The Sacred

I took this from normblog, who got it from "SC", but it's by the neurologist Oliver Sacks:
Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The non-representational but indescribably vivid emotional quality is such as to make one think of an immaterial or spiritual world. I dislike both of those words, because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly - in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said.

So if music is not directly representative of the world around us, then what's inspiring it? One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings... I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart...

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

This goes into the file "thoughts, feelings, and cognitive processes that make believers and unbelievers similar to each other." I'll just say--I like Oliver Sacks.



Sometimes when I get embroiled in a debate on the internet (which lately is often, due to my new gig at Talking Philosophy) I look up from time to time and think “are these real people or virtual people?” It’s like I’m talking to three dimensional people in a room, but then the vividness dissipates.

If we were all in the same room together, the conversation wouldn’t go the same way. There would be couplings based on factors that are invisible here. That’s one of the charms of the internet. In real life, two people would talk because they’re the same age, they’re attracted to each other, style cues draw them together, and the like. Here we don’t have those distractions.

Here’s my question. When we converse on the internet, should we think of others as real people—as if we actually were sitting in a room. Or is etiquette here different from normal etiquette?

Some people on the internet obviously think it’s different. People will say things on a blog they would never say in real life. For example, this week someone responded to a post of mine by saying:

Good grief, Ms. Kazez. I know you postmodern philosophers hate science, but you might try to investigate the field at least a little bit.

That vacuous, ill-reasoned nonsense such as this post is considered acceptable work in professional, academic philosophy is the #1 reason I’ve quit blogging.

Maybe that’s OK. Arguably the break from social conventions is part of the fun.

And maybe there's some benefit to internet rudeness. Who knows, if this commenter didn't get to eviscerate me on the internet, he might run into the street yelling his head off and stabbing people.

Or you could say no. Anything you say here does affect some real, flesh and blood person out in the world. No actual guts get spilled, but the normal rules of interaction ought to be in effect. Be patient, be respectful, listen…all that good stuff.

I admit to an unprincipled position. In any interaction involving me, let politeness reign. If two other people want to act like savages with each other, I actually find if fairly amusing.

p.s. Mark Vernon has a good post about social networking sites today.


Why Me?

Why are we interested in the things we are interested in? The painting above is my mother's and she's got lots more animal art (and other art) here. Is it nature or nurture or coincidence?!

Insect Minds

One of the most reviled views in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ view that animals are mere machines. The relevant texts are a trifle ambiguous, but he does seem to say that animals have no conscious life whatsoever. Your cat jumps off the couch and approaches his food because of signals in his brain, but without visual images or sensations of hunger. If it would give you pleasure to kick the cat, there’s no reason to hold back, so far as any feelings of pain are concerned.

I’ve always considered this staggeringly absurd. So it came as a surprise when I realized, a while back, that I’ve always been a bit of a Cartesian myself. I’ve always regarded insects and spiders (and especially cockroaches) as little mechanical creatures without conscious awareness.

I started seeing them differently all because of the film Microcosmos, which uses microcameras to capture the world of insects, spiders and other small creatures (you tube clip). In the movie, you can watch a beetle astutely roll a ball of dung up a hill; leaf ants carrying bits of leaves back to the colony; aphids being milked by ants, all super close-up. Continued at Talking Philosophy.

p.s. A late-breaking comment yesterday made me laugh.


The Meaning of Life

Anthony Kronman writes in the Boston Globe (9/16), hand-wringingly:
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country's selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.

The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

It's a shame Mr. Kronman didn't do a google search on college courses about the meaning of life. If he had, he would have discovered mine, aptly named "The Meaning of Life". It is precisely about "what we should care about and why."

I suspect this article may have been written a priori. As in--aren't we a crass and consumerist society? And don't all these kids go to school and learn nothing deep? And mustn't it be true that nobody's teaching anything profound any more?

It sounds right but I think it isn't true. There are philosophy departments everywhere, and lots of courses on ethics, and even courses on the good life, or the meaning of life, or ultimate values. Google "the meaning of life" and "syllabus" and you'll find plenty of "meaning of life" classes, including mine. Sheesh!

