Our narrow definition of “philosophy”

Each year, the website Edgeposes a single thought-provoking question to hundreds of different intellectuals — scientists, philosophers, authors, journalists, poets — then collects and posts their replies online for the general public to read. Past…

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Major changes to this blog


For nearly two years, I have been updating The Moral Perspective every weekday with articles, news, and essays on issues relating to ethics, politics, and religion.

I created this blog and conducted this work with three goals in mind. First, I wanted to track the progress of my own thinking on ethics, politics, and religion. Second, I wanted to help others to think more often and clearly, and be more informed regarding these issues. Third, I wanted to make sure I was writing on a consistent basis. I am of the mindset that you ought to devote at least two hours each day to writing; that’s how you stay a decent writer, and become a better one.

In the past year, several things have changed. Most significantly, I have (happily) added several new job responsibilities, which require me to write, travel, and speak at public engagements more than I previously did. Unfortunately, this — combined with trying to operate this blog as I have — has cut into the amount of time I spent reading. This is not something I have been comfortable with. 

I have also slowly but surely developed a stronger interest in pursuing a longer-term project: writing a book on secularism and morality.

Therefore, in order to maintain my own happiness, The Moral Perspective is going to change. No longer will I update this blog every day. I might not even update it every week. In fact, for the near future I am most likely going to take a break from blogging here completely.

That doesn’t mean I’m killing this blog for good. It just means a change from the past. I’ll write when I want to write; I’ll post when I want to post. After some time off, I might even change my mind and come back and change the nature of this blog. Perhaps I’ll use it to launch my book. Who knows. But, for now, this change is necessary. 

I would like to give my most sincere thanks to everyone who has read this blog. I hope to see you again soon. 

Ethically yours,

Michael De Dora

Ronald Dworkin, theorist on relationship between morality and law, dead at 81

Matt Schudel of The Washington Post has written a great obituary on a man who has influenced the thinking of a countless number of people on this issue (including me):

Ronald Dworkin, an innovative legal thinker who developed a novel interpretation of the moral underpinnings of the Constitution and who became respected in liberal circles for his writings on law, politics and hotly debated public issues, died Feb. 14 in London. He was 81 and had leukemia.

New York University, where Mr. Dworkin was a law professor, announced his death.

Mr. Dworkin, who also taught for many years at the University of Oxford in Britain, went against a century of legal thinking — including the theories of his two most important mentors — to develop a new concept of jurisprudence based on society’s widely shared notions of morality.

His idea of “law as integrity” held that jurists should interpret legal cases through a consistent set of moral principles. In other words, law and morality were inextricably linked, which was a subtle twist in legal thinking. Mr. Dworkin’s theories gained a wide following, particularly among social liberals.

“For many, Dworkin was something of a legal prophet who tried to invest legal interpretation with a sense of moral reasoning,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said Thursday. “His writings offered a new and transcendent view of the law — a view that will influence legal reasoning for generations.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Why we should be more open to tenderness

Looking for some Valentine’s Day reading? Philosopher Gordon Marino has penned an informative and thought-provoking essay for the New York Times in which he argues that humans should be more open to feeling what he calls “tenderness.” 

Almost by definition, every culture cultivates certain qualities and feelings. In the United States, we lionize resolve, determination and resiliency. Although we have a strong nostalgic streak, we are a hard people who no less than the ancient Romans entertain ourselves with a steady diet of throat slitting and torture images that can only work to pound the tenderness out of us. Of course our TV tough guys always shroud their violence in some mollifying narratives that render their acts of slaughter righteous and emotionally satisfying. But for the most part in our culture, we leave the feeling of tenderness in a small pot in the mudroom. To feel tenderly is to feel vulnerable and vulnerability is not a favorite American dish.

When it comes to the humanizing sentiments, we Americans place placards in public schools and in general harp on the significance of respect. While I have all the respect in the world for respect, it is a chilly sort of feeling — if it is a feeling at all. Respect is a fence that prevents us from harming one another. But strengthening the ties that bind and make us human requires something more pliant, more intimate. We need to be visited by that weird and neglected angel that is the feeling of tenderness.

Indeed. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Shermer v. Pigliucci, round three

Recently author and prominent skeptic Michael Shermer contributed to Edge.org’s collection of essays on the question, “What Should We Be Worried About?”

Shermer’s answer: “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” 

That article prompted philosopher of science (and friend) Massimo Pigliucci to respond with an essay of his own, in which he explains why Shermer’s position on the relationship between science and morality is unsupportable. 

And now Pigliucci’s response has prompted Shermer to pen a response of his own in which he seeks to “restate (his) argument for a scientific foundation of moral principles with new definitions and examples.” For example: 

But what is the foundation for why we should care about the feelings of potentially affected moral agents? To answer this question I turn to science and evolutionary theory.

Given that moral principles must be founded on something natural instead of supernatural, and that science is the best tool we have devised for understanding the natural world, applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point because, (1) the individual is the primary target of natural selection in evolution, and (2) it is the individual who is most effected by moral and immoral acts. Thus:

The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Here we find a smooth transition from the way natureis(the individual struggling to survive and flourish in an evolutionary context) to the way itought to be(given a choice, it is more moral to act in a way that enhances the survival and flourishing of other individuals).

