August 2012 Archives

Interesting post at the Feminist Philosophers blog about Ann Romney's speech last night, where she recognizes systemic inequality between men and women, with women doing a lot more of the work on average than the men who share responsibilities with them. Is Ann Romney saying such structural and systemic inequality is just fine? I'm not so sure, and I'm repeating my comment on that post here. [Caveat: I didn't hear the speech or read the transcript of the whole thing, just what appears on that post.]

It's not clear to me that she's saying it's fine for women to have to work harder than men. I think she might just be saying that it's fine that life is isn't easy.

There's actually a little speech in the biblical book of I Peter that directs people in subordinate positions to do good to those over them, not because they deserve it or because anything unjust that they might do is legitimate, but because the more important goal is to win them over by good deeds. Feminism gets complicated when you're more concerned about the eternal salvation of those participating in oppressive structures than you are about the often-small ways that those structures manifest themselves on a day-to-day basis for those who happen to be affected by them in more minor ways.

It would mean, then, that you don't have to think those structures are perfectly all right to think that women should put up with them, because the putting-up with them is for a higher purpose. There's much of this kind of thinking in Augustine, who would accept any form of government for keeping order in this society, and how just it is isn't as important to him as going along with the laws Socrates-style but for the sake of winning over by good behavior those he sees as heading in the wrong direction spiritually. It allows him to think certain ways of ruling are intrinsically bad but are not worth resisting (and thus he has very mixed feelings about slavery, seeing something wrong with it and worth resisting on one level but also as an institution that Christians can work within to do a more important task of being a light to the darkness of the slaveowners. It's love for their enemy.

I don't how much of this approach would be manifest among Mormons, but I have to wonder if that's the kind of thinking that lies behind Ann Romney's speech. If I heard this kind of thing from an evangelical, it's how I'd take it, and evangelicals and Mormons are at least culturally very similar, even if they're worlds apart theologically.

A common theme in the last few days is the tying of Romney's Birther joke to race. He joked, in his hometown, that no one had ever asked him to prove that he was born in the U.S. The idea is that Romney was playing to the deep suspicion that people inclined to accept Birtherism have of Obama, and the suspicion they have is basically racism. So Romney was deliberately invoking racist ideas in potential supporters in order to get fringe Americans who already hate Obama onto his side, while knowingly alienating the swing voters he's been desperately trying to get onto his side by trying to be as mainstream as possible without sacrificing the essentials the rightward base needs him to keep.

In furtherance of this narrative, there was a #FutureMittJokes Twitter hashtag game that trended pretty high that consisted of people inventing jokes where Romney took great delight in the privileges that come from being white, at the cost of others' having their rights violated or at least being mistreated. So Romney was projected to be likely to make jokes like the following:

"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."
"It's called the *White* House for a reason!"
"People never joke about me planting a watermelon patch on the White House lawn!"
"Nobody ever told me I couldn't attend that all White high school!"
"no one ever asked me if i was sure i was in the right place"
"No one ever told me to sit at the back of the bus. wht is a bus anyway"
"No one ever told ME I couldn't marry a White woman."
"I never get pulled over when driving one of Ann's Cadillacs"
"When the police pulls me over, they're only asking me for directions."
"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."

I'm not buying it. Romney was certainly making a jab about Obama. Anyone who denies that is being disingenuous. But what was the critique? I would have thought it had mostly to do with the repeated criticism of Obama on foreign relations. Obama bowed to foreign leaders. He accepted a Nobel Prize for not having done anything but replace Bush. He undermined national security by fighting dead battles about policies Bush abandoned in 2003. He leaked top secret information for electoral gain. He often favors our enemies over our allies. He criticizes us abroad. He is unwilling to acknowledge Muslim terrorists as terrorists or as Muslims. And so on. The list is quite long, and it's full of actual content that has nothing to do with race.

