Thursday, April 28, 2011

Philosophy--I'm in it for the money

This slogan ("Philosophy--I'm in it for the money") used to be seen on t-shirts worn around the philosophy department at the University of Virginia. I thought of it when I saw the price of this book on At the time I'm writing this, it is listed here at $18,083,719.67 for a hardback copy, plus $3.99 shipping and handling. The reason is most likely explained here.

It looks like a good book, although probably too expensive (even at the normal paperback price) to make students buy it.

Monday, April 25, 2011


I should probably know more about fictionalism than I do, and that might remove my problems, but I have found myself thinking about Jean Kazez's comments on the subject several times since I read them. She writes:
I've been reading Richard Joyce's book The Myth of Morality, which is certainly interesting and very well written.  The main idea is that moral claims are all untrue--morality is a myth.  "Torturing babies is wrong" is not true, and "Torturing babies is right" isn't true either.  But no, we shouldn't banish all these sentences alike to the flames.   Morality is a myth we should hang on to.  Presumably we should hang on to the first sentence, not the second.  Joyce thinks we should continue to make believe it's true.

As I was reading this, I was struck by the fact that I am a fictionalist about some things, though not (or at least not yet) about morality. To wit, I am a religious fictionalist.  I don't just banish all religious sentences to the flames. I make believe some of them are true, and I think that's all to the good.
Let's start with the part about (what Kazez says Joyce says about) morality. If morality is a myth, aren't all moral claims false?  I'm not sure what to make of the idea that something can be untrue but not false. Especially since it is supposedly something we can make believe is true, so that it can't be nonsense either. I wonder why we should pretend that torturing babies is wrong if it isn't really? I guess I should just read the book or shut up about it.

But then there's the religion part.  What Kazez says about religious fictionalism sounds fine to me. She likes to keep Jewish traditions alive by telling the old stories every year, eating matzo, etc. "The important thing is that we keep telling the story." I don't know how future generations will feel about telling stories that no one they knew ever believed, but it works with the Tooth Fairy and Santa, so I don't see why it shouldn't. Turning to 
the subject of Christianity, she asks:

Could you find value in the story, and the yearly retelling of it, yet think at least the supernatural aspects are untrue?
I should think so.  That's seem to be what's happening in countries like Denmark, where most people don't embrace the tenets of Christianity, but still belong to the Lutheran church.  What are they doing, when they go to church for baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and funerals, but pretending there is a deity to sanctify these events?  Apparently they prefer this sort of "make believe" approach to complete rejection of religion (see here).  
This both reminds me of Britain and sounds not quite right to me. It reminds me of Britain because my sense is that when the Bishop of Durham got himself in trouble for denying that miracles like the virgin birth literally happened (if that is what he said) he took himself to be doing nothing more than saying in public what most of the clergy and sophisticated lay people in Britain agreed in private. I think that the views of people like D. Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt have been influential in Britain, which is not to say that they have been universally adopted, by any means. And while they might reject "the supernatural aspects" of religion, I doubt they would call their approach to religion "make believe."

Kazez links to this article in the New York Times about what the American sociologist Phil Zuckerman found when he interviewed Danes and Swedes about religion:
Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”
Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.
Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
Obliviousness is not pretense, it seems to me. It's in some ways closer to genuine faith. At least Wittgenstein appears to have thought that Mormons must simply not ask certain questions, and that this was a key to their faith. Zuckerman's interviewees seem also not to have asked certain questions. There might be questions that  a trained historian or scientist might ask that Mormons typically don't, and this Times article suggests that Scandinavians typically don't pursue the lines of inquiry that fundamentalist Christians do. Maybe 'faith' is the wrong word, but I'm pretty sure that 'pretense' isn't right either. It's more a kind of confidence in one's way of living, so that one simply does not think to ask certain questions that might appear to others to be fundamental. Perhaps it simply is not having that fundamentalist or literalist mindset.

