Monthly Archives: September 2008

A few updates

I feel a bit bad for having blogged so little here for quite some time, but the others are doing a grand job, so I don’t think readers are missing out. However, I thought I would update you on some of the things that have kept me away, part as excuse and part as unashamed advertising.
First up, I’ve got a new book out on the use of rhetoric and bad arguments. It’s available on Amazon UK now and will be published in the US by Plume next year. There was a very nice review of it in the FT. Butterflies and Wheels readers will recognise that the book grew out of a series I wrote for them a few years back.
I’ve also made a programme for BBC Radio Four, which despite the title, isn’t really about philosophy. You can listen to it here until this Saturday. It was one of the choices in Sunday’s Pick of the Week.
Apart from that. I’ve been busy with the usual mix of journalism, talks and events, and bits of radio, as well as, of course, editing tpm.
So my neglect of Talking Philosophy really isn’t a matter of being lazy or not caring!

Who to Vote For

With the election coming up soon, Americans are trying to decide which Presidential ticket to vote for. While many people vote based on how they feel about the candidates, a few people do at least attempt to provide a rational assessment before they cast their ballot. This leads to the question of who to vote for.

One way to answer that question is to take the approach espoused by a conservative friend of mine. When asked about voting, he typically says something like “why should I vote for someone who isn’t going to do what is in my best interest?” While we disagree on many things, we do agree on this point. It would, from a rational standpoint, seem to make little sense to vote against your own self interest. No one, as Socrates argued, wants to be harmed and voting this way could lead to harm. So, the rational thing to do would seem to vote for the candidate you believe will act in accord with your self-interest.

While this seems simple enough, there is the obvious problem of determining what is, in fact, in your self-interest.

The most obvious answer is that it is what you think you want and need. Of course, what a person wants and thinks he needs could actually be contrary to his self-interest. After all, self-interest is intuitive supposed to be what is good for the person. For example, many people though they wanted George Bush to be President. Over the last eight years, he has shown most of them that this was probably not in their self-interest.

Another obvious answer is that what is in your self-interest is what benefits you. That seems reasonable enough but does have some problems.

One problem is that people can mistaken about what is beneficial to them. For example, a feminist might vote for Palin because she thinks that would be good for women. However, if Palin managed to get her conservative views made into law, then the feminist might learn that she was quite mistaken. To avoid this, a person needs to be careful in determining what would really be beneficial and which candidate is most likely to bring about such benefits.

On a more philosophical level, a person could be fundamentally mistaken about what is truly beneficial. Socrates discusses the matter at great length and it is a central focus of Plato’s ethical theory. People often regard their selfish wants as being what is truly beneficial and good for them. Hence, this would seem to indicate that people should vote in a selfish manner. For example, since the very rich would be financial better off under McCain, they should vote for him. However, acting in a selfish manner can be an error.

First, there is the moral worry that the selfish voting might lead to a morally wrong situation. For example, voting for a candidate who promises tax breaks for the rich would give the rich reason to vote for him. However, if this would do serious harm to everyone else, then it might be the wrong thing to do. If Socrates is right, acting in this selfish manner would not be in the person’s true self interest. That would be to do what is right.

Second, there is the practical worry that the selfish voting might turn out to be harmful to the person who thought she was voting in her own best interest. For example, many of the people who voted for Bush because they believed he would take a “hands off” approach to the American economy have probably come to realize that they have contributed to the dire financial disaster that plagues the United States and the world. As another example, someone might vote for Obama because of his promises about health care and the belief that they would be better off if he were elected. However, his plan might turn out to be a disaster that makes matters worse.

So, when voting it is wise to consider what is really in your best interest.

Family Ties

Watching American politics today is more fun than a barrel full of monkeys, but enough already. (Or, if you haven’t had enough, you might enjoy this blog.)

I’ve been thinking about family ties. It seems as if people do have special obligations to family members. You could reject that entirely, in good utilitarian fashion, but suppose it’s true. It strikes me that there are a couple of ways to think about those obligations.

