Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Books that make you think

I often think that an ideal philosophy course would be like a book club or a group of friends getting together to talk about books they have enjoyed reading. And I would like to assign readings that I would also recommend to friends who expressed an interest in philosophy. But there are some things that are important that simply aren't much fun to read (no one likes everything) and, more to the point, it's hard to find books like this. I started reading Simon Blackburn's Think recently and thought it would be perfect for one of my courses. But then I got to chapter 2, which includes a discussion of the private language argument, and it just seemed to be going over too much too fast. So the search continues.

Now a friend of mine actually has expressed an interest in philosophy, and I wish I had good books to suggest. She liked Michael Sandel's Justice and wants to read something similar--accessible and thought-provoking. I hate to use the word 'bleg', but does anyone have any suggestions?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

An institute you can't disparage

Thanks to Matt Pianalto's post over at The HEP Spot, I've been thinking about what is natural and what 'natural' means. This article by Scott P. Richert says that:
Marriage is a practice common to all cultures in all ages. It is, therefore, a natural institution, something common to all mankind.
I suppose the idea is not only that marriage happens but that it happens universally. This is meant to be important.

But surely Christian marriage is not universal. According to Anscombe:
Christianity was at odds with the heathen world, not only about fornication, infanticide and idolatry; but also about marriage. Christians were taught that husband and wife had equal rights in one another's bodies; a wife is wronged by her husband's adultery as well as a husband by his wife's. And Christianity involved non-acceptance of the contemptible role of the female partner in fornication, calling the prostitute to repentance and repudiating respectable concubinage. And finally for Christians divorce was excluded. These differences were the measure, great enough, of the separation between Christianity and the pagan world in these matters. By now, Christian teaching is, of course, known all over the world; and it goes without saying for those in the West that what they call "accepting traditional morals" means counting fornication as wrong - it's just not a respectable thing. But we ought to be conscious that, like the objection to infanticide, this is a Jewish Christian inheritance. And we should realize that heathen humanity tends to have a different attitude towards both.      
According to Wikipedia:

Anthropologists have proposed several competing definitions of marriage so as to encompass the wide variety of marital practices observed across cultures.[4] In his bookThe History of Human Marriage (1921), Edvard Westermarck defined marriage as "a more or less durable connection between male and female lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring."[5] In The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936), he rejected his earlier definition, instead provisionally defining marriage as "a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognised by custom or law".[6]
The anthropological handbook Notes and Queries (1951) defined marriage as "a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners."[7] In recognition of a practice by the Nuer of Sudan allowing women to act as a husband in certain circumstances, Kathleen Gough suggested modifying this to "a woman and one or more other persons."[8]
Edmund Leach criticized Gough's definition for being too restrictive in terms of recognized legitimate offspring and suggested that marriage be viewed in terms of the different types of rights it serves to establish. Leach expanded the definition and proposed that "Marriage is a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum"[9] Leach argued that no one definition of marriage applied to all cultures. He offered a list of ten rights associated with marriage, including sexual monopoly and rights with respect to children, with specific rights differing across cultures.[10]

Duran Bell also criticized the legitimacy-based definition on the basis that some societies do not require marriage for legitimacy, arguing that in societies where illegitimacy means only that the mother is unmarried and has no other legal implications, a legitimacy-based definition of marriage is circular. He proposed defining marriage in terms of sexual access rights.[4]
Although the institution of marriage pre-dates reliable recorded history, many cultures have legends concerning the origins of marriage. The way in which a marriage is conducted and its rules and ramifications has changed over time, as has the institution itself, depending on the culture or demographic of the time.[12] Various cultures have had their own theories on the origin of marriage. One example may lie in a man's need for assurance as to paternity of his children. He might therefore be willing to pay a bride price or provide for a woman in exchange for exclusive sexual access.[13] Legitimacy is the consequence of this transaction rather than its motivation. InComanche society, married women work harder, lose sexual freedom, and do not seem to obtain any benefit from marriage.[14] But nubile women are a source of jealousy and strife in the tribe, so they are given little choice other than to get married. "In almost all societies, access to women is institutionalized in some way so as to moderate the intensity of this competition."[15] 
I don't see that there is any reasonable conclusion to draw from common sense plus all the above (both from Wikipedia and from Anscombe) other than that people care about sex and babies, and so develop institutions or customs to help ensure that their preferences are maximized, or something like that. There is nothing here to suggest that Christian marriage is more natural in Richert's sense than any other kind.

But his sense of 'natural' might not be the most relevant. Anscombe writes:
In fact there's no greater connexion of "natural law" with the prohibition on contraception than with any other part of morality. Any type of wrong action is "against the natural law": stealing is, framing someone is, oppressing people is. "Natural law" is simply a way of speaking about the whole of morality, used by Catholic thinkers because they believe the general precepts of morality are laws promulgated by God our Creator in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions. That is to say, the discoveries of reflection and reasoning when we think straight about these things are God's legislation to us (whether we realize this or not).
In thinking about conduct we have to advert to laws of nature in another sense. That is, to very general and very well-known facts of nature, and also to ascertained scientific laws. For example, the resources of the earth have to be worked on to supply our needs and enhance our lives: this is a general and well-known fact of nature. Hence there needs to be control over resources by definite owners, be they tribes or states or cities or corporations or clubs or individual people: and this is the institution of property. 
So in thinking about whether marriage is natural we should ask whether it is moral and, perhaps, whether there is a need for something like the institution of property to deal with the facts of nature regarding sex and babies. Few people deny that marriage is morally permissible. The most important question, it seems to me, if we want to work out the ethics of marriage, and in particular whether gay marriage is all right, is whether the connection between marriage and babies makes gay marriage unacceptable.

