Monthly Archives: January 2009

Crunch Ethics

Those following the world’s financial woes from a moral point of view might be interested in this article, ‘Hard Times Turn Spotlight on Business Ethics’.  What’s maybe eye-opening, or perhaps eye-watering, for the philosophically-minded is the distance of all of this from what we take ethical considerations to be.  Behaving ethically, according to those inside the financial world, seems to be nothing more than complying with the letter of the law.  But it’s a familiar point that doing what’s legal isn’t the same as doing what’s right.  Anyway, just getting people to obey the law won’t help us fix whatever’s gone wrong with the world.  It’s not just the illegal rip offs that have to end, but the legal ones too.  Doing something about this requires something much more than just straightening up our laws.  We have to straighten up ourselves.

We’ve tried a world geared to making money at the expense of the many in the aid of the very few.   The people who made a lot of money in the run up to the crash are now bowing out, often with the money they’ve made as well as outrageous bonuses.  (Encouragingly, Obama sounds suitably pissed off.)  All of this money comes from somewhere — the money made in the run up to the crisis and the bailouts which are ongoing.  That somewhere is all of us.  Shouldn’t we therefore get a say in how the business world conducts itself in the future?

Philosophy and the Good Life

The question of the good life, I imagine, was simple in the days before cities. It was having enough to eat, a place to sleep, clothing, tools, family and a tribal affiliation. So the good life was one of freedom from want and hardship. However, once the necessaries were provided, human beings wanted more out of life. Theories arose about how life ought to be lived.

Those who had the time and inclination to think more deeply about the good life for human beings were, first, the religious poets and prophets, and, then, the philosophers. Religion taught people to live a good life as defined by a religious teaching. Religion, as it were, does the thinking for the people who do not have time to think things through for themselves. Philosophy, however, asks people to think for themselves, to question doubtful premises and assumptions using reason, logic, and experience to provide the best arguments for their own position, while being able to put forward objections to rival arguments, and to answer objections to their own.

Every familiar religion embodies a code of conduct, notions of purity and impurity, moral standards, and a strong link with something considered Divine. In some forms of Christianity, for example, the good life is one that is lived in loving obedience to God’s commands and in the belief that Jesus is the personal savior of humankind. This is a life of self-renunciation, service to others and asceticism. We know of it because of Divine revelation. We accept it on faith as a dogma of the religion. Other religions have other dogmas.

The philosophers I respect proceed non-dogmatically. They want us to examine the views that have been advanced, compare them, and then decide which conclusion is supported by the best argument. Looking around, the early philosophers saw that people pursue different things in life depending upon their desires. Some pursue pleasure, others wealth, fame, or power over others. It is the same today.

It turns out, upon philosophical reflection, that the satisfaction of these desires does not, in the end, make people happy. Those who pursue pleasure become jaded. The wealthy become habituated to their luxurious lifestyle. Fame palls and one is forced to live in the gaze of others. The quest for power breeds fear and suspicion in the powerful and in their subordinates.

Finally, there are some people who appear to pursue truth and wisdom rather than pleasure, riches, fame or power. These, of course, are the philosophers. To be honest, when philosophers talk about the good life, they stack the deck in their own favor. Whenever they discuss it, the good life is the philosophical life. This does not mean that they are wrong, but we should be cautious how we receive their arguments. There is no such thing as the good life for everyone, and neither philosophers nor religious expositors have any right to lay down the law about it.

Nevertheless, with this caveat, there are a number of things that the philosophical life has to recommend it. As Aristotle tells us, it begins in wonder at the universe and the spectacle of life. It proceeds through the cultivation of learning and reason, through the dialectical give and take of discussion, through awareness of varying points of view, and through understanding the pertinent questions to ask. Philosophers use conversation as a means of investigating reality. It is an integral part of the philosophical life. The Socratic method of questioning is a perfect example. In fact, Socrates embodies a certain take on the philosophical life. It is one that includes having a good memory for what people say, inexhaustible curiosity, and a desire to get to the bottom of things. Another key element is Socratic ignorance. A keen sense of how little we know is a valued asset in the philosophical life, as is a skeptical attitude toward all dogmatic religious or philosophical speculations. Finally, the philosopher requires a kind of courage to pursue arguments to their conclusions, whether those conclusions are welcomed or not.

