December 30, 2008

Back Again

Just got back from a vacation in Mexico with the family. It was awesome.

December 18, 2008

Blaming the victim and taking responsibility

Last week, Cara at Feministe wrote a post criticising this Rolling Stone article on Proposition 8. Cara's criticism, in brief, was that Tim Dickinson was blaming the victim when he wrote things like these:

Don't blame Mormons or black voters - the California activists who tried to stop Prop 8 ran a lousy campaign

Prop 8 should have been defeated — two months before the election, it was down 17 points in the polls — but the gay-rights groups that tried to stop it ran a lousy campaign. According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote.

That is, Dickinson was arguing -- at least -- that gay activists could have done more or better to stop 8. Cara objects to the corollary -- actual or merely implied -- that gay activists are responsible for the passage of 8. Let's call the first one `Dickinson's thesis', and the second one `the corollary'. (Due to context and some specific sentences, Dickinson may actually be arguing for or believe the corollary as well. Let's ignore this for the purpose of this post.)

Now, in the comment thread, Cara seems to clarify that it really just is the corollary that she has a problem with, and not Dickinson's thesis. And I'm inclined to agree -- Dickinson's thesis is true, but the corollary is objectionable victim-blaming. The problem is a belief about responsibility that I suspect is widespread. As a first pass, the belief is that, if X could have done something that prevented a bad thing Y, and X did not, then X is responsible for Y. If we accept something like this -- and the qualifications we include don't rule out this particular case -- then we have an inference directly from Dickinson's thesis to the corollary.

The problem is more general for any leftist or progressive. We certainly want to claim that groups of oppressed people and their allies can and should do more to end their oppression, and we want to talk about successful and unsuccessful strategies for doing so. But we don't want to imply that oppressed people and their allies are responsible or blameworthy for their continuing oppression just because they haven't successfully ended it yet. To say that anti-poverty groups could do more to prevent poverty, that feminist groups could do more to prevent sexual assault, that anti-racist groups could do more to prevent the use of stereotypes in the mainstream media, or that worker's groups could do more to promote strong and active unions is not to say that anti-poverty groups are thereby responsible for continuing poverty, that feminist groups are thereby responsible for continuing sexual assault, that anti-racit groups are thereby responsible for the continuing use of stereotypes, or that worker's groups are thereby responsible for the degradation of union power.

One way to deal with the problem is to throw in such qualifications to the belief about responsibility as to block the inference -- it only applies to acting and not refraining, there's a distinction between practical and ethical responsibility, we need a clause about X's intentions, or whatever. However, as a pragmatist who denies the acting-refraining distinction, I don't like any of these qualifications, and I can't think of anything more promising.

Another way is to look more carefully at the other assumptions we are making about responsibility and blame in the corollary and the consequent of the belief about responsibility. If you read Cara's post and the ensuing comments carefully, you'll notice that I've slightly misrepresented the objectionable corollary. The problem isn't so much the responsibility or blameworthiness of opponents of 8. Cara's problem is the way Dickinson seems to deny proponents of 8 any responsibility or blameworthiness. That is, the objectionable corollary is really that conservatives are not responsible for the passage of 8. (Go back and read that first quoted sentence from Dickinson again.)

The solution to this problem is straightforward. The inference from the corollary about the opponents of 8 to that about the proponents of 8 assumes that responsibility is exclusive, ie, if agent X has responsibility for outcome Y, then any other agent Z does not have responsibility for outcome Y. And that's clearly a silly view.

Still, this doesn't seem to get at the heart of problem. Even if we admit that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression, there's something uncomfortable about saying that the oppressed are responsible for continuing oppression. While part of the problem with victim-blaming is the way it is often used to exculpate the oppressor, this is not the whole problem. Especially when the oppressed are trying (albeit failing) to end their oppression, it seems odd to say that they are responsible for continuing it.

In one of her last papers, Iris Marion Young developed a notion of `political responsibility' that she finds in Hannah Arendt. (`Responsibility and global labor justice', J Poli Phil, 12:4 (2004), pp 365-88) This notion of responsibility is meant to contrast with `responsibility as liability'. Briefly, while responsibility as liability is focussed on positive actions in the past by identifiable agents (individual or institutional) that lead (causally) to the current state of things, political responsibility is focussed on not-yet-realised courses of action that could bring about dramatic changes in the future.

