Monday, August 13, 2018

Review of Mary L. Hopcroft, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society (Oxford: 2018)

Mary L. Hopcroft, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society (Oxford: 2018)
Reviewed for Choice Magazine by Ronald F. White 

In recent years there has been growing interest among scholars in the evolutionary foundations of collective human behavior. Although the institutional orthodoxy in the social sciences remains resistant to interdisciplinary analysis, there are many heterodox scholars now engaged in biosocial research. This most recent addition to Oxford University Press’s “handbook,” series is a 681 page tome, which includes 29 scholarly articles by 38 authors, from around the world, mostly from the U.S.  These essays are organized under six headings or “parts.” Part 1: Introduction (4 essays), Part 2: Social Psychological Approaches (6 essays), Part 3: Biosociological Approaches (9 essays), Part 4: Evolutionary Approaches (7 essays), Part 5: Sociocultural Evolution (2 essays), and, Part 6: Conclusion (1 essay). Each essay includes a useful bibliography. Many of the essays could be listed under more than one heading. Although the four essays that comprise the Introduction provide important context, the four-page conclusion is pretty thin, predictable, and perhaps a bit disappointing. Anyone interested in this fine collection, should also look into Edward Elgar’s Handbook of Biology and Politics (2017), edited by Somit and Peterson; and check out the Association for Politics and the life Sciences, and its journal Politics and the Life Sciences.      

Saturday, August 4, 2018


Like, the concept of "euthanasia," the concept of "suicide" carries with it a lot of ambiguity and social baggage. The word "suicide" is used (both legally and morally) to signify the "act of killing oneself," as distinct from being "euthanized by others." On the surface, suicide appears to be a purely self-regarding act, protected by the liberty principle. However, historically, other moral principles such as utility, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice have been invoked. Libertarians such as J.S. Mill have argued, that rational competent adults "own their bodies" and therefore have the right to end their lives without interference from others. However, there is often disagreement over whether any given person is rational/competent and/or whether any given decision by a seemingly rational/competent person is, in fact, rational/competent. Some philosophers have sought to identify the various context whereby a rational/competent adult might justifiably kill themselves for either self-regarding and/or other-regarding reasons. 

Most egoistic utilitarians agree that the "good life" is marked by a positive ratio of pleasure over pain. Therefore, a rational/competent adult whose life consists of an intractable imbalance of excruciating pain over pleasure, has a right to kill himself. Two self-regarding problems emerge: At what point does extreme pain become objectively excruciating?" And, in light of modern medicine, at what point does temporarily intractable become permanently intractable? Pain and suffering is, obviously, subject to greater and lesser degrees of magnitude; and some individuals adapt to pain and suffering better than others. For better or worse, we also distinguish between "physical" and "psychological" pain. Both are invoked in the context of the justification of self-regarding suicide and/or suicide prevention.

Philosophers disagree over the justification of suicide. Kantians, argue that suicide is an abuse of freedom, and that we have a negative duty to refrain from killing ourselves, regardless of the presence of overwhelmingly negative pain-pleasure ratios.
Most libertarians, in the J.S. Mill tradition  agree that young children are neither rational nor competent, however they also acknowledge that cultures disagree as to when children become rational and competent varies... anywhere from 14 to 21 years. In the US, legal adulthood is contextual (and occasionally comicalL), with laws dictating at what point should children be allowed to drink, smoke, drive automobiles, vote, refuse medical treatment, or commit suicide? Unfortunately, many children commit suicide every year over minor, temporary psychological harms such as breaking up with boyfriends/girlfriends or bullying in school. Many young gays, lesbians, and transsexuals are also vulnerable.  While we all agree that we have individual and collective duties to prevent teenage suicides, disagree over exactly who is responsible for intervening and how to intervene.  Do teenage suicides signal parental and/or institutional neglect of that duty to prevent suicides? How much time, energy, and resources must beneficent parents expend paying for psychologists, psychiatrists, anti-psychotic drugs, and/or institutionalization of suicidal children? Should local, state, and/or federal governments contribute? If so, how much?

Age alone is does not, necessarily, signify rationality or competence; as many adults lack rationality due to the presence of short-term and long-term diseases that affect the human brain. Thus, many adults are over 21, but irrational and/or incompetent to perform various acts. In general I am a rational competent adult, but I am an incompetent airplane pilot.

