Friday, 30 May 2008

Animal Ethics

Here is my latest post.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Doctors Who Say They’re Sorry” (editorial, May 22):

Doctors and hospitals should be encouraged to be honest with their patients. But it is certainly not in the public interest to create laws that could be used to grant medical professionals immunity from true confessions of misconduct or gross negligence.

Your editorial correctly noted that claims, lawsuits and legal costs fell by two-thirds at the University of Michigan Health System, which has a full disclosure policy. But to be fair, it should also be reported that the State of Michigan has no law that makes apologies for medical errors inadmissible in court. Michigan doesn’t need such a law and neither does New York.

Honesty is the best policy. It is a shame that many doctors and hospitals want a legal shield as a precondition for living up to their ethical and professional responsibilities.

Jeff S. Korek
New York, May 28, 2008
The writer is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

Note from KBJ: If apologies are admissible in court, there won’t be any apologies, heartfelt or otherwise. So if we want heartfelt apologies, we must make apologies (heartfelt and otherwise) inadmissible in court.

Noël O’Sullivan on Michael Oakeshott’s Ideal of Liberation

The final reason I shall give for reading Oakeshott concerns an ideal of liberation which links his philosophy to his personal life. By liberation I mean here something more general than civil and political liberation: what is involved is an almost existentialist conception of life as the endless task of striving to acquire a distinctive self of one’s own, not by rejecting the cultural tradition from which one comes, but by critical self-immersion in it. In this process, the secret of making liberation a positive experience, rather than an alienating one, is always to maintain an active rather than a passive identity. I think Oakeshott would have agreed in this respect with Spinoza, who said that all joyful thoughts and passions are active ones, and all unhappy thoughts and passions are passive ones. The art of life is thus to maintain the primacy of the active over the passive.

When this ideal of liberation is borne in mind it is possible to understand the note of profound disillusion with contemporary Western life in Oakeshott’s later work. What has happened, he believed, is that modern mass democracies have forgotten that civilized life requires us to combine two different identities. One identity is the natural one which we all possess in so far as we are moved by our needs, wants and desires. This is our given or passive identity.

The other identity we possess, potentially at least, is a moral and civil one. This moral identity is an active one: it relates, not to the natural order of desire, but to our ability to construct a set of limits or, as Oakeshott called them, “compunctions,” which we freely impose on the ways in which we satisfy our desires.

What has happened, on Oakeshott’s view, is that we have increasingly tended to forget the need for this second, active identity and to think only of the first, passive identity: we have become, that is, Faustian beings who mainly want to indulge our desires, and our culture has become, accordingly, a culture of gratification. Liberation, in a word, has now become almost exclusively associated with wanting and having.

(Noël O’Sullivan, “Why Read Oakeshott?” Society 39 [March/April 2002]: 71-4, at 73-4)

Thursday, 29 May 2008


I leave you this fine evening with a column by philosopher Crispin Sartwell. Key paragraphs:

I teach political philosophy. And like most professors I know, I bend over backward to sympathetically teach texts I hate; I try to show my students why people have found Plato and Karl Marx—both of whom I regard as totalitarians—compelling. But when I get to the end of “The Communist Manifesto,” I’m usually asking things like this: “Marx says that all means of communication should be centralized in the hands of the state. Anyone see any problems with that?”

I don’t deceive myself into thinking that I teach these texts as well as, or in the same way as, a professor who found them plausible. And that’s fine. What I’m trying to point out is that even as I try to be neutral (well, even if I did try to be neutral), my personal opinions affect every aspect of what I do, and I think that is generally true.

But it can be horrendously true in academia, where everything is affected by the real opinions of real professors, from the configuration of departments to the courses on offer to the texts taught. And because there’s a consensus, there is precious little self-examination; a slant that we all share becomes invisible.

Academic consensus is a particularly irritating variety of groupthink. First of all, the fact that everyone agrees and everyone has a doctorate leads to the occasionally explicit idea that all intelligent people think the same thing—that no one could disagree with, say, Obama-ism, without being an idiot. This attitude is continually expressed, for example, in attacks on presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not for their political positions but for their grades and IQs.

That the American professoriate is near-unanimous for Barack Obama is a problem on many levels, but certainly pedagogically. Ideological uniformity does a disservice to students and makes a mockery of the pious commitment of these professors simply to convey knowledge. Also, the claims of the professoriate to intellectual independence and academic freedom, supposedly nurtured by tenure, are thrown into question by the unanimity. Professors are as herd-like in their opinions as other groups that demographers like to identify—“working-class white men,” for example. Indeed, surely more so.


