Thursday, July 29, 2010

The world as will

In chapter 28 of volume II of The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer writes:
Every glance at the world, to explain which is the task of the philosopher, confirms and proves that will to live, far from being an arbitrary hypostasis or an empty word, is the only true expression of its inmost nature. Every thing presses and strives towards existence, if possible organised existence, i.e., life, and after that to the highest possible grade of it. In animal nature it then becomes apparent that will to live is the keynote of its being, its one unchangeable and unconditioned quality. Let any one consider this universal desire for life, let him see the infinite willingness, facility, and exuberance with which the will to live presses impetuously into existence under a million forms everywhere and at every moment, by means of fructification and of germs, nay, when these are wanting, by means of generatio aequivoca, seizing every opportunity, eagerly grasping for itself every material capable of life : and then again let him cast a glance at its fearful alarm and wild rebellion when in any particular phenomenon it must pass out of existence; especially when this takes place with distinct consciousness. Then it is precisely the same as if in this single phenomenon the whole world would be annihilated for ever, and the whole being of this threatened living thing is at once transformed into the most desperate struggle against death and resistance to it.
Nietzsche, at various times, seemingly rejects the idea that we can know the inmost nature of the world and insists that this inmost nature is will to power. (People who read Nietzsche tend to believe that he contains multitudes or else that we should carefully exclude remarks he probably did not mean so that a consistent Nietzsche emerges.)

Bernard Reginster argues that Nietzsche wants to improve on Schopenhauer's theory. Schopenhauer, he says, identifies suffering with resistance to the will, sees suffering as an inescapable feature of life, and thinks the best we can do is resign ourselves to it. He thinks that Nietzsche, in contrast, wills (or advocates the willing of) suffering so that the will has some resistance to overcome. So both see suffering as inevitable but Schopenhauer pessimistically regards this as bad and unavoidable, while Nietzsche optimistically regards it as good and embraceable. He sounds a a bit like Camus on Sisyphus.

Reginster knows much more about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than I do, so I'm probably wrong, but I wonder whether maybe Nietzsche is misreading Schopenhauer if this is what he really thinks. For one thing, willing endless suffering does not sound like the most optimistic thing one could do. For another, as Iris Murdoch has pointed out, Schopenhauer isn't really that pessimistic. He recommends not mere resignation but an enlightened love of the world. Life, after all, will go on after my death, and so will the matter I am made of. Some people find no comfort in this idea, but Schopenhauer praises dust:
Oh! Do you know this dust then? Do you know what it is and what it can do? Learn to know it before you despise it. This matter, now lying there as dust and ashes, will soon form into crystals when dissolved in water. It will shine as metal; it will then emit electric sparks; It will, indeed, of its own accord, form itself into plant and animal; and from its mysterious womb it will develop that life, about the loss of which you in your narrowness of mind are so nervous and anxious.
(WWR, Volume 2, p. 472)

Since we are mostly water I imagine we will evaporate and then fall as rain, like the newlyweds and others on the train at the end of Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings." Perhaps most importantly, Schopenhauer writes that it would be just as accurate to call the world embodied music as embodied will. This is not a resigned, pessimistic idea. Nor does it suggest that we should be too literal about interpreting his ideas about the will to live. Suffering, finally, belongs to the rather illusory world of maya. Enlightenment releases us from it.

In fact, since suffering helps us find enlightenment, Schopenhauer claims that it is desirable. He gives the example of the satisfaction people take in hard physical work. At this point, the contrast with Nietzsche's position is hard for me to see.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Depriving others of potential goods

My rather banal thoughts on the ethics of downloading music illegally are interesting to me because the wrongness of downloading like this seems quite different from the wrongness of stealing (since the loss involved is merely potential and, in fact, unlikely--i.e. most people who download illegally would not otherwise buy that music, I suspect) and because I think I actually changed my mind in the course of writing the post.

Anyway, the question of depriving others of potential future goods reminds me of Don Marquis' argument against abortion. (Is that an illegal link?) Marquis argues that what makes killing people wrong, when it is wrong, is that it deprives them of the future good experiences that they would otherwise have enjoyed. Since abortion does this, it is immoral.

Some people object, though, that this suggests that killing a young, healthy, good-looking, rich person (who is, because of these features, likely to have lots of good experiences in the future) is worse than killing an old, handicapped, ugly, poor person. In certain philosophical moods that might sound plausible, but it's actually (I think) not just wrong but monstrous. Raskolnikov's crime isn't "not that bad really."

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that not all killing is wrong. Killing in self-defense, for instance, can be OK. It is only unjust, unfair, or unreasonable killing that is wrong. Judith Thomson has argued quite persuasively that abortion is not unjust. I'm not sure whether it makes sense to talk about being unfair to a being that is incapable of intentional action, as a fetus seems to be. Abortion could still be unreasonable, though, for instance if it is, in Thomson's words, callous, self-centered, or indecent. This is not the kind of consideration that Marquis deals with, but I think it should be the focus of debates about the ethics of abortion. Or at least more of a focus than it usually is.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


There's something strange (completely unexpected yet simultaneously inevitable-feeling) about this story. President Ahmadinejad of Iran is quoted as saying that Paul--the psychic German octopus who predicted the result of the World Cup--is a symbol of decadence:
Those who believe in this type of thing cannot be the leaders of the global nations that aspire, like Iran, to human perfection, basing themselves in the love of all sacred values
But does anyone believe in this type of thing? Lots of people enjoyed reading about Paul's predictions, and probably some people placed bets on the basis of which tank Paul climbed in to get a mussel, but no one capable of serious belief would seriously believe that the octopus is psychic. Similarly, no one seriously doubts that the Holocaust took place. People who say they believe Paul's predictions are joking. People who deny the Holocaust are insulting Jews. I doubt that this kind of insult and the contempt that goes with it can be removed from Ahmadinejad's ideology without fatal damage to that ideology, which would be a reason for regarding his religious beliefs as a form of superstition. This is probably obscure, since it might look like an argument with several key premises missing. But basically what I'm saying this: his form of religion is too hateful to be called religion, so I'm calling it superstition instead. (And by "his form of religion" I don't mean Islam, although, of course, some people use the word "Islam" that way.) I think that's a legitimate use of the word superstition. (Would sticking to 'ideology' be better? Maybe.) But belief in Paul's predictions (i.e. the kind of unseriousness that goes by the name of belief in such things) is a form of superstition too. It's a diverse phenomenon.

Going to college

This story is disappointing. It's about the USA's declining rank in the world for the percentage of its population that have college degrees. As one commenter (#147) points out, the article doesn't even name the countries that are supposedly doing better.

Isn't it just obvious that quality matters more than quantity?

And this site suggests that the rankings look bad, if they do, because two-year community college degrees are given as much weight as four-year university degrees.