Well, if in doubt, end with a quote.  Here's a great one from the Times piece:
“In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
If only everyone, religious and non-religious, felt that way. Or at least I wonder (living in the Bible belt) whether things would be better in such a world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wittgenstein in Exile

Lars Hertzberg's review of James Klagge's Wittgenstein in Exile seems about right to me. Some key paragraphs:
In all, the book is a stimulating read. The thought experiments should give rise to good discussions in class. Klagge makes fruitful use of less-known Wittgenstein material, such as notes from his lectures.
However, one may question how useful the theme of exile is as a key to the reading of Wittgenstein. After all, what philosopher worth his or her salt is not in reality a kind of exile? One senses that the notion functions as a peg on which to hang a range of topics which otherwise would have made for two books or more. However, this does not diminish the fact that Klagge has important things to say on all the issues he raises.
And from nearer the beginning:
Klagge's book is rich and varied in content, to the point of being scattered, combining biography and cultural history with philosophy (including 62 pages of endnotes). To make his case, Klagge, on the one hand, invokes facts about Wittgenstein's life, the way he thought about himself and his work, while on the other hand he discusses features of Wittgenstein's thought that may strike us as particularly difficult to embrace.
I think that Klagge takes the idea of exile too seriously for it to be a mere peg, but it's true that the book is very wide-ranging, and I can see how it might seem scattered to some readers. There are some very nice bits, which are well worth reading, but whether it adds up to more than the sum of such parts is harder to say. I'm not sure how much that matters though. It's a short book and relatively easy to read, so anyone interested in Wittgenstein (other than beginners, I would think) should try to get hold of it.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Better off dead?

 Call for Papers: Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been
Special Issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy, one of the most long-standing philosophy journals in Africa, accredited by the ISIGuest Editor: Thaddeus Metz (Humanities Research Professor at the University of Johannesburg)Invited Contributors: David Boonin (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder) and Saul Smilansky (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa)Professor David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been (Oxford, 2006) is the most intricate and careful exposition and defence of anti-natalism. Benatar argues, on the basis of purportedly uncontroversial premises, for a variety of surprising and radical conclusions about the disvalue of our lives and our moral duties in light of it. Benatar argues that no matter how much happiness people might experience during their lives, it would always have been better for them never to have been created. And from the claim that human life is never worth starting Benatar further concludes that it is almost always immoral to procreate and that abortion in the early stages of pregnancy is morally required.Contributions are sought for an issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy devoted to several facets of anti-natalism and of Benatar’s treatment of it in particular. These include, but are not restricted to, the following:

•      Precisely where is Benatar’s argument for anti-natalism most questionable? How does it compare with other arguments for anti-natalism? Do they share common premises or strategies? Which is the most defensible?
•      Is it plausible to hold anti-natalism without pro-mortalism, viz., the view that we should commit suicide?
•      Under what conditions might one be justified in creating a person whose life is not worth starting in terms of her well-being? Can it be right to create such a person for the sake of helping others? How might considerations of human dignity figure into a justification for creating her?
•      If a child is always worse off for having been created, what are the moral responsibilities of her parents with respect to her? Is compensation owed, and, if so, what kind and how much?
•      If the typical human life is indeed a net harm, how should the state get involved? Should it facilitate wrongful life suits, or discourage procreation?
•      From what standpoint is it appropriate to appraise the quality of our lives? Standpoints range from the most subjective, that of an individual, to that of ‘the universe’, the most objective viewpoint available. Is there a principled way to determine where on the scale is suitable?
Deadline for submissions: 15 October 2011. Manuscripts should be submitted electronically to Thaddeus Metz ( Those whose papers are selected for inclusion in the special issue will be invited to participate in a workshop with Professor Benatar, to be held at the University of Johannesburg on 23-24 November 2011.
I'm tempted, but I think I'll content myself with a blog post instead.

I wonder what other arguments for anti-natalism there are. Wikipedia says:
Antinatalism is the philosophical position that asserts a negative moral value judgment towards birth, thereby forming a counterpoint to natalism. It has been advanced by figures such asSophoclesArthur SchopenhauerHeinrich HeineMark TwainEmil CioranBrother Theodore[citation needed]Peter Wessel ZapffePhilipp MainländerGustave FlaubertPhilip Larkin,Chris KordaLes U. KnightDavid Benatar,[1] Matti HäyryThomas Ligotti and Richard Stallman.[2][3]
The only philosophers that I recognize on the list are Schopenhauer, Benatar himself, anMatti Häyry, whose views on this I don't know. Schopenhauer has a complicated view, though, and Larkin is not clearly against birth. He was miserable, it's true, but the most obvious bit of evidence to cite for his alleged anti-natalism would be the clearly not-entirely-serious This Be the Verse. (Proof that it is not serious: a) read the title, b) he did not "get out" as early as he could.) As I recall and understand him, Schopenhauer thinks that most individual lives are full of more boredom and pain than happiness, and so, in this sense, not worth living, but he also thinks of life itself and the life of each species as at least fascinating if not beautiful. So birth might be bad from a subjective point of view, but not necessarily from the objective point of view. And the subjective point of view is barely real on his view. In short (but not in conclusion, since I haven't argued for this), I'm not convinced that there are any serious anti-natalists other than Benatar. (My guess is that Mark Twain might have been joking.) And how serious even Benatar is has been disputed. 