The intractability of excruciating pain is relative to time and place. Since the early 20th century, opiates (and other drugs) have been successfully used to minimize pain and suffering. In China, Japan, and India other techniques have been developed to help those suffering from chronic pain learn to adapt to a  life of pain. Today, many people commit suicide without trying a variety of pain relieving drugs, or ancient techniques such as yoga, transcendental meditation, or the various marshal arts. Thus, the question emerges: What do we do as beneficent individuals and/or as societies to prevent irrational/incompetent adults from needlessly killing themselves?

Not all rational/competent suicides are for self-regarding reasons. Other-regarding reasons for suicide include the desire to spare family, friends, and or society the emotional and/or financial harms that result from remaining alive. From both self-regarding and other-regarding perspectives, there are better and worse ways to kill oneself. Shooting oneself in the head, is very efficient and painless self-regarding way to kill oneself, but it leaves behind a mess that others have to see and/or clean up. Some of us attempt to kill ourselves via automobile wrecks, but inadvertently kill or injure others in the process. Others attempt suicide via drug overdoses, without knowing how many to take, and end up surviving the overdose, and having to live with drug induced disabilities, including persistent vegetative state. Sometimes surviving a suicide attempt ultimately subjects individuals, families, friends and society to even greater costs.

To the extent that at least some suicides are rational and competent, the ultimate  question is whether the rest of us have either a positive right or a positive duty to assist or prevent others in committing suicide? If so, how much assistance is justifiable? At what point does suicide-assistance become euthanasia? Based on beneficence, do we have a paternalistic duty prevent all or some self-regarding and/or other-regarding suicides? At what point does paternalistic suicide prevention by family, friends, and or government undermine personal liberty?                          

Friday, August 3, 2018


Since the 1970s, health care policymakers in the U.S. have debated the morality and legality of  Euthanasia. Much of that debate stems from a conceptual framework that has been a critically adapted from ancient/medieval thought, especially Roman Catholicism.

The term "euthanasia" has it's origin in the Greek terms "eu" and "thanos," which means literally "good death." For most of us steeped in Western culture, "good death" seems self-contradictory. Most of us regard death as the supreme "objective harm" that all of us seek to avoid, unless we have a good reason to not avoid it. Other objective harms include pain, disability, and loss of pleasure. For a utilitarian, a "good death," is contextual, referring to the "least worst" alternative among those objective harmful consequences. Hence, one might argue that in at least some contexts, a quick painless death is preferable to a long life of intractable, excruciating pain; or a life of extreme disability. This raises an empirical question. Are there levels of pain and/or disability that are worse than death, and therefore, if given the choice, would most rational/competent adults choose death over suffering? If so, do other have a right or a duty to kill those persons?

For better or worse, the euthanasia debate in the US involves two issues: First, is the person requesting death a rational competent adult? Second, if it is morally acceptable (or morally required) to assist others in bringing about a painless is it better to actively kill that person or passively allow that person die, naturally? 

According to J.S. Mill (and other libertarians) rational competent adults "own their bodies" and therefore have a right to do whatever they want to do with those bodies, as long as they don't harm others.  However, the debate over euthanasia can also be framed in Kantian terms in the form of a "right to live," "right to die," and/or the "duty to live" and/or the "duty to die?" If all humans have a "right to life," then the rest of us have a perfect duty to "keep them alive" by providing provide food, clothing, shelter, and/or heath care. On the other hand, Roman Catholics argue that the "right to life" includes a self-regarding "duty to live," which suggests that, at least to a certain degree, we are morally responsible for staying alive and keeping others alive.

Theologically speaking, Catholicism argues that "life is a gift from God." Because, God is (by definition) "omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and good," the gift of life is of infinite value. Therefore, choosing to die is tantamount to refusing that gift. Hence, the decision when and how to die, must be left to nature, which was created by God. Therefore, in all contexts, actively killing other persons is a priori wrong, including the active euthanasia, death penalty, and killing in war. However, Roman Catholicism also posits a right and a duty to defend yourself, therefore killing others in self defense is at least sometimes justified. At least some wars are just, and therefore killing others in a just war, is morally acceptable. In short, the "right to life" is contextual, and therefore, must include all forms of killing.

