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?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Does God Have Hands?

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein attempts to illustrate how misunderstanding the nature of language can lead to philosophical perplexity. For example, (and this isn’t a great example) take the sentence “He has lost his mind.” We know (or think we know) what this means, but misunderstanding this sentence can cause one to ask bad questions, like “Where is his mind now?” or “Where are minds located?”

For Wittgenstein, our language develops, in part, by our using certain familiar phrases and concepts to talk about novel situations. For instance, we start off talking about feeding a baby, then feeding a dog, then feeding an ego, then feeding a meter. But, clearly, feeding an ego is not like feeding a baby. These two uses of the word “feed” simply resemble one another. They bear a “family resemblance,” to use Wittgenstein’s term.

Think now about two ways in which something can be “in” something else. Gold can be in someone’s mouth and also, one can have a pain in one’s mouth. It makes sense to ask where the gold was before it was in the mouth, but not where the pain was before it was in the mouth.

When we begin to use familiar words to talk about novel situations, some ideas associated with those words will transfer over to the new way of talking. Some will not.

Now that we have this Wittgensteinian point on the table, I wish to make a point about religious language and religious disagreement.

It seems that talk about god is an extension of talk about human agents. So, we could understand the story of this extension in the following way: our ancestors had a full vocabulary for talk about human agents. Our ancestors believed that human agents have emotions and beliefs and move things in the world with their bodies. One day a few of our ancestors witnessed an item move in the world without the aid of a human (or animal) agent (say they saw a tree just fall over). To explain this phenomenon, they posit an invisible agent. From this development, it was just a hop, skip and jump to a god.

(Now, you’re going to want to say “Surely, the language used to talk about my god didn’t develop in this way.” Fine. Just take the story to be about someone else’s god).

My point is this. When the language of human agents was extended to talk about invisible agents, it wasn’t clear which ideas were to transfer with the language. Do invisible agents have invisible hands? Do invisible agents have thoughts, beliefs, fears, desires? Do invisible agents make mistakes in the same way that human agents do? Does it make sense to be upset with an invisible agent? To ask it a question? Do invisible agents have invisible parents?

I think the fact that there seem to be no agreed upon answers to some these questions is responsible for some of the seemingly intractable contemporary disagreement about god.

Some take god talk to be literal (Pat Robertson) others take it to be metaphorical (but a metaphor for what?). While Robertson takes it that god gets angry in the same way that human agents do, others take this type of talk to only approximate the truth of the matter.

Some think it makes sense to criticize god by the standards of rationality (Example: “Why would god create people who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, yet blame them for acting on their sexual desires?”). While others think that god’s actions are not the types of things that can be criticized by the standards of rationality. Folks in this latter camp say things like “God’s reason is not our reason.”

The same goes for the notion of criticizing god by the standards of morality.

We just don’t agree about how god talk is to work.

So, the upshot of this discussion is this: Before we begin arguing about whether god exists or which god exists or whether god should be worshiped and how, we would do well to come to some agreement about which features of agency talk transfer over to god talk and which do not.

Clearly, agreement on these matters will not end religious debate. But, I think some reflection on how god talk does and should work will make discussions about religion more productive.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Learning to Embrace Awkwardness

Awkwardness is just a part of our lives. Witness:

A friend farts loudly while giving a public speech. What is he to do? Ignore it? Apologize? What are you to do? That sh*t is awkward.

You see an ex walking toward you and your new boy/girlfriend? Do you stop and chat? Just smile and move on? Awkward.

You’re on a first date. Finally, the conversation is going well. Then a pause…a long pause.

You slowly exit a conversation, say “goodbye” and all, and walk away. Then see the person two minutes later. What do you do? Awkwardness all around.

Let’s loosely define an awkward situation in the following way: an awkward situation is one that is not easy to handle, that requires great skill to manage. In this way, we can see awkward situations as similar to awkward packages or furniture. It’s hard to move a huge star-shaped mirror as it is hard to manage an awkward social encounter.

Awkward situations are those for which we have not established rules of behavior. When someone sneezes in public, one is to say “bless you.” But when a friend farts in public, it’s not clear what one is to do. Awkward situations make us uneasy, they make us sweat and feel really silly.

Many people work hard to avoid awkward situations. We don’t want to be left to talk with weird people (remember George begging Jerry to not leave him alone with Elaine’s dad). We sometimes take alternative paths home in order to avoid awkward encounters with certain folks, we try to recreate fart noises with our chairs in order to fool others into thinking we didn’t just fart out loud.

Isn’t all of this avoiding just cowardly?

Sure, awkward situations are not governed by rules. But why not take these awkward situations as opportunities to make up your own rules? I won’t quote Nietzsche here, but check “On the Way of the Creator,” in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It takes courage to insert oneself into a potentially awkward situation and push through it without the help of rules.

If you need help getting started, here are a few suggestions: When there’s an awkward pause, just say something crazy. When you run into your ex, say “I know you, we used to date.” When you fart out loud in public, say “Yea I did it!”

Have courage, embrace awkward situations as opportunities. That which does not kill you will only make you stronger.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Odd Future

I was first exposed to Odd Future while having a drink with my friends at Pittsburgh’s Brillobox bar. Tyler’s video “Yonkers” played on the big screen, followed by Earl Sweatshirt’s “Earl.” Both videos were disturbing and captivating.

The next day I googled the group (these guys have been covered in the New York Times, The New Yorker and were featured on NPR) and listened to a few of their songs on youtube. I remained on the fence. I thought the Odd Future collective was interesting, new, but nothing to write home about. But one late night I gave them a real listen and was amazed, moved and ready to label Odd Future the next big thing in hip-hop.

The group collectively channels Sid Vicious, Pharell, Marilyn Manson and the early Nas. Their beats are simple and deep, their image, gory and rebellious, their lyrics, thoughtful, poetic and (at times) extremely vulgar.

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what to say about Odd Future in light of this extreme vulgarity and the attention (both negative and positive) that the group has received. I don’t have any one thing to say, so I’ll say several things.

