morality fail

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Eric Schwitzgebel’s post about how ethicists are perhaps no more ethical than anyone else. He provides some hypotheses of why this might be, some of which are compelling.

the slowest contributor

As someone currently involved in a couple of editing projects and at the mercy of referees and reviewers, I’m thinking a lot about deadlines and the failure on the part of academics to meet the deadlines they willingly agree to. In a recent post, Harman explained his aversion to contributing to anthologies by citing several practical reasons. Among them is that they ‘move at the speed of the slowest contributor….” This is absolutely true and in a real respect unfair to the other contributors involved. In principle, the ‘slowest’ contributor should be the one who submits their piece at the zero hour. Instead, the slowest contributor is more likely to be someone who fails to meet the deadline, often by weeks or even months.

From my experience, the deadlines set for academic writing typically are framed in terms of a window. Say, 4-6 weeks, 3-4 months, etc. This builds leeway into the deadline and tries to honor the fact that writing is not an exact science and writers have their own methods for getting things done. Given 4-6 weeks, some will only hear ’6 weeks’ and make that their deadline. Others will pretend like the deadline is 4 weeks, probably for the sake of their own time management idiosyncrasy. Of course, it is not just writers who must meet deadlines. There are also reviewers–of books, journal articles, dissertation drafts…

It is not atypical for academics to miss, severely, their deadlines. A week or two seems reasonable if there is no good reason forthcoming. But more than a couple weeks seems to be clear evidence of willful neglect. In the case of anthologies, this does an injustice to the other contributors who get their pieces in on time. It not only slows down the project, but it may very well affect the job, tenure, or promotion prospects of one of the other contributors. One might object that in cases of radical tardiness, the editor should decide to cut loose the delinquent contributor. But losses like this can sometimes jeopardize the integrity of the project, either at the level of its content or its prospects for publication or success. Moreover, this overlooks the fact that what seems to be the case is that an ethical defect has been normalized in academe. Missed deadlines are to be expected, forgiven, or forgotten. What else can we do, threaten the negligent?

I’m not suggesting that delinquent contributors and referees should be punished or shamed, because these folks are often working to provide a service (refereeing) or writing a piece that has been solicited by someone else, which is occasionally analogous to a service. What I’d like to suggest is that the norm should be to only accept deadlines that are likely to be met. Barring unforeseen circumstances (many of which will not prevent a person from meeting the deadline window), most of us know whether or not we are good at meeting deadlines. Why should it be okay to neglect them when there are many persons involved who may be negatively affected by such negligence?

Something tells me that there’s an unwritten rule about exposing this kind of thing, and that I’m dragging it out into the light at my personal peril. Please set me straight if so, or provide a defense of the willful neglect of deadlines.

quick thought on rights and persons

By now we’ve all heard about the attack on ‘religious freedom’ being perpetrated by Obama and his contraception crusade. And we’re starting to hear about how Virginia lawmakers are trying to redefine personhood in just the way that Mississippians failed to do last fall. Part of the retort to the the religious freedom folks is that what’s being trampled is precisely women’s rights: the right to choose whether or not to have a child, to abort an unwanted pregnancy, and not to have an ultrasound forced upon them when they seek out an abortion.

While I am in favor of women’s rights, I want to suggest that the invocation of rights is perhaps not the best method for combating the issue at hand. What ultimately happens in cases like this is a showdown between rights claims: women claim their rights demand respect; the religious claim their rights demand respect. It then comes down to a decision about whose rights have priority. The religious will claim, like Santorum, that their rights are God-given. Some women may claim the same thing, but it’s more likely that their claim will appeal to some notion of human or civil rights. If this is how the debate is framed–or even if it’s not framed explicitly this way, it tends to get construed this way when the debate revolves around rights claims–there’s a good chance that rights with a divine origin will be favored over those ‘merely’ granted by the state or via an appeal to an abstract concept of human equality.