Thanks to enigman for the reference.

Secular Humanism

In a couple of weeks I''ll be going to listen to an interfaith panel discuss the genocide in Darfur. The panel will include a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. There's no room at that table for anyone who doesn't believe in God.

That seems just a little unfair. It's interesting to see how different faiths regard that problem. But this isn't just an exercise in comparative religion. The panel is being convened because allegedly these religious leaders have a special ability to guide us on moral matters. And people who don't believe in God have less of an ability?

We shouldn't buy into that. The question is how an un-believer could get a seat at such a table. Well, why not just empanel a sagacious ethicist? But then ethics is not religion. This is an interfaith panel.

An unbeliever can only get a seat at the table if he or she represents a way of thinking that's at least quasi-religious. This would have to be someone who affirms a set of values, who has some conception of how people ought to live and treat each other. (Plus, I suppose, a lot of followers.) I think Paul Kurtz, the "secular humanist" founder of the magazine Free Inquiry, could do the job. (See here for what secular humanists believe.)

Atheism is a big tent, with people of all sorts standing under it. The vocal, antagonistic crowd, like Dawkins and Harris, are smart and energizing. But the "kinder, gentler" secular humanists are rather important as emissaries to the world. They have a chance on that panel, and Dawkins and Harris don't.

The secular humanists could link up with Unitarians, liberal Jewish congregations, liberal Christians and others who share their political and ethical vision. Atheists, by contrast, are just all the people who disbelieve, from Karl Rove (!) to Larry Flynt.

I don't think I can actually call myself a secular humanist--I'd have to be excluded from the panel because at best I can call myself an ethicist. The way I look at ethics isn't the way secular humanists do. But I think those folks should be encouraged. In fact, I'm going to go buy a copy of Paul Kurtz's magazine today. (Ahem...I have an article in the current issue.)


About Faith

It seems to me the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) are too hard on “faith”—believing without evidence. If you believe in God without thinking you have a proof of his existence, or even a reasonably good argument, then your belief is a matter of faith. Should anybody take you to task for that? I think not.

A person who was willing to believe nothing “on faith” would have a rather scanty store of beliefs. He or she would be missing some beliefs I take to be very important.

There's more at Talking Philosophy-- here.

The Out Campaign

So what about Richard Dawkins' "Coming Out" Campaign? Here's a passage from the website:

Atheists are far more numerous than most people realize. COME OUT of the closet! You'll feel liberated, and your example will encourage others to COME OUT too. (Don't "out" anybody else, wait for them to OUT themselves when they are ready to do so).
Basically, I like the idea. Why should atheists spend their lives hiding in the shadows? I've blogged about this before.

But here's my question for Mr. Dawkins: what's with that font? I like the jaunty little kick on the right flank. But the elongated left flank is, well, it's obnoxious. It says "I'm an atheist, wanna make something of it?" There's much debate on blogs about whether Dawkins is too militant, and I'm inclined to be on his side, but that font says "militant."

For my line of atheist T-shirts, I'm choosing something simple. How about:

It's still scarlet (yes, I get it, this is the scarlet letter). But there's no strutting. The simple Arial font doesn't suggest I'm reving up for a fight.

Being an afficionado of fonts, I actually think this is important. But moving right along...I do think it's important not to attach any absolute value to coming out. It's not always a good thing to do it.

Here are some situations in which I wouldn't wear even my own subdued Arial font line of atheist T-shirts--

1. I am campaigning door-to-door for a presidential candidate in 2008. Why risk alienating my comrades or the people I am trying to convince? (We really do need someone new in 2008, and it's not Mitt Romney.)

2. I am working on an interfaith project aimed at stopping the genocide in Darfur. The "A" will invite questions, create the opposite of solidarity, distract from the common ground I share with the other participants. (Get real! Lives are at stake!)

