Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Favorite Quote

I am rather fond of this. Manfred Frings: 

The element that easily survives all transiency is familiar to anyone entertaining an undivided commitment to truth. It is the spiritual joy that accompanies all individual search for truth. In this search, the philosopher experiences a communion with his self; he experiences the silence of gathering of his thought and the humility and thanksgiving for all that exists. Kant experienced this overwhelming joy in seeing "the star above" and the "inner moral law" within him. This experience is shared by the twenty or so great thinkers, at one time or another, independently of the different eras and zeitgeister they lived in. 
It is precisely during this being drawn toward truth, toward totality of the world, and perhaps God, that the philosopher feels to be above the historical situation of his own times, looking down on it as if from a bird's-eye view. But he seems to have been unsuccessful over the ages in carrying the message of what he thusly intuited into the philodoxic attitude prevailing in everyday life. (Philosophy of Prediction and Capitalism, Martinus Nijhoff: Dodrecht, 1987: 4-5)

Sometimes, I feel this way--a pure joy in trying to find the truth despite the consequences. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Continental Publishing

Springer is the largest publisher of Continental philosophy journals by far. They have very specific series that constantly publish work in phenomenology. My life cannot really get by without it, and I am indebted to a few articles retrieved through our library's membership to Springer Online. The hardcopy of some material is in excess of 150 USD, and the outrageous fees they charge the library to have access to their online content is skyrocketing. The reason they get away with this high price tag is that universities like mine have a dedicated enormous budget for purchasing and joining Springer. Slowly, those budgets are shrinking due to a lack of public funds from the state.

However, I recently learned of a few journals in something called the Open Journal System. My alma mater is one of several schools involved in the Public Knowledge Project. There is everything from Herpetology to Cultural studies featured in their list, and a few philosophy journals.  I encourage everyone to explore this project and to contest the monopoly on philosophy from private publishers. I will be sending out work to some of these journals as I think the reward for scholars will be fruitful.



Friday, February 22, 2013

Hermeneutic Reminder

While many advocates of philosophy may cater to conceptualizing analyzing problems rather than the historical threads that constitute the horizons in which those problems emerge, here's a wonderful example of how the interpretive assumptions [of religion in particular] find their way into Thornton Stringfellow's justification of slavery

Stringfellow's example testifies to the fact that there is a place for philosophical reflection that brings to light the interpretive forces at work in a situation. 

The Philosophy of Culture and the Liberty Movement

In recent years, there has been a perceived effort on the part of Conservatives to identify what they mean by liberty in the intention of the Founding Fathers while simultaneously reading into this "liberty narrative" that policies of the Obama Administration transgress personal liberty. For this reason, liberty activists legitimize their own ideology by emphasizing they are more genuinely faithful to founding principles of the United States than those that disagree with them. The Students for Liberty are organizing conferences about liberty, and the Institute for Humane Studies is closely linked with them. Furthermore, the IHS think tank has generated concern in the profession of philosophy at large. Recall this discussion at Leiter's blog.

I wish to take aim at the "interpretive story" surrounding what I call liberty activists. These people are uncritically Lockean and while I have made this criticism in other venues, I think there is a tension what a proper philosophy of culture or philosophical anthropology would say to someone committed to this antiquated view of Locke and the 17th century. What these liberty activists accept uncritically is that the individual is a wholly formed autonomous rights-holder with an a priori personality. This individual thesis holds that characteristics of the individual are already attached to the individual and that all relationships are incidental to the atomistic individual. Most noticeably, 17th century social contract theorists assume the individual within the state of nature as the starting point of how they legitimate political authority. Jefferson inherited this conception of the individual from Locke, and the Conservatives appropriate Locke's skepticism about government in general.

If these liberty activists, which includes libertarians, Randians and Austrian School enthusiasts to name but a few, all adopt a view of the self as an atomic individual and that view is metaphysically nonexistent, then liberty activists are in trouble conceptually. They are basing an entire worldview on an illusion. The three main conceptual features of this liberty activist worldview are very reliant upon the ontological existence of the individual thus considered.

A) S is an individual only insofar as S is created by God.
B) If S is created, then S is entitled the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
C) States are created to protect the natural rights of S.

I wish to suggest a remedy to this worldview. The reason why the view of the individual is so thin is that liberty activists define what a human being is only in reference to the exercise of personal liberty. The thinness corresponds to the lack of a philosophy of culture/philosophical anthropology surrounding the depth of the analysis of humankind in the social sciences more generally, but for now this critique is only focused on the liberty activists assumption about individuals. As such, I see two questions necessary for the liberty activist to answer:

1. What is the essence and meaning of man? 

This involves the ontology of what human beings are. This question takes up our relation to others, God and the lifeworld. The latter is the overlap with the next question.

Primarily, this question addresses the ontological underpinnings of supplying an answer to what a self is in a larger context than simply the narrow ontological explorations of philosophy of mind. However, a 21st century would include the ontological explorations of philosophy of mind for a fully-integrated view.

