“Narrative, Identity, and the Kierkegaardian Self” is out!

NIKScoverI’m delighted to say that Narrative, Identity and the Kierkegaardian Self is now available.

Edited by John Lippitt and myself, this is the first collection on Kierkegaard and narrative personal identity in over a decade – think of it as Kierkegaard After MacIntyre After Kierkegaard After MacIntyre – and brings together leading narrativists and Kierkegaardians in a new and productive dialogue. This book is one of the outcomes of the Selves in Time project and follows on from the conference we ran at Hertfordshire in November 2011. We hope it will mark an important moment in the ongoing discussion about what Kierkegaard can contribute to our understanding of the self.

But hey, don’t just take my word for it:

‘Are our lives enacted dramatic narratives? Did Kierkegaard understand human existence in these terms? Anyone grappling with these two questions will find in these excellent essays a remarkable catalogue of insights and arguments to be reckoned with in giving an answer. That is no small achievement.’

- Professor Alasdair MacIntyre, University of Notre Dame

Here’s what’s inside:

  1. The Moments of a Life: On Some Similarities between Life and Literature – Marya Schechtman
  2. Teleology, Narrative, and Death – Roman Altshuler
  3. Kierkegaard’s Platonic Teleology – Anthony Rudd
  4. Narrative Holism and the Moment – Patrick Stokes
  5. Kierkegaard’s Erotic Reduction and the Problem of Founding the Self – Michael Strawser
  6. Narrativity and Normativity – Walter Wieizke
  7. The End in the Beginning: Eschatology in Kierkegaard’s Literary Criticism – Eleanor Helms
  8. Forgiveness and the Rat Man: Kierkegaard, ‘Narrative Unity’ and ‘Wholeheartedness’ Revisited – John Lippitt
  9. The Virtues of Ambivalence: Wholeheartedness as Existential Telos and the Unwillable Completion of Narravives – John J. Davenport
  10. Non-Narrative Protestant Goods: Protestant Ethics and Kierkegaardian Selfhood – Matias Møl Dalsgaard
  11. Narrativity, Aspect, and Selfhood – Michael J. Sigrist
  12. The Senses of an Ending – Kathy Behrendt
  13. The End? Kierkegaard’s Death and its Implications for Telling his Story – George Pattison

Feeding the beast: why plagiarism rips off readers too

By now you’ve likely heard about psychiatrist and columnist Tanveer Ahmed’s recent opinion piece in The Australian in which he effectively blamed radical feminism for domestic violence.

Others have explained better than I could why Ahmed’s piece was so offensive (as Clementine Ford summed it up, “It is not the job of women to absorb men’s suffering”), but one seemingly tangential fact that keeps cropping up is that Ahmed is an admitted plagiarist, having been dropped by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012 after a Media Watch story on his habit of copying other people’s work.

Yesterday, the blogger and commentator Ketan Joshi took time out from exposing the silliness of anti-wind activists to do something no-one had apparently thought to do: check Ahmed’s Australian piece for plagiarism.

Using freely-available online tools, Joshi quickly established that Ahmed’s piece had lifted language directly from a Prospect article by Amanda Marcotte. Joshi also found further instances where Ahmed had recycled his own work. By day’s end, the Australian had dropped Ahmed.

Busting someone for plagiarism after they suggested men’s violence against women is somehow feminism’s fault for taking away power men were never entitled to in the first place might seem a bit like sending Al Capone up the river for tax evasion.

When he was caught in 2012, Ahmed admitted his copying was wrong, but situated what he did in the context of our contemporary “comment monster” that “needs to be fed”. He has a point: in the age of churnalism, and with the internet desperate for ever-more shareable content to throw into its mighty Clickhole, is copying a paragraph here and there really so bad?

Well, yes, actually, it is; but we need to understand why.

Writers are understandably highly sensitive to plagiarism, both of having it done to them and of being accused of it. Just this month I ended up offending a journalist I admire greatly for cocking an eyebrow too publicly over her piece’s resemblance to one of mine. It was a coincidence (great minds and all that) but the mere suspicion is utterly poisonous for everyone involved.

For academics, it’s even worse: plagiarism is among the worst of sins, and potentially one of the most catastrophic. It’s not so long ago that decades-old plagiarism allegations cost a Group of Eight vice-chancellor his job. An academic who presents the ideas of others as their own is violating the very integrity of the process by which knowledge is generated, and demeaning their fellow researchers. Understandably, we take that pretty seriously.

Students too face enormous consequences for plagiarising, which in the age of essay mills and Google is an irresistible temptation for many, Turnitin be damned. For teachers, it’s hard not to take plagiarism personally, as if the student is saying: “This stuff you’ve devoted your life to? It’s not important enough for me to bother even trying to care about.”

But plagiarism also falls on a spectrum, from outright copying (relatively rare, but occasionally spectacular) to sloppy referencing or missing quotation marks. For every student who’s tried to pull one over you, there’s five more who simply haven’t understood what’s expected of them and hence don’t realise that they’ve done anything wrong.

Ahmed doesn’t have that excuse. He’s been caught before, and he knew even back then that what he was doing was wrong. Still, you might reply, he isn’t writing as an academic, but as a paid columnist. He is not presenting his work as the outcome of laborious and expensive research, nor is he submitting his work to the unforgiving gamut of peer review.

Some of Ahmed’s infractions are actually self-plagiarism, or recycling, which doesn’t rip off another writer. Self-plagiarism is alarmingly easy to do accidentally, particularly where multiple drafts exist or one piece splits into two. Just recently I sent off two academic articles (which had begun life as a single piece) without realising I’d repeated a paragraph in each; it was just dumb luck that I caught it before it got to print.

So, why is Ahmed’s plagiarism a sackable offence?

