Monday, 15 January 2007

MLK and Oprah

Peg Kaplan has a moving post about two of her heroes.

Back at It

My winter break, which lasted almost a month, is over. Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I commence another semester of teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington. I teach two courses every fall and three every spring. Two of the spring courses are the same—Ethics—so I have what are called two “preparations” each semester. I’m using a new book in Ethics: Fred Feldman’s Introductory Ethics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978). Actually, there are at least three senses of “new,” and only one of them applies here. The book has been out for 29 years, so it’s not new in the sense of being newly published. But it’s never been revised and is still in print. I consider it a classic. Nor is it new to me. I used it for the first time 20 years ago this semester, when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona. I was teaching an Honors section of Introduction to Moral and Social Philosophy. Half the course was devoted to Feldman, the other half to Joel Feinberg’s Social Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973). I probably tried to do too much in one course, even though the students were bright and highly motivated.

The book is new in the sense that I haven’t used it in a long time. I’ve been using James Rachels’s books The Elements of Moral Philosophy and The Right Thing to Do for many years. Philosophically speaking, Feldman’s book is more rigorous than those by Rachels. Some students may find it hard going, but I’ll do my best to get them to understand it. When the students finish the course, they’ll know the main normative ethical theories—utilitarianism, egoism, Kantianism, contractarianism, and Rossian formalism—inside out. They’ll also have a thorough grounding in metaethics. We will discuss relativism, naturalism, emotivism, and prescriptivism. My aim, as always, is to introduce students to the field. It is not to indoctrinate them. If a student comes out of the course an egoist or a relativist, so be it.

My other course is a seminar: on research methods and philosophical writing. The students will read Zachary Seech’s Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004) and a number of exemplary essays. We will spend two days on each essay: one understanding it “from the inside,” the other examining it “from the outside.” During the second day, we will discuss such things as the organization of the essay, the style of argumentation, criticism, or analysis, why the author did this or that, and how it is written. The best way to learn how to do something is to study—and emulate—those who are good at it. If you want to be a good tennis player, study the techniques of Andy Roddick or Amelie Mauresmo. If you want to be a good guitarist, study the playing of Eddie Van Halen, Ronnie Montrose, or Eric Johnson. If you want to be a good philosopher, study the writings of Peter Singer, William Rowe, or Harry Frankfurt.

I’m looking forward to the semester. I hope the students are as eager to learn as I am to teach.

From the Mailbag


I’ve been thinking about the Thomas Sowell random thoughts you linked to and my favorite—the anti-committee one. Just now I am watching a Roger Waters DVD (In the Flesh—Live) and the song “Mother.” It appears that Roger Waters, who wrote “The Wall” and the song “Mother,” may have had another message in mind when he penned this song, but, for me, it is an anti-statist song that I find quite appealing. Here are the lyrics:

Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oooh, Ahh Mother should I build the wall?
Mother should I run for President?
Mother should I trust the government?
Mother will they put me in the firing line?
Oooh Ahh, Is it just a waste of time?

Hush now baby, baby, don’t you cry.
Mother’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mother’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mother’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama will keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooooh baby ooooh baby oooooh baby, Of course mama’ll help to build the wall.

Mother do you think she’s good enough—for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous—to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Mother will she break my heart?

Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through.
Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
Mama will always find out where you’ve been.
Mama’s gonna keep baby healthy and clean.
Ooooh baby oooh baby oooh baby, You’ll always be baby to me.

Mother, did it need to be so high?

Whether Mother is a committee or government agency or other well-intentioned do-gooder, the message is the same: we know what is best for you. That is the single-most annoying thing about civilization and society that I just can’t seem to get out of my mind today.


Lincoln Allison on Religion

Many things which can count as constraints on liberty can equally well be treated as part of the agent himself. A central theme in Western liberalism has been religious toleration, the freedom to practise one’s own religion. The assumption of this argument is that the religion, once chosen, is a part of oneself; impediments to its expression and practice are constraints on freedom. But this can be inverted, so that a religion is an imposition upon a person; its levels of faith restricting thought and its moral values inhibiting conduct. This is the normal way in which some religions are discussed. The Moonies are said to enslave, indoctrinate or brainwash their followers; their religion is portrayed much more often as a threat to freedom than as an expression of it. But the same language could be applied equally coherently to much more respectable religions such as Islam and Roman Catholicism. The doctrine of either can be highly restrictive of sexual and intellectual freedom. The effectiveness of religious propaganda and education, highlighted by the Jesuit claim that a child, once educated, can be made a Catholic forever, is something with which no secular state can compete. Nor can a system of positive law compete with the cosmic and eternal deprivations which serve as sanctions in either Islam or Catholicism.

(Lincoln Allison, Right Principles: A Conservative Philosophy of Politics [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984], 120-1)


David Carr is a blogger for The New York Times. That’s right: Blogs have infiltrated the mainstream media. Here is Carr’s column about his blogging experience.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Morris B. Hoffman argues that jurisdictions should deny public defenders to anyone charged with a crime who is unable to pay for a private lawyer but who has a family member or friend able to do so.

This ignores the constitutional obligation that states must appoint counsel for people who cannot afford private lawyers. Whether a person receives representation cannot be left to the discretion of family or friends.

Moreover, Mr. Hoffman’s recommendation is based on a single study done in Denver. It would be unwise to change course regarding constitutionally mandated services based on a study about one jurisdiction, where the authors made many untested assumptions, and their findings acknowledge a need to be cautious in accepting their conclusions.

Laura K. Abel
New York, Jan. 8, 2007
The writer is deputy director of the Justice Program, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

A Year Ago