Monday, December 28, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Idea of the Cannibal

...discussed by Catalin Avramescu in an interview for Philosophy Bites.

And don't forget to read the book!

Stay calm, folks. It's just a thought experiment.

(I mention this just because the idea of cannibalism has found its way into some of my recent work here.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Homosexuality in Uganda

This news about proposed anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda came to my attention a couple weeks ago and I've been stewing about it. This report, which allows that the proposed bill goes "too far," inadvertently (guessing by the source) shows just how bad the problem is. Homosexuality is unproblematically associated not only with sexual promiscuity, but more importantly with proclivities for rape, abuse, and pedophilia. All of that is sloppy and dangerous nonsense.

As for the point that the proposers of the bill were concerned with "the many male homosexuals coming in to the country and abusing boys who are on the streets," well, maybe one should just be concerned about abuse and rape in general and enforce laws about that? (What an idea!) (And maybe one should think about getting boys--and girls--off the streets where they are vulnerable sexual violence of any sort from any person...)

Job Market

'Tis the season to be thinking about the job market, APA interviews, etc., as I'm constantly reminded by the posts showing up on my Google Reader list. I spent two years devouring (and medicating myself on) these postings and discussions, and it's hard to break the habit now even though I'm not looking for a job. I'm very lucky to have gotten a tenure-track job last year, given that the market looks worse this year, and I feel for everyone who's on the hunt.

I wish I had some great advice, but my impression is that general advice is pretty easy to come by, the stuff that is truly good advice is often fairly obvious, and beyond that, you have to simply work whatever your strengths (and other advantages) are. And beyond "being yourself," it would be good if "yourself" has the trappings of someone who appears to be a good (potential) colleague, an interesting scholar, and a promising teacher.

All I can suggest, from my own case, is not to despair--especially those who don't come from a land of (the oft-discussed and alleged application filter) "pedigree": it's not a delusion that you can find your way into a job through hard work and persistence, even if you come from a small school or program. If that wasn't true, then I wouldn't have a job. Stay focused, and if you must, read some Epictetus.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Moral Reflection and the Undiscussable

Here's something I've been working on. Here's the abstract:
In a recent interview about torture, Raimond Gaita has suggested that there are some things that are—or perhaps, should be—“undiscussable.” This paper seeks to unfold Gaita’s ideas about why some things are undiscussable, and, by way of illustration, to suggest that the use of the ticking-bomb scenario as a frame for recent discussions of torture may lead us away from sober moral discussion on this issue. The treatment of this particular example points to some general concerns about the use of thought experiments in ethics, especially those that appeal to fantastic and desperate scenarios. For it is not entirely clear what the real world implications of discussions (and intuitions) about such scenarios should be, or whether discussion of such cases can simply be assumed to play a part in a sober discussion of a moral issue.
I'm hoping to present this paper at a conference in the spring, so any comments would be appreciated (or a slap, if this is all actually quite silly).

If you haven't already been hooked, there's also a tasty discussion of cannibalism to be found therein...perhaps this spring I can follow up on this and host a panel discussion at EKU: "When is it ok to eat another person?" Any volunteers?

Update (1/31/10): I've updated the link above to a more recent version of the paper.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Somehow, I find this inspirational, particularly when I recall that Hume wrote his Treatise when he was 27, and that Mill was a polyglot by (something like) 5:
Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?
From Thoreau, Walden (Conclusion)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Understanding without Agreement

[Update: The second and third links in the text below now take you to a newer version of this paper.]

I've been thinking about the relationship between understanding and agreement, specifically, about whether there are cases where we can't really be said to understand a person with whom we disagree.

I've been drafting a short paper about this, and would appreciate any comments. It's a bit compressed, but I'm hoping, if the project seems on the right track, to try to submit it to a conference or two in the spring.

Here's a short abstract:

When two people disagree about a matter of judgment (say, about a moral issue), the disagreement will often be explained in terms of psychological differences. This leaves it open that one party to the disagreement could understand the other without agreeing with her. This paper explores the thesis that there are cases in which understanding and agreement do not come apart because psychological explanation is not always an adequate way of explaining the disagreement. That is, sometimes it may be that we cannot claim to understand a person unless we have also come to agree with her.

Again, the paper is here.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Peace, Etc.

I'm currently at the Concerned Philosophers for Peace conference in Dayton, Ohio. Got lots of positive feedback and ideas on my paper, and have met many really great people.

Angela Davis
gave the keynote last night, discussing various examples of injustice and violence that get perpetuated by the American prison system. Davis, if you aren't familiar, is a "prison abolitionist." And she really means it. The interesting point was not so much the point of trying harder to understand why crimes happen, but that abolishing prison is not the same as the end of holding people accountable. Rather, it means that we could, if we face the problems, come up with much more creative and productive ways of holding people accountable than by making them invisible (by, as it were, putting them behind bars). Of course, for Davis, that is a secondary point; her primary concern has to do with the connections between prison and our history of racism (and other forms of oppression). Very thought-provoking.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Understanding and (Dis)Agreement

Here's a vignette I've been thinking about:
Pete and Vera, good friends, are having a discussion about the ethics of eating other animals. Pete eats meat, but is somewhat troubled by the arguments for vegetarianism that he has encountered. He wonders whether he has been missing something. Vera, a vegetarian, discusses the several arguments with Pete late into the night, and draws his attention, in particular, to the line of argument that she herself has found to be the decisive one. As morning draws near, Pete remarks, “I understand what you’re getting at with this argument and why you accept it, but I simply don’t see things that way.”

Vera responds, “Then you don’t at all understand me.”
I think people sometimes respond to disagreement as Vera has here, and I'm wondering what such a comment as hers amounts to. Does it imply that Pete could only come to understand her if he came to agree with her? (Or, that his understanding just would involve his agreeing with her?) And if that's a plausible interpretation of what she says, does her remark make sense? Can't we understand other people without agreeing with them?

I'm working on the subtleties of this, but I'm curious what others think.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Moral Conviction and Disagreement: Getting Beyond Negative Toleration

Here it is.

ABSTRACT: Toleration seems essential for peace in any sufficiently diverse society. At the same time, no one thinks that we should (or can) tolerate everything. That there are limits to what is tolerable gives rise to a difficult puzzle to be resolved by any society in which some of the differences between individuals or groups are, or seem to be, differences in their moral convictions. Toleration of beliefs and practices that conflict with one’s moral convictions seems problematic: how can it be compatible with living in accordance with one’s convictions that one tolerate things that one judges to be morally intolerable? This apparent conflict can be resolved by showing that tolerant engagement is compatible with moral integrity, and is furthermore an appropriate relationship to cultivate with those with whom one has moral disagreements, given other basic values (of persons and of humility). Tolerant engagement can take the form of discourse, compromise, and integration. None of these activities guarantees the resolution of moral disagreements, but they provide a better starting point than more adversarial relations (such as what I call “civil intolerance”) because they encourage the development of a community moral judges rather than, as it were, a community of moral strangers.

