Apr 082014

Jason Crawford gives an excellent answer to the question: What can non-Objectivists and doubters learn from the works of Ayn Rand? I like these two points most of all:

If you feel burdened by unchosen obligations to your family, your friends, your community, or the world at large, Rand will help you see that the guilt you feel is unearned and that your own happiness is the moral purpose of your life.

If you feel like a chump for being honest and fair to others, if you feel that morality is impractical and that being unscrupulous is the only way to get ahead—Rand will show you that honesty, integrity and justice are in your own rational self-interest, and that a rational person seeks only win-win relationships with others.

Objectivism’s ethics of rational egoism makes possible win-win relationships with others — rather than playing the martyr or predating. That shouldn’t be so revolutionary in ethics, but it is.

Go read the whole thing!

Apr 032014

I was pretty well-amused by this funny column: 10 Things to Never Say to Women Who Don’t Want Kids. Here’s the one that I’ve heard most often:

7. “You’ll change your mind.”

Maybe I will change my mind about having kids, but I’ll never change my mind about you being tacky as hell. If you find yourself about to say this to a childless woman, please punch yourself in the face and then go home and watch Gigli five times as punishment.

It’s wildly rude to second-guess people’s life-choices in this way… and just imagine the uproar if childless people said that — or worse: “you’ll regret that someday” — to people with kids.

Here’s my basic perspective on the decision to have kids or not:

Because Paul and I chose not to have kids, I’ve been able to do tons of awesome things that wouldn’t be possible with kids, including graduate school, my career, and riding horses seriously. However… if we’d had kids, I’d be doing tons of different but still awesome things that are only possible with kids, like homeschooling or teaching my kids to ride horses.

“Should we have kids or not?” is major fork in the road of life. You might have a strong preference one way or the other, but please, recognize that not everyone feels the same way — and that life offers all kinds of fabulous joys, whichever path a person takes!

How Not to Advise a Disgruntled Teenager

 Posted by on 25 March 2014 at 2:00 pm  Ethics, Law, Parenting
Mar 252014

You remember that story of the teenager who sued her parents for support? Happily, the lawsuit was recently withdrawn, and she’s back at home. But here’s the kicker… her lawsuit was facilitated — and surely encouraged — by the father of a friend of hers.

“Canning had been living in Rockaway Township with the family of her best friend. The friend’s father, former Morris County Freeholder John Inglesino, was paying for the lawsuit.”

This father-of-a-friend deserves a bitchslap or two, particularly given that the girl has become such a public spectacle. What a mess.

Moral Saints

 Posted by on 12 February 2014 at 9:00 am  Ethics, Philosophy
Feb 122014

On Thursday evening’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss one of my favorite articles in academic philosophy, namely Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints.” I disagree with major elements of the article — as I’ll explain on the show — yet it’s a masterful dissection of the practical meaning of being a consistent practitioner of Kantian ethics or utilitarian ethics. (That’s what is meant by a “moral saint.”)

The article begins:

I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them. By moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be. Though I shall in a moment acknowledge the variety of types of person that might be thought to satisfy this description, it seems to me that none of these types serve as unequivocally compelling personal ideals. In other words, I believe that moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would he particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.

Outside the context of moral discussion, this will strike many as an obvious point. But, within that context, the point, if it be granted, will be granted with some discomfort. For within that context it is generally assumed that one ought to be as morally good as possible and that what limits there are to morality’s hold on us are set by features of human nature of which we ought not to be proud. If, as I believe, the ideals that are derivable from common sense and philosophically popular moral theories do not support these assumptions, then something has to change. Either we must change our moral theories in ways that will make them yield more palatable ideals, or, as I shall argue, we must change our conception of what is involved in affirming a moral theory.

In this paper, I wish to examine the notion of a moral saint, first, to understand what a moral saint would be like and why such a being would be unattractive, and, second, to raise some questions about the significance of this paradoxical figure in moral philosophy. I shall look first at the model(s) of moral sainthood that might be extrapolated from the morality or moralities of common sense. The I shall consider what relations these have to conclusions that can be drawn from utilitarian and Kantian moral theories. Finally, I shall speculate on the implications of the considerations for moral philosophy.

If you’d like to read the article in advance — and I think you’ll get more out of my discussion if you do — you’ll find the PDF here: “Moral Saints” by Susan Wolf.

