Pedagogical Failures

A dialogue, paraphrased from reality:

Me: Ok, so we agree that this character was in part causally responsible for the death. But should we think that he bears some moral responsibility, too? Isn’t he in part to blame for it?

Student 1: Wait, what do we mean by ‘morally responsible’?

Me: I intended it as equivalent to blameworthy, at least in this context; maybe if he were morally responsible for a good thing, he’d be praiseworthy, so they’re not equivalent, but they come to the same in this case. But maybe we should distinguish them?

Student 2: Well, wait, I don’t think it makes sense to think of ‘responsibility’ as anything other than that. Like, to be responsible is to be morally responsible. It’s weird and confusing to say that someone is responsible when they just helped cause a thing but can’t be blamed for it.

Me: Ok, what if we describe him instead as a ‘causal contributor’? Can we agree that being a causal contributor might or might not be necessary for being morally responsible or blameworthy, but it isn’t sufficient?

Student 2: Yeah, I just think it’s weird to talk about ‘causal responsibility.’

Me: I think I agree with you; it’s a bit odd to call it a kind of responsibility when you aren’t really answerable for the outcome because you can’t be blamed for it.

Student 2: Well then why did you write the term ‘morally responsible’ on the board? Phhbbbbt.

Me: Oh, because that’s the terminology that people often use in philosophical and legal contexts.

Student 2: Hrmp. That’s stupid.

I’m not sure my students understand that part of what I try to do with them is help them understand the language and concepts that educated people actually use. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Student 2 thinks of her participation in class as aimed at learning anything. Nor am I at all sure that she differs wildly from her classmates in this respect.

But hey, at least sometimes we talk seriously about serious things, occasionally even the things I have assigned for them to read.

Philosophical Vices

Philosophers who are aware of the systematic character of their enterprise may always fall in love with their own system to such an extent that they gloss over what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions. Love of that particular system displaces the love of truth. If the vice of reducing philosophy to a set of piecemeal, apparently unconnected set of enquiries is the characteristic analytical vice, this vice of system-lovers may perhaps be called the idealist vice.

Both these vices have their representatives in present-day academic philosophy. Yet neither they nor the condition of academic philosophy more generally is sufficient to explain the radical marginalization of philosophical concerns in our culture. This marginalization has several aspects. In part it is a matter of the relegation of philosophy in the vast majority of colleges and universities to a subordinate position in the curriculum, an inessential elective for those who happen to like that sort of thing. But this itself is a symptom of a more general malaise. For to a remarkable extent the norms of our secularized culture not only exclude any serious and systematic questioning of oneself and others about the nature of the human good and the order of things, but they also exclude questioning those dominant cultural norms that make it so difficult to pose these philosophical questions outside academic contexts in any serious and systematic way. We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning. So it is not just that the philosophy of the academic philosopher has been marginalized in the college curriculum. It is also and more importantly that, when plain persons do try to ask those questions about the human good and the nature of things in which the philosophical enterprise is rooted, the culture immediately invites them to think about something else and to forget those questions.

– Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks’

A Dilemma for Reasonable Acceptability?

Estlund’s Democratic Authority makes much of the idea of acceptability requirements for political justification. Acceptability requirements come in different versions, and one respect in which those versions can differ is what they are requirements for. They might be requirements for laws, policies, procedures, constitutional structures, the kinds of reasons that citizens or certain officials can give in certain public fora, and so on; they might also require acceptability as a condition for justification quite broadly, for political or legal authority more narrowly, or for political legitimacy — i.e., the moral permissibility of a government’s enforcement of its laws by coercive or punitive means. For Estlund, as for many, the most important application of acceptability requirements is to legitimacy, since coercion raises peculiarly urgent questions of justification. The rough idea of an acceptability requirement on legitimacy is that laws backed by coercion must be acceptable to the citizens that they purport to govern, and must be acceptable to them despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical disagreements.

