Apr, 2013

Excerpts from Boston Review’s interview with Larissa MacFarquhar:

David Johnson: How did you become interested in extreme cases of moral virtue?

Larissa MacFarquhar: I’ve been interested in them for a long time, but one of the things I read that got me thinking in a more systematic way was the philosopher Susan Wolf’s essay “Moral Saints.” [PDF] She argues that our conceptions of perfect moral virtue (what she calls saintliness) and of a well-lived life are irreconcileable, so one of them has to go. She is basically anti-saint—she concludes that it’s our view of morality that has to go. I tend towards the other conclusion, but her essay was very useful in framing the question. It seemed to me, though, that you couldn’t think about the problem only in the abstract. If you want to consider the cost of making certain ethical decisions, you have to see how they play out in actual lives. So that’s why I decided to write about people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly.


DJ: So are you writing a defense of moral saints?

LM: More or less, yes. And part of the book will be a history of a kind of counter-morality that opposes what I’m calling saintliness. (Obviously that term has religious connotations, but I don’t intend those; I mean extreme morality.) I find the people I’m writing about extremely admirable, and I’m puzzled by the suspicion they attract. When I started working on this project I was simply interested in what a life lived according to certain kinds of moral strictures looked like. But when I wrote about people who had donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, I was astonished and fascinated to hear about how much hostility they had encountered, and I wanted to think about what was behind that.

DJ: Outsiders were suspicious.

LM: They were. But in all sorts of different ways. Some thought people who appeared to be extremely ethical must be somehow cheating—that they couldn’t actually be doing all those good things. Others believed they were doing those things, but they found that so weird that they thought they must have some kind of mental illness—that they must lack the ordinary component of desires or feelings, or that there was something robotic about them.


DJ: Susan Wolf is certainly right that we find moral saints problematic. But what are we getting wrong when we view them skeptically?

LM: If the suspicion is hypocrisy, I think we underestimate the sort of people I’m writing about—it’s entirely possible to live an extremely ethical life without being hypocritical. But besides that, I think people overvalue certain kinds of sins. For instance, many people have said to me, when they hear who I’m writing about, ‘Well, don’t they just act morally to make themselves feel better? Don’t they get all self-righteous and overly proud of themselves?’ I think that pride and self-righteousness are far less important than most people seem to think they are. I think that if you’re doing something that’s hard to do and good to do, and that makes you feel proud, I just don’t see why that’s so terrible. One kidney donor told me that his donation made him feel better about himself—that it was one really good thing he’d done in his life, which he had otherwise made a pretty complete mess of. Some psychologists think you shouldn’t donate in order to feel better about yourself, but it strikes me as an excellent reason!

What’s more, I think what is criticized as self-righteousness or preachiness is often the result of a desire to further whatever cause the person is engaged in. If a person held back from talking about his cause out of a desire to appear less self righteous, that would be its own problem—and a much more serious one. The people I’m going to talk about tonight encounter this problem all the time and they wrestle with it.


DJ: One thing I find is that for people not brought up in religious households, religion seems bizarre. They can’t understand how anybody could even care about the problems that religious people focus on. How have you approached religious figures that you’ve written about? How have you grappled with the fact that you haven’t had the same internal tensions or experiences that they’ve had?

LM: The people I’m writing about are very unlike me in a whole range of ways, so that’s just one of them. I deal with it the same way I would deal with anything else, which is to listen to what they say and try to ask the right questions. I do ask what difference God makes to their ethical beliefs, but it’s as hard for them to imagine a world without faith as it is for me to imagine a world with it.

Kimberley Brown-Whale, a Methodist minister whom I wrote about in my kidney donor piece, described a difference between religious people such as herself and secular people that was very enlightening. She said that if you believe in God, you believe in grace, and so you don’t think it’s up to you to fix the world—that’s God’s business. Your job is to do your duty as best you can, but there’s never this sense that if I don’t do it, there will be disaster. God is in control, and God’s love will see the world through. Whereas for secular people, it’s all up to us. We’re alone here. That’s why I think that, for secular people, there can be an additional layer of urgency and despair.

I also think that, within many religious traditions, there is a much more of an acceptance of suffering as a part of life and not necessarily always a terrible thing, because it can help you become a fuller person. Whereas, at least in my limited experience, secular utilitarians hate suffering. They see nothing good in it, they want to eliminate it, and they see themselves as responsible for doing so.

Link to the full interview at Boston Review. [via Leiter Reports]

Mar, 2013

From Lindy West at Jezebel:

Okay, so maybe you are a man. Maybe you haven’t had the easiest ride in life—maybe you grew up in poverty; you’ve experienced death, neglect, and despair; you hate your job, your car, your body. Maybe somebody (or multiple somebodies) pulverized your heart, or maybe you’ve never even been loved enough to know what a broken heart feels like. Maybe shit started out unfair and became irreparable and you never deserved any of this. Maybe everything looks fine on paper, but you’re just unhappy and you don’t know why. These are human problems and other human beings feel for you very deeply. It is hard to be a human. I am so sorry.


