Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Oscars

Time for my grumpy and ludicrously ill-informed assessment of the year's best films.

I don't care who wins the Oscars, but it's hard to ignore the whole business completely. Titanic won the Oscar for best film and it is my standard for the lowest possible rating to give to movies. 5 stars = I would happily watch again, 4 stars = exactly my kind of movie, 3 stars = I liked it OK, 2 stars = turned it off before it was over, 1 star = as bad as Titanic.

This year the nominees for best film are: 
  • The Artist: I haven't seen it, but from the preview it looks terrible--smug and whimsical 
  • The Descendants: pretty good, but more 3 stars than anything else. Worth seeing, but forgettable. 
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: not very good, according to David Denby 
  • The Help: not something I want to see 
  • Hugo: nice to look at, and interesting history of the movies, but pretty thin really, and the early scenes of the trendy-looking kid laughing at the fat man and the crippled veteran are a bit uncomfortable 
  • Midnight in Paris: "lightweight but fun, and features lots of very appealing views of Paris," as I said when I saw it  
  • Moneyball: pretty good. Another 3 star movie, really, telling an interesting story well without creating any really memorable characters, scenes, or lines (except maybe at the end, which is sweet). 
  • The Tree of Life: "it's got a lot going for it. But it also seems often like an extended music video for church music." Possibly the best movie on this list, but could fairly be called pretentious bull too. As JEH Smith says: "I respond well to Malick's vision of the world. But I wish he could get it across without the voiceovers, without the Rockwellian kitsch, and without the glossiness and unctuousness of the big-name, big-budget spectacle."    
  • War Horse: the play was supposed to be good, but from what I've seen it's a horse in a war. World War I, of course, so that everyone can wring their hands and shake their heads over the senseless slaughter and how bad war is, without ever taking a stand on anything controversial, like current wars and uprisings. I think I'll pass.
My vote goes to Tree of Life, but it's a winner in a slow race.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


It's often tempting to think that philosophy is more or less irrelevant to real life, but there are times when I wonder whether the opposite is true. That is, sometimes it seems as if everyone is pretty much going with the flow while the flow in question has its origin in the intellectual sphere. Ideas slowly trickle down to teachers and preachers, not to mention politicians and journalists, hence to children, and what was once a controversial new thesis becomes common sense. Something like Schopenhauer's view of life as an essentially meaningless struggle to survive and reproduce, for instance, seems to be very widely accepted. Isn't this the basic idea of evolutionary psychology, after all? Obviously Darwin is relevant too, but why do people like his ideas so much? And Schopenhauer comes up in other ways too. When will Nietzsche's criticism of Schopenhauer arrive? And then what?

The latest philosophical notion* to have reached street level is personhood. Virginia's HB 1 declares:
Rights of unborn children.  Provides that unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth, subject only to the laws and constitutions of Virginia and the United States, precedents of the United States Supreme Court, and provisions to the contrary in the statutes of the Commonwealth.
Gone are the good old days (of 1972) when Elizabeth Anscombe could write that:
some may doubt (it's a rather academic question, I think, an intensely academic question) the good sense of calling a fertilized ovum a human being. 
One nice thing about Anscombe's paper is that she makes it clear how fundamentally Christian her position is:
Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.
And if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive intercourse, and if it could become general practice everywhere when there is intercourse but ought to be no begetting, then it's very difficult to see the objection to this [i.e. the pagan, contraceptive] morality, for 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.  
The purpose of HB 1, of course, is to impose a Christian morality on people. Its backers, though certainly lacking Anscombe's intellectual firepower, are to some extent aware of the logic of her argument. They see a clash of value systems and want to go as far as they can toward enforcing theirs on everyone else. It's understandable that a Christian would want everyone to live according to Christian morals. But there are (at least) three problems with this proposal, as I see it.

1. The language of personhood is quasi-technical, philosophical language. It is not the same as Anscombe's talk of "human beginning." It is a legalistic term that does little to help either side in the debate about the ethics of abortion, as Ronald Dworkin and Judith Jarvis Thomson (who I would guess had Anscombe in mind when she wrote her defense of abortion, with its echoing reference to acorns and oak trees) have shown. Arguably the best (non-religious) pro-life argument, that made by Don Marquis, does not involve the question of fetal personhood. There is no good reason to think that talk of personhood will help honest thinking about abortion.

2. The First Amendment. The people who talk up the US Constitution when it suits them cannot in good conscience seek to establish their religion by law.

3. It is un-Christian to try to instill shame in people through humiliation. A companion bill, HB 462, requires all women seeking abortions, for whatever reason (including rape), to undergo an ultrasound. This procedure is presumably intended to make women feel guilty about having an abortion. And that seems incompatible with sincere belief in Matthew 7:1 ("Judge not") and Romans  3:8 (true Christians do not do evil in order to bring about good). "Judge not" is an easy line to trot out, of course, but I think this effort to shame is noticeably less Christian than simply banning abortion would be. That might be tyrannical, but it isn't manipulative exactly.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of abortion, this legislation is philosophically unsound, un-American (insofar as it's good to be American), and un-Christian (if there is such a thing as a good kind of Christianity). It's anti-women, too, of course. But apart from that, just fine.

