The Ethicist, New York Times

Please join us tomorrow, Monday Feb 6 at 4:30pm in the Strange Lounge, where we will discuss the New York Times’ write-in ethical advice column “The Ethicist” by Kwame Anthony Appiah.  [Did you know that students and faculty can access a free online membership to the New York Times, through Lawrence’s Mudd Library? If interested, follow this link.]  We will discuss a few of the write-ins, and Appiah’s advice.  You do not need an online subscription for this meeting, instead, I’ve included four write-ins below that we’ll start with (think about them and I’ll bring Appiah’s response and advice on Monday)—and if anyone wants to excerpt other write-ins for this meeting you are welcome to:

  1. November 23, 2021:When my father died, I inherited a large trust fund and sole ownership of a family business. I was young and woefully unprepared, so I put my inheritance on the back burner and lived my life as if I was financially “normal.” However, since the pandemic, my portfolio has hit a new high. I am utterly distraught. I feel that I should have never gotten so wealthy when people are suffering so much. I’ve been seriously considering giving a large portion away, but the more I talk to people, the more I realize that to give away large sums of money responsibly and ethically turns my life into a job that I never wanted. I don’t want my father’s money to become my life, my career or the most significant thing about me, even though I know that I benefit from it. I have privileges with it, it gives me options and frankly I could not afford to live in a big city without it. My questions are these: How much money is it ethical to keep, and how much would it be ethical to give away? What is the best way to decide who should receive the money? And how much time and responsibility and rewriting of my life do I owe this gift that often feels like a burden? Name Withheld
  1. November 23, 2021: In an effort to provide for the long-term financial stability of her children, my grandmother bought a large amount of stock in a fossil-fuel company, which she left to my father. I find it heartbreaking that the investment she made and that my father has maintained to provide safety and security is one of the things that is actively moving the planet toward terrible destruction. My father is elderly and would not consider divesting from this company. This stock will be a majority of his bequest to my siblings and me. I hope my father will live for many more years, but when that stock — and the associated wealth — come to me, what is the ethical thing for me to do with the money? I feel guilt and disgust at the prospect of profiting off the suffering of so many. Name Withheld
  1. October 4, 2022: My mother has an undiagnosed mental illness that makes her incapable of accepting reality and that has caused her to be emotionally abusive my entire life. My sister and I have maintained a relationship with her, but with strict boundaries and limited visits. She lives alone in a home she inherited, which is falling apart. She is a hoarder and won’t let in repair people or anyone else for that matter. She is 69 years old, hasn’t seen a doctor or dentist in decades. Her car stopped running long ago, and she walks a mile or two to the supermarket, even in winter. She lives off a meager Social Security income. Her pets are not properly cared for, yet she won’t let me adopt them.  What options do my sister and I have as she ages and her living situation deteriorates further? And what obligations do we have toward her? She will never admit anything is wrong with her, and neither of us is willing to let her live with us. She would ruin our lives and our families’ lives. This situation is like a dark cloud looming over our heads. My sister and I are the only ones in her life who can help her, but neither of us can afford to support her financially or otherwise. Name Withheld
  1. October 4, 2022: I have a middle-aged sister who has struggled with a personality disorder since adolescence. It has been challenging for her to hold a job. She has relied on my parents for assistance to raise her son, who is now grown, and to cover all of her living expenses, even as they have moved into their retirement years and live on a fixed income.  I told my parents that I do not intend to support her when they are no longer able to or are no longer living, because she refuses to take any responsibility for herself or to comply with medical or mental health care plans.  Now my parents are suggesting that I help with some of their expenses. But they would not need assistance if they were not dedicating a significant portion of their income to my sister’s support.How do I determine what my obligations here are? I have adolescent children to whom I also have obligations, like paying for college. Name Withheld

Ethics, Aesthetics, and Ontology in Video Games

Join us for the Strange Philosophy Thing tomorrow, (11/07), at 4:30 p.m. for refreshments and some fun, informal philosophy talk. We’ll be discussing three aspects of video games: the ethics of virtual actions (do ethical codes differ in games?), the aesthetics of video games (can a video game be interactive art?), and the ontology of video games (Heraclitus might have said that you can’t play the same video game twice. We’ll consider the identity conditions for games, and the status of their objects.).

Here is a 1000-word essay that tackles each of these questions:

(Str)ANGER philosophy thing?

Homer’s Illiad dramatically opens with Achilles’ anger and its destructive wake:  Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures…

In light of its destructive outcomes, Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca, urge us to mitigate and avoid anger.  Seneca emphasizes the harm to oneself and others, comparing an angry person to a “falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes” (On Anger, Part 1).  Martha Nussbaum emphasizes the relative superiority of other emotions (generosity and love) as responses to injustice and wrongdoing, warning of the moral pitfalls that anger might lead us to.  In further considering the moral implications of anger, philosopher Agnes Callard observes that “there are two problems with anger: it is morally corrupting, and it is completely correct” (here).  Myisha Cherry offers some suggestions about how to categorize and understand different kinds of anger and rage, and recommends instances where rage is not only appropriate, but also instructive and important.  Please listen to this episode of Philosophy Bites where Cherry highlights some of the different internal and external implications of anger and rage (if you would prefer an alternative to listening, here is a New Yorker piece by Cherry). 

