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2013 was the 50th Anniversary of “The Banality of Evil” December 17, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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While it is still 2013 I want to mark the anniversary of an important concept in moral philosophy, the re-legitimizing of the concept of evil through the writings of German philosopher Hanna Arendt. 50 years ago Arendt launched a concept that was to have an enormous influence on discussions in the field of ethics for the rest of the 20th century, discussions that continue to this day––an influence that has had wider consequences than she probably imagined. She launched the idea of the banality of evil.
Interestingly, philosophers in the early 20th century, especially within the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, had all but given up on the word evil. Too much religious baggage (just think of the problem of evil, the theodicy: how can a good god allow horrible things to happen?), too judgmental, too moralizing––at a time when most English-speaking philosophers were grappling with the meaning of words rather than with the meaning of life. Back in the 19th century and further back, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had no problem throwing themselves and their readers into discussions about the ultimate meaning and values in life, and the notion of an evil person was not alien or uncomfortable as a  topic of analysis.But what is a moral philosopher to do when, in the mid-twentieth century, the ultimate worst conceivable behavior runs rampant across the continent of Europe? Call it “bad behavior”? Call it “behavior frowned upon by most people according to the standards of Western societies?” Call it “a moral choice made by a cultural subset?” Or “just another form of acculturation?” What words could a mid-twentieth century philosopher use to describe Nazi atrocities that wold seem sufficient? In 1963  Arendt, a German Jew who had narrowly  escaped the Holocaust, witnessed the trial in Jerusalem of captured Nazi official and instigator of the Holocaust Adolph Eichmann, and observed that to her surprise he did not look like a monster.  He looked, and sounded, frighteningly normal. And that, she said in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, was the terrifying key to the Nazi engagement in terror, torture and murders: The Nazi torturers were normal people who, either under pressure from superiors, or from twisted values and twisted thinking, had reached the conclusion that torturing and killing innocent human beings was the right and normal thing to do. It had become a banality––the banality of evil.
And thus was launched a renewal of the concept of evil in philosophy; removed from a religious context, it focused on the inner “Schweinehund,” our baser, cowardly instincts that make us follow the crowd, or go with the lowest common denominator when it comes to standing up for simple decency and humanity, to the point where we are willing to disregard the humanity of another person if someone in authority tells us we’re not responsible, that it is for the good of all, or that bad things will happen to us if we don’t comply. Stanley Milgram corroborated the phenomenon with his “electric shock experiments”––to see how far a person would go when told to shock people who had given the wrong answer to a question. It is a relief to know that nobody was really being shocked, but utterly disconcerting that most of Millgram’s subjects were quite willing to shock people to death when told that they had to. Banality of evil. And a few years later Philip Zimbardo ran his now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment unintentionally resulting in real  harm caused to “prisoners” by “prison guards.” The participants were merely students doing role-playing, because the “prison guards” had been told to be ruthless to the “prisoners,” but some of them took to their roles with zest, and very quickly. Zimbardo himself pointed out, in his book The Lucifer Effect from 2007, that the willingness of the “prison guards” to commit atrocities was the banality of evil rising in completely normal people put into a situation where their moral compass had somehow been disengaged—a situation that her saw paralleled in Abu Ghraib. (I’ve visited the subject several times before in this blog, such as in “The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan,” and “On a Scale of 1 to 22…”, so essentially I’m merely summing up what I’ve said several years ago, but with the specific anniversary of the concept in mind.)
So since the 1960s we have, in philosophy, been able to use the term “evil” as a term for the moral weakness lurking in almost every individual which can make us follow or even give unspeakably vicious orders and forget about the humanity of other people. But is that enough? It took courage for Arendt to reintroduce the concept of evil into the philosophical vocabulary; it took integrity to give voice to a condemnation that most thinkers felt, but perhaps were too polite and well-schooled in non-judgmental meta-ethics to engage in.
And now it is the question whether we’re ready to, once again, redefine the concept of evil. Because surely not all acts that cause irreparable and deliberate harm is caused by people following orders or bad role models. Sometimes some individuals make choices they know will cause harm, and they know it is considered wrong by society, but they want to do these things, anyway, for gratification or profit. The march goes on, from school shootings to imprisonment in locked rooms or basements of women (sometimes strangers, sometimes daughters!) for sexual gratification, to serial killings. Is that the banality of evil, too? I don’t believe so. Immanuel Kant would say that such choices deserve the term evil because they are (1) deliberately done, (2) with awareness that they violate society’s standards, (3) causing intense physical or psychological pain or damage to innocent people, and (4) done for selfish reasons. Is it possible that those individuals are possibly more mentally ill than “evil?” Perhaps, but as long as our legal system allows us to recognize a criminal as “sane” if he or she has a sense of the moral rules of society, then breaking the rules is a deliberate act more so than the act of a helplessly sick person. So perhaps it is time to allow an old concept to return to our modern vocabulary of ethics? In my textbook, The Moral of the Story, I have adopted the term “egregious evil” for such behavior, to differentiate it from “banality of evil,” but it is still a good question whether we are referring to evil acts, or evil persons, because therein lies a world of difference.
Maybe in the future we can come up with a term that is better suited to describe such acts of deliberate, egregious harm, a term that will allow a society to express its moral outrage while at the same time recognizing whatever neuroscientific insight into criminal pathology that we may acquire? Until then I will feel comfortable with a cautious application of the old word evil in its two applications—banal and egregious.
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The Ethics of Food: Why not Horse Meat? March 2, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Food and Drink, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Food.
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A scandal is shaking up Europe: meat departments in supermarkets have been pulling “beef” from the meat counters, because it has turned out that horse meat DNA has been present in what was sold as beef. And lately the Swedish furniture giant Ikea has been pulling their meatballs (oh no, not that!) and sausages from stores in 21 European countries. According to an AP report,

