June 05, 2011
Gay Pride and Prejudice
Our topic this week -- Gay Pride and Prejudice.
Our society, taken as a whole, can’t make up its mind about Gays and Lesbians. On the one hand, many studies have documented increasing tolerance of homosexuality, especially among younger, more educated, more affluent, and more liberal . Americans. On the other hand, a substantial number of Americans still don’t think gays should be allowed to marry, serve in the military, adopt or even teach children. The extent of how divided we are about gays and gay rights is evident in our politics. While there's substantial grass-roots activism in favor of gay rights, surprisingly few national politicians -- even politicians who are progressive on other issues -- are willing to actually stand up and lead the charge in favor of gay rights. I can’t think of a single national politician who has taken on gay rights as a cause célèbre. To be sure, there was San Francisco’s former mayor, Gavin Newsom, who officiated at all those gay weddings. But given that it was San Francisco, it’s not really clear how much courage that took. But in any case, there’s no shortage of politicians wiling to demagogue against the so-called “gay agenda” and demonize gays and their so-called lifestyle.
Since gay rights is clearly a hot-button political issue, it’s fair to wonder what are a couple of philosophers like us doing discussing Gay Pride and Prejudice. The answer is that it is one our jobs, as publically minded philosophers, to ferret out hidden assumptions, to make them explicit and open and to subject them to intense critical scrutiny. Of course, here the hidden assumptions aren’t really so hidden. People who are anti-gay think that homosexuality is some sort of unnatural, morally abhorrent perversion, deeply at odds with their religious beliefs. They also seem to believe that gayness is not just a private perversion, but is somehow communicable. That’s part of why they're so opposed to gays in the military or gays adopting or being teachers of young children.
By contrast, people on the other side tend to think of sexual orientation as just one morally neutral dimension along which humans vary. People vary in race and gender. They vary in sexual orientation too. Differences in race or gender don’t mark morally important distinctions between people, and differences in sexual orientation shouldn’t either.
So one question is who is right? And, more importantly, how do we go about deciding who’s right? I know what my personal opinion is, but that’s not really what I am getting at here. I’m asking what sort of rational basis either of these two conflicting views about gayness could possibly have? How do we go about deciding -- rationally deciding -- whether homosexuality is a morally abhorrent perversion or a morally neutral variation in human sexual orientation? Is this a scientific question? Is it a question of religious and moral belief? Or just matter of political ideology? Is there a true and false of the matter? Are we simply evolved to have primitive aversions to homosexuality?
I don’t have any answers – though I do have plenty of opinions. But if we want more than mere opinion, we should turn to somebody who's thought long, hard and rigorously about what shapes our attitudes toward gayness, and the role that such attitudes have played in shaping our public discourse and social practices. That would be our guest, renowned anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, editor of Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights.
May 22, 2011
The Prison System
This week, we tackle the prison system. America imprisons more of her citizens, for more crimes, and for longer periods than any other nation in the world. At the beginning of 2008, nearly two and a half million people were in prison in the US. That’s one in every one hundred adults. China, with a population about four times ours, had a prison population of about one and a half million during that same period. Does this mass incarceration really serve the interest of justice? Or is it an inefficient, dysfunctional way of addressing social ills that would be better handled in other ways?
Now here’s a starting thought that might seem to justify those teeming numbers. The U.S. can be a violent place. Our prisons are overflowing with people because our streets are overflowing with violent crime. But violent crime is only part of the story. Here’s another fact. In the twenty-seven nations of the European Union, whose combined population exceeds ours by nearly two hundred million, the total prison population for all crimes combined is around six hundred thousand. In the US, we’ve got almost that number of people – five hundred thousand to be precise -- in prison for drug related crimes alone. And many of these crimes involve no violence whatsoever.
That’s a lot of people. And it costs a lot of money. The states spent almost fifty billion dollars on incarceration in 2007. That’s up from ten billion in 1987 – adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of a hundred twenty-seven percent.
And not just how many we imprison, but who we imprison raises moral questions as well. African Americans make up roughly twelve percent of our total population, but they make up over forty percent of the prison population. Latinos make up thirteen percent of the population, but twenty percent of prison inmates. The prison system is one of the epicenters of racial inequality in America. If current trends continue, one-third of all black males and one-sixth of all Latino males will go to prison during their lives, as opposed to one in seventeen white males.
To make some philosophy out of those numbers, think about theories of just punishment.
Intuitively, we think of a just punishment as a punishment that "fits" the crime. But what exactly does that mean? What does it take for a punishment to “fit” a crime?