Acting Badly Does Not Equal Being Bad Person

 Posted by on 21 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Character, Ethics, Justice
Jan 212014

Too often, when I say something like, “Mr. X acted unjustly toward Ms. Y” or “Mr. X, I think that you were not honest with Ms. Y,” the reaction of Mr. X (and defenders of Mr. X) is something like , “SO YOU THINK THAT MR. X IS AN UNJUST PERSON!” or “HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A LIAR!” (Yes, they’re often angry and yelling.)

Alas, such inferences are wholly unwarranted. The simple fact is that a person might act wrongly — even perhaps violating the basic demands of a virtue — without being a terrible or corrupt or vicious person. Perhaps the person acted in haste, without sufficient forethought. Perhaps the person acted on a mistaken principle. Perhaps the person didn’t see the full effects or implications of his actions. Perhaps the person misunderstands the proper application of the principle. Perhaps the person was ignorant of certain facts about the situation. Perhaps the person thought the principle didn’t apply in that case. And so on.

Basically, a person can act wrongly — meaning, in a way harmful to self or others — without intending to do so. A person might act contrary to a virtue, yet do so honestly.

That’s part of why moral judgments of persons for their actions need to be distinguished from moral judgments of persons for their characters. These are two different kinds of judgments, and they serve two distinct purposes. (That’s a critical point for my case against moral luck.) Of course, these two kinds of judgments are related: judgments of actions are the basis for judgments of character. Nonetheless, a single bad action does not a bad character make — just as a single good action does not a good character make.

Aristotle makes a similar point in Book 5, Chapter 8 of the The Nicomachean Ethics. (Note that to act by “choice” means that the person deliberates beforehand about his best course of action.)

When [a man] acts with knowledge but not after deliberation, it is an act of injustice — e.g. the acts due to anger or to other passions necessary or natural to man; for when men do such harmful and mistaken acts they act unjustly, and the acts are acts of injustice, but this does not imply that the doers are unjust or wicked; for the injury is not due to vice. But when a man acts from choice, he is an unjust man and a vicious man.

Now, I make more allowances than Aristotle does here. Deliberation can go awry for many reasons, even in good people. Still, I agree with Aristotle that a person’s chosen actions reveal his character more clearly than do his hasty, impulsive, or rote actions. Often, when a person deliberates, he ought to know better, and he ought to have acted differently.

As for the people who assume that any moral criticism means an accusation of vice… well, that kind of defensiveness suggests that they damn well intended to do what they did — or, in any case, they’re sure as heck not going to admit that they were wrong. I’d consider that a major red flag in a person.

Don’t Let the Kiddos Win Easy!

 Posted by on 20 January 2014 at 1:00 pm  Children, Competition, Ethics, Honesty, Parenting
Jan 202014

I hate the practice of allowing kids to win games, although I’ve never really considered the alternatives.

Two weeks ago, when Paul and I were in Los Angeles visiting his family, I played Connect Four with my five year old nephew, Jeremy, and I hit on a strategy that I really like.

Basically, I played all my best moves, but throughout the game, I gave him hints about his moves and strategy, as well as explained what I was doing and why. I enjoyed that, he enjoyed that, and he learned how to play better. That felt so much better — and more honest — than pretending to be slow and dumb.

As a result, I checkmated him in the first game, but then I lost the second game to him, because I got too excited about the move that I’d make next, and I forgot to block him. Doh!

Another option is to handicap games. That’s fair, since the adult knows so much more. The goal, after all, is to play an enjoyable and competitive game!

Good times!

Kid Shaming: Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong

 Posted by on 14 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Children, Ethics, Justice, Parenting
Jan 142014

Dog shaming is funny: it’s a harmless way for dog owners to amuse themselves (or blow off steam) about the naughty behavior of their dogs. It’s harmless because the dogs don’t know that they’re being publicly shamed and mocked. (They can’t read, after all.)

Kid shaming is another matter entirely. Here’s one example and here’s another. Such public shaming teaches the worst possible moral lessons — particularly that you can’t trust people who claim to love you and that life will be good so long as you conceal your mistakes and wrongs from the authorities. It’s a betrayal of a child’s trust in a parent, not to mention an unconscionable abuse of parental authority. To see how and why, read this article: Destroying Your Child’s Heart – One FB Picture At A Time.