If euthanasia is justified, then the next question is: How to do it?" Active euthanasia says that "A kills B for beneficent reasons." Passive euthanasia says that "A allows B to die, for beneficent reasons." Today, passive euthanasia involves withholding life-saving treatment. Since, the 1970s a series of Supreme Court cases established that it is legally acceptable to withhold all forms of medical treatment, including respiratory technologies, food and hydration. Several states have legalized active euthanasia via various combinations of drugs...often the same drugs that are used in capital punishment.

There is also a third Roman Catholic alternative, called "double-effect euthanasia." It is based on the Catholic notion that it's always wrong to kill someone, however we also have a duty to minimize pain and suffering. Therefore, double-effect euthanasia occurs when you can foresee two effects of your actions, one is "good" (easing pain and suffering) and the other is "bad" (causal involvement in death). Roman Catholicism, therefore, argues that it is morally acceptable to give high doses of morphine to dying patients, knowing that that does will hasten their death... but only if your intention is to remove pain and not kill. Today, most people who die take pain-relieving drugs, even though everyone knows they will die earlier, as a consequence. 

In sum, over the years, the arguments for and against active euthanasia have remained, essentially, the same. Arguments in favor focus on liberty (informed consent), beneficence (remove harms), and utility (wasting health care resources). Arguments against focus on non-maleficence (Hippocratic Oath, "Do no Harm."), justice (killing poor sick people), and utility (slippery slope arguments, "Allow passive euthanasia and eventually we'll be killing people who can't afford treatment).

Finally, it is important to note that the drugs that are typically used to ease pain and suffering are highly addictive, and that the ongoing drug war now focuses on physicians that unnecessarily prescribe those drugs. Thus, one unanticipated consequence of the war on drugs, might be an increase in pain and suffering of patients.    

Monday, July 23, 2018

Playtime Politics:The Rapidly Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture

American Political Science Association Meeting (2018)
Boston, Massachusetts
Playtime Politics:
The Rapidly Growing Mismatch Between Biology and Culture

Fri, August 31, 12:00 to 1:30pm
Session Organized by:

Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
Mount St. Joseph University

Session Submission Type: Full Paper Panel

Session Description

 By: Ronald F. White
Mount St. Joseph University

Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that there is an ever-growing “mismatch” between human behavior that has been shaped primarily by biological evolution, and behavior that has been shaped by cultural evolution. That same idea holds true for political behavior. One of the more promising, yet often neglected areas of evolutionary political research is the study of the biological and cultural forces that shape the political regulation of childhood play. The fact that young humans, and other primates exhibit similar playtime bodily motions and activities suggests an evolutionary component. Yet, it also obvious, that there is, now, a growing mismatch between our slowly evolving Pleistocene, hunter-gatherer brains and the rise of the political regimes that now shape the global human environment. This research panel will explore the evolutionary psychology and/or the evolutionary politics of childhood play. Panelists may document the various Post-AR spheres of influence that now shape childhood play, including technological evolution, economic evolution, and/or sociopolitical evolution; and the resulting mismatches. Panelists may also explore the developmental implications of this mismatch and/or suggest how contemporary political leaders might close (or at least reduce) that ever-expanding conflict.

Introduction to Session

By: Ronald F. White
Mount St. Joseph University

 This session will focus, primarily on the proximate and ultimate explanations for playground technology. Although there is much cultural variation “how” young children play in various historical and cultural settings, there are at least some timeless universals that explain “why” children play in those contexts. Conceptually, we differentiate between: active v. passive play, individual play v. group play, and supervised v. unsupervised play. We will also explore the moral and legal dimensions of playgrounds, and how and why societies and governments regulate playgrounds, most notably: how and where playgrounds can be built; who can build playgrounds, and who pays for the construction and maintenance of those playgrounds; and how and why those standards are morally/legally) monitored and controlled. And finally, we will discern how these regulations have affected the psychological development of children and their families. Here is what you can look forward to. Eli will identify the timelessly universal bodily motions that underlie child’s play in playgrounds, David will talk about of medicine has shaped (and continues to shape) our perception of risk. Charles will talk about how and why political regulations have led to increasingly safer playgrounds that children don’t want to utilize. And Rachel, will talk about the timelessly universal childhood game “Ring around the Rosy” and how and why children (and adults) creatively express their feelings toward epidemics via combinations of dance and song.            

