Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How going green may make us mean

This item is almost too much of a coincidence given what we were discussing in class this morning:

How going green may make you mean

Ethical consumers less likely to be kind and more likely to steal, study finds
Organic food in Waitrose, Holloway Road
A consumer of 'ethical' products such as organic food might be more inclined to cheat and steal, the study found. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian
When Al Gore was caught running up huge energy bills at home at the same time as lecturing on the need to save electricity, it turns out that he was only reverting to "green" type.
According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the "licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour", otherwise known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics".
Do Green Products Make Us Better People is published in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science. Its authors, Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, argue that people who wear what they call the "halo of green consumerism" are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. "Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours," they write.
The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.
Mazar and Zhong said their study showed that just as exposure to pictures of exclusive restaurants can improve table manners but may not lead to an overall improvement in behaviour, "green products do not necessarily make for better people". They added that one motivation for carrying out the study was that, despite the "stream of research focusing on identifying the 'green consumer'", there was a lack of understanding into "how green consumption fits into people's global sense of responsibility and morality and [how it] affects behaviours outside the consumption domain".
The pair said their findings surprised them, having thought that just as "exposure to the Apple logo increased creativity", according to a recent study, "given that green products are manifestations of high ethical standards and humanitarian considerations, mere exposure" to them would "activate norms of social responsibility and ethical conduct".

Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the University of Munich, said the findings fitted patterns of human behaviour. "At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere," he said.
This study has already gotten some attention from philosophers and ethicists, for example by Julian Savulescu at the Practical Ethics blog.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dramatic decline of male births in indigenous communities tied to industrial pollution

from Indian Country Today
original at: http://www.indiancountrytoday.com/living/87141237.html

Dramatic decline of male births in indigenous communities tied to industrial pollution
By Terri Hansen, Today correspondent

A strange reality exists in at least one indigenous community – babies that should be born boys are instead, born girls.

Research in 2007 showing skewed birth ratios in the villages of northern Greenland exposed earlier studies that found indigenous mothers living in the northern most reaches of the Arctic Circle were giving birth to daughters.

The studies linked the skewed sex ratios with human exposures to PCBs and other persistent organic chemicals.

Following a report that some Arctic indigenous communities are among the most exposed populations to persistent toxic substances, the Indigenous Peoples Organization initiated the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program Programme in 2004.

Their assessment concluded, “Any threat to continued consumption of their foods, including chemical contamination, is not only a potential threat to the health of the individual, but also to the social structures and entire cultural identity of these indigenous peoples.”

Toxic pollutants travel from industrialized countries and accumulate in the marine food chain of the Arctic region, and in the traditional diet of indigenous peoples. Blood levels of such pollutants as PCBs and mercury were several times higher in residents of Arctic Canada and Greenland than measured in residents of industrialized areas of North America.

Perhaps an even darker legacy of the industrial contamination are the pollutants targeting pre-born boys in Canada on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, an Aanishinaabek community, turning them into girls.

Normally there are 106 boy births for every 100 girls. The higher ratio is nature’s way of compensating for males more likely to perish hunting and in conflicts. For years, scientists have reported declines in male births worldwide.

Most startling is the sharp drop of boys among the Aamjiwnaang Anishinaabek: “A greater rate of change than has been reported previously anywhere,” said a 2005 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

It’s the kind of attention this tiny community of 850 never wanted. In the beginning, they could not conceive what was happening in their community.

Their pain and questions began in 2002, when biologist Michael Gilbertson found elevated levels of PCBs, pesticides and heavy metals on the reserve. Gilbertson asked if they had more girls than boy children.

Tribal members were first baffled, and then aghast as they realized that they had enough girls for three baseball teams, but not enough boys for even one team.

Anger soon turned to action.

Ron Plain grew up in Aamjiwnaang; he is a calm steady man, not the type you’d peg as an activist.

An accidental catalyst release from nearby Imperial Oil in 2002 changed all that. Imperial workers sampled and cleaned Aamjiwnaang homes, even their cars, inside and out. Don’t worry, they told Plain, stirring up dust as they cleaned. “The dust won’t hurt you.”

Plain did worry. Unconvinced, he asked, “If it’s harmful to our houses and cars, what’s it doing to our lungs and our bodies?”

Imperial Oil offered $300 to each homeowner if they agreed to waive any damages and legal counsel, and many accepted their offer. Imperial paid $125,000 in fines. Plain and other tribal members meanwhile organized their own environmental investigative committee.

The Aamjiwnaang’s investigation team uncovered studies done of their lands years before. A 1986 scientific report by the University of Windsor showed that mercury, a neurotoxin, was present on their reserve at a 100 times greater amount than the Severe Effect Level set by the Canadian government.