This is not to say that fighting about rights is wrongheaded. I mean to suggest that it may be more effective to frame the issue at the level of personhood and moral standing. This, of course, is not the kind of thing that can be sufficiently framed and debated in the cable news, but that does not mean that the discourse should not be shifted away from rights talk to talk about what a person is and why we care about what happens to them. By keeping the discourse focused on rights, the question of personhood is neglected and before long a fertilized egg is granted the same set of rights as the woman carrying it. Now there are three sets of rights set in conflict, with no clear way of figuring out how to respect the claims of all three rights-holders.

raffoul, origins of responsibility

Francois Raffoul of LSU has a new book out called The Origins of Responsibility (Indiana 2010). I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it in this forum, but I’ve always had an attraction to ethics. My attraction stems from a deep skepticism about the project of ethics and a fascination with what seems to me to be the necessity of the project. If you will permit me a deconstructive moment, I’d say it’s the impossible necessity of ethics that I’m attracted to. Consequently I remain interested in all branches of ethics, some more than others, including what is sometimes referred to as ‘continental ethics’. From what I can tell, this term means very little and may or may not be instrumental in circumscribing, and ultimately quarantining, the very set of problems, figures, and methods that would define its scope. Whatever the fate of this field, Raffoul’s new book is just the kind of thing that we have needed for a while.

Comprised of chapters on Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and Nancy, Origins lays out in clear, well-defined terms the landscape of continental ethics. Specifically, he focuses on how, after Nietzsche, the concept of responsibility is severed from the metaphysics of autonomous, willful, and ultimately accountable subjects and rearticulated in a number of new ways that share at least a common opponent. Need I speak its name? I’m still in the Introduction, but I can already tell that the discussions will be largely familiar and will likely draw some conclusions that have been drawn before. But the virtue of Raffoul’s book is that it gathers everyone together in one place and sets the terms of the discussion in a systematic, readable, and wonderfully transparent presentation. I suspect that this book will act as something of a launch pad for future work in continental ethics, simply due to its unified presentation of the theme.

More later.

eating habits: a confession

Over the course of the past year, I’ve become accustomed to an organic diet at home. For the most part, then, the food I consume is organic. Prior to this I was an indiscriminate eater who sensed a bit of a conspiracy at the heart of the organic food industry, although admittedly this was an irrational, or at least unfounded, suspicion. On top of the switch to an organic diet, I’ve recently (in the last month or so) committed myself to vegetarianism. This is mostly due to the fact that I’ve finally accepted the realities of factory farming, something that I’ve always of course known about but always ignored to insulate my alimentary life. This is a preface to two points, one ethical and one that I will call physiological.

First, the ethical point. For me, the organic/vegetarian habitus is an ascetic practice. I am perpetually fascinated by ascetics–their motives, practices, desires, and pathologies. Refraining from eating meat, highly processed food, and even fast food (on occasion) is a difficult task for me. Eating has now become very close to an asceticism for me. I want to occasionally deviate from my practice. I do deviate (more on this in point two). This desire for deviation, which is not unlike the Christian’s confrontation with sin, is formidable and tests my will. But unlike the struggle with sin, my struggle implicates the health of my body rather than my soul. In this sense, the battle is Nietzschean and the stakes are the good life down here, on earth.

Second, the physiological point. I’ve succumbed to the temptation of fast, processed food on two occasions in the past few weeks. And both times, I’ve paid a price. Shortly after consuming said foodstuff, I’ve been stricken with a headache. Even though I spend a lot of time at the computer, thinking incredibly deep philosophical thoughts, and reading in lamplight that is probably inadequate, I rarely experience headaches. When they occur, I notice them acutely and a single ibuprofen is enough to alleviate them. Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorists. But I’m willing to speculate that my recent headaches are somehow linked to the ingestion of food that I’ve sworn off.

I’ll keep you updated on further deviations.

