Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bad Oklahoma Bills: Personhood by Legislative Fiat

Okay—very quickly now: Personhood. What is it?

I ask because here in the great state of Oklahoma, the Senate has passed—and the House is preparing to vote on—legislation (SB 1433, the so-called "Personhood Act") that essentially declares a fertilized human egg to be a person. If this bill passed, what would the legislature be declaring?

All of us agree, I assume, that you and I and other adult human beings are persons. And I also suppose we agree about other things. For example, were there such alien beings as Klingons or Wookies, they’d be persons too, even if not biologically human ones. Traditional Christians believe that God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son are all persons—although only the last of them can have a claim on being human.

Personhood is not a biological category, not determined by species membership. To be alive isn’t sufficient to be a person (mosquitoes are alive, but I’d defy you to call one of them a person). To concede that human life begins at conception is thus not to concede that personhood does. To be a cell with a full complement of human DNA in its nucleus isn’t sufficient to make one a person (if so, I would have just scratched a bunch of persons off my face).

Were I to try to offer a rough idea of what we are referring to when we use the word “person,” it would be this: “Person” names the kind of being that you and I and our neighbors most essentially are. Personhood is an essential property the possession of which lends to us the kind of moral standing we have in relation to one another, a moral standing that imposes demands on others to respond to us with a certain basic level of respect.

As such, the nature of personhood is one of those philosophical issues that straddles the intersection of ethics and metaphysics. The question is so vexing that philosophers who have written about the ethics of abortion have routinely sought to sidestep the question by granting the opposing side’s assumptions about the personhood of the fetus. While a kind of continuity exists between a fertilized egg and the child that eventually develops, this continuity isn’t enough to settle the question of whether a fertilized egg is a person—because it’s quite possible for some kind of continuity to underlie an essential change. When I die, there will be a kind of continuity between the body I have now and the corpse that will be there then. But at death an essential change will have taken place. The corpse that remains isn’t a person—and as such, in an important sense, it isn’t me. Likewise, until we know what defines personhood, we can’t say whether that fertilized egg from long ago with which I enjoy a kind of physical continuity was in fact me, or whether an essential change happened somewhere further along in the gestation process.

In important ways, our understanding of what makes you and me persons will depend on how we answer some very hard questions about reality. The philosopher Mary Ann Warren famously tried to characterize personhood in terms of the possession of some significant subset of a cluster of properties—including such things as consciousness, reasoning ability, self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate, and the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness. Warren isn’t sure which of these is required for personhood, but she is confident that if none of these things are present, then we don’t have a person.

I suppose that if you’re a reductive materialist, then something like Warren’s definition of personhood--in terms of a set of functioning capacities or powers--will be what you’ll have to go with. And so, if you think the fundamental nature of reality is what the reductive materialists take it to be, you’d also be likely to conclude that a fertilized egg is not a person. If, by contrast, you think that mind isn’t reducible to matter, and that having a mind is essential to being a person—if, for example, you believe that to be a person requires the possession of something we call a “soul” that isn’t merely an emergent property of one’s physiology—you’d be less enamored with Warren’s approach to characterizing persons. You might then think that having a soul of a certain kind is sufficient to being a person, even if limitations in one’s body might prevent the soul from exercising those powers that are natural to it. The absence of discernible capacities of the sort Warren lists might, in that case, not rule out a claim to personhood.

Of course, belief in a soul leaves unanswered the question of when the soul comes on the scene. If you're a mind-body dualist, the presence of a physically human organism is not guarantee of the presence of a mind.

And there are a range of interesting alternatives to reductive materialism and dualism. The point is simply this: The issue of who counts as a person and why is bound up with questions having to do with the very nature of reality itself. So, to decide who qualifies as a person, we simply need to figure out the fundamental nature of reality. No wonder so many philosophers in the abortion debate try to sidestep the personhood issue!

Put simply, the question of who qualifies as a person is one of the most difficult philosophical questions you can find. And I don’t think that’s the sort of question that can or should be settled by a vote of the state legislature.

It is true, of course, that we have to make policy decisions in the face of all sorts of uncertainty. But the framers and supporters of SB 1433 are insisting that by itself it establishes no explicit policy requirements. It simply declares that the status of personhood begins at conception.

In effect, then, this is an attempt to legally settle a question about what is the case, as opposed to implementing a policy that reflects our uncertainty about what is the case. It seeks by legal fiat to tell us to operate as if there is no uncertainty. Good legislation acknowledges where uncertainty exists and looks for the best ways to reflect that uncertainty in the contours of our laws and collective practices. By that measure, SB 1433 is, simply put, bad legislation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

One More and I'm Done with This: Bipartisan Misogyny and Media Bias

In a recent pair of articles and in a Fox News segment, Kirsten Powers has used Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke as a platform from which to raise concerns about misogyny by media pundits on the other side of the partisan divide.

What she comes up with is a rather telling overview of misogynistic remarks, some more overt, others more subtle. While in my judgment no single case comes close to the outrageous indecency of the recent Limbaugh case (the obsessive, multi-day verbal sexual assault of a young woman who dared to step into the public spotlight to testify on matters important to her), there can be no question that there are voices on the so-called political left who have a habit of ridiculing conservative women by sexually objectifying them.

Bill Maher is the most obvious and serious case, especially with his targeting of Sarah Palin, whom he has called a “twat” and a “c**t.” This is a clear case of dismissing a person through sexually objectifying language: a woman who achieves political prominence is identified with her sexual parts, becoming something to screw rather than a person to be listened to. That Maher did this in a standup comedy routine is a shoddy defense for someone whose career straddles the line between comedy and political punditry.

I don’t agree with much of what Sarah Palin has to say. I find her rhetoric divisive and occasionally dangerous. But to dismiss her in this way is to reinforce the sexist infrastructure of our culture.

Less likely to attract attention than Maher’s use of the c-word is the frequent dismissal of women using gender-specific labels like “bimbo.” But such remarks are also misogynistic. They play into and reinforce sexist gender hierarchies. And Powers offers a nice range of remarks that fall into this category.

All told, Powers makes a compelling case, and the conclusion of her first essay deserves to be taken seriously. Here’s what she says:
It’s time for some equal-opportunity accountability. Without it, the fight against media misogyny will continue to be perceived as a proxy war for the Democratic Party, not a fight for fair treatment of women in the public square.
Powers’ articles and comments were first brought to my attention by a conservative friend who has a long-standing concern about liberal bias in the media. Powers' own concern is not so much the idea that there is a liberal bias in the media in general. Rather, it is with the question of why more liberal political commentators tend to give their own a "pass" when it comes to misogyny. If misogyny is a problem, then it's as big a problem when it happens on your own side of the aisle as when it happens on the other side.

