Charlie Hebdo

I have only a brief comment on the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

I worry that there may be something unseemly in the haste with which commentators and demonstrators have politicized the event, taking up the particular deaths of twelve particular human beings as symbols for this or that cause, or as the means for scoring points against hated enemies, but in any case as abstractions.

“They attacked our freedom!”

“See? I told you Islam was violent!”

Of the particularities of those twelve lives I really can’t say much, other than what I might read about them in news sources or the personal accounts of others, but doesn’t it do a further kind of violence to so lose them in abstractions? Continue reading

From the Archive: What Philosophers Do

Since I’m in the midst of mid-winter revels, of one kind and another, I’m still drawing from the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth.

Today’s revived is from October 9, 2011. It takes up a question that will continue to occupy my mind as I develop this new blog: What should a public philosopher actually do?

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What Philosophers Do

I write this as I travel home from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a conference titled Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, organized by the Public Philosophy Network.

I have a number of posts in mind, drawing from sessions and conversations at the conference, but I’ll start with a few of my notes from the conference related to my last post, on the question of whether philosophers can be experts and, if so, in what our expertise consists.

Starting with the opening plenary session, hosted by the Center for AmericanProgress, I listed a variety of ways in which the role of a publicly engaged philosopher might be characterized: Continue reading

From the Archive: On Expertise

As I’m on holiday break, I’m relying on the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, to keep things moving along with this new blog. I will resume the development of new posts soon.

Today’s entry, from May 27, 2011, takes up a question that is still of concern to me, especially as i think about the meaning and the uses of this new blog: Is there such a thing as expertise in philosophy? Of what does that expertise consist?

Note that “the book” referenced in the first paragraph is my book, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth (Continuum 2010).

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On Expertise: A Reply to King

The first published review of the book has come out, in the Spring 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Ethics. The review was written by Roger J.H. King.

It is certainly gratifying to read a sympathetic and largely positive review. King seems to understand the main intent of the book, which is to provide, as he puts it, “a propaedeutic” to ethical inquiry, that is, a kind of preparatory exercise. In other words, this is not, as he puts it, “a theoretical book.” (p.100)

The central mission of the book is to demonstrate the complexity of everyday judgments and decisions, and to encourage citizens and decision makers to uncover and analyze this complexity. (p.99)

So far, so good. This really is the mission of the book, as I understand it. It is clear, though, that King is not entirely satisfied with the book: he wishes I had taken on a different and more ambitious mission. Continue reading

Politics v. Policy . . . and Politics

The breaking news about Cuba is electrifying: the last vestiges of the (old) Cold War may finally be starting to thaw.

(I was born in the late ’60s so, as far as my own experience is concerned, the U.S. and Cuba have always been at odds.)

It’s notable to me that little more than an hour passed between the first announcement of the breakthrough and the appearance of this in The New York Times online:

U.S.-Cuba Shift May Change Political Landscape, Too

(The original headline under which the article appeared was: “Obama Adds a Wild Card to the ’16 Political Deck”.)

As often happens, I found this too-quick turn toward presidential politicking to be more than a little grating. Continue reading

An Unlikely Contrast Between Torture and Social Media

Continuing the point about the good and the right in discussions of the CIA torture program, my attention has been drawn to a domain in which arguments from the right seem more easily to yield to arguments from the good, almost to the point of reducing the discussion entirely to terms of benefits and costs.

I am about to delete my Facebook profile.

I posted some status updates to that effect, along with some links to sources intended to provoke thought about privacy, social life, and the uses and abuses of Big Data. Continue reading

The Torture Report: Further Clarification

Since it is such a sensitive issue, I want to be especially careful in the language I use to discuss torture. Reading over yesterday’s note, it seems I could have drawn the point more precisely.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

That said, a number of commentators have hastened to say that even if the program had yielded useful intelligence, even if it had saved lives, it would remain a gross ethical offense, something in which Americans – or indeed human beings generally – ought not to engage.

It is here that I pick up the tacit premise that efficacy has nothing whatever to do with ethics.

In fact, those who appeal to the claim that torture worked and that the CIA used it to save American lives can be seen as those with the most to lose and the most to hide, which may give many the impression that an appeal to efficacy is a trick played by scoundrels and double-dealers rather than a genuine ethical argument.

Continue reading

The Torture Report: Efficacy v. Ethics?

There’s not a lot I can add to the conversation of this past week about the CIA torture report that came out of Sen. Feinstein’s committee.

I did note, however, that many politicians and commentators fell into a narrative about the report according to which the question of whether torture worked has no bearing at all on the question of whether torture is ethically justifiable.

On this account, torture is wrong because it is a gross violation of the dignity of a human being, treating a person as a mere thing. This was brought to a point by the psychologists involved in developing the CIA interrogation program, with their talk of “learned helplessness”: they set out explicitly to break the will of the one being interrogated, destroying the very basis of moral personhood. Continue reading