Guest Review from Hussain Ather: Kwame Appiah’s “Experiments in Ethics’”

Experiments in Ethics

Experiments in Ethics by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Photo credit: (

You’re in a dilemma. A train is about to run over five people strapped to the tracks. You may pull a lever to switch the train to another track where the train would only kill one person. In this thought experiment, known as the trolley problem, what would you do? Some might argue that killing fewer people is a more favorable outcome, therefore, they would pull the lever. Others might stick to moral grounds of life-or-death decisions and choose to not pull the lever. Regardless, the way humans respond to the trolley problem is part of our ethical dilemmas. From large-scale issues such as access to health care to everyday experiences like giving money to homeless beggars, we test our sense of morality everyday. And the way science and philosophy intertwine with one another become apparent.

It’s hard to ignore the alarms on science and health anymore. With current concerns brought on by gene editing, end-of-life care, and self-driving cars, the boundaries between right and wrong become fuzzy. Philosophers and scientists have taken center stage in battles of these ethical issues. And, with these ethical questions raised, we’ve developed new ways of looking at the world. Drawing from history, scientific experiment, and speculation, Kwame Appiah’s “Experiments in Ethics,” takes a look at this ethical research through the history of science and philosophy. Like the Trolley Problem shows, our own morality is deeply embedded in human nature, and a combination of science and philosophy, when studied together, can provide this insight into right and wrong.

As Appiah explains, science and philosophy have had a long history hand-in-hand with one another. As 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, studying concepts of the mind without empirical science is empty and studying science without philosophy is blind. David Hume, 18th-century Scottish philosopher, sought to show that moral philosophy makes sense with human nature.

American rapper Rakim said, “Scientists try to solve the context. Philosophers are wondering what’s next,” in his song “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” Though Rakim brags about these researchers trying to understand his sick lyrics and rhymes, it’s a helpful distinction to show. Scientists want to know the material world, what things are made of, and empirical causes for observations. Philosophers speculate, search for answers that result from reasoning, and find answers for more open-ended questions. This generalized boundary between scientists and philosophers – with the former studying the present and the latter looking to the future – rings through in our current events. Understanding these connections between these fields, the stage is set for making sense of human morality.

Our current understanding of moral responsibility hinges on how people behave in tricky situations. Like participants in the trolley problem, events such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, come about by those ethical decisions by people in dangerous situations. Appiah argues that people should understand how to reason ethically in dire situations – rather than education solely on virtuous characteristics. The way we behave with courage, generosity, patience, or other ways of describing moral behavior, results from these decisions.

Appiah’s writing is eclectic, drawing from contemporary social psychologists to the Classical philosophers. Yet, his writing style is easy to understand and elegant in delivering difficult-to-understand concepts. I found his book “Experiments in Ethics” inspirational to my career as a scientist-philosophy bounty hunter. It sparked a fire inside me during my senior thesis research while I was an undergraduate. His writing makes the reader feel as though they truly can understand philosophy, and he gives people insight into their own moral behavior. Like any researcher, we’re always trying to solve the context while wondering what’s next.

See more from Hussain at his blog:

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Book Review—Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

image1Being somewhat of a wanderer myself, I was excited to finally read Into the Wild by Krakauer. This true story is about a young man, Christopher McCandless, who leaves his home in Virginia to wander the country alone with no money, no plan, and no destination. Krakauer follows his journey through the American west, piecing together the details, and all the way to Alaska, where McCandless’s body was found in a rusted bus near the Stampede Trail. Part documentary, part commentary on restless youth, I was at a loss as to whether I liked this book or not.

Krakauer is an exceptionally talented storyteller. As such, the writing and mechanics were flawless. But some of the ideas behind this book left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. In the book, McCandless was lauded as a kind of modern transcendentalist—someone who has given up on society and its corruption and seeks to live more simply and reach back to humanity’s roots. Yet I was not persuaded that McCandless, and his story, embodied this sort of lofty ideal. In my mind, I saw a story about a young, white, middle-class man, moody and pretentious, giving up what he had without understanding what it means to not have. It could be that both sets of stories apply here, but the latter far outweighed the former for me.

I am not sure why I had such a strong reaction to McCandless’s story. Some of the ideals that he follows I also identify with. I have wandered a great deal around the world, lived and slept alone in foreign places, and often wonder what it would be like to grab a backpack and traipse into somewhere wild. Yet, the way in which McCandless seemed to reproach and angrily push others away was not something I would expect from a traveler seeking some kind of better, simpler life.

