Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is This Blog On Hiatus Or What?

After almost ten years of regular posting on this blog, I find myself unable to put the words together on a regular basis. What is up with that?

Is it that I'm busy with extra administrative tasks at my job? I've had over a hundred applications for two short-term academic jobs to read over the last couple of weeks, so maybe.

Is it that I'm worn out putting words together? I am revising a draft of my book manuscript -- tentatively titled "The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction" -- which requires massive amounts of time rewriting, reorganizing, reframing, reeverything, so sure, that could be it.

Is it that writing anything on the internet right now feels either nerve-racking or pointless or both? Sometimes I get into a mood where for everything I might say, I can imagine immediately what the various intellectual and emotional responses are, and I can imagine how I feel about them, and then I move on to how that seems from a wider point of view, and ... Once I start in that direction there's no real destination for me except cocktails. Sometimes with even one tweet, I can through that whole mental process and I'm so over the whole thing before I even start typing. I've been in that mood lately,  I expect that yes, there's some of that.

Is it the disconnect between the hilarious prose that I want to write and the plodding prose I feel I end up writing that's getting me down? The other day I was joking with someone about a topic so dark and awful I am not even going to name it here, and we were laughing hysterically. I felt, as I so often do, the power of black humor to make life feel worth living. But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Plus, black humor on the internet is tricky. Did I mention that writing anything on the internet now feels nerve-racking or pointless or both?

Maybe it's time to shake things up. We'll see. I'd write more now, but I have more job application files to read before tomorrow. See you next week, hopefully! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cost-Benefit Analysis And Informed Consent Both Seem Neutral But They're Totally Different

Because I'm interested in value pluralism, I spend a certain amount of time thinking about two seeming alternative approaches to complex ethical situations, namely efficiency and informed consent.

As I see it, in contexts of value pluralism, making ethically complex decisions often requires making trade offs among values and figuring out what to do in cases of moral conflict. For example, we might value autonomy, benevolence, justice, honesty, and fidelity -- and these might recommend different actions in different circumstances. If you have to lie to keep a secret that you've promised to keep, honesty might entail telling the truth, while fidelity and keeping commitments might entail lying. We might make different judgments about which value matters more in a given case, and those decisions might be highly context-sensitive. Crucially, those judgments require judgment: someone has to make a decision about what they think matters and why.

One of the knocks on this kind of pluralism is that because it relies on ethical judgments, it is arbitrary and subjective. Someone has to make a moral judgment. How? And based on what? If you want to see why I think that these criticisms are misplaced, you can read my book. The point of this post has to do with the potential alternatives. Very broadly speaking, two alternative ways to approach decision-making are through cost-benefit-analysis and informed consent. Those aren't ethical theories, but they are informal descriptions of methods people use. What's interesting to me is that while these are often simultaneously treated as impartial, objective, and commonsensical, they're also really deeply different.

As everyone probably knows, cost-benefit analysis means adding up the costs and benefits and generally choosing the action that maximizes the benefits at the least cost. Costs and benefits can refer to money, or they can refer very generally to well-being and preference satisfaction, or to something else. If you're trying to decide where to build a new road, you might add up the costs and benefits and see which proposal looks best.

Informed consent may be most familiar to us from medical ethics, but it is in play in any system in which rights and voluntary exchange are seen as the relevant ethical components. When we round up people for testing a new medical treatment, we don't use cost-benefit analysis and then choose the best people and make them do it; we recruit people and ask them to give their informed consent. Presumably, that's because we think people have a right to control what happens to an in their bodies.

These two ways of approaching issues are really different. One focuses on what's best for the group, and doesn't pay much attention to individual rights. The other focuses entirely on individual rights, and doesn't pay much attention to what's best for the group.

