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PURE Award winners 2015: Mark Lee

Undergraduate researcher seeks political solutions to combat extreme poverty


June 4, 2015

Committed to a goal of research excellence with its bold Eyes High strategy, one of the University of Calgary’s most important initiatives is the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience, better known as PURE.

Each year undergraduates can apply for the prestigious PURE Awards, which provide financial research support to some of the university’s most promising students over the Spring and Summer months.

The program is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to develop research projects, undertake independent research and contribute to knowledge in their respective fields.

In this Q&A series we will meet the PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts. Good luck to each of them in their research pursuits!

Name: Mark S. Lee

Degree sought:  Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, honours, and Bachelor of Commerce in finance, with distinction. Set to graduate in June 2016.

Research topic: “My research topic is currently named ‘What We Ought To Do About Extreme Poverty: Shifting Matters From Morality to Policy.’ I’m exploring the potential political solutions we can adopt in order to balance our moral obligations and preserve people’s freedom to do what they want with their wealth.

In the book The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer develops a strong argument that undoubtedly, our moral obligations demand we give considerably more to the world’s poorest than what most of us give now. Granted this conclusion, the issue that arises is what role the state might play in coercing such people to do as they morally ought, which is what I’m interested in.”

Supervisor: Dr. David G. Dick, assistant professor in philosophy, Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business Fellow

What attracted you to this particular research project? “In an article I read a while back, I came across a saliently unpleasant statistic: “Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day.” At the time, I was well on my way pursuing my finance degree, having won a lucrative six-figure paying internship in the investment banking industry. But perhaps more fortuitously, I was able to wangle a spot in “Business Ethics,” a class taught by Dr. David G. Dick, an engaging philosophy professor who wore a tweed jacket yet was still in tune with the “real world,” having overseen The Integrity Network – a working group of ethical professionals from corporate, academic, and non-profit sectors. Through this medium, I developed a keen interest in the seeming dichotomy of leading an ethical life within a corporate environment. This project emerged as a function of my interest in what our moral obligations are for people living in poverty.”

Why is this research important? “I think that the kind of reasoning and analysis that philosophers practice can really make a difference for issues that are ethical, rather than factual, where disagreements often take place. A recent article showed that the richest one per cent of Americans generated ~20 per cent of all the available income last year – that is the widest income gap since the Roaring 20s. As wealth levels in America become increasingly disparate, a political solution that preserves people’s freedoms, yet bridges the wealth gap grows in demand. Although scholarship on our moral obligations to the poor has been well developed, my project attempts to enrich the understanding of morality as it relates it to political philosophy and the economic theories that follow it – as such, it has a distinct flavour.”

What do you hope to achieve with this research? “I see this research as a jumping-off point to further my knowledge in order to (ideally) develop a paper worthy of submission for academic conferences or future publication. Fortunately, the interdisciplinary aspect of this project, combining philosophy, policy, and economics, presents an avenue to discuss an under-examined issue in proportion to its appeal.”

What do you love most about your field of study? “Practical ethics is the application of morality to practical issues like the treatment of ethnic minorities, our environment, abortion, and obligations to the poor. It covers a pretty wide area. Often, I find myself reverting to a ‘default setting,’ that is, the regular norms that society follows without question, when living my everyday life. Philosophy helps us reveal ethical ramifications in seemingly trivial choices that we otherwise would not recognize. In the fast-paced forward-thinking age of iPhone 6s and Facebook / Twitter, we miss taking the time to examine some important issues. The answers should be obvious, right? But they’re not obvious, they’re confusing. I think most of us desire for our lives to amount to more than just consuming products and generating garbage. Studying philosophy gets us one step closer to understanding what it means to live a meaningful life.”

> Learn more about other PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts