Friday, September 23, 2011

Teaching and self-revelation

Episodes yesterday and today have me thinking about how much of myself I reveal in the classroom and how much I should.

My teaching style is pretty conversational. I try to keep discussion going, I try to keep things mildly entertaining, I try to be energetic. Keep in mind that these are things I try to do; that doesn't mean that I always succeed. So, in my lectures and discussions, I reveal some things about my life, but about others I remain quiet or vague.

For instance, I am usually pretty reticent about my views on most issues, no matter what we happen to be talking about. When we discuss God, I do not tell them whether I am a theist, agnostic, atheist or what I probably actually am. When we discuss abortion, I do not tell them my position. And, when I talk about my personal life, I do so in vague terms. I talk about my dog and my spouse and my house and goings on in my neighborhood and, but I never go into more detail than that. Particularly, I rarely say that my spouse is a man rather than a woman. 

Not divulging my ethical and philosophical positions and leaving my personal life vague might seem like two very different issues, but they seem—or have seemed—of a piece to me. After all, I teach philosophy, and we are supposed to care only about reason(s) and argument, not about the person who makes the argument. If I am to aim at objectivity, I should hide my own views so students can judge for themselves and I should try to make my personality so that they can focus on the arguments and not on the person presenting them, even if not advocating for them.

Today, after my early introductory class, I had an exchange with a student about what moral view I think is correct. I started to outline why I thought that some sense can be made of objective morality, but I told him that we would have to wait until we discussed Aristotle for me to tell him just how I thought this could work. Ten minutes after I got back to my office, I had an email from the student—a very intelligent and very active student—telling me that he wasn't trying to falsify my beliefs, he just wanted to know what I thought and not just what some other philosophers thought and his other philosophy professors never gave him straight answers about what they believe themselves. 

I responded, but it got me thinking about whether it makes sense for me to hide my beliefs. The fact that I don't tell them what they are doesn't mean that they don't exist. And, knowing them might actually allow them to be a little more skeptical of my arguments when it comes to those views and competing ones. It might actually help them do philosophy better. I believe I am very even-handed, but if I am then it can hardly hurt for them to know where I stand on issues, assuming that I don't require that they agree with me. 

Orthogonally, I am supposed to be teaching them something and, biased though I might be, I have thought about many of the issues we discuss for longer than they have, indeed longer than most of them have been alive, so shouldn't I have something to profess about the issues that we discuss together?

On a closely related note, a funny thing happened in class last night. With no provocation and while I was talking about the virtues of virtue theory, a student in the front row said to me, "You said you're married but you wear your wedding ring on the right hand. Why's that?"

The man sitting next to her replied, "You can't tell?" And then he went on a bit, without cluing her into what it was that she couldn't tell.

Now, I don't wear my wedding ring on my right hand because I'm gay-married. I have other, less fascinating reasons. But after class, the male student told me that, of course, he had realized the first day and my mannerisms, references, jokes all made it perfectly clear.

This told me both that I'm not obviously gay—my partner disagrees: "You are obviously gay, but not effeminate"—and that I am obviously gay. But it also made me think about how this is the kind of thing about which there is no point worrying. I do sometimes worry that if students realize I'm gay, they might discount what I'm teaching them or think that I only hold the positions (in some areas) because of my sexuality. Of course, should they think this they would have missed pretty much all the point of philosophy.

Without proselytizing or going into detail about my personal life, fascinating though it may be, shouldn't I be revealing more of who I am philosophically and humanly in my teaching? I tell them that it is important to know the context and something of the biographies of the people we discuss while warning them off the genetic fallacy; is that not true of me, too?

Of course, I don't have the benefit of tenure and that bears on the matter to some degree, but thinking pedagogically and philosophically, I think I may have been aiming for the wrong targets.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An open and, probably, pointless letter to Target

Sir or Madam:

As a stockholder and a gay man, I continue to be surprised and upset by the way in which the leadership of Target Corporation continues to spend money—my money—on political campaigns to support anti-gay, anti-gay marriage and anti-canvassing legislation and litigation. Not only does this offend me because it is the money of stockholders—of which I am one—being used to harm gays and lesbians, many of whom own stock in Target and many more of whom have been faithful and continuous customers of Target, but is equally offensive as Target stock prices continue to fall.

The job of the executives of Target and its board is to make the company profitable and more valuable. It makes absolutely no sense to advertise and market the company as progressive and modern and spend money at the same time on retrograde political agendas, agendas which earn Target bad press. I realize that the board is tired of hearing about their spending of our money on these campaigns, but the right way to stop having to hear it is to stop spending the money.