In regular life, I expect most of us shift smoothly from one to the other as seems appropriate. If you're thinking about the social norms around deciding whether or not to have sex, it would be strange to use cost-benefit analysis. What if person A really really wanted it and person B mostly didn't? Could CBA could yield the conclusion that B had to go along with it? Typically, we use the autonomy-decision-consent framework there. If you're thinking institutionally, though, about questions like where and how a university should build new gym or dorm space, then cost benefit analysis may be just what you want. Would you really want to give each person a veto?

How do we know when to use the one and when to use the other? It's complicated, but roughly something like this: some areas of life concern basic rights and you have to use the autonomy/consent framework; others involve presumed cooperation and you expect to use the CBA framework. When? It's based on institutional structures and also background judgment.

Sometimes, we use a mix of the two approaches. This CBC story describes a situation where a provincial government is deciding to close a small town because it is too expensive to supply the town with resources. The way the system works, communities must volunteer to close and in a vote, at least 90 per cent of residents must be in favour of relocating; then if they do relocate, each resident receives between $250,000 and $270,000 to move to another town.

It's not CBA, since there's a consent requirement. It's not the consent-autonomy framework, because you might be in that 10 percent who doesn't want to move; also, I'm guessing CBA of some kind was used in arriving at the dollar range specified. It's a mix. Where did that "90 percent" come from? I imagine it's a number that seemed about right to someone, based on all the factors involved. It's a judgment.

So: if we use our judgment in deciding when to use the various frameworks, and if sometimes we use a mix of the two approaches that incorporates some group thinking and some individual thinking ... well, doesn't that mean we're always using the same kind of judgment calls that value pluralism makes use of?

These two ways of looking at things might seem objective or neutral, but the fact that they're so different ethically shows they're not really objective or neutral. They're value systems. That is not bad -- it's good! But as long as you're using a value system anyway .. why not use one that reflects the full multiplicity of values and represents accurately the complexity of ethical decisions? It sometimes seems uncomfortable for decision-processes to rely on judgment and values, because then we have to ask, "Whose judgment and values"? But I think any way of making complex choices relies on judgment and values. So that question is, in some sense, always with us, even when we can't see it clearly. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Frankenstein And Feminist Ethics

Mary Shelley
I've always had a thing for Mary Shelley. I love the book Frankenstein, and have always thought it a seriously philosophical work -- nothing like the monster movies that came later. Shelley's life, full of adventure, literature, politics and parenting, was incredible.

So I was excited to read Jill Lepore's New Yorker article contextualizing some of the history of Frankenstein. I already had the opinion that the book is more about motherhood than about science, but it was cool to see everything assembled in a tidy package. As I wrote about before, if you've read the book, you know that what changes the creature from a kindly awkward creature into a violent monster is that his creator despises him. He has no one to love him. He has no mother. This leads to the violence that ruins the lives of everyone in the story. Lepore talks about Shelley's miscarriages and how many infants she gave birth to who died soon after being born -- basically, "eight years of near-constant pregnancy and loss."

I learned two new things about Frankenstein. One is that the story wrapped within a story wrapped within a narration allows the novel to depict different perspectives all at the same time. Lepore says it's like nesting dolls. and because of this, people debated whether the politics of the book are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.

A second, more interesting, thing is that the creature's account of his eduction closely follows the conventions of the slave narratives of the time and that the creature's experience was understood to implicate the institution of slavery.

You may remember that the creature, on being chased out of the lab and roaming the countryside trying to find warmth, shelter, and companionship, then listens to a family through a hole in the wall and later comes upon books by Milton, Plutarch and Goethe. This is how he learns to read and write and think in language. I learned from Lepore's piece that despite Sir Walter Scott finding this "preposterous," it actually echoes stories like that of Frederick Douglas, who learned to read by trading with white boys for lessons and later from reading books. I had no idea that Shelley and her contemporaries were following debates over abolition, or that the relationship between the creator and his creation was widely seen as a parallel for the United States and slaves who, if freed, were sure to seek vengeance. Now I want to read Elizabeth Young's Black Frankenstein.  

