Monday, January 27, 2020

What is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy?

Traditionally, the history of philosophy is argued to have begun with Thales, sometime between 624 and 545 BCE. Of course, the start date of philosophy may differ depending on how one defines “philosophy,” a “philosopher,” and “doing philosophy,” but the majority consensus is that it began with him, a key reason being for having predicted a solar eclipse based on his own reasoning and not what was traditionally used at the time of mythological explanation. This means that philosophy has, at least, a 2,500+years-history. Yet, many faculty departments across the United States concentrate significantly (not entirely, of course) on the philosophy of the last century through today (i.e., analytic philosophy). This division, in fact, began in the world of English-speaking academics of the analytic tradition—this term was created in the 1950s to distinguish this new focus in philosophy (arguably it was primarily a reaction against existentialism and phenomenology).

But shouldn’t we consider more often how this emphasis does not give students of philosophy more options in the classroom to choose their own philosophical persuasions? Would all students that emerge with degrees from departments heavier in analytic philosophy always choose to read more analytic philosophy if given more opportunity to explore other philosophers? Certainly, a student might react to the discipline differently if Nietzsche is their first encounter with philosophy instead of a textbook on introductory logic (I am, of course, not stating it would go in a specific direction, just that they might react differently). Yet, the analytic tradition is sometimes emphasized as the primary way to do philosophy, and in some places the door is only open, at best, ajar to the rest. Shouldn’t there be more of how Bertrand Russell’s visceral reaction to William James’s pragmatism not only makes the dialogue more comprehensive, but also leads to a better understanding of where Russell’s philosophy continued to develop from, in part, as a reaction? It is believed that the only book of philosophy that Russell’s student Wittgenstein always had around was James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Perhaps we need to return to the most fundamental questions in all of this: what is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy? In its etymological roots, philosophy means “love of wisdom,” so doing philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, as a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” Does wisdom come primarily from the last century? The history of philosophy can read at times like a long conversation that I imagine several philosophers, of several persuasions, would agree has not ended. In that dialogue, sometimes we find developments of previous views (or sometimes an extreme case is proposed, like Alfred Whitehead who said that all philosophy since Plato is but a footnote to him). Sometimes we find reactions against other philosophers, but as such, this is still part of the conversation. In fact, it is especially hard to find entirely novel ideas that are not in any way even just slightly touched by a voice(s) of the past, whether as at times a development of (such as the Left Hegelians from Hegel) or as at times a reaction against (such as Aristotle versus Plato). We know that some times it is the questions sparked that make a difference in the history of philosophy, not necessarily the answers proposed. Very flawed arguments can still dramatically change history, so we must still study them for that reason, among others.

Philosophy can serve many different purposes—we need only look at the branches of the discipline; it can be used to study knowledge, to study the difference between right and wrong, etcetera. Academic philosophers tend to choose one branch of preference to specialize in (or not), not so unlike how we have specific philosophers we may gravitate toward (or away from). It is also enriching to mix it all up—my research focuses on extracting the pragmatist elements in the philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that pragmatism was a philosophy for philosophers who are incapable of having a philosophy.

The student of philosophy who is first exploring the discipline should have the opportunity to explore as much of it as possible. What if one never has the chance to discover that it could be Simone de Beauvoir, not A.J. Ayer, that he or she really finds most intriguing? We need to be inclusive, in every way, as in the content of the material covered in philosophy courses.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Good Life for the Sick and Elderly