Still, there are those who are arguing based on the media attention Limbaugh has received for his assault on Fluke--and the lack of parity directed to Maher and others on the left--that there is an overall liberal bias in the media. But I don't find this to be a very compelling case for liberal media bias. Although Maher is guilty of the same kind of thing that Limbaugh is guilty of, Limbaugh’s offense has an egregiousness that is hard to match. The distinctive furor over Limbaugh’s recent remarks can readily be explained in terms of their sustained and extreme character, as opposed to the partisan leanings of their source.

After all, this degree of media attention and public condemnation is a first for Limbaugh, even though he’s been engaging in misogynistic attacks on women for decades. What sparked the strong response this time was just how far over the line Limbaugh went.

But I think it is a problem that the broader issue of bipartisan media misogyny has not received more attention than it has—and that for many, Limbaugh represents some isolated horror. What Kirsten Powers’ litany of “liberal” misogynists does, I think, is offer a glimpse of the state of public discourse in general, on both sides of traditional party lines. While she’s accused of trying to make Limbaugh’s rants an occasion to bash liberals (although she professes to be one herself), it is more charitable to see her as using the extreme case as an opportunity to call attention to a broader problem.

The reality seems to be this: There is a lot of sexist discourse out there, on both sides of the political divide, and most of it passes largely under the media’s radar, ignored or trivialized unless, as in the recent Limbaugh case, it rises to the level of verbal sexual assault (or unless pointing it out serves some partisan agenda). In other words, the media tends to treat the rare and extreme cases as something to be horrified at, but doesn’t take much notice of the more pervasive, insidious, and bipartisan sexist behaviors that make such extreme cases possible.

Here, I am reminded of points Catharine MacKinnon makes about rape in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. As she puts it there, “In feminist analysis, a rape is not an isolated event or moral transgression or individual interchange gone wrong but an act of terrorism and torture within a systematic context of group subjection, like lynching.” On this perspective, rape is not some isolated horror, some anomalous crime. Rather, it is the most vivid and terrible expression of a pervasive system of subjugation.

For MacKinnon, rape is actually a piece of the broader patriarchal system, insofar as the fear of being raped operates in the background of many sexual encounters, helping men to secure the compliance of women who otherwise would not submit to sex. More provocatively, MacKinnon represents rape as an extreme instance of the same kind of thing that is done to women every day in patriarchal societies.

But it serves the status quo to deny this. It serves the interests of the beneficiaries of patriarchy to treat rape, not as an overt distillation of all the covert gender violence endemic in society, but as something that offends what the society is about. Cutting rape off from the broader context of which it is a part, treating it as special and unique, keeps us from noticing all the ways in which our society is doing the same sort of thing, in less vivid form, all the time.

Likewise, treating Limbaugh’s egregious verbal assault on Fluke as if it were an anomalous breach of social standards, an unbelievable and distinctive offense, helps to keep us from paying too much attention to all the ways in which the dismissal of women through sexual objectification is a routine feature of our cultural life, regardless of our politics.

Now in saying all of this, I don’t want to trivialize rape by equating it with offenses that don’t carry the same weight of violation. But I do want to recognize formal similarities, and see how broader social patterns feed into this more extreme kind of human degradation. Likewise, I don’t want to trivialize what Limbaugh did through false equivalences. But I think it’s very important to understand the broader culture, and the routine misogyny (such as when a professional woman is dismisses as a bimbo) which makes these more extreme acts of misogyny possible.

To the extent that the media ignores the more routine misogyny in our culture—to the extent that it fails to situate the extreme offenses within a broader cultural pattern that is deeply implicated in those offenses—the media is helping to protect the status quo from the kinds of progressive cultural critiques we find in feminist thought.

And on this basis, I am prepared to say that the media has a conservative bias--not in the sense that it tends to disproportionately favor the more relatively right-leaning political party, but in the sense that it tends to shield entrenched norms and patterns against seriously challenges that, were they to be taken seriously by society as they perhaps ought to be, would call for quite sweeping social change.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ridicule in Public Discourse: A Limbaugh Corollary

Rush Limbaugh's verbal assault on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke keeps spinning off related issues that, for a philosopher interested in public conversations, are irresistible--especially if it involves my alma mater. At the University of Rochester last week, a group of students silently protested UR economics professor Steven Landsburg after Landsburg said in a blog post that Fluke's position deserved to be "ridiculed, mocked, and jeered."

The ThinkProgress article (linked to above) claims that Landsburg "defended Rush Limbaugh’s verbal assault on Sandra Fluke and said the Georgetown student deserved to be mocked." And according to that same article, UR president Joel Seligman expressed "outrage" that a professor would "openly ridicule, mock, or jeer a student in this way."

To be fair to Landsburg, he opens the controversial blog post by distinguishing between the mockery of persons and the mockery of a position, and he is careful to say that it is Fluke's position, not Fluke herself, that should be ridiculed. Here is the full money quote from Landsburg's post:
But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.
To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits.
It's not so clear that Landsburg sticks with his distinction between mocking positions and mocking people when he goes on to question Limbaugh's "slut" label only to suggest that "prostitute" or perhaps "extortionist" would have been better choices. These are terms that apply to people, not positions or arguments. And his failure here may speak to the difficulty of drawing the line that Landsburg wants to draw. Perhaps, by their very nature, ridicule and mockery latch onto people. Can one make a mockery of something someone says without inviting laughter at the person who said it, without inviting others to consider the person a fool? Or is that what mockery is?

I'm not sure, but let's suppose that this is possible--that we can ridicule the things people say while continuing to extend the "basic respect we owe to any human being." The question is how mockery and ridicule should play into public discourse. Can it have a legitimate place when its main target is "ridiculous" statements and arguments as opposed to people?

(Note: As I've argued in different ways here and here, Limbaugh went way beyond ridicule to what amounts to a public verbal equivalent of sexual assault; even if there is a place for ridicule, there is no legitimate place for this. So, my question here should not be construed as about whether there can be a legitimate place in public discourse for what Limbaugh in fact did.)

If there can be a legitimate place for ridicule in public discourse, I would contend that its place must be viewed as supplemental. That is, you must first honestly argue that the statement under attack is ridiculous--that is, expose it as ridiculous--before inviting others to ridicule it. To do this, you have to begin with an honest (and charitable) articulation of what it is you want to critique. Otherwise, there is a real danger of ridiculing a caricature.

