Sunday, December 20, 2009

Taxation, Democracy, and Liberty

The standard conservative line has it that higher taxes equal less liberty, because the government takes away some of your money (of course, there wouldn't be any money without government, but never mind). The study cited in this report suggests that, to a point, the opposite is the case -- higher levels of taxation correlate strongly with greater democracy, equality, and individual liberty. This makes considerable sense, as the more universal necessities (health care, education, transportation, utilities, fire and police protection...) are provided to everyone as needed at collective expense, the greater everyone's security in the use of what remains to them. Ironically, higher taxes mean greater discretionary resources; a heavier tax burden often leaves citizens with more money to spend as they please.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Preliminary Findings

Philosophical presuppositions:

I. Ontology: Nature is a system, sufficiently integrated as to be analogous to an organism (for example, we can meaningfully if metaphorically extend to it notions such as health or illness, self-regulation, etc.). Among nature’s emergent (nonreducible) products is the capacity for self-reflection on the part of some of the living organisms dependent on it.

II. Epistemology: We can make reasonable, though fallible, projections about future events and the likely consequences of our individual and aggregate actions, habits, attitudes, and policies, though there is always room for doubt about the accuracy of such expectations. Fatalism in the face of such uncertainty, however, is inappropriate because self-fulfilling. Thus pessimism, however apparently warranted, is an epistemic dead-end.

III. Moral Theory: As naturally emergent properties of the relations between beings capable of conscious valuation (to whatever degree – we may not need to theorize direct moral considerability completely) moral obligations, morally significant consequences, and moral character are emergent facts about the natural world.

Some Environmental Ethics Principles (please add more in the comments):

1. As a (nonreductive) emergent product of natural systems, human reflective consciousness functions as a positive feedback loop arising from within nature, which has developed unique potential to transform nature itself. We can thus speak meaningfully of natural vs. human-made features of the world, and use that distinction to critique or praise specific human activities or attitudes, without thereby crediting human exceptionalism or sanctioning a reductively anthropocentric ethic.

2. Our obligations to nature are of a piece, and coherent with, our duties to sentient others, the former flowing directly from the latter. [that our duties to ecosystems sometimes conflict with those to sentient or sapient individuals should not distract us from the essential coherence of the ethisphere.] Deontic, virtue, and consequentialist principles are likewise in dynamic, mutually informing balance.

3. Moral concern for the ecosystem flows from (is consequent upon) moral concern for others (whether sapient, subjects of lives, sentient, or living – we don’t necessarily need to settle). Ethispheric considerations gain moral urgency as our understanding, and the pressure on environments, grow.

4. Ameliorating measures (don’t litter, recycle…) are not themselves answers to our ethispheric duties, and can if fetishized stall deeper measures, but they can also be potently emblematic, and hands-on gestures, of our concern. They also can help to embed habits and attitudes that prepare us to take more substantive action.

Climate Change Denial

Here is an account of some of the reasons Copenhagen isn't doing enough:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Women and climate change

And here's Sabina Zaccaro on the crucial but unsupported role of women in managing climate change, apropos of our earlier discussion of the imperative to address gender justice and the empowerment of women as necessary to furthering an environmental ethic...


Bill McKibben again on a theme he has been striking for several months -- that climate change is unlike any other issue humanity has faced, since we can't solve it with normal political processes -- physics doesn't negotiate.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cap & Trade?

Here's a lively video about "cap and trade" and whether it is a meaningful step to controlling carbon:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Doing Something about Climate Change

Here is a nice piece by Bill McKibben, discussing Al Gore's new book on what we can do about climate change.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Practical Steps toward an environmental ethic

Eleven things we can do to actualize our obligations to each other and our ecosystem, develop our moral-environmental character, and moderate our collective impact on the rest of nature (including its present and future inhabitants):

1. Consume less meat and animal products, or none at all, and eat no animal products produced by industrial methods. Eat food that is sustainably grown, minimally processed, and as local as possible; grow a garden (even a small one).

2. Have fewer children to stabilize, and eventually reduce, global population, and hence reduce resource consumption and ecosystemic degradation.

3. Reduce energy use in home and work settings (lower thermostats, improve insulation, upgrade heating systems); invest in green energy production.

4. Avoid air travel, opting when possible for foot, bicycle, rail, bus, or efficient automobile transport (in that order).

5. Resist pressure for unnecessary consumption of anything; keep, share, repair and recycle things rather than throwing them away; compost food waste.

6. Champion global economic and political justice, especially the education and empowerment of women, whose conditions of life and choices have the most significant effects.

7. Challenge large-scale corporate financial and production systems, and political processes that enable them, so as to reduce exploitation of people, other animals, and natural resources, thereby removing entrenched barriers to the adoption of greener technologies and habits.

8. Oppose all war, as destructive of and oppressive to all living things, and environmentally devastating at every level.

9. Support the creation of commons trusts to manage land, water, air, and other shared resources for the common good and for future inhabitants of the natural world.