One thing Lepore doesn't discuss, that I've always wondered about, is the relation between the motherhood themes of Frankenstein and the philosophy of Shelley's father, William Godwin. Shelley was the daughter of Godwin and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth, so she was raised by Godwin (and, eventually, a stepmother). Godwin was a utilitarian and a famous impartialist -- meaning that ethically we ought to treat each person as equally deserving of our moral consideration.

I learned from reading Peter Singer that Godwin proposed a thought experiment: you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father, who happens to be the author's valet. The author writes the kind of books that bring moral uplifting and happiness to many people. You have to decide whether to save the author or your father. Godwin said you should save the author, because morality requires impartiality, and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I don't know much about Godwin, but doesn't that sound like the opposite of the themes of Frankenstein? Part of the point of the book is that without that deep and highly partial love that a parent can give you, you cannot develop into a proper human (or, proper creature in this case).

I'm not saying utilitarianism is pro-monster, obviously. It's more a question of how love fits into it, and how caring is essential to ethical life. Shelley's perspective fits with contemporary feminist ethics and ethics of care, but now I'm curious of what she thought of her father's philosophy.

In the end, one of Shelley's children lived, and after a serious of difficulties, Shelley devoted her later life to bringing up her son, educating him, supporting him and her father, while traveling and writing. Along the way, she helped all kinds of people, especially women whom society disapproved of. We love you, Mary Shelley!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How Did I Fail To Read Any Books In January 2018?

I could be wrong, but I think that January 2018 was the first month since I started this blog that I read zero books. I mean, zero of the non-philosophy books that I read for fun and general interest and list here on the right hand side of this blog.

A month with no books disturbs me. Not because I have some weird hifalutin idea about the life of the mind and not because I'm snobby about books as opposed to other forms of entertainment -- but just because I like to read, and I'm like, what the hell have I been doing with my time? Why didn't I read any books in January?

Of course, the "what have I been doing with my time" invites the honest, universal, and prima facie relevant answer that "Well, I've been busy." It is true that my job is time-consuming and I've been extra busy lately. But I don't think that's the crucial issue. In the past, there have actually been times when I've been extra busy and I've read more books, because I'm extra in need of the distraction and decompression that novels provide. And I can read anywhere. I like to eat alone and read. I read when I'm waiting in line or early to something. I read before dinner, when I'm just home from the gym, and I read after dinner.

So it's not a brute time factor. I have two hypotheses, which are equally uncomfortable for me in different ways.

The first is: I've been looking at the internet. Yes, all those times when I'm sitting around or early to something or whatever, instead of looking at a novel, I've been looking at the news on my phone. GAWD -- as my mother would have said. It doesn't even have the interactivity of social media, it's just stupid stories about Brexit, and Donald Trump, and school shootings, and more Brexit. I don't know if I have a soft spot for British news because Britain is truly dysfunctional in a more entertaining way than the US or whether I'm kidding myself about that, but man, do I read a lot about British dysfunction. In any case, as a way of spending time, it's ridiculous.

The second is: I was catching up on my New Yorker reading. OK, I know this sounds like an absurd thing to be concerned about but hear me out. Throughout my life, I've heard always hear people talk about how they were "behind on their New Yorker reading." For me, this was in the same category as something like "I have eight books on my bedside table that I've started and haven't finished." And I felt like they were both absurd in similar ways. Because, when it comes to art, I prided myself on doing the things I liked doing and not doing the other things.

I don't like having "guilty pleasures." When I have pleasures, I like to stand up for them. Like Beavis and Butthead, or the song Blurred Lines (yes. I wrote about it here.) And I don't like having the opposite of guilty pleasures -- which, whatever you'd call them, are like things you feel you ought to do for culture but you don't want to. Artistically, I am invested in doing the things I like doing and not other things. And "catching up on" New Yorker reading always felt to me like the opposite of that. 