Using the model of intellectual property we could argue that the misdeed here is selling a product that doesn’t belong to him, either because it was written by someone else, or because, in the case of recycling, he had previously sold it to another publisher.

In short, it’s a type of theft. (That might also explain why self-plagiarism doesn’t seem that bad in cases where no money has changed hands: you’re repeating yourself, but not actually stealing).

From the point of view of the victims – both writers and commissioning editors – the theft model makes a lot of sense. But I don’t think theft alone is the whole story, because plagiarism isn’t just about ownership. I’ve heard stories of students angrily insisting that a ghost-written essay “is my own work – I paid for it, so I own it!”

The effrontery of that response actually gives us some idea of why the “intellectual property” model of plagiarism doesn’t quite yield a full understanding of what’s wrong with it. Plagiarism isn’t just a form of theft; it’s also a form of insincerity.

That may sound odd: surely the plagiarist is sincerely agreeing with what they’ve copied? But sincerity is not just a matter of saying something you take to be true. The 20th-century philosopher K.E. Løgstrup spoke of insincerity as violating an “openness of speech” that we reasonably assume from others: we expect that their words are “new”. By “new” he meant that they weren’t calculated or premeditated but were spontaneous, sincere, without guile. “Old” words put up a barrier between speaker and hearer and thereby frustrate true dialogue.

The late Robert C. Solomon, in developing the idea of sex as a form of communication, argued that perverted sex is to sex as insincerity is to language: using language to frustrate communication by obfuscating or concealing what you really think or intend is perverting the very function of language.

(That analogy took Solomon in some odd directions – at one point he says masturbation is basically talking to yourself – but the idea has something to it; faking arousal is arguably a form of insincerity that violates the communicative dimensions of intimacy.)

Plagiarism, in a sense, disrupts the contact between the author and the reader. It insinuates someone else’s “old” words between us. We come to an article wanting contact with the author’s mind, not a collage of other minds they’ve assembled to hide behind.

Plagiarism is theft, but it is also a failure to, in E.M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect!” The need to feed the beast shouldn’t distract us from that task of connecting.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Bali Nine, and how not to argue for the death penalty

Barring some sort of last-minute miracle, two relatively young Australian men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are going to be killed by the Indonesian state. They will not be the first to die this way in 2015. Six other drug criminals have already been executed in Indonesia this year, and more are scheduled.

The Brazilians and Dutch recalled their ambassadors in response to the last executions, which involved two of their citizens. Australia is reportedly doing what it can to save Chan and Sukumaran, but apparently to no avail, and it remains to be seen if we would follow the Brazilian and Dutch examples. ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven has claimed that:

The attitude of Australia and Australians will become part of the reason why these men are executed if we are not sending the right signals to Indonesia.

Meanwhile, Roy Morgan polling finds that 62% of Australians think their government should not do more to stop the execution. A slim majority, 52%, favour such executions going ahead. Yet as recently as 2009 Roy Morgan also found a clear majority not in favour of capital punishment in Australia – not even for murder.

That re-introducing the death penalty doesn’t have majority support isn’t surprising. The consequentialist arguments against the death penalty aren’t hard to find. The irreversibility of execution means sickening and unfixable miscarriages of justice are more or less inevitable.

The imperative to avoid those injustices makes the process extremely slow – almost 15 years on average in the US, as of 2010 – and accordingly more expensive than life imprisonment. As a deterrent it simply doesn’t seem to work, perhaps because, oddly enough, it turns out humans aren’t rational, cool-headed calculators who deliberate carefully and act accordingly.

We know all this, or at least we should.

So, it seems a large proportion of us are against the death penalty, but say we are for executions abroad and don’t want us to try harder to stop them. How do we reconcile these apparently incompatible beliefs?

I suspect we’re doing it with “arguments” that at bottom have nothing to do with the death penalty as such, but are really just excuses for not caring about it in particular cases. We don’t like the death penalty, we just don’t want the discomfort of having to care about the people it’s applied to. And so we trot out a series of trite, clichéd slogans.

‘Do the crime, do the time’

The obvious rejoinder to this is that execution isn’t “doing time” – even if the years spent on death row is.

Philosophers continue to grapple with the surprisingly difficult question of why death is a harm and why, by extension, killing is wrong. The closest thing to a standard answer is that death deprives us of good years we would otherwise have enjoyed.

But as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus insisted, not existing for what would have been the rest of your life is not the same as suffering for that many years.

You might rephrase this as: “Do the crime, pay the penalty”. But just how far do we follow that principle? Penalties can be excessive, or unjust. So surely for such a principle to have force, the penalty has to be proportional to the crime.

If you say Chan and Sukumaran should accept their punishment, you’re thereby committed to saying that execution is a fitting punishment for drug trafficking – a claim that needs to be argued for.

‘They knew the risk they were running’

Radio host Garry Linnell offered a version of this argument in response to artist Ben Quilty’s candlelight vigil for the pair. He wrote:

Sukumaran and Chan knew the penalty if they were caught. You cannot arrive anywhere in Indonesia without signs explicitly stating the consequences of importing and exporting drugs on Indonesian soil. It is Indonesian law.

But this confuses moral responsibility with prudential responsibility. If you leave your car unlocked with the window down and your laptop on the front seat, someone might say that you “deserve” to have your laptop stolen. But being imprudent in such a case isn’t the same thing as moral culpability: that rests with the thief. We wouldn’t refuse to stop the thief, or let him off the hook, simply because you’d been careless.

You can agree that Chan and Sukumaran were stupid to take the risk they did, and even that what they did morally deserves punishment, given the misery and death heroin brings with it. But the argument that “they knew the risks” doesn’t, on its own, make their execution appropriate. Those who assert this still owe us an argument.