1. We shouldn’t force ourselves to give the group or any of its members a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Anyone who likes hip-hop and has a social conscience has to both praise and blame the rappers they enjoy. We praise Tupac for his talent and charisma and blame him for his misogynistic and violent lyrics. We (I)should treat Tyler, Earl and the rest the same way we (I) treat every other artist: as an object of both praise and blame.

2. We shouldn’t always expect art to make us comfortable. Sometimes good art disturbs. Think Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” or even Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.”

3. That being said, I think the gore, explicit atheism, the mocking of religion and (some of) the vulgarity allows the Odd Future collective to make a unique contribution to the African-American art narrative.

In watching “Afro Punk,” James Spooner’s documentary about black kids in the American punk scene, one realizes that many black punks struggle with their black identity. Many of the subjects interviewed wished to be white at some point in their lives (to better fit into the punk scene), resented other blacks in the scene (“I want to be the only one.”) or were the only black member of this or that band. (Of course, Spooner’s documentary and his Afro Punk movement, I take it, are helping to alleviate some of these problems).

Interestingly, Odd Future embraces the punk aesthetic (and, to be clear, these guys aren’t really punk or metal or hip-hop. They draw from a lot of sources), but in an unapologetically black way. In listening to their music (and watching their interviews), one doesn't get the feeling that this is a group of black kids who want to be white--they seem to embrace their blackness.


“Pigs raid my crib, I’m feelin’ like Fred Hampton…”

“I’m f*ckin’ bout it bout it like I’m Master P in 96…”

“I’m a n*gga with an attitude [NWA], trigger aimin’ at your dude…”

“At the lamp post in Oakland next to Bob Seale [the black panther]…”

And check the references to Jay-Z and Nas in these two lines:

“Chip on my shoulder like I’m dieting with Pringles/ Brush it off quick like H to the OV/ Life is but a beach chair, beach n*ggas folding.”

And, whereas most groups who embrace gore, atheism and/or the punk attitude are predominantly white, Odd Future is all black.

I can’t recall any hip-hop collective having done what Odd Future is doing (Wu-Tang and Mob Deep are dark, but not like Odd Future and Bad Brains is all black and embraces the punk aesthetic, but they’re not hip-hop). Odd Future is doing something new.

4. Some of the vulgarity is unnecessary and, I think, indefensible. I’m not going to repeat any of the really objectionable lyrics in this forum, but check the NPR feature on Odd Future to get a taste. The vulgarity is unnecessary in that the group could do what they want to do without all the (feigned?) misogyny and homophobic slurs. The music is shocking and novel enough without this objectionable content. I think it detracts from the group’s appeal.

Tyler defends his misogyny (and, really, the other members of the group aren’t nearly as bad in this respect as he and Earl) by claiming that the misogynistic lyrics are either the result of an artistic exercise in which he attempts to understand and rap from the perspective of a violent killer or part of a violent fantasy which shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than a Stephen King novel. Okay. But his worst lyrics appear to be off-putting to no end. They’re just out there and not part of a larger narrative. Admittedly, I haven’t spent a lot of time with either of Tyler’s albums, so I may be missing something.

Tyler defends his use of homophobic slurs by claiming that he’s not actually homophobic, but uses the F-word to deride those artists (people?) who are silly, uncreative and/or annoying. Fair enough. But, as Jenée Desmond-Harris points out, one must make a distinction between one’s intention in speaking and the effects of one’s speech. While Tyler may not be homophobic, many of us can’t help but hear his words as homophobic (I really don’t know how the 18 year-old skaters and punk rock kids hear the word). Once he becomes aware of this, he can no longer hide behind his intent. In this way, his use of the F-word is unacceptable. He needs to give the slurs a rest. Hopefully an older Tyler will recognize this point.

5. That being said, Tyler is extremely talented and most of his flows are just nice. He can ride a beat and drop internal rhymes with the best of them. Earl Sweatshirt, son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, is the best in the group in my opinion. I don’t know if hip-hop has ever seen a 16 year-old with this much talent. I’m going to call it now: Earl is going to be a big deal. Hodgy Beats has an extremely smooth flow, Raekwon-like charisma and the ability to keep you interested and engaged for an entire album. I could go on, but you get the point. These young cats are good.

I support Odd Future as a group of wild, smart, talented (they make their own beats), and creative artists. I can’t get behind (or even defend) everything they do and say, but I can’t dismiss them either. As with any gifted but controversial artist or group, one must not be so blinded by Odd Future’s talent that one does not acknowledge their objectionable content and one must not be so blinded by their objectionable content that one does not appreciate the talent that these kids bring to the table.

I’ll leave you with two of the less-offensive Odd Future tracks. Enjoy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What’s the Point of Arguing About Art?

We’ve all been witness to the following type of conversation:

Anthony: Have you heard the new so and so album?

Maria: Yea, it’s wack. So and so is falling off.

Anthony: You’re trippin’. Did you listen to track 10? It’s fire.

Maria: Yea, I listened. That track just sounds lazy, like so and so didn’t even take time to think about the lyrics…

Anthony: But what about this verse…?

From the outside (or the inside) it can appear as if engaging in this type of conversation is a waste of time. After a certain amount of time, it will likely seem that Maria and Anthony just aren’t going to come to an agreement about the album they’re discussing. From the fact that persons in Maria and Anthony’s position will not likely come to an agreement, people tend to draw the following two conclusions:

1) There is just no fact of the matter about whether the any work of art is good (or beautiful, or groundbreaking, etc).

2) Engaging in arguments about art is a waste of time because aesthetic judgments are purely subjective.

Here I assume that the former conclusion is true and take issue with the latter conclusion. The claim I advance is this: even if it is true that there is no fact of the matter about whether a given work of art is good and even if aesthetic judgments are purely subjective, there are reasons to engage in arguments about the value of any given work of art.

There are two things that one could gain from engaging in such an argument.

First, in engaging in an argument about the value of some work of art, we may come to see something in that work that we were unable to see before. That is, we may come to see a beautiful aspect of a song, painting or novel that we would have not been able to see without the help of another.