“Monday’s move comes after authorities in the Czech Republic said they had detected horse DNA in tests of 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) packs of frozen meatballs labeled as beef and pork.”

 According to Ikea their stores in the US are not affected, because they use meat from suppliers in the U.S. However, Burger King recently severed ties with an Irish supplier because of horse flesh contamination, and Taco Bell has has similar issues.

 So this is now an expanding scandal–but what exactly is the problem? First of all, it is of course a matter of consumer confidence: You buy something believing it is beef, so you don’t want something that’s not beef. (If you were actually shopping for a horse burger in France, you would not appreciate if the meat had been mixed with pork, or ostrich. It is a matter of consumer expectations.) But second of all, there’s the horse thing.

 In some places of the world they eat horse, and like it. Growing up in Europe, I’ve been served horse burgers myself, and I didn’t much care for them; they tasted too sweet for me, like a hamburger with honey. In certain cultures in Southeast Asia dog and cat meat is on the menu. In some villages in Africa they have, at least until recently, eaten gorilla. In some remote locations in the South Pacific “long pig” was considered an acceptable food item (at least according to legends and Hollywood movies) until well into the 20th century. And we all come from distant ancestors who ate just about anything that would keep them alive. In some places they have even eaten dirt, but that’s not digestible. Meat is. Food can be many things to many people, and just because something can be digested doesn’t mean we accept it as food. Food taboos are known all over the world, and some are founded in the culture’s religion (such as the ban on consuming pork in Judaism as well as in Islam, and the ban on eating beef in Hinduism), while others reflect memories of past contaminations (and historians speculate that perhaps most food taboos have such contamination fears as their point of origin).

 But some of the food taboos in a modern, largely secular culture such as ours are neither founded in religion nor based on past memories of contaminants. It isn’t inherently any more unhealthy to eat horse, dog, or cat that it is to eat beef, but most of us wouldn’t dream of serving or eating those animals, because we regard them as pets, and even as family members. So there is the familiarity factor, and the cuteness factor, but of course the food taboo can also include a “Yuck” factor such as in our reluctance to eat rats. (And how about snails? Oysters? Prairie oysters? Depends on what we’re used to. When the eponimous hero in the movie Tom Horn is served lobster for the first time, he quips, “I’ve never eaten a bug that big.”)

