Proper Indignation

There's a passage from Aristotle that's been coming to my mind constantly since the election.  It's about the virtue of proper indignation.
For the properly indignant person feels pain when someone does well undeservedly; the envious person exceeds him by feeling pain when anyone does well, while the spiteful person is so deficient in feeling pain that he actually enjoys other people's misfortunes. (Nicomachean ethics, Book II ch. 7)
Proper indignation?  Yes.  How could Trump be rewarded with the presidency--the highest conceivable honor--after being a racist birther, after a lifetime of being a con-artist and an exploiter of women, after bullying all of his opponents, after demonstrating total absence of relevant knowledge and showing himself unfit for the office in every way, after lying incessantly and in fact showing total disregard for the difference between truth and falsehood, after losing every debate, after inciting violence and bigotry, after using dirty tactics against Hillary and all of his other opponents, after not revealing his tax returns, after Trump University, after .... This is the ultimate in doing well undeservedly, and we're going to be witnesses to this injustice every day for the next four years.


Top Ten Horrors

I'll go with the New York Times' estimate that there's only a 16% chance of Trump winning tomorrow, but it still fills me with horror.  16% of a really bad prospect is a really bad prospect.  I've been thinking about why this horrifies me so much--what are the worst things about a Trump future?  My top 10 list:

  1. A completely unfit, unqualified con-man wins instead of a clearly qualified and competent woman. Two messages: knowledge and skill don't matter ... men have a huge advantage over women.
  2. The man who promoted birtherism for five years is rewarded for it.  Message: racism and outrageous outright deception are perfectly acceptable.
  3. 20 million people lose their health insurance and everyone else loses all the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, because Trump and other Republicans say "repeal and replace" but actually have no replacement.
  4. Deportations of immigrants, no path to citizenship, an end of welcoming desperate refugees into this country.
  5. Supreme Court turns more conservative for many decades, with resulting threats to reproductive rights and marriage equality.
  6. Unstable, brash, ill-informed commander-in-chief, sure to make the world a much more dangerous place.
  7. International climate change agreement abandoned, posing serious risks to generations to come.
  8. An exploitative, demeaning attitude toward women and girls becomes normalized by the fact that the world's most honored leader exemplifies it.
  9. The repulsive way Trump ran his campaign--non-stop lying, name-calling, threatening to imprison his opponent, abusing the media, total lack of civility--all of that now the norm.
  10. Miscellaneous nightmares:  Michelle's garden mowed down, the White House sprayed gold, Trump vampyric wife and children haunt Washington......
OK, enough.  I'M WITH HER!


Is it selfish to procreate instead of adopt?

Adam Ferner asks this question in a video publicizing the procreation forum in the new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine (which I guest-edited)--it's a question that is addressed by many of the authors that contributed to the forum (Gerald Harrison & Julia Tanner, Sarah Conly, Bernard Prusak, Tina Rulli, Elizabeth Bricker, Rivka Weinberg).

I won't try to summarize the debate in the forum--you should subscribe to the magazine so you can read it!-- but can't resist responding to Adam's question.  For another response, have a look at the various points Denise Cummins makes here.  As an adoptive mother and cognitive psychologist, she has a lot of relevant expertise and experience.

Adam's response is Yes--procreating is selfish, because (roughly) adopting benefits an existing child in need of parents, whereas procreating brings a brand new child into existence, a child who would not have been in need of rescue if they'd remained non-existent. And on the other hand, adopting provides just as much of the most important kinds of satisfaction for parents.  So far procreating just sounds irrational.  It starts to seem selfish if you add that people choose procreation (despite the superiority of adoption) out of some sort of selfish preoccupation with their "lineage".


The Minority Body

About 10 years ago I took a trip to Hawaii with my husband and kids and stepped on a sea urchin as I clambered out of a kayak onto a rock. The pain was excruciating and I spent the next several days not enjoying the gorgeous sights of the Big Island, but soaking my foot in salt and vinegar and googling "sea urchin."  The strange thing is that pretty soon afterwards, I didn't regret what had happened, but accepted it as part of what made this trip especially intense, vivid, and memorable.