This would be a complete non-story except for the fact that it is being reported as a story and will probably be treated as a problem by politicians. Cue more pressure from above not to fail anyone, to admit the unqualified and uninterested into college, and to change what is taught to keep people who don't want to be there awake. Sigh.

Perhaps it would be good to encourage more people to learn a trade, but I don't know that you need two years in college to do this. Mastery is good, forcing everyone into a one-size-fits-all system is not.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The real me

There are a couple of passages very early on in Youth that seem very relevant to the question of what he might have to say about integrity and the self. Here's the first:
Was leaving his true thoughts lying around where she was bound to find them his way of telling her what he was too cowardly to say to her face? What are his true thoughts anyway? Some days he feels happy, even privileged, to be living with a beautiful woman, or at least not to be living alone. Other days he feels differently. Is the truth the happiness, the unhappiness, or the average of the two?

The question of what should be permitted to go into his diary and what kept forever shrouded goes to the heart of all his writing. If he is to censor himself from expressing ignoble emotions -- resentment at having his flat invaded, or shame at his own failures as a lover -- how will those emotions ever be transfigured and turned into poetry? And if poetry is not to be the agency of his transfiguration from ignoble to noble, why bother with poetry at all? Besides, who is to say that the feelings he writes in his diary are his true feelings? Who is to say that at each moment while the pen moves he is truly himself? At one moment he might truly be himself, at another he might simply be making things up. How can he know for sure? Why should he even want to know for sure?

Things are rarely as they seem: that is what he should have said to Jacqueline. Yet what chance is there she would have understood? How could she believe that what she read in his diary was not the truth, the ignoble truth, about what was going on in the mind of her companion during those heavy evenings of silence and sighings but on the contrary a fiction, one of many possible fictions, true only in the sense that a work of art is true -- true to itself, true to its own immanent aims -- when the ignoble reading conformed so closely to her own suspicion that her companion did not love her, did not even like her?

Jacqueline will not believe him, for the simple reason that he does not believe himself. He does not know what he believes. Sometimes he thinks he does not believe anything. But when all is said and done, the fact remains that his first try at living with a woman has ended in failure, in ignominy.

And the second:
Her story, spoken night after night in overlapping and conflicting versions into his sleep-befuddled ear, is that she has been robbed of her true self by a persecutor who is sometimes her tyrannical mother, sometimes a Mephistophelean therapist. What he holds in his arms, she says, is only a shell of her true self; she will recover the power to love only when she has recovered her self.

I don't think there's much commentary needed. The character who is in some sense Coetzee is very uncertain about his beliefs and even, perhaps, the concept of belief. The character who clearly has mental health problems believes in the self in a way that Coetzee seems very skeptical about. Whether he's right is another matter, of course, but perhaps the novel will show to what extent he is. There is something like Hume's bundle theory of the self here, but expressed much more tentatively and subjectively than Hume's theory is presented. That is, Hume speaks quite confidently about all people as if he is reporting well-established psychological findings. Coetzee, on the other hand, struggles to express how he feels or experiences his life. He makes no claims about other people, nor even anything definite about himself.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I've been saying "curtsy" but it's pronounced 'koot-SEE' apparently.

There are interesting facts about him here, but I wonder how true this is:
A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.
Perhaps they were dinner parties like this. And it's not hard to imagine someone who doesn't drink getting pretty quiet if everyone else is a bit drunk. The Wikipedia article gives reason to believe that the moral and political views expressed in his books are his own. I imagine he presents them as possible points of view, and possibilities worth reading about, because he believes them but recognizes that he might be wrong, or might be seeing things from just one of multiple possible and reasonable points of view. But you can never be sure when things are fictionalized. In Diary of a Bad Year he says that at the end of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai the samurai offer to protect the village for a price but leave when asked to do so by the villagers. But as I remember the film, the samurai simply leave. There are different versions of the film, but accounts of the plot that I've read all agree with my memory of the ending, and to the extent that the film has a plot it would be quite changed if the samurai seriously considered taking the bandits' place. So I'm not sure what to make of this.

I was going to try to say something about Coetzee on teaching and on the self, but that will have to wait for other posts.

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Brooks

Who is David Brooks? I've read the bio that I just linked to, but it doesn't say much about a background in philosophy or psychology, which is what he writes about today. His article is a bit of a mess. Let me count some of the ways.

1. "Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift from God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love."

Can this be true? Would most Asians say this, for instance? Perhaps by "people" he means Americans, and then it might be true that most think our sense of right and wrong comes from God. The stuff about God revealing His laws and elevating us with His love sounds like an aside of praise, but is perhaps meant to indicate how God gives us a sense of right and wrong: he reveals laws and loves us enough to raise us to the level of moral agents. This is very obscure though. The laws in the Bible are laws, not a sense of anything. Only those with a sense of right and wrong are capable of caring about them (qua moral laws, and not as practical guides for the self-interested who want to avoid hellfire). The laws don't create this sense. How God's love would do so is a mystery, and wouldn't you expect a believer to say that our knowledge of good and evil comes from the fall? I suppose that depends on how you translate and interpret Genesis.

2. "A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for ourselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by."

The relation between reason and choice is obscure here, but I think it has to mean we first choose a system arbitrarily and then reason within it. Does anyone believe this?

3. "Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don’t rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live."

If this emergence was a gift from God, then moral naturalists are on the same hand as "most people." If reason and choice were parts of the long history of relationships then moral naturalists seem not so different from the "smaller number of people."

Is "metaphysics" supposed to refer to the reason and choice combo? Odd.

And while it is surely true that we have moral sentiments, it does not follow that to learn about morality you observe people as they live. Except in the sense that you can see what people's morals are by seeing how they live, but we don't need psychologists to tell us that. You don't learn what is actually right or wrong by seeing what people do.

There is an awful lot of confusion here and I can't tell from Brooks' piece whether this is all his fault (some of it surely is) or whether it is there in the work of some or all of the moral naturalists that he cites. Perhaps they are spewing confusion and he has captured it perfectly in his finely ambiguous prose. If you want to spark debate it's probably best not to be too clear after all.

Not for sale

I just removed the ads from this blog, since what appeared was for Prilosec (an ulcer medicine), not the great books, DVDs, CDs, etc. that I was expecting. I might experiment more with amazon, but in the meantime I'll pretend that I am above wanting to make any money. My ambition was to get enough to pay for a sandwich or pizza, but that dream will have to wait.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's the point? Again.

I didn't have In Socrates' Wake bookmarked on my laptop, so I haven't been keeping up with it over the summer. Trying to catch up, I came across this old post and discussion thread there. It even has the stuff about physics making the country worth defending rather than helping defend it. Two other things strike me about it: 1. we philosophers don't seem to be very good at articulating a shared sense of what philosophy is for, and 2. several people defend philosophy by linking it with questions to do with ethics and religion.