The obligation of a parent to a child seems particularly clear and understandable. You brought the kid into the world, so the kid is more your responsibility than someone else’s. It’s a parent’s job, more than a neighbor’s job or a stranger’s job, to feed, clothe, educate, etc. the child, and generally to put the child on course to live a good life.

(Note—it strikes me that we have an extra layer of obligation to our offspring, beyond the basic obligations we have to everyone else. I’m not saying we’re entitled to indifference to everyone else.)

If you think about the obligations of parents to children this way, then it turns out that children’s obligations to their parents must have a different basis entirely. It seems to be a matter of reciprocation. “You did all that work to bring me up, so now I owe you something you in return.” Not that we think that way all the time. Parents and children spontaneously like and care for each other, but there’s obligation too, sort of like an extra layer of glue.

So far, pretty good. But if I’ve got the duties between parents and children right, they don’t extend to cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. All are more or less like old friends, people you share an especially long history with (which makes a difference, but not the same diference.) If that’s too counterintuitive to bear, there’s another way to think about family ties. You could think that sheer kinship generates extra obligations to family, though the closer the kinship the stronger the obligation. On that way of thinking, there are obligations to siblings, cousins, etc., though weaker obligations the more distant the relationship.

It seems dangerous and pernicious to accept sheer kinship as a source of obligation. If it really is a source, then it’s a basis for obligation across the board, and it’s OK for members of the same race to give each other higher priority. Sharing genes just doesn’t seem to have any moral import that you can put your finger on. But it makes good sense to think creating a person engenders special responsibilities, and that we ought to reciprocate to our parents, if they have met them. This is not essentially a matter of genes.

I’m thinking about these things because I’m trying to write some essays about parenthood, but also because they’re relevant to animal issues. Some say we have special obligations to members of our own species like a mother has special obligations to her children. But if parental duties aren’t based on sheer biological relatedness, then that point falls through. My kids are my responsibility because I created them. I no more created all the human beings around me than I created the cats and dogs. So I have no special duties to other humans, as opposed to animals,  on a par with my duties to my children.

So what do you think? Do all family ties create special obligations, based on sheer kinship, or is the tie between parent and child a unique one?

Punching our weight

Maybe you have seen or heard about the British Academy’s recent report, Punching our weight:  the humanities and social sciences in public policy making.  There has been at least some interest on this blog about the role of academics in public life.  If anything is clear, academics should avoid boxing metaphors.  I couldn’t get tweed boxing shorts, blood-spattered ties, and gum shields in pocket protectors out of my head for the first few pages, then I drowned in jargon and skipped ahead to the recommendations at the end.

Policy makers should ‘leverage the academic research base more effectively’.  They must do this by doing a lot of reviews, developing and strengthening their review process, evaluate the reviews they review, and publish their priorities which might result in still better reviews.  Research should be multidisciplinary and centres should be interdisciplinary.  Funding streams ought to be enhanced.  Universities ought to promote their research capacities effectively.  Those who enhance the engagement of research and policy ought to have awards.

Probably all of this makes sense to the people who actually matter, people who (unlike me and the rest of us) actually make decisions.  For all I know it will do some good somewhere.  Maybe, as Plato urges, we ought to leave policy to the dear ones, the ones who know best.  If you read the papers you can be forgiven for thinking that the people in charge of our world could maybe do a little better.  Plato thought that if the people, not the captain, were put in charge of the ship of state, we’d end up with a drunken pleasure cruise.  If you own shares in Merrill Lynch, you might think a drunken pleasure cruise is just what the ones in charge have had for a while.  Maybe it would be good to try something else now.

