Monthly Archives: April 2011

Saving Mill’s Utilitarianism

Some ideas have the force of a runaway trolley. When they are first proposed, they are vigorously endorsed and maligned by diverse, forceful personalities. Then they enter the crucible of development, are battered with intense scrutiny. Even if the ideas are eventually abandoned, they will have left an imprint upon the centuries, like the corpse of an elder god washed up upon the beach. We gain more from poking and prodding at its corpse than we do from shaking hands with its successors.

Utilitarianism, for example. The principle of utility is just an ethical theory that conforms to the slogan: “Do whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism has been attacked from all sides, but it retains a close following. It is a beloved treasure among compassionate naturalists and bean-counting social engineers, and critiqued by both lazy romantics and sensitive sophisticates. It is used as an intuition-pump for the sympathies of secularists, just as much as it is used to sanction torture in ticking time-bomb scenarios.

The doctrine has roots in the welfarism of David Hume and Aristotle, and owes a healthy dose of accolades to Epicurus. Its modern advocates come easily to mind: Peter Singer, David Brink, Peter Railton, Sam Harris. But it was not until 18th century reformer Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill published their works that utilitarianism could find articulation in its contemporary form.

Bentham defined the principle of utility in this way: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.” For Bentham, the primary focus of moral inquiry was the rightness or wrongness of actions, measured in terms of their perceived consequences. Bentham’s utilitarianism is, hence, a form of consequentialism: rightness and wrongness of acts is a function of the good or bad consequences, and nothing else.

The history of philosophy has not been kind to the Benthamites. A regimend of critics (including 20th century notables like John Rawls, JJ Thomson, Philippa Foot, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams, to name just a few) have rejected utilitarianism as a moral doctrine on a variety of grounds. And, on the whole, I think these critics have successfully shown that Bentham’s utilitarianism is riddled with absurdity. To the extent that utilitarianism belongs to Bentham, we must abandon utility.

Unfortunately, despite all the headway they have made against the Benthamites, critics have not shown much sensitivity to John Stuart Mill’s formulation of utilitarianism. It turns out that the John Stuart Mill that we meet in freshman lectures may not, bear much kinship with the John Stuart Mill who lived and breathed. So it’s worth noticing, and advertising far and wide, just how the standard picture of Mill is undergoing a rapid change.

For one thing, there is some confusion in the literature whether or not Mill counts as an act- or rule-utilitarian. It is not uncommon to hear his name paired up with one or the other, but rarely both (textual evidence be damned) — if there are any internal contradictions, then it is easy to think that that is a product of Mill’s incoherence, and not a failure on our part to be charitable. And I think Fred Wilson put it nicely:

Mill is … not an “act utilitarian” who holds that the principle of utility is used to judge the rightness or wrongness of each and every act. But neither is he a “rule utilitarian” who holds that individual acts are judged by various moral rules which are themselves judged by the principle of utility acting as a second order principle to determine which set of rules secures the greatest amount of happiness. For the principle of utility judges not simply rules, according to Mill, but rules with sanctions attached.

For another thing, it isn’t even clear whether or not Mill is a consequentialist. In the essay linked, Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s idea of utilitarianism was non-consequentialist — which is roughly to say that it is unclear whether or not Mill believed that we judge the good or bad consequences of acts by being indifferent towards the identity of persons who are affected. Instead, in the essay linked, Jacobsen argues that Mill is best understood as an advocate of a commonsense doctrine that he calls “sentimentalism” (where an act is wrong so long as an agent’s feelings of guilt are suitable).

And it’s certainly not the case that Mill was a consequentialist bean-counter, given his strong emphasis upon the importance of developing good character. As Mill remarks in On Liberty, while it is possible for a man to achieve a good life without ever exercising autonomy, this can only to his detriment as a human being. To take just one of Mill’s quotes, which Kwame Anthony Appiah mentioned favorably (in The Ethics of Identity): “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”

What can account for such a massive neglect for one of utilitarianism’s fiercest defenders? It could be that utilitarianism has been assessed — and rejected — because it has been associated with its weakest proponents. If charity in interpretation has been lacking in our study of Mill, then it may be that we are now seeing a sea shift in the study of utilitarianism. I doubt that all of Mill can be salvaged — parts of his doctrine are a bit dotty. But still it may be that the old god, Utility, still has some life in him.

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Unemployed White Males

Newsweek recently ran an article about the plight of the formerly great white male. The article reveals that as of early 2011 600,000 college educated white males in the 35-64 age group were without jobs. This is a 5% unemployment rate. The gist of the article seems to be that the white male is in dire straits. However, this claim does not seem to be supported by the available evidence. This is not, however, to say that it would be incorrect to be concerned about the plight of people in that demographic.

