Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bodies and Patience

Sickness is an attunement to the body. We notice every nook and cranny of our own body since it is brought into relief as sick. The sick body is always contrasted against the former vitality the body possessed in the past. Thus, sickness constitutes its temporal meaning from the present to the past as a regression. This regression is experienced in various modes in particular feelings. There is the depression that sets in when one feels like they will never possess the past vitality they once did, and a regret towards the future for not harnessing that vitality for purposes left unfinished or never initiated. Regret and depression commingle when so much attention focuses on the constant fixation of "getting better" no matter if it is hope of an unknown diagnosis or one that threatens disability permanently. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Post-Pluralist Society, Birth Control and the Patterns of American Social and Political Life

The debate surrounding whether or not the Federal government can mandate coverage of birth control on insurance companies that service religious health care plans isn't exactly about women's rights or religious teachings per se. There is a deeper philosophical quandary. It is really about whether or not the state can enforce its conception of the right and the good upon its citizenry. Now, more than ever, I think we will start seeing a post-pluralist society emerge in which government leaders no longer show restraint in imposing what they feel is the right and the good.

What I am about to say may be alarmist. I'm very aware of that. However, I never thought I would hear a Presidential Candidate like Rick Santorum. Here's a Presidential Candidate running for office, and he thinks the presence of birth control threatens public safety. He thinks of this issue as a "policy issue." The backlash of the Catholic bishops or even their intellectual worldview (such as Feser's post here) represent a decisively poignant lashing out against American political liberalism to allow for private and reasonable conceptions of the good. In effect, the conservative political base is coming at Obama not simply as a partisan, but as a symbol of an entire ideology opposed to everything they believe in even when that is an oversimplification of significant proportion. It is not only the conservatives that are mustering these efforts; there is a certain dogmatism of the left emerging that will respond in kind. In each case, the divisions of American political parties have subsumed any chance of reasoned dialogue about these issues. They are only interested in asserting their ideological systems of belief. This has already had significant consequence in American life.

One consequence is that political regions of partisan support surface. If you are gay, you'll move to the San Francisco Bay area, or other metropolitan West coast regions. Utah will always be a safe haven for conservatives. Like will always beget like. This voluntary seclusion and growth in numbers indicates that the preference of the political culture has had an impact. If we were ever to experience Differences in a positive and constructive way such that the radical singularity of the Other should be part of our experience, such experiences are no longer possible (I'll leave it an open question if we ever truly did experience Differences in a productive way). With that possibility goes the forced socialization of differences necessary for toleration.

Following suit, our politics and media have grown insular. Conservatives have built their own channel -- FOX News -- through which they don't have to be challenged just as much as liberals have flocked to MSNBC. We have started to build patterns of reinforcing assertion of someone's identity in public spaces and spaces of information exchange guided naively along these partisan lines. Internet IP addresses register what type of media you read and as such, when you load up Yahoo News only certain stories will populate fitting your established worldview. We are no longer experiencing any cognitive and social dissonance in our political and social spaces. There is no common experience of Differences anymore. This goes without saying since the public space where we disclose ourselves is slowly shrinking away.

Now, perhaps we never truly did experience as much Difference as possible. Still, years ago, racial integrationists sought the need to expose others to Others. That was a hard won victory for many, and now the only experience of others lies in the cramming of cities at work or in public school systems. There are few public spaces left to all of us through which we become exposed to Difference. Many of those to whom we meet is a function of our position and class in society. My high school consisted of mainly White professional families. We had one African American female in our entire high school and she was adopted. University has been the only time where I have met many different people from all over the world. Outside university, however, I don't have any experiences as global, or as unique. And now, public universities are vying for public support in a climate that does not want to fund them and sustain their accessibility to a shrinking middle-class.

Again, you are wondering how we got here. Well, I've tried to show that a post-pluralist society is realization of how we've organized and arranged our social patterns in the world. This organized arrangement is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in our cultural milieu that no longer seeks to understand Difference. Instead, it has become enough to assert an ideology as a form of power over others. This suffuses both sides of the political spectrum to such an extent that it could've been the other way around. The Catholic Church or Catholic Congressmen could've mandated that secular institutions forbid birth control. In both examples, secularism or catholicism can form patterns so confident that they have access to objective moral knowledge about how culture and individuals ought to be that they close off the openness to Difference. In the end, such confidence takes off and becomes a form of ethical violence as Levinas has fully shown. More than that, when we think we have access to a proper conception about how society ought to be, we forget the humility moral knowledge really requires.

