2009 Fall Proseminar Student Work

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Reconstructions of Singer Chapter

Recon #1

Singer’s general claim seems to be that the structure of distinctly separate nations within the world causes one’s view of ethics and morality to be faulty and incomplete. He supports this claim with four major arguments.

The first claim is that nationalism causes unnecessary loss of life through inaction. Morality which emphasizes the importance of one’s own citizens stops countries from acting in a manner that would save many lives in other countries because it would risk some lives of its own citizens. This is exemplified by the events in Rwanda and Kosovo, in which professional soldiers from other countries could have saved many lives with small amounts of casualties.

Singer’s second argument is that improper actions between nations causes war and excessive loss of life. As an example, he states that the First World War began because one nation asked too much of another and therefore attributes the nine million deaths to the structure of sovereign nations. Essentially, a morality based on nationalism is responsible for the First World War, according to Singer.

The final major rationale that Singer provides for why the current structure of sovereign states is inadequate is how modern globalization has changed the world. He cites terrorism and advances in communication as events which have created an integrated world community that goes beyond borders. Singer argues that this interconnectedness requires that we broaden the way we think ethically from one society or country to one world.

Recon #2

In his first chapter of One World entitled “A Changing World,” Peter Singer’s main point is rather self-evident: the state of the world was we know it is changing. However, more specifically this change is being experienced in the political landscape of the world. At the end of the chapter he uses this determination to establish the relevancy of his book, because for a nation to ignore adoption of a “global ethical viewpoint” is not only immoral but also a grave threat to its own security (13). However, for the purposes of this first chapter of the book, three different arguments (perhaps better characterized as examples and therefore representative of inductive reasoning from specifics to a generalization) are presented to affirm the thesis that the world of nation-states is in fact altering greatly.

The first argument encountered is that increased interconnectedness of the global community has made unequivocal nation-first attitudes appear anachronistic. Singer provides two examples in making this argument. First, since global warming is an issue the affects all nations, President George W. Bush is incorrect to adopt a nation-first stance in protecting the American economy before a discussion on the global issue at hand; he does not lend America to being a good member of the global community, let alone a leader in it. Another example is that of limited risk of the lives of soldiers to intervene for humanitarian purposes, as seen in the Balkans and Kosovo.

The second argument is also related to the interconnectedness of nations across the globe, namely that the concept of national sovereignty is undergoing an upheaval. He compares the actions of Austria-Hungary leading up to the First World War with that of the United States in its conflict in Afghanistan. In both cases, the prosecuting nations made forcible requests of a sovereign nation to hand over individuals responsible for an act of terrorism. History has condemned Austria-Hungary, but the actions of the U.S have been deemed justified.

Finally, Singer points to the influential role of technology. He identifies it as a means of supporting international nongovernmental entities such as transnational corporations and the World Trade Organization. The increased power and influence of these organizations that operate beyond the bounds of any one national government has great ramifications on the role of a nation in self-direction and economic regulation. One such example is Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Straitjacket.”

Recon #3

I think the general conclusion in chapter one of Peter Singer’s “One World” is that: we are in need of a new global ethic. Singer supports this conclusion by first giving examples of how national leaders and heads of state have lived out the contemporary social ethic in which nation states primarily pursue their own interests and why it is morally flawed. He then explains how globalization has made the world population more interdependent than ever before and has thus given us a reason and basis for a new global ethics.

He starts out by stating that scientists have piled up the evidence that green house gases currently being emitted will put millions of lives in danger. Yet then President George Bush refused to take any action that would harm the American economy. Congress following suit rejects to raise fuel efficiency standards while SUV sales are on the rise. Another example is how the Clinton administration refused to intervene in Bosnia to reduce civilian casualties that were a result of Serb “ethnic cleansing” because it was not worth the life of one single American soldier. Finally, in Kosovo where intervention took place the invasion was restricted to aerial bombing in which NATO forces suffered no casualties while Serb Kosovo and Chinese civilians died as a result of the bombing.