Owning stock in Target has become not only an embarrassment, but also a losing financial decision. How about you stop worrying about gays and lesbians—who otherwise would spend more money at Target stores—and start worrying more about profits, dividends and stock prices? In other words, do your jobs and leave the counterproductive moral posturing to fringe politicians and evangelists, who can amply fund themselves.


Tyler Hower

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I've been thinking about some issues in libertarian thought today and I'm finding myself particularly confused about the notion of self-ownership that underlies (most?) libertarianism. For more on that notion, see Libertarianism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There seem to be at least two important issues with this notion: 

First, there's something decidedly odd in taking the ground of our morality from the relationship that we have to things we own, because whatever sense we might be able to make out of owning ourselves, our primary notion of ownership is our ownership of external objects. The idea that we own ourselves is taken by analogy from that epistemologically primary notion of ownership. 

Second, ownership looks like a two place relationship, one that must take two different things for its arguments. That is, ownership appears, at least in the normal case to be Oxy, where x≠y and Oxy>¬Oyx. This, at any rate, is the way the notion operates in the normal case; to allow self-ownership seems to be introducing a new notion that will be called "ownership" but that has little or nothing to do with ownership.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A thought on the Seven Deadly Sins

As another politician falls to the sin of Lust, but none seem ever to be shamed for their dedication to Greed, Envy, Pride, Wrath, Sloth and Gluttony, I cannot help but be taken by the religious and moral outlook that informs so much of our public discourse. 

Our moral scolds only care about certain of the sins, because their Jesus—and it generally is Jesus—is one who is seriously and always concerned about sexual morality, but no other sort, that is, He is clearly not the Jesus who appears anywhere in the Bible they so gladly and conveniently thump but never read or ponder.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

How to write a Dan Brown novel: Inspired by a viewing of Angels and Demons

Step 1: Have a barely literate, preferably drunken teenager recount to you his half-remembered reading of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, The Name of the Rose or Baudolino—all great novels dealing with esoteric distinctions in theological history, battles that these caused, conspiracy theories, secret societies both real and imagined, etc., and all undergirded by research—while paying as little attention as possible. This will replace you having to actually think up a plot or do research of your own.

Step 2: Read some New Age reinterpretations of either medieval mystics or "Eastern thought". While you are at it, learn everything you can about science from blogs on the Web—this might help you to think that 17th century scientists believed in the four elements. Come to think of it, you can do your research about religion on the Web, too.

Step 3: Forget everything you have ever known about the way that actual people act or talk. It is essential that you avoid all real human motivation.

Step 4: Invent a ridiculous academic discipline. Brown's choice is "Symbology", but you can pick your own. Just make sure that this discipline has an honored chair at Harvard, Princeton, Oxbridge, somewhere famous. Also, make sure that people respect the professors of this discipline; this is called "suspension of disbelief", since professors of disciplines are not respected. Finally, make sure that the deep wisdom this discipline makes available is of the sort to deliver common-sense wisdom and obvious pieces of information, while everyone else is totally unaware of what is nearly smacking them in the face. This helps the reader/viewer feel intelligent.

Step 5: Take some Ambien, don't let yourself fall asleep and begin writing.

Step 6: Wait for Tom Hanks and Ron Howard to call.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rick Perry and cognitive dissonance

So, it seems that it was only a year ago that Rick Perry, Governor of the Lone Star State—the state of my own birth—was claiming that Texas could secede from the Union, that it had some special agreement that no other state had, allowing it to do this at will. Now, this absolutely ignores that Civil War, or the facts as confirmed by state historians in Texas. Of course, Perry's false claims are really about that old bugaboo, states' rights, and playing to a fringe of his own Republican Party.

But, it seems that now Perry is more than happy to call for federal relief money to help with the very real disaster of the wind-stoked fires across his state. Now, Texas already comes really close to breaking even with regard to money sent to and received from Washington. I surely hope that Perry isn't expecting the rest of us, like those in the northeast or those in California, who do not come close, but end up shifting much of their federal tax burden to other states—largely anti-big government states, for what that's worth—to pay for relief and rebuilding in Texas, because that sounds dangerously like the kind of tax and spend, liberal socialism that he and his ilk so disdain. If we really aren't in any sense a community responsible for one another, we can hardly be responsible for anyone's decisions to live in Texas.

So, you have an option, Governor Perry, stop bitching about Washington or stop asking it for help. Otherwise, you are just a whiny teenager who doesn't like Dad's rules, but wants more of his money.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Rights and obligations

Primary disclaimer: If you are not interested in philosophy, this will probably not be of interest.
Secondary disclaimer: This will probably not be of interest to those interested in philosophy.