Granted, in the book Krakauer took care to show both sides of the story—McCandless as a lofty wanderer as well as a petulant youth. He also spent time to discuss the strangeness of these kinds of people who have popped up throughout history and followed these dangerous paths in hopes of some kind of enlightenment. As such, whatever it is I disliked had to do with the story itself, and not the book or the writing.

And considering all of that, this is precisely the kind of book that is essential to read—the kind that will make you think about something. So I recommend it for anybody and everybody, and make sure to read it alongside a friend so you can discuss it later.

Story: 5 // Craft: 5 // Food for thought: 5

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Book Review—Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

image1Although the two short stories featured in Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball are the product of the author’s first endeavor to put pen to paper, they are still classic Murakami—meandering tales with no resolution and a lot that’s left unsaid. Murakami fans will know what I mean, but for those who don’t I like to put it this way: read Murakami for his writing and your own contemplation and not for a story or an ending.

In these two stories we find an unnamed narrator and the character The Rat from A Wild Sheep Chase, two twenty-somethings contemplating their place in the world, how they got there, and whether to seek change. The stories were great as per usual, but what I enjoyed the most was his introductory essay explaining the moment when he decided to sit down and write. It’s a bit of gold for Murakami fans. Apparently, that moment came while he was watching a baseball game, and fell into his lap “as if something had come fluttering down from the sky.”

All this being said, I recommend these stories to established Murakami fans for sure—ones who follow his publications almost religiously. But for someone just getting started I would say this book is not for you. A few years ago I posted on this blog my top favorite Murakami books. In there I name Kafka on the Shore as my favorite, followed by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—these books have more structure, and are closer to a “regular” sort of fiction book, with story, conflict, and a narrative arc. So check these out first, plus a few others, and then when you are getting close to the end of the Murakami road, double back for Wind/Pinball.

Story: 3 // Craft: 5 // Making me wonder what life is all about, and concluding that maybe, it’s not about anything at all: a great, big existential ∞.

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Book Review—The North Water by Ian McGuire

fullsizerenderPatrick Sumner is an ex-army surgeon running from his past. Henry Drax is a harpooner with an insatiable thirst for blood. Both board the Volunteer, a whaling ship setting out from Hull to hunt for blubber in the Arctic Circle. As they head north, the secondary purpose of the expedition unfolds together with the cataclysmic depravity of Drax’s nature. Can Sumner, lost in the grips of a laudanum addiction and feelings of deep emptiness, fight against Drax and find his way through the winter and home?

What I loved about The North Water, but which I must caution potential readers against, is the sheer vulgarity of the language and images that McGuire includes in his story. Do not read this book if you have a queasy stomach, but if you’re looking to experience survival, and humanity at its most twisted and animalistic, this is the book for you. It is a thrilling story that you will not put down until its hollow, bloody end.

In an interview with the New York Times Book Review podcast, McGuire explains how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick influenced the story in The North Water. In Moby Dick, McGuire says, Melville turns whaling into a heroic enterprise, with Captain Ahab acting as the tragic figure, and a philosophical exploration of the human condition. For his book, McGuire wanted to push back on these ideas and show whaling in its more brutal, bloody, and material form. The North Water is certainly all of these things. (Check out the podcast from December 9, 2016, titled “10 Best Books of 2016” to hear it for yourself, or just click here!)

All in all, if you’re looking for a thrill and are a fan of authors who specialize in the brutal, such as Cormac McCarthy, then I think this book is for you. Expect blood, death, and a whole lot of swearing.

Story: 4 // Craft: 4 // Entertainment: 5 // Nastiness: off the freaking charts.


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Thoughts from the 2016 Boston Book Festival

fullsizerender-1Hey all, last Saturday I went to the Boston Book Festival and attended some great panels that discussed books and writing. I live tweeted soundbites all day @anniemcg13, but thought it would be neat to make a post with some longer and more organized thoughts about what I heard. The two topics that stuck with me most were creativity (how to get some) and tips for writers looking to publish. If you’re a writer, or interested in writing, this post is for you!

“Being Creative” panel with Pagan Kennedy, author of Inventology, and Alexa Clay, co-author of Misfit Economy

Although this panel talked mostly about creativity as it relates to problem solving and innovation in a business setting, some of the ideas were certainly relevant to writing.