The boundaries of sanity

There seem to me to be two extreme, and implausible, strands of thought knocking around in the area of what we might problematically call “mental health”. The first leads to the medicalisation or pathologising of any kind of psychic distress. You know the kind of thing: fried chicken lickin’ anxiety, boorish party phobia, post egg and spoon race defeat trauma. The other is the view that there’s no such thing as mental illness at all (even if you call it something other than illness).
I’m not going to attempt to argue as to why these two extremes should be rejected. All I want to do here is ask how, if we agree the extreme views are both wrong, we distinguish between ordinary distress and differences in thought, and pathological states or conditions.
I’m not aware of a good way of drawing this line (which is not to say there isn’t one). It seems probable that no line could ever be sharp here, but as we all know (I hope) real distinctions often have fuzzy borderlines and grey areas between them. So let’s not fall into the trap of saying that hard borderline cases show the distinction can’t be real.
I can think of two criteria that can be used, each necessary but not sufficient as conditions. One is to do with having irrational ways of thinking. Of course, we all of us think irrationally, more often than we might wish to believe. But there is a sliding scale and go beyond a certain point and the irrationality is pathological.
The second is to do with functionality. So, for example, a severely depressed person can’t get on with life, and nor can someone with a paranoid fear of door handles.
Colloquially, we do describe as “totally mad” people’s whose world views are wildly incoherent. But we don’t think of them as suffering from a pathological condition unless this creates functional problems. The person who believes we’re all lizards is merely eccentric, just as long as he can do things like hold down a job and a relationship, and isn’t a danger to anyone.
It’s also the case that dysfunction is not a sign of mental pathology if it is for good reasons. One can imagine someone for whom being depressed is a perfectly rational response to what they are going through, for example.
So although perhaps extreme dysfunction without apparent incoherence of belief could be seen as pathological, as could extreme incoherence without dysfunction, in practice, a pathological state of mind seems to require both. I say this descriptively: this is how, in fact, we seem to distinguish between the sane and the insane, even if we don’t use such un-PC language.
I have no problem with the fact that it implies a continuum, and that there have be judgement calls as to whether someone is “far enough gone” to be considered a pathological case. But it still seems unsatisfactory. Surely there are some better criteria than these? As far as I know (I could well be wrong), the diagnostic manual DSM lists criteria for specific “disorders” but does not specify general principles for identifying something as a mental disorder.
Cab anyone do better or point to a better answer? I’m sure there’s a big field of work here in the philosophy of psychology and psychiatry.
(Underlying neurological dysfunction won’t work, by the way, because in order for that to cause a mental disorder, we have to decide that the disorder is real at the psychological level. So, for example, someone who sees sounds and hears colours has a weird brain, but they are not mentally ill. The individuation of mental disorders cannot take place at the neural level, even if in certain cases we find that neural indicators are 100% reliable predictors of them.)

Palin, Abortion & Hunting

Governor Palin has become a rather popular topic here in the United States. In addition to all the political issues surrounding her, she has also generated some interesting philosophical discussions.

Some of my more liberal friends find her views on abortion (against) and hunting (for) to be morally appalling. After all, they contend, a woman should have a right to chose and people should not shoot helpless animals. Naturally enough, I started thinking about possible connections between the ethics of abortion and the ethics of hunting.

While there are obvious differences between an abortion and shooting an animal, there are important similarities between them. Both obviously involve killing. Both involve beings that are often regarded as inferior to developed human beings. Both involve choice. At the moral core of both is a basic question: when is it morally acceptable to kill another being?

One standard argument for abortion is based on the view that there is a right to choose. Naturally enough, hunters can help themselves to this view. Just as a woman decides have someone kill for her when she has an abortion, a hunter decides to kill an animal. Of course, those who oppose hunting or abortion would contend that the two situations are different in morally relevant ways. Those against abortion often argue that humans are superior to animals and hence it is acceptable to kill animals but not abort humans. Those against hunting often focus on the fact that the woman is dealing with a being inside her body and this grants her a right to kill that hunters lack. These differences appear relevant and are well worth considering.

Another standard argument for abortion is that a woman should have the right to an abortion because having one can make her life better. For example, consider the stock scenario: a poor high school girl who has the potential to go to college gets pregnant. She cannot afford to raise the baby, the father is not around, and she cannot got to college if she has a child. In order to have a better life, she elects to have an abortion. This is justified because an act of killing will make her life better and more enjoyable.

Hunters can, of course, help themselves to this argument as well. Many people find hunting very enjoyable. This is hardly surprising since humans evolved as hunters and gatherers. One might say that we are hunters by nature. By killing animals and enjoying it, hunters have a better and more enjoyable life. While it comes at the price of death, if abortion can be justified on these grounds then so too can hunting.