One what to start answering that question is to ask about the goals or aims of punishment. Suppose you thought that the point of punishment is to deter future crime. In that case, a punishment might be said to fit a crime, if the punish is just harsh enough to change the cost-benefit calculations of potential criminals.
Alternatively, you could think that punishment is about extracting retribution – an eye for an eye. In that case, a punishment would fit a crime, if the pain or harm imposed on the criminal was proportionate to the pain or harm that the criminal imposed on its victim.
It could also be the point of punishment is to rehabilitate the criminal. In that case, the punishment fits the crime only if it helps to make the criminal a better person. But it seems a little odd to think of this as a theory of punishment, exactly. You rehabilitate people by treating them or educating them. You don’t really punish a person when you treat or educate them. At a minimum, punishment requires condemnation. And what about the victim? Isn’t he at least owed some restitution?
Actually, we’ve just introduced two more theories of punishment. The restorative theory of punishment requires the criminal to make restitution for his crimes. The denunciation theory of punishment says that just punishment should express society’s collective condemnation of the criminal and his acts.
But by any measure -- deterrence, retribution, restitution, rehabilitation or social denunciation -- I suspect our prison system is riddled with moral imperfection. Moreover, it's not at all clear that our prison system has a well-thought out conception of "just" punishment at its core. I suspect the system rests on a hodge-podge of hardly thought out, politically driven practices that respond to panic and fear rather than being the product of deep philosophical reflection on the nature of just punishment. But that's where we come in right?
And to help us sort through these thorny issues, we invited Kara Dansky, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. She is a terrific guests and has thought long and hard about the moral costs and benefits of our prison system. Tune in, I am sure you thoughts will be provoked.
May 01, 2011
Should Marriage Be Abolished?
Our topics this week: Should Marriage Be Abolished? That’s a pretty punchy and provocative way to ask the question, we’re trying to get at, but we need to be careful. Asking whether marriage should be “abolished” isn’t like asking whether slavery should be abolished. We don’t want to suggest that people should be forbidden from marrying.
Of course, some people are forbidden from marrying. In most places in the United States, gay couples are not legally allowed to marry. Once upon a time, interracial couples were not legally permitted to marry. So one question that we could be asking is whether the legal inequality between those who are permitted to marry and those who aren't, is morally and/or politically defensible.
Of course, that’s not at all the same as asking whether marriage should be totally abolished. So let’s try again to say just what the question is.
Now there are places where marriage is actually disappearing, on its own accord, without anybody actively trying to abolish it. In Sweden, for example, more and more couples simply cohabitate without bothering to get married, even when they have children. But our issue isn’t really whether Americans ought to become more like the Swedes – though if marriage were indeed “abolished” in the sense that we will be discussing, that might be one result of the abolition of marriage.
But let’s go back a step. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the inequality between people who are allowed to marry and people who aren't is NOT morally… politically… or rationally defensible. What then? Now I grant that that is a contentious assumption. Many people are willing to go to the barricades to “defend” marriage as we currently know it, especially against the encroachment by gays and lesbians into that cherished institution. But humor me for moment. For the sake of argument, suppose we reject all the arguments offered up by people massing at the barricades to defend marriage. What then?
Well, I suggest that on that assumption – which I’m just entertaining for the sake of argument -- there’s no good reason why any two consenting adults -- regardless of their race or gender or whatever – should be legally forbidden from marrying. But, of course, our society, as currently constituted, is very far from agreeing with this quite obvious conclusion. Which raises a prior question: Why is marriage such a hot button issue in the first place? Why are so many people who were previously excluded from it, clamoring for the right to marry, while so many others are determined to deny them that right?
One response might be that marriage is a good thing. But apparently the Swedes don’t think so. And if you consider our rising divorce rates, apparently a lot of people who have experienced it don’t think so either.
But perhaps what is meant by calling marriage a good thing is that being married, legally married, married in the eyes of the state, brings in its wake all sorts of social benefits. Access to health insurance, hospital visitation rights, the right to file joint tax returns, property rights, inheritance rights, social status. Stuff like that. The
state showers those who marry with benefits that it doesn’t extend to those who don’t or can’t marry. But then it’s fair to ask why the state should be in the business of favoring the married over the non-married, in the first place?
One response might be that marriage is a good thing – this time in the sense that marriage makes for stable families and stable families make for stable communities and stable communities make for … You get the idea. Isn’t it just obvious that the state has an interest in promoting such stability?
That may well be true. But think of marriage as just one form of "intimate entanglement," to coin a phrase. There's also cohabitation, and deep, long-lasting, non-sexual friendships. Indeed, if you let your imagination run wild, I’m sure you can imagine many possible forms of intimate entanglement among consenting adults. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not marriage as such, but intimate entanglements, in a possibly wide variety of forms, that promote the kind of stability that the state has reason to favor. And if that’s right, then it’s far from clear why the state should single out marriage as a favored and privileged form of intimate entanglement. Why should it bother endowing this one particular form of entanglement with a special legal status? Which is another way of asking: Should marriage be abolished?
