Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Embarrassments of Moral Philosophy

Chris Cowley has recently published an interesting paper called "Moral philosophy and the 'real world'" at the online journal Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis. I've been meaning to mention it, but I'm still not sure what to say, except that it certainly made me think about what I'm doing and what I do (as a philosopher--which is a title that I, like Cowley, find a bit uncomfortable). Cowley offers four things which embarrass him about being a moral philosopher:
1. he finds himself unable to explain very well to ordinary people what his discipline is all about (perhaps in part because)

2. he is embarrassed that he is associated (by trade) with "the excesses of 'technicians'" and here he singles out David Benetar and his recent book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (Cowley how a work like this can be seen as a serious work of moral philosophy.)

3. he is embarrassed by the "crusading 'ethicists'" like John Harris and Peter Singer who seem to think of 'ethicists' as moral experts (perhaps, a secular moral clergy of sorts)

4. he is embarrassed by his feeling that his "philosophy and wisdom" are nothing to the beggars and the afflicted in the world, that for all his study he still "[does] not know how to deal with these sorts of people" and he seems to worry that this is an endemic problem for philosophers.
Some of this might just be Cowley's personality. And there's a sense in which he is not "fair" to Benetar (though his question is whether there is any reason to be). I don't know; at times, I'm quite sympathetic with much of what Cowley (and Gaita, from whom he draws in places) has to say about these matters. I find it embarrassing to be introduced (say, by my wife to others) as a philosopher. And perhaps it is because there is a risk that doing philosophy (perhaps moral philosophy or otherwise) can turn into comical navel-gazing. Perhaps one way to read Cowley is that when moral philosophy takes this turn, it isn't so comical, but rather shameful. Perhaps this is related to the feeling (that I have at times, as I'm sure others do) that it's important to do something that matters (something "serious" in Aristotle's sense in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics), and while philosophy almost inherently involves trying to understand and solve (or dissolve) certain kinds of puzzles, puzzle-solving itself can seem to lack seriousness as the puzzles get stranger and more abstract, and harder to bring back to the "real world." I'm sure that's why Aristophanes depicted Socrates as a buffoon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Salamander is not an Animal

This sort of thing drives me crazy, though it's pretty common in the world of legalese. Here's the definition of "animal" for all Kentucky statutes:
"Animal" includes every warm-blooded living creature except a human being.
Sorry, salamanders, frogs, lizards.

My university's animal care and use policy defines "animal" as any living vertebrate, not including humans. So at least the academy gets it a little more right, but octopi still DEFINITELY aren't animals.

(On the latter, I was told that this is the minimally acceptable definition of animals for federal ethics standards. And the biologists who do research on invertebrates have absolutely no desire for the university's policies to reflect the obvious fact that octopi (or other creatures of that sort) are animals. Paper beats rock. Paperwork trumps truth.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Dialogue with a 4-(almost-5)-Year-Old on Personhood

(The first few lines slightly paraphrased; I am being invited to play pretend)

C: You pretend to be one of the babies.
Me: No, you can be both babies.
[C gives me a funny look.]
Me: Can't you be both babies?
C: No.
Me: Why can't you be two different babies at the same time?
C: Because I only have one head.

I think she's ready for Reasons and Persons.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Courage & Facing Death

A recurring point of emphasis in my teaching partner's (Helen Bennett's) discussion of Antigone (in our Honors Humanities course) was that one way in which Antigone "missed the virtuous mean" had to do with the way in which she evinced disregard for her own life. Not that her family life was great, obviously (you've heard of her dad, Oedipus, right?). But if you read the play, there's something to the idea that she's being (or speaking) a bit reckless (even though she was doing the right thing in trying to bury Polyneices).

At the end of his discussion of courage, Aristotle claims that a courageous person is properly pained by the prospect of his or her own death:
the more he [the courageous person] is possessed of excellence in its entirety and the happier he is, the more he will be pained at the thought of death; for life is best worth living for such a man, and he is knowingly losing the greatest goods [by sacrificing his life in war], and this is painful. But he is none the less brave, and perhaps all the more so, because he chooses noble deed of war at that cost. (NE Bk. III Ch. 9)
This forces Aristotle to hedge a bit on his prior claim that the exercise of virtue is always pleasant to the virtuous person, "except in so far as it reaches its end." What I found really striking here, in connection with my previous thinking about courage here, is what Aristotle then says about the "best soldiers" perhaps being people who aren't quite fully courageous (or virtuous or happy, in his sense):
But it is quite possible that the best soldiers may be not men of this sort but those who are less brave but have no other good; for these are ready to face danger, and the sell their life for trifling gains.
This isn't something you'd want to put in the recruitment literature, but given what Silke says about the background story of many suicide bombers (see p. 183 and the citation of Kushner 1996), Aristotle's remarks have some plausibility. Of course, there's also something off-putting about this (even if it is a dark truth) when one thinks about it in connection with, for example, the reasons young people might choose to go into military service. But I'm not sure what else to say now about that.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Rhees on Humans and Animals, Take 753

Update (2.4.11): This version of the paper has been accepted for publication in Philosophical Investigations. (Hooray!)