*I hope it's a legal notion of personhood that's really to blame, but maybe the philosophers can ride to the rescue. Not that I would count on any but a political defense in response to this kind of attack.

This is less obviously relevant but comes to mind because of the lines "Tell me where it all went wrong" and the one about acting like a man who's cross with every woman he's never had:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Does he have to like the...?

...Jesus and Mary Chain!" is a line from the song "Do You Want a Boyfriend?" by the Tender Trap. (It's a good song, but the video is self-consciously amateurish, featuring people my age pretending to be teenagers, so it's a bit uncomfortable.)

There's another reference to the Jesus and Mary Chain in "We Looked Like Giants" by Death Cab for Cutie ("Do you remember the JAMC?"). They (the JAMC) were my favorite band for a while in high school. I used to listen to "You Trip Me Up" and "Never Understand" getting ready for school in the mornings (12" singles--do they still exist?). The band was famous for causing riots by playing for only 15 minutes when people had paid money and maybe traveled miles to see them live. Comparisons were made with the Sex Pistols. Apparently they are still iconic or considered representative of some age or mindset (I almost wrote "vibe").

Their look is very 1980s (especially the hair), combining 1960s elements (I waited every year for the always-predicted psychedelic revival that never came) with goth-y black. And the sound is presumably inspired by the Velvet Underground: '60s innocent niceness plus feedback and lots of noise. Everyone in those days copied the Velvets in one way or another, because they were about the only band from before 1977 that you could admit to liking. (That probably sounds like an exaggeration, but as I experienced it punk happened almost literally overnight and changed completely what was socially acceptable in clothes and music. I was only about ten, and not exactly hip, but even I noticed it.) It's the noise that I'm interested in right now.

Dave Maier has an essay on noise music here. He's talking about this kind of thing:

Unlike the Jesus and Mary Chain, I can't really see this being used in a romantic Hollywood movie. Philip Larkin judged music by this criterion: "As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?" (All What Jazz, p. 28) The JAMC deliberately went for both (as, I think, do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, although they blend the two, while the JAMC gave you one in one ear and the other in the other). Noise music, as far as I can tell, wants to be like broken glass. I vaguely approve of this, but I can't honestly say I like it. There's a grumpy Larkin in me that rejects it, and a skeptical Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein who wonders what Europeans who claim to appreciate African art could say about it except "How charming!" Would they, for instance, be able to offer critical suggestions while such a work were being made, telling the creator to add more here or take some off there? If not then it all seems a bit shallow. And I feel that way (I emphasize 'feel' as opposed to, say, 'judge after much careful thought') about noise music.