Those sorts of themes strike me as what feeds the idea that Obama doesn't have American interests at the center of his motivating structure. It's about how he behaves when dealing with other nations. I don't myself buy that entire picture. He's not always very wise in some of things he does, and it does endanger national security and embarrass the U.S. at times, but I think some of those criticisms are simply unfair. But there are those who are convinced that the U.S. president does not always have a significant concern for U.S. interests driving his foreign policy or his relations with other nations. That's completely undeniable. And there is plenty of content to the charge, particular things he's done or has been believed to have done, that does not have anything to do with his race or the fact that he was raised abroad for part of his childhood or that he was raised living as if a Muslim for some of that time. Any white dude with similar experiences and actions would arouse the same suspicion from the same people.

It's easy to see race driving this if you don't think there's any substance to those criticisms, but the fact is that a lot of people do believe there's substance to them, and it's not because Obama is black. It's because they see such behavior as unfitting of a U.S. president. They would have worried about Clinton doing any of it as much as they do Obama. It's not his race but his leftward orientation, his past as a community organizer, his privileged, elite education, and how he actually behaved when traveling abroad during his first presidential campaign that drove the suspicion that motivates people who see him as a sort of traitor to American values. And I think that, together with his Muslim influence from childhood, is what drives the Birther narrative, and it would do so even if he had been a white guy with a white, French father whose mother married a white American convert to Islam in the U.S. and then moved to Canada for a while to be enrolled in a Muslim school with extremist ties. The whole thing could just as easily have happened without the African or Indonesian elements, which means it's not race that's central. I'm sure there are some who are suspicious of him just because of his race, but I think it's been pretty clear that that's a thin sliver of those who disagree with him on policy matters. The fact that the conservative base, including the Tea Party people, could be happy with Herman Cain during the primaries seems to me to be about as close to proof as you get on such matters.

I imagine Romney agrees with a good deal of the foreign relations complaint I've outlined above, and it makes complete sense that he would make a joke at the expense of the Birthers, whom he has consistently criticized and distanced himself from. The idea is that Obama is the sort of person that crazy people can make crazy conspiracy theories about, because he fits the profile that feeds the narrative. This is because of his policies, language, and behavior toward other nations. That he was implicitly hinting at a racial narrative is not very likely. The way the story is told assumes that he was playing to the Birthers' own racism, when he was instead making fun of Birthers and invoking something that Obama's opponents take to be a serious, non-racial critique that the racial-accusers don't seem to recognize as even being part of it. The racial-narrative claim is possible if you don't think Romney could be referencing the actual content behind why people see Obama as anti-American. That a good deal of those arguments seem implausible to many on the left, I think, is what leads them to turn to other explanations. But it's poor reasoning to attribute an extreme, and psychologically unlikely, view to someone just because the more psychologically plausible view for them to be holding is one you disagree with.

Romney is not stupid enough to be doing what these critics are claiming he is doing. If he knew that people would interpret the joke the way the FutureMittJokes hashtag did, he would have considered it at the very least politically stupid (and I think he would recognize its moral offensiveness). So I'm sure he couldn't have even imagined that someone might reasonably take it to be about Obama's race. I would have a hard time imagining that if I hadn't seen people doing that and then claiming that any intelligent person must agree.

Furthermore, the joke wouldn't have had even a chance of humor if he expected people to be taking him seriously in criticizing Obama as not born in America. He has to have been making fun of Birthers for the attempt at humor even to have worked. Otherwise it would not have even been a joke. For it to be a joke, he has to be not recognizing the validity of the Birther charge and in fact making the joke at Birthers' expense.