Anscombe writes that:

the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act (I don’t mean of course that every act is reproductive any more than every acorn leads to an oak tree but it’s the reproductive type of act) then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married? Restricted, that is, to partners bound in a formal, legal union whose fundamental purpose is the bringing up of children? For if that is not its fundamental purpose there is no reason why for example ‘marriage’ should have to be between people of opposite sexes. But then, of course, it becomes unclear why you should have a ceremony, why you should have a formality at all.

It might help if we proceed backwards through this argument (and here I'm going to start quoting myself, with some bits omitted):
  1. Marriage is (properly) an occasion for formality and ceremony, 
  2. This is (right) because its fundamental purpose is the generation and bringing up of children, 
  3. Children need to be brought up by a father and mother who are legally bound to one another, 
  4. Intercourse is what generates children, 
  5. Therefore, intercourse should only take place between married, heterosexual partners.

At least, the argument seems to be along these lines. But the more one spells it out the more questionable it appears to be. Premise 1 is not formidably strong. True, weddings are formal and ceremonial, but some are much less formal than others. Are they less truly weddings? Are they worse than more formal weddings? These questions hardly seem worth trying to answer. People do sometimes wonder why gay people (I include lesbians in this category) would want to get married rather than simply living together, but it is hard to see how their motives could be anyone else’s business. The same would go for two friends who want to have a civil partnership so that if one dies the other will inherit their shared house. This might not seem to be an occasion for formality or ceremony, but if they choose to treat it as such, who or what is harmed? The institution of marriage? Perhaps that is the thought, that civil partnerships insult marriage by grotesquely aping it. But partnerships for the convenience of friends do not do this, surely, and gay marriages only do so if gay love is a grotesque parody of true love. The view that this is the case is surely on the same level as the racist view that the apparent emotions of some ethnic groups are not real, so that we need not be concerned about their tears, their happiness, or the rights necessary for the securing of this happiness. I do not mean that opposition to gay marriage is morally as bad as racism, although I am not saying that it is any better either, but only that it seems to rest on the kind of arbitrary stance on what counts as real or true about which rational debate is impossible.

Anscombe refers to the thought that marriage might be “a pact of mutual complicity in no matter what sexual activity upon one another’s bodies.” If this were what marriage was about, she asks, what could be the relevance of a wedding or anything of the sort? The making of a pact of sexual exclusivity, though, would be an important event to many people. Forsaking all others has long been part of the idea of marriage. So has been declaring a couple’s love publicly, and their commitment to care for each other. Having children need not be part of a marriage conceived as mutually loving, caring, and sexually exclusive. It is not only matters of life and death that are worthy of ceremony, although there are surely limits to how far one can debate the ceremony-worthiness of any event.

Anscombe also tells us that, “It is, I believe, universal to regard marriage as having a sort of honourableness and dignity about it. This is obviously connected with its role in reproducing and rearing children.” This might be true, but it is surely debatable. Is marriage itself, as Anscombe understands it, universal? Has every culture practiced it? Is it universally honored? If so, must this be because of its connection with children? Anscombe might be right, but she is not obviously right. If marriage is an honorable estate, because of its connection with the production and rearing of children, it does not follow that inevitably childless couples may not share in that honor and dignity. A marriage of two infertile people need not be forbidden or undignified. Anscombe would agree as long as the couple was accidentally, not intentionally, infertile. Intentional infertility, she would say, changes the nature of the marriage, making it, in fact, not a real marriage at all. But her claim is based on the idea that what is good about marriage is obviously its connection with having and raising children. And this is not obvious. There is honor and dignity in any mutual commitment by two people to love and care for each other.

Back to the rest of Anscombe’s argument. Premise 2 is weak. What is it about raising children that makes a plan to engage in it suitable for formality and ceremony? The generation and raising of children is one of the most important things in human life, one of the things we most care about, one of the things that takes up our time, and, of course, one of the things without which the human race would die out. So ceremony is not out of place at a wedding if the couple intend to have children together. But is it necessary? And is only such a wedding a suitable occasion for ceremony and formality? A commitment to live together in love is surely worth something.

Premise 3 is controversial. Single parents struggle, but must they always fail? Must children be raised by two and only two parents, and must they be of different sexes? It must generally be easier to raise children when the ratio of children to parents is not too high, but otherwise it is hard to see anything except the weight of tradition and custom on the side of the idea that only the traditional nuclear family can meet children’s needs. As Charlotte J. Patterson has found: “the results of existing research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and children of lesbian and gay parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite clear: Common stereotypes are not supported by the data.” [This quotation is from a different paper, which I couldn't find online, but the thesis is the same.]

Premise 4 (“intercourse is what generates children”) is easily misunderstood, especially as I have presented it. Anscombe means that intercourse is intrinsically generative in a way that nothing else (natural) is. This is true, but we do have what she considers to be illicit artificial means of generating children. We also have many other kinds of sex than the intrinsically generative. Her argument that these are all illicit is not a powerful or very convincing one.

