Sunday, February 17, 2013

Intellectual vices: invented authorities

It wasn't that long ago that Susan Rice was being painted as not only incompetent but a liar by Republican politicians and conservative pundits. Having thoroughly destroyed her reputation, some of these same voices are using her words to undermine the reputation of Hillary Clinton. 

Notice what is occurring here. We have someone that we are told is absolutely unreliable—when her views are inconvenient—who can be absolutely trusted to give a correct characterization of another person we are not supposed to like, because now what she has to say is of use.

Similarly, there has been a recent explosion in the virtual world of rumors and stories about what is really behind the resignation of Benedict XVI. Many of these stories have been linked to and taken as gospel, though the rely on unnamed sources or even discuss the secret plans and actions of unnamed countries and made-up organizations like the International Tribunal into(?) Crimes of Church and State.  These same people, all of them rational, some of them philosophers—people who get paid to be rational—would reject bald appeals to authority in almost every other context and would find appeals to unnamed authorities risible, if the topic were any other at all.

By the way, there is one lesson to be drawn from at least the last link above: calling oneself a tribunal and claiming that one's decisions supersede all national and international law, because one knows better is apparently the way justice is achieved these days, even if one throws around words like "genocide" with no sense of what they mean. And, then, some people will take one as some sort of authority.

This is nothing new, nor is it limited in scope. It is no different in kind than those religious believers who appeal to their often misguided understandings of the utterance of some physicist to support Creationism, but deny other things said by the same authority in the same breath.

Of course, appeals to authority are always suspect, but why do we so quickly accept them in some cases, while seeing them for what they are in other cases? 

Like those people who are constantly looking for inspirational quotes from historical figures, whether the quotes can plausibly be attributed or not, even if their content is opposed to everything those figures actually believed, what we are doing is looking for support—any support whatsoever—for what we already believe. 

We have a belief and that belief is essentially unquestionable for us. When we hear that someone else agrees, we increase the authority with which they are invested to exactly the degree we are in agreement, and then we use the authority with which we have invested them because of their agreement to reinforce our own beliefs. They count as authorities because we agree; and, because they are authorities we must be right to agree.

It doesn't matter what actual authority they do or do not have. It is no better and no different than arguing that something must be true because "they say."

There's nothing virtuous in this pattern of arguing. But it's one that is too tempting for most of us, no matter how rational we like to think we are.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris

It's Ash Wednesday and so we start the regular jokes about giving up Lent for Lent and, this year, about giving up the papacy for Lent. I'm never quite sure where I fall on the metaphysical questions of religion. Is there a God? What is His nature if He exists? Does the soul survive death? On many of those questions, I am not sure what an answer looks like, on others my answers would be on no one's list of orthodox beliefs. I tend to think of myself as an atheist among theists and a theist among atheists. And, that's not just because I'm contrary.

But whatever the metaphysical answers, I am tempted to think that what matters about religion is less its truth—let's have that discussion another day—than the shape it can give to a life. Religion can, of course, be really bad about that; religious life quite often puts life into exactly the wrong shape. But one thing that religion or what remains of it for me does is give an ordering to time and tools for reflection.

Of course, I can reflect on my life and my mortality at any time, but the rhythms of the liturgical year give an impetus. Today, we are reminded that we return to that from which we came, that life has a limit. And, being reminded of that is a good thing, no matter whether we believe that we continue after death or not. I won't go on forever and that is something I ought to think about when I am living my life.

It's traditional to give something up for Lent and, unfortunately, most of those who do so like to advertise what they have given up. As problematic as that is—what is the merit if I reward myself by advertising?—there is a value in asking ourselves what we can do without or comparing our lives with those who have much less or even disciplining ourselves. What is really necessary for my happiness? What do I need?

Fasting and abstaining themselves can be exercises in discipline and reminders of exactly how good we have it, especially in this country where we eat so much and so often and so much meat. When we live in a way that others cannot, there's value in remembering how others must. Empathy is only strengthened in that way. 

