Archive for May, 2010


New Ethics Blog

May 28, 2010

There’s a new ethics blog on the block, this time from Oxford. Looks like they have the appropriate admixture of extremely prolific folks and applied philosophers to make this one work. (As a one-man show myself, it’s hard sometimes to keep up the content.) To further support this conclusion, it has evidently been around long enough to have a substantial archives. Wonder what took it so long to pop up on the radar.

Be sure to link…



May 28, 2010

Ticks are disgusting. Carry on.


Online Ed

May 27, 2010

GinandTacos, by far one of my favoritest and cleverest writers in the blogoverse, has this interesting screed on Online Education:

When I first read DIY U, with its “Are you shitting me? Jesus, you’re serious, aren’t you?” subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

There’s something about “leg humping” that just starts me giggling, even when it’s my leg under the hump. Tell me honestly that it isn’t just gigglefest hysterical when some rat poodle decides that your ankle makes a fine motel room.

More seriously though, some administrators seem to like the idea of online education. They see it as a panacea. Some are so enamored with it that they’ll cut core departments. (Not sure if that’s actually the reason that the Middlesex philosophy department is under the knife, but you should probably read more about it and head over to this petition if you feel strongly enough.)

At Colorado, we’ve had a discussion in the philosophy department about our own online offerings, and to my surprise, a substantial number of my colleagues seem to acknowledge that there’s role and a space for online courses. I’ll confess to wildly tempered agreement. My wife, for instance, in prepping to retrain and enter a new grad program, took a few online classes to fulfill some undergraduate prerequisites. She seems to have been a model student. Not to boast, her virtual professors were all glowing about her performance. I think she even learned a fair amount. So I’ve seen online courses work and I believe that, in a few circumstances, they can work relatively well. I do think there’s a role for online education. But I can’t believe, as G&T rightly notes, that it will work very well in most circumstances. It certainly does not provide an education to the student. At best, it only offers the resources for a student to do better by themselves. But these resources have been in our libraries for centuries.

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

Sounds about right to me.

I haven’t yet peeked at this book by Martha Nussbaum, but it does seem that it may offer a counterbalance to the current absurdity afflicting the humanities.


Golden Egg

May 26, 2010

One of my great bugaboos in ethics is the dogdamned golden rule, and here, to present you with the dogdamned golden rule 2.0, Andrew Revkin offers some interesting snippets from a presentation by Jostein Gaarder. I’ve just returned from a long weekend camping trip, so I’m only barely digging out here, but here’s the speech.

The problem with the golden rule, whether 1.0 or 2.0, is that it encourages reciprocity by asking what we would have others do unto us. Namely, it asks what we want others to do to us. Among several concerns, that’s a problem because what I want isn’t necessarily what you want. I may want my children to be raised in an environment of strict discipline, for instance; where that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Reciprocity is, of course, an important ethical standard, but it’s not appropriately met if it hangs on the desires of any given individual or party of individuals. Better to go with Rawls or Kant for advice on this front. Here’s a list of important philosophical principles, penned over the weekend by Julian Baggani. Notice that the golden rule is nowhere to be found.

Still away from the office. Apologies for the slow posts. I’ll be back in gear next week.


Hapi, God of the Nile

May 22, 2010

New Scientist has a somewhat silly article on the origins of denialism. It is probably worth agreeing, at least, with this completely realistic hypothesis:

Here’s a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right.

Okay, sure. Denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Among many problems with this “hypothesis,” however, is the tacit implication is that there are non-normal people who somehow see the light, or who somehow have more acute powers of perception and inference.

Another problem with this hypothesis is its fixation on a psychological explanation. It’s fine to offer up a psychological diagnoses, of course, but it trivializes the problem to suggest, somehow, that denial is a manifestation of “how we think psychologically.”

But yes, denial is largely a product of how all people think. My own view of denial, I’d like to believe, a little less facile: denial is largely a result of vagueness in reasoning.

Disclaimer: I don’t generally traffic in the explanatory, but I do dabble.