3. I am joining my husband's family to celebrate Christmas. They are a remarkably heathenish lot, except for one person.

4. I am giving a talk on a philosophical topic that has nothing to do with religion. To get the audience on board with my train of thought, I want them to focus on thoughts and experiences we all have in common.

In each of the situations there would be some value in broadcasting atheism, but there's something of greater value that's at stake. I'd keep my eye on that other something.

Come to think of it, I'd be dubious of a Jew who went around with a "J" t-shirt, or a Hindu who went around with an "H" t-shirt. Do we really all want to go around wearing divisive labels on our clothing?

Then again, you can belong to just about any religion and state that in public, as Dawkins points out. You're a Jain, or a Sikh, or a Mormon, or a Muslim? How extremely interesting! In a country like the U.S., most people will respond with utmost respect, and even curiosity. Say you're an atheist and most likely folks will look at you in horror. (It's true...it really is.) The "A" has a unique justification in an environment of disrespect.

I really do "get" the coming out campaign. I do periodically speak about atheism on this site, even at the risk of offending people who might visit because they're interested in some of the other issues I often write about (like animals).

I just think if I had the T-shirt (my line, not Dawkins') it might stay in my drawer most of the time.


Talent Show Poll

Thank you to all 75 voters for taking the Talent Show poll, over there in the right column!

To stay or not to stay, that is the question
Here’s the situation—you’re at your child’s talent show and she’s finished performing. Some folks are leaving after their own kid’s turn, and you consider doing the same.

I once sat through a show with broken air conditioning in the middle of a Dallas summer. It was sweltering and there was very little talent on display, but I couldn’t possibly go. As people left in droves, leaving the remaining performers with very few people to clap for them, I wondered about the thoughts of those who stay and those who leave.

What intrigues me is that when I look at my reasons for staying, they seem so fragmented. I can’t get the reason to be one simple reason. Misery loves company, so I’m glad to see that 7, the combination answer, is the one in the lead (34%).

Reciprocity (2) is a big factor for me. Maybe the children’s feelings would come into it (3) if a lot of other people were leaving too. The specter of every parent leaving after his kid’s performance draws me to the rather Kantian (4). How could a talent show really work if everyone did that? Golden-rule-ish (5) has entered my mind in these situations. And though I would never spontaneously think about it in Utilitarian terms (6), I can’t say that makes no sense.

Instead of just admitting ethical stupidity—why can’t I settle on one answer?--I’m going to try to draw deep conclusions here. I admit this has a little of the flavor of making lemonade out of lemons, so caveat emptor.

All the other answers
But first, about those who didn’t pick 7. I had an opportunity for an extensive exit interview with just one person, namely my husband. It went something like this: “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you choose 7?”

He said it was wimpy, and in polls like this you’re really supposed to force yourself to choose one answer. (He chose 2--reciprocity) I wonder how many people who didn’t choose 7 –40% chose either 3 (kindness) or 4 (Kant)--were thinking along those lines.

As for the 1’s, who would stay if they felt like it, leave if they felt like it, don’t worry, you’ve got the rest of your life to repent. Just kidding—I can see a case for living life with a little more spontaneity. “Cheerful moral anarchy” is a nice phrase from Jonathan Glover’s book Choosing Children. It has its attractions.

We Sevens
Alright, now for the deep conclusions. You might say there’s a single idea underlying all of 2-6, which is to take other people seriously—as having needs, feelings, rights. But there do seem to be significantly different ways of expounding on that idea. Possibly I’m just lacking moral smarts, or confused, or need to hear another 50 arguments and counterarguments, but my gut feeling is that all of these strains of moral thought are cogent. Morality is irreducibly complex, multi-faceted, plural—pick your own pretty word.

Possibly we 7’s are just undisciplined. We think about our obligations in multiple ways. In this case our different approaches converge. In other cases, our pluralism is going to pull us in different directions. We’re not going to be sure which way to go, because the Kantian in us (expressed by 4) says X and the Utilitarian (6) says Y. Reciprocity (2) says this, and kindness (3) says that.

