Friday, September 27, 2013

(LCR) Protocol for formal proofs

Many of you lost points on today's quiz, not because you couldn't solve the problems but because you were sloppy about protocol. I'm going to be an absolute control freak about this, for when proofs start to get complicated any deviation from procedure can lead to mistakes in the proof. So NUMBER ALL STEPS IN A PROOF, and JUSTIFY EVERY LINE. If a proposition is a premise, you must write "Prem." after it. Following the last premise (properly so labeled), put a forward slash, three dots indicating "Therefore," and the conclusion which you are attempting to demonstrate. Each subsequent step requires a justification (the numbers of relevant previous steps and the rule(s) of inference you are using to justify the step).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(LE) Lincoln 2.0

I’d like to say a little more about the moral operating systems we discussed yesterday: the ‘Stern Father Model’ and the ‘Nurturing Parent Model’. I propose this family-relations metaphor advisedly, because we actually tend to think about government and our relationship to it in precisely these terms, as though the nation were a sort of extended family. (There are dangers to thinking this way – family finances are really not usefully analogous to federal budgets, for example – but it is often an informative image, and is readily available.)

I also employ the ‘operating system’ metaphor deliberately, because these two contrasting models operate mostly below the level of cognition. Like Windows or Mac OS, they undergird and support programs and apps without the user having to think about them, and subtly but powerfully condition what those apps can do and how they work. (Those of you who have used both systems will be frustratingly aware of the deep differences.) Likewise the Stern Father and Nurturing Parent models represent not so much the values and ideas that we openly subscribe to, as the unspoken, underlying assumptions that determine how we understand and value everything else. Only rarely in ordinary life do we even think about them directly.

One last point for now. Although the two models are largely incompatible, most people actually contain elements of both systems. For example, a person might well be attentive and nurturing in relation to her children, but operate in authoritarian command mode in her corporate-management job, without necessarily even noticing the switch. The two really are irreconcilable, however, so when one is activated the other shuts down. One of the things that follows from this is that it matters very much how a politician speaks to us – which system her words, style, and images activate and reinforce in us. Watch for such choices in Lincoln’s speeches.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

(LE) This Week's Blogging

Lively, substantive, and thoughtful blogging all around this week, though a few of you did not partake of it fully. One post and two comments each week, plus reading everyone else's blogging, takes only a small proportion of your study schedule, but can be extremely useful for trying out ideas, getting help clarifying issues and texts, and discovering blind alleys.

Two observations: one of you made lots of comments, but didn't do a post of your own. Perhaps it would be useful to take one of the issues to which you are moved to respond, and instead of posting it as a comment, start a new thread with it on your own blog (you could leave a comment that says "see my blog for a response to this thought." Lastly, at least two of you still have not turned off word verification. If you can't figure out how to do this, please ask, but your blog for the course is not complete with that task neglected.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

(LCR) Hegel and the moral valet

Friday's quiz was a bit of a challenge, as I expect you'll agree. Patrick's standard-form interpretation of the first argument was perhaps the cleanest of the bunch (including my own). Here's a close paraphrase:

     A valet deals with a man as a normal person
     No man is a hero to his valet
     A judging consciousness can always take into account personal and individual meaning, which tempers
            the universal aspect of any action

Here the second premise evidently follows as a sub-conclusion from the first, and the general conclusion follows from the second premise, at least if we allow Hegel's analogy to resonate a little. Of course, supplying premises making that analogy explicit would be of some help: the "moral valet" represents our capacity to judge -- to interpret the world on both a quotidian and a historical scale. Heroism is clearly an example of the "universal aspect" of an action -- its wider significance. Hegel is not denying that an action can have such world-historical significance, that there are heroes; he is only reminding us that in some sense heroes are no better than us, for like us they have smelly socks.

(LE) Lincoln and "Stand Your Ground"

An excellent blog post for the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik discusses the roots of "stand your ground" laws in nineteenth century America, with particular mention of Lincoln. An excerpt:

"In France and England, though, duelling was meant to reinstate an aristocratic code of honor against the encroachment of the middle class. (This is dramatized in the strange and wonderful Ridley Scott film “The Duellists.”) But in the ideal European duel it was likely that both parties would survive. In America, around the same time, the code of honor took a very different form. American duels were dangerous, usually fought to the death, and they left in their wake that special American thing the feud. Instead of dissolving personal quarrels in a solvent of honor, the American way of duelling intensified them. In 1808, for instance, two men fought a duel in Maryland—with rifles, and at thirty steps. During the Jackson Administration, when General Armistead Thomson Mason challenged Colonel John Mason McCarty, McCarty, it’s said, “would only consent to meet him on such terms as would result in the certain destruction of one, or both.” (McCarty had suggested that they fight with pistols at point-blank range on top of a keg of gunpowder.) In Europe, the honor of the duellist was a concept that ennobled and abstracted violence. In America, it was a concept that empowered and invigorated it."

In the full article at Gopnik discusses Lincoln's famous rejection of vigilante violence in the Lyceum speech. This helps to put the otherwise somewhat exaggerated-sounding paean to "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason" into perspective: Lincoln is contrasting an Enlightenment vision of legality and civility to the barbarism of codes emphasizing blood vengeance and honor-or-death.

Friday, September 20, 2013

(LE) Thinking With Aristotle

Here’s another way to consider our dilemma from today’s class: Bentham and Mill (utilitarian consequentialists) think there’s a straightforward moral answer to what to do about the person who is about to murder ten people – take him out, if the probability is sufficiently high that this will minimize aggregate harm, short and long term. (Some Rule Utilitarians might balk, but probably not for long).

