Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Feminist methodology vs. feminist content

exogenous preference - Google Search

Here's a nice article by Ingrid Robeyns posing the question of whether there is a distinctively feminist economic methodology. It also poses the question, at a higher level of abstraction, of whether for any academic enterprise "Feminist X," what we are, or should, be talking about is the X study of issues that concern women or a peculiarly feminist (non-androcentric or womanly) way of doing X.

I'm inclined to go for the former. I don't know that much about econ (when I created this blog I subtitled it to reflect my hope to make it a group blog that included economists) but when it comes to my field I'm firmly committed to the idea that there is no distinctively feminist (or non-androcentric or womanly) way of doing philosophy. Feminist philosophy means (1) picking up philosophically interesting issues that have been ignored because they were "women's issues" and (2) arguing against biased, sexist views.

The paradigm of feminist philosophy is Judith Jarvis Thompson's classic article "In Defense of Abortion." Here is a very philosophically interesting issue, one that hits central areas in metaphysics like the problem of personal identity and in ethics, that didn't get much attention earlier because it was a woman's issue. Thompson, an excellent, mainline analytic philosopher write the classic article--so classic that if you google you won't even be able to find it because it's buried under secondary literature and links to student plagiarism services that produce term papers on it.

There is an even more abstract issue: for any disadvantaged group, X, does fairness to x people mean changing the system to operate in a way that's more conducive to (what are taken to be) x people's culture, interests, values, ways of thinking or does it mean fixing the system so that (1) we recognize the disadvantages x people are at, the discrimination they face, etc. and (2) working to fix things so that x's can plug into the niches formerly reserved for white males.

Here again, I go with the latter interpretation. When I was in SDS as an undergraduate we had a discussion about this and I was booed off the floor by someone who asked rhetorically, "Would you just want them to have color TV sets?" Of course I would--because that's what "they" and most other people want. I hit the same wall later when I was involved in the movement to promote women's ordination in the Episcopal Church and comrades in arms asserted that the aim was not to "plug women into the same roles men had occupied" but to work for structural change.

Well, structural change is all very well but when it comes to improving the situation of members of disadantaged groups per se that is just a matter of removing the disadvantages that prevent them from getting what members of advantaged groups get, i.e. leveling the playing field so that women and members of racial minorities, can occupy the same roles that white males do--however good or bad those roles might be.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Latte-drinking Liberal Hypocrites

In Middle Class, Signs of Anxiety on School Efforts - New York Times

The Bloomberg administration's efforts to invest immense attention and resources on low-income students in low-performing schools are causing growing anxiety among parents from middle-class strongholds who worry that the emphasis is coming at their children's expense...

Take Heidi Vayer, a former public school teacher and guidance counselor. She decided to remove her two daughters this year from public school in District 2 on the East Side of Manhattan and enrolled them instead in an independent school, Friends Seminary. "I didn't see things getting better," Ms. Vayer said. "The school increased class sizes, and I felt no attention was being paid to middle-class students who were there."

Here's a nice story from the NYTimes about what happens when a school system makes a serious effort to improve lower class children's academic performance: upper middle class parents, predictably, pull their kids out. Who's surprised if white working class parents who can't afford to buy their kids out of the system

When my daughter went to the local public high school, from which less than a quarter of students continued on to college, even though her performance in elementary school was mediocre, she was magically tracked to AP classes and propelled into the local elite world-ranked state university. I'm not complaining but I do wonder if had something to do with the fact that she is blonde and a native English speaker. The same thing happened to me--even though my performance in elementary school was dismal and I was, in addition, what was known as a "discipline problem." Somehow all the classes I ended up in, apart from gym, were populated by students from my elementary school and the one other "good" school in town.

Now I am pretty smart and so is my daughter. But I find it hard to believe there there weren't quite a few kids who were just as smart relegated to the academic lumpen proletariat. Of course not all lower class kids were dumped--the very good children, the hard-working, motivated kids who were not "discipline problems" probably got through the class filter. But I don't have the slightest doubt that lower class kids who, like me, were "underachievers" never got the second, and third, and nth chances that I got.

I know very well why I'm not behind that check-out counter, why don't spend my days at a terminal inputting data, why I'm not stuck doing drudge work. I detest the system that traps people in these jobs not because I feel compassion for them--I don't like people like them--but because I know how easily I could have been in their position and because I know how completely arbitrary it is that my life is good and their lives are miserable.