And this is something Landsburg doesn't do. He doesn't take the time to actually unpack the substance of Fluke's testimony. If you want to know what Fluke said, you won't have much of a clue after reading Landsburg's post. Landsburg says she doesn't give an argument of any worth. Instead, according to Landsburg, "All she said...was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it."

Is that really all she said? No. Among other things, part of Fluke's testimony was that birth control pills are actually the proper medical treatment for certain recognized--and potentially life-threatening--medical conditions. She came to speak about a friend who had such a condition, and who lost an ovary because Georgetown wouldn't support health insurance policies that cover contraception.

More significantly, Fluke was offering testimony--that is, she was calling public attention to facts and considerations that might need to be considered in our public thinking. Offering testimony isn't the same as giving an argument--even if some testimonty gestures to an argument, and sometimes testimony comes complete with an argument. If the costs of pharmaceutical contraception--and the effects that these costs can have on the decision to use such contraceptives--may be relevant to the public controversy about the contraception mandate, then having someone testify to those costs is important even if the person delivering that testimony isn't developing a full-fledged argument using the information.

But Landsburg treats Fluke's supposed failure to give an argument as sufficient to warrant ridicule. To ridicule testimony for failing to be what it doesn't have to be in order to be useful testimony--well, that's unreasonable. If you want to make the case that the facts represented in the testimony are mistaken, that is worth doing...but Landsburg doesn't do that. If you want to make the case that the facts being testified to have no bearing on the question at issue, then you have to give an argument to that effect. Simply resorting to ridicule doesn't help decide the relevance of a piece of information.

So, even if we assume that ridicule can have a place in public discourse, it would seem that it has to be a supplement to honestly (a) characterizing and (b) critiquing what is being ridiculed--and neither Limbaugh nor Landsburg do this.

But maybe I've been too quick in dismissing Landsburg. Perhaps he is gesturing to an argument in his post. Although Landsburg clearly misses a crucial part of Fluke's testimony--about the serious medical uses for birth control pills--another feature of her testimony had to do with the cost of contraceptives. Maybe, if we narrow Landsburg's dismissal to this part of Fluke's testimony, he has the basis for an argument that this information isn't relevant to the public debate.

But what would that argument be? It isn't entirely clear, but the gist of his case seems to be summarized in the following sober statement of Rush's abuse-riddled commentary: "If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits."

How do we charitably develop this into an argument? Here's one way to do it: (1) If a health insurance company through whom I have a policy covers the birth control pill, this amounts to me being required to pay for someone else's sex life. (2) All else being equal, I can be legitimately required to pay for something that another person enjoys only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits. (3) All else is equal. (4) Therefore, a health insurance company through whom I have a policy can legitimately cover the birth control pill only if I can be extended a right to demand a share in the benefits of others' sex lives. (5) But, it would be wrong for anyone to be extended such a right. (6) Therefore, it is wrong for health insurance companies to cover birth control--since doing so would be permissible only if accompanied by the conferral on all policy-holders of a right that cannot legitimately be conferred.

If this is the argument, then it rests on at least one false premise, namely (1). I've already addressed some problems with this premise in an earlier post--in brief, that it equates (i) paying for a policy that provides coverage for a whole host of possible expenses, most of which a given policyholder will never incur, with (ii) paying for one of those expenses (in this case the price of pharmaceutical contraceptives) incurred by policy holders other than oneself. If I have a minor shoulder injury whose only effect on my life is that it impedes my capacity to play my violin, my health insurance policy will cover this. Does that mean all policy holders are paying for me to play my violin? Or is it better to say they are paying a monthly premium so that if they face something similar, they'll be covered?

There are differences between covering birth control that is being prescribed to suppress fertility and covering treatment for an illness or injury--differences that make a big difference from the standpoint of Roman Catholic natural law theory--but that is a different issue, and what it gives rise to is a  very different argument against covering contraceptive, based on a certain conception of what constitutes health care (one rooted in natural law). What I want to consider here is Landsburg's argument rooted in the idea that you're paying for someone else to have sex if your health insurance policy covers contraception (a coverage of which, like so much else in the policy, you may never personally avail yourself).

In considering this argument further, I want to focus on a different consideration than I've laid out before, one that is likely to speak to an economist. The problem is this: I'm not subsidizing someone having sex if my insurance policy premiums help to pay for birth control, because you don't need birth control in order to have sex. What I'm paying for, if anything, is for others not to get pregnant when they have sex.

And here's the thing: Every single health insurance policy out there that I know of covers the costs associated with pregnancy and child birth. And those costs far exceed the costs of contraception. So, covering contraception isn't paying someone to have sex--for which I then can supposedly claim a right to enjoy the benefits. Covering contraception is a way to reduce the number of pregnancies that result from people covered by the policy having sex. And reducing the number of pregnancies can be construed as a cost saving measure. So, covering contraception doesn't force other policy holders to pay for the sex lives of the sexually active policy holders. Rather, it reduces the costs of health insurance policies by reducing how often policy holders have to pay for the pregnancy and childbirth costs of other policy holders.

In this respect, coverage of contraception operates from a financial standpoint a bit like coverage of preventive medical screenings. Are you paying for other people to be screened for cancers you are not personally susceptible to if, by paying for the screenings, the insurance company saves money in the long run and thus helps keep your premium lower than it might otherwise be?

I suppose Landsburg could argue that if my health insurance policy covers the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, then I am paying for other people to have children and that, as a result, I should have a right to share in the benefits (visitation rights, maybe?). And since I can't claim such a right, insurance companies should stop covering the costs of pregancy and childbirth forthwith. This does seem to be a parallel argument. If Landsburg takes his original argument seriously, he should also take this one seriously--and claim that the way to avoiding forcing people to "pay" for other people's sex lives is to stop paying for pregnancy and childbirth care as well as contraception. But if so, it seems to show that there's something amiss in Landsburg's overall reasoning.

In fact there is. His argument just isn't any good at all, as far as I can see. And that's the problem with appealing to ridicule as your "go to" strategy: If you'd taken the time first to carefully lay out your case for the conclusion that someone is being ridiculous, you might discover that your case isn't very good.

At this point, I might--following the principle that ridicule has a place after you've demonstrated that some line of thinking isn't any good--launch into some colorful metaphor ridiculing an academic at my alma mater and inviting people to laugh at his silly arguments. But this last move strikes me as needless and probably unhelpful.