Our legislation doesn’t always reflect such taboos, or is even clear about the prohibitions, and the reasoning behind them. We can’t slaughter, serve or eat dogs and cats. Up until 2011 a horse could not be slaughtered (for human consumption) in the US, but Congress did not extend the ban which then expired.

  In Nov. 2011, Congress decided not to extend a ban on USDA horse meat inspections. Over the five years prior to that, Congress banned the USDA from using any taxpayer funds for horse slaughter inspections through its annual budget appropriations for the department. And since the Federal Meat Inspection Act requires the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect animals for slaughter, carcass by carcass, there was no way for horses to make it to American dinner tables.

 But since the ban has been lifted, there still are no protocols for the USDA to conduct equine inspections.

 “Despite a November 2011 decision by Congress not to extend the ban on horse slaughter, the USDA says there are no establishments in the United States that slaughter horses.

“It is a hugely political issue – it has to do with the slaughter of horses and whether that’s acceptable to U.S. society or not – and so there are two sides to the argument,” said William Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

 Opponents of horse slaughter essentially say eating horses is not part of American culture, equating it to the slaughter of other pets.

 “We have a 250 year relationship in the United States with horses and eating them has never been a part of the equation,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “It would be quite a turn in the road to view animals who helped us settle the country as an appetizer or main course.” “

 But didn’t oxen also help us settle the country? Those big Conestoga wagons were sometimes pulled by oxen. And oxen have pulled plows. Every time we eat a steak or a burger, we bite into the remains of a steer. Some gratitude! The fact remains that our food taboos are selective, and based on feelings as well as tradition and convenience. Some people won’t eat “anything with a face.” Some won’t eat anything with a cute face. Some will eat anything as long as it no longer has a face. How do you feel about the horse meat issue? Would you eat horse? Why or why not? And is there an inherent moral difference between eating horse, beef, pork, snake, kangaroo, or grubs? Not to mention “long pig”? Let’s assume that none of the species are endangered…So where do we draw the line? At the level of intelligence, a Kantian response? Pigs are far more intelligent than horses, according to the experts. How about according to the amount of suffering, a utilitarian approach? If emotional suffering (=fear) counts, then we all know what “Silence of the lambs” means, and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has taught us that the fear factor is very high in animals being led to the slaughter. How about another utilitarian angle, a distinction between the suffering of one animal feeding many people vs. the suffering of one animal feeding just a few? (A steer vs. a chicken, for example). (Or how about the choice of ethical egoism: satisfy your own needs in pursuit of your own happiness?) Regardless of our underlying moral theory we make choices, and they are grounded partly in our traditions, and partly in our feelings, rarely in dispassionate logic. So granted that our cultural choices of food are more driven by emotion than other considerations (unless we’re starving), then at what point does your food ethic kick in?

Chris Dorner: Not a Folk Hero February 14, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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It seems the saga of former LAPD cop and spree killer Chris Dorner has now come to an end, in a way that he himself predicted: He would not survive to experience the fallout. And I suspect that many of you, like myself, have been eerily mesmerized by the unfolding story over the past week. More fortunate than most, I have been able to discuss the case with a bunch of intelligent students, and we have exchanged viewpoints. I have also listened to talk shows, read online commentaries, followed news briefs, and read most of the Manifesto which Dorner had posted to Facebook. And I’m sitting here with a very bad feeling—not just for the four people who fell victims to Dorner’s vengeful rage, and for their families, but a bad feeling about the voices in the media who somehow seem to have elevated Dorner to some sort of folk hero, a Rambo, a Jason Bourne kind of character (as a guest on a talk show pointed out). When such views have been expressed, they have generally been prefaced with, “Yes, of course what he has done is wrong, BUT he has a point,” or “Of course he shouldn’t kill people, BUT even so, he is fighting the good fight.” In other words, his actions may be wrong/over the top, but somehow it is in a noble cause.

Now that upsets me. It upsets me, because that kind of evaluation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the connection between having a cause and taking action, and perhaps even a politically motivated willingness to overlook certain very disturbing facts in favor of some subtext that some people feel ought to be promoted, such as “the LAPD is in need of reforms.”