So now that we’re clear about the question, tune into the program this week to see if we achieve any clarity about the answer. Trying to help us achieve that clarity, will be Tamara Metz, author of Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State and the Case for Their Divorce.
April 17, 2011
The Extended Mind
Our topic this week is The Extended Mind Hypothesis. If you haven’t followed certain literature, you might be puzzled by today’s topic – especially if you just go on the meanings of the individual words involved. Most people are pretty clear what the mind is. It’s the seat of thought, consciousness, emotion… Stuff like that. And we know what it means to say something is extended – it’s stretched out through space or maybe over time. But I don’ think it is obvious what it means when we combine these two things, and say the mind is extended.
Descartes, for example, distinguished what he called thinking substance –the mind -- from what he called extended substance – material objects that occupy space. So you could read the claim that the mind is “extended” as just the denial of Cartesian Dualism, just the claim that, contrary to Descartes, the mind occupies space after all. Of course, that topic has been beaten to death by now. Plus, even if we grant that the mind occupies space, there’s still a big question. Just where in space is the mind?
You might think that there’s an easy answer to that question, especially if you are a thoroughly modern materialist. Materialists think that the mind is simply the brain working and that The brain resides in the skull. Hence the mind resides in the skull. QED.
But friends of the extended mind hypothesis think that this way of looking at the mind entails a kind of vestigial Cartesianism. It construes the mind as a little black box, locked up inside our heads, as something separate and distinct both from the body in which it's contained, and from the environment that surrounds the body. Except for the part where the materialist grants that the mind is a material thing, it remains Cartesian in the sense that it takes the mind to be entirely separate from (the rest of) the body.
I know that’s a pretty big “except.” And maybe it’s even part of common sense to think of the mind as something “contained in” the body, but still separate from it. But it’s just this way of looking at mind that proponents of the extended mind hypothesis wish to question. They take it to be part of the essence of mind to be embodied and situated. The mind, body, and environment are not three separate and distinct things, on this view, but one massively interactive, massively interconnected whole.
Poppycock, a skeptic might say. Consider the following analogy. I live in a house. Couldn’t live nearly so well without one. But that doesn’t make me and my house one massively interactive and interconnected whole.
But maybe a little experiment will help you skeptics out there get force of the claim. Probably there’s an object you can reach out for an grab while you are reading this – maybe a cup of coffee or a bottle of water. So do something for me. Reach for that bottle of water – or whatever it is -- and take it into your hand. I am going to assume that you pulled that off quite effortlessly. Now the reason you were able to do so, is because the human hand is a really cool thing. And I am not just thinking of the opposable thumb, here. Rather, I'm thinking of the collapsibility of the hand. Because of the way the hand naturally collapses, you didn’t have to do a lot of calculating to grab that bottle. You didn’t have to independently calculate the trajectory of each individual finger, for example. All your brain had to calculate was a trajectory that got my hand into the rough vicinity of the bottle and with the right orientation toward it, and from that point on, the hand just sort of took over, by automatically collapsing around the bottle.
The point is that when the body moves, some of the work of making it move is done by that little computer we call a brain and some some of the work is done by the body itself. So If you think of the mind as whatever is ultimately responsible for movement, then you can’t just identify the mind with the brain, with the inner computer. At the same time it would be just as wrong to identify the mind with the body and ignore the inner computer. That’s what behaviorists did. It’s not an either-or thing. When we’re talking about the mind, we’re really talking about the brain-body complex. There is no fixed boundary between the mind and the body.
And if you start down this route, there won’t be any reason to stop at the boundaries of the body. The structure of the environment is at least as important to the nature of cognition as the body. Think of external memory aids like my lovely little iPhone, with its sync-able calendar. Technology enables us to offload onto the environment cognitive tasks that in earlier times the brain had to perform all on its own. Modern technology extends the mind, right out into the world.
So now that we’ve got a feel for what is meant by the extended mind hypothesis, I hope you’ll agree that this will be a fun topic to think about. And we’ve got a really fun guest to help us do the thinking. We’ve extended our collective mind to include George Lakoff, co-author of Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.
March 19, 2011
Is it All Just Relative?