Is it plausible to be an anti-natalist without being a pro-mortalist? I suppose so. Maybe. There is a difference between never living, on the one hand, and living and then dying, on the other. So one could hold that it is best never to be born but that, having been born, it is better to live on for the time being rather than ending one's life. I don't know how plausible that view is, but it seems to be a conceivable one.

Under what conditions might it be justifiable to create a person whose life is not worth starting in terms of her well-being? Conditions of ignorance, perhaps.

What compensation is owed by parents to the offspring they misguidedly bring into being? How about food and shelter, education, etc. for the childhood years? 

If human life is a net harm, how should the state get involved? The state should use its bombs to put us all out of our misery.

From what standpoint should we appraise the quality of our lives? I wonder what points there are on the scale from the individual (subjective) to the universe (objective)? A culture, society, or association perhaps? I would suggest that this is a job for the APA

Monday, April 18, 2011


[UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens is quite good on Larkin in The Atlantic here.]

Jon Cogburn calls Philip Larkin "non-spiritual yet religious" in this post. He refers also to the idea that many people in the U.S. "brag" about being spiritual but not religious. I imagine that he means Larkin is what I would call spiritual without this involving any kind of metaphysics (or what I would call metaphysics, i.e. supernaturalism, although what even that means is not exactly clear or easy to say). But I don't know. And this makes it hard to know what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious. I would guess they mean they are somewhat like Larkin or Coetzee or Wittgenstein (people who are hard to label), and not like Sarah Palin or the Pope or Osama bin Laden (people I associate, perhaps unfairly, with passing judgments and lacking much doubt). But they might mean that they prefer their own cooky metaphysics to the more carefully worked out theories of people like the Pope. And that is much less good, in my book.

I don't agree with all of it (or perhaps it's just certain stylistic features designed to broaden its appeal that I don't like), but Fareed Zakaria gets a lot right in this Time article, it seems to me.

On the other hand, I disagree with most of this, unlike, apparently, Brian Leiter and Jean Kazez. I like to think this shows how close to being a normal person I am, but it probably just proves that I'm not properly broken in as a philosopher.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Facts, science, and ethics

[UPDATE: there is a discussion of Patricia Churchland on this kind of thing here. One of the best bits:
First, in response to a Sam Harris-esque type of “science can give us answers to moral questions because values are a kind of fact,” Churchland explicitly states that neuroscience cannot answer questions such as “When can organs be donated?” or “When is an inheritance tax fair?” or “When is a war a just war?” On questions of this sort, neuroscience has nothing to say directly. To get some answers, we have to talk to each other, consider other points of view, see what kinds of consequences follow what sorts of actions, etc. Morality is a practical problem-solving endeavor, and to solve problems we must balance various considerations against each other to produce suitable — albeit not perfect — solutions.
Second, in response to a tendency to attribute universal moral intuitions to an innate moral sense or biological foundation (à la Marc Hauser or Jonathan Haidt), Churchland warns us to proceed with caution. Just because something is very common it doesn’t mean it’s innate. Making boats out of wood is common in all sorts of cultures across the world — does its universality make it fundamental to our biology? Of course not, people make boats out of wood because it floats, is available in many places, and is pretty easy to work with; it’s a good solution to a common problem. Moral problems may be solved in a similar fashion, without the necessity for an innate grammar or specific moral foundation]
There's an interesting interview with Sam Harris in The Independent.