Obviously, those who oppose hunting but support abortion would argue that the woman gains much more by an abortion than a hunter gains by killing an animal. The hunter enjoys the hunt, the kill and telling the tale. But the enjoyment is brief. Using the example given above, the high school girl avoids nine months of pregnancy, avoids the burden of taking care of a child and gains a better life. Hence, because of the greater rewards one kill is justified and the other is not-or so one might argue.

Someone who is pro-hunting and anti-abortion might contend that while the woman gains more, she is killing a potential person while the hunter is killing a mere animal. So, while the woman gains more, she also (it might be argued) destroys more to get it.  Naturally enough, the pro-abortion person might reply that a potential human is inferior to an animal and hence she is actually killing a much lesser being to gain much more. This, obviously enough, leads to the matter of the moral worth of the beings involved.

In light of the above discussion, it seems clear that abortion and hunting are morally similar. Whether they have the same moral status or not is something that I have not settled, but it is worth raising the matter for discussion.

Pick me! (for kids)

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a post for kids.  Here goes:

An elementary school has an election for student council president.  The candidates are told they have to deliver a speech on closed circuit television.  Some of the kids promise to put recycling bins in the cafeteria.  Others promise monthly fun and excitement. One wants to bring back an old custom of raising money for the leukemia society.  They talk about honesty, reliability, and the like.  But one candidate takes a different approach.  Alfred (we’ll call him) plays his guitar for the camera and delivers a speech with two words–“Pick me!”

You guessed it.  Alfred wins the election.  What’s your reaction?

(A)  Alfred’s got a future in politics!  Good job, no problem, all’s fair in love, war, and politics.

(B) No way!  You shouldn’t be able to win like that.  He should have been disqualified.

(C)–none of the above. (please explain)

Extra credit if you see any connection with current events.

Going Negative

I generally find going negative in American politics to be fairly appalling. When the Bush machine ripped into McCain in 2000, I winced as a fine American was being coated in mud by his own party (thus violating Reagan’s 11th commandment). When John Kerry was swift-boated in 2004, I also winced. Once again, an American who had bravely served his country in a time of war was under attack by the Republican machine.

When the machinations for the 2008 American Presidential elections started gearing up, I worried that the candidates would go negative quickly and seek out new slimy depths. While there was some internal strive over race and gender among the Democrats and the Republicans sniped at each other a bit, the process was relatively civil. Mostly, anyway.

When the convention balloons had finally settled, it seemed that McCain and Obama would run relatively clean campaigns. In fact, McCain showed good character in congratulating Obama on his historic achievement of being the first black major party Presidential candidate in the United States . On September 11th, both candidates showed good character (or savvy political skill) by suspending their political battle and walking together.

Unfortunately, after those clean moments, the campaign has started getting a bit dirty. Ironically, McCain is the one who has started the descent towards the usual political filth of lies and viciousness. Recently, McCain drew fire for falsely accusing Obama of advocating sex education for Illinois kindergartners and call Sarah Palin a lipstick wearing pig (she herself claims to be, in effect, a lipstick wearing pit bull).The irony is that McCain himself was a victim of nasty politics in 2000 and he had a reputation for straight talk and good behavior.

The reason for the change seems to mark a fundamental moral shift for McCain. In the past, he was regarded as a man of principle who seemed most concerned with doing what was what right. For example, McCain took a strong stand against the use of torture. However, he seems to be moving away from his old principles and seems to have adopted a classic principle: doing whatever it takes to win.

Ironically, McCain’s people seem to have adopted the same strategies and tactics that were employed against him in 2000. Of course, this can be seen a prudent choice: they worked then and they are working now. While McCain was lagging behind Obama in the polls, he has recently tied and some polls show him as being ahead. While some pundits attribute some of this to his selection of Sarah Palin, it has been noted that his use of negative tactics has proved effective. Part of the effectiveness is that Democrats are not as good at being nasty as Republicans and part of it is that Obama does not seem very comfortable with that style of politics. But, McCain was also uncomfortable with it before, so perhaps Obama will learn to stomach the nastiness as well.