Australian artists, such as singer and actress Justine Clarke, have campaigned for mercy for Chan and Sukumaran.
AAP/Dan Himbrechts

‘Different countries have different laws and we should respect that’

Linnell, like many others, also insisted that:

… the Bali Nine controversy is equally about sovereign rights and the penalties imposed on those who decide to flout them.

Sovereignty has moral weight, and it’s not hard to imagine cases where it might be ethically right to abide by local laws or norms you nonetheless disagree with.

But, again, this only goes so far. It would be obscene to subordinate the profound wrongness of killing – the very thing many death penalty proponents appeal to – to the need to respect sovereignty or avoid giving offence. To say that the laws of other countries must always be respected – no matter what they demand – is not so much a statement of principle as a moral abdication.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with making arguments like this. It’s not so much ethical reasoning as ritual hand-washing.

If you honestly think that killing two young men, who are so effectively rehabilitated that even their jailers want them to live, and destroying the lives of their families, all for no deterrent effect, is somehow going to achieve something – well, you have to argue for it.

If there’s some knock-down argument that makes premeditated killing on the part of the government appropriate, or shows how more death and misery is somehow going to put the world to right, let’s hear it. Those who think we shouldn’t care about this owe us better than rhetorical fig leaves for indifference.

Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika has said that the executions should take place – just not in Bali. It seems it’s OK for things like this to happen, so long as they don’t happen here, where we have to confront the full reality of what is done when the state ends a life, of what it is to shoot a man tied to a stake.

Sadly, many Australians seem to agree.


Read the original article.

We don’t need no (moral) education? Five things you should learn about ethics

The human animal takes a remarkably long time to reach maturity. And we cram a lot of learning into that time, as well we should: the list of things we need to know by the time we hit adulthood in order to thrive – personally, economically, socially, politically – is enormous.

But what about ethical thriving? Do we need to be taught moral philosophy alongside the three Rs?

Ethics has now been introduced into New South Wales primary schools as an alternative to religious instruction, but the idea of moral philosophy as a core part of compulsory education seems unlikely to get much traction any time soon. To many ears, the phrase “moral education” has a whiff of something distastefully Victorian (the era, not the state). It suggests indoctrination into an unquestioned set of norms and principles – and in the world we find ourselves in now, there is no such set we can all agree on.

Besides, in an already crowded curriculum, do we really have time for moral philosophy? After all, most people manage to lead pretty decent lives without knowing their Sidgewick from their Scanlon or being able to spot a rule utilitarian from 50 yards.

But intractable moral problems don’t go away just because we no longer agree how to deal with them. And as recent discussions on this site help to illustrate, new problems are always arising that, one way or another, we have to deal with. As individuals and as participants in the public space, we simply can’t get out of having to think about issues of right and wrong.

Yet spend time hanging around the comments section of any news story with an ethical dimension to it (and that’s most of them), and it quickly becomes apparent that most people just aren’t familiar with the methods and frameworks of ethical reasoning that have been developed over the last two and a half thousand years. We have the tools, but we’re not equipping people with them.

So, what sort of things should we be teaching if we wanted to foster “ethical literacy”? What would count as a decent grounding in moral philosophy for the average citizen of contemporary, pluralistic societies?

What follows is in no way meant to be definitive. It’s not based on any sort of serious empirical data around people’s familiarity with ethical issues. It’s a just tentative stab (wait, can you stab tentatively?) at a list of things people should ideally know about ethics, and based, on what I see in the classroom and, online, often don’t.

1. Ethics and morality are (basically) the same thing

Many people bristle at the word “morality” but are quite comfortable using the term “ethical”, and insist there’s some crucial difference between the two. For instance, some people say ethics are about external, socially imposed norms, while morality is about individual conscience. Others say ethics is concrete and practical while morality is more abstract, or is somehow linked to religion.

Out on the value theory front lines, however, there’s no clear agreed distinction, and most philosophers use the two terms more or less interchangeably. And let’s face it: if even professional philosophers refuse to make a distinction, there probably isn’t one there to be made.

2. Morality isn’t (necessarily) subjective

Every philosophy teacher probably knows the dismay of reading a decent ethics essay, only to then be told in the final paragraph that, “Of course, morality is subjective so there is no real answer”. So what have the last three pages been about then?

There seems to be a widespread assumption that the very fact that people disagree about right and wrong means there is no real fact of the matter, just individual preferences. We use the expression “value judgment” in a way that implies such judgments are fundamentally subjective.

Sure, ethical subjectivism is a perfectly respectable position with a long pedigree. But it’s not the only game in town, and it doesn’t win by default simply because we haven’t settled all moral problems. Nor does ethics lose its grip on us even if we take ourselves to be living in a universe devoid of intrinsic moral value. We can’t simply stop caring about how we should act; even subjectivists don’t suddenly turn into monsters.

3. “You shouldn’t impose your morality on others” is itself a moral position.

You hear this all the time, but you can probably spot the fallacy here pretty quickly: that “shouldn’t” there is itself a moral “shouldn’t” (rather than a prudential or social “shouldn’t,” like “you shouldn’t tease bears” or “you shouldn’t swear at the Queen”). Telling other people it’s morally wrong to tell other people what’s morally wrong looks obviously flawed – so why do otherwise bright, thoughtful people still do it?

Possibly because what the speaker is assuming here is that “morality” is a domain of personal beliefs (“morals”) which we can set aside while continuing to discuss issues of how we should treat each other. In effect, the speaker is imposing one particular moral framework – liberalism – without realising it.

4. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “right”

This is an easy trap to fall into. Something’s being “natural” (if it even is) doesn’t tell us that it’s actually good. Selfishness might turn out to be natural, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to be selfish.

