Saturday, December 22, 2012

LCR: One Reason Logic is Hard

Chris Mooney writes about the relationship between reason and emotion:
     "Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
     "We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about."
Read the whole article at:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

CD: Noncooperation in War

In an essay on the career of General David Petraeus in the current New Yorker magazine, Dexter Filkins describes a fascinating example of the way resistance movements sometimes arise even within military hierarchies. Describing the first year of American occupation of Iraq, Filkins paraphrases Fred Kaplan's forthcoming book The Insurgents: "... a small group of men, with Petraeus the most prominent, found one another and mounted an end-run around the military bureauracy, thereby saving Iraq, and probably the entire Middle East, from a war even more cataclysmic than the one we already had."

WR: Dueling Literalisms

In Friday's New York Times, the anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann discusses two distinct styles of Christian biblical interpretation, which we might characterize as textually reductive vs. imaginative or experiential. Neither has a tremendous amount of patience for historical scholarship, or even close, informed reading of scriptural texts, but both are interesting for what motivates them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Fin de Semestre

Thank you all for many interesting conversations this semester. I will undertake the unpleasant and anti-educational task of assigning grades next week. When you receive them, if you think they are unfair or might be in error please send me a polite query by email  -- you will want to save your anger, vituperation, and righteous indignation for the corporate plutocracy -- and I will re-evaluate. If you are unsatisfied with my response, you then have the prerogative to file an appeal through the registrar's office.

I wish you all a pleasant and convivial winter break.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

CLP: Ronald Dworkin on Affirmative Action

Those of you getting a running start on next semester's Contemporary Legal Philosophy might be interested in this article in the New York Review of Books (available in the library, and online for a small fee: by leading legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin: "The Case Against Colorblind Admissions." It is a very clear example of how legal reasoning works: the use of precedent, constitutional interpretation, etc.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CD, LCR: Blogging This Week

Those of you who are game to continue blogging are welcome to do so this week. Consider it an opportunity to make up a little lost ground if you have been less than diligent at any point earlier in the semester.

CD: Further Reading

A couple of articles in the current issue of the New York Review of Books (available in the library, or online for a small fee) speak usefully to claims in Chenoweth and Stephan.
One, on the American Revolution (, lends some specificity to the claim that the successful violent insurgency "...was preceded by a decade of parallel institution building, nonviolent boycotts, civil disobedience, noncooperation, and other nation-building methods" (p. 222).
The other, reviewing several books on Germany in the second world war ( -- this one is available free online), details the way in which the destruction of social and governmental institutions preceded mass killing, helping to explain why the holocaust as such was largely confined to Eastern Europe. This somewhat obliquely speaks to Chenoweth and Stephan's observation that "Genocidaires are only as powerful as the henchmen and underlings who carry out their orders" (p. 221).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Updating Thoreau

Regarding the questions about moral purity we have been discussing in class and on blogs, here is an excerpt from this week's "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Sunday magazine:
I learned that a local business, which I patronize perhaps twice a month for lunch, has been in trouble for employing undocumented workers. I’m not sure what to think of the ethics of that, though the illegality is clear. I’m wondering whether I have any ethical obligation as a citizen and customer to stop going there. LAURIE HURSHMAN, NEW HAVEN, CONN.
It’s true that employing undocumented workers is illegal, and it’s possible you don’t wish to be involved with any organization that breaks the law. But this kind of law operates outside the boundaries of traditional ethics. Obviously, this is not true for all laws: if murder were somehow legalized, killing innocent people would still be morally wrong, based on an ingrained belief in the sanctity of human life. But this is a different kind of statute. If the laws governing undocumented workers were suddenly reversed, it would be seen merely as a policy change. Some people would agree with the modification and others would not, but both sides of the argument would be almost entirely political. Undocumented workers take potential jobs from U.S. citizens, but who is to say citizenship is a moral justification for employment?
Undocumented workers don’t always contribute to the tax base, but they also put themselves in a precarious, unprotected position where they can be underpaid in cash, to the nefarious benefit of the employer. An illegal immigrant can’t legally work at a restaurant to support his family, but his 16-year-old son can, if he happened to be born here. There are contradictions on both sides. You admit you’re “not sure what to think” about this restaurant’s employment practice, which is an acceptable way to feel about an issue that lacks a straightforward moral answer; you’re aware of the illegality, but those laws apply only to the owner and the workers (not the consumer). So if you can’t personally isolate why it’s ethically wrong, there’s no reason to stop eating there.
But let’s take this further. Let’s say you thought about this problem deeply and came to the conclusion that it was unethical for restaurants to employ undocumented workers. This prompts one of the more difficult questions in modern living: Is it wrong to contribute — in any way — to businesses or organizations that contradict your ethical beliefs? There is a mode of thinking that insists that it is and that living ethically requires us to assess every day-to-day decision through the prism of its impact on the wider world. But what that entails in a practical sense is pretty unreasonable, unless “living ethically” is the only thing you care about. To do so would paralyze every moment of every day and consume you entirely. For example, let’s say you view military drone strikes as unethical (an issue far graver than restaurant employees). The U.S. government regularly conducts drone strikes. Does this mean that you should not support any business that pays federal taxes (and thereby provides support for military activities)? Does it mean you should not pay income tax because that makes you part of the problem? Does it mean you need to consider every single extension of the government, weigh their ethical merits against your own and then decide whether you still support the idea of living in America? These are all interesting questions to ask yourself while eating at this restaurant.