Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gettysburg Tweet

This is pretty clever, not least because the Gettysburg Address itself was so remarkably concise.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

(LE) Lincoln's Moral Priorities

Maybe we need a theory of levels in Lincon's moral thought, since there is persistent tension between his allegiance to Union and constitutional principle on the one hand, and his unambiguous moral aversion to slavery on the other.

Both are clearly of immense importance to him, but there does seem to be a lexical ordering in favor of procedural legality even over the moral imperative of ending the horrors of slavery. Important as the moral concept of empathy is to him, it cuts both ways -- he empathizes with slaveowners as well as slaves.

Perhaps, then, Enlightenment constitutional legality is the operating system, and all other specific moral content -- the results of empathy, reflection, drawing particular moral judgments, etc., is the software that runs on it. His position may be that if you want people to live better lives and make better moral choices, instead of threatening or scolding them you need to give them better laws, legal concepts, and processes (the moral architecture within which their characters form, and within which they make their day-to-day choices). Necessarily, then, he plays a long game that makes almost everyone impatient.

This helps explain, both how he can seem to be so cavalier about the horrors of slavery (content to let it die out in a century), and why he expends such energy and legal imagination to make the concept of equality from the Declaration function as a Constitutional principle -- repairs to the operating system are his priority over software patches, as the latter can never really solve the problem.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(LE) On Not Caring About Slavery

In the penultimate paragraph of the Cooper Union address, Lincoln gives an analysis of Douglas's professed stance on slavery: "Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored -- contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man or a dead man -- such as a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care..."

As had been clear in his speeches for at least six years, Lincoln here insists that there is no middle ground on the morality of slavery, and that it is manipulatively dishonest and dangerous ("sophistical") to pretend to hold such middle ground. He is considerably gentler on those who honestly claim slavery is not wrong, or even a positive good, than he is on demagogues like Douglas.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Arming Campus Police

I have tried to listen carefully to the arguments on this subject. Setting aside my personal views of the matter, these are the principal arguments I hear on both sides:


1. 19 of 26 COPLAC colleges have armed officers

2. Many Massachusetts colleges and universities have armed officers

3. Since most uniformed officers carry firearms, campus police are potentially at risk without them

4. Firearms are just another tool of protection and law enforcement

5. Parents and potential students are concerned about security on campus, so not arming campus police might hurt recruitment.


1. Arming officers sends an intimidating and unwelcoming message, particularly to urban and minority students

2. The odds of an on campus incident requiring deadly force are very small

3. The liklihood of guns being useful in such an incident are even smaller

4. The possibility of accident or error on officers’ part, or of the guns being taken from them, is small but real (and statistically greater than 2 or 3).

5. Parents and potential students are concerned about security on campus, so arming campus police might hurt recruitment.

When commenting, please speak to ONE of these reasons at a time -- perhaps begin by addressing the one you take to be the strongest.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

(LCR) Painful Truths

Here's a short piece by the Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, discussing (among other things) the difference between an ad hominem attack and calling a spade a spade.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

(LCR) Do Republican Policies Favor the Rich?

Responding to the charge that Republican policies favor the rich, House speaker John Boehner said in an interview aired last Sunday on ABC's This Week: "That’s very unfair. Listen, I come from a family of 12. My dad owned a bar. I’ve got brothers and sisters on every rung of the economic ladder."

Anything wrong with this reasoning?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why Union?

We've given slavery some of its due, but can anyone tell me why, from the point of view of moral principle, Lincoln thinks the Union of the states is such a big deal?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Philosophy Gathering

Next Wednesday at noon, philosophy majors, minors,* and other interested students will meet at 100 Porter Street for food and friendliness. All are welcome.

*(Note to logic students sharking about for ambiguities: by 'philosophy minors' I don't mean those under the age of 18!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

(LCR) Just a Theory?

From Monday's NY Times:
To the Editor:
Your article concludes that global warming agnosticism is mostly an American thing. I disagree. Around the world, the opinion that global warming is a clear and present danger is much diminished. There is a realization that the case for global warming was uncertain at best, and certainly greatly exaggerated.
Global warming remains a hypothesis. At least in this one instance, the United States showed itself more prudent, and rightly more skeptical, than many. Politics has always been the plague of science.
Claude Roessiger
Wolfeboro, NH

I'm a little confused by the last sentence, but if the author intends an argument and not just a series of loosely connected assertions, I'm curious whether he commits one or more fallacies.