Comments are welcome.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tolerant Engagement Redux

I currently revising the paper I'm to give at the Concerned Philosophers for Peace Conference in a couple weeks. The idea is to figure out how toleration can be squared with one's own moral convictions (and preserving one's integrity), where one has serious moral disagreements with others.

The line I've been tempted by is that it won't do to say that we should tolerate those with whom we have serious moral disagreements, unless toleration is understood as something more than restraint and forbearance. After all, why should I restrain myself toward someone I think is doing (or promoting) something I think is pretty seriously wrong?

The concept I'm pushing is tolerant engagement. We can't tolerate something if we don't understand it, and we can't understand another person sufficiently without having some (sympathetic) understanding of that person's perspective. So, we have to engage.

While revising, it's become clearer to me that (and easier to state straightforwardly why) one can't write off tolerance without writing off the virtue of humility and the validity (or however you like to put it) of the principle of respect for persons. And I suspect, as noted before, that those are fairly basic, widely shared values. And if that's right, then justifying tolerance (or tolerant engagement) shouldn't require any elaborate--or as some put it, substantive--framework of liberalism. (Much of the reading I'd done in working up to this paper seemed to suggest that tolerance does need that framework. Am I missing something that should be obvious? Am I being blinded by my own unwitting liberalism here?) The point is, it's a good thing for tolerance if it turns out to be a much more basic value--like humility (from which it flows), it's one of those things we need so that we don't act like self-righteous idiots.

(And importantly, you don't have to be a self-righteous idiot to have, and honor, your moral convictions, which is the other part of the story. I'll post a draft when it's ready.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Why are we alive?"

I don't normally mess with my daughter's head, but she's been prone to saying some rather "big" things lately. She's three and a half. So tonight, while giving her a bath, I asked her--in something of a table-turning moment--"Why are we alive?"

Without any hesitation, she responded, "Because we aren't dead."

Is that normal, of have I already corrupted the youth?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Ecological Paradox of Happiness

This is something I've been thinking about, as a new way of framing the intersection of my interests in well-being and environmental ethics. I'm calling it "An Ecological Paradox of Happiness," although it isn't, strictly speaking, a paradox. (Perhaps I should instead call it the tragedy of happiness, pace Hardin's "tragedy of the commons.")

Consider, for example, the "American Dream" of living comfortably, middle-class, free to move (and fly) where your dreams take you, settling down, having nice things, and so on. (Suppose something like that is the American Dream.) The carbon footprint of the average American is very high; if everyone on the planet lived like the average American, the result would be environmentally unsustainable. Now if more and more people pursue something like the American Dream--read: American happiness--and if more and more countries (e.g. India and China) are industrializing in ways like Western nations (including the United States), then it's obvious we're headed toward insustainability. The more people who pursue and acquire happiness [important caveat: of a certain sort], the more unsustainable global happiness becomes, and the closer we get to ecological disaster, which, of course, will be a cause of great unhappiness for many (future generations).

This leads to something that looks like the traditional paradox of happiness, which says that in order to be happy one must pursue something other than happiness. The ecological version is that it looks like in order to make the happiness of future generations possible, we should pursue something other than (American) happiness, i.e. if we want it to remain possible for future others (as well as others in other parts of the world now!) to live happily, we should give up our own pursuit of happiness.

Now, it seems to me that, to the extent that there is something that seems paradoxical here, it's actually a false paradox, and that, briefly, we don't have to give up happiness (or its pursuit), but instead certain aspects of the "American" part. In connection with this, I just finished a paper by Judith Licthenberg on "Consuming Because Others Consume," which provides some interesting insights on why people consume other than simple greed, particularly in order to maintain a sense of equality to those around them, which for most people, is (according to JL) necessary for self-respect. This is something worth bearing in mind, insofar as her argument makes it clear that the path to sustainable change is going to involve collective action (and policy) rather than exhortations to personal virtue (although that isn't particularly because not enough people are personally virtuous).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More on Body-Swapping and Gender

In Body-Swapping and Gender, I discussed a scenario I presented to my classes, where they were each asked to suppose it was possible to swap bodies (while preserving one's whole mind intact), and whether they themselves would want to to swap. We saw there that about 35% of males and 10% of females said that they would want to swap.

Today, I asked the students to predict what percent of males, and what percent of females, said that they would want to swap. Here are the results and some thoughts about them.

76% of the class predicted that the percentage of women who would want to swap bodies would be higher than the percentage of men. There was little variance by sex here. So, 76% of the class was wrong about how the survey would turn out at this basic level.

The mean prediction for how many women would want to swap was 47% (median 50%); for men, 29% (Median 25%). When we break this down by sex we get:

Women: Predict that 44% of women would want to swap (median 50%); predict that 24% of men would want to swap (median 20%).

Men: Predict that 51% of women would want to swap (median 55%); predict that 34% of men would want to swap (median 32.5%).

Interestingly, both sexes are about equally wrong in their predictions about women, although they are roughly correct in their predictions about men, although men were more spot-on. In the case of men, perhaps that's not surprising, since more of them did say they'd be willing to swap. But it's not clear how much we can trust these predictions, since they were probably in part based on comparison to their other prediction.

Nevertheless, while men were more spot-on about men, why were women just as inclined as men to grossly overestimate how many women would want to swap bodies?

Eve Browning Cole, like other feminists, suggests that in Western thought, women are more identified with the body, (the earthy, Mother Nature), and so perhaps when women were asked to reflect on their own desires here, they were more inclined the swapping of bodies as a real loss of something intrinsic to the self. But then why don't they extrapolate that to their prediction? Is it because we see women doing more things to modify their bodies (from makeup to plastic surgery), and so body-swapping would just be an instance of that?

There's a weird double-standard (or perhaps a tension) lurking here: men are not their bodies (or less likely to think that, given Western ideology about mind, body, and gender), but the body is an important "tool". Thus, if you can get a better tool, trade up. Women, on the other hand, are--or are more closely identified with--their bodies, so it's not simply an object for trade. At the same time, women, it seems, can feel intense pressure to make their bodies fit an idealized (and for most, impossible) physical standard. It seems likely, however, that this is changing, as young men feel pressure to work out and to get "buff", etc.

Nevertheless, there's a difficulty here for women: you are your body (is the implicit message of Western culture), but you need to change it, make it fit an ideal. The double-standard is that for men, this is just an extrinsic modification--not a deep change of the self. But for women, the change demanded poses as an intrinsic change: it's not that you need to make your body more, say, beautiful; you need to make yourself more beautiful (i.e. you are your body).

So, while the results of the study seem surprising, they might just go to show that the difference in the way the sexes conceive of themselves (and their relation to their body) DO fall along the lines put forth by feminist thinkers, and because of the emphasis on beauty in the West, women are in an uncomfortable double-bind.