While the 5% unemployment rate is twice what it was prior to the economic meltdown, it is still far better than other demographics. This is not to say that the men who are unemployed are not suffering-they surely are. However, this hardly seems to be a clear sign that educated white males do not have a “freaking prayer.” Rather, it shows that the economic mess hit very hard-hard enough to impact even those in the upper tiers.

That said, it would also be a mistake to simply dismiss concerns about this demographic as being groundless. After all, to dismiss the plight of the unemployed white men because they are white and male would be comparable to dismissing the plight of any group based on the gender or ethnicity of its members. As such, it seems right to be concerned about these people because they are, after all, people.

It might be argued that even if these white males are worse off than before, this should not be  matter of concern. After all, white males have been doing very well at the expense of others for quite some time. As such, they certainly deserve to pay for these past injustices.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the obvious concern about what is actually just. If those individuals who oppressed minorities and women are now paying for their misdeeds, then that could be seen as just. However, it would hardly be just if all white men were treated as interchangeable, so that the men losing their jobs now are somehow justly paying for the actions of their predecessors based on an inheritable white guilt.

It might also be argued that the plight of the unemployed white men should not be a matter of concern because the wealthiest people are still white males. As such, the white male hardly deserves any sympathy.

While it is true that most of the very wealthy in America are white males, it is not true that most white males are very wealthy. If it was reasonable to claim that because some people of type X are wealthy, then we need not be concerned about people of type X being unemployed, then it would follow that we would not need to be concerned about anyone. For example, Oprah is very rich, yet it should not be inferred that we should not be concerned about black women. Likewise, the mere fact that Trump is white, male and rich (maybe) does not entail that we should not be concerned about the white men who are unemployed.

I, of course, am well aware that white, educated men are still very well off relative to everyone else. However, this does not entail that all white men  are well off or that it is foolish to be concerned about those people who are unemployed, but also happen to be white men. After all, the fact that most wealthy people in the US are white males is hardly a big help to the white guy who cannot find a job.

My point is, of course, not that special attention should be paid to the white male. Rather, my point is that the white males who are not doing well should not be ignored simply because some white males are still doing very well indeed.

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Women, Aggression & Philosophy

Protective sports equipment such as helmets ca...

Philosophers at work.

While the majority of undergraduate students in America are women, philosophy departments are still predominantly composed of men. Not surprisingly, both male and female philosophers have addressed this matter and various explanations have been offered as to why this is the case. There have also been numerous learned treatises written about how to remedy this apparently problematic situation.

While the entire topic is well worth addressing, my goal in this essay is far more modest. I will address only the rather limited subject of women and aggression in philosophy.

If my memory serves, my first exposure to this matter was in my undergraduate days in a class on feminism. As a graduate student and in my professional career, this matter was (and is) brought to my attention fairly often, generally by female colleagues in the field.  This sort of aggression was, of course, cast as an evil of philosophy and a causal factor in pushing women away from philosophy. The general idea is as follows.

Certain practices in academic philosophy are rife with aggressive behavior. Since we are talking about philosophers, this behavior is generally not physical. Rather, the aggression tends to be social and intellectual. To use a commonly cited example, paper presentations are sometimes cast as struggles between the presenter and the audience. The presenter tries to come across as smart as possible, while members of the audience launch attacks calculated to bring the presenter down a peg and to lift themselves up in the intellectual hierarchy. While this might seem to be something of an exaggeration, it does match my own experience. It is also, of course, consistent with Hobbes discussion of how the learned behave in the presence of each other.

While not all men enjoy this sort of adversarial method, it is ofter claimed that men find it far more appealing than women. This seems to be correct and is consistent with the stock gender stereotypes. As far as the cause, one can present the usual suspects: socialization and genetics. Whatever the cause, there does seem to be a significant difference between how men and women react to such situations, at least in general terms.

Given that these sort of interactions are part of being a professional philosopher, it makes sense that women would the field less appealing and hence this is a plausible causal factor as to there being fewer women than men in philosophy.

This does not, however, automatically entail that this behavior should be changed so as to make philosophy more appealing to women.

To use an obvious analogy, combat oriented video games and aggressive sports are far less appealing to females than males. However, to assume that this is somehow a defect in the games or sports would be a rather hasty conclusion. It would also be rather hasty to infer that such games and sports should (in the moral sense of the term) be changed so as to appeal to females. After all, there are plenty of other games and sports that females can play. So, for example, if many women do not find Halo: Reach enjoyable, they can always playPortal 2 or (God forbid) Farmville. Likewise, if many women do not find the practice of philosophy appealing, they can seek alternatives.

