Thursday, April 30, 2009

Byron York needs black people to have non-actual modal parts

This Byron York post is being linked everywhere because it contains one of the most fascinating comments I've ever heard on race. It's not a throwaway line -- it's standing right there in thesis-statement position at the end of the first paragraph:
On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.
"more popular overall than they actually are"? Usually, racism doesn't push people to say things that are flatly contradictory. Though we might be able to make it consistent if we take a racialized version of Brian Weatherson's view and assume that black people have non-actual modal parts while white people are wholly actual. It'll be hard to reliably poll people's non-actual modal parts, but that's never stopped Zogby before.

The real issue here is that York doesn't regard black people's input in the political process as having the same legitimacy as white people's. That's the only way you end up saying crazy stuff like that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


My friend Ezra Klein has been surfing the archives of the Social Science Research Network, and he found "Fuck", a paper by Ohio State law professor Chris Fairman:
This Article is as simple and provocative as its title suggests: it explores the legal implications of the word fuck. The intersection of the word fuck and the law is examined in four major areas: First Amendment, broadcast regulation, sexual harassment, and education. The legal implications from the use of fuck vary greatly with the context. To fully understand the legal power of fuck, the nonlegal sources of its power are tapped. Drawing upon the research of etymologists, linguists, lexicographers, psychoanalysts, and other social scientists, the visceral reaction to fuck can be explained by cultural taboo. Fuck is a taboo word. The taboo is so strong that it compels many to engage in self-censorship. This process of silence then enables small segments of the population to manipulate our rights under the guise of reflecting a greater community. Taboo is then institutionalized through law, yet at the same time is in tension with other identifiable legal rights. Understanding this relationship between law and taboo ultimately yields fuck jurisprudence.
If I'm on a hiring committee for some kind of legal philosophy search and I see a CV that lists "Fuck Jurisprudence" as an Area of Competence, you can bet that I'll read the rest of the applicant's file with great interest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't blame me...

...I voted for Hume.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Budget Reconciliation: The New Sensation That's Sweeping The Nation

I've mostly stopped using this blog for political posts, but a thrilling political development is taking place that nobody will otherwise notice because it sounds like the most boring thing in the world. Jon Cohn reports that House and Senate conference committee negotiators have agreed to let health care reform go through the budget reconciliation process if a plan doesn't pass by October 15. Time for debate on budget reconciliation is limited, so Republicans can't filibuster and 50 votes will get legislation through. Since breaking a filibuster requires 60, this development is basically worth 10 votes in the Senate.

To put it simply, the odds that Obama signs universal health care into law this year just got a lot better. As Ezra Klein says, "This could be the day that health care reform went from being unlikely to inevitable."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Taking political philosophy back from the economists

Former Harvard philosophy undergrad and current superstar political blogger Matthew Yglesias had a nice response to the post below:
I think that the questions that political philosophers have taken to debating professionally in recent decades have a limited relevance to contemporary politics. But I think a number of fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the English speaking world, all to incredibly pernicious effect. What’s more, though most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics most of them are really ideas of a philosophical character.

Which ideas?

Well I’d say one important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law...

...Another example is that, as Brad DeLong pointed out yesterday, economists’ protestations that they’re doing value-free social science actually embeds an implicit idea that “that shifts in distribution are of no account–which can be true only if the social welfare function gives everybody a weight inversely proportional to their marginal utility of wealth.” In other words, under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. Nobody ever says “social welfare function” when engaging in practical political debate, but the idea that not caring about distribution constitutes some kind of neutral middle ground is an important underlying premise of much practical political debate, and its viability stems from the fact that everyone remembers being taught that this is true in their Economics 101 courses.
The take-home message for you and me is that economists have managed to convince people of indefensible views on normative topics such as what it's rational for individuals to do, what's an appropriate object of moral criticism, and what would be a good distribution of resources. I don't know how many of them would, when pressed, defend these sorts of claims -- their discipline isn't supposed to be one that makes normative claims.

Saying you're not making any normative claims is, of course, a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you make. A lot more in this sort of thing depends on the sorts of emotions that get communicated as people talk about stuff and the loaded words you use. Pareto optimality, for example, has 'optimality' built into it, and who doesn't like optimality? Of course, as Rawls tells us, a distribution where one person owns all tradable goods and services while nobody else has anything is Pareto optimal.

In any event, this is the kind of thing we ought to be concerned about, both as citizens and as philosophers. While ideas from other parts of academia can't get out to the public, economists are convincing people of ridiculous theses in moral and political philosophy that their research doesn't even support. (It probably helps that widespread social acceptance of these theses is favorable to the interests of very wealthy people.) I'm not really sure what we can do about the spread of bad political philosophy through economics 101, but there's got to be something.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Epiphenomenalism about Rawls and my CV items

[I posted this over at Donkeylicious, my generally nonphilosophical political blog, with a less geeky title. That's why I kind of rush through the political philosophy stuff below. Feel free to tell me why my objections to Rawls don't work or whatever, though.]

Asks Ezra: "If John Rawls had never existed, it's very clear that American political philosophy would look very different. But is it actually clear that American politics would look even a little bit changed?" Probably not, I think. The lesser reason is that his political philosophy actually didn't have very distinctive consequences relative to the American political environment. The greater reason is that we're in a political climate where intellectuals don't have much influence.

