New Yorker Portrait of Derek Parfit

Beg, borrow, or steal, but if you find ethics and ethicists interesting, you must, simply must, read the portrait of Derek Parfit in the Sept. 5 New Yorker (subscribers only). This is a fantastically, deliciously strange article.  I've got to think the robotic writing style ("He did this. He did that. He did the other."), the choppiness, the absence of "place" and interaction (did Larissa MacFarquhar interview Parfit?  Where?  When?) are all deliberate.  The prose evokes the man ... or at least I think that's the idea.  Great stuff! 

p.s. Reading this a few days later, I should add--I have no idea if this portrait fits the man. I only meant to say it's fascinating, and that the writing style is odd, and that the oddness may have been a deliberate element of the portraiture.


Heavy Liphting

A couple of days ago my friend "Aeolus" suggested that, what with all the elevator scenarios around here (see "elevator ethics" under "topics"), I ought to ... well, I'll just quote him--
Jean: For your next book, I suggest HEAVY LIFTING: The Ethics of Elevator Encounters. (Alternative subtitle: The Ethics of Small Spaces.) Seriously. It could be a fairly short book, written to be accessible to the intelligent person-on-the-street -- you have a knack for that. ("Fun and provocative!" -- New York Review of Books.) It would introduce the new philosophical field of "liftology" (less of a mouthful than "elevatorology"). By its nature, liftology is wider in scope than trolleyology, so there would be no shortage of ethical problems to write about. 
It's very nice of him to show this sort of confidence in me, and that NYRB review sounds highly attractive, so I put it to my panel of experts--i.e., my 14 year olds.  Ever supportive to me in all my endeavors, my daughter said it needed to be Heavy Liphting, and my son kindly made this book jacket--
click to enlarge

I've also been offered a lovely epigraph by Russell Blackford.  ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω  --- Heraclitus  ("The way up is the way down.")   And publicity is proceeding nicely.  It turns out there's a video of the elevator-gate program I was part of last week at the Fellowship of Free Thought (here in Dallas) and it's at The Friendly Atheist (my bit is at 60 minutes).

All I need now is a ghostwriter and I will be rich!

p.s. Don't you think my son should have put the Penguin logo on the bookjacket?  Sheesh.


Elevator Story, Trois

Seriously.  This is from Philip Galanes' advice column in today's New York Times--

I am a dark-skinned Mexican woman with a baby who has the lighter skin of her American dad. We live in an apartment building on the Upper East Side. Often, I find myself on the elevator with residents whose comments make clear that they assume I am the nanny or a maid on my way to work. Granted, I’m not in my best clothes, but I find this assumption racist. Should I say something to convey my irritation or just ignore them? --Martha in Manhattan

I don't think it's racist of the other residents to think Martha is probably the nanny.  Perhaps  9 times out 10, a dark skinned woman carrying a light-skinned baby really is the nanny, and they know that.  What's racist is the other residents having the level of certainty that would make them open up their mouths and talk to Martha as if she were the nanny.  It's racist to think a dark-skinned woman must be the nanny of the lighter-skinned baby she's with.  Surely the residents wouldn't overtly treat her as the nanny just based on a hunch--they think must be.


James Wood on New Atheism

From now on I'll just say "what James Wood says"  Brilliant, and based on his recommendation, now I have a novel to read next--Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen.

The Confession of Joel Marks

Joel Marks is a recovering moralist, as he confessed a couple of days ago at The Stone. What I find especially notable about his column is the way it's reminiscent of other confessions--especially Tolstoy's (excerpts here). Only Marks's journey is in the other direction--from belief to disbelief, and what's at issue is objective morality. Here's a very Tolstoyan passage:
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.

The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.

And what is more, I had known this. At some level of my being there had been the awareness, but I had brushed it aside. I had therefore lived in a semi-conscious state of self-delusion – what Sartre might have called bad faith. But in my case this was also a pun, for my bad faith was precisely the belief that I lacked faith in a divinity.

In the three years since my anti-epiphany I have attempted to assess these surprising revelations and their implications for my life and work.
Now have a look at Tolstoy's Confession.  Very similar.

Why am I pointing this out?  Because I think the genre is compelling but deceptive.  The convert presents himself (or herself) as traveling from darkness into light, and the sheer drama makes us think--yes, yes, yes, that's the light!  The story line of revelation is no substitute for good arguments.