And yet here I am. I got like ten issues behind, and I couldn't bear to just let it go and start up again on the new issue. I'm not sure why. So all those moments, when I could have been reading a novel, I was catching up on my New Yorker reading -- I mean, when I wasn't drowning in news about Brexit.

The good news is, I'm all caught up. And before February was over my friend said to me, casually, Oh, have you read An American Marriage? It's really good. Got it, on it, hopefully back on track.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

For Your Consideration: Some Images

Hello loyal readers! I wasn't able to write something for you this week because I am trying to revise a book manuscript and it is taking up all my words. For your entertainment pleasure, however, here are some images of interest.

First, we have the following phone capture, representing a text message I received when a family member had a health procedure in the United States.


The way it works is you give them your phone number and they put you in a system so they can text you with news, updates, and offers. I also received a special welcome card with an offer of $2.50 off any food or beverage purchased in the hospital cafeteria. Maybe it's because I've been in Canada so long, but this all seemed such a perfect representation of the capitalism of the US heath care system. Minus: many people with no health care! Plus: texting and welcome gifts for the well-insured!

Next, we have the following iPhone auto-correct on my phone. I don't know why, but I'm easily amused by auto-correct humor. A site like this can amuse me for -- well, minutes on end, anyway.


In this case, I just couldn't get over that mistyping "Hello" as "Vhello" would lead to the suggestions of "Chelonia" and "Chelicarae." WTF?

Finally, we have this graffito (on the bottom) in the Women's bathroom at Robarts Library in Toronto:


It says "Change the world, idiots, not yourself." This is a useful and philosophically sophisticated statement. I don't know if it is meant to apply to this ad specifically (which is for birth control, though you wouldn't know that from the ad, I guess because the have to be cagey about it?) or whether it's just a general statement.  Either way, I'm always happy to see it and be reminded. It's not me, world -- it's you.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Problems of Love and Autonomy

I was invited to join others in contributing a post about love to the Daily Nous in honor of Valentine's Day. Mine is cross-posted below, but you can check them all out here

It's Valentine's Day, so let's talk about ... death! In the grand tradition of philosophical debate, I'll start with an anecdote:

Kay Sievewright and Ernie Sievewright of British Columbia were married for 55 years, and when their health declined, they hoped to die together. They were each approved for Medical Assistance in Dying, which became legal here in Canada in 2016, but their request to die at the same time was turned down. Instead, they died four days apart, in early 2017.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which provides legal advice to physicians, said they couldn't comment on this case, but they did make a general statement: "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence ... It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they're agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence."

You might think this has little to do with Valentine's Day, but I think this case highlights in an interesting way some deep complexities of love and personal autonomy. It's often thought to be in the nature of love that you come to feel the way you do about things partly because of the influence of the other person. In union theories of love, merger can mean curtailing individual decision-making, and in caring concern theories, the fact that something will increase the well-being of the beloved is a reason to do it. Drawing on accounts of shared agency, Andrea Westlund proposes shared egalitarian deliberation, in which each person should be open to guidance by the perspective of the other.

On the face of it, love is thus in tension with autonomy, where there is an emphasis on the importance of doing things for your own reasons, free, as the statement says, even of "influence" from others.

This tension can be resolved in various ways. Some concern theorists point out that if you act for the other person because you love them, this is acting for your own reasons. And as relational theorists of autonomy like have long emphasized, what enables people to be autonomous is not isolation, but relationships. Westlund says that autonomy is about being "answerable" for your commitments, so love means mutual answerability. 

These ways of resolving the tension aptly show how autonomy and love are compatible, but as is often pointed out, they may not fully resolve deeper questions of undue influence from our intimates. What makes influence inappropriate? When one person prioritizes the interests of another, this can be because of love, but it can also be because of pressure, coercion, or socialized deference. How should this distinction be understood?