So how to proceed? First, we could reassert Rawls' political liberalism in light of these social patterns. If that idea takes hold, political institutions cannot use any comprehensive doctrine when offering public reasons for why they acted in a certain way. For Rawls, living in a democracy means that every action of the state and its institutions must be justifiable to all that live within it. Therefore, there must be a public reason as to why the state acts as it does. The only restriction to public reason is that the state abides by a principle of mutual respect which is something akin to Kant's respect of autonomy. Religions count as comprehensive doctrine, and therefore lie outside what can justify state action in a democracy. The problem is that religion is not going away any time soon and Western democracy did not become less religious.

Secondly, we could allow that religious reasons can meet the burden of public reason. Habermas pushed for something like this recently. I am equally dissatisfied with this answer since the language of public reason promotes an unyielding deontology about what we ought to or not do as a society that gets appropriated by ideologues. Perhaps, part of the problem lies exactly in the language used to address justification of policies.

Thirdly, I offer a different answer. It will not be as concise as Rawls. Instead, I think that we should conceive of state actions and our participation in the state as aiming toward a chief end. Sounds familiar? Pretty Aristotelian, huh?! Except the chief end is not a teleological abstraction to which everything conforms. More than that, the chief end is openness to the wholly other (and for the religious, this will mean a conception of God as wholly other). Flourishing can only happen if a state allows for the radical uniqueness of others coupled with a pattern of social organization that forces others to encounter Differences. Now, I don't know exactly how to do this, but among some of the options of the Greek world that inspires my speculation is the practice of taking our meals in a common area. More common areas and public spaces could organize events that draw us together. Festivals and a calendar of public events meant to celebrate not one singled out Difference, but Differences in the pluralistic sense might inspire conformity to the chief end of openness.

In the end, I do not want to hang the solution of birth control and proper health care coverage on the lofty idea of openness qua flourishing, yet I wanted to move past a debate that merely asserted a transgression of what is right of one group over another. Rights become asserted when one group finds itself injured in one way or another, even if there has never been a claim or right asserted in that particular way before. This boundless expansion of rights then makes the assertion of right superfluous. Instead, I think virtue ethic standpoint combined with Levinasian respect of the radical singularity of the Other might just be one solution to try. In addition, I have also argued that if we do nothing, the world is slowly becoming a post-pluralist society in which all identities assert their own difference not as a point of what we ought to respect following Levinas, but instead that the assertion of difference involves an ideology of power that subsumes difference into it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Midsouth Philosophy Conference

I absolutely love Midsouth. It has been running for 36 years, and I've participated in it for two years running. Last year, I gave this strange paper on ethical naturalism and phenomenology. This year I am comparing the methodological assumptions behind Scheler and Heidegger and measuring these methodological assumptions against value's givenness. It is not a terribly important paper, but it is, however, decently done.

I anticipate that my area of inquiry will not have that many people attending the talk. Like anything else, there are some dominant analytic trends. Despite many analytics walking around, SIUC is well-represented there alongside Memphis continentalists...Hehehe.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Inclusiveness and Philosophy

It is well known that philosophy has a disparity of women in it, and few women exist in the "canon." Even more so, it is important to actively seek out patterns of behavior that implicitly (or worse... explicitly) block the participation of women. As such, the New APPS blog actively posts conferences that have no women participants. This is an effort to bring to light patterns of conduct that hinder the participation of women. It is an effort of inclusiveness.

Inclusiveness is not the same as pluralism about philosophical approaches. I have recently encountered this problem.

Pluralism in philosophy is an ambiguous phrase, but when applied to philosophical approaches means "people have many approaches to what they consider philosophy and they do such things here." For instance, University of New Mexico has historians, Continentalists, Asianists and analytic philosophers all under the same roof. Similarly, SIUC has Americanists, Continentalists and Asianists, and other things too. In such a way, pluralism can also indicate that non-analytic approaches are taken here. In addition, pluralism might indicate that within a tradition, many approaches are taken even given that these terms are pejorative. At an institution, we might find people that think philosophical problems should be addressed in terms of conceptual analysis, or through philosophy of language or cognitive science. There is enough of a gap even within traditions to note that they have nothing in common. For instance, a Marxist and a phenomenologist can differ significantly on many things like the structures of existence, and how to explain the experience of history. A Derridean postructuralist has nothing in common with a dedicated Husserlian other than the starting point of Husserl. At that point, pluralism is the result of intellectual humility realizing that we might not have all the answers, and that perhaps we should let a thousand flowers bloom.