(Addendum: Blog posts are often written off the cuff, and so it would be unfair to evaluate Landsburg's overall merits as an academic--either as a scholar or as a teacher--in terms of a single blog post that wasn't sufficiently thought through. It seems clear that Landsburg's comments do not rise to the level of indecency that we find in Limbaugh, even if Landsburg failed to appreciate the indecency of Limbaugh. It also seems clear that Landsburg wants to distinguish between ridiculing people and ridiculing their positions, wants to discourage the former even as he endorses the appropriateness of the latter, and wants to stress the importance of showing due respect. By all means point out what you think to be Landsburg's poor reasoning. By all means express disapproval of his position in silent protests. But to treat Landsburg's comments as if they were anywhere near as serious as what Limbaugh did would be similar in absurdity to equating Kennedy's remarks to Limbaugh's. It would trivialize what Limbaugh did. Landsburg clearly failed to appreciate the severity of what Limbaugh was doing, but failure to appreciate the gravity of an offense--perhaps by virtue of a too-cursory reflection in it--is not the same as committing the offense.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kennedy vs. Limbaugh: Is the Left Being Hypocritical?

So, apparently Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., tweeted the following message last night about one of the Senators of my state: "“Speaking of prostitutes, big oil’s top call girl Sen Inhofe wants to kill fuel economy backed by automakers, small biz, enviros, & consumers.” 

And at least one news source has linked this tweet to Limbaugh's recent verbal assault on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, an attack in which the terms "slut" and "prostitute" figured prominently. As Amy Bingham puts it in an ABC News report, "apparently this nationwide outcry over these 'insulting' words, as Limbaugh himself called them, was not enough to prevent another syndicated talk radio host, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., from slinging the very same insult." 

This way of putting the point gestures towards a kind of challenge, even if it doesn't state the challenge outright. But the challenge is hovering out there, and so it needs to be considered. Let me start by stating the challenge outright: Shouldn't the country get as worked up about Kennedy's tweet as they did about Limbaugh's comments? Is the political left, which has led the charge against Limbaugh, being hypocritical if it doesn't take as strong a stand against a member of the political left's most iconic families as it took against one of the political right's most iconic personalities?

Having just finished writing a post on the Limbaugh case in which I describe Limbaugh's attacks on Fluke as "vicious" in Aristotle's sense, the challenge might well be directed towards me (a "political progressive" and hence someone more likely to be sympathetic to Kennedy's politics than to Limbaugh's):  Am I going to take as strong a stand against Kennedy as I took against Limbaugh?

No. No I'm not.

Because to do so would be to trivialize the severity of what Limbaugh did.

This is not a case of hypocrisy, because the two cases have virtually nothing in common. It's true that both Kennedy and Limbaugh used the term "prostitute." And I'm not saying I think it was a good idea for Kennedy to use this term, or that it was the sort of thing that contributes to civil political dialogue. In fact, I'm inclined to say that you shouldn't label your political opponents "call girls" no matter how metaphorical the label is meant to be. But that said, there are so many differences between the two cases that we would be minimizing the gravity of Limbaugh's actions were we to treat Kennedy's tweet as even in the same ballpark.

First, Limbaugh's on-air rants about  Fluke's sex life verged on obsessive. He elaborated in detail on the supposed enormity of her sex life. He called her a slut and a prostitute multiple times. This is much bigger than a single tweet. For purposes of comparison, consider sexual harassment law. A single questionable comment does not create a "hostile or offensive work environment." But a pattern of sexual comments does. And a single incident can be a case of "hostile environment" sexual harassment if it is sufficiently severe. One glib tweet that invokes the prostitute label wouldn't rise to the level of sexual harassment even if (as is not the case here) the label were meant in sexual terms rather than as a metaphor for being a political sell-out. But something like Limbaugh's sexual rants, targeting Fluke over consecutive days, would clearly constitute sexual harassment if it had occurred in the workplace.

Second, when Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, it was very literal: He slapped these labels on her because of her supposed sex life and her supposed desire (expressed by wanting her insurance plan to cover contraception) to be paid to have lots of sex. In short, Limbaugh was fixated on sexualizing a human being as a means of ridiculing, humiliating, and dismissing her. This is the service to which the term "slut" was being put, with all its explicit sexual meaning intact. Kennedy, by contrast, invoked the prostitute label as a metaphorical way to accuse a man of selling his political services to the oil industry. The term was not intended to make any claims about Inhofe's sex life. It was not meant to sexually objectify him. It was not meant to reduce him to a sex object. It was meant as a provocative (and admittedly questionable) way to challenge the integrity of Inhofe's political career.

Third, Limbaugh's attack on Fluke was part of a broader pattern of misogynistic abuse of women and consistent dismissal of women's concerns about social justice and equality (epitomized in his famed "feminazi" label). The abuse of Fluke was a particularly well-publicized example of deeply entrenched vicious habits of indecency towards women. What makes Limbaugh's behavior vicious is precisely this fact: it comes out of a deeply-seated character flaw in which intellectual honesty has been systematically subordinated to unconstrained impulses. Is Kennedy's tweet a similar expression of a deep-seated moral indecency? Well, I don't know enough about Kennedy's life and career to say for sure, but I have been to environmental conferences where he was the keynote speaker, and his rhetoric at those events was thoughtful, engaging, and guided by careful reasoning. There was no abusive language. No verbal assaults on individuals. From what I've seen of Limbaugh, his use of the "slut" label was completely characteristic. Kennedy's tweet, by contrast, is uncharacteristic.

Fourth, the target of Kennedy's jibe--Sen. Inhofe--is a man. And this matters a lot. It matters for the sake of understanding what kind of effect, and what kind of meaning, the invocation of the term is going to have. Compare the difference between a white man and a black man being called by the racist "n-word." The white man is likely to scratch his head in puzzlement, shrug, and go on with his day. But if the target is black, the word carries all the weight of a history of dehumanization (at least if the person delivering it is white and so a member of the group that was the historic source of that dehumanization).

Terms like "slut" have a long history of playing a central role in the misogynistic marginalization of women. It is women, not men, who were historically treated as the sexual property of men. It was women, not men, who didn't get the vote in the US until well into the 20th century. It is women, not men, who are the primary targets of rape and sexual assault. It is women, not men, who are the main victims of domestic violence.

This context is utterly crucial. When a man calls a woman a slut or a whore, he invokes this entire legacy of patriarchal oppression. He is feeding into and reinforcing a cultural pattern that has historically disempowered women, making them vulnerable to male exploitation and dependent on the good will of the men in their lives.