When bad things happen, why don't we regret them?  I heard an interesting talk on this question at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress a few weeks ago--the speaker was Camil Golub, a philosophy PhD candidate at NYU. He skillfully canvassed a multitude of possible explanations, and settled on the idea that these kinds of bad-but-not-regretted events become a part of our biographical identity.  This isn't supposed to be a metaphysical concept--the idea isn't that I became a whole new person when I stepped on the sea urchin. Rather, in some looser sense, bad things can alter who we are, so that we can't distance ourselves from them without distancing ourselves from ourselves.  So we say we're glad these things happened, or at least don't regret that they happened.  This doesn't stop them from being bad things.  I highly advise all people to avoid stepping on sea urchins--it's excruciating and the resulting problems will absorb your attention for weeks to come.  However, if you do step on one, it's quite possible you won't regret it. That's a strange combination of assertions, but the biographical identity account makes pretty good sense of why a reasonable person might have that set of attitudes.

I found myself thinking about the sea urchin story and unregretted bad things while reading Elizabeth Barnes's new book about disabilities, The Minority Body. Barnes claims that disabilities (physical ones--she doesn't talk about mental disabilities) are mere differences, as opposed to being bad differences or good differences.  According to her, being blind, deaf, paraplegic, and so on, are akin to being gay or being male. It's value-neutral whether you're gay or straight, value-neutral whether you're male or female, she says, and it's likewise value-neutral whether you're blind or sighted, deaf or hearing, paraplegic or walking.  Golub said nothing about disabilities in his talk, but I'm inclined to think perhaps he gives us the tools to think about this more coherently.  Being blind is a bad thing some people might not regret, like my vastly more minor encounter with the sea urchin.  Reason: bad things sometimes become woven into our biographical identity. You can't wish they had been otherwise without wishing yourself away.

Barnes says no to that assessment.  Being blind is a mere difference on her view, not a bad difference. One of the main arguments she makes is that the mere difference view accords with the testimony of disabled people themselves.  She thinks we'd be doing these people a "testimonial injustice" if we insisted disabilities really are bad, even when they say otherwise.  Take, for example, this recent letter to the editor of The New York Times. 

Erin Hawley says she wouldn't want her disability taken away, despite "the pain, the anxiety and breathing problems."  Barnes calls these "local bads" and doesn't think they go to the heart of the matter.  She wants to respect testimony like Hawley's and classify disability itself as a mere difference.  But what is Hawley saying?  Her testimony is compatible with construing her disability as an unregretted bad. In fact, even her language is quite reminiscent of "biographical identity" talk.  "What I've experienced in life is a story worth telling, and road worth following, despite how society tries to tell us otherwise."

This business of respecting testimony is tricky.  Whose testimony counts?  Almost all of the testimony Barnes cites comes from disability activists, and surely that would be the group most likely to see their disability in a positive light. I also wonder about the point in time when testimony is revealing, as testimony can change. In the initial stages of going blind or becoming paraplegic, a person can find the changes excruciating (as Barnes certainly admits, calling these "transition costs"). A few years ago I met a very young person who had suddenly and permanently became paraplegic--clearly a very, very hard thing for them to face.  I'm pretty sure they weren't just distressed by the transition, but by the prospect of no longer walking, ever, and having other health problems.  This person would have testified, at that time, that their disability was an extremely bad difference. It could be that later on they developed a more positive attitude, but I see no reason to regard the later positivity as superseding the earlier profound disappointment. I don't see that only one of these attitudes reveals The Truth about disabilities.

