Saturday, July 28, 2012

Did the NCAA unfairly punish Penn State football?

This week, the NCAA hit Penn State football with some pretty severe sanctions. The team must pay a $60 million fine, recruit with a reduced number of athletic scholarships for the next four years, all victories since 1998 have been vacated, and the Nittany Lions will be ineligible for bowl play for the next four years.

Since I'm writing a dissertation in which I propose a new justification for punishment, I decided I'd say a little something about what I think about these sanctions. The specific question I will address is this: Given that Jerry Sandusky has been punished by the criminal justice system, and that Joe Paterno is no longer with us, is it fair for the NCAA to impose such severe sanctions on the Penn State football program?

I'll focus my discussion on only two of the sanctions: the vacation of the football victories and the bowl game ban. I assume that my readers are familiar with the sad details of the Penn State scandal.

Regarding the vacated victories, some of my friends have expressed the view that this sanction is unfair because the victories were not simply Paterno's victories, but the victories of all the coaches and players. To vacate these victories as a way of punishing Paterno, they argue, is to unfairly punish a whole generation of Penn State players and coaches.

I don't find this argument compelling. Part of what it means to be part of a team is to be willing to be link your fate, so to speak, to the fate of the team. When the Lakers lose, Kobe doesn't claim a personal victory in his playing well. When the Lakers lose, Kobe loses (and when they win, he wins).

A more apt example of this phenomenon would be the 2000 U.S. Olympic women's 4x400 relay team. The team was stripped of its gold medal after Marion Jones admitted to steroid use. When Jones cheated, the team cheated. They were justly stripped of their medal.

Now, my friends might reply: Sure, but neither Paterno nor Sandusky cheated. The whole team followed the NCAA rules and won those games fair and square.

Fair enough. But the way I see it, in punishing the whole team for the transgressions of Paterno and Sandusky, the NCAA is sending a clear message that running a football program that is clear of corruption and abuse of persons and/or power is a condition on being eligible to win games. Just as one can't "win" an Olympic race on steroids, the NCAA claims, a college program can't win football games while covering up blatant and morally repugnant actions.

Sure, it sucks that everyone must suffer for the actions of a few, but that's all a part of being a team.

Admittedly, it's harder to defend the bowl game ban. After all, the current players were not around when Sandusky was a coach and will not be coached by Joe Paterno. They aren't part of those tainted teams. As such, some would argue, they shouldn't be punished.

This bowl game ban is justified, I think, because it sends a message to other programs: "Mess up like Penn State did, and you'll not only be stripped of victories, you will be barred from competing in any bowl games." So, while the former punishment was backward-looking, this punishment is forward-looking. It seeks not to remedy some past wrong, but to prevent future wrongs.

But, as my lawyer friend Veronica argues, such forward-looking punishments only make sense in circumstances in which we have reason to believe that others are likely to commit offenses similar to the offense being punished. As she argues, it's just not the case that there's a Sandusky/Paterno duo at schools like UF, Alabama, and USC, and, as such, it makes little sense to punish with the aim of deterring similar wrongs at major college football programs. This punishment, she argues, simply places an unfair burden on current Penn State football players.

I think the best response to this objection is this: what the NCAA seeks to deter in banning Penn State from bowl games is not actions similar to those of Sandusky and Paterno, but the football culture that allowed the Sandusky-Paterno cover-up to happen.

The Penn State football culture placed winning and the appearance of integrity over other important values (in this case, the safety of the children Sandusky abused). Recall, in November Penn State students rioted in protest of Paterno's firing. In what would does it make sense to protest in support of a man who turned a blind eye to child abuse?

Additionally, the Penn State fans, students, and alums allowed one man, Joe Paterno, to become such an iconic and (seemingly) permanent fixture at Penn State that he felt it was within his power to sweep Sandusky's abuse under the rug, handling the situation in-house.

No college football program should value winning over morality, or treat one coach as so important and vital to the success of the program that he feels he can violate NCAA regulations and the criminal law to promote the (perceived) interests of his team. The bowl game ban, as I take it, was instituted to deter other programs from following Penn State's example.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see if this Penn State scandal and the subsequent sanctions serve to initiate any long-term changes in big-time college football. But, as they stand, I think the sanctions are just.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Fox News, and the Web of Belief

We were all deeply saddened by the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. For some of us, the shooting reaffirmed our belief that, despite the optimistic talk of a "post-racial" America, this country is still deeply divided along racial lines. Martin's shooting caused others to question their belief that America is now "post-racial."