Though it is a seductive scapegoat (I understand why it attracts you), none of these terrible, painful problems in your life were caused by the spectre of “misandry.” You can rest easy about that, I promise! In fact, the most powerful proponent of misandry in modern internet discourse is you — specifically, your dogged insistence that misandry is a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny. This is specious, it hurts women, and it is hurting you. Most feminists don’t hate men, as a group (we hate the system that disproportionately favors men at the expense of women), but — congratulations! — we are starting to hate you. You, the person. Your obsession with misandry has turned misandry into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I mean, sort of. Hating individual men is not the same as hating all men. But more on that in a minute.) Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Feminism is, in essence, a social justice movement—it wants to take the side of the alienated and the marginalized, and that includes alienated and marginalized men. Please stop turning us against you.

It is nearly impossible to address problems facing women—especially problems in which men are even tangentially culpable—without comments sections devolving into cries of “misandry!” from men and replies of “misandry isn’t real” from women. Feminists are tired of this endless, fruitless turd-pong: hollow “conversation” built on willful miscommunication, bouncing back and forth, back and forth, until both sides throw up their hands and bolt. Maybe you are tired of this too. We seem to be having some very deep misunderstandings on this point, so let’s unpack it. I promise not to yell.

Part One: Why Feminism Has “Fem” in the Name, or, Why Can’t We All Just Be Humanists?

I wish, more than anything, that I could just be a “humanist.” Oh, man, that would be amazing! Because that would mean that we lived in a magical world where all humans were born on equal footing, and maybe I could live in a house shaped like a big mushroom and birds would help me get dressed or something. Humanism is a gorgeous dream, and something to strive for. In fact, it is the exact thing that feminism is striving for right now (and has been working on for decades)! Yay, feminism!

Unfortunately, the reason that “fem” is a part of the word “feminism” is that the world is not, currently, an equal, safe, and just place for women (and other groups as well—in its idealized form, intersectional feminism seeks to correct all those imbalances). To remove the gendered implications of the term is to deny that those imbalances exist, and you can’t make problems disappear just by changing “feminism” to “humanism” and declaring the world healed. That won’t work.

Think of it like this. Imagine you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book about a bunch of beasts living on an island. There are two kinds of beasts: Fleetches and Flootches. (Stick with me here! I love you!) Though the two are functionally identical in terms of intellect and general competence, Fleetches are in charge of pretty much everything. They hold the majority of political positions, they make the most money (beast-bucks!), they dominate the beast media, they enact all kinds of laws infringing on the bodily autonomy of Flootches. Individually, most of them are perfectly nice beasts, but collectively they benefit comfortably from inequalities that are historically entrenched in the power structure of Beast Island. So, from birth, even the most unfortunate Fleetches encounter fewer institutional roadblocks and greater opportunity than almost all Flootches, regardless of individual merit. One day, a group of Flootches (the ones who have not internalized their inferiority) get together and decide to agitate to change that system. They call their movement “Flootchism,” because it is specifically intended to address problems that disproportionately disadvantage Flootches while benefiting Fleetches. That makes sense, right?

Now imagine that, in response, a bunch of Fleetches begin complaining that Flootchism doesn’t address their needs, and they have problems too, and therefore the movement should really be renamed Beastism. To be fair. The problem with that name change is that it that undermines the basic mission of the movement, because it obscures (deliberately, I’d warrant) that beast society is inherently weighted against Flootches. It implies that all problems are just beast problems, and that all beasts suffer comparably, which cripples the very necessary effort to prioritize and repair problems that are Flootch-specific. Those problems are a priority because they harm all Flootches, systematically, whereas Fleetch problems merely harm individual Fleetches. To argue that all problems are just “beast problems” is to discredit the idea of inequality altogether. It is, in fact, insulting.


