Friday, February 26, 2010

Practical Ethics: "Shall Ape Be Allowed to Kill Ape?"

Over at Practical Ethics they are asking "Shall Ape be Allowed to Kill Ape."
However, the defenders of rights for great apes and other animals often miss a crucuial point about the extension of universal human rights to animals. It is not only humans that are liable to violate any rights that non-human apes might hold. Other apes are liable to do so as well. Consider the right to life. It is well known that chimpanzees have a propensity to kill one another ... If we take the idea that non human great apes have the right to life then surely we have a responsibility to police all ape communities to uphold the right to life, in the same way that we try to ensure that the right to human life is upheld, by policing human societies.

People commonly object to vegetarianism by saying "Other animals eat each other, so why can't we eat them." The standard reply is that humans have free will in a way that animals do not, so we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. I actually think this reply needs to be beefed up a little, but it is very interesting to note that it doesn't seem to apply at all here. Advocates of personhood for all great apes push the idea that chimps and the like really do have human like levels of self-awareness and self-control. If we extend the moral community to them, it looks like we have to extend both rights and responsibilities.

What the practical ethics post misses, though, is that the other apes have their own communities and already are policing their own behavior. Just as we allow different nations to handle their own murder cases for the most part, we should probably allow other ape communities to handle their own ape-on-ape violence for the most part. We make exceptions in the international case when the violence rises to the level of crimes against humanity, or when the justice system of the nation seems hopelessly broken. Perhaps we could identify similar thresholds for the other apes. Chimpanzee troops fight wars. Might we be obligated to send in peacekeepers?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Should We Ban Cognitive Enhancing Drugs from Schools?

Barbara Sahakian wonders if cognitive enhancing drugs, such as Ritalin and modafinil, should be banned from schools the way performance enhancing drugs are banned form sports. (The abstract of her talk is here; a write up from the Guardian is here.) Anders Sandberg at Practical Ethics does a good job at undercutting this argument, especially when he points out that at rock bottom, school is not a place for competition, but for learning.

Missing from this discussion, though, is the fact that very common mild stimulants like coffee and cigarettes are excellent cognitive enhancers. (I recently learned that someone i went to college with took up smoking in medical school because it gave her a cognitive edge. She is now a transplant surgeon. I don't know if she does lung transplants.) Do coffee drinking students have an unfair advantage over Mormon students because they can caffeinate before a test?

Friday, February 19, 2010

This week in mandatory ugliness

Often in class I create little hierarchical charts on the fly in MS Word. In Word 2003, I am able to make a chart like the one on the right while I am explaining it. In Word 2007, the same chart comes out like the one on the left, and there is no way to remove the double balloons. (Or if there is, I can't find it.) The result is that more visual space is taken up with junk that carries no information, and there is less room to put in more explanatory text.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

This week in stupid

Its been a big week for stupid. Here are some highlights.

An article on Read Write Web features the words "facebook" and "login" in the headline and deals with some trendy topics, so it gets to be the number 1 google hit for "facebook login." The comment thread then is flooded by people who think they are at the facebook login page and are complaining that they don't like the new interface.

A US college student was detained and interrogated by federal agents at an airport because he had English/Arabic flashcards.

The Virginia legislature debates a bill that would ban employers from putting microchips in their employees against their will. No business is even considering doing this, but Delegate Mark L. Cole explains that people worried about this because the Mark of the Beast described in Revelations might actually be a microchip installed by a one world government to control commerce.

Via Apostropher, Chris G, and minivet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Same class, two sections, two completely different sets of evaluations

I taught two land-based sections of ethics last semester, one right after the other, using the same syllabus and lessons plans, and the course evaluations could hardly be more radically different. The whole thing is a good case study in interpreting student evaluations.

The chart above is just one measure of the difference. In the 10 AM section, a big majority (70%) of the students strongly agree that I was an effective teacher. For the 11AM section, few strongly agree that I was effective, and some even disagree with the idea that I was effective at all. (Note, there is a strong bias toward positive evaluations on this question. You simply won't see evaluations that are the exact inverse of my 10AM question unless the teacher was, like, drunk in class.)

The written comments paint a bigger picture of the 11AM section. I got twenty seven comments, and only four were positive. This was actually the first page I saw when I opened the envelope, and the whole thing hit me like a sack of bricks. They hated me, they hated the textbook, they hated the assignments, they hated the syllabus. Almost everyone used the word "confusing." It gave me one of those "Have I really chosen the right career?" moments. The 10AM section, on the other hand, only had four comments, all of which were blandly positive.

A typical response from teachers here would be that course evaluations really don't tell you anything, and this is evidence for that. Responses are all over the map, and they only reflect the idiosyncratic responses of students, who don't really know what is good for them anyway. But this would be a big mistake.

Thing is, I knew the 11AM section wasn't going well while it was happening. The students were so unengaged that I had the cameraman move to the 10AM section so we'd get better video for distance learning. I didn't realize how bad it had gotten, I think, because the good earlier class put a halo over the later class. But I knew there was a difference. The negative evaluations for the second section reflected a real difference in student experience and student learning.

Here are the real lessons I take home. The first is something every customer service representative knows: unhappy customers give a lot more feedback than happy ones. I don't have two pages of effusive comments about how great I am from the 10AM section, even though they all checked that I was a good teacher.

The second is that you can't design a course that will appeal to all students. Is the design of my ethics course sound? It is for some students. I suspect that this course, in particular, works for students who were better prepared for college. One positive review from the 10AM section said "Its challenging in a very good way." The wave of negative reviews from the section section all said "confusing" and "too advanced for an introductory class."

Ideally, you would respond to this situation by tailoring the class to fit the students, so that if you see that a section is floundering, change the syllabus. But this is a lot harder to do when you have, say, 100 students in three sections of ethics, plus another class or two. To keep your own workload manageable, you need to keep all the sections doing the same material.

Another observation is that classes tend to consolidate around an opinion of you. If any one of the dissatisfied students in the 11AM section were moved to 10AM, they would have softened their critique, because they would have seen other students responding positively, rather than having their negative opinions reinforced.

There are definitely things I'm going to change about the class. The negative comments are far from useless. They also hurt a lot, too. I had to buy some junk food after reading these. I also needed to write this post to put things in perspective.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Never doubt that slippery slopes can be very very real

A Dutch group is pushing for legalized physician assisted suicide for people over 70 who are "tired of life."

Oddly, part of their argument is that the initial decriminalization of euthanasia in The Netherlands did not lead to any worse consequences: Says Eugène Sutorius (63): "It was thought to be the first step on a slippery slope that would lead the medical profession to lose its integrity. But I have seen nothing of the kind happen."

Apparently, since the first step down the slippery slope didn't lead to any other steps down the slope, we can go ahead and take another few steps down the slope.

At the bottom, at least to my mind, is euthanasia as a treatment for depression.

spin fail

LC3 has put out a flier for those interested in "Music and Theater Careers" that tries so hard to be optimistic that it includes this: "Many openings will also arise out of the need to replace those who leave the field each year because they are unable to make a living solely as musicians." That's right: so many people are fleeing the business, that it has to be a good place to look for openings. Also, wouldn't the jobs that open up be basically guaranteed to be ones where you couldn't make a living solely as a musician?