It’s nice there’s actually a view that endorses this kind of messiness. It’s W. D. Ross’s moral intuitionism. He says there are many prima facie duties that have to be recognized and in specific situations they can converge (like the talent show situation) but they will often pull in opposite directions. Then we have to “just” figure out which is predominant. That, of course, is the problem, and the reason why there’s an irresistible impulse to keep looking for the holy grail, the one true moral theory.


Talking about Death

Death is a tricky subject. I talk about talking about it in the current issue of Free Inquiry.
When my children were very young, I stayed away from discussing the subject of death with them. Nothing ever happened to make the topic inevitable: no pet died, no grandparent passed away, no president was shot. The word "dead" was used for speaking about nothing more alarming than dead batteries and dead leaves....
The rest is here.

I look forward to reading this issue, which contains about a dozen articles about dying. Plus articles by Peter Singer, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.


The Devil Came on Horseback

For the longest time I couldn't get a fix on what the problem in Darfur was all about. I saw the full-page Save Darfur ads in the New York Times. Had some dim sense of mass atrocities taking place. I am embarrassed to say I was one of the millions who weren't paying attention.

What woke me up was the great novel What is the What? by Dave Eggers. It's the story of a survivor of the 20 year civil war in southern Sudan, but it paints a vivid picture of the Janjaweed, the militias that are now wreaking the same murderous havoc in western Sudan, Darfur. This is a "read it and cry" kind of a book, but extremely good.

Half way through it I decided it was time to know about what's happening now, in Darfur. Luck had it that my synagogue had an opening for someone to run a Darfur project it has sponsored since 2005. You can find out about it here. Since then I've been working hard at understanding the whole thing.

The new documentary The Devil Came on Horseback has added immensely to my understanding. If you have any kind of trust in human nature, which I do tend to have, it's hard to get a grip on extreme atrocities. In fact, the book Not on Our Watch (Cheadle and Prendergast) identifies the feeling that people don't do stuff like that! as one reason why people turn the other way. You have to believe terrible things really are going on before you'll do anything to prevent them. The Devil Came on Horseback will make you a believer.

This is the kind of movie people tend to feel they should see, but gee...won't it be just too depressing? Doesn't the kitchen floor really need a good wash? Yesterday I trudged off to the movie theater, leaving behind a husband and two children who were watching the old Beatles movie Help! I felt more duty-bound than enthusiastic.

But it turned out I was wrong. This is a disturbing movie, but also energizing and uplifting. The directors made a brilliant choice when they decided to focus on the personal story of Brian Steidle, the former marine captain who took the disturbing still pictures that are the core of the film. He starts off as a regular military careerist and what he sees in Darfur transforms him into a passionate and committed activist. It is a moving and literally wonderful story.

One addendum--while googling for an image to go with this post, I came upon an interesting website: We are Mothers Fighting for Others. Parents can focus on their own little marevelous wonders to the exclusion of everything else. (I know about that...from personal experience.) It's cool these folks have a different agenda.


Morality and Manners

My talent show poll has received a nice boost thanks to Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels. There are some interesting comments here. A recurring point (Carolyn Ann said it early on) is that the dilemma seems to be about manners, not morality, etiquette not ethics. (Wow, two ways to alliterate!)

But doesn't the line between the two actually seem very thin? Above is a manners poster for elementary schools, but are the lessons just about manners?

"Share with others"--that sounds like morality to me. "Take turns"--a matter of basic justice! Think of other things you regard as questions of "mere" manners. "Be punctual"--isn't that an issue of respect?

I suppose there are some things that really are mere questions of manners. "Don't eat with your hands." We have a convention about that. It doesn't really seem morality-based because violating it has no other impact than causing trivial offense.

In the talent show situation, much more is at stake than trivial offense. If parents leave after their children perform, the first performer will have a big audience and the last performer a small audience. There are issues of fairness involved, as well as the possibility of hurt feelings. If leaving or staying is a question of manners, it's not a question of "mere manners."

Maybe we tend to think of moral issues as big, dramatic issues, but that's not always true. I actually think it's wise to think carefully about moral issues in everyday life. They have their own importance, and thinking about them helps prepare for the day when something "big" comes along.