As to the way philosophers should live, Aristotle puts it well in his Golden Mean: All things in moderation; nothing to excess. And we may add: Eat right, exercise and acquire habits of feeling, thought and action that lead to moral and intellectual excellence. The good life is a life devoted to the discovery and communication of truth within a community of like-minded people possessing moral integrity and a genuine desire to learn.

Losing My Interest In Religion

I’ve read two memoirs recently, both really good, and both making me wonder about the art of the memoir.  One is Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf, and the other is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s highly acclaimed memoir of suffering total paralysis after a stroke.  Both books are rather spare, so I finished them with a thirst to know more about each man.  A bit of googling revealed that they had left many things out of their memoirs, preferring to keep the main lines of the story clean.  For example, Bauby didn’t clutter up his reminiscences with the messy facts about the women in his life.  Rowlands made his life seem like all solitude and one wolf, but on his website you can see that he maintained an active professional life during the period covered by the book.  All that makes me just slighly uneasy, but all in all I think a memoirist tells the story of his or her life.  A storyteller must tell a good story.  No out and out lies and deceptions allowed, but sculpting is necessary.

So….beware.  I’m about to relate a mini-chapter of a memoir I’m never going to write, because most of my life is completely boring.  Naturally, I’m going to sculpt.  The mini-chapter is about how I lost my interest in religion.  If you’re a long-time reader, you may have noticed that religion used to be a frequent topic of my posts here, and then that stopped.  It stopped after a trip to the UK I took at the end of last summer.  Before that, I had considerable interest in religion–I’d say a mixture of attraction and repulsion.  When I got home, I discovered I’d lost it.

Here’s the way I’d tell the story–yes, story.  Toward the end of the trip we went to Edinburgh, which was all abuzz with the arts festival.  This was a visit I was looking forward to because as a 17 year old girl I bicycled from Cambridge to Edinburgh (and beyond) with my 15 year old brother.  A memorable part of this was bicycling up the very steep hill at the city’s center to see a magnificent church.  I remembered the cobblestone, remembered the church, and very much looked forward to retracing my steps.

Lo and behold (as we say in stories), I discovered that this church, now called “The Hub,”  had been turned into an information center for the festival.  A whole new layer of walls and ceilings, cafes, bookstores, and mobs of people, all obliterated any sense of the original interior. You couldn’t even get a view of the stained glass windows.  Other churches in Edinburgh were still in use, but temporarily taken over by the festival.  At one of them, we chatted with a docent who explained that there are too many churches in the UK, and not enough business, so many have been converted to other uses.

Unmistakable, subliminal message:  religion can simply fall away and be replaced by other things that are more meaningful to people.  No need for attraction, because lots of other things are attractive. No need for repulsion, if there’s a natural process of evaporation.

Now is this the true story of why, when I got home, I’d lost my interest in religion (or pretty nearly all)?  Maybe I was just sick of it, after having so many debates here at TP, and after reading another, and another, and another atheist tome; and maybe I’d exhausted the attraction which had propelled me through a lot of study of religion over the last 10 years.

But in my memoir (the one I’m never going to write, that is), I’m going for the Edinburgh story.  It may even be true.

Two things, same stuff, same time

I have a hangover following last night celebrations.  You can only really get to grips with personal ontology when you have a hangover.  It brings the relevant entity into clear view.  So I’m reading Eric T. Olson’s rather good What Are We?  A Study in Personal Ontology.  There are some excellent questions in it.  We’ll get to one in a moment.  There are, of course, various views of what we are, conceptions of our basic metaphysical nature.  Maybe we are biological organisms, or parts of such organisms (e.g. brains), or Humean bundles or perceptions, or temporal parts, or souls, or persons, or something else entirely.  Or maybe nothing at all.

You can tie yourself up in variations on these themes.  Some people are attracted to the thought that we are not animal bodies, but are material things made up of just the same thing as our animal bodies.  (We seem to have properties that our animal bodies do not have — different persistence conditions for a start.)  You can think this, by the way, and not bother God.  But you have to have the apparently loco thought that two or more things can be made of the same stuff at the same time — you have to believe in the possibility of material coincidence.  Is it possible for two entirely material things (things with different real properties, mind you, no Cartesian ‘conceivability’ silliness) to be made of the same matter at the same time?  Pah, you might think, but not so fast.

