Philosophy: March 2005 Archives

Chris Panza at Metatome has an interesting post worrying about how ethics instructors teach ethics and whether it just fosters relativism in the simplistic "who's to say?" form. If the results of an ethics class are largely that students can't figure out how to know which ones of the multitude of views they've been presented with are best, then they will often leave thinking the whole subject is hopeless, wondering if there's any truth to the matter. This is a problem with philosophy courses in general, but it's particularly disturbing with ethics. What struck me in the discussion was how much insight the commenters showed about most college students' attitudes.

This is my sixth post in a series on the morality of slavery. I expect this to be the final post, unless someone raises an important consideration that I need to discuss that I haven't looked at.

I'm in the process of responding to an argument that if slavery admits of the degrees I said it did in my first post then so will murder, rape, and genocide. The argument is intended to undermine my view by showing that it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that murder, rape, and genocide happen all the time and aren't really wrong when they do except in the extreme cases that we usually call murder, rape and genocide. I don't think my argument regarding slavery leads to that conclusion. My last two posts deal with murder and rape, and this post moves on to genocide.

This is my fifth post in a series on the morality of slavery. I'm in the process of responding to an argument that if slavery admits of the degrees I said it did in my first post then so will murder, rape, and genocide. The argument is intended to undermine my view by showing that it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that murder, rape, and genocide happen all the time and aren't really wrong when they do except in the extreme cases that we usually call murder, rape and genocide. I don't think my argument regarding slavery leads to that conclusion. My previous post deals with murder, and this post moves on to rape.

In the comments on my abortion and coercion post last month Rachael commented that one particular argument of pro-life feminists just seems way beyond the more reasonable point I was making. I was saying simply that abortion can be coerced. Pro-life feminists go much further in saying that abortion is used by men to control women. Is it abortion that's used to control women? Other factors are used to coerce women to have abortions. That's not abortion being used to coerce women to do anything else. At most it would be the availability of abortion as the means for this coercion to get women not to go through with pregnancies, but that's still not abortion being used as a means to control women. It's the other factors that are being used to influence women's choices with respect to abortion and reproductive freedom. I agree with Rachael on this.

It occurred to me today, however, that there's something else going on with this feminist argument that does lead to an ad hominem argument (of the good kind) against some arguments from the pro-choice side.

Jonathan Ichikawa raises some questions I've been wondering about since this post, but he puts it in a different enough way that I'd like to highlight his argument and then develop it in a different direction. It seems pretty silly to use the kind of rhetoric often found in the religious right over an issue as boring as what a word means in the English language. Linguistic matters really don't have much moral weight, especially given how rapidly natural languages change. That's why a charitable observer will try to find a more charitable interpretation of all the harsh rhetoric about this vast gay conspiracy to redefine the English language. How it could it be that immoral merely to seek for one word to mean something else? It can't just be about language. There must be some real moral issue behind the scenes.

wacky search of the day: ralph nader preterist

ridiculously exaggerated search of the day: 1000 reasons why premarital sex is bad

Both of those were actually yesterday, but that's when I put most of this post together.

Mirror Test

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Psychologists have a test that's generally agreed to show whether a child or an animal has self-consciousness. Someone will put a red dot on their forehead while they're asleep and then see what happens when they look in a mirror. If orangutans, say, can put their hand on their forehead when they see a red dot on the forehead of the image of the orangutan in the mirror, it's supposed to show that the orangutan is thinking, "Hey, that's me, and I've got a red dot on my forehead."

I've been thinking about this, and I'm not so sure. Doesn't it really just show that they expect a correlation between things in mirrors and things that we know mirrors reflect? I wonder about this as I see my kids learning to identify themselves in the mirror. They might easily first get the concept that the things in the mirror match up with the things outside the mirror, long before they start thinking "that's me in the mirror". So why are these tests supposed to tell us that orangutans, gorillas, and chimps have self-consciousness? Maybe they do, but I can't see how this test should show that.

Update: Chris says there are other experiments that do show this (see comment below). If so, my point still stands. You need to have a different experiment to rule out the possibility I presented.

I've been struggling with the idea that we have no shorthand for the view that homosexuality is abnormal and morally aberrant. Most who hate such a view call it homophobia, but there's a clear distinction between those who have this view and those who truly don't like people who are gay, are uncomfortable with gay people being involved in their life in any way, etc. Well, now I've seen a term that sounds to me as if it's just simply descriptive of the view in question. Someone who considers heterosexuality normal and/or normative is heteronormative. I think there are already a few ambiguities in the term, but it's better than anything else I've seen so far. The biggest problem is that the people who coined it seem to rule out the possibility that it could be ok to be heteronormative, as evidences by those of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) who are criticizing Jada Pinkett Smith's comments last week at a Harvard multi-culturalist event, a criticism that itself raises some interesting moral questions.

Immoral Free Speech

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Why is it then whenever these cable news talk shows bring someone on to defend Ward Churchill for his immoral statements, all they say is that he has a right to say what he wants, because free speech is what the university community is about. If he's going to say that anyone who carries out any sort of bureaucratic job is a Nazi, then he's just wrong, both factually and morally. To say that he has a right to say it given the right to free speech misses the point. His detractors aren't saying he has no right to say it, though some say he shouldn't be using taxpayer money to do it. His detractors are saying the claims themselves are immoral. To defend him, you need to defend those claims, and you have to argue that he's morally right to say such things.

You can have a legal right to do something that's immoral. It may even be that you can have a moral right to do something immoral in the sense that I have no right to stop you from doing some immoral things, but they're immoral nonetheless. The most extreme immoral things are a different matter, but no one has a right to stop people from saying hurtful things to other people. It's clearly immoral, but they have a right to do that kind of wrong thing. The same goes for Churchill. He may well have a right to say what he's been saying, but don't say the reason you're defending him is because he has a right to say it. That's irrelevant to whether he's right to say these things.

Introducing Philosophy

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Studi Galileiani has been developing a resource for introducting philosophy. It looks pretty good so far, for a fairly introductory level. I haven't had a chance to read it in detail, but I looked at the metaphysics and philosophy of religion entries, and they look pretty comprehensive. [Hat tip: Mormon Metaphysics]

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