Recently as I was caring for an elderly relative, I started to wonder what a good life would look like for her…and other elderly Americans. The number of Americans aged 65 or older has increased steadily over the last century with declining fertility and mortality rates and is projected to rise rapidly in the future. In 1994, one in eight Americans were 65 or older and, by 2050, as many as one in five Americans could be elderly. Diseases that affect the elderly such as dementia or Alzheimer’s also are projected to rise. 
It may be convenient for those of us who are younger and healthier now to assume there is an inverse relationship between our happiness and our health. The healthier we are the happier we are; the less healthy we are the less happy we are. We may fatalistically assume with age and illness will come less happiness.
Of course, our outlook depends on our conception of the good life. Consistent with some normative theories, happiness consists of a life lived well and a proper balance of the things that comprise our lives such as health, knowledge, life projects (e.g., careers), and the arts and entertainment (i.e., our hobbies). Maybe it is reasonable to believe that we will be—and even that we ought to be—less happy as we have less of the things that currently comprise our happiness. We may even argue for some version of ageism or ableism.
Ageism: we ought to prefer those who are younger.
Ableism: we ought to prefer those who able-bodied.
The problem with ageism and ableism is that certain features of our lives such as age and health generally are amoral or morally arbitrary. If we are committed to the view that a person should only be responsible for features over which she has some significant measure of control, then adopting a theory of the good life based on features over which a person has little or no control is morally problematic. In such cases, you may have a theory of life—a way of looking at life, but not a theory of a good life. A good life is evaluative of how a person lived given her circumstances, not simply an evaluation of the circumstances. We generally do not have any significant measure of control over our age at any given moment or whether we are able-bodied (although one may intentionally bring about an illness or disability, but such cases I assume are uncommon).
Moreover, the view that happiness depends on youth and health does not seem morally preferable. Barring unfortunate circumstances, we’ll all grow old and die. As part of our universal human condition, it would be preferable to have a more holistic and healthier approach. A more holistic and healthier outlook of our aging selves and the elderly in our lives may involve (1) recognizing that the balance of things that comprise our lives changes over time and (2) focusing more on life in its entirety rather than at any given moment.
First, the things that comprise a good life may include our careers and our hobbies, but as we grow older our priorities and the balance of these things changes. Rather than focusing on our careers, we may have more time for the arts and entertainment.
Second, and because for those who are approaching the end of their lives or those who suffer with disease or disability for whom even the pursuit of the arts and entertainment may be difficult, it may not be enough simply to reorganize one’s priorities. What I want to suggest is that greater happiness awaits us in our old age (or, for those of us who believe in life after physical death, even after death).
This is consistent with Aristotle’s conception of happiness. Aristotle wrote: “For this cause also children cannot be happy, for they are not old enough to be capable of noble acts; when children are spoken of as happy, it is in compliment to their promise for the future. Happiness, as we said, requires both complete goodness and a complete lifetime.” (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 1, ch. 9, see also bk. 1, ch. 7). It is only at the end of a person’s life that we can know whether a person has lived well and thereby achieved happiness.1 Happiness is not a feeling at a given moment but a completed life that has been lived well.
An elderly person in a nursing home who has lived to the fullest and who has lived for others is happy. The person may appreciate and enjoy this fact by reminiscing about the past, but subjective mental states (memories or a feeling of pleasure) are not necessary for happiness.2 Even if a person suffers severe intellectual or physical disabilities and can no longer add to her happiness by actively exercising virtue, it is still true of the person who has lived well that she is happy. The person may be happy despite the “reverses and vicissitudes” of fortune.
For persons with severe intellectual and physical disabilities, the balance mentioned in (1) may look very differently but may still allow for a life lived well. The holistic approach in (2) requires, as it does in everyone’s case, a consideration of the person’s circumstances and social context. A life lived well has less to do with accomplishing great things as measured in absolute terms and more to do with doing your best with what you’ve been given. Some people with disabilities—such as Helen Keller—have lived far better lives by choosing to live well and to live for others than many fully abled persons.
Please don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that happiness is unaffected by age or illness. I am saying that we need to have a healthier outlook toward our aging selves and those who are elderly among us. One way3 to do this is to see (and respect) the elderly for the complete life that they’ve lived rather than the sick or aging person before us at a given moment.  

Chong Un Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

________________________________
1. See Paul Farwell, “Aristotle and the Complete Life,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 12(3): 247-263 (1995).
2. Kurt Pritzl, “Aristotle and Happiness After Death: Nicomachean Ethics 1.10-11,” Classical Philology 78(2): 101-111 (1983).
3. Another way is to live by this Christian imperative: “love your aging neighbor, as you love your aging self.” Frits de Lange, “Loving Later Life: Aging and the Love Imperative” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 33(2): 169-184 (2013).