Second, in engaging in an argument about some work of art, we may come to see something in our interlocutor that we were previously unable to see. That is, we may see our friend as more thoughtful, more perceptive, more sensitive to certain aspects of the world than we had previously suspected.

On the first point, consider Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit (pictured above).

Imagine that Maria is only able to see the figure as a duck. Imagine also that Maria can’t help but seeing ducks as ugly. Let’s say that Anthony understands that one can see the figure as a duck, but is also able to see it as a rabbit. In talking to Maria about the figure, Anthony can point out things to her that she is unable to see at this point.

Anthony: I know you hate ducks, but can’t you see the rabbit?

Maria: No, I’m only seeing a duck. An ugly duck.

Anthony: But look at the duck’s beak. Can’t you also imagine the beak being the ears of a rabbit? Look closely.

Maria: Ah! Ok. Now I see it. That ugly duck is still there (in some sense), but now I can see the rabbit clearly.

I admit that this is an artificial example, but I think it is instructive. Imagine Maria and Anthony not simply talking about the duck-rabbit, but about a movie. We can imagine Anthony saying something like the following:

“I know it seems like a silly love story at first, but think of it as a commentary on the regrettable state of romance in this country. I think this is what the director had in mind.”

This beautiful, more thoughtful aspect of the film could strike Maria just as the rabbit strikes her. She could, in the middle of her argument with Anthony, come to see greatness in a film that she at one point dismissed as silly.

On the second point, in seeing the rabbit or in seeing the film as thoughtful, Maria could also come to see something in Anthony. When Anthony said that he liked the duck-rabbit or that he liked the film, Maria likely saw him as naïve and unsophisticated, as a philistine.

But in seeing the rabbit and in seeing the film as a sophisticated social commentary, Maria is also in a position to see Anthony differently. This one time philistine is now a person who is able to skillfully bring his life experiences and intelligence to bear on his aesthetic judgments. He is now a deeper person to Maria. She comes to know him better in coming to see what he sees in the work of art they discuss.

At this point you may be thinking the following: Sure, what you say may be right, but if we’re assuming that there’s no fact of the matter about whether any piece of art is beautiful, why encourage folks to engage in arguments about aesthetics? It makes no sense to make an argument for or against a claim that is neither true nor false.

My response to this worry is this: It seems that when we argue about the value of some work of art, we aren’t attempting to show that some claim follows deductively from some other claims. What we’re doing is attempting to get our interlocutor to see what we see in the work. In this way, we can understand aesthetic arguments as intelligible even if we assume that there is no fact of the matter about the beauty of some particular work of art.

So, please, continue to argue about works of art. Continue to think of interesting ways to get others to see what you see in a particular work and be open to seeing aspects of a work that you are currently unable to see.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Selling Oneself Short: self-deception, dating and dive bars.

I’m sure most of you remember the scene in Good Will Hunting in which psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) calls out Will (Matt Damon) for lying to himself about why he refuses to capitalize on his talents. Will says that he doesn’t value working for the NSA (or as a math professor, or whatever), but Sean thinks that Will is afraid of failure.

Will defends his decision to lay brick (his current gig) instead of pursuing a more prestigious job in the following way:

“What’s wrong with laying brick? That’s someone’s home I’m building….There’s honor in that.”

In response, Sean points out to Will that he (Will) could have been a janitor anywhere, but chose to mop floors at the most prestigious technical school in the world (MIT) and solve equations at night and lie about it. “There’s no honor in that,” Sean contends.

In this situation, Will is able to offer a legit justification for choosing the life of a brick layer (or a janitor). There is honor in both jobs. But Will doesn’t embrace this justification, he doesn’t take it to be his own, but hides behind it. He’s really laying brick and mopping floors because he’s afraid to fail in his attempt to shoot for the stars.

Here I’m going to discuss two situations in which folks tend to (or are tempted to), hide behind legit justifications for not doing things they are scared to do.

First, consider Jennifer. She’s 26 years old, single, well-educated and gainfully employed (let’s see she’s a consultant). There are plenty of hip bars and clubs in Jennifer’s neighborhood. Bars and clubs populated by young, good-looking people. Jennifer, however, only frequents the grimy dive bars, populated by the locals who are, well, less successful than she.

Jennifer is a bit socially awkward and doesn’t consider herself to be that attractive.

Jennifer defends her bar choices in the following way:

“I go to the dive bars because those ‘hip’ spots are expensive, loud and full of pretentious people. I can go to the dive wearing whatever I like and talk to real people.”

Clearly, Jennifer cites legit reasons to prefer the dives over the hip clubs. But Jennifer never goes to the hip clubs, never. She is single and those places are full of guys who are similar to her in age, education and economic status. And, really, Jennifer hasn’t made the effort to confirm her judgment that all of the hip bars in her neighborhood are expensive and pretentious.

Might it be the case that Jennifer is hiding behind, as opposed to embracing her justification for only going to dive bars? Could it be that Jennifer doesn’t go to the hip bars because she doesn’t feel comfortable there (someone may try to dance with her!) and/or is afraid she’ll be rejected by the guys who frequent those spots?

I think so.

Now consider Tom. Tom is dating Sarah, a nice woman, but a woman who Tom isn’t that attracted to. Tom has some of the same hang-ups as Jennifer. He’s not completely insecure, but doesn’t take himself to be the best looking or the smoothest guy in the world.

Tom defends his dating Sarah in the following way:

“Sarah is a good person and I’m not shallow. We all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

As does Jennifer (and Will) Tom gives legit reasons for his dating Sarah rather than pursuing someone he’s more attracted to. But certainly Tom would prefer to date someone he’s attracted to and certainly he doesn’t think that there aren’t any attractive women who are also good people.

Could it be that Tom doesn’t think he will be able to date a woman he’s attracted to and is simply hiding behind this justification for dating Sarah?

Clearly, I think so.

To be clear, I don’t take it that I’ve provided enough information about Sarah or Tom to justify the conclusion that they are hiding behind their justifications. But I do think I’ve provided enough information to justify the suspicion that Sarah and Tom are hiding.

So, you ask, what’s your point Black Socrates?

