Sunday, October 31, 2010

Warby Parker Glasses

The short story: My wife got very ill and was hospitalized for six days. Before that, however, I had won a blog contest of sorts for a free pair of glasses for my wife. While she was in the hospital, I lost track of time and space, let alone when her free glasses were coming in the mail. In fact, I still don't know what happened. When I relayed the story to Warby Parker, not only did they say "No sweat, we'll send out a new pair for my wife." They also said, "Have a pair for yourself."

My wife originally learned about Warby Parker from various design blogs. They're stylish, chic and are remarkably vintage. That's not all. As a moral philosopher, I love it when a company takes on the duty of being engaged communally. For every Warby Parker pair of glasses sold, one is given to a person in need! I will make no jokes about being a poor PhD student in need. I won them from a contest. Needless to say, the company is a good fit for my educated sensibilities as well as my eyes. In the future, I'll always buy my glasses from this place.

Warby Parker has found a friend in one philosopher. Below is a picture of my glasses lying on my favorite philosopher, Edmund Husserl.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Tea Party and the Politics of Negation

Before anything else, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher before I’m an activist. I’m a philosopher before I’m an American citizen. In fact, you might say that philosophy subsumes all particular roles I have into itself, and the only thing I may say about myself is that I’m Socratic—questioning and reflective, cautious to assent too quickly to a point and modest in my making claims about the human condition. In truth, I think every American ought to be this way, but that’s another post for another time. For now, let me explain what I find so dangerously fascinating about the Tea Party movement.

With this temperament, I’m not too overly optimistic about Tea Party claims. The Tea Party is a miscellaneous category, the politics of all that is other, yet it’s come to solidify with a cluster of ideas and identities. It is born out of a populist rejection of moderate liberalism it seeks to exaggerate into the wretchedness of Marxism and socialism. Within its ranks, the Tea Party consists mostly of libertarians, disgruntled Republicans and upset rural Democrats. It has nothing new to say but like the Republicans during the Health Care debate, “No, no and no.” The make-up is also largely white. Philosophically, we might inquire behind the reasons that motivate such views, yet, I think such cohesion is rather impossible. That’s the very interesting philosophical point. Let me explain.

When a group comes together with disparate viewpoints, one can usually know what a group stands for. A collective representation of their particular vantage point is disclosed in the actions made on behalf of the group’s name. The actions taken are “authored” in the way that Hobbes’s Sovereign authorized the action of those that embody the will of the Sovereign. Moreover, such groups usually publish their core values, and when an American joins these groups, a practical knowledge of what they value can be known. However, the Tea Party movement is entirely grassroots. It is made of up of individuals with no identifiable leader. During media coverage of one of their rallies, this was a sticking point and reason given for the greatness of the Tea Party. With no identifiable leader and a pluralism of upset citizens, the group has no hierarchical values it shares. Instead, this plurality and grassroots structure dissolves any meaningful claim it can make as movement, and the only meaningful criticism can come from its members themselves.

Now, while this may seem highly unproblematic in a America so celebratory of its individualism, it means functionally the meaning of what is valued can only come from the member. One can, then, only say “I feel that X” or “I see it as Y.” The possibility of articulating a vision of political change is ruptured by no cohesion amongst the members. There might be a spectrum of upset individuals comprising the group to the point that many different criticisms are all coming at the President and his policies. The lack of a solid identity is not an advantage; there is no upshot to a group that can negate the politics of Washington. Even if there are solutions to be found within the Tea Party about a range of problems, which I doubt, the level of plurality manifests only within the negation since negation is the only way the plurality of the Tea Party members can be brought together in activism. And this is the danger of the Tea Party! They are unwise to their own nullity in action, and cannot therefore carry together any meaningful change since they have no vision to offer. Political power must arrange the world constructively in some fashion, not simply negate the status-quo.
The negativity in Tea Party politics obstructs them to the danger of populist political movements. Populist movements openly deny the complexity of a political situation and substitute a radically disconnected view to replace current practices. Some Tea Party candidates want a flat tax, say 15% across the board. Consider that 15% of a millionaire’s yearly income would be high, but not as high as say someone who makes $30,000 USD in a year. With the decrease in the mean of American household incomes, the amount normal people would pay under a flat-tax might equally be more damaging than having a gradual scalar tax that depends on income. Of course, this prediction is incumbent upon the continual state of income decline in the recession and the slow climb expected of our economic return to pre-2008 status. The very rural poor White American sitting around the various Tea Party rallies would pay more of what they did have than those at the top in this recession alone if income tax is changed to a flat tax. The Democratic solution to maintain an income tax based on income is more favorable to lower-income American households.