Just imagine if your boss publicly shamed you at the office — or the whole wide world — for your mistakes and wrongs. Really, just imagine that for a moment. Think of your last screw-up, whether large or small. I bet that you’d learn one of the following lessons from the article, just like kids do:

  • Bully your kids and they will learn to fear you. As in be afraid of you. Cringing in your presence and hiding their lives from you.
  • Publicly shame your kids and they will learn the only important character development is to be found in a good public persona and the fool’s gold of value based solely upon outward perception and public approval
  • Mock your children as they struggle and they will learn to never share their struggles with you.
  • Share their weaknesses with the world and they will find the world to be cruel and will put you in the role of the cruelest of all.
  • They will think they are a joke, not to be taken seriously. Their pain the only commodity to sell.
  • They will treat you as you have treated them.

Parents, you can do better!

The Power of Speaking Out

 Posted by on 10 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Bullying, Culture, Ethics, Racism
Jan 102014

Paul sent me this video, knowing that I’d like it. He was right!

Update: I just fixed the video, so that it works now!

I love to see people speaking out against such racist bullying, even when remaining silent would be the easier course. Bullies are cowards at heart. They’ll almost always back down in face of firm opposition, which is part of why it’s so important to say that they’re wrong, clearly and openly. Also, speaking out against a bully helps the victims: they don’t feel alone and under attack from all sides. That’s why I liked the first woman most of all: her immediate focus was to protect the victim from these vicious comments by letting her know that she rejected the bully’s racism.

Videos like this one give me hope for the future of American culture. Americans are concerned about justice — and many will not stand idly by while another person is unjustly victimized. We just need to figure out how to reach them with rational principles in ways that make sense to them.

Jan 092014

Lately, I’ve gotten a slew of hits to this video from Philosophy in Action: Should a man unwilling to be a father have to pay child support? It’s now gotten nearly 5,000 views. Nice!

That’s awesome. Alas, awesome often comes paired with crazy, such as this comment:

Let’s think about this bit — “If a woman steals a mans seed without his consent, does she have a right to live?” — for a moment.

First, I’m pretty sure that a man voluntarily gives his “seed” to a woman in having sex with her. That’s rather the point, in fact.

Second, are we talking death penalty?!? Um, wow.

Finally, here’s a pro-tip: Don’t ever suggest up-front that your audience might think you a sociopath after reading your opinion. It might just prejudice them against you… just a bit.

Jan 072014

Recently, I ran across this list of 25 Manners Every Kid Should Know By Age 9. It’s not a great list in many ways, but some of the proposed rules are fine. Kids should learn to make polite requests, including saying “please” and “thank-you.” Obviously, that’s part of being a decent adult too.

However, I have a strong aversion to the rules designed just for kids, such as #3:

Do not interrupt grown-ups who are speaking with each other unless there is an emergency. They will notice you and respond when they are finished talking.

Really? Adults interrupt each other all the time. Can’t kids be taught those mores — or how to do that politely? Surely, this rule seems to imply that any conversation among adults, no matter how trivial, is more important than any concern of the child, except life-and-death. That’s not good!

Also, #6:

The world is not interested in what you dislike. Keep negative opinions to yourself, or between you and your friends, and out of earshot of adults.

Dislikes are important! Knowing what you dislike is part of knowing what you like. A kid who can introspect and explain his dislikes is going to be better equipped to pursue his values, both as a kid and as an adult. He will be able to assert himself, including against bullies and exploiters. Yes, dislikes can be expressed in rude or otherwise inappropriate ways. However, merely expressing dislikes is far from rude in and of itself. That’s why adults express dislikes routinely. (Alas, part of the problem here is that parents often don’t take the likes and dislikes of their children seriously.)

Oh, and #13:

Never use foul language in front of adults. Grown-ups already know all those words, and they find them boring and unpleasant.

To that, I will only say: Speak for yourself, jerkwad!

Obviously, I’m not opposed to all rules designed for kids. Kids aren’t just small adults, so any rules should consider their ignorance, lack of self-control, clumsiness, weakness, and other relevant facts. So definitely don’t let the two-year-old run around the house with the kitchen knives.

However, when teaching social graces, kids need practice at polite methods of accomplishing their aims. Simply demanding that kids never interrupt, keep silent about what they dislike, and never curse doesn’t do that. Such bans leave kids without guidance and without practice — and likely with some resentment of their parents for being hypocritical and oppressive. Parents, you can do better than that!

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