As you listen, here are some questions to consider:

  • What kinds of mental states are emotions, and what are they for?

Some philosophers treat emotions as ways to understand and relate to the world and our evidence about it, and further as a means to instigate actions that further our interests.  In this framework emotions can be understood as appropriate and fitting (and not just predictable and inevitable given certain conditions).  How does that cohere with your own experiences of emotions and the emotions of others?

  • Do you think of anger and rage as something to be managed, mitigated, and avoided?  What kinds of things do you think it is appropriate to be angry about? Or angry at?  When has anger served you poorly?  When has it served you well?  How does anger help or harm humans more generally?

  • Third, Myisha Cherry makes the case for importance of Lordean rage, a response to oppression that spurs productive and effective action and is rooted in community solidarity.   In outlining this type of rage, she focuses on four important aspects of emotion: the targetaction tendencyaims and perspectives informing the emotion. How can using this framework help us understand rage (specifically), or other emotions more generally?

The (Real) Good Place Season 4 Episode 12 “Patty”

Please join us for the final installment of the Strange Thing this Wednesday March 9th at 4:30 in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall.

In Season 4 Episode 12 “Patty” the gang finally arrives in the Good Place.  However, there is a problem.  Everyone’s eternal happiness makes them complacent, bored, happiness zombies.  Eleanor has a suggestion though, give people an exit from the Good Place, and let them decide to leave.  I picked this episode because I wanted to think more about what the good place would be like if carefully designed.   Do you think that eternal happiness is a problem for humans?  What do you think of Eleanor’s fix?  With the new set-up, deceased humans can test into the Good Place—why is it important to be morally good before you get into the Good Place?  What’s the value of eternal reward if not to motivate good behavior?

We can also discuss the two-episode finale—if you decide to watch it. Please spread the word to and invite fans of either The Good Place or philosophy! 

Nihilism and Peeps Chili, (S3E4) “Jeremy Bearimy” Jan. 19/22

Please join us this Wednesday, January 19th  from 4:30-5:30pm, for our discussion of The Good Place (available to watch on Netflix). We are meeting virtually, please email for the Zoom link and to be added to our email list.

Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason learn that they are headed to the Bad Place after their time on Earth.  As they come to grips with this information, Chidi embraces nihilism, lecturing to his ethics students that nothing matters, not even how horrible it is to put marshmallow Peeps in your chili while doing just that.  Here’s a summary:

As you watch this episode, consider:   

  • Would it change your approach to earthly life if you learned you were headed to the Bad Place and there’s nothing you could do about it?  If so, how?  What if you learned that there is no afterlife at all?
  • Have you ever wanted to know more about nihilism?  Chidi says nihilism is the view that there is no point to anything. To learn more about Nietzsche on nihilism, listen to the first 12 minutes of this podcast:
  • Friedrich Nietzche thought that nihilism is a natural response to grappling with questions about objective moral truths and their relation to the afterlife.  However, he also claimed that nihilism is a sickness that must be overcome.
    • Is Chidi’s nihilism a sickness?  Does he overcome it?  

There are lots of other great moments in and leading up to this episode, including Australia’s most American restaurant, illustrations of many of the moral values we’ve encountered so far: virtues and vices, harms and benefits, and acts of duty, and finally, the shape of time in the Bad Place: “Jeremy Bearimy.”

Join us as we discuss how the pursuit of moral truths and good-standing in the afterlife could lead to nihilism, and whether any of that matters.

Season 2! Ethics, Hypotheticals, &Trollies (oh my). Episodes 4 ,5 & 6, October 25th.

The Good Place S2.E06 “The Trolly Problem”

Our Strange Philosophy Thing discussion will focus on Chidi’s ethics class, particularly Michael’s new involvement in it in episodes S2.E04, S2.E05 and S2.E06.

Some issues to think about as you watch:

Why is Chidi teaching about false ethical theories?  (False, given what we know about the ethical truths in the show.)

               Is there a difference between moral knowledge and moral understanding?

                              If so, how is this difference important?

What are good (and bad) methods for gaining moral knowledge and/or understanding?  (The show contrasts, for instance, “theoretical/abstract” and “concrete” approaches.)

               Does this tell us anything about the subject matter of ethics?

               Does “human ethics” refer to something different than “ethics”?

The Good Place, S2.E06 “The Trolley Problem”

Episode S2:E06

Michael: I know for a fact that if you steal a loaf of bread, it’s negative 17 points. 20 if it’s a baguette because that makes you more French.

Chidi: Sure, but philosophy is about questioning things that you take for granted, and I just don’t think that you’re doing that.

Chidi: I just don’t feel like you’re engaging with the material. Like with the trolley problem.

Michael: that was just tricky that’s all. Why don’t you just tell me the right answer?

Chidi: that’s what’s so great about the trolley problem, that there is no right answer. …

Chidi: Michael, trust me. When it comes to human ethics, I just know more than you. I’ve been studying it my whole life

Michael: It’s just that it’s so theoretical, you know. I mean, maybe there’s a more concrete approach. Here, let’s try this.