I'll try to let a series of quotes from Maier explain what the point of noise music is meant to be. He begins with a paraphrase of an argument by Nick Smith:
According to Adorno, language, art, and philosophy are all manifestations of underlying sociocultural phenomena.  Everything Adorno deplores – the economic inequality and social oppression which he sees as the inevitable result of capitalist economies based on the principle of abstract exchange-value – can thus be diagnosed in the analogous ills afflicting the corresponding spheres of culture, including philosophy itself. The engine of capitalist culture is instrumental rationality, which abstracts from individual things and persons for the purposes of economic and social efficiency
Adorno sees art's [...] independence from conceptual understanding as a possible way to resist the cultural hegemony 
Unfortunately, as Adorno recognizes, this role for art is futile from the beginning.  First, there is an irresolvable tension in using art as a tool to combat instrumental rationality. Similarly, even to the extent that it succeeds, art is in constant danger of succumbing to its own success, which commodifies it and subjects it to the same concept of exchange-value that it was its cultural task to overcome.
All that art, even the best art, can do is to mourn the loss of meaning to those who are capable of mourning with it (that's us), and to dramatize the current desperate situation in the vain hope of shocking the rest of us out of our complacency and complicity with the system. 
If this is right, then the mourning seems to have some possible value, but the attempt to shock seems like more instrumentality. Maier goes on:
If there is to be effective resistance to the pop-cultural juggernaut, it must be sought in a different place. Smith locates the contemporary battlefront at the interface of music and noise.
Like Adorno – on Smith's interpretation, anyway – Smith seems to assume that only in total subversion of traditional aesthetic standards can the virtuous resistance to commercial culture take its (here regrettably final) stand, and that every other kind of music (except perhaps those few dogged academic serialists?) is fatally complicit with ruling-class ideology and thus aesthetically worthless (and vice versa).
One thing I don't get here is how virtuous resistance to commercial culture (and nothing else) can be one's reason for putting on some music. Why bother? The JAMC approach makes sense to me: you listen for the nice tune, the horrible noise makes it culturally palatable. But why would anyone choose to listen to just the noise (except to annoy their parents, impress their peers, etc.)? But wait.
Smith’s picture is much more pessimistic than Adorno’s, essentially conceding defeat by the forces of consumerism.  However, his conception of the aesthetic significance of noise is neither sufficient as it stands nor shared by all noise artists.
Spanish sound artist Francisco López [says]: “I think this [listening to a waterfall or radio static, "sounds that initially appear as a solid mass but slowly reveal themselves to be made up of myriad micro-particles"] is actually completely different from the traditional conception of listening to music, in which you want to listen to melody or rhythm or whatever.  What I want to do is something that is more blurred, something that does not have a definite structure.  But it has some inner richness that you can appreciate, if you listen carefully.  If you do this, you’ll discover many things there.  This is a question of going really deep into the listening experience.’ 
After we become accustomed to the necessity of listening in more than one way at once, this experience itself becomes a single, expanded way of listening.  Such expansion results in greatly expanded possibilities for the pointed disruption of interpretations-in-progress.  Our concepts need not be overwhelmed by an object for dislocation to occur, but simply eluded, if this can be made to happen in an appropriately subtle way – and thus by sounds potentially quite unlike those made by that unfortunate cat with his tail in the blender.  
There are a few issues here. One is the problem of instrumental thinking again, but I think this is not fatal. If artists aim at creating disruptive or dislocating works, or if consumers of such work consume in a conscious attempt to achieve disruption or dislocation, then the kind of instrumental thinking that is meant to be avoided has not been. But if people make or listen to this stuff just because they like it and the reason why they like it is its liberating or dislocating effect, then that seems OK. The remaining questions that occur to me (apart from whether the Adorno/Smith thesis is right in the first place) are whether that is why people like this stuff (and they aren't just being fooled or fooling themselves) and then the practical problem of how one gets to like it in the first place. I would much rather listen to rainfall than noise music inspired by the experience of listening to rainfall. This could get boring, of course, but a walk is usually more pleasant if you (i.e. I) turn off the iPod and listen to the birds instead. But there's no reason why you couldn't do that and then go home and listen to noise music, if that's your cup of tea.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Yet more philosophy football

Belated congratulations to Alice Crary for beating the combined forces of Putnam, Cavell, and co. in the Super Bowl. She did have help from Simon Critchley and Dave Maier, but it was impressive all the same.

One of the highlights of the spring is creating your fantasy Major League Soccer team, just about the only way to generate the necessary interest in MLS to get you through the summer. So I've just created a Philosophy Football division at, which everyone is free to join (until it gets full).

And as if that weren't enough, philosophy graduate student Michael Regan and I have a Philosophy Football division in the Fantasy Premier League. The code to join is 86816-575291.

(I know, I should be doing something more constructive, like listening to Steely Dan. Better blogging will resume one day.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Elite Squad

The Elite Squad is a dodgy film given that (quoting Wikipedia):
After its exhibition in Berlin Film Festival, critic Jay Weissberg, in a Variety article, called the movie "a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs". 
On the other hand, it did win the award for best movie in Berlin, and it's been one of the most popular movies of all time in Brazil. If you like action and don't mind violence, you'll probably like it. But it might make you wonder about your inner fascist (if you don't have one at all I don't think you'll like the movie).

Good news! Now there's a much less fascist sequel: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. This time the human rights activist is one of the good guys. Much more satisfying.

And if you like that kind of thing (violent, crime-filled, foreign films) you'll probably also like the regrettably-named Viva Riva (set in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema (set in South Africa).

I should perhaps add that all these films seem to show quite a bit about life and politics in the countries where they are set. So it's not just about action.

Here's the trailer for Elite Squad: The Enemy Within:

Wittgenstein workshop

If you're in the Virginia area you're likely to be welcome at this only semi-secret workshop/conference next month at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. I was looking forward to meeting John Gibson, but apparently he can't make it. The program includes William Brenner, Richard Brockhaus, David Cerbone, Chris Hoyt, Simon Levy, Charles Lowney, William Meroney, Andrew Moser, Ted Parent, David Schalkwyk, and me. As the poster says, contact Charles Lowney if you would like to go. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sending people to sleep

Wittgenstein's remark about the need to wake people up to wonder and science's sending people to sleep came to mind when I watched this yesterday:

It isn't exactly about wonder, but it's worth watching, and seems related. In the 10-minute lecture Ken Robinson talks about imagination and creativity being killed off by standardized testing and the conveyor-belt model of education. It's not all that clear that he has a practical solution, but he identifies a problem pretty well. Or so it seems to me.

