Monday, February 23, 2009

New Philosophy Rankings! With Useless Commentary

The new rankings of philosophy departments are out! Unfortunately, I don't pay attention to the who's-getting-hired-where business enough to say anything particularly insightful. So I'll just offer totally worthless commentary.

-NYU wins again. Congratulations, NYU.

-Yale continues its trend of moving 8 spots at a time. Unfortunately, since its last move was from #16 to #8 and there's no #0, there's nowhere to go but down.

-I was worried that my friends at Texas would fall out of the top 20 and Michigan would fall out of the top 5 due to various faculty losses (partially offset by gains) but fortunately that didn't come to pass.

-Pittsburgh moves from #5 to #4, a feat achieved by their basketball team on Feb. 2. And where are the basketball Panthers this week? #1! Clearly, the philosophers should follow the hoopsters' path to success. They need to defeat the #1 department (NYU) head-to-head, have the big guy at the #2 department (Jerry Fodor at Rutgers) get injured, and have the #3 department (Princeton) prove themselves incapable of defending anything.

On a less stupid note, I'm guessing that there are structural reasons why philosophy is a field where an observer from the outside would be especially surprised by the names at the very top (for example, there's only one Ivy in the top 5, compared to two Big East schools). Building a top-ranked philosophy department is cheaper and faster than building a top-ranked Chemistry or English department. Philosophy departments tend to be smaller, and they don't need expensive equipment like the chemists do. So if you're a dean who wants to build one spectacular department in a field everybody has heard of, you can get lots of bang for your buck by buying philosophers.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I want a competitive friendship with animals

I'm writing a review of a Nietzsche anthology for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I just read the introduction, which ends with summaries of each papers in the volume. From the end of the last summary:
Lemm contends that gift-giving is an animal virtue and that it is in a competitive friendship with animals that there will be an enhancement of life.
Clearly, this view is totally awesome and correct. My life would be tremendously enhanced if I could have a competitive friendship with, say, a bear, where we see who can eat more things and dance better. (I guess it depends on the animal. A competitive friendship with a sea snake might not be as good for me.) I really look forward to reading the paper, and you can bet that I'll be sympathetic to the author's position.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All Growed Up

For the first time I have a student who's working on a Masters degree and taking an independent study with me. Suddenly I'm the old responsible one sitting across the desk whom she looks to for guidance about her project.

I'm trying to remember every sort of mistake made in advising me over the years to make sure I don't do those, and all the things people did right to make sure I do those. So far it seems like I'm doing okay.

Also, I feel sort of like an authority figure, which is really weird for me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Railway Tunnel

I've got sort of an odd new trolley problem, and I'm curious to hear what people think. Post your answers in comments.
You look uphill into a very long railway tunnel and see five men working in the middle of it. You see two of them stand up, hearing something at the far end of the tunnel. “It’s a train!” one of them shouts. “Run!”

The train appears in the distance, outside the far entrance of the tunnel. Next to you, there is a button on the wall that you can push to collapse the scaffolding that is over the far entrance. You can’t see the scaffolding, since it’s on the other side of the tunnel, but an indicator beside the button tells you that one man is working on it. You know that if you push the button, that man will fall to his death and his body will stop the train from going into the tunnel. Whether you push the button or not, you’re safe, since you’re outside the bottom of the tunnel and you can easily move aside.

You see the five workmen, now running down the tunnel as fast as they can. You know that they cannot get out. They are too much far from you, and the train will speed up as it goes down the steep slope.

There was an accident like this many years ago. The bodies of the men in that accident were crushed so badly that they were unrecognizable. You know that each of the five men you see in the tunnel will meet the same fate unless you push the button.

Do you push the button?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hobbes, and giving up your rights to the Constitution

I've been thinking about some ways to fix Hobbes's view so that you don't end up giving up all your rights to a sovereign who then has absolute power and can do awful things with impunity. Hobbes was concerned that if you don't give up all your rights to a single individual or body, your divided government will be riven by internal power struggles and you'll end up in another English Civil War. (A lot of Leviathan is a "How to not be in the English Civil War" manual.) Hobbes claimed that an absolute monarch would rule in the best interest of his subjects because his power was constituted by theirs. Historically, this consideration hasn't been especially successful in aligning the interests of absolute monarchs with their subjects.

So here's a way to start from Hobbes' basic premises about the state of nature and meet all his major desiderata while incorporating goodies like separation of powers and the structures of liberal democracy. Rather than getting out of the state of nature by giving up all your rights to a sovereign, give them all up to a form of government embodied in a clearly written Constitution, which defines the roles of various branches of government, lays out procedures for governance, and guarantees a bunch of rights to the subjects. You're also going to have to do some voting to figure out who will fill the offices at first, but Hobbes grants that you can do that in his account of how a commonwealth begins by institution.

From then on, regard the Constitution the way that Hobbes would want you to regard the sole pronouncement of an absolute monarch. If people are violating it, they're denying the sovereign's authority, putting them at a state of war with everyone else. Assuming that the Constitution is clearly written and there's an agreed-upon framework for interpreting it, I don't see why you couldn't achieve all of Hobbes' major desiderata. (There are some minor things you couldn't get -- he thinks an absolute monarchy is superior to democracy because the absolute monarch has an easier time making secret plans. But I'm sympathetic to Yglesias' argument that in some foreign policy contexts, it actually helps if everyone knows you're incapable of secrecy.)

This isn't to say that there aren't problems with this account of government. The point is just that as far as I can tell, it'd accomplish everything Hobbes really cares about, while building in some extra goodies.