Tag Archives: ethics

“Moral robots” and that messy human factor

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) In ethics, it’s the dilemmas that grab the headlines. They crash into the news for reasons similar to almost all news: they stand out from a norm of people muddling along in broad accord as they judge right from wrong; they sometimes pit groups of people against each other in noisy conflict; and they often have significant implications for people’s lives. Really, wouldn’t it be so much better if all dilemmas could be resolved without the conflict? Couldn’t we eliminate the messy human factor in ethics by using computer processing to help in our judgments – and wouldn’t that improve ethics as an area of knowledge? Wouldn’t we be so much better off under the guidance of MORAL ROBOTS?  Well….maybe.  But…no.   Well, no, maybe not! Continue reading

Red lines and “complex moral duality”: TOK and ethics of witnessing

(by Theo Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “Civilians Attacked by Chemical Weapons!” Few headlines spark as much outrage. If a TOK class engages students in the questions of knowledge connected with this kind of horrendous event, it can help them feel the importance of the intellectual tools that the course provides for probing into – and reacting to – such events.

A reflective piece in the current edition of Dispatches, a journal of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, provides an articulate, subtle, and thoughtful focus for many such questions. (Stephen Cornish, “Red Lines”) Easily viewed online, the article is short enough to be used as the basis of a rich and far-reaching discussion. What makes the article particularly effective, too, is that it appeared shortly before the most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, and thus concerns a whole array of questions perhaps not fully apparent in the most recent news flashes. Continue reading

AGAINST empathy? Really?

170213-hands(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “In the moral domain…empathy leads us astray,” argues Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University. “We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated by compassion and care for others.”  Bloom adopts a provocative stance to focus attention on what we in IB Theory of Knowledge would call “ways of knowing”, and ties emotion, imagination, and reason to ethics as an area of knowledge. Continue reading

“Comfort” and discomfort: history and the shadows of the past

comfort-woman(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) At first glance, it’s a most unlikely statue to ignite a diplomatic row: a barefoot girl sits on a chair, her hands passively in her lap. Nevertheless, the placement of this gentle statue by South Korean activists in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan has set off a storm of controversy and provoked Japan to withdraw its ambassador from South Korea. But why? In Theory of Knowledge, clashing perspectives on this statue take us straight through concepts of symbolic representation and smack into history as an area of knowledge with ethical resonance.

It seems to me that this incident could be immensely useful for a TOK class. There are plenty of images online of the controversial statue, so there’s something visual to anchor abstract discussion. Moreover, students are likely to have their interest (and probably compassion) caught by the story of women forced into sexual servitude – and to grasp quickly both the desire to remember historically, and the desire to forget! The current strong feelings about the issue and how its story is told also help to raise a potent TOK question: Is history really only about the past? Continue reading

Is that woman really a man? Tidy categories, messy world


(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Swift and powerful, the athletes burst across the finish line of the women’s 800 metre in Rio. The Olympics gave the world another moment of glorious human achievement as 25-year-old Caster Semenya took the gold medal for South Africa. In the background of her performance, however, controversy swirled around claims that Semenya had an unfair advantage in a women’s competition – that she didn’t fit into the category “woman”.

The issue contentious in the Rio competition is one we confront constantly as we construct our knowledge: how to classify things and whether we can do so in a way that delineates our world neatly into categories. Classifying is basic to observing, and to the naming that enables us to share our knowledge. But what a complex world it is, often eluding the systematizing we bring to it! Continue reading

Clever cons and TOK 1: Does it matter to tell the truth?

160208 illusionist(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Claiming he was a surgeon, Ferdinand Waldo Demara tricked the Canadian navy into giving him a ship full of people as his patients. With no qualifications whatsoever – without so much as high school graduation – he even performed operations on his trusting patients. How could anyone be so dishonest and callous as to deceive others so flagrantly? And why would so many people fall for his impersonation? The “con artist” – the swindler who plays a “confidence game” or gains the confidence of others for his own ends – seems to awaken our emotional outrage, but also our fascination. Such reactions make stories of large scale deception enormously attractive for stimulating and focusing discussion in a Theory of Knowledge classroom. Continue reading

Climate science, ethics, politics: Dare we hope?

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Scientific agreement, ethical agreement, and political agreement are entirely different. They’re not justified by the same means, not shared through the same process of communication, not brought to a conclusion through the same process of validation. But when they converge – when for a moment the political representatives of the world accept scientific knowledge as the basis for an ethical global agreement – then we have reason to celebrate along with the delegates of the COP21 Paris Climate Talks. Continue reading

Climate talks and IB education: What is the relationship between TOK and CAS?

151130ed_placard_opt(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Sunday, November 29, the day before the Paris Climate Talks begin. Today is a day of hope. Today, I finish painting my placard of a burning planet and join our local Climate March. I don’t expect to change the world: a child of my acquaintance thought my first version of the burning planet was a jellyfish with tentacles, and “march” seems too vigorous a word for the friendly straggle of neighbours wandering down the streets of little Parksville. But all of us wanted to be part of a global call to our leaders to commit to solving the problems of climate change. Continue reading

“Really? You don’t know what MATTER is?”: Nobel Laureate in physics uses doughnuts to explain.

(from OUP TOK blog) In just a minute and a half on a comedy show, Arthur McDonald explains the discovery in physics that made him a co-winner of a Nobel Prize for physics this month. Well, actually…..no, he doesn’t. But he does provoke a laugh, perhaps especially for Canadians who recognize the popular chocolate Timbits he resorts to using in a simplified explanation. I recommend this video clip for TOK class for two reasons: first, a class laugh opens discussion of scientific discovery without distancing those fearful of physics; and second, it raises some tasty knowledge questions about the nature of explanation and responsibility.   Continue reading

How does a single photo of a single drowned child affect our shared knowledge?

(originally posted on my OUP TOK blog) “It was not an easy decision to share a brutal image of a drowned child,” acknowledges the Director of Emergencies of Human Rights Watch. As media around the world take this decision to share the photo, it has affected political debate on the crisis of refugees trying to enter Europe. But why? What role does such an image play in our shared knowledge?  Continue reading