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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Temptation

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent on the Western Christian calendar. Many observant Christians fast or practice some other manner of self-denial for the duration of the Lenten season, commemorating Jesus' forty days in the desert where (as recounted in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) he was tempted by Satan three times. Jesus emerged from the desert and returned to Galilee after refusing each of Satan's temptations, only to be betrayed by Judas, taken prisoner by Pontius Pilate, and eventually crucified by the Romans.  Easter Sunday, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, marks the end of Lenten season. Whatever one's religious persuasion, the story of the temptation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus is a powerfully symbolic and deeply moving one, from which there are many non-Christianity-specific valuable lessons to learn.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Torture

Several years ago, a friend and colleague of mine invited me to come speak to his class about torture. The class was a writing seminar organized around the theme of "citizenship" and my colleague was feeling (understandably) frustrated because, in his words, he "just didn't feel like [he] had the tools or the knowledge to counter arguments by students who want to justify torture on the basis of what they've seen in the movies or on 24." I understood the frustration, and as reluctant as I might have felt about being the local "torture expert," I agreed to go. I sent the students a short article by Jessica Wolfendale called "Training Torturers: A Critique of the 'Ticking Bomb' Argument" in advance, which presses the justification of torture argument to one of its logical consequences, namely, the necessity for trained torturers. I like this article because it forces us to talk about the permissibility or impermissibility of torture in terms other than strictly "moral" terms. Rather, we must consider what sort of polity we are creating (and endorsing) when we say that torture is permissible. It also, importantly, allows me to address some of the most common misperceptions about torture.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Anonymity

What difference does a signature make? I'll assume that the phenomenon of trolling is one familiar to most of us on the interwebs, a phenomenon that is, in turns, infuriating, exasperating, unpleasant, and often genuinely hostile and threatening. There's much to abhor about trolls-- their pettiness and vitriol, their disregard for basic conversational decorum, their intrusiveness and incivility, their seemingly superhuman perseverance-- but the most abhorrent thing about them, for many of us, is their anonymity.

Thanks to the ease with which one can adopt anonymity on the Internet, the digital world ends up being a more populous place than the IRL human planet. There are, of course, many good reasons to value the protections that anonymity provides for non-trolls in digital space, who may find themselves in IRL social positions that severely restrict their ability to speak freely and openly without unearned penalty.  And there are many good reasons to celebrate the loosening of strictly enforced IRL identity-borders; the Internet makes it possible to enact (if not embody) alternative expressions of one's own multivalent and incongruous sense of being-with-others. But, as I've written before on this blog, there remains something about Internet anonymity that tends to not just make space for, but actively encourage, a kind of "I-can-say-anything-I-want-because-nobody-knows-who-I-am" recklessness and irresponsibility. So, many of us find ourselves sometimes pining for regulation: wouldn't requiring a signature at least partially remedy these ills? 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Vulnerability

Several years ago, I read a fascinating article by David Dobbs called "The Science of Success," in which he discusses the influence of certain genetic factors on social/psychological development. Dobbs recounts the studies of Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg, who set out to test a dominant hypothesis of psychiatry and behavioral science known as the "stress diathesis" or "genetic vulnerability" model. That hypothesis speculates that people who suffer from mood, psychiatric, or personality disorders do so because of variants in key behavioral genes that make the sufferers more susceptible to things like depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic or violent behavior. However, according to the current understanding of the model, the mere possession of these gene variants is not enough to bring about the undesirable effects. Rather, the problems have been observed to ensue "if and only if the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life." Consequently, these psychological and behavioral phenomena are given a combination genetics-and-environment explanation.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Forgetting

I dedicate a significant amount of time in my courses to thinking with students about our "digital selves" and our "digital lives." Most students-- most people, for that matter-- tend to think of the aggregate data that constitute their digital selves (social media profiles, Google searches, Netflix or Amazon preferences, banking transactions, medical records, online chats and text messages,smartphone location services results, etc, etc) as some sort of a shadow or reflection of them, but not really them. However, as I've written before on this blog (see: The "Real" and "True" You), there are a number of ways of looking at that aggregate data as more true and more real version of ourselves than our flesh-and-blood, "meatspace" selves. For example, our digital self, unlike our meatspace self, never forgets.  It may have an incomplete memory (though that is becoming less and less the case these days), but the memory it has is perfect.


