Monday, May 30, 2011

The Stone Hits Philosophy in Public, Again

Sooooo,  The Stone has done it again. We have a piece on natural rights by Prof. Michael Boylan of Marymount U in Virginia. It is a mess.

Look, I understand that writing for this particular venue requires brevity and some eschewing of the precision normally expected in philosophical writing. And, I’m sure one is supposed to tie the philosophical work in with something in the news, or whatever. But this piece offers up such a parade of horribles as to embarrass the rest of us.

For example, Boylan implies that the legal positivists such as Hart and Austin were not moral universalists. Apparently, if one is a utilitarian rather than a natural rights theorist, one believes morality is committed to “radical moral relativism.” To imply that one must choose either natural rights theory or relativism is a grotesque misrepresentation of moral theory as a field.

Similarly, to suggest that one must choose between accepting natural rights theory and the belief that moral rights are “an arbitrary social construction” is a logical error that Hart certainly never made. He did not think there was anything slightly ‘arbitrary’ about the emergence of the concept of moral rights. (In fact, Hart conceded that there might be one natural right: the right to equal concern and respect.)

Then there is the dreadful leap from rejection of natural rights to the idea that “each nation would be free to treat its citizens as it chooses, subject only to the rule of power.” Again, this ignores the variety of moral theories, suggesting that only natural rights theories offer any basis for conceptions of legitimacy and limits on use of power. Boylan implies that utilitarian legal positivists must be committed to the conclusion “Hitler would not have been wrong in carrying out the Holocaust, but only weak because he lost the war. “

Do we really want non-philosophers to believe that thinkers such as Bentham, Austin, the two Mills, and Rawls held that there is no distinction between authority and de facto power? If one wants to claim that all non-rights moral and political theories are just modes of Hobbesianism, one should let one’s readers know that this is one’s claim. An argument would be nice, as well.

Boylan’s treatment of Rawls is also – dare I say it – unfair. It merits a fuller quotation:

“ There are, of course, other justifications of human rights that are not universalist but rather based upon conventional criteria such as general agreement (the Social Contract approach). These depend either upon real people signing treaties in the world as we know it (often multi-lateral agreements via internationally recognized institutions such as the United Nations) or they are hypothetical contract situations set in a fictional context (such as John Rawls’ original position or John Locke’s Social Contract, et al.). These foundations for human rights may be conceptually appealing, but they are subject to variation according to the real people involved or the particular philosopher or practitioner playing out the scenario according to his or her vision of the good. “

Well, that was quick. Obviously, the same critique that one might offer of an empirically based contract theory would apply to Rawls’ notion of the Original Position. Because, yeah, he didn’t develop that entire concept precisely to model universal reasoning. In fact, Rawls’ whole project was to find a universalist basis for political morality. Boylan may think he failed, but the readers of the New York Times deserve to know what Rawls was trying to do.

Nor does Boylan explain to his readers how he moves from citing Locke as one of the early human rights theorists to writing him off as a mere contractarian. Somehow, that whole inalienability thing just got lost in translation.

Many of us philosophers would like to see The Stone fare well. But that means the articles published there must do philosophy well. If it continues to present poorly argued, contentious presentations of individual’s philosophical hobby-horses, more of us will just be wishing it "farewell."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Men, Women, and Whining

Maureen Dowd recently ran a column in which, in her standard meandering way, she took TV network programmers to task for planning a new season sprinkled with T&A and nostalgic looks back to the gender roles of the 50’s and 60’s. With a remake of Charlie’s Angels and a show based in a Playboy Club, it does sound rather depressing.

But, it was some of the comments I found most intriguing. The majority seconded ‘Mo’s’ distaste, many of them recommending PBS, reading, or other alternatives to the vast wasteland. A few carried on about the immaturity of men who, apparently, are the target audience for these planned shows. And, then, there were the few howling screeds about feminism, liberalism, and the usual bugaboos of Angry White Males. I reproduce two of these screeds, here, for my own amusement.

First, we have this from #113: Lee Pefley:

To be given permission to produce a TV show, it is required that it include a strong woman in a position of high authority, a mussed-up women too busy to worry about her hair who storms about barking out orders to incompetent white male underlings. It must also include a black male of the highest integrity and intelligence who sits behind a desk and gives instructions to sniveling Caucasians. And this above all - the perp must never, never be black or female or hispanic or an immigrant or gay. No! The perp must be a prosperous white guy who dresses well. In this country, indoctrination is perhaps more subtle than in the lamented Soviet Union, but is even more pernicious all the same. "Liberal totalitarianism," as it is properly called by overseas observers.

Really?? What shows does Lee watch?

I cannot think of a show that features a female boss (much less one of those icky mussy-haired ones).  I suppose there is Glee, but is she really the boss? And, is she presented as storming about ordering less-competent males to do her authoritarian bidding? There is Scuddy on House, but she looks very well-coiffed. And she doesn’t scream at House for being incompetent; she screams at him for being insane.