Large parts of this notion seem to depend on a distinction between acting and refraining, so I can't take it up completely without serious modification. What I can do here is take up one central feature:

Political responsibility seeks not to reckon debts, but aims rather to bring about results, and thus depends on the actions of everyone who is in a position to contribute to the results. Taking political responsibility in respect to social structures emphasizes the future more than the past. Because the particular causal relationship of the actions of particular individuals or even organizations to the structural outcomes is often not possible to trace, there may be little point in trying to blame and exact compensation or redress only from a few who have caused the outcome. The point is not to blame people participating in the institutions and structures and produce injustice, because in many cases avoiding such participation is difficult or impossible. Having understood that structural processes cause some injustices, those participating in the production and reproduction of the structures should recognize that their actions contribute along with those of others to this injustice, and take responsibility for altering the processes to avoid or reduce injustice. (379)

Young says that political responsibility is `forward-looking', as opposed to the `backward-looking' responsibility as liability. It thereby disconnects responsibility from blame. This allows us to say that the oppressed have a responsibility to end their oppression, without inferring that they are blameworthy for not yet ending it.

An important corollary of this feature of political responsibility is that many of those properly thought to be victims of harm or injustice may nevertheless have political responsibility in relation to it. In a fault model of responsibility, blaming those who claim to be victims of injustice functions to absolve others of responsibility for their plight. In a conception of political responsibility, however, those who can properly be argued as victims of structural injustice can be called to a responsibility they share with others in the structures to engage in actions directed at transforming the structures. In the case of labor exploitation, the workers themselves ought to resist if they can by means of their own collective organization. Without the support of others taking responsibility for working conditions in ways that support them, however, they are less likely to succeed. (387)

There's one remaining problem, however. Either political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, or the two complement each other (say, responsibility as liability looking at how we got to where we are, and political responsibility looking at where we go from here). Neither is satisfying here. If political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, then we cannot infer from the responsibility proponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness for its passage. That is, we cannot say that conservative religious groups are to blame for the passage of 8. Or, more generally, we cannot say that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression. We've removed the link between responsibility and blame that allowed us to make those inferences in the context of responsibility as liability. On the other hand, if the two notions of responsibility complement each other, then we have not actually blocked the inference from the responsibility (as liability) opponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness. They're still liable for its passage, and hence still blameworthy. It doesn't seem enough to say that, in asking what to do now, blaming them isn't all that important or useful.

At root, I suspect the problem is that -- at least once we have removed the distinction between action and refraining, and partially discounted intentions -- the two notions of responsibility are symmetric, in that neither distinguishes between the responsibility of opponents of 8 and proponents of 8. Meanwhile, the `intuitions' that motivate the criticisms are built on an asymmetry between oppressed and oppressor. If this is right, then we cannot fix the notions of responsibility by reinstating the distinction between action and refraining, or looking only at intentions, since neither of these tracks the distinction between oppressed and oppressor. What we need is an account of responsibility that is sensitive to this last distinction. And that's something I'll need to think about more.

December 16, 2008

Secretary of food

Via Feminist philosophers and Nick Kristof, a petition calling for reforms to the Department of Agriculture in favour of `sustainability in agriculture, humane husbandry, food and renewable energy production that revitalizes our nation’s soil, air and water while stimulating opportunities for new farmers to return to the land'.

December 15, 2008

In (Very Slight) Defense Of Heroes

Ok, so tonight's episode was actually pretty decent. It took way too many episodes of crap to get here, but it is what it is.

What I really want to say is that there's a criticism of Heroes that I find entirely annoying and completely unfair. After every episode, there's a certain contingent of people online that start posting about how the recent episode or the current storyline is like storyline X from a comic. Indeed, the teaser for the next volume of the show, starting in '09, looks to borrow a turn or two from the classic Claremont story "Days of Future Past". But if you limited a show about super powered beings to stories which haven't been trodden in a comic at some point you'd have no stories at all. The problem with Heroes isn't that they've borrowed too liberally from comics, it's that they haven't learned enough from the great comics stories.

