Thursday, November 25, 2010

Philosophy Problem Sets?

I don't teach philosophy classes and I probably never will. But if I did I would make one big change: add problem sets.

The basic idea is that I'd lay out some arguments and ask student to reduce them to premises, or ask students, given some premises, to draw conclusions using the theories presented in class. Most of these would be trivial, but that's ok because most philosophy classes already require a trivial amount of philosophy and a non-trivial about of composition.

The rationale is that philosophy, like math or economics or computer science, could and should teach people problem-solving methods. If you have an ethical dilemma you can use the theory of utilitarianism, and your priors, to figure out the right thing to do. (Or you could use evidence rather than priors, but that takes you into the realm of science.) In some ways this paradigm only really applies to ethics, but I think problem sets could be developed for epistemology that would be esp. relevant for science majors.

Here are some examples:

1. Jeff Sachs says that donating $100 billion in aid to Africa is the right thing to do because it will lead to economic growth. Assume he's a utilitarian and diagram his argument:

Answer: Donating $100 billion to Africa will increase African incomes. Increasing African incomes raises utility. (Hard part: There is no better use of the $100 billion than donating to Africa.) Therefore, we should donate $100 billion to Africa.

2. (Mathematical problem) There is an island with 3 people. They agree to be utilitarians but can't agree on which utility function is better: U1 = x + y + z or U2 = xyz where x, y, and z are the individual utilities of the three people. Calculate the utility for each (x,y,z) below and discuss which system is more egalitarian. (Does either function help reconcile utilitarianism and Rawlsian conception of justice?)

Answer: U2 is more egalitarian. Graph them, it's interesting!

3. Prof. White decides to write a paper on the causes of war expounding democratic peace theory. He then makes a table of all the wars fought in the past 100 years and categorized them into wars between democracies and others. He says the data show (don't worry about how) democracies are less likely to fight wars. What is a major problem with his research plan?

Answer: He came to his conclusion before seeing the evidence. When he categorized the data he may have been tempted to categorize countries as "democracies" and "not" in such a way as to make his hypothesis hold.

4. Ann believes in virtue ethics. She wants to cultivate the virtue of charity. A local beggar asks for $5 to buy booze. A local businessman asks for $5 for research on a new vaccine. Who should Ann give the money to? Who would a utilitarian give the money to (assume the new vaccine will save many lives)? Does virtue ethics make any sense to any rational person? (Hint: The answer to the last question is no.)

Answer: Ann should give the money to the beggar, that is charity. Investing in a business is not charitable. A utilitarian would give the money to the businessman, who would use it to make products that satisfy needs (e.g. demand for health care) because it will make the world happier.

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