This gets a bit more complicated when you factor in ethical naturalism or Natural Law theory, because philosophers are awful people and really don’t want to make things easy for you.

5. The big three: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics

There’s several different ethical frameworks that moral philosophers use, but some familiarity with the three main ones – consequentialism (what’s right and wrong depends upon consequences); deontology (actions are right or wrong in themselves); and virtue ethics (act in accordance with the virtues characteristic of a good person) – is incredibly useful.

Why? Because they each manage to focus our attention on different, morally relevant features of a situation, features that we might otherwise miss.

So, that’s my tentative stab (still sounds wrong!). Do let me know in the comments what you’d add or take out.

This is part of a series on public morality in 21st century Australia.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Strange bedfellows: euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and libertarianism

Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there.

The suspension of Philip Nitschke’s medical registration, and the events leading up to it, has sparked one of the most heated discussions about euthanasia in Australia for some time.

What’s surprising, however, is that the debate hasn’t split along the usual pro-euthanasia versus “pro-life” lines. Instead, advocates of both euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide themselves have been condemning Nitschke for failing to urge a 45-year-old man, who had no terminal illness but who expressed a wish to take his own life, to seek psychiatric help.

Nitschke has insisted that it wasn’t his role to try to dissuade someone from “rational suicide”:

If a 45-year-old comes to a rational decision to end his life, researches it in the way he does, meticulously, and decides that … now is the time I wish to end my life, they should be supported. And we did support him in that.

The pushback against Nitschke from euthanasia campaigners such as Rodney Syme (as well as mental health advocates such as beyondblue’s Jeff Kennett) provides a valuable lesson about what can happen when two very different ethical approaches converge on the same policy prescription; it becomes important to discuss the principles, not just the policy.

The importance of liberty

This problem isn’t unique to the euthanasia debate. Last week, newly-minted Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm announced plans to introduce a bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

As a libertarian, Leyonhjelm has called for lower taxes and a massively reduced role for government. Yet his position on marriage equality aligns him with a policy more closely associated with the political left.



Andrew Becraft/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

He’s not the only right-wing supporter of same-sex marriage of course. But when someone like British Prime Minister David Cameron declares “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative,” he is doing something very different: he’s saying that marriage is a substantive good, and committed same-sex couples can and should be able to participate in that good.

Philosophers such as Richard Mohr have argued that committed same-sex relationships already are marriages in a substantive sense, and the law should simply recognise that.

For libertarians (for the most part), the only real substantive good is individual autonomy. Leyonhjelm doesn’t argue, as far as I can see, that certain types of relationship have a special, substantive value; he simply thinks “It is not the job of the government to define relationships.“ (In which case, we might ask, why should governments get involved in certifying marriage at all?)

Those of us who support same-sex marriage can probably live with that tension, if it delivers the outcome we want. But the philosophical tension between approaches is still there.

And the very moral thinness of libertarianism, its refusal to trade in any ethical currency other than liberty, sits uneasily with issues of life and death, where all sorts of other moral considerations are in play.

The limits of autonomy

That’s precisely why Nitschke’s comments about suicide are so shocking. Most arguments for euthanasia come down to a concern to alleviate needless suffering.

One reason death is viewed as normally being a harm to the person who dies is that it deprives us of goods we would have enjoyed had we lived. In a situation where there is nothing left in the patient’s future but pain and loss of dignity, there are no more goods to lose.

Compassionate regard for someone whose fate is in our hands may mean helping them achieve a quicker, more dignified death is the least-worst option.

Autonomy plays a crucial role in that, of course: we need to respect the patient’s decisions regarding their treatment, including their refusal of further interventions. Compassionate concern for others may mean allowing them a degree of control over their impending death.



Having only one source of light, the libertarian landscape is dimly lit. Graham Hodgson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What Nitschke’s libertarian position does, however, is strip out everything but autonomy and reduce the whole issue to one of individual choice.

Libertarianism’s moral moonscape

If you think, as Nitschke apparently does, that the question here is simply about exercising a right to suicide, why should it matter whether someone is terminally ill or not? If someone wants to die, and they’re clear-headed enough to make competent decisions, who are we to interfere with their personal liberty in order to stop them?

And yet most of us do have fairly clear moral intuitions that the suicide of an otherwise physically healthy person, possibly with treatable mental health issues, is a terrible thing.

Libertarianism either can’t make sense of that intuition, or treats it as irrelevant.

When teaching classes on the ethical debate over euthanasia, I’ve found that students often seem to struggle with explaining why it should matter whether the patient is dying (or at least permanently debilitated) or not. Yet from a mercy perspective, it matters very much that there are, in fact, no truly good options left open.

In part, this is because mercy is a particular kind of response towards another, a response that acknowledges their distinctive value – and understanding that value is essential to understanding the full tragedy of death, of what is lost when a person dies.

Acknowledging that value means accepting some limits on autonomy where avoidable death is involved.

Respect for patient autonomy needn’t involve the sort of wilful blindness Nitschke has shown. If we want to make the case for progressive reforms, such as euthanasia and marriage equality – as we should, vigourously and doggedly – we should resist doing so in terms that leave us unable to make sense of our moral environment.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

Philosophy Communication: A Call to Arms?

I’ve just gotten back from a quick trip to Canberra, where the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference is currently in full swing at ANU. Unfortunately I couldn’t get up there for the whole thing this year, but last night, after the very great pleasure of hearing Philip Pettit give the Alan Saunders Memorial Lecture, I was deeply honoured to receive the AAP’s Media Prize for 2013.

(I’m also delighted to say that Antonia Case from New Philosopher won the Media Professional’s Prize – huge congrats to Antonia, and thanks to Antonia and Zan for their support of philosophy and for producing such a great mag.)