Singer points out that “the value of the life of an innocent human being does not vary according to nationality. Yet in the examples above we see how one group of human beings is given less value in favor of another and this seems inherently immoral. Singer then points out that this is the way it has always been done and it is the requirement of national leaders to give partiality to their own citizens. However Singer then suggests that this era of globalization and the development of technology and communications may have created a world audience in which would serve as a basis for a new global ethic.

An example of this is what Tom Friedman calls the “Golden Straight jacket.” The Golden Straight jacket is a set of policies that include removing restrictions of foreign investment, shrinking bureaucracies and giving the private sector more freedom. If a country takes off the straight jacket or refuses to put it on it would lose investment capital that keeps their country growing. In this case when neither government nor opposition refuses to take off the straight jacket the major political differences become much more minor, thus as Singer points out “the growth of the global economy itself marks a decline in the power of a nation state.” The interdependence of the global society and its ability to link the world’s population together, according to Singer, gives us the basis for a new global ethic.

Recon #4

The Most broad argument Peter Singer makes in the first chapter of his book a Changing World is that our thinking about ethics needs to change to be concerned with the well being of the entire global community rather than just a concern for our own sovereign state.

Singer begins the argument by illustrating the actions of past leaders when it came to concern for others outside their sovereign state. These leaders include George Bush Sr. George Bush Jr. and Bill Clinton. Each of these leaders has shown that they are much more concerned with their own constituents and not with the well being of others. This kind of ethic is what singer feels needs to change and he begins by showing that the idea of state sovereignty has changed in the past century. Singer uses a comparison between the assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 and the atrocity if September 11, 2001 as an example of how ideas of state sovereignty have changed. The change in thinking shows that “world leaders now accept that every nation has an obligation to every other nation of the world to suppress activities in its border that might lead to terrorist attacks in another nation” (Singer, 7). Therefore, because the world has already changed its mindset about state sovereignty to a thinking more globally minded, singer suggests that the next step is for the world to adopt a sound global system of criminal justice.

In addition to stopping terrorism, Singer also explains that technology is an important reason why the world should adopt an ethic that is concerned with the well-being of others. Singer says, “Our newly interdependent global society, with its remarkable possibilities for linking people around the planet, gives us a material basis for a new ethic” (Singer, 12). Singer says this because he recognizes that with the internet, and other technological advances, the world and economic globalization is able to overcome distance. Therefore, because we affect others thousands of miles away, Singer feels we should adopt a new ethic that makes us more concerned with those we do not know but nevertheless can affect.

In all, Singer recognizes that the world is becoming more intertwined and that the actions of one country can have drastic affects on another. Terrorism and the global market are just two examples that show the world is too globally connected to think selfishly about one’s own constituents. It is apparent that countries affect each other and even depend on each other. For Singer, this means a new global ethic needs: an ethic that makes countries more concerned with the well being of others outside their constituency.

Reconstruction and Critique of Dennett

Recon #1

According the Dennett reading, the idea of evolution wasn’t anything new that Darwin introduced to us, but rather evolution by natural selection was the revolutionary idea. Natural selection was the mechanism that could explain not only the variation and adaptation among species but how they originate by “decent by modification.” Dennett states that what Darwin discovered in natural selection was an algorithmic process. Dennett defines an algorithm as “a certain sort of formal process that can be counted on-logically-to yield a certain sort of results whenever it is “run” or instantiated.” Three characteristics of an algorithm are given: substrate neutrality, underlying mindlessness and guaranteed results. An example given is the algorithm used for organizing a coin-toss elimination tournament. If there was such a tournament, no matter how many people participated in it there would be one winner. The reason for the individual winning the tournament isn’t because of some kind of purpose or because of the kind individual he or she is, rather, it is because the process had to produce one winner. If it were held a second time another individual, perhaps one who lost in the first round could conceivably win the tournament. Dennett applies this example to evolution to show that it can be an algorithmic process and did not necessarily have to produce us. Much like the coin-tossing tournament a there had to be a winner but just because one individual won doesn’t mean that individual had to win. The process is substrate neutral, proceeding in mindless steps and producing guaranteed results. Evolution can be thought of the same way. The fact that we were produced by evolution doesn’t mean we had to be produced. We just happened to be the result of an algorithmic process.