Given the kind of danger faced by philosophy programs (alluded to here, for instance), #1 seems like something we ought to address. That is, if philosophy programs are going to be cut (as they have been at Middlesex University, e.g.) unless they seem more relevant, then we ought to try to present a united front of relevance. It might not be too late to emphasize the connection between critical thinking and philosophy. Ethics seems to me to be promising too: shouldn't every school offer a course like Michael Sandel's Justice? Once you've taken Critical Thinking then you might try Logic, and then maybe Philosophy of Language. After Contemporary Moral Issues, why not Ethical Theory and then Meta-ethics? And after World Religions why not Philosophy of Religion and then Metaphysics? The nature of causation can seem very abstract as an issue, but probably seems more relevant after you've wrestled a bit with the cosmological argument. This might partly explain why Intro Ethics courses sometimes seem to be more successful than general Intro to Philosophy courses.

That's how I would try to build and sell a philosophy program anyway, making sure along the way that students learned at least something about the history of the subject. But I know some people would see this as both pandering to the bureaucrats and missing much of the real meat of philosophy, which they see as dealing with problems in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. It's that conception of philosophy that makes it seem irrelevant though. Which might be what kills it off in the end.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Home taping is killing music

My reference to downloading music being cheaper than buying CDs (in this post) might have been mistaken for a reference to illegally downloading music for free. I was thinking of amazon instead. The album is almost $6 less as an MP3 download. And you don't have to pay shipping.

Anyway, I think the ethics of illegal downloading is interesting. It's sort of a victimless crime, but if everyone did it instead of buying albums then making an album would only ever be done at a loss. But would that be so bad? Small bands would still do it as a hobby, and bands who made it big would probably still release albums to attract people to their concerts. There might be less bad music, since there would be less of an incentive to release purely commercial stuff.

The important thing, I suppose, is the effect on artists, and I don't know what that would be. It's hard to see how it could be good though.

So perhaps "interesting" was an overstatement, but I can imagine a utilitarian arguing that it is positively good to download illegally. I think I've convinced myself that it's bad though. The only exception would be if it was reasonable to think that the artist(s) would not mind. For instance, if you knew that you would not buy the music you were downloading and thought you might either buy other music by this artist if you ended up liking it or else encourage others to buy it. But then maybe that's what Myspace and YouTube are for.

Anyway, this strikes me as a case in which it is better to think in a vaguely Kantian way (about fairness to artists) than like a utilitarian.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Twee Tuesday

I found out yesterday that Amelia Fletcher of Tender Trap has a D.Phil. in economics. Unusual for a pop star.

Also of limited interest is the fact that the Tender Trap's new album fits neatly on one CD with God Help the Girl, should you happen to download both (which is much cheaper than buying the CDs) but still want to be able to listen to them in the kitchen. I can't say I'm blown away by either one so far though.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The wrong reasons

I have finally found the blog post that I wanted to cite when talking about philosophy as solving problems vs philosophy as discussing texts, people, etc. Since I don't know anything about Heidegger’s distinction between Reell and Realität in Being and Time I can't say I disagree with Harman's comment:
anyone who would write a full essay on that topic must have gotten into philosophy for the wrong reasons.

Let me expand that point: anyone who even knows off the top of their head where to find such an essay must have gotten into philosophy for the wrong reasons.
But must someone who knows the secondary literature on Heidegger inside out have gone into philosophy for the wrong reasons? As I recall, Harman himself has read every word of Heidegger's work in German. Perhaps reading all the secondary literature would be impossible, but is there another reason why it would be a bad idea? It might be symptomatic of obsession or pedantry, but it could also be the result of humility and seriousness. Those seem like good qualities to me.

I have nothing against wanting to change the world, but science and politics seem like better avenues for that than philosophy. The point of philosophy (as I see it) is not to change the world but to understand it. And not to understand it in the kind of way that Kierkegaard made fun of Hegel for (I wish I had a quotation to support this implication) but to see it clearly. In other words, work in philosophy ought really to be a working on oneself. Or so it seems to me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ordinary language philosophy

Some very good work falls under the heading "ordinary language philosophy," but the idea that unusual uses of language are thereby wrong must be rejected, since technical and innovative, poetic uses have to be allowed. For instance, Adam Foulds describes a bird "flinching" up a tree in his novel The Quickening Maze (which I haven't read--it was reviewed in The New Yorker). It would be absurd to criticize Foulds for straying from ordinary usage. It would be equally absurd, it seems to me, to criticize Heidegger for talking about "the Nothing," when a string of German writers, including Goethe, have done so before him. Indeed, even if they had not, Heidegger would be entitled to innovate in this way.

This point is somewhat acknowledged by almost everyone, although I have still heard people talk as if only ordinary ways of using language are OK. But classic early analytic philosophers (Frege, Carnap, the early Wittgenstein) write as if poetry does not belong in philosophy. Proper philosophy must be more objective. One result is that ethics is edged out of philosophy, although meta-ethics is allowed to remain. Political philosophy goes, too, until the (hardly objective) imaginative thought-experiments of Rawls and Nozick bring it back. It is at least extremely difficult, though, to remove every last somewhat subjective element from questions about what is a person, what has consciousness, what makes sense, and so on. The ideal of philosophy as a subjectivity-free science seems to be a mistake. We have to appeal, it seems to me, to shared senses of what is reasonable, for instance. So there is an inescapable element of dialogue and subjectivity in philosophy. Which, to my mind, makes the idea of philosophy as solving problems problematic. In a sense what philosophers study is each other. Which is why I like the idea of studying people and books more than problems, admire scholarship, and am skeptical about pragmatism.

This is all too short and condensed, but I'm bound to return to it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dear diary

First a poem about keeping a diary (by Philip Larkin):

Forget What Did

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,
One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.
l wanted them over.
Hurried to burial
And looked back on
Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the Windows
of an opaque childhood.
And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed
Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come.
And when the birds go.

I'm not sure that 'Windows' should be capitalized, but that's how it was on the site I copied it from. And it's unlike Larkin to do the contemporary poet's trick of throwing in one word that you have to look up in a dictionary ('cicatrized'--closed by scar formation, healed), but otherwise this is one of his best.

Yesterday I saw Inception and watched the end of Hero. Inception is a lot like The Matrix--entertaining, but not great, and philosophical or thought-provoking, but a bit superficially. So it's a little like Avatar. Its main weaknesses are a lack of beauty and too much action. That is, there is a lot of shooting, explosions, car chases, etc. that are all quite generic and feel like a distraction from the main story. Rightly or wrongly, I didn't feel while it was going on that anything important was ever going to happen as a result of it.