All four premises are so weak that the conclusion is not proved. In short, I don't see that there is any good natural-law-type argument against same-sex marriage. Of course people other than Anscombe have offered arguments along these lines, and I haven't considered them, but I doubt these are any better than Anscombe's. I'm willing to look at evidence to the contrary though.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I feel your pain

In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes that it is a duty to seek out the places where the poor are to be found, and perhaps also sickrooms and debtors' prisons. This is in order to cultivate sympathy.

It seems to me that this is a noble goal, but that the means are questionable. The last thing you might want if you were down on your luck would be some virtue tourist out to improve himself by being saddened at the sight of you. Kant does not rule out helping these people, of course, but he is talking about a duty to improve oneself in this way (in order that one will be more likely to help others in future), not others. Maybe it's best to focus on Kant's talk of not shunning such places rather than the bit about seeking them out. Unless you seek them out for some other reason, such as wanting to help. Then you might not need to cultivate your sympathy, of course, but I'm sure it's possible to be sympathetic enough to want to help yet not so sympathetic that one isn't put off by the pitiable sight of those in need.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's all relative?

This essay by Jesse Prinz looks like a useful defense of moral relativism to have students read if you teach ethics. But it's a bit shocking. Let me count the ways:

  1. Prinz points out that different cultures have different morals and that opponents of relativism deny that this makes relativism true. After all, different cultures have different scientific beliefs too, but we don't say that these beliefs are all equally true. Prinz rejects this response, though, because "morals do not track differences in observation, and there also is no evidence for rational convergence as a result of moral conflicts." So ethics is not science, and the analogy between scientific disagreements and ethical disagreements breaks down at some point. It hardly follows that it never gets going in the first place.
  2. "Moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation. What, then, is morality based on? To answer this, we need to consider how morals are learned." Isn't this a mistake about the meaning of "based on"? We get our morals from our parents, peers, preachers, and so on, at least for the most part. (It is also possible to innovate, to carry on a tradition, rule, or practice in some unexpected way, but this is rare.) But people who say that morals are based on reason surely do not deny this. They mean, I would have thought, that good morals can be given a rational justification. To see whether this is true we need to examine the alleged justification and see how rational it is, not consider how morals are learned.
  3. "Morality involves specific emotions." This is probably true, but I flag it because it sounds dangerously close to Hume's idea that moral approval and disapproval are specific inner objects that we identify with an inner sense. (At least I think Hume's view is something like this.) This is a bad theory.
  4. "If this picture is right, we have a set of emotionally conditioned basic values, and a capacity for reasoning, which allows us to extend these values to new cases. There are two important implications. One is that some moral debates have no resolution because the two sides have different basic values. This is often the case with liberals and conservatives." This might be true, but a) it isn't relativism, and b) I'm not convinced that liberals and conservatives admit to having very different values. It isn't relativism because relativism says that both sides are right, not simply that it might be impossible to reach an agreement. As for political disagreements, some are based on differences in knowledge (if you choose to get your news from people who like to suggest that Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, communist then you might end up disagreeing with others for flat-out bad reasons, not because of different basic values), some are based on prejudices that the people who have them are ashamed of. Racism comes to mind, but perhaps hatred of the rich or envy of the successful might be a factor too. But few conservatives will happily say, "Yes, I'm racist, and that's just a basic value difference between us," just as few liberals will happily say, 'Yes, I hate rich people, and I want to punish them even if doing so helps no one." There are basic differences, I agree, but the differences that we are prepared to admit to, that are not guilty secrets, are rather few and small, I suspect.
  5. "The second implication is that we cannot change basic values by reason alone." Agreed. But, again, this is not relativism.
  6. "The hypothesis that moral judgments are emotionally based can explain why they vary across cultures and resist transformation through reasoning, but this is not enough to prove that moral relativism is true. An argument for relativism must also show that there is no basis for morality beyond the emotions with which we have been conditioned." No. The basis for morality is irrelevant. As Prinz says at the start of his essay, relativists "believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true." An argument for relativism must show that this is a good belief to have. But can we believe that "It is good to eat the bodies of one's foes" is both true and false, true when asserted by a cannibal from a cannibal culture and false when asserted by someone like me? I don't think we can believe this, unless we use 'true' in some technical sense, meaning something like 'sincerely uttered.'
  7. "the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves." But relativism does entail that when Hitler says "Jews are inferior" what he says is true (and that this is false when said by most other people). Why should we accept this? It isn't remotely acceptable.
  8. "Allegation: Relativism entails that moral debates are senseless, since everyone is right.Response: This is a major misconception. Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground. We can also have substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values. Some debates are senseless, however. Committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other, but public debates over policy can rally the base and sway the undecided." This is close to a point I tried to make above. But the fact that committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other does not mean that what both sides say is true. 
Having said all that, I wonder now whether this would be good to give to students. Perhaps they could be challenged to find at least half a dozen errors in it. Or perhaps it's better than I think. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Anscombe seems to have been more than just a great philosopher: if the stories about her are to be believed, she had tremendous courage and an impressively no-nonsense approach to her dealings with others. Not someone to be taken lightly at all, whatever you might think of some of her views (and almost everyone will disagree with her, probably strongly, about something). The stories themselves suggest that there ought to be a biography of her. In the meantime, here are some stories.