Our topic this week is relativism. “Is it all Just Relative?” we ask. Clearly some things are relative. Tastes in food or matters of etiquette, for example. If I like single malt scotch and you don’t, there’s no basis for saying that one of us is right and the other is wrong about how good it tastes. Taste is just relative to our individual taste buds. Same thing seems true of etiquette – except that etiquette is relative to cultures or subcultures rather than to individual people. I’m told that in some cultures, a gentle burp after a meal is a polite way of expressing satisfaction. Not in mine. But again, there isn’t any basis for saying that one culture has it right and the other has it wrong. Our question is whether everything – including truth, knowledge, and morality – is like matters of taste or etiquette?
At first blush, that seems like a pretty straight-forward and easy question. It seems pretty clear that some things are not relative. It’s hard to feel much intuitive pull in the idea that truth is relative. Clearly, believing something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Certainly there's a sense in which if I believe something to be true, then it is "true for me." But to say that something is true for me really is just to say that I believe it. It is not to say that it is flat-out true. Just because we take there to be a distinction between believing true and actually being true, relativism about truth seems pretty hard to make out.
The same might seem to go for morality -- though here making a case against relativism seems a little harder. I think Hitler was a really bad man. And I think that's not just a matter of opinion, that's a matter of cold hard fact. And I like to think that the fact that he and his Nazi followers thought it was a morally good thing to slaughter the Jews, didn't make it so. Not for me and not for them either.
Still, as little intuitive pull as relativism about truth seems to have, there are people who take relativism, especially moral relativism to be both obvious and obviously true. Partly due to the influence of thinkers like Rorty and Derrida, even relativism about truth and knowledge is something of the rage in certain circles of academia. And with respect to the intuitive pull of moral relativism, scratch any 17 year old college freshman, for example, and you’ll get a reflex moral relativism, according to which each of us has his own moral code, and nobody is really entitled to question anybody else’s moral code. Moreover, if you believe Pope Benedict, relativism is just about everywhere. Not only does he see relativism everywhere, he decries it as the main enemy of the Church and laments that Western civilization is being destroyed by “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Of course, sometimes people’s commitment to a controversial doctrine is more in word than in deed. Lots of people may think that they (and others) are relativists. Some people may even talk like relativists. But when push comes to shove, it may be that they don’t act like relativists. Ask yourself what your supposedly secular, post-modern relativist actually does when faced with the reality of female genital mutilation or the criminalization of homosexuality in certain African countries? Do they just shrug their shoulders in indifference and say “well, that’s how they do things over there? ” I bet that that's not at all what they would do. Most of them would feel some degree of moral outrage or disgust.
Now most arguments for relativism begin by observing that some cultures endorse things like female genital mutilation, while other cultures prohibit such things. But the argument can’t end there. The relativist has to show not only that there are diverse moral outlooks but that they are all “equally valid” and that “disputes” between them can’t be rationally adjudicated. And you might think that the very fact that we express moral outrage over female genital mutilation in other cultures shows that we don’t regard all moral systems as equally valid, even if we say we do. In practice, we regard some systems as superior to others, as closer to the moral truth of the matter.
Of course, one kind of relativist will insist that regarding our own moral system (or our belief system more broadly) as superior to another is little better than a form of intolerant arrogance or cultural imperialism. But against the line of reasoning I am trying out now that observation misses a point. The point is that on the face of it, we don’t regard differences in moral systems as on a par with differences in taste or rules of etiquette. In these domains, we may indeed say “to each his own,” “live and let live” and leave it at that. But when it comes to weighty moral matters, we certainly behave as if there’s a right and wrong of the matter. Or so it seems, anyway. It is certainly true that we may or may not be certain where the truth lies in a particular case. But when we doubt that we know the truth, we don’t ipso facto doubt that there is a truth to be found out, somehow or other. That’s why we engage in further argument and investigation in the face of disagreement. If we didn’t believe that there was a truth out there to be known, the absolutist will say, argument and investigation would simply lose their point. The conclusion is supposed to be that the bare fact that we greet moral disagreements with arguments, rather than with automatic acceptance or indifference, shows that we aren’t really relativists after all.
But a not so small voice inside me thinks that the last line of argument just went by much too fast. Why, the not so small voice plaintively asks, can’t a relativist rationally prefer that others share his or her moral outlook? If she does rationally prefer such a thing, then that bare optional preference itself would give her a reason to invite further argument in the face of apparent disagreement. And there’s no reason, the not so small voice says, that she can’t coherently both have such a preference and believe that there is no absolute truth of the matter where things like morality are concerned.