December 14, 2008

That Liberal Iraqi Media

I'm sure most of you have seen this, but here's an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush during his Farewell To Iraq tour. Maybe they can give that journalist David Gregory's slot on MSNBC now that he's taking over Meet The Press. This guy would certainly be more interesting. Link.

December 12, 2008

Theistic evolution

John Wilkins, blogger, philosopher of biology, and agnostic, has a post up on theistic evolution -- the view that natural selection (`Darwinism') and theism are compatible, because God can (somehow) use the mechanisms of natural selection to achieve God's ends, whatever those happen to be. Wilkins' argument is that theistic evolution, in order to be based on natural selection as biologists actually understand it, must include some rather stringent criteria that have some strong theological implications. In particular, he argues against a view he calls interventionist evolutionism, on which God is actively involved as a proximate efficient cause of at least some part of the process of natural selection. The alternative view -- which he doesn't name, but we can call non-interventionist evolutionism -- has God involved only insofar as God chooses to create a world in which random events turn out in such a way that the natural laws lead to the realisation of God's ends.

That will probably make sense only if you know a fair bit about how natural selection works and have read Augustine on free will. So, imagine natural selection as an extremely complicated progressive betting dice game. Every round, the dice are rolled, and your payoff (or loss) depends on the number showing and how you and the other players have done in the last few rounds. The interventionist God fixes the dice and makes players bet certain ways on every single round, while the non-interventionist God chooses the players (based on their betting habits) and loaded dice before the game starts, and then steps backs and lets things run of their own accord.

Wilkins' argument that interventionism `establishes a limitation to science, and is indistinguishable from special creation' and that, on the interventionist view, `to be a theist is necessarily to give up some of the explanatory power of science in favour of a providential account (which we cannot know anyway, because God's Ways are Mysterious)'. The idea seems to be that the interventionist God amounts to a supernatural black-box, into which natural science can never peer, and hence can never explain in full detail how an organism came to have this or that feature. Meanwhile, secular biology (and non-interventionism) can give these sorts of full-detail explanations, at least in principle, and so interventionism comes with the price of not being able to do everything secular biology (and non-interventionism) can do.

Those of you who were at UPS with me might remember a similar argument against creationism and intelligent design. (Yes, I know I made some pretty ridiculous claims in that paper. I was young, give me a break.) I still think this argument (suitably rewritten) is a strong one against creationism and intelligent design. But I don't think it's strong against interventionism. Wilkins is playing a double standard here, requiring the interventionist to give explanations that are very different from those of secular biology itself.

Let's consider how a creationist, an interventionist, and a secular biologist would all explain the evolution of the human eye. The creationist claims that God simply created humans, eyes and all, in one fell swoop. This is, as per my old paper, a completely unexplanatory `explanation'. God simply acts, and we can go into no further detail. The secular biologist gives us an elaborate structural narrative, describing the different structures of the human eye, the order in which they developed, and the selection pressures that lead them to have the features they do.

Such an explanation leaves open a lot of details for further research, while still being satisfying at a certain level. It does better, in both respects, than the creationist account. However, it does not offer an account of the history of the eye that can even hope to be accurate down to the last detail. What we will never get in this explanation is an account of the causal factors of the point-mutations in the DNA of our ancestors. Even if paleontology could give us the DNA of every single animal that was an ancestor of contemporary humanity, the causes of the genetic differences between those animals (errant high-energy photons, for example, or some virus) are lost forever. To go back to the gambling example, even if we knew the rules by which the gamblers bet and the result of every single dice roll, we could never hope to explain why the dice came up with the result they did. We will never get what we might call a complete causal history, either of the dice game or the human eye. While we can hope to get a structural explanation of incredible detail, we cannot hope to get a causal explanation.

Finally, note that the interventionist God is involved only at the causal level, not the structural level. Like rigging the dice on every round to get a specific result, this God fiddles with the DNA of creatures at the level of point-mutations. Hence, the interventionist can still hope to give a structural explanation at exactly the same level of detail as the secular biologist; similarly, her theological commitments imply that her hopes of giving a causal explanation break down at the same level of detail as those of the secular biologist, albeit for different (or additional) reasons.