Jane O'Grady in The Guardian writes that:
Outspoken, often rude, she was sometimes dubbed "Dragon Lady". For a time she sported a monocle, and had a trick of raising her eyebrows and letting it fall on her ample bosom, which somehow made her yet more daunting. But, while giving short shrift to pretension and pomposity, she took endless pains with those students she considered serious. Her exhilarating tutorials went on for hours, leaving everyone exhausted; students could drop into her house at any time to discuss philosophy among the dirty nappies. Married to Peter Geach, a fellow-philosopher and Catholic, she was always called "Miss Anscombe", which caused some consternation at the Radcliffe Infirmary whenever she turned up to give birth (she had seven children).

She was notorious for a forthright foulmouthedness which was only enhanced by the beauty of her voice. When presenting a paper on pleasure, she distinguished extrinsic pleasures - things we enjoy because of the description they fall under - and intrinsic pleasures - things we enjoy regardless of how they are described; and she cited, as an example of the latter, "shitting", strongly pronouncing the double "t", and with such sternness that her academic audience were too daunted to laugh. (Unfortunately this was probably one of the many papers she threw away as insufficiently good.)
Once, threatened by a mugger in Chicago, she told him that that was no way to treat a visitor. They soon fell into conversation and he accompanied her, admonishing her for being in such a dangerous neighbourhood. She chain-smoked for some years, but bargained with God, when her second son was seriously ill, that she would give up smoking cigarettes if he recovered. Feeling the strain of this the following year, she decided that her bargain had not mentioned cigars or pipes, and took to smoking these.

Except when pregnant, she wore trousers, often under a tunic, which, in the 50s and 60s, was often disapproved of. Once, entering a smart restaurant in Boston, she was told that ladies were not admitted in trousers. She simply took them off. When she threatened one of her children, "If you do that again, I'll put you on the train to Bicester", and he did, she felt obliged, given her views on fulfilling promises, actually to put him on the train. 
John M. Dolan says:
According to a possibly apocry­ phal tale, she once said to A. J. Ayer: “If you didn’t talk so quickly, people wouldn’t think you were so clever”; to which Ayer replied: “If you didn’t talk so slowly, people wouldn’t think you were so profound.” 
John Haldane writes:
One of Anscombe's last pieces of philosophical writing was "Russell or Anselm?". PhilosophicalQuarterly, 1993, in which she defended the thesis that Anselm's argument of Proslogion 2 could be saved "from the stupidity of an Ontological Argument" by deletion of a comma. This rests on the claim that in "Si enim in solo intellectu est, potest cogitari esse et in re, quod maius est" the second (editorial) comma ought to be omitted; in which interpretation (as "if that than which nothing greater can be thought of exists only in the mind, something which is greater can be conceived to exist also in reality"), the argument does not treat existence as a property of objects and so does not fall foul of Kant's famous objection. Writing of her defence Anscombe remarked "[I have] thought harder about Anselm's argument than I did before. But I still think that I haven't thought hard enough. I don't know whether Anselm's argument is valid or invalid - only that it is a great deal more interesting than its common interpretation makes it."
[I don't know what to make of this, but it sounds interesting.]

Here's a bibliography, with other useful links:


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rubber ring

A lot of the great philosophers of the past were single men. It would be superficial to suggest that this explains all their 'so-called problems', but it might be a relevant fact to bear in mind.  Chesterton says that the main problem for philosophers is to find a way to be at once at home in and yet astonished by the world. This is not exactly how most philosophers have expressed their concerns, and it is certainly not the only concern of philosophers, but I think it's not bad as an expression of one kind of problem. Chesterton's solution is orthodox Christianity. But another might be children--nothing is more domestic or astonishing than (one's own) children.  And perhaps anyone you love can fill this role. So family and friends are important--this is banal, of course, but also likely to be overlooked or denied by someone who thinks this cannot be even part of the answer to the question of the meaning of life.

And another answer might be art.  Salman Rushdie said he tried to fill the God-shaped hole in his life with literature. I can think of at least three ways that this might work. One is to revere the work of literature (or other kind of art) as a kind of icon or fetish. This seems to be roughly what Roquentin does in Sartre's Nausea, seeing art as having a value quite distinct from the rest of life or the world. The artist is then a kind of shaman or god.

Another way to fill the hole with literature would be if it presented you with a variety of characters, each with their own point of view and personality. These could possibly fill a friend-shaped hole in one's life. (I'm thinking of Jim Morrison singing "Music is your only friend," but I'm sure there could be literary as well as musical versions of this.) They might also, or instead, help one see more in one's friends and acquaintances, making them more familiar and/or surprising. If someone came to seem just like a character you had read about, for instance, this might make them both more familiar (so that you felt more at home with them) and more interesting than they had previously seemed. More generally, people might come to seem more interesting and worth getting to know if you take an interest in the people in books. In this case the artist is just a guide, helping you see the world (and people in particular) in a better way.