Even when deference is systematic and gendered, a result of feminine socialization, there is debate over how "autonomy" should be conceptualized. On the one hand, a person who is systematically deferential to another in this way seems paradigmatically non-autonomous, since they are not deciding for their own reasons. On the other hand, if a person chooses deference, that's their choice; who are we to say they are not being themselves?

Anita Ho highlights the relevant complexities in bioethical decision-making. Given the vulnerabilities and stresses of illness and treatment, relational perspectives force us to acknowledge that for whose whose family is central to their existence, consideration of family members' "advice, needs, and mutual interests" is part of being autonomous. Still, she says, exploitation, indoctrination and false consciousness are real possibilities. Clinicians should "listen to the family’s concerns and reasoning process, and then explore with them various options that can best respect the interests of all parties." By default, however, Ho says that health care teams should trust the patient's own final expressed wishes -- not because manipulation is impossible, but rather because family relationships are highly complex and typically opaque to clinicians.

This brief investigation highlights some of the limitations of appealing to autonomy to solve complicated ethical problems, especially where love and intimacy are involved. It seems appealingly simple to say that for important decisions, we should prioritize individual autonomy. But autonomy is complicated and contextual, and may not be able to bear all this theoretical weight.

The Sievewrights may have come to their decisions in a context of mutual respect, or one may have felt obliged to go along with the other out of love, or one may have pressured the other. From the outside, we may never know -- and in a deeper sense, there may be no answer to this question, even if we had the transcript of the Sievewrights's intimate thoughts.

The same is true for any difficult and important decision, no matter when or how it takes place. The presence of people we love has a powerful effect on us. Sometimes that shapes us to make us who we are. Sometimes it shapes us in more disturbing ways. We may not ourselves always know how to tell the difference. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I Thought Being Cool Was Going To Be So Much More Important

Even though I was a nerdy and mostly unpopular young person, I had some cool early musical tastes. At least, they were cool in a certain ways. In high school I fell in love with the movie The Hunger, and watching The Hunger I quickly developed an obesssion with the song Funtime, which was co-written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop and performed by Iggy Pop. I knew David Bowie, but I had never heard of Iggy Pop, so I went to the record store (pause here for a Gen-X Nostalgia Moment™) and I bought an Iggy Pop double album.

I was blown away by its awesomeness, but I didn't really understand for a while how cool Iggy Pop is thought to be in certain circles. Now I often listen to the WTF podcast with Marc Maron and a topic that often comes up is how people found out about cool music when they were young. Iggy Pop is a main example of a certain kind of cool, along with bands like MC5. In these discussions, there's frequently a mention of some older person -- a sibling, or cool friend, or even guy-at-the-record-store -- and how you need that person when you're young, to help show you the way. Otherwise, how would you know what's cool?

Sometimes these conversations give me a pang of impotent indignation. "Hey!" I want to explain. "I figured these things out all  by myself! I didn't have a guide or a guru. I heard a song and instantly understood its peculiar genius! Don't I get .. points for that?" In fact, not only did tenth-grade me buy Iggy Pop albums, I also figured out to switch off Dom Imus and switch on WXCI, the local college radio station. WXCI was at 91 on the FM dial. Ha ha, get it? When I was young that allusion knocked me out! Over at WXCI I learned to love a band called "The Art of Noise" and their allusive and fragmented hit song "Close (to the Edit)."

It's ridiculous, but part of teen me always thought that being cool in a way that was different, clever and non-conformist was going to be a Big Deal in life, at least once I got past high school and into the wider world. I thought it would connect me to cool people. I thought others would value and praise me for my coolness. I thought there would be many moments in life where the discussion would turn to some obscure topic and I could say, non-chalantly, how when it came to Art of Noise, oh, I yes, I liked the Close (to the Edit) song. Wasn't the replayed sample of a sound of a car starting just the best? How cool.