2. What is the essence and meaning of culture? 

As the Germans did at the end of and into the beginning of the 20th century, all the social scientists (and this includes the economists) would offer a view as to what the essence and meaning of culture is. Max Weber is the prime example of someone aware of the acute forces at work culturally upon people with the publication of his 1904 The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist, analyzed social groupings with a view to culture. Max Scheler, the renowned philosopher, also invented the sociology of knowledge. Thus, economic science is identified as taking place in a horizon of historical forces that come to determine the expression of the human being and her place in culture. Even a remote sensitivity to what it means to be human embedded in a cultural horizon would conclude that some ontogenesis of forces are at work upon the individual. We are not simply born in a vacuum, and the accounting for the individual is rather complex.

As is pretty evident, American social science did not evolve into exploring these questions. In fact, they went in a different direction. American social science studies the thin individual and the thin structural features that constitute a lack of understanding questions 1 and 2. Is it no wonder that conservative intellectuals in their want to celebrate American individualism in the Founding Fathers would find the same thinly veiled deception of the individual in its Lockean determination in the 18th century so appealing?

Why These Two Questions, Why Not Something Else?

Simple. Every social scientific interpretation that informs the value judgments typical of liberty activists relies on a set of implicit assumptions and the way in which these implicit assumptions shape subsequent inferences can be more truthfully brought to life. These questions force the social scientist and liberty activist to be honest about the depth and range of what is being talked about. In truth, this limitation is true of all social scientists, and any behaviorism adopted for analysis is simply the avoidance of thinking through 1 and 2.

By celebrating the thin individual as never having its origin in the mutual interdependency of others, the liberty activist is exposed. They are basing their entire system of thought on a shoddy metaphysical illusion. The purpose of this thin self is to promote two myths: the myth of the self-made man and the myth that being responsible for one's fate can be determined by doing work. Both of these myths can readily be dispensed with a modicum of self-reflection.

The self-made man is the same ontological view of the individual found in what I cited as the outmoded Lockean conception. The atomistic individual is solely responsible for her own fate. As such, if she is poor, suffering and down on her luck, she is eminently responsible. Nietzsche profoundly talked about a similar structure. In Christianity, we are made to think of ourselves as responsible for our own sinful nature. Though in asking someone to be responsible for something they clearly cannot control, the Christian is at odds with what it means to be responsible. We become self-deceived. Following Kant, we can say that we should only be responsible for what we can do. This insight is often claimed as "Ought implies Can." The same applies to being poor. The poor and the vulnerable are not responsible for the systemic forces that often overdetermine the possibilities they can actualize, and sensitivity to this insight does not delimit the individual from optimally maximizing what they can given what little they can.

The immediate objection to my denial of austere freedom inherent in the atomic individual would be to restate it boldly and confidently. A person can work themselves to a higher position. In some cases, this claim is true. However, the work on social mobility in the United States would firmly deny that we can be uber-responsible for a fate we cannot largely control. Moreover, the only recourse of the liberty activist is to then again assert the love of liberty, which attempts to make us responsible for our own success even though the forces conducive to that success are somewhat more determined than we would like to think. Capitalism requires the belief in meritocracy. If I start a business, I have a chance of being successful. While this claim can be true, the virtue of meritocracy is rather to promote a self-deception on the part of those have-nots who must be exploited for the maintenance of the wealthy. These have-nots will never question the self-reinforcing ideology liberty activists do not want questioned. For the most part, liberty-activists already come from money (all one has to do is following the money for the IHS and one finds the Koch brothers) and their possession of that wealth is predicated on a myth that they were solely responsible for their success and wealth. The mutual interdependency of communal forces had nothing to do with it. If they made it on their own, then they are simultaneously devoid of any responsibility for charity and to others. See how this myth of the individual plays out here.

Let me start to draw this post to a close. I will summarize my efforts thus far. First, I identified the philosophical underpinnings of the ontology of the individual appropriated from Locke. I argued that this view is suffuse in what I called the liberty activists, and this view of the human being is common to all species of liberty activists: Randians, Austrian economic enthusiasts, libertarians and American conservatives. While I do not take the theses up in any focused way, liberty activists are committed to this view in three ways: A, B, and C. In considering their commitment to A, B, and C, I offered a diagnosis as to why this is the case. I argued that a view of the thin individual can be mitigated by promoting the philosophy of culture and philosophical anthropology to underlie future efforts of looking at A, B, and C. A common feature of liberty activists shared with other social scientists is a lack of considering what human beings are and the meaning and essence of culture. I do not wish to advance any particular answers to these questions, but only to point out that the error of liberty activists might be avoided if they were suitably engaged with concepts that actually map onto reality.

Next, I argued there are two crucial myths that underlie why such a thin and over simplistic view of the individual: the myth of the self-made man and the myth of work. The latter comes out of the former. I make an argument of analogy of the self-made man to Nietzsche's analysis of sin. Both involve the strange self-deception that one is responsible for one's fate entirely even though there are forces at work that the individual cannot control, yet the individual is made to think they can control their fate. By extension that one may work to confer benefit upon their social standing is more illusory than real. Hence, these two myths help proffer the deception that capitalism is good for anybody, but in truth is more fixed than we would like to admit. In failing to admit this, proponents of capitalism continue to praise the system that benefits them through a fetishizing of "liberty" and the metaphysically absurd view of human beings common to the 17th century.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Aphorisms of the Edge

These short quirky aphorisms are based upon an exercise in writing. My thought is that there are ways to present ideas beyond argumentation. I do not know if they work at all, though I am thinking of a version of the design argument based upon entropy. As I said, this blog is also my space to rant.