Still, others remain reluctant to view this shooting and the Sanford police department's treatment of George Zimmerman as revelatory of the racial problems that continue to plague this country. Geraldo Rivera claimed that Trayvon's hoodie was to blame. Sean Hannity wondered if Trayvon's shooting could have been "just a big mistake."

But, how can this be possible? How can these geniuses at Fox News be so blind to the gravity of Trayvon's death?

I'll try to offer an answer to this question, utilizing W.V.O Quine's "web of belief," metaphor.

Quine believed that our beliefs form a web, so to speak. Each belief, for Quine, is connected to all other beliefs via inferential relations. For instance, my belief that my name is "Brandon" is connected to my belief that my parents and relatives have not lied to me about my name. I can infer the former belief from the latter. Additionally, for Quine, if I have reason to question the former belief, I have reason to question the latter. If you damage one part of the web, many other parts are affected.

For Quine, there is nothing supporting the web, no belief(s) that ground all other beliefs. As such, all of our beliefs are subject to change. While Quine takes it that there are no foundational, unalterable beliefs, he does believe that there are some beliefs which are more resistant to change than others.

For example, if one day my uncle referred to me as "Joe," I would not immediately start to question whether my parents had been lying to me about my name all these years. I'd most likely figure that my uncle was confused, or that I was mistaken in believing that he was referring to me.

My belief that my name is "Brandon," is very resistant to change, it is a core belief. On the other hand, my belief that my uncle is not confused in this instance is a belief that lies on the periphery of my web. I'm willing to give up this belief without much worry.

Quine believes that our core beliefs change when we reach a point at which we can no longer square them with the evidence we are faced with. To continue the example, assume I find out that my uncle was referring to me and wasn't simply confused. In this circumstance, I would try to come up with another explanation for his referring to me as "Joe."

If, after racking my brain for an alternative explanation, I came up with nothing, I may decide to just give up the belief that my name is "Brandon." This would be a drastic move, but, for Quine, there is nothing about the nature of belief that rules it out. In fact, Quine thought that even our beliefs about math and logic could be revised.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Rivera and Hannity?

It seems that the beliefs that America is in fact a post-racial country and that most charges of racism are misplaced or exaggerated are a core beliefs of many who work for and watch Fox News. Because these are core beliefs, the Fox News crowd seeks to explain Trayvon's shooting in a way that allows them to deny the reality of racism in America.

"Maybe it was a mistake."

"Maybe Trayvon was shot because he was wearing a hoodie."

"Perhaps Trayvon attacked Zimmerman."

"We shouldn't rush to judgment before we have all the facts, right?"

"It could be that the Sanford police have a really good reason for not arresting Zimmerman."

"Zimmerman has a black friend, so he's probably not a racist, right?"

All of these statements represent attempts to keep the conservative web intact. We know why this happens. No one wants their web to fall apart. When one gives up one's core beliefs, one feels a sense of homelessness, as Heidegger puts it. But, to face the world with courage and intelligence is to risk giving up one's core beliefs, to risk (temporary) homelessness.

It is past time for people like Rivera and Hannity to wake up. I doubt, but hope, that Martin's death will cause many of the Fox News conservatives to question their core beliefs about race in America. But, I admit, asking the Fox News conservatives to approach the world with courage and intelligence may be asking too much?

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Importance of Recognition

I'm in full dissertation mode. It has been hard to post regularly or even think about non-dissertation-related topics.

So, I've decided to write about what I've been thinking about in relation to the dissertation.

In the past few months, I've become really impressed with Hegel's understanding of self-consciousness.

If you're anything like me, you don't like having to depend on other people. I liked wrestling more than football because in wrestling, it was totally up to me whether I won or lost. The wrestler has no teammates to blame for his or her lack of success. I also hated doing group assignments in school because I didn't like having to depend on others for my grade. I value my independence.

