Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

First Day


We have two aims:

  1. Doing some genuinely synthetic work in PPE. Specifically, we will focus on how economists and philosophers think about inequality.

  2. Preparing to write the thesis in the spring.

I had a great conversation with Daisy about this earlier today. It helped me to articulate exactly what we’re doing here. So I thought I would share it.

The history of PPE 160 goes like this. First, there was a PPE major. It consisted of a list of courses from Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. There was no PPE course dedicated to integrating those disciplines.

That was bad, so PPE 160 was created by Professor Brown and Professor Hurley, my predecessor in the Philosophy Department. The idea was that it would be a senior capstone course dedicated to integrating the different disciplines that make up the PPE major.

That was good, so we kept doing it even after Professor Hurley left and I slipped into his place. But students and faculty were not satisfied with the thesis. They felt that it would be better if students did more work and received more direction in the fall term. In short, the thesis needed more attention than it was getting.

That was bad, so we decided to devote more attention to the thesis during PPE 160. It is still a class devoted to integrating work in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. But we also structure the course so students work on their theses throughout the term and get regular feedback from the professors and the other students in the class.

That has been pretty good. The stress people feel about the thesis has gone down and the quality of the work has gone up. Some students wish we devoted more time to the thesis in PPE 160 and they have a point. You can always do more on a project like a thesis. But we did not want to abandon the original goal of a course devoted to integrating the work of different disciplines. We think that students would miss the group discussion if we tilted the course even farther towards working on individual thesis projects. So this is the balance we settled on and it works reasonably well.

There is another question about the non-thesis parts of the course that I don’t think we have ever squarely answered. It’s pretty basic: what are we trying to do? You can ask it about individual class sessions or about the course as a whole. Is there any point we’re tying to make? A progression of ideas we’re trying to chart? What? Are we just drifting around from topic to topic or is there a destination?

I wondered about this quite a bit myself and have to confess feeling frustrated with the course at times. But I got over it and here is why. I realized that this is a process course more than a destination course. The point of this course is to work with others who have a diverse skills, backgrounds, and knowledge. The readings are on topics that the disciplines of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics have something to say about. Our seminar meetings try to expose this.

Freshman seminars are similarly about process. The goal of those seminars is to show you how to be a college student: how to prepare, discuss, and write about the kinds of things you will study in college. Senior seminars are the same way but at the other end. Now that you have all this knowledge and all these skills, apply them to this and that.

So when we approach a class session, we aren’t thinking “what point do we want to make about this reading?” We’re trying to set up an environment where we can discuss a piece of writing. The discussion is an opportunity to figure out what is important about the reading to you.

In short, you’re seniors now. We’re doing less to direct discussion to a particular point than we might do in other courses because when you go out into the big world you’re going to have to learn from others, teach others in turn, and decide for yourself what is important to know. A senior seminar like PPE 160 is one step in that direction. Fly Sagehens, fly! (Or, root trees, root! Pick your college’s animal or plant and modify accordingly.)

Prospective Thesis Projects

Here is what people are thinking about doing. No one is bound to this, of course. These are just the ideas that were put on the table on the first day.

Agnes is thinking about human rights for ethnic minorities. She’s specifically thinking about the Roma in Germany and the problems of statelessness and cycles of poverty.

Lola has thoughts about two topics:

  1. The ethics of cyber-surveillance
  2. What the social contract means during a pandemic

Ryan has three irons in the fire:

  1. Environmentalism
  2. Autonomous vehicles
  3. The problems that come from having a very old Constitution

Hutch is working on Locke’s theory of property and ideas about original acquisition.

Daisy has two ideas:

  1. Human rights in East Asia
  2. Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect

Dylan E. has the following in mind:

  1. Conspiracy theories, such as Qanon
  2. Gosh, the Constitution is old (much like Ryan)
  3. Something about vaccines

Emily has her eye on the ethics of global sexual and reproductive health interventions.

Keegan, having come back from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and having experienced the difference between English, Welsh, and Scots within the “Great Britain” part, is thinking about the relationship between nations and states.

Evelyn wants to look at the criminalization of marijuana.

Jordan is interested in the politics and philosophy of the welfare state. He was struck by the differences between the US and Denmark, which he visited during study abroad. He’s also thinking about political polarization in the US.

Lilly has a plan about civic education. Here are her questions. What are the virtues of a good citizen? How could those virtues be inculcated through the primary and secondary education curriculum? And how does that ideal curriculum compare with the one in California schools?

Dylan B. is thinking about climate policy and water.

Brandon is taking up the role of government specifically in addressing poverty.

Roman has the defund the police movement on her mind and she is curious about how should think about public safety.