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!).