Also, kids learn from what their parents do, so there's that extra reason for parents to take the issue seriously, as Aviva G pointed out (in the comments, a while back).

The poll closes in a few days and then I'll explain why the talent show situation interests me and whether my hypothesis has been confirmed by the results.



The Wild, Wild, West

On Wednesday my kids' school was put on "lock down," with the kids having to hide under their desks. A gunman was loose in the neighborhood. That night at my synagogue, a congregant carrying a concealed weapon accidentally dropped it and shot his daughter in the foot.

At a party recently a guy was arguing what we Americans really need is more guns. Won't it be fun when we all go around wearing holsters all the time? I certainly plan on wearing mine with a big cowboy hat.

It bothers me to have to share the planet with crazy people.

"I should but I'm not going to"

There’s a way of thinking about morality that is common and, I think, unhelpful. On this interpretation, if you should do something, then “end of story.” You really can’t coherently say “I should but I’m not going to” unless you’re willing to wail and self-flagellate. This way of thinking makes people very resistant to recognizing putative obligations. The feeling is that, once you admit you should do something, you’ve put yourself in a trap.

The rest is at Talking Philosophy today.


Are Animals Stuck in the Present?

[Please take the talent show poll! 5 days left!]
How are human beings different from all other animals? We've been asking that for a couple thousand years, and there are lots of "theories." They tend to be self-congratulatory, which I suppose is unsurprising. If dogs were asking how they're different from all other animals, they'd be going on and on about their supreme and supremely important sense of smell.

One of the theories that seems relatively humble, and has appeal even to a pro-animal ethicist like Peter Singer, is that animals are stuck in the present, while we "time travel" to the past and the future. The way we think about the future is selected by Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) as the distinctive human capacity.

It seems initially rather plausible. Dogs don't write history books or plan next summer's vacation. And this idea seems harmless and a lot less self-congratulatory than time-honored assertions like "we're rational and they're not."

A moment's thought, though, ought to slow us down. The animals we come in closest contact with are the dogs and cats who wander around our houses, waiting for their next meal. Animals in the wild, who actually have to fend for themselves, busy themselves with their future survival.

Think beaver lodges (like the photo), birds nests, migration, cached acorns or seeds. Animals are oriented to the future in many ways.

Now I know what 99.9% of people are going to say, at this point. It's just instinctive. That may be largely so, but what does that show? It doesn't show the behaviors are merely mechanical or unconscious. A beaver building a lodge is genuinely working on the coming winter's housing.

But, but, but...the beaver is surely not pondering next winter. He's not hoping it will be mild, or looking forward to skating. A beaver's not in the state of mind we'd be in if we were building a cabin for next winter.

But isn't it just flagrant anthropocentrism to suppose the only way to be oriented to the future is to be oriented by way of hopes, thoughts, and the like?

If a beaver is killed before next winter arrives, and never gets to finish and use his lodge, I think we can truthfully say he didn't get to compete his own project. It's not totally different when a person is working on a project and never completes it because of a fatal accident.

This has some importance from the point of view of ethics. I think we naturally feel that an animal's death is a tragedy--maybe just a small one, but still a tragedy. We feel bad if we hit even a squirrel in the road. But we're easily talked out of that reaction. It's inconvenient to feel bad about animal deaths because it makes it so much harder to eat a ham sandwich, set a mouse trap, or wear leather shoes.

The idea that animals live in the present gives us a great excuse. It doesn't matter if the squirrel is dead, because he had no notion of the future anyway! Possibly so--he had no notion. It doesn't mean he wasn't preparing for it. He may have been squirreling away acorns for months, and because of his death, he'll never enjoy them.

Call it a mini-tragedy, if you want, but don't call it nothing!


And God Saw That It Was Good

The Jewish New Year starts at sundown today. According to rabbinic tradition, this is the day that God finished creating the world. However you interpret Rosh Hashanah, there's something to be glad about on this day. I'm simply glad there is a world!

