Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Does Handicapped Accessibility Morally Entail Handicapped Exclusivity?

So I went to lunch last week with Aspazia, Kerry, and Raj in the faculty dining hall on campus and when we looked for a table, the only one we saw open was at the front. We sat down and halfway through the meal, we realized why that table was open -- it was designated as handicap accessible. (To be fair, the designation was rather subtle and easy to miss.)

This, of course, sparked conversation. It's a small school and we knew that there happens, at this time, not to be a great demand on such accommodations in the dining room, so we knew that most likely we weren't keeping anyone from a table more comfortable for them.

But in the course of the conversation, I mentioned that when I am out with the kids and they both need to go potty, I use the stalls made accessible for those with disabilities because they are much more convenient -- it would be nearly impossible to fit three people into a single stall and I didn't want to leave the door open or one of the kids outside. At the same time, I would never even consider parking in a handicap reserved parking place (and not because of the legal concern or the possible fine). I argued that there was a difference in the cases. The bathroom stall would be used for a very short time and the person, most likely, could wait. If not, he could voice the issue and I could quickly correct the situation. With the parking place, though, there would be no chance of correction and no sense of how long I would be parked.

I'm not sure I convinced anyone with this line -- even myself. Are these pragmatic issues really enough to hang the argument on? Is there a difference between parking spaces and bathroom stalls? Intuitively, it seems to me, at least, that there is. But if so, what?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Misogyny, Feminism, and Sexual Frustration as a Motive Force in History

You forget how much of an island you live on. Being so long out of the locker room and shuttling back and forth in my cozy pro-feminist life between my office next to Aspazia and Kerry then back to the homestead with TheWife, you forget how isolated you are from so much of the other America sometimes. This post at feministe, "Dr. Helen on Why Men and Women Don't Want Sex," gave me one of those "oh, right" moments. The conversation there discusses a stunning display of misogyny (hatred of women) and massagony (intense dislike of backrubs) from the conservative end of the blogosphere. The original post brings several points to mind.

First, the obvious three that should not even need stating:

1. Feminists are not anti-sex. Indeed, a major thrust of the feminist project is to think long and hard about the nature of sexuality and sexual activity. Far from hating sex, feminists have intense discussions about what makes good sex -- good in both the operational and moral sense -- and what are the causes and ramifications of the difference between good sex and what most people engage in. They don't hate all sex, they hate bad sex.

2. There is no "feminist" answer to the questions about what makes good sex. Feminism is a rich and diverse intellectual movement with many voices speaking. There is a wide variety of methodologies and starting points used by thinkers well-embedded in the feminist tradition. The discussion from someone working out of second-wave thought will radically differ from a third-waver and be different still from someone with largely continental influences.

3. There is a fallacy in your thinking about your phallussie -- it's called premature generalization. Just because a specific contemporary American woman has little or no desire to have relations with a given contemporary American man does not mean that there has been a major shift in the way the majority of men relate to their female partners. This sort of universal claim needs many more data points to be legit. Logically, one must be careful not to go off half-cocked.

There are many, many more that should also be discussed. Having sex is not purchasing an orgasm, it is a relating between humans, the nature of equality and the social conditions that have fostered a false sense of male entitlement, and on and on, but I want to step back for a minute.

It is easy to adopt the Enlightenment pose and treat the vile discourse as coming from rational actors who chose to be nasty. It is too easy and self-satisfying to simply write off these folks and condemn their characters. Not that their hatred is justified. It isn't. Nor is it constructive. It is ill-informed, badly thought through, and dangerous. BUT, it is interesting. What you see is not the result of people writing from a purely intellectual place. They write from sexual frustration and repression and these form a powerful force.

There are, of course, effects on a person when any physical need goes unsatisfied, but sexual needs seem to have deeper ramifications. Not having those urges met not only bring them even more front and center, making the desire even stronger, but they are tied to so many of our deep insecurities -- am I attractive, am I a good lover, am I a "real man," am I worth being close to, am I desirable, am I desired. It is no doubt true that those guys are not "getting any" because they don't "get it," but in this case the negative reinforcement does not lead the person to conform his behavior or beliefs; to the contrary, as we see in that thread, it often leads to a state where they lash out more aggressively.

But that aggressive energy also gets channeled elsewhere. As a surmise, I put forward the hypothesis that the course of human history has been significantly driven by sexual frustration. What would lead to mass migration from fertile lands, especially dangerous expeditions over seas to lands unknown? Hey, there might be hot chicks over there who love foreign guys. Wars, materialism, consolidation of power and the technological advances that accompany them -- fueled by repression?

The only evidence I can offer in support of this hypothesis comes from our cousins the Bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee. They are more intelligent and less violent than their common chimp (and possibly, human) relatives and live in groups that have a matriarchal structure that is enforced through the use of sexuality as a means of conflict resolution. Should disharmony arise, the hostility is dissipated through sexual means and that is not limited to heterosexual couplings.

Would this model translate from chimp to human society? Dunno. Bonobos don't have computers, cable, or Thai restaurants with a really good massaman curry. Worth the trade for peace and love? Either way, it seems that the misogynistic blowing off of steam over at Dr. Helen's place may be showing us the ugly side of what got us to where we are today.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Donald Davidson and the American Dream

Guest post today from Jeff Maynes:

One of the places I peddle my political opinions is on a forum otherwise dedicated to one of my favorite clubs, the New York Mets. Since the forum is dedicated primarily to a baseball team, and one out of New York no less, there is little unity in political opinion. Further, one often encounters the opinions of people who are not otherwise politically active, and they often do not have a particular party line to press. Yet in recent discussions over the minimum wage, a very clear divide emerged. What particularly struck me about the arguments of opponents of the minimum wage increase was faith in the ability of the impoverished to pull themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps.

The “American Dream” is that anyone can make their fortune or fame in this country through hard work. It's a great message in one respect, as it promotes effort and determination. Yet at the same time, it obscures a more complex political and social reality. Many of the participants in the aforementioned discussion hold this dream dear, leading to a great many statements along the following lines: “if they want to make more money, they should find higher paying jobs,” “there is money for anyone willing to work for it” and so on and so forth. There are undoubtedly a great number of reasons why people hold this view, from an overemphasis on the exceptional few to socialization in grade school. I wish to add to this list, rather than supplant it, by drawing an analogy to the work of Donald Davidson.

The central element in Davidson's philosophical project is his theory of interpretation. Interpretation is an activity that we all take part it, we interpret others and we interpret ourselves. Essentially, when two agents are involved in an interpretation, they fix the meanings and referents of their terms, allowing for successful communication. One difficulty that faces interpreters is the interconnectedness of belief and meaning. One cannot know the beliefs of another without knowing what they mean by their utterances, and one cannot know what their utterances mean without knowing what they believe.

So how do we find our way out of this conundrum? Davidson's solution is to assume agreement. In his paper “Belief and the Basis of Meaning” he writes “the point is rather that widespread agreement is the only possible background against which disputes and mistakes can be interpreted.” In other words, for me to figure out what someone else means by their utterances, I have to assume that we agree about just about everything else – the world we are talking about, basic beliefs about it, etc. If we are going to disagree about anything, we have to agree about most of the background stuff to even understand the disagreement.

The hypothesis I want to float for all of the SteveG's loyal readers is this: when encountering the plight of the impoverished it is natural to assume agreement with the circumstances in which both the “interpreter” and the “interpreted” live. If the American Dream truly applies to everyone, then the plight of the poor is their own fault – they have simply been too lazy to take advantage of the opportunities granted to them. Coming from a middle class lifestyle, this is a pretty easy view to hold. Had I decided not to work in high school I still would have ended up in college. My parents cared too much for my future to allow me to miss that chance (nor do I blame them). Had I decided to be lazy in college, I still would've gotten my degree, and probably would've wound up in some corporation earning a modest salary, living a comfortable life. The American Dream applied to me, whether I chose to be lazy or industrious.