‘piracy’ as applied ethics

I’m designing an ethics course which will focus on the so-called copyright wars, engaging their legal issues, obviously, but focusing on their moral significance. A vital portion of the investigation will involve a look at the concept of property and, more specifically, intellectual property. Much of the discussion will center on the value of artistic creativity, the function of the piracy metaphor, and the tension that arises when contrary views of justice collide–cf. Plato’s Crito. Specifically, the nature of collage art and the practice of sampling, exemplified in the music of Girl Talk will be discussed Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons will make appearances. The emphasis on value–its reification in property, its intangible  yet powerful social life, its status as an intrinsic good–will mark the ethical dimension of the course.

This might be a course in cultural, legal, or political theory. But it’s not: it’s a course in applied ethics. The usual suspects when it’s applied ethics we’re talking about are business, medical/bio, computer ethics, etc. It seems that these courses are too often simply a hasty application of a few standard ethical models–always under question, but nevertheless widely accepted and advocated–to the particular sector of society in question (health care institutions, corporations, etc.). But what about applied ethics as the application to society of another conception of the good life? That is, why not think about piracy as a way of life, not as a form of resistance or political subversion, but as a mode of existence that elevates creativity, creative expression, and sharing as the basic means of community building? This can be done.

ethics puzzle

Yesterday, my health care ethics class was presented with a fictional case. A pregnant woman is in the hospital and requires a blood transfusion. She refuses the transfusion on religious grounds (she’s a Jehovah’s witness). Obviously, one ethical consideration is whether she has the right to make this decision on behalf of the fetus. One of my students responds: well, since the fetus would be raised as a Jehovah’s witness, s/he will have approved of the mother’s refusal of the transfusion should the mother survive without the recommended procedure.

The student is likely right, but the anachronistic nature of the fetus’s approval raises a fascinating puzzle. Comments on this are encouraged, as I’ve never thought through a problem like this one.

yes, i can

I don’t know what the popular opinion of Simon Blackburn is, but I really like reading him. I’m using his Being Good in my philosophical ethics class, and besides the occasional Englishism that sails over the heads of the students, it’s gone off pretty well. For my part, I’m also reading his Ruling Passions, a book which makes me believe that I could be an analytic moral philosopher. This is how it motivates me, and one of the primary reasons that I enjoy reading it so much. In that sense, it’s inspirational in addition to being a good read in ethics.

what use is phenomenology?

Side Effects has a post up which raises questions about the values and ideology lurking within the phenomenological movement. The post comes on the heels of the recent meeting of the Merleau-Ponty Circle, which I was supposed to present at but in the end had to miss. The post is too allusive to really decipher, but it brings up a couple of points which should be weighed.

First, what is phenomenology? I think this question can at this time be reformulated to ask, What use is phenomenology? It is obviously useful for staving off reductionism, but if it cannot deliver essences to us, then what is its real promise? It seems most useful as a tool or a bridge to some other mode or method philosophy, but it cannot be philosophy itself because it remains now and forever about human experience. The discipline of philosophy is about so much more than human experience that phenomenology can be, at best, one sliver of the discipline. It gets us provisional results, kind of like clues toward actual answers to philosophical problems.

So, what if it is admitted that phenomenology is a method or a ‘style’ (Merleau-Ponty) of doing philosophy? This is not much better because, in so far as method determines subject matter, the phenomenological method begins its endeavor by restricting the given to what is given to us qua human. This is all I’ll say on this front because it is clear that my objection to phenomenology is its humanist attachments. Its commitments have ethical and political implications; more broadly, it strangles the potential of ontology/metaphysics.