Inclusiveness is a social effort to include all those that are different for whatever reason. In this way, inclusiveness can be independent of pluralism, but in a very minimalist sense. I might not like Smith, and she might hate me. We might have entrenched our heels and perhaps we do not respect each other's work (since we have no intellectual humility). However, when it comes to, say, hiring a candidate, she and I agree on the same thing, and as such, we pull our collective weight to come together for an important cause. We actively seek to include those that are different from ourselves up to a point.

Inclusiveness in a robust sense subsumes pluralism, and presupposes it. To actively go out of your way and include others signifies a strong commitment to valuing many different intellectual approaches because you cannot control what others do. This is even more true for graduate student communities. You have to befriend and promote a community from those that are there already, and like your family to some extent, you cannot chose your colleagues (although in some sense we do if you were on a faculty search committee, and graduate communities can insulate themselves to their class year, domain of specialty or restrict themselves to favorite drinking buddies). The problem is robust inclusiveness is more ideal than concrete and often falls short in practice of becoming minimalist fairly quickly. This happens if a sub-group of the community initiates a cause and forms expectations of others to join in on their cause without first involving them in the initiative.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ruminations about Abortion

1. Bodily ownership and autonomy arguments favorable to abortion usually rely on portraying abortion as a morally neutral practice like getting a haircut. It is not a question of "taking charge" of one's life entirely.

2. Secondly, it is harder to justify abortion the more developed the fetus is. Third-term abortions are abhorrent to me, though in extreme cases probably necessary. Behind this intuition,  there is a type of sorites paradox occurring about exactly when gametes become a human being. 

3. Anti-abortion arguments imply a conception of the state that legislates what can happen between a doctor and a patient. I am nervous about that implication. In addition, anti-abortion arguments usually focus so much on the intrinsic value of the fetus, they ignore, or oversimplify the contextual significance of the mother and the subsequent intrapersonal relations that get called into question by the act. 

In this post, I want to pay attention to 3. It should be clear that I have not offered any systematic arguments for 1 and 2. I am simply informing the reader what suspicions I have at large. 

When a woman goes to an abortion clinic, it is usually indicative of more than simply her impending act. I am going to leave that alone. Instead, I want to think about what implication her impending act has at the cultural level. When a young woman goes to an abortion clinic and we ONLY focus on the permissibility or impermissibility why are we not addressing the cultural influences of such an act? What about this culture gives rise to abortion? This is the philosophical question pressing my soul. What type of woman get abortions? If it is as I suspect women of a lower economic status, then why are we not fighting poverty? In the year 2000, only 27% of  abortion patients were poor, but in 2008, they were 42%. That number more than likely increased in this recession.

The Guttmacher Institute's report is a good place to start. Notice the high amount of co-habitation, or single-mothers already with children. Notice that women in a marriage are far less likely to get an abortion. Now, I am not advocating being a moral prude. I'm far from that. I simply want to urge that the debate about abortion move beyond the permissibility of the act itself. This happens to follow from what I call a metaphysics of convergent vulnerability.

An abortion is an event. For an event to occur, it must be the convergence of many things coming together. This is also true for every human behavior. A human being exercises some relative freedom in their life, but that relative freedom takes place with many co-operating factors converging upon an event such that a field of intrapersonal relations subsist in order to make such an event happen. At the abortion clinic, the doctor had to have went to medical school where the abortion procedure was taught. Such a procedure can only be taught if there is continual transmission of medical science in general. Members of the profession had to develop suggestions for medical engineers to build tools. The medical profession not only had to teach the use and application of its science and its tools to students, but the profession had to develop ways for future doctors to practice their skills. The doctor had to locate his services in a building, and someone had to have a building to either sell or rent to the doctor. Many of these relations recede into the past, but some must be continually renewed in order to sustain the present flowing into the indeterminate future. Finally, some intrapersonal relations persist but are not proximate to the situation at hand. The doctor's office is like any building location such that the police must be committed to defending its public safety like everyone else. However, the police's commitment to enforcing public safety has no proximate relation to a woman pacing back and forth outside the abortion clinic.

What we should be asking is whether or not there are key sociological factors that motivate the likelihood of a woman getting an abortion. If there are iniquities that give rise to the likelihood of the act, then society can take steps to protect women from being exposed to environments that foster women seeking out abortions as solutions. Of course, this rumination depends on linking economic iniquity of the environment and those that dwell within those environments. I, like Aristotle, think that ethics cannot be divorced from the political realities that enforce and reinforce the environments in which people realize their lives. The fact that we can change the environment such that others may flourish is one key premise of mine. I'll be fully honest about that.