Other talks by Robinson on the same subject:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The ethics of wolfland

I said recently that fantasy is bad, but not all fantasy is bad. G. K. Chesterton's chapter in Orthodoxy on "The Ethics of Elfland" is good on why this is. In fairy stories what has to be is, but what is contingent is often different from the world as we know it. Fantasy can show us what has to be and what does not, which can be a very valuable lesson. 

For instance (and I don't remember Chesterton talking about this, but perhaps he does), fantasy can bring out what it means to be human in a sense that is very important to ethics but irrelevant to biology. One thing I especially liked about Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is that the characters are all what we might call morally human (they have human concerns, emotions, etc.) even though they are each supernatural, alien, part-robot, or otherwise non-human. This helps to bring out what it means to be human, to live a human life, in a way that is relevant to identifying, for instance, inhumane attitudes and behavior. Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, disappointingly, is not like this. 

Embarrassing confession: I am in a book club, which is why I read these two books. The Last Werewolf sounded like not my kind of thing at all from the reviews, but (perhaps partly because my expectations were so low) I really enjoyed the first quarter or so of the book. But then a pony-tailed werewolf hunter from California showed up, and vampires, and it turned out that vampires and werewolves don't get along, and I felt as though I had slipped into the Twilight zone. The real problem, though, is not the clichés but the distance from normal life. This is a matter of degree, of course, and any superhero or fantasy story is going to have some of it, but it's possible for (mentally, morally) ordinary characters to find themselves in extraordinary situations. When the whole plot revolves around the problems of being almost immortal, of having to hide the fact that one turns into a monster every month, of having to hide from other monsters, and of the dilemma of having to kill and eat people or die, then the central character's concerns become less ordinary, less human, than one might want. Or so I found. 

Perhaps this in itself is interesting. (I suppose this post is based on the hope that it might be.) It's possible to be more or less recognizably human, internally like us. And, at least roughly speaking, other things being equal, the more like us (the more like the reader, the more like me) the main characters are, the better. (Can that be right?) Not in a (merely) superficial sense: I might like to read a book about people born when and where I was born, who have the same interests, problems, profession, etc., as I do, but this isn't what I'm talking about. (Although when it comes to songs this is a very good guide to what I like, so I don't mean to jump too quickly to the conclusion that I am not superficial and egocentric in this way.) It's more a matter of sharing a certain kind of set of concerns, of ways of reacting to the world and to events, of making similar kinds of judgments in similar circumstances. Can I say "form of life"? Is that too pretentious? Does it help at all? And what does it mean if I say that if a werewolf could write a novel we would not care to read it? I understand him well enough, but only externally. I know what his concerns are, but I don't share them. In that sense I can never find my feet with him: we don't stand on common ground. And in that sense we are two, rather than one, and in that sense he is nothing to me, a mere thing. Not one of us, not a full human being. (Maybe half a person at most.)  Which I suppose is what a werewolf is.    

At the end of that last paragraph I start to go much too fast. Not one of us ≠ a mere thing. There are different categories of us (going out from the middle): the real me, me, my family, my friends, people like me, other people, animals that are like humans in noticeable ways, animals that are like humans in less noticeable ways, living things, somehow impressive non-living things, and so on. (This order is subjective and approximate, or just rough and ready.) And it starts to overlap with the class of things, mere and otherwise. There are problems, too, with this way of thinking. It's one thing to talk about expanding the circle of moral concern, but another to imply that at the center is me. The former is a good idea (at least sometimes), the latter is bad. But if the Golden Rule is important in ethical thinking (and surely it is) then we do need to notice that we can sensibly apply it only to some kinds of being, not to all. "How would you like it if you were a cat and someone did that to you?" does not sound like the right way to think about animal ethics (unless thinking with children). Certainly "How would you feel if you were a rain-forest?" can't be right. Empathy has its proper limits. Which might be why I wonder about Jewel's idea (don't laugh--the Dalai Lama says similar things) that "only kindness matters." It's not a terrible thought though.   

Best songs ever

No one wants to know my favorite songs, and they might change tomorrow, but here they are anyway (not in any real order):

"Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil, a sort of supergroup made up of artists on the 4AD label. The singer is Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, who also sang later with Massive Attack. She has a beautiful voice.

"The Passenger" by Iggy Pop. I don't understand why this isn't (even) more popular than it is. The feeling of life as triumph is wonderful.

"Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground. Probably the best song ever (and, yes, I know that's a stupid, or at least naive, claim--I'm embracing the naivete). A celebration of love and faith in all things good that perhaps only a bunch of despairing junkies could get away with.

"Southern Mark Smith" by the Jazz Butcher. The Jazz Butcher did a great cover version of "Sweet Jane," but this is his best song. "Girlfriend" and "Big Saturday" are worth tracking down too. The Mark Smith in question is the singer from The Fall, known for his cantankerousness, nonconformity, and way with words.


