Saturday, December 31, 2011

You've Not Got Mail (So Stop Checking)

"In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office." -- Thoreau, "Life Without Principle" (1854)
My New Year's resolution is to spend less time checking my e-mail. I check it more than frequently, and more than is necessary, even when I'm not expecting anything in particular to come. (What am I expecting?...) Thankfully, I don't (yet) have a smartphone, so I have to go to my computer to check it. This means I have some hope of checking it less, and I should do less pointless checking at home. This will also keep me off the computer when I'm not doing something (comparatively more) important like writing. How often does a quick email check turn into wasted time on the internet!

Good luck with your own resolutions, and Happy New Year to All!

Unbolting the Dark

"If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn." -- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 105)
I was happy to receive for Christmas (thanks, Mom!) a copy of Lynne Spellman's memoir Unbolting the Dark. Lynne was one of my first philosophy teachers, and some of my formative moments as a philosopher--and perhaps more simply as a person--occurred in her classes. It was interesting (if surprising in some ways) to learn that Lynne was, in some ways, just returning to philosophy with renewed interest, after a long period of disillusionment with academic philosophy, at the time that I was one of her students. It was also around this time that she was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Unbolting the Dark is a relatively short book in which Lynne describes and reflects upon about a twenty year period of her life from her late thirties to her late fifties (when she was ordained), but which also reaches back into her childhood, as she sought to come to terms with the death of her mother (who died of breast cancer when Lynne was twelve), while also seeking to come to terms with her own yearning, as she would say, for God. It is, in that sense, the story of a mid-life crisis that took two decades to resolve (and which, among other things, sees her relationship with her husband Jim take many strange turns and endure, against their own expectations, many long separations). But it is also a story of spiritual journey, in which Lynne seeks to come to terms both with her own past and with the idea of God, a journey informed by the mystical tradition reaching back to Plato and neoplatonism (Lynne is a specialist in Ancient Greek philosophy) and strongly informed by contemporary contemplatives such as Thomas Merton. (I took Lynne's honors course on Merton at one of the darkest points in my own life, and in some sense, that class saved me from my own despair.)

I started with a quote from Merton both because of his influence on Lynne, and because his point about criticism touches on one of the smaller themes in her memoir, which was her nearly crippling fear of rejection. I am glad that fear did not prevent this book from seeing the light of day.

I can't "review" the book in any sort of objective way since I know Lynne, and so my interest in reading it will not be shared by those reading this post. But I think it would be a good book for anyone dealing with profound and sustained grief, and for those seeking an example of religious seriousness and searching at its best. Philosophical and theological reflection are interwoven with the narrative of Lynne's journey, and she offers many insights, but no "theory," as it were. She speaks instead, as Wittgenstein would say, for herself. It is in large part because of Lynne that I had to get over the temptation to reject religion as silly, because I know Lynne and do not think she is silly.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Seneca on Anger

From On Anger (Book III):
The mark of true greatness is not to notice that you have received a blow. So does the huge wild beast calmly turn and gaze at barking dogs, so does the wave dash in vain against a mighty cliff. The man who does not get angry stands firm, unshaken by injury; he who gets angry is overthrown.
This is from Book II:
Nothing, therefore, is more conducive to anger than the intemperance and intolerance that comes from soft living; the mind ought to be schooled by hardship to feel none but a crushing blow.
This second passage (which is earlier in the essay) seems utterly "hardcore," extreme, and macho in a not obviously good way. It seems to reflect what critics of Stoicism would the insensibility of the Stoic ideal. And while I can't countenance all the details of Seneca's writing, I think his arguments against anger, and against the Aristotelian idea that anger can be useful to virtuous action (e.g. as a spur to courage) are worth consideration. For Seneca, anger is essentially a form of temporary madness, and although an emotion it is the product of (always incorrect) judgment. In rejecting anger, Seneca does not argue that we should try to deaden the natural impulses that sometimes result in anger--that is, he distinguishes between anger and our impulsive response to, for example, moral wrongdoing, but argues that this impulse should be governed by reason rather than given over to anger. On the Stoic view, we allow ourselves to become angry--we allow annoyance and frustration to overtake us and, as it were, "overthrow" our reason. This is why actions undertaken in anger will seem, in hindsight, foolish and rash--viz. because they most likely were (and if they were not, we were only lucky that our anger didn't lead us to do something worse).

When we are tempted to anger--when we are affronted by insult or harm--Seneca counsels patience, that is, delaying our response. Importantly, his point is not that we should not respond to those things that often make us angry, but that we delay our response so that it is wise and proportionate. (Often, if we give ourselves time to cool off, we will find, he thinks, that what we received as a harm is not worth the trouble with which we would have repaid it in anger.) This seems like perfectly good advice: Stoic detachment is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to wise (and patient) action. Anger in itself solves nothing and, if Seneca is right, only makes matters--either for ourselves or others--worse.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Here's the latest installment in my (less academic?) reflections on conviction and integrity, on "consistency." The essay opens thus:
Without some degree of consistency amongst our beliefs, as well as our desires and emotions, and between our inner life and our outward actions, things fall apart. Our own lives can become too confusing to bear. Without some way of matching the life we are trying to live to the world and the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, we run the risk of losing touch with reality, or of being crushed by it. Integrity would seem to require both inner consistency—that the elements of the psyche be more or less integrated into some kind of coherent, harmonious whole (call this, if you wish, the self)—as well as outward consistency—that one’s beliefs, desires, and emotions, and one’s actions, too, be appropriately responsive to how the world actually is. We would not say that someone who has fallen prey to a massive delusion, who lives, as we might say, in a fantasy world, has integrity. Nor would we say of it of someone who is utterly paralyzed by inner conflict and indecision, who vacillates between various options, says one thing and does another, or changes his or her mind every time the wind blows. Consistency—both within oneself and in relation to the world—is important. However, if there is something important in Whitman’s, at first glance, irrational embrace of self-contradiction—and I think there is—then it is possible to care too much, or in the wrong way, about consistency. In that case, we can’t simply equate integrity with a life of practical and psychological consistency, even if a life of integrity requires these in some degree. Or, paradoxically: consistency might sometimes require that we live with inconsistency.
I fear I may be playing much too fast and loose (a little fast and loose I can live with, for now at least), so comments will be appreciated. I anticipate a separate essay on steadfastness (in which, among other things, I will again take a crack at Winch's discussion of the Amish elder in his essay, "Moral Integrity"), although you can probably get some ideas about where that might go if you make it to the end of this one.

UPDATE (12.16.11): It occurred to me last night that one thing I should consider here relates to what Gaita says about the "child of two cultures" he imagines in his own discussion of integrity--that the conflict between the two cultures is the source of this person's weaknesses and strengths. I want to think about what some of those strengths might be. (This probably connects up with Whitman.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saving Lives?

Yesterday, on my drive home, I saw this sticker on someone's car. Does this make any sense? It's not clear to me how spaying and neutering pets "saves" lives. It may prevent unwanted animals from being born, but isn't that different from saving lives? We wouldn't tell sexually active teens to use contraception in order to save lives, would we? Preventing a life from coming into existence is not a way of saving a life. I don't know what sense of "save" the person who designed this sticker could possibly have in mind.

The only way I could make sense of this is if we think that unborn pets live in some kind of pet-heaven, and spaying and neutering is a way of saving unborn pets from being born into circumstances where they will be unwanted, abandoned, or abused. But that's silly, as is this sticker.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Idea that Courage is Fearing the Right Things...


A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

from Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895)

I think I know exactly what Crane is talking about. I think it has, in part, to do with anger.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Those Wicked Toads...


"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."
And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

from Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines

Saturday, December 03, 2011

If panpsychism is true, then vegans are screwed

I've been thinking about consistency lately in connection with integrity, and Mark Rowland's visit to EKU got me thinking again in a more active way about animals.

On p. 131 of The Philosopher and the Wolf, he says of veganism that "it's the only consistent moral position on animals." This is something I've heard before, and I didn't think to press him on this during his visit, as I was more interested in his views on animals as moral subjects. But I'm not sure that the claim is true. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's both false and misleading (with all due respect to Mark!).

First, it seems that other views about our relations to, and uses of, animals could be consistent, though the vegan might think those views are unsound. I think of something I overheard a local cattle farmer say at a farmers' market one summer morning: "God put them here for us." Now, this person doesn't think that means that anything goes, and his cattle are locally raised, on pasture (but I think fed some grain), slaughtered locally, and sold locally. From a bioregionalist perspective (as well as the theological one), there's a lot of "consistency" in this kind of agriculture. When I'm in an environmentalist mood, I think I should buy his beef instead of lentils imported from God knows where. But I still buy the lentils; I've been off the beef long enough now that I don't find it appetizing, even though fast food still smells good in the abstract. At any rate, I don't think this farmer is in any obvious way inconsistent. He might be wrong, but that's another matter.