The third way is by experiencing an aspect shift.  I think somewhere (a memoir by Rush Rhees perhaps) there is a story of Wittgenstein seeing newsreel of a bombing raid and saying that with different music being played the raid could seem tragic instead of, say, evil.  There seem to be multiple ways this kind of aspect-shift could occur.  Christians in pain might regard themselves as closer to Christ, which could make pain easier to bear (if nothing else).  Readers of Philip Larkin might take a kind of pleasure in eating an awful pie in Sheffield, which could make the pie easier to bear.  Perhaps this is a matter of making connections rather than seeing something under a different aspect, but in each case the connection sheds a different light on the experience.  It very often seems possible to see things in a different light, which in itself is good news.  When Wittgenstein wrote in his notebooks that "The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics" (p. 83e) he was paraphrasing Schopenhauer, who thought that still life paintings showed that everything is beautiful when looked at the right way.  (I think the work of the Boyle family might be used as another example to make the same point.)  Attentively might be the right word for what this right way is.  Or lovingly. This is similar to the second case, but it isn't particularly about people and it's more about perspective or framing, and the possibility that art reveals of different perspectives, as well as the actual perspectives that it provides.  In this case the artist is a kind of therapist.  

(What is missing is the way that art expresses what we already feel better than we can manage. That seems like a very important function to me, but it doesn't fill a hole exactly. If anything, it makes a hole, letting out what was stuck inside, unable to be expressed.)

The title of this post comes from the song by the Smiths that talks about songs saving your life (like a life preserver, the rubber ring of the song's title).  But what I'm really thinking of is two songs by Belle & Sebastian: Judy and the Dream of Horses (a celebration of the pleasure of dreams and songs, even for someone whose life has "gone wrong") and Lazy Line Painter Jane (a seemingly sad song about a girl whose life is a mess that turns into a celebration of her life, mostly by having a celebratory instrumental section at the end (around 4:23, although the triumphant horns around 4:52 clinch it for me)--odd that this should work, but I think it does).            

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Age of Iron

There are some striking references to Socrates, and to Dostoevsky, in Coetzee's Age of Iron. The novel tells the story of an old woman (a retired classics professor) dying of cancer as the apartheid regime in South Africa is both dying and killing those who are trying to end its life. So it belongs with Disgrace (South Africa, apartheid) and Elizabeth Costello (the death of an old woman). Maybe Slow Man too.

Anyway, the first Socrates reference that I noticed comes on p. 142, where the narrator, Mrs. Curren, says: "If the life I live is an examined life, it is because for ten years I have been under examination in the court of Florence." (Florence is her housekeeper.) The examined life here is not the life of philosophical introspection or conversation with like-minded friends. It is life under the gaze of another, someone who inhabits a different world, someone to whom one means nothing but a paycheck and a place to stay or keep things. Someone, also, who judges one.

The second comes on p. 165. Curren speaks of the crime that was committed in South Africa, the crime that she was born into. Because it was committed in her name, she inherits the guilt and must pay the price. She had thought, she says, that this price would be shame. A kind of slavery, lack of freedom, is part of it too. But she has underestimated the price, she sees now:
I had miscalculated. Where did the mistake come in? It had something to do with honor, with the notion I clung to through thick and thin, from my education, from my reading, that in his soul the honorable man can suffer no harm.
Just as whether we live an examined life is not up to us, so too we cannot expect (or perhaps even hope) to avoid harm to the soul by living honorably. We can be born into guilt and into slavery. Socrates, with his eyes on the world of Forms perhaps, and belief in an immortal soul, lacks the necessary sense of history and the intersubjectivity of existence.

In "The Grand Inquisitor" worldly suffering is presented as the price we pay for a mysterious kind of spiritual, otherworldly freedom. The Inquisitor regards the price as being too high. So too does Ivan who, in "Rebellion," says that if offered admission into a heavenly world at the expense of a child's suffering (think of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" if you don't know The Brothers Karamazov, of which "The Grand Inquisitor" and "Rebellion" are chapters) he would return his ticket. Curren echoes some of this on p. 188:
There may be no way of keeping a space in the heart private for you or anyone else [after we are dead]. All may be erased. All. It is a terrible thought. Enough to make one rebel, to make one say: If that is how things are to be, I withdraw: here is my ticket, I am handing it back. But I doubt very much that the handing back of tickets will be allowed, for whatever reason.
It is not suffering that is unacceptable here but annihilation, and perhaps also the lack of the kind of privacy that Socrates might have imagined, each soul an independent being, untouchable by others. If we are born into slavery then freedom is not really available. At least not in any form that Curren can understand (and she is no fool): "I have no idea what freedom is [...]. Perhaps freedom is always and only what is unimaginable. Nevertheless, we know unfreedom when we see it--don't we?" (p. 164)

There is something rather Schopenhauerian about all this: free will is illusory, death means the end of individual consciousness, our separateness as individuals is more or less an illusion, life is mostly suffering ("life is drowning," p. 195), resignation and compassion are what is called for.  But there is also the sense that we live in a particular age and that another, more hopeful one is possibly to come.

Friday, March 11, 2011

You don't know what "red" means

I talk about novels, films, and music on this blog, but I haven't said much about art as in painting.  Just for that reason, and because I was recently at the National Gallery of Art, I thought I might say something about the kind of paintings I like.  I like all kinds of things, of course, but above all I like late medieval and Northern Renaissance art.  

I don't have much to say about these paintings, though, except that I like the colours, the energy in them, and the strong sense of genuine religious faith. They don't seem to be exercises in showing off what the artist can do or how wealthy the artist's patron is.  They aren't dour.  They are bright, full of colour, full of action and people, with an interest in human differences, character and faces.  But that's all probably a bit too naive.  Mostly you need to look at the pictures and see how you react.