It seems to me that denial, whatever it is, is not properly understood in psychological terms, but rather should be understood in coherentist terms. And it seems to me, at least, that denial, insofar as it can be identified as a phenomenon, often amounts to divergence in inferential standards. It’s not simply that I may refuse to validate some observation that conflicts with a deeply held belief of mine, it’s that I have to make inferential leaps from that observation to the point at which these observations hang together with the rest of the often tightly woven observations and inferences that otherwise make-up my body of beliefs. Moreover, sometimes it’s the case that there is a direct conflict not in observations themselves, but in what counts as an acceptable inference.

Here, for instance, is an incredibly widespread manifestation of denial: religion.

There can be no greater community of deniers than those who insist on believing in some supernatural God. Much as the evidence might lead the rational among us to believe that there is nothing supernatural going on, the evidence is not — and can never be — enough to overcome the powerful tug of the appeal to ignorance and the slicing-dicing of Occam’s razor. If an interlocutor just flat-out rejects that either of these count as fallacies, then almost no amount of fact presentation will bring them to see the light. Just think about how hard it is to try to persuade the true believer that God doesn’t exist.

Now then, the above are but two, among many, fantastic and important principles of reasoning, but (a) they’re not uncontroversial, (b) it isn’t always clear when they are to apply, and (c) they can be undermined by other principles of inference. Hashing out problems in these areas is most of what philosophers do all day long.

I’m not at all suggesting that one throw up one’s hands and abandon the principles of reason. I’m only saying that the so-called problem of “denialism” runs deep, and it’s not a psychological problem. It’s a problem associated with what counts as an acceptable inference, given the huge range of other acceptable inferences that more-or-less make up our body of background knowledge. That’s where we are with most of our political discussions; and it’s also where we are with regard to most of the rest of our so-called “denialism” discussions as well.


Yulsman on Lubchenco, Birnbaum, and BP

May 21, 2010

While I’m off in the woods, check out Tom Yulsman on the Deep Horizon debacle. He has this to say on why Jane Lubchenco should be pissed that her advice wasn’t heeded:

There’s no question that anger is justified. In fact, I suspect Jane Lubchenco herself (chief of NOAA) is pretty darn angry that Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the federal Minerals Management Service, ignored her agency’s request to hold off on issuing deep water drilling permits until the work of the administration’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force was completed (scheduled for last December).

In fact, if I were Jane Lubchenco, I’d be apoplectic. If MMS director Birnbaum hadn’t ignored NOAA’s request, the BP oil spill never would have happened. That’s because the MMS approved, on Birnbaum’s watch, the drilling permit for the well that is now despoiling the Gulf.

It may well be that Lubchenco should be apoplectic, but it seems to me just as reasonable that she may have reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Most of the blame for not holding off on the drilling permits can’t be laid at her feet.

It’s not that Lubchenco shouldn’t be angry that she wasn’t listened to, but only that, she’s a political appointee. So far as my understanding of most political actors and career bureaucrats, it’s more likely that she’s worried about her own hide getting tanned. And that, at least, should be in the clear. It’s Birnbaum who should be pissed at herself for not following Lubchenco’s advice.


Reaming Critchley

May 20, 2010

Brian Leiter links to other blogs and their reactions to the new Critchley column. Since I’m on-and-off in-and-out of camping this week and next, I’m not in a position to offer very many comments. However, if you’ve already read the inaugural Critchley column, which you should, this synopsis from STFU is pure genius:

What is a philosopher? This one philosopher, Thales, fell into a well. He was looking at the sky. This is a metaphor. Silly philosophers. Water clocks are stealing your time, except only if you’re a lawyer. Lawyers have no souls, but they are successful, unlike PHILOSOPHERS. Silly philosophers, you have time, but you also don’t, but mostly you do. Your heads are always in the clouds. This is important: PHILOSOPHY KILLS. This is because Socrates once died, and he was a philosopher. Also, Bertrand Russell didn’t get a job once. Because of blasphemy! Silly philosophers. You are so anti-establishment and whatnot. This is why the Athenians killed Socrates. Were they right? I dunno. Whatevs.