An obvious, and correct, reply is that while combat games and contact sports are inherently aggressive, it is not obvious that philosophy must be aggressive. There is also the obvious point that while women can play a wealth of alternative sports and games, to simply tell women that they have to play philosophy the “male way” or hit the intellectual highway seems to be rather unwarranted.

That said, it could be argued that the  aggressive nature of this sort of philosophical behavior might be an important (or even essential) aspect of the philosophical method. If so, it would be unreasonable to expect the practice of philosophy to change so as to make it appeal to women. Going back to the games and sports analogy, it would seem unreasonable to demand that video games and sports be changed so that they will appeal to women and allow women to compete with men in all cases (such as in American football).

While it is tempting to see philosophy as requiring an aggressive clash of ideas, this does not seem to be essential to the practice of philosophy. To use the obvious example, while Socrates was quite willing to engage with the likes of Meletus and Ion, the Socratic method is more of a cooperative endeavor rather than an inherently acrimonious or hostile one. It is, of course, also possible to have a lively, spirited and even competitive exchange of ideas without it devolving into a situation that is needlessly aggressive.

This sort of approach would, I think, make the practice of professional philosophy more appealing-and not just to women.

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I’m Not John Galt

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Since Ayn Rand fan Rick Santelli got the party started, it is hardly surprising that the Tea Party contains many elements of Rand’s philosophical views. Quotes from her works have been popular at Tea Party events and some Tea Party leaders, such as Paul Ryan, make it clear that they have been strongly influenced by her works.

Aside from the actual bible, Atlas Shrugged could be regarded as the Tea Party bible.  In this book, John Galt goes on “strike” against those he regards as parasites and this soon inspires the leaders of industry and invention. Following him, they leave the rest of society to fend on its own. Society does not fare well: deprived of the true elite, the masses are unable to keep things going and the world falls to pieces. This work, of course, is largely a fictional assault on the doctrines of Marxism (at least Marxism as Rand saw it).

As far as why the masses cannot survive without these elite and why the elite should abandon them, Galt says:

The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.

This is, clearly enough, a reversal of the classic Marxist view. Rather than having a few capitalists deriving their vast wealth by exploiting masses of workers, Rand envisions the masses deriving their very survival by exploiting the competent and intelligent few. All the unfortunate elites receive is mere “material payment”, which is presumably not enough compensation for their efforts. The idea of a small elite toiling to keep the moronic masses alive was also put forth in Cyril Kornbluth’s 1951 short story “The Marching Morons”, which predates Atlas Shrugged.

This view does have a certain appeal. First, innovations and inventions are developed by relatively few people and then used by the many who generally have little understanding of the technology, science or theories involved. For example, dumb people have smart phones that they use without any meaningful knowledge of logic, programming, or technology. As another example, the philosophical ideas of capitalism and democracy were developed by a few thinkers, yet benefit the uncomprehending masses. Second, leadership is always provided by the few and they lead the many who would generally be lost without such leadership. An army without leadership is just an armed mob. A business without leadership is not a business at all. Third, numerous philosophers, such as Aristotle,  have argued that the masses lead a bovine existence and are interested only in pleasure rather than higher pursuits or fine ideals. As such, a plausible case can be made to support the claim that the many need the competent few more than the competent few need the many.

Of course, a pragmatic case can  be made as to why the few also need the many, even it is assumed that the masses are as lacking as Rand seems to hold. First, business would seem to require the many in their roles as workers and consumers. After all, no matter how amazing a CEO might be, they cannot single handedly produce, distribute, sell (and then buy) the products or services  that provide their great wealth. Obviously enough, the sort of massive wealth that the top people have is only possible with the contributions of the masses. Second, civilization and all its trappings (such as buildings) also seems to require the contributions of the masses. While Kufu might have called for a pyramid to be made, he would still be working on it if he had to do it by himself. Third, in order for the great leaders to have anyone to lead, there must be other people who are followers. As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”

The above points do, of course, rest on the assumption that Galt is right about the many. However, the claim that “the man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains” certainly can be questioned.