Part Four: A List of “Men’s Rights” Issues That Feminism Is Already Working On

Feminists do not want you to lose custody of your children. The assumption that women are naturally better caregivers is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not like commercials in which bumbling dads mess up the laundry and competent wives have to bustle in and fix it. The assumption that women are naturally better housekeepers is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to have to make alimony payments. Alimony is set up to combat the fact that women have been historically expected to prioritize domestic duties over professional goals, thus minimizing their earning potential if their “traditional” marriages end. The assumption that wives should make babies instead of money is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want anyone to get raped in prison. Permissiveness and jokes about prison rape are part of rape culture, which is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want anyone to be falsely accused of rape. False rape accusations discredit rape victims, which reinforces rape culture, which is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be lonely and we do not hate “nice guys.” The idea that certain people are inherently more valuable than other people because of superficial physical attributes is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to have to pay for dinner. We want the opportunity to achieve financial success on par with men in any field we choose (and are qualified for), and the fact that we currently don’t is part of patriarchy. The idea that men should coddle and provide for women, and/or purchase their affections in romantic contexts, is condescending and damaging and part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be maimed or killed in industrial accidents, or toil in coal mines while we do cushy secretarial work and various yarn-themed activities. The fact that women have long been shut out of dangerous industrial jobs (by men, by the way) is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to commit suicide. Any pressures and expectations that lower the quality of life of any gender are part of patriarchy. The fact that depression is characterized as an effeminate weakness, making men less likely to seek treatment, is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be viewed with suspicion when you take your child to the park (men frequently insist that this is a serious issue, so I will take them at their word). The assumption that men are insatiable sexual animals, combined with the idea that it’s unnatural for men to care for children, is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be drafted and then die in a war while we stay home and iron stuff. The idea that women are too weak to fight or too delicate to function in a military setting is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charges, nor do we want men to be ridiculed for being raped or abused. The idea that women are naturally gentle and compliant and that victimhood is inherently feminine is part of patriarchy.

Feminists hate patriarchy. We do not hate you.

If you really care about those issues as passionately as you say you do, you should be thanking feminists, because feminism is a social movement actively dedicated to dismantling every single one of them. The fact that you blame feminists—your allies—for problems against which they have been struggling for decades suggests that supporting men isn’t nearly as important to you as resenting women. We care about your problems a lot. Could you try caring about ours?

Link to the rest at Jezebel

Mar, 2013

The Hogwarts Sorting Hat has been said to place kids based on qualities they value rather than those they exhibit — still, each of the school’s Houses does tend to collect a certain kind of student. Gryffindors are often brave and daring; Ravenclaws brainy and witty; Slytherins ambitious and cunning; and Hufflepuffs patient and loyal. It stands to reason, therefore, that each house would appreciate its own collection of reading material — but what actual books might a Gryffindor read? How would they compare to the reading list of a Slytherin?

It was while perusing acclaimed HP fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality that Jesse Galef (half of the brother/sister duo behind Measure of Doubt — a fantastic blog dedicated to rationality, science and philosophy) got to thinking about this exact question; what might a rational student from each house actually read? He writes:

I realized that there’s actually quite a lot of potential for interesting reading in each house. Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.

After much brainstorming, Galef produced four incredibly well-thought-out reading lists (one for each house), photographed their physical counterparts on a bookshelf, and even created a series of Facebook cover images, “so that you can display your pride both in rationality and in your chosen house.” Here’s the cover image for Gryffindor (click to enlarge), followed by its corresponding booklist. For the other houses’ lists, go check out Measure of Doubt. [Source: Measure of Doubt, via i09]

Dec, 2012

From Talking Philosophy:

In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.

One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”

While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.

Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.

Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).

Link to the rest at Talking Philosophy.

Authenticity derives from having the courage to remain true to oneself by maintaining a code of ethics consistent with your words and beliefs. Authenticity can be observed and critiqued by others but it does not emanate from outside of you. People can vouch for your integrity but no one can give you authenticity. It can only come from within. You define yourself.

The conversation continues in the HuffPost Live video below:

Nov, 2012

From Talking Philosophy:

My thoughts on this issue were prompted by an exchange with a friend on Twitter. She was uncomfortable with the themes in a television programme she had watched, and tweeted her concerns. Out of a desire not to appear overly aggressive or confrontational, she preceded her thoughts with a disclaimer along the lines of: “now maybe it’s just me being oversensitive, but…”. A dissenter immediately replied, calling her view stupid, and using that disclaimer against her: “you said it yourself; you’re oversensitive”.

This led to my friend feeling silenced and not taken seriously; her attempts to explain her reasons for objecting to the themes of said tv show were ignored, as she was dismissed as stupid and oversensitive. But crucially, she blamed herself for having been treated in this dismissive way. She thought she had brought it on herself for expressing her opinions in an apologetic, self-effacing manner. By preceding her thoughts with the caveat “maybe it’s just me”, she had invited rude and aggressive responses along the lines of “yes, it’s just you, idiot”.

This got me thinking about my own behaviour, because I do just this sort of thing all the time. Especially in philosophy seminars. When I need further clarification of a point, I will often begin: “sorry, I didn’t quite understand, can you explain point X a bit more for me?” Or “I’m sorry, perhaps you addressed this point and I missed it”. Often this is genuinely done from lack of confidence in my own capacities – I frequently worry that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room, and hence that I don’t know, or don’t understand, something they do. But I also do this at other times. Even when I’m reasonably confident that the question I’m asking isn’t a stupid one, or the comment I’m offering is valuable and interesting, I still frequently preface my contribution with some kind of apologetic, self-effacing caveat.