Accusations of racism when it is not obviously present are the biggest reason so many conservatives think racism is a thing of the past, and they'll continue to fail to see the systemic and structural elements that have disparate racial effects if they're constantly made to be on the defense about issues where they are fully aware that the left is fabricating racist motives. Sometimes this is an understandable but unfortunate psychological response when there in fact is genuinely a racial element, and those who see it need to point it out, which is what some of these critics think they're doing here. But that very enterprise gets frustrated when it gets extended to situations where there's a highly plausible, even a more likely, explanation of someone's motives, as there clearly is in this case. Anyone who understands the implicit critique of Obama here is going to recognize that and will see the attempts to call it racist as shallow fabrications, which will prevent them from even recognizing racialized elements in the cases where they really are there. That's no way to further racial understanding, and that's why I think Newt Gingrich is right to see this kind of critique of Romney as frustrating racial progress, even if he's wrong in claiming that those who are making the criticism are therefore racist in doing so.

[Update 8/29: I saw a tweet today that well captures the attitude that Obama is anti-American in ways that don't rely on his race at all. It said, "Question for liberals: Why does Obama give money, guns, and oil to Mexicans but wants to take all away from Americans?"]

Trinity Fellowship sermons typically work through books or sections of books at a time. Occasionally there will be a topical series, which list as separate series. But individual sermons do occur, usually between series or on special days (most frequently Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, Reformation Sunday, Christmas, and New Years).

This list of sermons contains topical sermons preached since the Spring 2012 topical series on Marriage, Singleness, and Parenting (until the next topical series, which is still undetermined). I will continue to update it as new topical sermons are scheduled and preached.

The four sermons from June 23-July 14, 2013 were included in the introduction and preaching schedule for the 2013 summer epistles series.

1. II Cor 6:1-14 Labor (Jeremy Jackson) 9-2-12
2. II Peter 1:16-21 The Nature of Scripture (Bernie Elliot) 10-28-12 (Reformation Sunday Pulpit Exchange)
3. John 2:1-12 (Stefan Matzal) 10-28-12 (preached at Missio Church)
4. John 1 Christmas (Nathaniel Jackson) 12-23-12
5. Psalm 89 On Not Accusing God (Jeremy Jackson) 12-30-12
6. Genesis 3:19-24; John 11:17-44 Death: An Unacceptable Reality (Nathaniel Jackson) 4-7-13
7. Romans 1:16-2:3; 2:17-24; 3:9-12; 3:19-25a Homosexuality & the Righteousness of God (Stefan Matzal) 6-23-13
8. John 4:7-25; John 8:2-11; Luke 7:36-50; Jude 17-23 Homosexuality and Personal Relationships (Nathaniel Jackson) 6-30-13
9. John 17:20-23 Bear with one another (Jeremy Jackson) 7-7-13
10. I Thessalonians 5.1-11; Hebrews 3:6-14 Exhort one another (Stefan Matzal) 7-14-13
11. Psalm 19:1-11 Reformation Sunday Pulpit Exchange (Robert F. Gates) 10-27-13
12. Romans 1:16-17 The Reformation Storm (Nathaniel Jackson) 10-27-13 (preached at Lafayette Alliance Church)
12. Luke 1:36-45 The mother of my Lord has come to me! (Stefan Matzal) 12-22-13
13. Psalm 23 (Nathaniel Jackson) 12-29-13
14. Genesis 1:26-28 Psalm 8:3-5 Set Apart by God (Nathaniel Jackson) 1-19-14 (Sanctity of Human Life Sunday)
15. II Corinthians 4:7-5:10 (Jordan Stinziano) 3-1-14 (Late Winter Retreat)
16. II Corinthians 5:11-21 Mission (Jordan Stinziano) 3-1-14 (Late Winter Retreat)
17. Ephesians 1:3-14 The grace of God (John Hartung) 7-27-14
18. Undergirding the Work of the Reformation by Prayer (Richard Dickinson) 10-26-14
19. The Just Shall Live By Faith (Jeremy Jackson) 10-26-14 (preached at Cazenovia Village Baptist Church)
20. How to Read the Bible Like a Protestant [no audio: PDF(Stefan Matzal) 10-31-14 (preached at Messiah's Church) 
21. Isaiah 9:6 Unto us a Son is given (Nathaniel Jackson) 12-21-14
22. Philippians 3:7-16 (Jeremy Jackson) 12-28-14
23. Psalm 22 (Jeremy Jackson) 4-12-15
24. Why Am I Here in This Job? (Stefan Matzal) 6-21-15
25. "Looking for the City ... Whose Architect & Builder Is God" (Al Gurley) 8-9-15
26. Genesis 32 The Peace and Power of Grace (Matt Watkins of Beacon Baptist Church) 11-15-15
27. Christmas (Stefan Matzal) 12-20-15
28. New Years (Nathaniel Jackson) 12-27-15