More insidiously, in a culture where it is women who are the primary victims of rape, Limbaugh's style of targeted rhetoric evokes rape in a way that can only be experienced by its target as a kind of deep violation: labeling a specific woman in sexual terms, making her sexuality a matter of public attention (a way of symbolically stripping her and presenting her naked before his leering audience), and then demanding that she perform sexually for everyone (specifically that she film and post sexual videos of herself online for all to see). I will say it again: What Limbaugh did to Fluke was a violation, and a sexual one.

Kennedy wasn't sexually violating Senator Inhofe. He may have used the word "prostitute," but it simply doesn't have the insidious meaning when used metaphorically to describe the political career of a powerful male politician that it has when it's used to dismiss the views of a female student by sexually objectifying her.

Had Kennedy used the very same metaphor to label a female politician, it would in my judgment have been a much more serious thing. The term would have resonated with a history of oppression in a way that, even had Kennedy not intended it to do so, would have invested the term with a sexually oppressive meaning. As it is, however, likening what Kennedy tweeted to what Limbaugh did is deeply inappropriate, because it powerfully diminishes the gravity of the latter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Limbaugh's Indecency and Aristotle's Virtue Ethics

By this time most people have surely heard of Rush Limbaugh’s very public targeting of a Georgetown Law School student, Sandra Fluke. I've been debating whether to say anything about it here on my blog--and I've decided to do so only because I think I have some things to add, as a moral philosopher and a fan of Aristotle, that haven't already been said by others.

For those who haven’t heard about it, the basic details are this: After Sandra Fluke sought to speak at a congressional hearing—one focused on the intersection between religious freedom and the controversial contraception mandate for health insurance plans—Limbaugh labeled her a slut and a prostitute on the air. In the wake of initial calls to apologize, he responded by labeling those who were offended “feminazis” (which I guess makes me a feminazi). He then redoubled his personal assault on Fluke by arguing that it was only right to require her to post videos of her sex life online for everyone to enjoy.

He finally posted some kind of apology (about his "choice of words"); but the fact is that he has been consistently targeting women for personal sexist attacks for years--and the "feminazi" label flies from his mouth any time he's taken to task for it. Back in the 1990's, he targeted a then-colleague of mine on his short-lived TV show, mocking her by name. I won't mention her by name here, since she may want to forget the whole incident. But I suppose it's worth sketching out what happened.

The mockery was sparked by a student newspaper article that was sent to Limbaugh--an article reporting on a public lecture my colleague gave while visiting a nearby university. My colleague talked about Carol Adam's arguments in The Sexual Politics of Meat, arguments linking the patriarchal oppression of women with meat-eating. Now my colleague was actually a bit skeptical of a number of Adams' claims, but she also thought there were some important insights (observations about the ways in which women are objectified by being likened to meat, connections between the patterns of thinking that help us to ignore the suffering of factory farmed animals and the patterns of thinking that have historically marginalized women). But the newspaper article didn't distinguish my colleague's arguments from Adams', and in any event the article got Adams' arguments wrong--caricaturing them into unrecognizable laughability.

But Limbaugh didn't do any fact-checking. He just laid into my colleague, by name, for all he was worth. He called her a "feminazi" and other things. Then he had a steak wheeled out to him by a woman...and he proceeded to cut into it and then launch into a misogynistic verbal belittling of the woman who'd wheeled it out. He was taking obvious delight in doing so--and then presented this display of sexist objectification of a woman on TV as a decisive refutation of my colleague's arguments.

In all of this, Limbaugh showed not the slightest interest in accurately understanding what he was mocking. What he cared about was having the opportunity to caricature and ridicule feminism while personally attacking a thoughtful, accomplished woman by name on the air, a woman he knew nothing about...and then, in order to "refute" her supposed claim that eating meat makes you a foul-mouthed sexist pig (not her view at all), he ate some meat and indulged very publicly in being a foul-mouthed sexist pig to a woman who worked for him. As if taking obvious delight in such a display made a mockery of anything other than his own protestations against the charge of being a sexist pig.

Given his long history of this sort of thing, it's hard to take his supposed apology now very seriously. Apologies, to be sincere, have to be attended by a certain level of remorse. Let me stress that apologies can be sincere even if a person does the same sort of thing again. Many of us have settled values that tell us not to do this or that, but also have bad habits that we haven't figured out how to overcome. We're short-tempered and say things we regret whenever we lose our tempers. Or we have a hard time resisting certain kinds of temptation. When the bad character trait leads us astray, we feel sincerely bad, and so we apologize. Even though we keep doing the same thing over and over, the apology is still an honest one.

But Limbaugh's public abuse of women doesn't seem to fit this model. It's not just that I have no reason to believe he'll stop using his "feminazi" label from this point on. It's not just that I expect him to continue disrespecting the dignity of women (although perhaps a bit less blatantly for awhile, out of fear of driving off advertisers). Rather, it's that I don't think he's genuinely sorry about offending Fluke and women generally. He is sorry about something--but what he's sorry about is that he may have crossed an invisible line that will inspire advertisers to leave his radio show in droves. The apology smells like damage control rather than remorse.

In saying all of this, I'm suggesting something about the nature of Limbaugh's indecency when it comes to women. And what I have in mind can, I think, be helpfully elucidated in terms of Aristotle's distinction between akrasia (or "incontinence") and genuine vice. Both represent failures to be virtuous, but in very different ways. Vice is much more serious--and a look at the evidence suggests that at least when it comes to misogynistic indecency, Limbaugh is not merely akratic but positively vicious.

For Aristotle, you are morally virtuous when your desires are fully in harmony with the dictates "practical wisdom"--a kind of intellectual or rational discernment that can be cultivated, and when cultivated can distinguish between fitting and unfitting desires, can identify when an emotional response is excessive and when it is deficient, etc. For every emotion and desire and appetite, Aristotle thinks there's a fitting expression of it (found in a "mean" between excess and deficiency)--and he thinks a person with practical wisdom can discern what is fitting. You become virtuous when, by developing consistently good habits, you train your emotions and desires and appetites into harmonious alignment with the dictates of practical wisdom. You end up being the kind of person who takes pleasure in what it is fitting to take pleasure in, and who is pained by what it is fitting to be pained by.

Those who are "akratic" are not yet virtuous, but they're not totally cut off from virtue either. When they fail to do what virtue requires, it's because their appetites or desires or emotional impulses get the better of them. To put it simply, what they spontaneously want to do is often at odds with their judgment about what's best. They don't exactly have the "practical wisdom" of a virtuous person--at best their capacity to make sound judgments about what is fitting is underdeveloped. But, to put it in contemporary terms, at least they can discern the rough outlines of right and wrong. The problem is they don't have the will power to resist temptation (or restrain their temper, etc.). And so they do what they know they shouldn't do...and feel bad about it afterwards.