One of my topics for in-class discussion this week—even if I was the only one engaged in the discussion—was the ethics of rights. Of course, as part of this, one must discuss the relationship between rights and obligations or duties. 

So, I was thinking yesterday of a particular sort of situation in which normally an obligation and a right go hand-in-hand. As a rule, if someone lends me money, I have an obligation to repay them and they have a right to be repaid. I take that to be a pretty straightforward case of my obligation creating a right for the lender. Or, if you don't want to think of it being my obligation that creates the right, we might want to say that our agreement and the situation into which we have entered together have created both the obligation and the right. In either case, though, it seems that the right ultimately flows from the borrowing and the borrower as the initiator of the borrowing. Contrast the situation of giving someone an unasked for gift; there it seems that there is no obligation or duty.

But does borrowing always create this right to repayment? Consider the following situation:

Marvin and Meredith are friends, perhaps they are siblings. In any case they are more than mere acquaintances, but there relationship is not so close that either one can expect the financial support of the other as any sort of right.

Marvin is going through a rough patch. In fact, Marvin is going through a rougher patch in the midst of a number of rough patches. After all, we are in an ongoing recession. Though he would rather not, he asks Meredith for a loan of a medium-sized amount, enough that Meredith will feel it but not so much that it will seriously affect his life.

Meredith is aware of Marvin's financial situation and because of his general affection for Marvin is willing to give the money to him. He knows that Marvin will likely be unable to pay the money back in any time in the near future and would gladly offer the money as a gift, though he also knows that Marvin will only accept it as a loan.

Thus, Meredith gives the money to Marvin. Marvin promises to repay, but Meredith doesn't expect repayment and does not intend ever to request repayment. He writes the loan off, as it were.

The questions: Does Marvin have a moral obligation to repay? Does Meredith have a right to repayment?

My intuition says that Marvin does have an obligation to repay when he is able but that Meredith has no corresponding right to that repayment whether Marvin can or cannot repay. Does that seem right?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A thought from a discussion

From a Facebook discussion today following on my dismay that a student asked me if it were indeed true that the US is currently militarily involved in Libya, because someone had just told him that today, in which a friend told me that it is after all my job to educate them, a thought:

Indeed, but education at the college/university level and in a subject like philosophy assumes that the students already have a grounding in a more general and more basic education, some knowledge of the world and some general interest in the world around them. 
As we move more and more to a society in which reality stars displace reality as the topic of interest and everything is filtered through the music that we are simultaneously listening to on our own private sound systems and we can't listen to an entire sentence that someone else is speaking with checking to see if we got another text, that task becomes harder and harder and nigh on impossible—for at least some students.

Monday, April 04, 2011

A sweet bit of nostalgia

I just turned thirty-eight and there is a fair amount in my life that hasn't gone according to plan. 

But today I was reading a review of an collection of Tony Judt's essays, written while he was immobilized by ALS and one theme mentioned—and that I have read in Judt's essays, myself—is his appreciation for the place of King's College Cambridge in his life and the opportunity he had as a lower-middle-class Jewish boy to go and study with the elite of the England of the early 60s. 

Now, I'm not Oxbridge educated, nor did I attend even one of the Ivies, but I did get a very fine undergraduate education at the University of Notre Dame, very fine for a working-class Hoosier boy, just a few generations removed from the farm. And, almost every day there is some thing discussed or read or touched upon in one of my classes, often classes that were not in my major or particularly useful in any straightforward way, that comes back to me, as grist for my reflective mill.

And, then I think how lucky I was, and I wonder what students who constantly ask what they will ever use some concept or technique for are really getting out of their college or university experience. Or, am I just an old romantic about what an education can be?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A short query about personal identity

So, in one of my courses, we are in the middle of the standard run through theories of and problems with personal identity. This always makes me reflect on a long-ago graduate/undergraduate seminar on identity with Calvin Normore and a poor, misguided undergraduate—doubtless a tenured professor somewhere now—who wrote a paper with the closing line: "The lion has spoken and I have understood him." 

[The lion was his kitty and it spoke while it was on his lap and I'm still not sure whether that counts as any sort of argument against Wittgenstein's point, but I'm not sure Ludwig was ever altered in the ways that this young man might have been. I believe I have digressed.]

But, more importantly, or more pointedly, I was musing this week on our uses of the word "same". And, what we mean when we claim to be the same person. For instance, I say that I have lived in the same house for the last five years. And, this is true. And, we all know what it means. And, I also say that I have the same sunken eyes as my grandfather. And, this is true. And, we all know what it means. And, without going crazily polysemous. We know that the "same" in the two statements means the same thing in different ways in each case. That is, in part, that the relationship that "same" picks out is context-dependent. 

