Philosophy: October 2005 Archives

Louis Pojman

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Lou Pojman has died. (His name is pronounced Poyman.) He's probably best known in philosophy for putting together many excellent philosophy anthologies for use in undergraduate teaching, especially at the introductory level. His work in applied ethics is markedly eclectic. To many who won't engage with the details of someone's positions, he might seem to be a lover of contradictions. He took such typically liberal views as Sierra Club environmentalism and defending a limited use of euthanasia, but he staunchly defended the justness of capital punishment and the immorality of abortion and affirmative action. He strongly opposed moral relativism of any sort, but he believed God would grant salvation to everyone. He argued that conservatives on the war on terror are correct that we need to seek military solutions to the problems of terrorism, but he argued at the same time that liberals are correct that 9-11 is a call for the U.S. to be more concerned about our own immorality, which Islamicists are right to criticize us for, and we ought to see this as an occasion to pay more heed to problems of poverty, starvation, and so on in the non-Western world, including the Muslim world, for that is surely the occasion of many terrorist cell members' opposition to the Western way of life.

I've heard a few interesting anecdotes about Pojman from someone who went to a school he used to teach at. After discovering that a philosophy black studies department interested in hiring him because of his work on civil rights issues were disappointed told him they couldn't hire him when he turned out to be white, he was so let down that he began to reconsider some of his assumptions on race issues, and I've been told that everything he wrote on that issue took a turn toward the conservative, though I haven't seen any of that work (except titles indicating that he was arguing for the immorality of affirmative action). I'm not sure if it was related to that experience or not, but Completely independently, he wrote a number of papers under the name Lois Hope Walker, including one of the better expositions of the pro-life position on abortion and an interesting pragmatic defense of religion based on the desirability of having a view that explains the meaning of life. I have a book he wrote on applied ethics that refers to Lois Hope walker as "she", which is pretty funny if you know he's talking about himself. Apparently what happened is that a textbook publisher told him one of his anthologies needed more pieces by women, and he wrote a paper defending some feminist position but attached the name Lois Hope Walker to it. He continued to use the name for other pieces. Lois Hope Walker was even invited to a conference of leading women philosophers, and the University of Mississippi Philosophy Department had to inform them that Lois Hope Walker was not a woman.

His final years were spent teaching at West Point, an elite institution (in terms of the academic quality of students) but one that I suppose most philosophers would never desire to teach at. I suspect he considered it more like a dream job.

Update: I've fixed some of the details of the anecdotes above, after consulting with my source.

The latest comments on my post about the English expressions 'more unique' and 'more pregnant' raise an interesting argument against strict constructionism as a method of interpreting the Constitution (as opposed to originalism, which I myself hold; see this post for the distinction). The preamble to the Constitution reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A strict constructionist interprets an expression in an exact and literal, according to what the basic fundamental terms mean. An originalist (of the Scalia variety, anyway) interprets according to what the expression would have meant when it was written. The expression 'more perfect union' illustrates nicely not just the difference between the two but why strict constructionism is unworkable. The original meaning of that expression is pretty much the same meaning it would have in our mouths today, at least with respect to the use of the word 'perfect'. As I say in the post on 'more unique', something can be closer to something and be called "more unique". The expression in that context simply means closer to uniqueness. The same is true of being more perfect. The union will be closer to being perfect according to the preamble. That's how an originalist will interpret this. A strict constructionist, however, has to take the expression according to a literal, wooden application of strict rules about words and their meanings, without the common understanding I just explained of how this expression isn't like most expressions of something being "more X". A strict constructionist has to take the expression 'more perfect union' to be referring to something that is going to be literally more perfect than it already is, which is impossible. If it's perfect, it can't be more perfect. If it's not perfect, it can't be more perfect. There are basic linguistic reasons why it's wrong to correct people on this in ordinary discourse, but a strict constructionist can't avail themselves of these, because they don't involve strictly interpeting constructions.

Those who have followed my posts on translation, particularly Bible translation, can apply this lesson to the so-called literal translation issue as well. I'll leave that as the cliched exercise for the reader.

An Empirical Question?

