Calling All Philosonerds and Philosophriends: Support Philosophy Bites!

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One of my very favorite podcasts is Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.

In it, they interview philosophers on all manner of topics, which are fascinating and relevant to just about anyone who cares about what’s going on out there in the world and in the life of the mind.
The interviews are concise (10 – 15 minutes) and engaging, yet thorough, and the questions are excellently devised.

They’ve rather recently begun to be funded by private donations only, so I encourage you to pitch in a little and support these awesome guys doing their awesome thing!

If you click the ‘Subscribe’ button at the upper left of the page (under the ‘Donate’ button), it’ll go to Paypal, where you can choose a monthly amount to donate.
(May I suggest 6 pounds/month, about $10, a nice tidy figure that’s totally affordable)

Credits: I borrowed the term ‘Philosophriends’ from my own philosophriend Preston Tillotson. I  made up the term ‘philosonerd’, but I’ve since found that many others have come up with that on their own

Me and the Pope Against Tea Partiers and Conservatives and Even So Many Catholics! What’s Going On?

I’ve been finding it a bit strange and somewhat funny that for some time now, I’ve been finding myself, a ‘heathen’, ideologically aligned with Pope Francis I, and in opposition to many political and moral views of the larger number of my Catholic and Christian family and friends.

Especially when it comes to topics regarding public life: caring for the poor and needy, materialism, Tea-Party-brand political views, and so forth.

With Pope Francis, I share the general view that preserving the life of and caring for the wellbeing of other people is not something we engage in only privately, individually, or if our religion happens to say so, or if we feel like it at the time, but is a moral imperative for human societies and nations as a whole. I also agree that hyper-individualist ideology is bankrupt, is not only contrary to the best in human nature but an illusion: we are, in reality, intimately tied together, in thought, in action, and in fate.

That being said, I do part ways with the Pope in crucial ways: consider this is a teaser for my next essay. Stay tuned!

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

As I write these essays for publication in my own blog, I find that it’s liberating not to have to cite my sources in the same formal, painstaking way I would have to if I were writing a student paper or a formal scholarly work. I know that every single thought I have (and this is true not only for myself, but every thinker out there) is almost entirely possible because of other thinkers that came before me, and those who share their thoughts every single day. In this way, it’s actually impossible to really cite all my sources and properly thank all who influence and inspire me, so developing and writing down my thoughts without the added effort of laboriously disentangling those sources which I can consciously identify and those which I can’t remember helps this whole process flow much more freely.

But I also feel a sense of great indebtedness to all those thinkers out there who make the world such a fascinating place. I get to learn and think because, collectively, the human race is so generous when it comes to sharing their thoughts, purposefully altruistic (think Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me”or otherwise. This great pool of human consciousness, the sum of human thought up to now, in fact, is central to my own concept of transcendence, that ‘mystical’ state of reaching for and belonging to something larger and greater than myself (a topic for another essay that I’ve been plotting for some time). When I’m in the throes of figuring something out, I’m often conscious of the fact that that so many parts of the puzzle have already been worked out by others, and I’ve only gotten to where I’m at because of them. While I’ll continue to link to and quote sources as I write, I probably won’t be thorough about it in this informal setting, so this list serves as a catch-all to what I’ve missed.

So here’s my informal, unscholarly list of my sources and influences, of shout-outs to all of you wonderfully curious, intelligent, creative, witty, and thoughtful creatures out there without whom I couldn’t think much of anything at all, let along write about it. This will be an open-ended blog post, and I’ll add to it as I’m inspired, but it’s in no way exhaustive. It can’t be, because, like everyone, most of the things I ‘know’ I don’t know how I know, because I don’t remember who I learned it from.

In no particular order:

– All human beings who have contributed to the sum of human knowledge and creative thought
– My dad, John Cools, for patiently answering my endless questions throughout childhood and beyond
– My husband Bryan, my lover, best friend, and constant conversational partner
– John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (excerpts)
Randy Newman
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, The Subjection of Woman, and excerpts from Utilitarianism and other works
– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises of Government (well, the second one) and excerpts from other works
– Ernestine Rose: feminist, atheist, socialist, Polish, Jew, human rights crusader, incredible in every way
– Montaigne, Essays
– My uncle, Timothy Harrod, for his willingness to regularly engage in honest, no-holds-barred, but respectful and friendly debate (he was my confirmation sponsor – you Catholics know what that is – and he’s been kindly trying to re-convert me and save my soul for years)
– My uncle Mark Cools, for similar reasons, while letting me stay at his house for free when I attended college
The philosophy department and other instructors at Sacramento State University, especially Gregory Mayes, Lynne Fox, Thomas Pyne, Bradley Dowden, Russell DiSilvestro, and Clifford Anderson
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, excerpts from various other works

– Daniel Dennett, Breaking the SpellIntuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, lectures, interviews, and essays
– Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers and The Age of American Unreason