I had the chance to say a few words, and the Media Prize has a $500 prize attached, so used the opportunity to explain what I’d like to do with that prize money. Basically, I’d like to use it as seed funding to kick off a discussion I’m hoping to get going in the discipline.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

This is a fairly uncertain time in which to be a philosopher. No-one’s making us drink hemlock or anything, and being a professional philosopher is still a pretty awesome way to earn a crust – at least for those who manage to secure one of the increasingly scarce jobs without ending up being trapped in casualised limbo or simply lost to the discipline altogether. But with politicians telling us we’re “ridiculous,” and high-profile astrophysicists calling us obsolete, pointless (e tu, Neil DeGrasse Tyson?), or both, it’s never been more important for philosophers to be out in the agora. We can’t expect people to care about philosophy if we’re not out there explaining to them why they should.

And there’s plenty of philosophers out there doing really great work in the media and in other ways, both from within the Academy and without. I’m thinking of folks like Nigel Warburton, Julian Baggini, Eric Schwitzgebel (drop whatever you’re doing and go read his Aeon piece), Angie Hobbs, Massimo Pigliucci, and many more. Yes, even him.

Here in Oz we’re no slouches either; among others, Raimond Gaita, Chris Cordner, Simon Longstaff and Peter Singer, for instance, have all made important interventions into public discourse. (And check today’s Drum piece by Matthew Beard).

So there’s already a lot of people who are really good at talking to and with the public about philosophy. And yet, for a discipline that loves nothing so much as going meta, we don’t seem to talk about talking about philosophy much.

And on this front at least, Hawking might just have a point: the sciences are way out in front. They disciplinised science communication a thing a long time ago. You can study it, you can publish on it, you can make a career out of it. Scientists have stepped back from their benchtops to critically thematise scientific literacy, and then studied how best to go about producing it.

So here’s the discussion I reckon it’d be interesting to have: what’s philosophy communication? If we think of what we do when we do ‘popular’ or ‘outreach’ work, what are we doing? How do we know when we’re doing it effectively? What are we trying to achieve? What does philosophical literacy look like? There’s been some pedagogical discussion of that last concept, but outside the literature on teaching philosophy the very idea of philosophical literacy is  unfamiliar enough that FauxPhilNews could use it as the basis of a joke.

Of course, science and philosophy are very different animals. We aren’t going to be holding press conferences announcing new findings (again, FauxPhilNews already did it). But we do have a lot of things to say about just about everything.

And what we say can be very well-received too. Sticking your head above the parapet is risky, and a certain number of people will knock philosophy and philosophers almost reflexively. Thus life on these here interwebs. But the responses I’ve had from people over the last couple of years of dabbling in media has also suggested to me that there’s a genuine demand for philosophy.

So what I propose is that we start talking about philosophy communication. How we do that, I’m not exactly sure. But you might. If you do, drop me a line.

Corowa Feb 2013 (134)

Dangerous ideas, honour killings and moral seriousness

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Last night, after a public outcry, the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas pulled a presentation from its upcoming program. The talk in August by Sydney writer and Hizb ut-Tahrir representative Uthman Badar, was to have been called Honour Killings are Morally Justified.

Most of us would react to a title like that with immediate revulsion. It promises a defence of something utterly indefensible. Indeed, on his Facebook page, Badar insisted he didn’t choose the title (but did consent to it) and that it misrepresented what he’d planned to speak about:

the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous.

I’m rather unsettled by that “as understood in the West” qualifier, for reasons that will probably become apparent below, but Badar’s statement does suggest that the title was more a marketing hook than a real description of his argument.

And of course no-one is taking away his right to speak on the topic; having a right to free speech doesn’t mean you’re owed a turn at the megaphone.

But the Festival of Dangerous Ideas exists to consider, well, dangerous ideas. Can an idea ever be so dangerous it can’t even be discussed?

In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy, G.E.M. Anscombe famously claimed that, yes, some ideas are simply off the table:

But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration – I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.

Anscombe was, in one important sense, wrong. In a universe that throws morally tragic situations at us with gut-wrenching regularity, thinking the unthinkable – or at least thinking about thinking about it – sometimes becomes unavoidable.

There are good reasons to accept (as I do) that torture, for instance, is always and everywhere wrong, a grotesque violation that no society should ever tolerate. But that doesn’t mean all those who entertain the idea that sometimes torture might be the least-worst option are simply amoral.


Uthman Badar in 2012.
Paul Miller/AAP Image

Some are, no doubt. But others are responding to the pull of a genuine moral concern, namely, saving innocent lives. The concern may be legitimate even if the conclusion drawn is wrong.

The question here is whether the argument is made with what we might call moral seriousness. What’s right about Anscombe’s declaration that certain things are simply unthinkable is that it expresses just that moral seriousness: if you think it’s OK to kill an innocent person, you’re not attending properly to what people are and why they matter. You’re talking the language of ethics, but you’re not taking it seriously.

But could you declare, with anything approaching moral seriousness, that honour killings are sometimes morally permissible? I don’t see how.

How could you possibly construct a justification for killing someone on the basis of cultural or social norms of “honour” without completely losing sight of the wrongness of destroying a human life?

Undeniably, our cultural and religious traditions provide much of the raw content of our moral concepts. But part of moral seriousness is a commitment to the idea that morality is not simply a function of those traditions, but the standard by which we in turn judge culture or religion.

That’s asking quite a lot of us. To some degree we’re all inescapably bound up in the social, political, and spiritual traditions in which we’re raised, in ways we can barely even begin to notice, let alone transcend.

But our ethical judgments must be understood as pointing to a reality that goes beyond these things. That reality is what moral philosophy, in the broadest terms, strives to discern and articulate.

