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Philosophy at the Table October 4, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Food and Drink, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Food and wine are among the consummate pleasures of everyday life. But philosophy throughout its history has largely ignored these pervasive satisfactions. Preoccupied with the life of the mind, the activities of the body were presumed to be quite separate from and inferior to thought. After all, we are biologically predisposed to enjoy salt, sugar, and fat and it takes only a little effort and no cognitive skill to reap their rewards. Since, food and drink are tied to our primitive, animal instinct to survive and socialize, philosophy’s conceit has been to remain chastely untouched by passions that stir likewise in pigs at a trough.

Furthermore, our tastes seem to be so irredeemably idiosyncratic, subjective, and immune to standards that philosophers have typically decided food and wine could not be systematically studied.

I think all of this is quite misguided. The study of food and wine is cognitively interesting and enhances our enjoyment. Although subjective up to a point, the appreciation of food and wine is no more subjective than the appreciation of painting or music, all of which are profitably understood as subject to standards of evaluation.

And so I have decided to plunge back into the blogosphere, after an extended hiatus, with Edible Arts, a blog and newsletter devoted to unpacking these dimensions of food and wine that please the palette, the intellect, and the heart. I will cross-post here when the post is related to philosophy and aesthetics, or visit me there for regular posts on the world of food and wine.

And we should not be so disparaging to pigs. There is no part of a pig I dislike—although I must confess never to have tried a pressed sow’s ear. There may be a line to draw here some place.


Cross-posted at Edible Arts.


Martha Nussbaum’s Calcutta Interview December 17, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Philosophybites tweets that American philosopher Martha Nussbaum was just interviewed in the Calcutta newspaper The Telegraph. The interview conducted by Somak Ghoshal focuses on her interest in Rabindranath Tagore, but she also expresses her views on philosophy as a discipline, and her interest in the value of emotions–an interest that she has expressed long before the current trend, ever since her book Love’s Knowledge (1990).

…The arts and the humanities are being cut back, education now is about producing useful bodies that can increase the national profit.” Tagore, too, had outlined such a conflict between the moral man and the man of limited purpose in The Religion of Man.

I ask her if philosophy, which is usually looked down upon as a “useless subject”, especially in countries such as India, has been the worst hit. Nussbaum agrees. “In the US, at least, the study of philosophy forms some part of a liberal education. Students take general courses in it before majoring in something else,” she says. “But in the British system, which is similar to the Indian system, students have to focus on only one subject. In that case, what does philosophy do for you?” In a recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum makes a powerful connection between democracy, imagination and empathy. “Every single university student should study philosophy,” she says with a disarming earnestness, “You need to lead the examined life and question your beliefs. If you don’t learn critical thinking, then political debate degenerates into a contest of slogans.” She believes this process has set in in the US, where debate is used to attack others, not as a tool to understand the structure of an argument. “Socrates was right when he said that democracies are prone to sloppy, hasty reasoning,” she says, “People need to slow down and analyse what they are saying. Tagore understood this too well, and so the style of instruction in his school was Socratic.”

Does she feel that Tagore is trying to forge a new philosophical language to talk about education in The Religion of Man? Is that why he seems to waver between an emotional and an empirical register? “Mill, too, had argued that a full human life requires a balance between the analytical faculties and a deep, spiritual appreciation of beauty,” Nussbaum clarifies, “You must be able to appreciate the depth of another human being.” “But,” she continues, “Tagore is better than Mill because he thinks about love.” In fact, Nussbaum’s current project is “a long book on political emotions” where she shows that society can’t be held together merely “by cold feelings of respect” — there must be room for love.

Losing Our Country October 11, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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I have blogged often about the increasing concentration of wealth in this country over the past 30 years. It is important to recognize that this has political consequences.

Economist Robert Reich lays out these political consequences:

Not only is income and wealth in America more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 80 years, but those hands are buying our democracy as never before – and they’re doing it behind closed doors.

Hundreds of millions of secret dollars are pouring into congressional and state races in this election cycle. The Koch brothers (whose personal fortunes grew by $5 billion last year) appear to be behind some of it, Karl Rove has rounded up other multi-millionaires to fund right-wing candidates, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funneling corporate dollars from around the world into congressional races, and Rupert Murdoch is evidently spending heavily.