The vicious don't feel bad about it. In fact, they don't judge what they've done to be unfitting at all, because they've completely rejected the whole idea that their inclinations could be unfitting. They don't acknowledge the authority of some rule of practical wisdom by which their impulses and appetites can and should be judged. Instead, they have made their intellects bow before desires that know no master but themselves.

To adapt an analogy used by Aristotle's predecessor, Plato, imagine that a person is like a chariot being pulled by two horses--and the horses are trying to go in different directions. This is the condition of the akratic person. But the akratic person at least recognizes that the "passion horse" should follow the "wisdom horse." And so the akratic person strives to overcome the conflict by training the former to follow the latter. The aim is not to cut the passion horse loose or get it to stop tugging, but to train it so that it lends it strength and power to the cause of wisdom. For Aristotle, we should be passionate people who live our lives passionately--but our passions need to be schooled, and their teacher has to be the cultivated intellect, the intellect that has achieved practical wisdom. If this effort succeeds--so that the two "horses" pull together in a unified and harmonious way--the person is said to be virtuous.

The vicious person, by contrast, has also overcome the battle between the two competing horses--but rather than overcoming the conflict by trying to habituate their passions to reflect what is rationally fitting, the vicious make their reason into the cowering servant of rampant appetites, unconstrained emotions, and disordered desires. Their intellects are left with the job of providing rationalizations for whatever (based on their affective impulses) they happen to want to do.

In short, their intellectual powers have been co-opted and corrupted. While they might exhibit great cleverness, they have lost the wisdom to discern what is good and decent. They take delight in their indecency both during and after the fact, and never bring their intellects to bear on the question of whether what they do really is indecent or not. Rather, their intellects are wholly twisted to the task of justifying whatever aims or practices their affective impulses inspire.

Take, as an example, the telling of racist jokes. I'll assume here without argument that it's unfitting to find amusement in the dehumanization of others based on race. If so, then those who have acquired virtue in this area will not merely disapprove of such jokes on an intellectual level but will find them unfunny. They simply won't be amused by them. If they have an emotional response, it will be something more like indignation. The "akratic," by contrast, may know this isn't something to laugh at--but may have failed to successfully train their emotions accordingly. They'll crack up...and then feel bad about it.

The vicious in this area will be the ones who tell the racist jokes with relish...and then, if challenged, bring all their clever put-downs to bear on the "uptight slaves to political correctness who don't know how to take a joke" (and then quietly turn to the akratic person who spontaneously cracked up and whisper, "Who let in the n*****-lover?"). Even asking the question that's the focus of practical wisdom--"What affective response is the fitting one?"--is perceived by the vicious as a threat to be silenced. For the vicious have made their rampant inclinations the master to which reason must bow--and so cannot stand the idea that there is such a thing as a rationally fitting inclination that a properly cultivated intellect (an intellect that expresses practical wisdom) can discern.

As such, the very existence of the virtuous is a kind of threat. The virtuous are the enemy...while the akratic are identified as potential allies who need to be won over from the enemy. The vicious, like all humans, are social animals. They don't want friends in the full sense that Aristotle develops, but they do want to be viewed with approval. They want a cheering section. My guess is that even the most vicious have not succeeded in wholly silencing the voice of conscience. There is a part of their intellect that still senses hints of the moral truth, and this tiny voice is a threat to their self-definition. The bigger the crowd of admirers and yes men, the more validation they receive for their daring, the easier it is to ignore or fully silence that nagging voice.

And the akratic--being far more numerous than the truly vicious, are the obvious source of such validation. The cleverness of the vicious is often bent above all to the task of winning them over, especially through the use of mockery and derision. If the virtuous can be made to look like fools, that may break the tenuous hold that virtue has on the akratic. The akratic may waver between the quiet voice of conscience and the let's-have-fun wink of the vicious. They may fall under the spell of a vicious person, drawn in by the seductive image of one who indulges rather than resists the unfitting impulse.

When I listen to Rush Limbaugh's verbal assaults on women--vividly characterized in his recent on-air attacks on Fluke--I detect relish. He is indulging in and delighting in the act of sexually objectifying his target. More significantly, he invites his audience to indulge with him without remorse. He ridicules the voice of conscience that questions the fittingness of his impulses. He targets a young woman who has made the courageous act of stepping into the public arena to share her perspective on a controversial political topic. He responds to that courage by calling her a slut and a prostitute on the air--and he sounds practically gleeful as he does it. And when there are those who dare to question the fittingness of indulging these abusive impulses, he calls them "feminazis" and then redoubles his attack on his original target.

This doesn't look like the weak-willed lapse of someone who's akratic. This looks like full-blown misogynistic indecency. It looks like viciousness in the Aristotelian sense. And his apology looks like what the vicious do when they are afraid that they've broken their spell-like hold on the akratic.

I say that Limbaugh sensed he'd crossed a line with his verbal attacks on Fluke, but I don't think the line he noticed himself crossing has anything to do with the level of indecency of his personal verbal attacks. He's been this indecent before. This time, however, the extreme character of his misogyny got out to a wider audience than usual, with the result of jeopardizing his power to keep his akratic followers under his spell.

Think about that foul-mouthed drunk whose obscenities are usually heard mainly by his buddies--akratic friends who can't go as far as he does since they still have a nagging conscience, but who vicariously live out the urge to indulge their darker impulses through him. There are also those who aren't amused, of course, since their inclinations don't go in the same direction--but most of them are akratic when it comes to the virtue of courage, and so instead of standing up to him pretend instead not to have heard.

So we have this vicious drunk who is usually a focus of indulgent fascination and uneasy looking-the-other-way. But then one day he stumbles into a family restaurant on a Sunday, weaving through the after-church crowd, says the same intolerable crap he's always been saying...then vomits all over the mayor's daughter and makes a misogynistic joke about it at her expense. No one can pretend not to have heard it. The friends who usually laugh about it find themselves squirming in embarrassment, not wanting to be associated anymore with what, in their hearts, they've always known wasn't anything to laugh about.

It looks to me as if Limbaugh is apologizing this time around, not because he's been more horrifically misogynistic than usual. It looks to me as if he's apologizing this time around because, instead of spewing on the quiet woman in the bar and making some lewd remark about it to the laughter of his akratic friends, this time he's (metaphorically speaking) spewed on and insulted the mayor's daughter in front of the Sunday brunch crowd...and the guilty pleasure that his akratic friends usually take in his antics has been replaced by squirming embarrassment.