And in doing so, we acquire the tools to evaluate and critique social and cultural norms. If a culture sanctions domestic violence, or racism, or if a religion says someone should be punished for loving the “wrong” person, then that culture or religion is, just to that extent, mistaken about moral reality.

Take away the view that moral reality transcends culture, and you take away the very idea of moral progress: you end up having to say that slavery, for instance wasn’t wrong, just different.

Or you end up appealing to arguments that depend on religious revelation, and are thus useless as arguments: anyone who doesn’t share your faith in the revelation already won’t be persuaded. (And as you try to work out whether a thing is good because a deity says so, you’ll probably stumble into a Euphythro Problem for your trouble too.)

But maybe there’s a lost opportunity in all this. On Facebook, Badar said he didn’t choose the topic of his proposed talk:

I, in fact, suggested a more direct topic about Islam and secular liberalism (something like “The West needs saving by Islam” – how’s that for dangerous?), but the organisers insisted on this topic, which I think is still a worthy topic of discussion, for many reasons, as my presentation will, God-willing, show, hence I accepted.

Badar belongs to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international group that seeks to establish the Caliphate. In a week where Islamophobe activists tried to stop construction of a mosque in Bendigo, here’s someone offering to try to defend the very idea of Islamic theocracy that’s such a key trope of anti-Muslim discourse.

Again, I can’t see how such an argument could possibly succeed without appealing to divinely revealed premises, which on the level of public ethics rules it out right from the start.

But ideas are most dangerous when they’re not exposed to argument.

St Albans Cathedral

Should the dead roll over to make room for real estate?

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

As a general rule, one place you really don’t want to find yourself is in-between a Melburnian and a piece of real estate.

But one group of long-term city residents has been getting in the way of developers and planners for a very long time now. This is even more impressive when you consider these residents have been dead for well over a century.

The Queen Victoria Market’s carpark sits atop the city’s original cemetery, founded in the 1830s. Despite exhumations in the 1920s there are still thousands of bodies buried there, some at depth, others barely a foot beneath the surface.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle’s understandable lack of foresight in siting the cemetery so close to the CBD grid that bears his name has meant that the use of this land has long been a sensitive and difficult matter. Works over the years have had to negotiate the competing needs of the market (in more sense than one) and the non-economic needs of human remembrance, trying to combine mercantile and sacred space in a delicate balancing act.

jurek d.

Recently, City of Melbourne has proposed turning most of the existing carpark into a park as a sign of respect for those buried there – a far cry from the attitude of the 1930s, when a steam shovel was used to tear through the old cemetery to build the Franklin Street stores.

And yet questions have still been raised about whether the new plans show sufficient forbearance. The proposed extension of Franklin Street and commercial development at the southern end of the market precinct would potentially sit atop burial sites.

This clash between the call of the future and the depth of the past poses important questions for us here in the present: should the dead impede the activities of the living in this way? What, if anything, do we owe the dead?

It’s too easy to say “nothing”, that the dead simply don’t exist any more and any responsibilities we have regarding the dead are actually duties to the living. Even the unsentimental Aristotle thought it “heartless” to claim the dead couldn’t be harmed by events after their death, such as the fortunes of their descendants.

patrick wilken

There is a real question as to how we can harm or benefit a person who no longer exists, and philosophers have tried to answer this question in a number of ways. An influential answer, first offered by Thomas Nagel, is that just as we can harm someone at a great spatial distance, say by betraying them, we can also harm them at a temporal distance as well.

So when, for instance, Colin Campbell Ross was pardoned for Melbourne’s Gun Alley Murder, 86 years after he was wrongfully convicted and hanged, this was justice for Ross, not for the living.

I’ve argued previously that the dead persist phenomenally in our recollection – not as conscious selves, but nonetheless as the objects of loving attention they were for us while they lived – and that this gives us a responsibility to maintain that memory.

Martijn Witlox

Sartre said the dead are “prey” to the living, but they are also our dependants: without our maintenance they slip away into oblivion, into what Goethe called the “second death” of being forgotten.

Yet those buried beneath the Queen Vic are beyond memory. There are no direct personal bonds between the living and the dead in this case, no personal promises left to honour or break. Whatever connections of blood or allegiance we might have to these people are lost in their anonymity. Each is, for us, simply a distinct token of humanity, and whatever we owe them, we owe them simply as human beings.

Kierkegaard declared that remembering the dead was the purest act of love, because the dead can neither repay us for our trouble nor force us to remember them. This work of love is harder when the dead are beyond human memory, stripped of their identity and decomposed into a body that can only be reconstructed, not recognised, and described only through general categories – age, height, sex.

But the sense remains that even these remains are those of distinctive persons, objects of someone’s loving regard even if they remain unknowable to us.

Known Unto God, Acroma Knightsbridge Cemetery near Tobruk, Libya.
gordontour

The inscription “Known Unto God” on the gravestones of unknown soldiers picks out something like this: to us these are perhaps just bones, but someone – God, at least, for the epitaph-writers of the Great War – knew this person in their distinctive fullness. They lived. And that they lived deserves to be respected.

The reason we’re horrified by the thought of a steam shovel tearing up the old cemetery is not that we’re superstitious or have taken metaphors about the “resting place” of the dead too literally. It’s that the dead continue to demand a respect that extends to how we treat their remains, however far removed these might be from the full, living person they once were.

The dead, in a way, have a right to be awkward. They should be an obstruction, something the living need to work around, because in doing so we refuse to quarantine them from the realm of what is.

The rights of those buried beneath the market carpark are of course no more absolute than those of any other Melburnians. It would be silly to deny that the living have a far greater claim on us, and the demands of the dead are easily outweighed by other considerations. But that doesn’t mean the dead have no claim on us at all.