I paint with concepts from the soul onto the world. I paint with concepts seeking an order from within the experience of the world, and hoping that the intelligibility of the world is enough to sustain my desire for the beauty of the soul that projects itself onto the world. We desire to meet ourselves and its likeness in that which is given in disarray, disorder and chaos.

The philosopher is a horrible artist, but then again, the artist is a horrible philosopher.

For me, the miracle of creation is simply that there is something rather than nothing. If it is sloppy, barely tied together in the fabric of reality, I am pleased. I am pleased to meet the order found within the glistening vast cosmos of apparent chaos. Even if life grew from natural processes, the fact of its emergence testifies to the sublime interplay between chaos and order, even an order that disintegrates at the edges of the universe.

There must be an edge somewhere, where the unfinished becomes finished, where the energies of creation sparkle and dissipate into the vast something-ness.

Nothing is a vantage point, a conception of a beginning from a finite intellect that can only apprehend the time and space within the lines it draws---at least, this is where Kant has lead us.

Crisis of Spirit

I think we can learn from Husserl. I always have, and yet I want to borrow the German term "Geist." Geist signifies the irreducibly qualitative feature of human experience understood through the humanities. By the humanities, I mean the spirit-driven sciences called Geisteswissenschaften. They include: philosophy, history, philology, and the social-sciences. As French postmodernism has continually denigrated the possibility of achieving knowledge of transcendence, I want to re-inscribe the problem of spirit back into philosophical reflection in relation to the current crisis . The purpose of philosophy is nothing other than the clarification of human spirit, and the ontological basis from which spirit can be understood.

It is not enough to assume that this level of irreducibly-basic feature of human experience as a subject to be a hallmark of the late 18th and whole 19th century. One could basically read my commitment as a philosophical antique, and yet when the humanities adopted French postmodernism, what we found is a legacy of irrelevance. The humanities no longer tied their fate to the pursuit of truth. Truth belonged to science, and if there is something like "truth" in the human condition, then that truth originating in qualitative study could only be gleaned by remaining forever open to the various phenomena in the spirit sciences following postmodernism's commitment to an inability to arrive at knowledge of transcendent phenomena, though we can speak about phenomena forever delimited to certain domains. There could never be a trans-contextual domain of knowledge that applied universally to the spirit of humanity. From the standpoint of postmodernism, culture either reflected the postmodern condition or the popularity of postmodernism outstrips our ability to know its wrongness.

However, I want to resist the pull of postmodernism. The spirit-sciences have no basis now, and with the success of scientific inquiry, if we are to privilege spirit after its eclipse, we must do so bravely and without reservation. Following Scheler, it is possible to talk about the triumph of the phenomenological subject as a point of disclosure of spirit, and to re-align our philosophical understanding of human experience with the universal movement of spirit. However, I will also not be dragged down the bias of humanism as well. For Scheler understood the person to be of spirit, and in being part of spirit, the person was radically unique. Only a personalism that preserves singularity of spirit can fend off how metaphysics is used as a point of preventing difference to emerge in metaphysical discourses. Metaphysics need not be a form of violence, and the unfortunate resistance of Levinas and Derrida have convinced generations of Continental philosophers to forego an attempt at discerning the rational truths of humanity.

Thus, I think we are faced with a crisis of spirit, and I do not suspect this is the same creature as Husserl articulated. What Husserl first observed has never been solved, but diagnosed. The cancer of a de-personalizing worldview - mostly in the name of capitalism - has overtaken the liberal order, and the philosopher now finds himself in the unique position of re-addressing the tumor so long ago identified by Husserl but given new life in its current form at the beginning of the 21st century. For the very same crisis that occurs within philosophy and the spirit-sciences occurs as a crystallization and instantiation of this cultural problems in the very institutions charged with preserving and transmitting culture: the university. The university is so co-opted for purposes other than the pursuit of truth we are lucky that any work in the humanities gets done, and again, the cultural appreciation for the different kinds of research that gets done in the humanities is lost on a culture that cannot stand to be questioned. Instead, the university is only for the instrumental purpose of getting a job, and even in that function, the language of efficiency, of cost-benefit analysis conceals the movement of spirit at work in the spirit-sciences. In the university, the humanities are incidental to the economic considerations of university education in which those that judge the worth of an education cannot judge the enterprise valuable except in the form of the very sterile utility that stands as the lowest form of value in Scheler's thinking.

Hence, the culture is in crisis not only in the sense that culture does not listen to its philosophers, but that the populace at large has become culturally illiterate to the very sources of formation that motivate scholarship in the humanities. The rich cultural life of humankind that fostered ideas of democracy, rights, art, beauty and the like no longer sway the average American, much less the global abject poverty of the global South. A culture insensitive to art, let alone philosophy, cannot experience the very reflective moment when we -- as rationally reflective beings - come aware of the very forces of cultural formation that inform us as human beings. When and if we do become aware of it, we tap into the spirit of humanity, and it is only in philosophical and aesthetic reflection that we become aware of ourselves-as-ourselves in the larger world. I make the claim that only art, philosophy and religion can facilitate the aim of acquiring the depth and movement of spirit, and this facilitation is only potential. Many forms of philosophy and art are constrained as the universal restriction in other forms of the humanities, e.g. English literature.

