More Tubes for the Rubes

I have three more videos posted on my YouTube channel. The first one focuses on the connection between philosophical thought experiments (from Plato’s Ring of Gyges to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s defense of abortion) and science-fiction (and fantasy) literature.

In the next one, I discuss the distinction between markets and capitalism as drawn in the 1919 textbook THE ABC OF COMMUNISM (written by two Soviet apparatchiks, Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky), as well as in the Marxist tradition generally, with attention to how Marxism twists itself into a pretzel to avoid endorsing free-market anti-capitalism.

Finally, in my first video interview for my YouTube channel, I chat with philosopher Neera K. Badhwar about backyard buffaloes, wild attack monkeys, Ayn Rand, airline deregulation, eudaimonia and virtue, paternalism and suicide, sociopathic grandmothers, child abuse, Aristotelean business ethics, 19th-century robber barons, charitable Objectivists, friendly Manhattanites, charismatic nationalist leaders, and national health care. In more or less that order.

COVID-19 Narratives (1): Jennifer McKitrick

This is the the first of what I hope to be many installments in my “COVID-19 Narrative Project.” 

Making Fabric Masks
Jennifer McKitrick

I am a philosophy professor and department chair.  I started staying at home March 13th, 2020, when my university cancelled classes in advance of  transitioning to online instruction two weeks later.  I was trying to figure out how to finish my course on early modern philosophy online.  As department chair, I was dealing with nervous staff and colleagues making the transition to working from home, and administrations wanting documented contingency plans, etc., as the crisis deepened. Continue reading

Coronavirus Diary (6): “Dial a Philosopher”

I just got a frightened text message from a friend who read my last post, and asked me to convince his teenager both to take coronavirus more seriously, and to be more rigorous about social distancing. He’s one of a small handful of people to have expressed horror at that post, either on Facebook or offline.

This is the article that did it for him:

Italy suffered its worst day of the coronavirus outbreak Tuesday, recording 475 deaths. The epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, Italy is further along an infection curve other countries in the west appear to be following, and its healthcare system has buckled under the weight of 35,000 cases.

I agreed to do it. He thanks me for being “Dial-a-Philosopher.” Continue reading

Assuming the Original Position

Say what you want about John Rawls, but he doesn’t deserve to be invoked by Alan Dershowitz in defense of Donald Trump–on the floor of the U.S. Senate, no less. And yet here we are.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

Curious what Trump or Dershowitz think of that one, or if they have any idea what it means.


Dershowitz on Rawls at 3:23:30:

https://www.wgbh.org/news/politics/2020/01/27/watch-live-trumps-impeachment-trial-resumes

“Initial Appropriation and Duty-Creation”

Way back in July, I announced a “forthcoming” discussion here on a bunch of papers that had just been presented at the 36th annual conference of the North American Society for Social Philosophy in San Francisco. Unlike about half of the promises I make at PoT, it looks like I will deliver on this one, so “forthcoming” means “imminent.” Yes, my track record here is about as bad as the Trump Administration’s, but trust me: I have reliable intelligence that all of this is really about to happen.

The first of the two papers will be Jesse Spafford’s “Initial Appropriation and Duty-Creation,” accepted for publication (and yes, imminently about to be published) in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy. It’s a response to Bas Van der Vossen’s “Imposing Duties and Initial Appropriation,” Journal of Political Philosophy 23 (2015): 64-85, so you might want to take a look at that beforehand. Continue reading

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’

It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

https://delaware.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4McDN9ZhI7GVYCp

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading

Law Enforcement, Philosophy, and the Ethics of Belief

From an article on the recent “swatting” case in Wichita, Kansas:

The law allows the police to use deadly force when an officer reasonably believes, given the information at the time he pulls the trigger, that his life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger. The Wichita officers had been told, wrongly, that they were encountering an armed hostage-taker who had already killed one person and was threatening to burn the house down.

“Nine-one-one is based on the premise of believing the caller: When you call for help, you’re going to get help,” Chief Livingston said. The prank call, he added, “only heightened the awareness of the officers and, we think, led to this deadly encounter.”

The antinomies of legalistic reason: The first paragraph tells us that the 911 caller made an accusation of criminal activity. But according to one prominent line of legal reasoning, an anonymous telephone-based accusation at best establishes reasonable suspicion of the commission of a crime–and usually requires a “totality of circumstances” test that conjoins the claims made in the call with facts observed or gathered independently of the call (see Lippmann, Criminal Procedure, pp. 107-109, 139-40, 2nd ed.). Continue reading

An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

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Saying Stupid Things about Intelligent Design

Politics and religion sometimes make people say stupid things. They even sometimes make otherwise quite intelligent people say stupid things. Perhaps it’s naive, but it does seem natural enough to expect that unusually intelligent people would have intelligent things to say about things in general, and that they wouldn’t suddenly start sounding like people of merely average or lower intelligence when the conversation turns to religion or politics. This expectation seems to be satisfied insofar as the people who most often have intelligent things to say about politics and religion are, well, otherwise pretty intelligent. But it continues to astound me how often really smart people seem to lose hold of their intellects when they think there might be something at stake. I suspect that anyone with a Facebook account has encountered this phenomenon. I have encountered it enough times today that I feel compelled to write about it.

Today’s most egregious offense appeared in a Facebook post complaining about the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools. In case you’ve been living under a rock, ‘intelligent design’ is the label for a loosely related set of theories that criticize Darwinian evolutionary theory and purport to offer an alternative scientific hypothesis about the origin and development of life: life is (surprise!) the product of intelligent design. This family of theories is widely dismissed by scientists and usually endorsed only by religious believers (and not even by many of the most educated and informed religious believers, at that). The controversy that has occasionally boiled up in the United States over whether it should or should not be taught in schools owes much of its heat to its apparent religious implications and motivations; critics charge not only that it is bad science, but that it is a not very covert attempt to inject religious dogma into science classrooms and public education more generally. I’d thought that the political debate about this issue had more or less died a while back, but apparently not, since I found myself this morning reading a rather strong condemnation of efforts to teach intelligent design.

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