When next Sun Oil – now Suncor – announced they planned to build the largest ethanol plant in Canada right across the street from the tribal community, Plain and other members of the tribal environment committee, closed their roads. For six weeks, Sun Oil trucks could not get through.

“We won,” Plain said. “They agreed not to put the plant in. We shut down a multimillion dollar industry.” But their battles have only begun, he said.

The Anishinaabek have occupied their lands at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron for centuries, long before the discovery of oil and the boom oil rush. Today, their land, dubbed “Chemical Valley,” at the border between Ontario and Michigan just south of Sarnia, Ontario, lies in the shadow of Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical and manufacturing facilities. Their land adjoins the St. Clair River Area of Concern, so designated because of its long history of air and water pollution.

Two reports in 2007 are a dramatic indictment of the industry’s impact on the Aamjiwnaang community. “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley,” identifies 62 facilities in Canada and the U.S. that have made the area Ontario’s worst air pollution hotspot.

“What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the immense quantity of toxic chemicals emitted,” Ecojustice Canada senior scientist and report author Dr. Elaine McDonald said in an accompanying statement.

“There is growing evidence that the health of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation members and the local environment has been severely compromised.”

Findings from researchers at Ontario’s IntrAmericas Centre for Environment and Health confirm that in some Canadian communities, more girls than boys are born. The cause of the phenomenon is airborne pollutants called dioxins that can alter normal sex ratios, even when the source of the pollution is kilometers away.

Industry representatives did not respond to the Ecojustice Canada report. After a period of silence industry-funded Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association’s Dean Edwardson told reporters, “We want an open and transparent process. … something that is scientifically valid, peer-reviewed and is meaningful.” He said their industry would pay for such a study.

Plain said that’s a smokescreen, since there already is a scientifically valid, peer-reviewed study. “The 2005 study was reviewed by top scientists and was published in the highly regarded scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.”

Edwardson countered, saying data released from the County of Lambton Community Health Services Department shows birth ratios of the Sarnia-Lambton area are similar to those for the rest of Ontario. To that, Plain said, “For years, we have been asking the County of Lambton for a research program establishing the birth ratios by affected regions as opposed to the blanket wide study where those farthest from the plume are blended into the ratio.” So far, the county has refused Aamjiwnaang’s request.

The findings by Ecojustice Canada reveal pollutants are having significant impacts on the Anishinaabek cultural lifeways, affecting hunting, fishing, medicine gathering and ceremonial activities.

The Aamjiwnaang environmental team said chemical releases and spills remain the community’s primary concern. But ask tribal members their biggest concern? They’ll tell you it’s fear.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Utility Monsters and other bad people

Just a brief followup to the "utility monster" issue raised in class today, the wiki entry on Utility Monster provides the basic overview. We'll likely have more to say about this when we read Parfit. fyi.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Relating to Environmental Justice, I found a New York Times Article "Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling EPA"

The article can be found at:


Below is an excerpt:

"Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators.

As a result, some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

The Clean Water Act was intended to end dangerous water pollution by regulating every major polluter. But today, regulators may be unable to prosecute as many as half of the nation’s largest known polluters because officials lack jurisdiction or because proving jurisdiction would be overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming, according to midlevel officials."

Australian nuclear waste debate

from today's BBC news feed:

Aborigines debate nuclear plan
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Aboriginal groups are to gather at a public meeting to debate controversial plans to build Australia's first nuclear waste dump on tribal land.

The federal government has identified a remote cattle station north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory as a likely site.

The proposal has caused deep divisions within the indigenous community.

Ministers have indicated that the nuclear dump would not be built if landowners opposed it.

In the next six years nuclear waste that Australia sent to Europe for reprocessing will be returned.


But officials in Canberra have yet to decide where to put it.

Muckaty Station, an isolated property 120 km (75 miles) from Tennant Creek, has been chosen as a possible site.

Local Aborigines have offered to sell the land for $11m (£7.3m), a move that has infuriated other indigenous groups in the area, who worry about the health and environmental implications.

Some also object on cultural grounds that something some see as odious could be inflicted on sacred tribal country.

These conflicting views are expected to collide at a public meeting in Tennant Creek, an old gold-mining town south of Darwin.

Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the plan to build a radioactive waste dump in the region has become extremely divisive.

"It already risks setting families against families and the government has not bothered to try to and bring the whole community along. They have picked off a handful of people, got some signatures and now they are going to try and force it through," Mr Ludlum said.

"We have had a small 10 MW research reactor operating in Australia since the late fifties. The industry and the government never bothered to investigate waste storage scenarios.

"So, now in 2010 they are now desperately casting around for an Aboriginal community who will take that legacy waste from the last few decades," he said.

Australia's federal government said that Muckaty Station would be subject to thorough scientific and environmental assessments.

Critics believe that recent earthquakes in that part of the Northern Territory have raised questions about the safety of the site.