(LE) Mill on Slavery

Jamie sent along this link to the famous Mill-Carlyle debate on slavery:

Blogging and Collective Responsibility

Blog participation, especially in Logic and Critical Reasoning, has been fairly anemic this semester. Leaving aside the academic consequences of not fulfilling the assignment, I want to make a case for a special sort of collective responsibility in activities of this sort.

Of course, each student may choose not to participate, or to do so minimally and sporadically, and the consequences of that choice devolve to that student. Notice, however, that in this setting, where each student must both post and comment on others' posts, making such a choice directly affects the environment in which everyone else acts. Less activity creates, in the aggregate, a target-poor space for comment and discussion, which makes it less engaging for everyone, driving participation still lower. Below a certain threshold of activity (and I'm afraid we may be just on the cusp of that threshold) the interaction can't sustain itself, and everyone's learning suffers.

What do you all think?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

(LE) Strange Fruit

Here's link to a U-Tube video of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," which she first performed in 1939. If I can figure it out, I'll put the clip itself up.

(LE) Another Thought about Racism

It's quite true that etymology is not destiny, but the era in which we coin a word for something is one measure of the point at which it becomes possible to focus on it, and address it politically. Unlike an armchair moralist, a political actor like Lincoln must be centrally concerned with the issues he can see a way to affect in his own circumstances. If he speaks of slavery (but not racism) as a great evil, while at the same time personally steering clear of most of the standard antipathy toward blacks in his violently racist society, are we really interpreting charitably to assume he would not have been anti-racist had he lived today?

(LE) Unjust,, AND Bad Policy

One hint that Lincoln may have had a nuanced sense of moral-theoretical issues -- and that he grasped a plurality of moral principles -- is this line in his joint protest with Dan Stone of the legislature's condemnation of abolitionism in 1837:

"...that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy..."

Here Lincoln alleges that justice, a deontological notion owing as much to Aristotle as to Kant, aligns (as it may not always do) with the pragmatic, Millian consequences of policy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

(LCR) How to Spell 'Argument'

By this point in a logic course, it would perhaps be judicious for students to notice the more conventional spelling of the word 'argument.' The 'e' in 'argue' drops out when you form the compound noun.

(LE) Paper Topics

I trust you will each communicate with me very shortly concerning your proposed topics for the mid-term essay.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

(LE) Some Brief Thoughts on Moral Theory

Aristotle is surely correct that individual habituation and character are crucial to happiness and worthiness to be happy, but (as Aristotle himself says in book five, discussing justice) this can hardly be the whole story – one can for example be kind and gentle with friends and family and still be a moral monster -- take Hitler, for example.

Kant is of course right that a theory of morality must posit both the freedom of moral agents and their inherent dignity. Normative ethics itself is a non-starter unless we grant this. His apriorism, however, and austere insistence on purity of intention for an act to count as moral, present some serious difficulties in applying the Categorical Imperative as such to messy, real-world moral challenges.

We must grant Mill’s insistence that consequences matter morally, and this serves as a corrective to Kant. But to present utility as what makes actions moral is reductive and circular.

So an adequate moral theory and practice must attend, at the least, to all three: character, dignity, and results.

Monday, October 3, 2011

(LE) What Was the Civil War About?

There is a first-rate short article in the current (October 10th) Nation magazine by the eminent historian Eric Foner, explaining how the civil war has been remembered by historians and citizens in the intervening century and a half. It seems not to be open source on the web, but you can always go read it in the (gasp!) library.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

(LE) Blogging Protocol

Please turn off the "word verification" feature on your blogs, so that the rest of us may post comments less inconveniently. At some point we may need to turn them back on if there is a rash of spam, but it's not normally a problem.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

(LCR) A Letter in the Times

Here is an excerpt from a letter in Saturday's New York Times (I have removed some extraneous, partisan jabs that do not contribute to the argument). I think there are several, nested arguments here very worth teasing out. Somebody want to try putting them in standard form?

"We can be either a generous society or a responsible society, but not both. If we are generous, we will undermine responsibility... A responsible society basically asks people to take care of themselves; it is not kind, but such a society can sustain itself and grow. A generous society cannot maintain itself and still be free. The generosity will increasingly be paid for by more and more intrusive government control of all social behavior. Therefore, I believe we must emphasize being a responsible society and build only that generous component -- welfare and charity -- that will not undermine responsibility." -- William N. Hoke, Manhattan Beach, CA

(LE) Kant

You will have noticed that Kant is challenging reading, and also that his criteria for actions to count as genuinely moral are pretty demanding. It is fair to ask how we are to apply such an austere argument to Lincoln, as apparently heteronomous and wily a political actor as can be imagined. Perhaps, as one critic has commented, Kant's morality is for angels only.

