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The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan April 30, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
 In my Introduction to Values classes we usually have a discussion about the concept of evil. We talk about whether it is sufficient to use concepts such as “morally wrong,” “thoroughly self-serving,” or “extremely offensive” to cover the perception of the worst conceivable human conduct toward other living beings, or whether there is some justification in using the controversial term evil. The underlying reluctance among ethicists to use the e-word is, of course, because it seems to imply a religious world view, with a condemnation of the action or person in question grounded in a religion, and perhaps even an assumption of a force of evil existing independently of the human mind. (And it also has something to do with partisan politics: whether one feels comfortable talking about “evil-doers,” or whether one doesn’t.) Here we can veer off in several directions: We can talk about why ethicists generally opt for a non-religious terminology (and whether that makes sense), but we can also talk about whether the term evil automatically implies a religious view. For some, it does. For others, it simply signifies the ultimate condemnation of a person by a society who has witnessed the most egregious breaking of its rules. And even within the non-theistic application of the term there are two directions where we may go: One is inspired by Hannah Arendt and (lately) Philip Zimbardo and goes toward a broadening of the term, a suggestion that evil is something we are all potentially capable of engaging in: the “banality of evil  that makes ordinary people end up tormenting other human beings because they think they have to, or because they have somehow become persuaded that the others deserve it. The other direction is a narrowing of the term, reserving it for the kind of behavior that stands out as being extraordinarily grotesque and deliberately cruel—the kind of behavior we might also call inhumane.
          As an example of the latter I have, for the past few years, brought up the name of Joseph Duncan:  In the late spring of 2005, Duncan killed a family (mother, son, and mother’s fiancé) and abducted the two younger children from their home in North Idaho. He took the children, 8-year old Shasta and 9-year old Dylan, to a remote campsite in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, where he proceeded to sexually molest and torture them for weeks, until he killed the boy. Presumably saving Shasta for a later thrill-kill, he brought her down to a North Idaho town in the middle of the night, going west (he claims he was trying to bring her back). They stopped at a Denny’s, and thanks to the vigilance of waitresses and guests, Shasta was recognized from TV and billboards, and rescued, and Duncan was arrested. Details about the murders and abductions have come to light, so we now know that Shasta witnessed the abuse and murder of her brother, and that Duncan (probably anticipating that she, too, would soon be dead) told her how he killed her family, and (I believe) also about other children he had abused and murdered. He has already pled guilty to the four murders and child molestation, and now he is about to face his death penalty hearing—with Shasta as the sole surviving witness against him. And she is a very effective witness—she knew exactly the location of the campsite where her brother had been killed and dismembered, and she was able to recall details of Duncan’s stories that have since been corroborated.

Consider Duncan as he is now fighting for his life in court—do we want to call him evil? Might we want to reserve the term “evil” for his actions, but not apply it to him as a person—under the assumption that he is somehow redeemable? Or would you feel better if we didn’t use the term evil at all? Let me add the latest twist to the story: The court had tried to work out a deal so Shasta would not have to face her tormentor in court, since her testimony is already videotaped. But now Duncan has fired his lawyers and petitioned to represent himself in court—which he has a constitutional right to do. He will have to undergo an additional psychiatric evaluation, but if he is found to be sane, Shasta may find herself in the horrific situation of being cross-examined on the stand by the man who raped her and murdered her family. Now some would say that these are the unforeseeable twists and turns of a legal system that, on the whole, is fair and equitable. For others, it is morally repugnant that this can even be an option. Is Duncan trying to manipulate the system in order to have a last face-to-face confrontation with Shasta? Is he trying to appear as a sympathetic victim of circumstances—the determinism defense? Is he creating grounds for an appeal later? Or does he have a death wish? These are complex questions. But for the purpose of our discussion here, I want to ask you, does this make you more or less likely to label Duncan evil? He knows what he is doing—there is no doubt about that. He was released from prison by a judge whom he had fooled into thinking that he was rehabilitated, immediately before going on his killing spree. Duncan may not be sane in the manner of most of us, but he is very much aware of what he is doing.


Our First Year! April 21, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Administration, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

On April 22, 2007, Dwight Furrow launched this blog, and within our first year we have had over 12,200 hits, over 100 posts, and close to 450 comments. Not exactly a WordPress superblog like CNN Political Ticker, Lolcats, Loldogs, or Gretawire (which all serve significantly different purposes than ours), but still a decent Internet presence. So congratulations to us, thank you to Dwight who made it happen, to our frequent and occasional contributors, to our frequent and occasional guests commenting on the posts, and to all of you who visit us daily or from time to time!




Is Sensitivity Always Preferable? April 15, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Teaching.

