Tag Archives: Philosophy

Socrates Meets Trump

Socrates: By Hera!  You want to create a ban.

Trump: Bigly.  Against Muslims.

Socrates: Muslims?  You must be an expert to do such a bold move.

Trump: Indeed, I am, Socrates.

Socrates: Tell me so that I can learn from your wisdom, for surely you must know much of Islam.

Trump: Well…

Socrates: I’m listening.  You must have read about Islam, the philosophy, the experts, the practices. Only someone advanced in knowledge would propose a ban.

Trump: Well…

Socrates: You know people who practice Islam, yes?

Trump: Have you seen Homeland?  Tremendous show.

Socrates: I have not.

Trump: It’s important to keep the country safe from terrorists.

Socrates: And could you define “terrorist”?

Trump: Look, I promised in my campaign to restore law and order.

Socrates: Of course, good fellow and patriot.  Now, surely you could define law, for only someone well advanced in judicial matters who understands law would make that sort of promise.

Trump: Law is…have you met Bannon?  Law is what we…I put forth for the good of the nation.

Socrates: But law is certainly broader than that.  You say and write (and tweet) many things that do not fall under the category of law.  Law can’t be simply what you say.  It is much more. Please, good sir, don’t hold back.  What is law?

Trump: Did you hear about how Nordstrom treated my daughter?

Socrates: And what is Nordstrom?

Trump: It is a business.

Socrates: And what is business?  You must be an expert.

Trump: Yuge expert. I am a businessman.

Socrates: But I did not ask for an example, my friend.  I asked what is a business?

Trump: It is a place where goods are bought and sold.

Socrates: I see.  Thank you for that excellent response.  And how did this business treat your daughter?

Trump: They will no longer sell her goods!  Sad!

Socrates: Sad, indeed.  And, tell me, are her goods being bought?

Trump: She is my daughter!

Socrates: And is that part of the definition of business?

Trump: I am the president and I need to keep the country safe from terrorists!

Socrates: Is Nordstrom in the business of terrorism?

Trump: I’ll be investigating.

Socrates: Your concern for safety is admirable.

Trump: Why, thank you, Socrates.

Socrates: What defines a safe country?

Trump: Freedom!

Socrates: Would that include religion? Or a business to conduct itself on its choice of goods?

Trump: Really, Socrates, I would love to explain it all to you but for another time.  I have to post some tweets and get back to watching Fox.


Taking Class Time to Discuss the News

Today’s class discussion, as scheduled on the syllabus, was shelved.  We talked about the election results.  A friend of mine said (somewhat incredulously) “You talk politics?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Allow me to explain.  I do not lecture my particular view points, rather I offer a space for the students to voice their concerns.  In all sincerity my heart broke a little for the students who felt as though a vote for Trump was a vote against their very existence.  And, my students who favored Trump did not want to be thought of as hateful.  They, on the other hand, cast their vote in the spirit of wanting economic change, something they believe will be better for the country as a whole.

I let the students know that my participation in the conversation was as a fellow citizen and not as their professor.  I wanted my students to feel safe to dialogue and learn about each others’ views without risk or fear.

The problem we have, I believe, with considering discourse about politics as “rude” means we only chat about it with people who share our views.  This makes any other understanding terribly distant and foreign.  It is the exact opposite of how a democracy that prides itself on freedom and information ought to function.  Unfortunately, throughout the campaign we saw offensive and hateful rhetoric which ultimately diminished opportunity for authentic discourse.  No one wants to exchange ideas in such a climate.

For my students who are minorities and expressed a deep sense of fear and pain I offered them the following: choose to believe in the basic goodness of people.  For my students who supported Trump I said: work to make this a successful and inclusive presidential term.

The essence of philosophy hinges on examining arguments and this cannot be done without exploring premises, the strong and the weak.  So, yes, I shelved our lecture on Descartes to give the students a free space to voice their thoughts about political issues/arguments.  But, most importantly I hope, I wanted to the students to also have a free space to listen.