"Head Full of Steam" by the Go-Betweens. Not much of a video, I'm afraid, but a song good enough to make up for that (the official video is unwatchable). Guest vocals by Tracy Thorn. "Just to chase her, a fool's dream..." 

"Two Star" by Everything But the Girl. (Two star is the lowest, cheapest grade of petrol/gasoline.) Just about any song sung by Tracy Thorn would do, but this one is lovably despairing, rhyming "disarray" with "hey!" It's the most "I'm not OK/You're not OK" song I know, by the woman who once managed to write a terribly sad song about being too happy. 

"It Can be Done" by the Redskins. Turns out it can't, but it's still a moving ideal, and the catchiest Marxist propaganda you'll ever hear. "Look to Petrograd/Look to Petrograd, look to Barcelona/Fight against the land-/Fight against the land- and the factory-owners." 

"Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals. Feels a bit token here, but I love it. Best played very loud.

"Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. If you've got this far through the list then you probably know this already, but it's hard to leave it off the list. Not a band I know at all apart from this song though.

"Rusholme Ruffians" by the Smiths. Hard to pick just one song by this band, and it could have easily been "Miserable Lie," "Pretty Girls Make Graves," "Jeane," "Cemetery Gates," "Handsome Devil," etc., etc. "Handsome Devil" is great for its observation of the world as experienced ("All the streets are crammed with things/ Eager to be held..."), "Miserable Lie" has great unconnected couplets ("What do we get for our trouble and pain?/ Just a rented room in Whalley Range" and "I know that windswept, mystical air/ It means I'd like to see your underwear"), and "Pretty Girls Make Graves" has good jokes (the woman's voice asking "Oh really?" after the title is sung, the reversal of familiar gender roles ("she's too rough and I'm too delicate"), and my favorite joke about free will ("I could have been wild and I could have been free/ But nature played this trick on me")), but "Rusholme Ruffians" wins because Rusholme is very close to where I went to high school and I like the line "I might walk home alone/ But my faith in love is still devout." Not very funny, but far from despairing.

That's ten, so I'll stop there. But I might also have included "New Dawn Fades" by Joy Division, "Marble Lions" by Saint Etienne, "Love Song" by the Damned, "Big Sky" by the Kinks, and many more by others. I'm tempted to do a top ten albums and favorite bands as well, but I'll try to resist being quite so self-indulgent. At least for a while.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Torture again

I haven't read the whole thing, but this looks like a very thoughtful review of F. M. Kamm's book Ethics for Enemies. (There's an interesting response by Eric Schliesser here.)

One issue that the review focuses on is how to define torture. I have wondered about this myself, specifically with regard to punching or slapping people. Hitting people inflicts pain, of course, and so can count as torture. But it seems to me that there is a significant difference, one that might have moral significance, between hitting someone, perhaps out of frustration with their refusal to reveal potentially life-saving information, and coldly doing something designed specifically to inflict pain, such as sticking needles under a person's fingernails. Hitting someone, however wrong it might be, does not (usually) seem as inhuman as less expressive forms of torture. There are potential dangers in any suggestion that hitting prisoners is OK, of course, but I do think that there is some kind of difference that might be worth exploring between acts that inflict pain while still, in some sense,  recognizing the humanity of one's victim and, on the other hand, ways of inflicting pain that treat the body as something like a means to extract something (information, surrender, whatever) from the mind within. (The mind-body problem seems relevant here, and the special badness of the second kind of torture seems related to the error of Cartesianism.)    

Anscombe's writing on capital punishment might be helpful in understanding this issue. In her essay "The Dignity of the Human Being" she writes:
When capital punishment takes grisly forms [...] then it takes on a character which means that the victim's human dignity is being violated. The ancient Hebrew Law, the Torah, shews us why in an expression restricting punishments: a man was not to be given more than forty stripes 'lest thy brother become vile in thy sight'. [Deuteronomy 25:3]
She goes on to suggest that methods of execution that lead people to place a hood over the victim's head violate this commandment. The hood is there precisely because the executed person would otherwise be vile in our sight. The hood does not change what is happening or its wrongness, and removing it would only reveal the wrongness, not remove it. I wonder whether we really have any methods of execution that would pass Anscombe's test (although she mentions the Athenian hemlock cup as one method that seems OK in this regard, so I suppose we could go back to that). I'm not saying that capital punishment is OK--I don't think it is--but I'm interested in the question whether the question of vileness (regardless of other considerations) rules out all contemporary execution methods. Jeffrie Murphy has some similar thoughts in his essay on "Cruel and Unusual Punishments." See also the first 30 minutes or so of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., in which Mr. Leuchter misses the point memorably by trying to make execution dignified by hanging paintings on the wall of the execution chamber.  