Some humanities follow the postmodern model. I am committed to the thesis that this is a mistake. In their attempt to resist metanarratives, postmodernists eschewed the very spirit in which we are all motivated to learn about the spirit of humanity. For the spirit that moves and is revealed in these various cultural objects in a postmodern lens is restricted by the substituting spirit with a concept of self-identity.  Becoming reflective of the hardships an identity faces in the culture at large is not an expression of insight into a common spirit that could appeal to justice of why a group was wronged. Instead, the self-identity becomes a limit, a point where reflection cannot surpass, and it breeds an implicit narcissism in which the scholars projects the desire to understand their own identity as a basis from which no universal cognition of humanity's spirit could take place. There are many forms of philosophizing incapable of knowing the movement of spirit: hermeneutic phenomenology, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, British empiricism, reductionistic materialism projects to name a few.

The only remedy is to capture the motivations of Husserl and replace the Husserlian rubric with a Schelerian one. The purpose of metaphysics is to acquire knowledge of spirit, and only a phenomenological ontology of spirit can achieve the basis from which all other humanities should be based. The purpose first and foremost of the spirit-sciences is to render regional domains as a participation in the lifeworld of spirit. No other form of humanistic inquiry can render spirit clearer than phenomenological philosophy.

On Some Types of Philosophy

Sometimes, I really don't know what it is that I do. More often than not, I call myself a philosopher, but I am so confused as to what philosophy is (as everybody is in my discipline) that the best anyone can do is tell you they know what philosophy is when they see it. Sure, I have an approach, and while I can give that two cent story, let me first meditate on why we tell the stories of justification that we do.

Not only are philosophers confused about the methodological approaches and limitations to philosophy itself, we hold steadfast to a few beliefs in light of this confusion. We may hold these beliefs tentatively as teachers of philosophy. For the moment, we might think that philosophy is the attempt to arrive at clear and distinct ideas, to get clear on our sense impressions, to abandon foundations altogether and seek out the conditions that barely hold experience together. Let's call this philosophy-in-the-teaching-moment. This definition shifts as we teach survey courses or issues. This approach is the easiest, and we need not be beholden to our own thoughts insofar as we are charged with teaching the thought of others.  The philosopher gets lost in the teaching moment, and actively avoids defining what philosophy is.

Next, there is the privileging-of-epistemology approach. If there was one justification story about philosophy and its function, I would think this the most commonly repeated story of the 20th century analytic tradition. All philosophical problems are thought in reference to the imagined position of an epistemic subject. Indeed, this approach is the most useful contribution analytic philosophy makes, and when philosophy is written at its clearest, philosophers have this epistemic position in mind.

The problem with the epistemic viewpoint approach to philosophy is the oversimplifying nature such a position entails. Many philosophers reduce all other forms of inquiry to the epistemic subject such that pre-cognitive levels of experience become distorted and oversimplified to the point that this position vitiates lived-experience. If experience is no longer a guiding concept and philosophers idealize the epistemic position, then the transforming of philosophy into problems is itself an idealization that severs philosophy from attempting to link the concerns with lived-experience and those philosophizing. The problems construed by analytic philosophers often seem irrelevant to the common concerns of human beings. One finds it commonplace that elite philosophers often scoff at the criticism that they have made themselves irrelevant by abandoning experience.

Next, there is the experience-based approach to philosophy. I am very closely attuned to this approach, though admittedly there are fair criticisms one may bring to bear. Exemplified in phenomenological and pragmatist approaches, experience-based philosophers attempt to connect philosophical reflection to lived-expeirence. The phenomenologist attempts to describe how conscious acts correlate to their attendant objects, and pragmatists desire reflection to bear out in the consequences of action. While both differ in the methodological assumptions, the overlap consists in describing the stuff of immediate experience and keeping true to the immediacy as it becomes conceptualized. Thus, philosophy is a rendering of experience, and by connecting reflection to experience, a therapeutic element underlies both attempts. For instance, in phenomenology, by rendering experience, the phenomenologist promotes eidetic seeing to others. In pragmatism, one generates concepts ameliorative to illuminating truths for an entire culture.

The limitation of experience-based approaches lies in the plausibility stories of why such methods work. For the phenomenologist, one must accept wholeheartedly something like intentionality (as I do), and for the pragmatist, one must have a very thick conception of how experience works. In fact, Deweyans have a very developed epistemology and logic found in Dewey's thought called "the theory of inquiry." These very thick conceptions of experience may be as built up naively as the epistemic position is for analytic thinking.

Third, there is the philosophy-qua-science approach. In this approach, philosophers attempt to anticipate the now metaphysical problem of what x is such that when science takes over the domain of explaining x, philosophical framework may anticipate and lay a basis for scientific inquiry. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind often work with this approach. The philosophers seem to follow the empirical research, but empirical researchers could care little if anything for the philosophical speculation. Philosophers push the concepts farther than empirical interpretation can. In that way, the philosophers take on the duty of imagining frameworks that might be the rubric of theorizing later on for philosophers.