That is, of course, rather speculative. For one thing, I asked the women in one class whether they felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and many said no. But at the same time, they agreed that women complain a lot more about their appearance. (So there could well be dissatisfaction with body, but an unwillingness to "swap" because of the stronger identification with one's body than men, for better or worse.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tiberius on Reflection (and the Self)

From the opening pages of Valerie Tiberius' The Reflective Life:
But it turns out that the rational or reflective self isn't all that good a charioteer after all. Recent investigations in empirical psychology show us that the self-conscious, rational processor is more fallible than we imagined. The rational self makes inaccurate predictions about what we'll find satisfying, is plagued by biases, and has a tendency to distraction. When we try to be reflective about our choices, we end up confused about our reasons, and we choose things we don't ultimately like. The rational self is hardly the reasonable, responsible, and prudent leader we took it to be. (p. 5)
She goes on, but you get the idea. Bad news for reflection. (And roughly, like it or not, reason is "the slave of the passions.") What to do, what to do? She continues:
Perhaps, then, we should abandon the reflective self and identify with the elephant [viz. the passions]. But this won't work either, for two reasons. First, our non-reflective, emotional selves are not the best leaders either. The most obvious problem here is that we can have passions that lead us in opposite directions, leading to a lot of frustation. Even without conflict, momentary passions can lead us ina directions that frustrate our long-term interests.

Second, it is as reflective creatures that we want to know how we ought to live our lives. People who ask questions like "What is the best life for me? or "How should I live?" are already engaged in some reflection about their lives, and so these questions need an answer that will satisfy us insofar as we are being reflective. (p. 5)
Even though reflection has limitations and is prone to certain kinds of mistakes, the answer to the several questions here can't be "stop thinking" (full stop)--or as a put it in a prior post, "Don't Think Too Hard".

That said, Tiberius wants us to reflect better, and not, for that matter, "too much." (There are times when we should just live.) Her project strikes me as very much on the right track; we want reflection to "get us somewhere we'd like to be" (p. 7). "Somewhere" seems quite apt, and Tiberius doesn't want to postulate a summum bonum for, as it were, all of humanity, but to start from our own first-person, reflective viewpoints.

However, something about these opening remarks rubbed me the wrong way, although this is somewhat a side concern, especially since Tiberius wants to consider "how to train the rational and reflective capacities we actually have so that they function together with our emotions, moods, and desires" (p. 7). What irks me is the implicit division of the self into a "reflective self" and a "non-reflective (emotional?) self," and all the Platonic and Cartesian meanings and baggage that go along with that. Not having read the whole book, I'm interested to see what else, if anything, Tiberius has to say about this division. But there is something suspicious in the implicit idea that the "real me" is the reflective self, rather than the other self, or that this is, as Descartes might have it, a "real distinction" (i.e. a distinction between two wholly different entities).

The problem, I suspect, is that we'd like to think that the "real me" is the reflective me, not the (part of) me that acts spontaneously, sometimes in ways that we don't like, on reflection. But that sort of distancing from our spontaneous, emotional lives just fosters the idea that the emotions are not wholly "us", and thus, like Plato's wild horse, need to be whipped, etc. Now, since Tiberius aligns herself with Hume, I assume she rejects the core of those ideas. (And certainly, the first few pages are just laying out the philosophical situation and traditional responses, so Ii don't exactly want to pin these criticisms on her, as much as the language with which we (philosophers) have grown accustomed to discussing and framing these problems.)

To begin with a division of the self distracts from the thought that we are one person with one life, and in those respects, one self, all of which can be more or less integrated. Sometimes we reflect, but most often we act, and experience, and respond, etc. These are all activities of a single self (barring multiple personalities, etc.), not the doings of distinct "homunculi" within the soul. Presumably, none of this is to quibble with Tiberius' direction, but it makes more clear that reflection is not some privileged activity among others, even though it is an activity that is the only one suited at all to its aim.

But what is the aim of reflection? It isn't knowledge, for emotions (and more generally experience) can be a source of knowledge. (Similarly, it can't be self-knowledge, because psychology can tell us a lot about ourselves, as can our friends!) If reflection has a distinct aim, then, it is not the production (or discovery) of knowledge, but the ordering of knowledge (or, if you want, information). This ordering is the basis for personal decisions about what's important. (So reflection, and what some would call the "faculty of judgment" are, here, related.) Whether we go on to live by those decisions depends upon a great many other things (and is connected to whether our lives are more or less integrated).

Privileging reflection (a la Plato and the rational) is like saying that one organ is more important than all the others--but they are all essential for life. (Of course, one might say the brain has a special status, is irreplaceable, etc., but that might only be a contingent fact. And at any rate, the other important aspects of "the self" are going to have a significant claim on the brain, too. So no one gets to plant its flag first!) On the other hand, it's no good pooh-poohing on reflection as if the lesson is to give up on it, because there isn't anything to replace it in our practical lives (which is, roughly, Tiberius' point).

(Thanks again to Pamela for reminding me of this book! I'm likely to have more to say on this book as I read on...)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Body-Swapping and Gender

In my intro to philosophy classes, we've been discussing Descartes' dualism and are about to look at an article by Eve Browning (Cole) that considers feminist critiques of the Cartesian project and conception of the self. I had the idea to survey students about a “body-swapping” scenario; and gave them the following to consider:
Suppose that it was possible for you to trade out your present body for a different one. And suppose that you get to pick from some selection of bodies. Your mind would be transferred to the new body, with no loss of memory, thought, mental ability, etc. (Your mind and its contents would be preserved wholly intact.) The only thing that would change is the body you inhabit. The trade will be permanent, in that your present body will be discarded once the mind-transfer process is complete. Would you want to trade in your present body for a different one?
They were asked to check yes or no, and I also asked, “If you checked yes, would you choose a male or female body?” I also asked them to report their gender.

The results are intriguing (to me and a female colleague of mine, at least). 35% of males (11 out of 31) checked “Yes”. By contrast, only 10% of females (3 out of 30) , checked “Yes”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NO ONE who checked yes said they would choose a body of the opposite sex. Obviously, the disparity between males and females who checked yes needs explaining. Do they show that young men are more prone to body-dissatisfaction than young women? That men are less likely to identify as closely with their own bodies? (That would explain willingness to swap bodies, but wouldn't seem by itself to explain why any particular one would swap.) That men are less “risk-averse” (or more adventuresome)?

Environmental Vegetarianism

EKU (Eastern Kentucky University) hosts a series of lectures called the Chautauqua Lectures, and I attended the first of the season on Tuesday, given by marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

In addition to bearing witness to the enormity and beauty of what's below the surface of the oceans (and hammering home the mantra that the earth is really blue, not green!), Earle touched on the problems of commercial fishing and how it is depleting populations of various (edible) sea critters, and pointing out how these practices have numerous negative impacts on these ecosystems. (And since ocean life generates a significant amount of the oxygen we breathe, it's not just a problem for the fish, etc.)

