Archive for May, 2013

Good to see the IHS offer “equal time” on the question.  My only quibble with Aeon’s take relates to theory vs. practice.  In theory, he is correct, and I applaud him for standing up against the mass of “STEMsters”  and calmly asking (as a philosopher would) the world to think about the new conventional wisdom a bit more before fulling embracing it.  Thus, I agree that there is a lot of value to what the humanities in theory can do for the minds of our students.  However, I have little doubt from what I read about other places and hear around my campus that wayyy too many humanities classes are failing to do what Aeon thinks they can do.  Indeed, I often wonder if many of those humanities classes are actually providing negative value!  I have a hard time imagining that this is the case in STEM classes.  That being said, the battle shouldn’t really be whether the humanities are useful (even in the non-economic sense) – since Aeon is correct – but about how the humanities ought to be taught in order to benefit our students (and society).

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If you see corruption in the upper tiers of government as a major problem for an economy’s health in the long run (and the balance of evidence suggests that it is, at least at high levels in capitalist countries), then externally imposed austerity might be the only way to root it out. Syracuse prof Glyn Morgan passes along this story from Spain:

Rato, Castellanos and others jointly own a commercial lot near Madrid that is leased to a third party, according to Ayala’s Jan. 10 statement to the court. They also controlled a company together while Rato, 64, was running Bankia, Ayala said.

At the same time, Lazard billed Bankia 9.2 million euros ($12 million) for work either assigned or executed during Rato’s 27-month tenure at the bank, court documents show.

Their relationship exemplifies how a network of leaders from the governing People’s Party helped their associates among the financial elite to profit while the country’s savings banks, known as cajas, racked up losses. That toxic combination flourished during the boom fueled by Spain’s entry into the euro in 1999 and served to deepen the crash that resulted in a 41 billion-euro bailout of Spanish lenders, according to Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Whether harsh spending cuts are a good idea or not for countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece depends in part on how one values the long run versus the short run. Also from the story:

“The things that we need to do to make Spain work require pulling the rug out from under the core interests of everyone” in power, Ken Dubin, a political scientist who teaches in Madrid at IE business school and Carlos III University, said in a May 22 telephone interview. “This is a political racket run for the benefit of politicians who suck the marrow out of the citizenry.”

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Memorial Day Salute

As I do every Memorial Day, a salute to all those Americans who have lost their lives fighting in foreign wars.  I would add that while it is always nice to celebrate a living veteran, our thoughts today should be turned to those who died in service rather than those fortunate enough to return home alive.

A special salute to Major Brian Mescall, a graduate of the Citadel, who was killed in action in Afghanistan.  And one to Captain Ray Conard, killed in his B-24 during WWII (he was a member of the 734th Bomber Squadron, 453rd Bomber Group in Britain).  This may be the story (though I haven’t been able to verify it) of what happened to Captain Conard:


41 aircraft flew on to bomb a railway viaduct just outside Bielefeld. Using a visual correction through a cloud break on a PFF run, 101 tons fell on the target with fair results.

For the third time in the month, tragedy stalked the 734th Squadron. Capt. Conard, leading mission 182, crashed a few miles from the base. Apparently unable to get his plane to climb, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bomb load. Never over a few hundred feet above ground, the ship lost altitude steadily and headed for two homes about forty or fifty feet apart. Unable to climb over them or fly between them, [Capt Conard stood the big ship on its right wing and cartwheeled between them.]*  Capt. Conard’s action is believed by Major McFadden and Col. Thomas, who investigated the crash, to have been deliberate in order to avoid striking the homes and injuring or killing the occupants. His courageous action cost him his life along with the lives of his crew, but the occupants of the homes were in no way harmed, This, despite the fact that an engine damaged a corner of one of the homes as it was dislodged from the plane. Capt. Conard has been recommended for the DSC, posthumously. 

*added in some versions of the story found on the web

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A simple but important statement about market failure from Art Carden:

“market failure” is where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

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Over at BHL, my friend Andrew Cohen has responded to my post earlier this week making a skeptical case against the normative credentials of the idea of “social justice.” Andrew thinks that part anyway of the problem with my skeptical argument is that is framed in terms of rights. He believes that “harms” are “more basic” than rights, and that if we recast the story in terms of harms, we get a plausible normative account of where exactly social justice (more specifically, moral injustice) comes to be. I had framed that question in terms of supervenience, which is the idea that somehow moral (or more generally normative) properties come to be because of or in virtue of underlying non-normative (natural) properties. Most moral philosophers accept that as an analytical framework, because (i) it seems to be the way we think about normative properties, and (ii) it is neutral between at least a wide variety of theories about what the normative properties we should care about are, and what they supervene upon. I don’t think Andrew is rejecting that bit of analytic framework: he is thinking it works better if we look at “harms” as being the base (the “subvening” class of natural properties). Andrew has a book coming out explicating this sort of framework, and I haven’t read it. No doubt some at least of what I have to say here Andrew has counterarguments for in his book. My point will be that what we have on the table now neither solves the present problem (making normative sense of social justice) nor is an advance in providing analytical tools. Let me take the second, more general, point first.