Many of the analytic approaches to philosophy take the scientific position naively.

Fourth, there exists a discourse-hermeneutic approach to philosophy. Slightly related to the experience-based approach, discourse-hermeneutic approach considers philosophical reflection a type of excavation of those historical continuities that constitute the possibility of our own reflection. Philosophy's task in this approach is to preserve modesty since reflection cannot transcend history, context and language. These three things circumscribe our attempts at thinking, and in some sense, this approach brings to light how the transgression of history, context and language leads to abuses. Under this umbrella, one might consider feminist/social epistemology's critique of mainstream views of the epistemic subject an example of this approach. Foucault's analysis of power in contextual circumstances

So here are several "stories" we tell ourselves about philosophy. There is nothing to prevent the synthesis of these boundaries from flowing into each other, and I do not discriminate about which is proper. For me, all of them have their upshots and shortcomings. What we can notice is that once we tell a particular story, we provide a justification for what the activity of philosophizing is. Each justification is an interpretive story of a set of assumptions, all of which cannot be brought out into relief at any one time. Yet, when these approaches are brought together, their frailties and strength can be seen in equal measure. Furthermore, I do not think my list or brief explanation sufficient for all varieties of philosophy.

In these stories, we read the history of thought and our place in it. To be a phenomenologist is to be committed to thinking philosophy should outline the contours of experience before imposing ontological assumptions about reality onto the experience. While that can illuminate some features, it can conceal others and philosophical reflection becomes - at least for me - a way of navigating larger issues in cultural experience, drudging up aspects of experience that constitute but remain hidden. For instance, the way we talk about unmanned drones conceals the assumptions behind the forceful rhetoric used in the media. We talk of "collateral damage" in war since those killed do not matter to us as much as the measure of the US military's success. The success of the mission matters more than the occasional blunder, yet when we think about it, "collateral damage" is a de-personalizing term. It de-personalizes the young Afghani mother or son killed with a precision guided missile. What gets concealed is the depth and mystery we find in experience, but often overlooked.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Argument from Bodily Autonomy

Before people read this post and assuming my stance, perhaps reading my moderate position might be handy.


There is no other hotbed issue an ethicist could talk about in the US that as a moral philosopher we might all rather ignore in the Intro to Ethics classroom. Having taught ethics before, I can assure you everyone has a moral intuition about the status of a fetus, and there is no other issue more safeguarded by one's female colleagues than the right to decide one's own biological destiny. This topic can be very personal. Often, the very reaction it elicits borders on fanaticism in both the pro-choice and pro-life camps. Furthermore, abortion is the cultural litmus test of partisan membership in either the Republican or Democratic Party in the United states. The only exception, it seems, is the Catholic Democrat whose opinion on social justice sees Christ as dismantling an oppressive power structure of Rome as one might apply his teaching to oppose capitalism and favor redistributive efforts. Even then, the Catholic Democrat is typically against abortion. As Christ's teaching are taken to protect the vulnerable, the poor and the weak, certainly it follows that a fetus is prima facie vulnerable.

The argument from bodily autonomy is a favorite amongst those that most justifies the permissibility of aborting fetuses. While it is hard to belive that Judith Jarvis Thomson invented the thought experiment that invented the position, her violinist thought experiment has inspired its defense in a creative way.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you (J. J. Thomson's Violinist thought experiment)

From this thought experiment, let me construct what I think is the Sophisticated Argument from Bodily Autonomy supported by the previous thought experiment. Most objections to Thomson show rightly, I imagine, that her thought experiment is disanalogous in many ways. For instance, Mary Anne Warren clearly shows that the analogy of the violinist is only

1. All human beings have a right to life (including the fetus).
2. If a human being grows into a mature adult with sufficient practical reason, then the autonomous use of that mature human beings practical reason is the source of determination for that person.
3. Autonomy confers value on our actions and is the condition for being a person.
4. Even with the right to life, the fetus does not have a right to the use of a female's body. If the fetus did have the right to use of the female's body, then it would violate 2.
5. If the fetus has a right to life, then its right to life conflicts with the claim of a mature autonomous female to be the source of determining her own ends.
6. Given the conflict, the right of bodily autonomy trumps the fetus's claim to 1.
7. By extension, therefore, any hindrance of autonomy restricts the value-conferring action capacity and condition for her to be a person.

The real question is what even the best version of the argument regards about abortion. Abortion advocates concede the right to life of the fetus. Admittedly, I think that's where the debate starts on both sides. Many pro-life activists want to conclude that the fetus has a right to life, and then stop the debate there. However, it's not clear that's what either party should want from morality. Morality is to inform us about our duties in cases when there are two persons with competing claims. In this case, the exercise of autonomy is argued as being more valuable than the fetus's right to life. Why is that?

The exercise of autonomy is what it means to be a person, and be part of what Kant called the Kingdom of Ends. The Kingdom of Ends is what appears in a milder form of premise 1 above. Having a right to life indicates that we start with the assumption that all human beings have an intrinsic value, and that being so valuable, all human beings are taken into account in moral considerations. Kant assumed, like defender of the Argument from Bodily Autonomy, that the development of the person matters in one direction. Only beings that grow "into a mature adult with sufficient practical reason" are capable of determining their own ends. Only autonomous people are capable of being worthy of moral consideration. In this way, I think the proponent of the Bodily Argument position cannot help but inherit some of the same problems Kant inherits.