10. Advocate for policy initiatives at every level that encourage, and normalize as habitual, all of the above.

11. Fight the temptation of fatalism or pessimism about the prospects for improving our symbiosis with nature, along with other debilitating fixed ideas (such as Hobbesian egotism or the desire for moral purity). Fatalism and pessimism are quietist and self-fulfilling, entailing unwarranted knowledge-claims about what is possible for us to achieve.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Population and Sustainability

As you know, there is a fierce and long-standing debate over the environment and population control. If the ecosystem is to remain healthy and livable, then humans will certainly have to limit our population, as part of getting ourselves in balance with our environment. But as we have seen, the effects of population range widely -- those in the developed world have an impact many times greater than our numbers. Thus many have charged that calls for limiting population growth are inequitable, classist, or even racist (as they probably would be, if we were to take only population into consideration). Here is a response by Laurie Mazur of the Population Justice Project to a recent accusation of this sort:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gaia in Crisis

Here is an excellent review essay about James Lovelock's most recent book:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Freakonomic Phantasies

Here's another Elizabeth Kolbert review in the current New Yorker magazine, providing a rather pointed critique of the techno-fix attitude toward climate change. Among our duties toward the environment, perhaps, is to avoid promulgating bad ideas...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Active Nonviolence and Passive Violence

I just came from a talk at Williams by nonviolent activist Randy Kehler, who was speaking about tactics and principles for environmental advocacy, and something interesting occurred to me. As he pointed out, nonviolence worth the name is active, not passive. Particularly where the environment is concerned, by contrast, the most consequential violence may in fact be passive. Our everyday use of dirty energy sources, for example, which until recently most of us did casually and in all innocence, in their aggregate effects wreak catastrophic violence on the planet -- and perhaps indirectly generate much of the overt, active violence (warfare, oppression, etc.) that so captures our attention.

If this is right, then choices such as minimizing our use of fossil fuels, and likewise attempts to reorganize policy and practice at various levels to promote a green economy, local food, less meat-eating, etc., are properly understood as acts of principled non-cooperation with passive violence. That is to say, they are acts of civil disobedience, at the same time that they are acts of civic engagement.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Natural Balance?

Jamieson raises the question on page 171 of whether there is such a thing as a natural balance. This is a crucial question, especially if we are inclined to think (as Aliesha suggests) that an ecocentric perspective will clarify for us the nature and source of an environmental ethic. Since the ecosphere is a dynamic and sometimes riotous system of smaller, equally dynamic systems interacting with each other, it is seriously difficult to say in what such a balance of nature might actually consist.

We marvel at a dynamic equilibrium between predators, prey, and fauna in a mature island ecosystem, for example, and value its stability, diversity (of several kinds) and resilience. But to do so requires us to choose a time slice in which we view it, ignoring the prior periods of creative-destructive disequilibrium which made it what it now is.

We cannot, that is, assume that our simple idea of healthy ecospheric balance is more than another anthropocentric wish-projection; we will have to show, conceptually and scientifically, that it is an independently credible notion.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Goodpaster argues for biocentrism, the view that all life is deserving of direct moral consideration, on the grounds that everything is so deserving that has interests. For a more recent and very sophisticated defense of this view, see Nicholas Agar's book Life's Intrinsic Value(Columbia University Press, 2001). On this view, drawing the line at sentience (or at subjects of lives, as Regan does) seems arbitrary.

There are, of course, some difficulties. One, which we have discussed, is that rocks and molecules can also sensibly said to have interests (in maintaining their structural integrity) in precisely the same, unconscious sense that plants and microbes do, though to a less active degree (and crystals even grow...). Thus the line between what is living and non-living might fall to the same sort of criticism as the biocentrists level at the line between sentience and vegetation.

A second problem is how we might go about fulfilling our duties to microbes, since if they have even a tiny bit of direct moral considerability, eating, moving, and breathing would amount to mass murder. A moral theory which demands that all moral agents cease to exist as soon as they realize that all life is valuable seems to ask far too much.

Thirdly, biocentrism does not, after all, resolve the question of the nature and origin of our moral responsibilities for the ecosystem as such. Some further line of reasoning will still be required to make that out, as with the previous theories we have discussed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Eating Animals

Apropos of our conversation on Wednesday about the merits and demerits of eating meat, here is a thoughtful review from this week's New Yorker magazine of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book about meateating. The author is Betsy Kolbert, who lives here in Northern Berkshire. I think you will find this article a nice complement to our reading and conversation so far:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Global Warming Concerns

Many people have lamented the new poll figures from the Pew Research Center, showing that public concerns about global climate change have softened:

In itself this poll, like all such data, is merely a snapshot of a moment, and in our factoid- and crisis-driven media culture there is nothing surprising about such fluctuations of concern. I am more concerned about the methodology itself, which treats this problem on a par with the other sorts of things people are worried about (taxes, the world series...) as though it were just another question that we will eventually work out some sort of compromise on -- and no doubt we will.

The problem with this, as Bill McKibben has lately been pointing out, is that all indicators are pointing toward a much more rapid climate shift than scientists had anticipated, and chemistry and physics don't negotiate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Environmental Ethics and Animals

Given the vast range of issues and lines of argument he has to summarize, Jamieson does a remarkable job in Chapter 5 of surveying the central problems and positions on non-human animals. It is beyond the scope of this course to resolve all the serious and interesting questions raised by human-animal relations. These are questions that will not go away, and each of us will be dealing with them for a long time.

For present purposes, however, we might be able to take an intellectual short-cut. Suppose we set aside the discussion of the moral standing of various kinds of animals for a moment, and limit ourselves to questions of the larger environment. Aside from what meat-eating does to animals as experiencing beings, we can ask the restricted question of its impact on the ecosphere. Credible empirical data suggest that current practices of animal agriculture (including CAFOs and the fossil-fuel intensive monoculture of grain and legume crops for animal feed) are locally and globally catastrophic, and thus perhaps by themselves dispositive of almost all meat-eating in the developed world (which is where most meat is consumed).