But, in reading Hegel, I came to realize that I have to depend on others in order to have a coherent conception of myself. More specifically, I came to realize that I have to depend on the recognition of others in order to have a coherent self-conception. I'll try to explain. [For a more complete story, check out a draft chapter of my advisor's book on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, here].

Let's suppose the opposite, let's suppose that I can have a coherent self-conception which is independent of the recognition of others (let's call this the "independence view"). Assume that I wish to think of myself as good singer. What determines whether I actually am a good singer? On the independence view, I determine whether I'm a good singer.

It only takes a moment of reflection to see why this view is problematic. If only I can determine whether I'm a good singer, then any of my performances which seem good to me are good. On the independence view, I simply can't be wrong about the quality of my singing. But, if I can't be wrong, it makes little sense to say I'm right either. On the independence view, I end up just giving my singing meaningless praise. (Think of the rejected American Idol contestant who declares that she can sing despite what everyone else says).

I want it to be the case that the label "good singer" means something, but on the independence view, I strip the label of its meaning. My self-conception, on this view, is incoherent.

I'll now explain how dependence on the recognition of others can solve this problem. First, I have to say something about what recognition is. To recognize another is to view that other's judgments on some particular matter as largely correct. If I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent, I take it that his judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct. Likewise, for Simon to recognize me as a good judge of talent is for him to take it that my judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct.

We are now in a position to see how the recognition of another can allow one to coherently recognize oneself as one thing or another.

Say I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent. Now assume that Simon recognizes me as a good singer. Since I take it that whoever Simon recognizes as a good singer probably is a good singer, I can then recognize myself as a good singer. But, this is only possible because I recognize Simon and he in turn recognizes me. In this way, my self-conception is dependent on Simon's recognition.

Also, on this understanding of what it is to be a good singer, I can be wrong in thinking that I'm a good singer. If the people I recognize as good judges of talent fail to recognize me, then I'm not a good singer. As such, the label "good singer" does not fail to be meaningful.

I find this view very compelling, but I still value independence. I just realize now that my independence cannot be complete independence. Otherwise, I wouldn't even be able to coherently think of myself as "independent," or anything else for that matter.

What do you think?

Monday, December 12, 2011

How to Never Make Another Mistake (Seriously)

Folks, I’ve been in full dissertation mode for the past few months, so I haven’t been able to post as often as I would like. I’m writing a dissertation that requires me to call on the training I received in law school and will, hopefully, allow me to land a job as a law professor. My research question: Can the practice of state-sponsored punishment be justified?

For a long time, I considered my decision to go to law school a mistake (a $102,000 mistake). I hated it. I felt that most of my classes were a waste of time. In fact, I actually told one professor that his class wasn’t worth attending (he didn’t take it well). I wanted to leave after the first year and, while in school, I was certain that I’d never use the degree.

This year, I started reading Hegel seriously--specifically, his Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right. Hegel is extremely deep, but that’s a topic for another blog post. One Hegelian idea that I really latched on to was that of viewing historical events as happening for a reason, as furthering some ultimate end. For Hegel, the events of human history all serve the purpose of allowing us to gain a greater knowledge of who we are, as humans.

Hegel doesn’t think that this claim is obviously true. He realizes that one can view certain historical events as senseless and irrational, as serving no positive purpose. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes “To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual.” What Hegel means here ( on at least one interpretation) is that we can only recognize the past as meaningful (rational) if we allow ourselves to both see it as potentially meaningful and make it actually meaningful.

What does it mean to see a past event as potentially meaningful? This: to understand that event as a necessary part of a story that has a happy ending.

What is it to make a past event meaningful? This: to make that story come true.

For Hegel, this happy ending is our coming to a state of absolute knowing (or, full self-awareness). I’ll put off the discussion of absolute knowing for another day. Here I simply wish to exploit the complementary Hegelian notions of seeing the past as potentially meaningful and making the past meaningful.

Thus far, I’ve only discussed these notions abstractly. Let’s think about a concrete example.

Say you and I set off on a road trip to San Francisco. We somehow take a wrong turn and end up in Arizona. We could take this event as an opportunity to lament our poor navigational skills and curse our malfunctioning GPS or we could see our wrong turn as providing us with an opportunity to see the Grand Canyon. We could realize that had we not made the wrong turn, we would not be in a position to have a great Grand Canyon vacation. We would make this wrong turn meaningful by actually having a great vacation in Arizona. By making the story of the Grand Canyon vacation true, we, in essence, make the wrong turn a right turn.

