Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LIve Webcast today! Ethics lecture/discussion/chat


"When is a Pile a Heap? How to deal with moral vagueness."
  Richard Gilmore
IPPL Regional Fellow
Professor of Philosophy, Concordia College

October 20, 6 p.m. central

Watch online and chat with the speaker and audience at:

 Or, if you are in Grand Forks, join us at the University of North Dakota Bookstore, 775 Hamline St,
Grand Forks, ND. Attendance and parking are free!

The discussion is for general audiences,
and no previous knowledge of philosophy is required.


"Although some situations are morally clear (the right or wrong thing to do is obvious), most are ethically ambiguous. How can we act properly when what the right thing to do is so vague? In this discussion, Richard Gilmore, a Professor of Philosophy at Concordia College, will discuss the search for moral clarity by focusing on a classic philosophical problem: the paradox of the heap. How many grains of sand make a pile? Twenty? One hundred? When does the pile become a heap? After a thousand? Two thousand? Gilmore hopes to show that, in many ways, ethics is like this; there are no moments of absolute precision. But, he will argue, through trying to define the heap, we can also clarify what it means to accurately define the right thing to do.
Please contact: for any questions

RSVP on Facebook here

Monday, October 18, 2010

How does one know when gender negatively affects day-to-day interactions?

 (Image is from the great online cominc strip xkcd)

So, I walk into the student union to get a sandwich before my night class and the place is slow and empty. There are two grad-student aged women waiting by the deli counter, where I plan to order, and there are workers mingling in various corners of the food court, but no one is attending to the women or the deli. I stand behind them for a minute and say (in a friendly tone of voice), “you have the look of people who are being ignored.” They had been shifting around watching the employees while they went by, pleading with their eyes to be noticed. The woman nearest me agreed that they had been ignored, so, a few moments later, when a worker rolled a cart past us from about twenty feet away, I leaned towards him and called out: “Excuse me. They’ve been here a while, and no one has been here to help them. Can you please ask someone to come to the counter so we can all get some food?” The guy looked at me for a moment then said sure and disappeared behind the scenes.

The woman I had already spoken with expressed appreciation, I remarked that it helped to be assertive (and I might have made a joke about being taller, but I’m not sure). She responded by saying that of course I would get more attention, I was male. I, in turn, suggested that it was probably my professorial demeanor that got his eye. Then she and I had a nice conversation while a worker came and took our orders. We all went our separate ways.

That’s what happened verbally. Here’s what I thought in my head when she made the remark about being male: “it has nothing to do with being a man. It has to do with being assertive. If you had called out for someone instead of standing there waiting quietly to be served and digging holes in the back of people’s heads with your angry eyes, maybe you would have gotten served too.” But I wouldn’t have said that, and frankly, as you can imagine, it, I don’t know that it’s true.

Being assertive is a male characteristic. I tend to think of it as “New York” attribute, since that’s where I’m from and since most of my daily comparisons are between passive North Dakota and my aggressive city of birth. But the local culture doesn’t change the fact that men are socialized to be more forceful in just these kinds of situations, and that even if the worker didn’t notice me because I was male, he might have ignored them because they were female. In the end, gender, if it did play a role, might have influenced the surface interaction or it might have gone much deeper. None of this even considers tangential question such as whether, were I not a professor on my own campus, I would have refrained from talking with them in the first place for fear that I might appear to be hitting on them. It’s complicated.

In fact, it’s so complicated that I do not know if I am a reliable interpreter of when gender is a factor and when it isn’t. My wife and I rarely argue, but some of our tensest conversations are ones that, at root, revolve around gender difference. And then there’s this: a new blog about the experience of women in professional philosophy. I have always been super conscious about making sure that women are represented equally in conversations in my classes. My Introduction to Ethics class is basically a feminism class, I incorporate women authors when I can in my other courses, and I am insistent that Why? Radio and IPPL events don’t sell women philosophers short. I knew that there was some subtle but pervasive sexism in philosophy, but I had no idea – no idea – of the extent that women in professional philosophy still had to deal with brute misogyny, sexual harassment, exclusion, abuse, insult, and delegitimization. And if this stuff can go on around me so obviously and I am just unconscious of it, then what does this mean about my own abilities to detect when others are being sexist, and when I am being sexist?