One thing that might help, though, is this passage from Iris Murdoch's "The Idea of Perfection," the first chapter in her The Sovereignty of Good:
My view might be put by saying: moral terms must be teated as concrete universals. And if someone at this point were to say, well, why stop at moral concepts, why not claim that all universals are concrete, I would reply, why not indeed?  Why not consider red as an ideal end-point, as a concept infinitely to be learned, as an individual object of love?  A painter might say, 'You don't know what "red" means.'
No doubt there is a lot to be explored and discovered in the colour red, but I think that some of it is celebrated and discovered in the following pictures:

Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster
Calvary, c. 1470/1480

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen and Workshop
Netherlandish, c. 1470/75–by 1533
The Adoration of the Christ Child, c. 1515

Cranach the Elder, Lucas
Judith Victorious
c. 1530

Free speech

Since I'm in the midst of a blogging frenzy (spring break starts this afternoon, so there is not much work I need to do right now), I might as well add my two cents' worth (it might be less than that) to the debate about the Westboro Baptists case. I pretty much agree with what Jahel Queralt Lange writes at Practical Ethics: "surely there is a lot of room for improvement in our democratic systems but to allow hateful speech doesn’t go in that direction."

What is at issue, it seems to me, is what value insults can possibly have.  For those unfamiliar with the case, (as I understand it) a family that hates gay people calls itself a "church" and "protests" at military funerals, insulting both gay people and the dead soldiers, in order to get publicity for their views.  The US Supreme Court has upheld their legal right to do this.  A commenter at Practical Ethics writes that: "if we are not confronted with opposition to our most commonly held beliefs then, as you say, we will not be able to “provide better arguments in favour of our convictions”, and understand the real meaning of our hatred of hate speech."  He is paraphrasing J.S. Mill, but seems to endorse Mill's view.  But arguments are not what you use to counter insults, are they?  In response to the paper I am going to be revising over spring break, one reviewer provided a number of comments along the lines of, "You assert x, but I don't believe x. Give me an argument that will change my mind."  This is the kind of comment that might cause me to improve the paper, so it clearly has value.  A comment along the lines of "This sucks!" or "God hates your paper" would have no such value.  Of course, in the face of such abuse I might improve the paper, but this would not be a direct response to this kind of opposition.  A direct response would be to insult the reviewer back.  

I was once called "four eyes" while walking down the street, minding my own business.  Was this opposition to my belief that I am not inferior because I wear glasses (or contact lenses)?  Did it spur me to provide better arguments in favor of my conviction that it is OK to be short-sighted?  Of course not.  And I see no reason to think that the answer would be different if I had been insulted because of being visibly gay, or a  soldier, or African American, or what-have-you.  The insults in such cases are more serious (I was genuinely amused by the weakness of the insult in my case), but this does not make them more valuable as spurs to argument in defense of cherished beliefs.  It makes them less valuable. 

One problem might be drawing a line between arguments or expressions of opinion, on the one hand, and insults, on the other.  For instance, denials that the Holocaust happened are surely often insults, produced in order to offend, not because they are believed.  But some people might genuinely believe that it did not happen.  I would not try to remove anyone's right to express opinions like this, nor the right to insult people as mildly as my insulter did.  Actually, what I mean to say about insults is that I would not support a law against such mild insults, because its enforcement would probably cause more problems than it solved.  But I see no value in a right to insult as such.  If pornography can be banned (within the limits set by the US Constitution), why not other forms of obscenity?  And how is it not obscene to insult the dead at a funeral? 


Good is a film about a normal man (a professor of French literature) who is seduced into joining the Nazi party and leaving his wife for one of his students. The moral seems to be: don't do that. So the film doesn't seem all that necessary.  The former is not a temptation we face, and the latter isn't very likely to be either.  If it is, the reasons for not starting a new family with a student are fairly obvious, and do not include the danger [SPOILER ALERT] that they might betray one's old Jewish friend to the Nazis.

IMDB describes the movie thus:
The rise of national socialism in Germany should not be regarded as a conspiracy of madmen. Millions of "good" people found themselves in a society spiralling into terrible chaos. A film about then, which illuminates the terrors of now.
But the central character is not that good, and he only gets sucked in when the madmen have already taken power.  So I don't really buy this as an account of what the film is about.

He gets involved with the Nazis because of a novel he writes about euthanasia.  The Nazis like his sympathetic stance and recruit him to do philosophical and propaganda work, first on euthanasia and later on "the Jewish question."  I was expecting more about euthanasia, but apart from seeing a room full of people with Down's syndrome (who are presumably to be killed), it doesn't come up much in the later parts of the story.

Along with the craziness there was a kind of rationality about the Nazis: none of this old-fashioned nonsense about marriage and fidelity, let's just pump out more (Aryan) babies; if someone's too old or handicapped to be useful, or perhaps even happy, put them out of their misery; if you want money and there's money in Poland, take Poland; and so on.  If you combine a reading of Nietzsche as saying that Judaism is the root of (almost) all evil, i.e. Christianity, "the one great immortal blemish of mankind," with a physicalist reductionism about beliefs then you might almost have the makings of a consequentialist argument for the Holocaust.  You would have to kill the Christians too, probably, but it's not as if there is no method discernible in this madness.  (Not that unthinking prejudice was not a huge part of it too.)  And roughly this kind of rationality, used to different ends, is familiar enough in consequentialism, capitalism, and probably socialism too. (Wittgenstein seems to have thought so: "The spirit of this civilization makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author."     