Actually, I can’t think of a show that forefronts incompetent employees – white, male, or otherwise - other than sit-coms, in which there apparently must be a subtle balance of incompetents and oddballs to keep the laughs coming. In dramas, there might be a mid-level female ‘boss’ – perhaps the lieutenant or an assistant D.A. Oddly, the real bosses always seem to be, you know, male.

A “black male of the highest integrity.” Hmm. Perhaps on Fringe? But, no, he does not sit “behind a desk giving instructions to sniveling Caucasians.” He does sometimes give orders, but my impression is that they are largely ignored.  Besides, he has some kind of less-than-highest-integrity relationship with the – Yes! female! – boss of the creepy company that seems to be mixed up in the ending of our universe.

“[T]he perp must never, never be black or female or hispanic or an immigrant or gay. No! The perp must be a prosperous white guy who dresses well.”   Hmm. I guess the ‘original’ Law and Order often featured rich white people (male and female) as baddies. On the other hand, my own limited viewing suggests that ‘perps’ in most crime shows are usually people of color and/or badly dressed white folks. (Is the quality of dress important, here?)

Again: I wish Lee had revealed what shows he watches. I think they would be a refreshing change. (In return, I would be happy to provide him with the rules about comma usage in series. )

Also notable was this offering from # 32: Zach:

America's war on women? America's become the most feminized culture in the world at home; what other culture could field so many feminine bobbleheaded pundits, both male and female, slavishly drooling over their government's actions and decrees; the MSM has become Pravda under the Boomer's watch. The war on the heterosexual American male began in earnest in the 1960's. The Christina Hendricks bashing sounds a lot like spiritually barren mean girl jealousy over a ripe Elizabeth Tayloresque fruit. Many Americans liked their mothers and fathers despite their being 60's era traditional squares. Many heterosexual men like women who like men for what they are. Perhaps heterosexual males who like women for their sexuality, child-bearing abilities, and occasional company when they aren't whingeing, have no place in the 2011 America painted in this column?

I gather it is the women who are [frequently] ‘whingeing,’ but that might be an uncharitable interpretation on my part. So, we should move beyond that, as the post opens so many interesting doors.

First, it seems ours is the most ‘feminized’ culture in the world. I’m not sure what this means, but apparently it includes male and female pundits “drooling over their government's actions and decrees.” The Boomers are also, somehow, implicated in all this – at least in the pandering to the government. No doubt, statism and feminization go hand in hand, as in the Nanny-state.

Second, the “war on the heterosexual American male began in earnest in the 1960's.”  Previously, one must assume, it was an un-earnest war featuring such formalisms as the 19th Amendment. Interestingly, the female war on men seems thus far to have exempted gay men. No doubt, they are next.

As for Christina Hendricks, the voluptuous actress who lays ‘Joan’ on Mad Men, I think she’s fabulous.

For those who did not read Ms. Dowd’s column, Zach seems to be referencing a quotation from a male producer who explained the new crop of T&A shows in terms of the success of the show on which Ms. Hendricks [recently married, I believe] works. The comment, itself, was a bit obscure, and Dowd made nothing of it. My guess is that Zach has a major crush on Ms. Hendricks and thought she was being insulted by …someone. I wonder how she would feel about being described as a piece of ripe fruit?

But, surely, the most poignant part of Zach’s comment comes at the end, when he queries whether “heterosexual males who like women for their sexuality, child-bearing abilities, and occasional company” have a place in our 2011 culture [leaving aside who it is that is doing all that “whingeing’]. What can one say in the face of this lament?

Certainly, I appreciate [heterosexual] men for their sexuality. In a more limited way, I appreciate them for their egg-fertilizing abilities. And, I certainly appreciate them for their occasional company – at least, when they are not ‘whingeing.’ It seems to me that we can extend the hand of friendship to those heterosexual men who appreciate women in the same ways.

I admit to being a bit concerned by the absolutist reference to ‘child-bearing abilities.’ I, myself, appreciate the fertilizing abilities of men only in very specific circumstances.  But, Zach’s was just a comment on a blog, so we should not be too precise in responding to it.

More importantly, I admit to a preference for men (heterosexual or not) who appreciate women for more than these characteristics. Indeed, I think I might have a special preference for men who do not restrict their appreciation to women who can bear children.

I also have a deep appreciation of men (heterosexual or not) who are capable of appreciating women quite apart from their ‘sexuality.’ I like straight men who can be friends with women without sexual implications. I like gay men who are friends with women in the absence of any sexual attraction.

In the end, I suppose, I have the greatest appreciation for men who respond to women as individuals – their child-bearing abilities and their ‘sexuality’ aside. Perhaps this just means that I appreciate men who like the company of certain women based on intellect, personality, humor, shared interests, and so on. Those are the bases on which I like the company of certain men and certain women.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Thank goodness we have all decided that climate change is just a hoax.