My point is this: We often do (or, don’t do) things because we’re insecure and afraid of failure. When a legit justification for an action (or inaction) is in the offing, we often hide behind this justification instead of facing the truth.

Clearly, some people would genuinely rather lay brick than work for the CIA. Some frequent dives rather than hip clubs not because they are insecure, but because they really don’t like those clubs. And some people date people they are not attracted to not because they feel themselves unable to date someone more attractive, but because they are genuinely attracted to the personality of the person they’re dating.

I simply wish to warn you (reader) about a certain trap that people tend to fall into. Be honest with yourself. Justify your actions and don’t simply hide behind legit justifications.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dating Someone of a Different Faith: a recipe for tragedy?

Black Socrates knows someone who will think that this blog post is directed at her. It's not, but our conversation did cause me to revisit this issue.

What is a tragedy? It’s a story in which someone (or something) great is destroyed or falls apart, often for reasons beyond anyone's control. King Oedipus marries his mother, kills his father and puts his eyes out. And, tragically, he could have done no other (well, he didn't really have to put his eyes out, but you get the point). Romeo and Juliet's deaths result from a failed attempt to continue a romance forbidden by each of their families. Because of their love and the beef between their families, Romeo and Juliet were tragically led to commit suicide (obviously, ending their relationship).

In the first example, a great king is destroyed by fate. In the second, a great relationship falls apart because of a family feud. Notice, however, that while Oedipus could do nothing to avoid his tragic demise, Romeo and Juliet could, and did, take steps to prevent their tragedy. They were not completely complicit in the demise of their relationship. They fought for what they had.

Some tragedies are inevitable. Others, we can take steps to prevent.

Here's another type of tragedy: a potentially great relationship falls apart because the parties involved have different religious beliefs.

Now, my question is this: are tragedies of this type inevitable or can they be prevented?

First, let's get clear on the type of situation I have in mind. Jamal and Jasmine meet at a party, they go out a few times, have great chemistry, similar interests (surprise, surprise, they both hate Tyler Perry movies) and agree on the big issues (abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, etc). But one day, Jamal, a somewhat committed Christian, finds out that Jasmine is an atheist. He decides that this is a deal breaker and, reluctantly, stops seeing Jasmine.

I’m going to argue that Jamal should have taken steps to prevent this tragedy. That is, that one should not view a difference in faith as an automatic deal breaker.

Let’s assume for a second that the god Jamal believes in exists and does not want him to seriously date or marry a non-Christian. Jamal cites 2 Corinthians 6:14 as evidence for the latter claim:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

Remember, we’re assuming that Jamal and Jasmine are great together and could come to love one another. If Jamal knows this, it seems that Jamal should view god’s restriction as unjustified, just as Romeo viewed as unjustified the restriction that prevented him from dating Juliet publicly. He should rebel against this god as Romeo did his family.

If a tragedy does result from this situation (say god temporarily paralyses Jamal every time he attempts to go out with Jasmine), the blame should fall solely on god (as it does on the Montagues and Capulets). In other words, Jamal shouldn’t be complicit in the tragedy. He shouldn’t view Jasmine’s atheism as a deal breaker.

Let’s now consider another situation, one in which Jasmine drops Jamal when she finds out that he is a Christian.

Of course, Jasmine wouldn’t end things with Jamal because she believed it to be god’s will, but she could have other reasons. Say she just has an extreme hatred of religion and can’t stand to be with somewhat who believes in god(s). In fact, say Jasmine finds herself unable to fully respect religious people and always feels the need to correct their beliefs. She’s really feeling Jamal, but doesn’t believe that she could ever come to love him knowing that he is a Christian, and cuts things off.

Jasmine too should take steps to prevent this tragedy from taking place. Jasmine should recognize that people end up believing in god for all types of reasons: because the belief makes them feel good, because it allows them to cope with some tragedy in their personal lives, because they grew up religious and were never placed in a situation in which they were required to question their beliefs, because they fear death, etc.

While she may not respect Jamal’s beliefs, she could come to understand why he holds them and, in turn, come to terms with that part of his life. As long as Jamal isn’t a religious nut (not bombing abortion clinics and refusing to listen to hip-hop “because it’s the devil’s music”), Jasmine should not let his belief in god (in itself) be a deal breaker.

If a tragedy results from this situation (say Jasmine’s atheist friends sabotage the relationship), Jasmine should not be complicit in it.

(Of course, there’s always the issue of children. Jamal will want to raise his kids in the church, while Jasmine will likely be appalled by the idea. But, I’ll address this issue in another post. Really, I think it can be easily resolved.)

Clearly, we only have so much time in this world. Regardless of what you believe about death, you know that death will be the end of this type of existence. Folks aren’t dating in heaven.

While you’re here, don’t be complicit in a tragedy. Don’t let a difference in faith be an automatic deal breaker.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Braggin' and Boastin', Boastin' and Braggin': the ethics of tooting your own horn

If you know Black Socrates personally, you know that I'm playfully arrogant. If you ask me what I've been working on lately (in philosophy), I'll likely respond, "Something great" or "A paper that will change the way everyone thinks about [whatever topic I'm on that week]."

At the more grimy Pittsburgh dives, I've been known to declare "Clearly, we can never come here again" and "We can't live our lives like this, "and "These are not our people."

Sometimes I just let boastful statements slip out. (I won't give examples, you'd think less of me). But, generally, I'm okay with the way I am. I brag a lot, but in a self-conscious and playful way (well, most of the time).

I appreciate others who do the same (and, who can back it up, of course). I love Kanye's attitude, at times. His verse on the "Ego" remix is great. Check it:

But, as you may suspect, my way of being is often met with resistance.

My friends held a mini intervention for me on the beach in Miami (spring break, '99):

"Brandon, we know you best. You're very, very arrogant." I resisted, but was convinced after they offered multiple pieces of evidence to back up their claim.

The clearest statement of resistance has come from two of my classmates at Pitt. Here's a paraphrase of their position:

"People who are really good don't brag. The truly talented (or cool) don't need to talk themselves up, they just let their actions (or style, or work) do all of the talking. People will notice your talent if you just keep doing what you're doing. No need to brag."

