- PHL/LB 355 -


Michigan State University
Fall 2008
Dr. Robert T. Pennock

Course Info | Grading | Professor Contact Info | Textbooks | Class Schedule
Study, Paper & Exam Tips | Academic Integrity | Discussion Guidelines
Additional Info | Useful Links | Blogs

- Announcements -
Check here periodically for late-breaking news

Course Info

Room: C-103 Holmes Hall

Time: MW 3 pm to 4:50 p.m

Course Description:
The course will examine philosophical issues involving technology, focusing mostly upon genetic technologies. We will examine not only ethical challenges posed by new biotechnologies ( e.g., the morality of cloning, the dilemmas of genetic testing, the dangers to privacy rights) but also questions involving the philosophy of science, biological reductionism and determinism, and the nature of personal identity.

The course will be primarily discussion-based in both small-group and whole-class formats. Students must be prepared to contribute actively and consistently to class discussions and to take initiative for their own learning and that of their fellow classmates. In keeping with our general subject, some assignments will emphasize use of different technologies.



- Three quizzes on reading assignments - 5% each (15 %)
- Blog (Reading journal) – 15%
- Web page design project – 10%
- Mid-term exam – 20%
- 12 page term paper - 25%
- Regular attendance and participation in discussion is expected - 15%

• Grade scale: For your final course average, the 100 pt scale will be translated to grades as follows:
- 90 or above – 4.0; 85 to 90 – 3.5; 80 to 85 – 3.0; 75 to 80 – 2.5;
- 70 to 75 – 2.0; 65 to 70 – 1.5; 60 to 65 – 1.0; Below 60 – 0.0

• I do not round up averages that fall below a cut-off, but resolve borderline grades entirely on the basis of optional extra-credit assignments completed before the last class period. You may earn up to two (2) percentage points by such options, which I will announce periodically during the semester. A common extra-credit option is to attend some relevant university guest speaker talk and turn in a reflective paper about it.

• Late assignments will be accepted, but will be docked half a grade per day (e.g, from an equivalent of 4.0 to 3.5).

• As a seminar-style tutorial course, at least half of each period will be devoted to discussion of the material. Class participation means not only attendance (5%, see below), but also regular and active participation in class discussions, workshops, simulations etc. (10%). It is not possible to have a meaningful discussion or to get the most out of lectures unless you come to class having read and thought about the assigned material. Be prepared to answer questions I may ask about the reading and to engage in thoughtful, productive reflection upon it together with your classmates. Often we will break into small discussion groups, and it will waste your colleagues’ valuable time if you have not read the material or completed an assigned exercise in advance.

• Academic Dishonesty: Your work should always be your own. The penalty for cheating or plagiarism will be a failing grade of 0.0 for the course. You are expected to have read MSU’s policies on academic integrity <> and the Briggs honor code.

• Attendance. Everyone is allowed one unexcused absence. Thereafter, two percentage points are deducted for each unexcused absence. Days missed due to sickness will be excused if you have a doctor's note. Days missed because of a team commitment or a religious holiday will be excused, but only if you let me know in advance. If for any reason you do miss a class, you are responsible for getting notes and assignments from a fellow student. Class will start promptly. Please be on time. Arriving late or leaving early counts as a half absence, or more if it causes disruption or inconvenience to your colleagues in class.

• If you are having problems, don't wait until the end of the course to do something about it. See me right away. Helping you learn how to learn is what I'm here for. Welcome to the course!


Professor Contact Info

Please don't hesitate to contact me to talk about anything substantive related to class. Face-to-face discussions are always the most effective and enjoyable, so the best options are to drop by my office hours or talk to me after class. Send me an e-mail message to set up an appointment if you can't see me another time. (Whenever you send me e-mail or leave a phone message, be sure to give not just your name, but also indicate what course you are in.) I'm always happy to talk philosophy or to discuss your thoughts about your learning. However, if you were absent from class and need to get assignments, notes or other material you missed, you should get that from someone in your base group.