So let us look at what Dorner actually did (allegedly, of course): He shot and killed a young woman and her fiance. The young woman was the daughter of an ex-cop from the LAPD who had been Dorner’s lawyer. He also shot and killed a Riverside police officer, as well as a San Bernardino deputy. In addition, he deprived three people of their right not to have their liberty interfered with (he tied up an elderly boat owner in San Diego, and two maids in Big Bear), he wounded several police officers, and he stole two cars. And for what purpose? In the Facebook Manifesto he states it clearly: Because he felt that he had been wronged when fired from the LAPD in 2009, he felt that the only way to “clear his name” was to kill members of the LAPD and their families.

Martha Nussbaum, the American philosopher, says that emotions should be considered morally relevant, provided that they are reasonable, meaning that they arise as a logical response to a situation, and thus inspire moral decisions/actions that are somehow reasonable/proportionate to the event that caused the anger (Nussbaum is also a philosopher of law). So let us allow for the possibility that Dorner experienced an emotion that was a relevant response to his (perhaps) unfair dismissal from the LAPD: He was angry. But exactly what is reasonable anger? That would be (according to Aristotle, whom Nussbaum admired) righteous anger that is directed toward the right people, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right amount. But even if he was unfairly dismissed (which is a common experience for many people), and even if he had experienced racism at his workplace,  would it ever be morally reasonable for him to exact revenge on the daughter of his lawyer? Or her fiance? Neither of them had anything to do with his being fired. The murders were simply a means to cause pain to her father. (For you Kant-aficionados: Dorner used his lawyer’s daughter merely as a means to an end to get back at him.)  The moment Dorner made good on his threat to start killing the relatives of LAPD officers was the moment where he lost any claim to a moral high ground, any claim to a righteous anger or any claim to taking justifiable action. That was the moment when he went from somebody with possibly a justified grievance to merely being a thug, and a petty, selfish one at that, taking his anger out on innocent victims.

And the killing of Riverside and San Bernardino law enforcement officers? That seems to have been dictated by his poor judgment, and his attempt to escape the dragnet cast over all of Southern California, not by his manifesto. He claimed to go after LAPD officers because the LAPD had “done him wrong,” but in the end, it was Riverside and San Bernardino that lost members of their police departments.  We can discuss, in the weeks to come, whether he was actually mentally stable in his final week. We can discuss whether the manifesto reveals an intelligent, reflective mind, or a person on the brink of insanity. We can discuss whether another outcome had been possible. We can even discuss whether his manifesto made some valid points. But the fact that he broke the basic covenant that he had been taught, as a police officer, to protect and serve those who need protection, and showed abysmal disregard for the lives of innocents, resulting in a chain of events that cost additional lives, removes him from the realm of folk heroes and reduces him to merely another criminal who will be remembered for the lives he took, not for his rationale. Even if it should turn out that original rationale may have been justified—he may have been right that he was treated unjustly—that does not justify in any way what he has done.  And for some media voices to overlook that fact is very disturbing…

Kevin Coe Revisited: Locked Up for Life September 29, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I had to look up my original post about Kevin Coe, and to my surprise it’s been four years since I wrote it. The wheels of justice grind slowly, or at least the wheels of the justice system. If you go back to that post from October 2008, you can refresh your memory about the serial rapist Fred (Kevin) Coe who had been serving time for 25 years for one rape, the only sentence they could make stick after several other sentences were overturned because of a technicality. When the date for Coe’s release was approaching, the state of Washington decided that he was too dangerous to be let loose, so a new law was applied that allowed the WA court system to commit Coe to a mental institution. And now Coe’s final WA Supreme Court appeal has been denied, and his life will be spent on McNeil Island (barring new developments, of course).

Coe and his attorneys appealed his commitment on the argument that Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor erred when she allowed assistant attorneys general to introduce evidence from 36 sexual assaults that did not result in criminal charges against Coe. They also contended that he had ineffective counsel and that he deserved a new trial.

“Finding no reversible error in any of Coe’s claims, we affirm his commitment,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority.