Not that anyone is interested, but I have completely rewritten my paper, "Comparing Lives: Rush Rhees on Humans and Animals." I think I copied and pasted about two paragraphs of the previous draft. This "revision" is more focused on interpreting and motivating Rhees' ideas (and doing a better job of retrieving them from the dustbin...), and I restrict the argument against capacity-based conceptions of moral considerability to one focused section.

One thing that might interest regulars which is not at all in the previous paper: I've added an Appendix in which I discuss Rhees' diary remarks (and a couple letters) about the death of his dog Danny. This happened several years after the remarks on which I focus in the main paper, but his reaction to Danny's death, and his own sense of responsibility, are so strong and striking that I felt like I needed to say something, and draw some connections with the earlier work.

The Appendix is entitled "The Death of a Dog & Eternal Life." It starts on p. 25.

Courage & Terrorism

In "Courage In Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology," Andrew Silke suggests that terrorists can display courage. The background for this claim is what Silke describes as the tendency to see members of terrorist groups as brainwashed fanatics--crazy people--who have no feelings and so on. Almost everything Silke says against this kind of common caricature seems fine. But the discussion of courage leaves a great deal to be desired. First, Silke offers no clear account of what a virtue is besides a "feature." Silke's definition of courage specifically is pretty thin:
1. the individual perceives risk and danger in a given situation or behavior;
2. the individual experiences fear and anxiety in relation to this perceived risk; and,
3. the individual nevertheless enters the situation or proceeds with the behavior (p. 184)
Now, I've been teaching and thinking about Aristotle, and so my first problem with this definition of courage is that it doesn't say anything about "false" forms of courage--viz. rashness. Without that, as Silke acknowledges, the claim that terrorists can exhibit courage is unremarkable, since all that needs to be shown is that they satisfy the three conditions above--which he shows is often the case.

But from here, Silke questions "whether courage warrants consideration as a virtue in and of itself" (p. 195). The answer seems obvious: not if that's how you characterize courage. Or perhaps: it has no moral value in the absence of other virtues. (To be fair, this question has been discussed by some philosophers, too, but I'm not yet in a position to discuss that.) This is where the failure to consider what a virtue is reveals the relative shallowness of Silke's discussion of courage. Is courage a one-off deal? How stable must the disposition to act in the face of fears be?

I think it is a legitimate question whether we could/should withdraw ascriptions of courage because the person is acting upon a mistaken/misguided judgment or commitment. How far can one deviate in good judgment before this makes the ascription of courage problematic (and not just uncomfortable)? I'm just starting to think about this, so input will be quite appreciated.

One other thing that bugs me about Silke is the extent to which he emphasizes how "normal" terrorists are psychologically. This leads him to say: "it remains true that our enemies are capable of all the qualities of humans. They can be cruel or gentle, malicious or considerate, selfish or generous, stupid or intelligent. They can also be courageous or cowardly" (p. 195). On a few of these, I want to ask: to whom? Bat-Ami Bar On makes a powerful case, in "Why Terrorism Is Morally Problematic," that because terrorism involves terrorizing (often innocent) people, it is an inherently cruel practice. If she's right, then qua terrorists (or freedom fighters, if you prefer), terrorists cannot be "cruel or gentle."

My sense is that a lot more work needs to be done on (3) above. Or at least, an Aristotelian approach would have to say more than "nevertheless." The point above about cruelty raises a question about whether it makes sense to say that a person who employs inherently immoral means can be said to have acted with, or exhibited, courage. Recall that in Aristotle's thought, the first requirement of virtuous action is that you have to know what you're doing. And if it's true that what terrorists do is cruel, and if they are unable to see (or acknowledge) that--which some of what Silke discusses would seem to confirm (since there's a lot of abstraction away from the humanity of the targets)--then this might be a clue to why it seems problematic to attribute courage to them.