If this is the case, then for now perhaps we need not settle critical disputes about moral standing (as between whether only rational beings count morally, or also subjects of lives, or all sentients, and so on). Environmentally, how we answer any of these questions may turn out to be moot.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jobs for Moral Philosophers

Assistant professor, tenure track. AOS: Kantian or Deontological Ethics. Candidates must have unqualifiedly good wills, present themselves with dignity, and be able to work autonomously for extended periods. Successful candidate will be capable of reason and have the 'I' in her or his representation, though need not necessarily confine moral concern to other rational beings. Truthfulness and Ph.D. categorically imperative; teaching and legislative experience desirable. Noumenal salary.

Assistant professor, tenure track. AOS: Utilitarian Ethics (Act or Rule). Small department (in which each member counts for one and only one) seeks candidate who can get results; greatest good as important as greatest number. PH.D. and teaching experience desirable only if they yield the best outcome.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kantian Environmental Ethics

Since Kant thought nonhuman animals and the rest of nature were simply implements for the use of humans and other beings (if any) capable of reason, it seems difficult to understand how he might be useful for developing an understanding of our environmental responsibilities. To do so, therefore, we will need to make a distinction between Kant’s personal views and assumptions, on the one hand, and the implications of the conceptual framework he developed for moral philosophy on the other. It may well turn out that not all of his views are entailed by his theory.

Take, for example, the idea that the will or intention of a self-reflectively conscious being, of one who “can have the ‘I’ in his representation,” is the basis of moral value and a necessary locus of respect and dignity. Kant assumed that among the creatures we encounter only humans have this quality, but we have good empirical and conceptual reasons to think that such ability comes in degrees, so it could represent a spectrum that includes many sentient animals other than ourselves. Moreover, as we have seen, the environmental matrix fostering and supporting all such beings appears sufficiently integrated and fragile that a Kantian ethic would entail robust (albeit indirect) respect for nature -- it is literally impossible to confer moral respect on oneself and others without taking great care with the natural world on which we all depend.

Thus we can happily assent to Kant’s insight about the moral primacy of persons without sacrificing either the moral significance of nonhumans or the possibility of a potent environmental ethic. This way of reading Kant is a bit like Korsgaard’s strategy, which might be worth another look.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Intrinsic Value Revisited

The question of the morally relevant intrinsic value of the planet, the biotic community, nature, or the material world as such remains elusively open.

Here's a thought: suppose we grant the sensible proposition that morally relevant intrinsic value arises from the capacity to value in morally relevant ways. Suppose also, however, that the process by which these capacities arise is sufficiently integrated into nature that it is impossible to respect valuers without taking their environment very seriously. In other words, nature understood as an integrated system produces and contains all the morally relevant intrinsic value that there is (or perhaps we might say that MRIV is endemic to nature), so in that sense nature has (literally contains) intrinsic value.

Would it follow from this that nature as such is due the dignity of moral concern we owe to beings capable of valuing, those sentient and sapient centers of consciousness to whom we normally direct our moral attention? That question might still be open.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The "Last Man" thought experiment

In Jamieson's summary version of Routley's famous "Last Man" example, the planet is dying and the last living person knows (somehow -- we can't worry too much about these epistemic details) that it can never regenerate. So in his own dying act he (perhaps only a guy would think to do this) blows up what's left. Does he do anything wrong? By hypothesis the rest of sentient and sapient life is already gone, so it's just mountains and gorges and atmosphere and oceans and insentient species (crustateans, microbes...) that he destroys, all permanently devoid of sentient life. He eliminates all future sunsets, of course, but no one would have seen them anyway, so there's no possible cost even to anyone's aesthetic quality of life.

It would not be fruitful to fuss much over the wackiness of this imaginary scenario. What is interesting is the way, setting aside its implausibilities, it tests our intuitions. Those inclined to imbue a mountain as such, or a species of bacteria, with morally relevant intrinsic value would have to say that the guy does something wrong, though it is difficult to put our finger on what, precisely -- who or what is harmed that is even in principle capable of caring one way or the other? The act might reveal a (soon to be moot) character flaw, but it disrespects no-one, has no consequences that could possibly matter to anyone, etc. On the other hand, if we claim he does nothing wrong we must contend with what for many of us is a strong sense of loss in the contemplation of that last, trivially violent act.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where does Intrinsic Value Come From?

Jamieson charts various construals of intrinsic value, but before we can decide between them we need to understand where intrinsic value comes from. My suggestion is as follows:

What we might call quantitative value (e.g. how big or hard something is -- the quantities of its primary qualities) inheres in everything: the weight (or more precisely, the mass) of a stone is a determinate value inherent in it insofar as it is a structurally coherent object. The more structurally integrated the object is, the more durable and persistent are its quantitative values, and the more clearly differentiated it is from other things.

Qualitative value, then, emerges as the systemic complexity of objects give rise to new kinds of internally interactive objects, such as organisms with brains. As this kind of complexity increases, at some point it crosses a threshold and a new kind of valuing emerges: the conscious capacity to prefer, and hence evaluate, things that the subject perceives (or conceives). This emergent capacity goes by different names (intentionality, will, autonomy...) but most generally it is the process whereby a conscious being places value on the things around it.

Only once such a capacity has emerged, I would argue, is there what we should properly call 'intrinsic value' -- the sort of value that is relevant to moral analysis. This valuing process is intrinsic not merely because it inheres in subjects, but because it is constitutive of subjectivity as such: it is the process that defines subjects as individuals. Value (of the relevant sort) thus comes from the activities of valuers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Short Argument for Examining Life

“The unexamining life is not a life for humans” -- Socrates (Plato's reconstruction)

Consider the following argument for one interpretation of Socrates' proposition:

1) Due primarily to our intellectual abilities, humans as a species are capable of doing great harm to each other, other sentient animals, and the surrounding environment.

