Weekend’s (suggested) readings

readingIn case you happen to be short on readings for the weekend, here are some suggestions (not just about philosophy, at the least not directly) that have come across my iPad recently. Comments welcome.

Harvard study finds that sarcasm is actually good for you. At the least, exposure to sarcasm seems to increase creativity. The downside is that it also leads to conflict (obviously), but apparently only when people do not have an established positive rapport with each other. I guess this means that it is best to use sarcasm with people who like you…

Interesting op-ed in the Stone (the NYT’s philosophy blog) about the moral costs of intransigent veganism. Bob Fischer, a philosopher at Texas State University, argues that moral purity on the part of some vegan activists gets in the way of actual improvements of animal welfare. See also this interesting linked article about how many vegetarians and vegans are out there, as well as about their apparently high “relapse” rates.

Nigel Warburton, one of my favorite freelance philosophers (I know, right?) argues in the excellent Aeon magazine that philosophy is an inherently conversational enterprise, and that the stereotype of the lone genius sitting by himself thinking in the woods (you know, Wittgenstein, Heidegger…) is misleading at best, and possibly pernicious.

This is going to be controversial (and it’s a long read, though, I think, worthwhile): it’s the full transcript of writer Kenan Malik’s T.B. Davie Memorial lecture, delivered in Cape Town this August. It’s about free speech in an age of identity politics. ‘nough said…

Here is an article in the Weekly Standard about writers who keep reading voraciously until the end of their lives. It’s focused on Clive James, most recently author of Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, but the point is general. As Larry McMurtry wrote in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999): “In my seventh decade I feel a new haste, not to write, but to read.”

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23 thoughts on “Weekend’s (suggested) readings

  1. Hi Massimo,
    That Stone article is rather peculiar. Why should vegans be forced to compromise? Why can’t they be vegan 7 days a week if they want? And why ignore vegetarians?
    Anyway, this article suggests that vegetable diet takes many more animal lives than does direct meat-eating. If you are inclined to minimize the value of the life of a mouse, we are reminded that supersonic mouse song is as sophisticated as the song of the whale. http://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659

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  2. astro, I didn’t find anything “peculiar” about the Stone’s article. It raises legitimate concerns about ideological purity vs pragmatism, assuming one shares the general goal of reducing animal suffering. Nobody’s talking about “forcing” vegans to do anything. It’s a question of having a reasoned dialogue about the most effective strategies.

    I have read the article in The Conversation, and it makes good points. There was, however, also a rejoinder: https://goo.gl/SM8mm1

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  3. Vegans exert no pressure on me, why is it that compromise should only change my diet to a meatless Monday, and theirs change not at all. That’s not compromise. It seems that some sort of moral advantage is to be found in trimming one’s diet to the the changing published statistical analyses of the number and location of lives lost. That’s what’s bizarre and scientistic. Then, which lives are more valued? Does the weight of the animal actually play a role? Is it a moral balancing act by the pound? Must it be established for sure how many pigs vs how many mice? This great caring for animal I’m afraid coincides with our alienation from humanity. Vegan, anti-meat extremists, are hand-in-hand with trigger warning activists. Many of my vegan friends are so sensitive they haven’t been able to function since Cecil got killed. They really don’t deserve such attention. They are way outnumbered by vegetarians, and if there is a movement to decrease animal suffering, the latter moderates are the strongest of the allied. The article seemed peculiar because I read it as saying: Of course you vegans are quite right, but please let us just get used to it with meatless Mondays for a while and lay off the guilt trip. OP comes right out and says: “Strict veganism, of course, would be better on all counts.” Look around a bit and one may find strict veganism opposes abortion rights. The analogy with “The show must go on” seems wobbly and contrived. People die in audiences often. Sometimes the show goes on, sometimes it stops, many factors other than moral responsibility come into play.

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  4. astro, I do think the van position is the best from a point of view of reducing direct suffering in the world. Whether that should be the only criterion, and what to do about indirect suffering (e.g., the one caused by the death of animals whose habitat is being cleared to make room for human food production, even if all plant based) is another story.

    And I understood the analogy with “the show must go on” differently. I thought the author was making a good point about asking yourself under what circumstances one can ignore someone’s death in order to allow other pursuits to continue.

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  5. reposting a comment on Malik’s post, since he might not accept it.

    Free speech in an age of political instability. Politics is the one thing philosophers don’t want to face. How do you separate the whining self-pity of the coddled middle class from the fury of the disenfranchised? Are suburban-born white college girls really just like working class blacks?

    What do you say to the citizens of a democratic state who demand the right to offend while being paid in gold to support suppression elsewhere? France is pushing to be -if it isn’t already- the largest arms are dealer to Saudi.

