Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Darwinia Theory of beauty-awesome video

TED collaborates with animator Andrew Park to illustrate Denis Dutton's provocative theory on beauty -- that art, music and other beautiful things, far from being simply "in the eye of the beholder," are a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins.

About Denis Dutton

Denis Dutton is a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In his book The Art Instinct, he suggests that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. Full bio and more links

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Economics of "Sustainable" Development

Our discussion on Thursday raised a lot of questions about whether "sustainable development" — a term frequently touted by big environmental NGOs — is possible. From a Western perspective where we have the luxury of caring about conservation, so to speak, partnering conservation with development in third-world countries rich in natural resources is a laudable goal. A host of problems arise, however ...
  • How are people expected to care about the environment when it interferes with putting food on the table?
  • What good do conservation and development projects do if they simply replace one short-term neo-colonial industry (like logging, for example .. 2011 is the UN's International Year of Forests, and forest conservation is a big issue currently) with another in the form of an NGO?
  • NGO resources don't last forever. How can we make sure that conservation practices are sustained without falling into cultural imperialism or paternalism?
  • and many more.
No one has the answer to all these problems, as was made abundantly clear in class, but the World Bank is taking an interesting approach. Currently, they are trying to redefine the metrics by which development is measured. Instead of basing development status on GDP alone, "intangibles" like environmental and cultural capital are being taken into account and assigned a quantitative value. Here's a report on a new World Bank publication:

In 2005, the total economic value of natural assets was $44 trillion worldwide, or $7,000 per person on average while “intangible” capital accounted for the greatest component of total wealth–worth a massive $540 trillion worldwide in 2005.

The Changing Wealth of Nations – a follow-up publication to the 2006 book, Where is the Wealth of Nations? – extends the principles of wealth accounting to include dimensions that go beyond the standard Gross Domestic Product calculations undertaken by finance ministries. It presents, for the first time, a set of “wealth accounts” for over 150 countries for 1995, 2000, and 2005 which allows a longer-term assessment of global, regional and country performance in building wealth.


The book finds that intangible capital growth contributed close to 100% of the increase in total wealth in Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe and Central Asia from 1995 to 2005. This share was 80% in South Asia and 72% in Latin America and Caribbean.

It is the quality of institutions that enhances a country’s capacity to provide economic benefits,” said co-author Kirk Hamilton from the World Bank’s Development Economics group. “When a country has strong institutions that reaffirm the rule of law, ensure government accountability and help control corruption, investment follows and grows.”

The quality of institutions is especially important for the good stewardship of natural capital, the book concludes.

The use of the word "stewardship" and the (perhaps impractical, as Jordan pointed out Thursday) focus on education aside, if a major problem with sustainable development is money, would the resource valuation approach — partnered with community education and government regulation — help? This is a pretty hotly debated concept in the development world, from what I understand. Though the World Bank's literature is relatively new, there's a wide range of research on the field of environmental economics (perhaps some of you have tapped into it for other courses). There is clearly a sea change necessary for natural capital to hold actual development value; I'm nowhere near qualified enough to pass judgement, but I wonder if it would be possible in practice, and how helpful it would be for the implementation of conservation goals.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Benatar's Better Never to Have Been

We've had some discussion about this book, thought some of you might be interested to see this:

Call for Papers: Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been

Special Issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy, one of the most long-standing philosophy journals in Africa, accredited by the ISI

Guest Editor: Thaddeus Metz (Humanities Research Professor at the University of Johannesburg)

Invited Contributors: David Boonin (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder) and Saul Smilansky (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa)

Professor David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been (Oxford, 2006) is the most intricate and careful exposition and defence of anti-natalism. Benatar argues, on the basis of purportedly uncontroversial premises, for a variety of surprising and radical conclusions about the disvalue of our lives and our moral duties in light of it. Benatar argues that no matter how much happiness people might experience during their lives, it would always have been better for them never to have been created. And from the claim that human life is never worth starting Benatar further concludes that it is almost always immoral to procreate and that abortion in the early stages of pregnancy is morally required.

Contributions are sought for an issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy devoted to several facets of anti-natalism and of Benatar’s treatment of it in particular. These include, but are not restricted to, the following:

•      Precisely where is Benatar’s argument for anti-natalism most questionable? How does it compare with other arguments for anti-natalism? Do they share common premises or strategies? Which is the most defensible?

•      Is it plausible to hold anti-natalism without pro-mortalism, viz., the view that we should commit suicide?

•      Under what conditions might one be justified in creating a person whose life is not worth starting in terms of her well-being? Can it be right to create such a person for the sake of helping others? How might considerations of human dignity figure into a justification for creating her?

•      If a child is always worse off for having been created, what are the moral responsibilities of her parents with respect to her? Is compensation owed, and, if so, what kind and how much?

•      If the typical human life is indeed a net harm, how should the state get involved? Should it facilitate wrongful life suits, or discourage procreation?

•      From what standpoint is it appropriate to appraise the quality of our lives? Standpoints range from the most subjective, that of an individual, to that of ‘the universe’, the most objective viewpoint available. Is there a principled way to determine where on the scale is suitable?

Deadline for submissions: 15 October 2011. Manuscripts should be submitted electronically to Thaddeus Metz ( Those whose papers are selected for inclusion in the special issue will be invited to participate in a workshop with Professor Benatar, to be held at the University of Johannesburg on 23-24 November 2011.