Another tack. I argued here a while back that it's a very bad idea for atheism to conjoin itself with any particular metaethical theory, but particularly with the so-called error theory about morality.  Marks has become an error theorist.  All moral claims, on his view, are in error.
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window. Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories.
Certainly I am not the first to have had thoughts like these, and today the philosopher Richard Garner in particular is a soul mate. Nor has there been a shortage of alternative conceptions of morality to the one I held. But the personal experiment of excluding all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling and actions has proved so workable and attractive, I am convinced that anyone who gives it a fair shot would likely find it to his liking.

Actually, no, I would not find it to my liking--as I said here.  I think there's a great deal we wish to say in ordinary and extraordinary situations that can't be said at all, or at least can't be said as well, without moral vocabulary.

For example, when I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam this summer, there were many things that needed to be said and thought.  I thought it was wrong that this Jewish girl had to hide for years, just because she was Jewish, and that someone betrayed the family, and that she then died an unimaginably miserable death in a concentration camp.  Marks and Garner want me to say "it wasn't wrong, and it wasn't not wrong and it wasn't right and it wasn't not right...." All of these moral concepts are out the door, like the category of the taboo (credit for analogy:  Richard Joyce) is a relic of past thinking.

This should become the conjoined twin of atheism?


Never fear, Marks suggests, we can still oppose and support the things we wish to oppose and support--
For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all. Does this lessen my ability to bring others around to sharing my desires, and hence diminish the prospects of ending animal agriculture? On the contrary, I find myself in a far better position than before to change minds – and, what is more important, hearts. For to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.
So nothing has changed, and everything has changed. For while my desires are the same, my manner of trying to implement them has altered radically. I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.
What does "it's wrong" do that "I don't like it and want it to stop" doesn't do?  It says that the state of affairs itself makes my dislike correct and appropriate.  For example, the awful suffering of young Anne Frank, and her being tormented just for being Jewish, is such as to make my dislike the only appropriate reaction.  If it were all a question of liking and not liking, I'm afraid we'd have to live with the strange diversity of human likes and dislikes.  Anne Frank's betrayer liked betraying her and her family. I think people are more likely to stop killing people for being Jewish, stop tormenting animals for profit, if they do have the notion of their likes and dislikes being either grounded in reality or ungrounded.

Analogy--suppose I am taking a math class, and the teacher tells us at the beginning of the semester that there are no mathematical truths. There are just answers to problems that she likes very much, and she's eager to have her students share her likes and dislikes.  She then tries to inculcate these preferences.  Will the students do as well, now that they lack the concept that math problems have right answers?  My guess is no--that particular meta-mathematics will alter performance.

The X-phi crowd will have to test this out, but I would hypothesize that people who accept the moral error theory will reach different and worse conclusions about moral questions.  And note--to test that hypothesis, we don't get to take people who have been completely imbued with conventional morality, and see if changing their metaethics makes a difference. We're going to have to round up some very young children and see what happens after we tell them that moral matters have to do with likes and dislikes, not with what's really right and wrong.  I suspect that metaethical theories have real world impact.


Ah, but moral realism must be rejected, because it involves "deriving ought from is", and that's a terrible mistake.  This is where things get interesting and difficult. It's unfortunate to see this Humean adage (you can't derive "ought" from "is") turned into a one sentence resolution of the entire philosophical debate about the nature of morality.  Must run and do Saturday morning chores, but here's food for thought--statements about consciousness cannot be derived from statements about brain states.  It takes quite a bit of philosophy of mind to see this, but they can't. That's no reason to think consciousness isn't real.  In fact, we know (first hand) that it is real. Moral facts could be genuine, even if not derivable from any other facts.


Philosophy Phrases That Sound Existentially Exciting but Aren't

How's that for a file folder?  I have just two items to put in it today.

"To be is to be perceived."  Surely this is about today's "look at me" way of life. If you just did something--planted a garden, hiked up a mountain, read a novel--and didn't tell the world on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or by texting someone (etc) it didn't really happen, wasn't really worth doing.  That's what we're coming to ... fret, fret, kids today!  Except sorry, no, it doesn't mean that at all.  This of course is Bishop Berkeley's famous way of stating the view that a thing like a table is really a bundle of perceptions.