Harris begins with the kind of claim that not only utilitarians but also many virtue ethicists might accept:
What I'm arguing is that morality, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, because they relate to questions of human and animal well-being, also entail truth claims about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that fall within the purview of science.
The part about science might give some people pause, but he specifies that he's
using the term "science" very broadly, in terms of our best efforts to make valid truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning. So history, for my purposes, is a science in the sense that we can make true or false claims about historical fact.
In fact I'm not sure who would disagree with the idea that morality relates to "truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning." Some people, no doubt, but not, for instance, Kant, Aristotle, Bentham, or Mill, I would have thought. But then things get a lot narrower very quickly:
whether we should be privileging obedience to parental authority over free expression and if so, exactly how much and when and what are the consequences of getting the balance wrong. All of these are neurological questions in the end.
Perhaps the key claim that Harris makes is this:
If we understand the dynamics of mental life in real detail – to speak particularly of our case, if we understand the human brain in real detail – then we will know how various experiences and ways of living with one another – thoughts, intentions and behaviours – affect human life.
He seems simply to identify the mental with the neurological. Although, actually, it's not really clear what is going on here. Understanding the brain supposedly will allow us to know how experiences and ways of living affect human life. Does our knowledge of the brain tell us about experiences, thought of as neurological events? Or does knowing about the brain tell us about the effects of these experiences, so that affecting human life means affecting the brain? How do "ways of living with one another" come to be equated with "thoughts, intentions and behaviours"? I would suspect a mistake by the journalist, except for the fact that the reporter here is Julian Baggini, who is philosophically sophisticated and so likely to be careful about things like this.

One last quote from Harris:
When I talk about morality I'm really talking about psychological health, and the health of societies. Can science tell us about psychological health? If the sciences of mind are, in fact, sciences, and they are, in fact, of mind, then one would hope so, at some point.
I might accept the idea that morality is (an aspect of) psychological health, but I bet many others would not. At least, it doesn't seem like an uncontroversial claim. Whether there can be real sciences of mind is also debatable, I would have thought. And there are questions about what it means to be a science (is Harris still using the term 'science' in the broad sense that includes history here?) and what it means to be "of mind". It's all reminiscent of Anscombe's claim in the 1950s that we should work on the philosophy of psychology before we try to do moral philosophy, and Wittgenstein's skepticism about whether psychology could be a science. Harris is apparently ignoring all this, and the subsequent literature.

He also seems to ignore (although perhaps he addresses it in his book) the question of who gets to define psychological health. It seems to have a moral aspect, so that serial killers, for instance, don't count as psychologically healthy even if there is nothing but their immoral behavior to count against them. And surely this is not the kind of thing that science determines. You don't need a lab (or a historical archive) to define a word.

In short, the interview doesn't make me think he has much of value to say. But I could be wrong, of course, and I wonder whether working through a book like his might be a valuable exercise in critical thinking. I'm thinking of a sort of 'lite' version of what Wittgenstein used to do with William James' writing on psychology. Or would that be a travesty?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More angry atheists

Or more about them anyway. This interview with Anthony Grayling is interesting, partly because in it Grayling says that he is angry about religion and offers an analysis of types of atheist:
Atheists, according to Grayling, divide into three broad categories. There are those for whom this secular objection to the privileged status of religion in public life is the driving force of their concern. Then there are those, "like my chum Richard Dawkins", who are principally concerned with the metaphysical question of God's existence. "And I would certainly say there is an intrinsic problem about belief in falsehood." In other words, even if a person's faith did no harm to anybody, Grayling still wouldn't like it. "But the third point is about our ethics – how we live, how we treat one another, what the good life is. And that's the question that really concerns me the most."
The secular objection referred to here is this:
The British Humanist Society has just conducted a poll that asked those surveyed if they were religious – to which 65% said no. But when asked, "What is your religion?" 61% of the very same people answered Christian. "You see, they say, 'Oh well, nominally I suppose I'm Christian.' But two-thirds of the population don't regard themselves as religious! So we have to try to persuade society as a whole to recognise that religious groups are self-constituted interest groups; they exist to promote their point of view. Now, in a liberal democracy they have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women's Institute or trade union. But for historical reasons they have massively overinflated influence – faith-based schools, religious broadcasting, bishops in the House of Lords, the presence of religion at every public event. We've got to push it back to its right size."
So one reason for "atheism" (on the face of it a metaphysical position) is this political issue, which plays out in the United States in different ways than in Britain. Here there are no bishops in the House of Lords (if only because there is no House of Lords), but very few openly atheist politicians get elected, and there is a religious presence at many public events.

