Friday, January 27, 2012

Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers

Ayn Rand observed that for most people, “integrity” is not putting your hand in your neighbor’s pocket, when, in truth, integrity is having no conflicts between your morals and your ethics, between the ideal and the practical, between what is and what you want.  Rand’s Objectivist ethics derive from a primary consideration of human nature.  Plants and animals do not choose, therefore for them, morality cannot exist.  For us, every choice, by definition, is a moral choice.  Rand identified the fact that in building a bridge, every girder is designed in answer to one question: Right or wrong? 

Every teacher knows – contrary to the claims of political commentators left and right – that there is no way to open a student’s head and pour in the answers.  The door to learning swings from the inside.  Ideally, any book on ethics for engineers would be written from the rational-empirical (objectivist) foundation of the scientific method.  The reality of university learning requires that we admit to the existence (if not the validity) of pragmatism, contractarian ethics, deonotology, existentialism, and other limited and limiting offerings.  Students come to the classroom with these assumptions – and others: many kinds of Christian interpretation are common in the English-speaking world.  Generally, we use these formal structures to defend the opinions we bring to the classroom, and take out into the working world. 

When I was in the 9th grade, our civics class had a debate on capital punishment.  Two of the class were girls from the same Pentecostal church.  They took opposite sides.  Forty-five years later, I took both sides of that debate for a criminal justice class.  While I believe that objectivism offers a better set of tools for analysis, I have to admit that no system can resolve all the conflicts, or even state all the questions, unambiguously.  Ethics is harder than mathematics.

On that basis, 4Es: Ethics, Engineering, Economics & Environment by John St. J. S. Buckeridge (Annandale NSW: The Federation Press, 2011) is a convenient platform for delivering the opportunity to bring students in science, engineering, and technology to the task of asking the right questions about professional ethics.  The book is essentially an outline, 128 pages in all, that opens the door to the lectures, papers read and written, and discussions engaged. 

Because morality is choice, ethics is all about problems.  How do we identify and reconcile competing interests or conflicts of interest?  What consequences will follow? Which of them is important?  To what degree is each relevant? This book begins with ethical problems common to the news.  After a brief discussion of morals, ethics, values, and profession, the first chapter offers case examples of moral and ethical conflicts.  Among them are the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Marsupial Mouse, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the debate over fur and leather garments.  Chapter 2 begins the formal investigation of theories of morality and ethics: Aristotle’s virtue ethics; egoism, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and John Rawls’ contractarian theory; deontology; and existentialism.  Chapters 3 and 4 return to the problems.  Examples such as the new mandates for fluorescent lamps are from the recent news, though others such as the fishing of common waters have been continuing for generations.   Most important are the cases of Andrew Wakefield, Peter Davis, and Vishwar J. Gupta involving research misconduct, conflict of interest, and research fraud, across national borders and within national politics.

While intended for upper division university students, the book could easily serve a high school class.  The writing is clear and direct.  The problems are timely.  The treatment can serve an important purpose in providing a foundation for the same investigations later at university and at work.

From my point of view, it would have been better to provide an authoritative source for the section on egoism, just as Mill, Rawls, Kant, and Heidegger were cited in the other presentations. 

The book came to my attention because the author relied on a vignette I wrote about the Athenian “owl” tetradrachma, “Of Owls, Wooden Walls, and Flower Girls.”  Buckeridge uses the reverse of the coin (the owl side) with his own inscription EOS standing for both the Earth and Oceanic Systems Research Group at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and, of course for the Greek word for “dawn.”

Gregory M. Browne's Necessary Factual Truths
More on Necessary Factual Truths
David Harriman's Logical Leap
David Harriman's Logical Leap Almost Makes It
The Sokal Affair
Reflections on the Sokal Affair
Misconduct in Scientific Research

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Choose Your Virtues

Virtue is contextual. It is easy to claim that honesty is the best policy.  That would contradict the fact that no dress ever made any woman look fat.  

Jane Jacobs compared and contrasted the Commercial and Guardian modes of survival.  The Guardian is the traditional one, common also to animal packs.  The Commercial was invented with cities.  Both, however, ignore the moral context.  Guardians may be good guys or bad.  Commerical enterprises can be benefactors or swindlers.  For Jacobs, the key consideration was that these arrays were syndromes. Literally, they run together to define a complex system. 

Deirdre McCloskey contrasted bourgeois virtues against those of the aristocrat and peasant.  But it can be a challenge to cull wit from jocularity from humor.  McCloskey's goal was not to elevate the middle class merchant above the aristocrat and peasant.  Rather, she sought only an open dialectic space in which trustworthiness, thrift, and integrity are recognized as being hallmarks of the entrepreneur and the sales clerk.  It is who we are today.

From Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival: Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.

From "The Bourgeois Virtues" (1994) by Deirdre McCloskey.

"The point is not to elevate bourgeois virtue over the others in some universal sense. The point is to sidestep universal senses. In some personal and social circumstances, courage is a virtue. ... So is humility.....  But when the class left out by the virtue-talk is half the population, on its way to all the population, the vocabulary of the virtues is not doing its job." -- McCloskey

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Ayn Rand's essay on “Racism” in The Virtue of Selfishness was unequivocal: racism is the crudest form of collectivism. 

Anyone who discriminates among individuals on the basis of anything other than moral character should be shunned.  Ancestry is irrelevant.  Yet libertarians broadly excuse racial discrimination as your right.  It may well be for a libertarian.  To the libertarians, you have a perfect right to use heroin, work as a prostitute, and join a Wiccan collective.  So, for them, racism is just one more silly thing that people do.  They defend it on those grounds.  Objectivists think differently.  For them, rational individualism begins with the law of identity: A is A.  From that absolute, they derive ethics and politics.  

Thus, for an Objectivist, racism is irrational and therefore immoral
Being immoral racism is anti-life, by definition.  Seldom will you find any self-identified Objectivist defending the irrational as your political right except, perhaps, as a marginalized counter-example.  By the same standard, you have a political right to attend religious services; but Objectivists are atheists, so for them, the question is moot.

However, racialist ideology permeates the entire conservative-libertarian-objectivist spectrum.  Among Objectivists many do argue well against it.  Nonetheless, the existence of racialists among them cannot be denied.  On the Objectivist discussion board Rebirth of Reason, racist “Brad Trun” posted his “libertarian realist” ideas.  He was relegated to the Dissent forum because his posts directly contradicted Ayn Rand on Racism.  The ensuing discussions revealed racialist ideas among several of the strong and regular posters. 
It gets so complicated so quickly ...
On the Rebirth of Reason site, Objectivist Steve Wolfer offered peer-reviewed publications from mainstream anthropology in support of his claims that races exist.  Wolfer was firm – even adamant – that race is not a moral status.  Good people and bad come from all such groups, however defined.  Still, he accepted the existence of races.  He is not alone.  The US Government insists that I must choose a race, though they recently allowed me to select “Two or more” which I do, as I deny the existence of race, except as a social construct among the uneducated.

Remaining uneducated may be your right to a libertarian.  Majoring in criminology, I took many sociology classes, including “Race and Ethnic Relations” (SOC 205) at Washtenaw Community College.  It was interesting.  In the first or second class, one young woman said to a fellow student, “I do not see you as a Black man, but as a person.”  Replied the man with the dreadlocks: “If you do not see me as a Black man, I am insulted.”  We all have a right to self-identification … and a right to worship the moon and do our financial bookkeeping in Roman numerals…  An Objectivist sees the situation differently.

Addendum January 29, 2012
This page has received an inordinate visibility and therefore I want to clarify, if possible, that my classmate with the great hair was only uneducated about race.  We were, after all, in the same class and therefore equally educated.  He chose to identify with his African, not European, forebears.  As a numismatist, I confess that I found the Greeks and Cartheginians of Sicily interesting; and I collected a set of coins from the Hungarian Malcontents Revolt.  Call it ancestor worship; it is not rational.  So, I get the hair. And he had at least one good story:  Visiting Nigeria, people stopped him on the street and gave him money because they thought that he was a holy man; whereas in Detroit, the police on patrol, pulled over and demanded to see his identification papers. It was a cogent point from an insightful campus peer -- and all the more reason for us all to abandon the social construct of race.

“Money dissolves skin colour on contact. The fact that Silicon Valley, the freest market in the world, has produced the United Colours of Geek proves it.”—Dan Gardner.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Most Popular Necessary Facts

According to the Stats provided by Google, these were the most popular pages in 2011.
  • Firefly: Fact and Value Aboard "Serenity"- June 5, 2011 -164 Pageviews
  • ...that goddam Ayn Rand book...- October 9, 2011 -103 Pageviews
  • Nerd Nation: Natalie Portman, Danica McKellar, and Felicia Day - July 2, 2011 - 96 Pageviews
  • Unlimited Constitutional Government - January 17, 2011 - 95 Pageviews
  • Karl Marx and the Dustbin of History - April 25, 2011 - 84 Pageviews
  • Junk Criminology as Pseudo-Science - June 16, 2011 - 72 Pageviews
  • The Roots of Poverty - September 17, 2011, - 71 Pageviews
  • Capitalist Culture - May 29, 2011 - 71 Pageviews
  • Austin Science and Engineering Festival - November 7, 2011 - 55 Pageviews
  • MerryNewtonmas! - December 12, 2011 - 54 Pageviews
Readers came from these geographies:
  • UnitedStates 4,060
  • Russia 310
  • Germany 242
  • France 196
  • United Kingdom 191
  • Canada 155
  • Brazil 135
  • Ukraine 115
  • Latvia 94
  • Netherlands 60
 I am surprised by the traffic from Russia. A website there, Domar, seems to be some kind of portal to here.  I never go there.  I never go to Russian or Chinese websites. Ever.  But I am happy to have the readers.  I trust that they are enjoying the experience.  I wonder what it is about Firefly and Serenity for them, because other statistics indicate that that one blog entry is the most popular driver for the Russians.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What (if Anything) Did Dorothy Learn?