No one knows for sure where this flood of money is coming from because it’s all secret.

But you can safely assume its purpose is not to help America’s stranded middle class, working class, and poor. It’s to pad the nests of the rich, stop all reform, and deregulate big corporations and Wall Street – already more powerful than since the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators.

Credit the Supreme Court’s grotesque decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates. (Even though 8 of 9 members of the Court also held disclosure laws constitutional, the decision invited the creation of shadowy “nonprofits” that don’t have to reveal anything.)

According to FEC data, only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.

Last week, when the Senate considered a bill to force such disclosure, every single Republican voted against it – thereby revealing the GOP’s true colors, and presumed benefactors. (To understand how far the GOP has come, nearly ten years ago campaign disclosure was supported by 48 of 54 Republican senators.)

Maybe the Disclose Bill can get passed in lame-duck session. Maybe the IRS will make sure Karl Rove’s and other supposed nonprofits aren’t sham political units. Maybe pigs will learn to fly.

In the meantime we face an election that marks an even sharper turn toward plutocratic capitalism than before – a government by and for the rich and big corporations — and away from democratic capitalism.

As income and wealth has moved to the top, so has political power. That’s why, for example, it’s been impossible to close the absurd tax loophole that allows hedge-fund and private-equity managers to treat much of their income as capital gains, subject to a 15 percent tax (even though they’re earning tens or hundreds of millions a year, and the top 15 hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion last year). Why it proved impossible to fund expanded health care by limiting the tax deductions of the very rich. Why it’s so difficult even to extend George Bush’s tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent of Americans without also extending them for the top 2 percent – even though the top won’t spend the money and create jobs, but will blow a $36 billion hole in the federal budget next year.

The good news is average Americans are beginning to understand that when the rich secretly flood our democracy with money, the rest of us drown. Wall Street executives and top CEOs get bailed out while under-water homeowners and jobless workers sink.

A Quinnipiac poll earlier this year found overwhelming support for a millionaire tax.

But what the public wants means nothing if our democracy is secretly corrupted by big money.

Right now we’re headed for a perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government. The three are obviously related.

We must act. We need a movement to take back our democracy. (If tea partiers were true to their principles, they’d join it.) As Martin Luther King once said, the greatest tragedy is “not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Reich has some advice about what we can do:

What can you do?

1. Read Justice Steven’s dissent in the Citizens United case, so you’re fully informed about the majority’s pernicious illogic.

2. Use every opportunity to speak out against this decision, and embarrass and condemn the right-wing Justices who supported it.

3. In this and subsequent elections, back candidates for congress and president who vow to put Justices on the Court who will reverse it.

4. Demand that the IRS enforce the law and pull the plug on Karl Rove and other sham nonprofits.

5. If you have a Republican senator, insist that he or she support the Disclose Act. If they won’t, campaign against them.

6. Support public financing of elections.

7. Join an organization like Common Cause, that’s committed to doing all this and getting big money out of politics. (Personal note: I’m so outraged at what’s happening that I just became chairman of Common Cause.)

8. Send this post to your friends (including any tea partiers you may know).

That is all well and good but the most important thing we can do is vote in every election and vote Democratic.

Why the Democrats? It is true that the Democrats depend on campaign contributions. That is how the game is played. You don’t win if  you don’t play.

But there is an enormous difference between a political party that thinks it not only permissible but moral virtuous that the richest 1% control the political process, and a political party that does not endorse that as part of their ideology.

The Democrats may be the reasonable wing of the ruling class.

But these days “reasonable” is nothing to sneeze at.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Folk are Not Utilitarians October 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care, Uncategorized.
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Via Ben Goldacre:

Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell wanted to see whether our perception of the severity of a crime was affected by the number of people affected. 60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.

In an ideal world, you’d imagine that someone who harmed more people would deserve a harsher treatment. Participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime, and recommend a punishment: even though fewer people were affected, participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.