This got me thinking again about something I've been thinking about already: the ecological considerations supporting vegetarianism. I located a nice paper which states the issue clearly: "An Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism," by Peter Wenz.

Peter Singer's arguments for vegetarianism have never quite worked for me, not because animal suffering isn't bad, but precisely because there's nothing wrong with eating an animal that lived a decent animal life. (Of course, he would say that most of the meat that's readily available isn't from animals that enjoyed such privilege.) I'm still mulling over Cora Diamond's very different approach, which, roughly, involves the thought that seeing other animals as our kin should lead to the further insight that we shouldn't eat them: we don't eat our kin (see "Eating Meat and Eating People," Philosophy, Vol. 53, No. 206 (Oct., 1978)). I've yet to read a recent essay by Stanley Cavell that engages Diamond's ideas (as well as John McDowell's response), but it's on the shelf, waiting.

Nevertheless, I tend to find the ecological considerations most compelling. Waste not, want not, or something to that effect.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Sweeping Claim About (and Plea to) Philosophy

This is rather sweeping and (too?) grandiose, but it's the best I've got at the moment--painted in broad strokes--on a possible worry about the interest in how bad we are at lots of (important) things (or misunderstandings about the implications of such study). From some work in progress:

"If philosophy is conceived of as an entirely (and negatively) critical activity, then philosophy will be regarded as an enemy of life-affirming inspiration and a hazard to conviction. There have, of course, always been some who issue warnings about philosophers, but often not for intellectually honest reasons. Are these warnings always incorrect? There is a trend in some recent philosophy, particularly that informed by empirical research in psychology and other social sciences, which might be viewed as providing new ground for a lack of self-trust. An optimistic response would be to hope that these findings can be employed in the service of more careful (and informed) reflection, rather than causing a general loss of confidence in our own emotional responses and judgments. If philosophy is to make itself (or preserve itself as) a constructively critical activity, then those working in these areas should be thinking and writing not just about our failures as reflective and emotionally guided beings, but also about how our new understanding of those failures can transform our self-conception, and improve our capacity for judgment, so that we aren’t simply left with a sense of how bad we are at being ourselves."

Is that (too?) unfair?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don't Think Too Hard (?)

Convictions, I claim, are important and valuable for the living of an integrated, self-directed, and morally good life. But some convictions, of course, as well as some ways of acting on one's convictions, are horrendous. The short of the issue is: how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? It would seem that reflection plays some important role here. In my paper on this (now undergoing revision right on this point), I suggest that, among other things, we must be willing to take a "reflective stance" on our convictions. There are, however, some serious questions to be raised about this: How much should we reflect? Should we reflect on all of our convictions? I'm currently trying to refine what to say about the role of reflection to avoid certain possible problems.

The first worry is, as Bernard Williams put it, "reflection can destroy knowledge." The problem is that reflection might lead us to doubt an entire framework within which we had (what seemed like) knowledge. But Williams' point is more severe than that reflection can destroy appearances. (In some cases, that might be a good thing!) Rather, Williams suggests that if we allow that a person who has a set of value (or virtue) concepts which she can correctly identify when they are displayed by others (or in the world), and thus can correctly apply her concepts, then she has a certain kind of knowledge. (She knows when things satisfy the value-concepts she embraces.) But if she reflects on those concepts and comes to doubt their objectivity (say), then that knowledge becomes tainted: what she does with her concepts comes to look like one game among many. Her knowledge has been destroyed.

Mill became aware of a similar problem during his mental crisis. He questioned all of his commitments and found that his belief in them was easily weakened by his intrusive self-doubts. Upon recovery, Mill had this to say about reflection (and happiness):
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, ot putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. (emphasis added)
So, it seems, don't think too hard! I've always had doubts about this negative view of reflection, even though it is true that we can raise doubts about our own lives that are extremely hard to answer.

A different worry about the reflective requirement is that it doesn't (or shouldn't) apply equally to all of our convictions. Should I really reflect on whether slavery is wrong? Do I need to examine that?

I tempted to say that it depends on what we mean by reflection here. It seems right that I shouldn't doubt my conviction that slavery is (absolutely) wrong. But that doesn't rule out there being a point to reflecting upon why. Of course, the problem here is that at some point, we reach moral convictions that are bedrock, and the "why" question no longer has an answer. But if that's because the why question no longer makes sense, then I don't think reflection is destroying anything. Reflection might show us that the bedrock lies much deeper below the surface than we thought--that many of our convictions involve taking much for granted. Optimistically, reflection can help us better understand the structure (and relations between) our beliefs. (And here, I don't want to rule out that reflection can be informed by outside sources, e.g. by findings in moral psychology, etc. I can (and sometimes should!) bring empirical data to the armchair!) A related worry has to do with confirmation bias: that reflection is just going to give me whatever answer I want. However, this is a place where knowing the risks (and flaws) of reflection can make reflection better, even if not perfect. (We can't demand perfection.)

The last worry is that too much reflection will lead to inaction. We don't want to end up starving like Buridan's Ass. But sometimes a moment of "reflective paralysis" is a good thing: it stops us from doing something foolish, or dreadful. Equally important as reflecting on our convictions themselves is reflecting upon what we are prepared to do in the service of our convictions. (See, e.g., this previous post on tolerance.) This is another place where reflection might uproot other assumptions/convictions. (For example, my conviction that X is wrong is a different animal from my views about what should be done about people who do X.) Surely it's not a bad thing to reflect upon what we're prepared to do in the service of our convictions, and to consider whether that itself can be justified. (Or on the other hand, whether we're really not living up to our convictions...)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

P.S.: Yeats

I'm starting to revise "Moral Conviction and Character." I want to send out a thanks to the person in the RoME audience who gently called me out on a misuse of a line from Yeats' "The Second Coming," which I had pulled from a quotation book early in my inspiration-seeking on the topic. The line is: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." By itself, one might read this as saying that if you're one of the best, you avoid conviction (and its intensity), or else you'll become a fanatic (one of the worst). But actually, Yeats is lamenting the lack of conviction amongst "the best." (One interpretation I quickly dug up identifies the best as roughly young intellectuals.) A lack of conviction here is a cause of passivity, and the worst, full of intensity and unimpeded, wage war. (Yeats is writing after WWI.)

It's an interesting, and important, charge to level at a certain kind of intellectualism that disengages from the world. It goes to the aim of my paper: we are often dismayed at the damage that people with certain kinds of convictions level against others, but we also admire (other) people of conviction. In comments on the last post, Rob and I have been talking a bit about reflection and whether it can be trusted. But I think Yeats' basic worry is equally legitimate--that the wrong kind of reflection (or intellectual distance) can undermine convictions that it would be good to have. The Socratic thought that we "know nothing" can lead to a kind of nihilism. But that has to be a perversion of the Socratic ideal, since Socrates himself was an exemplar of moral commitment. (There's a nice essay by George Kateb called "Socratic Integrity" which examines the balancing between Socratic ignorance and the moral integrity displayed by Socrates. The essay is in Integrity and Conscience, ed. Shapiro and Adams, NYU Press, 1998.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moral Convictions, "Absolutes," and the Real World

I'm back from the RoME Congress in Boulder, and got some helpful feedback on my paper "Moral Conviction and Character."