It is easy and clever to make fun of religious believers and their beliefs. But sometimes, maybe, we ought to ask ourselves whether there isn't some value in religious practices even apart from questions about the religious beliefs.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It simply doesn't follow

There seems to be a style of argument current among avowed liberals who nonetheless want to defend drone strikes no matter how many innocents—perhaps redefined as combatants by fiat—are killed or how effective drones might be in stirring up hatred and, thus, more terrorism. The structure of the argument is something like this: It is better to kill some people, including innocents, in a drone strike than it would be to invade a country and kill many thousands. In other words, better drone strikes than another Iraq or Afghanistan. And, better not just because it means fewer American lives lost—though I suspect this is the real issue—but because it means fewer Pakistani or Yemeni or Afghani lives lost as well. 

It does seem that such an argument has the point of being right about it being less bad to kill a few hundred in drone strikes than several thousand in an invasion. So, at least in this sense, the argument is correct that this is better.

There is a lot more that could be said about this kind of argument. But let me say just this: It is surely less bad—and therefore better—to cut off someone's hand than it is to murder him. It is surely better to kill five than it is to kill seven. In terms of overall murders we might have to count Hitler as less bad—better?—than Stalin or Mao. But, it simply does not follow that because x is less bad or better than y that it is good. To be better than something horrid does not make something good. I'd rather have stage two cancer than stage three, but neither one is good.

And, to make this kind of argument doesn't make a person subtle or a deeper thinker. It just makes one the sort of practitioner of Realpolitik exemplified by Kissinger, that is, the sort of person who can justify the murder of many innocents because, ultimately, some good will be achieved or might be. What are a few thousand Latin Americans or Cambodians or Vietnamese if Communism is defeated? What are a few thousand Muslims if the American homeland is safer—is it?

So, if this kind of argument appeals to you, feel free to think that I am not a realist, but I think I'd rather not be.

Don't rise to the bait

I have more vices than it does any good to list, except when I am home doing my examination of conscience and trying to decide whether to resign the papacy or not. One of these vices, in particular, seems to be shared by a growing number of people. Or, at the very least is more in evidence than it used to be, as we interact and argue more and more in the virtual world: in comment threads, via Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

There are the run of the mill vices of being an ass online, of addressing people in a way that one never if that person had to be faced. And, there are real reasons to avoid those vices, and the vices of turning a discussion or argument into point-scoring, one that arises much too often in face-to-face argument, too—and, one of which I have too often been guilty. There is the vice of being an online or in-person troll.

But, it is just as vicious to rise to the bait that the troll offers. Quite apart from the way that this feeds the troll and encourages him to continue engaging in his behavior, it speaks poorly of me if I let myself be goaded. Why do I feel the need to respond? Of course, there is value in advancing a discussion. This might sometimes require correcting someone. Sometimes. But, that isn't what is usually going on. It is usually what I tell myself I'm doing; without self-delusion I wouldn't be fully human.

It might be a very different phenomenon for others. In my own case, I am doing one of two things. Sometimes, I am really no better than the troll herself. The reason I rise to the bait is because I want to win. I want to defeat the other person and be recognized as right. I am doing the same thing the troll is, except the troll is usually more disinterested than I am. It is very important to me that I win and less so for the troll. To exactly that degree and in that respect, the troll is less vicious than I am. 

In other cases, I want to demonstrate to the other person that I understand what is going on, that I have something to offer, that I am intelligent, or something else. But, then I still want to prove something to someone, but someone who by my own judgment is not trying to forward an argument. So, here is a person that I have decided isn't engaged in the same activity I am, who isn't that interested in the same thing I claim to be interested in, and I am worried about how I appear in their eyes.

So, it appears that my self-esteem is so low that I need validation from people that I don't know and who I judge to be rather an ass—this may well be true, but it doesn't speak well of me. That can be nothing other than vicious. 

Or, I am not anymore interested in truth than my opponent. And, we are right back to the first problem.

I like to repeat to myself: Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio.

Sometimes, we all need to practice that; it's the virtuous thing to do, even if it lets others think they have won the argument. What, really, have they won?

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Why does Aristotle have to be so bad on human nature?