In fact, I think Barnes herself doesn't even entirely respect the testimony that she focusses on, and this is an odd flaw she never addresses. The testimony she focusses on doesn't just support the mere difference view, it supports the good difference view. And in fact she paraphrases it that way, again and again, yet never acknowledges this particular gap between testimonial evidence and theory.  This is particularly apparent in sections of the book where Barnes is trying to explain why disabilities are mere differences, while cancer (or my sea urchin accident) is a bad difference, even though there are people who are glad they had cancer (e.g. Lance Armstrong says this in It's Not About the Bike). Disabilities aren't like cancer because, she says, people value disabilities.  She notes this over and over again--
[Joe (some imaginary cancer survivor)] doesn't value having cancer, even if he values some of cancer's long-term effects on his life. Linton and Dostoevsky, in contrast, ostensibly value being disabled. (p. 111)
LaSpina strongly rejects the idea of a 'cure' for her disability. She is proud of her disability, and describes it as a positive experience. (p. 116)
Disabled people aren't simply claiming to value 'who they are' as people. They are claiming to value disability. Valuing disability is the crux of the entire disability pride movement--with all its parades and its festivals. (p. 122)
Disabled people don't merely say that they value disability. They go on disability pride marches. They create disability-centric art, dance, and literature. They actively celebrate disability in myriad ways. (p. 141)
Barnes complains that this testimony is ignored by people who regard disabilities as bad differences--she urges "taking their word for it" (a chapter title). But taking this testimony at face value, you wouldn't just elevate disabilities from being bad differences to being mere differences, you'd elevate them to being good differences.  That's what people are saying here--they value disabilities, as opposed to seeing them as neutral.  Barnes seems to think she needs to go along with this, to solve the cancer puzzle, but in fact doesn't go along with it.  She thinks it's not positively good to be paraplegic or blind or deaf, it's value-neutral.

A philosophical theory about disabilities can't just take what people say and repeat it. If that was a sound methodology, what we'd surely have to say is that for some people disabilities are bad, for some neutral, and for some good.  A theory is inevitably going to sift and interpret and take into account considerations that go beyond what's on the minds of disabled people themselves. But that being the case, I think the bad differences view is just as much in the running as the mere differences view; both are at odds with what some people say to express disability pride.

In fact, I do think the bad differences view is the right view, but also think the concept of biographical identity supplements it helpfully.  Disabilities often become a part of "who we are" and are not later regretted, but they are still bad, and to be avoided.  Why are they bad? That's a big question I can't deal with in this blog post (I discuss it in chapter 6 of my book The Weight of Things).  But here's one thought about the issue.  Barnes points out that people with disabilities don't seem to self-report lower levels of well-being, in studies of happiness and life-satisfaction.  She also complains about entrenched ableism, prejudice, and failure to accommodate.  But this is odd--why such high well-being, if there's so much prejudice and failure to accommodate?

One possibility is that all the prejudice and failure to accommodate must harm people, so that the studies of well-being are unreliable.  But then perhaps they also don't tell us whether or not disabilities lower well-being.

A second possibility is that people with disabilities really do have high levels of well-being, and prejudice and failure to accommodate are still bad for some reason unrelated to the impact on well-being.  But then it's possible to say the same thing about disabilities. They could be bad, despite not lowering well-being. (But why?  Of course that's a difficult but good question.)

A third possibility is that people with disabilities have high levels of well-being, and this shows prejudice and failure to accommodate are value-neutral.  Surely that's absurd. Likewise, we wouldn't be forced to say disabilities are value-neutral, even if it were true that they don't reduce well-being.


Killer Immigrants

Damon Winter/The New York Times
There was so much about Donald Trump's speech last night that was dangerous and disturbing, but a little piece of it was also philosophically interesting.  I hasten to add: not in a good way!

Trump's case against illegal immigration partly turns on the fact that sometimes illegal immigrants commit crimes.  He furiously shouted every bit of the speech, but especially ranted about a "border-crosser" who murdered a young woman named Sara Root in Nebraska--someone who had just graduated from college with a 4.0 GPA (he said).  Of course this is very, very awful, but does it create a strong case against illegal immigration?

For some reason, it's tempting to think so, but the logic here is fraught with problems. One issue is whether illegal immigrants commit more crimes than people here legally. Apparently, they don't--in fact, they commit fewer crimes, as David Brooks has pointed out.  I suppose you could say the lower rate doesn't matter, that any crimes committed by illegal immigrants should be held against allowing them to stay or making it harder for them to enter the US.  But there's another issue here.

If the bad deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to keep them out, then how could you avoid thinking the good deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to let them in?  A couple of good deed stories were in the news recently--the valedictorians at two high schools turned out to be illegal immigrants.  Even more impressively, if you google "illegal immigrant saves life" you come up with plenty of examples.

A curious inconsistency is that when conservatives talk about abortion, they sometimes have just the opposite focus.  Abortion might have eliminated the best among us.  I hear this sort of thing from students sometimes.  What if an abortion had eliminated Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs or even that genius, Donald Trump?  Tougher immigration laws, on the other hand, would eliminate the worst among us!