Friday, February 05, 2016

Merit

The first text I assign in my social and political philosophy course is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled "The Lottery in Babylon." In it, Borges' narrator tells the story of his former home, Babylon, where (over the course of many years) a lottery evolves from being a voluntary game of chance into a mandatory determiner of, quite literally, everything: guilt and innocence, life and death, vocation, marriage, where one might live or what one might eat for lunch.  The number of drawings is infinite, the narrator tells us, No decision is final, each branches out into the others.  Under the Babylonian lottery, there is no natural or causal connection between actions and their consequences, between crimes and their punishment, between accomplishments and their rewards. Because the lottery is free, open and mandatory, it is also perfectly, mathematically "fair."  Several mythic and quasi-religious explanations for the lottery's operations emerge over time, each of which attempt to impart it with some ultimate meaning, but the narrator summarily dismisses them all in his final line: Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mortality

I am fairly certain that I watched a man die in the street in Memphis last Saturday night.

[TW: disturbing content follows]

I say that I'm "fairly certain" because, the truth is, I still do not know for sure.  In the past several days, I've recounted the events of that night to a few friends, hoping that one of them could give me a plausible alternative story that did not result in a man's death, but so far no one has been able to provide one.  The not-knowing-for-sure what happened has been an especially weighty burden to bear, though not even close to as heavy as the fairly-certain-I-do-know.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Risk

In the January edition of the New Yorker, there was a story ("The Hit List") about the so-called "Islamist war" on secular bloggers in Bagladesh.  It begins with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy: atheist, rationalist and advocate of scientific understanding.  (Roy: "The vaccine against religion is to build up a scientific approach.") It is a truly terrifying read for any blogger, myself included.  In my own discipline of professional Philosophy, there has been much discussion recently about the risks involved in doing digital or "public" philosophy, motivated in large part by the racist threats philosopher George Yancy received after publishing a piece in the NYT's The Stone (an op-ed section dedicated to philosophy) entitled "Dear White America." Anyone who has ever expressed an unpopular opinion in public (or anyone who has ever read Plato's Apology) knows that ideas can be dangerous.  As Sarah Vowell wrote (in one of the best opening lines to a nonfiction text ever): The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Utility

Roughly 90% of the courses I teach are in moral and political philosophy, which means I am regularly given cause to lecture on utilitarianism. In my experience, almost all students arrive in the classroom as what I call "default utilitarians." I say "default" because I think, in most cases, their's is not so much a considered position as it is evidence of the way that the social, political and economic forces of their world shape them as subjects.  I teach J.S. Mill's short 1861 tract Utilitarianism, one of the chief virtues of which is that it carefully and systematically addresses what Mill views as common misunderstandings of utilitarianism.  Among these misunderstandings is the conflation of "utility" (that which tends to produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people or, correspondingly, reduce the greatest amount of pain for the greatest amount of people) and "expediency" (that which promotes self-interested ends).  In all fairness, Mill doesn't do a very good job of making this distinction clearly or effectively, but in an Intro-level class it serves well enough to force students to think about whether or not their evaluations of the "happiness" their choices might produce is self-interested or not.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Practice

Inspired by fellow philosopher-bloggers Adriel Trott and Jill Stauffer, I'm going to try to post every day for the month of February.  Every summer in June, I do the 30 Day Song Challenge on this blog and I am always surprised how satisfying I find it to write every day.  Of course, it's much easier to do when there is structure and a theme (as there is in the 30 Day Song Challenge), but I've been encouraged by my Stauffer's and Trott's' work over the last couple of months and am willing to give this a go.

One thing I know-- and also teach my students-- is that writing is a skill that requires practice.  Even if you have a "natural" talent for writing, even if writing comes easily to you, practice is still necessary.  Each June, when I post every day, I discover new idiosyncratic tics and habits in my own writing that need correcting.  Just calling them to myown attention isn't sufficient, I need to practice not repeating those mistakes.