Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Are we hypocrites (or bigots) if we care more about Paris than Beirut?

Americans don’t like to acknowledge it, but history matters. Our feelings don’t develop out of nowhere. They have reasons and more often than not, they make sense. This doesn’t mean that our emotions are always appropriate, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t sometimes change how we react to things, but it does mean that our responses can be rational even when they are not ideal.

Much has been made of the fact that people on Facebook are expressing more grief over the attacks on Paris than the suicide bombings in Beirut. The subtext (and sometimes the super text) is that those who express solidarity with Paris are hypocrites or bigots because there is no meaningful difference between the two. Both assaults were horrible and both killed innocent civilians, so, the argument goes, our reaction should be the same. Advocates insist there should be as many Lebanese flags on our Facebook profiles as French ones. I disagree.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Yes, the attacks in Paris were about religion. Stop saying they weren’t.

I always tell my students that there is no such thing as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that there are only Judaisms, Christinaities, and Islams. For example, I am a Reform Jew and while my tradition overlaps quite significantly with Hasidism, we have many fundamentally different beliefs. Any religion I commit to has to treat men and women equally. It has to welcome both gay and straight marriages, and respect modern scientific discoveries. It has to be tolerant and celebrate mixed-faith relationships. Hasidism does none of these things. It is mystical. It is messianic. It is reactionary. It makes no sense to me and when push comes to shove, besides our common historical roots, the religion I practice has much more in common with that of modernist Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians than it has with Hasidic Judaism. Many Hasids feel the same. It is not infrequent for ultra-Orthodox Jews to publicly assert that people like me are not really Jews at all.

All religions share this same tension. There are liberal Catholics who do not believe the Pope is infallible, who are pro-Choice, and who believe that all-religions are equally divine. Yet, there are many pre-Vatican II Catholics who think that the Church is the only path to redemption and that the Pope has absolute moral authority. There are Protestants who reject Martin Luther’s antisemitism and others who welcome climate change because they long for the apocalypse. Many from each group have been quoted as stating that the others are not “real Christians,” and from their own perspective, they are correct. Their religions have an internal logic. There are standards that have to be met.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Should we take Plato seriously? (Or, Should we be Attracted to our Professors?)

Danae, by Coraggio

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "What is courage?" with guest Ryan Balot. Click here to listen to the episode. 

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I took a class in which we discussed Plato’s account of the desire to learn. The Greek word for desire is eros, so philosophy for Plato is, literally, erotic, and so is the relationship between teacher and student. In response, someone in the class presented a paper asking whether he himself had ever felt any erotic attraction to his own teachers. He said that he didn’t and concluded that Plato was wrong; philosophy and eros had nothing to do with each other.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are fonts art?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "“Text as image, image as text: How one artist uses language to combine art and literature" with guest Alexandra Grant. Click here to listen to the episode. 

There is a wonderful documentary called Helvetica which is about, as you may have already guessed, the font by the same name. It goes into detail about how Helvetica was designed and gives example after example of how it has become the most commonly used font in the world. You would think that a movie about a typeface would be miserably boring. It’s not. It’s fascinating and it gives all of us a chance to think about letters the way that font designers do—as tiny little pieces of art that are designed with forethought and care.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Announcing the Why? Radio 2015-2016 season

Why? Radio is pleased to announce its 2015-2016 season.
We look forward to your thoughts and comments during the shows.

All episodes are broadcast 5 pm central time on the date listed. 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.

View this schedule online at: http://www.whyradioshow.org/Why/Upcoming.aspx

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5p.m. central. "Are we morally obligated to live in a racially integrated society?" with guest Elizabeth Anderson.

Why? Radio is live this Sunday at 5 p.m. central.
Send us your comments now or during the show.
"Are we morally obligated to live in a racially integrated society?"

Guest: Elizabeth Anderson
Sunday, September 13 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

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Why don't people believe science?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Why don't people believe science?" with guest Dan. M. Kahan. You can hear the episode here

For most of human history, people have believed that if we could only reveal the truth about things, agreement would quickly follow. This has been the case for religion; Paul on the road to Damascus, Mohammad in the Cave of Hira, and Moses on Mount Sinai all believed that everyone should and would be moved by revelation. But this has also been true for what used to be called natural philosophy, what we now call science. This kind of knowledge was supposed to replace superstition with fact, it was supposed to improve everyone, regardless of who they were or what they believed.

Nature—physis, in Greek (as in the word 'physics')—is the object science seeks to uncover. By discovering the principles that govern matter and energy, the laws of motion that move the stars and planets, and the innumerable forces that direct agriculture, natural scientists aimed to expose the reality behind the curtain of everyday experience. This, they argued, would allow us to predict and harness nature, and to cultivate health and goodness. It would make humans a stronger, healthier, dominant, and more ethical race. If we only followed the dictates of discovery, we would finally be in control of our own destiny because we would understand how the universe actually operated. It is not a coincidence that both Buddha and Kant wanted people to reach enlightenment. Unfortunately, human history had other plans.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday: "Why don’t people believe in science?" with guest Dan M. Kahan

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

"Why don’t people believe in science?"