Hero is much better looking but less interesting. It's a myth about the foundation of China that features masses of people dressed in the same colours swarming against a background of a similar colour, and a handful of heroes who have magical, balletic fighting abilities. Like many Japanese samurai movies, the heroes have incredible abilities, but unlike these Japanese films, these abilities are not just amazing but physically impossible. So there is an absurdity about the very idea of them, and, [spoiler alert] of course, even they could not, and do not, prevail against the mass armies of the Emperor. Their heroic acts end up being acts of self-sacrifice for the good of the many. So the film effectively rejects the idea of the hero. It's tempting to try to read something about communism or Confucianism or Chinese culture into this, but I'll resist.

Inception's philosophy is of a strange kind. It seems designed to make you say "Oh wow" or "Cool!", but I can't imagine anyone being really troubled by it (unless they already had some kind of mental illness--then it might be really disturbing). This puzzle-like quality (philosophy as entertainment) is what leads me to call it superficial. Puzzles like this can be solved, perhaps with difficulty, and need not arise in the first place, so they don't really matter much. The kind of philosophical problem that does matter, it seems to me, is the kind that is more than just a puzzle. Logic and a priori argument won't solve these problems. Since they are not purely intellectual they are likely to be expressed with too much soul or heart to be cool, and require something more like therapy than argument. This therapy would be the kind of conversation I tried to describe here. Somehow I think (or intuit or perhaps just feel) that leading words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use would involve poeticizing issues that seem purely intellectual, or seeing the poetry that is already there. And this would involve understanding the relationship between poetry and metaphysics, and the significance of "ordinary language" for Wittgensteinian philosophy.

Which is all to say that I have some vague thoughts at the back of my mind about ordinary language philosophy and the idea that philosophers ought to be concerned with solving problems.

p.s. A. O. Scott pretty much nails Inception in his review here. H/t the wife.

Friday, July 16, 2010


All of Andrei Tarkovsky's films briefly were (and most still are) available free online. Seems like a good time to watch one of them. Especially since Akira Kurosawa has said that "Every cut from his films is a marvelous image in itself," which could be said of Kurosawa's films too. I started with Solaris, since that was already in my Roku queue.

As Kurosawa implies, it's a very stylish film. No diagonal zippers but bondage trousers and leather jackets, and in 1972 (i.e. five years before clothes like that became fashionable). It's obviously been influential in other ways, too, most obviously on Moon, which is also (but not nearly as) good.

It's probably the most philosophical film I've ever seen, with themes from Kant, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. Where is the border between experience (of reality) and hallucination? What does it take, or mean, to be human? If a sea or planet could communicate, would we understand it? What obligation do we have to be human (e.g. rational)? If I remember rightly, the questions "What do you mean, 'how'?" and "What do you mean, 'why'?" are both asked directly (i.e in the dialogue, by characters in the film). These are interesting questions. What, when, who, and where can all be answered by giving the name of some thing, time, person, or place. But how is usually (always?) answered "Like this," so it requires the ability to copy, to do something similar but not actually the same. If you paint a bit of wall to show me how it's done, I shouldn't then paint the same bit of wall or repeat your words of instruction, for instance. I should do what is relevantly the same. So the meaning of 'how' gets at something about rule-following, the nature of human being, etc. The same with 'why,' which also involves issues of relevance, importance, responsibility, etc.

Why is there no Solaris and Philosophy book? There is Solaris, of course, which I'll have to read.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Crazy Löw

I wanted to mention yesterday that I had spent a part of the morning singing to myself Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" with the name of Germany's manager (Jogi Löw) in place of the title, and that I thought he and assistant Hans-Dieter Flick looked like a cruise ship Beatles tribute band in their matching blue t-shirts and black jackets. But that would have been a bit irrelevant and I couldn't find a good picture of them. What I did find was this video, which shows Löw picking his nose and eating it. Not so nice.

Martha Nussbaum talks about the kind of disgust such acts provoke in her book, From Disgust to Humanity, which I review here and here. Her idea, backed by empirical research, is that we are disgusted by various things (cockroaches, snot, etc.) and then become disgusted by things associated with these primary objects of disgust. We might be reluctant, for instance, to lick a finger that we had seen pick a nose even if we knew the finger had been carefully washed.

Her theory about anti-gay sentiments is that they are the result of a similar kind of associative disgust: people think of gay sex in terms of unprotected anal sex (as Howell's case illustrates), feel disgust at the thought of the male body being penetrated and semen mixing with feces inside it, then project this disgust onto gay people and their relationships. Something like this does seem to be going on in Howell's email, but it is not all that is going on there, and it is not a big part of philosophical arguments against gay sex. Those arguments, after all, are designed to apply to lesbian sex, masturbation, and a range of other sexual acts that don't necessarily involve men, penetration, or feces at all. It's not as if these philosophers just say "Yuck!" and leave it at that. There is some sense of disgust in Elizabeth Anscombe's writings on sexual ethics, but there is also a strong sense that certain good things (the human body, human life, sex itself perhaps) are not properly honored by "deviant" sex. The argument is not purely a negative reaction, that is to say, but an attempt to articulate and make sense of something positive. There is much more concern with psychology and good faith in Anscombe's work than Nussbaum (who doesn't mention Anscombe, as far as I can remember) recognizes in the conservative position. Of course there are multiple conservative positions, but it's worth dealing with the best, which would surely include Anscombe's. I don't mean that Anscombe is right, but I do think that views like hers are worth getting right, and it's a shame that Nussbaum does not address them in her book.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The gays of the other

Is this stupidity or a deliberate attempt to distort the facts? The headline claims that Michael Ballack's agent called the Germany squad "a bunch of gays." This implies that he is both bigoted and hostile to the German team. But the story makes clear that in fact what happened is that he is alleged to have told a reporter which members of the squad are gay. This implies neither of those things. It certainly isn't "an anti-gay slur on the national football team," although of course the players probably didn't want his speculations about their sexuality made public.

Identifying anti-gay slurs can be tricky, as this case shows. The email in the case is here and there's discussion here. Roughly speaking, an adjunct professor of religion has been fired because he made what were taken to be anti-gay remarks. Actually he wasn't fired since he was an adjunct and you don't have to fire adjuncts--you just don't offer them another contract. No need for a good reason or anything like that. This is one reason why tenure (which still allows you to be fired if you don't do your job) is a good thing.

Anyway, responses have varied, some people thinking he did nothing wrong and others thinking it was right to let him go. But others avoid the issue of judging whether expressing his views was an act of hate speech by suggesting that he should have been fired anyway for gross incompetence. That seems unfair, since we all make mistakes (although his characterization of utilitarianism is very odd, with its emphasis on consent and all).

PZ Myers seems to get things about right to me, although I'm not convinced that Howell has in fact got Catholic doctrine right (as Myers implies). Howell writes (in his email):
To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Myers seems to take this to mean "If it fits, you need not quit," but 'fitted' here is not like fitted carpet. It means something more like 'right.' Which makes the reference to health irrelevant. Yes, unprotected anal sex can lead to HIV infection, but so can vaginal sex. Masturbation does not make you go blind or grow hairs on your palms, yet it is considered wrong by the Catholic Church. So what Howell's physician friend told him is really nothing to do with Catholic doctrine as I understand it.