If I am understanding him correctly, Side Effects is relating the disturbing fact that some phenomenological circles encourage their attendants to appreciate the matter at hand in the same way and with homogeneous enthusiasm. He writes:

‘…it never occurred to me to modify the findings in order to fulfil a pregiven mission of what phenomenology ought to conclude. This kind of thought of sculpting a conclusion in order to contribute to a generalised ethos is totally foreign to me, and it is also foreign to my sense of doing phenomenology. What I discern in a particular reading or experience as disagreeable to my “self” as a human person in the world, is neither here nor there. Honesty must underscore phenomenological work, and personal psychology must be put to one side. In short, pleasure and pain ought to be totally indifferent to the work of phenomenology, with only the experience of strangeness as a guarantor of the fruits of inquiry’.

There’s no reason why phenomenology cannot pursue ethical conclusions. But to begin by presupposing or enforcing a certain ethos, this is problematic. To reiterate, however, if the ethical potential of phenomenology–that is, what it can say about human beings and their myriad relations with other beings–is in some sense predetermined by the human-centered method of phenomenology, then we should hold our applause.

Second, I’m wondering if the revolutionary force of phenomenology has not turned sour to the extent that its limitations forbid us from speaking of realities beyond the human scope. Of course, yes. Phenomenology’s French critics have been showing this for decades. And yet the anonymous body and ‘inhuman nature’ invoked by Merleau-Ponty (and cited by Side Effects) still remains undertheorized. It is as if Merleau-Ponty didn’t really mean anything when he employed these terms. What is he doing speaking about such things, as a phenomenologist, anyway?

Third, Side Effects concludes this:

‘After all, there is a world prior to ethics, prior to politics, and above all, prior to gender, in which, if phenomenology is to have an ethical duty, then it ought to be toward uncovering that prepersonal world.’

The premise of this statement is strictly off limits to a phenomenologist because the prepersonal world is never given, never appears. It can only be inferred from experience; it cannot be intuited. This is just as true for Kant as it is for Husserl. I like the idea that phenomenology’s ethical concerns should be toward guiding us toward the prepersonal world. Two things arise in this notion, however. On the one hand, were phenomenology to say something about the prepersonal world, it would thereby cease being phenomenology. It would be speaking of a world which is nonphenomenal. On the other hand, phenomenology’s ethical duty can only be directed at the world which it knows, which is to say the world as it appears to human consciousness. This is a personal world, which means that its ethical duties can only be exclusively oriented toward the personal. It can aim to achieve an intuition of our common humanity, and thereby extend its sympathy beyond the immediately personal. But it will still remain bound the world of the person. That is, the human and its relations. This is okay if we are willing to concede that human relations constitute the totality of worldly relations.

In short, I think we need to interrogate phenomenology to see precisely if, and in what sense, it can make ontological statements that really say something about the things which it purports to speak about–the things themselves.

of maintenance

None of you have heard me say anything about this before, but I’d like to write a short book about maintenance. By putting my thoughts down here and getting feedback from readers, I think I can make some headway in this direction and produce a book which is richer than any one I could produce in isolation.

Maintenance is an undertheorized element of the everyday. It’s pervasiveness calls for exploration. Right away its ethical and aesthetic valence are apparent, hence it’s philosophical potential. The ethical feature ties in closely with the notion of cultivation (of habit, character, virtue, self). The obvious points of reference here are Aristotle, Hellenistic philosophy, and Foucault. Perhaps Eastern philosophy would also be helpful, but it’s not something I know much about. On the aesthetic side, we can cite the countless ways in which we rely on one form of maintenance or another to ‘keep up appearances’. Our websites, lawns, cars, faces, wardrobes, and communications require constant maintenance to save them from disintegration and decay. But the interesting point is that we so often judge the beautiful according to how well it is maintained, not for its intrinsic nature or composition. Yet, we often also find beautiful what is tastefully unkempt or neglected. This helps explain the common attraction to dishevelment, and why we find it unattractive when dishevelment is obviously cultivated–the affectation is easy to spot and unbecoming.

On this view, beauty would have to be judged according to a set of principles which value its autonomy, simplicity, and capacity to endure aging. The meticulously manicured lawn would then fall at the ‘ugly’ end of the spectrum.