First, the abortion case is unfairly stacked. Fetuses will develop autonomy, but they do not have it yet. Therefore, they are a marginal case in the same way that developmentally disabled people stand outside of full moral consideration permanently in Kantian ethics. As a matter of prudence, we do not kill off the disabled when they are part of our lives already in the world, but we decide matters about their care that require autonomy they might not have depending on how developmentally-challenged a person might be. In this way, developmentally-challenged people can be half-persons, three-quarter persons or not persons at all. Similarly, the fact that fetuses are not yet autonomous we rob them of that possible autonomy by justifying their termination early because their possible autonomy taken as a right to life impedes the present autonomy of the mother. Yet, the present autonomy of the mother is no more of a relevant moral property than the fetus's potential autonomy. Possible moral properties weigh on our decisions all the time as much as present ones. It's only that the pro-abortionist advocates a conception of morality that favors wholly autonomous beings over those that will someday be autonomous.

Second, the reason why the fetus stands outside of full moral consideration is that the transition between 5 and 6 above still relies on the lesser sophisticated assumption that women can use their bodies as they see fit. Being a person is being autonomous with one's body. In this way, the bodily autonomy suggestion makes all experiences of the body equal in moral consideration. Abortions become morally neutral in the same way that one might say a haircut is morally neutral. Yet, it is never the case that morality requires full bodily autonomy. The expectations of any community are that I not use my body in certain ways. It would be unhealthy for me to start cutting my skin with knife. The authorities would be justified in impeding my autonomy and calling for an evaluation of my pscyhic health. Additionally, tt would be wrong for me to go naked exposing myself to others in my community. As such, the claim that I can use my body as one sees fit defies the expectations of being part of a community. We accept as being part of a community certain restrictions on how we can determine the use of our own bodies and more generally how autonomous we can be.

Third, while I have trouble with the Argument from Bodily Autonomy, I cannot help but be skeptical about the assumptions it makes about morality. The role morality plays in autonomy-based ethics is not what I want from morality at all. I do not want autonomy to be the final arbiter of claims between persons as much as I want morality to protect the vulnerable, dependent and weak. Their will be times even when fully-developed persons conflict with each other over competing rights, and in that case, we cannot simply respect both persons as autonomous end-setters. Instead, something more will be needed from morality. Let me propose to you what I think morality is and how it ought to function.

Morality is the set of self-other relations that prescribe what we ought to do and not do to others. Kantians, feminist libertarians, or feminists appealing to a principle of autonomy, are committed to this view of morality as am I. However, that's where it ends for the others and not for me. Morality should also account for marginal cases that get missed in the autonomy-perspective. The fetus is one such case only for a short time, and to be fair, the language of "marginal cases" only applies to the logic of autonomy-based perspective if we keep to such a perspective. Let me be clear. I do not think we should keep to that perspective alone.

The dependency of children upon parents and society is not new. We cannot ignore how the vulnerability of the fetus and the dependency of children matter in the search for our own duties. It's not as if the dependency of children and vulnerability of the fetus are new to the human condition. Instead, morality is about fostering a world in which the vulnerability of others is wholly internalized in the search for what my duties are to others and to myself. In addition, I am a committed constrained pluralist in which the fact that moral situations exhibit a claim of vulnerability.

Moreover, the want for bodily autonomy could be a desire to remove the reproductive burden of females. Abortion, birth control and condoms liberate, but they are not morally equally. Abortion kills a viable fetus; birth control and condoms prevent pregnancy. Unfortunately, a biological fact does exist that makes females responsible for the reproductive burden of the species. Some feminists in conversation with me have desired the full removal of this burden through uses of technology and time will tell. However, the fact that these technologies liberate women somewhat from the reproductive burden of the species does not mean they are morally equal in their liberating function.

Finally, I do want to say what I have not claimed. I have not argued for an exceptionless commitment against abortion. Instead, I have called into question the argument from bodily autonomy as a poor argument. To recap, let me summarize these objections again. A) Within the autonomy-perspective, the autonomy perspective cannot account for marginal cases very easily. B) The existence of marginal cases prompts an intuition that morality is more about the expression of human vulnerability than the autonomy-perspective can. C) Appeals to autonomy phenomenologically distort the moral relevance of abortions to other exercises of bodily autonomy we find unproblematic. C) is by far the biggest flaw.

If you wish to comment on this thread, then be aware that I am not interested in people that react emotionally to the topic. If your comment is incapable of deductive reasoning, rigor and decent writing, I will not publish it. This is one of those rare times where I would only like to talk to philosophers about this issue.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Killing Osama Bin Laden

On 9/11, I had woken up early to attend a political science class, and as a commuter student, it took me a half-hour to reach Slippery Rock University. Nestled in the woods of Mercer County between farms and Pittsburgh, SRU is pretty isolated. As one might suspect on 9/11, nobody came to class. On the contrary, hysteria was everywhere. When I entered the Political Science hallway, a girl was crying. She had family in New York City, and she was in tears.