Disappointingly, the movie does not explore this idea.


The ashtray of history

I don't know much about Kripke, I know nothing about Kuhn, and I haven't read more than a little of Errol Morris's series of articles on Kuhn. So I won't say anything much about them. What interests me is how the history of philosophy is done. I mean this in the sense of how what gets told as the history is determined and how this history is told (which is maybe the same thing).  Was it Rorty (or Kuhn?) who said that philosophers don't so much get refuted as they simply come to be ignored?  We all know that continental philosophy is not worth taking seriously.  Some people know the same thing about Wittgenstein.  And now it looks as though Kuhn is getting that treatment too.  Never mind this or this on the unlikeliness of the ashtray-throwing story being true.  Never mind this or this or this on the (alleged) weakness of Morris's account of Kuhn's philosophy.  What bothers me is this kind of comment.  Of course, the reference to Kuhn's defenders as "humorless pedants" is a throwaway joke, but that makes it all the harder for anyone to defend themselves against it.  The very mounting of a defense will surely come across as humorless pedantry.  And surely the joke was made (partly) because of a perception that it would be well received, or at least not offensive to most people who will read it.  So Kuhn is now (at least well on the way to being) a joke.  His difficult work is known to be interpreted by some as massively erroneous (as is Plato's, Kant's, Wittgenstein's, ...).  And his supporters are humorless pedants.  Who will want to read him now?  Who will read him?   

Obviously some people will.  And obviously serious debate about Kuhn's work is not over.  But I can't help wondering whether it isn't this kind of "fun" that does more to seal a philosopher's fate than any serious scholarly work to defend or refute his or her arguments.  

But perhaps I'm being too pessimistic.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What am I to do?

Well, my experimental attempt to produce a complete paper in one semester has resulted in a revise and resubmit, which isn't bad. So I've got that to do. I'm also trying to work on a paper on Wittgenstein. But more longterm I have a couple of book-length projects that I'm not sure about.

Before I started on the Anscombe book I was in the very early stages of what I thought of as a book on the death of God, which I might or might not return to some day. Otherwise, though, I'm thinking about an applied ethics textbook based on the idea of seeing various contemporary moral issues in terms of four competing values (life, liberty, happiness, and "a more perfect union," which is a sort of catch-all category that mostly covers justice). This provides four points of a moral compass with which to navigate the seas of ethics (although that way of putting it sounds a little too corny). So abortion pits the value of life against that of liberty (aka choice). Capital punishment pits the value of life against that of justice. And so on.

Except, of course, that it isn't as simple as this suggests. Some people oppose capital punishment because it ends a human life, but others support it precisely because they see it as affirming the value of the life that was taken by the to-be-executed murderer. Which brings out how there are different ways that one might value life. And one can value liberty in a leave-me-alone, libertarian kind of way or in a Kantian, autonomy kind of way. The former view might support legalizing drugs, while the latter might well not. Similarly, Dworkin argues that disagreements about the ethics of abortion and euthanasia are really about different ways of valuing life.

Then there are also calculative ways of thinking about values and more intuitive ways. On the question of the moral status of animals, Peter Singer might be a good example of the former way of thinking, while Cora Diamond might exemplify the latter.

So it can all get a bit complicated, but in a way that's the point. It's not that this moral compass will solve your problems for you. Rather, looking at various controversial issues in these terms can help (I think) to clarify the issues themselves and the values that both unite and separate us. Next time I teach applied ethics I'll use this approach, and then maybe work it up into a book if I ever get a sabbatical. Students don't seem to either like it or dislike more than other approaches I've tried, but they certainly don't mind it, and I think it beats the usual kind of liberal versus conservative approach.       

Friday, March 4, 2011

Alienation and pedagogy

Sometimes students seem not just disengaged but positively yearning to rid themselves of their chains. I have thought occasionally that they seem a bit like alienated workers as Marx describes them:
Marx famously depicts the worker under capitalism as suffering from four types of alienated labour. First, from the product, which as soon as it is created is taken away from its producer. Second, in productive activity (work) which is experienced as a torment. Third, from species-being, for humans produce blindly and not in accordance with their truly human powers. Finally, from other human beings, where the relation of exchange replaces the satisfaction of mutual need.
It seems that ownership might be the solution. If students get to keep and work more on their products (I'm thinking in terms of papers) then they might be happier about producing them. This also makes comments more meaningful. They also might be happier if they had more say in what they wrote about, what sources they used, how much of their grade any given paper counted for, and so on. They might be even happier if they had some say in what percentage of their grade was for papers, what for exams, what for participation, etc. And alienation from their fellows might be reduced if they had opportunities for group work.

The obvious drawbacks are that students might end up being expected to run before they can walk (knowing what is a good topic to write on, what is a good source to use, and so on), that allowing revision means more grading (which takes time away from other work and might discourage students from trying to get things right first time), and that this kind of approach might lead to chaos, with probably too easy a time for students and too much work (grading and keeping track of student choices) for professors.

But I wonder. You could always offer limited choices. E.g. have a default assignment plus the option of writing on a subject of your choice, so long as you check it with the professor. And I always feel more justified in being a tough grader when I know there are opportunities for revision.