It should be clear now how I plan to make good on the promise I made in the title of this post. We can avoid making mistakes in that we can we can integrate our “mistakes” into progressive stories which we make true. We thereby turn our “mistakes” into right decisions.

This is what I’m trying to do with respect to my law school “mistake.” I consciously chose a dissertation topic and future career that will require me to “use” my law degree. I used to say that going to law school was a mistake. Now I say that I’m actively trying to make it the case that it wasn’t a mistake.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's So Bad About Dying?

We lost Joe Frazier and Heavy D this week. Clearly, we’re all sad that they’re no longer with us. Their deaths represent a harm to us. But were they harmed by their deaths?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Epicureans argued that death is not a harm. Their view of death can be summarized in the following slogan: “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.”

The Epicureans can be understood as endorsing the following argument: Harms are experienced. Death is not experienced, but is the end of all experience. Therefore, death is not a harm.

Thomas Nagel, on the other hand, argues that the first premise of Epicurean argument is false. For Nagel, not all harms are experienced. For example, Nagel would say that you are harmed if a friend talks bad about you behind your back, even if you don’t experience any negative repercussions as a result of your friend’s betrayal.

For Nagel, one who dies experiences a relational harm. That is, the person is harmed relative to what she would have done had she not died. So, if Sarah was on the path to becoming a famous actress, but is killed before she is able to realize her dream, she is harmed, in Nagel’s view, because she would have become an actress had she not been killed. Sarah doesn’t experience this deprivation, but it is represents a harm to her on Nagel’s view.

Honestly, I don’t “get” Nagel’s view. I don’t see how it makes sense to say that the individual is harmed by a deprivation she is not aware of. Suppose, unbeknownst to me, Bill Gates plans to deposit $1billion into my sad bank account. Before he does so, his wife convinces him that there are people needier than Black Socrates. He agrees and donates the money to the American Cancer Society.

In this scenario, Melinda’s action deprives me of $1billion, but I am unaware of the deprivation. In what sense am I harmed? Here, something didn’t happen that I would have wanted to happen, but I wasn’t harmed by Bill’s not giving me $1billion. It seems right to say that something unfortunate happened (at least with respect to my overall interests) in this scenario, but not that this unfortunate thing happened to me.

I don’t have an argument for this claim (yet), but it just seems to me that what the Epicureans say about death is the right thing to say.

The Epicureans also thought that if death is not a harm, we have no reason to fear (or even we worried about) death. This thought seems wrong to me.
Even if the deprivations associated with death do not harm the individual who dies, that they exist is lamentable. Something bad can happen even if that bad thing doesn’t happen to someone.

James decided to attend Morehouse instead of Howard, where he would have met the love of his life. Susan failed to notice and pick up the lost $100 bill lying at her feet. Tia just missed meeting her long-lost twin sister Tamara in the mall. These are all bad things that could happen, but these bad things don’t happen to anyone, they don’t represent harms to individuals.

Despite this, I think that individuals have reason to fear their own deaths to the extent that their dying would be a bad thing, a tragedy. If Zadie is writing the great American novel, she has reason to fear dying before the novel is completed. Her dying at her laptop would be tragic. She can fear this potential tragedy as a tragedy and not as something that will harm her. We don’t want tragic things to happen and we have reason to feel apprehension, even fear, in the face of the possibility that they will occur.

The Epicureans are right, death is not a harm. But some of us have reason to fear dying nonetheless.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What Will We Teach the Children?: Raising kids with (or without) religion

In a previous post, I promised to address the issue of how to raise children with respect to religion.

I now make good on that promise.

The general principle I will be defending in this post is this:

Children should be raised such that they are put in the best possible position to make informed and free decisions on matters of religion and faith.

I argue for this point by way of analogy.

Let’s imagine two parents: Joy and James. Joy and James are doctors and very much want their ten year old son to eventually go to medical school and become a surgeon. They take him to visit the hospital at which they work on occasion and encourage him to talk with their surgeon friends.