Another disconnected proposal that might surface is the dissolution of entire government agencies based on a libertarian impulse from the classical liberalism of such thinkers as John Locke. While I love the attention that philosophers get outside my classroom, I do not expect any productive solution from Locke to come forward. Locke abstracts human beings from the social conditions and environment. It privileges an atomism that is unrealistic. I’ll have more to say on these issues later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Retraction of Angst

One should never write anything while moody. Okay, let's go as far to say that one should not write philosophy while moody or angsty. I formally retract my Nietzschean commitments of the previous post. I'm still bitter, but the sun is shining today. I am no longer aware of the burden of Being (Heideggerian joke).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On the Person

To be a person is a distinct, if not, concept on its own. In an age where ontology qua scientism drives the push of philosophy, we often forget the concrete subject that lives through these experiences. Primitively basic to living through our experiences as a subject is being a person.

The tricky part in philosophy is to assume only so much is suspect in the very question you ask. For instance, in ethics you ask about what is right and wrong action. Thus, this question assumes implicitly: A) moral properties are evaluative of only actions and B) assumes that very level of being a person basic to the  ethical experience. Call this the 'received view' of what ethics is. My only point is that being a person is subsumed under the 'received view' of ethics. There is, actually, a deep phenomenological core to describe underneath what the typical 'received view' of ethics.

Contrary to phenomenology, I find that two moves in contemporary ethics have been made about persons, and both an be united under assuming beforehand the nature of persons. The nature of persons are decided before one would phenomenologically look to  Following Kant, being a person is expressed through rationality. A person has moral standing only insofar as a person can grasp the form of morality in the categorical imperative and apply it. In consequential formulations, a person is also expressed through rationality, but it is a rationality about the means to satisfy an end that benefits all. This does nothing to differentiate the basic reduction of a person to the rational capacities. A person is only that which can determine the ends of action. Yet, there is more to being a person than a practically rational maximizer or rational apprehender. There are more facets to our lived experience, especially in the ethical dimension than laying bare the basic structural principle of all morality. Laying bare a structure requires that Kant and Mill presuppose the nature of persons prior to describing the structure of morality.

A phenomenology of the person would reject assuming the person outright. The person would have to be defined in such a way that levels of revealing could come forth from personhood itself. For now, a person is that which has subjectivity. Subjectivity is lived through in relation to a world with others, and participants in the lifeworld.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Phenomenologically Thick Concepts

Some time ago, I gave a talk to our department. I maintained several things, but I hinted at two implicit intuitions I'd like to bring into relief now.

A) Relevant moral properties are never thin properties, that is, no moral property is ever just evaluative.


B) All relevant moral properties/considerations are thick properties, that is, all moral properties have a descriptive and evaluative component to them.

I also stated that virtues, or virtue considerations are thick, and here's my reasoning. Virtues describe the reliable trait I have or ought to have as a state intrinsic to the practical "who" I am. These virtues are better described as practical abilities I exercise and grow into. That's the descriptive element. As a teenager, I might not be as patient as I now am, especially regarding things I want from things I need. However, in my 31 years of life, I have more wisdom to be patient for things, and can readily distinguish between what I need from what I want. In this way, it is descriptive of the practical "who" I am that one might describe me as "patient".

Notice in the above example that the description of the agent possessing patience is pregnant with evaluative meaning. The fact that there is a difference in description between my impatient teenager self and the more refined 31 year-old PhD student carries with it the message that only now do I realize that as a teenager I ought to have distinguished between the patience virtuous demands generally and how impatient I really was. By all accounts, I should have been different; I should have had more patience as a teenager. In this way, the virtue of patience is both a trait I now have, and reflection about patience independent of my possession of the trait has evaluative significance.

Now, the fact that agents possess a trait and ought to have it occur simultaneously in reflecting on a given virtue. The truth is that virtues are never abstracted from the practice of agent's possessing them. Virtue ethics is an ethics of realizing a balanced life where the virtues facilitate our growth. There is no moment when we can call upon a morally thin property to parse out the difference between the descriptive (having a virtue) and the evaluative (the practical wisdom stemming from a virtue). In order to see this, let me first discuss the opposing view of thin properties.