Even the vicious will apologize under those conditions--but what they're sorry about isn't their viciousness. What they're sorry about is that they've jeopardized their capacity to indulge their viciousness with impunity.

Of course, all of this is premised on the assumption that Limbaugh's misogynistic attacks of Fluke really were deeply inappropriate--and that even the vague shadow of practical wisdom possessed by the akratic is sufficient to make that clear. I'm not going to devote a lot of time to making the case for that here. What I will say is this: Some might note that offensive language can sometimes call attention to an important line of argument that might otherwise be ignored, and that in those cases one might be justified in couching the argument in offensive language.

But even if that's true, what Limbaugh did went beyond offensive language. The problem wasn't just with the "word choices" for which he explicitly apologized. Limbaugh singled out a human being, reduced her to a "slut" and a "prostitute," and dismissed her arguments by making them all about her sex life. In short, he sought to dismiss what she had to say about an important social controversy by inviting everyone to view her as nothing but a sex object. Even if there's a legitimate argument hidden amidst this fallacious dismissal of a human being, the fallacious dismissal is intolerable--especially given the broader social context, which is defined by a long history of women being defined in terms of their sexuality, valued primarily as objects of sexual possession, subordinated to men, and raped.

For women, the specter of rape always hangs over sexual objectification, over the aggressive demand to "put out" (in the form of posting sexual videos or in some other way). In a metaphorical sense, Limbaugh was engaged in the very public rape of Sandra Fluke. Even if he had a legitimate argument, that argument couldn't justify what he did.

But there isn't a legitimate argument hidden here. Limbaugh's "case" for calling Fluke a slut and a whore, for demanding that she put out in the form of posting sex videos of herself, was basically this: By speaking in support of a contraception mandate, Fluke was saying that she wanted the public to pay for her to have lots of sex. Apparently, the cost of contraception would be lower if she had less sex, and so health insurance coverage wouldn't be an issue. But if you want people to pay you to have sex, you're a prostitute. And so, according to Limbaugh, the public should get something analogous to a prostitute's services in exchange for paying for her contraception. She should post video footage of her sex life on the internet.

This is a bunch of nonsense in argument form. First of all, one of the main things Fluke sought to testify about is a serious health condition--polycystic ovarian syndrome--that produces chronic ovarian cysts, that is treated with the birth control pill, and whose treatment therefore falls outside the scope of those health insurance plans that don't cover contraceptives. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown--a Catholic affiliated school that refuses to offer health insurance plans that cover the birth control pill. A friend of hers at Georgetown with polycystic ovarian syndrome couldn't afford birth control pills and so stopped treating her condition. The tragic result was the loss of an ovary. Her point is that whatever religious convictions might be in play, there are also genuine public health concerns as well.

Even this point aside, the general public isn't paying for you to have sex if you get prescribed birth control pills by your doctor and your insurance policy covers it. You are paying a monthly premium to the insurance company in exchange for a coverage package. Everyone else who has the same policy is paying a premium for that same coverage package. I suppose one might argue that the premiums for everyone who enroll in a given policy are affected by what the policy covers and doesn't cover, such that if your policy happens to cover birth control pills this might make a marginal difference in what you pay as a premium.

But to equate that with prostitution goes beyond hyperbole. Suppose Joe likes to play tennis in the amateur tennis club in town, but has been having some shoulder problems that make it hard for him to play at the level he's used to. The problems don't interfere with the other activities of his life, but his tennis serve in particular has gotten worse...and so he goes to a doctor who recommends a surgical treatment. Now suppose his health insurance policy covers the surgery. Joe gets the surgery mainly so he can keep playing tennis. Are we paying Joe to play tennis? Does that make Joe a professional tennis player? Of course not.

And of course, the kind of birth control that would fall under health insurance is the sort whose cost is wholly unaffected by how much sex you have. You take the pill regularly whether you have sex twice a day or once a month, because that's the way the pill works. So Limbaugh's emphasis on the scope of Fluke's supposed sex life is a total red herring.

I'm not arguing here that the contraception mandate is uncontroversial, that there aren't difficult issues at stake that make it a complicated issue (although a friend of mine has offered a powerful argument on this issue that I think deserves wider reflection in the debate). My point is that Limbaugh's basis for attacking Fluke is intellectually bankrupt.

And this fact may, I think, be the best reason to conclude that what is on display in Limbaugh's case is genuine viciousness. Limbaugh's words have the form of an argument, but their intellectual vapidity undermines any claim to the effect that he had reasoned his way to a conclusion and then spiced up the presentation of his reasoning with controversial language. His "reasoning" here operates more as an excuse to indulge his urge to engage in misogynistic abuse--or, perhaps better, as a vehicle through which he carries out that urge. This is a case of cleverness put in the service of abusive impulses.

In other words, the very weakness of Limbaugh's arguments underlines the conclusion that Limbaugh is--at least when it comes to the misogynistic abuse of women--in the grip of viciousness. Practical wisdom has been abandoned, and his intellect is put wholly in the service of his inclinations rather than the other way around.

Such viciousness is poisonous. But recent events have brought the poison to light in a way that may not merely reduce Limbaugh's capacity to lure in the akratic, but may actually drive him to a place of social alienation that could force him to change his behavior. If so, another feature of Aristotle's philosophy becomes relevant: Our character is shaped, Aristotle claims, "by like activities." We become virtuous or vicious by behaving in virtuous or vicious ways until they become a habit.

Limbaugh's career has offered him a venue for indulging his misogynistic impulses and has rewarded him for doing so. It is no wonder he has fallen so deeply into vice. He's been encouraged to become who he is. And now he's so far gone that, when the temptation struck him, he couldn't hold himself back from crossing the line. Eventually, vicious drunks stumble into the Sunday brunch crowd to spew vomit and abuse on the mayor's daughter...because viciousness is about casting off the constraints of practical wisdom, and so is inherently hard to constrain.

But now there is an opportunity--one that isn't just good for the rest of us, but for Limbaugh himself. For Aristotle, virtue is the essence of a flourishing life. Limbaugh is a rich man, a self-indulgent man, but a man whose life is full of rage and distress and other poisons. And he stumbled into a career that, rather than encouraging resistance to the darker impulses of his nature, rewarded their indulgence. Perhaps, now, there is hope for him. Perhaps, now, the social forces around him will force a level of restraint that wasn't imposed on him before (and would never come from within at this stage in his life). Perhaps that enforced restraint, if perpetuated long enough, will seep into his character, become habituated. Perhaps this shameful public display of indecency will plant the seeds of Limbaugh's redemption.