There could be no better day to say something about my favorite passage from the bible. That happens to be the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Here's some of it:
20And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

21And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

22And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

23And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

24And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

25And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Some of my non-believing brethren, like Richard Dawkins, tend to focus on the bits of the bible that would steer us in the wrong direction, morally speaking. See The God Delusion for lots of great examples. But there are passages that are morally inspiring, and this is one of them.

What I love so much is the phrase "and God saw that it was good." Why should we care if tigers go extinct? If the polar ice caps melt, and the polar bears disappear? If lush rainforests, teeming with diverse plant and animal life, are being destroyed?

You'll give yourself a very bad headache if you try to give a 100% lucid explanation why it matters whether or not there are polar bears. The poetry of Genesis is much more vivid and compelling. It matters because they are good. Even atheists can appreciate the way Genesis evokes a deep sense that the world we live in should be appreciated and conserved.

Now of course, poetry can't really tell us exactly how to behave. Genesis says "and God saw that it was good" after each part of the world is created. The earth and the waters, the sun and the moon, the plants, the birds, the fish, the land animals, and finally human beings, are all good. We don't treat all of these things in the same way. We use the earth for fuel. We use plants for food. What kind of exploitation is suitable for each class of things?

The bible is even inspiring on this issue. You probably remember the dominion business:
28And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Students in my animal rights class are always surprised when I read the very next sentences:

29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

30And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

The goodness of animal life is of a special sort. In the beginning, our instructions are not to turn each other into food! You have to read Genesis all the way up to chapter 9 to see why God ultimately allows meat eating...and you'll find that the permission finally granted is highly ambivalent.

Genesis 1 also conveys the notion that human beings are special--they alone were created "in the image of God." Not literally true, in my view, but is there some germ of truth here as well? I think so. Humans are uniquely endowed with certain special capacities, however much it is true that animals have their own marvelous capacities.

In what way do plants and mountains and water and ice caps matter? All hard questions, and obviously the answers are not in the bible. But the message that they do matter is something not to be dismissed lightly or ignored.

To my own mind, the bible is a piece of literature, like those other ancient masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey. But like Homer, it's not just entertaining, and not just a repository of bad moral thinking, but of wisdom as well. Exquisite poetry and story-telling that sometimes points us in the right direction.


Babies in Baghdad

I've got a post today at Talking Philosophy. It starts:

An article in the paper caught my attention recently. It said the infant mortality rate in Baghdad was way, way up. Obstetricians are leaving Iraq and there’s nobody around to attend births. That was no huge surprise but what did seem amazing was the background fact—people in Baghdad are still having babies!

It’s just as surprising to notice the babies in pictures of Darfur refugees. People who live in extreme poverty, who have next to nothing to offer their children, still have babies (and a lot of them).

I’m not sitting around “tsk-tsk”ing about other people’s procreational decisions. What draws me to this topic is how puzzling it is whether it is or isn’t wrong to have a baby in a bad situation.

The rest is here.


Making Choices

I often read books because I want to escape to another place or time. If I want to live in Iceland for awhile, I read Halldor Laxness. If medieval Norway, then Sigrid Undset. These authors are amazing at transporting you and giving you a sense of what it's like living somewhere else. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is amazingly skilled too, but the place I'm getting transported by reading her book Random Family is a place I really don't want to go.

Random Family is an extremely detailed true story of ten years in the lives of an extended family living in the Bronx. They sell drugs, take drugs, commit crimes, get abused and neglected by mothers and abandoned by fathers; they have lots and lots of babies and often neglect or abuse them; they spend time in prison, visit friends in prison.

One thing that's strangely missing from their lives is decision-making. They take and deal drugs without really thinking about it and choosing to. They glide into being criminals or accomplices to crimes without seeming to give it any thought. Most strikingly, they have baby after baby.

Coco, who's the book's emotional center, has four children by the age of 20, by three different men. The fourth is born prematurely and suffers many medical problems. (I'm not done yet, but I think there's going to be a fifth.) Jessica has three kids before heading for prison in her early 20s, and then two more while there.

