Archive for January, 2011


Stuff to Read

January 21, 2011

Here are some good links for the past few days:

  1. Climate Threatens Species at Every Altitude
  2. Apparently, tests serve more than just a testing function. (For realz? Why do we fund this stuff?)
  3. Colorado Republicans have voted against school breakfast programs because, well, Kent Lambert puts it best: “As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family.” Good thinking, Kent.
  4. There’s a new show on Portland that seems easily to be applicable to Boulder as well.
  5. Here are the 20 best nicknames in yesterday’s massive mafia bust.
  6. A photo of Shanghai in 1990 vs 2010.
  7. And finally, why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.

The Civility Diversion and Justificatory Closure

January 15, 2011

Balloon Juice has a really nice post that, I think, buries its insights a wee too deep in the weeds. Here’s a cut:

The reason that hundreds of angry people came to town hall meetings in my Congressional district in 2009, and the reason that police had to be present where they had never been before, wasn’t because someone was “uncivil”. It was because their media heroes and party leaders told them a pack of lies about death panels, federal funding for abortions, Medicare being taken away and free insurance for illegal immigrants. The questions that my Congressman took at those hate-filled meetings weren’t reasonable queries about limited government, deficits and healthcare outcomes. They were questions about why he wanted to kill grandma, let the government pay to abort babies, and take away Medicare.

Here’s my attempt at translation.

Palin, Beck, and the rest of the banshees have been engaged, for years now really, in a project of deception that implicates politicians in the disintegration of the fabric and soul of America (whatever the hell that is). They have told all manner of untruths to make their point, and in making this point, have either explicitly or implicitly stated that the guilty politicians must be stopped or taken out. They use guns and gun sights and invoke the revolutionary war and the second world war to underscore the extent of their dissatisfaction. They continue to do it. “If those wars were justified,” they imply, “the only natural conclusion is that this current fight, and the side that represents the side of the good, the side we’re on, is also justified.”

A prevailing presupposition, then, is that war and violence and assassination are sometimes justified. Such acts are justified, for instance, in cases like the revolutionary and the second world war. I think many people agree with this. Certainly, many self-respecting Americans agree with this. (Others, perhaps, not so much.)

It is one thing to argue that a position is justified, yet another to imply that violence in the promotion or defense of that position is justified.

Click on the jump for more…

Read the rest of this entry ?


Motives Don’t Matter

January 11, 2011

The chorus of right wingers defending the actions of the shooter in Tucson as mere insanity is beginning to blow my mind. Repeatedly, politically sympathetic folks seem to be emphasizing Jared Loughner’s mental illness and not the nature of his act; or, at least, divorcing the two: he was sick, and he did a terrible deed as a result of that sickness. Others have taken the opportunity to cry politics, or to claim that we must wait to establish causality.

The left, on the other hand, is taking a somewhat stronger stance. Sandhya Somashekhar at the Washington Post asks whether it stemmed from the state of politics. Vaughan Bell at Salon makes the case that all this talk of mental illness is mostly an easy dodge. Paul Krugman has an eloquent piece arguing that it’s all been building for a long time. Steven Cohen, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has this to say.

Much as they may want to hang on to the idea that this was “merely” the act of a mentally ill person, there is at least one fact that cannot be accounted for by the mental illness of the shooter. That is, Giffords was targeted in political discourse, repeatedly, as someone who ought to be taken out. She was also the target of the shooter.

Was she the random target of a deranged person? Possibly…but highly unlikely. She was selected by a mentally ill person in large part because that mentally ill person was under the impression that Giffords was someone to be rid of. That’s what happened. That is an undeniable fact about Saturday’s shooting… and you don’t need to know much about mental illness to acknowledge that fact.

Friend and fellow philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Case Western Reserve) put it to me this way:

My partner, Elaine, is a seasoned therapist. We watched Loughner’s YouTube site last night. He’s insane. But Elaine had no doubt that politics *channeled* or *guided* the direction of his insanity. Imagine your head has gone wild with internal anxiety -even voices. You cast about for a direction, an outlet, some way to turn the mess into relief. Now comes a message that for some idiosyncratic reason speaks to you and allows you a modicum of rationality inside your paranoia. And it tells you that you feel so bad because the government and the system –anything that’s not your head- has warped reality & that you must tear it all down. And now there’s a target over this one public officer’s face. And others have shouted -others who say things like you- that she should be shot, or “taken out”. And now you think one day when your head is going nuts — this has been building for you for a while, you may even have been planning it as an apotheosis- this is the chance. Now I will do this. I have been planning to take out the government as the voices advise. I will do it. It follows from my logic, I will start to take down the system. That’s how Palin & co. are responsible. & all of us in this country too — not directly responsible, and not liable, but politically responsible for cultivating an ethos of respect in public debate & in the media. There’s a 9 year old girl who was elected to her student council who is dead because of the way violence in the public sphere glommed onto to some sad, paranoid man’s mind.

I buy this argument, as I think it offers an entirely plausible causality. But it is susceptible to the all-too-frequent objection that the causality is nevertheless unclear. I think there’s a fair bit more to this.

That Loughner’s act may have been caused by mental illness doesn’t suggest that there is no blame to lay at the feet of those who incite people to violence… like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and most of the others. What I mean is that causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is.