The first claim is just false. There are plenty examples of talented people who brag: Muhammad Ali, Kanye, Kobe.

The second, questionable. Sometimes people take notice of talent. Sometimes not. There are plenty of talented artists, athletes and academics who are slept on. It seems that one needs to do more than just produce good work (or perform well) to garner recognition. Clearly, I think it's perfectly acceptable to talk oneself up to avoid being slept on.

My question is this: If you've got the skills, what's wrong with being arrogant (playfully or not)?

Sure, people are often put off by arrogance (by boastin'and braggin') but we can't conclude that there's something wrong with being arrogant from the fact that people are often put off by arrogance.

Am I missing something?

Friday, April 1, 2011

"I'm just not attracted to _(insert race)_ women.": racial preferences and dating.

Black Socrates read Jenée Desmond- Harris's excellent article (found here) a year ago and I've just now come up with an answer to the normative question she raises therein: Is there anything wrong with acting on one's racial preferences when it comes to dating? (or, to be more clear, when looking for a mate on or offline, is it wrong [or " problematic" or "troubling"...choose your favorite negative normative term] to exclude some potential partners simply because of their race?)

Most people who do act on racial preferences in this way defend the practice by stating that they are not racist, but are simply not attracted to _(insert race)_ women (or men). So, the claim is this: I don't think there is anything wrong with _(insert race)_ women (or men), I'm just not attracted to them.

But is this an acceptable defense of the practice?

I think it is. No one should be blamed for not dating someone they're not attracted to. But what is blameworthy is this: approving of one's racial preferences. If one thinks that there is nothing wrong with _(insert race)_ women (or men) then one should lament the fact that one finds oneself unable to date_(insert race)_ women (or men).

One's attitude toward one's racial preferences should be similar to one's attitude toward a food allergy. If one takes it that there is nothing wrong with shrimp, say, one should lament the fact that one is unable to eat shrimp dishes due to an allergy. And, one should hop on any opportunity to rid oneself of the allergy.

But this isn't the attitude that most people take toward their racial preferences.

Most people see no problem with the fact that they have racial preferences. Most celebrate (or at least take a flippant attitude toward) their racial preferences:

"Him? No. You know I'm not feeling _(insert race)_dudes."

And, most do not make any effort to overcome their preferences (by, say, spending more time with _(insert race)_ people).

Having racial preferences is not blameworthy. Even acting on one's racial preferences when it comes to dating is not blameworthy (at least in most cases). But taking a flippant or celebratory attitude toward one's racial preferences, I contend, is blameworthy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It Ain't All About Fish and Grits: Outkast as Interpreters of the Black South

We interpret things all the time. That is, we often make explicit what we take to be the meaning or significance of the things we encounter.

We interpret the utterances of others:
Adam: "You know, the salad is great here." Beth: "Are you trying to tell me I'm fat?"

We interpret our dreams:
"I dreamed that I was being chased by a steak. That must mean I need more protein in my diet."

Some of our interpretations are good, some bad. But what are the criterion for a good interpretation?

According to legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, a good interpretation must satisfy two criterion: "fit" and "best light" [note: my explication of these terms differs a bit from Dworkin's. But it's all good.]

An interpretation fits the object of interpretation if the interpretation is, in some sense, true to the object. For example, an interpretation of a speaker's utterance fits (is true to) that utterance if the interpretation allows one to view the utterance as reasonable in light of the speaker's past and present behavior and the situation in which the utterance takes place.

If Adam has been riding Beth about her weight for the past few months and consistently criticizes her food choices, Beth's interpretation of Adam's utterance fits.

Additionally, comedians often attempt to comically interpret events and public figures. A comedic interpretation (an impression) of, say, Oprah, fits its object (Oprah) if , among other things, the comic gets Oprah right, if his or her mannerisms and voice remind one of Oprah (Tracey Morgan's interpretation of Oprah, for example, fits).

An interpretation presents its object in the best light if, according to Dworkin, the interpretation makes the object the "best possible example of the form or genre to which it is taken to belong."

For example, Beth would interpret Adam's utterance in the best light if she simply interpreted him as recommending the salad. The best utterances are those that are positive, not mocking or condescending [of course, one could argue about this. But you get the point].

A comedian interpreting Oprah would interpret her in the best light if he or she poked fun at Oprah for being too self-sacrificing and generous (by, say, depicting Oprah as literally giving up an arm and a leg to help out a friend). To interpret Oprah in a bad light, in this context, would be to poke fun at her for being naive or out of touch.

An interpretation can fit its object, yet not show it in its best light. And, an interpretation can show its object in its best light, yet not fit.

So, what does all of this talk about interpretation have to do with Outkast? Well, I wish to make the case that Outkast has provided us with an excellent interpretation of the black south. Outkast's music is true to southern culture. It fits. They get the language right (in terms of both slang and cultural references):

" can go on and get the hell on (you and yo mama)." (from "Ms. Jackson").

"...this fine bow-legged girl, fine as all outdoors." (from "Spottieottiedopaliscious").

"The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on/ smooth like a hot comb on nappy ass hair." (also from "Spottieottiedopaliscious").

"...if you like fish and grits and all that pimp sh*t." (from "Elevators (Me &You)," of course).

Dre and Big Boy have perfect southern accents. Just listen to two of the tracks referenced above:

and this one:

And this last track is an example of Outkast getting the deliberately cool and laid-back black southern attitude right.

It's clear (to me at least) that Outkast's music is true to Black southern culture. But, we can't count Outkast as excellent interpreters of black southern culture if it is not also true that 'Kast presents the black south in the best light.

I also think Outkast presents the black south in the best light. Big Boi and Dre see black southern culture as having an aim, that of overcoming the adversities created by past and present racism in this country while being cool, laid-back, driving bass-filled Cadillacs, eating catfish and grits and speaking that elegant black southern slang. In short, Outkast sees black southern culture as having the aim of overcoming adversity as outkasts.

