Monday, May 29, 2006

First draft of a 500 word proposal for an essay in the upcoming Firefly collection

Fictional Worlds and Self Serving Lies

Firefly and Serenity are, among other things, Westerns. The Western is, among other things, a telling of the founding myth of this country designed to whitewash some horrific truths, mostly the genocide of Native Americans, but also at times the Confederacy’s motivations secession. In the classic Western, Indians are savages, and the heroes like Jesse James or Josie Wales get some of their tragic nobility for having fought for honor on the losing side of the civil war. At its worst, the Western is a self serving lie. One of the strangest things about Firefly and Serenity is that the creators have given a fictional world where the most troublesome parts of the myth of the West are actually true. The surrogates for Native Americans really are savages. The surrogate for the Confederacy really was justified in its cause.

What is going on here? Race has always been a blind spot for Mutant Enemy productions, but the creators of the show and movie must be aware of the meaning of their symbols, and can’t seriously intend us to believe that Native Americans are savages. Whedon has claimed that the origin story for the Reavers absolves him of charges of racism This doesn’t work, as has been pointed out by [person at Firefly talk] because it actually only feeds into the myth of the savage native, in particular, the Heart of Darkness idea that the savage is both a person and something within all of us. Even if the creators intended the origin story for the Reavers to push the audience away from racist interpretations it simply doesn’t succeed. The racist meaning is still there.

The interpretation of the Confederate imagery is different but equally problematic. There might be more sympathy here for claiming that Firefly and Serenity should prompt us to reconsider the justice of the Confederate cause. The justifications for the outer planet rebellion in Firefly and Serenity do mirror the justifications given by the CSA for war, excluding the defense of slavery. But this will only get us so far. Once you exclude the ad hominem tu quoque fallacies from confederate apologists, you are not left with much of a justification for war.

I will argue that we should take Firefly and Serenity as an exercise in moral empathy. By moral empathy I mean the process of taking on someone else’s world view. Creating a fictional world where the founding myths of our country are true give us the opportunity to understand the worldview of people who believe the founding myths, without having to actually present them as being true of the real world, or even a particularly good analogy for the real world.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

My Vote for the Mr. Pointy Award™ for Best Paper at the Conference

Roz Kaveney: “Gifted and Dangerous” Joss Whedon’s Superhero Obsession.

Anyone can see that the Superhero genre is at least as influential on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as any horror genre. The really nice thing that Roz did in this talk is trace some unexpected details of the influence, including the strong link to Chris Claremont era X-Men. The character of Willow, in particular, grows right out of Claremont’s Kitty Pryde, a link which Joss has acknowledged. Interestingly, Joss was able to do with Willow things that Claremont was never able to do with Kitty. For instance, it is widely believed that Claremont wanted Kitty to grow up to be a lesbian, but this was nixed by his superiors at Marvel. In a nice turn of events, Joss now writes for the X-men, and the first thing he did when he took over the book, is bring back Kitty Pryde.

Early in her talk, Roz situated Whedon in a group of artists she calls the “fanboy creators,” which include Joss Whedon, Alan Moore, Kevin Smith, Neil Gaimon, and a bunch of other people whose names I did not recognize. Apparently she has a contract to write a book on this movement. Again she is able to draw connections back to comics aesthetics that go well beyond the obvious, aided clearly by her encyclopedic knowledge of superhero comics. Interestingly, she asserted that the only reason there are no fangirls among the fanboy creators is the presence of glass ceilings in their various industries. I’m unsure about that. At the very least, I think the oeuvre of the fanboy creators would look different if there were women in it.