As the middle class individual in this example, I am the interpreter. As interpreters, we know that our experience in life differs greatly from those on minimum wage income. To understand this disagreement, we assume agreement on background circumstances. Sure, we can make some new leaps, we understand that the poor don't always have food, or adequate health care, or even a roof over their heads. Nevertheless, many still insist that if these people only worked harder, their situation would improve and their plight would vanish. This sentiment comes out of the massive agreement the interpreter assigns between his or her circumstances and the circumstances of the interpreted. If opportunity is all we have ever known, then it is devastatingly difficult to approach a life without it. The American Dream is part of the middle class upbringing, and when interpreting the life of someone from a different background, it is one of the background assumptions often held steady.

I do not wish to limit this scheme to people who buy into the American Dream through and through. It is a powerful and pervasive influence, that I would guess afflicts all of us who have been lucky enough to avoid true hardship in life. It is difficult to get a hold of the life of the poor when you return to a warm apartment at the end of the day. No matter how much you see it, or understand it, the attributed background agreement, to some degree, is there. Davidson argues that agreement is a necessary precondition of interpretation. I'm not sure if the claim to necessity holds in this analogy, but at the least, this agreement is difficult to escape.

This audience doesn't need a moralistic essay on how to avoid this problem; many of the people who write and post here are more admirable than I in this regard. Yet, for my part, I think there is at least some hope for us to understand the lives of those in need by being conscious of the circumstances from which our interpretation begins and by making the important effort to refine our interpretation of the circumstances of those in need.

(Note: I do not mean to suggest that Davidson's doctrines are parallel to social justice arguments, or that this analogy is perfect. Further, even though Davidson was quite the lefty, I have no idea if he would agree with this or not. I merely wish to suggest it as an instructive and illuminating analogy).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Feasts of Saints Ernie and John

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the feast days of two Comedist saints. Ernie Kovacs was a pioneer in television comedy. Where all the comedy before him was televised versions of Vaudeville routines, it was Kovacs who was the first to really begin to experiment with the technology and humorous potential of cameras and televised stages. He was the Cecil B. DeMille of 50's television comedy spending huge amounts of money and efforts constructing sets for even a single gag. One of his classics was building a stage on a 30 degree slant and titling the camera at the same angle so it seemed straight and then playing a guy trying to eat lunch with everything rolling off the table. He played it magnificently. The milk pouring sideways is classic. But he is best known for a bit simply called, the Nairobi Trio. If you have never seen this, treat yourself -- it is one of the finest bit of mime clowning from the mid-20th century. Simple, elegant, hilarious.

Saint John Belushi defined comedy in the late 70's. Steve Martin could get laughs claiming that he was a wild and crazy guy, but Belushi really was. Especially watching him live, you got the sense that this comedic dynamo could explode at any moment. There is now a national chain called "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger." How many routines make such an impact that they are so instantly recognized? Animal House, The Blues Brothers, 1941. We lost him too early.

But should any of you be suffering personal difficulties, here are some words from Saint John to inspire you:

D-Day: War's over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.
Bluto: Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Otter: Germans?
Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.
Bluto: And it ain't over now. 'Cause when the goin' gets tough... the tough get goin'! Who's with me? Let's go!
Let's go, indeed.

Favorite Belushi moments anyone?

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 26, 2007

W, the Black Knight, and Bridging the Divide

I've been listening all week to NPR "Bridging the Divide" theme that has run as a leitmotif throughout all their news/commentary programming and something about it has been grating. Then it hit me when listening to Cokie Roberts' (to speak of grating) contribution about how Washington and Congress were so much different when she was a young child of power and privilege. The partisanship was there, but there was a deep sense of camaraderie after sessions. She blamed it on the need to attract money, she blamed it on Congressmen who don't really move to DC, she blamed it on gerrymandered safe districts. But there were two words that she didn't mention at all -- Gingerich and Rove -- and that has been the thing that has really been most annoying about this discussion, there is an elephant in the room -- and it IS an elephant.

There's a reason this country is divided like it is. It wasn't an accident and it didn't just happen. It has been an intentional driving apart of this nation for the political gain of the Republican Party. Congress was intentionally poisoned by Newt Gingerich as a strategic move to grab power and because of people like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, and Pat Robertson, the general population has been bifurcated as well. This plan has been openly in effect for twenty years now. The idea is simple. If you eliminate the middle and completely split the country, the Republicans believed that their half would turn out in bigger numbers on election day. If you capture the Evangelical and Conservative Catholic churches, you could increase the number of non-voting voters in the GOP's column whereas those who are more natural constituents for the Democratic Party are much less likely to turn out. We are divided for cynical self-interested reasons.

Don't get me wrong, this is a bad thing and needs to be fixed. But why is it now that we suddenly are asking about reconciliation?

Isn't it strange that this conversation never happened when we were actually in the process of being divided? When Republicans had succeeded in undermining the unity of this nation -- even after it had been brought back together in the face of tragedy -- their unrelenting hunger for power went unchallenged by the media. Where were the calls for reconciliation after the 2000 election? the 2004 election? Why is it only after those who caused the damage were unequivocally rebuked, only after they are swept out of power in the Congress, and now that Bush makes a lame duck look like Gene Kelly that we are being asked to compromise and let them back to the table so they can have joint custody of the child they abused?

It is amazing to look back just a few years ago. Fear of fascism was real. The right to free speech was being curtailed. Brett Bursey was arrested for holding a political sign unfavorable to the President and there were several arrests and ejections from places like shopping malls for simply wearing t-shirts with anti-war, pro-civil liberties, or anti-Bush slogans. Enemies of the administration were having their careers ruined. Colleagues of mine at the University of Texas spoke of rampant fears around their jobs if they spoke publicly against the war or the administration. I have been conducting oral history interviews with the widows and children of philosophers who fled Nazism from Germany and Austria before and during the Second World War, I sat with someone who watched with his own eyes the infamous book burning in Berlin. Someone whose elderly and ailing Jewish father put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger because he was too old to flee and wasn't going to wait for the Nazis. Someone who was taken as a prisoner of war. Every single one of them, after the interview, after the tape recorder was off, wanted to talk politics and all of them remarked on how eerie the scene was, how much it reminded them of what they had seen before. This is not hyperbole.

The only thing that saved us was the Republicans' complete incompetence. The fact that every single thing they said about Iraq, from the existence of weapons of mass destruction to our being treated as liberators to this not being a civil war, turned out to be false. Enron, Terri Schaivo, Intelligent Design, budget deficits, corruption, lobbyists run amok, Katrina,...domino after domino of incompetence fell until any shred of credibility had been completely stripped.

So they lost power. Yesterday at lunch, Confused, Maybe Not coined a phrase that perfectly captured the lack of a State of the Union Address -- what we saw was a bully without a pulpit. The schoolyard bully no longer has the power to take our milk money and now, instead of being held to account for all the bully has done, now we are supposed to forgive and forget. Now we are supposed to have a big group hug with him and his gangster friends and reconcile. The vapid conversations on NPR this week have reminded me of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which the Black Knight is left by his bridge with nothing but bloody stumps where his extremities were, calling out to his foe who is riding off, "Alright, it's a draw."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Moral and Ethical?

I've never understood why people say "moral and ethical" as in "the moral and ethical implications of that action are serious." I've always thought the two words were synonymous making that phrase redundant, saying the same thing over again, and redundant. Is there a distinction I'm missing here? What is the difference between ethical and moral? Can an immoral act be ethically permissible, can an unethical act be morally necessary, or do they mean the same thing?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bush's State of the Legacy Speech

Reading the State of the Union speech from last night, I couldn't help but think of that line from the Rich Little interview from last week,

"They don't want anyone knocking the president. He's really over the coals right now, and he's worried about his legacy."
I think that is the lens through which that speech needs to be considered, it's all about Bush's legacy.