Relative freedom over one's life is the range of thing's we can control immediately. However, it is not an absolute freedom divorced from the field of intrapersonal relations that constitute all moral possibility. In this way, I suggest that philosophers try to identify those assumptions behind what possible reasons a woman might want to receive an abortion. Several suggestions come to mind:

1. The cultural understanding of a relationship is skewed. Men still make more than women, and women do not fare as well as men financially. Men can act more freely than women, and it is often the hallmark of some feminists to achieve an ontological equivalency with men. In intimate relationships, this might mean thinking that abortion is a technological equivalent to thinking that women like men can sleep with whomever they want without moral consequence (which is false for either men or women). Indeed, abortion can be used this way. However, the dynamics of our current age do not consider how nurturing relationships should be. Let me explain.

Allain De Botton wrote a piece on love and talked about it on NPR a long time ago. In that piece, he rightly identified that Hollywood movies only portray the difficulties of getting together. Every romantic comedy your wife or girlfriend has every shown you has been about resolving the difficulties of getting in love. No one stops to think about the everyday work it means to make a marriage work. Such nurturing relationships are part of what is lacking in the field of intrapersonal relations and probably why married women are far less likely to get an abortion. They are in environments conducive to planning children with their partners. We do not have a culture that reflects on the likely and sustaining causes of iniquity that put women and men at risk in varying ways.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Phenomenology is Ontology: How Phenomenology Becomes Philosophical Anthropology (shortly stated))

There is a philosophical analogy I'd like to draw. Years ago, metaethicists insisted that their discourses were neutral with respect to normative theories. This entailed that the truth of whatever, say, the concept of good is did not impact whether or not utilitarianism was the best normative theory. The higher-ordered inquiry transcended normative theories and had no bearing on them. This has been argued as a boldfaced lie.

In phenomenology, we commonly tell ourselves that descriptions are neutral. We strip away all our presuppositions and biases about a phenomenon, let that phenomenon come to self-givenness, and describe it from the position of the transcendental viewpoint (a la Husserl). This whole process is in conceptual tension with the natural attitude, the perspective necessary to assume when we describe nature as a set of causal relationships. Such a perspective, it is argued, cannot get at the primordial intentionality as to how consciousness relates to phenomenon. The natural attitude is the third-personal viewpoint, the one we take to describe events as if we stand over and above them impersonally observing what happens to be the case. We forget that human beings fundamentally live out their lives in the first-personal viewpoint as intentional creatures and never fully achieve the reflective distance feigned in the third-personal viewpoint.

When a phenomenological thinker draws the distinction between the phenomenological and the natural attitude, the phenomenologist only lays claim to primordiality in opposition to the empirical standpoint. The descriptions are ontologically neutral since the whole phenomenological reduction pushes aside our biases in bracketing. I take issue with this. Like above, the phenomenological descriptions are said to be primordial, more privileged and yet somehow they still receive more priority than the natural attitude. The natural attitude receives the same treatment that normative theories receive. Normative theories and natural attitude models explain only by assuming much about concepts; they depend on a more primordial level of inquiry. Here's where the similarity ends.

Metaethicists don't lay claim to ontological neutrality like phenomenologists. The metaethicists are steeped in questions about the ontology of value. To given an account for why cognitivism is true about value is to offer an ontological account about value. Similarly, I argue that phenomenologists are steeped in questions about the status of essences, concepts and what it means for something to be "given" and an object's givenness. Many phenomenologists, Heidegger notwithstanding, rely on a thoroughly traditional metaphysical and theological language to describe phenomena. Somehow, I think Heidegger's inspiration from poetry does not succumb to this problem as much.

Heidegger appropriated phenomenology to originally approach the question and meaning of Being. For him, phenomenology is a way into doing fundamental ontology. This follows from the fact that phenomenological methods open up a way into ontology, specifically when we start to think about how the self is constituted by the lifeworld, and we start to uncover the implicit becoming and participation of the self as a socio-historic subjectivity immersed in the lifeworld. This is why I think that Scheler's work, which opens up to a yet-to-come-metaphysics becomes ontologically rich. The ontological richness and need to elucidate the relationship between man, the world and God is what Scheler calls philosophical anthropology.