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Puzzle About Future People

We ought to do something about climate change. One reason for thinking this is that if we continue the way we’re going, we will make future generations much worse off, and so we owe it to them to e.g. enact policies that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But such policies would have all sorts of other effects. Factories would be moved, rebuilt, or shut down. People would find jobs as regulators, inspectors, and lobbyists that they wouldn’t have otherwise. People would drive different cars, get different degrees, and buy different products. And all of these things would affect decisions about when, where, and with whom to procreate.
This generates a puzzle (the Nonidentity Problem). To see why, let’s zoom in a bit. Suppose that, if we do not implement new emissions policies, Baby X will be born to a couple in Sacramento a year from now. However, if we do adopt new policies, the couple will instead move to Washington, D.C. for new jobs with the EPA. They’ll agree to wait a few years to settle into these new jobs before having children, and they will have a different child, Baby Y, in 2023.
If we do not adopt the new emissions policies, who will be made worse off? Baby Y will not be made worse off, since Baby Y will never exist. The couple will raise Baby X as an only child in Sacramento, and Baby Y will never be around to suffer whatever consequences result from continued emissions at current levels. Nor will Baby X be made worse off by not adopting emissions restrictions, since, if we did adopt them, Baby X would never exist. On the (perhaps optimistic) assumption that Baby X’s life will not be so bad as to be worse than never existing at all, Baby X will be no worse off under our current policies than under the new ones.
The point generalizes. There are the people, the Xs, who will exist if we do not clean up our act, and the people, the Ys, who will exist if we do. Given the fragility of the circumstances under which a particular person is conceived, they are mostly not the same people. So, whom do we make worse off if we refuse to change our current policies? Not the Xs, since they will only exist if we maintain the status quo. And not the Ys, since they will never exist to suffer the consequences of our refusal to change.
We ought to do something about climate change. Maybe we even owe it to future generations to do something. But not because they will be worse off if we don’t. So, why?

Brandon Carey
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Hans Rosling’s Magic Washing Machine

This is another of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

Take about 8 minutes and watch this Ted Talk from Hans Rosling, the public health and statistics guru who tragically died from pancreatic cancer in 2017:.

There are a number of important lessons to take from his presentation (and you can watch the longer version HERE). I’ll focus on just two:

First, world population will increase. Predictions are controversial. Rosling has argued that it will go to about 11 billion by 2100 and then level off. At the time “The Magic Washing Machine” was recorded in 2010, world population was a hair under 7 billion; it’s now about 7.7 billion.

Some of this growth will occur in the poorest areas of the world. But this is because conditions for people in the poorest areas of the world are improving (as you can see HERE). When fewer of the children they have tragically die, population in these areas will increase a bit. Also, some of the growth will occur because people will continue to live a little longer. But most of the growth is explained by the fact that there are more people now who are below age 30 than above, and they will have children.

Second, more people will mean more energy consumption -- especially when there are more people who will be wealthier and have better lives (ones that will include magic washing machines). 

These inevitabilities inevitably raise climate worries, which have led to some pretty hard-nosed proposals to curb energy production and use. Is there a way to implement these proposals in a way that will allow everyone eventually to enjoy the magic of washing machines?

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Monday, October 28, 2019

Overpopulation from the perspective of an airplane


This 500-word post is one of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

In the 1995 comedy Father of the Bride Part II, George Banks (Steve Martin) and his wife Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) get news that they will be first-time grandparents, and then, soon afterwards, get news that they will be parents again themselves—because Nina is unexpectedly pregnant.  George and Nina leave the doctor’s office looking out different windows of their car while thinking about what this second bit of news means to them.  I could not quickly find the delightful scene online, but Wikepediaconfirms it: “As they are driving home, Nina and George have differing perspectives on the prospect of becoming new parents again.”  Indeed: since it’s comedy, Nina looks out her window and actually sees things representing the joys of parenthood, like a young daughter skipping blissfully with her mother, but George looks out his window and sees things representing the difficulties of parenthood, like a young son angrily throwing a fit at his father.

I mention this because I have a theory of why people’s opinions on overpopulation may start differently before they really study it.  I say this because I actually have such opinions right now; I have not really studied it.  My theory is that two common ways of experiencing an airplane flight may partly explain different initial armchair opinions on overpopulation.

Sometimes when you ride an airplane, especially in a window seat, during the daylight hours when you can look down and see the ground below, and you stare at mile after green mile of uninhabited grassland, or mile after brown mile of uninhabited desert, you might catch yourself thinking, “the earth is overpopulated with humans in about the same way that the sky is overpopulated with birds.”  The claim does not just seem false, but obviously, comically, ridiculously false.

Other times when you ride an airplane, especially in an aisle seat, during a crowded flight towards the back of the plane, you focus on what is inside the airplane: the seats packed six or more to a row, the isles made enough to thin for walking without bumping people, the smells of other passengers, the screaming of an infant, and the sight of a family boarding with many young children that you realize in horror are about to fill up all the seats around yours, you might catch yourself thinking, “you know, maybe if there were not so many people on the planet…”

These two types of experiences can happen on the same day, or the same flight, even simultaneously, to the same person.  But they may partly explain where the burden of proof seems to be for the thought, as you begin your descent into Los Angeles, and look out the window at mile upon grey mile of highways and homes: “even if some cities may be in some sense overcrowded, that is different than the planet being overpopulated.”