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[Crossposted at OrangePhilosophy] My fellow OrangePhilosopher Dave Bzdak and I just had a conversation with Don Arentz, one of our colleagues in teaching at Le Moyne College, about what seems to be an empirical question but seems difficult to see how it might be empirical. How big is your vocabulary? It would seem that the question is indeed an empirical matter. Yet how would you go about empirically investigating it? Dave suggested maybe it would be in principle possible but only if you kept track of every single word you ever encountered to get a list of all the words that might be in your vocabulary, and then you investigated to see if they were still in your vocabulary at a given time. Could you do this, though? I'm not worrying about the possibility of coming up with a list of all the words you've ever encountered. Suppose you could do it. That's in principle possible, I would say, even if in practice it would be amazingly difficult to implement. Given that list, could you determine which of those words are in your vocabulary at any given time? It seems that, if you could, then you would know how big your vocabulary at the time was.

So suppose I want to know how many of those words are in my vocabulary right now. I could presumably go down the list to investigate which ones I know, right? I'm not sure it's so easy, though. I could recognize some words that I know. But wouldn't there be others that I know and don't recall the meaning of just by seeing the word in isolated form? There are some whose meaning I would remember if I saw it in the right sort of sentence that would trigger my memory. Of course, there would be others that I don't know but would get from context, in which case I've just added a word to my vocabulary. I shouldn't count those. I wanted to know how many were in it before I started the investigation. What if I'm not in a position to distinguish between the cases when the sentence triggers my memory of what a word means and cases when the context helps me add a new word to my vocabulary? It's not clear to me that I could tell the difference. If that's right, then the exact count of my vocabulary isn't really empirically discoverable after all. That's really weird. Does that mean the size of my vocabulary is not really an empirical question?

This is the the seventeenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

Value differences, our standards for beliefs in general about other matters, and how someone might go about getting as much evidence as possible will play a role in my final evaluation of this sort of argument.

As with some of the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta" (part 1; part 2), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume). Also, William Alston's "Religious Beliefs and Values" in Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001), 36-49 strongly influenced some of my thoughts on how value differences affect the status of religious beliefs and the denial of religious beliefs.

Wired News has a fascinating article on face transplants. It contains an interesting statement. Some doctors have suggested that the novelty of the surgery and the lack of certainty on what risks even are make informed consent impossible. I commented on Jonathan Ichikawa's post about this, pointing this out, wondering what they might have meant by that, and his response struck me as equally unusual. He thinks this is an attempt to make a philosophical argument out of an ick factor. Is that really what's going on? What does this statement about informed consent amount to? I have some thoughts, but I really wanted to see what people think about this without my suggesting anything.

Ron Moore, who runs the redux of Battlestar Galactica that appears on the SciFi Channel, has a blog that he doesn't often update. His latest post was over two months ago, and I've been wanting to comment on it since then but haven't had the chance to put my thoughts together. (I'm glad I waited, because the mid-season finale just over a week ago gave me a couple more elements to talk about.) He often responds to viewer comments in his blog entries, and one comment he answers struck me in how it exemplifies our evaluation of people's characters. I don't think the fact that this is fiction makes a difference. We do this sort of thing in real life too. I think Moore's response is interesting, because he seems to be insisting on a view about moral evaluation that no one really holds. I hope that will be clear once I get the dialectic going. Here is the comment he's responding to:

I'm curious as to what characters we are supposed to like at this point in the second season. Adama, Roslin, the XO, and Apollo have all been disappointments. Adama has been a non-factor due to his injury but is at the root of the martial law problem along with Roslin since they begin working at cross purposes. Roslin has turned into this Jim Jones/David Koresh type figure and added a drug addiction to it which I find off putting. The XO can't make a good decision (other than to go back to Kobol) and has turned into more of an alcoholic than ever. He's let his wife manipulate him for worse as well. Apollo seems like an ingrateful whelp with a chip on his shoulder, going against both the military and his father. Starbuck hasn't been much better, going against Adama and then tooling around Caprica reliving her old life and playing ball games. Which character has shown any redeeming values this season?

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