One of our favorite morality plays ends with a vacuous non-sequitur.

At the end of the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch says that Dorothy could have gone home any time, but she had to learn that for herself.  Scarecrow asks Dorothy what she learned.  She replies:  
"Well... I think that it ... That it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.  And it's that if  I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any farther than my own back yard because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."
 Clearly, what begins as a cliche ends as a contradiction.

In addition to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, 15 more writers contributed to the script.  Bert Lahr improvised some dialog; and Ogden Nash also wrote.  This scene is not in the original L. Frank Baum story.  There, having recovered the one silver slipper taken by the Wicked Witch, Dorothy flies home instantly, but drops both silver slippers over the desert.  Historians, economists and numismatists have read much into this yarn, calling it an allegory for the political campaigns of William Jennings Bryan and the question of "free silver" versus a gold standard.  

Be all that as it may, in the context of the film, Dorothy could have encapsulated her experiences in many ways.  She learned that anything truly important is worth overcoming obstacles to achieve.  She learned that while some people are wicked, very many more are not.  Certainly, on the eve of a great war that was obviously about to break out, she learned that small, apparently weak, and seemingly helpless people can defeat evil, if they work together.  She learned that the servants of wicked people are happy to throw off their oppressor. She learned that our limitations are often of our own making: Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man each already possessed what they sought.  The first thing she learned was that not all witches are ugly.  

Why did 18 screen writers fail?  It is easy to cite cliches about too many cooks and the committee that designed the horse.  Such folk wisdoms endure because they are so often right.  It is possible that the producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed, feared that any strong statement would ruin the mood of an unintellectual fairy tale.  Speculation may be fruitless.  The fact remains that as a closing statement, Dorothy's summation is best heard once rather than being read closely.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been variously reinterpreted, often by historians, economists and numismatists.   Does Scarecrow represent the Farmer, while Tin Man stands for the industrial worker?  See The Wizard of Oz under Numismatics on WashtenawJustice here.

The Wizard of Oz and the Anti-Intellectual Tradition 
The Philosophical Breakfast Club 
The Scientific Method 
Scorpio and the Precession of the Equinox 
Do You Know Your Military?
"Soldier's Heart" by Elizabeth Samet

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Origin of ... (What?)

Fertile hybrids demonstrate the limitations of strict Darwinian taxonomy.  According to the easy definitions, a species is a genetically distinct group of plants or animals.  In fact, fertile hybrids are common. And they seem fundamental to evolution.

Dozens of Hybrid Sharks Found Off Australia
January 2nd, 2012 - 10:59 AM ET
The world's first hybrid sharks have been discovered in substantial numbers off the coast of Australia, and scientists say it may be an indication the creatures are adapting to climate change.
Australian researchers say they've found 57 animals that are a cross between the Australian blacktip shark and the common blacktip shark, two closely related but genetically distinct species.  (More here.)
Since 1874, at Halle, a series of successful matings of polar bears and brown bears were made. Some of the hybrid offspring were exhibited by the London Zoological Society. The Halle hybrid bears proved to be fertile, both with one of the parent species and with one another. Polar bear/Brown bear hybrids are white at birth but later turn blue-brown or yellow-white.   DNA studies indicate that some brown bears are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears. All the Ursinae species (i.e., all bears except the giant panda and the spectacled bear) appear able to crossbreed. (Wikipedia on Ursid hybrids here.)
Granting that hybrids are possible between species of the same genus, such as donkeys and horses, it is too easy to expect them all to be "mules", i.e., sterile. is a blog by biologist Eugene M. McCarthy, PhD.  His site includes biographies of biologists, helpful glossaries of Greek and Latin for science, and much more.  He also provides an authoritative explanation of the prevalence of fertile animal hybrids.  Read here.

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
Disruptive Diagnostics and the Business of Science
Austin Biobash November 2012
Bob Swanson and Genentech
Mayim Bialik