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?