The criticism I have with Dennett’s claim of evolution being an algorithmic process is that it renders evolution as unintelligible. Stating that evolution is an algorithmic process seems to give us more of a history rather than a scientific theory. Scientific theories have laws and explain causes which help us in being able to predict future events. For example if one were to wonder why a plant is considered a living substance we would say because it nourishes itself through photosynthesis. If asked how this is possible we can answer by saying that plants take energy from the sun and use that energy to convert carbon dioxide into sugar. This very basic, general example I think indicates that in order to have science it must be presumed that nature is intelligible and we can know it. If plant nourishment was an algorithmic process I don’t think we really could say we know this phenomenon that takes place in nature. In other words we would have to say nature in unintelligible. Explaining evolution as an algorithm doesn’t give us a scientific theory. Since there is no kind of evolutionary law that comes out of it we just have a history of our origin on the planet. We know that it happened but we don’t know why it happened nor can we predict what will happen in the future. I think Dennett made a good case for evolution being an algorithmic process. However, if we are going to go down that road then it seems to me that evolution is unintelligible and cannot be known. This seems goes against the scientific presumption that nature is intelligible and thus knowable. I think if we want to truly do good science then we cannot suppose that evolution is an algorithmic process.

Recon #2


Over the course of chapters two and three of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett introduces the concept that natural section is a universal algorithm. This idea is merely introduced because Dennett nominally succeeds (in these given two chapters) in establishing that natural selection is in fact an algorithm, but does not fully develop its identification as universal.

Dennett characterized natural selection as an algorithm by showing that it meets the three-fold criteria of 1) substrate neutrality, 2) underlying mindlessness, and 3) guaranteed results. The idea that natural selection is substrate neutral is indirectly addressed by comparison of the logical structure of this mechanism with a tennis tournament: the underlying protocol of the tournament can be represented in a multitude of ways without altering its logic. Much time was spent in showing how order can come from mindlessness, including dispelling the misunderstanding that natural selection is for something. The condition of having a guaranteed result seems to have been implicit from the conclusion that this underlying mindlessness somehow works.

The “universal” aspect is mentioned multiple times, in particular on page 39 where Darwin’s schema is claimed to be able to “spread to other phenomena and other disciplines, as we shall see.” That qualifier at the end is crucial, because though the image of an uncontainable universal acid to metaphorically describe the potency and universality of natural selection is engaging, it is thin on actual demonstrations of how and why such a paradigm has universal implications. Dennett’s discussion on reductionism and his claim of its exhaustive explanatory power appears to set the stage for further development of the idea of natural selection as a universal algorithm in later chapters.


It appears that Dennett has modified the thesis first identified in the first chapter from “Darwin’s idea has radically changed our understanding of the world both scientifically and philosophically” to more specifically “Darwin’s idea of natural selection is a universal algorithm capable of explaining away ‘skycranes’ and capable of being applied to all fields of inquiry.” This second thesis is most likely the subject of at least a good portion of the remainder of the book, so it is reasonable to expect that the arguments for this thesis would not be fully developed in only two chapters.

However, the fact that any discussion of the universality of natural selection had been relegated presumably to later chapters is disappointed. The universality of natural selection is treated almost as a given in Dennett’s treatment during these two chapters. He seems to support his claim through negative demonstration: by setting the stage for a battle of ideologies and stating that those opposing natural selection are continually falling back. He mentions psychology briefly on page 63, and a further mention of advances in evolutionary psychology or morality (e.g. demonstrations of the TIT FOR TAT program) would have added more substance.

By affirming the validity (and non-scariness) of “good” reductionism, Dennett seems to set the stage for demonstrating the universality of natural selection. However, his discussion of reductionism is superficial. What are these real levels, complexities, and phenomena we run the risk of denying? Are these the cranes? Furthermore in regards to cranes, his description of the Baldwin Effect appeared flawed and unconvincing from a scientific perspective.