But Grayling's main concern is ethical. Nietzsche's main complaint about Christianity in The Antichrist, as I remember it, is with Christian ethics, or what so-called Christians have promoted as ethics. For instance, in section 38 he writes:
What has become of the last trace of decent feeling, of self-respect, when our statesmen, otherwise an unconventional class of men and thoroughly anti-Christian in their acts, now call themselves Christians and go to the communion table? . . . A prince at the head of his armies, magnificent as the expression of the egoism and arrogance of his people--and yet acknowledging, without any shame, that he is a Christian! . . . Whom, then, does Christianity deny? what does it call "the world"? To be a soldier, to be a judge, to be a patriot; to defend one`s self; to be careful of one`s honour; to desire one`s own advantage; to be proud . . . every act of everyday, every instinct, every valuation that shows itself in a deed, is now anti-Christian: what a monster of falsehood the modern man must be to call himself nevertheless, and without shame, a Christian!-
Jesus opposes pride, greed, aggression, and so on, and yet there is little sign of his having had any influence at all on the most visible "Christians" around (i.e., basically, conservative politicians, whether openly political or presenting themselves primarily as religious leaders). So again we have atheism as opposition to a political phenomenon. And there are certainly ethical issues related to this. The Bible says little about abortion, for instance, but for some Christians issues like this and gay marriage are the most important issues of all. (I don't mean that it is crazy for Christians to think that their religion should make them oppose abortion. Only that such opposition: a) is not explicitly a big part of what the Bible says, and b) feeds the idea that others have that Christianity is a cultural or political movement rather than something more spiritual.) Or, at least, so it seems. People with more liberal views might be inclined to identify religion, and hence theism, with conservative moral beliefs.

But this leaves what Nietzsche thought of as true Christianity untouched (not that he was a huge fan of that either, but he saw it as being a very different animal). And his thoughts on the nature of Christianity are not a million miles away from Dostoevsky's (see The Idiot especially, which I believe Nietzsche read), whose thoughts on the subject, in turn, are not far from those of many of Christianity's admirers. So the angry opposition seems to be more to what might be thought of as sham Christianity, not the real thing.  God has little to do with it, except perhaps as a kind of symbol associated with the moral and political right-wing.

Part of what the angry atheists do not (appear to) object to, and what they therefore often seem to miss in their attacks on "religion," is explained in this passage from Charles Guignon's introduction to The Grand Inquisitor (pp. xxxvii-xxxviii):
What is the cure for pride and egoism? We can understand Dostoevsky's answer only if we try to understand one of the deepest strands of Russian spirituality--the immense importance accorded to "kenoticism" as a way of life. Kenosis refers to Christ's act of self-emptying--his submission to the most extreme humiliation and suffering in order to do the will of the Father. In Russian belief, this self-abasement and self-abnegation has set a model for all humanity. To live the kenotic way of life is to follow the example of Christ, accepting suffering in meekness and humility.   
Like Nirvana, kenosis has a rather negative sound to it. But this could partly be the fact that we hear it from a misguided position. Compare Schopenhauer (the last words of Book Four of Volume I of The World as Will and Representation):
by contemplation of the life and conduct of saints, whom it is certainly rarely granted us to meet with in our own experience, but who are brought before our eyes by their written history, and with the stamp of inner truth, by art, we must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as re-absorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is, for all those who are still full of will, certainly nothing; but conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world which is so real, with all its suns and Milky Ways, is nothing.  
And we should also remember the more obviously positive aspect of Russian Christianity, such as this teaching of Farther Zosima:
Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love animals, love plants, love each thing.  If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things.  Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.
According to Guignon (p. xli) "there is no personal salvation in the Eastern faith, but only salvation for creation as a whole," which is not exactly what Schopenhauer believes but which fits his anti-egoism nicely.

In short, there seems to be a kind of religion (or just philosophy or ethics, if we think of Schopenhauer and, perhaps, Wittgenstein) that is not what atheists oppose. What they do oppose, judging by Grayling, is mostly a set of political and moral issues, combined (in Dawkins' case at least) with the fundamentalist version of theism. Many believers also reject this kind of theism as a form of idolatry. It's tempting to say that what they really oppose is idolatry. And that what they offer instead is idolatrous worship of the absence of idols (as Wittgenstein almost said in The Big Typescript). And that what the rest of us want (it could be just me, but I don't think so) is no idolatry at all.  

