Philosophy News Archive
UM Delves into Ethics to Prepare Students to Debate Society’s Issues
New courses and competitions equip participants to engage in civil discussion
OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi Department of Philosophy and Religion has created new classes, and conducts an annual Ethics Bowl and a Great Debate with the goal of equipping students to respectfully grapple with some of life’s most pressing questions.
Specialized ethics classes have become more common at universities around the country over the last 20 years against the backdrop of many high-profile scandals that involve unethical behavior. The department has courses on medical, environmental, professional and business ethics, among others.
Deborah Mower, an associate professor of philosophy, came to UM in 2016 and specializes in moral psychology, applied ethics and public policy, and moral education. Unlike many academic subjects that deal only with professional situations, the curriculum can be applied to all aspects of life, said Mower, whose work is supported by the Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Hume Bryant Lectureship in Ethics Endowment.
“Everything is an ethical issue,” Mower said.
Films, books, the legal system and other aspects of our culture all have ethical theories imbued in them, so people pick up a variety of beliefs, but they can become a hodgepodge. Those beliefs don’t all fit together nicely, and in some context, one might apply one principle but ignore it in another situation.
This idiosyncrasy is problematic, Mower said.
The value of an ethics class is not just applying what is learned, but also figuring out how some of your beliefs fit into single coherent theories, she said. Seeing students figure this out is always rewarding, Mower said.
“You always get that moment in the semester when you are teaching them some particular theory and they get this ‘aha!’ look on their face where they’ve realized, ‘I’m a Kantian and I never knew it,’ or, ‘I’m a virtue theorist and I never knew it,’” she said.
Mower also praised the students on the first two UM Ethics Bowls teams, which competed in 2017 and 2018. They spent hours each week practicing, which included being questioned about specific topics by experts and applying their teachings to the answers they gave.
The UM Ethics Bowl participants also held a Great Debate of 2018 earlier this semester.
At the Great Debate, two groups handled the topic “Should the standard of sexual consent be an affirmative verbal ‘yes’?” One team spoke in favor of the “affirmative, verbal ‘yes’” while another spoke against it.
Their presentations were followed by judges’ questions and a question-and-answer session with emphasis on how to address specific claims and arguments civilly for a productive conversation. A reception afterward allowed students to discuss the issue further with attendees.
Madison Bandler, a senior biology major from Decatur, Illinois, completed a fellowship last year in which she worked at the UM Medical Center in Jackson. There, she learned about ethical issues surrounding medicine, which led her to begin taking classes under Mower.
Mower urged her to become involved with the Ethics Bowl, but she wasn’t immediately on board.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds really complicated and intense; I don’t know,’” Bandler said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I came to the first practice, but it ended up becoming one of the most influential and inspiring parts of my academic career.”
The team studied issues ranging from quarantines, euthanasia, a ban on Muslims and psychiatrists diagnosing someone with mental illness through television and without seeing them in a clinical setting, which is also known as “the Goldwater rule.” Exploring so many diverse topics with such great depths challenged her.
The coursework and competitions will serve the aspiring physician well, she said.
“I want to go to medical school, so I’ve always had an interest in medicine,” Bandler said. “To mold that with an interest in humanities and ethics is really something I’m passionate about.”
Ethan Davis, a senior philosophy major from Laurel, said he enjoyed the Ethics Bowl and Great Debate for one reason that might sound weird. He believes formal academic debate has grown stale, but the Ethics Bowl offers something new and different.
It is designed to begin a conversation, rather than win an argument. It rewards friendliness and the ability to engage the opposing team’s viewpoint in interesting ways. Ethics Bowl teams can actually agree.
“You find yourself using your response time to say things like, ‘We completely agree with your position, and here are some elements that we think are important that you didn’t get a chance to speak about. Could you elaborate on them?” Davis said.
Samantha Priest, a senior philosophy and psychology major from New Albany, said the Ethics Bowl taught her the importance of listening to other people’s opinions with a charitable mind, with the goal of finding the strongest, most rational interpretation of a speaker’s argument.