That Outkast interprets black southern culture in this way can be seen most clearly in Big Rube's interlude "True Dat." Particularly, this line:

" Are you an outkast? If you understand and feel the basic principles and fundamental truths contained within this music, you probably are. If you think it's all about pimpin' hoes and slammin' Cadillac doors..." (I'll leave out the rest, to not offend.)

The theme of overcoming as an outkast is also expressed in the songs "Git up, Git out," "Babylon," "Mainstream," "Phobia," "13th Floor/Growing Old," "Aquemini," and "Humble Mumble." And, we see the best expression of Outkast's interpretation of the black south in the song, "Liberation."

Of course, Big Boi and Dre may not see themselves as interpreters of the black south or as interpreting the black south in this way, so I guess this is just my interpretation of the situation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jay-Z and Nietzsche on Gettin' that Dirt Off Your Shoulder

I'm sure many of you remember this great clip from the 2008 presidential race. In response to Hilary Clinton's negative campaign ads, then-Senator Obama brushes off his shoulders, alluding to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder."

[Please, listen as you read.]

To brush the dirt off of one's shoulder is to treat another's negative comment or act of disrespect as unimportant, as not worthy of one's attention, as, well, mere dirt on one's shoulder.

For Jay-Z, if you take yourself to be great, if you're "feelin' like a pimp," you should react this way to most, if not all, negative comments or acts of disrespect.

Jay: "I'm a hustler homey, you're a customer crony/ Got some dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off for me?"

Great people, for Jay, should have no time for small, petty detractors.

Nietzsche agrees.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes:

"No longer raise up your arm against them [the "flies of the marketplace," the haters]. Numberless are they, and it is not your lot to shoo flies. Numberless are the small and miserable creatures; and many a proud building has perished of raindrops and weeds."

While Nietzsche thinks that great people shouldn't hesitate to brush the dirt off their shoulders in reaction to the comments and actions of haters, he surprisingly encourages great people (or those who would dare to be great) to flee from those who offer praise and adoration as well.

Nietzsche takes it that small people are unable to appreciate true greatness and flock to what is flashy, what is of the moment. He writes: "Little do the people comprehend what is great--that is, the creating."

When small people encounter a great person, they demand that she say something profound (now!), that she give them answers, that she give them a new song to sing.

For Nietzsche, paying attention to this type of adoration and attention is just as harmful to the great person as her taking negative comments too seriously.

For Nietzsche, the world revolves ("invisibly"), around the subtle ideas of great persons. For Nietzsche, "It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves' feet guide the world."

To listen to the crowd, to put on a show, is, for Nietzsche, to miss one's call to greatness. To be truly great, for Nietzsche, is to think ideas that will change the world, without concern for the ever-changing tastes of the crowd.

Nietzsche takes it that one should brush off the haters and the worshipers.

Is he correct?

Is our president aiming at greatness by Nietzsche's standards?

Saturday, February 5, 2011


What is it to be confident?

It's easy to fall into a bad way of thinking about our psychological concepts. We tend to think that we can know, through introspection, whether a psychological concept can be properly applied to us. We think that we just know what it feels like to, say, believe something or trust someone and that we simply can't be wrong in claiming to so believe or trust on the basis of these feelings.

"I know when I'm sad!"

"Don't tell me what I believe. I know what I believe!"

"What do you mean I want you to fail? I assure you that's not what I want."

One of the most profound lessons Black Socrates has learned in his days of philosophizing is that this way of thinking is deeply flawed. One can be wrong about whether one is sad or angry or believes that something is the case. One can feel that one believes something-or believes in something-, yet not believe (or, better, that someone believes something is not a matter of how one feels). (And if you want an argument for this claim, check out Wittgenstein on private language).

If believing, trusting and being confident in is not a matter of how one feels, what, then, is it a matter of?

It is a matter of how we've come to use our psychological concepts and which behaviors are taken to be criterion for applying those concepts.

If you say that you believe that Black Socrates didn't cheat on you, but act as if you don't believe (say, by checking my email, constantly calling to find out where Black Socrates is...when he'll be home...who he's with) then, if fact, you do not believe that I didn't cheat, no matter how you feel.

So, back to the opening question: What is it to be confident?

We see now that being confident isn't a matter of feeling confident. Being confident is a matter of acting in a way that would make it appropriate to apply the label "confident" to one.

So, ask yourself, if I saw someone who acted like me would I say that that person was confident? (and include speech, dress, posture, etc, under the label of "acting").

You may discover that you're more (or less) confident than you take yourself to be.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Power and Kindness

Nietzsche seems to have thought that genuine kindness is only possible for those who are powerful. He writes:

"Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws."

Nietzsche also implores the powerful to be kind. He writes:

"And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest."

"Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you."

Is Nietzsche right to think that this relationship exists between power and kindness?

I certainly think that an act of kindness is more beautiful, more awe inspiring ( and tear-inducing) when performed by one who is strong, powerful and capable of real cruelty. Why should we praise an act of kindness performed by a person who could have done no other?

So, I ask, are you capable of genuine kindness?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why have children of one's own when one could adopt?

From an early age, most of us simple assume that we will have children. ("I'm never going to make my kids wear sweaters they don't like!"). And this assumption continues to influence our thought in early adulthood ("Well, I think when I have children I'd like to move to a quieter city.").

Now, it may be reasonable to assume that one will have children, but, I ask, why should one have children of one's own considering that one could adopt a child?

The question I'll address is this: Are there any non-selfish reasons to have children of one's own rather than adopt?

"Of course, Black Socrates," you may be tempted to say. "Raising kids requires a lot from any individual. Raising a kid means sacrifice, stress and total devotion to another. How can that be selfish?"

But, remember, the question is not whether one can both be selfish and successfully raise a child. The question is whether there are any non-selfish reasons to have a child in the first place given that one could adopt a child.

Now image person with great genes. We'll name this person Adrian. Adrian is hella smart, hella good-looking and a kind person. It seems that Adrian has a non-selfish reason to have children. Adrian can make the world better by passing on those great Adrian genes and raising a smart, kind, good-looking child. Adrian may wish to have a child for selfish reasons as well ( say Adrian just wants someone to love), but Adrian could act on the non-selfish reason of making the world better through raising children who possess Adrian genes.