In any case, I voted for Roz’s paper for the best of the conference, in part because it did something that pop culture criticism should do: it presented a detailed understanding of the artwork in its own terms and its own context, without importing excess theory or feeling obliged to make comparisons to high art, and when I walked away from the talk, I had a genuinely deeper appreciation for the art discussed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Slayage post 2

I just gave my talk to a good sized audience--20 people or so. It seems to be well received. I got three requests for copies of it. In the question period, though, it was totally overshadowed by the paper of my co-panelist, Holly Welker, which was both well done and on a very sexy topic: Is sex bad? Holly did a great job of showing how, despite Joss's stated intent, his shows still send the consistent message that sex is bad, and do so through a variety of channels. One of her more interesting observations was that the show consistently is repulsed by the idea of authority figures having sex. If a character is portrayed as in control, they are also portrayed as celibate, and a sexualized authority figure is portrayed as loosing control and therefore being punished. (Think Giles and Jenny.)

You can see how Holly’s talk would come to dominate the question period. It was a chance for everyone to think of fun pairings that have occurred in Buffy to see if they fit the thesis. I still think one of the hottest couplings, Faith and Robin Wood, is a counter example.

Some other neat talks I’ve seen:

Michael Adams: A Matrix of Morives in Slayer Style

A philologist gave a talk about clipping phrasal verbs by characters in Buffy (saying “wigged” for “wigged out” or “hang” for “hang out.”) He generated a pool of instances where a character could choose to clip their phrasal verb or not, and this would not effect the meaning but would effect the style. Thus he excluded cases where clipping “come on” would change the meaning of “come” to refer to ejaculation, and he excluded verb phrases like “help out,” because “help” and “help out” have no stylistic difference.

Once he had this pool of interesting cases, he looked for variables that predict clipping. He found, first of all, that females are three times as likely to clip as males, and that males only clip talking to females. He also showed that clipping are used to establish intimacy and full phrasal verbs are used to establish authority. He then read a conversation between Buffy and Faith, and you could suddenly see how the rich power struggle between them was played out in their vernacular choices.

Kevin Durand: "Lets Finish This": The First, Caleb, The Watcher's COuncil, and the Fight Against the Patriarchal Forces of Darkness


The speaker, I didn’t catch his name, began by asking why Caleb is such an obvious, boring symbol. We don’t normally see Joss being so heavy handed. The answer, the speaker claimed, is that Caleb is a lens which lets us re-evaluate other characters who are at least nominal good guys. In particular, there are consistent parallels between Caleb and the Watchers Council as patriarchic figures, who silence women and actually have no power in themselves, but only gain power from female figures. In the end, the speaker claims, the battle between the watchers and Caleb is not a battle between good and evil, but an internecine conflict over power between two tools of the first. A big piece of evidence here is a visual analogy between the way the first enters into Caleb to empower him and the way the original Watchers, the Shadow Men, sent a demon essence into the first slayer, essentially raping her, to create the slayer line.

The thing I liked most about this talk is that it explained the two prominent times when Sarah Michelle Gellar declares “It’s about power.” The first is when Buffy finally stands up to the Watchers council, realizing that she actually has more power than they do: “You're Watchers. Without a Slayer... you're pretty much just watching Masterpiece Theater.” (5.12) The second is when the First, in the guise of Buffy announces to the camera at the end of the first episode of season 7, that “it” is about power, where it could just as easily be the plot of the season as anything else. So what is about power? The patriarchy and its representatives on the show, like Caleb and the Watchers. They say they are about evil and good respectively, but they are about power.

more later.

Update: Titles and Speakers added

Friday, May 26, 2006

Slayage Post 1

There haven't been any presentations yet, but this is already shaping up to be a megafun conference. Last night at the reception I met a woman named Stephanie, a medical writer by trade, who is putting together an online journal of fanfiction studies. She says the new scandalous form of fanfiction is slash fiction about actors, rather than the characters they play. Thus someone out there is writing James Marsters/Tony Head fiction. Stephanie said that she sees the same debates springing up in fanfiction communities again and again, always following the same pattern. One of the things she hopes to do with her journal is to help communities by identifying these patterns so people can watch out for them. She also wants to promote scholarly work about fanfiction as a body of liturature, rather than just sociological work about fanfic writers. As a general resource, I pointed her to Making Light, particularly this post.