Discussing the views of Joshua Cohen, Estlund writes:

For Cohen the fundamental tenet of a deliberative account of democratic legitimacy is the principle that coercive political arrangements and decisions are morally illegitimate unless they can be justified in terms that can be accepted by citizens with the wide range of reasonable moral, religious, and philosophical views likely to emerge in any free society. (Democratic Authority, 91)

Earlier in the book, Estlund cites Rawls describing what he calls the “liberal principle of legitimacy”:
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When Belief Makes Reality

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, both philosophers at Vanderbilt, recently published a piece about “Our Polarization Problem”. They distinguish between political polarization — a measure of distance between political groups, whether in terms of policy or groups’ attitudes toward each other — and belief polarization, wherein members of a group of shared belief talk mainly with other members of that group and thereby come to embrace more extreme versions of those beliefs. Political polarization waxes or wanes as rival political groups move further apart or closer to one another in their views, whereas belief polarization waxes or wanes within a group. I have some misgivings about their categorization, but the phenomena in question are familiar and well studied. Aikin and Talisse think that what we less often fail to appreciate is how belief polarization not only changes us, but changes our views of others:

One feature of belief polarization that is not frequently commented on is that as we become more extreme versions of ourselves, our beliefs about those with whom we disagree also shift. Again, repeated interactions with our fellow partisans transforms us into more extreme advocates of our partisan views, but it in addition makes nonpartisans look more alien to us. As we belief-polarize, we begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. We also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads us to regard our opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. We moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, we come to see more and more of what our opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.

This other-regarding dimension of the belief polarization phenomenon provides the connection between belief and political polarization. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational, and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike, and resent those who we regard as our opponents. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization. Our political alliances thereby become more tightly knit and exclusionary; and consequently political parties and their leaders are incentivized to punctuate (and overstate) their policy and platform differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating, spiraling dynamic that intensifies civic divisions and inter-partisan animosity. That is, belief polarization sets in motion a broader dynamic that not only codifies political polarization, but also erodes our capacity for proper democracy.

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The obviously obvious obvious.

Seen on Facebook:

Wasn’t John Brown ‘antifa’? Who today would object to his actions?

Here’s the reasoning as I understand it. Obviously, John Brown was cool. But John Brown was like antifas, and antifas are like John Brown. Therefore antifas are cool. QED. It’s obvious. Obviously obvious. Who would even think of denying it? Except racists, I mean?

Here is Wikipedia on the Pottawatomie massacre, one of John Brown’s ‘actions’:

Some time after dark, the party left their place of hiding and proceeded on their “secret expedition”. Late in the evening, they called at the house of James P. Doyle and ordered him and his two adult sons, William and Drury to go with them as prisoners. (Doyle’s 16-year-old son, John, who was not a member of the pro-slavery Law and Order Party, was spared after his mother pleaded for his life.) The three men were escorted by their captors out into the darkness, where Owen Brown and one of his brothers killed them with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. did not participate in the stabbing but fired a shot into the head of the fallen James Doyle to ensure he was dead.

Brown and his band then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson and ordered him out. He was slashed and stabbed to death by Henry Thompson and Theodore Winer, possibly with help from Brown’s sons.[6] From there, they crossed the Pottawatomie, and some time after midnight, forced their way into the cabin of James Harris at swordpoint. Harris had three house guests: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman (“Dutch Henry”), a militant pro-slavery activist. Glanville and Harris were taken outside for interrogation and asked whether they had threatened Free State settlers, aided Border Ruffians from Missouri, or participated in the sack of Lawrence. Satisfied with their answers, Brown’s men let Glanville and Harris return to the cabin. William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death with the swords by Winer, Thompson, and Brown’s sons.

Who today would object to those actions? Except a racist, I mean? C’mon, people, let’s go punch some nazis.

(Warning: Irony)

Suspicion: A Dialogue

Antonio: Behold, this is an interesting work of philosophy entitled Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics, by one Irfan A. Khawaja. I have been reading this work carefully; it issues a formidable challenge to certain dominant assumptions in contemporary analytic philosophy and offers an intriguing meta-ethical view of its own; I have numerous objections to its positive view, and I believe that its critique of several of the prominent alternatives is unsuccessful at points, but I also think that its criticisms can be strengthened and at least certain elements of its positive view more fully defended. I would like to discuss this work with you fine gentlemen.

