PHIL 236.3 — Ethics and Technology

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2018 Q3 Section


More on Robert Moses (07.18.18)

A (slightly) exonerating take on the story of Robert Moses and the Long Island Parkway:

"How Low Did He Go?", Thomas Campanella, Citylab, July, 2017



2018 T2 Section


Things AI (25.03.18)

Here's an interesting, philosophically informed dicussion of technological and academic developments related to artificial intelligence:

"Deep learning: Why it's time for AI to get philosophical," Catherine Stinson, Globe and Mail, Mar. 23, 2018

Stinson indirectly mentions the game that (half-jokingly) models philosopher Nick Bostrom's speculations about an AI whose top-level goal is making paper clips. Which reminds me, I'd promised/threatened a link to:

Universal Paperclips, (Frank Lantz, NYU Games Center)

I should warn you though that, once you get it into it, the game can be highly addictive and a tremendous time-sink. [In my experience it seems to run better in Chrome than in Firefox. Try to resist the urge to cheat by, say, modifying the JavaScript in your console. Or don't.]


2015 T1 Section


Patents and Medical Innovation (05.10.15)

We won't be discussing issues related to intellectual property until after the midterm. Still, I thought I'd pass along the following, since it provides an unusually clear and fairly even-handed account of its topic:

"How Patent Law Can Block Even Lifesaving Drugs," Austin Frakt, New York Times, Sep. 28, 2015



2014 T1 Section

The Future of Online Privacy in Canada (11.21.14)

Legislation proposed by the government is about to change which government officials can access your online information and on what grounds. The following editorial from the Toronto Star outlines some fo these changes and why they might be worrying.

Conservative cyberlaws threaten privacy rights (The Star, 11.23.14)

Canadian Court Challenge of Human Gene Patents

The topic won't be coming up in class for another few weeks, but the press coverage seems to be happening now. So here you go:

"‘No one should be able to patent human DNA': Ontario hospital asks court to strike down gene trademarks, " National Post (11.03.14)

"How a gene-patent test case will help both patients and inventors," Globe and Mail (11.04.14)

Both articles reference (without actually naming) the important U.S. case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.


Julian Simon, "Doomslayer" (22.10.14)

Here's a taste of the 'cornucopian' [< a remarkably biased, ad hominem Wikipedia article] view of technology espoused by Simon:


Up from the Archives: 'Unknown Unknowns' -- The Tacoma Narrows Bridge

As mentioned in class the other day... (Sorry about the ads. And the music)


Bentham on Sex (03.07.14)

Since we were talking about him in class yesterday, I though I'd pass along the following (which I happened across later that afternoon). It is a book reivew of a new edition of some Bentham's long-supressed writings on sexuality which, besides the reivew part, provides a nice overview of utilitarianism and some insight into Bentham's character.

Of Sexual Irregularities by Jeremy Bentham, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Guardian, 06.26.14



2013 Q2 Section

Gene Patents and the Cost of Genetic Tests (21.05.13)

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are 'tumor supressor' genes, mutations in which are associated with early onset breast cancer. In the U.S., tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can cost up to US$ 4,000. Yet a the same time, the cost to sequence an individual's entire genome (~ 20,000 genes) has been plummeting--lately down into the range of about $1,000. What explains the disparity? In a nutshell: Intellectual property rights. We'll be looking briefly at the story of Myriad Genetics and the BRCA1 and 2 genes later in the course. For a start, however, the article below is I think both intrinsically interesting and provides some useful background information for persons interested in this sort of thing.

"The Outrageous Cost of a Gene Test," David B. Agus, New York Times, May 20, 2013

2013 T2 Section

Preserving Freedom by Monetizing Information: An Interview with Jaron Lanier (03.25.13)

In view of what we've most recently been discusssing in the course (and where we are going right next), I thought I'd pass along the following:

Interview with a writer: Jaron Lanier (The Spectator, Mar. 22nd, 2013)

Lanier used to be something of an ubuttoned enthusiast for virtual reality technologies, back in the day. In recent years he's become a bit more pessimistic, particularly about the prospects for maintaining human freedom and dignity in the face of technological development.