Honestly, I want nothing more than for my students to be engaged and feel at peace with being part of the democratic process.  Can this happen in a classroom?  Is it right to do this?  For anyone worried that I imposed a liberal agenda on my students, please do not fret. I treated this time as an invitation to talk, not as a soap box moment for myself.  Besides, shouldn’t education be, in part, learning to formulate our thoughts?   That’s more fun than power point, yes?

 

 

 


Are You In A Relationship With Your Phone?

Two of my classes this term focus on the dynamics between technology and culture: Science, Technology, and Society and Ethical Considerations in Technology. The other day I spotted an opinion piece in the student paper discussing the dating app Tinder (Click here to read it). Now, the usual academic set up of the courses involves discussing case studies such as The Challenger Disaster, the New Orleans Levee failure, and Genetic Engineering. In light of the interesting shift in our behavior regarding phone usage, and specifically the piece from the student paper, I decided to shelve the topic on the syllabus for a moment and ask students what they thought of the influx of dating apps.

My intention was to simply spend a brief time on this, but it unraveled into a spirited class discussion lasting for nearly an hour. Everyone had something to say!

I asked students what the advantages are to using an app for dating and put the list on the board. It looked something like this:

  1. It saves time.
  2. It’s efficient.
  3. You can plan your thoughts out in a text or have a friend double check what you text before hitting send.
  4. You don’t have to deal with face-to-face rejection.
  5. There is an ego boost to getting “hits” or “likes.”
  6. There is more control over first impression because you can choose the photo and the bio.
  7. There are so many possibilities.

Unlike reviewing case studies where students learn the information pertinent to the cases, memorize them, and then crank it back out on an exam, this discussion ignited their interest because they are smack in the middle of a cultural shift regarding personal interaction brought about by the fancy-gadget-does-everything-phone.

We then began to pick apart the list on the board. How much time is actually saved if one is on the phone for hours swiping away at photos of potential dates? Wouldn’t there be a similar amount of time spent on going out and being social in person?

For numbers 2-4 and 6 we talked about the very human element of being vulnerable in both friendships and relationships. Removing, or attempting to remove, that from the equation could rob one of an opportunity for growth. Stumbling, putting your foot in your mouth, blushing, awkwardness, and responding in real time with a facial expression are all elements of being human. Is efficiency meant to be applied in this realm? Would you ever want to date a person who had never experienced rejection or a heart break? Isn’t that what makes us humble, caring, and sensitive?

The ego boost is another intriguing aspect. In the normal course of a week, how many compliments does one receive? Without doubt, it feels nice to be on the receiving end of kind words. What the app has done (along with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) is create a potential for a deluge of “likes” within a brief time frame. No longer will a compliment from someone once a week suffice. It’s now needed within seconds of posting something and the desire to check has turned into something of an addiction.

With number 7, we discussed how the idea of “many fish in the sea” has radically changed to an infinite amount of fish in the ocean. Hmm…how has the idea that there could always be someone else impacted commitment? (Vanity Fair published an article on this over the summer much to the dismay of Tinder. Click here for the article.)

The conversation morphed into a more general dialogue about being on the phone. It’s a security blanket. One never needs to feel alone because one can always get online to see what people are up to. It is a companion.

In the spirit of bringing this dialogue into the subject of philosophy and specifically The Apology where Socrates gives his famous defense, I asked the students what Socrates would think of our addiction to the phone. Are we similar to Athens?

Socrates argued the soul inherently held more value than the body and other material goods. (If you do not subscribe to the idea of a soul then swap it out with the concept of character.) How, then, does one care for the soul? By asking questions, seeking knowledge, and developing virtues such as Justice, Courage, and Creativity to name a few. For Socrates, spending time on the soul through intellectual and moral pursuits allowed for the good life: “For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul.  Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”

Are we subverting excellence by tending to the phone? Are happiness spikes from internet activity an excess? Are we losing sight of what it means to develop our souls/character by diverting too much attention to the impersonal “likes” of others? Are deep conversations eclipsed by quick messages or updates?

I don’t mean to sound as though I’m anti-technology. (I’m a fan of indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, my kindle, and travel by air.) Nor do I mean to negate the door that has been opened with respect to information sharing.  This reflection concerns the apparent restructuring of the building blocks of relationships.  To be clear, I did not treat this classroom time as a dispenser of wisdom and instruction but as a person also swept up by the phone. And, not totally dissimilar to my students, I’m frustrated by how the phone gradually altered from a device of convenience to one tethering me to its intrusions. I have three email accounts, this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, an author account, a log for my Crossfit WODS, LinkedIn, a step counter, a calculator, a GPS…the list goes on! In order to take time out to read and write I disconnect the internet from my computer and I put my phone in airplane mode to force myself to focus.

At the end of class I offered the students this challenge (and please feel free to do this and share your experience in the comments): go out for a meal alone and without your phone. What is it like? How does it feel? Does the prospect of it cause anxiety?

Reading Suggestions on this topic:

Alone Together. Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

The Circle, by Dave Eggers and/or my previous post on this novel.


Morality and The Circle by Dave Eggers

The novel The Circle lays bare the trajectory of our culture’s attitude towards online life. It illustrates both a warning and a reflection. Have we incorporated internet “liking,” posting, and commenting into our conception of “activity”? Is this what it means to be “social”? To communicate?

Imagine a fictional corporate entity resembling a magnified combination of Facebook and Google and there you have Eggers’s The Circle. The underscoring logic of the company, the founders claim, is to promote transparency and thereby a heightened sense of morality.

  • If everyone could be tracked and cameras become ubiquitous (and perpetually provide live streaming) then would anyone ever dare to lie, cheat, and/or steal?
  • And, given the idea that information ought to be free for all, would it be “wrong” to withhold all information including personal information?

These questions posed by the novel compel us to examine what is meant by moral action. Eggers’s work here echoes a sentiment elucidated in Camus’s The Fall (la chute). While it may be true that knowledge of being shadowed would nudge one in the direction of being on one’s best behavior, there is something left to be desired insofar as positing a definitive statement about morality. The concept of the moral agent is reduced to one who acts either for recognition or with fear of consequence.

Camus demonstrated the poverty of this line of reasoning through the character Jean-Baptiste in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste devoted a healthy portion of his day to charitable acts intentionally executed in public. He boasted of offering his seat on the bus for the elderly, for instance. One fateful day when no one was looking and he found himself confronted with a situation to help a woman in dire need he froze. His paralysis haunted him because in that moment he realized his past “good” actions could never testify to his character.

Instead, his character unfolded in the singular moment he failed to act. He fooled himself into believing that acting according to “good custom” granted him moral agent status; however, without rules and an audience the truth of his cowardice emerged.

The ancient Greeks focused on character as the cornerstone to morality. Aristotle in particular argued that excellence attained by habit, practice, and the development of reason led to a fruitful and good life. To act justly and bravely, for example, necessarily includes acting with a right disposition.  That is, the thrust of action must be derived from an authentic desire to be “good” and for its own sake.

Public honor, according to Aristotle, renders an inferior motive because it depends on the view of others whereas genuine “good” action is inherently self-sufficient.  “Good” action originates from the agent rather than an external force.

An important distinction regarding character resides between a person who acts bravely for publicity versus a person who acts bravely for no reason other than it was the right thing to do in the circumstance. Notice the end result may appear the same, namely an act of bravery came to the fore; however, the former feels shallow since the act was a means to another end (public honor) and the latter exudes heroism.

FullSizeRenderOn this point, the fictional leaders behind The Circle miss this mark. In the novel, the possibility of public praise or blame serves as the sole impetus for moral action, a Jean-Baptiste manner of thinking. Attention to the inner life of the individual, paramount for Aristotle, falls by the wayside.

The Circle’s constitution additionally chips away at the notion of character development by inducing a hyper attention to a life lived online which amounts to not really living at all. Hours of an employee’s day must be devoted to commenting and “liking” posts, ultimately replacing time for self-reflection and rumination. If one fails to maintain an online presence they become a pariah.

Consequently, a “self” no longer exists. The Circle absorbs all traces of it. The Circle owns it.

The concept of information sharing warps into a compunction to share one’s point of view on social media. “Information” exceeds our normal understanding of news and seeps into personal experience. When one travels, for instance, The Circle insists that pictures and descriptions be posted. To not do so violates their standard of information sharing.