And more than that, they acted on this view: out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who heard the 3 victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30 victim people. Another study, where a food processing company knowingly poisoned its customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results. […]

[T]hey then go on to examine the actual sentences given in a representative sample of 136 real world court cases, to people who were found guilty of exactly these kinds of crimes, but with different numbers of victims, to see what impact the victim-count had.

The results were extremely depressing. These were cases where people from corporations had been found guilty of negligently exposing members of the public to toxic substances such as asbestos, lead paint, or toxic mould, and their victims had all suffered significantly. They were all from 2000 to 2009, they were all jury trials, and the researchers’ hypothesis was correct: people who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm smaller number of people. Juries punish people less harshly when they harm more people.

I’m not sure what explains this result. Perhaps a crime against a small number suggests an intention to harm, whereas a crime against many is perceived more like negligence.

But I think it is more likely that we find it easier to empathize with one or two people than empathize with a large group.

This is what the authors suggest. We feel more sympathy toward identifiable individuals than for abstract individuals. In fact subjects gave richer descriptions of the victims in the small number cases; and in the large number cases, giving subjects a photo of the victims seemed to eliminate the effect.

This helps to confirm that if, as moral theorists, we are interested in describing human nature, the ethics of care gives us a better handle on human motivation than impartialist theories like utilitarianism or deontology.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Plutocracy Rules October 3, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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Maybe this is why so many independents are planning to vote Republican this year—they watch too much TV.

A couple weeks ago The NY Times reported on how a supposedly non-profit group is funding the upcoming election thanks to the Roberts Supreme Court.

Americans for Job Security, investigators found, had helped create the illusion of a popular upwelling to shield the identity of a local financier who paid for most of the referendum campaign. More broadly, they said, far from being a national movement advocating a “pro-paycheck message,” the group is actually a front for a coterie of political operatives, devised to sidestep campaign disclosure rules.

“Americans for Job Security has no purpose other than to cover various money trails all over the country,” the staff of the Alaska Public Offices Commission said in a report last year…Americans for Job Security avoids disclosure by reporting all its revenue as “membership dues.” It claims more than 1,000 members. But a review of its tax returns shows membership revenue fluctuating wildly depending on election cycles — similar to the fund-raising of political committees that escalates during campaign season.

Meanwhile tea party nitwits, who believe Americans for Job Security is some sort of grassroots organization, vigorously  join with their bosses in preserving tax cuts for millionaires  while cutting schools, public health or anything else associated with government (except for the military).

Michael Luo and Stephanie Strom report in the New York Times:

Interviews with a half-dozen campaign finance lawyers yielded an anecdotal portrait of corporate political spending since the Citizens United decision. They agreed that most prominent, publicly traded companies are staying on the sidelines.

But other companies, mostly privately held, and often small to medium size, are jumping in, mainly on the Republican side. Almost all of them are doing so through 501(c) organizations, as opposed to directly sponsoring advertisements themselves, the lawyers said.

“I can tell you from personal experience, the money’s flowing,” said Michael E. Toner, a former Republican FEC commissioner, now in private practice at the firm Bryan Cave.

There are no hard figures about corporate financing of elections because they no longer are required to disclose their donations.

Jonathan Martin of Politico using internal Democratic data reports that as of 2 weeks ago pro-Republican organizations had paid for a total of $23.6 million worth of ads compared to $4.8 million for Democratic-aligned groups. Over the next four weeks, GOP groups have $9.4 million worth of TV ads reserved across 40 districts compared to $1.3 million in five districts for Democratic groups.

Now that the supreme court has eviscerated campaign finance rules, there are no constraints on corporate cash flowing to conservative causes. I suspect this is happening all across the country. We no longer live in democracy; we live in a plutocracy in which business interests can spend any amount they wish to control political ads on TV.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Tax-Payer Receipts September 30, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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I doubt that I will agree with much of the Third Way’s deficit-reduction ideas, but this proposal (pdf) for a taxpayer receipt sent to each tax payer sounds like a great idea:

Corn syrup, milk chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, coconut, almond, soy lecithin … any consumer can read these ingredients and their nutritional value on every package of a 75-cent Almond Joy. What is provided to a taxpayer with a $5,400 tax bill? Nothing. For many Americans, the amount they pay in taxes is larger than any purchase they make during the year, but studies show they know almost nothing about where that money goes to.