Blog posts related to these sermons:

1. The Owl's Swiveling Head and the Woodpecker's Hammering Head 6-30-13 (related to 6-23-13 sermon)
2. On Persistence When Studying the Bible 10-29-14 (related to 10-31-14 talk)
3. Reading and Interpreting the Bible: An Annotated Bibliography 10-31-14 (related to 10-31-14 talk)
4. Following Christ in the Workplace: Recommended Reading 6-24-15 (related to 6-21-15 sermon)
5. How Shall I Go About Doing This Job as a Christian? 6-27-15 (related to 6-21-15 sermon)
6. Balancing Church, Family, and Work 6-30-15 (related to 6-21-15 sermon)

For more sermons, see here.

The Los Angeles Times has an editorial up about the upcoming Supreme Court case that will revisit affirmative action. It argues several things, but one claim it makes strikes me as wrong. It points out that the Supreme Court has affirmed affirmative action as constitutional in a limited way, by saying:

1. Outright quotas, which reserve special spots for one group and only that group, violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
2. Less absolute ways of giving preference to under-represented groups pass constitutional muster, provided they have the right justification and are narrowly-tailored to meet that justification.
3. The right justification is the compelling state interest of increasing diversity, not reparations for past maltreatment, overcoming the persistent lingering effects of past maltreatment, or counterbalancing for any current discrimination.

This is right as far as it goes, but I think the editorial's way of framing what Justice O'Connor's framework allows and doesn't allow as justifications is not quite right, because it doesn't take into account one of the most important recent diversity arguments, which brings together diversity with some of the other considerations. Here is how the editorial separates the justifications:

One of the most persuasive arguments for some racial preferences is that the underrepresentation of African Americans in the ranks of the highest-achieving college applicants is inseparable from this country's legacy of racial discrimination. Far from offending the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws, such policies are consistent with that amendment's paramount objective of overcoming the effects of slavery.

The problem is that, beginning with the court's 1978 decision in the Bakke case from California, affirmative action has been based on a different rationale: that including students from different backgrounds enhances everyone's educational experience. That "diversity" justification, which looms large in the administration's brief, is valid as far as it goes. But it gives insufficient weight to the persistent racial disparities in income and education that continue to put minority applicants at a disadvantage.

The most significant development in the affirmative action discussion since the 2003 Supreme Court decisions is Elizabeth Anderson's work on integration, most supremely in her 2010 book The Imperative of Integration, which I consider a game-changer both in the moral debate about affirmative action and in how the legal issue of the diversity justification can fit together with the argument of the first paragraph I quoted above.

Anderson argues for a diversity justification that doesn't sound much like diversity simply enhancing the educational experience. What she argues is that increased interaction across racial lines is in fact the best way to overcome the effects of slavery, because the most entrenched structures that continue disparate racial effects stem from forces that are shown to diminish when there is more racial interaction, particularly at more intimate social levels, and one of the best ways to foster such increased social interaction is to get better representation at formative social institutions like schools, including dormitory housing assignments. Increased integration for the sake of better serving the educational purpose of these institutions is in fact what the Supreme Court's diversity justification allows for as a motive, and it doesn't limit itself to classroom experience. But Anderson argues that it is that very increased diversity and systematically more social interaction between races that will lead to the effects the first paragraph quoted above says should be the real justification for affirmative action.