That night, I had a blind date. I bought her a rose and we went to Ruby Tuesdays. It was a horrible time. I may have worried what's-her-name. I said that some policies of the West were aggressive, and that perhaps we had this coming. I did not mean in any way that we deserved to be attack, but that I could understand why someone would hate us enough to attack us. This conclusion did not go over well. This is the problem with philosophy. It allows you to view the world from different perspectives long enough that you can understand the rationale of why somebody did something even if you don't agree with it. Sadly, not everyone has this ability and in my private life, I was accused of sympathizing with terrorists. I did not care. I, alongside several professors, formed the Slippery Rock Peace and Justice Coalition and urged the campus community perspectives of peace.

Over the next year, I spent the year meditating on our response. I was going to school to be a philosopher after all. We attacked Afghanistan quickly enough. America had rose from the ashes of its anger and acted with Bush crying for vengeance. Suddenly, the lame ass Republican stood for something. All the while, American citizens heard and vilified Osama Bin Laden. We elevated Mr. Bin Laden to the level of a nation-state. We declared war on a group and focused on one person.

In many ways, Bush made me a campus activist. I became President of Amnesty International. I organized peace rallies. I fervently beat back the intellectual and naive challenges of my Conservative students in the Political Science Department, and I philosophized about peace. I did not seek a religious foundation for this peace. Instead, I went back to Kant as I usually do when I am confused. I re-read Perpetual Peace, and fell under the spell that if we can make the world more democratic, then a more pluralistic attitude towards the world could spread like wildfire--at least, this was my hope.

Since that time, I have never wavered in my commitment to peace. Peace is more important than anything else. In the past year, I am openly questioning my membership in the Democratic Party. To set them apart and convince Americans the Democrats are the choice for the Presidency, the Democrats boasted that they were the ones that "got Bin Laden." At the microphone at the Democratic Convention, Vice President Joe Biden cried out "Bin Laden is dead; GM is alive." At that moment, the Democratic Party violated an ethical principle felt deeply in my heart. You do not celebrate the pain and suffering of another, and it's even more important to not celebrate that death if the person is responsible for your suffering. Why?

Simple. You become the very thing you hate. You fuel hate, and that hate has a way of making it around the world like wildfire. Disagree?

Consider the mob mentality of lynching. If a society fetishizes a group and project all their hatred onto a type of people, then the mob can very easily pour tar, burn and hang another human being. We can re-feel the impetus of that hate, and take it into ourselves sharing in the very same substance of the experience alongside somebody else. Instead of racial attitudes, the experience of Bin Laden is more individuated. We want him dead and Bin Laden, then, symbolizes all others. All others must be like him in their villainy, and as such, the same mentality of racist attitudes that dehumanize an entire group and harness vitriol are focused through one man as the token example of how all others must be. Dehumanizing occurs. Now, I don't know which is worse, but I would propose the experiential difference between dehumanizing a group and an individual involve the same emotional structure. The only difference is that the more individualized the object of hatred, the more personal the hatred can be felt even by members of distantly removed from 9/11. Bin Laden attacked my country. And when it's that much more personal, we can obsess about it easier than we can about an entire group.

At great moral cost, Biden implicitly committed himself to dehumanizing one of the principal agents responsible for 9/11. At that point, he extended de-humanization and passed it off as a political virtue. Bin Laden needed to be brought to justice, and sometimes thinking back on that day, maybe he deserved to die. However, my feeling approval for his death, and Bin Laden's inability to share in a world with me reflects also my inability to share the same world with him. In that feeling, it is me versus him. There are times when I remember waking up for class and seeing the second plane impact the World Trade Center. I felt angry, anxious and sad. On that day, the emotions are many, and my lived-experience runs together like a seamless fabric. I cannot parse the emotions of that day effectively.

What I do recognize is the necessity for due-process, the proper exercise of the virtue of justice belongs solely to the domestic institutions that pursue it in a principled and regulated fashion. Say what you will about the American justice system. It is not perfect, but the system would have been a better avenue of channeling our want for vengeance into something higher than sending Navy SEALs to assassinate him. The SEALs should have brought him back. He should have been judged by the very principles we extoll that make us better than some other places in the world where justice is a matter of fending off the accusers.

The procedural requirements of justice are many. There are procedures for a fair trial, how evidence is handled and even how we treat prisoners all fall under strict guidelines, regulations and Constitutional amendments. These "rules" sometimes let the bad guys get away domestically, and other times we fail to honor them. Bad guys get away then, too. However, what these procedural requirements do is not only protect the victim's rights. More than that, these procedural requirements protect us from ourselves; they habituate society to accept these practices as a defense against the all-too-easy emotional contagion of mob mentality. If Bin Laden had been captured, brought to the United States, and tried in a US Court of Law, there may have been loopholes in the system. His trial may have revealed more about our virtue than we wanted, and for that reason, it may have been prudent to assassinate him overseas. We may have not wanted to reveal the impossibility of fairness, and what does it say about us that we were not even concerned with trying. Maybe the lesson learned is that it is easier to destroy than sustain and harder to sustain what might be given lip service but is no longer there at all.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Postmodern Pedagogy and Texts

On a recent on-campus interview, I had met with what constituted the humanities departments on campus for lunch. Even on the Search Committee, there were no philosophers. Instead, at lunch, I had been flanked by three postmodernists, and the most repeated questions of the day were not about my research, as a Historian and two English faculty were not interested in Scheler or phenomenology. They were interested in my approach to texts when I teach.