I am told Pigliucci will have another response up next week. Round four, here we come.

Hitler vs. Stalin: who was worse?

This past weekend I decided to finally look through all of the articles I had saved over the past couple years on my chosen iPad reading application, PocketOne particularly interesting find was a January 2011 essay in The New York Review of Books, in which Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, compares the murderous regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Here are the first three paragraphs:

As we recall the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, sixty-six years ago today, we might ask: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin?

In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.

Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans—about 11 million—is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.

You can keep reading here.

Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down

Breaking news from the New York Times:

Citing advanced years and infirmity, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic world on Monday by saying he would resign on Feb. 28 after less than eight years in office, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

After examining his conscience “before God,” he said in a statement that reverberated around the world on the Internet and on social media, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his position as head of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

Given that I believe this Pope has acted both unethically and illegally, in the process causing a great deal of harm to many people, I should be glad he is retiring as head of the Catholic Church. And, on balance, I am. 

Yet I am not as overjoyed about the news as many of my secularist friends appear to be. During his tenure, Pope Benedict XVI arguably did more harm to the undeserved positive image of the Catholic Church than all of the prominent atheists combined. In the coming weeks, I’m sure we will hear in the coming weeks that the Church is bound to pick someone who is younger and has broader appeal. But Pope Benedict XVI was extraordinarily successful at pushing people away from the Catholic Church mainly because he was an accurate representative of the Church’s current role in the modern world. The last thing the world needs right now is a candy-coated Pope who will make people forget that the Church spends most of its time and energy not making the world a better place, but advancing Middle Age theology.

Of course, one could argue a new Pope might move the Church forward on a range of issues. But remember: this is an institution which still opposes modern realities like birth control and sex before marriage and abortion — even in cases of rape, incest, and the mother’s life being at risk. For good measure, it also opposes equal rights for gays and lesbians, and secular government. So forgive me if I don’t see much reason to hold out much hope that radical, positive change is coming anytime soon. 

White House pushed on drone warfare

Earlier this week, NBC News leaked a confidential memo from the U.S. Justice Department which concluded that the White House can order the killing of American citizens if they are considered to be “senior operational leaders” of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda or an associated force — even if there is no information which links the supposed leader to an active plot against America. 

News of the 16-page memo set off a heated national debate regarding governmental secrecy, the limits on executive power, and the merits of drone warfare.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to calm the debate by stating

"These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," Carney said. The government takes "great care" when deciding where and whom to strike, he added.

Yet both public and political pressure on the White House has only increased, forcing the administration to announce it will give Congress its memos backing drone warfare. 

Since this debate is now bound to continue, it’s worth keeping in mind — especially in light of Carney’s comment that the strikes are both legal and ethical — that the question of whether drone strikes are legal is entirely separate from the question of whether they are ethical. As Kevin Jon Heller wrote last month:

I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal.  I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war.  There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal.  Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.

 Let’s hope — or, rather, make sure — this gets due coverage in the coming months. 

You can read about my views on this subject here


The Catholic Church has lost moral credibility

That’s what Frank Bruni argues in this fantastic new op-ed in the New York Times. Bruni cites in support of his thinking several devastating examples of the Church’s hypocrisy on moral issues, including the continuing sexual abuse scandals and the recent case of a Catholic health care outfit arguing, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that a fetus is not a person in order to evade a medical malpractice lawsuit: 

… the church has simultaneously reserved the right to behave just like any other institution, leaning on legal technicalities, smearing victims and demonstrating no more compassion than a tobacco company might show. “In the name of Jesus,” Anderson told me, “they do things that Jesus would abhor.”

They do things erratically, that’s for sure. From my extensive reporting on the sexual abuse crisis in the 1990s, I don’t recall any great push to excommunicate priests who forced themselves on kids. But when Sister Margaret McBride, in 2009, was part of a Phoenix hospital’s decision to abort an 11-week-old fetus inside a 27-year-old woman whose life was gravely endangered by the pregnancy, she indeed suffered excommunication (later reversed).

So a fetus matters more than the ravaged psyche of a raped adolescent? And Sister McBride deserved harsher rebuke than a rapist? It’s hard not to conclude that a church run by men shows them more mercy than it does women (or, for that matter, children).

And it’s hard to keep track: just when is the church of this world, and when not? It inserts itself into political debates, trying to shape legislation to its ethics. But it also demands exemption: from taxes, from accountability, from health care directives.

And in the Colorado wrongful-death case, the hospital suddenly adopted the courts’, not the church’s, definition of life. Only now, with that argument already made, is Catholic Health Initiatives saying it made a moral error.

A district court rejected Jeremy Stodghill’s wrongful-death claims. He and his lawyer, Beth Krulewitch, have appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

One final verdict is already in. On the charge of self-serving hypocrisy, the church is guilty.

Of course, one could argue that the Church lost its moral credibility, well, centuries ago. Still, it’s nice to see the case being made in the pages of a prominent newspaper such as the New York Times. Remember, there are many people who consider themselves Catholics yet who are not aware what the Church is doing in their names. Articles like the one above can help to make some of these people aware of the Church’s actions, and push them to either leave the Church, or else demand reform. Or so we can hope …