Philosophy: January 2004 Archives

This email discussion is continuing. I got a response back, I've sent off a response to that, and I've gotten another one back already. It's venturing into broader issues of interpretation and inerrancy. I've included it in the original file and in the Arguments About Sex and Sexuality collection.

Update: Now that I've got an extended entry feature, the second part of the file linked to above is here. The first part is in the previous post.


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I'm teaching on pacifism, war, violence, and related issues in my ethics class right now, and I've just finished a summary of the main arguments for pacifism and the responses to them.

President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.

What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush�s statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.

Normally I really appreciate almost every posting at Language Log, an excellent multi-author blog by linguists. An entry by Christopher Potts appeared today that seems to me to have disturbing implications.

He refers back to a post by Geoff Nunberg criticizing a September court decision that allowed the Washington Redskins to keep their name. The reason given was that on some uses of the term 'redskin' it's not intended to be offensive, and the team uses it in a respectful way. I'm not sure I disagree with anything in Nunberg's original post. I think I even agree with the spirit of Potts's first post, where he argues that you can't just make up a new definition of a word that has expressive content (i.e. roughly what you might call emotional content) and then think that it's no longer disparaging because you're using it to mean something new. The word still carries that expressive content in the mind of the hearer. I do have some hesitations about his thoughts on the 'niggardly' incident that his fellow linguist John McWhorter has examined with more sophistication and balance.

This new post is what really worries me, though. Potts suggests that the court's reasoning rests on the following principle:

(A) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case every speech community within C regards W as offensive on every meaning that W can have in C.

He's right that (A) is too weak. You could name a team any offensive term you wanted, even the n-word, as long as you said you were using the word in a positive sense and treated every black person with respect in all your offical outlets. That seems wrong. It still carries the offensive expressive content of the word, even if people didn't intend to convey that. Since (A) won't do, Potts suggests the next principle as the one they should have used:

(S) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case some speech community within C regards W as offensive on at least one of the meanings that W can have in C.

I understand what he's getting at. He's saying that the existence of one usage that some speech community finds acceptable doesn't mean it isn't still going have all the negative effects on the relevant community, the ones who take great offense. That seems right. However, (S) is not just describing what in fact causes offense. The 'niggardly' example and the other points he makes demonstrate only what turns out to offend people. (S) is supposed to be a basis for legal prohibitions on speech, and that leaves the realm of descriptive linguistics and starts specifying what's appropriate. (S) seems to me to be far too restrictive as a guide to what's appropriate.

It's true that 'niggardly' doesn't have any meaning that disparages black people, not in any community. So that isn't a good counterexample. The people in that case just didn't know what the word meant, and they made all sorts of ignorant and very foolish-sounding comments as a result. However, it doesn't take much to have a speech community that uses a word with a slang meaning, particularly when it comes to derogatory usages with expressive content. People make up these sorts of terms all the time, and they don't easily catch on at the larger scale of popular English usage, but it's quite easy for a small language community to have such special usages (e.g. the gangs in a particular section of a city).

So if a couple gangs start using the term 'Burger King' as a derogatory term to denote a member of another gang the Flesheaters, then there's a speech community within that part of the city that regards 'Burger King' as offensive on at least one of the meanings the term can have in the larger speech community of the whole city. What follows from (S) is that 'Burger King' is now inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in that city. Then you can extend it. The smaller community of the gangs is also within the country. You can run the same argument and say that it's inappropriate for anyone in the country to use that name that way. Then you can do it for the whole English-speaking world. Something has gone wrong here. I'm not sure what principle to replace (S) with, but it clearly won't do.

Update: As is typical of analytic metaphysicians, I came up with a fictional example that does in fact do the job of illustrating that this principle is false. All it takes is a possible example. However, it's much better to have an actual example to show that a term in current use is inappropriate according to (S). I found one. There's a band (or is it just one person?) called Tool. That's a derogatory term for someone who isn't very smart. At least one speech community in the United States recognizes that term as disparaging on at least one of its usages in that community. That community, part of the general community of English speakers, satisfies the conditions of (S) so that it's inappropriate for Tool to use that name. Examples from the music world (or what passes for it, in some cases) abound. Now I think some of these, e.g. NWA, WASP, The Dead Milkmen, The Dead Kennedys, and many other groups do in fact have inappropriate names, not that I'm advocating the government to step in and force a name removal, but I do think it's morally wrong to use those names. However, the name 'Tool' is certainly not one of these.