– Eric Gerlach
– Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, lectures and essays
– Michael Sandel, Justice and What Money Can’t Buy
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fierce feminist and freethinker

– Clay Jenkinson, scholar and podcaster of the Thomas Jefferson Hour
– The various authors of the Bible
– Leonard Cohen
– Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
– Robert Ingersoll, 44 Lectures
M. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence
– Carol Tavris, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, interviews and lectures
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and countless other stories, essays, and quotes
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson, essays, interviews, and lectures
– Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy and various other works
– Townes Van Zandt
– Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 
– The wonderful student heathens at Sac State
– Cervantes, Don Quixote
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, debates, lectures, and interviews
– Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History, interviews 
– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (excerpts; one day I intend to read them all the way through)
– Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, interviews, lectures, and essays
– My friend Tracy Runyon, with whom I’ve had so many depthy and exciting discussions

A Bit About Who I Am, and Why I Bother With All This Musing and Writing Stuff

I’ve long been obsessed with ideas and arguments, why people do and say the things they do, why people believe what they do, and so forth., as I’ve already discussed in an earlier piece. This curiosity and drive to understand, at least a little, the workings of the universe outside my own mind has not diminished over the years in the slightest. So a few years ago, when the job market dried up, my business partially failed, and my artistic pursuits provided me with much satisfaction but little income, I decided to more fully immerse myself in one of my greatest loves, philosophy, by going back to college.

It was a dream of mine that I had never seriously pursued in my early youth, though I eagerly attended junior college as soon as I was able. In my family, the goal of pursuing higher education was not discussed much. Most of my closest relatives are honest, hardworking people, generally blue-collar, hand-on work, and that was for the most part true of myself too, though I worked more in customer service jobs that had some sort of idealist or artistic element. I also have a strong affinity for blue-collar work, and really enjoyed the physically labrious aspects of my long-time intermittent job at a salvage yard.

Many of my relatives were and are suspicious of much of higher education too, seeing it as an array of dangerous temptations away from a life immersed in a particularly conservative brand of religious faith. Also, as a woman, higher education was less of a priority in my family. I felt it was always implied, but rarely said outright, that a good girl got married and stayed at home, perhaps after a stint at junior college, even a bachelor’s degree maybe, before settling in to homemaking while still young enough to make lots of babies. That’s it, unless I wanted to become a nun. All that sounds like a lovely, happy, fulfilling life for many, and I am fortunate to be a fond and proud auntie and cousin many, many times over precisely because so many women in my family find this lifestyle right for them. But never felt right for me, and over the years, I felt annoyed and a little resentful that other options were never discussed or encouraged, and that I never had a mentor intellectually. But I also realize that I may very well be unfair in this assessment. For one thing, my dad and other close family members never resented my constantly badgering them with questions and were always willing to answer them fully, and one of my dear uncles and I regularly engage in honest, no-holds-barred. lengthy debate and discussion to this day, and I thank him for that. It was also really entirely up to me to stop gadding around and instead of gleefully following my whims, to focus on the goal of completing a degree, applying the creativity I applied to other pursuits to the task of fundraising for school.

But why not keep all this to myself? Why have I taken this previously mostly internal process and dumping it out into the world? (With the full realization that few, at this point, even read this stuff.) I’ve often gotten the sense that philosophers, amateur and professional, are usually irritating to most other people besides fellow philosophers, and even these pick on each other at least as often as they engage in fruitful debate. (At least, it appears so from the public discourse, but my evidence for this is merely anecdotal.) But I think that this sense of philosophy being this annoying form of snobbery is based only on the archness with which some philosophers deliver their musings, and on a particular perception of what philosophy is. Many professional philosophers display a seemingly protectionist attitude toward their craft, preferring to share their ideas mostly or only with other professionals in highly arcane language. (Arcane: mysterious, secret. Arcane language: jargon) I actually think that this largely closed-off, rarified realm of philosophy is invaluable: it’s a place where ideas can be invented and pursued as far as they can go, by a community entirely devoted to this task. The untold riches that have emerged from this level of discourse is wonderful astounding. I just wish I and most of the public had the ability to fully understand and appreciate it, and the bit I’ve had the good fortune to experience left me amazed and entranced, and humbled.

But I also think that everyone, or almost everyone, engages in philosophical thinking of one sort or another, hence my blog’s byline. We not only react in moral matters but often make some sort of attempt to justify them to others. We all seek to describe or define, at times, the essential nature of reality. When it comes to aesthetics, to visual art and music and literature, we try to add a description of the idea(s) or driving force behind them, placing them within a context, rarely letting works of art speak entirely for themselves. Every one of us who has engaged in conscious reflection on anything has done some philosophy.