This matter is, of course, an empirical one. Taken at face value, the “bottom men” are so inept that they could not even acquire food for themselves and so useless that they contribute nothing (at least nothing to those above them). While there are some people who are like this, they seem to be rather few in number. First, average intelligence (or less) would seem to suffice to be able to sort out how to acquire food (if only after a rough period of trial and error). There is also the obvious point that the elites would probably also have a rough time of it without farmers and other providers of food. Put crudely, it is not the CEO who is out in the field raising the crops or tending the cows.  Second, while there are some people who do contribute nothing, most people do work and contribute. As just noted, the food that appears on the CEO’s plate does not arrive there by magic. The roads, universities, dams, power plants and so on also do not appear and run themselves. As D’Alembert said, “but while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” That seems sound advice.

I will, of course, concede that there are some people who are “bottom men.” In some cases, they would be classified as such because of mental or physical impairments. In other cases ,they would be on the bottom because of age: too old or too young to fend for themselves or to contribute to those “above” them.  While some would clearly approve of abandoning the handicapped, children and the elderly, this would seem to be a morally wicked thing to do. At the very least, anyone who was a child or plans on living to old age should probably oppose such a view if only on purely pragmatic grounds. Then again, perhaps some can honestly claim that they should have been abandoned as useless parasites when they were children and that they should also left to fend for themselves when they are too old to gather their own food and contribute to those “above” them. If so, I would praise their consistency while condemning their ethical failings.

As a final point, while some Tea Party folks and others might praise Rand and idolize Galt, the vast majority of them would seem to fall into Galt’s category of “bottom men.” If Galt were real, they would not be joining him in Atlantis but rather be left behind to perish. The very idea of a popular and broad movement based on these views is beautifully ironic. After all, the many are to be abandoned by the very few elites. Naturally, everyone who buys into these ideas sees themselves as an elite. But, of course, by their own ideology most (if not all) of them must be wrong.

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Diamonds in the cosmic sands

1912_erik_adlerz_in_actionI just finished writing up an interview with Ronald Dworkin for the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.  He talked a bit about the meaning of life.  Lots of people think that for a life to have meaning it has to leave something valuable behind — a meaningful life is one that produces a cure for disease, a fine book of sonnets, some lasting contribution to the human story.  Most lives aren’t meaningful in this sense.  We can’t all be Alexander Fleming.

Dworkin argues that this ignores another kind of value a life might have.  What matters is not just what you leave behind when you check out, but how your life is lived.  His distinction is between the product value of a life and its performance value.  A dancer dances, a diver dives, and that’s it, there’s nothing left, but didn’t something of value come into the world?  Maybe, so too, with a human life.

As he puts it at the end of Justice for Hedgehogs, “Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration.  But if we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more.  We write a subscript to our mortality.  We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”

France’s Burqa Ban

Women wearing burqas in the street

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France imposed its “burqa ban” today. This law does not, of course, specifically ban burqas. Rather, it bans people from covering their faces (presumably mimes get a special exemption). However, it is understood that the law is, in fact, specifically targeting Muslim women.  Interestingly enough, Muslim women in France generally do not wear burqas. Rather, they tend to wear the niqab. There are also relative few Muslim women in France who engage in the practice at all.

The main motivation for the law seems to be Sarkozy’s desire to do something to improve his dismal approval ratings. By appearing tough on Muslims he, perhaps, can counter the growing appeal of the right. His military adventures in Libya also seem calculated to that end.  Obviously enough, this reason hardly justifies the law.

The main stated justification for the law is that it is intended to protect Muslim women from oppression. The idea seems to be that Muslim men in France force women to wear the veil. As such, it is a sign of male oppression. This line of reasoning has been used to win over support on the left in France.

This does have some appeal. After all, Islam does not have the best track record when it comes to the treatment of women. It is also the case that some Muslim women are forced to cover themselves against their wills.

However, the law does not  merely forbid forcing women to cover up. Rather, it also outlaws appearing in public while covered. While the fine and jail sentences for forcing someone to cover up are greater than those to be imposed on those who are caught covered up, it seems reasonable to question the claim that this law is aimed at protecting women from oppression. A law aimed at protecting women would, it seem, only punish those who forced women to cover up. Women who freely chose to cover themselves should, one would imagine, be exempt from such punishment. After all, a person who chooses to dress in a certain way would not seem to be the victim of oppression-even if others might not approve of her choice.

While many Westerners probably assume that Muslim women must all be forced to cover up, this is not the case. Somewomen apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about whether the choice is actually free, it does not seem unreasonable that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to freely expose lots of flesh in public, then it seems no less unusual that some woman would want to cover up much more.

Some people might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also seem to be oppressive as well.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being completely naked in public, there should also be laws against being completely covered. After all, a woman cannot walk the streets of France with only her eyes covered, so why should a woman be allowed to do so with only her eyes exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of proper dress.