UPDATE: Leiter on Grayling (with added Nietzsche) here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The blame game

Ethical theories can be thought of as ways to tell us who or what to praise and blame. But blaming itself can be a moral issue. That is to say, publicly attributing responsibility for an action sometimes seems to call for moral reflection. There is the question of who to blame, or which acts are blameworthy, and then the further question of whether to make the attribution of blame public. Not to mention other questions of how much blame to attribute and what punishment, if any, should go with the blame.

This Economist blog post rightly says, of Terry Jones' Qur'an burning and the subsequent murders by Afghan mobs, that, "The buck stops in each zealous breast."  That is, Jones is responsible for his irresponsible and offensive actions, and the mobs are responsible for theirs.  Jones is not responsible for the murders just because they would not have happened were it not for his actions.  In some sense he is the cause of these murders (the sense in question is the one I just explained, i.e. that they would not have happened without his action), but this is not, I would argue, to say that he is morally responsible for them. Anscombe uses adultery as an example to make this point, although she leaves the example very undeveloped.  Here is what I think she means.

Imagine a man suspects his wife of having an affair and confronts her about it.  She has done no such thing and refuses to dignify his questions with an answer.  He takes this as a confession and so cheats on his wife to get revenge. The adultery (we can imagine/stipulate) would not have happened if she had responded differently to his accusations (and perhaps also if she had not done whatever it was that made him suspicious in the first place).  So she is part of the causal chain that led to adultery.  But she is not remotely guilty of adultery in this case.  He is.  Being a link in a causal chain is not the same thing as being morally responsible for what comes at the end of that chain. (We might think she should have handled the situation differently, or we might not, but either way this does not affect the question of who is guilty of adultery in this case.) 

The Economist article goes on, though, to say that: "It's imprudent to issue official statements that suggest otherwise—that suggest responsibility rests with those who try to incite and not with those who choose to be incited." This is its criticism of 
General David Petraeus and Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, [who] issued a joint statement condemning the Florida zealot's zealotry and offering "condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an", omitting to note the agency and responsibility of the zealots actually responsible for the deadly mob violence, almost as if zealots in Florida are expected to control themselves while zealots in Afghanistan are not.  
But here is the statement in question:
In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important on behalf of ISAF and NATO members in Afghanistan to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Qur'an and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Qur'an.

We also offer condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an.

We further hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the Holy Qur'an, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.
As far as I can see, this is the entire statement.  There is no false blaming of the victims here, no suggestion that the mobs are not responsible for what they have done.  It strikes me as very misleading to talk about what the statement almost suggests by what it omits to note.

Nor does the Economist explain why it is "imprudent" to issue such statements.  Is it because the general understanding of responsibility will be nudged closer to consequentialism as a result?  That seems unlikely.  I suspect the objection is not so much to any imprudence as it is to the unfairness of singling out one bigot who has insulted about 1.5 billion people when bigoted mobs have murdered 24 people in a related set of incidents.  There is a kind of unfairness about this.  Murder is much worse than insulting.  But it is the job of diplomats to be prudent, and any intelligent person reading the statement will realize that prudence is the name of the game here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clearly, then, studying philosophy can help people in almost any area of endeavor.

Todd Edwin Jones offers an interesting defense of philosophy (in Nevada, where it is under threat, and elsewhere). I agree with him, of course, about philosophy's being valuable. But the line I've quoted in the title of this post seems to come a bit too quickly (no doubt at least in part because he's writing a short article for a general audience).

Here's some more of the article:
People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.
This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.
I wonder how persuasive non-philosophers will find this.

Does philosophy teach people how to assess evidence more effectively? Does it tell people what goals are good, or which goals are consistent with other goals they might have? Some philosophy courses do this, but most (I have no real evidence for this claim, but I think it's true) do not have such practical goals. If we are to save philosophy, though, then I think we will have to present philosophy as a kind of combination of critical thinking and practical ethics, in the same kind of way that English can present itself as how to read and write.

This is a shame. It suggests that our culture sees no value in its own literature and thinking. It lacks self-respect. It suggests also that we are led by people who value neither thinking nor the expression of thought. It's hard to escape the thought that these people are fundamentally thoughtless. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but it can be (and lead to consequences that are) terrifying, as Raimond Gaita notes.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Angry atheists

This post at Rationally Speaking reminds me of this comments thread at In Living Color. There are some touchy atheists out there, from the defensive to the deranged. I wonder why.