Today on the bus I met a woman, whose name I don't remember who works as a production manager for reality TV shows. She told me she worked on Paradise Hotel, and I immediately blurted out "You mean Drunk Asshole Hotel" Amazingly, she kept talking to me. She had very fun things to sa about working on a battle of the bands show for one hit wonders of bygone eras.

Most of the conference goers are female, and no one showed up in costume. One person appears to be a MTF transsexual, though, which sorta goes against both those generalizations.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hitting the Road

I'm off tomorrow for two conferences: first I'll be giving a paper here on the moral content of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then I'm giving a paper here on Buddhist nature aesthetics. Both papers have turned out to be really cool and fun to work on. The paper on nature aesthetics is a natural extension of other work I have done in environmental philosophy. The Buffy paper started out as something of a lark, but as I've worked on it, I realize that there are a lot of important things to be said. Molly asked me incredulously if I was going to list the Buffy paper on my CV. Not only I am listing the talk on my CV, but I am submitting the long version of it to the journal Slayage, and will list that on my CV if it is accepted.

I'm looking forward to both conferences, but the real fun will be afterwards. Since I'm flying back through Snowstorm City, where I'm meeting my family, I've planned a big blogger meetup with the incomparable Jo(e). (Seriously, she is incomparable. Have you ever tried to compare her to anyone? You can't. You just say "Jo(e) is like...umm, erm...never mind.)

Blogging will be intermittent for the next fortnight or so. But I’ll be sure to return with pictures.

Update: My hotel at the Slayage conference boasts free high speed internet access, yay! It is also right off a busy four lane highway with no sidewalks, and I didn't rent a car. Boo! This is not the conference hotel, so it has no amenities, not even food. Business within walking distance on this side of the highway include a tire store and "Towels Unlimited." There is a liquor store across the highway, so I may risk life and limb for a six pack of beer and chips.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Republicans Question Need for Publically Funded Social Science

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison questioned the importance of social science research, suggesting that the social and political sciences be barred from receiving funds from Bush's proposed boost in scientific research funding, and even suggested that the NSF get out of funding social science altogether, according to this article in Science.

Hutchison’s attack on the social science fits the general pattern of what Chris Mooney has called “the Republican war on science.”Republicans have always hated science, because it tells them truths they don’t want to hear. When the Office of Technology Assessment reported that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative wouldn’t work, the Gingrich congress responded by eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment. Of course, our current Dear Leader is well known for his ability to ignore expert advice: intelligence reports that say Saddam has no weapons of mass destruction, EPA reports on global warming, descriptions of levees breaking, memos titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the US.”, etc.

Hutchison’s move fits perfectly with the rest of the Republican war on science. Her rhetoric matches exactly tactics used in previous attacks on research in human sexuality. The strategy is simple: create a list of grantees whose research sounds arcane or unusual, and ask "Why are taxpayers funding this?" Here is Hutchison's list for the social sciences
Why is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding a study of a women's cooperative in Bangladesh? Why are U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? And why are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators chose U.S. senators?
Since most science is about technical issues, it is easy to discredit any research program with such questions. Admittedly, these questions don’t have quite the same bite when applied to research into the functioning of democracy as they did in sex research. When Republicans were attacking research into human sexuality, they could ask “Why are taxpayers funding research into truck stop prostitutes?” with the implication that anyone who was interested in such topics must be some kind of pervert. Nevertheless, Hutchison seems to have enough faith in her ability to discredit social science that she thinks she can totally cut off its current funding base. Hutchison is right to think her rhetoric is powerful. It is essentially the same technique that the Republicans used to eviscerate the National Endowment for the Arts. To discredit the NEA, Republicans would describe unusual works of art, often sexual in nature, without any context, and then ask, “Why is the American taxpayer funding this.” In fact, when the Traditional Values Coalition first launched their campaign against sex research, chief Andrea Lafferty called the NIH "the National Endowment for the Arts with a chemistry set."