Followers of the company enthusiastically chant “Privacy is theft!”  Keeping an experience such as a vacation to oneself is to steal from others the opportunity to view one’s photos of a place they might be interested in visiting someday.  Nothing may be kept to oneself. Moreover, to not share amounts to lying on one’s social media profile. Shouldn’t everyone know everyone’s interests and hobbies?

This “Privacy is theft!” mentality blindly embraced by the leaders and followers of The Circle resembles the mind bending claim “2 + 2 =5” from 1984.  Both dystopias usher in slogans countering the readers’ sense of normalcy.  But, as I stated at the beginning, Eggers’s book not only warns.  It reflects.  Where are the lines between private and public life blurring and how much of a role are we playing (willingly)?

The irony of posting a review about The Circle is not lost on me.  Have I succumbed to the trappings of The Circle?  I patiently await your comments 🙂

 

 


Bookworm Faces (Nearly) Impossible Request

An impossible question was posed to me via Facebook: What are the top ten books that have made an impact on you?

You mean just ten books?  Mental scrambles. Head scratching. Seeks coffee.

For me, the impact of a book and/or author is rooted in the following:

1) Do I feel more connected to the world?

2) Is my world view broadened by this book?, and

3) Have I been intellectually challenged and invigorated?

 

I settled on this list:

  • Force of Circumstance, by Simone de Beauvoir
  • The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt
  • The Apology, by Plato
  • The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi
  • The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie (I am a mystery buff after all!)
  • The Doll, by Boleslaw Prus
  • East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

But, of course, I threw my hands up because there are so many more wonderful authors who should be included!  Here are my honorable mentions:

  • Soren Kierkegaard
  • Aristotle
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Nelson Mandela
  • George Eliot
  • Jane Austen
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Roberston Davies
  • Zadie Smith

What books have made a great impact on you?

 


5 Zingers from Socrates

*Daily Prompt

In the spirit of preparing my syllabi for upcoming philosophy courses, I’ve decided to tip my hat to the Greek master of backhanded compliments: Socrates.

1. Socrates to the young lawyer Euthyphro:

“Dear friend, that is the reason why I desire to be your disciple. For I observe that no one, not even Meletus, appears to notice you; but his sharp eyes have found me out at once, and he has indicted me for piety. And therefore, I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety….I cannot do better than to assent to your superior wisdom.”

Translation: The more you nod your head yes to being called “wise,” the more foolish you look.  I see it.  Everyone sees it.  Will you see it?  I’m actually the teacher in this scenario.

 

2. After the prosecution has rested their case:

“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was—such was the effect of them…”

Translation: My, what an active imagination you have, dear lawyers!  Your ability to weave a fiction is uncanny!  You clearly don’t have a case.

 

3. Regarding poets:

“I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.”

Translation: Please stick to what you know.

 

4. Socratic Method is good for you:

“While I have strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

Translation: You’re quite shallow for having come from such a magnificent city and tradition.

 

5. Final Request Before Dying:

“When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when really they are nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.”

Translation: Act justly by preventing my sons from becoming morons, like you. Cheers.

Quotes from Euthyphro and The Apology.

Quotes from Euthyphro and The Apology.


Heavy Thoughts: Women’s Issues Are Human Issues

“We are governed not by armies and police but by ideas.”  Mona Caird, 1892.

Catherine Mackinnon, professor of law, wrote a provocative essay “Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights” examining the nature of what is legally deemed a human rights violation.  In time of war it is well documented that rape becomes a method of terror.  The perpetrators of this systematic terror are not held accountable for this because rape is not classified as a crime against humanity.  Mackinnon points out that if soldiers were to march from village to village and cut off the arms of civilians then that would be a crime against humanity–and rightfully so.  She writes:

“What is done to women is either too specific to women to be seen as human or too generic to human beings to be seen as specific to women.  Atrocities committed against women are either too human to fit the notion of female or too female to fit the notion of human.”