2) Humans (with normal cognitive function) are capable in principle of deliberating, individually and in groups, about their actions and the consequences of their actions, and choosing a course of action on the basis of such deliberation.

3) When humans act without careful deliberation and cooperation, the consequences of their actions are often very harmful.

4) When humans act cooperatively but without systematic examination of the value and disvalue of motives and consequences, the harm is often multiplied.

5) Everyone always ought to avoid doing harm if it is avoidable.


6) Humans (with normal cognitive funtion) ought to engage in a shared process of self-examination, including examination of their behavior and its consequences -- and thereby seek to discover and follow the least harmful courses of action.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Kierkegaard Manuscripts Turn World of Philosophical Humor on its Head

NEWSFLASH – Atrophied Philosophers (AP): Announcement of the recent discovery in Copenhagen of two previously unknown manuscripts is rocking the intellectual community. Found in a previously overlooked secret drawer in a desk believed to have belonged to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, best-selling author of such humorous classics as 'Fear and Trembling,' 'The Sickness Unto Death,' and 'Concluding Unscientific Postscript,' they represent the first addition to the famous thinker’s comedic oeuvre in over 150 years.

Most gratifying to the small community of scholarly devotees of Kierkegaardian wit, if authenticated they may forever change our understanding of the great philosopher’s sense of humor, perhaps even settling the question of whether he had one. The two manuscripts, written in what looks like Kierkegaard’s handwriting but attributed to “Climatus Changicus,” an apparent pseudonym, were found together. The first appears to be a sort of instructional manual for maneuvering rowboats, 'Either Oar,' and the second a draft of a novela about successful marriage: 'Neither Snore.'

Noted Kierkegaard scholar Nails Thongstrap, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Uncontrollable Giggling at the University of Copenhagen, comments: “These new discoveries appear to be pseudononymous drafts for another of Kierkegaard’s works, the name of which I can’t think of just now.“ Asked about the probability of the works’ authenticity, Thongstrap conceded: “There remains the possibility of course that these are very clever forgeries, but even so it would still follow logically that they are very clever.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Limitations of an Economic Model

Peter Barnes proposes a Commons model as a way of incentivizing conservation that avoids some of the pitfalls of conventional "two-sector" economic thinking. I suspect it is a very good and practical idea, and it will be better for the world if we implement it.

Barnes's proposal remains, however, within the paradigm of conventional economic thought, and perhaps replicates uncritically some of its problematic assumptions. Leopold insists that some important things are not economically productive, and so will be impossible to generate an interest in, even if we were to propertize them without privatizing them, as Barnes suggests.

Consider an endangered species such as the snail darter, a tiny, nondescript fish that will never be a source of revenue for anyone, not even as a tourist attraction. What would motivate us to protect it? The knowledge that species diversity is a marker of ecosystemic health, and that the snail darter in particular is an indicator species for the health of specific ecosystems, is a cogent reason but so indirect as to be nearly useless (absent an act of Congress -- aways liable to be repealed or undermined by the next president) when powerful economic interests incline us to damage its habitat.

I take Leopold's point to be that there is thus no substitute, over the long term, for an actual change of heart toward the snail darter, to value it not instrumentally but for itself. That is, we need not a strategy for manipulating self-interest, as though that were the only reliable motivator, but a different value system altogether -- an ethic.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Solar funding debate

Pittsfield should reject solar funding
Berkshire Eagle Letters to the Editor
Updated: 09/28/2009 08:56:21 AM EDT
Monday, Sept. 28

It was announced in the Sept. 22 Eagle that the Holmes Road Water Treatment plant in Pittsfield was one of 12 chosen for the addition of solar power through "stimulus" funds to come through the U.S. EPA. The funds were given to the state to administer the program and Pittsfield thought it was a good idea.

So let's do some math. Even though The Eagle article says the Pittsfield project is "one of the largest," let's assume that all 12 get equal funding. So $185,000,000 divided by 12 projects yields $15 million a project. Now, the federal government writes a $15 million check to the state, which then transfers that check to Pittsfield.

With the "upgrade" (so portrayed by the grant), the facility will save $200,000 a year. We don't have a clue how real these savings are, or what the electricity rate was to generate the savings. Let's just say they are right.

Now, let's do the next step. How long will it take to "pay back" the investment? The investment is $15 million, the savings, $200,000 a year. Disregarding the present value of money, interest and so on, it will take only 75 years for this project to pay for itself. Anyone believe that in 75 years this facility will still be standing?

Are there any CEOs who'd fund this project? Love to hear from you. Having spent 25 years in corporate America, I can truthfully say I never heard of anything this absurd even being reviewed. So why hasn't this program been killed? Seems to me this "grant" ought to be rejected by Pittsfield. And anyone curious about the other 11 projects?

Assuming 40,000 residents of Pittsfield, how'd you like a check for $375 each? How about killing the project and turning the money back to the taxpayers -- and I'm not even a resident of Pittsfield.


Donald J. Dermyer (“Pittsfield should reject solar funding,” Berkshire Eagle, Monday, September 28th, p. A4) is quite correct to suggest that few CEOs would consider the proposed solar project at the Holmes Road Water Treatment plant in Pittsfield, and for the reasons he gives: too long a financial payback. This is precisely why we should not listen to people whose experience is limited to “twenty-five years in corporate America” – their determined focus on short-term profit at the expense of all other human and ecological values stifles clear thinking.