Hutchison may defend herself by saying that she did not propose to eliminate all federal funding for the social sciences. She merely proposed eliminating NSF funding for it. She told Science "I'm trying to decide whether it would be better to put political science and some other fields into another [government] department." But the NSF funds 52% of all social science research in the US and 90% of the work in political science. (These numbers are again from Science.) Since Hutchison has not proposed where else this money might come from, and since she is trying to separate the social sciences from the NSF at a time when the NSF is getting a big boost in funding, this can only be interpreted as an attack on the social sciences.

People with authoritarian mindsets have real trouble with science. The tyrants love the toys science can produce, but the whole idea of free inquiry is anathema to them. A while back The Old Gray Lady had an article about China's efforts to build world class universities. (For some reason this isn’t behind the pay wall yet.) They are doing an excellent job, apparently, of wooing top people in science and technology, mostly ethnic Chinese, to set up labs at Chinese Universities. The rapid expansion makes the explosive growth of American universities in the 50s and 60s--the growth driven by the GI bill and the reaction to Sputnik--sound like a firecracker. In thirty years, they have gone from giving college educations to 1.4 percent of the population to providing that education to 20 percent of the people. But the Chinese are also trying to do this without allowing academic freedom. They are also ignoring the humanities, since after all the humanities demand freedom to talk about annoying issues and don't give you any toys in return.

There are a lot of people in America who would share this vision of what a university should be. Bobby Lauder, the monarch of the board of trustees at my previous institution, Auburn University, certainly wants the university to follow that model, except that his ideal also involves a football team. Actually, Lauder saw himself as owning a football team with some kind of school attached to it for reasons he didn’t fully understand. Since he reluctantly had to run a school, he did the only thing he could think to do: attack the humanities and pure sciences, and boost engineering and agricultural research.

It’s a shame when the tyrants start dictating science policy. We need to fight them at every turn.

Surrealist Russian Photography

This is from a page of mostly surrealist, very interesting, photography. There are also a number of images that appear to be magazine ads. Its all in Russian, so I can't read it. Via pharyngula.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology and Beauty

I typed a big long comment at Unfogged before I found out that the comments are down, so I'm moving it here. Lizardbreath asked:
It's a commonplace of online discussions (and, I suppose, of some offline as well) that men are attracted to women with certain physical characteristics such as clear skin, big eyes, thick shiny hair, a waist to hip ratio of .7, etc., because of evolutionary forces. Those characteristics act as a proxy for health and fertility, and so men who have sex with women with those characteristics have more children, and a genetic tendency among men to seek out sex with women with those characteristics becomes common in the population.

Okay, fine. But how good a proxy of health and fertility are these characteristics? Anecdotally, I don't see any connection between being pretty and being fertile -- I know big-eyed, clear skinned, slim-waisted women who had lots of trouble getting pregnant, and funny-looking pot-bellied women who had none. Is there any research supporting the idea that the cross-cultural standards of beauty that evolutionary psychology types appeal to are, in fact, a useful proxy for fertility?

(Maybe there is, of course. I just keep seeing this assumed as a step in the argument, rather than spelled out.)
I replied:
No Nym, in the comments at B.Ph.D. posted links to a slew of articles debunking the waist-to-hip ratio myth. Basically a few initial studies suggested it was true, and everyone ran with it, because it sounded so good, but later research showed it to be bunk. No Nym also gave a link to a study saying that the waist to hip ratio of Playboy centerfolds has been increasing, as the fashion model stick figure look catches on other parts of the culture.

In general, I bet you'll find a mixed bag with all of the traits you mention. I don't think anyone has suggested that big eyes are associated with fertility. They are a part of the larger human trend to look like a baby in order to garner more sympathy, and hence assistance from other members of the troop. Look at a baby chimp some time. They look far more human than adult chimps.
Even though I am taking the time to move my comment here, I am still not looking up No Nym's links.

Numbers are up

I am finally finished grading. Everyone has a number that I can stand behind. That 3? I stand behind it. These are numbers I feel good about. I have complete confidence in all of those 2.5's and those 2.75's. I like the 3.75's--such a fine, upstanding number! There are some zeros, but I believe in zero, too. Zero has a place in the grading continuum. We should honor zero by giving it out to people who never come to class and never turn in any work. Numbers, beautiful numbers all.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Chris & Grey Have a Blog

He look, Chris & Grey have a blog. They are swell people. I know Grey from college, and Chris from the fact that he married Grey. Hey everyone, meet Chris and Grey!