I think it's an interesting question whether it's ethical to bring babies into bad situations. It's a difficult question. But before a person can try to make ethical choices, she has to see herself as making choices. Coco and her relatives don't seem to be able to get to square one.

You have a choice. Such a simple and important thought, and yet not actually so elementary!


So far my talent show poll isn't confirming my hypothesis, but there's still hope. It will be up for another eight days. Come on, it'll only take a minute! See sidebar =>


My Blog Tour

[Please take the talent show poll!]

Around the time my book was published, I found myself often saying things like "I wonder when Blackwell's going to arrange my European book tour?" This was a joke, of course. People who write philosophy books don't get to fly around to glamorous destinations.

(I'm hitting myself for not being the author of that new title Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar. Why didn't I think of that? I bet those guys are going on a European book tour!)

The New York Times had a story last weekend that made me feel good. It turns out hardly anybody gets to go on a book tour these days, but authors are being sent on "blog tours." Ahem. It's not exactly Paris. But ok...it's something.

To finally get to the point--I'm profiled today on Normblog. Blog tour? Not exactly, but it was fun.


The Good Life for Animals

[Please take the talent show poll!]

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching is that I so often come out of a class with something new to think about. A few nights ago I had my students ponder the fact that Aristotle says animals can’t be happy. Why does he say it? Was he just extremely prejudiced against animals?

“Happiness” translates the Greek word “eudaimonia,” but not very well. Eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of all human activity, what we live for. And that, essentially, is “the active life of reason” (says Aristotle). Dogs don’t live “the active life of reason,” so they don’t have eudaimonia, so (in translation) they can’t be happy. That doesn’t sound so strange.

But then, if they can’t be happy, in Aristotle’s high-flown sense, can’t they at least enjoy their lives? Or perhaps just flourish in their own particular way? It seems as if, just as it’s an excellent question what makes a person’s life go well or badly, there’s also a question what makes an animal’s life go well or badly. And Aristotle never directly or thoroughly addresses it (as far as I know).

It’s natural to suspect that he doesn’t because the subject of animals was beneath him. The problem with that interpretation is that he actually wrote lots and lots about animals. In fact, his works on animal life are more voluminous than his more famous works on metaphysics, logic, and ethics.

A student in my class made the very useful observation that Aristotle kicks off the whole subject of the human good with the idea that the good is our end or aim. Clarifying what it is is worthwhile, he says, because it can make us better “archers,” giving us a target to aim for.

Could this be the key to Aristotle’s failure to take up the topic of animal wellbeing? Animals don’t consciously aim for anything. Maybe that’s the heart of the matter, but then I think Aristotle has to be charged with a mistake. The mistake is in thinking that individuals can only have lives that go well or badly if they are “smart” enough to have conscious aims. It’s not true! (Think of someone who has a severe intellectual disability, for example.)

It’s really important to have a concept of what makes an animal’s life go well, because we humans have massive control over animal lives. Should you keep your cat inside or let him run wild (and risk an early death)? Is it wrong to declaw him? Is it wrong to keep birds in cages and dogs in crates? Are we harming veal calves, laying hens, and pregnant sows by giving them no space to move?

The good of animals is something that animals don’t (or possibly don't) consciously aim for themselves, but it’s something we could aim for, if we just had a clear idea what it is. It sounds mildly silly, but we need a good account of “the good life” for animals.


Ethics Poll: The Talent Show

Perhaps you have had this experience. If not, please try to imagine. You go to a talent show--skating show, theater competition, dance thing, whatever--to see your child perform. At the beginning there's a huge audience. But then, as the kids perform, the audience gets smaller and smaller. Some parents are leaving after their own child performs.

At one event I attended, the air conditioning wasn't working well. This was in the middle of a very hot summer in Dallas. People were leaving in droves, so that the kids in the last act had to perform to a handful of adults. This was an extreme case, but at any talent show, some people stay to the end and some leave as soon as their own delightful child is done. The audience at the end is always smaller than it was at the beginning.