"I think, therefore I am."  No, I don't have to be perceived!  I can tend that garden, read that novel, hike up that mountain on my own. I did it, it mattered, who cares if anyone knows about it!  Just being here in this room thinking makes me who I am--so there!  But no, sadly enough, this isn't the Solitary Person's reply to "to be is to be perceived," it's just (of course) Descartes' reply to skepticism.  He's just saying I can't doubt that I exist, not saying anything at all about "life and all that."

If you have one to contribute, be my guest.


Google Syllabus

There's already Google Books and Google Mail, and Google Everything Else.  Note to the Google Guys: you ought to have Google Syllabus.  This would be great for people trying to teach themselves things, and also for faculty fine-tuning syllabi for new courses.  You can hunt and peck for syllabi online, but it isn't easy to find what you're looking for, and a central depository would encourage sharing.  OK...where's this going?  Without further ado, here's the syllabus for my new course, Topics in Moral Philosophy: Procreation and Parenthood. 


Elevator Story, Deux

I'm not kidding!  This is a great example of how unconscious assumptions can make women invisible--

I'm at a philosophy conference outside of the US. I think there may be even fewer women in philosophy in this country and its neighbors than in mine. The conference hotel is small, and philosophers don't look quite like most of the other guests. There are no nametags, and the conference just started today.
I got on the elevator this morning, on the 6th floor, to go down to breakfast at the designated time. On the 5th floor a young man got on, sporting a ponytail and sport coat (i.e., our uniform). On the 4th floor, a white-haired man got on. The young man turned to the older man before the doors were even closed and asked him "Are you a philosopher? Are you here for the conference?" (the lingua franca is English) and introduced himself.
I may as well have well been wallpaper. Female, and visibly pregnant to boot. No chance of my having deep thoughts or being someone worth knowing. Or--maybe I'm just overly sensitive, and it was the white hair that made the young man snap to. Someone 10 or 15 years older than me might be someone worth schmoozing with. Then again, I don't often see my white-haired female colleagues getting that treatment, either.
Evelyn Brister is the writer, here.


Today's Talk

Let's not have another conversation about all "that", but this may interest commenters on my "Feminism and Atheism" post.

Today I gave a talk at the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, which meets one Sunday morning every month in a church-like manner, complete with potlock lunch, activities for kids, social justice initiatives, activism, and music.  This month's meeting theme was the now famous elevator-gate brouhaha.  My SMU philosophy department colleague Justin Fisher gave an opening presentation that included a clip from Rebecca Watson's YouTube video about elevator guy, and Richard Dawkins' notorious reaction at Pharyngula.  His take on it: privilege can blind men to the experiences of women, whites to the experiences of blacks, and so on.  A heavily white, male community needs to be as sensitive as possible to these issues, if it wants to become more diverse.  Two other speakers gave presentations designed to increase sensitivity.  A band called The Faithless Companions provided the perfect musical interludes, including a very funny song called 'Taylor, Latte Boy."  Next up, on screen,  this hilarious rebuttal song and "Hot Girl in the Comic Shop"--with a lot of relevance to the issues at hand. So--lots of good humor.

My talk was intended to get away from DawkinsandWatsonology and explore the question why there's a gender imbalance at atheist meetings--since that debate, starting at the Global Atheist Convention in Dublin, was the backdrop for the whole kerfuffle.  But what with a verdict about Dawkins being presupposed--privilege blinded him--I kind of had to say a little about that.  Who would want to disagree with the general point that people ought to be more aware of privilege and unprivilege, and how these things color our perceptions?  Not me.  But I'm not entirely happy with dismissing Dawkins as just blinded, rather than trying to understand what led up to his assessment of Watson.  I think the gender debate that started in Dublin was probably relevant.

Anyhow ... the main goal of my presentation was to talk about the gender imbalance question.  The powerpoint I used is below, and I think from the slides you can get a reasonably good idea what I said. You'll want to pause the slides now and again, because they move pretty fast. I tried adding narration, but it sounded so terrible I had to abandon ship. Instead:  a little strumming from John Fahey. Certain readers of this blog will see that I found their input and links they provided very useful. Thank you!