People's being defensive reminds me of this from Chris Rock (being interviewed by SR) in Esquire:
SR: Like many nice Caucasians, I cried the night Barack Obama was elected. It was one of the high points in American history. And all that's happened since the election is just a shitstorm of hatred. You want to weigh in on that?

CR: I actually like it, in the sense that — you got kids? Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism's almost over. Because this is the last — this is the act up before the sleep.

I have my doubts about whether Rock is right about this, but he might be. If I wanted to make the case that atheists are defensive for this reason I would quote Nietzsche saying that the religious impulse is on the rise:

Why atheism today? — 'The father' in God is thoroughly refuted; likewise 'the judge', 'the rewarder'. Likewise his 'free will': he does not hear — and if he heard he still would not know how to help. The worst thing is: he seems incapable of making himself clearly understood: is he himself vague about what he means? — These are what, in the course of many conversations, asking and listening, I found to be the causes of the decline of European theism; it seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth — but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.

(According to Wikipedia this is Hollingdale's translation from section 53 of Beyond Good and Evil.)

Atheists often don't seem to like the religious instinct, or else to be incapable of distinguishing it from theism. Maybe when they perceive this instinct in non-theists they sense that religion will not die and react with anger. Or maybe it is religion rather than theism that they really dislike. Perhaps they really are evangelical positivists who value 'reason' and 'intelligence' the way the Tea Party seems to value 'freedom,' i.e. in a fetishistic, non-literal way, so that 'being rational' means rejecting anything as intangible as religion, much as 'freedom,' for some people, means something like 'USA!'.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Roger Crisp at Washington and Lee

Yesterday Roger Crisp spoke at W&L University here in Lexington and they kindly invited me to come along to dinner with them as well as attend his talk afterwards. The talk was called "A Third Method of Ethics?" and argued that virtue theory, at least as presented by Rosalind Hursthouse, does not represent a third way to determine the right action in addition to, or competition with, consequentialism and deontology, as has been claimed (for instance by Hursthouse herself).

According to the kind of account given by Hursthouse (according to Crisp), consequentialism says that an action is right if and only if it promotes the best consequences, deontology says an action is right if and only if it accords with a correct moral principle, and virtue ethics says an action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances. Crisp pointed out, rightly to my mind, that it would be better if ethical theories explained why actions were right instead of just telling us how to identify them. And to say that an action is right because it is the kind of thing that a virtuous person would do sounds wrong. Surely a virtuous agent, asked to explain why she had done some good deed, would not just say that that's the kind of thing people like her do. The reasons she gives for her action are likely to be either consequentialist or deontological ones. If they are neither then we do indeed have a third kind of ethics, but it will be defined negatively, as non-deontological non-consequentialism, not positively in the way Hursthouse's work might suggest.

Judging by the questions afterwards, a common response was that this might be a good criticism of Hursthouse, but would not apply to virtue ethicists who care about more than just right action. If you care about right feeling, say, or being a good person, then virtue ethics might still have a distinctive contribution to make.

Crisp seemed to suggest that character is not important as long as one does the right thing for the right reason. So if a habitually bad person on one occasion does a good deed, and with the same motivation that a virtuous person would have, then this is a good deed and its being an exception to this person's usual behavior (before and after this one time) is irrelevant to how we should judge the act. I'm not sure about this. In terms of judging the act itself I'm not sure that even the reason why it is done matters (unless this somehow changes what the act is, as in Mill's example of saving someone from drowning in order to torture him before he dies--in this case the act of saving is not good, because it is not really an act of saving but part of an act of torture). In terms of judging the agent, it surely does matter if there is something in her that can lead to good acts, even if this happens only once. And it also matters that she does not normally act well. So a person like this is pretty bad, but not 100% bad. If all we care about is actions then maybe that doesn't matter, but why should we care only about actions?

I wonder also what Hursthouse would say about all this. As I remember it, her view is that the virtues are character traits acquired by habituation to the kind of behavior that is most likely to lead to one's having a happy life. So the right thing, on her theory, is what a virtuous agent would do, but it will not be done out of concern to do that kind of thing qua that kind of thing. It will be done out of something like habit, training, or second nature. Asked to explain the action (saving someone from drowning, say) the agent will point out the relevant facts of the case ("he was drowning," e.g.) and then be at a bit of a loss to explain any more ("what else could I do? There was nothing else for it but to jump in," etc.). And that doesn't sound far from the truth.