“It is not civil to ignore the strong points in another’s argument and focus on the weak points,” Priest said. “Focusing there only causes negative discourse, but being charitable allows for a positive discussion among people who disagree.”
It also drove home the importance of knowing that she not only needs to look at an issue from all perspectives, but also to consider solutions, she said.
“It is not enough to voice an opinion about an issue if the goal is progress,” Priest said. “Progress takes solutions, and the best way to get to progress is start by not only talking about the issues, but figuring out how to solve the issue in the most ethical way possible.”
Listen to Dr. Neil Manson’s podcast interview at the “You’re Not So Smart” blog!
Undergraduate humanities students make the rounds at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, observing patients and physicians while getting an up-close look at emerging ethical issues in modern medicine.
“The idea is to develop a population of humanities scholars who have a meaningful exposure to the modern biomedical enterprise and who will help us better understand health care in a broad sociocultural context,” said Dr. Ralph Didlake (BS zoology ’75), director of the UMMC Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, and chief academic officer.
The immersion experience program designed for juniors or seniors in the College of Liberal Arts introduces the fellows to the real-world ethical issues and challenges that face medical professionals, said Steven Skultety, professor and chair ofphilosophy.
“Much like students in medical school, our biomedical ethics fellows are assigned to ward teams, where they observe patients as they experience their illnesses, the environment in which their care is given, as well as the physicians, nurses and other staff as they provide that care,” Skultety said.
Besides interacting with medical and nursing students, the fellows attend selected classes and meetings of review boards, participate in tutorials and small group discussions, and write an essay that analyzes an ethical, cultural, or social issue encountered during the experience.
With rapid medical discoveries and technological advancements, bioethical issues are becoming more prominent in society. “One only has to hear one newscast to be convinced that ethics training is needed in many areas of our society, and this is clearly part of what we want to achieve with the fellowship,” said Didlake. “Beyond that, we want to fully understand how social and cultural issues impact health and health care.”
Emma Willoughby, (BA sociology and liberal studies with concentrations in anthropology, biology, and psychology ’14) currently at the London School of Economics for a master’s in international health policy, was a recent bioethics fellow.
“I’m very passionate about social disparities in health-care delivery methods and access,” Willoughby said.
Last June she conducted research for her thesis on trust relationships between patients and staff at a community health center in the Mississippi Delta. “I was learning about trust relationships between patients and providers,” Willoughby said. “At this health center, strong community bonds created a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere. In Jackson, at UMMC, things were very different—the medical system was much larger, more impersonal, and disparities between patients and providers were starkly clear to me. Contextualizing what I had experienced at the Delta clinic in the bigger picture of health care proved to be critically important for my thesis research and analysis.
“As we know, health care is linked to many facets of society and therefore requires the input from many different kinds of people, including philosophers and ethicists, economists, psychologists, social workers, policymakers and lawyers, managers, those in marketing, and countless others. But it’s important that these folks are all on the same page about what influences and shapes our health care delivery—socially, politically, and economically—if we really want to improve the health care system we’ve created.
“While the typical biomedical framework likes to say that medicine is equal and fair and just because it’s ‘science,’ this just isn’t true. We can’t extract our social relationships from health care, because it’s inevitably social as well.”
“Our intent is to grow a population of humanities scholars who can apply the skills of their disciplines to a better understanding of the challenges we meet in health care,” said Didlake. “Emma absolutely exemplifies what this fellowship is about.”
The “Conscious Thought and Thought About Consciousness” conference will be held at the E.F. Yerby Conference Center on April 27-30.
The conference, hosted by the University of Mississippi Department of Philosophy and Religion, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts and University Lecture Series, will introduce the university and community to work being done in consciousness studies, according to Donovan E. Wishon, assistant professor of philosophy and creator of the conference.
Wishon remarked that this is one of the most exciting areas of interdisciplinary research.
“What’s particularly remarkable about this event is that it will draw together scholars with vastly different views about consciousness, thought and the methods we should use to come to grips with the mind, its workings and its relation to physical reality,” Wishon said.