Now, are there any non-selfish reasons to have children of one's own other than this one?

Would it be wrong to have children of one's own for merely selfish reasons?

What say you?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Everything Happens for a Reason?

I often hear people say things like the following: "I'm not religious, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason," or, "It's alright, you know everything happens for a reason."

Honestly, I don't think I ever believed that everything happened for a reason, even when I did believe in Yahweh. I guess I believed that Yahweh had a purpose, but not that everything that happened was part of his plan. At any rate, I now think that it's just false that everything happens for a reason and if everything does happen for a reason, this isn't a fact we should take comfort in or be happy about.

To be clear, I'm going to address the non-religious (re: non-theist) version of the thesis that everything happens for a reason.

First, the concept of a reason only applies when agents are involved. Yahweh does things for a reason. I'm writing this blog for a reason. In both cases, reasons help explain an agent's actions.

Why is John drinking that water?
-Because he's thirsty. (a reason)

Why didn't Susan have any cake?
-Because she's on a diet. (reason)

Why is Tom going to med school?
-To impress his ex-girlfriend. (a bad reason, but a reason still).

Now there seems to be no such answer to the question: "Why did that leaf fall?" We can give a causal explanation. ("The leaf fell because it was already loose and the bird landed on the branch it was attached to, which caused the leaf to fall."). But not, it seems, an explanation in which we appeal to reasons. Nature is not an agent, it does not reason and, thus, does not have reasons, does not do things for reasons.

[And I thank Anthony Mohen for making this point clear to me. Even though I know he doesn't remember our conversation on this topic.]

Now, one could say that there are deities that control nature and, thus, natural events can happen for reasons ("The lightning struck because Zeus was upset."). But I doubt many of the secular advocates of the "everything happens for a reason" thesis would go for something like this.

Now, obviously sometimes the occurrence of a bad thing makes the occurrence of a good thing possible. ( James's being dumped by Jane on that rainy night may have made it possible that James met Janice, who just happened to need an umbrella and a friend). And sometimes things just happen in such a way to create more misery. ("I'm just having one of those days!"). But that these things happen does not give us good reason to believe that some thing (or someone) planned for them to happen in this way.

So, first conclusion: if you don't wish to assign agency to natural phenomenon and do not wish to posit the existence of deities, you can't hold on to the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.

Now, let's assume that the various natural forces are agents with a collective plan. That the rain, the wind and gravity are acting together to produce certain results (or even one big result).

( To get in this frame of mind, think about the M. Night Shyamalan's movie, Signs. In the movie, the occurrence of a bunch of random, seemingly unconnected and even tragic events turn out to be necessary for a family to survive an alien invasion.)

Assuming that everything happens for a reason in this sense, do we have reason to take comfort in or be happy about this fact?

People usually say that everything happens for a reason after something bad happens in their life (and notice, when something good happens, this sentiment is rarely expressed). The underlying idea is that the bad thing is actually necessary for something good to happen, that the good that will come out of the bad event will outweigh the negative impact of the bad event. It's a nice idea. Nice, that is, until one actually thinks about it.

People assume that the good that will result from the bad event will be a good that is good for them. But why assume this? Every winter homeless people freeze to death on the cold streets of Washington, D.C. Now if everything does happen for a reason, and the homeless people in D.C. die for a reason, there's no reason to believe that nature is unwilling to destroy a life (or several) to achieve its goal. That is, no reason to believe that the good thing that will result from whatever tragedy will be a good for any particular individual who advocates the "everything happens for a reason" thesis. Nature's plan could be to ruin your life (reader) to benefit Will the janitor.

Second conclusion: We have no reason to take comfort in the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.

Additionally, should we be happy with ( or approve of) a plan that requires American slavery, malaria and George W. Bush? I don't care what good you plan to bring about, if your plan involves malaria or G.W. Bush, I say "find a new plan." If all of these horrible things are part of some grand plan, I say "count me out."

So,third conclusion: Even if we do assume that there is agency in nature and that everything happens for a reason, we have reason to lament (or even be angry about), not celebrate, this fact.

I know what you're thinking. "Black Socrates, you're destroying people's hope, their dreams, a deep and meaningful idea." To this, I reply that I am only destroying a "house of cards" (to borrow from Kant and Wittgenstein). We thought this idea was true, deep and meaningful, but it is neither of these. It rests on a confusion.

But, of course, the reader is free to develop an idea that is actually true, deep and meaningful.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Doing things with the N-word

Should we stop using the N-word? And when I say “we,” I mean all of my readers and possible readers (both black and non-black). Should we stop using the N-word? I’m not going to answer this question here, but suggest a better strategy for answering it.

Many of the N-word’s opponents point to the historical and current use of the word to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. Briefly, the argument runs like this: Throughout American history, the N-word has been used to degrade and demean African-Americans. Its use has been (and continues to be) a source of pain, rage and sadness for African-Americans. Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument,in various forms, has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But it shouldn’t have.

The argument, it seems, assumes that if a word is ever used to cause harm, its use should be prohibited. But this can’t be right. If one were to abide by this principle, one would have to also prohibit the use “boy,” (“Come here boy” (said to a black man) “girl,” (“You’re just a girl, what do you know?”) “trash” (“You’re all just a bunch of trash.”) and “tool” (“You’re such a tool.”). Clearly this principle can’t be true. We shouldn’t prohibit the use of a word just because it is sometimes used to cause harm.

Reflecting on the harmful uses of the word will not alone allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the N-word.

Other opponents of the N-word point to the word’s meaning to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. An argument along these lines could be understood as follows: The N-word just means something like “one who is lazy, stupid and generally genetically inferior because of his or her African ancestry.” No person (or group) fits this description. If this is the case, to address person (or group) by using the N-word is necessarily to harm that person (or group). Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument too has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But, like the previous argument, it shouldn’t have.

The argument assumes that the N-word has only one meaning. But this doesn’t seem right. If the N-word had only one meaning, then one would have to view the following statements as necessarily false: “That N-word works really hard,” “That N-word is crazy smart.” But these statements aren’t necessarily false. If these statements aren’t necessarily false, then the N-word doesn’t just mean “one who is lazy, stupid….”