Guest: Dan M. Kahan
Sunday, August 9 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.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Are college students adults?

A few years ago, I complained to a friend who worked in the Dean of Students office because there were bounce houses at the university’s opening weekend celebration. They were the most notable attraction in an elaborate fair designed to occupy the new students during their first few days in the dorm. His response: “we are doing everything we can to stop them from drinking.”

Helping to curb self-destructive behavior isn’t a bad thing, but infantilizing people to do it only makes matter worse. These are 18-year olds at a university. If they can’t fend for themselves, they could be doing college-related things: getting tours, taking orientation courses, learning the basics of cooking and financial management (our students do not know how to balance a checkbook, let alone how to make a simple pasta sauce), reading an important essay and discussing it en masse, participating in mock archeological digs, getting etiquette lessons and dressing up for a formal welcome banquet, visiting an observatory or a laboratory, write something and publish it using old-fashioned printing press, perhaps even exploring the campus by doing some public service. These kind of events would have set a tone of maturity for the coming year. They would have announced that college is a place for work, study, self-exploration, and social commitment, and that growing-up involves expanding the pastimes one should find interesting and enjoyable. Instead, the wants university to portray itself as “fun” and puts on a carnival. The fact is, most students never recover. They never grasp that learning can be pleasurable and that taking responsibility for their own actions is the prerequisite for freedom. At least if they do, they don’t do it while enrolled at UND.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is a very very bad movie. (And what makes a good movie plot anyway?) [A philosopher goes to the movies]

People are going to tell you that Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop adrenaline thrill-ride with strong female characters and an excellent reboot of a beloved franchise whose time has come again. They are going to exclaim that it is an action-movie game changer that gives filmmakers permission to revel in the art of car chases and non-CGI stunts. They are wrong. It is a video game disguised as a movie, a terrible, terrible movie that doesn’t meet the minimal standards of science fiction. The female characters are neither strong nor feminist, and the story makes no sense, even on its own terms.

There is an important difference between good and popular, and while I can’t argue that this film won’t make lots of money, I can explore its lack of quality. Ultimately then, what I offer here is a meditation on what makes a defensible movie plot. I’m going to focus on four criteria: the plot must serve its purpose in the genre, be consistent in the world in sets up, be well-crafted, and respect its characters. These are not the only requirements for a good movie, of course—acting and cinematography are tremendously important, too—but plot is complicated enough of a subject for one blog post.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Does our religion reflect what we want to be or what we don’t want to be?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How do Muslims, Christians and Jews see each other?” with guest David Nirenberg. To listen, click here. It is worth noting that while this monologue does not address the main question of the episode, it is preparatory. We can’t see how others see us if we don’t explore how we see ourselves. We must all explore how each of us committed to what we believe.

There’s an old adage that everyone in New York is a little bit Jewish. Anyone who lives there understands this. With the ubiquity of Yiddish phrases, deli cuisine, and wise-cracking argument, sometimes it seems like the whole city is just one big Beastie Boys video.

But if it’s true that everyone is a little bit Jewish, then it must also be true that the Jews who live there have to work harder to distinguish themselves from the crowd. When being Jewish is no big deal, it’s also no effort, and it isn’t until Jews leave the city that they understand exactly what is and isn’t theirs.

Monday, July 13, 2015

If we have free speech, how come it's okay to punish us for what we say? [Ask a Philosopher]

Last week, the following letter to the editor appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, my local newspaper:

Is free speech still 'free' if it can be punished?

     I'm in need of a philosopher/ethicist. The Constitution guarantees "free speech." It is an extraordinarily important right that promotes diversity of opinion and is an antidote to dictatorship. 
     Having said that, how is it that whenever someone says something outre or unpopular, say Donald Trump for example, individuals are "allowed" to disenfranchise from him?
     If "free speech" which is allowable, is also allowed to be punished, how does this differ from not having "free speech"? 
     How does withdrawing from a golf tournament either support free speech or do other than implicitly condone punishing it?
     It is easy to make what is technically called "the error of assumed essence"; if a person is, say, "gay," this error happens when everything they do is tied to this "gayness."
     Thank heavens Trump doesn't have a children's charity from which critics can withdraw because of his new "taint."
     Ross Hartsough
     Grand Forks

Seeing as the author asked for a response from a philosopher/ethicist, I felt an obligation to write back. Here is my answer. It was published this morning under the headline "Reactions give free speech its meaning and power."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why? Radio is live this Sunday. "How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"

Why? Radio is live this Sunday! Listen and participate during the show!

"How do Muslims, Christians, and Jews see each other?"
Guest: David Nirenberg

Sunday, July 12 at 5 p.m. central.