Normative theories advance rightness as the model thin property. So an act consequentialist might accept that an act is right if and only if it generates more good, but in order to believe in such a morally thin property as rightness, the act consequentialist is forced to value only one element in an action. Rightness is forced upon only the action, and that action is either right or wrong. More peculiar, right and wrong are simple predicates that can only attach to actions. An action could not be described as brutal. Brutality intimates the presence of the doer with the deed. Under such a view, the doer is not distanced from action. Instead, the agent comes to possess a quality with the use of "brutal" that the act consequentialist cannot stand for, and yet this is the theoretic advantage of morally thick concepts. It brings to light the unforeseen level that it is the agent and action that are morally valuable, and if we dare say so, the type of person I ought to be is the source of why an action is brutal in as much as it is wrong. Put another way, wrongness is a minimal level of moral evaluation. It says something different if I call an action brutal. The act consequentialist has cleaned up morality to be so thin that it makes for a highly precise measure of the value of an act, but that precision is maintained at a level no normative theory can describe (even though they think they can). My chief reason for thinking that precision is general in ethics is a demonstration that moral properties are actually thick, incapable of inspiring certainty as thin ones do.

However, it can be argued that I have removed the certainty of at least our common intuitive judgments about what we are morally certain about. Leaving an infant alone in a trash heap is wrong, and the criterion of wrongness offered by act consequentialists or Kantians might differ. Yet, it is the fact that these theories try to establish one overall principle that best explains why it is that we are certain about some of our common intuitions. The certainty flows from their actually existing a certain method of testing for rightness and wrongness. It can be done to any action. However, actions are not simply the product of a self-contained moral agent. Instead, an action is a display of the responsive strategies of the type of person who I am. When a mother abandons a baby to a trash heap, it is not as if the action were the only thing to have a value. Such an action is a realizing of the type of the mother is. A mother that discards her baby in a trash heap is morally deficient in her being. She lacks the ability to care for her child in the way someone ought to care for their child. Our judgment of the mother would be lessened if the mother abandons the baby at a convent in the foundling wheel. In fact, the sacrifice to abandon one's child to the church may be a sign of great love. The mother knows she cannot provide for her child in the same way that the church can.

The recognition of these judgments about the type of people revealed in action takes place within intentionality. This is the phenomenological connection. There is a conceptual space as intentional living subjects that can be captured by phenomenological analysis. It is the description of how it is that I live out the structure of moral experience through the possession of morally salient virtues versus vices. I do not have all the answers about such an experience, but it is one that I am interested in opening up in future phenomenological descriptions.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Politics and Everything Conservative Under the Sun

What is conservative really mean for American politics?

It means the abuse of history to legitimate one's current ideology and usual historical blindness to how antiquated classical liberalism is for contemporary politics.

It means promoting radically individualistic autonomous selves that are atomistic to such an extent that the communal bonds necessary for any society are deemed as irrelevant to practical considerations we might face.

It means making people radically responsible for things they cannot control like the demographic determinations of someone's background in a largely unjust world.

It means fundamentally believing in a free market system so radically and fervently that any criticism of it is demonized before the substance of that criticism comes to the fore. This is especially exemplified by the philosophical illiteracy demonstrated by demonizers of Marx to have never read his texts and secondly to not understand Marx was a perverted Hegelian.

It means usually adhering to an Evangelical interpretation of Christianity to such an extent that religion becomes a force to manipulate a massive amount of people with the subsequent consequence of promoting a theocracy in American government.

It means thinking that the private ownership of firearms will prevent the rise of a tyrannical state despite the massive gap between what the military owns and what we, the citizens, own as weapons.

It means thinking that there is something called hetero-normativity about sexuality despite the massive amount of sexual difference inherent in the human experience.

It means thinking that the United States is so sovereign that rational multilateral decisions in which states work together for a common peace are deemed irrelevant to the needs of our national interests.

It means thinking that women cannot be liberated through advances in medical technology such that they cannot decide the fate of their own reproductive system.

It means thinking that a woman's body is owned by the state since in denying her personal autonomy for abortion, conservatives will wind up owning a woman's body through legislating what a woman can do.

It means usually thinking that creationism should be taught in biology classrooms, and if we do that, then why not bring back Aristotelian four elements to replace particle physics?

It means being so ignorant of the rise Islam and its subsequent history that we cannot separate out fundamentalist radicals from the rest to such an extent that we hide our bigotry about Islam behind the tactful suggestion that a Mosque in New York City be built elsewhere than two blocks away from ground zero. Moreover, we are so blind to the complexities of world politics and Islam at large that Conservative Christians propagate a medieval us vs. them model which is commonly accepted as common sense in the Republican party.

It means being so blind to economic policies that benefit the disappearing middle class that you blindly appeal to the dream of social mobility to hard-working Americans who will never see the dream promised to them by a Republican party that defends the interests of the rich over the most poor.

It means falsely informing people that there will be death panels and that Canada's health care system is ruthlessly inefficient. I lived in Canada for three years, and if I have the choice, I will emigrate and raise a family there.

Okay, I'm done with this. This is only making me angrier.