When it comes to writing and applying this sort of thinking, curiously enough, I’m almost entirely drawn to most areas of philosophy except philosophy of art. It seems kind of weird for a person who’s always been immersed in the arts, who has been drawing, sewing, sculpting, and so forth, and who loves music, for a lifetime. I think it’s because I do happen to be the sort of artist who likes to let my art speak for itself, and if I try to politicize or contextualize it, than it loses its immediacy and power for me. I’d rather let others do that, to read into my artwork whatever they’re compelled to read into it, or to discover some truths about me that I can’t since I lack the objectivity. But philosophy of science and of law, political and metaphysical, and most of all, moral philosophy… those I just can’t get enough of. And as I touched on in the aforementioned piece I wrote a month or so ago, I’ve been thinking on these things outside of academia for so long that I’m still far more comfortable doing philosophy in laypersons’ terms. But I still need that sharing and expressing of ideas without which a fuller understanding is impossible.

So I keep thinking about how the universe works, based on the information I receive about what’s going on in the world, and keeping writing about the process of figuring it out because it’s fascinating to me for its own sake. But not only that. I really feel a sense of deepest connection to the human family in its entirely, and feel a deep sense of responsibility towards it and gratitude to it. For me, that means I don’t feel satisfied simply by expressing my instinctive reactions to the occurrences and ideas I encounter in the world, such as simple anger, or disgust, or joy, or love. That’s because I don’t feel an isolated individual whose thoughts, feelings, and actions are as worthwhile or interesting on their own as they are within the larger realm of shared human experience.

For example, the blaming, the finger-pointing, the shaming I see going on in the public sphere over political matters seems like a giant room with a lot of people screaming and no one listening, because too many people forget that their ideological opponents are people with needs and interests and beliefs too. I feel the need to explore and explain what’s behind all this as well as expressing righteous approval or indignation because I feel that the screaming is not only not accomplishing anything, it’s just not that interesting, and reveals little about the world besides a very narrow set of facts about human psychology. I think that when we remember to sit back and reflect on why we feel and believe as we do, and patiently explain ourselves in an honest manner, with a generous spirit of always assuming the best of motives in your ideological opponent, it’s only then that we are justified in our beliefs, and have earned the right to feel that we are, indeed, in the right. But of course, this must always be provisional, because as it so happens, so one has all the needed information at any one time to know everything about everything. We must always be ready to acknowledge when we’ve been wrong, and always be ready to learn.

I look forward to what I will continue to learn from all of you out there, and always welcome your thoughts and your honest debate!

Hate Crime: First Amendment Issue?

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Not too long ago, perhaps three or four years past, I was of the opinion that, as a whole, the idea of a ‘hate crime’ was a bad one, mainly as a result of the following argument:

According to the law, we determine the nature of a crime by what was actually done. If we re-classify it as a hate crime, we’re punishing the criminal for the very thoughts in his/her head, or the content of their speech. At the very least, this is a violation of First Amendment rights. At worst, we’re legitimizing the Orwellian idea of ‘thoughtcrime’.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that this argument misses the point of what I think is the most important reason that some crimes should be classified as hate crimes. When the law is applied to an act to determine its criminality, we already do consider the motivations and thoughts of the actor in the case. For example, if one person causes the death of another, we ask whether the act was purposeful, whether it arose from a moment of extreme provocation or planning, and so on. In other words, intent, which is what was going on in the actor’s mind at the time, is essential for determining the criminal nature of the act.

One of the main reasons for this, why, for example, we consider intentional, deliberate violent crimes worse than off-the-cuff or accidental violent crimes, is how much of a threat the criminal presents to the community. The law says that a person who kills someone out of anger upon catching them cheating with a romantic partner, for example, is considered far less dangerous to a community than a person who plans and then executes a shooting spree in a public place. A person who kills someone after planning the crime ahead of time also presents a larger danger to a community than the ‘heat of the moment’ killer, since they reveal themselves capable of killing at least one person even after sustained reflection. While the danger is still mainly confined to a single target, the killer’s still a potential threat to the wider community in this sort of case since they might become homicidally angry at someone else.

A person who commits a hate crime, however, presents a wider danger to the community because their intent or wish to harm is not aimed at a single target. The target of their hate or anger is an entire class of people, as the evidence of their own expressed intent and beliefs reveal. The harm that they do, or intend to do, or wish to do, is likely to be far more widespread.

In this way, the way the law determines whether or not a crime is a hate crime is very similar, or even nearly identical, to the way it determines whether a homicide is first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter. I think this sort of deliberation is necessary and appropriate, and therefore, I think that the separate classification of hate crime is likewise appropriate. We just need to be careful, as a society, that we don’t become hasty or overzealous in over-applying the term to thoughts and speech alone, or to philosophically or morally repulsive but relatively harmless actions.

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog

Equal Opportunity Vs. Equal Outcome

How many pundits and political candidates have you heard express this sentiment over the years: ‘I believe in equality of opportunity, not of outcome!’?

But wait a minute! If the outcome is usually or always unequal, where’s the evidence that the opportunity is equal?

Saying that a society should worry only about opportunity but not outcome sounds a lot like a scientist wanting to proclaim a theory true without wanting to worry about the findings of experiments that seek to prove it.

What do you think?