The central issue here appears to be respect for human dignity, for the dignity inherent in human being and human beings. Not only (at least some) capital punishment seems to be an assault on this dignity, but all "Cartesian" torture, and, indeed, Cartesianism itself too.

Doing and time

I was awake in the night earlier this week thinking about Judith Thomson's defense of abortion and how an opponent, such as Anscombe, might best try to counter it. What follows is largely a reconstruction of those thoughts on action-oriented ontology, if I can call it that, and I apologize right now if what seemed like a good idea in the middle of the night (such as the title of this post) now seems less good.

The question that most interests me is: what is sex? We all think we know what it is, but there are multiple conceptions (so to speak) of sex, and I'm not sure that we always have the same one in mind when we talk about it. In fact, I'm fairly certain that we don't. Some people would say that rape is a (morally reprehensible) kind of sex, while others deny that it is sex, or "about" sex. I'm sure people draw the line differently about what does and does not count as cheating on one's partner, sometimes in ways that involve judgments about what is really sex and what is not. And I think that some people with different ideas about the ethics of sex also have different ideas about the essence or nature of sex. I'll try to explain this idea.

Think of a film with at least one sex scene in it. This scene occupies a set of frames, which if I were a real philosopher I might call S. To some people, sex just is what is depicted in S (and relevantly similar behavior). To others, though, sex means something more. True, it might well be the behavior depicted in S, but S, some people might say, belongs on a strip of film that also depicts other things (this is where time comes in, if you're wondering about this post's title). On a romantic view, this longer set of frames will include earlier scenes of dating and falling in love, perhaps also of marriage. On a natural law kind of view it might include all that and later scenes of pregnancy, birth, and various stages of child- and parenthood. And, no doubt, there are other kinds of view as well.

What I'm suggesting is not only that some people will say that sex ought to be thought of in the context of, or along with, love and/or pregnancy. I'm claiming that some people will say also that you don't understand what sex is, that you don't know the meaning of "sex," if you don't include some reference to these other things when you define or analyse it. One way, perhaps, to see this is to think about the kind of illustration that might go with the entry on sex in an illustrated encyclopedia. A photograph of people having sex would, I think, be pornographic in this context, assuming you could actually make out (ho ho) what they were doing. I don't mean 'pornographic' in a judgmental sense (although I'm not sure that it has a neutral sense), just that photographs, videos, etc. of people having sex pretty much are called pornography these days. And various people would feel for various reasons that pornography did not belong in a book like that. They might object on the basis of a religious morality, or of feminist politics. But they might also object that the pornographic vision or conception of sex is a distortion, is not simply true to the facts. (It might seem to be so. And it certainly might pretend to be so ("I'm just being honest").) Presenting sex as simply sex, with no connection to how it happened to occur or what might follow from it, is, at least arguably, to promote a certain idea of sex, according to which natural law or romantic (or other) conceptions of sex confusingly, or confusedly, import extra content. It is to act as if something like honesty or science call us to resist natural law or romantic  (or other) ideas about how to talk and think about sex. This rejection of  'mystification' or 'romanticism' can be seen as the first step on the road toward normalizing transactional sex. ("Since what it is is just a kind of behavior between adults, why not treat it like any other kind of behavior?")

Why does this matter? One reason is because Thomson's opponents often want to make sex inviting, that is, they want to insist that having sex is not just having sex, it's inviting a person into being. That person, the argument goes, then has a right to occupy the woman's womb. And she has no right to have it removed. If sex is inviting (in this sense) then this argument has some force. Maybe not enough, but some. If it isn't, then it has none. Thomson treats sex as just sex: the only frames you need to understand what it is are those in S. Hers is a narrow conception, including only what I might call the pornographic parts of the movie. (In the sense that a movie consisting of nothing but sex scenes would be pornography.)

These labels aren't meant to settle the question. The romantic view of sex is not necessarily more accurate than the pornographic one, nor is the larger (extending before and after) "big fat" Catholic view necessarily better just because it includes more. They are different ideas of what sex is, and my concern here is not to argue that any is right or wrong. My point is just that Thomson's is not necessarily more realistic or scientific just because it is more narrowly focused. I don't think we can really, wholly separate analytic or conceptual questions from normative ones here. Which means that Thomson's argument ends up being something like Rawls's, Nozick's, and Searle's Chinese Room argument: they are all intuition pumps, political not metaphysical, rather than proofs of this or that.

Another part of the point: Schopenhauer understands art as presenting objects outside the realm of space and time, outside the causal nexus, outside the province of the principle of sufficient reason, platonically. The pornographic, sex-is-just-sex, view does something similar. It disregards whatever led to the sex taking place: if sex is just sex, then it does not affect its being sex if is motivated by love, or money, or lust, or desire to make a baby, or to make someone else jealous, or anything else. Sex (understood this way) is not defined by its causes, nor by its effects. Sex is not then necessarily or conceptually or internally related to procreation or to any other effect.