“In general, I believe allegations of uncharged crimes should not be admitted into evidence,” Chambers wrote. “Experts should not act as funnels to allow lawyers to get into evidence through their expert opinion what is otherwise inadmissible.”

Yet, Chambers noted that he agreed with the decision to uphold the conviction because of the “unusual elements” of the case.

“In many, though not all, of the uncharged crimes, the perpetrator put fingers into victims’ mouths; attempted to induce the victim to urinate or defecate upon him; and asked personal and offensive questions,” he wrote. “The overwhelming untainted evidence supports the jury’s verdict.”

The decision likely ends Coe’s legal pursuit of exoneration after his arrest in 1981, following dozens of rapes attributed to the so-called South Hill rapist.

In my  post from 2008 I expressed my satisfaction with the judges’ decision, but at the same time I found it disturbing that principles seemed to be pushed aside for the sake of pragmatism. I can’t say I’ve changed my mind—I am still relieved that Coe is not going to be out and about, and I still find a forward-looking approach to justice disquieting. But look how common sense prevailed, in Chamber’s note. They had the guilty person all these years, he made so many women suffer and never had to answer for it except for one case, and now—he is not being punished for something he hasn’t been convicted of doing, but the community is being kept safe based on evidence of habitual activities. Justice.

Scientists: Humans and Non-Humans—We Are All Conscious August 26, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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A watershed of an event happend recently–if you’re in any way interested in the nature of consciousness. My students from Phil 107 and 108, and readers of my book, The Human Condition, know how vital I consider this topic, both in its ontological and  ethical aspects. I hope to expand this post later. For now, let me just share the URLs and a few quotes:

http://io9.com/5937356/prominent-scientists-sign-declaration-that-animals-have-conscious-awareness-just-like-us

An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?

 While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it’s the open acknowledgement that’s the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it’s no longer something we can ignore.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christof-koch/consciousness-is-everywhere_b_1784047.html

The two principal features that distinguish people from other animals is our hypertrophied ability to reflect upon ourselves (self-consciousness) and language. Yet there is little reason to deny consciousness to animals simply because they are mute or, for that matter, to premature infants because their brains are not fully developed. There is even less reason to deny it to people with severe aphasia who, upon recovery, can clearly describe their experiences while they were incapable of speaking. The perennial habit of introspection has led many intellectuals to devalue the unreflective, nonverbal character of much of life. The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people.

And here is the declaration in its entirety:

http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

Time to Rethink the Concept of Sexual Harassment? November 13, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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I came across an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times: “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks,” by Katie Roiphe. The title alone made me do a double-take, especially since I’ve been having second thoughts about recently deleting a box on sexual harassment from the upcoming 7th edition of The Moral of the Story. The debate just seemed so “Nineties” to me, and here we are in the second decade of a new century; surely we’ve come a longer way than that, Baby? And then the Cain story unfolds, and all of a sudden sexual harassment is in the news again. Apparently I’m not the only one who experienced a temporary time warp: According to Roiphe,

After all these years, we are again debating the definition of unwanted sexual advances and parsing the question of whether a dirty joke in the office is a crime. Conservatives have mocked the seriousness of sexual harassment; liberal and mainstream pundits have largely reverted to the pieties of the early ’90s, with the addition of some bloggy irony about irrelevant old men just not getting it.

The truth is, our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time.

…The problem is, as it always was, the capaciousness of the concept, the umbrellalike nature of the charge: sexual harassment includes both demanding sex in exchange for a job or a comment about someone’s dress. The words used in workshops — “uncomfortable,” “inappropriate,” “hostile” — are vague, subjective, slippery. Feminists and liberal pundits say, with some indignation, that they are not talking about dirty jokes or misguided compliments when they talk about sexual harassment, but, in fact, they are: sexual harassment, as they’ve defined it, encompasses a wide and colorful spectrum of behaviors.