Kant and other deontologists don’t think there is any genuinely moral answer, since all options involve treating persons as means to an end only, a direct violation of the Categorical Imperative. So he might tell us to do what we think we have to do, and take full responsibility for our choice, but not to look to morality to tell us it’s okay.

Aristotle is likely to take a rather different approach. Rather than fixating on the choice of the moment (for which he might even somewhat grudgingly accept a sort of utilitarian calculation) he might ask us to examine what is wrong with our society such that scenarios like this keep cropping up – clearly our habits and our polis have a big problem if matters come to such a turn very often. In this regard, President Obama’s response to the recent spate of mass killings has a slight Aristotelian flavor – without minimizing individual responsibility, he persists in asking why it is easier in our society to obtain high-power weapons than mental health care. It’s not an entirely unreasonable question.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

(LE) The Uses of Aristotle

A few of your comments lead me to try to clarify what we're up to in the opening phase of the course. We're reading Donald for background; this is some of the raw material out of which we will build our analyses of Lincoln, and we need to be very familiar with it. We're not reading Aristotle, just now, primarily for comparison with the biographical material (though of course it's natural and inevitable that we will draw some loose connections between the two texts). Rather, we're reading Aristotle to acquire one tool, among several, that we will attempt to use later to think about Lincoln's life and work.

So don't be too surprised if the connection seems a little tenuous; it is as though I was showing you how to use a microscope, and you were puzzled about why the microscope was so different from the objects we will eventually use it to inspect.

(LCR) First Week Blogging Results

There were some pretty interesting threads this week, though less than half of the class fulfilled the minimum expectation of a single (brief, thoughtful) post and two (brief, thoughtful) comments. Frankly, I'm not sure what honors work could mean if it didn't accommodate minimal participation in weekly course discussion. Moreover, a number of blogs still have word verification barriers, which makes commenting very awkward. Please attend to that right away, if you have not done so already.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Civil Rights Bus Tour

Some of my colleagues in History are offering what promises to be a very interesting experience:

MARCH 7-16, 2014

INFORMATIONAL MEETING: Thursday, September 19, 2013
5:30-6:30 PM
Sullivan Lounge


Thursday, September 12, 2013

(LE) Lincoln and Fatalism

As each of you begins to cast about for a subject to research for the course, here's an interesting example of one of the sorts of things that might make a worthy choice. Some scholars (e.g. Miller) treat Lincoln's dabbling with fatalism (the "doctrine of necessity") as a youthful conceit, abandoned in maturity. Others (e.g. Donald) see it as a secular articulation of a Protestant Christian predestinarianism, which was common in the teaching of the churches on the frontier. These latter scholars not only view it as characterizing Lincoln's nondenominational religious orientation, but find echoes of it in his periods of melancholy, most particularly when dealing with the horrors of the war years. It would be a fascinating matter to try to sort out which of these interpretations best accounts for the available evidence, along the way clarifying such complexities as how predestinarianism reconciles itself ideologically with hard work, responsibility, and progress (also prominent members of the frontier Protestant ethos).

Teaching as an Interpersonal Activity

Apropos of neither course, really, here's a moving essay on the limits of online teaching, most of which I agree with:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

(LE) Marx on Lincoln

We will presently discuss in class my hesitation to accept Donald's assessment of Lincoln's character -- or at least his leadership style -- as essentially passive. I'll share the various reasons for my demural at a suitable time, but you might get some feeling for why I think it incomplete from Karl Marx's unflattering description of Lincoln as president (Die Presse, October 12, 1862):

"Lincoln is not the product of a popular revolution. This plebeian, who worked his way up from stone-breaker to Senator in Illinois, without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance—an average person of good will, was placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake."

Friday, September 6, 2013

(LCR) Truth

The last question on today's quiz threw quite a few of you, so let me say a little about truth. The Toolkit has two things to say about truth: it distinguishes coherence from correspondence theories of truth, and (on the logic page) suggests the most fruitful place to begin is to think of truth as the correspondence of a statement with the state of affairs to which it refers.

This is pretty straightforward; suppose I utter the statement "the cat is on the mat." This statement is true if it is the case that the cat in question really is on the mat, and false otherwise. This is, in general, how we will be using the word 'truth' in this course.

There is a popular notion that we can usefully speak of truth as relative to individual or cultural perspectives, attitudes, or opinions. There are, I think, compelling arguments why this cannot be so, but I'll save those for later discussion.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

(LE) Aristotle on morality as political science

Unlike most modern thinkers, Aristotle sees complete continuity between the study of ethics and the study of politics. His argument runs something like this: no single individual is necessary to the existence or thriving of a city (the Greek word is polis, which could mean the specific form of city-state familiar to Aristotle, or could refer more generally to any effectively organized human community), but some city or other is necessary to the development of any actualized human individual. So the ethics or virtue of a person always relates inherently to her or his political community.

Do you find this reasoning compelling, and what implications does it have for how we think about ethics?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

(LCR) Logic problem

What, if anything, is wrong with this argument?

Premise 1: Nothing is better than eternal happiness
Premise 2: Logic is better than nothing
Conclusion:  Logic is better than eternal happiness

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Welcome to Skeptiblog

This will be the clearinghouse for online discussion in Lincoln's Ethics (LE) and Logic and Critical Reasoning (LCR). I will flag posts with those initials. Student blogs should soon be linked in the left-hand column. Looking forward to some very interesting conversations in and around this space.