Julia Driver (my commentator at RoME) presented a case meant to question whether I am right to say that we stand up for our convictions in a way that we don't stand up for "lesser" beliefs: Samantha has always strongly believed that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, but lately she's been reading some work that challenges this claim (using fantastic scenarios where the utility of the causing of pain outweighs the pain caused), and as a result is no longer utterly convinced that it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Nevertheless, Samantha still thinks it's more likely that it is always wrong. So, she no longer believes with full conviction, but would still, given the odds (as she sees them), still stand up against causings of pain just for fun.

This example got me thinking about the relationship between our practical convictions and moral theory (or theories), particularly the use of fantastic (and "desert-island") cases to motivate particular sorts of theories.

Samantha's uncertainty here doesn't plausibly seem to be uncertainty about whether it's wrong to cause pain just for fun, roughly, in the real world. Rather, she's unsure of some more theoretical principle, like, "it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds (or in all logically possible scenarios)." But one could hold both (1) that it's wrong to cause pain just for fun in the real world and (2) that it's not always wrong to cause pain just for fun in all possible worlds, etc. That's exactly what some utilitarians say. (Hare, for example, said similar things about slavery.) Now there are people--call them absolutists--who find this combination of beliefs odd. (I myself have often found it odd.) However, utilitarians often use these fantastic cases not so much to figure out what we ought to do in the real world, but to deflect certain kinds of criticisms--e.g. to show how strange the world would have to be for certain seemingly unsavory actions to be morally obligatory (or ok). It's a theoretical point that in some possible world, some causings of pain just for fun would have the highest utility. But at the practical level of life in this world, that point is of diminishing interest.

So my suggestion at RoME was that Samantha could--for practical purposes--put these theoretical questions aside and thereby stand by her conviction with full force: in the real world, it's (always) wrong to cause pain just for fun. Now, if she is a utilitarian, then she needs some kind of empirical support for that claim--that is, she needs to show why it's contingently true that the actual world is such that causing pain just for fun could never have a higher utility. That, if anything, would have to be the source of any reasonable doubt on Samantha's part. (An aside: I'm a bit concerned here, however, whether we can tidily disentangle the empirical and the conceptual here...)

So, I think the take-home point is that if our moral convictions are primarily practical--that is, concerned with value and action in the actual world--then Samantha shouldn't become doubtful about her prior conviction in the face of a fantastic scenario. As Williams might say, if she does doubt it, then she has had "one thought too many."

This relates to another point that came out in the discussion of the paper: that with respect to some convictions (perhaps including the one above), "maintaining a reflective stance" on the conviction is not a reasonable requirement (which is something I've got to tidy up in the paper). Some moral claims are basic to moral thinking, and to reflect on them--that is, to reflect on whether they really are correct--would be a perversion of moral reflection.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some thoughts on the Belief-Machine

So, my noble interlocutor Jack finds the belief-machine "sinister." I agree that there would be something fishy about using the machine. The point of the idea is to pinpoint the fishiness. So, let's go.

One might say that using the machine subverts one's autonomy (or free will). But, paradoxically perhaps, sometimes "giving up control," or "letting go," is precisely what's needed to liberate ourselves from unnecessary suffering. Of course, one might say that's exactly the problem with the machine: using it is a hyperactive effort to control our own beliefs. But if we were to imagine someone who really wanted to believe something (say, an extreme pessimist who wanted to believe in the goodness of people, or just that goodness is possible...), we might think that the machine would be a quick way to relieve this problem.

A worry I have is the thought of having a belief of significance with no sense of why one believes it. One would, of course, be free to seek out reasons, but we might worry that such an inquiry would be biased from the get-go, pure confabulation. It might be thought that one's inability to adopt a particular belief on one's own is reason for thinking that one shouldn't have the belief. But the sort of beliefs I'm imagining one might have "put in" are ones that others have, and I might not understand their reasons, but trust their judgment, and so think I should believe that way, too, even though I can't bring myself to do it.

Certainly there are things about which I should trust others more than myself, and I might think of my failure to do so as a failure of character. Now, you might say that the problem with the belief-machine in that case is that it addresses a symptom rather than the "disease": it "corrects" my belief, but not the character flaw, as I see it, that prevents me from believing as I think I should.

So, is that the problem: not that the machine circumvents the need to understand why one believes such-and-such, but rather that using the machine involves circumventing the problem of understanding oneself?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Belief-Machine

Suppose there were a belief-machine that could make you believe whatever you wanted to believe. There are sometimes cases where, intellectually, we find a particular claim compelling, but our "heart," as it were, isn’t in it, and thus we can’t bring ourselves to believe it. Thus, we have what William James called "a divided self." If we want to have religion, the belief-machine can give us religious conviction. If we want to believe that eating meat is wrong, we’ll really believe it. Weakness of will notwithstanding, the belief-machine would have the further effect of changing how we behave. So upon acquiring the belief that eating meat is wrong, we would have motivation to stop eating meat (like we never had before). One thing the belief-machine does not do is provide us with reasons for having these beliefs; they simply seem "natural" or "intuitive" to us. (That doesn't presumably prevent us from coming up with reasons for our beliefs later on.) My question is: would using the belief-machine be wrong? If so, why? (We say it is wrong for others to manipulate unwilling persons, but if I am willing to be manipulated, then what’s wrong with using the belief-machine?)

(Obviously, kudos to Robert Nozick for machine-type thought experiments of this sort.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Conversions and Changing Your Mind

I've been reading about changes of mind and conversions (not just of the religious sort). My wife thinks it's all bunk (of the "distinctions without a difference sort"), but I'm not convinced. Or should I say that I haven't been converted to her view yet? There's the rub. Some of what I've read (articles by Annette Baier and Daniel Dennett) make a distinction between changes of mind and conversions, but there seem to be two different axes along which the distinction runs.

We could call one the part-whole axis: we change our minds about lots of things--plans, beliefs, etc. But changes of mind are constrained to discrete beliefs or plans, not our whole way of life or worldview, it seems. On the other hand, if I have a religious experience, give away my possessions, and dedicate myself to prayer and a life of poverty, I've converted.

This last example is one that drives my wife crazy. She says: then you've changed your mind about your whole worldview. But is that right? Conversions of this sort are so, as it were, holistic, that I don't exactly know what I changed my mind about. One could say: everything. But I don't know how to do that, even though I do have some idea what it would be to change my mind about a lot of other things. So perhaps the difference is that a lot of things still stay fixed when I change my mind--say, my overall identity. But identity seems to be the core of what changes in the case of a conversion.

