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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.

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…

‘Tis the Season to Give (and Receive) Gifts December 9, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The philosophy of giving is an interesting little branch off the big branch of Generosity, growing on the tree of Virtue Ethics. Interestingly, Generosity is entangled with another branch, Gratitude. (I even wrote something about that in The Moral of the Story Chapter 11). So when an article in the Wall Street Journal focused on giving and regifting recebtly, I thought I’d share some of its points with you. First of all, an interesting illustration:

image

Next, some fascinating points made:

Some gift givers spend time and energy trying to find just the right gift. But thoughtful gifts don’t necessarily lead to greater appreciation, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found.

People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Sharon Love once received a book that was clearly regifted: It was inscribed to the giver. She gave it back to him the following year. Ms. Love, who heads a marketing agency in New York, is herself a regifter when a gift is appropriate for another person.

“It turns out it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the gift that counts,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago…

Oh, where to start? What a smorgasbord of philo-associations!

Psychological egoism: They’ve said it all along, we give so we’ll feel good! BUT if the receiver doesn’t appreciate our gift, we won’t feel nearly as good, so we must have at least some interest in actually pleasing someone else.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean: There are a thousand ways to miss the bull’s-eye, and only one right way to hit it. There is one right gift for our friend/mom/dad/spouse/child/colleague out there, and if we have an excellent character we will know what that is.

The Revision-of-the-Golden-Rule philosophy/The Platinum Rule: And the right thing is how they want to be treated, not what you want to give them (because that’s what you’d want yourself! Think of Homer Simpson and the bowling ball for Marge) 🙂

And there is more support for Aristotle here:

Another study found spending more money on a gift doesn’t necessarily translate into greater appreciation. That might come as a surprise to many gift givers, who often assume that a more expensive gift conveys a higher level of thoughtfulness, according to the research, published in 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, but some of us grew up in a less materialistic world, and the idea of “the more expensive, the better” is somewhat alien to us. But there’s always the assumption that if someone is going to return our gift to the store, then it looks better if they can get another gift at the value of $50 than at $15…That’s just human nature. But again, what would Aristotle say? The Golden Mean is a mean between two extremes, too much and too little. For each situation there is an appropriate action/feeling (and purchase), and sometimes what your recipient really really wants is something small and simple. Sometimes it is huge and expensive, to be sure, but then Aristotle would say that you are guided by the Golden Mean of your ability to give, and fondness for/past history with the recipient.

And then there are thoughts about regifting, about a gifted purse:

“I thought, ‘You know, I know someone else would like it more than I would.’ So I gave it to one of my friends for her birthday,” Ms. Sayeed says. About six months later, the friend came over to Ms. Sayeed’s aunt’s house, purse in hand, and the aunt exclaimed, “You know, Humera has a purse just like that!”

“I said, ‘You know Auntie, I loved it so much that I got her the same one,’ ” Ms. Sayeed fibbed. “I had a moment to probably come clean about it and I just decided it would be better not to, which I guess is why people feel sneaky about regifting.”

So a kind little utilitarian lie is also part of the discussion…And the upshot is,

The adage “It’s the thought that counts” was largely debunked by the recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that gift givers are better off choosing gifts that receivers actually desire rather than spending a lot of time and energy shopping for what they perceive to be a thoughtful gift. The study found thoughtfulness doesn’t increase a recipient’s appreciation if the gift is a desirable one. In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked.

And that brings me to my final branch of this discussion, on the tree of Virtue Ethics: the virtue of Gratitude. And this is where we switch from “descriptive” to “normative.” After all, we’re not doing psychology but philosophy here. So my response would be, Then start showing some gratitude for the thought, for goodness’ sake! Gratitude is not just a feeling, but an attitude (yes I know, it actually rhymes). You can show gratitude even if you don’t have that warm, overwheming feeling. If you wait for the feeling to arrive, somebody didn’t raise you right. So when you get that yucky somethingorother, regifted or not, then smile and say thank you, and if you can tell that somebody actually spent a lot of effort in getting that one thing to you, tell them it’s amazing how well they know you. And since I’m not a fan of regifting at all, since you risk offending a kind giver irreparably, then donate the gift that wasn’t perfect. Somebody out there in a thrift shop will thank you.

Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays!

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

The Ethics of…Game of Thrones! May 29, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Time for some early summer fun; lucky those (like me), for whom fun and work often end up merging, such as in narrative ethics. And I’ve found the HBO series Game of Thrones to be seriously fun, once you get into the fictional, pseudo-historical universe. (Haven’t read any of the books yet—I understand the TV series is deviating from the original in increasingly dramatic ways.) If anybody wants to catch up on the series before the season finale on Sunday, HBO is running the entire season this week. You can have an early-summer GoT marathon—and afterwards you can acquire a copy of Game of Thrones and Philosophy from Blackwell, which I have just ordered as a light summer read! If you are not worried about reading a spoiler article, take a look at Time’s review of episode 9, “Game of Thrones Watch: Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky” (those of you over 50 can start humming now…). It contains good character analyses, and a particularly insightful view of the character who emerges as the real focal point of the story, Tyrion Lannister:

I was on the verge of calling Tyrion’s behavior “heroic,” but that’s not really the term. Notably, we see that this is not Tyrion rising to his true calling or discovering that it is a far, far greater thing her does, &c., &c. It’s a practical decision, in that if the defenders of the city are not inspired, he will die. He plays the part (and Peter Dinklage does) masterfully, but he rouses his men with a purely practical argument too: “Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for for glory. Don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any.”