Maybe we'd do better pushing this line rather than trying to promote compassion. Compassion is episodic and unreliable: it kicks in when we see flood victims clinging to the roofs of their houses but evaporates when we have to deal with refugees packed into squalid shelters. Compassion is selective: it attaches to pretty children and the "deserving poor" but not to the masses of miserable people who are unattractive and unpleasant to deal with. Compassion is seasonal: after an annual Santa Claus rally, when the Salvation Army buckets come out and the NYTimes runs stories about the 100 Neediest cases, it tanks. In any case, no one really feels very much compassion most of the time--in fact the natural human tendency is to be repelled by people who are badly off.

The real, reliable motivator of social improvement is the proximity of possible worlds where one could have been very much worse off. The way to get people motivated is to repeat, incessantly "that could easily have been you"--to rub in the fact that most of us who are better off escaped drudge work and poverty by sheer dumb luck, that our children are in those AP classes that interface seamlessly with the best universities by sheer dumb luck and to remind them also that even if they have escaped for now, in a society without safety nets, they and their children are always vulnerable. We need to display the momentum mori, the skull on the desk as a meditation object--pictures of supermarket checkers, of women inputting data at terminals, of sweat shop workers, with our faces edited in.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The fault is in our stars...not in ourselves

Adaptive Preference (pdf file)

I am now finishing the 9th or so revision of a paper on "adaptive preference" in response to comments from half a dozen referees which has morphed from a snappy little APA number to a 29 page monster. The original short version is linked.

I argue against Martha Nussbaum and others who cite cases where, allegedly, deprived individuals' adapt their preferences to their circumstances such that satisfying them does not benefit them as counterexamples to informed preference accounts of wellbeing. But leave the details aside--what vexes me at the gut level about Nussbaum's argument is the idea--which figures in a variety of contexts--that we do ourselves in: that we miss out on getting what is best for us because we are brainwashed, psychologically damaged, neurotic, self-defeating or simply confused, that correcting the external conditions of our lives will not by itself make things better, that we need consciousness-raising and therapy.

This is a pernicious lie. It is a lie because it suggests that a relatively rare pathology is the norm. There are some people whose problems are psychological--schizophrenics who are too flipped out to hold down a job or function socially and mental defectives who are just too dumb. But they can't be helped by talk therapy or consciousness raising anyway. For the rest of us, all that's required for the good life are the externals--money, leisure and entertainment.

However we have been bamboozled by the literati and the therapy industry, and convinced that the externals are not enough--that money can't buy happiness, that getting what we want will turn into dust in our mouths, that human beings by their nature are on a quest for Meaning and, perhaps most importantly, that the very idea that the simple, obvious material goods are either necessary or sufficient for the good life is hopelessly crude and naive. At the perfectly awful college for rich underachievers I attended we were constantly taught that divine discontent was noble, that crude materialism was bad, and that the goodies we had were "empty." We were encouraged to "find ourselves" rather than making decisions about further education and employment. We were coddled and petted, given extensions, incompletes and sympathy by faculty when we complained about broken relationships, writing blocks or identity crises, and taught to look down on blue collar kids going to state factory schools for mere job training.

Rhetoric aside, thinking about this as I revise my paper, rereading stories about illiterate, impoverished Indian women who would be delighted to have clean water, micro-credit loans to set up micro-businesses and primary school education for their children I am furious at the decadent rich kids I went to school with, striving after the wind, dissatisfied with goods beyond the wildest dreams of most of the human race, and worst of all, congratulating themselves on their dissatisfaction, on their superior virtue and discernment. And I'm furious at myself too because I was one of those kids--worrying about the Meaning of Life, whining for incompletes and congratulating myself.

I hope I know better now. I have everything I've ever wanted, everything that by my lights matters: a secure, interesting job; a beautiful house; leisure; the opportunity to travel; enough money to get pretty much anything I seriously want; a husband and children; and a really nice computer. That is it--that is all there is to life and it's good enough. The only serious moral problem in the universe is seeing to it that everyone gets that good stuff and the only tragedy is that we die and so can't enjoy it forever. The fault is in our stars: fix the external circumstances of peoples lives, get them that stuff and nothing else matters.