The structure of the human body is probably believed to reveal God's will by some people, but it tells us little about what is and is not a proper use of the body. If one thing fits in another thing and the result feels good, how can we know whether this pleasure is sinful or blessed? We need reason or revelation, not a lesson in anatomy or health.

So we would need to consider the meaning of the human body, as Howell puts it. And this depends on the meanings of other things, such as life, death, pleasure, sex, love, and so on. Once we've figured out the meaning of life, then we can start telling consenting adults what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Of course the Church has, and is entitled to have, a view on what the meaning of life is. But this view centrally involves faith.

The giveaway is probably Howell's use of capital letters:
sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
There certainly seems to be confusion about fitting here, but the caps show that he means something other than reality. In religion, caps often function like an unintended negation sign.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Naturalism and disenchantment

Alex Rosenberg's Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality seems like an important piece of work. He asks that people not quote from it without permission (for which I can't be bothered to ask), so I'll try to discuss it fairly without repeating his actual words. Actually I won't say much directly about it, because I can't hope to engage with his arguments here. Skim the whole thing yourself. It seems important because Rosenberg is well respected and, more importantly, because it summarizes a set of conclusions that are a) acknowledged to be harsh, lacking in hope, unappealing, etc., and b) forced on us (if Rosenberg is right) by naturalism, the dominant '-ism' of contemporary philosophy. These conclusions concern such central and perennial philosophical topics as morality, free will, and the nature of reality.

Wittgenstein offers an interesting perspective on the debate about naturalism and nihilism. Rosenberg tries to reclaim the word ‘scientism’ from those, such as most Wittgensteinains, who regard it as a bad thing. In response to Rosenberg’s argument, Brian Leiter responds with an affirmation of Nietzsche’s assertion that:

Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it.

Leiter goes on to say, still following Nietzsche, that projected values can nevertheless be embraced and, in at least some cases, when the values in question are necessary, should be. He rejects the “value” that “falsity is an objection to embracing the value of something,” and encourages Rosenberg to go farther with his Nietzscheanism: “from the correct observation that most of what we believe is false, to the conclusion that since such beliefs are essential for life, we should not give them up.” Rosenberg responds that he is prepared to accept this as long as what we have bestowed is understood to be something that does not exist, like the Ashes in cricket.

Leiter’s position looks very difficult to maintain: certain beliefs are to be recognized as false and yet maintained nonetheless because they are essential for life. In what sense are they not given up just as soon as they are regarded as false? I don't mean to suggest that Leiter’s position is simply untenable. Rather, I think it forces us to ask about the meaning of his words. I suspect that a Wittgensteinian interpretation of them might offer the best answer. The same goes for Rosenberg’s comic and mysterious idea that we can bestow something that does not exist. This would be a very puzzling riddle did he not give a kind of solution along with it: what is given is like the Ashes, once an actual heap of ashes but now, by association, simply the grand container that once held them or else simply the victory that earns this trophy.

Rosenberg is giving a précis of an argument, and Leiter summarizes some of this précis as suggesting (correctly, in his view) that "most of what we believe is false." So I should not treat this claim as being all that Rosenberg means to say, but I want to anyway. If it is a fact that most of what we believe is not true in the sense that scientifically-established facts are true, it does not follow that it is false in this sense. It could be nonsense, or it could be some other kind of sense, such as secondary sense. For instance, if I say that all members of Rusted Root ought to be coshed, I don't actually mean that criminal violence should be done to innocent musicians, but nor do I simply mean that I don't like them.* I might have strong feelings that coshing is precisely what they deserve. What I say is not straightforwardly true, false, or nonsense. Many, perhaps most, of the beliefs that Leiter/Rosenberg considers false might be like this.

As comments in a blog thread, naturally what Rosenberg and Leiter say is unelaborated. Wittgenstein’s view has the advantage of being less cryptic and less seemingly impossible to believe than their (understandably and perhaps inevitably) rather gnomic remarks. Ethical ‘statements’ are neither false, nor straightforwardly true, nor nonsense, nor merely expressive of some attitude. They are, rather, perfect examples of the use of words in a secondary sense.

*I do hate Rusted Root, but not because they are hippies or liberal or anything like that. I prefer my hippies like this and my politics are probably the same as yours.

Monday, July 12, 2010


My friend Rick Hudson and I used to have a way to test people: ask them whether they like football (i.e. soccer). If they said Yes or No, or words to that effect, they passed. If they set off on a rant about how pointless it all is, they failed.

I thought I remembered Umberto Eco failing this test miserably in print, but googling suggests he claims to like football but not football fans (especially Liverpool fans, which is fair enough). Theodore Dalrymple seems to be trying to take this line in his essay on snobbery, which people seem to be reading and linking to, despite this bit:

I admit that, in the inner recesses of my being, I am a fearful snob. For example, I feel nothing but contempt for people for whom sport is important.

How anyone can read this kind of thing is beyond me. The word 'fearful' is the linguistic equivalent of brightly coloured trousers with little animals all over them, i.e. a way to show off one's high socio-economic status that can be passed off as a joke. It's a conspiratorial "Aren't I awful?", laughing about one's own contempt for others. I'm probably missing the point or taking things too seriously, but it strikes me as smug. What's to like about that?

So is sport important? Well, it is undeniably only a game. But games are fun. How can you not like fun? They can also, as Eco and Dalrymple claim to recognise, be art. How can you not like art?

I suppose other people's seriousness always looks silly (see Schopenhauer). But you have to be a bit slow not to realize that this applies to you too, don't you? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps, nothing really matters. But that's a reason not to try to be too grand.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

No fences

So I think my last post ended obscurely, which is because I haven't really thought it all through yet, which is why I'm blogging about it. I might just be trying to repeat what Beth Savickey has already said about Wittgenstein's Art of Investigation. I'm also thinking about the idea of philosophy as therapy.

I'm very sympathetic to the idea of Wittgensteinian philosophy as therapy (and readings of Greek philosophy as something similar too, such as this and this), but didn't Wittgenstein get annoyed when people thought he was saying that philosophy ought to be a kind of psychotherapy rather than merely being like it? It is like it, I take it, in being dialogical or conversational--it takes two--and in offering no one-size-fits-all theses or pronouncements. It is unlike it in that it deals with a different kind of problems. Like some of the Greeks, Wittgenstein wants to help people live their lives better. Unlike the Stoics and Epicureans, at least, he has no recipe for a good life. He offers only a method for removing a certain kind of problem, which he seems to identify with metaphysics.