Community Based Learning

I'm grading the community based learning (aka "service learning") portion of my Ethics class. I'm still getting a handle on grading these things. I now have a pretty good sense of what students experience when they are placed with community programs. People who go to the Methodist Free Will Dinner are amazed at the poverty in St. Lawrence County. People at the various nursing homes wonder about treating old people like children. There is an elder care professional out there who is mentioned in almost all my student reports because he seems to get a kick out of bossing old people around.

I'm getting better at teaching this project each time I do it, but I am uncertain about how much effort I should put into honing this skill. I'm certain I will do better with the CBL next time, just as I did better this time than I did the time before. But will there be a next time? My schedule is set semester by semester, and I have no job guarantees more than two semesters in the future. I mean, sure, I will probably be teaching something five years from now. But will I have access to this kind of CBL program? Will I be back to teaching problem based courses in medical ethics? What city will I be living in?

Back in the internet bubble, people loved to talk about how rapidly the world of work was changing, and how everyone will have to keep updating their skill set, and no one should expect lifetime employment, and how you gotta go out there and sell the Brand Called You, because only those who could adapt will survive in the everchanging workplace. Well, the happy talk of the internet bubble is gone, but the insecurity remains. I think its clear now that life in temp america isn't really conducive to innovation. New ideas require investment, and investment requires predictability.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Update on the collapse of democratic government in the US

Electorial fraud: Black Box Voting finds that Diebold's machines are full of holes. The company explains that these are only weaknesses if you assume that someone would try to steal the election. NYT story. BBC report. Via Unfogged.

Massive Domestic Wiretapping: A story on the lone phone company who refused to cooperate. Meanwhile, it turns out the justice department investigation into the wiretapping program was shut down because no one could get security clearance. And Matt Yglesias points out how neatly massive wiretapping fits with the right to arbitrarily detain anyone indefinitely without charges. (The last via Dead Dad at Bitch)

Bribes & Hookers: The investigation in to the bribery ring surrounding Randy "Duke" Cunningham--the fun scandal involving limo companies and prostitutes--has led FBI officials to search the home and office of the former number 3 man at the CIA, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo. Foggo is closely linked to former CIA chief Porter Goss, who recently resigned without any explanation. Foggo was an undistinguished field officer until Goss decided to promote him to the number three job. The Times offers this interesting tidbit about the selection process:
The man Mr. Goss first selected to become the C.I.A.'s executive director, Michael V. Kostiw, had to turn down the job when it surfaced in the news media that he had resigned from the agency in the 1980's after being caught shoplifting bacon.

Well, I've got two of three classes graded, so I'm feeling fairly on top of things. If I get the chance I will say more about relativism and why Singer might well be right about local food.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sprog Updates

Joey is a crawling machine. The other day I followed him as he crawled the length of the house (to get to the dog's food bowl and try to make himself a meal.) Joey has completely mastered the infantryman-under-fire belly crawl. I've been trying to get good footage of him doing it, but our house is always dim.

Caroline has a number of unusual imaginary friends. First, there is the man in the woods. Stories about the man in the woods always begin like this: "Did you know? Yesterday I met a man in the woods?" The first time she launched into a story like this, we had no idea it was made up, and were quite scared. Now we are used to the man in the woods. Stories about the man in the woods usually only last a sentence or two after "Yesterday I met a man in the woods." Molly has noticed, though, that the man in the woods is always doing something transgressive or reversed from the way Caroline has to do things. Some typical man in the woods stories:
Did you know? Yesterday I met a man in the woods? And he goes to sleep at wake up time and wakes up at bed time.