Well, it wasn't like that. For one thing, I then went to Wesleyan University, where on the different-clever-non-conformist cool scale I showed up way, way behind. Wesleyan was full of kids who'd been networking in New York City high schools and elite New England boarding schools, taking LSD at age 11, traveling to Thailand in the summers and making art films for fun. The bar was high. Sure, I liked Iggy Pop. But I also liked The Cure. What kind of dopey suburbanite was I? I worked at channeling my inner cool, learned to love the Velvet Underground, and still hoped for for some kind of recognizable line on an invisible resume.

But the sad truth is that as time went on, I found it wasn't that big of a deal. People don't really care. Or if they do, they have their own coolness issues they're trying to sort out. That either makes them annoying and pretentious, or they're too busy with their own coolness issues to pay any attention appreciating yours. On top of everything else, in the age of social media it's hard to share about your cool things without sounding like you're showing off. But mainly, I found that the real stuff of life doesn't have that much to do with showcasing sophisticated tastes and obscure knowledge. 

Sure, I still value trying to be a non-conformist, and sure, it matters to me that I read cool non-conformist books and go to cool non-conformist movies. But I don't care about these things because I think they will make me cool, I just care about them in the normal way.

These days I tend to think of cool in the way Jane Austen described women's fashion and beauty in Northanger Abbey: "Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stupid Sports Slogans Are Relevant To Your Interests



I'm at one of those points in the semester where I've been putting so many words together that the idea of putting more words together makes me feel the lethargic despair people have in mind when they use words like "Sisyphean."

Normally in this situation I would look at my "blog ideas" note, where I put down all potential blog ideas -- even ones that seem dumb, weird, and unpromising. In case you're interested, rejected topics today include "hair" -- in which i was going to say something how the energy of hair-styling in post-Maria Puerto Rico is both life affirming and makes me appreciate how hair-lazy I am, "The sad side of fine-tuned consumer preferences" -- which was going to explore the very distinctive kind of grimness I associate with hearing someone express detailed knowledge about what seem to me manufactured differences in things I'd never be interested in buying anyway, and "stupid capitalist dilemmas," which would have focused on annoying questions like "Is it ethically wrong to opt out of targeted advertising on a site whose existence and profitability you want to continue?"

But today, I'm not up to it. Instead I'll share with you this photograph that I took at the gym. As a philosopher, I'm used to having my mind philosophizing in non-philosophizing contexts. I remember some motivational poster at the gym years ago that said that if you set aside worry about the future and regret about the past, you would be happy in the present. I was like .. that is clearly not true. I can be unhappy about the present just as well as I can about the future or the past. Just watch me.

Here it is:




As you can see, here we have another philosophically rich idea: "Choose progress over perfection."

Because I'm naturally grouchy and argumentative, when I saw this my first thought was to try to think how wrong it was. But then I started thinking about it, and actually "choosing progress over perfection" is something I do all the time. Perfection is paralyzing. Even having high standards can get in your way. I was a little shocked to realize how often I deflate my own anxieties by saying to myself, "Well, whatever. Just keep this moving forward into the next step, and then you can see how it's going."

I would even go so far as to say that it may be the areas where perfection rings your bell can be the areas where it's the most difficult to move forward, because choosing progress over perfection becomes so difficult. When I was a kid I was into music, and I took lessons, first on the flute and later on the piano. I loved the piano, but I loved it in this weird way where my own deficiencies as a learner drove me crazy with frustration. I knew, intellectually, that I would have to practice and improve slowly. But hearing myself produce music that sounded bad? I couldn't handle it emotionally.

Though I'm invested in my intellectual work and writing, I'm not invested in them in that way. I have the same problem of being endlessly unhappy with what I produce, but for some reason it doesn't give me that intense feeling of rage and irritation. So in that domain, I really can choose progress over perfection.

I would go so far as to say that "choose progress over perfection" is useful advice for a lot of intellectual and creative work. These kinds of projects are psychologically demanding along multiple dimensions. The blank page, the critic in your head, yada yada yada.