The creativity and resourcefulness of the definitions, the broadness and rigor of the rules and codes, have always betrayed their more Orwellian purpose: when I was at Princeton in the ’90s, the guidelines distributed to students about sexual harassment stated, “sexual harassment may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” It is, of course, notoriously hard to control one’s unconscious, and one can behave quite hideously in one’s dreams, but that did not deter the determined scolds.

If this language was curiously retrograde in the early ’90s, if it harkened back to the protection of delicate feminine sensibilities in an era when that protection was patently absurd, it is even more outdated now when women are yet more powerful and ascendant in the workplace. In her brilliant and enduring critique of the women’s movement in 1972, Joan Didion wrote that certain strains of feminism were based on the idea of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets… too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties and ambiguities of adult life.”

And, in fact, the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.

Roiphe concludes by suggesting that we get back to living life dangerously with the risk of exposure to bawdy lingo. Regardless of the Herman Cain situation which is anything but clear at the moment, she brings up some interesting points: Perhaps women in the ’80s and ’90s needed protection from the Old Boys’ Network which was still intact and powerful, but can’t a woman simply speak up for herself today if she feels bothered by someone’s attention? We’re not being protected from rudeness in general, or office manipulation, so why this puritan focus on sexual harassment, which has ended up being a matter of perception rather than intention?

I think most of us who feel capable of speaking up for ourselves feel that we could probably handle a return to the days when a compliment on a dress, even if equivocal, wasn’t reason for suspension. But a couple of things should be taken into consideration before we return to the dirty jokes and cute compliments: that, for one  thing, the power structure where sexual harassment—the innuendos and sly glances, and “accidental” unwelcomed touches—was a matter of intimidation is still in effect in many workplaces. And a woman may not feel shy about speaking up to her peers in the workplace,  but it is still another thing entirely to remonstrate with the boss. And then, when you add the fact (also quoted by Roiphe) that,

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.”

In other words, for young people who have not been through the Nineties with their sensitivity training and so forth, and without any instruction about what is appropriate and what is not, sexual harassment as intimidation runs rampant. So yes, we have come further than the Nineties, those of us who remember, and some of the concerns of the past may seem petty and overbearing now. But that doesn’t mean the discussion was for naught, or that it should be abandoned today. There is a new clueless generation on the way, with social networks, texting, and a plethora of new ways of being nasty to each other, but sex has always been available as a power tool. It should be possible, today,  to distinguish between shy attempts at getting someone’s attention at work or at school, or simply friendly remarks, and manipulation using sexual harassment as a weapon. I think I’ll consider putting the section back into the 7th edition of The Moral of the Story

September 11 September 11, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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On this 10th anniversary of 9/11 we are reminded of how we felt on that day of horror. Appropriately, we are asked to remember those lives that were lost—Americans and foreigners, businessmen and -women, tourists, maintenance workers, vendors, police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. And the passengers on the four hijacked planes, including the now legendary Flight 93 where resolute people saved our nation from utter chaos by fighting back, resulting in the plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania, and not into the White House or the Capitol.  So is it now time to “Move On”? That depends on what we mean. Time to forgive? That is not an option open to most of us. Forgiveness can only come from those directly affected—the victims and their relatives. Time to forget? For the survivors that is not possible. And for the rest of us? Whether it fits into our world view or not, time will now make 9/11 recede into history, and what we are left with ought to be a memory of the pain, of the unity we felt as a people that day, and an understanding of the enormity of the event, untrivialized. Individually, we can choose our own interpretation of why it happened, from our chosen perspective—as long as it doesn’t differ from the accumulated evidence. Whatever our personal version and our political leanings, there is something we should indeed not forget: that while close to 3000 people lost their lives, more than an estimated 20,000 people were rescued that day by fellow human beings who risked their lives to save others, in many cases at the cost of their own. The passengers of Flight 93 will be remembered, but in the Towers, on the ground, and at the Pentagon there were also people who selflessly put their own lives at risk to help others—civilians as well as police, firefighters and military men and women. When we think back at the losses, we should also think of the lives saved, and the heroic decisions made by ordinary people facing an inconceivably horrible and chaotic situation…