Second, and this connects to the first point, there are going to be different ways of drawing lines between the morally edible and the morally inedible (and the morally instrumentalizable and the morally non-instrumentalizable). Sentience is one way of drawing that line, and I can accept that sentience is morally significant. But being a living thing is arguably a morally significant distinction, but not one we could use in deciding what is and is not morally edible. As my jokey title suggests, if a certain kind of panpsychism were true (so that plants are sentient, too), then we couldn't use sentience to draw that line anymore either. So, there's nothing essential about our drawing the line at sentience. (That doesn't mean it isn't the most reasonable line given the way the world is, of course.) But this gets at a point that others have made, which is that the feasibility of veganism is itself contingent upon one's circumstances and place in the world. Even Rowlands acknowledged that he had to go pescatarian when he moved to southern France; veganism was just not an option. Supposing that bioregionalism represented the most sustainable way of living, then there would likely be bioregions where animal agriculture would be more viable than vegan alternatives. Thus, a hidden assumption of the consistency claim on behalf of veganism is that sentience is the only relevant value at stake in determining the morally edible.

I think the truth in the claim is that if you think you shouldn't be eating cows, for example, then depending upon your reasons for thinking that, you probably shouldn't be wearing cow either, or playing catch with a cow-mitt (or, mutatis mutandis, tossing around a pigskin). Though perhaps a leather jacket would be a nice way to commemorate the years of milk your cow Bessie gave you. Hard to say; that might just be macabre.

Of course, vegans, I take it--at least of a certain sort--forgo all animals and animal products. But the line between animal and non-animal is (a) vague and (b) doesn't obviously track the sentient/non-sentient distinction (and what "sentient" means is up for grabs, too). My wife insists that we eat fish occasionally, though I tend not to go in for it myself (occasional sushi aside), but I will eat boiled shrimp with abandon. But not boiled lobster--too macabre for me. Now these are both crustaceans, and they have similar kinds of nervous systems. They have nervous systems. They produce opioids (which help control pain in us). So maybe I'm being inconsistent. (And I honestly don't know how sustainable shrimp is, but at some point I have to stop deliberating, so that I can eat, so that I can deliberate more later...[UPDATE: the news on shrimp doesn't look good...]) The consistent thing to do might be to be safe rather than sorry.

What did Elizabeth Costello say? "Degrees of obscenity." That's not an excuse. But if we really want to push the limits of moral considerability, then a certain kind of consistency becomes less and less livable. This is why some complain about expansive conceptions of intrinsic value and moral considerability that want to be extremely inclusive. (I think that complaint misses the point.) At the limit, consistency might mean owning up to the fact that some things die so that others may live. Maybe the "only consistent position" is being mindful that you don't cause more death than the continuation of your life, in the whole balance, is worth. And maybe cultivating a kind of mindfulness about our use of animals (and other living and non-living things) that doesn't just add up to a persistent feeling of neurosis and guilt that only destroys you, or makes it impossible for others to live with you. (Cf. Elizabeth Costello.)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Why Be Patient?

I've been having a discussion about secular vs. theist ways of grounding (or just making sense of) patience with my colleague Mike Austin. Here is what Mike suggests about theism providing a stronger ground for patience of certain sorts:
Consider the virtue of patience. I think it is clear that it is reasonable to be patient. But certain forms of patience are not reasonable, if naturalism is true. On naturalism, I can be patient in line at the store, or with other drivers, or with my children, because of the therapeutic and relational value of patience in these realms. However, the naturalist cannot as easily account for the patient endurance of suffering or trials, in the following way. What am I waiting for, in the midst of terminal illness, challenging trials and tribulations, or an apparently irresolvable situation, when the desired states of affairs are outside of my ability to bring about? On naturalism I’m waiting for “my luck to change” or something along those lines (and whatever that means). This seems to be a weak basis for patience, and not a good reason to think that whatever I am waiting for will in fact occur. On naturalism, the attitude is “Wait and see.” By contrast, on theism I am waiting for God to come through. The attitude is not merely wait and see, but rather “Wait and see how God will prove his faithfulness.” For the theist there are positive reasons for patience, for expecting something good, sooner or later, to happen. There are reasons to be hopeful in patience. This is not the case on naturalism, making patience in many contexts, for the naturalist, irrational.
I suppose the "naturalist" could just accept this, and say, sure, there will be points at which there remains no reasonable ground for hope or patience. (I will not worry too much here about how Mike may be running hope and patience together here; I agree that patience only makes sense when there is room for hope of some sort.) What I want to object to is the implicit assumption that patience is passive--that it is just a kind of waiting for someone else (e.g. God) to do something or something else to occur (e.g. a turn of "luck"). I think we can also talk about being patient with oneself, and in the sort of case that Mike seems to think pose a problem for the naturalist--where great adversity must be endured--it might be argued that we sometimes need patience with ourselves, in terms of our current ways of understanding our own situation, in order to make room for other ways of seeing the situation that make it more bearable, or which allow us to see a (new) point in enduring. I don't just mean being patient until one is struck--either by divine grace or dumb luck--by the "silver lining." Rather, I mean the patience, roughly, to explore other possible ways of seeing the situation, and perhaps along with this a kind of hope that we can find a way--through our own creative thought, the example of others, and so forth--of making sense of our situation that gives us some reason to endure.

One could object--if naturalism is true, then there's no guarantee that this as-yet undiscovered perspective is "out there." The situation may indeed be hopeless. But there's also no guarantee that there isn't. One reason for patient endurance in the face of adversity is the possibility of learning some lesson, which may only be clear when and if one comes out the other side. And here, I would emphasize that patient endurance would only be one part of the story, since such endurance is renewed by the continued search for a meaning within the situation (i.e. by activity).

Of course, that reason seems moot when the affliction one faces is, as it were, "terminal"--what room for hope, and so patience, is left there? Here, perhaps the issue depends on what one thinks it means to die with dignity. Suicide might seem to be the cardinal sin against patience, particularly if one thinks that we should always wait for death to come to us. But given medical technology, and the ability to keep a brain-dead body alive long past any point of possible recovery, and the presumption that loss of autonomy can be completely psychologically overwhelming, such that it becomes impossible for a person to be an agent (and so to exhibit any virtue, let alone patience), I'm not sure that the decision to end one's life in some situations is the same thing as losing one's patience.

At any rate, the short story is that I think Mike is wrong to think that the naturalist is short on grounds for patience even in fairly incredible situations, in part because waiting needn't be waiting for something external to happen, but waiting--and working--for a shift in one's own perspective, the creative discovery of a reason, as Dylan Thomas put it, to rage against the dying of the light.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Using Your Own Book For a Class

I received a (somewhat dubious-looking) solicitation to work with a publisher in putting together an Intro to Philosophy reader. This is something I could imagine doing in the future--though I've also toyed with the idea of putting together a 100% open-access philosophy anthology (which would include both classic and contemporary writings, perhaps even some commissioned pieces).

This led me back to the old question: what are the (unwritten) rules, if any, concerning using one's own books in one's classes? (Perhaps some schools actually have written rules about this.) Presumably, if you have created a book for a particular class, it is one that meets your distinctive vision of what content is to be covered in that class. So why not use it? On the other hand, of course, is the sense that one would be making extra profit (on royalties). Of course, someone will get paid (though perhaps royalties aren't that much; I don't know), so why shouldn't it be you? Alternatively, one could defer the royalties from books sold to one's own students, or donate that money to a good cause. (One could even let the students vote.) I had a professor who paid each student a dollar to balance out the fact that one of our required texts was a book by him.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Learning about Humanity from a Wolf

Mark Rowlands is coming to town this Thursday to give the final Chautauqua Lecture of the semester. (I've been asked to introduce him, which should be fun, if I recover my voice before then.) He will be speaking on something from his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, which I read over the holiday. (Which is saying something in itself, as I'm generally a slow, easily distracted reader.)

I'm too busy to write anything like a decent mini-review here. But I think it's a good book, entertaining, with some interesting ways of putting some ideas together (about happiness, meaning, and how the wolf shows up some of the pitfalls and not-so-nice aspects of being a simian). I'm not entirely sure I accept his Camus-esque approach to the problem of meaninglessness and/or existential adversity, but I'll have to think more about it. It might also be a good book to give to someone who's interested in philosophy (or who you think should be thus interested) but isn't an academic, or doesn't have patience for academic philosophy.

I'm now greatly looking forward to a forthcoming book of his entitled Can Animals Be Moral? There's a paper of his here that might give some flavor of that project, and suggests that the answer is yes. (I haven't read it yet.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Consistency: Thesis & Antithesis

"[S]uch is the stuff that man is made of: in principle and in practice, in a right track and in a wrong one, the rarest of all human qualities is consistency."
— Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781)

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then....I contradict myself;
I am large....I contain multitudes."
— Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" (1855)

Emerson, of course, is blunt about it in his own way, but I prefer Whitman's way of putting it.