The continued sensitive management of this site isn’t simply a piece of good urban planning or canny politics. It’s a work of love.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

The Biennale, Transfield, and the value of boycott

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In July 1846, the American writer Henry David Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay his poll tax. He couldn’t abide the thought that his money would be used, however indirectly, to perpetuate the Mexican-American war and the institution of slavery. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” Thoreau reasoned, and so that’s where he was.

Like many things in Thoreau’s life, his stint in jail was somewhat less impressive than he made it sound. He’d simply run into the tax collector by chance, who demanded six years’ worth of unpaid taxes. Thoreau refused, spent one night in a freshly-whitewashed cell, drank a pint of hot chocolate for breakfast, and was released against his will later that day when someone (probably his aunt) paid the tax for him.

Nothing changed. Both the war and slavery went on, unperturbed. The most significant outcome was Thoreau’s deeply influential essay Civil Disobedience, an ongoing source of inspiration to anti-statist activists from the anarchist left to the libertarian right.

Four decades later, the people of Lough Mask in Ireland began a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne’s local land agent – a certain Captain Charles Boycott. The British ultimately used troops to guard the Orangemen brought down to harvest Erne’s crops (at 20 times the cost of what the crops were worth). But in the process the English language acquired a useful new verb.

But is the practice of boycotting as useful as the word? Are withdrawals of support such as Thoreau’s morally valuable acts of defiance or mere self-indulgent theatre?

The news that the Sydney Biennale has severed all links with Transfield Holdings, including accepting the resignation of its chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (who remains Transfield’s director), throws all these issues into relief.

Like Transfield itself, the Biennale was founded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ father Franco (who had earlier established the Transfield Art Prize). No-one disputes, therefore, that Transfield has been a deeply valuable benefactor of the arts. As recently as late February, the Biennale board was insisting it could not survive without Transfield.

But Transfield’s subsidiary, Transfield Services, operates the Australian government’s immigration detention facility in Nauru, and has just signed a A$1.22 billion contract to run the Manus Island facility in PNG as well. Protests against Transfield’s involvement with the Biennale had been gathering steam for weeks. Nine artists had withdrawn from the event altogether.

In the statement announcing his resignation, Belgiorno-Nettis complained:

There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation. Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s board to stand by Transfield.

Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of “blood on your hands”. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair – especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.

As the reference to Biennale staff reminds us, ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. We moral philosophers like our thought-experiments artificially clean and simple: strip out all the messy, extraneous stuff and display the moral problem in its clarity and purity. Real-life moral dilemmas aren’t like that: the truth, as Wilde quipped, is rarely pure and never simple. It would be silly to ignore the fact there are livelihoods and careers involved here, and real costs to each if the event folds.

Villains are rarely as pure as we’d like them to be either. Writing on The Conversation, Joanna Mendelssohn notes that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is:

by any measure a major patron of the arts on a personal level and one of the great subtle thinkers in modern Australia.

And yet, he profits from what can only be called systematic cruelty.

As an act of protest, the decision to boycott an arts festival may seem decidedly sub-Thoreavian. There are certainly real costs involved to the protesters, but no-one’s going to prison. Moreover, it’s no doubt impossible for even the most well-meaning boycotter to achieve complete disentanglement here either.

Other sources of funding are also likely to be ethically tainted too – is taking part in the Sydney Festival, which has a casino as its principal sponsor, an endorsement of the gambling industry, for instance?

Presumably the local artists who threatened to boycott the Biennale still pay their taxes too. We’re still paying for Manus whoever gets the contract. (Even Thoreau continued to pay the Highway Tax, because “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”)

And of course, none of this will move the needle one bit on asylum seeker detention policy, any more than Thoreau’s theatrics stopped the war against Mexico.

His belief that even a minority “is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight” sounds wildly optimistic, then as now. Australia seems determined to punish asylum seekers for the unforgivable crime of disturbing our three-big-tellies-and-two-cars-in-the-driveway complacency.

As Waleed Aly put it in a grimly eloquent piece recently, “The political truth is that there is almost nothing any government could do that the electorate would deem too brutal” when it comes to detainees. A few artists pulling out of a festival is unlikely to get much traction in the suburbs of Western Sydney (which, as we learned during the last election campaign, is apparently the entirety of Australia).

And yet.

And yet, a group of individuals stood up, at some cost to themselves, to withdraw their implicit support of a company that makes money from our brutalisation of the most vulnerable. And they won.

The board’s statement suggest it’s reacting to pressure rather than acting from genuine ethical concern, and Belgiorno-Nettis’ comments aren’t exactly a study in contrition. When the sun came up Saturday he was still director of Transfield Holdings, and Transfield Services was still running detention camps for profit.

But even so, the Biennale board has chosen a course of action that, on its own admission, puts its survival in doubt. I’ve said here before that we need more turkeys prepared to vote for Christmas. Perhaps we’ve found some. Perhaps.

Whatever the complexities, and however limited the impact, there was, at least, a moment, here in 2014, where the idea that misery outweighs money won some sort of victory.

It won’t change much. It won’t change anything at all for those suffering on Manus and Nauru right now. Some will call it merely symbolic, an empty gesture. But gestures matter. Symbols matter.

Thoreau died of TB at the age of 44, too soon to see the Emancipation Proclamation – by just eight months. History can be quicker than you think.

 

Further reading:

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis should just buy a yacht
We should value the Biennale protest, not threaten arts funding
Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?
Artists’ victory over Transfield misses the bigger picture
Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Nobbies, Phillip Island, November 2012

Margaret, David, Wolf Creek 2 and, oh … torture porn

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Well, I’m outraged, I tells ya. Outraged!