How does the context determine the relationship in the statement: "I am the same person I once was"? Or, "I am the same man you met in the late '90s"? Is this more like the sameness of my house or the sameness of my eyes?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A thought about leveling

How well have our betters manipulated us such that, when we hear that public-sector employees have better benefit packages than do we, our reaction is to take those benefits away from them, rather than to ask why we don't have them ourselves? 
Quite apart from one's views about any sort of labor disputes—manufactured or not—that are currently occurring, when we see what we take to be injustice shouldn't our natural reaction—or our reasoned one—be to raise up those who are lower rather than (just) to lower those who are higher. To bring everyone down to a lower level is the idea of the smallest of men. And it is beyond ironic that those on the right often level this charge at those they call "socialists" but it's the right that's leveling now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Living on a prayer

One of last semester's students, a seminarian finishing what used to be called "philosophy" in the seminary, sent me an email today in which he told me:
  1. He enjoyed my class very much; and,
  2. He had put my name on a list of recommended instructors for other seminarians finishing their actual philosophy requirements; so,
  3. I would be getting a lot more seminarians in my classes; and,
  4. He hoped that this would lead to my conversion to Catholicism.
Had he told me that he hoped that I would convert from my life of sin or my skepticism or any number of other things, I might have understood, but now I find myself wondering what beliefs he thinks I have or what I may have said in a survey class on the philosophy of mind—other than that appeals to God don't help one in philosophy—that led him to believe that I was raised in no religion or another religion. 

I mean, I could return to Catholicism in some sense, but I couldn't be converted to it. Why did he think that I chided him one day outside class on his lack of knowledge of Aquinas? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

One half of an exchange

I received a message from a former student and current acquaintance today asking me whether he ought to be worried about 2012, specifically because of concerns about the Mayan calendar. On one hand, I was a little disappointed that he would take this seriously at all, but not all that surprised given the way our minds work, the general level of superstition—including my own beloved ones—and the hype that the media gives to every worry.

So here was my response:

Well, for one thing, the Mayan calendar was cyclical. The fact that it ends is supposed to mean in fact that it just begins over, not that the world ends. For another thing, if we are to think of the Mayans as somehow prescient, they didn't foresee their own downfall or at least the general downfall of their culture, they didn't seem to foresee the much later coming of Europeans, etc. So, I'm not sure, even if they were predicting the end of the world—and they weren't—they really weren't the best at predicting the future, even the immediate future, so I'm not sure they should get much more credence than the Tarot readers on El Cajon Boulevard.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On questions of value

In the period between semesters, I spend free moments—a moment is free if and only if it is not occupied by responding in the negative to some request to raise a grade, ignoring a request from someone to crash a course or explaining why it really did matter to a final grade that the papers were not turned in or were not the work of the student—thinking about issues that I have discussed in class and that I would like to discuss differently. Because most of my classes, even the ones that are more focused and at a higher level, are really introductory classes and have between twenty and forty students, much discussion must be perfunctory. And, yet, I think we touch on a number of issues that provide food for thought. They certainly do for me and I hope that they do for at least some of my students.
With all that introduction out of the way, I was thinking about the canned version of existentialism that I give my students. Honestly, I think I do a pretty good job with existentialism, if only because I do best on views that are a little or a lot pessimistic. In particular, I was thinking about the notion of value and the existentialist claim that our lives can have no objective value, because there is no value giver outside ourselves to give such a value. 
Now, in class, I make clear that this assumes that there is no God, but I offer them the consideration of Nagel's that even the existence of God could not give our lives value for us but only for God, unless we made a subjective decision to take that value as our own. And, then we are able to move on—and back in time—to Kierkegaard.
But, with all the recent talk by relative crazies like Ron Paul about the need to get away from fiat money and back onto the gold standard, because gold, unlike paper money has an intrinsic value, I have been thinking more generally about the relation between intrinsic and objective value. Of course, these are not quite the same notion of value. Something is intrinsically valuable, if it is valuable in and of itself, and not for some other thing of value that it can be used to obtain and something is objectively valuable just in case it is valuable independently of whether it is in fact valued. For what it's worth, gold is neither of these—it has been subjectively valued for most of human history but it is not inconceivable that it not be so valued, as More considered in his Utopia, and it is almost always valued for other things that it can be used to get, such as food and shelter—but that might be a discussion for another day. Gold, however, like any commodity inessential for human life seems to be valuable only because of contingent historical facts.
What I started to wonder was whether there was anything that might truly be said to be either objectively or intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable in and of itself and entirely independently of whether anyone actually does value it. And, perhaps because I come after the existentialists, but I am not sure that there is any such thing.