We might, on roughly Michael Thompson-ish grounds, think that we cannot hope to make sense of sex without reference to procreation. How would we ever identify sexual behavior in a strange new species if we did not look for behavior that is causally linked to procreation? But we don't have to build this connection into the grammar of sex. It is understandable why we might do so, but we can resist the pull of this way of thinking. Metaphysics won't ground ethics in that kind of way. Or so I think.

In conclusion, here are the main ideas I'm trying to articulate if not properly defend: metaphysics (understood as saying what things, including actions, are) is inextricably linked with ethics, and one way to respond to Thomson is to question her view of what sex is.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Brains, grammar, and sacred values

This article is less exciting if you read it than if you only read news stories about it. When I first read about it the findings were said to be that brain-research shows that people think about sacred values in a deontological rather than a utilitarian way, and that such thinking is like thinking about grammar. Cue Wittgensteinian thoughts about "the grammar of value" and so on. And yet...  

In the paper sacred values are defined as those for which individuals resist trade-offs. "Deontic processing" is understood in terms of "an emphasis on rights and wrongs" while utilitarian reasoning is understood as economic, having to do with trading and bargaining (see footnotes 18-22). So it isn't surprising that the reasoning involved when sacred values are at issue counts as deontic. This outcome seems almost predetermined by the definition of "sacred" and the identification of the activities associated with "utilitarian" thinking.

Unless I'm missing something, file under "much ado about nothing." Oh well. Here's my favorite economics-related song:

High school philosophy essay contest

Any student enrolled in a high school in the United States is eligible to submit an essay to the High-Phi Essay Contest. This includes students from both public and private high schools, as well as students who are being educated at a home school.
Each student’s submission must be accompanied by a signed form filled out by a teacher, counselor, or administrator at their school, verifying that the submission is appropriate for this contest. (The form is available below under ‘Attachments’), and should be printed out and filled out.)
All submissions must be the original and sole work of the student. Any evidence of plagiarism will immediately disqualify the submission.
All submissions should typed, double-spaced, and no more than 5,000 words. Submissions should be mailed in hard copy to:
  • Phi-High Essay Contest
  • Department of Philosophy
  • 120 Cocke Hall
  • University of Virginia
  • Charlottesville, VA 22904-4780
All submissions must be postmarked by *Wednesday, February 29, 2012** No e-mailed submissions will be accepted.
More details here:

Please feel free to spread the word.

Friday, February 3, 2012


I know there are competing products out there, and if you use them it's probably because you know more than I do, but here are three things I love about having iGoogle as my homepage:

  1. You can create your own "theme" using pictures of your children 
  2. You can add the gadget "World Webcams," which shows you live pictures from around the world 
  3. You can wake up to see a blog post with your own name in the title in your Google Reader, just as if you were part of a real news story
The latter has made my day.  (Although what that says about me is causing me some concern.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Required reading

There are blogs I look at every day and then there are ones that don't get updated often enough for that to seem worthwhile. One of these is SOH-Dan. So imagine my delight when I checked the other day and saw that it's active again (or rather, its author, Daniel Lindquist, is actively blogging again). See here for his first new post since August.

Elsewhere, there's a good interview with Roger Teichmann at 3am, in which he talks about Anscombe,  naturalism, and other topics. Here's a taste:
Now I wouldn’t want to say that scientific facts can never be relevant to a philosophical problem, or anything like that; the dispute here rather concerns the distinctive aims and methods of philosophy on the one hand and of science on the other. But there is also the fact that scientism or science-worship is a cultural phenomenon, an element of the Zeitgeist, and in certain ways a dangerous one; so it is depressing to see philosophers succumbing to it.


Love and meaning

This review of Hugo Strandberg's Love of a God of Love made me want to read the book, despite not being the most glowing review an author might hope to receive. I think that's a sign that the reviewer (Edward Vacek, SJ) has done a good job. Vacek's first criticism is that Strandberg does not examine the nature of love in depth, which surprised me given that he (Strandberg) is a colleague of Camilla Kronqvist, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Perhaps he refers to this work or feels it unnecessary to repeat work that has already been done by others. What appeals to me about Strandberg's work is this:
Strandberg's central thesis is quite worthy of reflection. Where people commonly speak of belief in God, he holds that what they really mean, if they mean anything that is existential, is that they love a God of love.
And this:
He additionally holds that those who claim that God does not exist will normally nevertheless be believers. For him, anyone who resists exploiting another in fact loves the soul of that other, even when that other is, say, a mountain. Since all objects are not isolated, anyone who respects some positive "weight" in some object is already a believer. That is, according to Strandberg, love of a single object is always also directed to something beyond and more all encompassing than the object, and that means it is love for God
Vacek calls this way of thinking slipshod, which I suppose it is, but it also seems generous (Strandberg sees love of God as a good thing, and he sees it everywhere, even in those who claim that God does not exist). I'm not sure that the generous quality of Strandberg's thinking could survive being made less slipshod, i.e. more rigorous.