Listen live from anywhere in the world at 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 you comments to askwhy@und.edu

Friday, July 3, 2015

New symposium on Adam Smith's Pluralism, the most recent book by PQED author Jack Russell Weinstein

The new issue of the philosophy journal Cosmos + Taxis features a full-length symposium on Adam Smith’s Pluralism, PQED’s author Jack Russell Weinstein’s most recent book. It contains six essays inspired by the book and Jack’s response.

The issue will be of more interest to philosophy professionals, but some of the essays, especially the introduction and Jack’s response are suitable for non-academic audiences.

The issue is free and can be downloaded here. The contents are as follows:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Many Weddings and a Funeral: How to be an American on June 26, 2015

Today is a day of many emotions in the United States. We celebrate the recognition of gay marriage as we mourn the loss of nine innocent murder victims. Being jubilant for one feels disrespectful to the other, and being despondent in the name of grief seems to eradicate the deserved victory of those who have earned their day in the sun. How should we feel about it all? What should we say? What should we do?

Americans are used to crying different tears out of each eye. In this country, weeping with joy is almost always accompanied by lamentation. Equality is a road of violence, bigotry, and exclusion. Movement towards justice rarely comes fast enough and it always seems slowest to the people whom the injustices back into a corner. A good American recognizes that we are each members of multiple communities, each with as much right to exist as the other. Sometimes we look towards the government to help, sometimes we look towards the population as a whole, and sometimes we go to ground, surrounding ourselves with the people whom we are most like, who understand better than anyone else what we need, how we feel, and how to surround and protect us.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Is using an Ad Blocker stealing? [Ask a philosopher]

The folks at Tom's Guide have asked me to weigh-in on a controversy: is using an ad blocker stealing, or more generally, is it immoral? For me, this is just an interesting diversion, but for them, it’s about their livelihood. As most everyone knows, advertising revenue is the backbone of many Internet services. By blocking ads, viewers are directly impacting people’s income.

Those who claim that ad blockers are theft argue that blocking ads takes money out of people’s mouths, that ads are the price we pay to view content, and that people who use ad blockers are either snobs or sociopaths. But none of these ring true.

Monday, June 15, 2015

No one cares what kind of gun you have: an open letter to gun-rights activists.

My article and video “How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?” started making the rounds again. And yet again, I received a deluge of responses from gun-rights advocates who complained about my position, calling me a traitor and an idiot, and claiming that I didn’t have the right to my opinion. Never mind that I wasn’t actually advocating for gun control or limiting anyone’s freedom. The mere suggestion that a gun owner can’t do anything he or she wants, at any time, in any place, appears to be enough to inspire the ire of a very vocal segment of the population.

There is one frequent comment that baffles me more than any others. It is the repeated claim that since I did not get all of the technicalities right, my opinion is irrelevant. The video I made (in one take, by the way) mistakenly identified semi-automatic guns as automatic, so lots of people have told me that since I don’t know anything about guns, I should shut the hell up. The first part is mostly true. I know comparatively little about guns. I’m not as inexperienced as some and I have fired both rifles and shotguns, but I’m willing to stipulate that, for all intents and purposes, I know nothing. And you know what? It shouldn’t matter.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is revenge immoral?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Moral Argument for Revenge” with guest Thane Rosenbaum. To listen, click here

I have a colleague who has been awful to me since the day I came to UND. This person has bullied me, tried to undermine my work, and lied about me to others. Lots of people know this, but my years of complaints have led to nothing. Administrators simply don’t care about faculty, and my other colleagues, even my friends, wave it away. As best as I can figure it, they think that since I’m a blunt New Yorker, I can “take care of myself,” and that no hostile workplace would ever affect me negatively. They’re wrong.

I long for the day that this person leaves, but I know that even then I won’t be satisfied, because the years of abuse, manipulation, and brute incompetence will fade away unacknowledged. Instead, I want my fourteen years in a hostile workplace recognized publicly. I want apologies from the guilty party and the administration that turns the other cheek, and I want this person punished. If you had asked me how to summarize my desires before today I would have said that I wanted justice. But after preparing for today’s show, I have to deal with the fact that I might want something else. I might also want revenge.

Monday, May 25, 2015

How should we think about dance?

This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How should we think about dance?” with our guest Helanius Wilkins. To listen, click here. 

I suppose I ought to begin today’s show by admitting I know very little about dance. I enjoy watching it, but I only have emotional reactions. I rarely understand what the choreographer intended, and I’d be hard pressed to offer any kind of philosophical explanation for what makes one performance better or more interesting than another.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Is there such a thing as a "national food"?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Cuisine and Empire: What does food tells us about culture?” with our guest, Rachel Laudan. To listen, click here.

So, there’s this thing called New York pizza. It’s unlike Chicago pizza, favoring thin crust rather than thick, and it’s different than pizza in Italy because it’s meant to be served in slices and eaten with your hands. There are many people who think that it’s the best pizza in the world, but that is, ultimately, a matter of taste. What interests me more is that there is a New York pizza at all, that something so Italian, can be made so American without any sense of compromise or irony.