I'm toying with the idea of counting papers as either 30 or 40%, the final exam as either 30 or 40%, and class participation (including a grade for a debate and possibly a report--see below--and reduced for lack of preparation for class*) as either 30 or 40% of the final grade in my courses (so whichever of these was the student's strong point would count for 40% and the others 30%). And one of my colleagues says he has students report in class on three papers they have found on a course-related subject of their choice. This works very well, he says. It sounds possibly worth a try.

Here's what I'm thinking of doing. In introductory-level courses there would be no in-class reports on independently found journal articles (in higher level courses there might be), but there would be three in-class debates over the semester, with each student given the opportunity to take part for credit (with a grade based on preparation and performance). Those who choose not to participate would have to write a paper instead. For most students, the debate grade would be 10% of their final grade and general class participation would count for an additional 20%. Students would lose points for not bringing a short written response to (i.e. on) the reading assigned for each day's class. Those whose participation grades were really high could have this whole grade be expanded from 30 to 40%.

There would also be six (short) essays to write. One could be blown off completely, but all others would have to be at least written to passing standard or else this part of the grade (30 or 40%) would be reduced. Of these good-enough-to-pass essays, the best three (for 30% total) or four (for 40% of the final grade) could be re-written as many times as humanly possible. Only the best essay grades would count at the end of the semester.

And then there would be a cumulative, all essay exam (four essays written in three hours) which would count for either 30% or 40% of the student's final grade.

I wonder what others might think, and whether the connection with Marx has been made before. I'd be surprised if it hasn't, but I don't know what has been made of it. Has any of this been tried and found to fail? Is it all too confusing? Anyone else do something similar with good results? Or have I left it all too abstract for anyone to judge (or even tell what I'm talking about)?

*I dislike the idea of giving credit for proving that you have done the assigned reading (since its being assigned  ought to mean that all students do it or else do not meet the basic criteria for passing the course), but I quite like the idea of taking points off students who fail to provide evidence that they have done it. The kind of evidence I mean would be bringing a very short response to the assigned reading each class.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Crow life

These are some of my thoughts after reading chapter 6 of Robert Pippin's Hegel's Practical Philosophy, chapter 1 of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, and chapter 5 of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. Lear discusses the Crow practice of counting coups (specific kinds of acts of bravery that they valued highly) and the question of what happens when a way of life, and the concepts that go with it, dies out. 

Studio portrait of Crow delegation. Front row, left to right: King Crow; Medicine Crow; Long Elk; Chief Yshidiapas or Aleck-Shea-Ahoos, called Plenty Coups (Many Valorous Achievements in Battle with the Coup Stick) ; Pretty Eagle. Back row, left to right: A. M. Quivey (interpreter); Two Belly; Augustus R. Keller (agent); Thomas Stewart (interpreter). 1880. Attributed to Charles Milton Bell. 1880. Albumen print. National Museum of the American Indian. Catalog number: P03423.

On p. 153, Pippin writes that, "The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others." This sounds a little too third-person to me, although much depends on how we take the word 'proper,' I suppose (as well as 'established context'). Imagine the Crow nation being wiped out by people who understand little of their culture. One of the Crow is seen to plant his coup-stick during the battle, but the only people who live to describe this event have no understanding of what a coup-stick is, nor of what it means to plant it in the ground in a fight. Does it then follow that "planting his coup-stick" is not the proper description of what he did? I suppose it won't be a meaningful description of the act unless and until enough is discovered by those to whom such a description might be given to allow them to make sense of talk of coup-sticks. But I would want to say that if they do learn enough to make sense of the action, then we should say that now they can describe the act properly and before they could not. There is a truth to be known, that is to say, and not only warranted assertibility.

In relation to my first comment, this passage from Lear (p. 32) seems relevant: "We do not grasp the devastation that the Crow endured so long as we think that the issue is who gets to tell the story. For the problem goes deeper than competing narratives. The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view. This is the confusion of the young man who takes the horse: he has not yet recognized this loss. For an act is not constituted merely by the physical movements of the actor: it gains its identity via its location in a conceptual world." This is (or at least might well seem) close to what Pippin is saying. But it seems to me that if we are to recognize that such a loss is possible, then we have to recognize the reality of what is lost. And then no description will be proper that does not recognize this reality and/or loss. No matter the context and attributions made by others.

This is why I would question Arendt's assertion (p. 192) that, "Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants." It's the word 'always' that bothers me. Perhaps Lear understands better than the Crow what they were up to (I don't mean this ironically, but I emphasize 'perhaps'), but must this always be the case? It's not hard to imagine all Native American culture having been wiped out and history books agreeing that nothing happened in America before 1492. There were natives there, people might say, but they did nothing of any significance: American history began in 1492. This is not the kind of thing that I would want to say, nor to acknowledge as proper in those circumstances (although I'm starting to feel unfair to Pippin at this point).

On the other hand, on p. 199 Arendt writes that: "To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; "for what appears to all, this we call Being," and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality." Perhaps one might say that acts, words, people, and peoples whose intelligibility is lost have passed away like dreams. This might be overly sentimental, but I mean that (perhaps) one might say just what the racist or cultural imperialist historian says, only in a very different mood: "Before us nothing happened." Something like this might be said with thoughtless indifference, with a sense of triumph, or with a sense of incomprehensible loss. But I think there would be a risk both of sentimentality and of giving comfort to the culturally arrogant in saying it at all. So I think I prefer to say that I disagree with Pippin and Arendt here.