    “It is imprudent to mock the people whose blood your country is sucking, even if you yourself claim to oppose vampirism.” I’m quoting myself, but I like the line.

    I’m almost a free speech absolutist; Incitement is a grey area. Hate speech laws are obscene. I shouldn’t be able to have someone arrested for yelling at me and calling me a kike on the subway. If the Nazi party had been allowed to run candidates in the German elections in 1949 the German far right would be smaller than it is today.

    The people who printed the Mohammed cartoons were bigots and idiots, but somehow no one defends them as bigots; they defend them as liberal. Europe has hate speech laws. Hate speech laws make it easy to be a hypocrite, because the majority are able to define hate any way they choose. If you defend freedom of speech you’re willing to recognize bigotry. The marchers for Hebdo were hypocrites. Emmanuel Todd was right.

    Defenders of free speech defend the rule of law over the rule of “reason”. Philosophers defend the rule of reason as liberal. The rule of law is conservative. I’m a conservative.
    The right to free speech counsels prudence. Coddled liberals think prudence is self-censorship.
    The marchers in Paris were like the whining college students in the US.

    If all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Plato wasn’t a defender of democracy or freedom of speech.

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  6. I’m certainly in favor of creating more humane conditions for slaughter animal. I question whether a slaughtered cow suffers more than one that dies of starvation, exposure, disease or old age. Or in general how we calculate total world levels of suffering direct and indirect, necessary and unnecessary. As we become increasingly alienated from traditions and subject to industrial modernity the question of what to ingest and how to self-nourish becomes for many a psychological and spiritual fixation only in part ethical. I find that for many, veganism (as opposed to vegetarianisms of various stripe) is a draconian solution, more often than not (from my experience) for sentimental, depressive and frightened individuals, denatured spirits seeking community, and in fact, from the evidence of many vegan meals I have shared, somewhat masochistic, or at least self-punishing. There is a large gap between the idea that not eating animals is arguably a clear-cut moral good and the reality of vegans (among whom of course there is also some variety). (Of course, veganism also condemns the consumption of eggs, milk, cheese, products for which suffering is not intrinsic. What’s that all about?)

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  7. As for the analogy of ‘the show must go on’: I can agree that it is worthwhile to ask yourself “under what circumstances one can ignore someone’s death in order to allow other pursuits to continue”. Raising that question alone cannot bring us anywhere near the conclusion that just as ‘the vegan position is best’ at least from one ‘point of view’, so it is best to interrupt any performance if one audience member faints? I find it entirely tendentious of the author to suggest that if an audience member faints we must all assume and act as tho he is immediately dying. It seems like, having illegitimately made us all feel a little guilty, he then offers absolution in the form of vegan moral purity.

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  8. Seth,

    “Politics is the one thing philosophers don’t want to face.”

    That seems like a strange statement, considering the number of philosophers who are active in moral and political philosophy, and who write for the public about it.

    “What do you say to the citizens of a democratic state who demand the right to offend while being paid in gold to support suppression elsewhere?”

    That seems to confuse citizens of a state with that state’s political and military class.

    “The people who printed the Mohammed cartoons were bigots and idiots”

    I don’t know, I thought they had a point.

    “Europe has hate speech laws. Hate speech laws make it easy to be a hypocrite”

    Agreed.

    “The marchers for Hebdo were hypocrites”

    All of them?

    “The marchers in Paris were like the whining college students in the US”

    I don’t see the analogy, frankly.

    “If all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Plato wasn’t a defender of democracy or freedom of speech”

    No. First, the quote is obviously a quip not to be taken literally. Second, it refers to the range of topics approached by Plato, it doesn’t imply any endorsement of any specific notion put forth by Plato.

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  9. astro,

    “I question whether a slaughtered cow suffers more than one that dies of starvation, exposure, disease or old age.”

    I don’t really think there is any question that industrially “farmed” animals suffer significantly more than under other conditions.

    “Or in general how we calculate total world levels of suffering direct and indirect, necessary and unnecessary”

    I sympathize, but that could easily become an excuse for not doing anything about anything, seems to me. We need to go with the best evidence, and evidence of animal suffering and cruelty imposed by mass production of food is pretty overwhelming.

    “I find that for many, veganism (as opposed to vegetarianisms of various stripe) is a draconian solution, more often than not (from my experience) for sentimental, depressive and frightened individuals”

    I don’t know about that, but yes, veganism — or any other radical approach — is often only in part about what it purports to be about.