Welcome (back?)

Things will carry on pretty much as they did before. All of the posts (and comments) from The HEP Spot have been moved over, so may the conversation(s) continue...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Radical Hope & Ecological Humility

I've (finally) been reading Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope about the last principal chief of the Crow, Plenty Coups. The main question of the book is roughly: how can one go on with one's way of life in the face of circumstances which basically render that way of life obsolete? One point Lear makes that's worth restating:
...a culture does not tend to train the young to endure its own breakdown....inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture. By and large a culture will not teach its young: "These are the ways in which you can succeed, and these are the ways in which you will fail; these are the dangers you might face, and here are opportunities; these acts are shameful, and these are worthy of honor--and, oh yes, one more thing, this entire structure of evaluating the world might cease to make sense." (83)
As Lear goes on to note, that final remark simply undercuts (it seems) everything that precedes it, and even though the remark is true, what can one do about it?

I've been thinking about similar questions about radical moral uncertainty in relation to ecological questions. The breakdown of current ecosystems could conceivably lead to such a point of uncertainty, which leaves old ways of life unsustained (and not simply unsustainable--the crucial point would be, as it were, the point at which things had broken down). And I've been thinking about--in light of an upcoming workshop on this issue (to which, alas, my proposal did not make the cut)--how the virtue of humility might provide some kind of answer, or how cultivating humility might be, as it were, a "preparatory virtue" of sorts (the value of which is not, however, simply limited to preparing for the collapse of one's way of life). This is part of what I said in my proposal (which I think is still worth working on):
The humble person recognizes that not every problem has a technological solution--that sometimes the solution requires changing oneself (or, by the by, one’s community). At the same time, humility does not reject technology as a viable part of our adaptation to changing environments or human needs. (It is not a luddite’s virtue either.) The humble person rather sees that no use of resources is justified if it unnecessarily diminishes diversity--human or non-human--within the world precisely because the humble person acknowledges a plurality of values and goods, and sees each as warranting as much respect as possible. As Keekok Lee points out, the humble person is also mindful of the fact that the natural world as a whole system needs our respect far less than our survival depends upon our respecting the fact of our own dependence upon a natural world that is, and continues to be, hospitable for us.* If we fail to live humbly, “the results could be that the last laugh, so to speak, would be on us, humans.”
The basic idea is that there is a kind of flexibility within humility (in contrast with the rigidity of the arrogant). Notably, Lear alludes to the relevance of humility in his discussion of Plenty Coups' need to reconceive of courage in order to lead his tribe with something recognizable as courage (and honor), when the old ways of acting with courage are no longer available.

(It's worth noting that Allen Thompson has written about applying Lear's notion of "radical hope" to the darker possibilities of climate change (here).)

* Keekok Lee, “Awe and Humility: Intrinsic Value in Nature. Beyond an Earthbound Environmental Ethics,” in Robin Attfield and Andrew Belsey, Philosophy and the Natural Environment (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 89-101

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Courage of Conviction

Here's the next essay in the series of (what a colleague of a colleague calls) "quasi-popular" essays I aim to write on many of the issues I've discussed on this blog and in some of my other work:

The Courage of Conviction

As always, comments appreciated.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Not All Animals are Animals (In Case You Forgot)

I've harped on this before, but here you have it, from a tutorial I'm reading as part of my training for EKU's IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee):
The AWA [Animal Welfare Act] applies to all species of warm blooded vertebrate animals used for research, testing, or teaching, except farm animals used for agricultural research. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amendments to the regulations that implement the AWA currently also exempt birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research.
Translation: the Animal Welfare Act does not apply to most of the "animals" used in research.

Use of those non-animal "animals," as I understand it, is regulated by the standards set by the NIH (which doesn't really matter to you if you don't have NIH-backed funding for your research). But more later; back to my education.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Vigdis Broch-Due: "Animal In Mind: People, Cattle and Shared Nature on the African Savannah"

A nice read. This is an interesting charge against progressive Western animal rights/welfare ranging from Bentham to Nussbaum [edit: I should have said something like "a charge that is surprising, perhaps questionable in its purported scope"]:
Here we have to remind ourselves that these discourses, admirable as they are, inevitably uphold the firm species barrier between the human and the animal: the animal remains definitely and completely “other”.
I wonder whether this is quite fair. However, it certainly seems right that the personal attitude toward animals of someone like Singer (as expressed in Animal Liberation where he says that he doesn't in any particular way love animals) is worlds apart from the attitude of Broch-Due's friend Emong, who sacrifices practically everything he had to save his bull.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Honesty and Pedagogy

Is this good pedagogy?
About 100 students [in introductory logic] were told to convince the campus that it [a claim that the campus dining services would be going 100% vegetarian and local] was real by whatever means they thought would be most effective.
I've heard of things like this before. A year or so ago (I think) a law professor started a rumor that one of the Supreme Court justices was stepping down, to prove a point about how quickly unverified rumors spread.

But what does the exercise above prove/teach? How bad the non-logic students at Smith College are at assessing arguments? How to be a sophist? Perhaps what the "lesson" is is one of the things the students are expected to reflect upon?

But what about the climate of campus trust? How long can a prank like this go on before it sets up a situation of reduced trust? What if the school does make a big, controversial change? Who can the students trust? I don't want to overreact, but I also think these are serious questions. If you think lying (and fooling others, etc.) is generally wrong, then can students learn to care about the truth by engaging in an activity where they deprive unwitting others of it? (Would something like this pass IRB? Does that matter?)

Monday, October 24, 2011

James Shaw, "Truth, Paradox, and Ineffable Propositions"

Just out in PPR. The first two sentences have me hooked (though it appears to be a long, tough read):
There is a natural and quite reasonable assumption to make about what it is possible to express in language—roughly: everything. In this paper I want to present some reasons for thinking this assumption might be false.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Klemke on Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics"

I recently came across, and finally read, an old-ish (1975) paper by E.D. Klemke called "Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics." Ever read it? What a hoot! Klemke really doesn't like Wittgenstein's LE!

In short, he argues that Wittgenstein provides no support for the claim that "no statements of fact can ever be or imply statements of absolute value" or for the claim that "all significant judgments are factually descriptive; hence there can be no significant ethical propositions." More generally, Klemke points out that Wittgenstein's arguments rest on a dubious criterion of meaningfulness and on the questionable fact-value dichotomy. These latter are intelligent points.

His paper, however, is book-ended with a very strange vitriol; Wittgenstein, he says, offers no argument. He will not argue that Wittgenstein is wrong--only that he has offered no argument, and his ideas rest on perhaps "outdated" (read: positivistic, I think) assumptions.

One might think that it would be enough to stop there. But here's how he concludes:
I conclude that Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics" is of no worth whatever for ethical inquiry and that the manner of philosophizing which it exhibits is despicable.
I wonder whether The Journal of Value Inquiry would let such a paragraph pass editorial review today.

In Wittgenstein's defense, Klemke argues at a couple points that perhaps the only justification for basic claims that Wittgenstein makes is that they are self-evident to him--such as that "all states of affairs are [evaluatively] neutral." But all Klemke says is that this is not self-evident to him; he offers not a single example that would count against what Wittgenstein says. Why isn't that despicable, too? Strange. (What was going on in 1975?)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Competent Judges

I always forget how hard it is to teach J.S. Mill on "quality" until I'm in the middle of class. Hard because it's not clear at all what "quality" is. (That always makes me think about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

However, I had a little breakthrough in thinking about who counts as a "competent judge" in questions about which of two pleasures is higher. Mill says, as you will recall:
If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.
Many students take all this to mean that the higher pleasure of any two is the one that most people prefer, but this way of putting is it misleading, I think. What I've probably not ever stressed enough is that Mill's point is that in order to be a competent judge, you have to have experienced the pleasure of both kinds. So, if you never got pleasure from reading Shakespeare, you're not a competent judge of the pleasure of reading Shakespeare. Ditto for NASCAR, Mozart, heroin, and the rest.

Stressing this seems to make Mill's point more interesting, and makes clearer, I think, why it isn't just elitist posturing. (Because someone who has never taken pleasure in a NASCAR event is not a competent judge of the pleasure of watching NASCAR.)

This is perhaps an obvious point about reading Mill, but it's one that I, at least, have found easy to overlook. I think this is because Mill isn't just saying, "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it"--which is something we've all heard before, and close to what Mill is saying--but something quite different. Roughly: "Don't knock it 'til you've cultivated an ability to take pleasure in it and done so"--which is different from "trying it," since you might try something and just take no pleasure in it. And that could just be an odd fact about you.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Forthcoming: Integrity and Struggle

"Integrity and Struggle" has been accepted by, and is now forthcoming in, Philosophia.

Thanks to those who have offered comments, suggestions, and support.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Now Available: Philosophical Topics 38:1 (Ethics)

Co-edited by myself and Edward Minar. Ordering info here. Enjoy!