Will Baude has a nice discussion of a tough legal issue that would come up if vampires turned out to be real. If I were a vampire, would I have the right to make my own kid a vampire? One of the reasons this does have a point is because it deals with what parents have the right to do that they believe is in the best interests of their children but most people think is against the child's best interests. We know that I can't deliberately make my child dead and give such an excuse, but making a kid a vampire doesn't make the kid dead. It just makes the kid undead, which is to say not alive. Not alive doesn't mean dead. Remember that the binary opposites of alive/dead are not the only possibilities anymore if there are vampires. Baude concludes that a state does have the right to outlaw this, given the constitutionality of assisted suicide bans, but he also thinks a state would be able to allow it.

Maybe this should go in the forthcoming The Undead and Philosophy, in the same series as the esteemed Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer, The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, and apparently other forthcoming ones on The Sopranos, Bob Dylan, and The Onion.

I recommend none of these. It only sounds fun. A quick browse of the three volumes already out led me to believe fairly quickly that there wasn't much philosophy of value being done in these. Only a few of the philosophers in here were people I'd heard of, also, and that's not a good sign, though some of them were big names, a couple even people I like. It still didn't seem to me to be worthwhile philosophical work.

Even worse was a growing sense that most contributors had little connection to the pop culture item they were supposedly commenting on, often oversimplifying, or in some cases even misunderstanding, what was going on in the show or movie. This isn't true of all of them, but it's true of enough to discourage me from wanting to spend much more time or any money on this series. If they do Babylon 5 or Stargate SG-1, that might be harder to resist, but at this point I'm not too thrilled about the series.

Gay gene?

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There's an excellent discussion going on right now at Josh Claybourn's blog on whether homosexuality is determined or made likely by genetics and whether that's even significant for moral issues. Unfortunately, the direct link keeps closing my browser, so I've just linked the main page, and you'll have to scroll down.

I generally don't like to link to things without having anything to say myself, but this is a great discussion, and I do chime in a little bit over there.

Blackburn: Lust is a Virtue


Simon Blackburn thinks lust should not just be removed from the vice list but be added to the virtues.

"According to the Sunday Times, Prof Blackburn has defined lust as "the enthusiastic desire for sexual activity and its pleasures for its own sake". The philosopher says that if reciprocated, lust leads to pleasure and "best flourishes when unencumbered by bad philosophy and ideology... which prevent its freedom of flow". He points out that thirst is not criticised although it can lead to drunkenness and in the same way lust should not be condemned just because it can get out of hand, the paper says."

I read this to my friend sitting next to me, and before I even finished, he said, "Oh, that's just winning the argument by definition! It's a shame that a professional philosopher like Blackburn would take the low road."

Blackburn apparently knows nothing of the frequent comments by evangelical Christians that sexual desire is a good thing created by God and that lust is when people act on that desire by dwelling on it too long or too much when lusting after someone or some mental image that isn't the proper object of such desire (which for a Christian would be one's husband or wife only). It seems fairly clear to me that the people he's calling puritanical aren't using the same definition of 'lust' at all and are in fact agreeing with him on his main point, though probably differing a bit on the details. The point both agree on: there's nothing wrong with sexual desire any more than there's something wrong with appetites for food. When it becomes sexual lust or gluttony is the problem.

Maybe he's ignorant of evangelical Christianity. If so, yet another philosopher demonstrates that he knows nothing of what he's talking about in criticizing Christianity. That's bad. But maybe he's just deliberately framing the debate differently. If so, then he's being unfair. Redefining 'lust' to make it sound like you're making a radical claim and then taking the moral high ground over Christians really is taking the low road.

Clark: Life by Maternal Fiat


Wesley Clark takes conventionalism about personal identity to the extreme. Many philosophers think what makes someone a person are complex social practices, including language use and moral views. If we used language diferently and had different moral views, we would have a different concept of personhood, and the word 'person' would mean something different.

A new kind of conventionalism has been endorsed by General Wesley Clark. Most philosophers in the abortion debate realize that the debate is about personhood and not life, since life certainly begins at conception, as anyone with a basic Biology 101 class should know. So I'm going to assume that Clark means personhood and not life. If he really means life, he's more of an idiot than I thought.

