Heading Out to the Highway (with David Brooks)

The ethics of driving is a topic dear to my heart, having lost my two closest childhood friends (and the wife of one of those friends, who was also a friend) to traffic accidents, and living as I do in north Jersey, where every day’s commute is a near-death experience. I hate cars, I hate driving, and above all, I hate driving in New Jersey, so I’m always open to anyone who’s willing to trash the way “we” drive, ascribe it to “our” moral failings, and demand that “we” do better. (I hijacked a presentation on the Aristotelian virtue of eubolia at the Felician Ethics Conference this past fall to insist that in the modern world, eubolia is a virtue best exemplified by virtuous drivers.)

This anti-driving (or anti-bad-driving, or anti-ubiquitously-bad-driving) attitude competes with another downer sentiment of mine: I can’t stand David Brooks. Just to be clear: I can’t fucking stand David Brooks.

So I opened up this morning’s New York Times, turned to the Op-Ed page, and faced a bit of a dilemma. Here was David Brooks trashing the way “we” drive, describing Jersey drivers as people who “treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide,” acknowledging that “driving means making a thousand small decisions” (internalized eubolia, anyone?), and getting a few things right. But like so many so-called dilemmas, this one wasn’t an instance of that fabled entity, the irresolvable ontologically-based moral dilemma, and collapsed before long. Because as per usual, Brooks managed to snatch polemical failure from the jaws of success, re-confirming my hate for everything he writes.   Continue reading

Underexposed

From a letter in today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Not to be overlooked in this stunning victory is the role of the investigative reporting done by The Washington Post. Despite constant excoriation by President Trump and the extremist Steve Bannon, the free and fair press exposed an alleged child molester. This played no small part in Roy Moore’s defeat.

The need to vigilantly support truth and accuracy in the media gets stronger every day.

ADAM STOLER, BRONX

Can you really expose an alleged child molester–as opposed to giving exposure to allegations of child molestation? To “expose” something is to reveal what had previously been hidden. But if someone’s status is alleged, what is said about him remains hidden. It makes no sense to say that you’ve exposed the hiddenness of what is hidden. But nonsense has now become par for the course on the subject of allegations.

I’m glad that Roy Moore was defeated. I’m not glad that we seem to have lost even a vestigial sense of the fact that an allegation is an assertion in need of proof, that people are innocent until proven guilty, and that proof is easier in the asserting than in the doing. But apparently we have, and solecisms like “exposed alleged child molester” are the result. The issue here isn’t Roy Moore per se, but the widespread loss of the skepticism required when allegations of wrongdoing are made, whether criminal or otherwise. (Incidentally, I for one wouldn’t celebrate at the thought that the only reason Moore was defeated was that he was alleged to be a child molester. Doesn’t that imply, pathetically, that had no such allegations been made, he would have won?)  Continue reading

Free Speech for the Mum

Consider the following scenario, a commonplace of academic life. A professor decides to devote part of his ethics class to the ethics and economics of higher education, with readings on the value of the BA degree, and on the place of athletics in higher education. To focus the conversation, the professor cites examples drawn from the students’ experience at their home institution. In the course of doing so, the students give voice to complaints about the institution. The professor acknowledges the complaints, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them.

Taking the acknowledgement as agreement, students give voice to their grievances against the university on social media, citing what they take to be their professor’s support for those grievances. The university’s administration, sensitive to PR issues, catches wind of the student’s claims, and notes the apparent support for those claims offered by members of the faculty. The faculty member is then called before the Dean and a witness to give an accounting of the affair. Continue reading

Cold As ICE

From an article about a deportation proceeding in Monday’s New York Times:

Adding to the sting, immigration officers refused to let the twins or his wife give him a final hug goodbye, Ms. Hopman said.

“They told us they no longer provide that courtesy,” she said, “because they don’t like emotional scenes.”