But it's hard to say what this method is--several methods have been identified within the Philosophical Investigations. Only a very close reading of that book can make it clear. And it's hard to say what Wittgenstein means by "metaphysics," although it is something like mistaking poetry for science. We might also call it linguistic fundamentalism or literal-mindedness. The proposed cure is a kind of ironical and poetical conversation. It could be done with jokes. And its proof, I suppose, can only be in the pudding.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Making room for faith

A few days ago I thought I had an idea that was worth trying out on a blog. Let's see if I can recreate it now.

Descartes divides created substance into two kinds (matter and mind), with matter a deterministic, mechanical, mortal realm, a bit like Plato's world of becoming. Minds are then 'outside' this realm, although they can interact with it and each person's mind is spread throughout her body. They have free will and are immortal. Free will allows for moral responsibility and immortality allows for punishment and reward after death. So traditional religious ideas still have a place despite the modern, scientific conception of the physical world. This metaphysical dualism is defended using the method of doubt, an epistemologically-informed methodology.

Kant divides everything that exists into phenomena (or things as they appear) and noumena (or things in themselves), but whether this distinction is metaphysical, epistemological, or neither is hard to say. At times he seems to be talking about the same things conceived in different ways (as we know them and as they just are), but at times he seems to be talking about different kinds of things: our phenomenal selves are mortal and lack free will, our noumenal selves (we ought to believe) are otherwise. God is not a phenomenon but might belong to the realm of the noumenal. We can only know about things as our minds conceive of them, and so there is a limit to reason, which means there is room for faith. This metaphysical/epistemological/whatever dualism is defended using the transcendental or critical method, which is concerned with the conditions of possible experience. So this is a kind of logical or conceptual method.

So far you are probably a) completely lost (if you don't know any history of philosophy), b) yawning uncontrollably (if you do), or c) outraged at some crass blunder I've made in the above. But I'll assume you're somewhere around b and try to get more interesting.

Kant's hard-to-pin-down position can be regarded as a transitional point between Descartes and Wittgenstein. The method that Wittgenstein describes in Tractatus 6.53 could be compared with Descartes's method of doubt. Rather than discard whatever can be doubted, though, we discard whatever has been given no meaning, i.e. anything metaphysical. The mysterious realm of the noumenal has become the realm of nonsense. But since ethics, aesthetics, etc. belong to this realm, Wittgenstein is often regarded as a mystic rather than as a Dawkinsy positivist.

The later Wittgenstein is also regarded by some (Lyotard, as I remember his work, is close to this position) as defending faith by confining it to one or more language-games that have different rules than other games, such as science and rational debate.

All of these dualisms (and the fideist pluralism) have their problems. Cartesian dualism is based on bad arguments and involves violation of the laws of physics for something outside the physical world to change the course of events within the physical world (i.e. non-physical minds exercising free will by changing the direction of moving matter). Kant's theory involves a lot of necessarily puzzling references to 'things' beyond the mind's ability to comprehend and also seems a lot like wishful thinking: we cannot know whether God, free will, or immortality exist, but we'd better have faith that they do. Tractarian mysticism seems no better than this and might be even worse: I know my beliefs don't make any sense (or should that be "sense"?), but I'm sticking with them anyway. And the fideist language-game theory seems like an annoying cheat: what right does anyone have to fence religion off from rational criticism? And, from a religious point of view, why should religion need a fence around it?

The truly Wittgensteinian position, it seems to me, refuses to erect any such fence. Nor does it stipulate what we can and cannot do with our language. It is ours, after all, and we can change the rules if we want to. So even if "the" language-game of religion is distinct from that of science, this could change. So philosophy cannot produce textbooks or well-established hypotheses or theses. It must be flexible. It must be conceptual, so it must be linguistic. Not as a scientific study of language, but as a linguistic study of language. A study from within. And that means it must be conducted as a conversation. Which means that this post itself, especially all the imperatives in this paragraph, is highly suspect.

But it is only a blog post, after all, which is perhaps as much as any philosophical remark should aim to be.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Students studying

Apparently college students in the US, at every level, are studying for significantly fewer hours (14 per week, down from 24 in 1961) than they used to. The Atlantic Wire has collected some ideas about why this might be.

My favourite is described as "professor apathy" but actually refers to "the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them." The growing power of students is not the result of professor apathy, of course, but of the tendency of administrators to treat colleges as markets and students as customers. If your continued employment depends on keeping your customers happy--and this by design on your employers' part--then it is not apathy that encourages you not to make those customers work too hard. Elective courses that attract few students are not likely to be offered again. Not because of professor apathy but because of administrative policy. Adjunct professors whose courses attract few students are unlikely to be re-hired, for the same reason. Departments that graduate few majors are liable to be shut down.

Two other things might be worth saying. Only a small drop in hours of studying has occurred since 1981 (2.8 hours per week), which might be explained by improved efficiency in doing research thanks to the internet. So the biggest drop occurred in the 1960s and 70s. Could this be because a change occurred during those decades in what people took college to be about? A higher percentage of the population started going to college then, and it is an era associated with both political protest and sex-and-drugs. Political protest seems to have died down, but partying appears to be bigger than ever. Did it always? Or is this a result of intellectuals making up a smaller percentage of the student population? (I don't mean this to be read as a dichotomy.) I don't know. And, since at least some partying must always have gone on, it's probably more important that so many students have to work to pay their way through college. That must reduce the time they spend studying.

Finally, it isn't simply that more people are going to college, because the drop is supposed to have happened across the board, not only at colleges that teach primarily the kind of student who previously would not gave gone to college at all. But if people used to think of college as a place to read books and now think of it as Animal House (a very big 'if') then I would expect this to affect Harvard as well as South West Central State, at least to some extent. Harvard probably also admits more students now who are not rich, and these people presumably often work part-time too.

Mostly I'm struck by the way bad administration is presented as "professor apathy" (because those lazy professors should have resisted the innocent mistakes of the administrators, even if it meant risking being fired) and by lots of head-scratching about something that seems entirely predictable given the half-baked, pseudo-economic thinking-in-slogans that lies behind this kind of administration. If you put pressure on schools to have high retention rates, then they will not flunk as many students as before. This means fewer Fs, which means grade inflation. If you put pressure on professors to get good evaluations from their students and to attract students to take their courses, you will get more grade inflation and less demanding courses. If you push for everyone to go to college, college students will be more like everyone else. And normal people don't study for many hours a week.

For more discussion see here and here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Movie night

Last night I watched The White Ribbon on DVD. There's a good discussion of it here. It's set in 1913-1914 and is sort of a cross between Larkin's "This Be the Verse" (without the humour) and the opposite of "MCMXIV." It's more "So much corruption even then" than "Never such innocence again."

Chris Bertram calls it beautiful (I'm not sure whether he means this purely visually or not) but also writes that: "The monochrome imagery is often superb, but a definite digital flavour remained in the tonality: a very small flaw in a terrific movie." I wouldn't say it's really beautiful to look at. It's well done, but seemed tense-looking to me, which I assumed was deliberate. Perhaps I'm projecting. It isn't dark in a noir-ish way, but there's enough darkness to sustain an uneasy feeling. But what do I know.