Yesterday I finished up my discussion of Aristotle in two of this semester's classes. I am sympathetic to much in the Aristotelian tradition. So, I always try to make him appealing; there is a lot to say in favor of his ethical theory and his theory of the soul comports much more with modern thought and scientific accounts of the place of humans in the animal kingdom than theories of much more recent thinkers. In short, I like him a lot. And, I think he has a lot to offer my students.
But, if we are going to talk about Aristotle's view of human nature, we have to talk about the dark side of his view, too. This is a thinker who thought that women—being men who hadn't fully formed—and "natural slaves" were not fully in possession of reason, the distinguishing mark and telos of humans. Because of this, they can never be fully happy—those men who are capable of such happiness thus have obligations to take care of and correctly utilize women and these slaves and to give them as large a share in human happiness as possible—and we have to say that they really aren't fully human or that they aren't and can't be flourishing humans. That is a sort of elitism that is deeply troubling.
And, this raises two problems: one general and pedagogical and the other more specifically philosophical. 
The first one is how to talk about thinkers or figures who—having had the misfortune of having been born human—were deeply flawed. It is hard to talk about any historical figure let alone a philosophical one—it is the job of philosophers to have opinions—who doesn't have truly horrible skeletons in his or her closet. How can we honestly present them without having the negative parts of their views overshadow the main thrust of their ideas in the minds of students new to their thought? 
The temptation is to gloss over those bumps. At least, I know that is my temptation. But at some point, either during the class or after, at least one student will discover that Heidegger unapologetically joined the Nazi Party, or that Socrates praised Sparta—and that is wasn't quite the same city as that portrayed in 300—or that Mill seemed to favor imperialism, or ... some other view that it was too uncomfortable to cover in class. And, they will wonder then whether there is any point in thinking about them and why exactly I hid it from them. I am assuming that at least some students will continue to think about what we've discussed; that may seem optimistic, but this rare optimism has been borne out in the past.
I don't have a solution, other than to honestly present the warts and try to tease out, with the students' help, whether we can separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes, we are able to, sometimes we are not; in either case, some pedagogical purpose might have been served.
The second problem has to do with giving accounts of human nature, so it is both a more narrow question and one with broader implications, i.e., it matters even if we don't spend much time behind a lectern. Since it is probably more important, I have left it to last and will have less substantive to say about it; such is my way. 
Aristotle, like quite a few philosophers, focused his account of human nature—of what is essential about us, what separates us from the rest of the animals—in the faculty of reason. We have reason and the other animals do not. Of course, others have placed that difference somewhere else, whether in language, abstract thought, or someplace else. A problem with any such defining characteristic, apart from a merely biological one, is that it will admit of degrees: some people are more capable of reasoning than others, some people gain only rudimentary language, and so on. If our account of humanity—or personhood, to make it clearly not just biological—ties it to some characteristic that only humans have what does that say about those humans who don't have it or who have it to a lesser degree? In other words, can we give an account of human nature that doesn't end up, as Aristotle's does, being a graded account of that very humanity? How can we make it work—as most surely we must—that even those who don't share to a very high degree in reason or communication or even emotionality—are still fully human and fully persons?
There are a few strategies that have been tried here. One can say that even the person who does not, in fact, share in the capability or characteristic still has it potentially. How that is supposed to work I never quite understand. If I lack a capability and it is, in fact, impossible for me to develop that capability, the fact that my conspecifics have it doesn't mean that I have it potentially. I don't inherit a potential talent for musicality from the fact that some humans have it; yes, it is a characteristic of the species, but not of this member. 
Alternatively, one can try to solve this problem by adverting to souls or spirits. Of course, there are important problems with that as a philosophical move, but let me point out just one. Since I have no evidence of any souls except for maybe my own, the existence of souls will never tell me of a difference between humans and any other animals. I have as much reason to think that my dog has an immortal, or merely mortal, soul as that my partner does, unless I am basing my judgment of soul possession on some other characteristic, but then we are right back to our initial difficulty.
So, the question becomes whether we can give an account of humanity that captures all humans but excludes the animals or whether we are stuck with one of what seem to be two equally unpalatable options: a graded approach even within the species that counts some humans as more human than others; or, the view of Peter Singer and others, that we can make no important distinctions between all humans and the rest of the animals on which we might be able to base, for instance, moral considerations.