Consider an analogy with matters of taste. I offer you a sip of what I take to be a very fine pinot noir. You don’t like it. Perhaps you find it disgusting. What do I do? Shrug my shoulders? I could, but I am not required to do so. Cause I might believe that I could, by giving you the right experiences, educate your palate into the glories of fine pinot. I might believe this even if I also believed there were no absolute, taste bud independent facts about the taste of pinot. How might I do this re-education of your palate? Well, by offering you the functional equivalent of further arguments and evidence. That is, I’ll get you to taste it again, perhaps after having gotten you to taste several inferior varieties. Perhaps, in the end, with the right arrangement of vinoic arguments, as it were, I could bring it about that your tastes and my tastes converge.
Now why on earth would I bother to do such a thing, especially if there are no objective facts about taste? Well, perhaps partly because I simply don’t like to drink alone and partly because its fine pinots that I love to drink. That is, because I want to keep drinking pinot and I want company in the drinking of them, I try to bring you around to my way of tasting.
Couldn’t an analog of the same story be told about moral arguments? I prefer company in my way of valuing the world. In the face of disagreement, it’s not so much that I try to get you to see the truth. Rather, I try to bring you around to my way of valuing. I offer you up what I take to be a compelling version of how the world is to be valued and try to lead you into adopting that version as your own. I can have perfectly good reasons for that attempt. It need not be a form of arrogance. And it need not presuppose that there are objective matters of fact about what things are really and truly valuable independently of our valuing.
Who knows if this is the right way of thinking about relativism, disagreement, and argument. But I’m sure our guest, Paul Boghossian, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, can help us straighten this all out. Paul tends to give no quarter to relativism, while I feel its pull quite strongly – at least in the realm of morality. So it should be an interesting conversation.
February 12, 2011
Lights! Camera! Think!
This week, it’s the third annual Dionysus Awards Show. The Dionysus Awards are presented to the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. And sometimes, when we feel like it, we also honor philosophically notable movies from the past. Now unlike your average awards show, we accept spontaneous nominations from the floor. So we’ll be talking to some of our listeners who wrote in with nominations and to some of our past guests as well. But since John and I are the ultimate judges, we reserve the right to either grant or refuse awards to nominated movies.
We’re in the thick of award season – that time of year when just about everybody and her brother is honoring and celebrating the film industry. But besides the fact that movies are fun to watch and fun to talk about, we should we here at Philosophy Talk jump on the already overcrowded Awards bandwagon? It starts with the fact that movies, at their best, are really cool things. They can make you laugh or make you cry. They can frighten you out of your wits, transport you to far off places and times, take you deep inside the hidden reaches of the mind. Movies are kind of magical in that way. But there’s something else that movies can do, something moviemakers aren’t always rewarded for doing. In the right hands, movies can be amazing vehicles for expressing and exploring philosophically significant ideas. And that’s precisely why we inaugurated the Dionysus Awards. Our aim is to reward and encourage movies that make us think.
Of course, it’s not an either or thing. We’re looking for movies that effectively explore ideas at the same time as they do all the other things that the best movies do. So in order to win a Dionysus Award, a movie really does have to be something pretty special. It’s got to be a good movie – a movie that tells a compelling story and works on the heart and imagination in the way that the finest films do. But it’s got to work on the intellect just as effectively.
In fact many movies that rack up awards in other places are often also-rans in the stiff competition for a Dionysus Award. Think of Slumdog Millionaire, a nominee for our First Dionysus Award. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture – and that award was well-deserved. But we decided it just didn’t measure up to the high standards of Dionysus. Or think of last year’s hard-fought contest between District Nine and Avatar, for Most Philosophically Compelling Movie About Man’s Inhumanity to Crustaceans. It was the little-seen and lightly-promoted District Nine in a landslide.
Now Hollywood’s main claim to fame is decidedly not that it churns out movie after movie designed to make us think and think hard. So every year, aided by a stable of film critics, past guests, and our listeners, we uncover a true treasure trove of films worthy of consideration. Some of them are big movies, that’ll win many other awards. But some of them are small movies that hardly anyone has seen. Last year’s Dionysus winners included not just District 9, but also the Academy Award winning, Hurt Locker. But there were also hardly noticed gems like, Me and Orson Welles, a brilliant and entertaining movie that came and went from theaters in the blink of an eye. This year’s nominees run the gamut too. From the little seen mockumentary, I’m Still Here, about the dark side of our celebrity culture. To mind-bending movies that transgress the borders of reality: The Black Swan and Inception.
You should definitely tune in. It is a fun and entertaining hour. Unlike most of our episodes, this one was pre-produced. That fact enables us to do two things that we can’t normally do. First, we were able to make it extra-ordinarily sound-rich. Second, we are able to give a “stand-alone” sort of character. The latter enables us to offer it to public radio stations everywhere, even those who don’t normally carry philosophy talk, as a stand-alone special. Given that it’s award season, and that the Oscars will be fast upon us, it would make a perfect compliment to the regular programming to any public radio station that wants to help their listeners think more reflectively about the movies.