Consider the ordinary human being Robert.  There is such a thing as Robert’s left hand.  If there is, there is also such a thing as his ‘left-hand complement’, something composed of Robert’s particles save those which make up his left hand.  Call that ‘Bob’.  Robert and Bob are not the same things — for a start, Robert is a little bigger.  Suppose Robert’s left hand is amputated.  Robert can survive this, but what about Bob?  If the cut is seriously clean, Bob is not afffected at all.  Robert and Bob then coincide — there are two things made out of the same matter at the same time.  You can get similar but less amusing thoughts through reflection on statues and lumps of clay.  The lump of clay is something other than the statue (it exists for longer, for a start), but they coincide materially for a time.  Anybody buy it?  Does it help make sense of what we are?

The Great Day Arrives


On Child Abuse

This is a guest post by Ralph Sabella.

I read a short story at a read-aloud group. The plot involved a 30 plus year old woman seducing a boy of 13. The seduction, rather delicately done, only involved the woman being provocative in her dress and having the boy massage her feet. The reading produced considerable discussion, the most interesting element being the difference between the women’s and men’s reactions. The women expressed sorrow for the boy, for his confusion and the frustration he had experienced, but also for the seductress in her need to use a child to alleviate her own sexual frustrations. All the men couldn’t get past wishing they had been in the boy’s shoes. None of the latter voiced upset with the woman’s behavior.

How would it have gone if the sexes were reversed, i.e. a man and a young girl? There would have been a general outcry against the man, certainly no feelings of compassion for his having to relieve his sexual tensions through the mild and delicate luring of a girl, and, I’m sure, great concern for the girl’s welfare. No disclosure to any sexual arousal here by men or women.

This is not to condone the actions of the adults in either scenario, but interesting questions are raised if the attitudes of my small group of friends are those of the general population, and indeed the basis of how child molesters are judged and sentenced: men harshly and women less so.

I consider myself a non-sexist, liberal who generally believes in equal rights for everyone, and I’m a male to boot, yet I’m not disturbed by the legal gender inequity when it comes to child molestation, and I’m not sure if I shouldn’t be upset with myself.

Why should a man, say, for the same crime be given the more severe punishment than a woman? I think there is the understandable fear that men are often physically dangerous in such circumstances but to sentence a man on that basis seems to be convicting him of a crime he didn’t commit. If it’s meant as a warning or deterrent then, considering that women as care givers and teachers of children are far more conveniently positioned for wrong doing with the young, wouldn’t it make sense to warn and deter them more strongly?

Something’s In the Air

I don’t know about you, but for the last couple of days there’s been something in the air. It’s like…the days before Christmas, if you’re of that persuasion. It’s like the hour before sunrise, when the light just slighly increases by the minute.  It’s like standing on the route of the Boston Marathon, waiting for the throng of runners to come by. It’s like hearing an orchestra tune up.  It’s like having a present to open and letting it sit around all day.  It’s like…well enough about what it’s like.  Yes, in less than 48 hours, we’re going to have a new president of the United States.

After 8 long years of Bush, I can’t tell you what a thrill this is.  Not only is there the relief of seeing an incompetent administration pack its bags, but like millions of people I am thrilled to see Barack Obama take his place.  Below is the Washington mall, where today the Obamas were guests of honor at a concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial, featuring Bruce Springstein, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi, and more.

Less than 48 hours to go!

Strip Searches & Students

In 2003 8th grade student Savana Redding was strip searched by school officials. Her case has made it to the Supreme Court.

The strip search was the result of another student claiming that Redding, an honor student who had no history of disciplinary action, was distributing prescription strength ibuprofen. Redding denied having the drug and the strip search failed to turn up any drugs. It did, however, humiliate the young woman.

On the face of it, strip searching Ms. Redding seems to be a clear violation of her rights and a wrongful action. After all, the word of a student caught with drugs can hardly be considered adequate evidence on which to justify such a search. Further, it seems rather inappropriate for school officials to have the authority to conduct strip searches at all. While school personal do act in disciplinary capacities, strip searching seems to be an activity that should require actual police authority.

Naturally, Ms. Redding’s case is a specific matter but it does raise questions about student rights and the limits of the authority of school officials. Traditionally the courts have given school officials significant leeway. Students have long been subject to restrictions and treated in ways that would not be tolerated outside of the school setting.

Not surprisingly, the school district position is that holding school officials to the legal standard of “probable cause” for such searches would create a “roadblock to the kind of swift and effective response that is too often needed to protect the very safety of students, particularly from the threats posed by drugs and weapons.”

