Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why do men and women have different conversation styles?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Should Prostitution Be Legal?" with guest Peter De Marneffe. 
Click here to listen to the episode.

I always define feminism for my students in the same way. It's the claim that gender is a legitimate category of analysis. In other words, feminism as a philosophy is the idea that we gain relevant information by asking how something affects women as women, and men as men. This seems commonplace now, but for most of the history of philosophy—frankly for most of the history of the human pursuit of knowledge—gender difference was invisible. All humans were men; women were just lesser, or incomplete.

We now know this isn’t true. There are biological differences, for sure, but there are also differences in cultural expectation and personal experience. Feminists disagree about how important these factors are—how much the difference is derived from nature and how much from culture—but whatever the cause, we still don’t understand many of its effects. This is true in politics. It’s also true in linguistics.

A sermon and an essay on the events of September 11, 2001.

I found it very difficult to choose a picture for this blog entry. How do you choose something meaningful without being exploitative or pornographic? I settled on this one. I don't know who the photographer is. 

In honor of the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, I thought, rather than write new comments, I would offer links to two pieces I wrote that sum up many of my complicated feelings about the event. I'm a New Yorker born and bred, and many people I know were personally affected by the tragedy. My high school has a plaque commemorating 12 students who died. I can't count the number of friends who witnessed the violence first hand. Yet, the event will always be a tangled web or reflection, analyses, and critique for me. I'm a philosopher. That's how I think about stuff.

Click on the title to download a free PDF of each essay.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Should prostitution be legal? (Starting a conversation)

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Should Prostitution Be Legal?" with guest Peter De Marneffe.
Click here to listen to the episode.


When my wife and I got married, we signed a Ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract. It is a beautiful piece of art and we proudly display it framed in our living room. It has the same text in both English and Hebrew, and it is signed by two witnesses. The Ketubah is obviously very meaningful to us.

Yet, at the same time, it feels odd to me to describe a marriage in terms of a contract. A wedding is not a quid pro quo; we are not agreeing to exchange goods and services. Yes, of course, this was once the case; marriage is built on a long tradition of consolidating power and wealth. And even now, there are significant economic consequences to getting married. My wife and I hold joint property. There is a specific order of inheritance. We share debt. But these have become secondary reasons for getting married. The primary ones are that we love and are devoted to each other, that we are want to build a life together and create a family, we are committed to raising a child and adding to a community that is larger than us.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Is there only one way to be authentically Black?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Black Identity" with guest Tommie Shelby. Click here to listen to the episode.


Like many people of my generation, I grew up watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show that made Will Smith a household name. In it, Will plays an African-American teen whose mother sends him across the country to live with his rich relatives, because he got into, as the song goes, “one little fight.” The show advertises itself as a fish-out-of-water, rags-to-riches story, and in all fairness, it does spend a great deal of time focusing on these themes. But this is largely subterfuge. What the show really is, is a six-year exploration of what it means to be a black male.

Many of the show’s jokes involve Will teasing Carlton, his rich cousin, for not being black enough, culminating in the famous Carlton dance, the exuberant celebration of the music of uber-white Tom Jones. But the show also features Phil Banks, Carlton’s father, a former dashiki-wearing activist turned judge who defends his own authenticity as a black man working within the system.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Always Talk About the Elephant: A two-minute commencement address




On May 14, I had the honor of being awarded a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorship at my home institution, The University of North Dakota. I was asked to give a short speech--about a minute long. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say except for one phrase "always talk about the elephant." This video is the result.


I gave the comments spontaneously; I was not reading my remarks. Below is the transcript. Thank you everyone who asked for copies of the text. 

Thank you President Shafer. Thank you everyone on stage. I’d like to thank the faculty for this nomination and I would like to thank the students for the honor—every day—of getting to explore the world with all you. I was asked what advice I can give in a brief 60 seconds and also moved by the fact that this is the last—any maybe the first—time any of you have ever paid attention to me. I wanted to know—I wanted to figure out—what it was that I could give this particular group of students, in this region, in this school—what Ideas that I can give them to move forward that perhaps someone else might not. I want to summarize it in one sentence: always talk about the elephant.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Do we still need the eighteenth century?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Do We Still Need the Eighteenth Century" with guest Ryan Patrick Hanley. Click here to listen to the episode.