First, I agree with Andrew that rights are not the most basic normative (moral) concept. But I don’t think that matters here. We’re after an understanding of justice or injustice, and rights-talk can usefully be used as a shorthand for the moral status that is violated or abused or what have you when injustice occurs. (And I’m fine with Andrew’s suggestion that it may be more useful to get a grip on injustice than on justice.) We can differ on what rights we have, and on why we have the rights we have, but still agree that injustice occurs when rights are violated. That anyway is the tradition I think most BHL’ers have been working in (indeed most liberal political philosophers, in the inclusive sense of “liberal”), and the one I work in. I don’t think it is one Andrew offers any alternative to, as I will argue.

Here’s the problem, and it is not a new one. The notion of “harm” is under pressure from both the normative and the non-normative side. That is, we want to use the term in such a way that harms are bad, but we also want to use it to capture certain kinds of natural fact about the world, such as when for example I hit your arm with my running chain saw. Since attaching normative properties to natural properties is in some sense the very problem I think we face in thinking about “social justice,” this might be a virtue for thinking in terms of harms. In fact I think it is not, because rather than providing a careful analysis of how this “attachment” takes place, harms-talk often equivocates between the two uses. Andrew does this in his post.

Harms, he says, are not just hurts. Although he doesn’t define “hurts,” what he goes on to say about harms suggests that we could think of hurts as “setbacks to interests.” That’s fine, provided we have a (more basic) account of interests. I doubt we can do things this way, but set that aside. The point is that hurts, so understood, have no import for (in)justice. That’s because setbacks to interests, though in most cases disagreeable to those whose interests they are, don’t necessarily represent moral wrongs. I can apply to a job I really like, and which it would be in my interest to get, and be in dandy shape until you — better educated, more experienced, a better candidate in every way — apply for the job as well, and get it. You have set back my interests in doing so, and so have hurt me. But (barring some further story) you have not wronged me, and there is no injustice involved. So hurts are not what we are interested in.

To move past this point, Andrew specifies that what we are interested in is wrongful hurts, wrongful setbacks to interests. That’s what harms are. They are wrongful, hence normative.  (So, strictly speaking, “wrongful harms” should be redundant, on Andrew’s view. I think it is telling that he finds himself using that locution anyway.) But now we need an account of when harms are wrongful, and when not. Harms are not, after all, normatively basic: they are dependent on an account of when setbacks to interests are wrongful, and when they are not. It is worth considering what J.S. Mill does when he runs into this problem, in trying to establish his “Harm Principle” as a basic principle for understanding when social intervention in individual action is permissible and when not. As many observers have noted, this strategy cannot possibly make harms basic, because many (including the harms to “disappointed competitors,” as in my example above) do not trigger the Harm Principle. That is to say, they don’t carry the normative significance that the relevant harms do. Nor do harms resulting from the “inseparable” effects of the “unfavorable judgment of others” (Ch. V), nor harms that are not “direct and in the first instance” (Ch. I), and so on. Mill finds himself using the language of “rights” to pick out which harms count: it is those that violate rights! (Ch. V).

I don’t mean to saddle Andrew with Mill’s problems, but he faces the same challenge: which harms are wrongful? When Andrew tells us what that criterion is, I will say: fine. Let’s say that people have rights to not being harmed in those wrongful ways, and we are right back where we began. Where is the injustice that doesn’t occur by individuals to individuals — the harm (following Andrew) that we need the notion of “social justice” to capture?

Notice that we cannot answer simply by identifying people whose interests have been set back. Doing so is identifying hurts, but not yet harms. To show the harms necessary for injustice, we have to show that these hurts are wrongful. If we are successful, at the end we will have an account of wrongfulness that cannot be set out in terms of hurts (since it is a criterion for when hurts become harms). So the recourse to hurts and harms is a superstructure, not a foundation. I doubt it offers much to moral theory, but as I say I haven’t read Andrew’s book, so Andrew very likely offers interesting ways to address these concerns.