For example, Kennedy brought up the idea of how you go about being creative. She explained that creativity is “baked into observation.” It’s a process of aimless playing around until you find something. And certainly, a lot of the writing process has to do with solving problems: how do I get the main character from point A to point B smoothly? How do I get my source to open up and tell me all the dirty secrets of his past? How do I tell a zombie story that isn’t just a repeat of the hundred thousand ones that came before it? In order to find the solution, you might need to get a little creative

Clay told a story that relates to this idea: once, she dressed up as an Amish woman and went to a technology convention to ask questions. Aside from it being hilarious, she said that doing this allowed her to dig deeply into simple concepts and ask simple questions that would have sounded strange coming out of a tech-savvy person’s mouth. This seemingly silly adventure, to me, sounds like that “aimless playing around” that Kennedy was talking about. It was implied that from this experience, Clay gained some insight that she would never have gleaned if not for her Amish LARPing adventure.

So what is the takeaway? I guess it would be to experiment. Don’t expect to get it (the sentence, the interview, the plot, the detail) right on the first try, and don’t be afraid to do something unusual or strange in order to reach your goal.

“Your Book as a Business” panel with independent publishers Charlotte Pierce, Deidre Randall, and Eddie Vincent

The second panel I attended was a discussion about all things publishing, and more specifically, how to get the word out about your book. This panel was more of a tips-here-and-there kind of deal, so here are some of those tips:

  1. When looking for a publisher, know what you want from your book and choose the publisher type accordingly. What do I mean by publisher type? Check out this website for more details, but it has to do with services and what kind of relationship you want with the entity that will be publishing your work. For example, there’s vanity publishing, in which you pay the company to publish your book and that’s basically it. There’s also subsidy publishing, in which you partner with the entity to get the job done, and a few more. It all depends on what you, the writer, are looking for.
  2. Create an author platform, an expression of passion and interest, before you even start writing. In terms of nonfiction, for example, you could establish yourself as an authority or knowledgeable voice in the field so that when your piece comes out people will trust you. Another point that goes along with this one comes from a question that one of the panelists asked the audience, which was: how many of you hate social media? After waiting a bit for people to raise their hands, the panelist replied with: well, get over it. The point here is that social media is an important resource for writers to get the word out about their work. Sure, it’s all well and good to get published with a huge name like Penguin Random House, but for the most part, modern writers will need to act as their own marketer and spokesperson. Get the word out ASAP!
  3. Finally, check out The Literary Marketplace for a big old list of all the literary agents who exist in the whole world (okay maybe just most of them).

A few more things…

The last panel I attended was a discussion with science writer James Gleick about time travel. Although there weren’t any writing tips to glean, I wanted to share a neat soundbite: “The best time machines we have are books.” Indeed!

And lastly (I promise this time) can you guess this book? No cheating! 🙂 fullsizerender-2

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Book Review—What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

fullsizerenderFantasy and reality combine in this book of short stories. In one, a husband and wife who are drifting apart conduct an experiment where they watch their hopes and fears manifest before them. In another, a girl joins a puppeteer school where the puppets and their human controllers change each other. Each story explores truths of the human existence, revealing them in ways that seem not quite possible, but still wholly believable and enlightening.

I devoured Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and was devastated to read the last word. Each story is unique and just as enchanting as the last. Oyeyemi’s writing is simple and compelling, making this book an easy read and allowing the story, details, and place to pull you in. I would place this book in-line with other semi-fantastical writers such as Haruki Murakami and Karen Russell.

Story: 5 // Craft: 5 // Entertainment: 5

I give this book full marks in all three ratings and highly recommend it to any reader. I cannot wait to read more of Oyeyemi’s work.


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Book Review—Toms River: a story of science and salvation by Dan Fagin

19scibooks-popupIn the 1950s the Swiss dye manufacturing company Ciba-Geigy arrived in Toms River, a small town by the Jersey shore. Its arrival brought jobs, and a boon to the local economy, helping Toms River to grow in size and wealth. Yet, as the residents were quietly watching their town prosper, hidden behind the trees on the factory’s vast property, Ciba-Geigy was dumping billions of tons of hazardous chemical waste into the river, unlined landfills, and eventually the ocean. Soon, residents began to notice a foul smell and taste in their drinking water, and children were seemingly born with unusually high levels of childhood brain and spinal cancers.

Dan Fagin’s extensive nonfiction piece, Toms River: a story of science and salvataion, chronicles the saga of the town, the factory, and the story that took over 20 years to unfold. This book is not only about Toms River, but also a history of cancer, epidemiology, dye manufacturing, science’s role in the legal system, and so much more. Fagin leaves no questions unanswered.