Warning: black and white, subtitles, and fairly long.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tedium Tuesday

Somewhat in the spirit of Jon Cogburn's Punk Rock Monday, here's a musically-themed weekday.

Is there anything much that isn't covered by "Sweet Jane", "Don't Stop Believin'," and the complete works of Belle & Sebastian?

Monday, July 5, 2010

In the Na'vi

An interview in today's Daily Telegraph led me to this article by Slavoj Žižek on Avatar and its alleged racism or "brutal racist undertones." But how brutal can an undertone be?

Certainly the film presents a fantasy of race: it's us (white, greedy, violent, technological, and led by the lead singer from Green Day) versus them (a tall, blue, generic native people who live in peace and harmony with nature). It's all rather Late Heidegger/Julian Young. The real point seems to be the clash between forms of life, not the clash between life forms. Except that the Na'vi's ecological life is actually rather technological--they plug themselves into animals and plants, and are described as being part of a huge network. The clash is a military one too. So the film sort of says one thing (dependence on technology + military aggression = bad) but shows another, or says what it says in a techno-military language. I suppose the message "We are bad and everything we stand for is bad" (I'm exaggerating) is a hard sell. A commercial rejection of commercialism is tricky too.

I enjoyed the film, but perhaps it goes to show how hard it is to produce a message that genuinely goes against the grain of our culture or times.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Big dogs

I just finished reading The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis, which as far as I can tell is the story known to Wittgenstein as Rendezvous with Fear. Wittgenstein liked the story even more than he liked other detective stories, and even wanted to write a fan letter to the author. There's nothing especially philosophical about it, but there's plenty of irony ("Is he hurt?" "Oh no, just dead") and some nice sentences ("The sunlight bit brilliantly into Janet's eyes"). The heroes are a detective and his huge dog. You can read more about it and download it for free here.

Another big dog appears in Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics:

"If I say 'I wonder at the existence of the world' I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good and clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than any one I have ever seen before or at any thing which, in the common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say 'I wonder at such and such being the case' has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case. In this sense one can wonder at the existence of, say, a house when one sees it and has not visited it for a long time and has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing."

There is no cause and effect here, though, since Wittgenstein's lecture was written before Davis' book. The same goes for Wittgenstein's lecture and Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, which both link religion with feelings of wonder, safety, and guilt. Freud's essay was published in 1930 while Wittgenstein's lecture, I believe, was given in November 1929.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Matthew Pianalto has been posting some interesting work on integrity lately (here and here). I've also been reading J.M. Coetzee's Summertime. On p. 63 a character in the novel says that, "Principles are the stuff of comedy. Comedy is what you get when principles bump into reality."

Pianalto's example (originally from Peter Winch, who got it from a film based on a book) of a pacifist who kills someone to prevent an even worse crime being committed shows that the result of such bumping can also be tragedy.

p.s. On p. 94 there's an exchange about vegetarianism and personal preferences or whims that echoes some thoughts found here.

Some old thoughts of mine on integrity are here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Nussbaum review

My review of Martha Nussbaum's From Disgust to Humanity is up at metapsychology. This was cut down from a version that was about twice as long.

The longer draft follows. (I'm interested in developing some of the ideas in it, especially about insults, which don't seem to be well understood. But, of course, there could be a whole literature I'm not familiar with.)

