Angell Hall Columns

Phil 250: Changing the World

We tend to lead with our hearts when trying to do good. This means we focus on causes that are familiar and local, and we don’t think very hard about which causes matter the most, or try very hard to measure how much of a difference we are actually making.

In this course, we will consider the most pressing global problems, thinking rigorously about how to compare their moral significance as well as their tractability. And we will evaluate how we can best use our own comparative advantage to make greatest possible difference.

We will focus on four areas of concern: (i) global health and poverty, (ii) animal welfare, (iii) environmental preservation, and (iv) the long-term survival of human civilization. Our conceptual tools will be drawn from a variety of disciplines. We will use moral philosophy to help us think about which issues we should care about most; and we will evaluate the efficacy of interventions by drawing from economics, sociology, environmental science, and development studies.

The overarching ethical question will be: what are the most important global causes? This raises many more specific ethical questions, like:

  • Should we care more about people who live nearby than those who live far away? How can we compare the value of various human goods—for example, bodily health and political freedom?

  • Which animals should we care about, and how much? Do species matter in addition to individual animals? What about ecosystems? What is our goal in preserving the natural world?

  • Do the lives of present people matter more than the lives of future people, especially those in the distant future? How much should we care about the possibility that humans could go extinct?

The overarching practical question will be: what are the most effective things we can do? This also breaks down into many questions, such as:

  • How effective are various efforts to improve global health and poverty? What are the comparative benefits, going forward, of improving technology, education, healthcare, and social institutions around the world?

  • How much do farmed and wild animals suffer? What are the most effective ways to reduce animal suffering? What steps can we take to protect the environment with our lifestyles and resources?

  • What are the most significant threats to the long-term survival of human civilization? How can we best ensure that technological advances are safe and beneficial?

  • And finally, for all of these causes, how can a single individual make the most difference on the margin with a career, volunteer work, or donations?

Phil 183: Critical Reasoning

Reason better when deciding what to believe, and when deciding what to do. This course provides the tools you need, drawing from several areas: cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, logic, probability, and decision theory. We will consider empirical evidence about 'heuristics and biases’—spontaneous judgments that can be predictably irrational. And we will study what good deductive, causal, and probabilistic reasoning looks like. But the goal is entirely practical: to develop effective reasoning skills with clear applications in your personal and professional lives. Here are some questions we will examine:

  • What kinds of mental processes are involved in reasoning?

  • What’s the difference between intelligence and rationality?

  • How do people tend to go wrong when they reason about probabilities?

  • What makes a line of reasoning valid or strong?

  • When can we infer causation from correlation?

  • Why do people tend to become more certain of the views they started with?

  • Are there strategies we can use to avoid common errors in reasoning?

  • What is evidence, and how does it interact with our background knowledge?

  • Why is there no simple recipe for the scientific method?

  • How does our initial reaction to potential risk tend to be irrational?

The course is open to students from all areas of the University interested in improving their reasoning ability and their ability to construct and recognize compelling arguments. These skills may be helpful in a wide variety of university subjects and extra-academic pursuits. Here is the text we will use.

Phil 196: Future Humanity

Today we humans are not only shaping the world around us, but we are at the cusp of being able to shape our own nature. Current technology already allows for bionic body parts, performance enhancing drugs, and genetically engineered humans. In this course we will set aside our current technological barriers and try to peer into humanity’s future, asking about ethical, metaphysical, and social implications of the changes we might undergo as individuals and as one species among others on our planet.

  • Will human beings survive into the distant future? And if so, in what form? 

  • What are the ethical implications of slowing or ending the process of aging? Would indefinitely extended life even be desirable? 

  • What about radical enhancements to bodily function or cognition? 

  • What does it take to be the same person if one undergoes significant changes— for example, due to biological enhancements or extremely prolonged life? 

  • What does it take to be the same species if humanity changes itself over time? Do we care?

  • What are the ethical implications of radical change to our environment— for example eliminating a species of mosquito that carries malaria, or engineering animals to control population?

  • How much effort should we put into avoiding existential risk — that is, danger of the sort that would extinguish the species entirely?

Aside from the opportunity to think hard about these issues, this course will help you refine your ability to reason carefully, question your assumptions, and write compellingly. You will be expected to develop and present your own views on the issues that we are discussing.

This course is designed to provide first-year students with an intensive introduction to philosophy in a seminar format. I assume only significant interest in the topic, not previous experience.

at the University of Michigan

Phil 250: Changing the World (Winter 19)

Phil 183: Critical Reasoning (Fall 17,18; Winter 16, 17, 18; Spring/Summer 17, 18)

Phil 611: Graduate Seminar on the Future of Humanity (Fall 17)

Phil 196: First Year Seminar (Winter 17)

Phil 481: Metaphysics (Winter 16)

Phil 180: Introduction to Logic (Winter 15, Fall 13)

Phil 607: Graduate Seminar in Metaphysics (Fall 15, Fall 13, Winter 11)

Phil 345: Philosophy of Language and Mind (Winter 12)

Phil 152: Philosophy of Human Nature (Winters of 14, 12 11)

Phil 480: Philosophy of Religion (Fall 11, Fall 18)

Phil 297: Honors Introduction to Philosophy (Winter 10)

Phil 383: Knowledge and Reality (Fall 09)

Phil 482: Philosophy of Mind (Fall 09)

at the University of Southern California

Phil 317: History of Philosophy, Medieval Period (Spring 09, Summer 08)

Phil 155: Modern Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (Summers of 09, 07, 06; Springs of 09, 08, 07)

Arlt 100: Medieval Thought (Springs of 08, 07, 06)

Phil 462: Philosophy of Mind (Spring 08, Fall 06, Spring 06)

Phil 560: Metaphysics Seminar, with Jeffrey C. King (Spring 07)     

Phil 505: Truth, Meaning, Analyticity, and Apriority, with Scott Soames(Fall 06) 

Phil 590: Belief Reports, Acquaintance, and the Contingent A Priori, with Scott Soames (Spring 06) 

Phil 590: Truth, Vagueness, Context Sensitivity, and Meaning, with Scott Soames (Fall 05) 

at Rutgers University

Phil 105: Current Moral and Social Issues (Spring 04)

Phil 304: Origins of Medieval Philosophy (Fall 04)