Philosophy Feed

Daniel Dennett

This morning I read the profile of Dan Dennett in the March 27 New Yorker. It is a delightful portrait, but I found myself surprised in a few places as I was agreeing with Dennett. I've never felt agreement with Dennett other than on the basic point that I'm a physicalist and not a dualist, though I characterize the physical in a way that is pan-experientialist and he doesn't.

But reading here his view seems closer to mine than I had ever thought before. Particularly at this point:

He told Chalmers that there didn't have to be a hard boundary between third-person explanations and first-person experience--between, as it were, the description of the sugar molecule and the taste of sweetness. Why couldn't one see oneself as taking two different stances toward a single phenomenon? It was possible, he said, to be "neutral about the metaphysical status of the data." From the outside, it looks like neurons; from the inside, it feels like consciousness. Problem solved.

That penultimate sentence sounds very like my dissertation.

P. S.  The profile made me a little envious of his rich personal life.


Human Rights

What justifies our claim that all humans are entitled to certain rights?  Especially, in a secular culture, what justifies that claim?  Religious folk might say God does, but that isn't a workable answer for a secular, pluralistic culture.  Yet, if the basis is just human convention, then we have a deep problem--rights are merely constructs and could be eliminated if society was overcome by new attitudes of fear and exclusion.  These are the dangers.

This article from Aeon discusses the issue. For example:

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The author believes that rights must rest on something other than a human construct.  His view is

that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on.

Human rights in American thought derived from a mix of New England Congregationalism (with roots in Reformed theology), Enlightenment reason, and Romanticism.  Kant derived them from his view of autonomy.  Neera Badhwar, in the book I recently read, Well-Being, discusses autonomy within a ne0-Aristotlean perspective which could be helpful in deriving a justification for rights.  

Consider this earlier post on the role of William James in the religion of democracy.


The Biology of Racism

"It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology." This startling article from Aeon reveals how racial prejudice is connected to biological functions, and thus is more difficult to overcome than our Enlightenment-based rational hopes imagined.  

Please read the article.  Here is the conclusion:

On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a better position to correct it. But there is a grim side to the analysis, too. The structures of oppression that shape who we are also shape our bodies, and perhaps our most fundamental perceptions. Maybe we do not ‘misread’ the phone as a gun; we might we actually see a gun, rather than a phone. Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.

This raises an important question in political liberalism.  Mill believed that society should not be overly involved in the effort to morally shape people, instead allowing them the liberty to develop on their own.  His initial radical left-wing idea now sounds closer to libertarianism.  It also sounds naiive, as we've learned that issues like racial justice cannot be solved by simple education of the reason.  

So I think about a variety of inputs--Michael Sandel's arguments in Justice that society must discuss the purpose of what it means to be human, Jonathan Haidt's research into the psychological impulses behind our political views, or Martha Nussbaum's book on how a democratic society must engage in moral education of its citizens by using the emotions.  These ideas run up against the ideas of Mill, which initially sound lovely, but flounder on the rock of reality.

See this earlier post on the liberal paradox.


Well-Being

20707622

Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life
by Neera Kapur Badhwar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-Being is a deeply admirable book. I feel better for having read it. The philosophical arguments are strong. The writing is engaging. The conclusions are profound and common-sensical, cutting through the bullshit.

I learned virtue theory from Neera, in her graduate seminar twenty years ago. I also served as her TA for an undergraduate ethics class where we read the great classic works. Reading the book I realize how questions and conversations she was having two decades ago were working themselves into this comprehensive view of the good life.

I plan to adopt the book for my ethics class at Creighton University this autumn.

On a side note: reading this book confirms my moral judgments of Donald Trump and further puzzles me as to the moral failure of the electorate.

View all my reviews


Democracy and Social Ethics

Democracy and Social EthicsDemocracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon.

Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems.

And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual one) in which we must honor the perspectives of a diverse people.

A sample line, "As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be."

I also think her work might be crucial in the progressive movement reconnecting with the working class.

View all my reviews


A Defense of Truth

The second essay in the LA Times series on Trump is a defense of truth and the methods of verification in the face of a President who threatens both.

Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining, in the vein of a Moammar Kadafi speech to the United Nations or the self-serving blathering of a 6-year-old.

But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them — often in tweets, as if he spent his days and nights glued to his bedside radio and was periodically set off by some drivel uttered by a talk show host who repeated something he’d read on some fringe blog — are a clue to Trump’s thought processes and perhaps his lack of agency. He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief.

***

His approach succeeds because of his preternaturally deft grasp of his audience. Though he is neither terribly articulate nor a seasoned politician, he has a remarkable instinct for discerning which conspiracy theories in which quasi-news source, or which of his own inner musings, will turn into ratings gold. He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes. If one of his lies doesn’t work — well, then he lies about that.

These are all examples of moral and intellectual vices.


On Liberty

On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other EssaysOn Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was reading On Liberty from this collection, the first time I've read this classic work. I'm surprised I didn't read it in high school or college, when it's message about individualism would have been more inspiring. At my current phase in life, I have a more community-based approach to ethics.

Mill's views seem naive in retrospect. His ideal of individual liberty does not address systemic problems of poverty, racism, etc. So many of his ideas, on the left when written, would resonate with some members of the right at the moment.

Mill also possesses the naivete so common in post-Enlightenment liberalism that education would solve most problems by teaching people to be rational and pursue their best interests. He believes that over time as the truth of things is revealed, people will come to more agreement. Clearly this has not happened. He underestimates brute forces and ignorance. He underestimates the power of the majority to undo the progressive politics he advocates. He does not foresee Trump.

I've never been a big fan of Mill. He was clearly influential in his time and is important to the history of liberal democracy, but I believe there are more sophisticated thinkers in that history. I don't care for his book Utilitarianism and chafe whenever I have to teach it. His Metaphysics is a joke, in my opinion. I don't think that Mill's work will remain in the canon long term.

View all my reviews

The Humility Code

Brooks_New-videoLarge

"The humble path to the beautiful life," is what David Brooks summarizes at the conclusion of The Road to Character.  Here are the fifteen points of the Humility Code.

  1. "The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle."
  2. "The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures."
  3. "We are also splendidly endowed."
  4. "Humility is the greatest virtue."
  5. "Pride is the central vice."
  6. "The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life."
  7. "Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation."
  8. "The things that lead us astray are short term . . . The things we call character endure over the long term."
  9. "Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."
  10. "We are all ultimately saved by grace."
  11. "Defeating weakness often means quieting the self."
  12. "Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty."
  13. "No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation."
  14. "The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it."
  15. "A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose."

This section is filled with much rich material, wonderful quotes, and deep allusions to our moral tradition.  I will be mining it for sermons, etc., for years.

I hope this series of blog posts on moral character in the midst of our current national catastrophe has been helpful in grasping what we must do in order to reweave the social fabric and restore the moral order.

"Out of Balance" was the previous post in this blog series.


Out of Balance

Tolstoy-List-Main

David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate.  He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . .  The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."

So, what's wrong with the current moral climate?  He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society.  First, the overarching problems.

We have become "less morally articulate."  We are more materialistic.  More individualistic.  Less empathetic.  

We have become "a more competitive meritocracy."  He writes:

You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world.  That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

 What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides.  I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.

The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."  

Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology."  First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."  Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment."  And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."

He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.

In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."

The previous post in this series discussed self-actualization by looking at Katherine Graham.  And the post before that reviewed this change in moral culture.