Two Little Girls–One Mind? June 2, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Two little girls in British Columbia will grow up as conjoined twins;  they are craniopagus, connected at the head, sharing a part of their brain structure. Separating them is apparently not an option. That phenomenon, disturbing as it may be, is not in itself the reason why these little 4-year old girls are getting attention from cognitive neuroscientists. It is because they apparently share not only brain matter, but also sensory experiences:

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

The girls surely have a complicated conception of what they mean by “me.” If one girl sees an object with her eyes and the other sees it via that thalamic link, are they having a shared experience? If the two girls are unique individuals, then each girl’s experience of that stimulus would inevitably be different; they would be having a parallel experience, but not one they experienced in some kind of commingling of consciousness. But do they think of themselves as one when they speak in unison, as they often do, if only in short phrases? When their voices joined together, I sometimes felt a shift — to me, they became one complicated being who happened to have two sets of vocal cords, no less plausible a concept than each of us having two eyes. Then, just as quickly, the girls’ distinct minds would make their respective presences felt: Tatiana smiled at me while her sister fixated on the television, or Krista alone responded with a “Yeah?” to the call of her name.

Although each girl often used “I” when she spoke, I never heard either say “we,” for all their collaboration. It was as if even they seemed confused by how to think of themselves, with the right language perhaps eluding them at this stage of development, under these unusual circumstances — or maybe not existing at all. “It’s like they are one and two people at the same time,” said Feinberg, the professor of psychiatry and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. What pronoun captures that?

The average person tends to fall back on the Enlightenment notion of the self — one mind, with privacy of thought and sensory experience — as a key characteristic of identity. That very impermeability is part of what makes the concept of the mind so challenging to researchers studying how it works, the neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio says in his book, “Self Comes to Mind.” “The fact that no one sees the minds of others, conscious or not, is especially mysterious,” he writes. We may be capable of guessing what others think, “but we cannot observe their minds, and only we ourselves can observe ours, from the inside, and through a rather narrow window.”

And yet here are two girls who can possibly — humbly, daily — feel what the other feels. Even that extraordinary dynamic would still put the girls on the continuum of connectivity that exists between ordinary humans. Some researchers believe that when we observe another person feeling, say, the prick of a pin, our neurons fire in a way that directly mimics the neurons firing in the person whom the pin actually pricks. So-called mirror neurons are thought to foster empathy, creating connections of which we are hardly aware but that bind us in some kind of mutual understanding at a neurological level.

The article, written by Susan Dominus (New York Times Magazine) who visited with the girls, includes several incidents that would indicate some form of shared sensory experience. I recommend that you read the rest of the article. The girls have not been studied extensively because of their young age, but if they remain healthy we may be treated to insight about one of the many ways of being human that just hasn’t been scientifically explored yet—the sharing of a mind…The philosophical implications of this phenomenon are overwhelming, to say the least.

Genderless, or Clueless? May 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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4 comments

First of all, Hi everybody—sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. Just finishing the stacks of papers to be graded, and other work to be completed before the summer—it’s been a busy semester. Good classes, good discussions, but very little energy left over for blogging. I have, however, been tweeting! You can find my tweets under “@Socalethicsprof.”

Next, the story: I read it this morning, and it has been poking at me ever since: A family in Toronto has made a decision which seems to me right out of the Seventies (yes, I remember them well): they are raising their third baby without telling anyone his/her gender.

“When the baby comes out, even the people who love you the most and know you so intimately, the first question they ask is, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’” says Witterick, bouncing Storm, dressed in a red-fleece jumper, on her lap at the kitchen table.