Even Dermyer’s financial calculation ignores a likely increase in electrical rates, which will probably rise rapidly as fossil fuels become scarce, or we properly include their hidden costs in the price. If electricity rates merely double, the investment payback would be only 37 years, for example. I don’t know why Dermyer doubts that the facility will last that long – my house is 79 years old and in good shape.

Moreover, aside from financial payback we need to consider energy payback. The probable energy cost of this proposed solar installation is between 14 months and two years of its annual output, so after that period it will make net energy free of any further fossil fuel inputs or downwind pollution, and with minimal maintenance (no moving parts!), indefinitely. The original photovoltaic cells installed in the 1950s are still generating their rated wattage, so the unit cost per kilowatt-hour, and environmental impact, are by now as close to zero as can be imagined. Thank goodness some entrepreneurs and government research labs were willing to take that risk when the payback wouldn’t show up in the quarterly stock report!

The proposed solar installations are expensive, but they will support manufacturing and installation jobs in Massachusetts, and their scale will help in the long run to bring down the cost of solar electricity (through manufacturing efficiencies and technological advances) so everyone can use it. We need to think about such investments not from the perspective of corporate bottom lines, but rather as would thoughtful citizens of our communities and ecosystem.

Matt Silliman

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Biotic Community

To understand what Leopold might mean by "biotic community" it will be helpful first to view natural objects as comprising a spectrum:

whatever it is that comprises subatomic particles

subatomic particles

atomic elements


inanimate objects

microbes and vegetative life

sentient life

sapient life

Each of these relies on its predecessors for the building blocks of its unique emergent properties, its developmental ancestry, and (importantly) its nurturance and continued existence/thriving. Ecology observes a previously neglected web of interrelationships between these things, most vitally between and among living things, as itself comprising a system, and thus possessing irreducible emergent properties. They term this meta-organismic whole an ecosystem or biosphere. We can in principle gauge its comparative state of health or unhealth by analogy with that of ordinary organisms, so although it almost invariably exceeds our comprehension it is not entirely mysterious to us, and "the good of the biotic community" is a meaningful, if often contestable, quality.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leopold's Land Ethic

Leopold says in his essay "The Land Ethic:" “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

To think through what this means, we need to examine several key terms. I will list some of them and pose a preliminary (though far from exhaustive) question about each:

"tends" -- Does this term suggest Leopold is advocating a dominantly consequentialist (as opposed to a deontological or virtue-based) concept of morality?

"integrity" -- How shall we understand this term in an ecological context? Is more integration always better?

"stability" -- Likewise, not everything that is stable is healthy from the standpoint of life; think of the moon. How shall we understand stability as a value?

"beauty" -- Even if aesthetics is more than a matter of mere preference, are all beautiful things good for the biosphere? Nuclear detonations? Perhaps these three descriptors sometimes work against each other.

"biotic community" -- we need a much fuller understanding of what this is (including the fact that it's not a big, happy family).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What to make of Critias?

Keane's comment about Critias representing a different side of Plato's attitude toward the arts (in this case what scholars call literary-historical imagery, though the history part certainly needs scare-quotes) is intriguing. There is plenty of precedent for it, however, throughout the middle and later parts of Plato's corpus. In Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic, and other dialogues -- including Meno, where Socrates makes a point of explaining what he's up to in appealing to Meno's love of specacle -- there is a marked pattern of myth-spinning, tending to occur at a predictable point in the conversation when the younger participants have reached their limit of reasoned discourse. How exactly this pedagogical method (which I take it to be) relates to the drier, dialogic methods (such as collection and division) evident in several of the later dialogues is an open and interesting question.

What else of philosophical interest might we find here? We see echos of many themes from Republic and Statesman in the divine intellect and character of the Atlantean kings, as well as in their degeneration into greed and aggression which led to the catastrophic war with the noble, ancient Athenians, and we see proportion, measure, and geometry (not to mention peace, fertility, a class-blind adherence to law) as potent symbols of a healthy culture and divine favor. I trust you will have other thoughts this evening.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Plato's Critique of Law

In an extended discussion of law (nomos) in Statesman, Young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger give it a fairly scathing critique. Not only might the best constitution, surprisingly, function without laws according to the judgment of an expert ruler (293c), but even if such a ruler employs them, laws can never “accurately embrace what is best and most just for all at the same time,” since law is general and persons and actions particular (294b). Law “resembles some self-willed and ignorant person” who dogmatically rejects question or challenge, even when the questioner has a better idea, and so is too simple to be useful for human life, which is never simple (294c). Law may be pragmatically necessary when dealing with people in “herds,” but it only gives rough prescriptions “as suits the majority of cases and a large number of people” (294e). Once established (whether written or proclaimed) laws tend to resist change, which puts them at odds with necessary improvements or better laws from elsewhere, but it is destructive if such improvements are crudely imposed by force without effective persuasion or expertise (296b-c), so even the correction of a system of law requires the art of the Statesman.

In short, in the presence of an expert ruler laws are optional and not particularly beneficial, and in the absence of such a ruler they quickly become rigid and dangerous. We might infer here a scathing indictment of both Hobbesian-style legalism and rigid Borkian notions of “original intent” in constitutional interpretation.

I find this vigorous critique of law compelling, though also curious in light of two other discussions of law in Plato’s work. First, of course, there is the deep commitment Socrates evinces for the laws of the Athenians in Apology and Crito. Though he stops just short of an absolute commitment to law (he makes clear that he will disobey and accept the consequences if the law forces him to choose between it and a matter of conscientious principle) he is nonetheless prepared to accept death from a duly constituted court proceeding, even when its decision is manifestly unjust.