Comments on Individual Presentations

By: Ronald F. White (Mount St.  Joseph University)

Presentation #1
Eli White (Northern Kentucky University)
“Affordance Psychology and the Evolution of Playground Technology”


In the realm of perceptual psychology there is a wide body of research that investigates how the environment determines which actions are possible. Originally coined by perceptual psychologist J.J Gibson (1979), the concept of affordances describes how properties of the animal in relation to properties of the environment can inform or specify what actions are possible. Childhood playgrounds, in all times and all places, reflect a predisposition to engage in specific bodily motions such as: up and down, back and forth, and around and around. This presentation will explain why playground technologies tend to replicate these patterns, especially: monkey bars, swings, see-saws, and merry-go-rounds; and, how and why adults seek to politically regulate these technologies.

 Comments: Eli’s presentation integrates affordance psychology with the physical movements of children and adults engaged in “playtime: especially: up and down, back and forth, and around and around.  Today, these same motions contribute to the “fun” (pleasure) associated with most playgrounds, video games, and movies. The question of the ultimate causation of the pleasure of these motions or the biological purpose that these motions have played and continue to play in human survival certainly provides and important portal into the nature and purpose(s) of human play. His analysis will eventually be supported by research he will conduct with the approval of Northern Kentucky University’s Institutional Review Board, which itself illustrates why it is so difficult to conduct playtime research on children. He will also discuss the recent rise of natural “playscapes” as an alternative to traditional playgrounds.

Presentation #2
David Vanderburgh (Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation)
"Medicine and the Growing Problems of Risk-Averse Playgrounds"

The hallmark of evolutionary politics has been the ever-rising legal standards for health and safety of citizens. In most recent years, the increased regulation of childhood playgrounds has produced successive generations of safety conscious, risk-averse adults. As risk-aversion increases, so does the power of government to protect us from ourselves. Are there any objective standards for acceptable childhood risk-taking, or have public and/or private playgrounds, already, become so safety conscious, that they are no longer attractive to venues for child play? What, if anything, can be done to restore, at least a modicum of playground risk-taking?

Comments: David’s presentation explain the role that the medical profession (esp. physicians) has played in shaping risk-averse childhood playtime, by providing authoritative instructions for directing parental, institutional, and sociopolitical responsibility for safe and/or healthy children. Since the 1970s, the sociopolitical influence of physicians (especially pediatricians) along with professional and institutional liability concerns have been especially important. The key actors include: insurance companies, tort-friendly state and federal courts and legislatures, and lawyers. Legal liability for childhood injuries that take place on playgrounds affect not only the owners of the playgrounds where children get injured, but also  hospitals and professionals that treat those injuries. Thus institutions have become increasingly risk-averse out of fear of not only overly-generous payoffs, but also ever-spiraling insurance premiums, as physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies seek to avoid paying ever-spiraling legal damages to parents, lawyers, and opposing insurance companies.           

 Presentation #3
Charles Kroncke: (Mount St. Joseph University)
The Economics of Boredom: Risk-Averse Playgrounds and Indoor Play”


In recent times, childhood playground technology has become subject to increasingly higher legalized safety standards. Coinciding with these increased safety concerns we also have declining childhood interest in collective outdoor play. As the costs associated with purchasing and installing these risk-free playgrounds increase, the number of children that utilize these playgrounds has decreased. This paper will attempt to explain how/why the number of playgrounds has increased, despite declining childhood interest and the increase in interest in stationary indoor play.

 Comments: Charles’s presentation focuses on the political economy of children’s playgrounds (public and private) and the recent rise of risk-averse playgrounds. Charles argues that at least a portion of the pleasure that children experience in playground activity has always been risk-related. However, politicians in their never-ending quest to make playgrounds safer have inadvertently contributed to the rise of “safe-but-boring” playgrounds; and perhaps even the decline of childhood interest in outdoor activity as well. He also observes that corporate behavior is also a major component in the institutionalization of risk-free playgrounds, as corporate designers, manufacturers, and installers seek to protect themselves from liability. Charles proposes that, like other aspects of human endeavor, the free market rather than government regulation provides the most reliable portal into designing, building, and maintaining playgrounds that are both fun and reasonably safe.       