On one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, children are not adults and this can (and has) been used to justify a difference between the rights possessed by children and those enjoyed by adults. Further, the school setting is also a different setting than the outside world and this often requires a difference in such matters. For example, consider the matter of hall passes. Outside of school, 18 year old students are free to go about as adults. Inside school, their movements are restricted by a system of permissions and passes. This is considered an acceptable practice because of the need to restrict student movement within school hours. Like wise, the school setting would justify violating the normal rules governing searches.

On the other hand, this sort of justification can be seen as defective. First, if it is a reasonable principle, then it would justify doing away with probable cause requirements across the board. After all, a case can almost always be made that a search was needed to protect someone from something. However, the requirements for probable cause are in place for excellent reasons. Hence, this principle seems to be unacceptable. Second, while the school setting can be seen as justifying differences in certain matters, the setting does not seem to justify such an extreme violation of a basic principle of law. Obviously schools do need to maintain a safe and orderly environment. But, this should not be taken to justify such things as strip searches. Rights do not simply end at the school door and the proper rule of law must apply even within the walls of schools.

Smoke Screens

You might have a look at this video on Youtube.  It’s part of a $45 million advertising campaign paid for by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a consortium of 48 coal and utility companies.  If your bullshit detector did not go off while you watched it, you might want to change the batteries.  There aren’t many premises in it, but there is a conclusion:  we can continue to use coal, and coal companies are actually kind of green.  Maybe they want to do something about climate change.  What they actually have done is spend $125 million in the first nine months of last year on lobbying for a delay in various forms of green legislation.  There are interesting lines and links on the subject here.

What’s the right way to think about this kind of thing?  For a start, how do we characterise it?  Socrates called sophists ‘prostitutes of wisdom’, but it’s not clear to me that what is going on here is just taking money for pushing a conclusion by any means.  Maybe that’s just fierce advertising.  Delaying action on climate change while spinning yourself green is something much worse.  Forestalling necessary changes to the way we use and create energy amounts to prolonging, perhaps exacerbating present and future human suffering.  This is injuring people for money and lying about it.  I’m not sure we have a word for this kind of thing.

Ethical Traps in Gaza

The New York Times this morning has an eye-opening article about Israeli attitudes toward the recent incursions into Gaza. The reporter says 90% are enthusiastically supportive. But what about all the civilian casualties? What about the pictures of dead children we keep seeing in our newspapers (like the one above)? I’m surprised by what people say about this…and I’ve heard the same thing first hand. “The dead children aren’t Israel’s fault, because they were being used as human shields.”

Take, for example, the bombing of the house of a Hamas leader who was known to be hiding with his 4 wives and 9 of his children. Israel issued a warning which wasn’t heeded and then dropped a bomb killing everyone in the house. Not a problem, say the Israelis who were interviewed (except one member of the philosophy department at Hebrew University–Moshe Halbertal). Those children were being used as human shields. So (I guess): it’s the fault of the Palestinians who used them that they are now dead.

The intent of the adults in the house—and all who hide Hamas fighters and arsenals in houses, schools, hospitals and mosques—is to set an ethical trap for Israel. If Israel attacks Hamas miltiary targets, they will also kill innocent children (and others), and then they will have done wrong. This is supposed to stop Israel from attacking.

What most Israelis seem to think is that if they detect the ethical trap, then they can escape it. Just by knowing that the Palestinians are setting a trap, they can free themselves from the obligation not to attack. If they do drop bombs and kill children, it will be entirely the fault of people in Gaza that the Palestinian children are dead.

But this is nonsense. Using children as shields is grotesquely immoral, and I have nothing but contempt for the Palestinians who do so, but it does create an ethical trap. You can’t get rid of the trap just by recognizing it’s been created.  Dropping bombs on houses full of children is deeply problematic, whatever the reasons the children are in the house.  It’s a flimsy excuse that you didn’t intend to kill any children.  There’s also very little hope of making the case that these horrors are necessary evils that will put everyone on the path to peace. 

In fact, Israel has been successfully trapped, but this isn’t the kind of success the Palestinians had in mind.  Israel has been trapped into acting unethically, drawing world-wide criticism, instead of of being deterred.  We can deplore Israeli behavior, but it’s time for Hamas to take notice. It’s bad enough setting ethical traps using your children. It’s even worse keeping them in place even as you see that nobody’s being deterred and your children are being massacred.

If you want to comment, stick to the subject. No discussion of the whole middle east conflict, no anti-semitic or anti-Palestinian ranting and raving. I am just interested in the notion of an ethical trap.  I will delete comments that are off topic.