Second, Plato’s postumous and final dialogue Laws appears to be a detailed working out of what in Statesman he calls a “second-best” constitution, if the enlightened rule by genuine experts is unattainable. The result is about as unappealing in most respects as the critique of law in Statesman anticipates it would be, but along with Crito it shows just how much sustained attention Plato thought the rule of law deserves, its deep flaws notwithstanding. Bad as it is, the rule of law may at least constitute a bulwark against tyranny, given the frailty of human nature in the presence of power – a necessary evil?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Liberal Arts on the Job

I was speaking today with the head of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, who mentioned a widely perceived tension between the liberal arts (as traditionally conceived) and the professional training that MCLA offers in many of its programs. I vigorously reject the notion that these are in tension, reasoning in the following way:

By the liberal arts we mean, in the words of the Visitor in Plato’s Sophist, the habits, skills, and knowledge of free people. For people without trust funds who hope to remain free, such knowledge surely includes knowing how to make a living. Thus dispositions, skills, habits, and understanding useful for earning one’s keep, and for doing so with integrity, flexibility, imagination, and active concern for others, is wholly consistent with liberal learning properly understood, and in no way conflicts with serious scholarship or the love of learning for its own sake.

To take this one step further, it seems to me not only requisite that a public college of the liberal arts should engage students in conversation about earning their livings, but equally mandatory that it do so in the fullest possible context of history, economics, morality, literature, aesthetics, and other realms of discourse implicated in the struggle to live well – for how we make our livings is never wholly separate from what we make of our lives.

So we need to be bold, I think, in the ongoing re-visioning of our mission at MCLA. Instead of defensively coupling the traditional liberal arts with professional programs as though the two were uneasy bedfellows, we can imagine our role as helping every student discover a calling, and begin developing that calling into a creative and fulfilling life and career.

Expertise in Governance

As in Republic, Plato's characters in the latter part of Statesman champion leadership as a very particular kind of expertise or technical knowledge, and as in Republic (though in less detail) the conversation explains why such specialized skill is never available to large groups of people, but only to a small minority or individual.

As disturbing as this is to one conception of democracy, it is undeniably true in our own time that a tremendous amount of intelligence, expert knowledge (or the ability and judgment to tap into others' expert knowledge), and character -- what Plato would have called virtue -- is required for effective leadership. The administration just past had intelligence and technical skill in abundance at its command , and (after 9/11) a tremendous amount of public support, not to mention a legislative branch dominated by the administration's party, but it seemed to lack not only virtue, but even an interest in the task of leadership, except in the sense of conducting a permanent, self-perpetuating political campaign.

We might infer from this that genuine leadership, what Young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger seek to understand in Statesman, demands all of these elements: expert knowledge, the ability to garner popular support, character (accomplished human excellence), and with this the steadfast will to use its power on behalf of the ruled, rather than in some narrower interest. The current officeholder has many of these qualities in evident abundance; it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Friday, April 10, 2009


I wrote the following in response to an online discussion about critiques of E.O. Wilson as reductionistic. The question that someone posed was "What's wrong with reductionism?"

Scientific reduction is a matter of modeling and simplification -- precisely the potent and limiting characteristics of law (nomos) in Statesman -- it is a set of purpose-built tools for specific phases of the intellectual process that is science (or any systematic search for knowledge). Reduction is probably indispensable (one is tempted to say irreducible!) for any such inquiry. To critique something (such as Wilson’s Sociobiology, or Consilience) as reductionistic is to level the charge that it has in one way or another misused the tool; it need not, and had better not be, to reject wholesale the tool as such.

By analogy, one really does need a hammer to build a house, but we would rightly reject as egregious “hammerism” any attempt to use the hammer as a paintbrush, to clean the windows with it, or generally to imagine that once the hammer’s work was done the house was complete.

One of the reasons reductionism, on the model of hammerism, is a fair criticism of some attempts to extend scientific findings into socio-cultural or moral principles is that the reduction model used for the (generally analytic) objects of scientific study ignores the emergence of properties in complex systems that are neither predictable from nor reducible to the properties of the components of those systems. Life emerges from combinations of water and minerals, obviously, and studying those components is vital, but an organism is more (because of its self-replicating organization of them, for example) than the sum of its component elements. The concept of irreducibly emergent properties is not unrelated to Marx’s employment of Hegel’s notion of dialectic.

Reductionism remains a permanent trap for intellectual pursuits, precisely because we need the tool of reduction to understand things, and so always risk imbuing its more striking conclusions (such as Wilson’s) with more weight than they can bear, and applying them unmodified to a level of complexity within a system for which they are ill-suited.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dialogue in Sophist and Statesman

Because the Young Socrates in Statesman plays a largely passive role, as did Theatetus in Sophist, some interpreters and translators have been inclined to dismiss the dialogic element, in these late books especially, as unimportant. It is true that these dialogues are not as dynamic and literary as some of the earlier ones, where the interlocutors play a larger role in the discussion, contributing challenges, counter-arguments, and specific personal interests. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Plato’s seriousness of purpose in choosing to write these books dialogically, notwithstanding the rather different way he uses the form here.

In these two dialogues, Theatetus and the Young Socrates are bright and alert but largely unformed youths, in contrast to the Eleatic Stranger (or “Visitor,” one of only two unnamed major characters in Plato’s corpus), who is evidently a mature and accomplished philosopher (in the sense of someone in possession of “the knowledge that free people have” and “a pure and just love of wisdom” – Sophist 253c-e). Both dialogues illustrate, heuristically and substantively, the method of “collection and division” introduced in Phaedrus, and both take on rather complex and technical issues. These considerations alone might be enough to explain Plato’s choice to simplify the dialogue form, and place almost all the substance in the mouth of one speaker.