Chidi: Oh god! Michael what did you do?

Michael:  I made the trolley problem real, so we can see how the ethics would actually play out. There’re five workers on this track and one person over there. Here are the levers to switch the tracks. Make a choice.

Chidi: the thing is… I mean … ethically speaking…


Chidi: well, it’s tricky! If you subscribe to a purely utilitarian point of view….

[smash & gore]

Eleanor: Look, see buddy, none of this was real.

Michael: well, they’re fake people, but their pain is real.  There have to be stakes, or it’s just another thought experiment.

Episodes 10-13: Hell is other people. Soulmates, love, the medium place, and the bad place (plus more Janet!); October 18th

“Michael’s Gambit” Season 1, episode 13

Please join us this Monday, Oct. 18th from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss the final episodes (10-13) of The Good Place, Season 1. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall, unless it’s nice out, in which case we’ll likely be at the picnic tables in front of the building.

Episode 10 “Chidi’s Choice” Everyone is bonding: Jason and Janet get hitched, Real Eleanor loves Chidi, Fake Eleanor loves Chidi, Chidi loves Tahani (according to Tahani), Eleanor and Tahani have a weird forked-up friendship, maybe Jason is Eleanor’s soulmate? Chidi remains undecided. We’ll discuss the conditions for love (romantic and friendship), and whether failing to decide is a type of decision.

Episode 11 “What’s my Motivation” So far on The Good Place, getting to the Good Place is all about the consequences of one’s actions when on Earth. However, this episode highlights the importance of motivations and intentions as Eleanor tries to justify her spot in the Good Place. Jason and Janet’s love blossoms:

Michael : You two are married?

Jason Mendoza : Hells yeah, homie. We love each other.

Jason Mendoza : She makes the bass drop… in my heart.

Janet : And Jason is a person who was near me, and then he asked me to marry him, and there is nothing in my protocol that specifically barred that from happening. So I agreed.

Jason Mendoza : Love you too, babe.

And later:

Janet : Jason, you are all that I care about, possibly because I did not have the capacity to care about anything before you. I love you.

**Spoilers** Episode 12 “Mindy St. Claire” There’s a medium place, and a bad place…

Eleanor: It took me a while to figure it out, but just now as we were all fighting and yelling at each other and each one of us demanding we should go to the Bad Place, I thought to myself, “Man, this is torture.”

Episode 13 “Michael’s Gambit” In Sartre’s play No Exit one of the characters claims “Hell is other people.” We’ll discuss Michael’s gambit and the extent to which hell is other people (on The Good Place). In Sartre on Theatre Sartre explains:

. . .“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

Episodes 2-4; Flying, Tahani Al-Jamil, Jason Mendoza: September 27th

Welcome to my bud hole! Today’s topics: ethical consumerism, authenticity, and the self.

THE GOOD PLACE — “Jason Mendoza” Episode 104 — Pictured: — (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

This week marks our second week back with the Strange Philosophy Thing! It also marks our first week back in the Strange Lounge in Main Hall. Join us this Monday, 9/27, in the Strange Lounge from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 2 through 4 of “The Good Place” (with particular emphasis on episodes 3 and 4). These episodes are available on Netflix, along with the rest of the series. They are also on reserve in the Mudd Library under “Philosophy Strange Thing”, abbreviation “PHILStrange”. This week, we will discuss the following issues, among others.

Is it worth avoiding certain products for ethical reasons given that it is reasonable to assume that one will end up supporting unethical production practices no matter how hard one tries to avoid doing so? Eleanor seems to think not in episode 3. How might we reply?

Episode 4 is all about knowing yourself and being yourself. Are those things important for living a good life?

Also, what is the self? Are there things (persons), over and above various sets of memories, sensory experiences, etc., that serve to unify them? Or are the various memories, experiences, etc., the person? If the latter, what unifies those memories, experiences, etc.–what makes these ones form a bundle and those ones form a different bundle? Is it just accidental that these ones over here where I’m sitting are “together”, while those ones over there where you’re sitting are “together”?

Feel free to bring questions/comments that have occurred to you about these episodes as well! Looking forward to seeing you! And don’t hesitate to spread the word if you have a friend who is a fan of either “The Good Place” or philosophy! 

Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics? (S1E3)

Welcome! Episode 1 “Everything is Fine”: September 20th

This year, we’re going to have a series of philosophical conversations around the NBC show “The Good Place”. September 20th we will get started with a discussion of episode one, “Everything is Fine,” and an introduction to the series. This episode is available on Netflix, along with the rest of the series, or on reserve in the Mudd Library under “Philosophy Strange Thing,” abbreviation “PHILStrange.”

You can see the first few minutes of the episode here:

Discussion questions: Is infinite reward (or punishment) for finite, Earthly actions just? Are soulmates real? Will Eleanor be able to earn her place in the good place posthumously? We will consider these and more questions tomorrow! 

Please note that, for now, we will be meeting in Main Hall 105, rather than the Strange Lounge.

Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow! Consider bringing a friend who’s interested in philosophy!