Learning to Love
    Christopher Cowley

Minding What Already Matters: A Critique of Moral Individualism
    Alice Crary

Murdoch the Explorer
    Cora Diamond

Fitting-Attitudes, Secondary Qualities, and Values
    Joshua Gert

Moral Authority and Wrongdoing
    David Levy

Oughts and Cans: Badness, Wrongness, and the Limits of Ethical Theory

    Judith Lichtenberg

Impartial Respect and Natural Interest
    Sabina Lovibond

Moral Argument Is Not Enough: The Persistence of Slavery and the Emergence of Abolition
    Nigel Pleasants

Ethics and Private Language

    Duncan Richter

Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth?

    Kieran Setiya

Monday, October 03, 2011

Conviction & Certainty (Draft)

This little "meditation" puts together some of the ideas from recent posts. Either the end is silly, or it manages to function as a "reminder" (which is an idea I explore briefly within). As always, comments appreciated.

Up next (I think): "The Courage of Conviction."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lucky Find (& Bleg)

I'm working to put together a packet of readings from Nietzsche's The Gay Science for my Honors Humanities classes (as a preface to Sartre), and came across this. I doubt Cambridge University Press would be happy about it. But get it while it's hot (in more ways than one, I guess).

If anyone has any particular suggestions about what I *must* include in my packet, shoot. (Certainly, I'm including the death of God stuff, and some bits that capture his, as the 'all things shining' folks might put it, "polytheism"... I'm also skimming back over for swipes at utilitarian ethics, since I just finished teaching Bentham...)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conviction & Certainty

It might be said have a conviction is to be subjectively certain—to feel with great confidence that one’s beliefs, values, and aims are correct. Imagine, for example, a theist who admitted that she is not certain that God exists but believes in God nevertheless. We could take her to mean that she has no sufficient evidence or proof for God’s existence, but rather believes it on faith. And we might then suggest that to believe something on faith is to be subjectively certain about it—to feel with great confidence that this belief is correct or true. But this will not do. People struggle with their faith, question it, seek to better understand it—and also struggle to bring their lives and other beliefs into conformity with their faith (or convictions).

If I take something on faith, then I resolve myself to accept it, to go along with it, to let it shape me and to shape my actions around it. In none of this is a requirement that I feel certain that what I am committing myself to is correct (or true). It is possible that I have reservations about going forward. I might have doubts, but my doubts about turning back might be even greater, and I might find myself forced by my situation either to press forward or retreat. To press forward in faith, or with conviction, is to devote myself to that path—to give myself to it. Perhaps I can withdraw later if things aren’t working out. But if I continue to think that, then I am not living with faith or conviction. It is not a lack of certainty that destroys conviction, but rather a lack of devotion.

A person might show such conviction—and devotion—in a relationship such as a marriage. A person might not know, let alone feel certain, that his spouse is his soul mate. One might not put much stock in such fine phrases. At the same time, one can be committed to his or her matrimonial vows, committed to cultivating a relationship in which continued love is possible. Such a commitment is not a prediction of what will happen, that the marriage will not fall apart (or at least that if it does, this person won’t be the one responsible for it). Thus, such a person—without showing any lack of conviction with regard to the depth of his devotion—could say, “I am not certain that things will work out between us.” This is not, of course, the sort of thing to be said on one’s wedding day. It could, however, be said in full seriousness—to a friend, perhaps—during a serious marital disagreement. “Do you believe that things will work out?” “I don’t know.” Such a confession of ignorance and uncertainty has nothing to do with whether one is still devoted to the marriage. Being committed to making it work out—to the extent that this is in one’s control—is not the same thing as being committed to the proposition that it will work out. Of course, if one has no hope that it will work out, then there would be little point in being committed to making it work. Thus, there is a connection between conviction and devotion, and between devotion and hope. If certainty has any role to play here, it is simply that one must not feel subjectively certain that the relationship is hopeless. When that is gone, then one had better get a priest or a lawyer.

(I wrote this before actually looking back over p. 168ff in Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, to which Tommi had quite helpfully referred me. There's definitely some overlap here with Williams, and I imagine I will take up some of what Williams says around p. 169 about conviction being somehow "inescapable" soon, though some of what I said here is a start on that. For what it's worth, I take a similar, though I don't think as well-articulated, position on conviction and subjective certainty around the second page of my forthcoming paper "Moral Conviction.")

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflection, Take 2

(A little more friendly to Williams this time, and a little bit of a tease at the end...I'm in the midst of the continuation right now...more to come...)

Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, we might suspect that because reflection tends to undermine our sense of certainty in our own beliefs—since in reflecting we question and critique those very beliefs—that reflection also tends to undermine conviction. This might seem to be especially true of moral beliefs, since a little exposure to the diversity of moral opinion and practice throughout the world may lead us to reflect upon the extent to which our own beliefs are influenced by our own particular upbringing and cultural and historical situation. Bernard Williams has suggested in such cases that “reflection can destroy knowledge,” which is to say that reflection can deprive us of confidence in our own ways of living and valuing, and thereby our convictions. At least, reflection might destroy our certainty that our way living and valuing is the right way.

Destruction is not, it should be kept in mind, always a bad thing. We want to destroy our illusions and false opinions, the biases that prevent us from recognizing truth. However, one might think that if knowledge is good and reflection can destroy it, then something has gone wrong in those cases when reflection does destroy knowledge. But how could reflection ever do such a thing? Shouldn’t what we call knowledge be more durable than that? A short—and somewhat unhelpful—answer is that it depends on what exactly we are willing to count as knowledge.

What is potentially unsettling about Williams’ point does not turn so much on how we choose to use the term knowledge but rather on the fact that reflection—as well as exposure to other ways of living and valuing—can undermine our confidence in our own moral beliefs. We can be led to question whether the certainty we have about our own convictions is justifiable when we consider that others have felt just as certain about the rectitude of various other systems and practices. What is equally unsettling is that simply refusing to reflect on such matters will seem dishonest (or dogmatic or lazy): if we refuse to reflect, then we may well fall (or have fallen) for just about anything. Unless we are foolish or arrogant enough to believe that we have already got everything right, then we will see that we cannot make any progress in our own moral or intellectual life without reflection.

The danger of reflection is not that it unsettles us; sometimes we need to be roused from cheap comfort. Rather, the danger is that reflection can lead to a cramped kind of skepticism that induces paralysis or despair. We can lose our grip and not know how to go on. In having lost our certainty, we may be led to the thought that we have lost everything—that without certainty, we cannot (or should not) allow ourselves to have convictions.

But this is a strange position.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


(A snippet from some further I being fair enough to Williams? Update: Read the next post above.)

Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, Bernard Williams suggested that “reflection can destroy knowledge” by undermining the foundations upon which one’s convictions stand. I have always thought that Williams must be wrong—or at least that he only wins the point by abusing language. Reflection can undermine convictions, for it can uncover bad reasoning, hidden motives, ignorance, and blind spots in one’s sensibility. If that is what reflection destroys, then I would not say that it destroys knowledge but rather the semblance of knowledge.

If reflection destroys a conviction, then it was either a bad conviction or a bad act of reflection. Where reflection destroys a bad conviction there is no loss in its destruction. On the other hand, if one were to destroy a worthy conviction because one had engaged in poor reasoning and reflection, then a real loss has occurred. Perhaps for this reason those who were never taught how to reflect—how to navigate the maze of philosophical questioning without losing their patience or their way—are better off not reflecting. But equally, perhaps those who are better off not reflecting are also better off not having any convictions.

Even better: perhaps one who is inclined toward some conviction should learn how to reflect, so that she can better know what it is she has, and neither destroy what is truly precious nor become accustomed to living with fool’s gold. And the first thing one should learn is that true reflection does not destroy knowledge, but rather unsettles comfortable and merely convenient illusions.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Conviction & Desire

Here is the continuation of the line of thought started in the post "I Must..." (I'm including it as a pdf because I thought it was a bit long for a blog post.) There's a lot of work yet to do here; this is just a start to what I hope to be a series of thoughts/meditations/reflections of this sort, which will ultimately connect with some of the other work (about courage and humility and patience, etc.) I've been doing and posting about here.

Thoughts appreciated. I'm sort of going out on a limb here, and hopefully I won't fall off.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Patience & Slowing Down

Things take time, and things go wrong. For some things, we must wait (like next Christmas). Even those things that are comparatively in our control—unlike how far away Christmas is, or how close we are to getting home—often require patience if we are to do them well.

Joe Kupfer defines patience as “the disposition to accept delays in satisfying our desires—delays that are warranted by circumstances or the desires themselves” (265). He then adds that, “patience is not just waiting, but waiting easily without agitation.” But I’m not sure that waiting is the right word in all cases.