While this might have some appeal, this justification would require having laws against anything that created a distraction and anything that went against the general sense of proper dress. This, one might suspect, would justify a far too broad range of laws.

As a final point, there is also the religious aspect. While many scholars of Islam contend that covering up is not actually required by the faith, this mode of dress does seem to be an expression of faith. To ban it would thus seem on par with banning Orthodox Jews and Catholic nuns from wearing their distinctive clothing in public. Such bans would clearly be attacks on religious freedom and hence the ban in France should also be regarded as such.

While I am not religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them.

(Shameless self promotion: 42 Fallacies)

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What is a Fair Tax?

Comparison of progressive taxes

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While no one wants to pay taxes, if they must be paid then we can at least hope that the taxes of fair. Obviously enough, what counts as a fair tax is a matter of considerable dispute. Stereotypically, political liberals are cast as being favorably inclined towards taxes while the political conservatives are cast as being against taxes. While I will endeavor to avoid falling into any specific political leanings, it is obvious that any discussion of fair taxes will rest on numerous assumptions. While this cannot be avoided, I will do my best to present my assumptions so that they can be properly assessed and criticized.

One way to approach the matter of the fair tax is to assume that the fairness of a tax rests (at least partially) on the nature of the relationship between the citizens and the state, as well as the relationship between citizens. For the sake of brevity, I will consider only two main types of relationships. These are, of course, not exhaustive and I welcome others being added into the discussion. I will also be assuming that the discussion is taking place in the context of a first world democratic state, such as the United States, the UK, or Canada.

One view is that the relations between citizens and the state (and between citizens) is essentially of the same type as the relationship between a business and its customers. On this model, the state provides goods and services to the citizens and the citizens provide such goods and services to each other on the basis of economic compensation.

On this somewhat minimalist view of the state (and citizenship), the concept of a fair tax seems to be easily defined. A fair tax would be, in essence, a payment for the goods and services that a citizen receives. So, for example, if the state provides me with $15,000 in legitimate goods and services over the course of the year, then I would be fairly and justly taxed $15,000. Paying the fair value of what I receive would, obviously enough, be the epitome of fair.

This would, of course, create some practical problems in terms of calculating the value of such goods and services. However, given that businesses are able to address the problem of how much to charge, this seems to be something that could be resolved. Even if this presents a practical impossibility (which seems unlikely), it would still seem to provide a paradigm of a fair (if impractical) method of tax.

While this system would seem to be eminently fair, the extreme income disparities in countries like the United States might be seen as creating some problems. One obvious point of concern is that while the wealthy could easily pay for their goods and services, those who are less well off would probably be hard pressed to pay their fair share for such things as education for their children, police protection, fire protection, and so on.

Of course, this could be seen as being no different from the situation the less well off always find themselves in. After all, they cannot acquire all the goods and services that the wealthy can acquire and if this is fair, it would seem to be equally fair that they would be unable to receive all the goods and services of the state. If they cannot afford these services, then they must either find more income or simply do without. To use an analogy, if Bill cannot afford to buy a car, then he will have to walk. If he cannot afford to pay for police protection, then he had best learn to run. This might seem harsh, but in a pay as you go system, that is the nature of fairness. After all, why should anyone be forced to pay the way for anyone else?

While the business model has a certain appeal, it probably strikes some as being unduly harsh. After all, it essentially abandons citizens who cannot pay for their goods and services and these are, obviously enough, the people who most often need the help of the state.

One (and only one of many) alternative is to see the relationship between the citizen and the state (and other citizens) as less in terms of business and more in terms of a community. On the simplified community model, fairness is not measured solely in terms of the goods and services an individual consumes. The individual’s responsibility to the community is also a factor in determining what is a fair contribution in terms of taxes. The influence of this factor might increase the amount the individual should fairly pay in taxes or it might decrease the amount. As might be imagined, sorting out how much an individual should be fairly expected to contribute to the community is a rather controversial matter. However, it does seem reasonable to at least consider that a fair contribution might exceed or be less than what the individual actually uses or consumes in terms of goods and services. After all, there seem to be clear cases in which it is fair and just for an individual to contribute more or less than what they use or what others contribute.

To use an analogy, consider a family. In general, the children in a family are not going to be able to pay for all that they use or consume in the household. As such, the parents will have to bear the cost of their children. This would not seem to be, on the face of it, an unfair burden on the parents (although such cases could be imagined, of course).

