Sunday, July 31, 2011

Read a new article about WHY? and its host

"Jack Russell Weinstein says that society no longer condemns its philosophers to drink hemlock; it just sequesters them in universities."
This is the first line of a new article about WHY? and its host, published in Boston University Today. Jack received his Ph.D. from Boston University in philosophy in 1998.

If you're interested in reading it, click: "Radio Show Brings Philosophy to the Masses" | BU Today.
And, for those of you who haven't seen it yet, here is an article on WHY? from Humanities Magazine, the official magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you can't read it via the embed below, here is the original link.

As always, your feedback is most welcome.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How should we define terrorism?

Interestingly, I could not find an illustration of "terrorism" or "terrorist" that did not beg the question asked in this entry. This "terrorist buster" logo is actually from the CIA website!

A friend posted the following data on Facebook:

Terror attacks in Europe 2006-2009:
Total number: 1770
Islamic: 6 (0.34%)
Right Wing Ethno-Nationalist and Separatist: 1596 (90.17%)
Left Wing: 106 (5.99%)
...Other/Not Specified: 62 (3.50%)
Source: Euro Pol

I thought it was interesting and posted it myself. The overall numbers seemed so much larger than I thought, and, of course, the percentage of Islamic terrorist attacks was even smaller than I would have guessed (although the overall trend was not surprising to me). I wanted to pass it on.

People saw the post, shared it, and commented on it, but someone asked the question that I myself would have asked had it not been 4 a.m. when I read it (and had I not been suffering from insomnia): what is terrorism? The answer was harder to find than I would have thought.

The source of the chart is not the data. The chart probably comes from blog devoted to documenting anti-Muslim feeling and caricatures with the unfortunate name of They posted the European analysis as a follow-up to a similar analysis about the USA. The data, on the other hand, comes from two different sources: Europol for European Data and the FBI for American data. Here is what the breakdown of terrorism in the US looks like (according to loonwatch):

Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil by Group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

When I dug deeper, I found the FBI report and the federal definition of terrorism. It is intuitively satisfying: “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

So, terrorism according to the USA, is using force to intimidate or harm for political objectives. Fair enough. But this isn’t the definition the FBI used for the report. Instead, when collecting numbers about domestic terrorism, they used: “unlawful use, or threatened use,” In other words, for domestic classification they used threats of terrorism rather than terrorist acts. This too makes sense. Threats intimidate and the purpose of violence is often to make threats credible.

Interestingly, the FBI didn’t use threats to define international terrorism. There terrorism refers to “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life,” intended to coerce, that are against the law in the US or other states. Why would they use a different definition domestically and internationally? The cynic in me wonders if they want to increase the numbers for political purposes, but the realist guesses that since their job is to stop acts based on threats, domestic threats are just more serious to the FBI than international ones. I hope it’s the latter, of course.

Europol’s definition was harder to find; it was in a very long report available as a PDF. They distinguished threat statements and terrorist attacks. Here is the data for 2010 in Europe:

• 249 terrorist attacks
• 611 individuals arrested for terrorist
related offences
• 46 threat statements against EU
Member States
• 307 individuals tried for terrorism charges

There is a lot more terrorism than I knew. And if you want details, both the FBI and the Euro Pol reports provide them. But what is most surprising to me is that terrorism includes everything from burglary, to taking animals from laboratories, to vandalism, to bombing and kidnapping. What distinguishes these acts from other crimes is the intentions. If the purpose of an act or threat is to influence governments and policy, then it’s terrorism.

Philosophers spend a lot of time arguing about how to gauge the moral worth of something. Do we judge an act by the intention or by the consequences? Is saving a baby from drowning equally good, for example, if you do it to get famous instead of doing it to save a life? It seems that in the case of terrorism, this debate has been resolved. It doesn’t matter if an act is just a threat or if it’s actually carried out, it doesn’t matter if someone spray paints a message or kills 3,000 people. What does matter is the motivation behind the act. If the purpose is political, then it is a terrorist act.

But this means that the same act is going to be punished in a variety of ways and a terrorist threat may have more consequences than a random murder of a stranger. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with this. Furthermore, as a friend once said to me (I’m paraphrasing, here), a murder is a murder, whether it’s because you don’t like the individual or you hate them because of the color of their skin. The consequences are the same. She was talking about “hate crimes,” and I don't know that I agree, but the underlying question is the same: how much should someone’s motive matter in a crime? Isn’t it the harm that’s done that matters? In the case of terrorism, we can ask whether attacking a state is more serious than attacking a person. Relatives and friends of the victim might not agree that it is.