So we can no longer say that these are separate issues. It's not that there are these separate justifications for affirmative action, and one justification is deemed by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, while the other, less-convincing, one is deemed constitutional. What Anderson has argued, rightly in my view, is that the one the Los Angeles Times editorial says is less convincing (but that the Supreme Court has endorsed) actually does meet the purposes of the first one that they find more convincing (but that the Supreme Court precludes). And it strikes me that this is the best and most convincing reason for wanting to increase diversity and promote higher levels of integration at the college and university level.

What strikes me as the most important countervailing argument is not the legal question of the 14th Amendment, as the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito seem to think. The 14th Amendment was crafted by people who had no problem with interracial marriage bans, so an original-intent justification won't work to ban affirmative action. Perhaps an original public meaning argument would, but 14th-Amendment jurisprudence has long accepted at least some cases where other considerations trump equal protection. The standard it has to meet varies for different groups, but discrimination of various sorts can be morally and legally justified in certain settings, provided the right criteria are met. The question is whether the diversity rationale or some other rationale can be strong enough to justify giving some (but not absolute) preference for having a more integrated incoming class in a university or college.

But there's another question that gets much less attention, and that's how that integration or diversity gets achieved. The 1978 Supreme Court case ruled out absolute quotas, because they reserved spots for specific under-represented groups no matter what. So even if the only applicants were grossly underqualified and would fail out in one semester, they couldn't give those spots to others. That's been recognized by the Supreme Court since 1978 to be too far. The 2003 cases established another way that the methodology can go awry. The University of Michigan's undergraduate admission program assigned specific numerical values to different under-represented groups, and there was a certain percentage increase or decrease in the numerical value assigned to those candidates for admission because of their demographic. That's not as absolute as reserving spots for certain groups and never giving them to anyone else, but it was too absolute for Justices O'Connor and Breyer, who joined the more conservative contingent on that case (whereas they joined the more liberal contingent on the law school case that established the diversity rationale as constitutional). So both those methods went too far, according to enough votes on the Supreme Court to get it established as precedent.

What I wish would get more attention is another matter of what might go too far. Assuming it's perfectly fine to want to increase the number of representatives of an under-represented group, one way to go too far in bringing them in is to bring in people who will be unable to do the college-level work expected of them at an institute of higher learning. It was easy for me to see the disvalue in students unable to do college-level work when I tutored for the Syracuse University football team. Some of the team members I tutored needed some extra help but could do fine with that help. (One in particular was a stellar student.) But a few really had either very low ability or severe under-preparation and needed to be at a community college. There's a low enough retention rate on major athletic programs that admissions offices need to do a better job at resisting some of the candidates team coaches try to bring in.

Why can't the same true of affirmative action admissions? So even if race-consciousness is an important consideration in college admissions, many of the arguments against affirmative action would still have some moral force in leading admissions offices to be more careful in who they give a leg up to on their diversity justification. It seems too quota-like if they're just trying to achieve a certain percentage (which I'm sure they are -- the numbers bear that out, as Justice Thomas' dissent to the 2003 cases substantiated). Not being absolute makes it not an absolute quota. But not being absolute doesn't make it not a non-absolute quota. If they have a goal of a certain percentage, and they try to achieve it by bring in candidates who really aren't best served by being there, then they're morally failing, even if they have some wiggle room and aren't reserving an absolute number of spots for certain groups. It seems to me that this is what is in fact going on in most university and college affirmative action programs, and I don't think it serves the groups it's aiming to help. The populations who are under-prepared are not best served by bringing them to institutions they're not prepared for. They're best served by programs that help them before they get to college, as states where affirmative action has been outlawed have been able to do in order to do a back-door kind of affirmative action to get their quota goals met without allowing admissions to be race-conscious in any overt way.