No. If you're going think about the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, you really do have to think about their good deeds as well.  You might not think the bad deeds are exactly cancelled out by the good deeds (does one saving-of-a-life cancel out one murder?) but it makes no sense at all to only focus on the bad deeds.


Two Headed Boy

There are so many terrible and ludicrous things going on in the world, it's difficult to focus on anything else...but I will try. Two-Headed Boy: it's a Neutral Milk Hotel song that I'm a little bit obsessed with at the moment. I'll come back to that--or rather, I'll come back to a two-headed girl.

Lately I've been trying to think about aging, and one aspect of the topic is personal identity.  Do we remain the same individuals even as we radically change in old age?   Accounts of personal identity can find it either easy or difficult to say we do.  Sometimes a view has to "just say no" and in other cases it takes a lot of fancy foot work to be able to say yes.  In the fancy foot work category is the new account of personal identity in Marya Schechtman's book Staying Alive.

The general idea of the book is that A and B are the same person just in case A and B have the same "person life." A person life is the kind of life that we live--a life that involves things like wearing clothes, having names instead of numbers, having interests and friendships, and so on.  If Bert, at 90, is living the same person life as Bertie at 10, then they are the same person.  In fact, Bert could even be the same person as a newborn or even a fetus.  The critical concept is "same life," which is supposed to illuminate when we're looking at one person, though possibly at two times, or we're looking at two.

Living the same life is not precisely analyzed in the book, but Schechtman is clear that it does not require going on with the same body.  If my cerebrum were transplanted into a whole new body, my life could continue, she says, and I would remain in existence. It's the ongoing person life that makes me me.

Now the plot thickens.  Fetuses and newborns don't really do much to live a person life, and sometimes very old people don't do much either. This is one of the places where Schechtman's book is most provocative.  She says, in effect, that it can take a village to make a person.  A very old person with dementia and other disabilities may only continue living a person life thanks to family members and support staff.  The elements that make a life distinctively human may have no meaning to the individual--they may be provided entirely by others. That dependence doesn't make a person life stop.  Even a person in a persistent vegetative state can continue not just an organismic life, but their person life, thanks to the support of others.

Likewise, she thinks, at the other end of life.  A newborn doesn't live a person life except thanks to his parents and other helpers.  The power of others is so great, says Schechtman, that they can even give a fetus a person life--by naming the baby, thinking about his future, etc.  If you've already readied the nursery, bought clothing, and started to think of her as being at the start of a person life, then your child's life has started.


I find the person life view at least intriguing, with respect to old age, but manifestly problematic with respect to the beginning of life.  One thing Schechtman doesn't say much about is cultural and personal variability when it comes to fetal and newborn life.  This is dealt with in fascinating detail by David Lancy, in The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.  As the title hints, there is amazing variability, across cultures, and even within cultures, in the way fetuses and newborns are treated.  In some cultures, they tend to be given person lives from the beginning of pregnancy, and in others the onset of a person life is delayed, so that the start of life is years after birth.  That strikes me as problematic for Schechtman, since I can't get myself to believe that persons start existing at different times depending on things so variable and extrinsic to them.

And then there are other problems. Take a person whose person life only starts some months after conception, because of the way the parents and surrounding culture think about when life begins. At four months gestation, perhaps, the parents see the child on an ultrasound and learn its sex. Perhaps because of the image, and because the risk of miscarriage is now low, and because of the sex information, they're now ready to give the child a name. They also start creating the child's nursery and talk about her to family and friends.  They even start dreaming about her future, accepting gifts like a little baseball bat or doctor kit.  Now a person life has begun, according to Schechtman.  Where there was a fetus, there is now a person, and they are non-identical. Some of Eric Olson's worries about fetuses (in his book The Human Animal) arise here.  Does the fetal pre-person just go out of existence, being replaced by the person?  Weird idea!  If, on the contrary, the fetus continues to exist, but starts "constituting" a person, there's a puzzle about whether the pivotal property--living a person life, on Schechtman's view--is possessed by both the fetus and the person or just the person. Both answers are unpalatable.