    “Raising that question alone cannot bring us anywhere near the conclusion that just as ‘the vegan position is best’ ”

    I really didn’t get the feeling that the author of the piece was doing an apologia of veganism. He may have granted that vegans have the high moral ground (in the abstract, they do), but then proceeded to criticizing them precisely for the sort of high minded theoretical morality that doesn’t take into account complex realities, and may end up doing more harm than good. At the lest one vegan on Twitter reacted pretty harshly to my simply tweeting the link to the article…

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  10. Massimo, you know what a quibbler I am. I think vegans refuse animal food regardless of the conditions under which the animals are bred or slaughtered. Are you, if I may ask, yourself a vegan. The term seems to be preempting vegetarian. Do you not see the overlap of veganism and triggerism? . . . . What to eat is becoming a variant of the Trolley problem!

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  11. “That seems like a strange statement, considering the number of philosophers who are active in moral and political philosophy, and who write for the public about it.”

    I’ve been told by political philosophers that politics is not their business. Their concern is the idea of politics.
    If you want a record of attempts at engagement I’ll give you a list. But you’re not doing a very good job yourself. See below.

    “That seems to confuse citizens of a state with that state’s political and military class.”

    If you live in a republic your government is your representative, even if you yourself did not vote for it. If you want change in policy you should focus on that. If you think the republic is a sham, then again you should focus your efforts there.

    (The people who printed the Mohammed cartoons were bigots and idiots)

    “I don’t know, I thought they had a point.”

    First, see above. Second, I have the legal right to say nigger anywhere I want, even in Harlem at midnight. I have a right to walk into a cop bar with a “Fuck The Police” t-shirt. Joan Didion is very good on these issues. You should read her
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1991/jan/17/new-york-sentimental-journeys/

    (Europe has hate speech laws. Hate speech laws make it easy to be a hypocrite)

    “Agreed”

    The marchers were not marching against hate speech laws, but under their ‘protection’.

    (The marchers for Hebdo were hypocrites)

    “All of them?”

    See above. Most of them, yes. See my comments on French support for Saudi and on France being a republic. I don’t think people living under the dictatorships supported by the French take the protests very seriously.
    See Emmanuel Todd, or at least read Arthur Goldhammer.

    You’re arguing from rationalism. I’m referring to evidence.

    (The marchers in Paris were like the whining college students in the US)

    “I don’t see the analogy, frankly”

    See above.

    (If all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Plato wasn’t a defender of democracy or freedom of speech)

    “No. First, the quote is obviously a quip not to be taken literally. Second, it refers to the range of topics approached by Plato, it doesn’t imply any endorsement of any specific notion put forth by Plato.”

    My response was as much a quip as yours, but you’ve played it straight.

    Socratic irony is directed at others. Socratic humility is the model -maybe even literally the model in the west- of false humility. Euripidean irony is ambiguous.

    Philosophy descends from theology -“In the beginning was the word”- but world begins and ends with events. As a famous biologist said with a shrug, for philosophers “words are the matter”. As an empiricist, I’m interested in description of events, and as a supporter of democracy, I’m more interested in the Athenian playwrights than in the philosophers. But people should read both of course.

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  12. astro, I’ve certainly encounter my share of, let’s say, fundamentalist vegans, but I wouldn’t paint the whole group with that broad and uncharitable brush.

    I myself am neither vegan nor vegetarian, I simply try to make ethical choices when I pick my food. Practically speaking I end up with a quasi-vegetarian diet, supplemented by wild caught, non endangered fish.

    seth, don’t know which political philosophers you talked to, but there are plenty of examples of socially and politically engaged ones. Cornell West, Marta Nassbaum, a large number of feminist philosophers, just to mention a few.

    I think it is weird to argue that I am directly responsible for what my government does even if I disagree with it and voted against it. We live in a democracy, so I can try to change the system, but it is part of that system’s structure that I can fail, at the least for a while.

    I, confused about your take on the cartoons. Yes, you have a legal right to say “nigger,” and the cartoonist had a legal right to depict Mohammed. Whether it is a good idea to do either is open to question. The first one seems to me to have no redemptive qualities whatsoever; the second, however, attacks with satire a powerful, violent group of people, so it seems to be doing exactly the job that satire is supposed to be doing.

    You cannot possibly have evidence that most of the people who marched for Charlie Hebdo were hypocrites.

    Philosophy most certainly does not descend from theology. It’s the other way around. And as far as I’m concerned theology got itself in a (predictable) blind alley with no way forward.

