Thursday, April 29, 2010

When is the genetic fallacy not a fallacy?

Rachel Maddow has an interesting and compelling condemnation of the new immigration law in Arizona. The law states that the police have a legal obligation to stop anyone who looks like they are an illegal alien, and people can sue the police if this is not enforced. As many of you will know by now, this brings up tremendous issues including questions about racial profile, unlawful search, constitutionality, and states making “foreign policy.” This is, at least what the critics say. Maddow takes a different tack. She shows that the people who wrote and endorsed the law have ties neo-Nazi groups, commitments to white supremacy, and general racist motivations. You don’t have to watch her piece, but it is worth considering if you have the time:

Her argument brings up a question about the genetic fallacy. A fallacy is a common mistake in logical reasoning, and the “genetic” variation is committed when an individual condemns something because of its origin. So, if I refuse to consider an idea simply because it was suggested by a student, or if someone refuses to eat ice cream because it was first invented by Arabs or the British (aaahh, Wikipedia, is there anything you can’t tell us), then they are committing the genetic fallacy because the worth of the idea or the taste of the ice cream is not dependent on its origin. (This is different from saying that an idea is true because it was put forth by the Pope, for example, since conservative Catholics regard the Pope as infallible. Under conservative Catholic theology, the origin – the messenger – is relevant to the truth. Anything the pope asserts – under certain conditions – is by definition true.)

So, Maddow is suggesting that the law is immoral because it was written by neo-Nazis and racists. Does this, in fact, make the law so? When I first considered it, I thought of her attack this as a classic example of the genetic fallacy. But the issue is a bit more complicated. Because the law involves issues of race or ethnicity, because it is designed to, at least according to the information she reveals, cleanse Arizona of “fertile” non-whites, then all of a sudden the origin of the law seems relevant. Her reporting helps reveal the intention behind the law, and questionable motives may very well indicate immorality.

On the other hand the intentionality of the law would not necessarily condemn the law if we are to judge it by its consequences. If the law is effective, if it stops illegal immigration, if illegal immigration ought to be stopped, if the law doesn’t actually violate people’s civil rights, and if the law is indeed constitutional (this is a heavy list of conditions), then one might be able to argue that the law is moral even though its authors and original supporters are not.

I will refrain from stating my own opinion on the law. I ask you, as always, what you think, and wonder, not whether the law is a good or bad law per se, but if, in this case, it can be condemned because of its originators. Is the Arizona law immoral simply because those who wrote it hold immoral beliefs?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fighting Sioux Part 2: Is tradition a good in itself?

As one might imagine, the retirement of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname has gotten a lot of attention, and my last blog entry inspired numerous responses both on the blog and on Facebook. One of the most common is the argument from tradition – the team name represents a long-standing athletic tradition at UND and deserves to be kept in order to honor the history of excellence it represents.  
This argument can’t be dismissed outright because the logo itself is steeped in questions about tradition. Some claim that the logo is meant to honor the Indians after whom it is named, recognizing their achievements and culture. Others claim exactly the opposite, that it is a stereotype that degrades the Indians and dishonors their traditions. These are both positions that are well worn, and I won’t address the controversies here.
What I shall ask instead is the more basic question: is tradition a good in itself? Is ‘”because we have always done things this way” a good reason to keep doing the same thing? The best defense of tradition is by the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke who argues that change is so destructive that all else being equal, traditions should remain consistent. In law, this principle is known as starre decisis – judges have an obligation to obey precedents and respect “settled law.” Supreme Court justices who believe in respecting the original intent f the constitution take this to an extreme. So, in short, conservatives seek to conserve (or preserve) the past – all else being equal, things should stay the same.
Liberals, on the other hand, believe that all else being equal things can change. They presume that change makes things better and that the positive effects of change (or, at least of trying new things) outweigh the negative impact of the change. Thus, liberal judges believe that legal interpretation should reflect current standards rather than original intent. Whether the liberals are more correct than the conservatives is a matter of great controversy, of course. Slavery would likely still exist under a purely conservative philosophy; inheritance might disappear under a purely liberal one. (See, for example, John Rawls’s argument against inheritance in A Theory of Justice.)  
I’m oversimplifying a great deal of philosophical and legal argument here, but my point is to get to the root question: is keeping the name “The Fighting Sioux” justified by the fact that the team has been so-named for a long period of time? Is tradition worthy of defense in-itself? Obviously, the place where this question is most explicit is in religion: anyone who is religiously observant willingly attaches themselves to tradition and regards that tradition as good. For example, conservative Catholics think Catholic policy should remain the same (in the late nineteenth century they would have rejected the notion that the Pop was infallible, now they would support the belief) while liberal Catholics want the system to evolve. Reform or Reconstructionist Jews change their liturgy and the meaning of their rituals to represent discoveries about justice and science, while Orthodox and Hasidic Jews seek to return to an older time with an older philosophy. Every religion has this battle, from Buddhism to Islam to Zoroastrianism, and this battle has existed from religion’s inception. Feelings about sports in America are similar to feelings about religion in many ways, and it therefore does not surprise me that these days, at UND, we are, in essence, fighting a religious battle in the name of a logo and nickname.
So, again, here is the question: independent of questions of racism, representation, money, stereotype, or anything else, is the fact that the Fighting Sioux representative of a long tradition of athletics at UND a relevant factor in the debate about its continued existence? Is it a determining factor? And if it is, how are we to justify any change at the university when change, by definition, involves a partial (if not complete) rejection of tradition?