George Carlin: Rights (02.13.13)

Since it came up in class today, here is the relevant routine from the late, great George Carlin's last HBO special It's Bad for Ya (2008). Contains strong language and adult situations: Viewer discretion is advised. I do not necessarily endorse all of the views espoused (though I would like to see a debate between Carlin and John Locke).


Implications of Act Utilitarianism (in Cartoon Form)

It's too large to include with a lecture, but this cartoon from the excellent online strip Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal lays out a seemingly paradoxical implication of strict adherence to the utilitarian calculus. It's similar to (but maybe funnier than) my 'household booze budget' example discussed in class.

Midterm Exam Rescheduled

In class today I asked if anyone objected to moving the date of the midterm exam originally scheduled for February 8th. Since there were no objections, be it resolved: The date of the midterm exam has been moved to February 15th. Doing this ensures that we will be finished with moral theory section of the course ahead of the exam. Study questions for the exam will be released next week.

'Unknown Unknowns': The Tacoma Narrows Bridge

As mentioned in class today... (Sorry about the ads...and the music)



'The Singularity' (01.15.13)

Apparently, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling is unimpressed.

Since we were talking about it in class the other day, I thought I'd pass this along.
(Many other responses in The Edge's annual "What Should We Be Worried About?" survey are also worth a read.)

Parental Controls for Cars (01.15.13)

Ford's new MyKey system allows parents to program the vehicle key that they give to their kids so as to limit the vehicle's maximum speed, prevent the disabling of traction control and even block 'explicit' content on the vehicle's audio system.

Ford cars get draconian parental controls (The Register, Jan 4, 2013)

When I first heard of this, my initial reaction was "that's just creepy." Upon reflection, however, I suppose a moral case could made for the MyKey system on the basis of property rights: The vehicle is the parent's (or parents') property. So, since the parent (presumably) has no obligation to let his or her kid use the car at all, the kid has no moral grounds for objecting to any limitation on the use of the car that the parent may impose. Then again, upon yet further reflection, I reckon a moral objection probably could be based on the principle of autonomy.
Assuming we are talking about kids who are legally permitted to drive, we are necessarily talking about kids who are 16+ years of age. Would a parent normally take herself to be justified in censoring what a 16 year old can listen to?

2012 Q3 Section


Techo-Optimism II: Don Tapscott on Principles for an Open World (07.10.12)

Speaking of techno-optimism, here's a recent TED talk by author Don Tapscott on "Four Principles for the Open World." It's a little gushy for my taste. (And, really, Pachelbel's Canon for your closing montage?) But Tapscott does touch on some themes--transparency, openness, the reconfiguration of intellectual property rights--that have been and will be of interest to us in the course. (Hat tip to Justin for the pointer.)



Where are our flying cars?(06.20.12)

The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber weighs in:

"Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit," The Baffler, 19 (June, 2012)


Dumbing Down Through Simplicity (06.27.12)

Versions of Sang-Jin Bae's argument have been floating around for years--in fact, we'll be looking at one of them later on in the course. In its most general form, that argument is that technology has made some tasks just too easy, leading to both a withering of important human skills and, consequently, an increased dependency on technology. For the moment, I leave it to you to evaluate the consequences (and the actual likelihood) of a generation of 'digital illiterates':

"Are we breeding a generation of app-loving, web-addicted digital illiterates?" Jonathan Blum, Globe & Mail (06.27.12)


2012 T1 Section


Some Techno-Optimism: Peter Diamandis (03.03.12)

In the last few classes, we've been discussing some rather depressing implications of uncontrolled technologcal development--specifically Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' and McGinn's 'troubling triad'. By way of an antidote, here's a much more upbeat assessment of technogy's role in our future from space flight entrepreneur and X PRIZE chairman Peter Diamandis:



Kant in Three Minutes (02.01.12)

Since we'll be starting our discussion of Kant's moral theory in class today, I though I'd pass this along. I don't think it is quite 100% accurate, but it is pretty funny:


2010 Q2 Section

Request for Comments (06.05.10)

I've circulated via email a request for comments regarding the course readings (you'll have received this if you are already registered in the course). Here's the upshot:

For several years now I've used a readings package that I designed for the course. While I have updated the readings package from time to time, it's been a while since the last update and, frankly, some changes are overdue. I won't have time to effect all of those changes prior to the start of the Spring and Summer section. An alternative to the paper readings package, however, would be for me to make readings available through a secured web page on the course web site. (I've done this previously for seminar courses and, generally speaking, students really seem to like it.)

For students, the obvious advantage of making the readings available online is that they will save the cost of the text (currently $46.00); the obvious disadvantage is that students who prefer to read paper copies then bear the cost of printing out those copies themselves. Moreover, to the extent that students learn better reading from paper than from the screen (since it much easier to markup and make annotations on paper), this might imply a further disadvantage inasmuch as some students won't print out readings due to printing costs. (On the other hand, it's fair to mention that, during the Spring and Summer Session, we typically don't cover everything in the readings package. So, if we go with the existing edition of the readings package, you'll be paying for some readings that you may not use.)

From my perspective, making the readings available online has several advantages: I'll have an opportunity to make some of the necessary changes without having to account for the lead time required by Printing Services (or, for that matter, the hassle of getting CanCopy clearance for individual readings). The online alternative also has the advantage of allowing for greater flexibility, both in the upcoming iteration of the course and (possibly) thereafter.

So we have two options: A) Use the current (v 1.04) version of the paper text or B) Make the readings available via the course web site. Given that I have to make a decision pretty much right away, please let me know your views ASAP.


2009 Q3 Section

Peter Singer on Rationing Health Care (16.07.09)

It seems to be the week for this sort of thing (no surprise, really given the debate currently going on in the U.S.). Here [New York Times], in any case, is an explicitly utilitarian perspective perspective on technology and health care costs from Peter Singer (the same one mentioned previously in class).

The Price of Innovation: Human vs. Vetrinary Health Care (16.07.09)

Lots of good, useful ideas are downright obvious--once somebody has thought of them. Yesterday in class we were discussing, inter alia, the role of what McGinn calls 'technological maximality' as a factor in rising health care costs. In her blog at The Atlantic, economist Megan McArdle recently provided an excellent (and, once you think of it, obvious) comparison that helps to put the relative contribution of technological innovation to rising health care costs into perspective. Note the graph toward the middle of her post. Had I seen this before yesterday's lecture, it definitely would have been included.

Final Exam and SEEQ Evaluations (14.07.09)

Probably most of you have already looked up this information for yourselves, but I thought I'd point out that according to the Exam Schedule, the final exam for this section will NOT be held in AGRIC 2E25, but in ARCH 112. The date for the exam, of course, is 2:00 PM, Thursday July 23rd.

Also, depsite what you may have read in the broadcast e-mail of a few days ago, the SEEQ evaluation for the course will in fact remain available until midnight, July 22nd.

In Case You Wanted It: Still More Julian Simon (14.07.09)

Today in class, one of the views that we were considering was the 'cornucopian' (and implicitly technocratic) perspective of the American economist Julian Simon. Here he is explaining his views in greater (possibly excruciating, depending on your tastes) detail. Forgive the cheesy 80s-style graphics. Once he gets warmed up, his explanation really does get quite interesting.