This contributes to ridiculous beliefs, like the view that 20% of government spending goes to foreign aid, for example. An electorate unschooled in basic budget facts is a major obstacle to controlling the nation’s deficit, not to mention addressing a host of economic and social problems. We suggest that everyone who files a tax return receive a “taxpayer receipt.” This receipt would tell them to the penny what their taxes paid for based on the amount they paid in federal income taxes and FICA.

And here’s an example of what it would look like:


[This is not a complete list of government expenditures, hence the reference to “selected items”. ]

Perhaps with this receipt it would gradually dawn on the American public that cutting back on all the Republican bugbears—foreign aid, EPA, Amtrak, and public housing—would not lower anyone’s taxes much.

And perhaps they may come to the realization that most of what the government pays for they really like.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Tired Rhetoric September 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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I just listened to part of the debate between Brown and Whitman. And Whitman keeps making the same tired argument that businesses are leaving California because of taxes and too much regulation. But Bureau of Labor Statistics don’t support  that claim. In fact, we have lost fewer jobs than neighboring states. Last year, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon had over 6.5% job loss compared to 4% in California. Of course any job lost is one too many but the job losses are caused by the recession, not taxes or regulations.

According to the  Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), there is very little movement of businesses across state lines and California is about 20th in the nation when it comes to the tax burden.  A recent report found that California loses fewer jobs across its borders than other states because large, metropolitan areas are far from the state border.

Schwarzenegger was fond of making the same false claim. E-meg needs to find some new talking points.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

American Sins Against Socrates September 27, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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David Schneider laments our lack of self-reflection:

I’ll give one thing to the demagogues – they sure know something about basic human psychology. For those of us waterboarded by the economy, we’re close to Depression desperation. It’s a commonplace that depression is “anger focused inward”; and the cheap-and-easy way out, if you’re too cash-strapped for the shrink or the meds, is to displace that anger outward to the nearest, easiest target.

O America, if there’s anything we suck at, it’s adequate self-reflection. Oh sure, we love looking at ourselves, we paragons of self-flattery on the flat screen; but thinking about ourselves (by which we mean, interrogating history) – well, that’s injurious to our self-esteem. After all, we tried it a couple times: Jimmy Carter, and what the right-wing called the “politics of resentment” in the “radical left-wing” academy of the ’80s and ’90s. Reagan’s “Morning in America,” and the Neoconservative revels after Communism’s collapse, sure showed those liberal pantywaists. The power of positive thinking. Huh.

I’ve thought a lot about the acolytes of that cipher, George W. Bush, as the last decade broke and darkened. And I thought of my father, who, as I was growing up, could do almost anything but admit he was wrong. I thought about hard-line Communists in the Politburo, as the Soviet Union dissolved: what happens when everything you’ve believed in is a lie?

When the economy collapses and your phallus is your finances, you’re getting kicked in the nuts. Pretty humiliating.

So you can actually feel really embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed – and pledge to reform, and actually reform – but that involves a lot of thinking, and gee, there’s so much to think about already. On the other hand, you can get angry. Throw that anger away from yourself, as far as you possibly can: to the Other: socialists, terrorists, illegal immigrants, and the mythical chimaera of all three, the President of the United States of America.

In Britain, August is “the silly season”; in America, we scapegoat. It’s a necessary action, according to the Old Testament – all the sins of the Israelites, placed upon a goat’s head, which is then thrown off a cliff or banished to the wilderness. It’s the prerequisite to Atonement, which Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck pantomimed before the giant of Lincoln, in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Only then, after the scapegoat is cast out, and the ceremony of Atonement is complete, can you re-establish the Covenant, and be written into the Book of Life again, as the new Republican Pledge attempts.

Tragedy is the goat’s song.