Naturally enough, this raises the old ethical questions about whether employing such means to win is justified. If one takes the view of the classic sophists, then McCain is acting in a prudent matter. After all, to the sophist, what matters is success and one should not be concerned about the means (except in terms of their effectiveness). Of course, to those of a more Socratic bent, that sort of approach is fundamentally flawed. What matters for such people is not success, but being good. As in the ring of Gyges section of the Republic, the candidates have a choice between justice and injustice. McCain seems to have made his.

I was hoping for a better sort of campaign between two decent men. However, I suspect that I will be disappointed once more. On the plus side, this situation has given me excellent examples to use in my critical thinking and ethics classes. Further, it also allowed me to show how the sophists of ancient Greece are still relevant today. They would be quite at home in American politics.

Philosophy’s best kept secret?

I’m planning somehting for a forthcoming issue in which we’re asking people to write about one thing in philosophy which they wish more people knew about. It could be a philosopher, a book, an incident, a concept, an institution, or something completely different.
I’d like to include some suggestions from you who read and contribute to this blog. If you’d like to make one, I’d suggest you write it off-line and then come back to post it here: it should be as well-crafted as you can make it, so it will be a good read in the magazine. Go up to about 400 words, though shorter contributions are also welcome. We want the choices to be different and personal, so feel free to include autobiographical material, if relevant.
By posting to this thread you give us permission to reprint your contribution in tpm. Please add your real name if you’d like to be credited. Obviously, I cannot yet say how many contributions will be used in this way.
Looking forward to reading what you suggest.

Note (added 22 September). By “best kept secrets” I do not mean your own theories which you wish more people knew about.

The Gut and the Brain

Readers of TP will have to forgive me for periodic outbursts of election-angst as we get closer and closer to November 4. I promise to segue to deep philosophical themes to the very best of my ability, because I have read this blog’s title. We’re not called “Talking American Politics.”  I know, I know.

OK, first attempt at a segue. In answer to Julian’s question (now above),  what I’d like more people to discover by studying philosophy is a very important thing called “critical thinking.”   I fear the American electorate needs more of that.  Take, for example, the “ordinary voter” I heard talking on national public radio yesterday. She said she couldn’t vote for Obama because she suspects he really is a Muslim, even though he says he’s a Christian. Diagnosis:  not good at critical thinking.

Then there was the kid at school who told my son he’d rather have Hitler as president than Obama.  Recommendation for parents–have you tried critical thinking?

Then there’s the latest flurry of McCain-Palin ads that try to pull the wool over people’s eyes in ways I won’t repeat, for fear of putting you to sleep.  What do Americans need more of?  You guessed it–critical thinking.

Now here’s what’s got me feeling very, very unhappy this morning. No, it’s not the Category 4 Hurricane that appears to be heading for Texas. It’s an editorial by the possibly-very-smart linguist George Lakoff.  What he says is (to paraphrase) “screw critical thinking.”  He’s very big on frames and narratives and subliminal messages and gut level thinking.  He says McCain-Palin are doing better than Obama in the polls because they’ve clinched the War Hero-Ideal Mom narrative.   (Oooh, great narrative!)

Never mind what Obama wants to do about our health care system, the mess in Iraq, the environment, and stuff like that.  He’s got to ramp up his narrative. Couldn’t Obama maybe, just briefly, sneak in a few points about policy and the future? Would it be so bad? Yes, it would. That’s boring ol’ wonky stuff that didn’t work for Clinton in the primaries or Kerry in 2004.

Lakoff says it isn’t so awful that candidates must speak to the gut, not the brain, because issues are constantly changing. Why elect someone who says x, today, when y may be the issue in three years?  But the thing is, the issues don’t actually change that fast.  And anyway, why think a “war hero and ideal mom” ought to be trusted with “the people’s business” this year, next year, or three years from now?  The “speaking to the gut” thing is awful indeed.

But if it’s true it’s true. Maybe Obama has to work on his narrative. Sigh.