When Americans think about the 18th century, they think of war. They remember the American Revolution and all that comes with it. Some will add the French Revolution to the mix, seeing the late 1700s as the beginning of the modern democratic state, an introduction to a new world order that wouldn’t actually see the light of day until the end of World War One.

But when philosophers think about the 18th century, they think of texts. They celebrate the great works by David Hume, Adam Smith, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Mary Wollstonecraft, books that were no less revolutionary than the wars we celebrate in our history textbooks. Thomas Jefferson was a philosopher, so were Hamilton and Madison. Benjamin Franklin was a philosopher of sorts, although in the 18th century, a philosopher had a much wider portfolio that we have now. They could be expansive and exploratory. They weren’t worried about tenure.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do we need a philosophy of aging?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Aging" with guest Sharona Hoffman. Click here to listen to the episode.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once called people the “being-unto-death.” What he meant was that since human beings are aware of our own mortality, living authentically means confronting the fact that we are absolutely, positively, going to die. Whether he was right or wrong, I can’t say, but his ideas influenced a lot of people. Strangely, though, while philosophers wrote about death, they neglected the getting older part. Aging has been left out of philosophy.

Two ideas about age have dominated philosophical thought. First, children are different than adults because adults are rational and morally accountable, and children are neither. Second, our elders should be our mentors because they have more experience, and knowledge is the foundation of wisdom. In other words, aging, in philosophy, usually implies that we are getting better, not worse.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sunday: Why? Radio: “"How to Think Philosophically About Aging" with guest Sharona Hoffman




Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.

"How to Think Philosophically About Aging"

Guest: Sharona Hoffman
Sunday, April 10 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at http://www.whyradioshow.org/ and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Send your comments to askwhy@und.edu


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Should philosophy be "in your face"?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Why Philosophy Won't Go Away” with guest Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Click here to listen to the episode.

Philosophy tends to be invisible. We don’t look at Luke Skywalker and shout “metaphysics!” when he tries to feel The Force and we don’t refer to Downtown Abby as our Aristotelean Virtue Ethics soap opera. We can label these things after the fact. We can also argue about whether The Force is real or whether Lord Grantham is a person of character. But these acts feel, to most people, like artifice. A nerdy sport for the select few.

That’s why my approach to public philosophy is almost always to try to slip the explicit philosophical themes in through the back door. I like to get my audience interested in the topic first and then bring out the more subtle stuff once they’re hooked. I like to show them that they are doing philosophy after they start doing it, because otherwise, they get self-conscious. Too many people think philosophy is not for them. They don’t understand that they do philosophy naturally, as part of their daily lives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

10 episodes of Why? Radio to help you celebrate International Women's Day



In honor of International Women’s Day, here are 10 episodes of Why? Radio featuring some of the remarkable women we’ve had as guests. We have worked very hard to be inclusive on the show, although we have not yet reached the point at which 50% of our guests are women.

Philosophy is an overwhelmingly male discipline and we at Why? Radio are proud of our small contribution to making philosophy closer to egalitarian. (There's still lots of work to do.) We will continue to make every effort to broadcast women’s philosophical voices and ideas, while celebrating a wide range of topics women research.

If you have any suggestions for guests for our show, please email as at whyradioshow@und.edu And please do consider donating to Why? Radio. Click here for more information.

Friday, March 4, 2016

What would mass deportation of illegal aliens look like? Let’s take Trump seriously.


During last night’s debate, Donald Trump doubled down on his intention to build a wall on the Southern American border. He wants to kick all illegal aliens out of the country and then keep them out using a physical barrier paid for by Mexico. Most of the responses to his plan have either involved expressing disbelief that he could actually do it, or condemning him morally for the idea itself. These are legitimate criticisms, but I would like to suggest that we take another approach. Let’s imagine what the process of mass deportation would look like. Following Plato and Kant, I think that the way to respect someone is to take his or her ideas seriously. Let’s stop dismissing Trump and do just this.