I’m theorizing here, with no more or less credence than the Beck himself. (Heck,he made bank off his conspiracy theories; why can’t I?) I’m only trying to dig into the deep substrata of our national mythologies, attempting to discover any rationale for America’s persistent avoidance of self-knowledge: that we were taken for fools. Every day, we are confronted by our own financially fatal gullibility and the deceit of our neighbors. The litany is so omnipresent, so perpetual, that we are apt to plug our fingers in our ears and shout “LA LA LA!” In the last month alone, I’m appalled to read about Nevin Shapiro, who pled guilty to defrauding investors across America of $880 million; George L. Theodule, “man of God,” who stole at least $4 million (and as much as $23 million) from his Haitian-American church congregation; Marcia Sladish, a Giants Stadium ticket collector, who collected $15 million from a Reverend Sun-Myung Moon-afilliated church congregation and is now serving 70 months in prison; the trio of miscreants who, until recently, ran North Providence, R.I., blackmailing and cajoling bribes out of anyone who wanted to do a bit of honest business; and the entire city council of Bell, California, which ran their poverty-stricken town like malevolent lords over a provincial fiefdom.  

It’s pretty much the same story across the board, from John Farahi in southern California to Scott Rothstein in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale: be charismatic and charming, promise the world to your fellow believers, take their money, buy some hot cars and chic restaurants and maybe a mansion or three. Beat the Johnsons. Repeat as necessary until you’re in the dock, blubbering for leniency, very LiLo-like.

It’s sickening.

And it’s easy to get angry.
It’s easy to be misanthropic.
It’s tempting to look for easy answers.

But the fact is, many of the fraudsters who’ve downed our economy are being exposed due to the diligence of the Obama administration, and quite perversely, we don’t like it.

As far back as 2004, the FBI was complaining that mortgage fraud was a major threat to the American economy. The Bush administration had shifted the vast majority of the FBI’s manpower toward counterterrorism efforts (a fact often emphasized in The Wire), leaving the agency unable to respond to financial crimes. Each year, the FBI petitioned the Bush administration for more agents; each year, the requests were denied.

Under the Obama administration, the FBI radically stepped up investigations and prosecutions of financial fraud, according to last Wednesday’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. For a mere three-and-a-half months, the FBI’s been engaged in a sweep called Operation Stolen Dreams, arresting 525 people allegedly responsible for more than $3 billion in losses. And, if you read the report, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We, the people, are furious (according to the mainstream media); we decry “porkbarreling” and “sweetheart deals” in Congress; we are terrified that the economy will not “recover” to its “previous level.” The fact is, the economy was never at its “previous level.” Scuppered by our own self-aggrandizement (which we euphemize as “self-esteem”) we have defrauded ourselves to believe that we are worth much more than we are. Often, we’ve deluded ourselves and others. Some of us have done so to a degree that is criminal. And those that have done so are guilty, and ashamed, and in denial, and are angry at themselves, and may well take shelter under the right wing of the tea partiers, who repent for us all, and champion the unbounded freedom to hoodwink us to our national ruin.

After all, one must protect one’s own interests. That’s the American way.

The press claims the upcoming election is a referendum on Obama’s economic plan. But Schneider is right that much of our current political debate is the politics of projection, avoidance and self-deception. The upcoming election is really a referendum on the American public and its capacity for self-reflection.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Animal Suffering September 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Uncategorized.
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From Jeff McMahan on the NY Times Opinionator Blog

Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous. […]

The continuous, incalculable suffering of animals is also an important though largely neglected element in the traditional theological “problem of evil” ─ the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. The suffering of animals is particularly challenging because it is not amenable to the familiar palliative explanations of human suffering. Animals are assumed not to have free will and thus to be unable either to choose evil or deserve to suffer it. Neither are they assumed to have immortal souls; hence there can be no expectation that they will be compensated for their suffering in a celestial afterlife. Nor do they appear to be conspicuously elevated or ennobled by the final suffering they endure in a predator’s jaws. Theologians have had enough trouble explaining to their human flocks why a loving god permits them to suffer; but their labors will not be over even if they are finally able to justify the ways of God to man. For God must answer to animals as well.

Theists have never had an answer to the problem of human evil. I doubt they have an answer to animal suffering either.

McMahan speculates that humans might do better than “God.”

But ought we to go further?  Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones.  Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?