The other axis is active-passive. Dennett says of Saul's conversion that Saul's mind was indeed changed but that Saul did not change it; rather, his mind was changed for him. That is, there's something passive (think of the language of submitting to God) about conversion; whereas, changing one's own mind involves a more active willing on one's part: you have to change your judgment (or plans, etc.) to change your mind. When you change your mind, you're still in charge of the change. When you're converted, something, as it were, overwhelms that control and changes you.

The distinction still seems shaky, at least in terms of the active-passive part. I might be "overwhelmed" by Singer's arguments for vegetarianism and change my mind about what I'm going to eat from now on. But I change my mind as a result of reading, and accepting, his arguments. On the other hand, I might become a vegetarian after certain experiences like visiting a slaughterhouse. Here, too, I'm "overwhelmed" but not by an explicit argument, but by my own experiences. (Of course, reading or hearing an argument is an experience, too, but what I have in mind is that that slaughterhouse experience is not as "propositional" as reading a philosophical argument.) So I'm wondering whether there might be a third distinguishing axis, roughly, propositional-experiential (or cognitive-conative (emotional)) at work here, too. Conversions can be hard to put into words. But if I change my mind about eating meat after reading Singer, I can put my reasons into words.

Maybe a simpler way to put this: if I change my mind, it makes sense to ask, "Why did you change your mind?" And if I don't have anything to say to justify the change, that looks weird (at least in cases that matter). But if I've been converted, it might not make sense to ask, "Why did you convert?" At any rate, it's going to be a very different kind of story. (And it might well be a story, rather than an argument.) (Note that the question puts the verb in active form, and if conversions involve a significantly passive element, then the question itself is not well-formed.)

So, as I've got it so far, changes of mind are more active, involve fewer moving parts, and are grounded in expressible reasons; whereas, conversions are more passive, involve a great deal of a person's psychic economy (even the whole), and are less amenable to "reason-giving." These are axes, so there's room for fuzzy cases. Does the distinction make sense? Or is my wife right?

And apologies to my wife. At the same time, her skepticism has driven me to thinker harder about all of this. I probably won't be able to get her to change her mind, but maybe I can convert her...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Is Conviction Necessary?

I've been thinking about how (and when) to have moral conviction. In particular, I've been considering something like a Jamesian defense of the idea that we can legitimately adopt (or embrace) moral convictions when we are presented with a "forced and momentous" option. (See Section IX of "The Will to Believe" for the idea.)

A colleague of mine suggested that perhaps we don't need to go all the way to conviction in such cases. Instead, we might accept one option over the other as our "working hypothesis" (by our own lights). The point is that if conviction is a form of belief, it might not be rational to adopt any particular belief between the options themselves (e.g. believing that option A is the right one), but we might accept one option as the one we're going to take, and treat as our "working hypothesis"--i.e. we're going to treat that option as if it were the right one.

(He referenced Bas van Fraassen's work in the philosophy of science as the source of this idea. It's supposed to resolve the problem of adopting certain scientific theories despite an anti-realistic view of truth in science; roughly, that there's not an "objective," theory-independent realm of scientific truth, which would make believing that one's theory itself is true sort of awkward.)

I think my colleague might be right that in some instances, we needn't go all the way to conviction. But I have reservations. Suppose I am faced with (sorry to be dramatic) a life or death sort of situation--it might involve my own life, or someone else's. I have to decide what to do, which values to honor in the case. What I said to my friend is: "Maybe I could put my own life at risk for the sake of a "working hypothesis"; I'm not sure about someone else's..." (I'm not inclined to think I'd do either.) So, I don't think "working hypotheses" are always going to cut it. Am I wrong about this? (Or am I splitting hairs?)

For a lively illustration, go read (or re-read) Billy Budd.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Suffering and Happiness (Quote of the Moment)

"Suffering is unnecessary. It doesn't make you a better artist; it only makes you a hungry one. However, to me the acquisition of the craft of writing was worth any amount of suffering. To have meaningful work is a tremendous happiness." - Rita Mae Brown

(I got hold of a used copy of the book where the Hook quote below originally appeared: The Courage of Conviction. I've only started dabbling in it, but it looks like an interesting collection. The line above is from Rita Mae Brown's contribution.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Paradox of Conviction

Here's a puzzle I've been thinking about (with qualifiers, especially about the rife usage of the term reasonable below):

1. Most of us are, more or less, reasonable.
2. Most of us have some convictions about controversial issues (and reasonable people have conflicting convictions; hence, the controversy).
3. When our beliefs conflict with the beliefs of other (equally) reasonable people we should weaken our confidence in our own belief (tantamount to withdrawing our conviction, possibly adopting an agnostic stance on the issue).
4. Thus, it would seem that reasonable people should not have convictions (about controversial issues).
5. But reasonable people do have such convictions.
6. Thus, reasonable people are not reasonable!

A. By reasonable, I mean susceptible to evidence, disinclined to take radical skepticism seriously (or a pragmatic reason for disbelief), not inclined to the preposterous view that we are infallible (or even less fallible than our peers), etc.
B. I limit "controversial issues" to disagreements between reasonable persons. So, whether the Holocaust occurred is not a controversial issue.

- Maybe 1 is false? Let's hope not! (If we aren't, to some degree, reasonable, how will we get out of this mess?)
- I'm inclined to think there is something wrong with 3, even though it looks...reasonable. But denying 3 seems tricky. One possibility is that not all reasonable people are "epistemic peers"--that is, our background beliefs might be sufficiently different to give us each independent justification for holding the particular convictions we have. Nevertheless, if I have to assume that your background beliefs are just as prima facie reasonable as mine, then when confronted with a genuine, persisting controversy, I seem to have some reason to weaken my belief.

The puzzle, in part, has to do with a way I'm proposing we understand the notion of a conviction: we have convictions precisely about those things that are controversial in the sense above. If an issue is not controversial, then it does not, on my account, count as a "matter of conviction." (It's not my conviction that the Holocaust occurred, or that slavery is wrong...but I do, of course, believe these things and am completely convinced of them.) (NB: Convictions in my sense are not "blind": the person of conviction has reasons for her beliefs.)

So the puzzle is that it looks like it is never reasonable to have convictions on the very issues on which it is possible to believe with conviction (i.e. controversial issues). So, either we're not being reasonable in having convictions or, roughly, 3 above must go. (Or maybe my working account of conviction is the trouble-maker here?) To be continued...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sidney Hook on "First and Last Things"

I came across this essay called "Convictions" by Sidney Hook (originally published here, reprinted here). The end of it is highly quotable, so here you go:
When I reflect on first and last things, I find myself believing that we value life and fear death too much. Unless we recognize that there are some things more valuable than life itself, life is not worth living.

Meaning in Suffering?

