Academic philosophers and morality

I wrote the following in response to a conversation at bloggingheadstv, in which a professor of philosophy at U.C. Riverside discusses his empirical research into the behavior of philosophy professors who specialize in ethics, morality, or political philosophy.

http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/30202

Having known a substantial number of academic philosophers engaged in ethical/moral inquiry, or in political philosophy, I would not expect them to be any “better” or worse than other people.   There are some ethical/moral “philosophers” I have known in whose behavior I could be greatly disappointed, but in most cases things do not even rise to this level.  They’re just people doing a job.  How and why they are doing the job they are doing is usually something of a mystery, but it does not appear to be because of an overwhelming desire for justice.

My problem with the studies undertaken by Prof.  Schwitzgebel of U.C. Riverside is that they focus on trivial questions.  The charitable giving question is less trivial than the others, and Peter Singer has paved the way there for establishing quantitative principles of giving and, apparently, sticking to them.  Obviously, not every academic philosopher will agree with Singer’s premises or conclusions and so will not feel bound by them.  But there was a good review of all this in a recent “New York Review of Books,” and I am certainly glad that Singer is out there, doing what he does.

This conversation was undermined, in my opinion, by what seemed to be a willing refusal to confront what the professionalization of philosophy implies, and what the professionalization of philosophy as an exercise in logic or applied logic implies.  More interesting than these studies would be well-designed psychological studies about the kinds of people who become academic ethicists in the US, about what their moral thinking was like before they became professional academic philosophers.

First, one has to know what is just in a given ethically or morally troubling situation, which is very difficult.  Then, one has to have the courage, or conviction, or character to do what justice demands.  Those are two very different things, although Socrates appears to have claimed that they were not different, that knowledge is virtue, and vice versa.  A philosopher might well be good at establishing a moral principle and then not be good at all at implementing it, not because he can’t see how the principle applies to a situation, but simply due to a character defect.  There is nothing surprising here.

But I don’t see why one would expect people who are working in an industry, an industry that rewards finding arguments for things and expressing those arguments concisely, elegantly, sometimes with wit, an industry that rewards apparent novelty considerably more than it rewards humanitarianism, for lack of a better short description, and does not care about unreturned library books or voting behavior, or even effectiveness in teaching, why would one expect such an industry to produce just or humanitarian behavior more than some other line of work, say the bar, or waste management?

Brief Eulogy

Last week our friend Tony died.  He died very suddenly of a cancer that was diagnosed too late, but which possibly could not have been arrested in any case.  He was one month older than I, 60-years-old.  Tony was one of the sweetest men I ever met.  Requiescas in pace, Tony.

Is there a risk of a real US-Israel rift?

This op-ed in today’s NYT by a Princeton academic draws an analogy between US-Israel relations today and France-Israel relations 1967.

http://www.nytimes.com//2010/04/01/opinion/01bass.html

Generally speaking, people seem to take the rift between Obama and Netanyahu (or between the US and Israel, if one wants to depersonalize things) more seriously than I would have expected them to do. The real problem, as I see it, is that, supposing that Obama were prepared to oppose Israel in the UN and to vote against her, for example, a lot of US Jews who have been reliable Democratic donors and voters, perhaps the majority of such people, switch to the Republicans, putting New York and New Jersey into play, probably ceding Florida, it’s a hugely risky move in terms of domestic national politics. Instead of altering US-Israel relations, one ends up altering the balance of power in US domestic politics. It is almost as though one has to convince neocons that things have to change, that Israel is sailing the US down the river in strategic terms, where “strategic” is just a euphemism for energy supplies. I do not think that David Frum or Charles Krauthammer can be convinced, not ever.

http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26641

Robert Kagan left a small opening the other day when speaking to Robert Wright about US-Israel relations on bloggingheadstv, but he probably can’t be convinced either.

<http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/26981&gt;

My sense is that this NYT piece is a fantasy, written because it could be written and published.