But, someone might object, our relationship with other citizens is not analogous to the family relationship. As such, it cannot be used to justify allowing people to pay more or less based on these highly suspicious community factors.

In reply, another analogy might be offered. Suppose I am camping with my friends and a storm destroys most of their gear. Rather than let them die in the woods, I share my food, water and shelter because they are in need and they are my friends. Leaving them to die because I was unwilling to give up my “fair share” (that is, my property) would hardly seem to be fair at all.

“Aha”, an objector might say, “you are willingly sharing with your friends and not being forced to give up your goods. Taxes are not like this. Taxes are like having someone force you to share your goods to help some stupid strangers.”

This does have some appeal. However, there is an obvious flaw. I do, in fact, have a choice in regards to the taxes. As a citizen of a democracy, I have a role (albeit a small one) in the government and hence the taxes I pay are paid from choice. If I do not like how my money is being spent, I can do something about it. As far as the “stupid strangers” part, that does raise an interesting question about what we owe each other. As a country, are we more like friends or more like selfish customers thrown together into the same store by the vagaries of fate?

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Koran Burning


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Last year Terry Jones gained international attention by threatening to burn the Koran. The situation seemed to have been resolved with Jones’ decision not to burn any books. However, he and some of his fellows went through with the burning on March 20, 2011. While most of the world did not react to this event, some people in Afghanistan and Pakistan reacted quite strongly. In the case of Afghanistan, the burning led to riots. The first of these resulted in the deaths of seven U.N. workers (none of whom were Americans) and four demonstrators. More deaths have followed and it seems likely that even more people will die before the event plays out.

One aspect of this incident is that some of the rioters are obviously willing to murder people who have no connection whatsoever to the burning of the Koran. As such, it seems rather difficult for them to claim that they are acting on the basis of any meaningful concept of justice. After all, justice seems to require distinguishing between those who are accountable and those who are not accountable. There is, of course, also the rather important matter of whether or not the burning of a book warrants death.

Interestingly enough, an unwillingness (or inability) to distinguish between people is something that is often seen among Americans who are hostile to Islam and regard all Muslims as terrorists (or potential terrorists). This unwillingness to make such distinctions seems to be a significant factor in the mindsets of such people. Whether this is an effect of their hatred or a contributory cause (or both) is something that remains to be determined.

Rather than focus on this matter, however, I will instead focus on the American reaction to the incidents and its repercussions.

On view, put forth by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, is that while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, assembly and religion, Americans should exercise these rights responsibly.

This view seems to be quite reasonable. After all, the constitution is rather clear about the legal rights presented in the First Amendment and the rulings of the Supreme Court have been consistently in favor of free speech, even when such speech does have negative consequences.

An obvious response to this view is that not all speech is protected nor should it be. To use the classic example, people do not have the legal (or moral) right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. This is because their speech would cause direct harm under reasonable legal and moral views of causation (sine qua non and proximate causation).

In the case of Jones’ burning the Koran, his expression seems to have caused Afghans to attack and kill people. Given this sort of harm, Jones’ actions should not be considered legally protected and should also be regarded as morally unacceptable. After all, his actions would seem to have caused needless and wrongful harm to others.

The easy and obvious reply to this is that there is a relevant difference between the theater example and the Koran burning. In the case of the person yelling fire, the action is a deceit (there is no fire) and it is reasonable to expect people to try to escape a building that is supposed to be on fire. It is also reasonable to expect that people could be injured during the escape attempt. As such, there seems to be a rather direct link between the yelling of “fire”and the harm that would result.

In the case of burning the Koran, the link seems to be more indirect. The book is burned, people learn about it, they become angry, they riot, they go looking for Americans to kill, they do not find Americans so they attack U.N. workers and kill them. In this scenario, the causal link seems to be such that Jones’ moral and legal culpability is very limited. In fact, he seems to have no legal culpability whatsoever.

To use an analogy, if I were to criticize the views of a British colleague in a spiteful manner and burn their book and they responded by going and punching a Canadian philosopher, then I would hardly be responsible for those actions. Even if I knew that they were hot tempered and likely to do this, I cannot be held accountable for their lack of self control.

It might be replied that if someone knows that other people will do harmful things if provoked by such words or deeds, then they should not take that action. However, this makes free expression a hostage to whoever is willing to respond with violent or destructive actions when they hear of things they do not like. This will clearly not do.

Naturally, there can be pragmatic grounds for engaging in some common sense restraint and moral arguments can be made as to why, on the basis of the consequences, people should not say or do certain things that might provoke people to irrational acts of murder and destruction. As a friend of mine has said, “it is sometimes best not to provoke the crazy people.”