Russell DiSilvestro
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fortnite is down and John Locke is pissed

As of this writing Fortnite, the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Game in the world is offline, and 17th century political philosopher John Locke would be none too happy about it. Not because Locke had a particular affection for costumed figures running around a virtual island shooting each other, but because Locke was particularly interested in how people come to claim ownership in the things of this world. And make no mistake about it: gamers very much claim that they ownthe resources that they cultivate, refine, curate, trade and purchase in virtual space.

Over 250 million people play the game on a monthly basis, due in part to the fact that it is free to play.[1]On October 14th, players witnessed an in-game cataclysm, which destroyed the entire game world. Anyone logged on witnessed only a blackhole where the game used to be. The game has been offline going on two days now.[2]

The players were stunned. No one doubts that the game will return shortly; permanently pulling the plug on such a popular cash cow is even less likely than the end of the actual world. But until then a quarter of a billion people have been cut off from one of their favorite past-times. For most this is a minor annoyance. But for some it is (or at least portends) a major grievance. Some people literally pay their rent with the game though donations from fans who watch them play on the online streaming service Twitch. Suddenly being cut off from the virtual world they invested in and depended on reveals the precarious nature of staking a claim in the virtual world.[3]

As a matter of law these users are entitled to complain, but little else. Games like Fortnite are governed by meticulously lawyered ‘end-user licence agreements’, which users must agree to before they can play. Those agreements give exclusive authority over the game and everything in it to the company. Our servers, our code, our rules. They are the in-game gods, and if they chose to implode the universe in perpetuity, that is their divine right.

Which brings us back to John Locke. In his lifetime the Aristocracy of Europe propagated a ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ which entailed (among other things) that all property in the kingdom belonged to the Monarch. Locke challenged this doctrine through an alternative theory of property in his “Second Treatise of Government.” Locke argued that “whatsoever then [one] removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own and thereby makes it his Property.”[4]A standard example is a wild apple tree, which belongs to everyone in common. Anyone can come along and pluck an apple from the tree, thereby making the fruit their property. If they plant the seeds, water the soil, and nurture the plant to maturity, the resultant second tree (and all apples that spring from it) become their property as well.

Locke’s “labor mixing argument” has been the focus of much controversy among political philosophers. One major complication has been whether or not his thinking can be extended to ‘intellectual property.’ The tools used to make a film aren’t found in nature the way an apple tree is, so can a filmmaker claim to ‘own’ their film on Lockean grounds? Many scholars think not, so if there are such things as ‘intellectual property rights’ they cannot be justified by the labor mixing argument.

This might seem like the relevant precedent for virtual worlds like Fortnite. But this fails to properly appreciate the role that users play in these worlds. Games like Fortnite encourage and depend on users mixing their labor with ‘virtual resources’ found in the game. Some games, like Farmville have users that spend dozens of hours a week ‘farming’ virtual crops, which they sell on the gray market for real-world cash, which they in turn use to buy real-world food.

Virtual worlds have in-game economies collectively valued at over $52 billion, larger than the GDP of Iceland, Yemen and Belize, combined. World of Warcraft’s virtual gold-mining industry alone is worth more than $2 billion. Nearly all of this value is the result of the labor that users have poured into it. Absent that labor, WoWs ‘gold’ is just worthless zeros and ones. These companies are not merely providing valuable worlds from which users extract enjoyment; they are providing raw materials which users are, as a livelihood, transforming into an economic system that philosophers, lawyers, economists and politicians have only just begun to wrap their heads around.

There are too many challenges to the idea of ‘virtual property rights’, Lockean or otherwise, to address here.[5]Perhaps the ‘property rights framework’ isn’t the best way to understand the relationship between game companies, users, the virtual resources they invest in and the virtual worlds that they, in so doing, are co-creating. 

But such objections miss the forest for the virtual-trees. Somekind of framework that renders moral and legal protections to the users who produce the vast majority of the value of these virtual spaces is imperative. Companies, other users, hackers, even governments pose a potential threat to legitimate claims users have to their corners of these virtual spaces. Issues of fairness, equity, distributive justice, general utility, economic efficiency, informed consent, and other staples of political philosophy run right through the heart of virtual economies.