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  13. “Marta Nassbaum” Martha Nussbaum gets a lot of credit among critics of “postmodernism” for her take-down of Judith Butler, but on Israel Butler has ended up standing for everything Nussbaum claims to represent, while Nussbaum herself has been a coward. As for “feminist philosophers” I know few I trust on anything, but that’s my experience with philosophers, not feminists. I generally put little faith in people with graduate degrees in movements begun by housewives and railway porters. Philosophers are “theorists” not historians.

    “the second, however, attacks with satire a powerful, violent group of people”

    The cartoons mocked Islam. They mocked the religion of one and a half billion people. If you want to see cartoons mocking AQ or ISIS, they’re easy to find, in Muslim countries.

    “I think it is weird to argue that I am directly responsible for what my government does even if I disagree with it and voted against it.”

    If you defend the republic you defend the way the government was chosen, then you respect the government that acts in your name. You are a citizen, a member of the community, not merely a subject of the state. If your candidates lose an election you have the choice to become the loyal opposition, or renounce your membership in the community.

    Freedom of speech only functions as freedom among the enfranchised members of society, who therefore are willing to play by the rules of democracy. But we live in a multi-national and multi-polar world with mass-communication, and if your elected government is going to do 12 billion dollar arms deals with the Islamic extremists who rule Saudi Arabia and if you defend Israel against all opposition, Israel which is now stating explicitly that the gulf monarchies are their allies, I would counsel prudence in your moralizing outbursts. But what I call prudence, you call self-censorship, because you being a philosopher live in the world of ideas and I live in the world of politics, where pedantry is counterproductive at best.

    http://nationalinterest.org/feature/france-saudi-arabias-new-arms-dealer-13533
    http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.668601

    You’re aware that there’s no contradiction between being anti-semitic and pro Israel. European anti-Muslim bigotry is the new anti-semitism. I’ve listened to lectures by European fascists who hate Jews and love Israel. And I drink with a former IDF soldier who’s a proud fascist. He’s not alone.

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  14. Seth,

    “Nussbaum gets a lot of credit among critics of “postmodernism” for her take-down of Judith Butler, but on Israel Butler has ended up standing for everything Nussbaum claims to represent”

    I’m not sure what that has to do with my point: there are several philosophers who engage in public discourse about politics. Whether they agree or disagree is entirely different matter.

    “The cartoons mocked Islam. They mocked the religion of one and a half billion people.”

    So? Those people could have responded with vitriolic cartoons of their own. As opposed to bombs and riots.

    “If you defend the republic you defend the way the government was chosen, then you respect the government that acts in your name.”

    That’s a pretty good example of a non-sequitur. Socrates agreed to go to his death because he respected Athenian law, but certainly didn’t think that the Athenians had done the right thing in condemning him for impiety.

    “I would counsel prudence in your moralizing outbursts”

    When exactly did I engage in a moralizing outburst, as opposed to, say, state and defend my opinions? No need for aggressive language, this is a conversation.

    “because you being a philosopher live in the world of ideas and I live in the world of politics, where pedantry is counterproductive at best”

    Oh c’mon. I am just as engaged in discourse about politics and society as you are, I think. And to say that philosophers engage in “pedantry,” rather than rational discourse, is — again — entirely unnecessarily confrontational language.

    “You’re aware that there’s no contradiction between being anti-semitic and pro Israel”

    Or the other way around, for that matter (i.e., respecting Jewish culture while being critical of Israeli policy), which is my position.

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  15. The reference to moralizing outbursts was’t directed at you but at the cartoonists and others. My writing was sloppy.

    (If you defend the republic you defend the way the government was chosen, then you respect the government that acts in your name.)

    “That’s a pretty good example of a non-sequitur. Socrates agreed to go to his death because he respected Athenian law, but certainly didn’t think that the Athenians had done the right thing in condemning him for impiety.”

    That he chose to die, makes my point. The irony is that Athens betrayed its principles, at least as we like to see them, and that Socrates died as a good Spartan. But these are ironies better with in literature than philosophy.

    I just realized you removed my last comment. It’s been fun.

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  16. Your last comment was removed because I didn’t feel it contributed to the discussion. (It started with an non-constructive remark, and then simply copied/pasted someone else’s comment from another site. Yes, it has been fun. I hope you’ll hang around. Cheers.

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  17. (The cartoons mocked Islam. They mocked the religion of one and a half billion people.)

    “So? Those people could have responded with vitriolic cartoons of their own. As opposed to bombs and riots.”

    As I said in the beginning of the comment you removed, you expect the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ruled -whatever term you’d like- to play by Hoyle’s rules. Politics is the playground, not the library.