Office: Holmes Hall W-34.
Office hours: Mon. 9 am - 10 am & Wed. 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm, or by appointment or by open door.
Phone: 432-7701.

To prevent spread of viruses, NEVER send me any attachment to an e-mail unless we have specifically arranged it in advance.



Kass, Leon R. 2002. Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics: Encounter Books.

Huxley, Aldous. 1998. Brave New World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Kitcher, Philip. 1996. The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities. New York: Simon & Schuster.

McGee, Glenn. 2000. The Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the New World of Cloning and Genetics. U.S.A.: Roman and Littlefield.

Ridley, Matt. 2000. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


Class Schedule

NOTE: This is a tentative reading list. Any changes will be announced in advance. Read the assigned selections before the class period.

Week I
Aug 25 Introductory Business – No readings
Aug 27 Bill Joy "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"

Week II
Sept 1 Univ. Holiday (no class)
Sept 3 Kitcher Ch 1 (The Shape of Suffering)

Week III
Sept 8 Kitcher Ch 2 (Our Mortal Coils)
Sept 10 Ridley Ch 1, 2, 3 (Life, Species, History)

Week IV
Sept 15 Ridley Ch 4, 5, 6 (Fate, Environment, Intelligence)
Blog #1 due
Sept 17 Ridley Ch 7, X & Y, 8 (Instinct, Conflict, Self-Interest)

Week V
Sept 22 Ridley Ch 9, 10, 11 (Disease, Stress, Personality)
Sept 24 Ridley Ch 12, 13, 14 (Self-Assembly, Pre-History, Immortality)
Quiz #1

Week VI
Sept 29 Ridley Ch 15, 16, 17 (Sex, Memory, Death)
Oct 1 Ridley Ch 18, 19, 20 (Cures, Prevention, Politics)

Week VII
Oct 6 Ridley Ch 21, 22 (Eugenics, Free Will)
Web page design project due
Oct 8 Huxley – Brave New World (Ch 1 - 6)

Oct 13 Huxley – Brave New World (Ch 7 - 11)
Oct 15 Huxley – Brave New World (Ch 12 - end)

Week IX
Oct 20 Mid-Term Exam Kass - Ch 3 (Meaning of Life—in the Laboratory)
Oct 22 Kass - Ch 4 (Age of Genetic Technology Arrives); McGee – Ch 2 (Hope for Genetic Cures)

Week X
Oct 27 Kass – Ch 5 (Cloning and the Posthuman Future)
Blog #2 due
Oct 29 Readings: (1) Trosko "Scientific Concepts of Human Nature and their Implications to Bioethics in a Scientifically and Technologically-Altered World." and (2) Deb & Sarda "Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Preclinical Perspectives."
Guest talk by Dr. James Trosko

Week XI
Nov 3 McGee – Epilogue (The Problem of Human Cloning); Pennock – Virtuous Scientist meets human clone.
Nov 5 McGee – Ch 1 (Landscape of Genetic Technology)

Week XII
Nov 10 McGee – Ch 5 (Genetic approaches to family & public health)
Quiz #2
Nov 12 Kitcher – Ch 6 (The New Pariahs); Pennock – Pre-existing conditions.

Nov 17 Kitcher – Ch 8 (Inescapable Eugenics), Ch 9 (Delimiting Disease)
Nov 19 Kass – Ch 9 (Why not immortality?); Kitcher Ch 10 (Playing God?); McGee Ch 3 (Playing God?)
Library Reference Talk by Emily Alford. !!Meet in MSU Library Basement Instruction Room!!

Week XIV
Nov 24 Kitcher – Ch 11 (Genetalk), McGee Ch 4 (Debunking Myths)
Blog #3 due
Guest talk by Dr. John Waller

Nov 26 McGee – Ch 6 (Genetic enhancement)

Week XV
Dec 1 Kitcher – Ch 12 (Self-Dissection), Ch 13 (Quality of Lives)
Quiz #3
Dec 3 Kitcher – Ch 14 (Unequal Inheritance)

Week XVI
Dec 10 - Oral reports on term paper. Term paper due.