And the reviewer could/should have added what comes next—what Tyrion tells his army: “Fight for your homes.” Because Tyrion may be pragmatic, but he is not altogether a cynic.

All in all, it is a story about moral decisions, big and small—split-second decisions that come from the heart, or weighed by a calculating mind, and which all have consequences. Some decisions are made from a utilitarian, some from a deontological stance. Lots of ethical egoism in there, too, and just knee-jerk egoism. And some characters are pure at heart, and we see their ethic of care, their virtue ethics unfold, such as Sansa who from being a victim all of a sudden finds strength in helping others.

And so forth! If you’re looking for a joyride this week, leading up to the season finale on Sunday (and have cable), watch the 9 shows on HBO and look for all the moral, immoral and amoral viewpoints swirling around. A well-told tale, well acted, just right for some summer speculations about fictional problems of fictional characters.

Enjoy your summer!

 

 

The Moral of the Story 7/e is Out! April 15, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Education, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy Profession.
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I’m happy to announce that the seventh edition of my ethics textbook The Moral of the Story is now available:

The cover painting is by Karen Barbour, Bay Area artist, and every edition of the book has had a painting by her on the cover. She has a wonderfully visionary style, and I love being able to maintain the visual consistency in this new edition. This image in particular perfectly illustrates the maze of thoughts we often find ourselves in, in regard to moral issues. (And as with all mazes, there is always a way out, even if it is not within view…)

McGraw-Hill has a website where you can check out the Table of Contents and other features of the new edition. Instructors can request a desk copy. Among the new sections are a thoroughly updated Chapter 1, and sections on Happiness studies, Moral Naturalism, updated research on ethics and neuroscience, ethics and empathy, a new Nietzsche section, an updated Ayn Rand section, and several new movies and novels including Avatar, State of Play, True Grit, The Invention of Lying, and A Thousand Spendid Suns. And  Chapter 10 has a picture of Dwight Furrow! 🙂

Titanic–a Tale to Remember April 14, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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So now we think we know what happened, on that night exactly 100 years ago. Divers have explored the wreck, animated computer models have been presented, rescued artifacts are making their rounds around the world, stories of lost souls and survivors have been told, documentaries and movies have been made. So after the 100th anniversary, can we now close the book on Titanic? Or will it become one of the stories of humankind that we will never quite be done with? If so, it will be because, for one thing, it speaks to something perennial in the human psyche—and for another, because the story is broad and deep enough that different times and ages can find their own reflections in it.

When the disaster happened, the world was different—and I’m not talking about technology. The very mindset of the western world in 1912 was vastly different from today, because of the enormous optimism felt on two continents: the new century was going to be magnificent; the advances in medicine would soon conquer all diseases; technology would take humanity to far-away places on the planet, at break-neck speeds; politically, democracies were spreading, and war seemed like a primitive option, left behind in the turmoil of the 19th century (and few people were in the position to be able to predict the start of the Great War (WWI) just tw years later). And nature, in all its forms, would soon be conquered by human know-how and willpower. And what better symbol of the new age than the sister ships being built in Belfast, the Olympic and the Titanic? And when the Titanic, the carrier of the dream of the future, sank on April 14, 1912, the dream of an invincible 20th century perished, too, and in its place rose a wave of cynicism that we have, in effect, been riding ever since.

As we all know from Cameron’s movie (if we didn’t know already): It wasn’t the architect who claimed the ship was unsinkable—the concept came from the owners and the advertisers. The sinking of Titanic gave rise to cynicism and skepticism about what authorities tell you (don’t worry, there will be another lifeboat), about what advertisers tell you, about the promises of technology and even the wisdom of applying it. In short, Titanic now became a symbol for human hubris and nemesis, and that is the mirror Titanic has held up to us for a century.  

But now? With the 100th anniversary the drumbeat of the moral lessons of Titanic is sounding a new beat, coming from James Cameron himself. Two themes are emerging that one hundred years ago were not high on the agenda; one wasn’t even on the horizon. The recently corroborated fact that of the 1500 people who died that night, a great number were 3rd class passengers, locked up in steerage like rats, without even a change of escaping, has become a new theme: When disaster strikes, everybody suffers, but some may be suffering more than others: the have-nots. According to statistics, 75 percent of steerage passengers died, while among the first class passengers “only” 37 percent were lost. So the social aspect of Titanic as a class experience has emerged as a moral lesson, added to the hubris theme. But Cameron sees yet another moral caveat in the story of Titanic: the hubris of a planet thinking it can go full steam ahead without worrying about icebergs, for the sake of profit. For him, Planet Earth is a Titanic forging ahead into climate change.

So is that an appropriate lesson to be learned from the story of Titanic, or does it somehow deflect and detract from the actual tragedy happening to real people 100 years ago? Are they being used merely as a means to a political end? That is up to us to decide, individually. What fascinates me is that the doomed ship can take on a new narrative role as a teacher of moral lessons that go far beyond the concerns of 100 years ago. But perhaps that is the case with all good stories; they not only tell a timeless tale, but their lesson can be adapted to new ages and different problems.

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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4 comments

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…