    The comment I quoted was written in response to a post and comments that treated a discussion of torture and the law as a word game played over tea. A political scientist is defending a snide apologist for torture as being no more than an earnest searcher for the truth. He is doing so because he trusts him as a fellow academic, a member of the tribe, and therefore could not be anything else. Others were not having it.

    “I have been a lawyer for many years, and then got a chance to teach at a non-lawyerly academic institution. I loved it; I loved playing in the garden of the mind. Eventually, however, it became clear to me that academics and non-academics have very different approaches to ideas. Academics, though it sounds odd to say it, don’t take ideas seriously.”

    Only at the end does Farrell realize what he’s been defending.

    “Orin – as Belle suggests in the post I linked, one can create a hypothetical in which the sound utilitarian thing to do is to torture an innocent three year old to death. Does this tell us anything useful about whether it is right or wrong to torture three year olds to death? Are we merely negotiating over the circumstances under which torturing three year olds is OK and not OK, as per the Churchill quote?”

    Liberal Zionism is an oxymoron. Ethnic nationalism by definition is not liberal. You’d think liberal philosophers would have spotted it, but they haven’t, until recently. The realization came about through outside pressure, not the ratiocination of the elite. Rationalists rationalize.

    Immigration and mass communication did more to change the opinions of Americans towards Palestine than anything else. This applies even or especially to those who consider themselves intellectuals. Determinism scares philosophers more than it scares historians.

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  18. Seth, obviously we disagree on the nature of politics, the contribution of philosophy, and much more. But I find some of your comments grating for no particularly good purpose. I wonder whether it would be possible to have our conversations in the future without snarky or condescending remarks, which really do not incentivize one to respond constructively. Cheers.

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  19. How appropriate that the speech should be given in Cape Town, in a country where we have hate speech laws.

    Consider this scenario. We live in a fractured, violent, unequal country that narrowly escaped an exceptionally bloody revolution. Angry resentment simmers below the surface. Desire for revenge is barely suppressed. Bloodlust is scarcely contained.

    Now add some frustrated demagogues who feel unfairly excluded from the gravy train of new age bureaucrats fattening themselves on the public purse. Like all demagogues, they see an opening in exploiting the dark emotions roiling the populace. And so we have violent slogans like ‘shoot the boer’, ‘one boer one bullet’. And we have some angry people only too eager to take this advice.

    As a ‘boer’, I am naturally rather apprehensive about this expressed desire to shoot me. And my apprehension is even keener because this has really happened to a good friend of mine(he died an agonising, awful death).

    When one is comfortably ensconced in a wealthy, safe, first world country, unfettered free speech seems like a noble ideal with no possible counter arguments. That sterile insulated safety makes one unable to conceive the real pain and fear that others must endure, that hate speech can and does cause severe harm.

    But when you have seen hatred boiling over, seen real blood being shed, and seen that awful moment when light goes from the eyes, the right to uninhibited exercise of free speech seems academic. Worse than that, hate speech becomes a deadly and imminent threat.

    As it happens, we took the matter to court, taking advantage of our hate speech laws, and this particular example of hate speech was disallowed.

    Was that a good thing? Yes, I think it was, given our context.

    And that is the whole point, context matters. In countries with hate speech laws, such as mine and India, severe stresses in society are widened into deep fissures by the exercise of hate speech. There are demagogues waiting in the wings, eager to exploit the fissures and the opportunities offered by hate speech. We are a society making a difficult transition and learning new skills. We need to manage this transition and hate speech law is one of the tools to manage the transition.

    Malik said
    Hate speech undermines the freedom to live free from fear

    His statement was meant ironically and of course he does not believe that. One is left wondering if he ever ventured outside his world class hotel in Cape Town.

    Where I agree with Malik is when he says:
    Harm has come to be seen, not as it was in the past, as the occasional damage that might be done by ‘dangerous’ speech but as the everyday, constant effect of almost any kind of speech. This normalization of the idea of ‘harm’ can be seen in particular in universities.

    This is the well known phenomenon of silencing. Today we are confronted by the strange intolerance of liberalism which seems unable to countenance differing modes of thought.

    So much still to be said! I enjoyed Malik’s article. I think he makes very good points that deserve to be explored.

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  20. Seth, I didn’t realize mullahs were “disenfranchised.” (Massimo, I’m extending my lifespan through healthy practice of sarcasm.)

    Astro, people are vegan or vegetarian for a variety of moral reasons. Some are also for health reasons, though that doesn’t totally compute from vegans, as vitamin B12 is available only from animal products. The column didn’t encompass them all. That said, what it, and your concerns and objections, and Massimo’s responses, all show, is what’s wrong with utilitarianism — the “view from nowhere” simply isn’t possible, as I’ve said elsewhere.

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