L.A. Times had an op-ed debate April 15 you may find interesting: Do students have a right not to be offended in college? Or should the college experience be challenging to the students’ preconceived notions? Greg Lukianoff (a constitutional lawyer and a blogger at the Huffington Post) and Michael Shermer (the publisher of Skeptic magazine) explore the issue: Lukianoff cites a number of cases where professors and students have been disciplined for “offensive” speech and actions, and concludes,

 If you limit speech to only that which students and administrators find “comfortable” (a category that seems to get smaller daily), academic freedom and free speech on campus will die. If colleges and universities have any “customer service” obligation, it is to expose students to diverse views, not to censor them. Higher education’s function is to serve as a forum for serious debate, discussion and intellectual innovation. Done correctly, feelings will be hurt, beliefs will be challenged, and sacred cows will be barbecued. Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, and if you make it through college without ever having been offended, you should ask for your money back.

 Shermer, on the other hand, argues that colleges and universities are marketplaces with the right to set up their own rules and speech codes:

 I will make a free-market case for treating universities and colleges as corporations that offer products and services (education and diplomas) to potential customers (students). As such, each academic corporation sets up a mission statement about what it stands for, what it offers and especially what it expects from its customers when they are on company property; that is, its rules.

 But is this telling the whole story? I think not. Marketplace dynamics is one thing—but what Lukianoff is talking about is not the right of colleges to shape their own standards, it is a questioning of a trend throughout all higher learning institutions today. I’d be curious to hear from our students: Many of your instructors have syllabi which prohibit offensive speech and actions in class (such as my own syllabi), and most of your instructors are mindful of the sensitivities of students. Do you favor this trend, or do you long for the old days of less politically correct speech on campus? Do you see those days as intellectually challenging, or simply offensive?

 (The op-ed debate for April 14 was about political bias on campuses—no less interesting! Maybe we can return to that topic.)

Hillary’s Jumpin’ the Shark April 13, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
1 comment so far

Obama said:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them.And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.”

“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Hillary said:

“Now, like some of you may have been, I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small town America. Senator Obama’s remarks are elitist and they are out of touch. They are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans.”

So what message, exactly, is she sending? Is it that people should not feel bitter about the loss of economic prospects? I thought the Democratic message was they ought to be damned pissed about it.

Or is it that they have a right to be pissed but are perfectly justified in taking their frustration out on immigrants, gays, or whatever? But I thought the Democratic message was that we’ve had enough bigotry primed and pumped by politicians.

Or is it that people are pissed about the loss of economic prospects but never take it out on immigrants, gays or whatever? So where does the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-trade sentiment come from then. Has it disappeared? I thought the Democrats portrayed themselves as the reality based community.

If Senator Clinton were a Republican I would know where this is coming from and what message was being sent. But I thought she was running on the Democratic ticket.

I have not been persuaded by “the tell Hillary it’s time to leave crowd”. She has a lot of support and the voting is not over.

But as I rummage through the pack on the back of Buridan’s Ass, I think I’ve come across the last straw.

Bright Future for Philosophy Students! April 7, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy Profession.


I’m often asked by my students what they’ll be able to do with philosophy as a major. The latest answer, according to the New York Times and The Guardian, is, anything you want! Philosophy has emerged as the latest fad major, not for the first time, but this time around it actually appears as if there is some solid reasoning going on, not just in the minds of philosophy students, but in the minds of employers. According to The Guardian,

“Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show philosophy graduates, once derided as unemployable layabouts, are in growing demand from employers. The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.

It is in the fields of finance, property development, health, social work and the nebulous category of “business” that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In “business”, property development, renting and research, 76% more philosophy graduates were employed in 2005-06 than in 2002-03. In health and social work, 9% more….

…Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association’s think tank, says: “A philosophy degree has trained the individual’s brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.””

 This is, of course, what we philosophy instructors have been saying for years, but we’ve generally considered it a nice bonus added to the major benefit of actually enjoying doing philosophy. And according to the New York Times, it is a lot of fun—and it is also useful (hmmmmm):

“Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive. “That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.””


Good Art Is Like Good Sex April 5, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.

Brian Boyd’s essay in the American Scholar on the evolutionary origin of art and narrative is speculative but nevertheless interesting on a variety of levels. He argues that art and storytelling are adaptations.



 “Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern…Our adult compulsion for the cognitive play of art—from tribal work songs to tradesmen’s transistors to urbanites’ iPods—allows us to extend and refine the neural pathways that produce and process pattern in sonic, visual, and kinetic modes, and especially in sociality.”


Art makes us smarter, as a species, because it enhances our capacity for complex pattern recognition. The cognitive play of art—both its production and consumption—influences differential survival rates thus conferring a reproductive advantage on those who participate.


And why do we engage in this cognitive play? In a word, pleasure.


It’s the pursuit of pleasure, at least of the kind that is produced by pattern recognition, that explains the emergence of human intelligence—so much for Plato’s campaign against artists and religion’s campaign against pleasure.


Perhaps this is what Mill had in mind when he argued that the higher pleasures are to be valued more highly than the lower pleasures.


I guess good sex guided by the Kama Sutra must be better than unaided good sex.