Friday, April 9, 2010

When we change something's name, does the object itself become different?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

I was going to blog about the death of Malcolm Mcleran, the loss of whom I feel more than I would have guessed. What I wasn't going to blog about was the retirement of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. For those of you who don't know, for several decades the university team logo and name have been under attack for being racist and divisive. The NCAA calls them "hostile and abusive," and the ND State Board of Higher Education finally retired both yesterday. It's a VERY big deal here in Grand Forks (there has been a run on Sioux merchandise at the bookstore, Scheel's, and the hockey arena), but there isn't much I can add. Frankly, at this point all there is is yelling and I intended to stay away from it all.

But then I got a nice note from a blog reader:

"People seem to be thinking of the logo as an essential part of UND athletics, rather than an accidental quality.  Does changing the name change the essence of UND?  Or could it be a "rose by any other name" situation, where the name is just an accidental quality that doesn't change the essence at all?"

This, I think is a tremendously useful question. How much does the name of an object affect the object itself, and if we change that name, does the object itself change? Obviously, 'pencil' remains the same whether it is 'lápiz', 'der Bleistift', قلم رصاص, or עפרון. Does it then follow that Barack Obama's heritage is different if we name his racial composition black or mixed-race? How about if we name my being Jewish as being non-white (this is not an argument about race but one about being othered, see the fabulous novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Everything has a name, whether it is to signify identity or simply to distinguish one characteristic from another. Names do something, the question here is how much.

Names do mean something important. Hillary Rodham Clinton is most certainly different from Hillary Clinton in some important sense, just as Winona Ryder is different from Winona Laura Horowitz. In philosophy, we might therefore ask how much a signifier affects the signified or about the relationship is between sense and reference

Commonly, victims of sexual abuse change their names when they want to move to the next chapter in their lives and reassert their agency. The change is more than just symbolic to them. And, of course, people change their names when they marry, returning to their earlier names if that relationship ends. In fact, I think this last example is particularly relevant because to me, the retiring of the logo seems more like a divorce than anything else -- a divorce that one party does not want, certainly, but a divorce nonetheless. There will be rejoicing, grieving, relief, regret, uncertainty, rebirth, and a whole host of other feelings, but most of these will pass and with time. The UND community will eventually embrace the new name and sports will continue to wield tremendous power in people’s lives that it does now. As many of you know, I have used this blog to ask about the role of sports in people's lives before; this controversy is just an extreme example.

So, the philosophical question before us is, once again, not whether retiring the logo was the right or wrong thing to do, but whether the essence of the UND sports teams will remain unchanged. Is there something intrinsic to their identity that will now different because of the new name, or is a rose simply a rose by any other name?Thank you Elizabeth for framing the question in such a subtle and important way.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Happy 414 Descartes -- Is there REALLY a mind/body problem?

Rene Descartes would have been 414 years old yesterday. (If only he had taken better care of himself!) He was born on March 31 1596. While his influence on philosophy is immeasurable, he is most famous for his pithy observation that he cannot doubt his own existence because such doubting requires him to exist: cogito ergo sum -- I think therefore I am.

This observation is a keystone in his theory that the mind is real (that it is immaterial substance) and that the body is real (that there is physical substance) and that the two meet somewhere (he thought it was the pineal gland). How the mind and body interact has since been one of the most problems in philosophy. Yet a new book I am "reading" (see my post "Are audiobooks making me A liar?") shows how exercise helps create a healthy brain. Spark argues that our brain and our ability to concentrate -- our ability to regulate psychological dysfunctions like depression, ADHD, addiction, and anxiety -- can all be managed with regular aerobic exercise, and the author goes through lengthy but accessible neurophysiological explanations as to why. He is very convincing.

Yet the upshot of the book is a rejection of the mind/body problem. The mind and the body are one -- the body creates the mind and the mind is a direct reflection of the body. This is certainly consistent with the notion that pills such as Prozac can affect people's minds not just their brains. In fact, my wife and I sum up the message of the book as follows 1 hour of exercise = 1 pill. Read this book. (Or listen.) It could change your life.

So, I ask you: is there still a mind/body problem? Does modern science's materialism reject the duality? And for those -- and there are many -- who feel uncomfortable taking psychoactive drugs because it distorts "the real you," does the mind overshadow the body? Is it somehow more than the physical parts?

This is a more technical post than usual, I know, but the issues here are really important to help us understand the modern world and its relationship to science. Happy birthday Rene!