Monday, March 14, 2011

What do you do when you can do nothing?

 I’ve been following the news out of Japan closely like many people lucky enough to not be there. I have kept an eye on the Facebook status of the exchange student I encouraged (well, pushed, relentlessly) to spend a year abroad there. I talked a little bit about it in my radio monologue last night and have talked a lot about it at home. And, well, I’m out of ideas.

Obviously, there will be charities to donate to, but unlike Haiti, Japan has a strong infrastructure and the financial means to deal with the immediate circumstances. It’s spring break, so I can’t even discuss Japan and its people in my classes. So, really, like most of the world, all I can do is sit back and watch, I fact I find disconcerting. I’d like to be able to do something, to help in some way if I could. But I can’t. Or if there is a way that I can, I don’t know what it is. (Do let me know if you think of something.)

The world goes on. Life goes on. Obligations need to be met and activities, whether urgent or trivial need to be engaged in. Doing all of this stuff is certainly not unethical, but it does feel a bit callous with so many people suffering across the world. Adam Smith, a philosopher I spend a lot of time working on, had this to say in the year 1760, in his second edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (I've kept the original spelling):

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened” (TMS III.3.4).

Smith describes the circumstance perfectly. A great disaster around the world would cause us to lament, consternate, philosophize, but in the end, we’d move forward with our life, largely in the same mood than we were in before. Is it horrible that we do this, or is this just the human condition? The philosophically frustrating thing is that it is probably the latter. Philosophy has trouble with facts of nature. It likes ought more than is, it likes making things better.

This workaday activity is complicated by the fact that there is constant suffering in the world. I remarked above that it feels callous to go about my life with the drama unfolding overseas, but I worry that it is precisely the drama that I am responding too. People starve, suffer, are abused, live in fear, and lose those dear to them every day. Poverty seems to grow in the world, rather than diminish, and I cannot recall a time when there was no civil war, uprising, genocide, or other horrific nightmare that humanity imposes upon itself. So, what makes Japan special compared to the misery of the worst parts of the world? Is it just the contrast from four days before? We, as observers, are moved by contrast. Smith himself writes:

“We suffer more…when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better” (TMS VI.1.6).

So, again, what do we do? When Smith talks about the imagined earthquake in China, he is doing so to contrast our day-to-day activity with our moral desires and judgments. He continues by explaining that in contrast to the ways in which we unthinkingly move about our days after the eqrthquake:

“The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance [than knowing about China]. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it” (TMS III.3.4).

This is one of the most interesting passages in TMS, although I know the eighteenth century language makes it difficult to follow. Smith is claiming (accurately, I think) that if we lost a finger we would be more disturbed and more vocal in our complaints than we would be in response to losing the Chinese population. But, he adds, we would never trade the population of Chine to save our little finger, “Human nature startles with horror at the thought.” So, he is not writing to condemn what I called my callous action, he is celebrating that fact that human beings, even as they appear so selfish, would not actually be so selfish.

There’s more to the discussion, of course, and Smith investigates why this is, but I'll offer only the shortest version here: duty, for Smith, is what prevents us from being horrible people. But today, in relation to Japan, I have no duty. There is nothing I'm supposed to do because there is nothing I can do. (Philosophers like to remind people that "ought implies can," that we are not morally obligated to do the impossible.) What Smith does is emphasize that which I have been puzzling over – when there’s nothing else to do to help a horrible situation, we just go about our business. This doesn’t make us bad people, it only makes us human, but it also doesn’t mean that it I don't feel like I should be looking for something to do. So, what did I do when I could think of nothing else? I wrote this blog entry. Did it help the Japanese? Not in the slightest. But it made me feel better and I suppose that's something. But now I have nothing else to do again. So, I think I’ll go see if there are any updates on the news. And then, sigh, I’ll finally eat breakfast.

Friday, March 11, 2011

This Sunday: Next Episode of WHY? - "Is Ghostwriting ethical?"' with Deborah Brandt

Next episode of
WHY? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life:

"Is Ghostwriting Ethical?”
 With guest Deborah Brandt.

Sunday, March  13 · 5:00pm - 6:00pm, central time.

Prairie Public Radio (89.3 Grand Forks / 91.9 Fargo) and

Every day, politicians publish books telling the stories of their lives and their political views. But more often than not these “autobiographies” are written by ghost writers, unnamed people who imitate the voice of the author for money and a brief acknowledgement in the introduction. Is this lying? Is this ethical? Should it diminish the politician’s credibility. Join WHY? as we examine this complicated issue with one of America’s foremost experts on literacy and its connection to politics.

