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.