We need all the tools we can get. If some of them come from stupid sports slogans, so what? Maybe they're actually on to something.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Flattened Context Of The Internet, Implicature, And Political Discourse

Imagine you're having a political conversation with someone and they say these things:

"You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too."

or

"Racism in America? It's not really any worse now than it was before."

Question: What do you think the speaker means in expressing these sentences?

Here's what I think. I think there is no answer about what the speaker means, because to know the answer you'd have to know the context. This is something we've all known forever, and yet something we seem to be constantly forgetting.

For example, first imagine that the conversation is about the nature of racism in the US. Many people, especially people of color, have recently been pointing out that what might look like an explosion of racism in the US in the past year or so is better understood as bringing to the surface, and thus to more people's attention, deep pernicious attitudes and widespread injustices that have always been there.

Expressing a related idea, in this interview in the Guardian, the actor Aldis Hodge talks about his experience of racism in the US and the art he is now creating to expose racism and make people confront it. Toward the end, he talks about how he thinks the past year has exposed problems that have been there all along: 

"When people ask if it’s gotten worse, they ask from the perspective of not having understood the reality," he says. "Harmonia (his co-creator) is an African woman; I’m a black man. This is not different for us ... I was raised with being taught how to speak to cops so I don’t lose my life at a young age. We’ve always dealt with police brutality. I don’t walk around without being aware of my surroundings. It is the people who have not been affected or targeted who are starting to say: ‘Wow, is this what really goes on in this country?’"

In the context of this conversation, one could easily use the second sentence to express what Hodge and others have said, and one could then easily use the sentence about Obama to make the broader claim that US racism is not only domestic but also international.

Now imagine that it's a different conversation, this time about whether the current US administration is any worse than the former. Many people feel that even if racism has always been there, and even if US foreign policy has always been involved in unjust killing, there are still important senses in which current policies and the current president are worse -- perhaps outrageously so -- than what came before. 

It's an emotional and deeply felt topic, for real reasons related to party politics, lesser-of-two-evils thinking, and actual impacts on vulnerable people's lives. If someone makes the argument that things are now bad in some special way, and their interlocutor uses the two sentences above, that interlocutor could plausibly be taken to be denying what the first person said.

Thus, in the context of this conversation, one could easily use the first sentence to mean something like "Meh, don't get all upset about the Dreamers or the people losing health insurance or whatever. It doesn't matter whose in charge. The two parties are basically the same." And one could easily use the second to try to support that claim, by denying that new pernicious racist effects have been created by this administration in particular.

I hope it's obvious that the two meanings, in the two different contexts, are radically different. I bet a lot of people who agree with one of them would not agree with the other.

The fancy name for this is "implicature," but it's also part of everyone's common sense about how people communicate. We all know that if we're reading a letter of recommendation for a job as a prof or lawyer or doctor and the recommender says, "During the year I knew X, they always showed up on time," that would be very peculiar and would suggest that the reviewer didn't have enough good things to say. It would not be a positive. But if we were reading a teacher's report about a teen who was struggling with lateness and had recently gotten things on track, it could be a completely appropriate piece of praise. Context not only affects interpretation, it affects what is said, meant, and heard.

The problem is -- as we all know -- the internet. As we've discussed, the internet flattens all context. Everything is treated like it's your final, context-free opinion on everything. You might think you're having the first conversation, and then someone comes along and doesn't see the context, or ignores it, and treats your comment as if it is part of the second conversation.

In the absence of context, I think we try to fill things in by taking statements to be relevant to whatever we think is the most salient and important overall context. Among other things, one result is that anything you say is taken to indicate that you think the things you're talking about is the most important thing to be talking about. But why? Can't you have an opinion about X without meaning to suggest X is the most important thing going? Then, too, you feel you have to be at-the-ready to respond and clarify what you did and didn't mean. I admire the people on Twitter who express complicated opinions and then go on and do just that, sometimes for hours on end.

