Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great Contemporary Essays in Ethics

The Crooked Timber has a post this week requesting recommendations for superlative essays in applied ethics that are also accessible to non-philosophers. I've had the privilege of reading many (though definitely not all) listed there, and if you're interested in reading what philosophers think about many practical moral issues, I suggest taking a look, here.

For my part, I can recommend the following. I'm not posting links to the articles, because very few are open access. However, if you have access to a library, you probably have access to JSTOR, and if you have access to JSTOR, you have access to all of these articles.
  • Utilitarianism
    — "A Critique of Utilitarianism" by Bernard Williams

  • Moral Relativism
    — "Moral Relativism Defended" by Gilbert Harman

  • Euthanasia
    — "Against the Right to Die" by David Velleman
    — "Death" by Thomas Nagel

  • Abortion
    — "A Defense of Abortion" by Judith Thomson
    — "A Kantian Argument Against Abortion" by Harry Gensler

  • War
    — "War and Massacre" by Thomas Nagel
    — "The Problem of Dirty Hands" by Michael Walzer

  • Super Interesting (and oddly convincing...)
    — "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant" by Nick Bostrom
The great thing about applied ethics is that so many of its philosophers are truly excellent writers--an aspect sorely lacking in much philosophical writing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Athletic...er...Supporters

Ross posts on his 'other' website:

"...[T]here's something to be said about the sports-mania that afflicts our society. It is certainly obvious that international sports have very little, if anything, to do with promoting goodwill among nations. Bread and circuses, I say. Bread and circuses"

One wonders whether this is the sort of bitterness bred from never having won a round croquet--but I digress.

What exactly are you teaming up with Christopher Hitchens to oppose? On the one hand it sounds suspiciously like what Merlin called in The Once and Future King, "games mania," but on the other, you seem to paint the Olympics with the same broad brush. What, pray tell, gives?

For my part, the essence of most sports consists in their participants' attempts to exert physical dominion over another in competition. Thus, a virtue of sport is when that superiority is expressed for the sake of excellence, and not so much for the sake of dominance. And that's what I enjoy about the Olympics. Very few of its competitors train as hard as they do in order either (a) to make the sort of money that American athletes make or (b) to engage in some personal tete-a-tete with the aim of destroying an opponent, without regard for the virtues of glory and achievement.

To illustrate, consider the difference in athletic attitude between college wrestlers and professional basketball players, and I think you'll get a sense of what mean. The professional basketball player, anymore, is of a low, and often thuggish, background, putting money before the pursuit of victory. But toward what, other than glory and excellence, does the college wrestler put his time and pain? So too, I'd wager, for the Olympian.

To be sure, there is something brutish in many an athlete--something from which we recoil when we notice it in some non-athletic setting. But nonetheless, to the degree that we're interesting in praising what's praiseworthy, I'm not sure why the physical achievement of the athlete is so readily dismissed in favor of that of the violinist. Or organist.

But if all you're hand-wringing about is "games mania," I don't really think that the great majority of Olympic sports involve that--as evidenced by the utter lack of enthusiasm with which we attend to most of the sports during their four intervening years. Most of them are pursued for what those virtues pursued in the original Olympics--namely, glory and pride. And if such are the pursuits of contemporary Olympians, then I'm all for the contemporary Olympics.

Most of them, anyway.

[BTW: This smacks of an argument that Ross, a teacher, and I had about six years ago--one that, if I remember right, I was on the losing end of at the time. I believe that Ross and she argued that music ought to be a for-credit high school activity to the exclusion of athletics, while I argued that either neither or both should be considered for credit. No matter now. As Jeremiah-qua-Deuteronomist almost wrote in Kings "All will be revealed in the fullness of time." A lost footnote to that quotation: "All = That Aaron is right."]

Or in internet parlance: Aaron FTW!]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Remember when....

If you have any trouble recalling the hyperbolic atmosphere, the anticipation, the in-all-honesty sense of hopefulness that gripped our country during the 2006-08 primary and general election seasons, you were probably as checked out as most of your fellow Americans. But, in case you were at all like I was, and you are now like I am, yearning for the excitement those days gone so recently by, it'd do your heart well to pick up a copy of John Heilemann's and Mark Halperin's Game Change.

For my part, from the reports on the book's contents, I thought before I read it (in three days!) that it would turn out as nothing other than an encyclopedia of election gossip. And it is certainly that--though, not only that. It is, more importantly I'd say, a chronicle of what we all took to be a seismic realignment of the course of the American political and social future--a literal realization of the first days of the kind of world that so many of us have treasured up in our hearts--and a rebuke of a decade (and a pretty formative one, for me) in which fear was the ordering criterion of our lives. Whether that realization was, well, real is a separate question (sort of), but what Game Change does with significant affect is remind us of what it felt like when it felt like it was real.

By and large, the book tells the tale of the election, from the decisions to enter the primaries in 2006, to the organizing days of each campaign in 2007, to the primaries, general election campaign, and election itself in 2008. In such great detail are this book's details recounted, it is hard to believe that Messirs Halperin and Heilemann didn't wire tap offices, cell phones, homes, campaign planes and buses, the Capitol Building, the White House, and more than a few bedrooms across the country. But absent lawsuits to that effect, the reporting is superb. Each candidate is rendered--lovingly, somehow--in all of his or her glory and vainglory. Reading this book was like finally seeing up close a painting you'd known for many years only in books; its cracks, its aging, to be sure, its imperfections are starkly rendered, but so too is the awe with which it first struck you. At least, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared this way to me, as did numerous staffers who believed with their whole hearts in the virtues of men and women who were, in their own hearts, scoundrels (see esp.: John and Elizabeth Edwards).

In any event, before I spoil too much of the excellent story, I'll say as further recommendation that the writing is peerless--as political books go, anyway. The sentences are crisp and intellectual, and the narrative is constructed with simultaneous, yet distinct plots that slowly, but surely, coalesce as the political herd is thinned. So, we read about Clinton's decision to run, then to Obama's, and finally to Edwards. The entire long (but gripping) story of the Democratic nomination process plays out in similar fashion (Clinton, to Obama, to Edwards), until turning finally to the Republicans. Really, it's quite gripping, and I hope you'll read it (and contribute here!) if you haven't already.

Also, one might consider picking it up only to find out what advice Joe Biden was given before his debate with Sarah Palin. Other than this, that is:

"Don't let her lure you down any rabbit holes with her crazy syntax and run-on sentences."

And that ain't even the half of it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It would seem we're idiots

Ever the curmudgeon, Dr Peters has unleashed another jeremiad today. Towards the end he says something I've heard before:
I would require philosophy every semester[.]
He then follows it with something I've thought many times over:
[B]ut who would teach these classes? Professors of philosophy? They love quarrels, not wisdom.
He... has a point, don't you think?