Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I believe

that any prostitute working El Cajon Boulevard has more class and more intrinsic dignity than does any person—male or female—who has appeared on any of the iterations of The Real Housewives of ... .
It's time we stop respecting wealth and the ability to spend money, no?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A considered proposal for financial independence, or, Too sexy to fail

In this time of financial distress, my daily perusal of the newspapers has given me a plan for my own financial health. Of course, given my field of employment, you might think that my options are limited, but AIG has given me an idea. So, here's my plan.
Step 1: In the future, I will teach a tissue of falsehoods. Now, I do not plan on teaching all and only false things. Rather, I am going to develop a rather involved, coherent and consistent story to tell in each of my classes.
Step 2: At some point, a student will come up against another professor who will inform the student that what I have said is false. As more questions are asked, it will become apparent that I have really messed these students up.
Step 3: No one except me will know in exactly which ways I have messed the students up. They won't know for instance, whether I merely represented Descartes as an empiricist, whether I taught them that modus ponens is a fallacy, whether I presented them with Aquinas' argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Only I will know exactly what has gone on. I will make this apparent to whichever dean I am faced with.
Step 4: I will demand a bonus—let's call it a "retention bonus"—arguing that since I got the students into this mess, only I know how to get them out of it. Of course, I know that I won't be able to spend the rest of my career untangling the web of false beliefs, so the bonus will have to be sufficiently large, something on the order of several million dollars, guaranteed for six or seven years. That seems only fair.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On the death of the agent

In the past months, the world has watched as people from all walks of life, all socio-economic levels, all ethnic and moral and religious backgrounds have positioned themselves as so much flotsam and jetsam tossed around by forces wholly unrelated to themselves.
"I took the loan because it was offered to me."
"We sold the derivatives because someone wanted them."
"I encouraged people to look at financial markets as get-rich schemes because there was a market for what I was selling and the market demands satisfaction."
"We paid massive bonuses because that is what is required by the system."
The "because" is taken not as a reason but as a real cause.
These kinds of moves have caused a lot of people to talk about responsibility. I think this is right, though I suspect that many of those calling for responsibility are really calling for someone to be punished. While I respect this call, it doesn't, I think, get to the more basic issue: we have ceased to think of ourselves as agents in any meaningful way.
There was talk, most of it from fairly nasty sorts, in the Eighties and Nineties about cultures of victimhood and poverty. While those enamoured of such terminology were generally using it to absolve themselves of any responsibility towards the suffering other, they were also pointing to something real.
There is a disturbing tendency in America and perhaps in the rest of the world to paint ourselves as the products of our neuroses, of our childhoods, of our situations, of world forces, of our addictions, of our relationships, in such a way that what happens, happens, but we don't do it. Chris Brown beats Rihanna because he grew up in a home and a culture of abuse, friends of mine end up in hospitals because they are addicts, their relationships tumble because of their psychological hangups, and no where at all is there anyone doing anything.
I don't want to discount the way in which our choices are constrained by forces outside our control, certainly almost every thinking person from the ancients with their belief in Fate to even the Existentialists have recognized that, but if there is to be any meaningful sense in which I exist, in which there is an I, it had better mean that I take my decisions as my own, that I endorse them and stop seeing myself as a victim of the world.
This means, among other things, that I have to see myself as much uglier than I would like, since my bad actions are not just psychoses or addictions or what have you, they are things that I do. But if I cannot do this, then I cannot see a point of any sort in living.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A matter of fairness?

My tax dollars go to provide the health benefits for the spouses of federal employees even in those cases where, for religious or philosophical or moral or political reasons, I do not approve of their marriages—for instance, when they are third or fourth marriages, where they are marriages of persons who had previously been adulterously involved, where there are no children, etc.
No one objects that such marriages, which lie outside the realm of traditional marriage, should thereby not qualify the spouses for benefits.
By parity of reasoning, your tax dollars should go to provide benefits for same-sex spouses or partners of federal employees.
It is time, perhaps, for an even broader definition of something like civil partnerships. I am thinking here of something like the solution tried by the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1997—if I recall correctly—when faced with a city law that would require them to provide benefits to same-sex partners in spite of the way that this flies in the face of Church teaching about marriage and sexual morality. The solution? They decided that every employee could designate one other adult, beside any dependent children, who could be the recipient of benefits. This could be a spouse, a partner, a relative, a friend. Since every employee got to designate one person, it was utterly fair and no one had to approve of any marriages that they found morally reprehensible.
Quite apart from the religious uses of marriage, one great benefit of marriages and partnerships and even deep friendships is that they tie us more closely together and thus make us all more stable members of society.

