Posts Tagged ‘Michael Sandel’

All kinds

April 26, 2013

Nice mix of conventional and quirky, in yesterday’s CoPhi reports. Jessica on Rawls, Andrew on Sandel, Jake on Buddhism, Regan on Meditation, and Logan on a crazy, humble “goofball” climber who “knows” he can’t fail or fall (though most of his mentors have).

Alex is an atheist, Logan told us, a YOLO guy who says live. 

That’s one of my mottos too, but in my case it keeps me literally off the wall.

One of my others: it takes all kinds.

Enhanced, but… improved?

April 10, 2013

We’re on in Bioethics to Michael Sandel’s The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (“The Ethics of Enhancement”) and Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement.

“Enhancement” is the inescapable issue here. Enhanced for what, to what end, with what rationale?

In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Bill McKibben imagines several responses. Perhaps the road to enhancement will take us to Enchantment too, and answers (at last!) to the philosophers’ perennial questions.

  • Where did the universe come from?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is the meaning of conscious existence?

“Not to be impolite, but for this we trade our humanity? Sure, these questions are important, especially the last one. But they’re not all-important.” Are we happy? might just be a better one.

What’s ultimately problematic about enhancing ourselves and our progeny, aside from legitimate worries about equity, democratic opportunity, and enhancement for all? Sandel is concerned for our freedom and dignity, for the “moral status of nature” and the “given world.” He’s worried about the prospective sacrifice of our humanity for something  less intrinsically meaningful and more divisive.

Powers is concerned for the fragility of happiness, and seems eager to impress upon us all a consciousness of ourselves, at this specific moment of natural history, as the collaborative authors of a future to whose inhabitants we owe the greatest generosity (which we can pay only in the coin of responsibility in the present).

Sandel begins with the case of the deaf lesbian couple who wanted a child “like themselves” (i.e., hearing impaired) and so arranged it, with a strategy “not very different from what straight couples do when they have children.”

Well, that could be the problem. Emerson long ago scolded parents who insist on reproducing “another you,” when “one’s enough” already. The problem’s in the will to design, rather than accept the genetic lottery’s default. “None of us chooses our own genetic inheritance,” nor should any of us have to accept the choices of parental engineers

And yet, “Viagra for the brain” sounds irresistibly alluring to some of us. “Memory suppression” too.

But as a parent who’s already spent a small fortune to educate the next generation, I’m definitely not interested in “hormonal arms’ races,” height extension, gender selection, or anything else in any Gattaca scenario. “They used to say that a child conceived in love…has a greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.” Well call me old-fashioned, I still do. [MoreIt’s Time to Question Bio-engineeringPowers@dawn/DS]

As for our playfully self-conscious novel, with its Camus epigraph, Sisyphean theme, and protagonist called “Stone”: the early stage-setting of Generosity comes with a foreboding warning (but also a reminder that we’re involved here with a story, a work of the imagination still subject to human choice and will): “Here… is one plot no one will ever bother writing down: A happy girl passes through the world’s wretchedness and stays happy.” Happy, generous, and present.

But do remember: this is fictionSo far.

Pyrrho, Epicurus, Blackburn, Sandel

January 29, 2013

That’s the menu today in CoPhi. A deep skeptic, a seeker of simple pleasures and happiness, an anti-relativist, and an anti-doping anti-perfectionist (with the world’s most popular course on justice.)

But first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

pigReminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

piranhaOne more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus:

Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Last time we had this discussion in CoPhi, Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. Lance Armstrong must be feeling a pretty big meaning-deficit these days.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Connecting dots

September 11, 2012

It’s already the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.  I’ll ask students today where they were, that brilliant horrible historic morning. Most of them were probably in the 1st grade.  Older Daughter was in Ms. Bellar’s kindergarten class at Brookmeade. My wife called the school when the first tower fell, to ask if and how the news was being conveyed to the kids. The secretary was an unworldly lady, her generation’s version of an unsophisticated isolationist. “What’s that got to do with us here in Nashville?”

One of our discussions last week touched on the relevance of space exploration, and a similar sentiment was expressed. What’s space got to do with us here on Earth?

Simple, I said. It’s home. It’s not “out there,” and people who live as though the stars and galaxies were remote and irrelevant to our day-to-day concerns have isolated themselves in a bubble of false security. They’re lost in the cosmos.

Interesting that peace and security were also centerpieces of our discussion yesterday in EEA. Paul Hawken’s “blessed unrest” is blessed precisely because, amidst the chaos and trouble of our times, he finds seeds of hope for a more peaceful and secure world in the unorchestrated coalescence of so many local movements devoted to securing the conditions for life for our kids and their world.

They’re emerging against a backdrop of real progress in human history: we really are a less violent, more secure species than we were not so many centuries ago. It’s hard to realize that, as regional wars and sectarian conflicts rage without end around the globe and 9/11 rolls around once a year to remind us of our capacity for carnage and cruelty. But it’s so. Read and watch Steven Pinker, on our better angels. “We are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

But then there’s football. Here’s the Gladwell link I keep telling people about. I hope everyone reads it. (The surprising defenders of MMA are probably going to be harder to reach, with this message, than I first realized.)

Well, I could go on about that and tomorrow probably will. For now, I’m pleased to notice one of the more gratifying aspects of my work as a teacher: I’m the connector of dots, the one who’s supposed to point out the unanticipated ways that various events and ideas and philosophers can come together and cast needed light.

Talking yesterday in class, for instance, it dawned on me that groups 1 and 3 were barking up the same tree: Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room yesterday. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. We won’t do that, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

To market, to market

August 24, 2012

Mitt unveiled his energy plan yesterday, with not a word about climate. Let the genius of the market sort oil from wind and sun, he said. Meanwhile, his policy seems simply to be drill baby drill. Squeeze out every last drop and fume of fossil fuel, as quickly as possible, so we can be “energy independent.”

Michael Sandel diagnosed the recent history of this mindset accurately in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

And Bill McKibben doesn’t pussyfoot about the standard-bearer’s loose standards. “He is to atmospheric science what Todd Akin is to obstetrics.”

But enough of that non-reality based community, it’s time at last to head my fossil fuel burner down the road to school. In our only annual meeting of the whole, the entire faculty (minus a few rogue malcontents and boycotters) will gather again in Tucker Auditorium this morning to launch the academic year and open the marketplace of ideas.  I can’t wait. Caveat emptor.