Rachel Constance: (Walsh University)
“Ring Around the Rosy: The Biology and Culture of Childhood Games and Epidemics”


Epidemic disease plays a central role in the development of human societies, through a symbiotic relationship that predates the development of agriculture. Many historians have explored how epidemics have shaped human history demographically, culturally, politically, and financially. However, less research has explored how the underlying biology of epidemic disease has shaped the experience of childhood. This paper will explore how the biology of epidemics such as the bubonic plague, cholera, and more recently, HIV, have manifested in the culture of childhood play. It will focus particularly on sources that help us understand how children processed the morbidity of such diseases through childhood play, including games, books, and nursery rhymes.

Comments: Rachel’s presentation brings together a wide variety of both proximate and ultimate causes that underlie the children’s game “ring around the rosy.” Although the game arose in the historical context of the plague, both children and adults at all times and places are naturally predisposed toward: holding hands singing, and dancing in circles in time with rhythmic phrases. While adults teach “ring around the rosy” to young children at an early age, those universal components (singing, dancing in circles, holding hands, and falling down) are deeply embedded in human play, worldwide, and subject to ultimate explanation. Even adults incorporate those components in their own culturally bound songs and dances. It would be interesting to find out how many other songs and dances performed by various cultures (in various times and places) commemorate natural disasters and/or political events. Worldwide, there are also laws that encourage and/or forbid singing, dancing, holding hands, and boys and girls playing together in both public and private spheres.           

General Session Conclusions

By Ronald F. White:

            Professional tradition at conferences dictates that commentators attempt to find common ground between seemingly disparate presentations. Given the fact that all of the papers presented today will be part of a book I am editing for my forthcoming (Spring 2019) sabbatical from Mount St. Joseph University, common ground has already been forged via hours of reference-sharing and scholarly conversation between longtime friends. Philosophical tradition also dictates that I try to limit that “common ground” to three main points of agreement.

First, given the fact that everyone on this panel are parents and/or grandparents, we all have similar observations on how children play, especially on playgrounds. I think we all agree that there are often profound gender-based, individual based, and developmental differences between children in terms of risk-taking limits, even within families. Therefore, any ultimate explanation for risk-averse child’s play, must acknowledge profound variation, within families, cultures, and even over the course of a child’s lifetime.

Second, I think we’ll agree that a child’s propensity for risk-taking can be expanded and/or contacted under various environmental conditions and in various social contexts; especially when young children play with little or no adult supervision, play with older or younger children; and/or play with strangers, friends, or close relatives.   

Third, as parents, we all agree that we have all been influenced by the “better safe than sorry” principle, which underlies risk-averse parenthood. Some of us have had first-hand experience with risk-averse physicians, hospitals, and schools that routinely order medical tests and procedures for relatively low probability medical conditions; and for relatively low harm conditions. Nevertheless, we all admit that when it comes to the well-being of our own children, we are all naturally risk averse, which (in part) explains why we tolerate our government’s ongoing propensity to legally regulate childhood and parental behavior “for the sake of our children.” As a libertarian I find that to be very disconcerting, as state paternalism continues to run rampant in the United States and the authority of parents is rapidly being diminished. There’s much more to be said about the Evolutionary Politics of how, where, and why children play, especially within in liberal democracies.            

APSA Links

Sub Unit


Individual Presentations
    Affordance Psychology and the Evolution of Playground Technology -
    Eliah James White, Northern Kentucky University

    The Growing Problem of Risk-Averse Childhood Playgrounds - David F Vanderburgh, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation


    Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg


    Mount St. Joseph University


    Sunday, June 24, 2018

    BOOK REVIEW: Alexandra Lange, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury Publishing, NY: 2018)

    Alexandra Lange, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury Publishing, NY: 2018)
     This is a welcome addition to a genre of scholarly research that explores the nature and history of childhood play. The author is a well-published critic of human-constructed architectural environments. This most recent book explores the “Design of Childhood.” Much of it is historical, identifying the principles that underlie the ebb and flow how adults (for better or worse) have designed material environments and toys (large and small) for children since the early twentieth century. Chapter titles reveal much about its foci: Blocks, House, School, Playground, and City. One of the over-riding themes is the observation that, since the late 20th century, adults have been over-protecting children and thereby undermining their independence, creativity, and social development. By the authors own admission, the book is intended to be more descriptive (facts) than prescriptive (values), which is mostly true. But at least some critics will argue that this emphasis resulted in wishy-washy prescriptive conclusions, as evident in its final sentences, which urge us to learn from the past in order to “make childhood a better place.” Nevertheless, this is an important addition to a rapidly expanding genre that has largely ignored design issues.    