For seven years, Bush had a rubber stamp congress allowing him to do everything he wanted, his way, no oversight. After 2001, all he had to say was "9/11, 9/11, 9/11, terrorists, terrorists, terrorists." and he was given a completely free hand to rule as a king. But now, with his approval in the 30s in some polls, (he's less popular now than Dick Cheney, and consider that genital herpes is more popular than Cheney). Now any agenda he brings to the table will be met with strong opposition and he has little of that political capital he thought he had two years ago. Since the SOTU address is really about presenting the executive's desired legislative agenda for the year, the bit of political theater we saw was posturing for posterity.

From "look at me, I'm making history by saying MADAME speaker," to "have you met my friend Serge? C'mon give him a chance, send him to Iraq with his buddies," to "2,4,6,8, ethanol is really great," what we got was an attempt to preemtively strike at those who would place this President in the anals of history.

There is no doubt that Bush knows that Iraq will form the backbone of his legacy and that ain't lookin' quite so good.
"Whatever you voted for, you did not vote for failure."
Like someone flipping a coin and losing -- alright 3 out of 5, no no, 5 out of 7,... ok, how a bout 13 out of 25... -- the President knows that it is an albatross on his legacy and is hoping that by bringing in more albatrosses, maybe they can all fly away together.

The nod to global warming was interesting. A major shift from previous claims, he said,
"America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment — and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."
I refuse to go down as the last President to deny the existence of global warming. We may not do much, but for the sake of the legacy, we'll now admit it exists and make a bid for being seen as the start of the solution, not the end of the problem.

So the question after last night, then is, what will Bush's legacy be?

I think that the political state of the nation that Bush has created after these last several years is, in important ways, a much healthier one than he inherited from Bill Clinton. Part of Clinton's legacy was a short-term acceptance by people across the political spectrum that there was no real difference between the parties -- and to a large extent they were right. The distance between term II, Dick Morris triangulating Clinton and Bob Dole was not that significant. Bush and his people, on the other hand, worked very hard at being as divisive as possible, making sure that there became a massive chasm between the parties. Bush has re-established a two-party system in America. The ramifications of it were not what the architects of the plan had hoped. They were cackling about a Republican permanent majority just a few years ago as a result of the bifurcation of the country, now they are looking at Nancy Pelosi with a big ol' hammer.

But it goes one step farther. I think what Bush has left us is a much more politicized nation. You really don't hear the cynicism that you heard in 2000. There is a much more prevalent sense now that politics matters. The government isn't some big ship whose course can't be changed. It does matter who is the captain. Anecdotally, people close to me who were never much for politics are suddenly much more politically aware. People who were aware are now active. There does seem to have been a ratcheting up in participation.

Finally, and this is purely a hope with no evidence to back it up, perhaps it will be commonly accepted after W's departure from the world scene that "he's the guy I'd rather have a beer with" is an insufficient criterion for selecting the leader of the free world. Maybe next time, we'll all think "This is a difficult and important job. Hey, this time, let's go with the smart one."

Other thoughts on bush's legacy and how the world will be different after his term?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Giving Back: What Is Our Moral Obligation?

Over at Adventures in Science and Ethics, Dr. Free-Ride, back from a science bloggers' conference, asks an interesting question, well, interesting for those in the academic world,

"Will tenure and promotion committees -- especially in the sciences -- come to see blogging as a valuable professional activity? When? What will it take to bring about this change?"
I'd like to broaden this question a bit.

Blogging is one way to be a public intellectual, to participate in wider conversations about topics in which you have training and background and therefore could hopefully make substantive contributions. Scientists are technicians in a largely scientifically illiterate society in which science and technology play more and more central roles. They already have professional obligations to do research and advance their field and to teach students (training some to be the next generation of scientists and teaching the large majority the basic foundations of their field). As it currently stands there is virtually nothing in the professional reward structure to encourage this third service component to the wider society. By virtue of having specialized expertise, do scientists take on a special obligation to be significant contributors to the general discourse around matters that have scientific components? Should we see those scientists who don't so participate as having failed to live up to social expectations? Or are the advances they make to their science and the teaching itself their contribution?

But this is not merely a question about academic scientists. Lawyers have ethical guidelines that include taking on pro bono work. Pro athletes are always trotted out for their contributions to the communities in which they play. Do other occupations, or perhaps all occupations, also come along with moral imperatives to contribute to the broader society? Do philosophers have an obligation to write op-eds on ethical issues? Should contractors be expected to help out on Habitat for Humanity projects? Is doing your job enough or should we all be expected to give back? Sure, it's wonderful if you do, but is it required of us or above and beyond the ethical call of duty? Is the extra obligation something that only affects those vocations with higher social standing? Do you have to pay society back for the extra prestige?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Habeas Corpus: Writ or All She Wrote?

Last week, Alberto Gonzales, the nation's top law enforcement official, dropped a bombshell. According to him, there is no constitutional guarantee of Habeas Corpus.

Gonzales: 'There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there's a prohibition against taking it away.'

Spectre: 'Wait a minute, the Constitution says you can't take it away except in case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn't that mean you have the right of habeas corpus unless there's a rebellion or invasion?'

Gonzales: 'The Constitution doesn't say every individual in the United States or citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn't say that. It simply says the right shall not be suspended.'


Habeas Corpus is the right to challenge your arrest and detention. Without it, anyone could be picked up by the authorities and held for any length of time for no good reason. Here's what it says in the Constitution about it:
Article 1, section 9: "the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."
The question here is one of interpretation...or one of determining whether there is any possible grounds to support Gonzales' unorthodox interpretation.

Laws are written words and written texts are always in some measure ambiguous. How are we to resolve this ambiguity? There are several standard positions on this task.

Doctrinal interpreters argue that this decision is to be made in terms of standard practices and precedents. On this view, one that Gonzales and the like violently dislike, clearly Gonzales' interpretation is way out of line.

Functional interpreters take a holistic approach and argue that no snippet of the law makes sense without understanding how it fits into the whole. On this line, clearly the setting out of limits is done with an eye towards describing the few extreme circumstances in which Habeas Corpus could be suspended, being in play in all others. Again, Gonzales loses.

Then there are originalists. They come in two flavors. Historical originalists argue that the meaning of a given passage requires understanding of the intent of the framers of that writing, in this case of the Founding Fathers. Such judges eschew the usual gavel, prefering instead to use a Ouija board. How ought we know what they were thinking then and does it really apply to these cases today that they never could have envisioned? Even with all of these problems, coming out of a legal system that was largely held hostage to the whim of the King, the were surely trying to establish one based on prcess and reason. This would again speak against Gonzales.

The other sort of originalist is textual. The law is the words and if it ain't in the words it ain't in the law. This is the line that Gonzales seems to be trying to take. The law only says when Habeas Corpus could be suspended, it never says it's there at other times. This is the constitutional version of sitting in the backseat of your parents car with your finger up to your brother's face saying, "I'm not touching you." But even here, Gonzales is on thin ice because if, as he claims, the law tells you that in these cases you could suspend Habeas Corpus, for the Constitution to be non-vacuous, it would first have to be there.

According to the Gonzales extremist textualist account, there is no right to free speech, only a barrier to Congress legislating it away. This would account for why they had no problem with the case of Brett Bursey (prosecuted by J. Strom Thurmond's son -- his legitimate child) who was arrested for holding a sign that was not favorable to the President. Others around him were holding signs and none of them were arrested because the signs were pro-Bush. Is this curtailment of political speech a violation of the first amendment? Not on this view, because the first amendment doesn't protect free speech, it just keeps Congress from eliminating this non-right.

By any account Gonzales' comments were reckless at best, frightening at worst. When we have the Attorney General, one of the President's inner-circle, denying the foundation of our entire legal system, we ought to worry.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bad Comedist Week

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This was a tough week for us. We lost Art Buchwald and the White House Correspondents' Association lost their collective testicles.