Certainly, I can wait in line patiently or with anger or anxiety. I can wait patiently for my daughter to put on her shoes in the morning, or I can yell at her. But there are other things I do, which I think of as requiring patience, where waiting doesn’t seem to be the whole of it. Writing an essay (or story, etc.) would seem to be like this. I have to develop my thoughts, write, revise, read more, rethink, write, revise, show what I have to someone else, and so on. Certainly, waiting can be involved here. I should wait to submit my essay until I am satisfied with the product. (I’m not always good about this.) But it seems like there is something else here, which I would say takes patience, which is part of the process of crafting the essay. Maybe what seems wrong in Kupfer’s definition is the notion of “delays.” Certainly, I can experience setbacks in writing. But the process of writing itself is not something that delays the final product. Perhaps the slowness of my thoughts delays my progress, but that seems wrong. The pace of my thoughts is the pace of my thoughts. Perhaps I have to wait out an episode of writer’s block. But even when the words are flowing, there is a sense in which I have to take my time. (And this is truer of editing.) It’s not that I have to accept a delay in the emergence of a final draft; rather, I have to accept that writing a good essay takes time. It also requires focus; a person who is easily distracted won’t be able to see the project to its completion. And I associate that focused attention to the task with patience. (I don’t know if it’s patience that enables the focused attention, or the ability to focus that makes patience possible…)

Kupfer alludes to what I would call “patience in process” (as opposed to mere patient waiting, as in a check-out line) in his opening example of a young boy who rushes through the construction of a model airplane. But Kupfer then focuses on features of the activity such as waiting for the glue to dry on one part before moving onto the next step. Here, I think, he misses something important. Applying the glue properly or painting the wings evenly may also take patience, and here it’s not like one is waiting for something to happen. One is in the midst of doing something, which must be done carefully, slowly, and mindfully—if it is to be done well. Kupfer realizes that impatience in such activities ironically leads to a failure to achieve what we want, since the final result will be shoddy. But when he talks about how patience can be fostered by understanding the time various activities take, he still focuses on cases where one isn’t quite fully engaged, but rather where one is waiting for the glue to dry, or the customer service representative to come on the line after putting you on hold, and so on.

Those examples might make it a bit too easy to think that understanding cures everything, or nearly does. But if we tend to hurry things along or get easily distracted, then I’m not quite sure those are character traits that are fixed by more facts. I may know that it’s going to take all day to clean the side of the house, but still find myself rushing along, not scrubbing the siding as diligently as I might, not able to focus on doing it well. This needn’t be because I don’t really care, but rather because I get anxious when faced with an activity that seems, to me, slow in the doing. And when I find myself getting hurried like that, I find myself thinking that I need to be more patient, and this is part of what I think is involved in focusing on the task at hand. It’s not that I need to remind myself that doing it correctly takes time, but rather that I need to refocus and remind myself to slow down.

But maybe what I need here is a more subtle idea about what it means to wait. Perhaps I am waiting on myself to finish one part of the job before I move onto the next? (But then which me is it that moves on? I can wait for my arm to heal before I try playing softball again. But I'm less sure about waiting on myself to finish one thought before moving onto the next one. Maybe if it's a physical activity, I'm waiting on my body to do one thing before I will it to do another. But that's a wee bit too Cartesian for least, I don't quite see how to separate going slow and being focused and mindful from whatever it is that we might call waiting here.)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Selling Out?

I just watched Morgan Spurlock's (Supersize Me) new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which is an entertaining look into the world of product placement in film, and which was 100% financed by product placements. Funny film. Not sure what exactly I learned from it, if anything.

A minor point explored in the film, as Spurlock recruits Ok Go to write a theme for the film, is the role corporate use of music has come to play in generating visibility for up and coming musicians and bands. Donald Trump mentions that there are musicians who would never take any money for the play of their music in advertising, but thinks they should still take the money and run. As Ok Go suggests, I guess it depends on what one is running from.

At any rate, the Nashville band in which a friend of mine plays bass, Heypenny, recently got some corporate play in a new Honda commercial:

I'm happy for them. Their new album is great, and they deserve some exposure. They work hard, play hard, and are smart musicians. (DJ teaches philosophy on the side.) Fun music. Great live shows. Here's one of my favorite songs by them:

I Must...

(A little something I've been musing over; compare, for example, to the view of morality and desire that DR discusses here.)

“I absolutely must.” How did it ever get into anyone’s head that anything absolutely must be done? Some of the things I must do are things that must be done in order to satisfy other desires and goals I have. I must go to work if I want to get paid. I must take care of my children if I don’t want them to suffer. I must love my wife, and show her that love, if I am to reasonably expect that she love me in return.

Is every must thus relative to some other desire? Suppose I say that there is something I must do, even if it gets me fired, or causes my children to suffer, or alienates me from my wife so that she is unable to love me any more. Does that show that there is something I desire more than a paycheck, happy children, and my wife’s love? If I am acting out of moral conviction, then one might say that what I desire more than these other things is to do what I think is right, cost what it may, and that I have put my desire to be moral (as I see it) ahead of my desires about my livelihood and family.

If that were the right way to characterize my judgment, then we would have to say that the phrase “I must” is no more than a variation of the form, “I want,” and that it expresses what I really, or most deeply, want. But I do not think this analysis will do. I may not want to do what I believe I must do, but I must do it anyway. “But what you want in that case,” so the retort goes, “is to realize the object of your judgment.” Perhaps what I want is to be a moral person, or to preserve my integrity. Or more directly: I want to do what I believe is the right thing to do (to blow the whistle on a vicious colleague or boss, or to advocate for an unpopular cause at the risk of danger to myself and my family, or so on).

Here is the trouble with the attempt to reduce all judgments of what one must do to expressions of desire: if I believe that something must be done because it is the right thing to do—and not simply to achieve some other desire of my own—then what drives the judgment that I must do it is not so much the desire to be moral as the belief that something is required of me and that I must do it. This is because I can believe that something is the right thing to do, even if I wish—to the bottom of my heart—that it wasn’t. I might wish that I was not put in this situation, or that I could talk myself into a way of believing that would relieve me of the judgment that I must do something that may bring great pain to myself or to those I love. A person who has this kind of conviction is not expressing a mere desire: what I desire is not relevant to what I must do in such cases. To believe that there is something I absolutely must do is to believe that I must do it, even if I don’t want to. If I also want to do it, all the better. But my wanting to do it is not what makes it—in my own judgment—something I absolutely must do. What I must do, in this sense, comes from outside of me. Coming from outside the self, it cannot simply be a desire, which arises from within.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Beaver

I wanted not to be interested in this film, since Mr. Gibson is taboo (I guess). But the premise sounded so curious, and he remains a fine actor. And there's the added intrigue of its being the directorial debut of Jodie Foster.

Walter Black (Gibson) is suffering from major depression. His wife (Foster) finally kicks him out of the house. While trashing a box of memories in a dumpster, on his way to a suicide attempt, he comes across a hand-puppet, a beaver, through which he begins speaking (in a Cockney accent). The Beaver takes charge of Black's life, brings him back into the world, and (without giving too much away) Black is ultimately redeemed.

Very strange. I think Gibson pulls it off. (Ebert didn't.) The strange premise becomes a little more plausible if we think of the beaver as representing a dissociative split in Black's personality--and this makes sense of the struggle between Black and the beaver-personality toward the end. (I recently read Robert Oxnam's A Fractured Life, which details his own struggles with dissociative identity disorder, aka "multiple personality disorder." It's a good read.)

It sounds like dark comedy, but Foster paints the films in tones of realism (and drama). Compare, perhaps, to Lars and the Real Girl. Although melodramatic at moments, if you go with it, some scenes are actually touching, and the subplot concerning the older son, who is lost in his own way and wants mainly not to become like his father (even pre-beaver), is fairly well-executed. It's not a great film, but it's memorable, and so worth seeing. (If you're willing to give Mr. Gibson a chance.)

(I'm busy with teaching, so posting will be irregular.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Moral Conviction" Published Online (Early View)

Here it is.

Rousseau's Isolated Savage

I'm reading Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality for the first time in several years (preparing for a Humanities course). It strikes me that his conjectural history of the development of humans has a fatal flaw: the assumption that humans first existed as solitary beings. (And he seems to mean this quite literally; once we can fend for ourselves, mother cuts us loose (dad didn't stick around), and we're off to forage on our own in the vast world.) This seems quite Cartesian and artificial, and I wonder whether anthropology now would simply refute this story. He sees dependence on others as the greatest of evils, but he seems thereby to be reading his own individualism back onto "man in his natural state."