There's a survey at the end of the presentation, and here are the results:

All (45)--15 say zero bad, 27 say slightly bad, 3 say more than slightly bad
Women only (19)--4 say zero bad, 12 say slightly bad, 3 say more than slightly bad
Men only (26)--11 say zero bad, 15 say slightly bad, 0 say more than slightly bad

As I said at the start--the idea isn't to start another big elevator-gate conversation, but just wrap up.  Comments are open, but please bear that in mind!


How to Do Things with Moons

In case you missed it.

Travel/Book Log

A few travel pictures, finally, along with a book report.  So I finally decided not to decide what to read on our trip to England and Amsterdam, thanks to being able to bring a bunch of stuff on my ipod.  First up--on the plane--a preview of Amsterdam (well, 17th century Amsterdam).  I read half of Rebecca Goldstein's book about Spinoza.  I promise to read the second half soon.

When we landed in London, The Rules said it was time for English reading, so I started Pride and Prejudice.  No, no, no, I don't spend trips sitting around reading. Indeed, we had a great time seeing new sights (this is our nth trip), like the Churchill Museum and the Courtauld Gallery, walking from Richmond to Hampton Court, eating in good restaurants (go, Mildred's), browsing the incredibly lovable bookstores of London, etc. 

Big dilemma--whether to switch to Amsterdam reading when we got there, though I wasn't done with Pride and Prejudice.  I confess (so shoot me) that I did not love the book--honestly, it seems like a romance novel for smart people.  But I was fairly hooked, so no switching possible. I had brought The Coffee Trader, by David Liss, but didn't read it.

Amsterdam is the new place where I wish I lived, instead of Dallas. There are quite a few of these places, with Edinburgh the front runner and Fairbanks, Alaska another favorite.  (When it's 110 degrees--like it is right now--what kind of a person would dream of living in Hawaii?)  I can't imagine having that sort of charm and beauty around me, day in and day out.

My daughter and I took a lovely bike ride along the Amstel to a windmill near Amsterdam, and then beyond a ways, making me think the four of us should go on a big bike tour of Holland some day.  Sadly enough,  there are not yet four votes in favor of this idea.

Going to Anne Frank house was the high point of the visit to Amsterdam.  Having read her diary just before we left, seeing the house was extremely moving.  You could imagine just what she went through in the years she spent there, and grasp the full horror of the family's being betrayed and deported to death camps.   I found it extremely moving that this was the most packed "attraction" in Amsterdam. There were 1-2 hour lines, but no lines at all at the (of course amazing) Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles.  Funniest sight--someone taking her horse out for some exercise.  No,  she wasn't on the horse.  She was on a bicycle, leading the horse along beside her.

On the way back to England, I dutifully attempted to read a book called Vermeer's Hat: The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timonthy Brook, but then I discovered the downside of digital books. The idiots who created the digital version forgot to include the pictures. Right, a book analyzing specific paintings wouldn't be that interesting, if you couldn't see the paintings.

It was back to Jane Austen when we got to the other side of the channel, where we spent a few days driving to Oxford, Bristol, Bath, and Avebury.  For the benefit of the book-loving 14s, we ran around looking for JRR Tolkien sites, visiting the college where he taught, his house, and the cemetery where he's buried.  Plus (duh) all the Harry Potter sites, like the dining hall used as a model for the one at Hogwarts. The docents at Christ Church college  told us it's just a bit tiresome having people constantly ask questions but Harry Potter, in a place with 800 years of history.  Yes, well ...  Actually, we asked proper questions about Henry VIII and the like.  We really did.

If it weren't for the long flight home, I might not have been able to make myself finish Pride and Prejudice. Sorry, but I can't swoon over Darcy, even if he is brooding, handsome, and attractively rich. Then again, when I got back home and finished the book, I found myself unable to switch to a different reading mood, and now I'm reading Mansfield Park.   Go figure.  I loved Emma, and have high hopes again.


It's Just Moonplay

Note: I received these photos in an email last week, and can now tell you the photographer's name: Laurent Laveder. More pictures are here and they are also available as postcards and as a small book.

thanks to rm


Forbidden Words?

As a follow up to Elevator-Gate, there's been a debate about gendered epithets at atheist blogs.  I keep reading about forbidden words.  Meanwhile, I've got a lot of forbidden words blaring in my ears, thanks to my 14s playing a lot of Watch the Throne, the new Jay-Z & Kanye West album (love this song, though it's a racist-sexist-word-fest).  Then I saw this comic, which seems designed for the hip-hop lovin' scientist, male or female. Please, don't tell me I can't laugh.