Love also comes up in Christine Vitrano's essay "Meaningful Lives?" (which I think is only temporarily available free online). Here are some passages that I hope will give a sense of her argument even to those who have not read her (very clear and short) paper:
According to [Susan] Wolf, motives connected with meaning arise most obviously ‘when we act out of love for individuals about whom we deeply and especially care.’
She believes we also ‘act out of love’ in the pursuit of impersonal things, such as when we toil over a work of art, music or philosophy, or tend to our gardens.
Not all reasons of love contribute to a meaningful life, however, because ‘love can be misplaced or misguided; the energy or attention that you give to an object of love may be disproportionate to what that object merits.’10 So being attracted to certain activities and projects will increase the meaning of your life only if they are worthy of your love and attention. Wolf sums up her view succinctly: ‘Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.’
Wolf's examples of worthwhile and worthless activities appear to be arbitrary, providing no insight into the concept of objective value. For example, she states with confidence that baking chocolate cakes and tending to our gardens are meaningful ways to spend time, but doing crossword puzzles, playing computer games and attending aerobics classes are not. Yet Wolf provides no justification why baking and gardening have objective value; nor does she explain why she believes the other activities are ‘not the sorts of things that make life worth living.’
Why does pursuing a project or activity as an escape or distraction render it meaningless?
Wolf declares that vocations ‘to which one feels oneself called’ are ‘paradigmatic examples of what gives meaning to people's lives.’30 If so, why is the life of a dedicated corporate lawyer meaningless?
A serious difficulty emerges when, towards the end of her book in a reply to Jonathan Haidt, Wolf changes her view on the worthiness of solving crossword puzzles and racing lawn mowers. Haidt is concerned that a former student, whose life revolved around her love of horses, was in danger of having her life declared meaningless by Wolf. Her reply begins with a reiteration of her belief that no one is an authority on which activities have objective value, which is why we need to ‘pool our information and experience.’34 But she adds: ‘If Haidt's student finds something valuable in her web of horse-riding projects’ then, even if she is unable to convince others of its merits, ‘this does not imply that she must be mistaken’ about its value.35 Wolf explains that ‘value can emerge from brute attraction or interest interacting with drives to excellence,’36 so devoting yourself to horses and pursuing that interest wholeheartedly would count as valuable. Wolf then admits that she was too hasty in her dismissal of solving crossword puzzles and racing lawn mowers, for both activities might play an important role in some people's lives, and, therefore, may be appropriate candidates for value.
Unlike Wolf, however, I believe we ought to resist making judgments about meaning unless we have a viable theory of objective value.
Wolf seems to be onto something here. If I were to develop her ideas, I think I would want to bring in Anscombe's ideas about the kinds of actions and reasons for doing things that we can make sense of. Trying to kill an enemy is intelligible, even when wrong, but putting all your green books on the roof, or collecting saucers of mud, is not intelligible. (Of course we can invent a story to make it intelligible, but I'm talking about the context of normal life, absent any kind of special story.)

If you bake a cake you don't then just throw it away (or leave it out in the rain). (Unless your baking it was something like a Buddhist spiritual exercise, but in that case you were engaging in a spiritual exercise, not (simply) baking a cake.) But when you've done a crossword puzzle you typically do throw it away. It isn't something you love in the way that you might love a garden. Similarly, computer games are typically ways of passing, or even killing, time. Even if you love to play the game, it is only a game. Most game-players recognize this. Those who don't are generally recognized as being rather pathetic. This is ordinary, not arbitrary. A mere distraction cannot be meaningful because if it were then it would not be a mere distraction. It would be an end in itself. And the life of a corporate lawyer is meaningless, if it is meaningless, precisely because it is not a vocation to which anyone feels called. They do it for the money. If I'm wrong then the example is a bad one, but it's clear enough, it seems to me, what Wolf is getting at.

Haidt's horse-riding example seems quite different from the racing lawn-mowers case. A horse is something you can love, and horse-riding is an ancient skill. Racing lawn-mowers is, presumably, meant to be silly. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Perhaps there could be exceptions, but if one races lawn-mowers in the usual way with the usual attitude, if the activity has the kind of place in your life that it has in the typical racer of lawn-mowers, then it will be something you do merely for amusement, not as a central meaning-giving project. You can't love a lawn-mower, especially one that you ride. (Perhaps it's possible to love a simple tool with which one nobly toils, but rider-mowers are all about convenience. They aren't comrades in effort.) Love of riding lawn-mowers is on a par with love of playing Donkey Kong (you don't want to be Billy Mitchell). If that life seems potentially meaningful to you, watch The King of Kong. We don't need a theory of objective value to recognize wasted time or douchebaggery.