Problematically, Joy and James do not expose their son to other career paths and shake their heads in disbelief and disappointment whenever he mentions that he may want to become a journalist.

Most of us think that Joy and James do wrong by their son. As parents, they should expose their son to career options that they deem fruitful, but they should also expose him to a variety a careers and encourage him to discover what he’s truly passionate about.

To not do so, it seems, is to undercut his autonomy (that is, his ability to make informed, un-coerced decisions). While the son may eventually become a journalist, he will have to overcome many obstacles to do so. For instance, he’ll have to research colleges with good journalism programs behind his parent’s backs and muster the courage to major in journalism, knowing his parents will disapprove.

So, while the son is free (in a sense) to become a journalist, his freedom is undermined by his upbringing.

I’m sure you see where this is going by now.

Imagine that Joy and James are atheists and very much want their son to be an atheist. They require their son to attend secular society meetings, do not teach him about the world’s religions, do not encourage him to ask questions about religious belief and shake their heads in disbelief and disappointment when he mentions that he’d like to explore Islam.

The son’s autonomy is undercut in this situation as well. While he is free (in a sense) to convert to Islam later in life, his freedom in this regard is undermined by his upbringing.

If you think there’s something wrong with the idea of raising a child to be a surgeon (or a lawyer or a pilot), you should also think there’s something wrong with the idea of raising a child to be an atheist (or a Muslim or a Wiccan).

But Black Socrates, you’ll say, I’ll have to raise my children to be something. It would be neglectful to not teach my children to believe what I take to be true and beneficial to them as persons.

I agree.

Recall that the claim I advocate in this post is that children should be raised such that they are put in the best possible position to make informed and free decisions on matters of religion and faith.

So, how does one do this? Here are some suggestions.

1. Don’t force your children to attend events where religious doctrines are advocated unilaterally. While it’s fine to tell your children what you believe and why you believe it, parents shouldn’t force their children to attend synagogue or secular society meetings, etc. Children should be allowed to decide to go if they wish.

2. Actively encourage your children to learn about and question different faiths.

3. Teach your children how to reason.

4. Don’t punish your children (in the form of overt disapproval or the withholding of benefits) for not believing what you believe.

Note that nothing I’ve said entails that parents should not teach their children to behave like reasonable people. Parents should teach their children not to steal, lie, cheat, assault others, burn things, etc. If children don’t learn how to act like reasonable people, their autonomy will most certainly be undermined in the future. They’ll be in jail!

Couples of differing faiths are often asked the question “How will you raise your children?” I propose that they answer this question in the way that I propose every couple answer this question. That is, by saying “We plan to raise our children as reasonable and autonomous people.”

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let's Have a Toast for the Assholes

In Famine, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer argues that persons in affluent countries have a moral obligation to donate at least some of their income to organization designed to combat global famine. While most of us take donating to Oxfam to be a charitable act, Singer argues that for most of us, such donations are morally obligatory.

In arguing for this conclusion, Singer asks us to consider a scenario like the following:

Janice is on the way to the club in her new Manolo Blahnik stilettos (yea, surprise, surprise, I know what Manolo Blahniks are). She sees a small child drowning in a shallow pond. In order to save the child, she’ll have to wade into the pond, ruining her new shoes.

Clearly, we should think Janice an asshole if she chooses her shoes over the child’s life.

Singer thinks that this situation is no different, morally, from the situation of the person who spends however much on Manolo Blahniks instead of donating most of that money to Oxfam and buying less expensive shoes.
In fact, Singer’s position is more extreme. He thinks that it would be wrong to the buy less expensive shoes as well. Starving children need food, no one needs stilettos (or Starbucks coffee, or whatever).

Now, let’s consider the following three propositions which I think most of my readers will consider true of themselves.

1. I know that I can help feed a starving child in, say, Somalia, by donating what, from my perspective, is an insignificant amount of money to Oxfam or some other organization designed to combat famine.
2. I don’t donate money to Oxfam or an Oxfam-like organization, but instead spend much of my income on things I don’t need.
3. I’m not an asshole.

But, light of Singer’s argument, it’s not clear that all three propositions can be true.

So, this is the challenge (which is not unfamiliar to anyone who has studied moral philosophy): Either figure out how all three propositions can be true or reject one.

How do you respond?