Let the Ridicule Begin

Meet the Real Rick Perry from Texas Democratic Party on Vimeo.


Two to One

Today's New York Times Magazine has an excellent article about the growing practice of using abortion to reduce twin pregnancies to singletons. I'm (frankly) repulsed, but it's a challenge to explain why the practice is objectionable.  LINK


Procreation and Parenthood at the Movies

At the beginning of the summer I asked for suggestions about movies to use in the course I'm teaching this fall--an ethics course on procreation and parenthood.  I got a ton of good suggestions and I've watched quite a few of these movies over the summer.  And the winners (so far) are ...

Never Let Me Go - based on the incredibly good book by Kazuo Ishiguro, and an excellent movie in itself, it connects well with "the paradox of future individuals" (Kavka).  As much as it seems obviously wrong to create a class of clones to use as organ donors, how could it really be wrong, if the clones have lives worth living?   Plus, the movie should set the stage for distinguishing between different moral theories on why it's wrong to use people as organ banks for the good of others.

Juno - charming movie about a girl in high school who decides against abortion.  It's interesting this is presented as admirable, though abortion is not presented as wrong.  Meshes nicely with Judith Jarvis Thomson's discussion of good Samaritans at the end of her famous article on abortion.

Gattaca both terrific just as a movie, and ideal for generating debate, this movie presents a world where genetic screening is used to eliminate people with diseases and disabilities.  People who slip through the cracks are second class citizens.  Genetic screening is presented as bad, but is it really bad?  Why, why not?  Discuss.

Mildred Pierce - college students wouldn't want to watch a "film noir" movie from the 1940s? Nonsense (I hope)!  This is a terrific movie about a mother who will do anything for her daughter, and a daughter who's nothing but abusive in return.  Raises the question whether children have obligations to their parents because there are special filial duties, or just because we all have obligations to other human beings.  Connects well with Jane English's well-known article on the obligations of grown-up children to their parents.  Also nicely raises issues about gender roles and class.


Throw Momma from a Train - also about filial duty, but not enough interesting content to generate philosophical discussion, and not a good enough movie to impose on students.  Some pretty funny bits, though.

The Kids are All Right - Raises some interesting questions about sperm donation, lesbian and gay parents, etc., but I was hoping it would connect with questions about the rights of children to know who their parents are.  It doesn't get into that enough to justify making students see it.

The Island - could serve the same purpose as Never Let Me Go, but not as good a movie.

28 Days Later and The Road - useful for raising the question whether anyone could ever have an obligation to have children, but that's not the main theme of either movie, so better to recommend rather than require.  Then again, 28 Days Later does raise some other interesting ethical questions.


Life is Beautiful - connects with topic of lying to children

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg - about having a child with severe disabilities - probably too hard to get hold of for students, even if worth showing.


In Praise of Bad Writing

There's a nice thread about good philosophical writing at Brian Leiter's blog--don't miss it.  But may I put in a brief plug for bad philosophical writing?  By that, I mean very hard-going stuff like Kant, Hegel, or even (dare I say?) the usually-too-dense Derek Parfit.  I actually think one benefits a lot from the hard work it takes to figure out what's going on in a complex, impenetrable text.   The person who can figure out what the hell Hegel was saying is likely to develop the habit of working hard to understand what everyone's saying.  Reading hard philosophy makes you a better, harder-working listener, more charitable, and more perceptive about what others are thinking. Which means--no, not that writing impenetrably is OK, but that it's a bad idea to completely eliminate the hardest stuff from syllabi and reading lists.  Make 'em suffer, it's good for them!

Act Your Age!

I've been reading Goods and Virtues, by Michael Slote, which makes the case for there being time-relative virtues.  For example, "rational planfulness" is more of a virtue in a 20-year-old trying to establish a career than in a 10-year-old.  The basic idea that different character traits are virtuous at different times of life makes a lot of sense.  But what distinctions are there beyond childhood and adulthood?  Are different traits virtuous in older adults than in younger adults?