We really shouldn't be surprised: A dark comedy in two acts

Act I:

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced major changes Thursday to the Endangered Species Act, causing environmental groups to charge that the "midnight rules" set to go into effect before President-elect Barack Obama takes office are intended to eviscerate the nation's premier wildlife-protection law.

The regulations eliminate a requirement that federal agencies seek review by government scientists before approving logging, mining and construction projects to make sure the activities don't endanger rare animals and plants.

In addition, the regulations say the law could not be used to protect polar bears, walrus, mountain frogs and other species vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

When challenged, Kempthorne argues that these changes have been made to `clear up confusion'.

Act II:

The Vatican on Friday said life was sacred at every stage of its existence and condemned artificial fertilisation, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and drugs which block pregnancy from taking hold.

What else is new, right? Go back and read it again. I missed it the first time, too.

It said most forms of artifical fertilisation "are to be excluded" because "they substitute for the conjugal act ... which alone is truly worthy of responsible procreation".

It condemned in-vitro fertilisation, saying the techniques "proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected and discarded."

So much for the argument that, if you don't like gay marriage because `they can't have kids', then you can't like an infertile straight marriage either. One man's modus tollens and all that. You can read all of Dignitas Personae here.

December 08, 2008

Obama Rocks A Zune

That's the rumor at least. Still loving my Zune. Maybe Obama and I can be Zune buddies. Link.

Really, two former university presidents should know better

Dumb editorial in the Boston Globe:

As college operates today, when you take summers and term-time breaks into account, virtually all BA-granting schools shift into low gear for about half the calendar year. At a first approximation, you could run two complete colleges, with two complete faculties, in the facilities now used half the year for one. That's without cutting the length of students' vacations, increasing class sizes, or requiring faculty to teach more. Simply by spreading the fixed costs of a campus over twice as many participants, you could make degrees meaningfully less expensive. More students could go to college and receive better educations.

First and foremost, we need to distinguish three basic kinds of facilities on a typical (residential) college campus: offices (and similar workspaces for faculty, staff, and administrators), classrooms, and dormitories (and dining halls and other facilities used by residential students). When Karelis and Trachtenberg (former presidents of Colgate University and George Washington University, respectively) point out that classroom instruction typically covers only about 30 weeks out of the year, they're talking about one use of one kind of building.

Office spaces are typically used throughout the year. I would estimate that the average faculty member uses her office somewhere between 40 and 45 weeks out of the year. While doubling the number of faculty might not require doubling the number of faculty offices, it would still require a massive physical plant investment. Staff, who don't have the flexibility of working from home, work around 50 weeks a year, depending on the university's vacation plan. (And let's not overlook the fact that twice the students and twice the faculty would also require about twice the staff -- or require them to work much, much harder than they do right now.)

Turn next to classrooms. Instructional time isn't the only time classroom facilities are used during the term. There are also two or three weeks of finals every year (depending on whether the school operates on semesters or quarters), plus a `reading period' where classrooms are used for review sessions leading up to finals week. All together, I'd estimate that classrooms are used for 3-5 weeks out of every year beyond the 30 weeks of instructional time. Take off a couple more weeks for university-wide vacations (eg, Thanksgiving and New Year's) and the need to actually maintain the classrooms, and I suppose you'd have just enough time (14-15 weeks) to squeeze in another term.

But class-related activities aren't the only things classrooms are used for. There are also debate tournaments, conferences, orientation activities for first-year undergraduates, alumni reunions, REUs, and summer camps. The more non-instructional activities the college or university wants to use its classrooms for, the more time has to be shaved off that extra session.

And finally there are dormitories, dining halls, the student union, and other such buildings used by residential students. Students typically use these facilities for at least a week before (for new students) and after (for graduating students) the regular academic year (and that's including finals). Depending on the size of the residential life staff, another week or two is necessary to clean and maintain these between academic years. This makes it logistically impossible to double the use of the dormitories, or even bring in another group of students for the extra summer session that is a substantial fraction of the regular-year group.

This is why -- at least in my experience -- colleges and universities don't use their dormitories to house (undergraduate) students during the summer, even when they have a summer session. Instead, those residential facilities are used as cheap and convenient housing for conference attendees, REU participants, summer camps, etc.