I haven't yet figured out just what this implies for the rest of what he says, but it seems like a serious problem. It seems like one could get at the origins of inequality by looking at the history of the division of labor, without this quaint, and what seems to me implausible story about isolated "man" who needs no others. Thoughts?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Humility & Moral Disagreement

Here's a little something I've been working on, a mashup of (something like) "virtue ethics" and epistemology of disagreement, as it were. I guess that's what some people mean by "virtue epistemology":
Abstract: Intellectual humility involves acknowledging one’s position as one among many, and one’s limitations and fallibility as a perceiver and knower. On controversial matters, the intellectually humble person would, it seems, be disinclined to treat her own beliefs about those matters as more likely to be correct than the beliefs of her epistemic peers. But then it would seem that an intellectually humble person would be disinclined to have strong convictions about controversial moral matters—controversial in the sense that epistemic peers are inclined to hold different and conflicting positions about those issues. I suggest that things are not as they seem, and that a person can maintain intellectual humility even while holding to those convictions with which she most deeply identifies and to which she is strongly committed.
Comments appreciated, as always. (Thanks to the EKU College of Arts and Sciences for giving me money this summer to work on this.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011


What if I take a stand, and fail? What if nothing changes, or I only end up looking like a fool? What if I am wrong? (There's an interesting discussion about this latter question in connection with some comments Parfit makes about how he has wasted his life if his view of ethics is wrong.)

Duncan Richter raises worries about failure in connection with taking a morally courageous stand (here and here). For example:
Now, someone might think that it is enough to try your hardest, but I'm not so sure about this. Wouldn't a saint or a genius (think of someone like Socrates) somehow know or see how to express the right way to view the situation, and hence to make the injustice manifest to everyone? At the very least such a person might become a martyr. What if your efforts are simply laughed off, or brushed aside? Isn't that a kind of moral failure on your part? Maybe not, but I think it might weigh on your conscience.
I think it would weigh on me. Would it weigh on my conscience? Perhaps to the extent that I thought I had gone about things wrongly, e.g. taken the wrong route. But the difference between being a martyr and a laughing-stock may just be perspectival. (I have students who seem to think Socrates was a fool.) In my paper on moral courage, I talk about how the notion of a "lost cause" is vague, and that in some cases, the cause may be primarily internal. This might be connected with what Duncan says about being honest. Did Anscombe think that she could halt Oxford's awarding of the honorary degree to Truman? Perhaps she had to think that there was at least a chance. I'm not sure. The point of speaking out might just be to speak out, not to be a silent dissenting minority (though in part because one often doesn't know in advance what kinds of heart-stirrings speaking out might effect).

I was reading last night about Bob Taft (the President's son) (in JFK's Profiles in Courage). In 1946, with himself in position for a Presidential run in 1948, Taft made a speech at Kenyon College called "Equal Justice Under Law," in which he said the following about the war crimes trials in Europe, ten days before the convicted war criminals were to be hung:
I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret.

In these trials we have accepted the Russian idea of the purpose of trials--government policy and not justice--with little relation to Anglo-Saxon heritage. By clothing policy in the forms of legal procedure, we may discredit the whole idea of justice in Europe for years to come.
The constitutional basis for Taft's position was simple, that the war crimes trials "violate the fundamental principle of American law that a man cannot be tried under an ex post facto statute (viz., in this case, a crime against humanity). Whatever one makes of Taft's position (though I think he makes an important point), the timing of it was prudentially ludicrous (given his political aspirations), and there was no chance saying these things would halt the hangings. Why do it? Wasn't Taft destined to fail?

The [correction: Austrian-born] writer Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Nazis (and who chose the path of resentment over that of forgiveness), once said, "I'd rather be a witness than be convincing." I don't think he's saying that being convincing doesn't matter. Rather, the primary point is that of being a witness. I think we can only understand what Taft is doing (unless we think he was just some kind of raving egomaniac) in those terms. I think we could see politicians who vote their conscience, against all unpopularity and knowing in advance that they are on the losing side, in this way. (Some of them, at least.)

Still, what if I fail? It takes moral courage to stand up, but the "being heard" part is only partly something one controls. One cannot force others to hear. And so there will always be a chance of failure. When I first read Duncan's comments, I was inclined to say that too much concern about practical failure might reflect an excess of pride in the sense that the person who fears failure too much is perhaps not just afraid of failure, but too proud to risk looking like a fool. Or perhaps too self-conscious. But bearing witness isn't about oneself. It is, in some ways, about the world as a whole. And perhaps in some ways about taking the chance that one's witnessing will penetrate the public consciousness, perhaps only to be better understood by later generations. (So, then, one might bear witness for the sake of posterity.)

Per Bauhn, in The Value of Courage, talks about the "courage of creativity" as a form of optimism, bolstered by the acquisition of practical and creative skills, which allows one to overcome the fear of failure. So I think that Duncan is right to suggest that a wise person might have a greater chance of success in being heard than someone lacking in the wisdom of creativity. This is something important we might keep in mind as teachers, that we need to teach our students how to express themselves, how to have a voice which they can apply to their own projects and battles, so that they can come to know how to speak for themselves. I might then counter Duncan's worries by suggesting that if I have honestly and fully spoken for myself (and acted accordingly), then that is all I can do. The rest, as the Epictetus would say, is not up to me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Aristotle on Courage and Revenge

Here's something I ran (back) across while looking over Aristotle's chapters on courage in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics:
Passion also is sometimes reckoned as courage; those who act from passion, like wild beasts rushing at those who have wounded them, are thought to be brave, because brave men also are passionate; for passion above all things is eager to rush on danger, and hence Homer's 'put strength into his passion' and 'aroused their spirit and passion and 'hard he breathed panting' and 'his blood boiled'. For all such expressions seem to indicate the stirring and onset of passion. Now brave men act for honour's sake, but passion aids them; while wild beasts act under the influence of pain; for they attack because they have been wounded or because they are afraid, since if they are in a forest they do not come near one. Thus they are not brave because, driven by pain and passion, they rush on danger without foreseeing any of the perils, since at that rate even asses would be brave when they are hungry; for blows will not drive them from their food; and lust also makes adulterers do many daring things. (Those creatures are not brave, then, which are driven on to danger by pain or passion.) The 'courage' that is due to passion seems to be the most natural, and to be courage if choice and motive be added.

Men, then, as well as beasts, suffer pain when they are angry, and are pleased when they exact their revenge; those who fight for these reasons, however, are pugnacious but not brave; for they do not act for honour's sake nor as the rule directs, but from strength of feeling; they have, however, something akin to courage. (NE, III, Ch. 8)
The mention of revenge is what first caught my eye, then I had to go back and re-read the first paragraph. (This discussion is of one of five "semblances" of courage Aristotle discusses.) Then I notice the line that such passionate action seems "to be courage if choice and motive is added." This would make it seem that a more pre-meditated form of "revenge"--what we might properly think of revenge, rather than an unreflective striking back--is, or at least seems, courageous.

This paper by Krisanna Scheiter is very helpful in clarifying what Aristotle means by revenge and what its function is (and that Aristotle would have thought that revenge can take immoral forms). However, she argues that the primary function of revenge (and suggests that this can be seen in Aristotle) is to "right a wrong and to ensure that we are not treated unjustly in the future" (2). I'm not sure how well this fits with Aristotle's claim above that the brave person acts "for honour's sake," since this would suggest that the brave person who engages in an act of revenge does it to restore (protect?) "honour."

Scheiter marks a clear distinction (for Aristotle) between punishment (done for the sake of the wrongdoer, to improve him) and revenge (done for the sake of the wronged, to ensure that they will not be wronged by this person again). So perhaps the idea is that revenge sends the message that one isn't to be f*cked with--and perhaps one's honor is bound up with that 'not-to-be-f*cked-with-ness'. (This would seem to suggest that revenge would only be appropriate when the wrongdoer hadn't already figured that out and/or the person remains a threat. Otherwise, there's no honor, or presumably bravery, in exacting it.)

One interesting point she makes toward the end of the paper is that, "on Aristotle's account, revenge does not have to be severe or violent in order to be effective." That makes me wonder whether there could be a form of "revenge" which, at the same time, doesn't violate Socrates' claim (in Crito) that it's wrong to wrong another, even if we have been wronged (and maybe even if it is violent). It seems this way because it seems like "revenge" here is something like preemptive self-defense. But then it doesn't exactly seem like what we might normally call revenge.

Apply to your favorite cases. Discuss.

Moral Courage and Facing Others (Take Two)

Draft here. Abstract:
Moral courage involves acting in the service of one’s convictions, in spite of risks of social punishment. I suggest that moral courage also involves a capacity to face others as moral agents, and thus in a manner that does not objectify them. A moral stand can only be taken toward another moral agent. Often, we find ourselves unable to face others in this way, because to do so is frightening, or because we are consumed by blinding anger. But without facing others as moral subjects, we risk moral cowardice on the one hand and moral fanaticism on the other.
Comments appreciated, though several people who comment here have already helped a lot, so thanks for the ideas, examples, and references!

I've become increasingly interested in the question of revenge (there are a couple mostly passing references to this in the paper), so I might try to do some more thinking about courage and revenge soon. Stay tuned.

[UPDATE: Minor changes/fixes made 8.11.11. Thanks, DR.]