What is the reason for leaving rape out of a legal discourse as a human rights violation?  Is it because the act of cutting off arms is identified as impacting all people whereas the raping of women during wartime as a method for attacking the “enemy” only physically impacts one gender?  How much do women count?  She continues:

“This problem is particularly severe for women’s human rights because women are typically raped not by governments but by what are called individual men.  The government just does nothing about it.  This may be tantamount to being raped by the state, but it is legally seen as ‘private,’ therefore not as a human rights violation….When men sit in rooms, being states, they are largely being men.  They protect each other; they identify with each other; they try not to limit each other in ways they themselves do not want to be limited.  In other words, they do not represent women.”

At the heart of the matter I am wondering if the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby didn’t succumb to some of the same problematic thinking.  I realize the issue is not of the same magnitude as rape during wartime, but I’m not looking to the actualization of the actions; rather, I am questioning the underscoring point of view that may contain a similarity.

The Supreme Court carefully stated that while Hobby Lobby was exempt from providing coverage for four types of birth control due to “belief,” this could not translate into a company opting to withhold blood transfusions based on belief.  What is the difference?  First, let’s examine the essence of the belief.

Those opposing blood transfusions are basing this on the belief that it is a means of consuming another’s body (or one’s own in the case of receiving one’s own blood).  This hinges on an interpretation of the Bible stating that one must not consume another.  That is, people abiding by this interpretation believe the taking of a person’s blood falls into that category. This belief, and I’m not advocating for it, is not something that can be “proven” false, which is primarily what makes it a belief and not a fact.  Yet, it is a serious and deeply held belief, but not serious enough for the Supreme Court to consider as protected.  Why not exactly?  (I’m being rhetorical, please note.)

On the other hand, birth control acting as an abortion is not a belief, even though it is characterized as such in the ruling.  It is, rather, a false claim.  One can prove it is untrue.  Please read this insightful blog post for a thorough understanding by Defeating the Dragons.  Abortion by definition ends a pregnancy, but the contraceptions in question prevent a pregnancy.  That little tidbit is apparently unimportant, as the ruling made the effort to acknowledge that Hobby Lobby’s and thereby the court’s decision was not based on medical facts.

Is there a parallel here between Mackinnon’s concern for how crimes against humanity come to “count” as crimes?  Notice the act of cutting off arms impacts both genders as would the withholding of a blood transfusion.  Men, the ones making the laws, can identify with that.  They “get it.”

The desire to not be pregnant (one of the health issues) only physically impacts women, and it has been decided is not worthy of being protected legally.

But “Belief” should be protected!  Well, then, why not the belief about blood transfusions?  Although, as previously stated there is a stark difference here, for that does qualify as a belief whereas the other, contraceptions as abortions, amounts to a false claim.  Note the quote below that demonstrates what is called a straw-man fallacy; namely, the position is reframed from its original claim and then argued against.

Nonsense with an audience is dangerous.

Nonsense with an audience is dangerous.

In this case, keep in mind that Americans never argued for abortion inducing medications; moreover, the “medication” is misnamed here (as abortion inducing), and its actual functions are not mentioned.  This also mistakes a company’s role with respect to insurance, but that topic can be for another day.

 Click here for more information on the medical reality of contraception.

The quality of an action or law hinges on the quality of the idea initiating said action or law.  For example, if I wave to someone who is far away (the wave being the action), and then the person approaching turns out to be a stranger instead of my friend, I realize my wave is silly because the idea (that I knew the person) supporting it was erroneous .

To put another way, a boat may have the best navigation plan, but I don’t want to be on it if the captain believes the world is flat.  In both instances, the hand wave and a navigation plan cannot hold much weight because the foundational ideas are shaky.  Something of this nature actually happened with the Titanic.  A series of bizarre decisions were made (not enough life boats, going faster, a nearby ship could have responded to the Titanic’s distress signal and saved everyone but decided not to, the look-out was without binoculars), and they teetered on the idea or false belief that the Titanic was unsinkable.  We know how that turned out.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to belief as such or religious practice.  My concern is twofold: issues pertaining specifically to women are not held in the same esteem as issues relating to men, and that we now find it acceptable to create a law based on a false claim, which thereby threatens the value of the law.

 

 


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