In other words, federal law enforcement officers can’t seem to do what police officers, paramedics, firefighters, doctors, nurses, therapists, family-law attorneys, and funeral service workers do every day: deal with honest expressions of intense emotion. They have no problem breaking up families; they just have trouble observing the emotions that arise when they watch the effects of their handiwork.

The right likes to taunt “Social Justice Warriors” as “snowflakes,” but the SJWs I know are a lot tougher, and a lot less hypocritical, than officers like these. And yet it’s law enforcement that keeps making its insistent demands for our “respect” in a climate of opinion supposedly stacked against them.

Well sorry, but I can’t respect people like this–people too cowardly to endure the emotions that arise when they break up other people’s families. It’s hard to respect people who demand Stoicism of the victims while demanding a “safe space” for those who victimize them. The people responsible for these policies should perhaps remember that there is no “safe space” from moral judgment. They can’t seem to endure tears. Perhaps they should confront contempt.

A Letter of Hate to America: Teaching Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the Americans” (2002)

The recent controversy over Richard Fausset’s New York Times article, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” prompted me to brush off and lightly revise this apparently unrelated (but subtly relevant) piece I wrote for the 17th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, on teaching Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to the Americans.”  By some strange quirk of fate, the conference at which I gave the paper took place April 14-17, 2011, about two weeks before U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in their raid on his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Despite that, I’m inclined to think that the Letter is still as relevant as it ever was.

I have some thoughts on the Fausset article but don’t have time to comment on it right now. The short version is that I think it’s a piece of crap, and mostly sympathize with those who accuse Fausset of normalizing Nazism. Actually, I would go beyond that and say that if Fausset is The New York Times’s idea of “one of our smartest thinkers and best writers,” American journalism is a more desperately half-assed enterprise than I ever thought it was. That said, I don’t quite agree with the anti-Fausset-article arguments I’ve seen (some of them are worse than the article itself), and also (sort of) sympathize with those leery of the term “normalization.” But I don’t sympathize enough to agree: at the end of the day, “normalization” is a perfectly good concept, and perfectly apt here. But that’s a topic for another post. There’s only so much radical evil I can blog about at a time. 

(The essay is 2,880 words long.)


DIALECTICAL EXCELLENCE AND SOPHISTICAL REFUTATION:

TEACHING OSAMA BIN LADEN’S “LETTER TO THE AMERICANS”

For against an objector who sticks at nothing, the defense should stick at nothing.

—Aristotle, Topics V.4 (134a1-3)

I use the phrase “dialectical excellence” to name a set of moral-intellectual capacities canonically associated with a “dialectical” tradition in philosophy that includes the Platonic dialogues, Aristotle’s treatises on dialectic and rhetoric, Cicero’s dialogues, Aquinas’s Summas, and Mill’s Autobiography and On Liberty. What makes these texts “dialectical” is their attention to philosophy as a conversational activity, with particular attention to the adversarial or polemical features of philosophical conversation. Philosophy in this tradition vindicates or refutes controversial claims in order publicly to demonstrate their truth or falsity to an educated but indifferent, skeptical, or even hostile audience. As conceived in this tradition, “dialectical excellence” names the capacity, in adversarial contexts, to refute a sophistical argument in a rhetorically effective way. Continue reading

Reason Papers 39:1 (Summer 2017) out

I’m pleased to report that the latest issue of Reason Papers, vol. 39:1 (Summer 2017), is now out. Individual articles can be accessed through the Archives link by scrolling down to the issue. Alternatively, the full issue can be accessed through this link, which takes you to a 152 page PDF.

The issue begins with a symposium on Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen’s recent book The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics (Edinburgh, 2016), with commentaries by Elaine Sternberg (University of Buckingham), Neera Badhwar (George Mason), and David McPherson (Creighton), and a response by Den Uyl and Rasmussen. If you’re into (or interested in) neo-Aristotelian libertarianism–and who isn’t?–this is the symposium for you.