OK, let's get on with the two headed boy (or actually, girl).  Here's a case that seems problematic for Schechtman--a case where it seems clear that two persons exist, but on her view just one person exists, because there's just one person life.  The case comes from a This American Life Episode called "Switched at Birth."  In 1951 Mary Kay Miller gave birth to a baby under general anesthesia.  Another woman, Kay McDonald, gave birth in the same room shortly afterwards, and the babies were mistakenly switched.  When she got home, Mary Kay wondered whether she had the right baby, because the baby she brought home was two pounds heavier than at birth. However, her husband didn't want to pursue the issue, so she put it out of her mind. They raised the baby they took home and the McDonalds raised the baby they took home.  They had no idea there was any problem.

Now take the "two headed babies": MarthaSue, the baby who started off in one mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her; and SueMartha, the baby who started off in the other mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her. Intuitively, MarthaSue and SueMartha are are just concatenations--there is no one person made out of two organisms, in the way the names suggests.  But on the person life view, it seems to me there might be.  We can easily imagine each set of parents endowing the fetus with a life, long before birth.  Considering that at this point it's the parents doing the endowing, the person life that starts with a fetus seems to continue in the body of the baby who comes home--a different organism.  That's the upshot of putting person-creating power in the hands of parents, instead of seeing it as residing in organisms themselves.  It becomes all important what they think about their child's lifespan, and these parents thought of the life that started before birth as continuing in the body of the child they brought home.

My gut feeling:  personal identity is not as social and extrinsic as that.  On the other hand, it does seem interesting and important how "the village" helps personhood along, both at the beginning of life and at the end.  There's something to that idea.


Bernie and the Rich

I'm not at all convinced by Bernie Sanders' analysis in today's NYT op-ed.. "Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children." Are these workers really preoccupied with the rich getting richer, or do they feel threatened by immigrants? Those are not at all equivalent.

In his next paragraph, we get more about the rich and the "unimaginable luxury" they enjoy--supposedly that's fueling support for both Leave and Trump. But wait--Trump is the embodiment of absurd wealth and unimaginable luxury. He's Mr. Luxury himself! There's no way his supporters are driven by resentment of the rich. Resenting poor Mexican immigrants is (duh) not the same as resenting the rich!

And then there's all the stuff about how globalization is increasing inequality and poverty. Is it really? The bottom billion used to be defined as those living on less than a dollar a day, but now they're the people living on $1.25 per day. On lots of economic parameters, things are getting better around the world, and as I understand it, this is partly due to globalization. Bernie says "the global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world" but prosperity is going up around the world, and even if it's fairly stagnant in the US, it's already extremely high, comparatively speaking--in fact just about the highest in the world!

Some paragraphs of this op-ed truly just sound just like Trump. "Americans should not have to compete against workers in low-wage countries who earn pennies an hour." Should we really go back to a time when the poorest people in the world were even poorer? Setting aside the moral problems with that trajectory, how's that going to give us foreign markets for our goods? How's that going to make the world more peaceful and cooperative?


Old Voters, Young Voters

In the last couple of days I've read about 16 and 17 year olds in the UK who think it's unfair that they weren't allowed to vote on "Brexit."  Thus, they complain, very old people are determining a future that's mostly going to be lived by young people.  Maybe 16 and 17 year olds aren't wise and informed enough to vote, but their complaint makes me wonder: would it have been more fair if the Brexit vote had involved a multiplier, so the vote of a 20 year old counted for 1/20 and the vote of an 80 year old counted for 1/80? That certainly sounds repugnant.  What, should we count the vote of a 20 year old with a terminal illness like they were 80?  On the other hand, there's something sensible about age-based multipliers. Not that I'm recommending this approach.  Surely it's odious! I'm just intrigued by the fact that it's not obvious why it's odious.  Of course, you wouldn't need age-based multipliers if old people just restrained themselves, deferring to the young who will live for many years with the outcome of Brexit.  You'd think they would do that, to some degree--that they would ask their children and grandchildren about their preferences, before voting.  But just in case they didn't do that, you could have age-based multipliers....and then, why not for all elections?  Yeah, it's horrible and obviously undesirable, but it does seem puzzling why that's so!

The Philosophical Parent

Big news!  I'll be publishing a third book some time in the next year.  The tentative title is The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children.  The book is under contract with Oxford University Press (see table of contents at the tab above). Let's pretend the mother in this picture is actually reading Plato to herself, while her daughter enjoys gazing at the ducks. She could be the philosophical parent.