Art Buchwald was a very funny man. Someone who could use his humor to be silly, poignant, and sharp all in the same paragraph. One of the few humorists to be appropriately recognized, he won the Pulitzer for his Washington Post column and was elected a fellow of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, true to his words,

"If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."
His columns and his books are well known contributions to the Comedist catalogue, but lesser known is his indirect contribution to our youth movement. One of Buchwald's best friends was Theodore Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. One day, Buchwald challenged the good Dr. to try to write a book using no more than fifty different words. The result? Green Eggs and Ham.

Sometimes, you have think he was right when he said,
"You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're
doing is recording it."
After last year's White House Correspondent's Dinner where Stephen Colbert did his great schtick, everyone wondered, who could they get to follow him? The answer? Rich Little. I must tip the comedist cap to Wonkette whose headline to the point was "Bob Hope Sadly Too Dead to Host WHCA Dinner." Now, don't get me wrong, the seventy year old Rich Little could be funny...during the Johnson administration. He's a talented man and has done some funny bits in the past, so in order to completely cover their bases, the good folks from the WHCA made sure to give clear instructions. From the Las Vegas Review Journal,

Little said organizers of the event made it clear they don't want a repeat of last year's controversial appearance by Stephen Colbert, whose searing satire of President Bush and the White House press corps fell flat and apparently touched too many nerves.

"They got a lot of letters," Little said Tuesday. "I won't even mention the word 'Iraq.'"

Little, who hasn't been to the White House since he was a favorite of the Reagan administration, said he'll stick with his usual schtick -- the impersonations of the past six presidents.

"They don't want anyone knocking the president. He's really over the coals right now, and he's worried about his legacy," added Little, a longtime Las Vegas resident.

Yup, Art Buchwald died and took political satire with him. The White House press corps is worried about things being too tough on the Prez and want to take care to protect his legacy. That's exactly what a free press is for, after all, to be the intellectual equivalent of the Republican Guard, the elite protection unit to make sure no zinger gets close to the President.
Make no mistake, there is indeed a war on comedy.

Live, Laugh, and Love

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging -- Comedist Style

There are many bloggers, led by Atrios, who despite some fascinating commentary and interesting analysis the rest of the week, regularly post pictures of cats on Fridays. I've never been tempted to join the party before, but thanks to brother Hanno here is a link to cat pictures. The site is called, "Cats that look like Hitler" and features, yes, photos of feline fascists.

In a vain attempt to pull philosophical content out of cats that look like Hitler, consider the discussion about turning our cultural champions of virtue into icons from Monday. The claim was that there is a two step process to elevating someone into the cultural pantheon -- first, the person is abstracted from their real life and refitted with a more perfect embodiment of a societally celebrated virtue; second, that artificially constructed life, meant to inspire us to exceed ourselves, is then flattened into an icon, a bumper sticker with a single iconic image and a single iconic slogan that is incapable of actual motivation to true transcendence.

Interestingly, we do this flattening not only to our heroes, but our villains as well. Think of Nikita Kruschov -- red face, bald head, "We will bury you." Richard Nixon -- big smile, bigger nose, "I am not a crook." Adolf Hitler -- little mustache, "Final solution" or "Heil Hitler." We turn them into cartoon characters, perhaps for propogandistic reasons, perhaps to insulate ourselves from having to seriously consider their actions or meaningfully contextualize them.

But I suppose one real loss in this process that we don't discuss is to fashion. After Hitler, the little mustache patch has become verboten. This is a shame. Hitler, of course, was not innovative here, that moustache was worn well by other famous people, Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy, for example. Why not focus on Hitler's hair? If anything should be demonized, surely it should have been the back to front come-over that makes you look like you were just going very fast in a convertible with the transmission stuck in reverse. But no, it was the moustache.

And it is a shame. For those readers who are pre-menopausal women or pre-pubescent males and thereby have little experience with facial hair, let me explain the process of shaving off a beard. After you (or, more likely, your love interest) have grown tired of a beard, you stand in the bathroom with scissors and a razor and take it off, but not all at once. Beards come off in pieces in order to see what alternative arrangements of facial hair would look like.

The first move proceeds in one of two directions. Occasionally, you take off the lip hair first to see if you could pull off the C. Everett Koop/Gorton's fisherman/Amish farmer look, but usually, it is the small patch on the jowls leaving the mutton chop sideburns. After a quick chuckle, the sideburns go leaving the Van Dyke -- the moustache/goatee combo. This is the most dangerous point in the process because it is well known that the Van Dyke instantly increases the coolness of the wearer. If the process of beard removal fails, it is usually at this point.

Those who successfully move beyond the Van Dyke then shave the chin, leaving the long moustache reminiscent of the leather-clad, hairy chested biker from the Village People or Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap. A good smirk later, you trim it down to the standard moustache and think, "You know, if I ever decide to change jobs, I could be a cop."

Then, finally, you are left standing in front of the mirror with the little Hitler moustache. I'll admit it isn't a look many guys can pull off anyway. Yeah, it's dated, the bell-bottoms of moustaches. But the shame of it that Hitler, with all his evil, has made it a complete non-starter. He closed the off-ramp from the facial hair highway. No getting off with the little moustache. Not now and not for the foreseeable future...unless, of course, you are a cat.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why Do Kids Love Dinosaurs?

What is it about dinosaurs that fascinate kids? A former colleague argued that kids like to have imaginary friends who are bigger than and can eat Daddy. Dinosaurs provide a sort of power balance. My thought was that dinosaurs provide a seemingly make-believe world that you are allowed to believe in. Then there's the possibility that is is left over marketing reverberations from "Land of the Lost" days. The fact that the most popular dinosaur is Tyrannosaurus Rex seems to support the first surmise. I know there are different things that attract different people, but for most kids, what's the attraction?

By the way, if you are ever Tucumcari, New Mexico, there's a great dinosaur museum associated with the local community college. Very well done, lots to see. The kids loved it. (Extra credit for the first person to name a song with "Tucumcari" in it.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Charlie Brown-ization of Political Ethics

[For those new to the Playground, I've been working on a book entitled, Was It Morally Good For You, Too?: A How-To Guide to Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words. One of the ideas I've been working to nail down is a rhetorical move to undermine ethical conversation in this society that I call "caging." Here is a lengthy excerpt which is my latest attempt to explicate the move. Comments would be gratefully appreciated.]

Ethical issues have become political footballs. But like Charlie Brown, whenever liberals go to kick it and push their agenda forward, the right, like Lucy, pulls the ball away, leaving progressives to look like fools lying on the ground “Waaaaaah…THUMP.” What’s the trick and why do liberals keep falling for it over and over and over again?

There is no denying that political issues almost always have inextricably moral dimensions. At the same time, the words “ethics,” “morality,” and “values” have been so abused in partisan rhetoric that they have lost virtually all meaning. It was a good move, at first. If you can wrap your position in a cloak of righteousness, whether it is morally upright or not, it makes your policy proposal unassailable. And if you can get the media to buy in, you’re golden. That’s how it came to be that people who want to ensure that gay and lesbian Americans could be openly discriminated against would be called “values voters” while those who argue that bigotry is wrong are somehow opposing morality.

On the one hand, this is nothing new. When Cato the Elder campaigned long and hard for a Roman pre-emptive invasion of Carthage, he used explicitly moral terms in which to couch his plan to lay siege to a city that had done nothing to harm. To this day, G. Gordon Liddy, continues to claim that the nefarious and illegal tactics of the Nixon administration were morally justified.