I was teaching two weeks of Rawls in my political philosophy seminar this semester, and on rereading it struck me how similar the practical consequences of his views are to the utilitarian views he displaced on the American political philosophy scene. Rawls' difference principle, which basically says that social distributions of goods are better insofar as the people on the bottom are better off, isn't a theory about how happiness should be distributed. It's a view about how social primary goods, like wealth and opportunity, should be distributed. Given the diminishing marginal utility of such goods, a utilitarian will be most concerned with helping the people with the least. There are still going to be differences between the distribution I want and the distribution Rawls wants. But given the existing distribution of goods in American society, Rawls and I are going to be pulling for basically the same political proposals.

Of course, the deeper you get into the theory, the bigger my differences with Rawls get. I think his justifications for why people in the original position would choose the difference principle aren't very good, and he'd do better to just appeal to diminishing marginal utility. His point about the separateness of persons and how you can't make up for harming one person by benefitting another -- his key objection to utilitarianism -- isn't respected by his own theory, which allows you to trade off harms and benefits as long as you do it within classes of people. At least as it's written, the methodology of reflective equilibrium doesn't allow for the sorts of debunking moves that my defense of utilitarianism depends on. But inside baseball stuff like that isn't going to have a popular impact.

(A relevant boast: we utilitarians may be almost as dead as the logical positivists on the US philosophy scene, but which philosopher does Nicholas Kristof sympathetically cover in a very nice column? Peter Singer, taking the side of animals against the meat industry. This is what happens when you have distinctive and striking commitments that touch diverse and sensitive aspects of human life. Which isn't an objection to Rawls -- it's just an explanation for why he wasn't as splashy.)

But the bigger reason why Rawls didn't make a big splash is just that the forces governing American politics at present don't put any premium on intellectual opinion, or show any interest in mainstreaming intellectual debate. The same circumstances that make it possible for George W. Bush to beat Al Gore in 2000 and Sarah Palin to be chosen as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008 prevent any current political philosopher from making an impact. If I saw a bunch of American TV pundits eagerly speculating about which candidate would win the intellectual vote, I'd make sure not to drive or operate heavy machinery in the next twelve hours. Rawls may have a nifty argument that you're not entitled to the things you get in the free market, since those things are really just products of other things that you didn't earn any more than a prince earned his hereditary title. But even though that argument was able to keep the young Texans in my Business Ethics section in their seats, trying to figure a way out, several minutes after the bell rang, it's not the sort of thing that you're going to see on cable TV anytime soon.

Being a philosophy professor who's interested in politics, you might expect me to be rather unhappy about this state of affairs. And, yeah! I'd really like it to change. The funny thing is that I've grown up so fully within this political environment that I've come to accept its constraints. My plans for having political impact generally stand apart from my research. It's kind of a weird thing to say now, just as I'm finally starting to write up my big argument for utilitarianism, the theory that stands at the foundation of my political views. But as awesome as I think the argument is, and as dramatic as its consequences are for how the world should be, I don't really think about it affecting the way anybody outside philosophy thinks about anything.

My teaching might inspire a few kids to do good things or turn their energies in socially beneficial directions, though I'm not under any illusions about my ability in that regard. I can give away a big chunk of my salary to people and causes that will make the world a better place. I can do the sort of thing that all of us bloggers do (thanks to all you for reading!) And hey, maybe the American political environment will emerge from the anti-intellectual shadow of whatever it was that made this happen. But until I see that happening, I'm not expecting to write any journal articles that change the world.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

NDPR Review: Luchte Zarathustra Volume

My review of a collection of essays on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is up at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Zarathustra is one of my favorite books ever, so I was excited to review some secondary literature on it.

Unfortunately, some of the essays in the volume were pretty bad, and I got kind of angry at one of them. More often I was just highlighting the best parts of their papers, though, or gently making fun of them if they were really screwing up. The competitive friendship with animals paper, which I mentioned here a while ago, is the last one in the review.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Inference, perception, and babies

I think the thing people want to say in epistemology these days is that perceptual knowledge is non-inferential. This makes a good deal of phenomenological sense. Insofar as there's something distinctive that it feels like when we infer things from other things, it isn't going on in ordinary cases of perception. I don't look in the general direction of my desk, have a bunch of sense experiences, puzzle out what's going on with them, suddenly go 'Aha!' and arrive at the conclusion that that's my desk in front of me. Nor do I need to in order to be justified in believing that my desk is there.

There are lots of things for which we have this sort of noninferential phenomenology. It's not just the way things go with the size, color, and orientation of surfaces -- I can look at a sequence of letters and figure out what word it is in basically the same way. People extend this to all sorts of other stuff. Apparently experienced chess players can see who's winning a chess game in this sort of way. People talk about moral perception working this way too.

It's examples like the chess thing that make me less impressed with this point, however. That's something that probably started out with inferential phenomenology earlier in the players' chess careers, as people considered the positions and the values of the pieces and arrived at a decision about who was winning. They've just done it so many times that it's become second nature to them and there's no inferential phenomenology. Same with words -- you start out doing Hooked On Phonics or something and puzzling them out. Then after a while it all works automatically.

If I had to bet, I'd bet that perception of physical objects is the same way too. The puzzling-out part just gave way to automatic knowledge long ago when we were little babies, so we don't remember it. If people want to say that perceptual knowledge is noninferential for adults but inferential for really little kids, that's cool. But sometimes it sounds like they really want to make claims about this sort of knowledge as a general category, regardless of the age of the perceiver, and then I'd want to say that perceptual knowledge just involves an inference we've gotten real good at so we don't have to think about it.