I am glad Loonwatch is out there; Islamophobia needs to be recorded and curbed. The data is tremendously interesting and frightening, and it shows, yet again, that many people are much frightened of Muslims in general, and they shouldn’t be. But as always, anytime we try to define anything, there are a myriad of philosophical issues that complicate the issue. Nothing, not even recording a list of terrorist incidents, is straight forward. Our definition is going to heavily influence our data and our motivation is going to affect our definition. Objectivity, as always, is very hard to find.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Should we follow our hearts?

IPPL/WHY? received a very nice email asking a very interesting question that I thought I would post to all of you. Matt (short for Mathieu) wrote the following (and he asks for understanding since French is his native language):

“We hear a lot "Listen to your heart" which is almost the most popular quote of our times. But, it's really rare (if nonexistent) that we hear philosophers saying that. Most of the time, they are actually saying the complete opposite. Who's right & who's wrong: poetic Disney quotes and morals, or unpopular and rational philosopher’s sayings?”

Listen to your heart can mean one of two things in this question. The first is a form of moral intuitionism that claims moral actions are best derived from looking within ourselves. The traditional philosophical response is to point out that listening to one’s inner self is often just obeying norms and habits. Thus, American slave owners, if they listened to their hearts, would have thought that their slaves genuinely deserved to be their property. Nazis, when listening to their hearts, thought Jews were genuinely viruses. (I assume I don’t have to explain why both of these are immoral and incorrect.) In response, an intuitionist might respond that these people simply didn’t listen hard enough, or think deeply enough, and that if they had really thought, and really paid attention, they would have seen the suffering and changed their ways. This position has been held by many different Christian denominations and is the core of meditation and enlightenment in many Eastern traditions.

The second meaning of the question – the more “Disney “ meaning, as Matt references it – is that regarding relationships or goals we hope to achieve, we should follow our deepest passions and desires. In terms of relationships, the difficulty here is that many people have trouble distinguishing love from lust and others repeatedly choose dysfunctional partners. Most people, it could be claimed, simply don’t have the self-knowledge or aren’t healthy enough to follow the paths their hearts want. In terms of our goals, we might ask whether it is responsible to encourage people to pursue those things that they’ll never accomplish. For example, if we have a sixteen-year old, four foot seven child with no athletic ability at all, but who wanted to be a professional basketball player, would it not our responsibility to be pragmatic and discourage him or her? On the flipside, for life to be meaningful, both our relationships and our goals have to be something that is valuable to us; this is what following our hearts must mean.

I don’t want to get much more into it. I would rather ask all of you the question Matt sent and see what your thoughts are. So, please do comment. And when you do, please respond in the comment box below (either the Facebook box or the Blogger comments), because I want everyone to see what you wrote, especially Matt.

Thanks, Matt, for writing, and please, everyone else, feel free to do so as well. Write us at or leave a phone message via the link on the left!

Monday, July 11, 2011

How important is self love?

 Bizarrely, and quite randomly, the Whitney Houston song “The Greatest Love of All” has been going through my head and I can’t get it to stop. This is the song that begins with the line “I believe that children are our future.” Maybe this is because last night’s episode of WHY? was on teaching philosophy for children, I don’t know. An added annoyance is that it is not the Whitney Houston version that I keep imagining (I’m not a fan) but, rather, it is the Sexual Chocolate version from Coming to America that is stuck in my head. And, I only know the first line of the song by heart, so it just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating. Once I learned the rest of the lyrics, my mood only got worse.

The song sounds like it’s about love of children, but it’s really not. It is an ode to narcissism. After Whitney declares that she has vowed “long ago, never to walk in anybody’s shadow,” she then realizes that whether she fails or succeeds, she has achieved the greatest love of all: love of herself.

“I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all”  

This, needless to say, is problematic. Self love is important, as is dignity, which she also mentions in the song. (Dignity is what we’re supposed to be teaching the children who are our future.) But I find it hard to imagine that self-love is the greatest love of all, and I am wondering just how pervasive this narcissistic attitude is in pop culture and in our contemporary attitudes.

This moral solipsism isn’t just happening in the United States, although some people will knee-jerksihly say so. (Yes, knee-jerkishly is a perfectly cromulant word). I recently visited a friend in Vienna who had spent a few months in Nigeria teaching very poor children. It was a physically and emotionally difficult task and she couldn’t fulfill her commitment. I understand this and I don’t condemn her in the slightest for coming home. But during the conversation about her time in African she said to me that although she had to leave, “I know that I learned a lot about myself and that’s the most important thing, right?” She’s going through some tough times, so I didn’t say anything, but no. No, it’s not. However important self-knowledge is, I don’t think it compares to creating a significantly better life for a couple of dozen poverty-stricken school children with few options.

I want to avoid the discussion of what obligations we have to the poor. It is a long, complex, and interesting one, but it will derail my point here. I simply want to think about the nature of loving and knowing oneself in the contemporary world. 

The idea of self-knowledge as central to morality has a long history. For example, the classical Greek philosophers saw is as a necessary component of virtue. But the idea that self-love is itself a virtue and not a vice really began with Bernard Mandeville in the turn of the 18th century. He argued that acquisition, bad behavior, and the vicious life actually helps society by increasing economic welfare. (Without criminals there wouldn’t be police or locksmiths, therefore we’re all better off because there are more jobs.) Adam Smith extended this idea to recognize that self-interest and self-betterment were themselves worthy and noble goals. But none of these thinkers ever suggested that loving oneself was the most virtuous, most glorious thing that anyone can do, only that in-itself, there is nothing corrupt about self love and self interest. 

We hear every day that it is important to be true to oneself, and many parents, teachers, movies, and songs, repeat this advice. But surely, authenticity is not the sole moral criteria. Wouldn’t we have been better off is Stalin, Hitler, and Mao had not been true to themselves? I can think of many people in my own life who aren’t as evil as those three but who would still benefit from being inauthentic every once in a while. Bill Cosby said it best in his 1980’s standup comedy:

 “I said to a guy, ‘Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,’ and he said, ‘Because it intensifies your personality.’ I said, ‘Yes, but what if you're an asshole?’” 

None of what I’m saying here is revolutionary or new. But I was struck by the tone of power and glory that The Greatest Love of All cultivates. The song sounds like it’s about love of children (which, as a father, I think may indeed by the greatest love of all), and it sounds like it might be about one’s relationship with God, which, for many religious traditions is also a likely candidate for the greatest. It could also be about the love for humanity as a whole, which is key as well. But the song is insidious because it actually sneaks in this massively corrupt claim that love for oneself is the central moral mission of a human life. That makes it dishonest as well as misleading and I wish it would get out of my head.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Please take the WHY? listener survey

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It will help us understand our audience better and improve the show!


What is the difference between experience and expertise?

ABC news has announced that Elizabeth Smart has been hired as a special news correspondent on stories related to child abduction and victimization. Smart herself was kidnapped and abused for nine months when she was fourteen years old. The Faculty Lounge blog calls this new hire “creepy” and asks if it is exploitation. But the most interesting question for me is whether having been kidnapped makes her an expert. Her victimization gives her a specific and important perspective on such incidences, but this experience constitutes data and may not be understanding. Does her experience give her specialized or general knowledge about child abduction victimization?

Expertise, I would think, involves knowing an entire field of study, being able to apply this knowledge in a range of cases, and being able to articulate details about particular instances in order to advance knowledge in the field. Maybe this is just an academic point of view, but I don’t know that her experience would necessarily lead to this kind of knowledge. She has become a victims' rights advocate and even written a book for victims, but advocacy isn't expertise either. The first is politics and the second is analysis.

I once heard Tom Brokaw say that the big shift in television news in the 1990s was moving from telling people what they should know to telling people how they should feel. I found this particularly insightful, and if Brokaw is right, Elizabeth Smart will certainly advance the mission of ABC news. She will make people feel for the victim, which is, no doubt an important part of knowing. But will people learn more because of her comments and is she a better use of resources than hiring someone who has studied these kinds of cases for twenty years? What, in this and in other circumstances, is expertise?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Is philosophical thinking “work"?

I just got back from a long vacation. It was my first real non-working vacation in maybe two decades and since I’ve returned I’ve been thinking about writing the blog, but my mind has been a blank. I was out of the country for Anthony’s wiener (thank God), and I will admit that I had never heard of, nor know anything about Casey Anderson Anthony. Frankly, I haven’t been compelled to write about anything lately and it feels like the philosophical part of my brain has been shut off.

I am a professional philosopher and, not surprisingly, I see the world in a certain way. I watch movies, read books, and engage in conversations with frequent and automatic mental references to people, theories, controversies, and phrases. But even so, that kind of stuff is a background conversation and most of the time I can engage with family, friends, the folks I meet on the street, and various mail carriers, cashiers, and baristas without any hint of philosophizing. Putting the philosophy “up front” takes effort and while it feels natural, it does so in the way that using a stick-shift does, not in the way that chewing should. In other words, it seems like an artifact of a habit rather than a natural way of being. This made me wonder whether philosophical thinking ought to be considered as a form of “work” or not.

As a total aside, I feel really weird every time I use the term 'barista', as if it's a made up word. (Firefox thinks it's misspelled, adding support to my attitude.) I know it's originally Italian, but it feels both fake and pretentious. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and it's first use was in 1982 when I was 13. This explains it. In my brain, it is grouped with other fake words, like "tweeting" and "muffin top." Here, for all you word lovers, is the OED entry:

barista, n.
Pronunciation:  Brit. /baˈriːstə/ , /bəˈrɪstə/ , U.S. /bɑˈristə/ , /bəˈrɪstə/
Inflections:  Plural baristas, (rare) bariste, (irreg.) baristes.
Etymology:  < Italian barìsta (plural barìste; 1939–40) < bar (see bar n.1 28a) + -ista-ist suffix.(Show Less)
  A bartender in an Italian or Italian-style bar. Also spec. (orig. U.S.): a person who makes and serves coffee in a coffee bar (the more frequent sense in English).
1982    P. Hofman Rome, Sweet Tempestuous Life 24   A good barista can simultaneously keep an eye on the coffee oozing from the espresso machine into a battery of cups, pour vermouth and bittersand discuss the miserable showing of the Lazio soccer team.
1988    Boston Globe (Nexis) 13 Dec. 61   A feisty but cordial competitor to the larger caffeine chains the [Boston Coffee] Exchange has unfurled a help-wanted poster titled ‘Learn to be a coffee barista’.
1990    Atlantic Nov. 157/2   This ritual unites all the baristas in Italy. But not everyone accomplishes the layer of light-colored crema, or foam, that is the pride of an expert espresso-maker.
When I use the term 'work,' I mean more than effort but less than employment. I probably mean something close to what Marx meant by labour (or labor, for my English speaking, barista-loving readers): the willful doing/creating/altering of things; a combination of mental and physical activities that only become real when someone actually exercises it. Philosophy is this, for me, and, as Marx would happily point out, since it is my profession, it is also something that I can buy and sell, and whose product gets taken away from me.

But if philosophy is simply work in this sense then it is in the same category as making cars or filling out TPS reports. It would be in the same realm as building a dam or painting my house, but it doesn't seem right to lump them all together because I know that when my philosophical brain is engaged, I see the world differently than I do otherwise. (Not that a carpenter doesn't see a house differently than I do.) For example, Shaun of the Dead is great fun when I’m zoning out on the couch (if anyone knows Simon Pegg, please introduce us), but it is a brilliant vehicle for cultural examination when I am thinking about it philosophically. Interacting with my daughter is automatic in many respects if, but if I think about her perspective, her needs, and her future philosophically, the entire experience is changed. It becomes much richer. It adds – pardon the Marx again – distinct value to the experience. It also takes much more conscious effort. It is harder. (Speaking of my daughter, don’t forget to listen to the next episode of WHY?. It’s about teaching philosophy to children.)

Obviously, writing this blog is work. It is also a labor of love (or a labour of love for the non-American English), but the philosophical thinking behind it is more ambiguous. So, I wonder if any of you have thoughts about this. Does my brain's ability to turn philosophy off and on make philosophical thought more like work than other forms of automatic thinking? How about the fact that philosophical thinking is significantly more difficult and more tiring than non-philosophical thought? If these do turn it into work, what does this say about creativity, since the two kinds of thinking are certainly related? And, if we become habituated to something, does it remain work even if it doesn’t feel like it, or does it stop being work because it’s automatic? Finally, if philosophical thinking is indeed a kind of work, what does this mean for reading this blog? Am I imposing added work upon you and does this become less or more problematic if you (or I) get pleasure from the process? Philosophy is immensely enjoyable for me. How does that change the whole equation?

Do help me answer these questions. They are too much work for me to address on my own.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Next Episode of WHY? "Teaching Philosophy for Children ." Sunday, July 10, 5 p.m. central

Join WHY? as we ask how children are being taught philosophy all around the world.

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"Teaching Philosophy for Children"
with guest Maughn Gregory

Sunday, July 10, 2011, 5 p.m. central.

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

How young can children learn philosophy? How should it be taught in the schools? What does philosophy offer that other curricula do not? For decades, the international movement known as “philosophy for children” has had tremendous success teaching in both public and private schools. Emphasizing moral education, critical thinking, and concept development, P4C, as it is know, has inspired even the youngest children to speak out in class, think about the most difficult subjects, and come to their own conclusions about controversial issues. Join WHY? as we examine this fascinating topic and ask whether a subject like philosophy is compatible with schooling built on standardized testing.

Maughn Gregory is Associate Professor of Education Foundations and Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, in New Jersey. He publishes and teaches in the areas of Pragmatism, Political Philosophy, Philosophy for Children, Philosophy of Education, and Gender and Critical Thinking. He holds both a Ph.D. and J.D.

WHY’s host Jack Russell Weinstein says, “Philosophy for Children is a fascinating subject. People always think about philosophy as a subject for college student, but it seems to be more successful the younger the students are. I’m thrilled to be able to talk with someone who has such an international view about philosophy and its impact on children’s education.”

If you have a question you want to ask Maughn in advance, send it to or call us and record your question -- we'll call you back: (701) 428-1510


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