But, on the other hand, there have always been voices of true moral clarity making demands for social change that derive from high ethical principles; in John Adams’ vehement and gorgeously articulate opposition to slavery and in Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s words and deeds to secure women the vote. This moral-based approach was the driving force of 20th century American politics. The liberation movements of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, movements for the rights of seniors and the disabled strove to incorporate all Americans into the political fabric of the nation. The ultimate sacrifice was risked and paid by many activists who worked tirelessly so that every member of this nation would be seen as true citizens equal under the law. It was there in the labor movement’s efforts to clean up the “jungle” that claimed the limbs and lives of exploited workers who toiled in unsafe workplaces for unrelenting hours for unfair wages and whose children had little hope of avoiding the fate of their parents. And it was embodied in the environmental movement’s work to change our relationship to the land we inhabit, to clean up rivers that caught fire because of corporate polluters, save species that were in grave danger of extinction, and protect our families from dangerous industrial chemicals that were in our air, water, and food. It is truly remarkable to see how different the nation is at the turn of this new century when compared to the last.

After the combination of McCarthyism, ending up on the wrong side of the civil rights and women’s rights movements and Watergate had exacted its toll on the moral standing of American conservatism, the Democrats’ sleaze and abuses of power gave the right an opening that they seized with both hands. They saw that the path back to influence required claiming moral superiority. But when your platform is centered around opposition to civil rights and women’s rights, enshrining bigotry and discrimination towards gays and lesbians in the law, undermining environmental protection so that corporations can make more money, opposition to paying workers a living wage, decreasing the nutritional value of school lunches so that needy children get fewer vegetables,… How in the world could they get around all of the problematic moral baggage?

Two words: cage and frame.

In her book, The Betrayal of Work, Beth Shulman points out a nifty red herring that gets pulled whenever questions about a livable wage get brought up. You saw it in Reagan’s rhetoric – including that usurped by Bill Clinton's welfare reform mania – and you see it again today. The first step is to argue that work is a moral imperative. Any able bodied person not contributing to the economy is a lazy, shiftless, good for nothing deserving only of contempt. Anyone not punching a time clock does not deserve government help.

Now, it seems to follow that if you believe that everyone should work for a living, then you ought to support the notion that anyone who does a fair days labor ought to be able to feed his, or more often her, family and afford rent or mortgage in a safe, livable space. If you argue that you should work for a living then surely you would support a mandatory livable wage for that work. That, of course, is not the case.

Whenever questions about a livable wage come up, they always shift the discussion to job training and community college funding. The idea is that if these people are not earning much money because they are in dead end jobs, we’ll show them how to get better jobs and that will solve their problem. Not only do we teach a man to fish, but we teach him how to land the big ones. What a thoughtful idea.

But notice what the magician’s other hand was doing… Let’s say that Tanya was trapped in a dead-end job that took long hours, had no insurance benefits, was physically dangerous, and did not provide enough money to cover expenses for her and her child. We give Tanya job training and she becomes a data entry specialist and has a better lot in life. But what about the job that Tanya left? It’s still there, it’s still long, hard, underpaid, uninsured, and dangerous. Only now it is filled by Juanita…and it still does not provide enough to feed, clothe, and shelter her family.

The move to job training and community college funding is an extremely clever rhetorical trick because what it does is draw your eye to the specific person working the dead-end job and away from the people who will invariably be working that dead-end job. The point is that there will always be someone in that position and the real question is whether that worker, be it Tonya, Juanita, or whomever, will get the reward we expect for doing an honest day’s work. There is no doubt that we need to do more in terms of affordable higher education and having been a community college instructor myself, I cannot say enough wonderful things about the work they do. Similarly, job training is a fantastic thing, especially in an economy that is rapidly changing from being manufacturing-based to service-based. But steering the conversation to these issues has the effect of taking the other issues that industry groups and the Chamber of Commerce don’t even want discussed – mandatory health coverage, livable wages, humane treatment of workers – and like Siegfried and Roy’s scantily dressed assistant, POOF, they are nowhere to be found.

But further, we have shifted the locus of responsibility completely. We can now say that if we have enough available slots in the local community college or job training center that anyone who ends up in a dead-end job is the one to blame. We no longer have to consider them or the real questions of social justice. It is their fault and no one else’s that they have that job. If only they had the initiative, they wouldn’t be there. POOF, no more thoughts about those people working hard, doing tough, dirty, nasty jobs for hours on end that we want done for us.

The trick here is one that we see all across the spectrum of contemporary moral issues and it has two moving parts. The first has been pointed out by linguist George Lakoff who has termed it “framing.” Lakoff points out that words are not mere “hello my name is” badges that we stick on things. Rather, words come pregnant with emotional and normative connotation. Hence, the way we choose to express a given question will affect what the initial tug on the hearer will be. If we take the inheritance tax and ask whether rich kids should get gobs of money tax free for having been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, it gets a different response than when you ask whether the death tax on everything you spent a lifetime laboring for and which you choose to leave your loving family is fair. In the abortion debate, both sides are trying their damnedest to claim the frame. Is it a question about choice – after all who wants your choices legislated away? Or is it about life because everyone, of course, prefers life to death. Lakoff picks up on something that Friedrich Nietzsche also held a century before: he who controls the vocabulary holds the power.

But framing, powerful as it is, is only half the trick. You want to be able to favorably frame the issues that people see, but you don’t want them to see the issues you can’t easily frame. Like a pitcher who intentionally walks a slugger to get to the batter hitting behind him, you want to be able to pick and choose who you have to pitch to. If you think a batter could hurt you, you want to take the bat out of his hands.

The trick here is what I term “caging.” When you have a collection of related issues and you want absolutely none of them discussed, what you want to do is to keep them all in a cage. In order to make sure no one opens the cage to let them out, the key is to pick one issue that you will turn into the token concern and let it and it alone out of the cage. The key to success here is that it needs to be an issue that you can easily frame in a way that favors your side, but also an issue that is near and dear to the heart of your political opponents, a fight that they will refuse to give up at any cost.

Once that issue is framed and placed in the public conversation, you now need to motivate your side to think that winning the battle on this issue is essential to saving civilization, the security of their family, the continuance of their faith...something both big and ephemeral, something that makes sense intuitively, but something that is not directly measurable except through cherry picked examples of how bad it is out there. This will keep your folks in line behind your position on this sacrificial lamb of an issue.

The other side will see the passion of their political opponents and sense that they, too, must rush to the defense of their side lest they lose on this important issue. All of their advocacy groups will funnel time, money, energy, and media attention to the issue you've, time, and attention that used to go to the other issues in the cage. Like a pitcher who intentionally walks a big slugger to pitch to the weaker batter that follows, you decide which battle to fight and which ones languish harmlessly in the cage.

It is crucial that you not win a quick victory. Like the U.S. government feeding military intelligence to both parties in the Iran/Iraq war, you want the conflict to continue. The point is for it to suck all the oxygen out of the room leaving the issues you didn't want discussed to quickly asphyxiate and this requires being a resource drain on both sides. The argument must be loud, constant, and if possible, highly uncivil. The passion around the issue will give the false impression of completely open debate, thereby camouflaging your move to cage the widest majority of issues and the incivility will give rise to cynicism in the vast majority of non-activists in the middle. They'll want some compromise between the sides on the token issue and get completely turned off to any related debate. In other words, they won't give a damn whether there are other issues in the cage at all. The activists will be distracted and the non-activists will not pay attention. The "cage and frame" gambit therefore assures that no progress will be made on issues you want completely off the table.

Where do we see caging and framing? Don't want women's issues to be discussed? Let abortion out of the cage. Don't want environmental issues to be discussed? Let drilling in the Arctic National wildlife Refuge out of the cage. Don't want bigotry and discrimination against gays and lesbians discussed? Let gay marriage out of the cage. Don't want civil rights discussed? Let affirmative action in hiring out of the cage. Don't want to talk about helping needy children? Let out of the cage discussions of the sexual habits of the underclass. Cage and frame, cage and frame, cage and frame.