Did you know? Yesterday I met a man in the woods? And he has treats without eathing any fruit.
There is some overlap between the man in the woods and Caroline's other unusual imaginary friends: her boyfriends. Just today she was saying that her boyfriends have a car with eight carseats, and they all like to ride around together, because they like being with each other. Her boyfriends are always rulebreakers, and sometimes she specifically says the man in the woods is her boyfriend.

I think this means she is going to have a thing for bad boys when she gets older.

Peter Singer has a New Book and an Interview in Salon.

He's one of my intellectual heroes. He's not always taken seriously by other professional philosophers, because his ethical theory is simplistic and his metaethic so thin it scarcely exists. But no one can gainsay his intellectual courage or his talent for making philosophy a part of real life again. Read here.

Added: Check out Singer's skepticism about local food. Very interesting:
In your book you say that socially responsible folks in San Francisco would do better to buy their rice from Bangladesh than from local growers in California. Could you explain?

This is in reference to the local food movement, and the idea that you can save fossil fuels by not transporting food long distances. This is a widespread belief, and of course it has some basis. Other things being equal, if your food is grown locally, you will save on fossil fuels. But other things are often not equal. California rice is produced using artificial irrigation and fertilizer that involves energy use. Bangladeshi rice takes advantage of the natural flooding of the rivers and doesn't require artificial irrigation. It also doesn't involve as much synthetic fertilizer because the rivers wash down nutrients, so it's significantly less energy intensive to produce. Now, it's then shipped across the world, but shipping is an extremely fuel-efficient form of transport. You can ship something 10,000 miles for the same amount of fuel necessary to truck it 1,000 miles. So if you're getting your rice shipped to San Francisco from Bangladesh, fewer fossil fuels were used to get it there than if you bought it in California.

In the same vein, you argue that in the interests of alleviating world poverty, it's better to buy food from Kenya than to buy locally, even if the Kenyan farmer only gets 2 cents on the dollar.

My argument is that we should not necessarily buy locally, because if we do, we cut out the opportunity for the poorest countries to trade with us, and agriculture is one of the things they can do, and which can help them develop. The objection to this, which I quote from Brian Halweil, one of the leading advocates of the local movement, is that very little of the money actually gets back to the Kenyan farmer. But my calculations show that even if as little as 2 cents on the dollar gets back to the Kenyan farmer, that could make a bigger difference to the Kenyan grower than an entire dollar would to a local grower. It's the law of diminishing marginal utility. If you are only earning $300, 2 cents can make a bigger difference to you than a dollar can make to the person earning $30,000.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Relativism and Opinion

TMK asks:
So could a relativist then acknowledge the complexity of his belief structures, and using that acknowledgment as a basis, admit to being wrong in an instance where he felt guilt? Sort of a nuanced relativism? -- Do relativists not accept the concept of bad faith?

I have always sort of unreflectively assumed I am a relativist -- after all I'm a liberal and an unbeliever, everyone tells me liberals and the irreligious are supposed to be relativists. But I have not really delved into what the label denotes.
The simplest definition of relativism is "The belief that ethical statements are only true or false in the context of some group that takes them to be true or false." This is more exactly known as cultural relativism. It implies that whenever one says that something is wrong, one must add "for the So and So." Thus female genital mutilation is wrong for the Americans but OK for the Massai. The implication is that the thing you are talking about is wrong only because the people in question think it is wrong, and if they just thought it was right, it would be ok.

Relativism belongs to a larger class of beliefs which Gil Harmon has dubbed "ethical nihilism." The club includes subjectivism, which is like relativism only it uses personal belief instead of cultural belief. It also includes the claim that all ethical statements are meaningless and the claim that they are all false (since there is no such thing as right and wrong.)

Relativism and subjectivism, as we philosophers define them, have little room for conflicted individuals or complex cultures, because the truth of an ethical statement depends solely on the ruling of the culture or individual.

Relativism, when stated this flatly, sounds completely daft. Why would anyone think such a thing? But there are a number of forces at work in pluralist and capitalist societies that push people towards believing it. The pluralist drive behind relativism is essentially noble. People think they must be relativists to be tolerant of other cultures. Relativism makes it easy to look at your neighbor's strange customs and laughing blue god and say "well, that's just how they do things."