So far, a dozen or so additional stations have expressed interest in our Dionysus Special. We’d love your help in signing up even more stations to carry this special episode. Contact a public radio station near you, and urge them to carry our special for the movie season.
January 14, 2011
Derrida and Deconstruction
This week our topic is Derrida and Deconstruction. Derrida was one of the most widely revered and widely reviled thinkers of the mid-to-late twentieth Century. Many people in a variety of disciplines – especially in the literary humanities -- regard him as an absolutely seminal figure. Mark Taylor recently called him one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century -- right up there with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. On the other hand, many philosophers would strongly disagree with that assessment (including that assessment of Heidegger and, to a lesser extent, Wittgenstein) -- especially philosophers, like John and I, who belong to the Anglo-American tradition. In our circles, Derrida tends to be regarded as something of a fraud and a charlatan. Moreover, folks blame him for what they often see as the especially sorry state of literary studies. But we question everything here on Philosophy Talk. So in complete fairness to Derrida, we should ask ourselves whether it’s just prejudice that keeps us from appreciating Derrida’s profundity and importance.
My first reaction to that question is that it clearly isn’t just prejudice that causes him to be so reviled by so many. I mean for a man who was deeply concerned about the nature of written language and with the interpretation of written language, Derrida was awfully hard to read and interpret. Of course, you could ask whether he’s harder than Kant or harder than Hegel. Neither of those guys is easy to read or interpret, but nobody dismisses them as frauds or charlatans. Perhaps, though, that just shows the difference between German obscurity and French obscurity. German obscurity can seem profound, but French obscurity is just irritating and perplexing.
But all kidding aside – and I was just kidding – I think there’s a deeper reason why Anglo-American philosophers often find Derrida so off-putting. His work purports to undermine what he takes to be the very foundation of everything that we do. I’m talk here about the so-called logocentrism that Derrida perceives to be at the heart of Western Philosophy and his claim to have moved us decisively beyond it. Since analytic philosophy claims to be the continuation of the western philosophical tradition, it carries on the tradition of logocentrism. To speak a little bit of Derrida-ese, it might be said that like the logocentrics of old we anal-retentive, logo-phallo-centric philosophers privilege logos – that is, meaning, reason, spirit -- and we take speech to be prior, in the order of signification, to writing. And by privileging speech over writing, we privilege presence over absence. We hanker after transcendental signifieds -- signifieds that transcend all signifiers, meanings that transcends all signs. Now I’m not sure what all that means, but it sure sounds bad. And Derrida shows us how to get beyond all that. That is, how to get beyond an oppressive metaphysics of presence, that excludes, marginalizes and fails to acknowledge that which is absent, that which is different and other. Think, for example, of all the voices that were historically absent from the Western philosophical canon. The voices of women, blacks, gays, the poor, and on and on. Through the canon’s privileging of presence, it fails to acknowledge what is not there, what is absent.
It sort of astounds me, though, that through the seemingly apolitical and morally innocent act of taking the spoken word to be somehow prior to the written word, we do all that nasty stuff. I know, I know. There’s a long story about how that works. But thanks to Derrida there’s supposedly a way out of the mess that traditional western philosophy has gotten us into. We execute a sort of reversal. We privilege texts, that is, writing, over speech. The benefit of that move is that unlike speech the text is constituted as much by what it excludes as by what it includes, by absence as much as presence. Studying texts, even the texts of the canon with its oppressive metaphysics of presence, allows us to recognize and acknowledge what is absent.
The way we get at absence via the text is by deconstructing the text. Now that doesn’t mean tearing it down and ripping it apart, sort of like tearing down a building -- at least not exactly. Rather, to deconstruct a text is to expose the inevitable and ineliminable contradictions and oppositions upon which it is founded, which it disguises and refuses to acknowledge, to expose it as devoid of fixed and determinate meaning, as irreducibly complex, unstable, and, even, impossible.
That’s a mouthful. And I know I'm not up to making complete sense of it on my own. And I doubt John is either. We are definitely going to need some help with this one. Luckily for us, help is on the way in the form of Joshua Kates, author of Fielding Derrida: Philosophy, Literary Criticism. History, and the Work of Deconstruction.
January 02, 2011
The Moral Costs of Markets
This week begins both a new year and a new season of Philosophy Talk. Hard to believe, but we're into our 8th season. It's been a great ride so far and we hope to keep building the program.