The beauty of the move is that it is a perfect rhetorical trap. If your opponent fails to take the bait, they lose an issue near and dear to their hearts and if they try to point to the other issues still in the cage, you can accuse them of changing the subject. When this is done in the heat of battle, it makes their positions on all of those issues seem weak. As if they don't have the goods to stand and fight on the issue at hand. Like John Kerry refusing to refute the Swift Boat attacks in the 2004 Presidential election, not buying into the scam will make you look pathetic and vulnerable to even more attacks.

So is there no answer to it? There is a way to liberate the imprisoned moral issues. But the key is that it cannot happen in the middle of the debate. It must happen in a measured, careful discussion; one that treats all concerns open-mindedly and which allows for careful, creative alternatives to be considered. We need to authentically consider competing views with an eye towards understanding the insights that come from all sides of the discussion. This is not to say that one direction or another is not to be preferred, but we need to try to strip away as much of the faux framing as possible and see what are the real trade offs and sacrifices we make with each option, what are the possible ways of finding compromise, if any, and consider the moral nature, costs, and benefits of each possible alternative. We need civil fucking discourse: civil in allowing every voice a seat at the table, but uncivil in rigorous assessing each and mercilessly rejecting those views that fail to meet rational muster. We need to think hard and talk to each other in a way that is designed to push forward good faith approaches to finding truth, not in a way designed to push forward a political agenda. Honest, robust conversation is the key to the cage.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Love Conquers All -- Even Ethics?

Relationships at work can be a tricky business, especially if one of the partners is directly above the other in the company's hierarchy. Ethical complications arise for two reasons: (1) there are serious questions about misuse of power and (2) there are responsibilities to one's partner that may conflict with the responsibilities one has to the job and other co-workers.

You always have to worry whether the person with less power is really acting completely voluntarily? Does he or she sense any sort of coercion to begin or continue the relationship? While it may seem like just two people when away from the office, there is a contextual imbalance that cannot help but color the relationship in any number of ways.

On the other hand, is the person lower down on the organization chart using the hook-up in order to manipulate the boss and gain undeserved power? Whether it is the early stages of a blossoming romance or merely a matter of casual physical gratification, co-workers have reason to be concerned. If it is a care-based relationship, then one does take on the responsibility of putting one's beloved before others. If it is a sentiment less noble driving the interest, then there is always the worry that the partner with the power will be fishing for additional favor. Either way, there is always concern that the boss will play favorites by manipulating work load, schedule, pay raises, evaluations, whatever he has control over.

When you are a supervisor, it is your job to make sure that all runs smoothly and that you treat your people fairly. Throwing romance or sex into the mix is asking for big trouble pragmatically, but is it morally problematic for a manager to initiate or respond to initial overtures from a subordinate?

The case is easier when the boss is simply looking for cheap, sweaty fun. Yeah, that's problematic. But what if there is real chemistry? What if there is a chance that this might be the one? Is there a special moral status for love? A friend in a similar situation once received the advice from a more senior colleague, "Don't do it unless you are sure it is for real. It's ok, if and only if she is, in fact, the one." It's only morally right, if she is Miss Right. Is this right? Does "happily ever after" trump "do unto others"?

One line to support that view might look like something we could find in an Aristotelian-type analysis where we determine human virtues by looking at the nature of humans and arguing that a truly fulfilled human life would be one that includes one's soul mate. Think of Aristophanes' myth in Plato's Symposium, his dialogue on love. Plato has the poet Aristophanes contend that once upon a time humans were roughly spherical with two faces, four arms and four legs until the gods split us apart and now we are destined to roam the Earth incomplete, in search of our other half. It is the essential task of being human to search for that person who will literally complete you. To place workplace etiquette in front of this deep urge is absurd. True love is our highest aspiration giving it a privileged moral standing.

Folks on the other side of the question will hear this sort of reasoning and want to puke. Soul mates as foundational notion in ethics? Who needs Kant when you can just read Cosmo? "51 Ways to Satisfy His Categorical Imperative." Harlequin romances are not legitimate textbooks for courses in moral theory. The job of a manager is to manage, the job of a player is to play. Unlike Frank Robinson with the '75 Indians, you are not a player-manager. You accepted the position of manager and that contractually binds you to certain obligations and one is not to pick up the employees.

Further, how could you know that this is your soul mate -- should any such notion actually be meaningful? You couldn't possibly know something that deep from casual workplace contact. You could only find out through a deep sense of who the person is and that takes lots of time, trust, and familiarity that you don't have when contemplating your first move. Really, all you know is, "Hey, there's an attractive person who seems really nice" and that is surely far too thin a reed to hang any sort of heavy moral argument on.

So, who wins here? When it comes to morality...what's love got to do with it?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

King, Washington, Lincoln, and the Iconization of Heroes

In thinking about Dr. King, it is truly odd what we do to our national heroes. They begin as flesh and are transformed in the most unusual way.

At first glance, there is nothing terribly strange there. All cultures have their mythological heroes and those based on the lives of real people require taking the story of a notable life (or more usually a part of it) and retelling it in a fashion that more perfectly engenders and typifies some virtue held dear to the society. That transformation fictionalizes the figure, makes him or her bigger than life, certainly bigger than the actual life lived, and places the figure upon the pedestal reserved in the cultural pantheon. Think of Parson Weem's version of the life of George Washington.

And, in a certain sense, so it is with King. One of the central leitmotifs of the 20th century was liberation. It was the century that saw women get the vote, the civil rights movement with all of its successes, the start of the gay rights movement, guaranteed accessibility for those with disabilities, and the end of mandatory retirement for older Americans to name just a few examples. Because of his vision, his commitment to peaceful change, and his power as an orator, Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected at the end of the century as the national symbol of justice and opposition to bigotry and discrimination, virtues that the our nation now had a place to celebrate.

Those seeking to undermine the figure, the virtue, or both, often choose to more carefully recount the actual history, taking special care to point out where personal failures illustrate a conflict. With Dr. King, it is often questions of adultery. "How could he be held up as a paradigm of virtue when he embraced such a vice?" the challengers whine. Of course, the move fails. Yes, we all have personal foibles. No one lives up to the fictionalized perfection, but that does not make the life lived any less heroic not the virtue embodied any less significant. Dr. King was a man, fallible, flawed like the rest of us, but it it in that fact, that he was able to do what he did as a mere mortal that makes him worthy of being more than a mere mortal.

Yet, in our admiration, we have done what the critic could not. Not by tearing down Dr. King, but by flattening him, taking one of the deepest of Americans and turning him into a flat icon. The writings of Dr. King, their development, intricacies, and meaning -- both in the historical context and universally -- are never considered. What may be considered his masterworks, the letter from Birmingham jail and his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, are read by a few, but as a culture we really possess no sense whatsoever of the mind of the man. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become nothing more than an iconic image -- portrait facing slightly to the side in black suit jacket and tie -- and a four word slogan -- "I have a dream." That's it. We don't probe what the dream truly meant, its many aspects he enumerates in the speech to see how far we have come, or whether such content was worthy of a dream. We simply repeat "I have a dream" like an advertising jingle.

Of course, it is not only King who gets this treatment. Washington has the image taken from Gilbert Stuart's portrait and the five word slogan "I cannot tell a lie," while Abraham Lincoln has the beard and stovepipe hat with the six word slogan, "Four score and seven years ago." It is a statue that one puts upon a pedestal, a three-dimensional sculpture that represents in marble an idealized version of the model. But for us, now, our heroes no longer can fit on a pedestal, just on a bumper sticker. The conversations their lives ought to force us to engage in remain undiscussed. The reflections on our own abilities to change the world go unreflected. The virtues they engendered and the ways we can become a more humane society by taking their example are too often left unconsidered. Heroes may not be real, but the effects of having heroes are. Sadly, we have turned our heroes into icons where we can remain safe from their heroism, true and embellished.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Feast of Saint Graham

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Graham. It would have been Graham Chapman's 66th birthday last Monday. In addition to being King Arthur and Brian, he appeared in innumerable sketches in Monty Python's Flying Circus including my personal favorites "Colin 'Bomber' Harris vs. Colin 'Bomber' Harris" and as the bookshelf climbing mountaineer in "Kilimanjaro Expedition," and the instructor in "Flying Lessons."