Relativism is also promoted, in a more pernicious way, by capitalism. Capitalism encourages us to think of everything in economic terms. But in economic theory, every decision that is not purely monetary is a preference. If I decide to by chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream, that is a preference. If I decide to by a Hummer instead of a hybrid, that is a preference. If I decide to give all my money to terrorists, that is a preference. There is no difference between values and preferences in capitalism. (This is what makes the Republican party such a paradox. It combines the most pompous moralizers, the people who view their every whim as a value that everyone else must follow, with the most amoral sharks, people for whom there are no values at all.)

Although most liberals are led to relativism to promote tolerance, relativism is the enemy of tolerance. Relativism blocks conversation between cultures. It only allows for "you go your way, I'll go mine." When a real conflict arises, say over resources, there is no common language to resolve differences, thus leading to war.

Relativism is also the enemy of feminism. For starters, many practices that get a pass from the relativist--female genital mutilation, sati, Sharia--are specifically tools for the oppression of women. Also, by viewing cultures as monolithic, relativism shuts out women's voices. If there is a resistance movement in a culture, their goals are simply wrong, because right and wrong are defined by what the culture believes.

As a philosophy teacher, I have to deal with a specific version of relativism which the industry has come to call "student relativism." The student relativist uses relativism to rationalize not having to think seriously about the material in the course. If I present an ethical problem, the student will declare that it is just a “matter of opinion.” No one can say if euthanasia is ok. That is a matter of opinion. If a scientist teacher announces, though, that the speed of light is 300,000 meters per second that is not an opinion, that is a fact.

The problem is that everyone has the idea drilled into their heads that a fact is the opposite of an opinion. (I blame journalism especially for this.) Look, an opinion is a belief. Both the scientist and the ethicist have beliefs. Beliefs can be justified or unjustified, and true or false. The belief that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second is eminently justified and almost certainly true. The belief that Sati is wrong is at least as justified, and at least as likely to be true. Beliefs are not opposed to facts. Facts are features of the world. Beliefs are mental structures that attempt to mirror facts, or at least provide simplified representations of them. The opposite of a fact is not an opinion or a belief. It is a way the world could be but isn’t.

Really I have two lessons I teach: (1) A theory is not a unconfirmed fact and (2) ethical statements can be true or false. These two lessons are related, because once you get over saying “it’s just a theory” you will also get over saying “ethics is all a matter of opinion.”

Friday, May 05, 2006

quick fun

They Are Made Out of Meat. ("We probed them all the way through, and they are made out of meat") via Pharyngula.

Geoffrey Chaucer's pick up lines. ("If Ich Sayde That Thou Hadde A Bele Chose, Woldstow Holde It Ayeinst Me?") via Unfogged.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A common student mistake

I know I shouldn't post student sentences when I am grading papers, even without attridbution, because people might feel singled out or publically mocked, but the following sentence from a student essay is such a common mistake that I need to correct it in as public a forum as possible.
The inability to recognize that you are not always right is important in acknowledging that there is no universal truth in morality
Ack. No. In order to say “I was not right”, you have to acknowledge that there is a right and wrong to begin with. It is the relativist who cannot admit that she is wrong, because for the relativist all views are true for the person or group who holds them.

You need to distinguish between relativism and falliblism. Falliblism is just the belief that one can be mistaken about ethics. Relativism is the belief that there is no right and wrong at all except in reference to the person or group who holds this belief.

Why do people keep saying things like this? Is someone else in the academy pushing this illogical message? (Sociology? Anthropology? Continental philosophy?)

BTW, given the incredible amount of time I spend trying to disabuse people at least of naïve forms of relativism, I really resent the endless accusation from the right that all academics are relativists. It is as if they have never been in an ethics classroom or read an elementary ethics text to see how the issue of relativism is treated.

I’m really looking forward to next semester, when I’ll get to spend every day explaining that a theory is not an unconfirmed fact, rather than explaining that a relativist can never admit to being wrong.