Monday, December 19, 2005

American Religion: Pagans wanted

Incredibly, I was interviewed for a radio show a few days ago--and asked to comment on why Americans are so very, very religious and how this ultra-religiousity shapes American politics and policy. Now, in the throes of espirit d’escallier I think I’ve got it.

From my professional perspective, as a philosopher, the core religious issues are metaphysical ones: questions about the existence and nature of God and post-mortem survival. So, in the standard philosophy of religion class we trot undergraduates through the classic arguments for and against the existence of God—Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological and Religious Experience vs. Problem of Evil and Verificationist Challenge—and material on the problem of personal identity that figures in discussions of the possibility of resurrection and disembodied existence. Then, insofar as we’re interested in Christianity in particular there are additional goodies: logic puzzles concerning the doctrine of the Trinity (my personal favorite) and worries about the idea of Incarnation.

We don’t have anything to say about ethics when it comes to philosophy of religion courses—that’s for ethics courses, of course. We might have something to say about miracles, because Hume did and if Hume was interested in a problem guaranteed it is philosophically interesting. But we don’t seriously believe that it’s of any real religious importance whether miracles, including the Virgin Birth and others reported in the Bible, really occurred. Religion from this perspective is essentially a matter of ontology—like the problem of universals: ethical and empirical issues, if they figure at all, are strictly peripheral. That is Phil 112, Philosophy of Religion, 3 units, term paper and 2 blue books, satisfies a humanities requirement—enjoy.

But that is not the way in which most people, religious or secular, view religion. For them the strictly metaphysical issues are not of primary importance. Religion is a total package, including a roster of empirical claims, and perhaps even more importantly, a vision of the Good Life and a variety of moral and political agendas. God and post-mortem survival come along with the package.

Americans are more sympathetic to the Package than Europeans but I doubt that this is because they’re less inclined to tough-minded empiricism. According to the figures I was looking at, from about a dozen websites which vary widely, averaging out, about 85% of Americans believe in God while only a bare majority of Brits do. But it turns out the percentage of Brits who believe in ghosts is significantly higher than the percentage who believe in God. Now it would be interesting to compare the difference in the percentage of Americans and Europeans who profess belief in God with the difference, if any, in the percentage of Americans and Europeans who believe in flakey nonsense—astrology, ghosts, “alternative” medicine, UFO abductions, reincarnation or generic spirituality. When I have time I’ll get the figures. But my guess is that the gap, if any, when it comes to beliefs about flakey nonsense is narrower than the God gap.

If this is so then my thesis is confirmed: Americans are no more religious in the Phil 112 sense than anyone else. Rather, for some complicated historical and cultural reasons, we are more likely to buy the vision of the Good Life associated with religious belief and the ethical and political agendas that go along with it than Europeans are. We buy into ontological and empirical claims, which we don’t really care about one way or the other, because they are part of the Package. In particular, my conjecture is that we distrust institutions, especially government, and are more likely than citizens of other affluent industrialized nations to believe that without religion people will run amok. We are more frightened of chaos breaking in than people in other affluent countries and more worried about violence; we place a higher value on self-discipline and are much more likely than Europeans to believe that religion is the most effective mechanism of social control.

Those of us who don’t buy this vision of the Good Life and the socio-political agenda are disinclined to buy the ontological claims—and are, by and large, unsympathetic to religion as such insofar as we regard it as a program for pushing through this agenda. So we run crusades against hill shrines, Christmas crèches in parks, and all the outward and visible signs of Christianity to stop what we see as creeping theocracy, a program to install Christian shari’a, suppress personal freedom—particularly freedom of sexual self-expression—and push through an ultra-conservative socio-political agenda.

Now I guess that what I myself am is an agnostic Christian pagan. When it comes to empirical claims, I do not believe anything different from what any convinced atheist believes. I do not believe in miracles—not because I think that anomalies are impossible but because I don’t believe that there is any compelling evidence that such events have occurred. I have no sympathy for any distinctively Christian ethic: I am a utilitarian. I detest the political agenda of the Religious Right. I think that questions about the existence of God are philosophically interesting but don’t see any compelling reason to believe that God exists—or doesn’t exist. If I have to jump one way or the other I’ll jump for theism though because of plausibility arguments from religious experience. I hope that by the time I am old I will have convinced myself that I shall survive bodily death but I am not counting on it.