The conference participants will include leading philosophers and cognitive scientists who hope to better the public understanding of human and animal consciousness. Many of these scientists are of the highest distinction across the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The conference will include Kenneth J. Sufka, professor of psychology and pharmacology and research professor at UM. Sufka will be debating the question of whether some animals possess the same kind of complex states of consciousness seen in humans. According to Sufka, this question is debated among science and philosophy circles.
The conferencewill begin with a presentation, followed by a commentator who will address aspects of the talk, which will finish up with a Q&A period.
Sufka expressed that Wishon made a tremendous effort to bring “heavy hitters” to campus.
“It’s going to be a wonderful collection,” Sufka said. “Never has there been anything like this in the state of Mississippi that brings an all-star cast of philosophers and scientists working on this problem of consciousness.”
Bryan Harper, philosophy graduate student, will be attending the conference and is looking forward to the speakers’ discussion on consciousness.
“Some of the most brilliant minds in philosophy and neuroscience are coming to illuminate, wonder and debate about the subject here at Ole Miss,” Harper said.
Wishon came upon the idea of of the consciousness conference after working on a separate conference in the fall of last year. As a Ph.D student at Stanford University, he served as the graduate student coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center Gaballe Workshop on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Consciousness. From serving as a coordinator, Wishon knew many philosophers and cognitive scientists working in consciousness studies, which happens to be one of the areas of his own research.
Once Wishon got some to agree to attend the conference, he then developed a line-up of leaders with diverse views on the nature of consciousness and the best techniques of studying it. Finally, he targeted the cutting-edge work on the topic being done by neuroscientists and philosophers in the region.
Wishon hopes the conference will teach the students more about consciousness.
“The conference is intended to educate the students at The University of Mississippi and the general public of Mississippi about how philosophy, and the humanities in general, can work side-by-side with the sciences to answer fundamental questions about who we are and what our place is in the world,” Wishon said.
by Maggie McDaniel, Courtesy of The Daily Mississippian, April 25, 2014
The event is scheduled for the E.F. Yerby Conference Center, and all events are free and open to the public.
Leaders in several fields, including philosophy and neuroscience, will converge on campus to promote cutting-edge work in hopes of creating better understanding of human and animal consciousness, its relation to the brain and how humans think about sentient beings, among other topics, said Donovan Wishon, UM assistant professor of philosophy.
“What’s particularly remarkable about this event is that it will bring together scholars with vastly different views about consciousness, thought and the methods we should use to come to grips with the mind, its workings and its relation to physical reality,” Wishon said. “What’s more, the conference is intended to educate the students and the general public about how philosophy, and the humanities in general, can work side-by-side with the sciences to answer fundamental questions about who we are and what our place is in the world.”
The event is sponsored by the UM departments of philosophy and religion, and psychology, and the university’s College of Liberal Arts, the Office of the Provost, University Lecture Series and Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. It’s also co-sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Philosophical Association and the Mississippi State University Department of Philosophy and Religion.
When Eleanor Anthony visited Vercelli, Italy, last spring, she was smitten with damaged 10th century manuscripts that she and others from the University of Mississippi were there to help recover. Little did she know that six months later, she would be presenting a plan to make those documents legible at an international conference in London.
Anthony, a junior philosophy and mathematics major from Jackson, was the only undergraduate student presenter at the DigiPal Symposium in mid-September at King’s College London. The conference, hosted by the King’s College Department of Digital Humanities, attracted notable paleographers and scholars from around the globe.
“After Stewart Brookes and Peter Stokes, the conference organizers, notified me that I was accepted to speak at the symposium, I was thrilled,” said Anthony, who spoke for 20 minutes about a correlation and probabilistic-based approach to transcription methods of damaged manuscripts. “I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to meet scholars working in the field of digital humanities and see their research.”
As part of the Lazarus Project, a UM program specializing in the multispectral imaging of cultural heritage pieces, Anthony visited the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo in Italy. It was there she first laid eyes on the Vercelli Book and discovered what has become one of her life’s passions.
“I have always found data and narrative to be fascinating,” Anthony said. “As humans, we participate in a conversation that extends through time and encompasses all human endeavor. It’s amazing to interact with manuscripts that record the contributions of previous generations.”
