Exam Questions about Personhood, Equality, and Social Change

I teach one of the core classes in Juilliard’s humanities curriculum–Ethics. Last semester, I included a big helping of environmental ethics and animal rights in this class, and students responded well to these questions from the final exam, so I thought I’d share them.

Personhood, Equality, and Social Change

1. An advanced alien species, the Gas Bags of Jupiter, arrives in Central Park looking for new creatures to populate Jovian zoos. The Gas Bags are sentient and intelligent, but they do not resemble humans in any physical way, being bags of hot air, as their name suggests. How can you convince these creatures that humans are persons who don’t belong in a zoo? Write a letter to the Lord of the Gas Bags, Supreme Commander Oi Li, explaining the idea of the person and the status of humans as persons. Refer to any of the relevant readings, such as Singer, Midgley, Griffin, etc. Hope for your sake that Oi Li understands English.

2. In “All Animals Are Equal,” Peter Singer writes: “A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality” (26). To what extent are domestic or wild animals an “oppressed” group in our society? Must they be “liberated” in some way? Do they deserve “equality” in Singer’s sense of the word? Discuss. If you wish, you may use intelligent machines or “AI” as a point of comparison.

3. Can virtuous behavior help to create social change? In “Why Bother?”, Michael Pollan writes about a “chain reaction of behavioral change” (5) in which a critical mass of individuals influences whole societies to change. To what extent is this possible? In addressing this question, you may discuss climate change, as Pollan does, or another contemporary social issue of your choice.

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