My own view is that the US Jewish community is putting world Jewry in a terrible position by virtue of its unflagging support for Israel. It is creating conditions for virulent world-wide anti-Semitism from which Israel will not be able to save the Jews. Jews in France, and there are a lot of us, would be particularly vulnerable. Essentially, the US Jews have bought into the macho Israeli mentality of peace through strength, but it’s a losing long-term strategy, it simply can’t work in the end, given where all the fossil fuels happen to be. It might have worked in a unipolar world completely dominated by the US, but we are not in that world. And it could well be the case that if more US Jews had actually had to fight in a war, instead of just talking about fighting in wars, things would be different.
I can barely imagine Obama confronting his problem with the US Jews in a second term, but it’s not likely. Staunch supporters of Israel will complain about double standards and terrible political conditions in the Arab world. Such complaints are both valid and largely irrelevant. Things are as they are in the world, and are unlikely to change in Israel’s favor. To the contrary, there is every likelihood that the world will turn against Israel before it addresses more important and intractable problems, like climate change. No one forced Israel to embark upon occupation, but she will be forced to end it eventually, one way or the other. It would be better for all concerned if the occupation were ended in a way that had the support of the industrialized world.

Health-care reform passage, preliminary reaction

How do I feel about health-care reform?  Better than if it had not passed, but not very enthusiastic, in the end.  I found this interview by Doug Henwood (March 25, 2010) of a single-payer advocate, Steffie Woolhandler, rather convincing on the question of cost-containment, and for months I had been hearing Robert Scheer say that costs have been skyrocketing in Massachusetts.  (Henwood’s interview of Tom Athanasiou concerning global warming, in the same broadcast, is also excellent.)

http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#100305

On the other hand, my sense is that Americans generally do not want to confront the cost problem, or the explicit rationing that will result if and when the cost problem is addressed more explicitly.

I will have to read the John Cassidy articles in “The New Yorker,” to which we subscribe, referred to by Ross Douthat.  These articles apparently argue that the legislation will likely cause health-care costs to escalate.

douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/the-heresies-of-john-cassidy/

My overall sense is that the legislation will do some good for the class of additional Medicaid recipients it creates.  Mainly, I am pleased about the legislative victory for Obama and the reversal of the sense that his would be a failed, and one-term presidency.  It is important that the first black president not be perceived as a failure, or as extremely weak.

I came to believe that financial reform was more important than health-care reform, both on its merits and politically.  Obama ceded too much ground to the Republicans and the new populism represented in part by the Tea Party movement by the way in which the bank bailouts were handled.  I agree completely with Robert Scheer on this point.

I am fundamentally ambivalent.  Part of me wants Obama to be more resolutely progressive/liberal than he has been, and perhaps more so than he actually is, and part of me thinks that this would be politically impossible, regardless of what Obama’s core beliefs are.  One part of the country, the Democratic part, seems to be much more rational than the other part.

I just don’t see how the economic calculations of individual actors can possibly combine, by themselves, to do much to solve the problems of health-care, education,  or global warming.  It’s not that I love government bureaucracy.  No one could possibly love government bureaucracy.  But I don’t love corporate bureaucracy either.  If the proponents of markets would spend some time talking about the problems of  bureaucracy per se, rather than about the problems of government, they would be far more credible.  And it is difficult to see how the profit motive, which is what distinguishes private from public bureaucracy, can really be consistent with providing good and affordable health care for nearly everyone.  The debate that occurred tended not to address this question, but, regrettably, the debate is far from over.

“Accidental Husband” – should have been aborted

“Accidental Husband” is a 2008 romantic comedy directed by Griffin Dunne and used as a star vehicle for Uma Thurman, but it also enjoys the presence of Colin Firth and Isabella Rosellini in supporting roles.  It was released to theaters in the UK but went direct to DVD in the US because its distributor went bankrupt, according to an Internet source.  I saw it last night because it had been on French satellite TV.  It is a terrible movie.  Nearly everyone agrees about that.  But the reason it is terrible, and the reason its script is unbelievable, is that the basic premise is that true love can develop quickly between an upper-middle-class author and radio personality (Thurman), whose career is to dispense advice about love and finding Mr. Right to women, and a working-class stiff in Queens, a firefighter.  It is true that this firefighter has the cosmopolitan trait of being on good terms with an Asian family of vaguely Indian extraction, because he lives in an apartment above their restaurant and because, presumably, he’s an open-minded guy.  The fiancée, who breaks off an engagement or courtship with our firefighter, appears to have been Hispanic.  So the firefighter lives in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Queens and is not a racist.  But does this make it at all likely that the well-off and successful career-girl Manhattanite heroine, who also happens to be a striking beauty, heretofore highly practical in her approach to love, will get wet only for the firefighter?