Also, there's the issue of blindness to important diversity issues while focusing only on mere racial assignment. The important concern should be getting more integration with populations who really have barriers to integration. If you look at race and ignore other factors, then the children of immigrants and middle-class under-represented populations tend to get the benefit of those policies, when the most needy non-immigrant descendants of American slaves are not getting the help they need to achieve and get accepted to higher-learning institutions. Even when affirmative action helps the individuals it's intended to help, which I've already argued is not always the case, it's not usually helping those who most need it. Specifically targeting it to help them won't help them either. It's the other programs that help them earlier that really need the most effort. This is indeed something that even Justice Thomas, one of the strongest opponents of affirmative action on the Supreme Court, would be delighted to support. A key component of his resistance to affirmative action is recognizing how little it does to help the people who most need help and how much it might in fact harm some of them. There seems to me to be something right about that, and affirmative action simply isn't the answer to that problem.

So what would I conclude about all this? I do think an integrative purpose for some race-awareness in admissions can be perfectly fine and compatible with the equal protection concern of the 14th Amendment. I also think those who engage in such admissions policies need to be really careful that they're doing it in a way that achieves that goal well, and I suspect most of them do not. I also think what colleges and universities do with them once they arrive matters significantly, and it's important that they not foster so much of a tie among under-represented students that they form less-significant social ties with over-represented groups, as happened every single year at Brown University when I was there, because of a well-meaning program that happened before the bulk of other students arrived that allowed minority and international students to form social ties that lasted them their entire four-year Brown experience in ways that, for many, led them not to form as many ties with other groups. (This can happen in non-racial ways too. The evangelical Christian groups can lead evangelical students to do that.)

There was a legitimate purpose for such things. Consolidation and solidarity can provide those with similar experiences to unite over them and realize that they are not alone in their experiences. Community within an identity group can be a very good thing. Nonetheless, integration (particularly a kind of social integration that doesn't ignore difference but allows different people to recognize and understand their differences) is the best means to overcoming racial problems, and I think those who use the diversity justification for affirmative action have a moral obligation to ensure that they actually foster integration rather than fostering segregation once the under-represented students are there. That takes walking a fine line and being concerned about two things at once, things that seem hard to seek both together. You have to balance out various considerations. This is a more complex issue than either side usually presents it as. I'd like to see the Supreme Court recognize that when they revisit it this coming term, but I suspect we'll instead continue with two sides who each see only half the picture.


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This is the 60th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series.  The most recent posts covered the main views of personal identity and then turned to some more unorthodox accounts to handle some of the problems of personal identity, beginning in the last post with four-dimensionalism and its doctrine of temporal parts.

Another unorthodox view is conventionalism (sometimes called conceptualism, although some would want to reserve that term for something else). The basic idea behind conventionalism starts with something uncontroversial. Our language consists of a bunch of conventions. We use certain words to refer to certain things, and we adopt various conventions about when to apply certain terms, use certain tenses or grammatical constructions, and so on. Different governments and societies have different conventions about various matters, such as whether you drive on the left or right side of the road, whether it's appropriate to wear shoes in the house, or whether your leaders come to office by popular vote or some other method. In the case of language, however, these conventions don't determine what you should do but what your words mean. For example, the word 'quite' in British English can mean something opposite what it means in American English. In British English, you can apparently say something is "quite good" and mean that it's only a little good but not very good. I can't for the life of me hear that expression that way. In American English it means pretty much that it's very good. So the different linguistic conventions in the UK and in the US mean that the same expression in the mouths of different people can mean different things. That's uncontroversial, even if it's not something a lot of people think about every day. 

he conventionalist's controversial use of that phenomenon in the personal identity debate is to claim that our concept of person is like that, and it's like that even without one linguistic community, not when comparing two as my example did. The idea is that the meanings of our terms are determined by how we use them, and different societies could refer to different things by their terms. We haven't yet settled how the relevant terms are used in our society, and so our language hasn't settled what it is to say that a person has survived some massive change or which person remains when it's unclear, in these various science fiction cases that we don't normally think about. The reason is because we don't normally consider these cases. Our concept of a person is settled enough in ordinary cases, but we just haven't decided if we're going to consider the brain-recipient the same person as the one who had the original brain or the one whose body it went into. We haven't settled whether someone survives a Star Trek transporter. We haven't settled whether I'm still alive if my brain gets destroyed and my body kept alive artificially.

