PHIL 224, Week 11: New life forms and nuclear wastes


Nov. 22, guest lecture, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Ethics of Climate Change.

Nov. 24, Assignment 3 due (hydraulic fracturing, wind farms). Instructions, including a note about an Empathica problem.

Dec. 1, Exam 3, in class. No final exam.

Structure: same as exam 1, 4 short answers and short essay. Only weeks 9-12 are covered.

Review questions are available at the end of the lecture notes.

How to do well:

  1. Come to class and pay attention. Ask questions.
  2. Do not use laptops or other electronics, for these reasons.
  3. Read the text carefully and critically.
  4. Prepare detailed answers to review questions.

New Life Forms (Oppenheim and Gibson)

Approaches to environmental decision making

  1. Conventional: technical, information-based, case-specific
  2. Alternative: precaution, democratic, anticipatory, value-based

Precautionary principle (from Wikipedia)

If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, and there is no scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, then the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

Advantages: avoid mistakes. Examples?

Disadvantages: too conservative, e.g. new technologies such as Facebook.


New technologies arising from recombinant DNA technology (gene splicing).

Results: genetically modified organisms such as corn, soybeans, tomatoes, salmon.

Positive consequences: greater yields, prosperity, jobs.

Negative consequences:

  1. Biodiversity losses
  2. Patenting of seeds
  3. Dominance of corporations
  4. Ecological disruptions from escaped organisms
  5. Human identity threats from reductionism and DNA manipulation

Regulatory approach deficiencies

  1. Inadequate information for risk calculation.
  2. Risk acceptability is a matter of values, not science.
  3. Risk assessment misses overall and cumulative effects.
  4. Risk assessment of products comes too late.
  5. Neglect of distributional effects.

Alternative Regulatory Process

  1. Comprehensive assessment of a new biotechnology.
  2. Develop a precautionary screen.
  3. Evaluate specific products.

Basic value principles

  1. Continued existence of nature. Protect ecosystems, diversity, genetic material.
  2. Cultural sustainability.
  3. Open political process.
  4. Freedom from want and economic vulnerability. Needs, distribution, self-reliance.

Nuclear Wastes (Andrew Brook)

Methods of settling ethical issues

  1. Identify problems and collect facts.
  2. Identify relevant ethical principles.
  3. Lay out criteria for costs and benefits.
  4. Apply the principles and criteria to the facts.

Advantages of nuclear power (50% of Ontario power generation)

Disadvantages of nuclear power

How does these compare with alternatives?

Ethical problems of nuclear wastes

Obligations to current and future generations. Discounting.

Obligations to all organisms, ecosystems, biosphere.

How to deal with uncertainty?

Procedural question: Who should make the decisions?

Relevant principles:

  1. Fairness: those who benefit should bear the costs. Hinterland.
  2. Liberty: infringe on people's lives as little as possible.
  3. Equal worth: all people have same value.

Brook's proposal: deep geological disposal of wastes.

Review Questions for Week 11

  1. What is the precautionary principle and what are its strengths and weakness?
  2. What do Oppenheim and Craig think should be the three steps in a regulatory process?
  3. What does Brook think is the appropriate method for settling ethical issues?
  4. How does Brook think that his 3 relevant principles apply to the question of nuclear wastes?
  5. Essay: From the ethical perspectives of consequences and rights, is nuclear power morally desirable?
    1. statement of at least two alternatives
    2. consequences pro and con, and evaluation
    3. rights and duties, pro and con, and evaluation
    4. overall evaluation.

Phil 224

Paul Thagard

Computational Epistemology Laboratory.

This page updated Nov. 25, 2011