But this means that the number of students around to take advantage of a summer session is relatively small. And so, despite the complaints of Karelis and Trachtenberg, the typical summer session offers only a relatively small selection of non-specialised and introductory classes -- with only a fraction of your students around, it's hard to get a quorum of majors that can take an advanced upper-division seminar, but there are always people who need to take or re-take calculus.

So it would actually be quite difficult for most colleges and universities to roughly double their faculty and student body by adding additional sessions. There are ways to squeeze a few more efficiencies out, of course: more night and weekend classes could be adopted almost universally, and schools with a relatively small residential population (as is the case with many public universities) could offer a full slate of summer classes. But these are not going to result in a dramatic reduction of the cost of a college education. Karelis and Trachtenberg themselves give only one example -- Dartmouth, which requires students to take a full courseload one summer, in place of a regular-year term -- which increases enrollment by only 14%. Considering the effects of adopting such a plan on a medium-sized private university (George Washington), they estimate savings of only 1% of the endowment per year.

December 07, 2008


Metallica's "Death Magnetic" is pretty good. Certainly a ton better their last, "St. Anger".

December 06, 2008

Conscience clauses

So still-President Bush is trying to expand `conscience clause' rules, which permit health care workers (doctors and nurses) to refuse to participate `in any procedure they find morally objectionable'. (See, for more, this widely-linked piece in the LA Times.) The expansions would cover, not just carrying out procedures, but even providing information or advice about, eg, to whom to turn to have the procedure done. The expansion may or may not include pharmacists (you may remember some noise about pharmacists appealing to conscience clause reasoning in refusing to distribute birth control); since I'm going to be talking about this reasoning in general, I see no harm in including them as `health care workers'. Since the two sides of the dispute here should be obvious, I'll skip all that, and go right to the philosophy.

I assume, first, that there is something compelling about the claims made by conscience clause reasoning: if I really do see abortion as the intentional murder of an innocent human being, it's quite ghastly to force me to be materially involved, in pretty much any way, in carrying out an abortion. But I also assume, second, that we have some prima facie obligations to aid others in carrying out their projects, even (in some cases) when we think those projects are morally reprehensible. Such is the price we pay for living in a pluralistic liberal society. The question is: how do we balance these two compelling claims? (Let's just bracket the question of whether or not we're talking about the right of freedom of conscience itself. I find thinking in terms of `rights' to be too absolute for most purposes anyways; how could you possibly balance two conflicting yet equally absolute rights claims?)

Now, I think it's vital to distinguish between conscience clauses that allow individuals to refuse to participate in morally objectionable procedures and conscience clauses that allow institutions the same privilege of refusal. A patient confronting a recalcitrant and unhelpful (in the patient's eyes) physician, nurse, or pharmacist need, in principle, only find another, more helpful physician, nurse, or pharmacist (as appropriate) to achieve her aims while respecting the conscience of the first health care worker. And, except in a very small number of very rural communities or emergency cases (eg, late at night), this shouldn't be that hard to do.

Where this in-principle change of physicians gets fouled is when we move to the institutional level. It's not at all uncommon for all the hospitals in a town or small city to be owned and operated by religious organisations that are opposed to abortion and birth control. And when workers do have health insurance (though it's extraordinarily unlikely to cover either birth control or elective abortion), that insurance is usually tied to one particular local hospital. For the patient, it's no longer a matter of just walking down the hall; in the case of abortion, significant costs may be introduced by the institutional context, including the need to arrange time off work and pay for travel and lodging (not to mention the costs of the procedure itself).

In short, while there's a relatively large power differential between the patient and her physician, it pales in comparison to the power differential between the patient and the bureaucratic institutional context within which she must move. This suggests that the proper place to balance all these competing factors (the two compelling claims I identified above, plus the power differentials I've identified over the last two paragraphs) is at the institutional level. Finally, I assume a certain preference for individuals, namely, that respecting the moral views of whole institutions is less important, in general, than respecting the moral views and projects of individuals. This is especially so when there is a significant power differential between the individual and the institution.