Do you have to stay after your kid performs? If so, why? The poll is below. You can take it over there in the sidebar to the right.

Is it OK for you to leave right after your child performs at a talent show? How would you think about the issue? (Assume there are no extra factors, like another child who needs to be picked up or a sudden migraine, etc.)
  1. I would stay if I felt like it, leave if I felt like it.
  2. I would think I owed it to the parents who watched my child perform to stay and watch their child perform.
  3. I would not want to hurt the feelings of the later children, so I would stay.
  4. I would contemplate what it would be like if everyone left after their own child's performance, and stay.
  5. I would ask myself how I would want people to treat me if I happened to have a child late in the show.
  6. I would stay or go depending on which would maximize total happiness of all concerned.
  7. I would have a combination of [two or more of] the thoughts above. [Clarification!]
  8. Other.
I've tried to list all the thoughts a person realistically might have, but do tell me if you think I've left something out.

Naturally, I do have a hypothesis about what the poll will reveal, and what that "means." But let's see what happens. Stay tuned!

more here


Mother Teresa's Spin Doctors

I just read the article about Mother Teresa in this week’s issue of Time and can’t stop shaking my head. It turns out she wrote letters to confessors over the years admitting to relentless doubt. The author, David Van Biema, asks “What does her experience teach us about the value of doubt?”

Usually doubt is a precursor to a change of heart. You begin to have doubts about whether X is really true, look into it some more, and possibly change your mind. But religious doubt? That’s a special case (or is it?).

As a very young woman Teresa’s religious experiences were particularly vivid. To my ear, she describes them in practically erotic terms. Here she is recounting a dialogue with Jesus:

Jesus: Wilt thou refuse to do this for me?...You have become my Spouse for my love—you have come to India for Me.

Teresa: Jesus, my own Jesus—I am only Thine—I am so stupid—I do not know what to say but do with me whatever You wish—as You wish—as long as you wish.

But very soon, and for the next 50 years, the love affair seems to dry up.

I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One.—Alone…Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thought that crowd in my heart --& make me suffer untold agony.

In her wonderful autobiography The Spiral Staircase Karen Armstrong describes losing her religion, but for her there’s a straightforward solution: she leaves the convent and goes on to find another calling. But Teresa suffers her crisis of faith just as she’s starting the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. She’s completely committed to the charity. There’s no possibility of a “course correction.”

She finally finds a confessor, Joseph Neuner, who helps her interpret her doubt. According to Van Biema, “the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus’ Life that she was interested in sharing.” Teresa writes, “I want to … drink ONLY from His chalice of pain.” Neuner makes clever use of her predilection.

Her doubt, he tells her, allows her to share in Christ’s suffering. Later on Neuner writes,

It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.

This really helps, and she later writes, “I have come to love the darkness.” Aha, doubt is good, but must not do the usual work of doubt.

If Neuner’s spin had been effective, shouldn’t the doubts have disappeared? “The doubts are a gift from God,” she might have thought, “so he does exist, and he is involved in my life.” But no. They continue.

Brian Kolodiejchuk, the editor who collected Mother Teresa’s letters and writings into a new volume (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), says the book will “reveal her as holier than anyone knew.” How holy? She was in a state of purity “closer to that of Jesus and Mary, who suffered for human salvation despite being without sin.”

You’d think Mother Teresa’s doubts would be just a bit of a problem for the faithful. But don’t worry, says Kolodiejchuk, her doubt is actually an inspiration! (Van Biema, the not very dispassionate Time reporter, seems to agree.)

I can see how the faithful might regard doubt as a part of their religious lives that's to be tolerated. You don’t divorce your husband at the very first doubt that he’s the world’s most perfect man. You don’t give up important beliefs after just a doubt or two.

But it does seem like constant, life long doubts are another thing, and warding them off with convoluted explanations amounts to short-circuiting your own mental machinery. To go even further and regard life-long doubt as tantamount to godliness is nothing short of incredible!

If I am ever in any kind of big trouble, I will look for spin doctors just like this.