Study, Paper & Exam Tips Philosophy courses can sometimes be intimidating for students who are used to standard courses where the task is to learn a bunch of facts. In philosophy, the key task is to learn how to improve one's thinking, so the focus is not so much on the conclusions themselves but rather on the arguments on which conclusions are based. This requires that you study in quite a different way than you might be used to. To help, I have written a short guide that you may find useful. Click here.  

Academic Integrity This is sufficiently important that it is worth repeating: Your work should always be your own. I expect that all students understand how to properly document sources; this is not something for which one may plead ignorance. If you are not sure what counts as plagiarism, find out before you turn in an assignment. The penalty for cheating or plagiarism will be a failing grade of 0.0 for the course. I expect you to have read MSU’s policies on academic integrity and the Briggs honor code.  

Discussion Guidelines

Here I will include the guidelines that you generated and we agree to govern ourselves by for class discussion.

• Be prepared
• Speak your mind
• Support your claims
• Make clear arguments
• Don't be afraid
• Be respectful
• Listen actively
• Speak up
• Give and take constructive criticism



Additional Info

What is a blog? The term "blog" is a contraction of "web log". A blog is essentially a journal of one's thoughts about some subject that is posted on a web page for the world to read. Blog entries are usually short, typically no more than a paragraph or two. They may be of varying levels of formality, depending upon one's audience. Trying doing an search and check out some of the blogs that are starting to appear.

For us, the subject is the course readings, so think of it as a reading journal. What I expect is that you will keep a regular log of your thoughts as you are doing the assigned reading. Try to write something about each reading. What I expect to see is evidence that you are thinking about what you are reading as you go along. In particular, I want to see that you are identifying and reflecting upon the philosophical issues that arise. The purpose of the blogs is to make you engage the material and start to form your own views about the topics we will be discussing in class.

What about length? These are not meant to be essays. I'm looking to see a paragraph or two for each reading. What that should come to is about a page a week, if you were to print it out.

On the day blogs are due, you should send them to me by email in the following manner:
- The subject line of the message should say: Blog # - Your Name.
- Repeat that same information -- Blog # - Your Name-- as the first line of the body of the message, in the same way you would submit a paper or assignment.
- Cut the text from your document and paste it into the body of the email message to send to me. <>
- DO NOT send your blog to me as an attachment. (5 pts off for doing that.)
- As a check to see that your email was delivered, you should cc yourself.
- Your blog must be emailed before you come to class on the day that it is due.

Public posting is optional. If you do want to set up a real blog page with your thoughts so your fellow students (and the world!) can read them, you should do so on your AFL space. Send me the URL with your assignment and I'll post that link on this web page. (However, do keep in mind that the blog is an official graded assignment, so the primary audience should be your professor--me--in the same way that other written assignments are.)



Aimee Wilson's blog.

Jonathan Swetech's blog


Useful Links

I'll put links here that are relevant to what we are discussing. If you come across items that you think would be worth sharing, send me the URL.

Intel News Release "Intel CTO Says Gap between Humans, Machines will Close by 2050" (8/21/08)

Jill Tarter and Will Wright discuss the Singularity and more at Seed Salon. For background, check out Will Wright's TED talk about Spore.

The public worries that scientists will end the world on Wednesday when it runs the Large Hadron Collider. [And check out the YouTube rap.]

• Try exploring John Conway's Game of Life.

• The personal face of Huntington's Disease.

• Time Magazine names The Retail DNA Test as the No. 1 Invention of 2008.

• An interesting new case of how environment affects one's phenotype. The bacteria we ingest play an important role.

Could competition between parents' genes be a cause of some mental disorders?

• Scientists are exploring complexities in the concept of a gene.

• Could genetic technology resurrect the Woolly Manmoth?

• Forget genetic technology… why not take brain pills to make you smarter?


Page created: 8/25/08. Last updated: 12/7/08
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