But I really, really like religion. I like the philosophical puzzles, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity, and I simply love the stuff of religion—the mysticism and the art. From my Phil 112 perspective, none of this is any more threatening or indicative of a large-scale socio-political agenda than Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants or “God bless you” when we sneeze. Religion at its core is just metaphysics and has no more import for ethics, politics or social arrangements than speculative doctrines about the ontological status of numbers or disputes about whether time travel is logically possible.

Religious myth, symbol, ceremony, custom and decor are cultural products which, along with their secular counterparts—patriotic parades and fireworks displays, birthdays, weddings, and other potlatches, secular holidays and all the rituals surrounding the cult of professional sport—make life enjoyable. The more the better. The myths, ceremonies and symbols of Christianity predominate because they are the part of our culture, in the way that Thanksgiving, Halloween and Super Bowl Sunday are. For religious believers, that is people who buy the metaphysical claims, they express religious sentiments; for others they are just entertainment. Everyone can play: no one is excluded unless they choose to exclude themselves (in the spirit of puritanical killjoys who object to beauty pageants because they “objectify” women or to contact sports and computer games because they glorify violence).

My current preoccupation is the history of Late Antiquity. This ‘world full of gods’ appeals to me—this world of countless gods and cults, domestic and foreign, where some believe, some half-believe and some do not believe at all, where it is not clear whether a given deity is understood as an intelligent being or causally efficacous individual of any other sort, an abstract philosophical principle or a metaphorical figure, and where it does not really matter. That is what I wish the world were—a world where all the rich stuff of Christianity played the role of the myth, ritual and symbol of Mediterranean paganism from which it descended.

It’s a trite romantic fantasy, in the spirit of Santayana—who got it dead right about American religion and character in The Last Puritan and entertained similar fantasies about culture Catholicism: “There is no God, and Mary is His Mother.”

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bush: The Speech, the War and the Hurricane

Bush, Saying U.S. Is Winning, Asks Patience on Iraq - New York Times

Nothing new in Bush’s speech this evening…at least nothing besides the admission that he screwed up. His groomers and trainers have finally got it across to him that strategic withdrawl is in order, time to admit that the intelligence was botched, that there were no WMD and, oh yes, that he’d been spying on American citizens since 9/11. It was, of course, a nuanced confession, not the blubbering 12-step repentance that may come later—after he leaves office. Just a little flutter to see if admitting fallibility wins sympathy or is perceived as a sign of weakness.

On substantive issues however it was the old time religion: the bad guys are out to get us and we have to get them first, and get them where they are so that they can’t get us at home. There was the same ritualized invocation of 9/11 and the fudge on the distinction between the Iraq program and the “war on terrorism,” pious remarks about spreading freedom and democracy, and best wishes for Christmas and Hanukah.

The confession—too little too late—will not make any difference because no one really cared about Weapons of Mass Destruction in the first place—any more than they cared about whether Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer unjustly convicted of murder in my home town was really guilty of the triple murder for which he was sent to prison. The bottom line was that Carter was a big, tough black man and so a danger to the community. If he really killed those 3 guys, that was good: it justified us in putting him away. If he didn’t, that was also ok because he got put away anyhow.

No one really cared whether Iraq had WMD. The bottom line was that there were big tough guys who, if not exactly black weren’t quite white and were out to get us. If there were WMDs in Iraq that was good: it justified going over and getting them before they got us. If there weren’t, that was ok too because we would get them anyhow. One way or another, our leader was a Big Man who would hang tough and protect us.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t even deal with Hurricane Katrina.

What could he have done? Maybe, remembering film clips of Ike’s “I will go to Korea” speech, admit that the whole Iraq affair was a hopeless quagmire, announce that he would go to Iraq, negotiate with all parties, partition the country and fix the mess. If this miserable little shit had any real guts, beyond the scripted cinema variety it took to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier and announce “mission accomplished,” he would play it straight for once, put his life and legacy on the line and make a real attempt to fix what he broke. But he will not. If the Democrats want a successful candidate for the next election they will pick one who will.

I don’t care about this war because I don’t care about foreign policy. Wars come and go. War by its nature is bad and it’s a judgment call whether, for any given war, the good outweighs the bad or vice versa. But I find the utter gutlessness of Americans appalling: the gutlessness of Americans agonizing about crime in the streets and terrorist threats from abroad, locking up bad guys and locking themselves into gated communities if they can afford it, obsessing about dirt, germs, food additives, bird flu, porno on the internet, bullies in the schools, and anything that could conceivably offend anyone and the gutlessness of American politicians testing the waters, consulting focus groups, sampling polls and running chicken-shit from anything that could jeopardize their careers, reputations or physical safety.