A second view is that although the constitution is rather clear about the matter of freedom of expression, exceptions can be made in times of war. This view was put forth by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who spoke on Face the Nation.

“I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we are in a war. During World War II, you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. So, burning the Quran is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t justify killing someone. Burning a Bible would be a terrible thing, but it doesn’t justify murder.”

I will begin by agreeing with the second part of Graham’s remarks: burning a religious book does not justify killing people. However, I do have some concerns about the first part of his remarks.

He begins by noting that while free speech is a great idea (something people always say before going on to say that it needs to be limited), the fact that we are at war justifies restricting it. He notes that this was practiced in WWII and he presumably thinks that a similar approach should be taken today.

On the one hand, I can see the appeal of this approach. After all, in times of war it does make sense to limit what people can say. For example, it seems acceptable to prevent citizens from freely talking about secret military plans or revealing the names and locations of agents in enemy territory. However, these sorts of things seem to be already covered by existing laws and it seems easy enough to make moral arguments against acts that would seem to be cases of potential treason.

On the other hand, this approach does have some problems. First, we now seem to always be at war with no clear end (or even a clear definition of what would count as an end) in sight. As such, it seems like a less than great idea to use the war justification. After all, since being always at war is the new normal, this would seem to mean that such limits would be in place for the foreseeable future. Second, while we are at war, the war (three of them, actually) seem to be rather different from WWII in ways that might have justified restrictions in WWII but do not justify them now. Third, there is also the obvious question as to whether such limits were justified during WWII. After all, if they are being used to justify limits now, it must be shown that they justified limits then. Fourth, there seems to be the rather obvious problem that restricting expression that provokes “the enemy” would seem to justify imposing a broad range of restrictions. Under this approach, if the announcement that the United States was going to take an action in the Middle East led to a violent response, then the persons or persons making the announcement (perhaps the president or his press secretary) would have to be held accountable. Or, to use another example, if some people rioted in Afghanistan and said it was because American women are allowed to express opinions in public, then American women would need to be held accountable. This seems to be clearly absurd.

In light of the above, while I believe that Jones’ should not have burned the Koran, I also hold that there should be no legal restrictions placed on such actions.

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Meditation 110 Philosophy, Thinking-Well and the Art of Living

Meditation 110: Philosophy, Thinking-Well, and the Art of Living

What good is philosophy? Does it contribute to the art of living? Yes, because it helps us to apply intelligent thought to the world of our own experience. In this sense, it is possible to be an ‘unschooled’ philosopher. Any person who thinks deeply, loves to discuss the large questions of life, and tries to think comprehensively is a philosopher.

Philosophizing is a matter of asking difficult questions, analyzing them clearly, and coming to reasoned conclusions. Thinking philosophically reveals that appearances are often deceptive and nothing can be taken at its face value. A person who sees this is less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians. No one wants to play the part of a fool. Thus, thinking-well is part of the art of living.

One benefit of leaning to think-well is the ability to see the big picture and a long time frame. It is valuable to locate our thinking in a history that goes back to the beginnings of agriculture and settled communities. During these last 10,000 years, most of the significant evolution in our society has occurred.

Philosophy has a questioning spirit that does not take things for granted or believe something because someone says it is so. Among the ideas that philosophers explore are God, self, freedom, morality, beauty, justice, and metaphysics. Philosophy is free to go anywhere as long as it uses reason, logic and the evidence of our senses to back up its speculations.

Crucially, philosophy challenges us to be consistent in our own views and to ask others to be consistent, too. When we hit a contradiction in our beliefs or values, it is time to stop and think again. Whenever someone points out our contradictions, we ought to be grateful. Seeing our own inconsistencies gives us a chance to rethink our ideas and values and come up with something better.

The habit of thinking philosophically makes life reflective. Philosophy encourages us look for the reasons behind what we and others believe. Dealing with the differences and contradictions we find is the main reason philosophy began over two thousand years ago and why we need it now.

Another benefit of philosophy is the ability to think clearly and well about the practicalities of life. We all have to make our way in the world. The art of living enables us to act effectively, make true friends, pursue excellence in our lives and cultivate understanding. Aristotle, near the beginning of the Western tradition, calls this ‘practical wisdom.’ We need to learn about the general consequences of our actions, and to form plans most likely to avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary.

In addition, discussing philosophical questions can give us an exciting way of sharing ourselves with others in talk, engaging in significant conversation rather than idle talk. Through a process of give and take, good philosophical talk enables us to explore vital topics and disputes, ideally in friendly way, discovering where we agree and disagree. The art of philosophical conversation gives us reliable routes to excitement, joy and transcendence. Indeed, the conversation of philosophically inclined partners-in-discovery is one of the finest human experiences.