Though we may well find ourselves resisting Kant's rigid distinction between mixed and pure motives, we can nonetheless see the power in his concepts of respect and treating ourselves and others as ends. We might also find some echos of these lofty aspirations in some of Lincoln's moral ambition, his personal and national search for those "better angels of our nature."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

(LE) Film Series

We will begin our Lincoln film series this coming Wednesday at 7 pm in Bowman 211 (our regular classroom, as it turns out). Apologies to those who have other commitments at that time. We own the films, so can make them available to you if necessary after the screening.

Friday, September 16, 2011

(LE) Aristotle's Mistakes

Yesterday's discussion was really interesting. Clearly we have learned some things that Aristotle didn't understand, but he may well understand some things that we have forgotten, which makes him worthy of our attention and careful study (never of our worship or uncritical allegiance).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

(LE) Reading Aristotle for Our Purposes

After Tuesday's discussion, and after I read your SLAPs, it occurred to me that we want to be careful not to get too bogged down in the many abstract problems the text raises. Our purpose is, after all, quite concrete -- we're interested in how to think seriously about morality in real-world situations, and particularly in Lincoln's.

Consider, therefore, that not all of Aristotle’s particular, idiosyncratic views are of immediate interest, and only some of his arguments are compelling. Our main interest here is, rather, to grasp his approach to questions of morality, which is distinct from many modern approaches. The specifics of his views and reasoning are important, but not exhaustive of what we can learn from Aristotle. We'll try to amplify this thought in today's class.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

(LE) Uses of Lincoln

This morning at the ground zero memorial service, former president G.W. Bush read a famous letter from Lincoln to a woman who had allegedly lost five sons in the civil war (I think Donald quotes from it). Here is a Wikipedia entry quoting the letter in its entirety: What do you think of this choice of material, and the tacit analogy it draws with the present?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

(LCR) Eternal Happiness

I neglected to mention yesterday that my colleague David Johnson is the author of the sample syllogism we discussed in class, and I owe him this apology. Here is the example:

1) Nothing is better than eternal happiness
2) Studying logic is better than nothing
therefore 3) Studying logic is better than eternal happiness

As many of you were quick to observe, though the argument is formally valid, it is unsound because the linking or middle term "nothing" means different things in the two premises (Aristotle's way of saying this is that the middle term is undistributed).

Some of you also noticed that the concept of "eternal happiness" is somewhat problematic -- not because the phrase lacks a unitary meaning, but rather because we have reason to doubt that it makes practical sense.

This insight is one of the keys to a better argument I think we can make for the truth of the conclusion. Since studying logic is both an intrinsic and an extrinsic good that we can realistically achieve, whereas eternal happiness is probably not, then it is in fact better, at least in that pragmatic respect. Some of you will no doubt wonder at certain points in the semester whether studying logic is, after all, an intrinsic good, but I hope you will not be too quick to draw your conclusions about that.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fall Semester

Welcome friends and students. This blog will mainly be a locus for posts and discussion about Lincoln's Ethics (LE) and Logic and Critical Reasoning (LCR)for the next few months. LCR students should also regularly check out the B'Logic site (under "My Blogs" to the left) for information about that course. Lower down on the left margin, links to the current bloggers for both courses will appear shortly.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Destroying Education

A pretty solid rant on the corporate program for destroying education by Chris Hedges:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Vernacular language in the Classroom

I'm intrigued by the conversation about professorial language on Dave Johnson's blog. Here are a few more thoughts:

1) Since college students are adults, the good paternalistic reason for a teacher not to use certain words in a classroom (that children require protection from certain of the world's harshnesses) is absent. In fact, continuing to protect them from legitimate, if harsh, modes of expression might itself constitute a sort of misplaced and invidious paternalism.

2) The item above of course begs the question of legitimacy. When might it be legitimate to use words like "damn" or "fuck" in a college classroom? I reject the idea that it could never be, since these are not only common words in the language, they are particularly expressive ones (if they were not, what would all the fuss be about?). Like all words, there will be better and worse moments to choose them; it seems unlikely that they would never be the best choice in a college classroom. To claim so would at least require a compelling argument that I have not yet seen.