This is a lucid and powerful argument in defense of humane laws regarding gay and lesbian people, especially with reference to marriage. Nussbaum begins by opposing what she calls “the politics of disgust,” on which she blames most of the historical and remaining discriminatory laws, and then moves on to outline an alternative “politics of humanity” (based on respect, imagination, sympathy, and love) and the kind of laws that such politics would support. The book is easy to read and will be of interest to anyone who cares about law, politics, philosophy, psychology, or social justice.
As well as a preface and a conclusion there are six main chapters. The first examines the rhetoric, theory, and history of disgust toward homosexuality and toward gay and lesbian people themselves. The second describes a contrasting politics of humanity, focusing on respect for differences in religion, race, gender, and ability. Chapter Three looks in detail at laws against sodomy, both in the United States and in other countries. Chapter Four is about the U.S. Supreme Court case of Romer v. Evans, which declared Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 unconstitutional. The last two chapters look in turn at the ethics and legality of same-sex marriage and sex in public places, such as bath houses. In the former of these chapters Nussbaum provides a careful analysis of the value of marriage generally. In the latter she is equally skillful and clear on the many different things that people have in mind when they contrast the private with the public. Throughout, Nussbaum’s argument is respectful toward her opponents but always ultimately in sympathy with the rights of gay and lesbian people. She favors equality of legal rights and freedom from the tyranny of the majority.
It is hard to imagine an argument that would overpower what Nussbaum has set out here, but there are a couple of points on which she might be questioned. These have to do with the so-called politics of disgust. Nussbaum presents the politics of disgust as bigotry based on unhappiness with our physicality, and this bigotry, she says, is defended intellectually by such people as Leon Kass and Patrick Devlin. In other words, she treats three things (bigotry, feelings about the human body, the philosophies of Kass and Devlin) as being closely connected without this being clearly the case. Undoubtedly there is bigotry and this is one of the main reasons why people oppose “special” (i.e. equal) rights for gay and lesbian people. But is it really so clear that this prejudice comes from discomfort at our own embodied human nature? Nussbaum makes a plausible case that it is, but it is no more than plausible. She suggests, for instance, that some heterosexual men dislike the idea of sharing a shower with gay men because: “The gaze of a homosexual male is seen as contaminating because it says, “You can be penetrated.” And this means that you can be made of feces and semen and blood, not clean plastic flesh.” [p. 19] This might be true, but surely few people would accept that this is why many women would object to sharing a shower with heterosexual men. Many people are simply uncomfortable with being the possible object of sexual desire, especially when the desiring gaze belongs to someone they do not themselves desire. Need this discomfort be a desire to deny one’s own carnality?
That there is bigotry is undeniable. Its psychological roots are less obvious, and possibly less important for us to unearth. This is just as well, since Nussbaum is not always credible on the psychology of disgust. On p. 18, for example, she claims that “the idea of semen and feces mixing together inside the body of a male is one of the most disgusting ideas imaginable—to males, for whom the idea of nonpenetrability is a sacred boundary against stickiness, ooze, and death.” If this is true then one wonders why many gay males do not feel this way and why the same mixing inside the body of a female appears to be rather popular among heterosexual males.
It seems a little unfair to Kass and Devlin to treat them as defenders of mere prejudice. Devlin, to whom Nussbaum returns throughout the book, believes that a society is held together by moral bonds and that anything that seriously threatens these bonds is a legitimate target for defensive legal action. He also argued that prostitution and gay sex were subversively immoral in just this kind of way in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. In other words, Devlin makes three separable claims: societies are united by moral values; a society’s core moral values are sufficiently important to it that it is legitimate to use the criminal law to uphold and defend them; gay anal sex (“buggery”) is one thing that violates core 1950s British values. This last claim is probably false, but it is also irrelevant to Nussbaum, who is concerned after all with the 21st century USA. The second of Devlin’s ideas is largely ignored by Nussbaum, although it is possible that she might accept it. She thinks it relevant, at any rate, that gay marriages do not increase rates of heterosexual divorce. If they did, this might be evidence of the kind of social dissolution that Devlin feared (although, against Devlin, he never makes it very clear what it is that he has in mind). And Nussbaum is ambiguous as to how this might affect her view of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Moreover, she apparently agrees with Devlin on the first point. She never makes this explicit, but the rhetoric of her book implies it again and again. References to “our values” and “American values” come up multiple times. Nussbaum is clearly trying to appeal to the reader’s sense that the United States is a) our country and b) a place founded on principles of liberty and equality. Perhaps this is just a rhetorical strategy, perhaps it is the result of wanting to make legal appeals to precedent, but she presents herself as sympathetic to the idea that we, our society, ought not to compromise its/our core, shared values, and that this is major reason why we ought to respect the rights of gay and lesbian people and allow them, for instance, to marry. There is something conservative about this, both philosophically and rhetorically, which makes it odd that it comes hand in hand with explicit attacks on conservative ideologists such as Devlin, who think much the same way but have different ideas about which values it is that hold our society together.
Nussbaum contrasts Devlin’s “politics of disgust” with Mill’s harm-based liberalism. Mill famously insists that only acts that harm others may be restricted by the law, while Devlin argues that it is legitimate to restrict liberty more than this. One example that Devlin uses is drunkenness, and we might update this example by thinking about drug abuse. Each drinker or drug-user might harm only him- or herself, Devlin thinks, but if the nation is so weakened by widespread intoxication that it cannot defend itself against Nazi aggression then something must be done. In such a case making oneself incapable of helping others (by taking drugs rather than fighting against the Nazis) might even be regarded as harming them. Limiting drug or alcohol use might be legitimate, Devlin thinks. He also thinks that allowing gay sex is like allowing drink or drug use in this way. On that point his position is ludicrous, but the more general idea that Mill’s harm-principle is too liberal is much more plausible. Devlin’s grasp of reality is questionable, but his underlying principles are not nearly as worthless as Nussbaum makes out.
Another problem with the harm-principle is its ability to deal with insults. It is clearly wrong to abuse people verbally because of their race, religion, ability, gender, or sexual orientation. Whether it should be illegal to do so is much less clear, but if I oppose public displays of swastikas on the grounds that they show disgusting insensitivity to the value of (especially Jewish and other ethnic minority) human life then I am being rather Devlinian and yet humane at the same time. This suggests that Nussbaum’s apparent identification of the politics of humanity with Millian liberalism is imperfect. Disgust might be illiberal (it is not an Enlightenment value, after all) but it is not always bigoted, conservative, or inhumane. This might not matter much, but it leaves a hole in Nussbaum’s argument in favor of giving same-sex unions the same status as other-sex unions.
Nussbaum addresses the following objections to same-sex marriage: 1) it is immoral because unnatural; 2) it should not be state-sanctified because no children will be produced and raised in it; 3) sanctioning it forces everyone to approve of it, possibly against their consciences; 4) it undermines traditional marriages; 5) it demeans traditional marriage. None of these is quite the idea that allowing same-sex unions insults other-sex unions. 4 might sound like it, but Nussbaum treats it as the claim that same-sex unions will lead other-sex couples to divorce. 5 comes closest, but Nussbaum’s response to 5, which she treats as part of 4, is that it is like saying that athletes who use steroids to enhance their performance do not belong in the Hall of Fame. The analogy does not apply though, she says, since gay and lesbian people are not cheats or B-grade versions of heterosexual people: “They want to get married for reasons very similar to those of heterosexuals” (p. 147). Since their motives are the same as heterosexual people’s, and their characters are no worse, we can only make sense of the idea that allowing same-sex marriage will “sully traditional marriage,” she says, if we move “to the terrain of disgust and contamination” (p. 148). That is, anyone who thinks that state-sanctioned same-sex marriage is an insult to traditional marriage must in fact find gay and lesbian sex-acts viscerally disgusting.
Perhaps that visceral reaction does explain opposition to same-sex marriage, but must it? At least some opponents of same-sex marriage claim to do so on the grounds that there is no sexual act that same-sex couples can engage in that is the kind of act that produces children. This, and not the mere fact that no children will in fact be produced, they say, is what makes same-sex marriages a demeaning parody of traditional marriage. This is, supposedly, what is insulting about it. However little one might share this sense of outrage, it is what some people claim to feel. Incredulity seems a reasonable response, but a refusal to believe them combined with unflattering long-range psychoanalysis seems a bit much. Until we understand the logic and ethics of insults we might do better to take such people at their word.
Kass is also more interesting than Nussbaum allows. His argument in favor of believing that there is sometimes wisdom in repugnance is not a defense of all prejudice. He is well aware of bigotry and its evil. Rather, his central claim is that we cannot always justify rationally our deepest and most important moral values and judgments. Why, for instance, should we not throw dead bodies out with the trash? Why should we believe that there are such things as natural human rights? Not unreasonably, Kass holds that we cannot fully support such beliefs with rational argument and must rely, at least in part, on some other kind of sense or perception that it is wrong to behave in certain ways. Unfortunately, and this is always a danger with non-rational feelings, one can mistake mere prejudice for the wisdom of repugnance. Devlin appears to have done so, and Kass might well have at times too. This does not mean that ethics is independent of (non-rational) feelings, intuitions, mystical insights, or whatever we choose to call them. And this makes it difficult to argue purely rationally yet completely successfully against those who feel that same-sex marriage should not be allowed. This is, presumably, one reason why Nussbaum uses the patriotic, conservative rhetoric that colors her book, and why she prefaces the book with a quotation from Walt Whitman about the leadership role of “the bard” in fostering the feelings of liberty and equality. She is offering not only legal and conceptual analysis but is also encouraging us to engage imaginatively and sympathetically with people of all sexual orientations.
Does Nussbaum fail after all then? No. Deep feelings that are enshrined in such documents as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the United States Constitution are not only deeply but also almost universally felt. Opposition to gay sex and same-sex marriage is not like this. It is far from universal and probably not very deep either. It seems to be evaporating from our society too quickly for it to run very deep. Even if it is deep in some cases, its confinement to certain groups or sub-cultures makes it more like a religious belief than an insight into the universal moral law. And religious beliefs that do not rise to this level of moral insight have no place in the law of the United States.
Nussbaum’s conclusion, therefore, as well as most of her argument in its defense, is perfectly correct.