Twenty Years Ago

5-29-88 . . . The wind was blowing ridiculously hard this afternoon, which lowered my average speed on the bike to 14.18 miles per hour (for 50.6 miles). I thought that by riding the southern part of the Tour de Tucson I would avoid the wind, but I’m sure I would have done better on the Crazy Route. To show you how brisk it was, there was a dust storm at the corner of Mission and Valencia Roads. Dirt pelted me unmercifully. The traffic light swayed in the wind, the cars slowed to a halt, and it grew dark momentarily. But I kept going. I put my head down and weathered the storm. The best part of the ride was from Mission San Xavier to the corner of Nogales and Los Reales roads, but it was short-lived. I was exhausted by the time I got home, though the high temperature was only ninety-one degrees [Fahrenheit]. Here are my ten-mile splits: 12.98, 11.82, 14.85, 16.93, and 15.43 miles per hour. Guess when the wind was blowing against me.


The Women’s College World Series began today in Oklahoma City. I’m watching the games on ESPN, in glorious high definition. I notice that no player wears a hat, even though the sun is shining. A couple of players wear visors. All college baseball players wear hats. Isn’t that strange? Either hats are functional (e.g., in keeping the sun out of one’s eyes) or they’re not. If they are, then the women are sacrificing function for what, beauty? If they’re not, then the men are wearing hats for nothing. I can’t believe there’s a rule that baseball players must wear hats; so why isn’t there an occasional maverick? And why isn’t there a maverick in softball? I don’t recall ever seeing a softball player wearing a hat. I should point out that players in both sports wear helmets while batting and running. Helmets are clearly functional.


Here is a scene from today’s stage of the Giro d’Italia. Here is tomorrow’s brutal stage (141.6 miles).

A Year Ago


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Did I understand the logical implications of this correctly? The Bush administration—and the Pentagon—oppose the new G.I. Bill because it would entice and encourage soldiers to leave the military early. These are the same people who purport to support the troops and espouse to no end their selfless sacrifice and pure patriotism in the service of their country, then insult them and that concept of patriotism by saying outright that they can be bought off it?

Lyndon Dodds
San Antonio, May 26, 2008

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) on Animal Rights

If we apply the criterion of duty, the question of whether animals have rights can be readily answered: we have merely to ask whether, in considering an action affecting an animal, we could assent to such an action after abstracting from numerical determination. In other words, we have to ask whether we would consent to be used as mere means by another being far superior to us in strength and intelligence. This question answers itself. The fact that man has other beings in his power, and that he is in a position to use them as means to his own ends, is purely fortuitous.

(Leonard Nelson, System of Ethics, trans. Norbert Guterman [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956], 141 [first published in German in 1932])

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


I leave you this fine evening with a New York Times story about white guilt. Any emotion can be exploited for gain: love, fear, hope, guilt, jealousy, anger, envy. If you can make someone feel guilty, you can get just about anything you want from him or her.

Twenty Years Ago

5-28-88 . . . The criminal trial of former [Arizona] Governor Evan Mecham and his brother, Willard, is about to begin. Both are charged with failing to report campaign loans. Today, in the newspaper, there was a list of the twelve jurors who will hear the case, together with summaries of their interests, political affiliations, and other information (but not names). To my horror, six of the twelve jurors admitted to rarely or never reading a newspaper. This astounds me. How can a person stay abreast of political and other events without reading a newspaper? Television and radio news is sketchy at best and sensationalistic at worst. It is cotton candy for the mind. Admittedly, newspapers range in quality from excellent (for example, The New York Times) to fair (The Arizona Republic), but that’s no excuse for not trying to read a good newspaper on a regular basis. We have access to The New York Times out here [in Tucson]. Of the twelve jurors, ten are registered to vote (five as Republicans, four as Democrats, and one as an independent) and seven of the ten voted in the 1986 gubernatorial election (all four of the Democrats and three of the Republicans). I found these summaries interesting.


The Rasmussen Poll shows that Hillary Clinton will do better than Barack Obama against John McCain, at least in terms of the popular vote. So why are the Democrat superdelegates not siding with her? Do they not want to wrest the presidency from Republicans? Here is an interesting column by Chris Cillizza.


Here is a scene from today’s stage of the Giro d’Italia. Here is tomorrow’s stage.

A Year Ago