While studying the Vercelli Book and conducting spectral imaging on the book’s text, the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College student learned the importance of finding ways to successfully transcribe old data and manuscripts. Upon her return home, Anthony submitted a written summary of her own proposal for how transcription methods can be improved to the DigiPal Symposium. Her abstract was accepted.
“This 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript suffered physical damage due to the application of a chemical reagent during early transcription efforts, and as a result, large swathes of the text are completely illegible,” Anthony said. “After processing the spectral images, we are left with data that can be used in correlation-based approaches for text identification, and it is these methods, combined with contextual analysis, that should lead to a better understanding of the text.”
Her presentation touched on the history of the Vercelli Book and the Archimedes Palimpsest, as well as the basic mathematics behind the system she hopes to extend and implement while addressing the current problems within the data being researched now by the Lazarus Project. Anthony’s work is being hailed as “groundbreaking” by her mentor and sponsors.
“It is incredibly rare for an undergraduate paper to be selected for an international conference. It speaks to the uniqueness and quality of Eleanor’s research,” said Gregory Heyworth, UM associate professor of English and director of the Lazarus Project. “The character-recognition techniques that she is developing for damaged manuscripts are cutting-edge work, something that is appropriate for Ph.D. candidates or professors.
“Add to that the fact that the manuscript she is working to recover, the Vercelli Book from the 10th century, is the oldest example of Anglo-Saxon literature in existence, and scholars are bound to take notice.”
Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the Barksdale Honors College, agrees.
“Eleanor’s success represents what can happen when a high-performing student takes advantages of the doors of opportunity here at Ole Miss,” he said. “Eleanor’s intellectual curiosity, her philosophical drive combined with unparalleled support from Professor Heyworth, the SMB Honors College, Liberal Arts and the Provost Office produced an extraordinary moment for an undergraduate: presenting and defending a research topic at a graduate-level conference in the U.K. We are very proud of Eleanor’s stellar accomplishment.”
Anthony’s London presentation impressed those in attendance, but she was equally impressed by those she heard there.
“A particular highlight of the trip was speaking with Donald Scragg, a well-known authority on the Vercelli Book,” she said. “He has devoted most of his academic career to studying this manuscript, and I was excited to discuss my research with him. I found him to be enthusiastic about the project, especially in the sense that I will be recovering missing information that is not capable of being visually analyzed.”
She was also delighted to meet Brookes and Stokes and hear about their work on DigiPal, a digital resource and database of palaelography and manuscripts.
“They seem to be doing really exciting work at the Digital Humanities Department at King’s College London,” Anthony said.
Listening to and interacting with both traditional paleographers and computer scientists discussing their research methods and text analysis proved very useful in Anthony’s own research.
“I learned much from the speakers on a wide variety of topics,” she said. “I was also happy to receive positive responses from the audience after giving my talk, with several useful recommendations for improvements I might consider. It is my intention to apply to present at conferences in the future as my research progresses.”
Anthony’s presentation will serve as the primary research leading to the design and implementation for her capstone project and honors college thesis entitled, “Archimedes’ Palimpsest to the Vercelli Book: Dual Correlation and Probabilistic Network Approaches to Paleography in Damaged Manuscripts.” Her ultimate goal is to create a computer program that will offer a transcription method for damaged text in manuscripts using word-level correlation approaches and sentence-level contextual analysis.
“On the whole, I think the experience will prove to be invaluable to be as I move forward with the project and in my study of digital humanities,” she said. “I am so appreciative of the opportunity to attend and present.”
“I recently went into the recesses of U.C.L.A.’s research library to talk to Gloria Gonzalez, a twenty-four-year-old Mississippian. Gonzalez has found herself at the forefront of the movement to preserve this material since she began, while still a student, to deal with the Sontag archives. As I talked to her, my notes started looking like Sontag’s own, lines of unfamiliar words that defined a world new to me: “bit rot,” “forensic software,” “write blockers.”
“It’s actually not that new,” Gonzalez told me. “People have been using e-mail for twenty years. But it is new to archives. It’s not common for universities to look for this material.”
Read more here about Gonzalez’s work.