Anyway, Clark said, "Life begins with the mother�s decision." If he's right, then whether a fetus is a person depends not on anything scientifically or philosophically discoverable. It depends merely on the decision of the mother. This is a kind of conventionalism but an extreme one. The only convention that matters is that of one person. How can one person's choice make the difference between whether something is a person? (You can see how it would be worse if her choice determined even if it was alive.)

Now there's a view in philosophy called divine voluntarism, basically that God's choice determines something. You could be a voluntarist about morality (Ockham's view that God determines what's right and wrong) or about mathematical truths (Descartes' view that God decides whether 2+2 is 4 or 5). You could be a divine voluntarist about persistence through time (Jonathan Edwards' view that God decides whether something is the same thing as some earlier thing). Professor Jose Benardete at Syracuse University, where I'm working on my Ph.D., was at one point (unsuccessfully) trying to convince Dean Zimmerman (once at Syracuse but now at Rutgers) to argue for divine voluntarism about where the line between bald things and non-bald things occurs (in terms of number of hairs, location of hairline, etc.).

Voluntarism makes sense for some human decisions. If we need a name to call something, it's perfectly appropriate to stipulate that we name it after the person who discovered it. Human choice then determines what sound we will use to refer to that newly discovered thing. We have a congressional voluntarism (or a sort) about laws. It makes absolutely no sense for some person to have the ability to determine, all by her lonesome, whether something is a person. This position will henceforth be known as maternal voluntarism about personhood (or maternal voluntarism about life, if you prefer to discuss the absolutely moronic view that he literally espoused, but I'm trying to assume that he only meant the relatively moronic view that I've been discussing).

See other good criticism at Outside the Beltway, Matthew Stinson, and Balloon Juice. Apparently his view is far more extreme than Roe v. Wade, which allows states to restrict abortion after viability (which at the time was 25 weeks but now has moved to 20-21 weeks). Clark doesn't think the government should restrict abortion until birth, which presumably would allow an abortion during active labor. So it's legal for a state to prohibit abortion in the second half of pregnancy, but Clark wouldn't appoint a judge who agreed with that. So he inconsistently says both that he couldn't appoint a pro-life judge, because a pro-life judge is somehow incapable of rendering a decision consistent with precedent, while also saying something himself that's inconsistent with precedent -- that abortion shouldn't be restricted at all, even up to the moment of birth. So much for following precedent.

I've been thinking about an old moral dilemma recently, from Ezra 10, in conjunction with the recent case of the woman who became a Christian, left her lesbian relationship, and then was told by a court that her former partner, who hadn't been in a legal relationship with the now-Christian woman's adopted daughter, had joint custody and that the now-Christian woman can't expose her daughter to homophobia. This court decision makes no legal sense, but it does raise some very hard choices for Christians in slightly different but certainly very possible situations. (Note: the extended entry is taken from what was originally linked to from my other blog that didn't have extended entries, so it may repeat some of the above.)

Two more ethics tests

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This was an interesting test. It basically told me what I already knew. I think something can be morally wrong even if it doesn't harm anyone, but I think most things that don't appear to harm people but are wrong do in fact harm someone -- the person doing them -- simply because doing something wrong harms you. It suggested that there was a tension here, but I don't really see it. It also told me that I don't have a strong tendency to need to see such behavior legally enforced or punished in this life, but it read that as not having a desire that people not do these things. It's worth thinking about the ways our moral intuitions interact with our explicit beliefs about morality, and this test helps do that. It also might expose potential conflicts within your belief system.

This one tests how parsimonious your moral thinking is, i.e. how many independent principles are at work in your moral reasoning. My score was 47%, much lower than the average 66%. That means I think some factors are crucial for the moral status of an action when most people think they're irrelevant. It isn't fine-tuned enough to detect exactly which principles make the difference for me. The ones it suggested weren't quite right, but they were at least in the right direction. The way the questions were worded actually prevented me from answering correctly in at least a couple questions that affected their results.

There were a couple other things at this site that were less interesting. At first I thought their God test was good, but it makes a couple huge logical blunders by excluding not just possible views but in some cases popular views among theistic philosophers and then saying such people contradict themselves out of not understanding what the view really says. So that one I don't recommend unless you're an atheist. As far as I know, it doesn't have the same problems for missing the fine nuances of atheistic views. If it does, then at least it's consistently insensitive to significant but fine nuances.



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