The Australian Greens have said that radioactive waste should be stored at the country's only nuclear facility on the outskirts of Sydney.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2010/03/03 05:38:12 GMT


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Our mistake: the yardstick of per-capita income

Here is an article from New Internationalist on poverty

The discovery of poverty
How 'the poor' were invented by the West... How the development idea was rescued
from its first crisis... The vital difference between frugality and destitution.

I could have kicked myself afterwards. Yet my remark had seemed the most natural thing on earth at the time. It was six months after Mexico City's catastrophic earthquake in 1985 and I had spent the whole day walking around Tepito, a dilapidated quarter inhabited by ordinary people but threatened by land speculators. I had expected ruins and resignation, decay and squalor, but the visit had made me think again: there was a proud neighbourly spirit, vigorous building activity and a flourishing shadow economy.

But at the end of the day the remark slipped out: 'It's all very well but, when it comes down to it, these people are still terribly poor.' Promptly, one of my companions stiffened: 'No somos pobres, somos Tepitanos!' (We are not poor people, we are Tepitans). What a reprimand! Why had I made such an offensive remark? I had to admit to myself in embarrassment that, quite involuntarily, the clich├ęs of development philosophy had triggered my reaction.

Peter Singer: The Right to Be Rich or Poor

Here is a link to Peter Singer's 1975 review of Nozick's book. In it, Singer does a great job of articulating what the fundamental issues are in the debate between Rawls and Nozick; and, as a utilitarian, Singer leaves open the possibility that utilitarianism is still the best political philosophy for achieving social justice and a well-ordered society. An excerpt:

Nozick describes Rawls's view as an "undeniably great advance over utilitarianism." From his standpoint that is a reasonable estimate. Rawls's theory is a half-way house between utilitarianism and Nozick's own position. But if having gone half-way with Rawls we are forced by the logic of our position to go all the way with Nozick, it could be that we went wrong when we started out. None of the arguments Nozick uses against Rawls is decisive when invoked against a utilitarian position. Utilitarianism gives a clear and plausible defense not merely of progressive taxation, welfare payments, and other methods of redistribution, but also of the general right of the state to perform useful functions beyond the protection of its citizens from force and fraud. Utilitarianism also provides an argument in defense of the claim behind Williams's argument for equality—that society should, so far as its resources allow, provide for the most important needs of its members.

Nor do we have to go all the way with the utilitarians to be in a position to advocate state-directed redistribution of income. The problem of whether we can accept a utilitarian account of noneconomic rights like the right to freedom of speech or freedom of worship need not be raised here, for Nozick's argument is mainly addressed to economic rights. We can deal with property in a utilitarian manner, rejecting the doctrine of an intrinsic right to property, without necessarily rejecting the idea that there are some intrinsic rights against the state. For the remainder of this discussion, though I shall talk simply of "utilitarianism," it will be this limited economic utilitarianism to which I am referring.

Nozick, aware that utilitarianism is a more fundamental rival to his position than other conceptions of justice, tries to get it out of the way in the first part of the book, when discussing the moral background of his theory. The discussion is sketchy, however, and falls below the level of the later sections. Nowhere is utilitarianism fully and systematically confronted. Nozick mentions some well-known objections but, with one exception, does not pursue the replies that utilitarians have made when these objections have been raised in the past.

The exception is interesting. In opposition to the view, which utilitarians have held, that the only things that are good or bad in themselves are states of consciousness, or conscious experiences (pleasant or happy ones being good, painful or miserable ones bad), Nozick asks us to imagine that we can build an "experience machine" which would give us the satisfactions of a wonderful life—any life we'd like—while we float in a tank with electrodes plugged into our brains.

If we had such a machine, Nozick says, we would choose not to use it—and this shows that things other than experience matter to us. In anticipation of the reply that we would not use the machine because, as good utilitarians, we would be concerned about other people's (and other animals') experiences as well as our own, Nozick makes the further assumption that everyone is able to plug into one of these machines. This means that we cannot give point to our lives by improving the experiences of other beings; the experience machine gives everyone who wants them the best possible experiences anyway. Nevertheless, Nozick says, we would not plug in, and this is because in addition to wanting to have certain experiences we want to do certain things and be a certain sort of person. We desire to live in contact with reality, and this no machine can do for us.

The entire essay is well worth reading.

Rawls versus Nozick

A nice blog post from Jefferson's Wall. Note the first question for Rawls.

Philosophy: John Rawls vs. Robert Nozick

posted Saturday, 17 May 2008

In contemporary political philosophy Robert Nozick's “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (libertarianism) is usually juxtaposed with John Rawls' "A Theory of Justice" (social welfare liberalism) to represent the full spectrum of possibilities for contemporary liberal democracies.