It is reasonable to assume that if I have difficulties determining when gender is a factor in social relations (largely understood), that other men do as well. And, frankly, it is reasonable to assume that have analogous difficulties. Just because the woman in the story above thinks my male-ness was the dominating factor in our attention-getting, doesn’t mean that it is. People sometimes see discrimination when there is none. Of course, just because a woman sees an act as sexism-free doesn’t mean it is egalitarian either. As J.S. Mill tells us so forcefully in On Liberty, none of us are infallible. But this goes both ways. We may be wrong when we identify prejudice, but we may be just as wrong when we don’t see any.

There are long-standing conversations about the value of giving marginalized individuals and groups the benefit of the doubt when they point out discriminatory actions. My favorite comes from Feminist Standpoint Theory; it argues, basically that those discriminated against are able to see things, by virtue of their perspective, that gives them a kind of “expertise” in social science research and inquiries into justice. But I don’t need the theory to understand this. As the faculty advisor to the UND Jewish Student Organization, and the most vocal advocate for the Jewish students on campus, I am well aware of how blind non-Jews can be to the anti-Semitic things that they do daily. But this doesn’t change the fact that my ability to see discrimination against women has clearly been compromised (or that I may see anti-Semitism when there is none). So, what other knowledge do I think I have that I really don’t?

This is, obviously, an instance of the more general epistemological problems that come from being a human in the world with limited information. It again recalls Mill’s assertion of human fallibility, but it is also the theoretical foundation for why intersubjective research is so important to modern inquiry. Thus, with the need for social inquiry in mind, I leave all of you with a version of the question I am asking myself: how does one know when gender is a relevant factor in social interactions and when it isn’t? And if philosophers are so bad at seeing it, then does this mean that philosophy is much less effective in this regard than it claims to be? All evidence suggests that the answer to the second question is yes indeed, it is much worse that most philosophers like to think. I’m hoping all of you can help me with the first one.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is “selective” government possible?

 The United States is in a frenzy these days about taxes. Despite the fact that we have the lowest average tax burden since 1970, many people want to pay fewer taxes, and one of the consequences is that states and counties are no longer providing universal coverage for different services. In response, some might suggest that people could choose to pay for what they want to support. Some might refuse to pay for the military; others may not want to pay for public schools. It is therefore worth considering what a government might look like that has an a la carte menu.

Look no further. A Tennessee man recently watched as his house burned down, right in front of firefighters, and while they ended up putting out the fire once it spread to his neighbor’s house, the fire fighters just watched his house burn. The reason: he hadn’t paid his subscription fee.

His county, it turns out, doesn’t offer fire service, but residents could pay a nearby county $75 for fire protection. He didn’t. He neighbor did. When the fire started, his neighbor’s house was saved, his wasn’t, and despite his offer during the blaze to pay any amount of money, the fire department refused.

There are a whole host of philosophical questions that arise here. First and most obviously: was the fire department morally correct in refusing? Some might say they weren’t since a person’s house was at stake – why not make an exception, and why not charge him afterward? Others might retort that the homeowner is a consenting adult, and if the firefighters made an exception in his case, no one would pay the fee, and everyone would expect coverage anyway. On the one hand, fire departments could make a killing charging for their services when they are most necessary… say $7500 instead of $75. On the other hand, this might be considered gouging. Is this exploitation or just capitalism at its finest?

For me, the more interesting question, however, is the very nature of a la carte governance. John Rawls famously wrote that part of what it means to live in a community is to “share one another’s fate.” Is this shared fate possible if each person has different coverage? Additionally, a la carte governance means, as usual, that the wealthier citizens have more chance of comprehensive coverage than the poorer. This seems like a recipe for factionalism and injustice. (It is also how the world actually is, so, some would ask if this scenario is meaningfully different than the world as it is.)

On the other hand, there are a multiplicity of government services that are voluntary right now – we in North Dakota can choose whether or not to have federal flood insurance – and saving this money may actually help the poor. It’s all a matter of risk, one might say, no different than the millions of Americans who choose not to have health insurance. (As with the health insurance, some might object that the benefit to the poor is short term, but in the long run, it’s more harmful.)

So, the question before us is whether justice is possible in a world of different governmental coverage and whether managing risk and saving money are suitable alternatives to forcing tax payers to pay for something they might not want. Finally, should freedom to choose trump mandatory tax laws? As always, I’m curious as to your opinions.