Advisory oppression

In several instances in the past few weeks ranging from experiences in the gym, at the grocery store, at school, on the internet, I have been presented with unsolicited advice. Now, often when we give advice to others, to help them when they are not doing something in the way we think best, we think of ourselves as being angels of mercy, helping someone out of the very greatness of our heart.
But it seems to me that particularly when the relationship between the advisor and the advisee is not a particularly intimate one and when the advice is unsolicited, it cannot help but come across as a deliverance from on high. In other words, unsolicited advice is presented as a piece of wisdom from someone who knows better and this is often going to be felt as belittling the person being advised.
To use a parallel, it seems that unsolicited advice is more akin to the vice of pity than to the virtue of sympathy, in that it underscores a difference in knowledge or wisdom or power between the two participants

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It can always be worse


I have been reading quite a bit of the Roman Stoics recently and reminding myself that I should not be too happy when Fortune goes my way—and honestly, she often does—nor too unhappy when she turns against me. I tend to overemphasize in my own life the way that Fortune turns against me. So, I have also been thinking about the ways in which lives goes well and go poorly.
I was thinking about these very issues and reading some Seneca this week when a student came to talk to me about some problems in logic. In the process of figuring out just what she was having a problem with, she told me an amusing story about her childhood, involving her parents and one of her siblings. I asked her how her brother remembered the story and she shook her head: "No, they are all gone. They all died in the war."
She was talking about one of a series of civil wars in her homeland. Then, I realized. Even at its lowest, my life has never been bad. There are depths of suffering that I cannot fathom.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On the inconsistency of moral outrage

I have mentioned this before, but I am always surprised that many religious and other conservatives profess to have a moral problem with embryonic stem cell research while professing no such concern with in vitro fertilization, a process which almost always results in the creation of embryos that will either be frozen indefinitely or will be destroyed. Other than in cases like the "octomom" there are more embryos than can be implanted and quite often many of the implanted embryos, if they are viable, are "selectively reduced", i.e., aborted.
If you believe that morally relevant human life begins at conception then you ought to be troubled by embryonic stem cell research but you ought to be just as troubled—probably more troubled because of its breadth as a practice and the relatively small good that comes out of it—by the entire practice of IVF. This is, for instance, the conservative Catholic view.
If you are going to engage in moral outrage, you ought to be consistent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I find both morally objectionable, though for slightly more complex reasons.

Scylla and Charybdis

Socialism and capitalism, absent an underlying moral theory, are equally inhuman.
On the one hand, socialism is an attempt to absolve us from our responsibilities to one another, moving this responsibility to the state. In this way, after years of even the mildest forms of socialism, people begin to question why they even have the minimal obligations to one another that paying their taxes for a social safety net seems to impose upon them. This is an effect I see in my students. It is good, in this regard, to recall that Dickens’ Scrooge is a thoroughgoing socialist: he objects to charity because there are already poorhouses that his taxes support.
On the other hand, capitalism absolves us from responsibility by claiming either that the markets will take care of all the needs that there are or that the economic world is a Darwinian—nay, a Malthusian—struggle in which the weak must suffer.
What is missing in both of these, though it need not be, is an underlying account of the very real obligations that we do have to one another. With such an account, certain socialist practices and policies can be seen as ways via a state of carrying out our obligations. With such an account, capitalism can be seen as something that takes care of only one part of our lives, the economic part, while realizing—as did Adam Smith—that there is a large part of our lives that is not economic. Pace Hayek and others, it isn’t all economic.
But I fear in our time we have ignored the advice of Forster to “only connect” and Aristotle’s claim that we are essentially social and thrown them over for the Thatcherite claim that there is no society. So we no longer see ourselves as people in any kind of community and whether we are tempted to socialism or capitalism, we are never tempted to care.