To launch a new season and a new year, we take up the topic of free markets, in particular the moral costs of free markets. Free markets are, on balance, wonderful things, I think. When they're truly open and free and not monopolized by a few big players, or overly regulated by excessively intrusive governments, markets are amazingly efficient ways of providing people with the things they want and need. They're the chief engines of economic progress, and are singularly conducive to human happiness.
But my enthusiasm for free markets is not unlimited. It’s not that I don’t like free markets or that I am some kind of socialist – though I do think that democratic socialism of the Western European variety has something going for it. In their place, markets are very good things. But I just don’t believe that every product or service is best distributed by the market.
To make a pretty basic point, take something as simple as the air we breathe. I doubt that even someone with boundless enthusiasm for free and open markets, would suggest that there should be a price on air.
Now you could say that that is cheating, since nobody controls the air. So nobody can stop you from breathing just because you won’t pay up. There couldn’t be a market in air. But of course there markets in air -- sort of. At least there are markets in clean air -- where companies get to buy and sell pollution credits. That points to a different problem with markets. You buy your gas-guzzling dream car. The oil company gets rich. The car company gets rich. And me? I get to breathe dirty air.
Here I’m talking what economists call externalities -- costs generated by economic transactions between two parties that are borne by somebody else, somebody not a party to the original transaction. Markets can generate lots of different externalities and many of them are morally problematic.
But that wasn’t my original point about markets in air. My point was that even if there could be a market for air, nobody would accept it. People have a basic and equal right to air. And things to which we have basic and equal rights shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the market – you know… some folks having more, some having less, and some having none at all.
I know that there are, of course, lots of things that the rich have more of and the poor have less of. The poor live in less luxurious houses than the rich; drive less expensive cars; go to less fancy schools, have less access to the political process. Plus they eat less well and probably don’t wear as finely-tailored clothing. And I admit that if we were going to restrict markets wherever they generate inequality, we’d truly have our work cut out for us.
But I didn’t say that wherever markets generate inequality they're bad and ought to be regulated. Still, markets are not divine. They don’t have godlike wisdom into the right and just distribution of every possible good. That’s because they pay attention only to the bottom line, not to considerations of justice and morality. That’s why markets sometimes need to be regulated or even prohibited.
Of course, that raises the question of what principles distinguish morally intolerable markets from morally tolerable ones. Here’s a first quick thought about that. Votes definitely shouldn’t be traded on the free market. And public schools definitely shouldn’t be driven by markets. Public schools should offer an education that’s good enough for rich and poor alike – independent of ability to pay.
But of course, those aren’t really principles, are they? Those are just examples. I gave examples because, frankly, I don’t know what the right principles are. I’m not even sure that all the moral limits of markets have to do with inequalities. Markets in woman’s sexual labor seem wrong to me, for example, but not because of issues about inequality -- not exactly, anyway.
It seems clear that we need to call on somebody who has thought a little harder and deeper about this question than I have. That would be our guest, Stanford philosopher Debra Satz. She's the author of the very fine book, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.
December 10, 2010
The Power of Thought
Our topic his week is the power of thought. Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us science, literature, morality, and last -- but certainly not least -- philosophy. Thought even has the power to create new realities. And I’m not primarily thinking of literature and the arts or even of technology. I’m thinking of the entire social world. Every size social reality from clubs to nations and every thing in between is a creation of the human mind, of human thought in particular. They all exist because we simply think them into existence.
Of course, the mind is not all sweetness and light. Besides all the things I just mentioned, it has also given us superstition, slavery, and war. But that just makes the nature and power of human thought all the more puzzling. The mind that spent millennium after millennium, mired in archaic social formations, in the grips of irrational superstitions is the very same mind, with the very same powers of thought, as the mind that produced science, philosophy, and art. Our goal is to understand just what human thought is such that it produces both the science and superstition, both democracy and slavery.
So let’s start at the beginning and ask just what thoughts are in the first place. When you ask the person in the street, like our roving philosophical reporter did, she or he is liable tell you that thoughts are that little voice inside your head -- where that means inside the brain, if the person is a materialist and inside the mind, if person is a dualist. But we’re trying to figure out what thoughts are, not where they are. If we’re going to understand the power of thought, we need to first understand the different kinds of thoughts and how each different kind works.
Take a simple thing like the belief that there is beer in the fridge. That’s a thought. But it’s only one kind of thought. And suppose that you want a beer. That’s a thought too. But a different kind of thought – a desire. Beliefs represent, or misrepresent, how things are in the world. They are the kinds of things that can be true or false. Hopefully our beliefs are more true than false. If our beliefs are false, the rational thing to do is change our beliefs to match the world. Desires, on the other hand, don’t represent how the world is. We don’t say that my desire to have a beer is false just because I don’t have one. But we do say that my desire is unsatisfied, when you want a beer, but don’t have one. The way to satisfy a desire is not to change it, but to change the world. That’s where a third kind of thought comes in – intentions. If you believe there’s a beer in the fridge and you really want a beer, then maybe you will form a new kind of thought – an intention. An intention is the kind of thing that can make you get off your duff and walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer. Or not -- if you’re a weak willed, lazy sort.