Bartolo: Ahh, yes, I have studied this work of which you speak. ‘Tis merely an effort to legitimate an especially noxious breed of selfishness and individualism. Its teems with a neurotic desire for certainty, with a fear of contingency and a childish longing for an external validation for our beliefs and particularly our values, and with adolescent fantasies of independence. It aims to join the comforting belief in moral absolutes eternally grounded in and guaranteed by nature with the narcissistic flatteries of self-indulgence and the belief that one controls one’s own destiny. Most of all it panders to the delusion that morality and self-interest conveniently coincide, that the most moral thing of all is, after all, to pursue one’s ‘true’ self-interest, and that this will work out marvelously for everyone. It is a horrible work, but not without interest; few manage, after all, to combine these ideological fictions in quite the way Khawaja has done.

Antonio: Uh-huh. Have you actually read it?

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Humanity and Pliny the Younger

One of the many disappointing features of contemporary classical scholarship is its guarded detachment from the modes of engagement that lead people to love Greek and Latin literature in the first place. The ancient Mediterranean world holds many and diverse attractions, but ordinary readers of great classical authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Vergil, Horace, or Tacitus tend to enjoy their works because they appeal to the heart and the mind in distinctively rewarding ways, presenting us with visions of human life and action that are worth taking seriously even when they venture so far into the land of myth that there can be no question of whether to believe them. They’re also just extremely entertaining, even if only to somewhat refined and dorky tastes. Scholarship, however, frequently approaches these works not as products of thought and expression intended to engage our emotions and our intellects on matters of serious human concern, nor even as high-brow entertainment meant to amuse us, but as exercises in the ideological manipulation of appearances, moves in a discursive game whereby power relations are negotiated, typically in the service of the status quo and those whose interests it promotes — or so it often goes when literature is not seen instead as an ultimately frivolous indulgence in rhetorical artistry wherein authors compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can cram into their works and scholars compete for the number and complexity of erudite allusions they can convince other scholars to talk about. Very little scholarly work on Greek or Latin literature these days approaches these texts as sources of potential insight into human life, as offering some perspective that might well be, if not exactly true, at least good to think with. In fact, many scholars scoff at this kind of approach and seem somewhat embarrassed when someone in the room seriously articulates it. They describe it condescendingly as ‘humanism,’ where being a ‘humanist’ correlates with being a naive simpleton who probably wears tweed jackets with elbow patches, smokes a pipe, and would definitely be more at home in 1917 than in 2017.

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Hell Makes the News

A few days ago I posted some contrasting literary conceptions of hell. Today hell makes the news. Evidently Bernie Sanders (yes, the Bernie Sanders) thinks that the traditional Christian belief that salvation requires faith in Jesus disqualifies a person from holding public office. Such, at any rate, seems to be the reasoning behind his inferring that Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Budget and Management, “is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about” from Vought’s refusal to deny that Muslims — or any other non-Christians, and probably, by Vought’s lights, many people who think of themselves as Christians — will be going to hell if they do not come to faith in Christ. There’s some dispute about the legality of Sanders’ questioning, but it seems likely that Sanders can vote however he wants for whatever reason he wants and that simply questioning Vought about his religious beliefs does not amount to a religious test for office. Legality aside, though, Sanders’ reasoning and behavior here seem monumentally stupid; refusing to vote for someone for holding this traditional view seems wrong in principle, and it seems especially moronic strategically.

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Jean-Paul Sartre:

GARCIN: Will night never come?

INEZ: Never.

GARCIN: You will always see me?

INEZ: Always.

GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is — other people!

(No Exit (Huis Clos), 1944)

T.S. Eliot:

There was a door
And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?

What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to Escape to. One is always alone.

(The Cocktail Party, 1949)