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Facing Others As Subjects (and failing to do so)

I have long been puzzled by the common cant about President Truman’s courage in making this decision [to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. Of course, I know that you can be cowardly without having reason to think you are in danger. But how can you be courageous? Light has come to me lately: the term is an acknowledgement of the truth. Mr. Truman was brave because, and only because, what he did was so bad. But I think the judgement unsound. Given the right circumstances (e.g. that no one whose opinion matters will disapprove), a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive. ("Mr. Truman's Degree," 1956)
...let me try to connect absolutist limitations with the possibility of justifying to the victim what is being done to him. If one abandons a person in the course of rescuing several others from a fire or a sinking ship, one could say to him, "You understand, I have to leave you to save the others." Similarly, if one subjects an unwilling child to a painful surgical procedure, one can say to him, "If you could understand, you would realize that I am doing this to help you." One could even say, as one bayonets an enemy soldier, "It's either you or me." But one cannot really say while torturing a prisoner, "You understand, I have to pull out your fingernails because it is absolutely essential that we have the names of your confederates"; nor can one say to the victims of Hiroshima, "You understand, we have to incinerate you to provide the Japanese government with an incentive to surrender." ("War and Massacre," 1972: 137)
And why could one not? I'm nearing completion of a full version of my thoughts on "moral courage," and the short of it is that where one shows moral courage by facing others in a moral struggle, one must face them as particular moral subjects. If I objectify those against whom I struggle, then they are no longer moral agents--and more importantly, particular persons--in my eyes. And so the idea that I might be engaged in a moral struggle against them no longer makes sense. We don't take moral stands against mere objects, or monsters. And where our justifications objectify the other, they could only accept our so-called justifications by objectifying themselves (that is, by seeing their own individuality as not mattering from the moral perspective).

This is not to say that dragon-slaying is not courageous. But that is what we might call physical courage. By moral courage I mean the courage of the person who takes a moral stand in the face of other moral subjects (or agents). What I am trying to track with this restricted, and somewhat technical construal of moral courage is that it can be hard to face others as moral subjects, because it is tempting and all-too-easy to demonize and objectify those who threaten our our sense of what is right and good. And with that comes both a risk of recklessness, in the form of easy justifications of violence against the objectified other, and of cowardice, in the form of a failure to fully face those particular others who, because they are scary, foreign, or threatening, we cover up with abstractions. When we objectify those we oppose, we flee from their particularity as individual subjects. It is often hard not to do this.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Forthcoming: Moral Conviction

I forgot to mention/celebrate here that my paper "Moral Conviction" is now forthcoming at the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The link above takes you to the final non-typeset version. I'll leave it up while I can.

This paper/idea has gone through a lot of re-writes and reconceptualizations, and I'm glad that it's coming out: it is, in effect, where "it" all started. That is, much of what I've been talking about here and in other recent papers-in-progress is an effort to expand upon some of the themes and examine more closely some of the concepts (like integrity and humility) that I give only a cursory treatment in this paper.

In some ways, I think the paper is very basic, perhaps some will think too basic, or obvious. I guess if you feel that way, you can see it as an attempt to give what Wittgenstein called "reminders" (if that's not too presumptuous on my part!).

Sunday, July 31, 2011


From The Gay Science, Sec. 325:
What belongs to greatness--Who will attain something great if he does not feel in himself the power to inflict great pain? Being able to suffer is the least; weak women and even slaves often achieve mastery at that. But not to perish of inner distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering--that is great; that belongs to greatness.
Rob Sica brought this passage to my attention when I first introduced the notion that facing others as subjects is an essential part of moral courage, the taking of stand for one's moral convictions. This is no doubt one of the "terrible" moments in Nietzsche's work--that is, roughly, the sort of thing that the Nazis would have liked.

I don't know enough about Nietzsche's life to speculate much about the psychological motivations for this kind of statement, though my general impression is that he was a generally civil, gentle, and frail man. Perhaps there was some self-loathing here?

Whether we want to agree that what he describes is a feature of greatness, he is at least right that we do not like to look at suffering, and it is furthermore difficult, as Gaita has said, to see the humanity in another who is suffering greatly from some affliction. There is a greatness of soul in the person who can see that. (Gaita would say that it takes a saint to see it in the hardest cases, but that seems rather different from what Nietzsche has in mind.)

But what about Nietzsche's seemingly terrible point about inflicting suffering? I think it is connected to the point about, for to "hear the cry of this suffering" could be read as hearing the cry of a fellow human (or even fellow creature). It might seem that Nietzsche's great man is capable of being utterly heartless.

On the other hand, it might seem that he has a point to make that connects to what I've suggested about facing others: if genuine moral courage involves facing others as subjects, and should the stand one takes cause others to suffer (either physically or psychologically), then it is one thing to avoid facing those effects of one's actions by objectifying (or demonizing, etc.) those one opposes, and something different to remain steadfast in one's aims, while recognizing the humanity of those one opposes. As Duncan Richter has recently noted, it will be tempting to see those one opposes in abstract, objectifying terms. This, I suspect, makes it easier to justify doing terrible things to them, because this objectification allows one to act without facing the particularity (and distinct humanity) of those others. One might think that this is where the Nazis failed, though I'm not sure how plausible this is, and such a sweeping suggestion is an abstraction itself.

So, maybe Nietzsche is thinking that it is only if one can honestly face the other as a fellow human that one shows greatness. We could understand such an honest facing as being fully alive to their suffering--to how bad it is, not "alive" in the sense of enjoying it. In many cases, I would guess that being fully alive to it would force us to stop what we are doing, and in many cases, that might be the point (even Nietzsche's point). But then Nietzsche leaves open that one's cause could be worthy enough to overrule this empathetic engagement. And this would be part of saying "Yes!" to everything, as Richter notes (in the post above). At the moment, I can't think of a way of describing such a situation that wouldn't still leave it seeming terrible--"I'm sorry, but this is what I must do..." or, "I know you are suffering, but you deserve it..."--but perhaps that's Nietzsche's point. This is related, among other things, to revenge, and I hope to return to that topic soon (in connection with moral courage).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"I'd do anything for my children."


Today I discussed Crito with my two summer classes. Lively discussion. Most of those sympathetic to Crito's view that Socrates should escape are most impressed by Crito's complaint that if Socrates refuses to escape, he is betraying his children.

Beyond the considerations raised in the dialogue--including that Socrates could have his friends care for his children--I tried to get the students to think about this from the future perspective of Socrates' children: if he escapes, might his children lose respect for him, to think that he is a hypocrite? Might they learn from him that doing what one thinks is right isn't important when there's a threat of punishment?

What about cases where a person does something shameful, or even abhorrent, because "the children must eat"? At least one person in class suggested that those children should, when they grow out of their "childlike views," be grateful that they are alive and that their parents did what was necessary to feed and support them. Is that true? Would it be wrong to resent what one's parents did, or to feel that one's own life is tainted by the shame of what they did. Suppose a child says: "I cannot bear to live with the fact that I am only alive because of the terrible things you did." Is that unreasonable? Must one be grateful? (One might understand, but understanding is not acceptance.)

Of course, some people seem to take the position that there isn't anything shameful about doing what is necessary to care for one's children. What might be shameful if done for other reasons isn't so if done out of love for one's children. No doubt there can be dilemmas, but should we believe that doing the thing for one's children automatically removes the shamefulness? If nothing else, I doubt that in every case it is psychologically possible to buy into this, unless one has no sense of shame at all. (That is, there will be something which, even if done for one's children, will leave one with a sense of shame.)

Someone might say: "Then you must not really love your children." I recall this response being made on a comment thread about the possible parole of Michael Woodmansee (who committed a terrible murder)--that the person who does not see the point of killing Woodmansee (as the father of the victim said he would, were Woodmansee to be paroled), of exacting that revenge on him (were he to have killed one's own child), fails to have true love for his children. (I discussed this briefly here.) This strikes me as completely wrong, and perhaps a bit hysterical. It at least begs the question against the person who rejects revenge as a matter of moral principle. Apply this to Socrates' case: "you must not really love your children if you refuse to escape."

This seems like an attempt to make Socrates' principled stand seem merely selfish. Wouldn't that make taking any moral stand, at the cost of incurring risks to oneself, merely selfish (if one has children to care for)? That can't be right. This idea that we should do absolutely anything for our children seems absolutely dangerous. And it points to an important way in which love for one's children can be a source of great temptation.

In a way, I'm tempted to think that just as Gaita says he has never met anyone he credits with actually believing that "meat is murder" (even if they say it), that anyone who says, "I would do anything for my children," has not really thought about what "anything" includes, and so can't be credited with believing what they have said. But I'm not so sure. Maybe some people do believe it and understand exactly what it entails. Is that love? Or: is that the kind of love we should teach our children? Is it not simply to teach them that, deep down, anything goes?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Omnipotence & Evolution

I just got done going through some student homework responses on the argument from design. I posed the following: "True or False: Evolution is inconsistent with the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe." Mainly, I did this as a way of seeing what people know about evolution and where they are coming from.