Putting all of these considerations together, the following seems to be a reasonable preliminary compromise: A health care institution (pharmacies, hospitals, clinics, etc.) should be required to at least provide patients with information about where and how to obtain procedures and technologies that the institution itself considers morally objectionable. Individual health care workers need not be required to provide this information, so long as patients still have ready access to it. Larger institutions and oligopolistic institutions (eg, the two chains of pharmacies that have stores in a region, or a large regional system of hospitals) should also be required to actually make the procedures and technologies available, in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable fee.

Productive work, care work, and economic stimulus

Via Feministing, an Op-Ed by Randy Albelda in the Boston Globe. Albelda is arguing that all the talk of economic stimulus has focussed on keeping manufacturing jobs (the automakers, for example) and infrastructure projects, and that, since these industries are all male-dominated, the stimulus plans floated thus far are neglecting such female-dominated industries as education and health care (remember that the vast majority of people working in health care are secretarial staff, support staff, and nurses, who are all still much more likely than not to be women). They are thereby neglecting the large percentage of families with children (Abelda says 25%, which sounds about right) `headed and supported' by women.

At Feministing, Courtney responds as follows:

But we must not lose sight of the fact that caretaking, teaching, and wellness roles have been traditionally both imposed and embraced by women. Sometimes women have authentically been drawn to these fields; I certainly have female friends who love teaching, social work, and other caretaking professions. But some have been pressured into these professions along with traditional gender roles....

So, yes Albelda, let's pressure Obama to create lots of jobs in the educational and healthcare fields, but let's ask that his team do it, not because traditionally gendered jobs will continue perpetually to fall into "dude jobs" and "lady jobs," but because caretaking is valued as much as construction. And further, let's continue to support efforts like Men Teach and Non Traditional Employment for Women, that encourage both men and women to break out of traditional gender roles and follow their true calling.

I really only want to disagree with Courtney about three words. More specifically, her use of `but' in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and twice in the first sentence of the second paragraph. Using `but' in the way she does here, she suggests a dichotomy between (a) creating jobs in female-dominated fields as well as male-dominated fields in order to create jobs for both men and women, and (b) recognising that those gender disparities are unjust and therefore should be challenged.

But there's no dichotomy here. (a) is a short-term project, especially when we're talking about an economic stimulus plan with a horizon of about five years, while (b) is a very long-term project. (a) is exactly the sort of thing we want a progressive-minded welfare liberal/Keynsian state to be doing, while (b) is probably best accomplished by the sort of non-government insurgency groups Courtney names. Neither the plans themselves, nor their justifications, are in the least bit competitive. Indeed, I would claim that the two are mutually supporting: It's precisely because of the injustices associated with these gender disparities that pouring money into male-dominated fields, to the neglect of female-dominated fields, will benefit women less than pouring money into female-dominated fields as well. The barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers in construction, for example, are why it's important to create job opportunities for them in fields like education and health care, in the short term, even as we work to tear down these barriers in the long term.

December 04, 2008

December 02, 2008


Wow, no more election. My post count has dwindled even lower than it was pre-election, which was pretty sad to begin with. Sadly, full time jobs and blogging are hard to maintain, particularly when there's so little out there getting me riled up. I just can't get excited about the "Obama cabinet guessing game!" Wheee! Humbug.

Anway, I'm sure something will spark my interest soon. In the mean time, here's Play Auditorium, which is way awesome. Link.

Ford CEO comes down with a sudden case of egalitarianism


Ford's $2m-a-year chief executive, Alan Mulally, today vowed to work for an annual salary of just one dollar if the struggling US car maker has to take government money as part of a $25bn (£16.76bn) bail-out of the US car industry.

In a further move to woo congressional support Mulally has vowed to sell Ford's fleet of corporate jets, cancel next year's bonuses for global management and US employees as well as closing more plants, trimming its dealer network and stepping up its work on electric vehicles.

And the NYT:

The three men also had been criticized for flying corporate jets to Washington to ask for financial assistance. This week, Mr. Mulally plans to drive a Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle to Washington to testify a second time before Congress, and Ford said in its submission that it planned to sell all five of its corporate jets.

The company said that it would speed up its plans for electric vehicles, starting to introduce them in 2010. Ford will also invest up to $14 billion to improve fuel efficiency over the next seven years.