Saturday, October 7, 2017

New music

I usually have an album or two of the summer, if not here then on my phone. But Saint Etienne being Betjeman-ish didn't seem to warrant a blog post, and Alvvays didn't release their new album until September. Now, though, there are a coupe of albums that seem worth spreading the word about. One, not quite out yet, is by Makthaverskan, who usually sound like an idealized version of Siouxsie and the Banshees but here sound more like Alvvays.

The other tests the hypothesis that the more people are like me the more I like their music. The Granite Shore are middle-aged Brits who have done a whole album of moaning about Brexit. Not very promising, perhaps, but I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks, and I like the rest of the album too. (Fun fact: Phil Wilson, formerly of The June Brides, is in the band, made this video, and once emailed me. End of brag.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why I write such terrible blog posts

[The title of this post is a reference to Nietzsche, not self-deprecation.]

At Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser provides useful advice for anyone considering starting a philosophy blog. Here's his advice, in a series of short quotations:
  1. the first thing to reflect on is who are you, or do you imagine, writing for?
  2. The hardest problem is to figure out what persona you will project in order to connect with your audience given the ideas you want to discuss.
  3. You should really research different kind of blog providers--not just their fee structures, but also their permissible templates, the capacity of the templates to do what you want to do with the blog, and the explicit restrictions of speech they impose.
  4. The most important point about frequency is that it needs to be fairly regular--certainly while you are developing your blog and audience.
  5. write a good comments policy, so you can re-direct the aggrieved to it.
  6. it's good to set some rules for yourself about when you post and when you check comments (etc.)
  7. if you use a blog to develop new ideas or new interests, you run the risk of looking like an amateur or worse. 
This blog doesn't check too many of these boxes:
  1. I really don't think about this kind of thing much. Mostly I write for "people like me," whoever (or whether) they might be
  2. Ditto
  3. I use the one that was free and easiest to use. I have no regrets about that so far
  4. When I started I tried to post something every day. I haven't managed to sustain that, which is probably just as well. I do try to post something every week, and I don't mind posting trivial things (because it's only a blog) but I never post just for the sake of posting something. 
  5. I haven't done this, and haven't felt the need until recently. I delete spam and the remains of comments whose authors have deleted their content, but I haven't yet deleted anything else. Perhaps I should, but there's something to be said for not destroying evidence. It's also not clear to me whether not feeding the trolls is better served by deleting their comments (could that be a form of feeding?) or ignoring them completely.
  6. I don't do this, although I do sometimes avoid looking at the blog if I don't think I have time to reply thoughtfully to whatever comments might be there.
  7. I'm pretty sure I run this risk. Caring about how you look makes sense in a job interview, but it doesn't seem very philosophical. And I'm pretty sure that there aren't any great jobs that I would have been offered if only I hadn't written that stupid thing online.     
Schliesser's advice is genuinely helpful, I think, but mostly for people aiming to attract a big audience. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Winch on Understanding Other People

A revised version of the paper I was working on in the summer is now available here, for anyone interested. I haven't managed to take all suggestions into account, but I think it's at least an improvement on the previous version.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God, virtue, and moral absolutes

This sounds good. Here's the call for papers:
I am currently organizing a conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal paper "Modern Moral Philosophy." Our four confirmed keynotes speakers are:

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame
Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes
Rachael WISEMAN, Durham University
Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

While we, the organizing committee, have a preference for submissions from current graduate students, we will consider abstracts from anyone interested.

Please feel free to pass on this information to anyone interested in ethics, moral theology, political philosophy, legal theory, etc. More specifically, please consider spreading the word to departmental grad student lists. See here for details:
http://nanovic.nd.edu/events/2018/01/21/conference-modern-moral-philosophy/

All presenters will receive a private hotel room for two nights during the conference as well as a small stipend of up to $150 to help defray documented transportation expenses. There is also a limited fund to further assist those who may be traveling from abroad. Such funds will be awarded upon request, based on availability. 

Submissions received by the October 1st deadline will receive full consideration, but we plan to continue considering applications until November 1st, or until all spots are filled.

Best Wishes,
Kevin M. Scott
University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 22, 2017

Augustine and Wittgenstein on the Will

I have a draft of a paper on this subject at academia.edu. Comments (or constructive criticism, anyway) are welcome.

Here's the gist:

In Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (p. 593) P. M. S. Hacker writes that:
one cannot will voluntarily, cannot will to will. But that does not mean that willing is like the subsiding of the thudding of one’s heart – something that just happens to one. What it means is that willing is not the name of an action at all. And to say that one cannot will voluntarily, or will to will, is not to say that it is beyond one’s powers, as wiggling their ears is beyond most people’s powers, but rather that it is senseless to speak of willing.
The last part of this ("it is senseless to speak of willing") strikes me as clearly wrong. And the idea that willing is not the same of an action seems pretty dubious too. At least it sounds like a claim that might be debated. And I don't think of Wittgenstein as being in the business of putting forward such claims. So the questions that motivate the paper, although I don't present it this way (maybe I should), are really: How has Hacker arrived at this point? Does his thinking match Wittgenstein's? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Augustine, whom Wittgenstein mentions in connection with some of the thoughts that Hacker is attempting to explain.

The questions I have about my paper are mainly these (in order of concern, from most to least):

  1. Do I misrepresent Hacker, Wittgenstein, or Augustine?
  2. Is what I say comprehensible and easy enough to follow?
  3. Is this of any interest? 

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Bees

Tolstoy (War and Peace First Epilogue, Chapter IV):
A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.
All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life.
Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 29e):
I can say: "Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you"; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: "Thank them because, look, how kind they are!"--since the next moment they may sting you.
Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations 119):
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.