I always try to do some "life philosophy" in my ethics classes: i.e. philosophical work that engages with questions about "the meaning of life." The reader I use has a nice sample from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses his situation in a Nazi concentration camp, amidst many people who had lost hope. Their lives seemed to have lost all meaning. One of Frankl's deepest questions is whether this showed that the Nazis had the power to make a person's life effectively meaningless. Frankl thinks the answer is no, and that the few examples of those who rose above the circumstances, in their charity to others, and other acts of courage (such as just the will to fight through the day), demonstrated that even those in the camp could continue to make something of their lives: they still had the capacity for choice, despite the most severe limitation of options.

Noting that suffering--to a greater or lesser degree--is an inevitability in any human life, he makes the (wild?) claim that, "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." I always ask my students what they think that means, and I must admit that I am deeply puzzled by one answer that I hear from many students, semester after semester. (I'm bringing all this up because I'm covering this excerpt tomorrow...)

This all-too-common answer is this: that suffering is meaningful because by suffering, we can better appreciate the good things in life. (So, it seems, suffering, on balance, can increase our overall happiness.) Basically, it seems to me that it's never occurred to students who give this answer what a horrible thing that would be to say to someone who survived a concentration camp, or any other terrible situation.

I recognize that this (terrible) answer is derivative of the idea that "you can't appreciate pleasure or happiness without also experiencing pain and unhappiness." I'm not, however, even sure that's true, but even if it is, the sort of suffering Frankl has in mind surely goes beyond any acquaintance we'd need with the unpleasant in order to appreciate its opposite. (And it's clearly true that, in large part, many people who survived the camps were utterly destroyed and permanently scarred by the suffering they endured: this is not a recipe for "appreciating the good things in life.")

Another mistake students seem to make is that they seem to confuse effort with suffering. They then seems to suggest that suffering can be rewarding because of the payoff at the end. But they're really talking about effort, not (the experience of) suffering. It may indeed require effort to endure unavoidable suffering, but effort can be expended on other things, too. (Does Albert Pujols suffer when he takes batting practice?)

I take it that Frankl's point is a bit more austere than the students want to recognize. As I read him, sometimes suffering is unavoidable, but if we have something to live for (or even the hope that if we make it, there will be something better to live for), then we can make the process of enduring what would otherwise seem pointless a meaningful activity or situation. That doesn't mean suffering is good. (So put your hairshirts away...) Frankl is trying to show how we can maintain our dignity, not providing a recipe for happiness.

(I end with this otherwise depressing piece because the upshot of Frankl's theory is that we have a responsibility to create (or find) meaning in our lives. And since many of us--including, I presume, those fortunate enough to go to college, etc.--aren't faced with a life of pure suffering, we owe it--both to ourselves and to those who don't have the same open range of possibilities--to make something good of our lives. Otherwise, why are we living? Maybe that's moralistic--and I don't take to moralizing in my ethics classes--but I can live with one exception on the last day...)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tolerant Engagement

I just read an excellent paper by Barbara Herman, "Pluralism and the Community of Moral Judgment" (in a collection of papers edited by David Heyd Toleration: An Elusive Virtue (1996)). Herman explores the idea--very similar to one I'm working on (and I welcome an ally in thought here!)--that toleration can remain too static, and that the presence of moral conflict or disagreement calls instead for engagement. Working from within the Kantian tradition, Herman notes Kant's argument that "where 'a multitude of persons' live in such a way that they 'affect one another,' they are under moral necessity to enter together into civil society" (p. 75). She goes on to claim:
I think it can be argued that we are similarly obliged to enter and sustain a community of moral judgment not to secure enforceable rights but to bring about the conditions for moral development and colloquy: the conditions necessary to secure what Kant calls 'the public use of reason.'"
The general idea is that moral reflection and development are by their very nature not static, and so the "public use of reason"--where we are engaged with others on moral issues--is a necessary part of our own moral development. She tends to treat toleration and engagement as different possibilities: I can tolerate someone else without "sitting down with them" and so treating toleration as a "first moral response" to moral difference can lead to moral stultification.

I agree very much with the direction of Herman's ideas. I have been working to develop a notion of "tolerant engagement" which is opposed to "bare toleration." Herman's work would seem to raise the question as to why invoking the concept of tolerance is necessary. After all, I might engage with other's whose beliefs or practices which I judge to be (prima facie) deplorable, and that judgment might persist even after some amount of engagement with them.

In my view, the "tolerant" component of tolerant engagement is an essential attitudinal component of what makes genuine engagement possible, with those with whom we have apparently deep moral disagreements. Primarily, such tolerance takes the persons with whom we disagree as its basic object (or subject, as it were). An attitude of tolerance dictates a "softened" response toward these persons, which makes a civil discourse possible. As I hinted in my last post, our judgment that a person is mistaken (or even acting in a morally intolerable way) does not remove the obligation to honor the basic principle of respect for persons. Thus, our default position cannot be exclusionary and maintain this basic respect. (Even in the case where the person has been convicted of a criminal offense, our laws recognize this idea in its prohibition of sentencing in absentia except in specific cases where the person chooses to be absent.)

Thus, the problem with refusing to discuss points of moral difference with those whose beliefs or practices we find intolerable (or bordering on it) is not simply (or essentially) that such an attitude is intolerant. Rather, in doing so, we refuse to honor a moral responsibility we ourselves have to engage. Now, there are limits to engagement, such as when the other party refuses to do so. There, no engagement--which can include discourse and compromise--is possible, and such refusals should be regarded as morally suspect. (I ignore for now problems of power inequality, such as when a more powerful party requests a "discussion" but only if the weaker party first meets various "conditions." For now, it's sufficient to point out that the imposing of conditions, too, can be a morally suspect lording of one's power over a disadvantaged party which, for that, is not necessarily in the wrong...)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A (Non-Liberal) Defense of Tolerance?

Hans Oberdiek, in his (swell) book Tolerance, has argued in support of tolerance as a virtue, on substantively liberal grounds. In addressing some worries at the end of the book, Oberdiek accepts that it would be a mistake, in his view, to think that liberalism (of his variety) is fully neutral, and that a defender of liberalism--and along with it, the value of tolerance--should admit this. I'm not as interested in his response to these worries as in an assumption that seems implicit in his overall discussion: that tolerance itself is a distinctively liberal value (derived from the value of personal autonomy).

Tolerance is an attitude of forbearance and restraint toward others. It is conceptually distinct from the act of toleration, which, I think, is possible to do "intolerantly"--that is, I might tolerate something because I value peace more than aggression, while still judging that the activity or practice to be, in itself, intolerable. This may seem paradoxical, but I'll leave the paradox for another time. Presumably, the view that tolerance is a distinctively liberal value stems from the idea that its value comes from the way it promotes individual autonomy.

I think, however, there's a way to derive the value of tolerance from values that aren't exclusively liberal (e.g. in the sense of invoking personal autonomy). At least, they are values to which liberalism doesn't, I think, make a distinctive claim. (Maybe I'm wrong about this or misunderstand liberalism.) I'm thinking of two basic values: respect for humanity (as for example in Kantian thinking) and humility.