Let’s imagine the process begins by President Trump announcing that the forced deportations will begin one month later and orders everyone who is in the US illegally to leave before then. There are anywhere from 11 to 20 million illegal immigrants in the US right now and most will stay where they are. They are, after all, already breaking the law. Let’s assume, generously, that 10% leave of their own free will. This means that there will be a mass exodus of one to two million people leaving their homes—poor people who can’t afford plane tickets, many of whom don’t have cars—people, in fact, with no other place to go back to. We would have to commandeer every city bus and even then, we probably have to pack up the migrants in trains like Holocaust victims. But first, we’d have to dispose of all the train cargo to make room for the people. Millions of dollars’ worth of goods wasted. Millions of businesses not getting what they need.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why? Radio needs to raise $5000



Dear Why? Radio listener:

I will be blunt. Why? Radio needs to raise $5000 and we need your help to do it.

At this point, we exist entirely on listener donations and $5000 is the minimum amount we need for one year of the show. There are fewer places to turn than there were last year. Budget cuts are likely to cause layoffs at the University of North Dakota and small humanities grants are few and far between. Ironically, if we wanted $600,000 from the National Endowment of the Humanities, they’d have grants we could apply for, but they don’t offer anything for just the $5,000 we need to survive. We’re just too cost-effective. (We’re working on a $600,000 proposal, but we’re not holding our breath.)

In the end, all there is is you.

You can donate here: http://www.philosophyinpubliclife.org/Donate.aspx

Monday, February 22, 2016

The pro-choice argument I’d like to see. (Is there a conservative case for pro-choice?)


Roe v Wade is bad constitutional law. It asserts that the right to an abortion is derived from the right to privacy, but as many people have argued, it is unclear whether the U.S. constitution recognizes privacy at all. It might, but it is a hard sell. The word privacy isn’t found in the text.

More problematic though is that if the fetus is a baby—and notice that I am only saying “if”—then the baby’s right to not be murdered would indeed take precedence over freedom from government intervention. Preventing murder is one of the core jobs of government. That’s why the debate over the meaning of life is so important. Everything depends on it. Liberals need a better pro-choice argument and I believe that I know what it is.

Where do I go from here? A blogger asks for help solving a blogging-related problem.



You may have noticed that this blog has been pretty spare lately. It’s not that I haven’t had a lot to say. It’s just that I’ve had a lot of trouble concentrating. I thought the problem was environmental. There’s a lot going on in the world, life at UND is pretty stressful, right now, and I’m knee deep in many different projects. I just haven’t been in the right headspace to sit down and write.

In fact, though, I don’t think that’s the problem at all. Instead, I have come to realize that I simply don’t know what this blog is for anymore. It was originally designed to be a standalone project for The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. Then, after the success of Why? Radio, I started advertising it as a supplement to the show. But now, I realize that both of these descriptions are too limiting. They require a more formal, more professionalized project that only represents a small portion of what I think about at any given time. Despite my often personal writing style, I limit myself when I choose topics. This also limits my motivation.

Monday, February 15, 2016

How should we talk about college sports?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Are sports destroying American universities?” with guest Murray Sperber. Click here to listen to the episode.  

Philosophers have long debated the purpose of sport. Is it a celebration of human excellence or war in another form? Are competitive games shared experiences that help maintain stable societies or simply panaceas intended to distract people while their leaders exploit them? If you add education into the mix, the conflict only gets worse. Should student athletes get special treatment? Is money for sports better used in the classroom? Why is bad behavior so frequently excused, whether on the part of athletes, parents, or fans?

All of these debates have philosophical roots. They exploit the tension between individual benefit and collective good, and they blur the lines between the public and private. When people disagree about the fairness of tax-funded stadiums, they are asking about the political role of sports, and when they argue about whether kids should play team sports, they are questioning the nature of education. Today’s show is going to focus to the relationship between sports and undergraduate education, but it will dip into all of these topics in the process.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Do we choose our religion?