Plato does not seem to me, however, to have merely trivial reasons for declining to abandon dialogue altogether in this context. He seems robustly committed, even here, to the Socratic principle of friendly agreement and its pedagogical power, as when the young Socrates attempts to defer to the visitor at 258c:

Visitor: So in what direction will one discover the path that leads to the statesman? For we must discover it, and after having separated it from the rest we must impress one character on it; and having stamped a single different form on the other turnings we must make our minds think all sort of knowledge there are as falling into two classes.

Young Socrates: That, I think, is actually for you to do, visitor, not for me.

Visitor: But, Socrates, it must also be a matter for you, when it becomes clear what it is.

And likewise at 260b:

Visitor: So if we divided off two parts of theoretical knowledge as a whole, referring to one as directive and the other as making judgments, would we say that it had been divided suitably?

Young Socrates: Yes, at least according to my view.

Visitor: But if people are doing something together, it is enough if they agree with one another.

Young Socrates: Quite.

Visitor: So for as long as we are sharing in the present task, we should say good-bye to what everybody else may think.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Language and cognition

Nick raised a point not long ago about the relationship between language and thought. Psychologists and ethnographers have understood for almost a century that a language is not merely an arbitrary code, but structurally shapes how we perceive and respond to the world in various ways. This NPR report gives a lighthearted illustration of that finding, having to do with the gender of nouns:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where do Forms come from?

Our conversation last night, and a follow-up email from Keane, have crystallized for me an idea about how forms might function in Plato's later work. Nick (I think) suggested that there is a sense in which we both find regularities in the world we perceive, and somehow at the same time have a hand in making them. Here's how I see this working:

Rocks, for example, are natural objects that emerge from certain processes in the natural world. When we stumble over them, we rightly notice rockness as a durable feature of the world as we experience it, and a useful general category covering many different rocks and kinds of rocks. Earlier dialogues (Meno, Republic, Parmenides) had suggested that this meant there must be an eternal, changeless form of rockness, itself by itself, which our souls had contemplated in their prior, pure (disembodied) lives, and only thus could recognize in experience. Aristotle later argues that the form of rockness immanent in rocks is a fixed natural kind, a permanent feature of the world as we find it, which similarly makes our knowledge of rocks possible by ordering our experience.

Consider, however, the method of division explified in Sophist, which aims not to identify either eternal forms or natural kinds as such, but rather merely to delineate logical categories applicable to the world as we experience it. These "forms" can be understood to emerge historically from natural processes, in a way that does not call into question their analytical usefulness (there are no anglers before someone invents fishooks, after which there most surely are). At this point we may have preserved the function of the forms in knowledge, without the Parmenidean baggage that caused such problems.

What, then, are these new forms, and where do they come from? I would suggest that from one perspective they are properly speaking emergent natural regularities, differing from Aristotle's natural kinds only in not being permanent or immutably distinct from one another. In this sense we discover them in the world as we try to make sense of our experiences. From an alternative perspective, however, organizing the world in one way rather than another is to some extent a matter of volition or purpose. We can divide trees into hardwood and soft, or ignore that distinction and divide them rather into tall and short, or deciduous and coniferous, and so on. Because of the latitude (not unlimited, but wide) of legitimate alternative divisions of perceived things, we seem to this extent to make (or at least choose creatively among) the distinctions by which we organize our experiential world.

Friday, March 20, 2009

What's it all about?

I've noticed a pattern in reading various commentaries on the so-called late dialogues, that commentators typically mark the central themes of a dialogue in categories (epistemology, aesthetics, politics...) that may be quite anachronistic when applied to Plato. I don't mean just that such terms as 'epistemology' are of late coinage (1820s in this case), but rather that we modern philosophers are only able to speak about one such problem at a time, whereas Plato seems to have thought about them as inseparably intertwined. I find this an ongoing difficulty in reading Plato; perhaps I won't really grasp what he's doing until I can relax some of my rigid modern intellectual distinctions.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Theatetus and a positive theory of knowledge?

Now that we have all read Theatetus a couple of times and are slogging our way through Burnyeat's introduction, I'd like to share the suggestion I hinted at earlier, that the dialogue is not (as conventionally interpreted) wholly aporetic or inconclusive. What if, though neither perception nor true opinion with an account stands up to scruitiny, each of these alternatives could (dialogically, as it were) answer the limitations of the other?

Think about this pluralist possibility as you re-read the dialogue in my absence this week, and we will explore its merits and implications on Monday.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Parmenides Part Two

What to make of the dense and difficult eight deductions of Part Two? As Kyle observes, Plato seems more than ever here to want us to think these matters through for ourselves in preference to telling us what he thinks, and has even apparently thrown a few errors of reasoning in to keep us on our toes. This hardly seems fair, since we're dealing not with a mere example or simplified exercise for illustration, but with the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality, and the method for investigating it.

Among the unexpected outcomes of this process, given the scorching critique in Part One, is the necessity of forms, though how we are to conceive forms at this point remains an unsettlingly open question.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Parmenides' critique of Forms

In the beginning of Parmenides, the character Parmenides asks the young Socrates four questions about the theory of forms and their ability to explain our knowing:

1. Are there forms of equality and sameness, rest and motion, etc., and if so, are there forms of the opposities of these?