This is such a shameful snub. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, beloved hosts of ABC’s At the Movies, have apparently refused to review a major new Aussie movie. OK, maybe this particular movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. But is it really too much to expect they – and the public broadcaster they work for – should get behind Australian cinema and cover high-profile, locally-made movies?

After all, Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2 is the sequel to the highest-grossing Australian porn film in years. This is a pretty big deal.

Why the silence about such a major Aussie success story, Margaret and David? I can only conclude it’s sheer snobbery on your part. Curse these stuck-up arthouse types. Just where do they get off? (So to speak.)

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2, mostly because I just made it up. (Please, nobody invoke Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it on the internet”). But imagine if there really was such a film, and David and Margaret refused to review it. Would you think that’s unreasonable?

Margaret and David.
AAP Image/ABC

I’d imagine most people would think that’s fair enough. Why on earth would a serious movie show review a porno? To the extent that anyone has ever come up with a serious definition of porn, one key feature is that porn exists primarily to produce sexual arousal; artistic merit, even if it’s a consideration, must be subordinate to that aim. Debbie Does Dallas (1978) may have a certain kitsch charm (ah, so I’m told), but Citizen Kane it ain’t.

And yet, apparently At the Movies’ refusal to review Wolf Creek 2 (Stratton separately gave it a negative review for The Australian) is seen as a serious lapse in some quarters. National film editor at Fairfax Media Karl Quinn accuses them of having “abnegated their responsibility as Australia’s most-watched movie critics,” insisting that whatever they think of it, Wolf Creek 2 “is an artefact and it demands inspection” – apparently just because it’s popular.

Wolf Creek 2’s writer and director, Greg McLean, was also understandably peeved:

what on earth are they thinking? Simply not reviewing an independent Aussie movie that beat its US studio competitor Lone Survivor … is worth paying some attention.

Take a look at the comments attached to that article, and it becomes clear a certain number of people out there view this as a dereliction of the ABC’s duty to give taxpayers what they want to see, and to support the Australian film industry. Another example of the public broadcaster failing to show “basic affection for the home team” it would seem.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence or availability of horror films, or porn films for that matter. If people want to watch these things, fine – though as consumers of these products we also need to be aware that there are arguments against both these things that deserve to be considered seriously rather than simply dismissed out of hand. “But I like it!” or “Ewww, gross” aren’t much chop as arguments either way.

What’s more interesting here is the unsettling double-standard. Despite all the hand-wringing about the “mainstreaming” of porn in the internet era, cultural artefacts such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2009) and Wolf Creek (2005), with their gratuitous depictions of gore and violence, are somehow considered more socially acceptable than pornography. Why is “torture porn” somehow more valid than, well, porn-porn? Why does at least a section of the public expect At the Movies to review one but not the other?

No doubt there are some important differences. A second defining feature of porn that’s been noted, for example, is that porn invites you not merely to enjoy what’s being done on screen, but to approve of it too, at least implicitly. There’s a certain “pro-attitude” involved in arousal.

You could argue there’s no direct analogue to that in torture porn: presumably even the most ardent fan of Wolf Creek doesn’t actually think Mick Taylor’s tortures, rapes, mutilations and murders are a good way to behave.

Wolf Creek 2.
Courtesy of Roadshow Films

Even so, you could say that both torture-porn and porn-porn invite the viewer to somehow revel in what’s going on, even if they don’t approve of it. (We’re not invited to think “Oh that poor innocent traveller, I do hope the killer doesn’t follow through with that hacksaw”).

And they do this in a specific way: they both reduce the living body to a vulnerable object, pitifully and hopelessly subject to violation. They are, you might say, both “obscene” in part of the sense Jean-Paul Sartre gives the term: the body revealed in “the inertia of its flesh”, as pure matter to be acted upon.

Indeed in that sense, porn comes out looking considerably better than Hostel-style gore-fests. An erection or a jiggling breast, attached to an apparently eager participant, is surely much less obscene in this technical sense than a severed head or hacked-off fingers. Both genres objectify, but as Martha Nussbaum argued, not all objectification is equally bad.

DH Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley and Mellors objectify each other by focussing on each other’s genitals, for instance, but they do so in a way that doesn’t deny or diminish the fundamental humanity of the person attached. They don’t reduce each other to their bodies.

I’m not sure we can say that about all torture-porn flicks. Setting aside the details – and admittedly the degradation is often in the details – what’s the greater affront to basic human dignity: a depiction of consenting adults having sex, or a depiction of non-consenting mutilation and murder?

Of course, such dignity-based arguments go out the window if you reject the idea there’s any such dignity there to begin with. Alan Soble, a leading American philosopher of sex, makes this case in quite arresting terms:

To complain that pornography presents women as “fuck objects” is to presuppose that women, as humans or persons, are something substantially more than fuck objects. Whence this piece of illusory optimism? […] Pornography gives to no one, male or female, the respect that no-one, male or female, deserves anyway. It demolishes human pretensions. It objectifies that which does not deserve not to be objectified. It thereby repudiates norms that Christian, Western culture holds dear, that people are not to be used or treated as objects or objectified or dehumanized or degraded.

Extending this thought to the torture porn genre: can we seriously say that human beings are no more than mere “slash objects”? If not, shouldn’t we find something troubling in depicting them as such?

Now, there’s an important liberal argument that’s often raised in discussions of porn that also seems to apply to torture-porn: if everyone involved – performers, producers, purchasers – is a willing participant, and so no-one gets hurt, then we simply have no right to interfere. Fair enough. But if we accept that argument, we also have to accept that Stratton and Pomeranz also have a right to review whatever they like.

If, on the other hand, we expect them to support local content producers, then it seems we have to accept the possibility of Margaret and David squabbling over the merits of Adelaide Sex Adventures 4: Rundle Mall Rumps.

Which, I think we can all agree, would make for awesome television.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Philosopher