The only interest to me in this movie is that its plot hinges entirely on a dubious premise about love between people of different social class in America.  No reviewer or viewer of the movie whom I read this morning on the Internet comments directly on this, but this is the only point of the movie.  This raises the question of whether there is a taboo about discussing social class in America in public.  It is the mixing of social classes which drives the plot and makes the movie’s ending entirely predictable.  The only other plot feature of interest is that it’s apparently OK, or even desirable, for an erstwhile upper-middle-class bride in white, including veil, to have premarital sex with the fireman she loves.

The premise of the movie is consistent with serious sociological studies that I have heard about on the Internet.  There are not enough high-earning, well-educated men to go around for the number of highly educated, high- earning women in the US, apparently.  So high-earning women are learning to make do with less well-educated men as husbands, or so I have heard.  My wife and I have not actually run into these couples.  In our own case, my wife made more money than I did in our professional lives, but she is not the better educated one.  We both found the premise of this movie completely unbelievable.  I nevertheless wonder if this misbegotten movie script was conceived in the way that Malcom Gladwell conceives of his very successful writings, if it was ripped straight from the headlines of some work in academic sociology.  In any case, this sociological premise might be interesting to watch if it were presented at all believably, and if the viewer were presented with some of the moments of tension which are likely to arise in the social and extended family lives of married couples in which levels of education and taste differ markedly.

Doug Henwood, often indispensable

Everyone should listen to this edition of Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” (March 13, 2010).

http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#100313

First, you will hear one of the best interviews I have heard about the financial crisis.  The first interviewee is a woman who has written a new book about the financial crisis, and who blogs at Naked Capitalism, under the pseudonym of Yves Smith.  She had experience in investment banking on Wall Street in the 1980’s and now works as a financial consultant.  Everything she says rings true to me.

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/

The second interview is with economist Robert Poland and is also quite good.

America’s relations with Israel

My friend Chris asked via email whether I think that Hillary Clinton’s recent 43-minute phone call to Netanyahu, in which the latter was apparently rebuked for the embarrassing authorization of over 600 new housing units for Israelis in East Jerusalem, represents an important turn in US-Israel relations.  My answer is that I doubt it.  My suspicion is that what the Obama Administration was most upset about were the optics and timing of the authorization, coinciding as it did with Biden’s visit to Israel.  There is as yet no evidence that Obama is prepared to stand up to America’s Israel lobby, and, until that happens, nothing is likely to alter Israel’s intransigence or apparent intention to annex ever more territory in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

I remain puzzled about what advantages the US derives from its “strategic alliance” with Israel.  This is the question raised by the intervention of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt into the debate about America’s relations with Israel.  Robert Wright missed a golden opportunity to address this question while talking to prominent neo-con David Frum recently on bloggingheadstv.

http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/266…7:49&out=40:36

I am as puzzled by Wright’s failure to address the Realpolitik of America’s relations with Israel as I am by the question of what the calculations actually are which lead America to support Israel so unfailingly, once one leaves the outsized influence of the Israel lobby to one side.

Here, in slightly edited form (edited primarily to remove things specific to the forum, but also to add the value of Israeli intelligence to the US), is what I had to say about this discussion in the bloggingheadstv forums.

“Frum contends that the reason the US should not pressure Israel to concede more to the Palestinians than the relative strength of military forces of Israel v. Palestinians would dictate is that the US has nothing to gain from the application of such pressure. But wait. A lof of people think that the US has much to gain in the Mideast from getting this dispute off the table, more or less. What advantage does the US get from the status quo, or from having Israel as an ally? The most I can come up with is the military advantage of the use of Israel’s air bases and air capability in a future resource war, coupled with intelligence sharing. Frum asserts that such advantages exist, he does not say what they are, and Wright did not press him on this. But that’s a terrible oversight by Wright. The whole point of the Mearsheimer-Walt point of view is that `the strategic alliance’ between the US and Israel is probably no longer in the US interest. Instead of engaging the Realpolitik question, Wright allows the discussion to divagate into the muddy waters of legality, morality, and history of the conflict.