As McMahan points out, intentionally inducing the elimination of entire species is itself a moral wrong. (Almost as bad as just allowing them to go extinct in order to make sure oil men profit.)

But in the end McMahan’s proposal is silly. It is hard enough to get human beings to care about the suffering of other humans. That is apparently about all the morality we can handle, and our lack of moral capacity is threatening our own existence.  There may be some possible world in which animal suffering carries the same moral weight as human suffering. But it is not close to this world.

But God doesn’t have the same limitations. God’s moral capacity is not limited.

So why animal suffering?

The Enthusiasm Gap September 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Uncategorized.
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Much has been made in the political press about the enthusiasm gap that separates Republicans and Democrats. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans but Republicans are much more enthusiastic about voting this November than Democrats are, so Republicans are likely to pick up seats in the House and Senate.

There are lots of reasons for this enthusiasm gap. The party in power seldom does well in off-year elections in part because it is much easier to get enthusiastic about being an angry critic than it is to defend the hard slog of actually governing. But I think there is something to the view that part of the enthusiasm gap is explained by Obama’s failure to articulate progressive values.

Robert Reich provides a precise example of this failure:

Why is there an enthusiasm gap? Let me illustrate.

Today (Monday) at a “town hall” sponsored by CNBC in Washington, the President took questions about the economy. When a hedge-fund manager complained that Wall Street executives “feel like we’ve been whacked with a stick” by the administration, Obama said most of his critics think he’s been too soft on the Street.

He noted he still hasn’t been able to end the practice of taxing some hedge fund and private-equity earnings at the capital-gains rates rather than the higher income-tax rates. “The notion that somehow me saying maybe you should be taxed more like your secretary when you’re pulling home a billion dollars…a year I don’t think is me being extremist or anti-business.”

Good as far as he went. But that’s as far as he was willing to go. It was a golden opportunity for Obama to connect the dots — to make the case that

(1) super-rich financiers on Wall Street and top corporate executives have grown even richer than they were before the Great Recession, even though most Americans are getting poorer or losing their jobs and homes and savings, and more Americans are in poverty.

(2) Yet the lobbyists for the financiers and top corporate executives, and their Republican allies have blocked or tried to block every effort of the Administration to widen the circle of prosperity, including enacting a major jobs program, providing major relief for mortgage holders who are under water, helping working families afford college for their kids, making sure states and cities have enough money to pay our classroom teachers, and cutting taxes on average working people.

(3) They almost scuttled the effort to make sure health care would be affordable to average Americans.

(4) The super-rich say the nation can’t afford any of this because of budget deficits. Yet at the same time their platoons of lobbyists are fighting off efforts to treat their income as taxable earnings rather than capital gains. So last year the 400 richest families in America, with an average income of $300 million each, were taxed at an average rate of only 17 percent. That’s the same tax rate paid by a family earning $30,000.

(5) And they’re fighting off efforts to end the temporary Bush tax cuts. If they’re successful, the richest 1 percent of Americans will get a windfall of $36 billion next year. Millionaire families will avoid paying $31 billion in taxes. Over ten years, they’d avoid paying $700 billion.

(6) And they’re fighting off efforts to restore the estate tax, which only applies to the top 2 percent of Americans, and which has been in effect since Abraham Lincoln introduced it to help finance the Civil War. How do we afford national defense if the richest and most privileged Americans won’t pay their fair share?

(7) Wealth and power in this country are so distorted that the top 25 hedge-fund managers each earned an average of $1 billion last year. $1 billion would support 20,000 classroom teachers. Yet who contributes more to this country — a hedge-fund manager or a teacher?

But he didn’t.

Instead, he challenged tea-party activists to come up with specific spending cuts. “It’s not enough just to say, ‘Get control of spending.’ I think it’s important for you to say, you know, I’m willing to cut veterans’ benefits, or I’m willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits, or I’m willing to see taxes go up.”

Obama has done a fine job of getting progressive legislation enacted. But he has not played the role of educator-in-chief. The country has become more conservative on his watch and he bears some of the responsibility for that. But that is not a reason to refuse to vote in the November elections.

Democratic politicians need to acquire a spine, but so do some of their supporters.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com