Despite the fact that in Flying Circus sketches he often played the straight man, in real life he wasn't. Graham Chapman was one of the first major public figures to come out of the closet, revealing his orientation in 1972, and became a well-known voice in Britain's gay rights movement.

A medical doctor by training, he sadly sacrificed his own health to alcohol and tobacco, ultimately contracting throat cancer which took him up with Saint Shecky. If you have never seen the eulogy John Cleese delivered at his funeral, it is well worth the look.

We close this week's sermon with a central teaching of Comedism. Quoting from Saint Graham,

"You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody. You've got to think for yourselves. You are all individuals. You're all different. You've got to work it out for yourselves. Don't let anyone tell you what to do."

Now, piss off.

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Peroxide Makes the Art Grow Blonder

As usual, amazing questions again this time. There were a couple of questions about aesthetics, the philosophy of art.

BKriplur asks,

Has anyone applied analytic philosophy to art criticism?

Yes. The most famous analytic figures in aesthetics are probably Jerrold Katz and Arthur Danto. Actually, I’ve always wanted to write a paper on Arthur Danto’s take on Platonic aesthetics and call it, "Plato on Art/Art on Plato."

Jeff Maynes asks,
Are aesthetic judgments relative to local aesthetic sensibilities, or do you think there is any hope for more meaningful judgment?
The key here is to realize that there is a big difference between the sentences "X is aesthetically valuable" and "I like X." The purpose of aesthetics is not to justify or shape personal preferences with respect to art anymore than ethics is meant to make sure that what is morally right is the same as things you really want to do. Why humans tend to widely like the same sorts of artistic pieces, for example, why certain musical works are particularly catchy, is a psychological question, not a philosophical one.

I think that there is perfectly good grounds for making meaningful aesthetic claims that are non-local appealing to various sorts of artistic properties. Certainly, what counts as such a property is open to discussion and hard and fast rules will be very difficult to formulate. Indeed, one can see art in the 20th century as a movement turned intellectually inward on such questions. Just as philosophy became about the process of philosophizing and analyzing the linguistic foundations of philosophy itself, art became about art and about creating art that challenged attempts by critics and aestheticians to formulate these sorts of criteria. But the very point of challenging them was to create more thoughtful conversation. The act of creating art became in some cases, applied philosophy. Works like Rauschenberg’s "Erased De Kooning Drawing" (exactly what it sounds like) or Duchamp’s "Fountain" (a urinal) for example, was intentionally designed to create concern over the nature of art.

These, of course, are the sort of thing that folks point to when they try to discuss the worthlessness of modern art, the fact that it is all a scam. But, art, like philosophy, does not occur in a vacuum, it is part of a conversation and like any conversation, if you don’t know who is what to whom, then by in large you won’t understand what any given response means. In the 20th century, the self-referential movement in the art world put the discussion in a private language, a coded discussion that made sense largely only to those in the in crowd. I was in the National Gallery one hot July day — the same day as the big union march in DC — and I heard over and over again how eight year olds could do that. When art made the move from representation to conceptual comment, it became an endeavor that required being hip to the conversation, you had to be on the inside. Art was not about techniques that made
But those who were inside were having a very interesting philosophical parts, at least. Sure, some was banal, but much was interesting. So when we talk about aesthetic judgements, we can talk in non-local terms, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will suddenly be tapping their toes to Schoenberg.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Death and Taxes...Well, Ethical Theory and Taxes Anyway

A couple of ethics questions, one applied and one theoretical:

Max Alaniz asks,

“Can taxes be fair?”
The idea behind taxation is that there are certain functions that we asks the government to take care of and we have to pony up the money to make it possible. Is there a fair way of dividing up the burden. First, we need to differentiate between taxes that go for focused projects and those that go to the general fund. We need to pay for road maintenance and it seems fair that those who use the roads more pay more, so we fund it with gasoline taxes. That seems to be a fair tax.

But the question seems more to be about income taxes. Here we have two points that need to be made. First, the folks who argue for fairness in taxation are often the flat tax advocates. The idea is that if we all paid the same percentage of our incomes, then we would have fairness. Progressive taxation, where not only amount paid, but percentage paid is inherently unfair they argue because the wealthy pay more than their share.

The problem with the flat tax argument is that it confuses “wealth” with “value.” Money can be used to do two things, it can be used to purchase goods or services and it can be used to make more money. If you have greater wealth, more money, each dollar has a greater value. Consider two brothers, one a poor philosopher and the other a wealthy new economy entrepreneur. Both brush their teeth with equal frequency, for the same amount of time, applying the same amount of tooth paste. One is barely scraping by and can only spare a little money for toothpaste each week and so must buy the small tube. The other has plenty expendable income and so can buy the larger tube, the economy sized. Over the course of the year, the poorer brother has had to spend more on tooth paste because he had less money. If you have more money, each dollar is more valuable in that it can purchase more goods. Similarly, suppose you were given the following offer, “Either you can invest one million dollars for a year and keep all the money you make with it or you can have ten million dollars to invest and keep one tenth of what you make.” You should choose the ten million because having more money opens up more lucrative opportunities. If you have more money, each dollar is worth more because it can be used to make more money.

As such, we need a progressive tax scheme if we are going to have any chance of fairness in sharing the burden. The question is can we ever accurately determine the relation between wealth and value accurate enough to have fair tax tables and while it seems like the two are not terribly out of whack as we have them now, I’m not sure what the mechanisms economists have developed to judge, but maybe some of the econ folks out there could comment.

The second part of the discussion is whether fairness is the only operative virtue here. Taxation is designed not only to fund the government, but also to direct resources in directions that are socially beneficial. If there are places we want people to spend money because we think them advantageous to the society, then we give tax breaks for it. We can employ lots of people if we have new housing being built, so we give credits for the interest paid on mortgages. This provides an incentive for people to spend their money in ways that advance the general welfare. As such, we will allow people to pay less than their fair share in income tax if they are using their income in ways that advance the general welfare.

Jeff Maynes asks,
“In ethics, if one wishes to rely on multiple ethical theories in decision making, does that commit one to a choice between (a) an alternative, supra-theory that uses all of the traditional theories and (b) anti-theoretical view of ethics? Or is this a false choice?”
The point of an ethical theory is to provide a definition for the basic notions of “morally right” and “morally wrong.” Utilitarianism, for example, defines morally right in terms of creating the best overall consequences for everyone, while deontology defines moral rightness and wrongness in terms of absolute moral duties. There are several classical moral theories that all appeal to our intuitions in certain cases, but conflict in others. The problem is that these ethical theories posit different foundations for ethics and so don’t fit nicely together.

One possibility, the hope of nearly every student to whom I’ve ever taught moral theory, is that there is some sort of meta-system that will decide which system is operative in any given situation. Philosophers of the last couple decades, however, have had other ideas and tried to do away with theory. These are the options Jeff mentions. There is a third option, however, that has become popular in certain quarters – deliberative democratic discourse. The idea is that ethical theory can narrow down the number of morally acceptable possibilities, then it is the job of society at large to engage in critical, thoughtful discussion in order to resolve the conflict based on non-moral, contextual factors. It is not anti-theory because the results of ethical theories are still taken seriously, but it is not the sort of supra-theoretical approach because there is no deterministic meta-ethical algorithm that does the thinking for you.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Because Y Is a Crooked Letter

From Phil:

“I maintain there are, in fact, no such things as 'why's, just 'how's. Or to put it another way, all 'why' questions are meaningless. So as a challenge I would ask: Are there any 'why's?”
Good thing you brought this question here to the “why’s” guys.

I suppose the first question that pops to mind is, “Why do you believe that there are no why questions?” Done.