On the question of what happens to the West Bank in the absence of a mediated two-state solution in the near term, it seems to me that a two-state outcome is de facto still more likely than one state, one ends up with two-state by default, that the international community says enough is enough, they prevent wholesale genocide on the West Bank, they cannot disarm Israel, they create a Palestinian state, and so on. In a showdown between Israel’s nuclear capacity and that of the rest of the world, Israel will back down, that’s my bet. It’s just two-state deferred, the only salient point being that the US could never broker a deal because it was prevented by domestic politics from doing so. And the only thing standing in the way of this `inevitable’ outcome, which strikes me as more inevitable than one state, is that there could well be a serious military cataclysm that precedes the solution imposed by the exhausted international community.”

Don’t cry over spilled rice

There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.  Is that a lot or a little?  If one lives for eighty years, that is a bit more than 2.5 billion seconds.  Is that a lot or a little?

Most people have thought that life is too short.  When old age arrives, though, and if it brings serious hardships in its train, as it tends to do, some people are ready to accept death.  Hans Jonas was such a person when I met him.  He was eighty-seven, I think, and was “sated with days.”

Now that I have passed the benchmark of sixty years on the planet, or 1.892 billion seconds, I find that certain things I do seem extraordinarily stupid, in the sense that they are a wasteful use of limited time.  Today, I spilled a small quantity of brown rice.  I picket up the fifteen kernels of rice that were on the kitchen counter and walked ten meters into our wine cellar, opened the tin that stores grains and crackers in the wine cellar and protects them from the intrusion of mice, and then replaced the kernels of rice in the bag from which they had been spilled.  This is behavior that might have made sense when I was in my twenties, but now?  The trouble is, now I have these habits…and a wine cellar that is far from the kitchen.

It makes sense to think differently about how to use one’s time as one grows older, but how differently?  In some ways, the most “philosophical” response to aging might seem to be to change nothing.  One simply accepts mortality and finitude and lives in the moment, as one did as a child.

A Serious Man – an existentialist movie?

We just saw “A Serious Man” in English at one of our local theaters,  in a sparsely attended screening.  We tend to be more than a year behind in our viewing of films.  Now I have read seven or eight reviews of the movie.  I don’t want to say too much about it until I have watched it a second time.

After the screening, our friend E. wrote to us to say that, because of my prompting, she had been rereading “Le petit prince” by Saint-Exupéry and come across a passage in which the prince talks about being a serious man.  Then, in another coincidence, last night I was reading a volume of essays by Hannah Arendt that I have and came across the following passage, in an essay about French existentialism that was published in “The Nation” in 1946:

“”The French Existentialists, though they differ widely among themselves, are united on two main lines of rebellion:  first, the rigorous repudiation of what they call l’esprit du sérieux; and, second, the angry refusal to accept the world as it is as the natural, predestined milieu of man. »

« L’esprit du sérieux » consists essentially in the social roles imposed upon us by society, by bourgeois society more specifically.  I wonder if the brothers Coen were aware of l’esprit du sérieux as a trope in French existentialism when they chose the title and some of the thematic material for this movie.  It seems likely to me that they were.   This is something not mentioned in any of the reviews I have seen.

Ben Ratliff interviews Bennie Maupin

When I heard about Ben Ratliff’s new book, in which he talks with jazz musicians about their reactions to recordings they listen to jointly, I was extremely excited.  And I will acquire and read the book.  But I hope that this video is not representative of the book’s contents:

fora.tv/2008/11/12/Ben_Ratliff_in_Conversation_with_Bennie_Maupin

In this video, Maupin provides almost no analysis of any of the recordings.  The conversation gets reduced to historical anecdotes and things like, “That blew me away.”  This was very disappointing, and if I had paid to hear this conversation, I would want my money back.  Maupin cannot possibly be as unanalytical as this, and Ratliff therefore did a poor job of leading the conversation.  If the problem is that of not wanting to get too technical, then the interviewer and interviewee need to consult with one another prior to the interview about how that problem is going to be addressed.  And I wonder if Maupin really takes Ratliff seriously.