Of note is that a considerable number of students conflate evolution with the theory of spontaneous generation (and so, as it were, run together cosmological and teleological issues). Keep that in mind (if you didn't already) the next time you discuss this.

I don't have any particular axe to grind on these issues, except that I am, as its called, an accomodationist. That is, it seems silly to me to think that evolution necessarily (logically) crowds out any sort of divine hand. Whether there is a divine hand (or whatever) is a different issue. I personally think it's silly to pit one's religions against science, and to be a strict literalist about creation. So here's a new sort of response I've hit upon, to challenge those caught up in literalism to re-think what they're doing: I ask, "In saying that evolution and intelligent design are incompatible, are you saying that there's something God can't do, namely, create things through a process of evolution?" I think this is a useful Socratic move because it uses their assumption that God can do anything to reconsider their resistance. Whether it works, we'll have to wait and see.

No doubt, Dawkins wouldn't like this kind of thing, since he would say that there's no need to posit the divine hand if random mutations can fully explain the origin of various species (etc.). But again, that's a separate issue. I just want them to think about the logical compatibility issue. Thoughts about the strategy above?

Certainly, one could say: but that isn't how God did it; haven't you read your Genesis? (And of course, there's not enough time to talk about that theological issue in the philosophy classroom, in all its various permutations. I do point out that, whatever the motivation for literalism, there were plenty of saints who weren't literalists, like Augustine.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Some Good News for Moral Courage

Situationist critiques of character (as discussed in Appiah's Experiments in Ethics appeal to psychological research to challenge the idea that there are general, stable character-based dispositions. A classic case is the phone booth study (Isen and Levin (1974)), in which individuals who found a dime in a phone booth nearly all helped a person who dropped a pile of papers, whereas those who went dimeless almost never helped. So, kindness, it would seem, is contingent on situation (and perhaps mood) rather than any kind of stable character trait as kindness. One can contest these sorts of critiques on various grounds--perhaps genuine character is the exception rather than the rule, for example, and so it shouldn't be surprising that the behavior of most people varies more radically.

So here's the good news I discovered for moral courage, in a paper from The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue. If we take mood to be the factor affecting helping behavior in the phone booth study, Niesta, Greitemeyer, Fischer, and Frey (2008) (cited in Osswald, Greitemeyer, Fischer, and Frey, in the volume linked above) found that mood does not affect morally courageous intervention. This may be because the perception of a greater wrong is more strongly motivating than just the perception of something, as it were, amiss. That seems right. (This sort of action, unlike helping behavior, involves incurring substantive risks to oneself in order to intervene in the unjust (etc.) treatment of another.) The article in which the study is cited doesn't say what proportion of subjects intervened in the courage situation, and that might be worth knowing, too, for other reasons.

Some less good (though perhaps not shocking) news from the article is that while people are typically quick at recognizing situations that would seem to call for a (morally courageous) intervention, "people feel less competent to intervene than in other prosocial incidents." That's important, insofar as confidence is essential to courageous action (and where calling the police isn't a viable option...) I wish I could read German, as the authors have several works in their native language, and conduct workshops that aim to equip people with reasonable strategies which at the same time minimize risk to self (in part by finding ways to involve others in the intervening action).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Integrity, Tranqulity, and Conflict

If you have comments on my (draft) paper "Integrity and Struggle," now is the time. I've gotten some helpful feedback from an anonymous referee, and have some work to do.

In the paper, I challenge a conception of integrity that I call "psychological integrity" and attribute to (among others) John Cottingham. This may seem puzzling since Cottingham argues that either psychological wholeness is not sufficient for a good life (though it may be necessary), or "true integrity" requires not only psychological wholeness, but also an orientation to the (objective) good.

However, I think the label is apt for my purposes because Cottingham appeals often to the notion of psychological wholeness in articulating integrity before turning to the question of whether integrity is sufficient for a good life. He reads the Psalmist's prayer for an "undivided heart" as a desire to attain sufficient psychological wholeness (or order, or unity) in order to be capable of orienting oneself wholeheartedly to the good.

The bone I have to pick is not with the desire to be oriented toward the good, or with the idea that the good is something transcendent of our own desires, projects, or commitments. (Here, Cottingham argues against the notions of integrity and authenticity flowing from the work of Williams and Frankfurt, or against the notion that authenticity or wholeheartedness itself is sufficient for a good life.) Rather, it has to do with the attitude Cottingham takes toward conflict and struggle. The person who struggles against temptation may show fortitude, but not integrity--the struggle reveals a lack of full integration. There is, I agree, something to this, and on the other hand, Cottingham acknowledges that the person of integrity is not an "angelic zombie for whom there are no hard questions" (p. 8).

However, while Cottingham rightly acknowledges that cultivating integrity involves a great deal of self-understanding--among other things about the sources of desires that give rise to conflict, or which threaten to lead us down paths which are reasonably seen as temptations--my sense is that Cottingham too easily assumes (or hopes, as he suggests at the end of his paper), that full integrity culminates in a kind of tranquility which contrasts strongly with our typical existence as "conflicted beings," which is part of our "lot as flawed creatures" (p. 13).

Perhaps. But my basic question, and challenge, is: why can we not allow that integrity could involve a deep understanding of oneself that recognizes--and perhaps in some cases, embraces--the conflicts that are part of self and life? This is not to suggest that we celebrate conflict for its own sake, or do not seek integration where possible (perhaps resulting in new creative discoveries or possible ways of living), but without being lured into the tempting thought that a kind of Stoic tranquility in all things is where we should, after all, be heading. If we are essentially conflicted beings--which we could see in the positive light of our being attracted to many positively good things, and not just conflicted in the negative sense of being prone to immoral temptation--then that aspiration for a tranquil reconciliation and resting place is unreachable, unrealistic, a desire to be something we are not, and yet another instance of yearning for a kind of "living death."

I'm not exactly saying, contra the last point, that we must rage against they dying of the light, either. Rather, I mean roughly that we grow through our struggles, and may take the particular challenges and even afflictions life throws at us--which we may overcome or may have to contend with for the duration of our lives--to be the very things through which our integrity (or lack thereof) is manifest. This has to do with what Gaita calls facing our situation in an "uncompromising spirit of truthfulness," and I think we can do that whether or not it results in the elimination of conflict. Facing our situation in a spirit of truthfulness, we may discover the limited extent to which psychological integration is possible for us. (Think of the cases in my paper in which I discuss addicts and people with multiplicitous identities, for example.)

It might be thought that Cottingham is right after all, and that while such cases will require great (and perfectly admirable) fortitude (or courage)--including the courage not to give in to despair--such conflicted, fragmented lives are not what we desire when we aspire to greater integrity. Certainly, they may not be the kinds of lives we would desire (or trade for), but there are perhaps other kinds of admirable lives that, in that desire for tranquility, we would prefer to admire from afar (the tormented artist and so forth). Nevertheless, I agree with Gaita (and need to find better ways of articulating this) that a conflicted life can be lived with integrity. This may depend upon the fragmentations not being too deep, or upon their not making reflection and self-understanding impossible. And such people would presumably have some sense of who they are and aspire to be, and recognize giving into certain temptations, or making certain self-compromises, as inconsistent with that. But if we begin with conflict, and not all conflict is bad, then integration is not simply the elimination of all possible conflicts within the self. Cottingham might agree with this.

I can agree with Cottingham that it involves attempts to bring, as far as possible, one's first-order desires and dispositions in line with one's second-order desires (or, one's values), to understand hidden or repressed motives and so forth. And so integrity would rule out certain kinds of temptation (if by temptation we mean actually deliberating about doing or taking what tempts us, and not just being aware that it has a kind of pseudo-attractiveness that our own values rule out as giving us a reason to fully consider it). So then where is the difference between us? Perhaps in this: that at the end of his paper, he hopes for tranquility, and (again) sees that as the culmination of full integrity. Whereas I would picture things as: making something grand or beautiful or meaningful of our struggles, on the basis of some guiding principle or ideal (and, again, I agree with the spirit of Cottingham's views about the good), though I would see the hope for a kind of tranquility itself as perhaps (or sometimes) a temptation to be overcome, and at least as unnecessary for our taking a person to have shown great integrity in how she led her life.

While some degree of psychological wholeness thus matters even here, I contrast Cottingham's "psychological integrity" with what I call "practical integrity," since the accomplishments I associate above with integrity are not just psychological accomplishments, but practical accomplishments that outshine the inner struggles from which they were born, and yet without which, they might not, in many cases, have existed at all. (I'm thinking for example of people whose testaments of their own struggles with addiction and to maintain sobriety can reveal the kind of spirit of truthfulness Gaita mentions, as well as steadfastness in the face of forces difficult to control, and who, among other things, make themselves living examples of what is possible for others facing similar problems.)