    Reviewed for Choice Magazine by: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.



    Monday, June 18, 2018

    The Philosophy of Play

                                By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
                                   Professor of Philosophy
                               Mount St. Joseph University

                Scholars agree that, at all times, in all places, and at all stages of post-natal development, human beings exhibit, what we all (rather loosely) refer to as “play behavior.” Among the many scholarly disciplines that study “play,” philosophy is foundational. That’s because play is inherently multidisciplinary, while philosophy has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Therefore it is well-postured to contribute toward a more unified theory of play. A well-developed, unified theory will address the most important foundational questions, including: What exactly is “play behavior” and how is it distinguished from “non-play behavior?” Based on that theory, do non-human species play, if so how does non-human play behavior compare to human play?  What are toys and how do they relate to play? Over time and place, how and why does play and toys vary within and between cultures? What are the determinants that influence the amount of time, effort, and resources that humans and non-humans devote to play? And finally, how might future philosophers contribute to the advancement of playtime research in other disciplines?

                Before we can make much progress on the “philosophy of play,” we must address the two age-old questions: “What do philosophers do?” and, “Are philosophers useful?” Most philosophers agree that they “ask questions and pose answers,” and that the vast majority of professional philosophers teach in colleges and universities. But once they get beyond those two acknowledgments, there is not much agreement. Most notably, there is widespread disagreement as to which questions are worth asking, how to go about answering those questions, and what questions require philosophical, non-scientific, and/or scientific answers. There is also widespread agreement that epistemological questions are foundational, especially: What is a Theory? What is Truth? What is Value? And, how do Truth and Value relate to one another? Hence, we have the revival of the old positivist agenda that seeks to transform values (good and bad) into facts (true and false). Let’s add that non-philosophers often ask/answer philosophical issues and that non-philosophers reinterpret those philosophical questions, and sometimes they do not acknowledge that some questions/answers are inexorably philosophical or non-philosophical. Most disciplinary approaches to the study of play contain unstated epistemological assumptions; especially the nature of theories, truth and value. Therefore, in order to address these epistemological issues and work toward towards a “unified theory of play,” this essay will argue that this unification requires both biological and cultural evolution.
    In recent times, many philosophers have become interdisciplinary scholars, and therefore employ philosophical theories as a way to bridge the gaps between various disciplines. Scientific explanations of human behavior invoke scientific theories. So based on contemporary science, what distinguishes “play” from “non-play?”

    As a matter of sheer logic, playtime philosophers agree that play must be fun. So if we engage in a behavior that is not fun, it’s not play. Of course, this raises the question: What is fun? Well, fun (by definition) must be pleasurable. Evolutionary psychologists, observe that, at least some, human feelings of pleasure and pain are evolutionarily shaped, over vast expanses of time, by natural and/or sexual selection. Feelings of pleasure, naturally, incite us to engage in that behavior again, and feelings of pain discourage us from doing it again. Those feelings can be materially reduced to various chemical changes that take place within the human body, especially the presence and/or absence of the hormone serotonin. Similarly, neuroscientists can now differentiate between the experience of pain and pleasure by looking at the flow of neurons within human brain via various imaging technologies.

    At least some feelings of pain and pleasure can also be shaped by social and/or cultural norms present at any given time or place. Thus, social scientists distinguish between human behaviors that are timelessly universal from those that are relative to specific times and places. Although “play-behavior,” in general, is timelessly universal, it manifests itself in forms that are historically and/or culturally relative. Developmental psychologists might seek to explain how “play” changes over the course of a human person’s lifetime: At what age do these changes take place? Why do these changes take place? Is child’s play different from adult play; and if so, how? Anthropologists and sociologists might seek to identify changes over time within and between cultures. The most complex forms of historically and culturally relative play are often comprised of timelessly universal components; shaped by biological evolution.

    In sum, there are three empirical observations that underlie playtime science. First, “play” is, obviously, a form of human behavior and therefore its presence or absence can be empirically verified and/or falsified by external observation. Second, human play behavior can be internally observed in terms of a “player’s own psychological states via the feelings and thoughts that accompany that behavior. In short, we all know, directly, when we’re experiencing pleasure and pain. Third, it is also empirically evident that other primates and hominids exhibit similar patterns of “play-like” behavior.