If the N-word just meant “one who is lazy, stupid…” then we would have good reason to stop using the N-word. But the N-word, it seems, doesn’t just mean this. The word seems to have a least one alternative meaning.

So, neither reflecting on the harmful uses of the word nor attempting to pin down the meaning of the word will not allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the word. So, how should we go about answering the question?

My suggestion is this. To answer the question “Should we stop using the N-word?” we should focus our attention on the question “What do we (and what can we) do with the N-word and do we want to do any of these things?”

Obviously, the things we do can be described in many ways. Think about my marking my 2008 presidential ballot for Barack Obama. This action can be described in many ways. I then voted for Barak Obama and bubbled in a space on a ballot card and moved my pencil and moved my hand and helped to elect the first black president and voted in person for the first time. In marking my ballot for Obama, I also did all of these other things.

Likewise, on any occasion on which one uses the N-word, one can be described as doing any number of things. A white bigot, in saying “I hate N-words”, in a situation in which African-Americans can hear his words, expresses his hatred toward African-Americans and offends the African-Americans within earshot and signals to the other possible bigots in the room that he is on their side and brings to the surface the pain that those African-Americans associate with the word and shows himself to be someone that should not be allowed to occupy a position of power and influence. The white bigot would do all of these things in using the N-word on this occasion.

And, clearly, an African-American male, in saying “I love y’all N-words” to his African-American friends, also does many things. He tells his friends that he loves them and draws a connection between his love for his friends and that fact that his friends are African-American and, possibly, offends those friends who do not like to be referred to by the N-word.

What is done in using the N-word is (at least partially) a function of the situation in which the word is used. And, as such, we must think about the various situations in which we use (or could use) the N-word and what we do (or would thus do) in using the N-word, to determine whether or not we should continue to use the N-word.

And if we decide that we should continue to use the word, reflection on what is done in using the word on various occasions will allow us to determine when its use would be appropriate.

As I mentioned, I do not answer the larger question here. I’ll leave this task up to you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I saw an interesting piece of art on the New York City subway last week. The work consisted of a depiction of the Sankofa bird with an inscription underneath: “If you don’t know where you have been, how will you know where you are going?” The view implicated by this question (that one cannot know where one is going if one does not also know where one has been) struck me as obviously false. And this is why:

Taken literally, the view is clearly false. Just think about the situation in which I viewed the quote. I was on the subway. All one has to do to find out where one is going on the subway is to look at the subway map or listen to the subway announcer. One doesn’t need to know about where one has been (on the subway) to know where one is going.

But, clearly, the view isn’t to be taken literally (well, at least not in the above sense). The real idea is this: as a people, African-Americans will be unable to progress into the future with any clear direction or achieve any worthwhile goals unless they are aware of their collective history. Now, why should we take that to be true?

Let’s assume that some group of African-Americans has the following as a goal: to increase the number of black members of the US Senate. What does one need to know in order to achieve this goal? A few things come to mind immediately: the demographics and voting trends of various districts, the issues voters in particular states are concerned with and the campaign strategies of those who will likely run against the black candidates. Knowing about the ancient kingdoms of West Africa or the history of African-American slavery in the United States or the history of the civil rights movement does not seem to be necessary to achieve this goal.

Granted, knowing the history of the civil rights movement may help one to better predict the likely campaign strategies of those likely to run against black candidates. But knowledge of the former is not necessary for knowledge of the latter.

It seems too that there are many positive goals that African-Americans can achieve that do not require knowledge of African-American history.

What seems true is this: African-Americans will be unable to recognize the significance of any collective gains if they are not aware of their collective history. It would be impossible for an individual that did not have some sort of awareness of the history of African-Americans in the United States to recognize the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency. Such a person could very well have guided Obama to political victory, but would be unable to recognize Obama’s election as the monumental event it was.

The Sankofa view (at least this version of it) is false. The view I articulate is true. Knowledge of history is not necessary for progress, but it is necessary if one is to recognize the significance of certain types of progress.

Unconditional Love

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about the concept of unconditional love lately. Thinking, that is, about whether such love is desirable, about whether I would want to be loved unconditionally. The answer I’ve come to is this: “hell no!”

For those of us who were raised Christian, the concept was presented as comforting, praiseworthy and awe-inspiring. While human love is conditional, God’s love, we were taught, is unconditional. No matter what you do, no matter how embarrassing or evil, God, so the story goes, will still love you. Great idea, right? Wrong.

Let’s think about what it would be like to be loved unconditionally. Remember, we’re talking about unconditional love. It’s great to be in a relationship (romantic or not) with someone who is willing to forgive your screw-ups from time to time and continue to love you. But this is not unconditional love. To be loved unconditionally is to be loved no matter what one does, what one becomes. Imagine it:

“Honey, I killed five people. And I liked it. I think I’ll keep it up until I get caught.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Baby, I have a whole other family in California.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Dear, I never loved you. I just married you for the money.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

“Babe, I’ve been lying to you all these years. I never went to college and I don’t work at Google. I’m a con artist. You were my greatest con job.”
-It’s okay, I still love you.

Of course these are exaggerated examples, but my point is this: it seems that one who loves another person unconditionally doesn’t love that person at all. Presumably, we come to love particular people because of something about the object of our affection. Think When Harry Met Sally: “I love that you take five minutes to order a sandwich.” One who loves another unconditionally seems to not love any particular thing about that person, but only, perhaps that they exist (or that they exist in a certain way--as one’s daughter, say).

For someone who loves another unconditionally, the answer to the question “Why do you love me?” must be, it seems, something like “Because you’re my spouse,” or “Because you’re my child” or “Because you’re my teammate.” But anyone could have been one’s child or spouse or teammate. The object of one’s unconditional love seems to be interchangeable with many other persons. It is not you that is loved, but that you exist in a certain way. Personally, if I asked someone who I thought loved me, “Why do you love me?” I would expect (hope for) an answer with more content than “Because you’re my son.”

I want to be loved and, thus, I would not want to be loved unconditionally (by anyone or anything).