Or so we can hope.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Attack on Higher Education: Iowa Edition

Rick Santorum's ideological assault on colleges and universities as bastions of Satan reflects a broader conservative targeting of academia. Instead of being viewed as an important social resource, an institution where wisdom, knowledge, and critical understanding of the human condition are developed and disseminated, academia as we know it is viewed as dispensible at best and a threat at worst.

To attack tenure--as one Oklahoma state senator has recently done--is one way to express such disdain. Tenure isn't necessary if all you want to do is pass on technical skills and job training, because academic freedom isn't crucial for preparing people to work for the companies that currently enjoy power and influence in society. You do need academic freedom, however, if you're conducting social research into the relations between business practices and the conditions for human flourishing and you've found good reasons to think that the current business system undermines the general welfare of society for the sake of certain privileged elites. If you're right about this, then this is clearly something people should know--but it isn't to the advantage of those in power that you be protected from summary termination as you communicate these discoveries in your teaching and research.

To attack tenure is to operate as if academia is all about job training as opposed to being the kind of independent center of inquiry that can and should expand social wisdom unimpeded by the interests of those who are currently privileged by the existing status quo.

But there's another way in which academia is coming under attack--and that attack is particularly evident in what is currently happening at the university where I was teaching before I came to Oklahama State. The University of Northern Iowa is currently facing cuts--an inevitable feature of the education landscape given the economic realities we face in the US today. Belt-tightening is sometimes inescapable. But how the belts are tightened is going to be a function of the values of those who are in charge of the tightening. And at UNI, the administration's proposed strategy for cutting expenses reflects a value system that, to put it bluntly, is at odds with what academia is about.

Specifically, UNI's administrators have proposed cutting programs based on how many majors those programs happen to have graduated in the last few years. If a program has graduated on average less than ten majors a year for the last few years, then it faces the axe. So, physics? Gone. Philosophy? Gone. Religious studies? Gone. Geography? Gone. You get the idea.

The question is, what priorities are reflected by this strategy for belt-tightening? And how do these priorities relate to the mission of academia?

If you don't value a comprehensive education--that is, an education which exposes students to the range of academic inquiry in a diversity of fields--then you don't value academia. If you don't value preserving a physics department for the sake of the intrinsic importance of expanding and disseminating knowledge about the physical world,  regardless of how many students major in physics, then you don't value academia. If you emphasize programs that advance the technical know-how and means-ends knowledge that employers want their employees to have in order to better pursue their business ends, but do so at the expense of a more holistic vision of the human condition that can help us achieve the wisdom to decide which ends are really worth pursuing, then you don't value academia.

If your priorities in making necessary spending cuts are determined by the current priorities of the business world--if, in other words, you let the status quo that defines current job prospects determine what will be cut and what will be preserved in an academic institution--you are (a) compromising the academy's historic role of critically assessing the status quo, (b) compromising the academy's capacity to lead the way in new technological and social innovations, and (c) compromising the academy's capacity to anticipate and adapt to changes in the broader social landscape. And so, if academic administrators take their cue from business when making spending cuts, they are compromising the very essence of what academia is about.

To use an ecological metaphor, an ecosystem's capacity to successfully weather environmental changes depends on its diversity. And the academy, with its comprehensive range of academic programs and offerings, is a social bastion of diversity in a broader social environment in which there is enormous pressure imposed by existing employers to have educational programs that simply service their existing job needs. The result is that crucial veins of wisdom will be lost to the demands of the job market. The diversity from which innovative solutions to new challenges can spring will be lost. The critical voice that courageously questions the wisdom of the status quo will be silenced.

Now college students are products of their culture, which is powerfully shaped by the interests of the existing business world--for example, through advertising, which reflects the interests of businesses in the marketplace. College students also have a sincere interest in making a living once they graduate, an interest that leads them more often than not to reflect in their priorities the priorities of the existing business world. While students often care about other things--while they are often hungry for critical reflection, humanistic learning, wisdom in the broader sense--they routinely choose their major based on more practical considerations. And so, making cuts based on what students major in will in general mean shaping the university to reflect the priorities of the current business culture.

And of course colleges and universities need to take those priorities into account. But they can't be defined by those priorities without ceasing to be what universities were created to be--a kind of institution every bit as necessary and important today as it has ever been. Perhaps more so. We need institutions that are truly diverse centers of inquiry, where the current preferences of the status quo don't truncate the scope of research and education in a short-sighted way. We need institutions that objectively and rigorously assess the status quo, unafraid to crticize, to advocate improvements, etc.

And perhaps most importantly, we need educational institutions that aren't just devoted to expanding students' technical know-how, the skills they need in order to be able to effectively further the ends they (or their employers) happen to have. We need educational institutions that invite students to consider which ends are most worth pursuing and why. We need educational institutions that inspire students not just to look reductionistically at how things are put together so as to be able to do effective means-ends reasoning, but to look holistically at the human condition in ways that help to generate the wisdom needed to choose the right ends. Doing that won't get you a job--so few students will major in the fields that promote such wisdom. But such wisdom is essential for human flourishing.

Academia has historically been the kind of institution that does these things. And we need institutions that do these things. But if academic administrators cut programs according to how many majors the programs happen to be graduating right now, academia will cease to be these things. A crucial resource of critical reflection, holistic thinking, and diversity of thought will die. And the wisdom that can put the "bottom line" monetary interests of business into a broader context, that can encourage us not to forget what is most essential for good lives and healthy societies while we pursue our jobs and get things done--that wisdom will wither.

It's no wonder that UNI's faculty just voted no confidence in UNI's administrators. These administrators are operating as if ensuring that an academic institution continues to do what academic institutions are supposed to do, that it continues to be what the academy crucially has to be, shouldn't be crucial in shaping hard decisions. Someone who isn't committed to what academia as such is about is not the best choice to lead an academic institution. That seems clear.

The problem is that there are broader social currents that are putting such people in charge of academia, precisely because there are influential forces in society that don't care about academia and its mission. But all of us should care. Our future flourishing may depend on it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New Statesman essay on the New Atheism

A friend called my attention to an essay that recently appeared in the New Statesman--The God Wars--which may be of interest to readers of this blog. The author, Bryan Appleyard, is a self-described agnostic who finds the neo-atheism disturbing. I know that some regular followers of this blog will be quite sympathetic...others far less so. Thoughts?