3) I reject the popular idea that use of such words displays a lack of imagination or inarticulateness. Sometimes it does, presumably (unimaginative, ignorant people, and television, sometimes rely too heavily on such language), but ignorant people use lots of words. The flaw here is not use as such, but overuse, to the exclusion of variety and nuance.

4) The sort of class anxiety that motivates the "unimaginative" criticism seems to accept, uncritically, that there is something wrong with these words. But what? The prohibition on cursing, in particular, is rooted in the religious superstition that the invocation of certain words has magical power -- the biblical injunction against taking the Lord's name in vain is in fact an explicit prohibition of witchcraft. But when a modern, secular person says "God damn it!" she is not necessarily invoking either a supreme being or occult powers. More likely, she is just reaching for the strongest language culturally available after nailing her thumb with a hammer.

5) Taboos on certain words about bodily function and sexuality are similarly rooted in religious superstition. This may well have been functional in another era -- attaching ideological ickiness to icky things like manure by making "shit" a bad word might have helped remind people not to mess about with them in a crowded and unsanitary medieval urban world -- but with germ theory, sewage systems, and soap we have more effective tools, and no longer need to scare people off. In fact, these antisomatic (body-rejecting) ideologies, infecting early Christianity through Greco-Roman Stoicism, have done enormous damage.

6) Any prohibition on the use of harsh language in a college classroom will confront boundary problems. Which words, precisely, do we exclude (would "crap" be better than "shit"? Why or why not?)? Are euphemisms really better, or would resorting to them model for the students a kind of expressive disingenuity? No simple rule is likely to resolve such complexities.

7) The best reason I can think of for limiting use of profanity in any context is that certain words and expressions, for historical and cultural reasons, happen to be exceptionally forceful. As it is likely that too-frequent use will erode that force, it seems wise to save such terms so that we will have the resources to speak very harshly when we really feel the need to. It seems that we must be moderate with profanity to keep it profane.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Accountability and Higher Education

An open letter to the Massachusetts Department of Education, regarding its "Vision Project" for higher education.

An attorney friend of mine used to work in real estate law, which she found unpleasant and unproductive because she had to account for every six minutes of her eight hour workday in such a way that it could be billed to one of the firm's accounts. This was accountability gone mad, since it made her work intensely stressful and time-conscious, and in so doing undermined both efficiency and creativity -- not to mention making her life miserable. She quit that hellish job many years ago to work for the EPA, helping to hold polluters accountable for their violations. Though the salary was exactly half of her old one, she was good at it, effective in research, legal writing, and litigation, and got considerable satisfaction from helping make the country a cleaner and safer place by enforcing the law.

The principal difference between those two jobs was the nature of her accountability. In the first, the mindless, mechanical notion of accountability that was operative systematically undermined both the quality of her work and her quality of her life. In the second, she was a member of a legal team that held itself internally accountable through its working relationships, and was effectively and respectfully overseen by professional administrators with well articulated expectations and a clearly shared purpose with the team.

'Accountability' is the buzzword of the hour in education, and it has the dangerous quality of being connotatively positive -- no one can be against it, any more than one can oppose 'improvement' or 'health.' As my lawyer friend's story demonstrates, however, not all regimes of accountability are healthy or improving. In particular, external oversight by those disconnected from the complex process of learning and teaching, especially when such oversight demands quantitative evidence of inherently qualitative pedagogical relationships, is a sure recipe for a destructive, unhealthy sort of accountability. We are witnessing such destructiveness in the demands for high-stakes testing in primary and secondary education, and I very much hope that the Vision Project envisions something radically distinct from that. If it does, it needs to articulate clearly and precisely in what its proposed regime of accountability consists.

Teaching/learning is not mechanical but organic, involving multiple complex interactive systems, and concretely respecting that fact is the first task of any organization concerned with education. Mechanical, reductively quantitative assessment might be appropriate for a machine, but it would be a very bad physician indeed who ignored the qualitative fact of a human patient's life and consciousness. I would humbly suggest that the orientation needs to be not "show us that you are doing a good job," but "help us understand what you are doing, and how we can support you in doing it better."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bureaucratic Threats to Higher Education

Simon Head here details the disaster wrought by an industrial-production mindset, imported from the U.S., on the system of higher education in the U.K., with some observations about analogous developments here at home.