) and Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s “Racisms” as texts (from Theo Goldberg’s The Anatomy of Racism). Topics will include competing definitions of “racism,” kinds of racism, the genus to which racism belongs and the species alongside it, the logical relation of racism to nativism (in the philosophy of mind), and the sorts of evidence required to make ascriptions of racism to people or institutions. We’ll churn through a bunch of examples drawn from contemporary events, and ask questions about Rand’s treatment of racial (and related) topics across the breadth of her writings. One question I’d like to discuss is whether Rand’s occasional claims about “primitive cultures” and cultural superiority–Native Americans, Aleuts, Palestinians, etc.–are racist, or border on it.

A third session will focus on moral luck, as discussed in Rosalind Hursthouse‘s account of the “repentant racist” in her On Virtue Ethics. I think the Objectivist account of free will clearly entails a commitment to what Dana Nelkin calls the Control Principle–“we are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control”–and thus entails the rejection of any form of moral luck. In my view, Hursthouse’s discussion of repentant racism in chapter 5 of On Virtue Ethics relies in a question-begging fashion on moral luck. I’ll use her discussion as an occasion both to critique her view and for a wider exploration of the issues.

I’m greatly looking forward to the TAS Graduate Seminar–my first event ever with TAS, and my first engagement with what I think of as “organizational Objectivism” in sixteen years. Since 1997, I’ve mostly observed the activities of TOC/TAS and ARI from the sidelines, taking note of what each organization does, and weighing the pros and cons of participation in its activities. It took me sixteen years of observation to reach a clear verdict. Though ARI and the Anthem Foundation run some intellectually exciting programs, in my view, moral considerations clearly tip the balance in TAS’s favor. Though I have some reservations about Kelley’s conception of “Open Objectivism,” and with the argument of Truth and Toleration, his conception of Objectivism is, on moral grounds, unquestionably superior to ARI-sponsored alternatives. And, of course, a requirement of 100% agreement with anyone would be self-defeating. I’ll have more to say about the ethics of inquiry when I return to my series on “Objectivist and/vs. academic intellectual culture” sometime this week.



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