Now it is true that Kant prizes autonomy, but respect for humanity extends to persons who are not themselves autonomous (e.g. infants and those with severe mental disabilities). That we should respect all of humanity means that we may never treat others as mere means, but always as ends in themselves. Call this the recognition of the humanity of others (and ourselves). In itself, I don't see that this is a distinctively liberal value.

Humility has to do with our attitude toward ourselves. It involves recognizing our own limitations, frailties, and the possibility of making errors (for example, in judgment). Humility thus involves, in a different sense, the recognition of our own humanity: the recognition that we are, after all, only human--not angels or gods.

It seems to me that the value of tolerance toward persons can be derived from these two recognitions. If I am, after all, only human, then I have to recognize my own limitations; at the same time, since others are persons, too, and worthy of basic respect, humility seems to demand that I extend not only respect, but also tolerance of them as "only" human, and thus liable to (what I think are) errors in judgment and action. Where deep moral disagreements emerge, this might, for example, entail that I should try to restrain my tendency toward intolerance (and intoleration) of others where the disagreement seems fairly substantive and where I cannot (reasonably) simply dismiss these others as "mad" (say, like Ted Bundy was). I should respond to these people, as persons, in a spirit of tolerance, even if my own judgment leads me to hold that some practice or activity of theirs is, in itself, intolerable.

In a prior post, in "defending intolerance," I was thinking primarily of beliefs and actions (or practices) as objects of tolerance and intolerance. Putting this together seems to lead to a "tolerate the person, not the practice" sort of idea, which seems (to me) rather uncomfortable. That is, people are often so bound up with particular commitments and practices that these things are constitutive of their identities as the particular sorts of persons they are. I've always found the "love the sinner, hate the sin" view not entirely convincing for this reason. So there's a lot of work left to do here.

(One possibility is that if we start with persons, the value of tolerating persons may lead us down a complicated road of understanding the place of particular practices in their lives which we are inclined to judge as morally unacceptable... OTOH, a "liberal complaint" might be that this variety of tolerance is going to be too weak to pull much weight. I'll have to think more about that...)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thomson on the Perils of Exaggeration

I've been covering the abortion debate in my summer ethics class the last couple days, and happened upon an article by Judith Jarvis Thomson from the Boston Review (1995). The following two paragraphs caught my attention, given some of my recent thinking:
In the first place, those who accept the doctrine [that a fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception and thus that abortion is murder] ought not say that reason requires us to accept it, for that assertion is false. The public forum is as open to the false as to the true, but participants in it ought to take seriously whether what they say is true. There is already far too much falsehood in the anti-abortion movement. A recent newspaper photograph showed an anti-abortion protester holding a placard that said "Abortion kills;" that much is true. But under those words was a photograph of a baby. The baby looked to me about a year and a half old—counting in the ordinary way, from birth, not conception. The message communicated by that placard was that abortion kills fully developed babies, and that is false, indeed, fraudulent. Exaggeration for a political purpose is one thing, fraud quite another.

But falsehood is by no means the worst that comes of pronouncements that abortion is murder. Say that often and loudly enough, and some weak-minded soul is sure to start shooting to put a stop to it—as of course has happened, most recently in Brookline [where a shooting occurred; see the start of the article]. That is the second point to stress about the public forum: what is said there has consequences. Exaggeration for a political purpose is one thing, incitement to do harm quite another. (my emphasis)

A friend of mine also drew my attention to this op-ed from today's New York Times.

In the stuff I'm working on, which in part involves what we can justify once we've decided for ourselves that some thing is intolerable, I've argued that hateful rhetoric falls beyond the pale, precisely because it attempts to blur the line between non-violence (an exercise of free speech) and violence (via provocation). There seems to be a lot of hate in the air these days...anyone know what the remedy is?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Defending Intolerance?

I'm currently working on an essay entitled "In Defense of Intolerance." The basic idea is this: we often tend to think that intolerance must be bad because intolerant individuals often do horribly violent things. But this confuses (or ignores) that the line between the tolerable and the intolerable has nothing to do with the lines we can draw between various means of acting upon our intolerance. In my view, that we find something personally (and morally) intolerable does not itself justify violent intolerance. But that, importantly, doesn't mean we should reject our own intolerance. Some things are intolerable. And sure, just what is intolerable is often a contentious issue. But the fact that issues are contentious does not, I think, justify the view that we must therefore put all our convictions on hold. On the other hand, as I'm putting it in the essay: while I may have the right to risk my own life for the sake of a thesis, I have no right to risk the lives of others for it (especially when they are not consenting).

(I hope the parenthetical appeal to consent doesn't "go too far," as I want the basic argument to have as broad an appeal as possible. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moral Convictions and the Summer of (In)Tolerance

So, let's get this thing off to an uncontroversial start. I've been thinking about moral convictions, their value, and the problems that arise when various people have moral convictions that conflict. I'm mainly interested in thinking about these issues at the personal level, rather than the political. So my organizing questions concern the relationship between a person's moral convictions and the proper grounds for believing with convicition, as well as what a person may do in the service of his or her convictions. Thus, additional questions: Is tolerance incompatible with integrity? Does forbearance amount to an unacceptable compromise? Can we even, in a different sense, make compromises when it comes to our moral convictions? Or, on the other hand, is it ever reasonable to elevate a belief to a conviction? Yeats says no: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." That seems wrong to me.

I'm giving a paper in Boulder at the RoME Congress in August where I suggest that moral convictions are valuable for a variety of (not only personal) reasons, but that they are risky, and must be handled with care. As the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller attests. That situation, and the mass of ensuing commentary, gets at some of my key worries. How can someone who has the conviction that abortion is murder not feel compelled to "do something about it"? I won't go through all the possibilities or link to all the raging. But I'm pretty sure that the start is to see that there are HUGE disanalogies making the pernicious comparisons floating about--that Tiller is comparable to Jeffrey Dahmer, and (the perennial view) that abortion is comparable to the Holocaust--incredibly irresponsible and basically vicious. (And I'm sure that seeing that doesn't require that a person have a settled view on abortion.) Perhaps more detail later, in the event that it's not obvious. Discuss.


I guess the reason I'm starting a new blog is that, despite my deep doubts, perhaps this will be useful. I read a few blogs, often to my own dismay--especially when I have the horrible thought that perhaps I need to read the blogs that these other bloggers read. Have a look at Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" and replace "newspapers" with "blogs" and you'll understand my issues.

I've recently been drawn into this discussion (you can follow the further links there), and stand by my view that the blogosphere is a "virtual state of nature." But there are a lot of good folks out there, too, so I'll take my chances. My minimal rules about comments are that (1) I don't need any viagra (yet) so please don't advertise it here, and (2) I'll delete anything that's pure nonsense, and possibly anything that's off-topic.