An ever-increasing share of the Gross World Product exists in virtual space. If we don’t invest our own resources into understanding and structuring the economic rules of that space they will continue to be set by a small fraction the relevant parties. There is little reason to think the rules they write will be in the best interests of all. Just as John Locke did not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Kings merely because it was the legal and political default, we too should not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Code.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1]Epic Games, which owns Fortnite makes money through ‘microtransactions’, in-game purchases of costumes and dance-moves for the characters.
[2]Update: before this piece was published Fortnite came back online. It was offline for just under two days. “Fortnite Chapter 2” is now playable.
[3]As it turns out, The End proved to be quite lucrative, at least for some Twitch streamers. It seems that since people couldn’t play the game, many tuned into the Twitch streams of the games’ superstars to see how they reacted to the virtual Ragnarok. 
[5]For example, John William Nelson argues that Locke’s argument can only be applied to the original acquisition of property from nature. Since virtual goods do not exist in nature, but only as a result of the labor of the game’s developer. ‘Farming’ in a virtual space is more like a blacksmith transforming ore which he purchased from a miner. While the miner’s ownership in the ore is justified by Locke’s labor mixing argument, the blacksmith’s ownership must be justified by the prevailing legal theory of property transfer. By extension, any ‘ownership’ a user has over virtual property is justified in terms of the End User License Agreement.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Travel bans are dumb and hypocritical

I am subject to a travel ban. No not that one, which is much, much worse. Rather, I fall under the one that, since January 2017, prevents me, other CSU and UC faculty, and all state employees from using public funds to travel to states that California Attorney General Xavier Beccera decides is violating California anti-discrimination law. 

For example, under AB 1887 I would be denied reimbursement for travel to North Carolina to research the effects of its silly public bathroom laws, or to present an argument about how silly they are at an academic conference there. AG Beccera’s list has recently grown to 11

Many of these states have been targeted for their attempts to carve out accommodations for private religious groups who are connected in some way with public services and funds. Texas and Oklahoma, for example, do not require child welfare services to place children in same-sex or single parent households if doing so would violate religious or moral convictions or policies central to these groups’ mission statements.

Kansas falls under the travel ban because it doesn’t require student groups at public universities to have an “all-comers” policy for organizational leadership positions. In other words, Kansas is banned for a policy that would have implicated California until pretty recently. It strikes me as an odd deficiency in humility to be so vindictive against Kansas for missing a moral discovery that California state officials have only just made. It took California legislators years and years to finally get this right, but Kansas is held out for official sanction for failing to follow along right away.


Part of the absurdity of the California ban is how selective and arbitrary it is. South Carolina made Beccera’s list last year for a carve-out for faith-based private child placement agencies like those in Texas and Oklahoma, but California is apparently fine footing the bill for a conference junket to Southeast Asia where, in Singapore and Malaysia, male homosexual sex is simply illegal. 

Also, I could get reimbursed for a work trip to Nebraska, despite their law denying marriage rights to people afflicted with a venereal disease, but not if I attend the Gender Infinity Conference in Houston, Texas this year. 

Iowa is on the no-go list for a recent legal change to prevent Medicaid coverage for gender reassignment surgery. But California legislators apparently take a different approach to the fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, since my reimbursement request for my trip to the Big Easy last year went through without a hitch. 

Finally, I think it’s odd to reflect on what the ban says about how the state regards the primary value of funding faculty travel for the purpose of research and conference participation. 

I would have thought that the reason California taxpayers are implicated in my travel expenses has something to do with a view about the putatively public goods character of the research and scholarly activities that take me across state lines. Before, I would have considered this view a little optimistic. But now I know California legislators just don’t see it that way at all. It rather seems that all this funding is just a subsidy for conference centers, hotels and restaurants, which legislators want to avoid directing to the bad, undeserving states. (For, surely, they can’t actually think that AB 1887 will actually affect legislative changes there).

In that case, the state should probably just eliminate all travel funding for university employees. That is, if the funding just enriches out-of-state room-and-board service providers, and there’s really no meaningful return to taxpayers, then the expenditures seem illegitimate. If not, though — if something like the optimistic view is right — then colleagues should be able to secure funding to participate in the Annual African American Children and Families Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa in February (despite Iowa’s addition to the list last May). Hampering colleagues’ research in this way sure seems like a poor way to promote social justice.

Especially if there’s anything to the idea that we learn and influence more effectively through exposure and contact than by drawing lines and keeping separate. The latter strategy tends to lead to increased polarization and, for those with minority positions in conservative states, actually could cut off those who might benefit from national alliance and support. 

These risks aren’t worth what amounts to not much more than legislative moral grandstanding and the opportunity to signal they have the right virtues. 

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State