Anyway, personally, I think it is important to talk about how racism has always been a problem in the US, and about how bad policies go way back, and sometimes in that connection I sometimes want to say things like "You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too." But because of our political situation, I hesitate -- because I fear I'll be interpreted as having expressed the meaning of the second argument.

Sometimes, a long blog post or actual article can, in fact, help with context and interpretation, so it is disturbing to feel our collective patience for that sort of thing dwindling and narrowing. Of course, from the point of view of the attention merchants, all this chaos is plausibly a feature, and not a bug, so I'm not expecting things to get better any time soon.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decision-Making, Love, And The Limits Of Autonomy

This week in my Moral Issues class we're talking about assisted suicide and euthanasia. I think the issues related to these topics are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, I want to be able to choose to die, and I support other people's right to make that decision for themselves. On the other hand, 1) I think the way we respond to such requests can't help but reflect what lives we think are worth living and 2) once new options are on the table, we ask ourselves different questions.

If you wade a bit into thinking about these issues, you come quickly into the nature of autonomy -- or self-directedness. With big decisions like this, we tend to think autonomy is really important. If you choose it for yourself, that's one thing, but if you're pressured or coerced into it, that's something else.  

In a way, this is completely intuitive. If a person said they were choosing medical aid in dying, and it was because their children had threatened them with harm for not choosing it, obviously that is not OK, and it seems right to say that the reason it's not OK is that the choice is coerced. It's not free, informed consent.

But as we've written about before, the further you go in thinking about the difference between free and coerced choices, the more confusing things can get. On the one hand, social context can influence choices in problematic ways. If girls don't study math, even though they like it, because of social pressure, or if boys act all tough and mean because they feel like masculine gender norms require it, those choices may not seem autonomous, because they are being influenced.

On the other hand, every choice takes place in social context. How would you begin to disentangle the ones that make you "not yourself"? What would that mean, to be yourself in the absence of a social context?

Even relational theories of autonomy -- theories designed to fit the idea that a person's self can be a socially connected self -- have this problem. Imagine a society in which women are socialized to be deferential, or prioritize the concerns of others. Do deferential preferences and judgments reflect full autonomy on their part? Some theorists -- proceduralists -- say that as long as the process of decision-making is properly reflective, then sure. That's who they are. Other theorists -- substantivists -- say no: if you're socialized to be deferential because of sexist social norms, that is a way of not being fully yourself.

All of this was on my mind recently when one of my graduate students shared with me this very interesting news story about a couple deciding to request medical aid in dying. They were married for 55 years, and wanted to die together, but their request was denied, on grounds that acting together created the possibility that one person was influencing the other. And these decisions must be fully autonomous.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association said "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence. … It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they’re agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence. .. Out of an abundance of caution, it is our advice that you can’t be sure that one member of the couple isn’t under influence, even if both members qualify."

Whatever you think about this decision, the case shows how murky things get when you talk about being autonomous and acting in the absence of "influence" when you're talking about relationships. In one way, of course the two people are influencing one another's decisions. As they should. Imagine two people. The first one says, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too." The second one says, "I want medical aid in dying. Even though we are very close, I haven't talked it over with my spouse, so I don't know what they think -- whether they think it's the right decision." Wouldn't you think it's the second person who has a problem with decision-making?

And yet, clearly the people closest to use can influence us in problematic ways. If a person said, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too. After all, they're going to have their hands full taking care of our children and finding a new spouse and all. So we agreed that the sooner we get my death over with, the better it is for them. And making them happy is my main goal in life." Well -- wouldn't you want to at least talk this over further? It does sound like problematic influence.

Love should make autonomy complicated. Love often means interdependence, and it should. It's hardly surprising that interdependence on others and "being yourself" are hard to tease apart.

I think there are no easy answers. But I also think part of the problem is trying to shoehorn every complex ethical decision into the framework of personal freedom. Yes, freedom is important. But trying to treat each process as ethically neutral, grounded in some unattainable ideal of "personal autonomy," isn't really workable or desirable.