“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

When Storm was born, the couple sent an email to friends and family: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

It seems to me that the parents are trying to do two different things, and they aren’t necessarily compatible: For one thing, they’re trying to educate the world about its knee-jerk ways of gender assumptions. Well, that’s been attempted since the 1960s, and while it is a noble thought—and I’ve done my share of attempting to Educate the World over the years, giving my cousins’ and friends’ babies stuffed toys and farm animal figures instead of dolls and toy trucks, and choosing green and yellow baby clothes instead of pinks and blues—you’re up against 100,000 years of Homo Sapiens stereotypes. And it is somewhat naive of the parents to think they can put a dent in hardwired human nature. However, things have changed since the mid-20th century, and gender roles have become more flexible, due to new ideals and a willingness to be nonconformist. But the other side to their project seems to me far less noble, and mostly self-serving: They are trying to force Storm into a mold that they consider politically preferable: a world where gender roles are a matter of choice. They’re waiting to see what kind of person s/he will choose to be—but after the sad case of David Reimer in the 1990s and other failed attempts at enforcing the psychosexual neutrality theory, haven’t we all had to realize that a fair amount of sexual identity is hardwired? In other words, Storm will discover who s/he is, not choose it, and no amount of societal pressure from people making assumptions about her/his gender is going to make a bit of difference. I’m afraid the only thing the parents will accomplish is turning their child into a social experiment. In a way all of us, as children, have of course been social experiments, and most of us have turned out fairly well-functioning, but part of being a child is being allowed to feel safe, and to belong. Children are hungry for rules and predictability, and little Storm is being set up so s/he will be the oddball of whatever community s/he will be a part of. Choice is great, but not until one is mature enough to know what one is choosing.

A psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made, has some good comments to the story:

Ehrensaft believes there is something innate about gender, and points to the ’70s, when parents experimented by giving dolls to boys and trucks to girls.

“It only worked up to a certain extent. Some girls never played with the trucks, some boys weren’t interested in ballet … It was a humbling experiment for us because we learned we don’t have the control that we thought we did.”

But she worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child.

“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them.”

Ehrensaft gets the “What the heck?!” reaction people may have when they hear about Storm. “I think it probably makes people feel played with to have that information withheld from them.”

As Socrates would say, a well-balanced person is not just someone who understands himself or herself, but who also is a well-adjusted citizen. You can’t become a well-adjusted citizen in a world where other people think you’re trying to fool them…

Update on Abbie Dorn March 26, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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8 comments

You may remember the case of Abbie Dorn who ended up braindamaged after giving birth to her triplets in 2006 due to a series of medical errors. Her mother requested that Abbie’s children, being raised by her (now ex-) husband, should have regular visits with their mother, but their father refused on the grounds that it would be traumatic for the children, and claiming  that Abbie would not benefit from it, either, due to her reduced mental state. Now a judge in Los Angeles has ruled that Abbie will indeed get visitation rights:

In a tentative 10-page ruling, Judge Frederick C. Shaller said that Abbie Dorn, 34, can see her daughter, Esti, and sons Reuvi and Yossi, for a five-day visit each year pending a trial in the acrimonious custody case. She also entitled to a monthly online Skype visit. A trial date has yet to be set.

“We are thrilled,” said Felicia Meyers, one of Dorn’s attorneys.

Although “there is no compelling evidence that the visitations by the children will have any benefit to Abby,” Shaller wrote, “…there is no compelling evidence that visitation with Abby will be detrimental to the children.”

In my previous post about Abbie’s situation I concluded (and pardon me for quoting myself! It’s easier to paste it in, here on a Saturday morning, than to rephrase it),

It’s not such a hard question. Be Solomonic. Err on the side of inclusive personhood—as long as there is a chance that Abbie is having experiences and wishes, respect them, and her. She is on a long, dark journey, and adding insult to her terrible injury by disregarding her potential personhood is unworthy these days. On the other hand, there is no reason why visitation rights should be granted from one day to the next, with the risk of traumatizing her toddlers. After all, she’s not asking for custody. If Abbie’s parents, and Abbie, want the best for the children (who at this point don’t even know they have a mother), they should be left with their father, and slowly be introduced to the story, with pictures, video, etc. Writing letters and drawing pictures to their mother could be the start of a relationship, building up a unique situation over months. I would assume that having a mother without a voice, or without arms that can hold them, but with loving eyes speaking a language of their own (if indeed Abbie herself is still behind those eyes), is a whole lot better than having no birth mother at all in their lives, and being told the story later when it is too late to amend the situation …what “might have been” is going to be cold comfort…

It seems that Judge Shaller holds the same view of Abbie and her children.