    Theories are complex beliefs that have both theoretical social implications. Some playtime scholars focus their time, energy, and resources on theoretical concerns such as empirical evidence, logical consistency, and soundness; while others note that all theories serve a variety of social functions, at various times and places. So what are the social functions of contemporary playtime theories serve, and how do we evaluate those functions; that is, how do we differentiate between a “good theory of play” and a “bad theory of play?”

    Monday, May 21, 2018

    BOOK REVIEW: Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters (Basic Books: 2018)

    There has been growing interest among moral philosophers in the revival of “virtue-based” and/or “honor-based” moral theories and culture, as an alternative to the prevailing Western, post-Enlightenment, “dignity-based” theories and cultures (duty or utility). This well-argued, well-written defense of honor covers the traditional arguments for and against these major theories. According to Sommers, one of most compelling arguments against dignity-based theories and culture, especially in the United States, has been the rise of “zero-risk culture.” He also contributes many new arguments for and against competing theories of dignity and honor. Dignity-based cultures apply formalized, absolute, timelessly-universal moral rules and/or cost-benefit analysis.  Honor-based cultures apply informal, contextually-bound, moral codes shaped by tradition. Many small-scale, male-dominated, honor-based cultures in the West have survived; most notably via: police and fire departments, sports teams (hockey) and urban gangs. I would have liked to see a bit more comparison between European and American dignity cultures and why U.S. culture has become more “risk averse,” a bit more on the role of the mass media in promulgating “dignity” and thwarting “honor,” and more evolutionary psychology. Nevertheless, this is a top-notch ethics textbook that both students and scholars will enjoy. It’s a priority acquisition for all colleges and universities that teach ethics and philosophy.

    Reviewed for Choice Magazine by:
    Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
    Professor of Philosophy
    Mount St. Joseph University

    Friday, April 13, 2018

    Review of Jeremy Sherman's, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves

    Jeremy Sherman, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves (Columbia University Press: 2017)

    Reviewed for Choice Magazine by Ronald F. White
    In this book Jeremy Sherman, a former student of noted philosopher/scientist Terrence Deacon, explains and expands upon Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012).  While Sherman’s book is well-written and (for the most part) jargon-free, it is not suitable for students or the general public. Here are four reasons why: 1.) Sherman stipulates complex definitions for many common words; especially “selves” and “aims.” Then he addresses the nature and origins of both selves and aims, via evolutionary theory. That’s a lot. 2.) The title implies an alternative to Cartesian two-sided interactionism, often referred to as the “ghost in the machine hypothesis.” He suggests that his selves/aims model avoids the traditional mind-body problem by redefining “ghost” and “machine” in light of evolution. That’s a lot too! 3.) Much of this book also addresses the historically-puzzling concepts of teleological, teleonomic, and teleodynamics. That’s a lot. 4.) Sherman’s closing argument, attempts to carve out theoretical space for values, in a world of evolutionary facts, which is a lot and worthy of its own book. While we can all appreciate the effort behind this book, it is way too ambitious, and complex to recommend as a textbook in philosophy or evolutionary biology.                     

    Thursday, February 22, 2018

    Reading #10: Ethics of Reproductive Technologies


    In recent years many reproductive technologies have proven to be morally and/or legally controversial: abortion drugs, genetic testing and genetic engineering (for diseases, disabilities, or enhancement), embryonic stem cell research, fetal and/or infant sex change operations, reproductive cloning, and the artificial uterus. Most of these technologies are still in the developmental stage and will be used in conjunction with genetic engineering. There are three lines of argument: natural law (all reproductive technologies are morally unacceptable) libertarianism (all voluntary reproductive technologies are morally acceptable), and a variety of moderate views (some technologies are morally acceptable and some are not acceptable).

    Natural Law.