An elderly man with a beard asked "Is it necessary to read the history of philosophy when teaching philosophy?"

Emphatically, I replied "Yes."

He shook his head in disagreement. I delineated two approaches to the standard Intro to Philosophy program. From my perspective, these are not exhaustive but just typical. Either we teach philosophy with readings from the history of philosophy or we teach someone's synthesized version of those concepts, e.g. James Rachel's Elements of Morality. Then, it was suggested there is a third way. You can have them read the newspaper.

Later, I learned at the faculty dinner what at that time made no sense. I am firmly committed to the teaching of the history of philosophy. In fact, if anything, this approach gives me an "edge over the competition" as many job ads indicate knowledge of history advantageous. As a teacher I am dedicated to the belief in  a philosophical canon. Put more succinctly, if one researches Merleau-Ponty, then philosophizing about Merleau-Ponty requires that you have knowledge about Plato. Strange? Couldn't one just continue on for years only specializing in French phenomenology without specific reference to Plato? Well, yes. Yet, the appreciation for the very horizon of history is a very big motivator for understanding these authors, including Merleau-Ponty. The canon is small historically and undoubtedly, Merleau-Ponty has responded to Plato in some fashion even if I do not know what structures that encounter. But what about teaching?

I take the treatment of any historical text in philosophy as a moment of brilliance when the constellation of ideas shines brightest. The reason we read and teach Hobbes is that nobody has ever manifested such brilliance in trying to justify the state's political authority as resting solely on the collective self-interest of everybody else. To be sure, there are contemporary philosophers that feel Hobbes is closest to their own answer and develop insights either inspired by or framed within Hobbesian thought (David Gauthier in analytic political philosophy), yet I would never teach contemporary thought to an introductory course.

The postmodern approach to texts is more open and indeterminate on purpose. There is no distinction between what counts as literature and what does not count. As Derrida insisted, there is no distinction between philosophy and literature. Instead, all texts are permitted the same status. This openness is why one could read the newspaper at the same time teaching philosophy. They are all valid approaches to the ideas we want to teach. In philosophy, I am be closed to what counts since I believe in a philosophical canon. The field is smaller. According to the English faculty, I was playing with a smaller deck of cards than I should have and this small deck obviously has an effect on how I teach.

We can resist the postmodern approach to texts. Consider the following analogy. A theoretical physicist develops a framework for experimental physicists to situate their study of physics. There are some ideas that experimental physicists cannot directly test and so the status of string theory is constantly uncertain. Consider also that while not an empirical science, the philosopher is in the position of developing theories and frameworks that become appropriated by humanistic inquiry in general. In this sense, the philosopher is a "physicist of the humanities." Media studies, English departments and sociology may all appropriate from the constellation of philosophical ideas. Media studies might apply Habermas to interpreting some body of work done by Director X. English departments will apply Levinas or Foucault to their texts, and sociologists may appropriate Marx. All these approaches will always distort or use what is relevant immediately to their studies and discard the rest, even if in that dismissive want for appropriation they understand Habermas, Levinas and Marx poorly. They do not need to respect the historical horizon that engenders these authors or appreciate Hegel's influence one Marx, Levinas's response to Husserl and Heidegger, or Foucault's genealogical method derived from Nietzsche. As the theoretician that synthesizes these philosophical frameworks and develops new works to be appropriated, it is my job to know that history. Therefore, we can resist the postmodernist on the grounds that not all texts inspire in the same way; philosophical texts are those that inspire the search for truth. Plato has had more direct effect on history than Chaucer ever did.

The search for truth surfaced in our conversation. A member of the English department told me that the text does not just contain information, the text is an aesthetic object as well. According to her, I was dedicated to the view of the text-as-information. In some ways, yes. However, the aesthetic I appreciate in philosophical texts is simply different. I view Hobbes's search for the truth and his presentation of it as encompassing, rational and highly problematic. Still, it's a wonderful attempt at the search for truth, and this reverence for past thinkers to represent the search for truth is an aesthetic of the universal, a holdover of the Hellenic influence felt even today in philosophizing. Whereas other disciplines may be decidedly postmodern, permitting the self-consciousness and identity to situate and determine the limits of thinking, e.g. LGBT studies, Chicano studies, or African-American studies just to name a few, the philosopher may be guilty of allowing the universal to creep back into the classroom where others would deny its presence. The universal can be reason or truth -- perhaps it's best to use the untranslated Greek here, logos. 

Husserl wanted to re-appropriate the ideals of ancient philosophy and the logos to be a guiding force for the culture of European humanity. He diagnosed the crisis of spirit within the contours of Europe and he was very much aware of that limitation in mind. The ideals of ancient thought were expressed in dedication to philosophy as a task for universal truth, and maybe it is not so important about how these attempts are made. In fact, these attempts may always fall short, yet the expressive moments in the history of philosophy are the spaces to which we permit the search for truth to be made, and in that space are produced texts containing the inspirational residuum of truth that those that deny the logos nevertheless appropriate its texts to express their own limited vision. A fact of irony not lost on the only philosopher in the room being interviewed for the philosophy position!