"Act your age!" means ... what, if you're in your 50s?  My two-14-year olds have a lot of advice for me on this question.  For example, I am not, not, not allowed to use the same slang they do.  I am told that I say "OMG" too often.  Once they introduced me to the locution "X?  I think yes" and it turned out I was fond of it. I got into a lot of "X? I think yes."  It turned out that was not age appropriate. In fact, it was extremely annoying.  Dancing?  I blush to admit that I used to do it--in public, even!  But no, it's highly inappropriate.

Even aside from the teen-pressure, I often have the sense that doing this or that is just not quite right, at my highly advanced stage of life.  And now Michael Slote says I'm right to worry. In fact the virtues are time-relative.  I'm suppose to be more ___ now than I used to be -- though I'm sure what all goes in the blank.

Which brings me to the question of concerts.  Note that I didn't say rock concerts, because that's the wrong word (my son tells me).  Suppose my kids want to go see Kanye West and Jay-Z, and hell if I'm letting them go alone.  May I, without making a fool of myself, go tooIn fact, they're coming to Dallas, and I thought "Go? I think yes!" so bought some tickets for us all (my husband thought "Go? I think no!")  Next question--should I wear a bag over my head?  Must I sit quietly during the concert, perhaps doing some knitting, so I'm clearly just the babysitter? May I behave as if I like the music, or will that constitute a time-relative vice?

Beyond acting like an adult, rather than a child, which seems clearly advisable, is there anything to the idea that older adults should be more ___ than younger adults, and what goes in the blank? 


Feminism and Atheism

"Atheist meetings?  No thanks, cuz I don't like the ... " [fill in the blank]
I've been mostly internet-less in England and Amsterdam for the last two weeks, but still a bit plugged in thanks to my Kindle. I've continued to follow Elevator-gate just a bit, and this morning (up very early because of jet lag) I got to have a more thorough look-around.

Rebecca Watson is still being bombarded with sexual and sexist insults at ERV. Ophelia Benson is saying it's intolerable to attack a woman with sexist epithets.  Some people, like Russell Blackford, think the epithets are bad, but not that bad ... etc. etc.  A lot of people are no longer talking to a lot of people over Elevator-gate.  There are shifting alliances, blah-blah-blah....

I've been invited to speak about Elevator-gate at a local skeptics' group--and more generally about atheism and feminism.  So now I have an official reason to think more about this, and I'm no longer just a run-of-the-mill obsessive-compulsive. (Phew, that's a relief!)


Recap of the whole story, and then some comments--

So... there's an atheist conference in Dublin, this past June.  One panel is about atheism and women, and the first speaker is Paula Kirby--video here. The moderator raises the question why there are fewer women than men at atheist conferences.  Kirby offers the view, based on "my years of being part of all this" that she hasn't seen men holding back women.  She also says she's offended by the idea that women would be put off of atheism, and the atheist movement, because it's male dominated. Surely women aren't that easily frightened.

Later at the Dublin conference, there's another panel on communicating atheism, and both Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins are speakers--video here.  Watson puts the topic of the panel on hold in order to respond to the question discussed by the previous panel--why fewer women in atheist-land?  She rejects what Kirby has said as an argument from "ignorance" and an argument from "privilege" and claims that the explanation is (at least partly) that women get mistreated by men.  To support this, she offers anecdotes--sexist rubbish from emails she's received from atheist men.

Still later at the Dublin conference, something happens to confirm Watson in her belief that women get mistreated by men at atheist conferences--she gets hit on in an elevator at four in the morning, despite having said, in the guy's hearing, that she's tired and wishes to go to bed; and also despite her message on the panel. When she gets home she puts a video on You Tube, which begins with a mention of Paula Kirby, and talks about the elevator incident -- video here.

She later speaks again at a CfI conference, refers back to the Dublin women's panel, and covers examples of harassment by atheist men, and also mentions the elevator incident.  She's even more explicit than in the elevator video that the issue is why there are fewer women in the atheist movement.  She tells the student leaders that this sort of overt sexism keeps women away--"that's why they're not coming out to these events."  She also responds to reaction to her elevator video from a student activist named Stef McGraw.  McGraw had said that there was nothing wrong with elevator guy's overture--her post is here.  Watson says McGraw is "ignorant about feminism" and doesn't know the most obvious things from Feminism 101.  Sexual interest is one thing, sexual objectification is another.