    In Health Care Ethics, the Natural Law Theory of Ethics is ultimately based on the idea that "life is a gift from God," and that "What is natural is good." After all, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and good. He created a universe imbued with purpose. Hence all biological systems are imbued with divine purpose: the purpose of eyes=to see, nose=smell, sex organs=make babies. Since the Middle Ages, the traditional view of the Roman Catholic Church has been that we all have a "duty to reproduce;" and that reproduction must be accomplished via sexual intercourse between married men and women.  Therefore the only acceptable reproductive technologies make sexual intercourse between husbands and wives more efficient. Any technology that replaces sexual intercourse is morally unacceptable. Any technology that deliberately interrupts that process including "artificial contraception" (condoms, birth control pills, and or abortion) is unacceptable. And any technology that enables humans to alter the outcome of that natural process, such choosing sex, eye color, height, weight. Intervention is permitted only cases where a fetal disease might be cured. In general, the Roman Catholic Church argues that most reproductive technologies are immoral and ought to be illegal.   


    Libertarians argue that individuals have a moral and/or legal right to access any technologies they choose, and that governments ought to neither force us to employ these technologies nor prevent us from employing them. In short, "anything goes." Among libertarians there is disagreement over the moral status for the fetuses at various stages of development, therefore not all libertarians defend the right to choose abortion. 

    Moderate Views

    There are many moderate views that fall midway between extreme conservative and extreme libertarian view. Some accept or reject these technologies based on social utility, and cite utility ratios reflecting costs and benefits as foundational. Some utilitarians embrace short-term utility, others embrace long-term utility... or "slippery slope" arguments.    


    Let's take a look at a few contemporary issues: abortion drugs, genetic testing and/or engineering, cloning, artificial uterus.

    Abortion drugs

    Since the 1970s, the primary abortive technique in the United States has involve a surgical technique that removes the embryo or  fetus from the uterus. This technique has been relegated to specifically designed clinics that specialize in that technique. In recent years, most of these clinics have been regulated out of business. Therefore, if abortion survives this regulatory onslaught, it will no-doubt involve the use of abortifacient drugs. Many of these drugs walk a fine line between contraception and abortion. The most common contraceptive/abortive drugs prevent implantation of the zygote within the uterus. Issues include whether these drugs ought to legally require a prescription from  a physician (and/or why or why not?), whether these drugs ought to be sold "over (or under)-the counter" (and/or why or why not?),  age restrictions on purchaser, whether pharmacists and/or cashiers ought to refuse to sell these drugs for moral and/or religious reasons; and whether these drugs ought to be made available online. 

    Genetic Testing and Engineering
    Genetic testing of fetuses can serve both therapeutic and non-therapeutic purposes. There is also an overlap with Genetic Engineering... no only for existing fetuses, infants, and adults; but also for future humans or germ-line engineering.  Therapeutic testing is relatively non-controversial. It is often performed in order to treat existing fetuses that suffer from various genetic diseases and/or disabilities. Non-therapeutic testing may involve testing, not to cure a disease, but to enhance (via genetic engineering) the future life of that fetus or testing in order perform euthanasia on an fetus with a painful incurable or untreatable disease. Treatable diseases include some forms of Spina Bifida. Untreatable diseases include Tay-Sachs Disease. Enhancements might include testing for hair color, eye color, height, or sex. Genetic engineering for diseases and/or enhancements involving the germ-line, or future children is problematic, given that future generations cannot consent to research or treatment.    


    Cloning is a reproductive technology designed to create living things without the unification of ova and sperm. It usually involves the creation of an offspring genetically identical to the aspiring parent. Although no humans have been cloned (as of yet) many mammals have been cloned, especially in other countries; especially pets (usually dogs). There are two forms of human cloning: research cloning and reproductive cloning. The main arguments against reproductive cloning point to a "slippery slope" of potentially negative consequences. The moral status of clones in comparison to the original person has also drawn controversy.    

    Artificial Uterus

    Scientists have been developing an artificial uterus for many years. Many technologies already available in neonatal intensive care units are essentially late-term artificial uteruses; primarily respiratory, circulatory, and nutritive technologies. The goal is for NICUs to be able to nurture an embryo to an infant within an artificial environment. There are many arguments for and against their development. Most arguments against come from natural law theorists that argue that they represent a "slippery slope," into future where sexual intercourse and women carrying babies become obsolete, thus undermining human nature. Defenders argue that its the inevitable outcome of biomedical research designed to cure the "disease," of infertility.


    In this course you may defend either Natural Law, Libertarianism and/or Utility; however, you MUST present arguments for/against. You many not simply invoke the authority of moral and/or religious experts.