Readers looking to experience this book are guaranteed to learn something new, but should be warned not to expect a happy ending. The title, which includes the word “salvation”, is a tad misleading– but instead of saying more I would encourage you to experience the story for yourself. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and in the afterword the author expresses his surprise not only in receiving the prize, but also in how this book was received among readers. I’ll give you a taste:

“Since the publication of Toms River, I have watched with fascination as readers have drawn their own lessons from the facts in these pages. Because of the book’s surprising success…I have had many opportunities to listen to readers…From them, I have learned that the Toms River saga proves we need to aggressively investigate cancer clusters. I have also learned that it proves such investigations are a waste of time and money. I have learned that this book is an inspiring narrative of redemption, of tenacious heroes who saved their community and set a shining example for the world. I have also learned that it is a dark tragedy of human greed and folly that proves we are forever doomed to repeat our past failings.”

Something that evokes so many differing opinions among readers, I think, is really something that is worth reading. So with that I say…

Story: 4 // Craft: 5 // Entertainment: ???2-5  this is not for leisure reading // Learning factor: way way way above a 5. You will walk away knowing much more than you did coming in. You just have to stick with it.


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Bookish News—Your Brain on Fiction from The New York Times

Anyone who has ever struggled to explain to a nonreader why reading is good for you should take a look at the article Your Brain on Fiction in The New York Times.

The author, Annie Murphy Paul, writes: “The novel…is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life.” She argues that reading fiction allows for a sort of simulation of reality; by learning to connect with characters and their stories, we are better able to understand and connect with others in our own lives.

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Book Review—The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

FullSizeRenderA man who has lost everything and mourns by walking backwards takes a journey into the High Mountains of Portugal in an early, 20th-century automobile to look for a bizarre, lost Christian artifact. A pathologist, devout to both God and Agatha Christie, performs an autopsy on a man and finds something unusual within. A modern Canadian man with Portuguese heritage picks up and moves to the High Mountains of Portugal with a Chimpanzee, searching for peace and a new life.

Yann Martel’s newest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is a three-part journey that explores grief and Christian devotion with a twist. As a non-Christian and non-religious reader, I hesitated with the book’s themes at first, worried that I was about to slog through some 300 pages of Christian proselytizing, but this was not the case at all. I could not put this book down, and soon came to find that the stories dealt less with religion and more with the human condition.

The writing is beautiful and the stories haunting and full. My only issue comes from the nature of the ending, which I thought failed to tie together all the loose ends. Granted, I wasn’t expecting to be spoon-fed meaning, but there were quite a few questions that were left open.

But in all I do recommend this book, both to a reader looking for pleasure in prose as well as to one searching for deep thinking. Perhaps you might find many more answers than I did.

Story: 3 // Craft: 4 // Entertainment: 4

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Book Review—Lesabénido: an asteroid novel

FullSizeRenderOn the asteroid Pallas, a race of worm/slugs-like beings live a Utopian life filled with art, music, and deep thoughts. One day they decide to build a gigantic tower to penetrate through a glowing cobweb cloud that hangs above their planet during the day, and descends and becomes dark at night. The project is spearheaded by Lesabénido, a Pallasian who believes that a greater being lies beyond the cloud who, or that, contains the great secrets of the Universe.

Lesabénido is a stark and simple story that reads almost like a folk tale. It was written in 1913 by German author Paul Scheerbart, and published right at the onset of World War II. In the introduction, the translator laments that the book was published at this time. Otherwise, he believed it would have been much more popular and impactful than it is today.

This is likely a book unlike anything you’ve read before. It is so odd, and beneath the simple words lie any number of interpretations and meanings. Although I enjoyed reading it overall, at some parts I really struggled to visualize what was happening. I think part of the point of this book is to let your mind see what it wants, but sometimes the struggle to see and understand halted my reading and I wished for a little more direction. In the end, I’m not really sure what moral or enlightenment I was suposed to glean, but I feel like there’s something in there that a chat among literary friends could reveal.

Honestly, I felt like I was reading some kind of alien bible.

In all, I recommend this book for a reader who wants to think and not be blindly entertained. I don’t mean think about the words or the plot, because those were very, very simple, but more about the meaning behind the story as a whole. Was there even a meaning?

It’s very hard to rate this book since it’s so strange, but here goes…

Ratings on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high)

Entertainment: 3 // Craft: 2 // Story: 4 // Creativity factor: I don’t even know…this was so beyond odd I’m not even sure if it should be called creativity, or what. It’s maybe a 4?

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