This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?” with guest Jan Willis. Click here to listen to the episode.  

Why do we believe what we believe? Why do some religions compel us and others feel like fairy tales? Why do we hold to some values, even if we fail to realize them, and reject others as not even worthy of pursuing? These are profound questions that overlap philosophy, psychology, anthropology, history, and sociology. Religion and belief are not simple.

We know, for example, that most Americans will be raised Christian, and as the recent season has shown us, even if they do not consider themselves believers, they will find solace and joy in holidays like Christmas. Yet there are others who choose to convert to Islam or Buddhism; the Grand Forks synagogue is full of former Christians who became Jews, and North Dakota is a pretty Christian place. If we could map this out, would we discover that belief is just an accident of birth? Is it the resolution to our various neuroses and insecurities or simply free will, a perfect illustration of what choice is supposed to mean?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central: "What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?" with Guest: Jan Willis


Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.


"What does Buddhism Offer an African-American Woman?”

Guest: Jan Willis

Sunday, January 10 at 5 p.m. central.


Listen live from anywhere in the world at http://www.whyradioshow.org/ and in North Dakota at 89.3 (Grand Forks), 91.9 (Fargo), 90.5 (Bismarck), and on Prairie Public radio stations across the state.

Send your comments to askwhy@und.edu

Friday, January 1, 2016

Top posts (and top neglected posts) of 2015

For the record, I have no idea what is happening in this picture.

In the spirit of the season (and as a result of significant peer pressure), I thought it might be of interest to list the best posts of the past year. Of course, it is unclear what “best” means in this context. Should I link to the posts with the most comments? The most page views? The most shares? These are complicated measures, in part because a significant amount of blog-based conversation takes place off site and a surprising number of people respond to the question in the title without actually reading the post. Also, all of those measures indicate popularity, not quality, and I’d like to think that good is more important than popular. I'd like to think that my own judgment is also a factor in determining whether a post ended up being good or not.

So, the links below are posts that I determine to be the most “successful”: a mixture of interesting topic, good responses, and writing that I like. They are all posts that engaged people’s imagination, if not ire, and in at least once case, significant praise. So, without further ado, here are the “Top PQED posts of 2015”:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Won’t someone please think of the parents?!?! Star Wars and the other victims of mass shootings.



This column discusses major plot-points of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has major spoilers.  

George Lucas’s Star Wars was mythological. His characters were stand-ins for archetypes. Any one of us could imagine being Han, Luke, or Leia, the hero who rises to the moral challenge. But J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars is Shakespearean. His story is of specific families. His characters are particular people whose histories matter. Audiences participate in Lucas’s epic, but Abrams asks us to be voyeurs.

It should not be surprising then, that the most intimate moments in The Force Awakens are the ones we want to brush past quickly, the conversation between broken parents and the love a father feels for his lost son. Lucas would have paused during these moments. He would have allowed us to contemplate with his characters, as when Luke sought his future in the double suns of Tatooine. But Abrams will have none of that. Things happen fast in the latest installment because free will is a luxury for Stormtroopers, not Skywalkers.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How did poetry reveal the limits of philosophy?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Metaphors We Live By: A classic revisited" with guests George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Click here to listen to the episode. 

Words matter. We all know it. If we sometimes forget, we are reminded when someone calls us something that misdescribes us. Maybe we are referred to as Mrs. instead of Ms. or Ms. instead of Dr. Maybe we are called Black instead of African American or disabled instead of someone with disabilities. These words can sting, even if the speaker has only the best intentions.

Words also make us uncomfortable, which is why we have euphemisms. Our loved ones pass away or leave us, but they don’t “die” until long after the rawness of their passing has faded. And, of course, many feel the need to avoid direct references to the body. We make love and we use the restroom—plumbers talk about removing “lady products” from clogged pipes. Our words reveal our intimacies, our economic classes, and our insecurities.