2008 Section (02)

UBC Survey Study on Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement Technologies (08.10.08)

A former student of mine, Rana Ahmad, now pursuing her Ph.D. at W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia, would like your help with a survey study investigating people's views about cognitive enhancement technologies. We'll be discussing this sort of thing in connection with biosynthetic compounds later on in the course. If you are interested in the topic or if you'd just like to do Rana and me a favour (provided you are also 19 years of age or older), I encourage you to take part in the survey you'll find here:

You will need to create a new account in order participate (see link on the lower left). The survey itself will take only about 10 to 15 minutes of your time and, if you consider your answers carefully, it provides some interesting food for thought.


Video: Julian Simon (23.09.08)

In a few days, in connection with Garrett Hardin and the Tragedy of the Commons, I'm going to be saying a few things in the lectures (not all of them favourable) about Julian Simon's 'greatest resource' idea. In the old video below (seems to date from the mid- to late 80s) Simon does a pretty good job of explaining his views:

Julian Simon: PRC Forum Part I
YouTube (link via Marginal Revolution)

This is not required viewing for the course, but I thought it might be interesting, especially for students who aren't familiar with Simon's sort of libertarian economic views.


2006 Q4 Section (02)


Hey Kids, It's Captain Copyright! (08.09.06)

Your course readings package costs as much as it does largely due to fees payable to an outfit called Access Canada (formerly CanCopy) for each article included. Often enough, the authors of those articles never see a penny from these fees, since they have assigned (or their publisher has assumed) copyright control. (Compare this with the philosophical justifications of intellectual property rights that we will be considering in the next few days).

Recently Access Canada has introduced a superhero-esque cartoon character (link via Boing Boing) to indoctrinate into kids the idea that violating intellectual property rights is, well, really bad.

[Cap'n Copyright -- used without  permission. It's called 'fair dealing', folks]

Interestingly, the Canadian Library Association has just released an open letter to Access Canada (PDF link) which suggests that the Captain Copyright campaign may in fact be a violation of Quebec law and Canadian advertising guidelines.


Home DNA Tests (08.04.06)

They're pretty much total bullshit, it turns out (Chris MacDonald, The Business Ethics Blog).


Turning Spam Into Art (08.04.06)

Alex Dragulescu grows Spam Plants (link via Tech Republic) using the ASCII values found in the text of spam messages. Surprisingly cool.

(But, in a way, it's not too surprising that the structures have an 'organic' sort of regularity. Since while the content of particular spam messages is obviously fairly unpredictable, there also will be a fair degree of regularity in that content over multiple messages -- the ACSII strings for "Viagra," "penis enlargement," "Nigerian bank," etc. Dragulescu's gimmick is in that respect a bit like the use of tendency masks in stochastic music composition.)



2006 Section (02A, 02B)

Section 02A/02B T2 2006

The syllabus and schedule for the T2 section are now available in the Notes and Assignments section.

Keeners (and others students who want to be well-prepared) should note that the first three readings for the course are available in the Online Readings section. Why not get an early start on the course while you nurse your New Year's Eve hangover?

2005 Section (01)

Global Warming: Dateline 6,000 BCE

In class the other day, in connection with Jonas, I mentioned some high-consequence human actions in the distant past (which, it was suggested, might be morally mitigated because the people involved didn't know enough to anticipate what those consequences might be).

Here's another example (albeit somewhat speculative) centered on research by William Ruddiman from the University of Virginia:

Global Warming
Sumitra Rajagopalan, CBC News Viewpoint (10.25.05)

Some interested parties (e.g., advocates for the fossil fuel industry) have already leapt on the idea that "maybe global warming is a good thing." That debate, I think, is properly left to the experts. From a moral point of view, however, I'd suggest that Ruddiman's hypothesis is not simply a "lesson in humility" but a lesson in the full extent of human responsibility for the fate of the planet as well.

20% of Human Genome Patented in the U.S.

A first systematic study matching U.S. gene patents to the human genome appeared earlier this month in the journal Science. The link below summarizes the study's findings. And to think that only a decade ago all this was thought to be fear-mongering speculation...

One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented, Study Reveals
National Geographic News (10.13.05) (via Boing Boing)


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Last Updated: 24.07.2018