Deborah Brandt recently retired from her position as Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among her many publication is the article "Who's the President? Ghostwriting and Shifting Values in Literacy," which appeared in the journal College English, and the books Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990; Literacy in American Lives (Cambridge University Press, 2001; Literacy and Learning: Reading, Writing, Society (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Jack Russell Weinstein, host of WHY? remarks, “Deb Brandt has a powerful way of unpacking how complicated everyday life is. Reading and writing are taken for granted more than just about anything we do, but Deb can show better than just about anyone that our attitudes about literacy contain a universe of perspectives, beliefs, and commitments. Having her on the show will be eye opening for every listener."

If you have a question you want to ask Deb in advance, send it to

Ask a question live, during the show, at

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We recommend those in the North Dakota region follow IPPL feeds to get notice of local live events, and that and others follow WHY? feed to learn about events accessible worldwide.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How should we talk about violent crime?

We live in a culture in which violence is entertainment, sexual violence more so. Movies such as  "I spit on Your Grave" and "Saw" to television shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," make abuse and violence titillating. Maybe this is okay, I don't know. The question goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle asking why human beings are entertained by tragic plays. Why do human beings enjoy watching bad things happen to other people? Does it make us bad? Does liking a tragedy mean we enjoy it when others suffer or does this kind of entertainment serve a special purpose? These are the questions that philosophers have asked for melinnia.

Whatever the answers, it would be a lot easier to claim violent entertainment was okay if we had a means for talking about actual victims while respecting who they are and what they went through -- if we could find a means for discussing, reporting, and considering the real crimes without confusing them with entertainment and without, as the old phrase goes, blaming the victim. There are a lot of crimes in the world and we pay a lot more attention to the perpetrators than the people they harm.

Case in point, the reporting of a gang-rape of an 11-year old girl in Texas. I found about it from a facebook post linking to a New York Times article and found the article itself to be a problem. I won't go into details of the case, but here is what I responded on the thread:

‎“[From the article] It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”


"Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said."

[My comment] It's nice to know that we should feel bad for the boys and blame the girl for how she dressed. Thanks for clearing that up. Ugh. "
After I posted this, someone pointed me to a very interesting blog entry with similar but more detailed comments about the article. I'm obviously in sympathy with the blogger's perspective that the journalist got the narrative all wrong. The entry claims that this is quite common in rape reports. I'm not qualified to say, but it is certainly true that the media did not handle well the sexual assault of the journalist Lara Logan in Egypt during the recent protests.    

But there are real complicated issues here (and ones worth exploring in a field called philosophy of journalism). How are we supposed to talk about perpetrators, culpability, and the forces that influence them? How are we supposed to talk about the power of the group dynamic that, on the one hand, makes us less of an individual, but, on the other hand, makes us more of who we might really be? How are we supposed to talk about the impact of crimes like this on the communities they happen in? Grand Forks hasn't been the same since Dru Sjodin was kidnapped, attacked and murdered. It just hasn't. This needs to be talked about.

At the same time, shouldn't all of those things be subordinated to the victim's needs? Perhaps the journalist should tell the victim's (or victims') story first and then add the other stuff later. As far as I can tell, this article was the first one in the New York Times about the incident. Maybe it should have been about the crime itself and how the victim is doing, rather than about other people and the perpetrators, and then afterward, or in side bars, could the other stories be told. Again, I don't have close to any answers about this. But this doesn't mean it's not worth talking about. (My colleague Gayle Baldwin is spending much of her career telling the story of a young woman murdered in Newark and the silence that followed that act. (Scroll down to the fourth entry on this page.) 

I will say this in the author's defense: maybe he wrote the article the way he did because confronting such brutal victimization of a child is just too difficult. Maybe, as a journalist, coming face to face with such pain, suffering, and violence takes its toll, and handling it indirectly is both easier to write and easier to read. If this was indeed a factor in his decision, my response would simply be that these sorts of things shouldn't be easy to write or read about. If it does become so, maybe's the crime isn't being taken seriously enough. Maybe as fellow citizens, maybe as fellow human beings, we're supposed to feel some of the victim's anguish and suffering. Maybe this is what it means to live together, in a community, as one people. And maybe helping us feel is as much a part of the journalist's role as making us think.