John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice.” Rawls' presents an account of justice in the form of two principles: (1) liberty principle= people’s “equal basic liberties” — such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience (religion), and the right to vote — should be maximized, and (2) difference principle= inequalities in social and economic goods are acceptable only if they promote the welfare of the “least advantaged” members of society. Rawls writes in the social contract tradition. He seeks to define equilibrium points that, when accumulated, form a civil system characterized by what he calls "justice as fairness." To get there he deploys an argument whereby people in an "original position" (state of nature), make decisions (legislate laws) behind a "veil of ignorance" (of their place in the society-- rich or poor) using a reasoning technique he calls "reflective equilibrium." It goes something like: behind the veil of ignorance, with no knowledge of their own places in civil society, Rawls posits that reasonable people will default to social and economic positions that maximize the prospects for the worst off-- feed and house the poor in case you happen to become one. It's much like the prisoner's dilemma in game theory. By his own words Rawls = “left-liberalism”.

Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” libertarian response to Rawls which argues that only a “minimal state” devoted to the enforcement of contracts and protecting people against crimes like assault, robbery, fraud can be morally justified. Nozick suggests that “the fundamental question of political philosophy” is not how government should be organized but “whether there should be any state at all,” he is close to John Locke in that government is legitimate only to the degree that it promotes greater security for life, liberty, and property than would exist in a chaotic, pre-political “state of nature.” Nozick concludes, however, that the need for security justifies only a minimal, or “night-watchman,” state, since it cannot be demonstrated that citizens will attain any more security through extensive governmental intervention. (Nozick p.25-27)

" ...the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection." (Nozick Preface p.ix)


  1. The primary difference between the two is in the treatment of the legitimacy of governmental redistribution of wealth (and even on that issue Nozick eventually flinches -- see #1 below). In place of Rawls’s “difference principle,” Nozick espouses an “entitlement theory” of justice, according to which individual holdings of various social and economic goods are justified only if they derive from just acquisitions or (voluntary) transfers. No safety nets allowed (acquisitions from social programs are not just because they are funded through the involuntary transfer of wealth via taxation and are therefore taboo). No accommodations for free-riders should be made. Problem: Nozick never spells out the criteria of just acquisition.
  • Nozick critique of Rawls’s rationale for his difference principle: it's implausible to claim that merely because all members of a society benefit from social cooperation, the less-advantaged ones are automatically entitled to a share in the earnings of their more successful peers.
  1. Both theories jump off with a sweeping statement of the primacy of justice — Nozick more or less retained Rawls’s first principle (liberty) while rejecting the second (difference). But...
  2. Regarding governmental redistribution of wealth, Nozick seems to admit that his entitlement theory is insufficient to refute demands for a redistributionist state; surely some collective holdings were acquired via some original act of unjust conquest, right?. In response Nozick agrees that a Rawls-like difference principle is morally acceptable after all, what he terms “rectification,” on the premise that those currently least-well-off have the highest probability of being descended from previous victims of injustice. (Nozick p.152-153, 230-231)
  3. Both shared a view of political philosophy as an exercise in the production of abstract theories, with little regard for the practical grounding of justice in human nature (i.e., of conformity with the likely demands of actual human beings). Therefore both theories rate a society's success by how closely it's laws and procedures adhere to the model rather than whether those laws produce morally maximized outcomes. Both clearly followed Immanuel Kant's dictum, “let justice triumph, even if the world perishes by it.”

Some Practical Questions for Rawls:

  1. Does your system promote free-riders?
  2. Does the Leveling of society stifle competition, initiative and creative thinking?
  3. Does your system foster interest group politics?
  4. Is your state vulnerable to excessive taxation?
  5. Is your state vulnerable to excessive bureaucracy?
  6. Does accountability become increasingly difficult as your state grows?
  7. Does your state require universal health care?

Some Practical Questions for Nozick:

  1. Your libertarianism, which compares income taxation to forced labor, fails to acknowledge the need for a guarantee of some baseline level of social security and educational benefits to all citizens. Can you somehow still ensure the continued loyalty of the poor to the state?
  2. No federally insured bank deposits (FDIC)?
  3. No public works - Federal Highway System for example?
  4. No food and drug inspection?
  5. What about the tendency toward concentration of wealth & monopolies?
  6. No pollution regulations?
  7. No enforceable labor laws - 40 hr work week for example?
  8. Is polygamy allowed?
  9. Are addictive drugs allowed?
  10. Is prostitution allowed?
  11. No seatbelts laws, mileage standards or speed limits?
  12. No workplace safety regulations or workers compensation laws?
  13. No MediCare?
Read The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass for an excellent discussion on the state of liberalism in America today.


Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Robert Nozick. Basic Books. 1974

A Theory of Justice. John Rawls. Harvard University Press. 1971

We'll get to the question of "should surfers be fed" on Thursday.