So then the worry is that when I make these self-effacing, timid sounding preambles to my arguments, I am not only undermining my own status as a bearer of knowledge and encouraging my listeners not to take me seriously. I am also reinforcing these prejudices in the minds of my audience. Given that I am a woman, they may have already been predisposed to deflate my credibility. When I express myself in an apologetic, tentative manner, I thereby present them with more evidence to confirm their biases, both with respect to myself, and women speakers in general. The prejudice is perpetuated, and my listeners are more inclined to dismiss my contributions, and further, those of other women. So perhaps I owe it not only to myself, but also to other women, to try to eradicate these displays of reticence from my speech, and be more confident and assertive. Perhaps I ought to be much bolder, more direct, perhaps even aggressive, in the way so many other people (men?) seem to be when engaging in debate. It’s especially tempting to think like this in the context of the philosophy seminar. These can be highly combative, adversarial environments, and it seems like if I want to keep up, be taken seriously and make a name for myself in this profession, I’m going to have to get over my timidity and get more assertive, quickly.

Link to the rest at Talking Philosophy

Oct, 2012

From Talking Philosophy:

Bertrand Russell married his first love, Alys Pearsall Smith, on 13 December 1894. In the autumn of 1901, he had a revelation:

I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave. We had lived ever since our marriage in the closest possible intimacy. We always shared a bed, and neither of us ever had a separate dressing-room. We talked over together everything that ever happened to us… I knew that she was still devoted to me. I had no wish to be unkind, but I believed in those days…that in intimate relations one should speak the truth.

Russell justifies his change of feelings by levelling a number of criticisms against Alys.

Oct, 2012

(Sphere representing all of Earth’s water)

(Spheres representing all of Earth’s water, Earth’s liquid fresh water, and water in lakes and rivers)

From Talking Philosophy:

While people normally think of water in terms of something we drink, 92% of our water usage as a species is due to agriculture. Plants and animals need water directly, but water is also used for other purposes in the industry. For example, the feed given to animals requires water. In addition to the direct use of water, water is also “consumed” (that is, removed from being useful to humans) by contamination from agriculture. The chemicals and waste of agriculture often ends up in rivers and other bodies of water, rendering it unusable or at least harmful.


One obvious practical concern is working out how to efficiently handle water resources as the population increases. Adding to the difficulty of this matter is the fact that economic improvements in developing countries will most likely lead to a significant increase in the desire for meat, especially beef. Given the water cost of meat the agriculture industry will be hard pressed to meet such increased demand especially if the water supply is under even greater strain.

As might be imagined, there are various practical solutions to the technical problems of water. For example, more efficient agriculture would enable more food to be grown using less water. As another example, the development of cheaper means of purifying water of salt or pollutants would help. Obviously enough if the world eschewed meat in favor of plants, then that would have a significant impact on water usage.

The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use.The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use. As noted above, the growing of meat and other animal products is water intensive relative to growing plants. While there are practical grounds to moving away from animal agriculture, the decision to do so (or not do so) is a matter of ethics. After all, decisions about who is entitled to the water resources and how these resources should be distributed are moral decisions. If, for example, it is decided that water resources will be allocated to the beef industry, then this means that less water will be available to grow more water efficient foods, thus potentially reducing the food supply while also creating food that is relatively expensive for the consumer.

As the population grows, the moral concerns will become even more serious. After all, it is certainly worth considering that the demand on water resources will eventually be high enough that choosing between growing beef and raising more water efficient crops will be a choice between providing the more affluent few with a luxury food and providing the less affluent many with the food they need to survive.

An obvious counter to this is that we have always managed to find a solution to such problems in the past and hence we will surely find one (or more) in the future. After all, the population doomsdays predicted in the past all turned out to be in error.

While this response has considerable appeal, it is worth noting that there must be a point at which our ability to solve the water problem reaches its limit. After all, the supply of water on the earth is finite and even if we were to use the water with incredible efficiency there would be a point at which the available fresh water could not support a population of a certain size. Naturally, this can be countered by reducing population size—but determining whether we should do this or not and the details of the reduction would involve moral choices.

Link to the rest at Talking Philosophy.

Aug, 2012

From Gallup:

Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. The prevalence of this creationist view of the origin of humans is essentially unchanged from 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question. About a third of Americans believe that humans evolved, but with God’s guidance; 15% say humans evolved, but that God had no part in the process.

Link to the rest at Gallup, via Leiter Reports

Aug, 2012


Here on the internet, we love us some memes. But where do they come from? Yes we know, they are user generated. But to an internet layman, they seem to just appear, in HUGE quantities, ready for cultural consumption. Are they a sign of a “cultural singularity”? Memes follow rules and code, are varied, self-referential, and seem to multiply at an ever increasing rate. It may seem like science fiction, but we’re close to a world where culture automatically and magically creates infinitely more culture.