To be clear about what's required here, this isn't just saying that the word 'person' is unsettled. This is much more radical. On this view, it isn't even clear what prounouns like 'I' or 'she' refer to to or whether it's true to say that I will survive a certain procedure even given that we're entirely in agreement about the facts of what takes place. According to conventionalism, there is no right answer to such questions. I've seen the view described in such a way that would allow for the U.S. Supreme Court to make some decision deciding who is married to whom, who is responsible for whose crimes and whose children, who owns whose property and so on for some of these disputed matters, and that would settle the question, but it's not necessarily that simple. The Supreme Court's opinions would certainly be a factor in what determines the meaning of the relevant terms. But ordinary people's opinions would have a large part in it, since it's their usage of terms that settles what language does mean in cases where it is settled. If a Supreme Court decision led people to stop using language in certain ways and start using it in other ways, but that sort of thing doesn't always happen. Consider what happened when our best scientific experts on planetary classification declared Pluto not a planet. Virtually no one would go along with it. In that case, the word 'planet' simply became ambiguous, as is the case with 'fruit' (tomatoes are fruit according to biologists' classifications but not according to nutritionists' or horticulturists', and most people's usage fits with the latter two more than the first.

A psychological view says I continue if my personality continues. If my mind gets wiped and my brain is reprogrammed with new memories and a new personality, then I stop existing and someone else continues in my body. On the bodily view, I'm still there but think I'm someone else. A conventionalist can say that there's no fact of the matter. If I anticipate having this happen to me, I can wonder whether it would be self-interested or altruistic take some pain medication to cut down on the post-operative headache, given that I don't know if I'll be the one occupying this body after the procedure. Can matters of how we use our language settle whether it's self-interested or altruistic? They can settle what words mean, but are words like 'self' so undefined that there is simply no fact about whose self it is afterward? That's exactly what the conventionalist is saying, and it's a pretty hard bite to swallow for some people. Conventionalism dismisses the problems of personal identity by simply saying that there's no right answer. It's not that there's no such thing as a continuing person. I'll turn to that view in the next post. It's that there's simply no truth about which person is the same one as the earlier one. And if we change how we think and speak, there could come to be such an answer, but right now there's no fact of the matter.

I think the best alternative to conventionalism comes from recognizing that we often have false beliefs or differing opinions from others around us about difficult matters, and it doesn't stop our words from having a definitive meaning. And some concepts re particularly good candidates for reference because they are especially natural sorts of things to refer to. In science, we often get things wrong and later discover it and then continue using the same term we always did. Atoms were supposed to be indivisible, but we didn't stop calling them atoms when we found out that the things we were calling atoms were divisible. We could still refer to those things by calling them atoms. Something similar happened with heat when we realized there isn't some substance (being called caloric) that explains why things are warmer. We stopped talking about caloric, but we didn't stop talking about heat. That's because, in both cases, there was a natural-enough entity that our terms were able to latch on to, even if some of what we believed about those entities was wrong. Is there a natural-enough entity for terms like 'me' and 'same person' to latch on to, even if people have competing intuitions on the science fiction personal identity cases? There certainly is if dualism is true. It's less so with the other candidates, such as continued psychological continuity (an inherently vague notion) and continued biological continuity or brain continuity (a less-vague notion than psychological continuity but certainly not less vague than dualist minds). I suspect a lot of intuitions about whether our concepts are settled enough will depend on whether you think there's a natural-enough candidate for personal identity that closely-enough matches our concept or competing concepts of personhood and selfhood.

The next post will look at another unconventional approach, nihilism, which is really more like a cluster of related views that deny the existence or persistence of something-or-other (but the different views do it differently).

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