In any event, the problem for the case at hand —making normative sense of “social injustice” — is that the structure Andrew is providing will face a challenge: show how there is a wrongful hurt that isn’t a hurt imposed by an individual, on an individual. Perhaps his book will do this, but we don’t have an indication yet of how he can do so. As his commenters have pointed out, Andrew’s example (of a receiver of a stolen iPhone) doesn’t work. There is no question that there is wronging occurring here, and that it counts as injustice. (At least I am not inclined to quarrel with the example in this way.) But just for that reason, we don’t need “social justice” to identify the wrong: we get everything we need with plain old injustice. At least, Andrew has not shown that this is not so. Moreover, this is far from the kind of case that “social justice” is trotted out to cover: the kinds of cases that, for instance, Kevin hoped to explain with the idea that “social justice” is an emergent property. So I don’t see that we make any progress on the problem by focusing on hurts or harms.

Addendum: one other point about Andrew’s argument. He says this:

The reason is simply that groups are nothing more than collections of individuals, so if something supervenes on group G, it supervenes on the collection of individuals that make up group G.

The first clause is amenable to moral individualism, on one reading. The fact that these individuals may be collected into a group in general would not change the moral standing, entitlement, or obligations of those individuals, if moral individualism is true. But the second clause (following “so”) can be true only on a reading of the first that is not compatible with moral individualism. The question is whether the subvening base of the moral properties (in this case, justice or injustice) is the individuals in the collection, or the collection itself. These can have importantly different properties. The House of Representatives is a collection of individuals. That collection has the authority to pass laws that none of its members do. The individuals are entitled to cast votes in their respective states, but the collection is not. Thinking that all the properties of the collection are just the properties of its members is a classic informal fallacy. I think the normative purport of “social justice” depends on that fallacy, and this is an indication of how easy it is for even a good philosopher to commit it. On moral individualism, only individuals, not the collections to which they belong, subvene normative properties. That’s why there is a normative problem with “social justice.”

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A very cool story here about an unheralded lecturer in math who in isolation from the big names in his field (and who even had to work at a Subway at one point) comes up with a huge advance in solving a famous and very vexing problem in numbers theory.  How did he come up with the solution to the challenge that had really worn on him?:

To take a break, Zhang visited a friend in Colorado last summer. There, on July 3, during a half-hour lull in his friend’s backyard before leaving for a concert, the solution suddenly came to him. “I immediately realized that it would work,” he said.

This scene fits quite well with what the recently deceased Kenneth Waltz thought about where theories come from.  To Waltz, a theory doesn’t come from the collection of more and more data but from this: a moment when a “brilliant intuition flashes, a creative idea emerges” (Theory of International Politics).  Richard Ashley described Waltz’s view of the theory construction process as “all very mysterious.”  Waltz himself said: “One cannot say how the intuition comes and how the idea is born.”

Perhaps we should spend more time in the backyard and less time in the office?

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Drudge is linking to a Weekly Standard post whose purpose can only be to take the President to task for alleged disrespect of the military.  According to the WS, Obama boarded Marine One today without returning a military salute rendered by the Marine on duty outside the rotary wing aircraft. 

But what is the real problem here?  The President is Commander-in-Chief but this is certainly not a military position and the holder of that office is not bound to return a salute.  Indeed, the President returning a salute is a relatively new phenomenon that one could argue is bound together with the overall rise of militarism in American society since WWII.  It only really became the norm with Ronald Reagan and should be viewed as oddly as a member of Congress returning a salute (given the fact that civilian control of the military is divided between the branches and is not just the purview of the President).  For more on the history of presidential saluting, see Michael Desch’s excellent Foreign Policy piece from last summer here, titled, “Mr. President, don’t salute the troops this 4th of July.”

Here is the best part of that piece:

But it is the constitutional issue that is ultimately dispositive for me. America’s Founders took deliberate steps to ensure civilian control of the military. One was to split the war powers — the power to declare war and the conduct of the war itself — between the legislative and executive branches. Their aim was to prevent the president from becoming a king. But they were also careful to specify, as the participants in debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 framed it, that the president was a “civil,” not a military, officer. As one participant observed, George Washington was not president when he was a general and not a general when he became our first president. Civilian control of the military was at the core of how the Founders thought about the institution of commander-in-chief and I worry that we are losing sight of that when we treat it as just another military rank.

Desch goes onto argue that a better way for the President to acknowledge military members is “a nod in the direction of the individual saluting, a quite word of thanks, and perhaps a handshake would be sufficient. Presidents should, of course, honor the troops — they just should not salute them.” 

And what did Obama do today – perhaps after being reminded by a staffer that he’d get heat for doing nothing?  He went out and shook the hand of the Marine.  This seems perfectly fine, but even that should not be expected of a civilian leader who certainly shouldn’t be obligated to shake the hand of every citizen or soldier he passed by and who acknowledges him. 

Trying to make a big deal out of this stuff is just the kind of baloney that neoconservatives serve up on a regular basis.  For people who claim to appreciate the Founders, history, and prudence, neocons can be strikingly blind to all three when it suits their purposes.   


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