2. Are there forms of the just, the beautiful, the good, and so forth?

3. Are there forms of composite things, such as human beings, fire, water, etc.?

4. What about forms of lowly, crude, undignified things like dirt?

Young Socrates is certain about the first two, becomes shaky on the third (forms of composite things create complexities, whereas the point of the theory is to simplify and explain), and rejects the fourth, though Parmenides hints that he will have to include forms of such things if he is to maintain the theory consistently.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Downsides of the Written (or typed) Word

Toward the end of Phaedrus there is a famous argument against writing, only partially undermined by the fact that Plato in fact wrote it.

Perhaps the students in this course find the argument compelling, not against books as such, but against blogging, or so it appears from the microscopic torrent of participation here. I would love to see you make the case, but you'll have to do so under the shadow of Plato's paradox, since you'll be doing so on a blog.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scientific Methods

I recently had a conversation with a scientist colleague about the phrase "the scientific method." I objected to the definite article, on the grounds that if you describe "the" scientific method broadly enough to include all scientific inquiry -- historical methods in paleontology and experimental ones in physics, for example -- it will be so broad as to cover many forms of inquiry -- some kinds of journalism, say, or the work of police detectives -- that are not science, at least by conventional description.

Good, systematic inquiry in any field shares certain epistemic and characterological features, in that it is designed and bids fair to get at the truth of some question and honestly attempts to put that goal before any other. Specific fields of inquiry, including the special sciences, have crafted particular methodologies within those general parameters that are suited to their objects of study -- purpose-built tools of their trades. Thus it is useful to speak of the methods of physicists or biologists, and proper to call these methods scientific, but probably tendentious to speak of one single method that demarcates the work of the sciences from that of all other endeavors.

In the second part of Phaedrus, Plato's Socrates proposes the method of "division and collection" as indispensable to the true art of rhetoric (and not incidentally perhaps a modification of his earlier theory of forms). Such a method might make knowledge more accessible, and hence represent a softening of Socratic aporia. He describes it as the method of philosophy; might it be the basis of what we now call "the scientific method?"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Phaedrus on certainty and likliness

A shift that might be worth noticing in Phaedrus is that from persistent talk of what is likely in the first part, to an emphasis on what we can say for certain in the second. It perhaps suggests an (attempted?) ascent of the divided line, away from mere impressions and probabilities and toward knowledge with Parmenidean traits (changeless, eternal), and it mirrors the shift from persuasive speeches and myth-making to the more systematic discourse on rhetoric.

Straightforward as that may seem on the surface, it generates some ironic questions if Plato's character Socrates maintains his traditional aporetic stance -- can he possibly exemplify the true rhetorician, who knows whereof he speaks?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Phaedrus and Education

Last semester, Kyle wrote about Republic as embodying, in its dialogic relationships and arc, the theory of education which its conversants were describing. This has always struck me as exactly the right way to understand that dialogue (rather than as a political program, for example).

Now on this reading of Phaedrus I find myself drawn to a similar reading. Nehamas and Woodruff struggle (with some success) to decide whether the book is fundamentally about eros, or rather rhetoric (they decide on the latter). This conundrum seems much easier to resolve, however, if we read the dialogue as an instantiation of the "true rhetoric" (nearly indistinguishable from philosophy) that Socrates describes in the second part -- as applied directly to the education of Phaedrus himself. As ever, Socrates perceives the charcater of his student, and presents the truth (as far as he understands it) in precisely the rhetorical form, and using precisely the examples, likely to move that particular student.

Perhaps it is foolish even to raise the question of what one thing a dialogue this rich is about, but education comes as close to a comprehensive answer (and a basis for a complete interpretation) as we're likely to get.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What's a Liberal Arts College?

I had an interesting conversation with some students the other day, while trying to get them to imagine what the phrase "liberal arts college" might mean -- aside from a basket-weaving school for Democrats, which is pretty much what it sounds like to most people. They made some good efforts, for example “a college where you study a little bit of a lot of things,” which I suppose is one way to get at the idea of becoming broadly educated. Others suggested that it has something to do with studying art and having an inclusive spirit – both good things in their own right, but not quite the liberal arts in the relevant sense. Consider the terms separately:

Liberal: “Liberal” here is not opposed to political conservatism, but is rather the opposite of (intellectual) slavery. Such an education, when successful, liberates you, especially your mind, to think, learn, inquire seriously for yourself, responsible to and (ideally) dependent on no authority but the truth and your own well-honed skills (discernment, attention, reasoning, intuition, imagination). This prepares you to figure out what you need to know to make a living, but more importantly it liberates you to be a free citizen, a participant in political and cultural deliberations, and a free creator of your own life.

Arts: These skills (discernment, attention, reasoning, intuition, imagination...), or rather these skills along with the disposition to deploy them regularly and wisely, are the “arts” in the liberal arts. So it's not the disciplines as such that define the arts, but the abilities and dispositions that the students acquire by engaging those disciplines (hence the importance not only of breadth – “studying a little bit of a lot of things” – but also depth, engaging one or more areas of study with intense scholarly rigor. [Incidentally this is what I see as the greatest potential of our honors program, insisting as it does that serious students to do deep, difficult work outside their departmental comfort zones.] Building lifelong habits of curiosity and rigorous inquiry is serious work, not mere dilettantism.

College: A college (Latin collegium) is not just a school but a council or community of equals -- colleagues -- pursuing shared goals in a context of mutual respect and trust. When this works as it should, the students and their professors become team members with a common objective, not pupils beholden to teachers for their pearls of wisdom and grades.

Putting this all together, we might describe a liberal arts college as, at root, a community for fostering the skills and habits of intellectual freedom. Not much of a bumper sticker, but it’s a place to start thinking about it.