But to be less of a smart ass...Before we can say whether there are any legitimate why questions, we first need to determine what why questions are asking. Turns out that there are several different types of information you could be requesting with “why questions.” One is intent. “Why did you buy that hybrid?” “Because I wanted to drive a car that gets good mileage.” Another is explaining the factual basis for your choice of tactics in trying to achieve an intended goal. “Why did you choose that Thanksgiving promotion?” “With God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

Now, both of these require intentions and when we look at science, there is no such thing. Phil’s sense that why questions in science are nothing but a hold over from previous times in which questions about the structure of nature were really nothing but questions about the Divine will places him in good company. In one of my favorite pieces, Bertrand Russell argues that when we ask why questions we are looking for causes, but contends that the notion of cause, like the British monarchy, is obsolete but kept around only because it is wrongly thought to do no harm. Russell sees modern science as substituting the notion of a differential equation for the concept of cause. Like Phil, Uncle Bertie sees science as describing, not explaining.

But there do seem to be two ways in which we can formulate meaningful scientific why questions. One is in the case of subsuming a phenomenon under a law of nature or a law of nature other than the one that is expected. “Why did that helium balloon float towards the front of the airplane cabin when the plane took off?” “Because the cabin is accelerating and by the principle of equivalence, an accelerating reference frame is equivalent to a local gravitational field and helium balloons in air and gravitational fields go away from the source of the gravitational field.” Or “Why did that heavy metal disk not fall to the ground since it is being pulled by gravity?” “Because there was a strong magnetic field that produces a stronger pull in the other direction.”

The other sort of why question in science is the case of a functional explanation. “Why do giraffes have long necks?” “Because a long neck conveys a survival advantage in gathering food which made those early giraffes with longer necks more likely to achieve reproductive success.” There is not intent here, since there is no mind to form an intent but there is still a part of an organism that performs a goal-oriented function and we can ask why it’s there.

I suppose if one were clever enough, one could always frame the request for the same information with a sentence that started with the word “how” instead of “why,” but it does seem that asking “How did the giraffe get it’s long neck?” is not identical to “Why do giraffes have long necks?” and the latter seems a perfectly legitimate scientific query.

Meet the challenge?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Faitheism: Does Atheism Require Faith?

pm asked,

Does atheism rely on faith? Additionally, if it does, is atheism then a religion?
Two fascinating questions, but not necessarily connected the way that the question seems to assume.

Does atheism require some sort of faith? The right answer is the philosophers’ depends. If atheism is the belief in the non-existence of God, then we before we can answer the question, we need to clearly define what we mean by faith and what we mean by God.

There were some interesting assertions about the nature of faith in the original comment thread and I think that even those that seemed to be competing claims all got part of the story right. Faith does involve belief, but Kerry is correct that it is not an epistemological concept (that’s fancy philosophy speak for a concept related to the nature of knowledge, which we can think of as true justified belief). The notion of justification or good reason to believe is not operative when you talk about faith. To have faith in x is to accept the truth of x regardless of evidence for or against it. The claim that you can only have faith in propositions that are unlikely is half right. You may certainly have faith in a proposition for which there is very strong evidence, it’s just that it isn’t generally necessary because you could lean on the evidence as the foundation for your belief. But one could have faith in a proposition that is well supported, so that even if suddenly we discovered extremely strong evidence against it, you’d still believe it. This is what happened when Einstein’s special theory of relativity came along. there had been unbelievably good reason to believe that Newton had it right, then suddenly, there wasn’t. Yet, some very good, very smart scientists – Mach, Weber, Arrhenius – refused to surrender the classical theory, clinging instead to their faith in it. It is only in cases where the proposition is unsupported or has significance evidence against it that faith suddenly seems to become important because it is only in these cases in which it becomes obvious or necessary.

Notice that we are not saying that any belief for which we do not have absolute proof requires faith. We have proof for a very, very small number of things for which we have good reason to believe (pretty much only mathematical theorems and logical propositions which are largely uninteresting for daily life). A good inductively supported claim, say, that tomorrow the sun will rise, that bread will nourish, and arsenic will poison are not guaranteed true because of past experience and our best current scientific theories. It is not logically impossible that they might all turn out that they all will be false, but nonetheless, because of our best theories and our observations, we have good reason to believe them even if they aren’t certain and thus may have but do not need faith for belief in these propositions.

We also have to figure out what we mean by God, what precisely is being denied here. I think this is one place where many atheists and sophisticated theists talk past one another. The way atheists and non-sophisticated theists think of it is a being whose physical presence or some of whose willed actions have physical effects – that there are marks of the supernatural in the workings of nature. Let us call the God who has a hand in the material world a “physical God.” The existence of a physical God means that it is impossible to give a complete, naturalistic account of the working of the universe. Another sense of God is a being unnecessary as a basis for factual beliefs, but thought necessary to provide a foundation for ethical truths. We can call this the “moral God.” A third concept of God is that which neither has a hand in determining how the physical world works nor in grounding moral right and wrong, but is a purely spiritual concept, an experienced sense of the Divine in the way one lives one’s life and aspires to live it. We can call this the “phenomenological God.”

So, when we ask whether one needs faith to be an atheist, we have several cases to consider. Start with the physical God. Does one need faith to believe that the physical God does not exist? Is there any good reason to believe that for any given observable phenomenon, there will not be a need to give supernatural explanation? Here the unrelenting successes of science in explaining phenomenon after phenomenon, predicting new, bizarre and counter-intuitive results which are then confirmed, and allowing us to create workable solutions to real-life challenges in engineering and medicine do give grounds to think that appeals to the supernatural are superfluous. If what we mean by God is a being outside of nature necessary to explain some or all physical, chemical, biological, or psychological occurrences, then it certainly seems that one does not need faith to be an atheist of this sort.

Again, this does not mean that there are not atheists who take it as a matter of faith that all phenomena can be naturally explained. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. Atheists with faith would take it as axiomatic that no matter what happens in the world a move to supernatural explanation is wrongheaded come hell or high water (although it may be particular tough come hell), atheists without faith could be convinced by evidence that certain events are singular enough to require positing some physical God. They don’t think it will happen and it would be a very high threshold to cross, but the question is whether that threshold is there or not.

As for a moral God, there is good reason to think that ethics can be perfectly well grounded without an appeal to the will of a Divine being. There are two parts to acting morally: (1) figuring out the right thing to do in your given situation, and (2) doing it. The question that Gwydion poses about being a moral atheist then has two components. first, is it possible to form meaningful ought sentences without having an ethical dictator to declare them by fiat. Of course. Here is where ethical theory comes in with duty, virtue, utility, care, justice, and rights. These of course conflict and that was the question Jeff Maynes asked and I’ll answer later in the week, but suffice it here to say that none of these systems require understanding the Divine will. The second part of the question is, “if you aren’t going to be punished by being sent to your room with no dessert for all of eternity, why bother being moral?” The answers range from empathy as The Wife discussed to Hobbesian fear and social contractual obligation. As such, one does not need faith to deny the existence of a moral God.

The third concept is the God of personal experiences of the Divine. Here, we are not talking about something for which there is observable evidence or normative rational discourse in play at all. It is more a stance towards life, an experienced sense of connectedness or of there being “something bigger,” or an abstract notion of perfection, rather than an anthropomorphic entity. Since this phenomenological God is one that is experienced, if you don’t have such experiences or no such orientation towards living, then you don’t have it. I suppose one may or may not have faith that one will never have a religious experience, but if it is not experienced, there is no faith involved in saying, “that’s not part of my experience or orientation towards living.” I also don’t think that those of us who don’t have it are missing anything or have impoverished lives because of it.

So, does atheism require faith? No, but that’s not to say there aren’t orthodox atheists with faith.

Is atheism a religion? It depends upon what you mean by religion, of course. If you mean an organized social structure with a doctrine and rituals, then no. If you mean a view about the way the universe works, then yes.