Thursday, September 27, 2012

CD: Solnit on Bitterness and Hope

Rebecca Solnit is at it again: Much that she says here reminds me of issues we were discussing in class today. An excerpt:
    "At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.  Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.
    "You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.
    "You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness."

Native Heritage

In response to an editorial in Wednesday's Berkshire Eagle, (, I submitted this letter:

To the Editor,
       I honestly do not understand William Lee’s reasoning about his and Elizabeth Warren’s ethnic heritage (“Integrity Really Does Matter,” Op/Ed Wednesday, September 26, 2012). Like Lee, Elizabeth Warren has excellent reasons for thinking that she has Native American ancestry, and when asked her ethnicity she proudly and honestly checked the “Native American” box. There is no evidence that she did this in the expectation of special treatment, and there is no evidence that she received any such treatment on account of it. She has said she did not, and with what documentary evidence do Lee, or Scott Brown, challenge her word? More importantly, on what basis does Lee describe his own reticence as integrity, and Warren’s frankness as dishonesty?
        Far more Americans have Native American ancestry than know about it, just as far more of us have African-Americans in our lineage than we are ready to acknowledge. This is particularly so in the state of Oklahoma, where for generations many “white” families have massaged the illusion of their racial purity for fear of racist stigma, or out of their own racial animus. Formal records of intermarriage are scarce, for the obvious reason that nobody wanted to admit to it. Given that history, which our nation has far from completely outgrown, the courageous and honest thing to do is to own up to one’s native roots, as Warren has.

Monday, September 24, 2012

LCR: Political inferences

Last July, candidate Romney said, in response to a question about his taxes: "I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president," Romney said. "I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires." This past Thursday, by contrast, Romney released his 2011 tax returns, which show that he opted out of several deductions to which he was entitled, and so paid about $250,000 more than he needed to (on income of about $13 million). It would probably be uncharitable to draw the inference here, though it certainly looks like a valid one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CD: Greenham Common

Here is an excellent website about the women's occupation of Greenham Common in the early 1980s in protest against the siting of U.S. Cruise Missiles in Britain. This was a remarkably courageous and persistent anti-cold-war, anti-nuclear action, which was almost entirely nonviolent (depending, I think, on whether tearing down a fence qualifies as violence).

Monday, September 17, 2012

CD: Solnit on Occupy

Check out this short essay by noted author Rebecca Solnit (e.g.: Paradise Made in Hell, about how natural disasters tend to be nothing at all like what the press and officials anticipate and report). She thinks Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs are far more successful than we've yet acknowledged, and far more promising for future systemic change than most people expect. Of course, we will want to talk later about OWS's ideas and tactics, and whether they are all 'civil' and 'nonviolent' in the relevant sense (there are some reasonable concerns about the "black bloc" anarchists), but this is pretty important and interesting stuff.

LCR: Economic Logic

"If you believe that the iphone 5 can give the economy a lift, you've already conceded both that the total amount of spending in the economy isn't a fixed number, and that more spending is what we need. And there is no reason this spending has to be private." -- Paul Krugman, NY Times 9/17/12

Here Krugman reasons that those who welcome the new iphone as economic stimulus have tacitly accepted the three premises he articulates, thus undermining their own case against government spending as a way to ease unemployment. This is good reasoning so far as it goes, but as often happens it may operate inside a bubble of short- and medium-term assumptions -- unlimited growth for its own sake, as Wendell Berry has observed, is the ideology of the cancer cell. Krugman and his opponents all agree that we need more economic growth; they disagree only about how to do this and who should benefit. Perhaps we need to craft a different vision altogether, while the planet is still habitable.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

CD: Serious Courage

In general it's hard to learn about civilly disobedient actions and arrests when they happen; they normally don't make the national news. If you dig around, though, quite a few people are regularly risking arrest -- and in this case deportation -- trying to make their concerns heard. This one took some guts:

LCR: Moral Judgments

We have learned that pieces of advice and commands are not generally statements, as they have no propositional content, can't be true or false, and thus can't serve as premises or conclusions in logical arguments. But you might wonder about certain common moral or ethical utterances, such as "You ought to call your mother." Is this advice, an order, or might it have propositional content? Context is important in such cases, and the question turns on whether there are objective criteria we might use to determine whether it is true or false. (See the Philosophy Toolkit for what I mean by 'objective' here). If, for example, your mother is ill, and left a message asking you to call her, we have grounds for thinking you really do have a strong obligation -- and a good reason -- to call her (she is, after all, your mother). In this case, it seems, "You ought to call your mother" is true. If, on the other hand, she died two years ago, it is clearly false, since you can't have an obligation to do something impossible. Either way, we're dealing with a bona fide statement.

As in determining whether a passage contains an argument, the intention of the speaker/writer is paramount to determining whether a string of words constitutes a statement, but other things equal it is generally best to treat moral or ethical pronouncements as statements, unless you have strong reasons not to in a specific case.

Friday, September 7, 2012

CD: Things to watch for in Crito

As you read Plato's Crito for next week, pay close attention to a couple of arguments, one explicit and one tacit. The first involves the claim that it is always wrong to cause harm. We will need to look closely for the stated and assumed premises in support of this conclusion, as well as observing some of its potentially radical implications. The second, largely tacit argument involves the idea, which the historical Socrates (or at least Plato's character of the same name, who is based on him) may be the first to articulate: that one acquires a duty of obedience to a legal/political/social order not by nature but by consent. We will likewise want to investigate the merits of all potential reasons for this claim.

LCR: Amphibolies

Later in the course we will discuss fallacies that arise from grammatical ambiguities. One such is called an amphiboly, which sounds like a wiggly amphibian, but is actually a case of drawing a conclusion based on the wrong horn of an interpretive dilemma. This morning's paper suggested one such to my warped eye. The caption to a photograph on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle reads in part:  "Drew Peterson Convicted; The former police officer is found guilty of murdering his third wife..." and it occurred to me immediately to wonder why they hadn't done anything about it when he murdered the first two (if you said "I just ate my third cookie," people would naturally assume you had in fact eaten the other two...). Of course, so far as we know he did not murder his first two wives, though as it turns out this case was launched only after his fourth wife disappeared, leading to suspicions about the death of the third. It would probably be a strong induction, and not a fallacy, to conclude that if he were to propose to a prospective fifth wife, she should just say no.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fall Semester

Welcome students, new and returning. I will be posting from time to time matters of interest to our courses, as well as occasional matters of general interest. Comments specific to courses I will label in the title -- CD for Civil Disobedience, LCR for Logic and Critical reasoning. You will want to be sure to read those that are specific to your course, and you are welcome to comment on any of them. I look forward to lots of lively conversations, both in class and on our blogs.