Later still, Richard Dawkins makes a dismissive comment about the elevator incident--here and then again here.  And then, in turn, Watson dismisses him in a post called "The Privilege Delusion"-- here.  "Thanks, wealthy old heterosexual white man!" she writes, and promises to stop buying his books.  After that, the flood of comments for and against Watson begins, including a torrent of just the sort of sexual and sexist commentary she initially brought up in Dublin.  It gets uglier, and uglier, and uglier...


Now for the comments (numbered, even!)--

(1) There's no excuse at all for the sexual and sexist backlash against Watson. It's inappropriate, disproportionate, inarticulate, and just plain ugly.  Nothing she did or said justifies it, period.

(2) As much as Watson makes a legitimate point about misogynistic rhetoric that's been directed toward her, she's gratuitously dismissive toward people who see things differently.  She dismissed Kirby as "ignorant" and "privileged"; McGraw as "ignorant of feminism"; and Dawkins as too wealthy, old, heterosexual, white, and male to understand.

PZ Myers has defended Watson on grounds that she was "civil" to McGraw and "polite and respectful" to Kirby, but he confuses the question of delivery with the question of content. Yes, her delivery is pleasant and in fact funny.  She doesn't froth at the mouth.  But the content is insulting.  Instead of engaging with the ideas of people she disagrees with, she finds fault with the people themselves--they're too ignorant, too privileged, too unfamiliar with feminism 101, too wealthy, too whatever.

While I was away, some folks at Butterflies and Wheels raised the question how philosophers (like me) can be rattled by Watson's combativeness.  Aren't philosophers combative too?  Yes--very combative.  But the rule is that one engages with ideas--it's off limits to dismiss a position as due to your interlocutor's ignorance or privilege or sex or age, or whatever it might be.

But, but, but... isn't it true that some people really are too benighted to "get it"--that they really do need to take Feminism 101?  It's true, but dismissing someone in that fashion is a last resort, and certainly not permitted in direct debate between peers.  Since Watson was responding to Kirby, McGraw, and Dawkins as peers, it was inappropriate to write them off in the way she did. 

(3)  Let's get back to the original question--why are there fewer women than men in atheist circles?  Kirby's answer is essentially just negative: men are not holding back women.  Watson says the opposite--male sexism and sexual harassment keep women from coming to atheist events.  The message I see all over the internet is that feminists must agree with Watson.  But no, surely not.  As a feminist, I do care about the role women play, and whether it's justly or unjustly attenuated.  I am interested in causes and explanations, and don't feel "beyond male vs. female" in the way Kirby seems to.  But it doesn't follow I have to buy Watson's view of what makes the atheist community less hospitable for women than for men.

It could be that women are scared off by the prospect of dealing with sexism and sexual harassment.  But there are lots of other possibilities.  Perhaps the people you meet at atheist meetings argue too much--in their zeal to be ultra-rational and skeptical, maybe they don't know when to stop.  Maybe the immense value attached to candor in the atheist movement stops people from properly valuing tact and diplomacy.  Maybe people personalize debates too much.  In fact, the issue could be even deeper.  Perhaps women don't identify as atheists as often as men, and when they do, they identify as conciliatory, "live and let live" atheists.  So they're bound to be less interested in atheist activism. If that's a factor, the atheist movement would have to change in fundamental ways to increase female involvement.  You might have to examine some very basic things about the atheist movement, not just sexual and sexist antics that are extrinsic to it, to give women an equal role.


To speak a little more personally--I'm just one woman, and it's not clear to me which of my attitudes are gender-related and which aren't, but  Watson is quite wrong about what makes me reluctant to come out to atheist events.  I don't want any contact with neanderthal debaters like you see at many atheist blogs. It's got nothing whatever to do with fearing overt sexism or sexual harassment. I just don't want to run into Kevin, who wrote this about me at an atheist blog a little while back (with no complaint from the moderator)--

Jean: Let me clue you into something.
You’ve failed.
You will never win.
You cannot put the genie back in the bottle.
Live with failure every single minute of every single hour of every single day of the rest of your life.
I have no use for someone of your “intellect” telling me what I can or cannot say or learn.
And you will have to live with that abject failure forever.

Since the atheist blogosphere is full of Kevins, I'm a little reluctant to get any closer to "movement" atheists.  I suspect more women would feel like me about this than men, and so--I'd like to suggest--it's not just overtly sexist epithets we should be worried about, as feminists.  The whole style of interaction at atheist blogs is a problem.