Also, I should give props to my friends Roman Altshuler and Michael Sigrist for their blog, also discussing the Critchley column. I didn’t even know the blog existed.


Population Policy

May 19, 2010

Just had a paper come out in Public Health Ethics on autonomy in population policy. I co-authored this one with my dear sis. I won’t comment much on the paper itself. You can head there and read it if you feel so inclined.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the new free access policy of Oxford Journals. Rather than sending authors paper proofs, they send a link to a free version of the article and encourage the authors to publicize it on their websites. Here’s what they say:

You may wish to include these links in your list of publications. As with an offprint, following these links allows interested readers free access to the full text of your paper whether or not they are a subscriber to the journal. However, in distributing the link, we request that you consider the following points:

• The article should only be viewed from the Oxford Journals site, and not hosted by your own personal/institutional web site or that of other third parties, though you or your co-authors may post the URLs on your own sites or those of your institutions/organizations;

• Single copies of the article can be printed and distributed to interested colleagues who wish to use the article for personal research/study purposes only. For those wishing to make commercial use of the article, please direct them to for permissions information or see the website.

Now this is a policy that I can certainly stand behind. It’s very nice of them. I suppose the thinking is that, in the end, it’s good for authors to promote their own work, and if a given author happens to have a website, and if some interested reader suddenly takes interest in the work of that author, it’s better for the journal to grant access to the reader who has just discovered the author — on grounds that it will raise the profile of the journal — rather than doing a wide search on journals to which the reader only may or may not have access. Pretty cool. Go Oxford!


Thompson and Bendik-Keymer on Virtue

May 18, 2010

Two of my friends and colleagues, Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, answer questions on environmental virtue ethics. This is a fun interview and well worth your time. Both Allen and Jeremy are leading lights in the burgeoning movement in environmental philosophy called “environmental virtue ethics.” Frankly, I think virtue is mostly hogwash, but it’s my job to think it’s hogwash. You can make your own determination by reading what they have to say.

Allen: Exactly. Talk of “virtue” in the academy as well as in national political discourse is usually just about traits of an individual’s character. But when Aristotle thought about virtue -which was simply another word for human excellence – he folded his discussion of personal character into a systematic examination of politics.

Jeremy: Allen and I want to be true to this insight. For example, part of climate change is that it’s one of the main drivers of “the sixth mass extinction” currently underway. I don’t know if most people are aware of this, but in this century about half the life forms on Earth are under the hatchet. There are many reasons for this -overpopulation, climate change, poor resource use, and so on. Now, the problem is that most people have enough respect for life to not want this to happen. Respect for life is part of every major world religion, and most nonreligious ethical people embrace it. We all want to bring our kids up in a world that is full of life. Maybe not with lots of mosquitoes, but they seem to be doing fine. Yet even with this attitude, most of us unknowingly contribute to mass extinction every single day.

Allen: What Jeremy’s saying is that our individual characters are not the only problem. Even reasonably good people – people whose environmental sensibility may seem all right – are still contributing to something that they recognize, on reflection, is really bad -killing off half the species on the planet. So what’s the disconnect?

One problem is that adapting individual character alone won’t cut it. We need institutions that positively shape our collective effect on other forms of life. Good environmental character won’t snap into place effectively until our collective presence, via political and economic approaches, does as well. In some cases, that even means key elements of our organizational systems -such as our institutional approach to the global commons or the valuation of non-human beings, must alter. Like we said, we have to change who we are – both individually and collectively – to deal with the problems of climate change.

IMHO, Allen and Jeremy are right to expand the virtue discussion well beyond traits of character. I completely agree that we need to develop institutions that address our environmental issues. I just can’t past the action guiding problem.

In the end, this is more-or-less an inside-baseball discussion. (Go Yanks! Sorry Sox.) I agree, for the most part, on their conclusions.

Sorry, btw, for the dearth of posts. I am totally, totally on vacation this week.


What is a Philosopher?

May 16, 2010

Simon Critchley has a new series of articles at the NY Times. The first installment comes today, titled “What is a Philosopher?”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.

Sounds about right to me.