A comparison: if I tell a child that he is worthless and should kill himself, I am being grossly irresponsible. If he does kill himself, there’s certainly a sense in which I can’t be held causally responsible for his decision to do so. He did it himself. Many children would likely hear such a claim and brush it off as nasty talk from a playground meanie. But there’s also a critically important sense in which it is morally wrong of me to say this to the child, not because he does in fact kill himself, nor because I have for certain caused him to kill himself, but because if it were the case that I caused him to kill himself, then I would be responsible. The fact that he did kill himself isn’t doing the heavy lifting.

Similarly, if I wander through the halls of an insane asylum shouting that the doctors are plotting to harvest the organs of the inmates, that they must be stopped by any means necessary, I am committing a wrong. Again, I am committing this wrong whether or not the inmates do kill their doctors. If the inmates do in fact kill the doctors, they may have been plotting so for other reasons–perhaps their craziness was what motivated them–but my hands are dirtied in the killing of the doctors by my act of shouting falsities and inciting crazy people to take action even if the causal link is not made.

Finally, if I screech over the airwaves that some politician is destructive to the fabric of America, and must be targeted and stopped, or that we must not retreat but reload, or that we must begin the revolution, then I open myself to culpability for willing this rule, effectively, into a law; into execution; for having universalized it.

It’s my right to do this, of course, just as it is anybody’s right. It is my right to say awful things to children and my right to tell insane people that they are being persecuted, but it is still grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible. The banshees of the airwaves—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and the many others—as well as their defenders, must acknowledge this.

The forward-looking question that we really should be asking is what reasons we might have for defending vitriol and hate speech? Is it an essential part of our political discourse? Does it serve an important role? Is it vital that we paste targets over our political opponents?

Those who profit off it surely have a reason to defend their hate. That’s how they make money. If the public catches wind that what they’re saying is wrong, or morally suspect, this may damage their bank accounts. Here’s a timeline of such talk since 2008. But the rest of America ought to know better.

We can have a sane discourse about differing public policies in this country without resorting to characterizations of one or the other position in Nazi terms.

If I can find any solace in the shootings, it is this: that these sorts of crimes don’t happen more often. Evidently, Americans aren’t as loony as we may sometimes seem. There are thousands of mentally ill citizens in the United States, some of whom have murderous thoughts. Only a few of these, thank goodness, move to take action on these thoughts. Given the state of the political discussion, with all the targets and vitriol, we can thank our lucky stars that more of our brave political figures aren’t victims.

UPDATE: Protevi has a nice piece on this too.


Syllogistic Thinking

January 10, 2011

Here’s an interview with Jared Loughner’s philosophy professor, worth a full read.

The odd thing about Loughner’s syllogisms is that they’re not far off from examples Slinker might use in class. “When you teach logic, you draw a distinction between truth and inference,” says Slinker. To illustrate that, a teacher might say, “If chickens could fly upside down, then George W. Bush would be president in 2098.” The statement isn’t true. It just serves as a premise from which to draw conclusions. The purpose, says Slinker, is “to show it’s the form of the argument rather than the content that’s the expression of validity.” But that only works when talking in the abstract. In real-world logic, premises matter. “If the premises aren’t true,” says Slinker, “all bets are off.”


SRM Interviews

January 6, 2011

Here are a bunch of interviews from the Missoula Workshop on geoengineering. Obviously, dorky little me is also included:

  • Jason Blackstock, Center for International Governance Innovation
  • Ben Hale, Philosophy and Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Nicole Hassoun, Department of Philosophy, Carnegie Mellon University
  • David Keith, Director, ISEEE Energy and Environmental Systems Group, Departments of Chemical and Petroleum Enginering and Economics, University of Calgary
  • Andrew Light, Center for American Progress and Philosophy, George Mason University
  • Jane Long, Co-chair, Task Force on Geoengineering and Climate Change (NCEP) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Clark Miller, School of Politics and Global Studies and Associate Directory, School of Science, Policy and Outcomes, Arizona State University
  • Wendy Parker, Department of Philosophy, Ohio University
  • Phil Rasch, Laboratory Fellow, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Alan Robock, Department of Environmental Sciences, Rutgers University
  • Petra Tschakert, Department of Geography, Pennsylvannia State University
  • Nancy Tuana, Director, Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvannia State University
  • Kyle Whyte, Department of Philosophy and American Indian Studies, Michigan State University

Global Warming Weather Report

January 5, 2011

A Dean with the Right Attitude

January 5, 2011

NPR has a heartwarming story of Laguardia Community College and their push to increase enrollment and interest in philosophy:

As state universities cut back on humanities programs in order to deal with budget shortfalls, LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., is going in the opposite direction. At LaGuardia, philosophy is king: Of the 17,000 matriculated students, 4,500 are taking philosophy. There are seven full-time professors, most of whom have been added in the past two years.

Unbelievable, really… but good news. Hopefully more universities will pick up the pace; and hopefully more philosophers and philosophy departments will see this as a sign that there is plenty of opportunity to build the richness of philosophy throughout the university system.

Oh, guess what? I finished my book. I think I might soon hop right back on the blogging train. (Yay me!)


Does Philosophy Ever Make Progress?

January 4, 2011