What I have said here about philosophy and thinking-well as part of the art of living is conditional upon certain fundamental values. These values are the freedom of thought and the desirability of possessing some measure of autonomy in our lives. Philosophy grew up over 2,500 years ago when life in Greece and the Middle East was becoming complicated. People disagreed, sometimes violently, over questions with no easy answers. A few people decided to begin thinking things through for themselves in discussion with others. Philosophy was born. Philosophical reflection frees us from unnecessary fears, the shackles of ideology, and the word of ‘authorities’. We learn from this development that incorporating a reflective and actively inquiring way of thinking into our lives is part of the art of living, part of what it is to be fully human, and a significant part of the good of philosophy.

Is Ladies’ Night Sexist?

Ladies Night

Image by infinitewhite via Flickr

A segment on Den Hollander, a lawyer who become moderately famous for his crusade against ladies’s night drink pricing, appeared recently on the Colbert Report. This mocking segment got me thinking about this topic and the philosophical issues involved with the matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ladies’ night, this is a practice followed by many bars and nightclubs that involves free (or reduced prices on) drinks and admission for women. The objective is, of course, to lure in women with the special pricing and use the women to lure in men (who will be paying full price).

On the face of it, the claim that ladies’ night is sexist seems laughable. After all, it is simply a marketing device used to increase business and hardly a device of cruel oppression. To claim that this practice would be on par with claiming that deals limited to children (such as reduced movie prices) or the elderly (such as reduced admission prices to some parks) are cases of ageism. Since such a claim would be absurd, it would follow that the attack on ladies’ night is absurd as well.

It could also be argued that ladies night is not sexist on the basis that men are not actually being harmed by the practice. After all, while men do have to pay more than women on ladies’ night, men typically go to ladies’ night to meet women who have been knocking back the free (or cheap) drinks. As such, far from oppressing men, ladies’ night is actually advantageous to men in two ways: 1) there will be more women present and 2) their judgment will probably be impaired by alcohol.

However, it is certainly possible to argue that ladies night is sexist. After all, what the customer is being charged is based on the customer’s sex and this not does seem to provide a relevant difference that would justify a difference in pricing. As such, this would seem to be a clear case of sexism.

In regards to the analogy to special pricing for seniors and children, there are various replies that could be made. The first is that the analogy breaks down because everyone gets to be a kid (and hence can have access to the children’s specials) and everyone has a shot at being a senior (and hence can get access to those specials). In the case of sex based pricing, men do not get to become women without expensive medical procedures, and hence men will not have access to that pricing. The second is that many of the discounts are situations that involve relevant differences. For example, children’s meals are often less because they are smaller than adult portions. As such, the analogy seems to fail.

It can also be argued that age based specials are, in fact, cases of ageism. After all, in those cases in which there are no relevant differences (such as portion size), then a difference in treatment would seem to be ageist in nature. Likewise for ladies’ night.

Another approach to arguing that ladies night is sexist is to consider whether or not the following would be a case of racism. Imagine, if you will, a night club that offers (in addition to ladies’ night) a whites’ night. On white night, whites get free admission and free drinks , while non-whites have to pay the normal prices. No one is excluded based on race, it is just that whites get special pricing for that night. I am inclined to believe that whites’ night would be regarded as a sexist event. However, it seems no more racist than ladies’ night is sexist.

It might, of course, be argued that whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.

While this is a point worth considering, accepting this sort of reasoning would seem to involve accepting that without an established history of sexism or racism against people of type X, then an action cannot be sexist or racist against people of type X. This would mean, obviously enough, that racism and sexism could never occur. After all, there could be no racist or sexist acts prior to racism and sexism and there could be no racism and sexism prior to racist acts.

It might be replied that ladies’ night is not really sexism or at least not a big deal because it is such a small thing. After all, allowing women to have free drinks while men must pay hardly seems like a big deal. It is not like men are being denied the right to vote or being denied access to scholarships that are only for women. There is no systematic or wide scale oppression; just a difference in drink prices.

That reply does have some appeal. After all, it actually is a little thing and people generally find it laughable that anyone would be concerned about something so silly. However, the fact that something is a little thing does not mean that it is not sexist.

In light of the above arguments, it seems reasonable to believe that ladies’ night is actually sexist. As compensation for years of cruel oppression, I only ask that the ladies buy me a drink now and then.

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