Monday, July 31, 2006

Ethics and Diversity in the Public Sphere

One of our most popular podcasts to date has been the discussion about the ethics of diversity with Dr. Lani Roberts. People all around the world have emailed up to let us know how inspiring this conversation was to them. Dr. Roberts was recently interviewed in The Oregonian about a series of public lectures she gives on ethics all around the state of Oregon. These talks, organized by the Oregon Council of Humanities, are usually free to the public and meant to bring scholars out to the people. Dr. Roberts's most recent talk on ethics at the Corvallis Public Library was standing room only. Here is the article:

2,600 years, 4 moral systems
Ethics 101 - An OSU professor goes on the road with information on the commonality of people's morality -- and how it works
Saturday, July 08, 2006
The Oregonian
From Lani Roberts' viewpoint, three things are true about most human beings the world over.

First, we're all trying to be the best people we can imagine ourselves to be. "No one sets out to be a lying cheater," she says.

Second, we're all tempted every day to do immoral things. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have so many moral rules," she says.

And, third, we all -- regardless of our time, place or culture -- make decisions about what is moral or immoral using the same four working theories. "It's been that way since pre-Socratic times, for about 2,600 years," she says.

"That's one of the things that's stunning about how alike we humans are."

That's the gist of Ethics 101, a presentation that Roberts, who has taught moral philosophy at Oregon State University for 17 years, has taken on the road as part of the state's 25-year-old Chautauqua program. Roberts has distilled a term of teaching on moral theory into about an hour of concise reflections, beginning with a chronological list of the theories and the problems that arise when we try to use them.

"The first one is divine command," she says. "Whatever God says, goes." Problems that arise in the use of this method include disagreements about whose god is doing the talking and what it is that the divinity demands, she says.

"Next is virtue ethics," she says. This theory dates from Aristotle's time and holds that virtues may be instilled in children so that they become habits when they are adults. "When you ask a child, 'What do you say?' and he says, 'Thank you,' you're teaching him gratitude," she says.

Traits such as generosity, honesty, kindness and courage -- "all the things we admire," she says -- may become part of a person's character. Then, when faced with a moral choice, he or she will make the right decision, Roberts says.

Problems arise in this method because, first, there isn't a corresponding virtue for every moral situation. Secondly, some virtues conflict with each other.

"If someone asks you, 'Do I look fat in this skirt?' kindness and honesty conflict with each other," she says.

The third moral method is absolutism, or deontology, she says. "You act in a particular way because it is your duty to do so. The act itself is moral or immoral, and there are no exceptions, period."

The commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is a moral absolute, she says, but some morals may be debated. "There are people who believe that torture is never permissible," she says. "Others believe torture is, generally, not permissible, except in certain circumstances."

The "newest" moral method arose in the 19th century, Roberts says. It is utilitarianism, sometimes called consequentialism.

"Whatever act produces the greatest good for the greatest number is the moral act," she says. In World War II, this theory justified the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in Japan to precipitate a faster end to the war and spare more lives, she says. It's also the principle at work when Americans vote, she adds. We allow a majority of voters to decide what principles create the greatest good, and those principles become the law of the land.

That's the theory -- or theories -- anyway. Here are the challenges: Most of these theories have variations. And most people don't operate under one theory all the time, she says. We often start with what we see as the most stringent theory, and if it doesn't seem to "work," we gravitate toward more flexible ones, she says.

In her classes, and in her Chautauqua presentation, she asks students to practice using each of the four theories on hypothetical situations she has culled from Dear Abby columns and then reflect on the process.

The United Church of Christ in The Dalles hosted Roberts' Ethics 101 presentation in March. The Rev. Karl Vercouteren says people are still talking about what they learned about themselves and each other.

"We all find ourselves using various approaches from time to time," he says. It helps, sometimes, to know that we don't have to be "locked into one or the other" methods for making moral decisions.

Roberts says that helping people know themselves is the reason she teaches philosophy and offers Chautauqua presentations.

"Knowing ourselves is the whole point of our existence," she says. "If we are consciously aware of how we make decisions like this, we may be more open to alternative ways of thinking."

From Roberts' standpoint, the very process of making some moral decisions may involve making a conscious choice of which method to use.

"If there are no alternatives," she says, "then you can't be said to be freely doing anything."

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Update on the Women of Juarez

We did the interview with Dr. Alicia Gaspar de Alba on the serial murders of young women in the city of Juarez, Mexico back in March 2006. A recent article on the Associated Press newswire indicated that Mexican federal authorities seem to be washing their hands of the matter. Here is also a photo of Dr. Gaspar de Alba protesting maquiladoras back in 2002:

Federal officials in Mexico have returned the unsolved cases to state authorities.
From the Associated Press
July 26, 2006

MONTERREY, Mexico — Federal officials have quietly closed a three-year inquiry into the rape-strangulation of 14 women and teenagers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, leaving relatives with little hope that the killings will be solved.
The federal attorney general's office intervened in 2003, promising that it would try to solve cases beset for years by allegations of state police corruption and incompetence.
Federal prosecutors privately returned the cases to state authorities in June because they didn't find evidence of a federal crime, the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office said. The federal attorney general's office didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
The victims' families were not told that the investigation had been closed; they read it in the local newspaper.
"It fills me with rage, with a feeling of impotence, because they never investigated anything," said Josefina Gonzalez, whose 20-year-old daughter's remains were found with those of seven other young women in 2001.
In addition to those eight killings, Mexican federal authorities also dropped investigations into the slayings of six teenagers, ages 15 to 18.
They were among about 100 young women who were sexually assaulted and strangled and whose bodies have been found in the desert outside Juarez since 1993. The killings appeared to fit a serial pattern.
Relatives of the victims have long demanded that President Vicente Fox do more to solve the killings in the city of about 1.3 million people across the border from El Paso. Police made many arrests, but the killings continued.
Over the years, police have suspected a serial killer, gangs and even organ traffickers in the deaths. But no strong evidence has emerged to support the theories.
The federal government's involvement in the 14 cases failed to pacify critics, leading Fox to establish a Juarez-based special prosecutor's office in January 2004 to monitor all investigations of the killings and look for possible gaps.
In January, the attorney general's office designated a national prosecutor, headquartered in Mexico City, for crimes against women. The Juarez office became one of three regional offices.
The same day the national office was announced, federal authorities released a final report saying that the slayings in Juarez were not serial killings and that the city was not even the most dangerous in Mexico in terms of the killings of women.
Critics say the Fox administration is apparently washing its hands of the matter.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed in March to investigate allegations that state officials planted evidence and failed to go after the real killers.
"We're back to square one, but I no longer believe the killers will ever be found," said Gonzalez, one of three mothers who filed the accusations. "If there is no justice here, there will be divine justice."

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Welcome to Engage

My name is Dr. Joseph Orosco and I am a professor in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. I teach classes in political philosophy and Latino/a studies. I am the producer of the podcast Engage: Conversations in Philosophy. Engage is a podcast of global culture, transformative concepts, and engaged philosophy--it provides interviews with scholars and activists trying to understand the ideas that inform our ways of life in a globalized world.

In this blog, I will be be providing additional background information and production notes for each of the Engage interviews and providing a space for listeners to comment and share ideas with me and with one another. I hope you will listen in to the podcasts.