Now we really want to understand the power of thought and what it actually does in the world we have to to understand how beliefs manage to represent, or misrepresent, the way the world is; how desires manage to set forth ways the world might become; and how intentions move us to act to actually change the world. That may seem like a very tall order, but it’s a little more simple than it might at first seem, because beliefs, desires, and intentions are built out the same basic building blocks -- just put together in different ways. In particular, they are all built out of concepts or ideas. My belief that there is beer in the fridge, my desire to drink a beer, and my intention to go and get a beer all involve the concept or idea of beer, for example. So we can make a start on understanding the power of thought by thinking about the nature of concept or ideas, where they come from, and the different ways they can be put together to create such a wide-variety of thoughts. And once we’ve got a handle on that, we can think more about the different things that different kinds of thoughts do.
Unfortunately, that’s probably more than John and I can handle on our own – especially in a one hour radio show. But luckily for us, we’ll have help in the form of Steven Pinker, the world-renown author of an amazing series of books about the human mind – including his most recent, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window on Human Nature. Should be a fun hour.
October 30, 2010
The Occult Philosophy
Our topic this week is the Occult Philosophy. These days, we tend to think of those who believe in the occult as soft-minded, superstitious, new-age hippie-types who would rather commune with imaginary mystical forces than face cold, hard scientific facts. But it wasn’t always so. During the Renaissance, for example, things like Alchemy, Astrology, White Magic, Hermeticism, Cabala, Numerology were intensely studied by some of the best minds in Europe. Literature from that period is often rife with references to the occult. The works of Shakespeare are a prime example. You might even say that the study of the occult was once culturally dominant in parts of Europe. And although the occult is surely culturally marginalized as anti-scientific gobbledygook today, many historians of science believe that the study of the occult played a crucial role in the development of modern science itself. Alchemy begat chemistry and astrology begat astronomy.
That’s not entirely surprising if you think about the meaning of the word ‘occult.’ On one meaning – no doubt the most common meaning, the word ‘occult’ means “Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.” That, of course, is the very opposite of what science deals with. But the word ‘occult’ has another meaning --- “secret, concealed or hidden from view” as in “occult causes.” That’s a more old fashioned use of the word ‘occult’. You find it used that way in 16th and 17th century philosophy texts. Not many people use ‘occult’ to mean secret or hidden very much today. But during the Renaissance, students of the occult were very much in the business of trying to discover, understand and manipulate the hidden causes of everything in the universe. To that extent, their goals were very much in line with modern science.
Of course, their heir methods were quite weird, by our contemporary lights -- a veritable witches brew of religious mysticism, metaphysical speculation and magic. Or to put it differently, Renaissance thinkers thought that that the occult in the sense of the hidden causes of everything included agencies and phenomena that were occult in the sense of supernatural. So although the Occult Sciences and Philosophy of the Renaissance may have been forerunners of modern science, they were not scientific by today’s standards. Modern science has no truck with the supernatural.
Eventually occult practices and philosophy were driven into the shadows of Western Culture. That was no doubt partly due to the consolidation of the scientific revolution. But it wasn’t just that. There was also an intense religious backlash against the occult, especially after the protestant reformation. The Occult philosophy drew liberally not just from Christian theology, but also from pagan and eastern beliefs. Occult practice seems to have been both unorthodox and, apparently, threatening to the Church. So the occult became identified with dark and sinister forces. Its practitioners were subject to intense religious persecution. They were often tortured and executed. Some historians even refer to the numerous witch-crazes of the period as a kind of holocaust.
But let’s jump ahead to today. Despite the dismissive attitude of people who may be overly awed by science, some apparently sane people still believe in the occult. And thankfully, we don’t burn people at the stake for practicing a little witchcraft anymore. And to top it off, we’re recording this episode on a Halloween Sunday. For those reasons and more there couldn’t, I think, be a better thing for us at Philosophy Talk to be doing today than asking where our ideas of the occult came from and examining how those ideas got driven from the center of Western culture to its margins. It should be a fun and fascinating hour. But since neither John nor I is adept at either occult theory or occult practices, we’ve used the white magic of radio to conjure ourselves up some help. We’ll be joined by one the world leading experts on the history of occult theory and practice – that would be Christopher Lehrich, author of, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice. It should be a fun and informative hour. So why don’t you join us too?