The issue then proceeds to a discussion of Stephen Kershnar’s Gratitude toward Veterans: Why Americans Should Not Be Very Grateful to Veterans (Lexington, 2014), with commentaries by Michael Robillard (Oxford) and Pauline Shanks Kaurin (Pacific Lutheran), along with a response by Kershnar. If you thought my criticisms of Khizr Khan here at PoT were annoying, I’m sure you’ll love Kershnar’s book and this symposium even more. Just in time for the 16th anniversary of 9/11 and talk of an American troop surge in Afghanistan…. Continue reading

CFP: 11th Annual Felician Ethics Conference (last call, note revised due date)

The Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs invites papers for its Eleventh Annual Conference, to be held Saturday, October 14, 2017 at Felician University’s Rutherford campus, 227 Montross Ave., Rutherford, New Jersey 07070.

Submissions can be on any topic in moral or political philosophy broadly construed, not exceeding 25 minutes’ reading time (approximately 3000 words). Please send submissions in format suitable for blind review to <felicianethicsconference at gmail dot com> by August 25  September 1. Acceptances will be announced by September 11.

The plenary speaker will be Michele Moody-Adams, Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University: Continue reading

Lies and Omissions of the “Opioid War”

I’ll be writing a series of little posts here about various articles in the media regarding the war on opioids, as I find that the news media often doesn’t tell the full story, and seems to be following (or promoting) a morality play or political narrative, rather than actually presenting the problem as it is.

This article from The Economist I found curious mainly because writers such as this almost always maintain — without any real attempt at argument– – that prescription opioids don’t “work” for chronic pain. As a someone who suffers from chronic pain, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

Prior to having spinal fusion in 2013, I was on a long-acting prescription opioid. Because I still had some pain, I thought the medicine wasn’t working, so I went off of it, only to become essentially nonfunctional for six weeks. I was in so much pain that I lost my wallet, my keys, my Kindle, my smart phone, and even my car all within a span of six weeks.

It was then that I discovered that my spine was essentially crumbling, that I had no disk left at L5, and that L4 wasn’t looking too much better. I needed major surgery on my lumbar (lower) spine.

If we restrict access to pain medications, the result will be more people in pain, more nonfunctional, and more on disability. Back pain is the most common cause of disability in the entire world. Restrict access to pain medications in the way that so many advocates demand, and we’ll essentially be denying needed relief to millions of people in serious pain. That relief allowed me to work. Was opioid use ideal in my case? No, it wasn’t, but it kept me working, and it’s hard to discount the importance of a paycheck.

It’s already challenging enough to get these medications, even with a prescription. In fact, I’d have to see my doctor monthly to get the relevant prescriptions in New York State, where I live. The fact that these visits are both costly and medically unnecessary seems irrelevant to politicians content to sacrifice people like me to their newfound compassion for addicts.

We can do little for addicts who refuse assistance. Some of them will die. But by indiscriminately trying to control the availability of these medications both to addicts and to those who genuinely need them, we would deprive millions of people access to the medications they need to avoid having to live a life completely in thrall to physical pain. In weighing the costs and benefits of any policy concerning pain medications, it might help to imagine what it’s like to live a lifetime in serious pain–with painkillers, and without.

Two Petitions Worth Signing

I have the somewhat tedium-inducing sense that the next four years of our lives will involve a lot of petitions–reading them, signing them, and enduring widespread derision for doing so.

Tedious it is, but don’t let that stop you. It’s doubtful (I know) that petitions serve any straightforwardly instrumental function: it’s not as though the Trump Administration will recoil in horror at the discovery that 20,000+ academics deplore his Executive Order on immigration, and that 272+ academics deplore the attitudes he’s expressed toward Mexico–and then decide to roll back his immigration policies. But those of us who oppose Trump and his policies feel the entirely healthy desire to do something to oppose his administration, and signing a petition is something–not much, but something. At the very least, it gives us something cheap and easy to do while we figure out what else to do. It serves an expressive function, which is not nothing, and offers solidarity to those adversely affected by the policies, which, though not much, is better than nothing. Continue reading