One always feels reticent about expressing such sentiments if one hasn't been tested and, being a women (of a certain age), I wasn't: I was never in the military. But I swear by Jesus Christ that "I, a weak woman" could do better than these miserable wimps.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Academic Freedom

Keep 'Adam and Steve' Out of His In-Box. Is That So Hateful? - New York Times

Mr. Daniel, who repairs printers at William Paterson University and also takes courses toward a master's degree there, was reading his e-mail before work on March 8 when he came upon a message sent in connection with Women's History Month announcing the showing of a film, "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House." Mr. Daniel, 63, who has been a Muslim since the 1970's, had no interest in the film. He believes his religion condemns homosexuality. So following the instructions, he sent a reply to the e-mail address of Arlene Holpp Scala, chairwoman of the department of women's studies.

"Do not send me any mail about 'Connie and Sally' and 'Adam and Steve.' These are perversions," he wrote. "The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned."

Two days later, Dr. Scala filed a complaint with officials at William Paterson. It read: "Mr. Daniel's message to me sounds threatening and in violation of our University's nondiscrimination policy. I don't want to feel threatened at my place of work when I send out announcements about events that address lesbian issues." She said Mr. Daniel should be informed that he had violated university policy and that she was not sure what else should be done to censure him and "make me feel I am working in a safe environment."

What, if anything, was in this stupid woman's head? What on earth did she think that she, chair of an academic department--if you can call "woman's studies" an academic discipline--stood to gain by going after a computer tech on staff? I've seen comparable things happen and I'm baffled. It looks like you get some sort of prestige by demonstrating how weak and sensitive you are, how scared you are for your personal safety, and how loudly you can whine.

Dr. Scala, I suspect, was playing Let's Pretend. A cloistered (and I'd bet tenured) academic, she imagined herself a foot soldier in the feminist movement, a powerless woman working in a hostile environment, surrounded by big, hairy, threatening males out to get her, daring to assert herself and striking a blow for the sisterhood. And, of course, it must have been sweet to punish someone who held views with which she disagreed, particularly someone whom she believed could not fight back--makes me wonder how she deals with students who are foolish enough to take her courses and argue against the party line.

Mr. Daniel (who, being a competent technician, is probably just smarter than Dr. Scala) won his case. But I find it outrageous that silly asses like Dr. Scala can make frivolous complaints that jeopardize the livelihood of innocent parties without any adverse consequences.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mediocre Affirmative Action Candidates

Conservatism and the pursuit of excellence

At our last dinner table conversation, my husband wondered why Bush nominated Harriet Meiers when it was so predictable that she would go down in flames.

This one is a no-brainer: the aim was to discredit affirmative action and make it politically feasible to appoint a white male. We do this in Academia all the time.

Faced with a hiring decision, colleagues piously proclaim that we will of course do everything we can to find a qualified woman. So, e.g. on one occasion we decided to open the search to candidates with an interest in philosophy of law as well as business ethics since, as one colleague noted, this would be more likely to attract women ("because, you know, you think of women more in connection with, like, LA Law and Allie McBeal than with business").

Then we sort through candidates' files and conduct interviews, carefully weeding out the strongest female candidates on the grounds that given affirmative action policies they can get any jobs they want so we don't have a chance of getting them. Then we make the final decision, considering the pool of mediocre female candidates left and a few slightly better than mediocre male candidates. We bewail the fact that in spite of all our efforts to get a good female candidate we just have the "usual roster of weak women."

At this point, we congratulate ourselves on having tried our best--tailoring the job description to "feminine interests" and interviewing a preponderance of female applicants (except, or course, the ones with whom we wouldn't have a chance). We have the paper work to show that the female candidates that got to the interview stage are, by any criteria, less qualified than the male candidates and, crying crocodile tears, offer the job to a white male.

Let's face it, my male colleagues say: women are just mediocre. Where there's smoke there's fire--that's why you see so few women at the top, as CEOs of fortune 500 companies or in prestigeous academic positions, and why with all the affirmative action pressures we've been under for the last few decades you still don't get women at the top. Look at us: we did everything we could to get a qualified woman but the women we interviewed were just not competitive.