Thomas Nagel is making some unfortunate friends

     Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, has created a bit of a stir in the philosophical and scientific communities recently. I’m not going to comment on the substance of the book or the brouhaha it has created, primarily because I haven’t read the book, but I did stumble across something I thought worth pointing out. Nagel’s book is already being used by creationists as prima facie legitimization of their approach to science; you know the whole “look at this famous and respected philosopher, he agrees with me!” shtick. Check out this video at roughly the 7:28 mark:

     Now, you can’t necessarily hold it against someone that people are taking their work and using it to bolster certain idiotic positions they hold. For one thing such people might be taking some liberties with the work, or may have just completely misunderstood it in the first place. For example I once debated with someone who argued against evolution by quoting Kuhn. I can’t really hold this against Kuhn, however, because the guy totally misread Kuhn! On top of that it is obviously a mistake to think that just because Big Famous Philosopher person argues for xyz, that xyz is widely accepted, or without fatal flaw. There have been plenty of xyz positions relegated to the trash heap of philosophical ideas, and it gets even trickier when philosophers talk about another field like biology, or especially when talking about science writ large (whether normatively or descriptively). The reason this is oftentimes trickier is that not only do they have to compete with the ideas of other professional philosophers, but they also have to deal with what scientists take themselves to be doing. In my anecdotal case the guy I talked with assumed (because he felt this was congenial to his position I imagine) that Kuhn’s views on science were uncontroversial dogma within both philosophical and scientific communities, but this is clearly false in both cases (I think most scientists would fancy themselves as Popperian, but I’m not sure what position most philosophers of science take).

     I suppose that I’ll have to read Nagel’s book in order to adjudicate the issue in this instance. If the gentleman in the video is right to count Nagel among his ideological allies, then this seems to me reason to think that Nagel’s position is shit.

The Ethics of Comedy Pt.2

I left some questions dangling in Pt.1 of this topic, but before covering these issues, it might be helpful to recapitulate where we’ve been.

The last post looked at questions regarding the ethics of telling jokes involving subjects that are generally considered horrible, vile, and unfunny, to say the least. Things like rape, racism, sexism, genocide etc. The rejoinder most often trotted out in defense of such jokes is that the ethical standing of such behavior depends on the context in which the jokes are told. So I examined two scenarios that generally elicit different intuitions, telling such jokes in an office versus telling such jokes as a comedian on stage in a comedy club (or whatever the case may be). I argued that these two cases, while likely to cause conflicting intuitions, aren’t relevantly different, meaning the situations are morally analogous mutatis mutandis. If this is true, and our intuitions do differ in the way I think they will for many, further analysis is required.

Now, one of the questions we need to face is whether telling a nasty joke is wrong when it offends someone, a position held by some (though not me as will become clear further down), and if this is the case then what are we to say about an innocuous joke that offends someone? Some fairly mundane religious humor, for example, has rendered entire factions of religious people apoplectic. The most salient example of this is the Muhammad cartoons published in a Danish newspaper in 2005, but there are also many less extreme examples as well. A light-hearted jab at someone’s religion, political alignment, or favorite sports team might harm the more maudlin among us, but it seems absurd to accuse someone of acting wrongly, in a moral sense, when they tell such jokes. The issue seems to turn on some idea of being reasonably offended. An example might be instructive here to clear up what I mean. If someone is told a rape joke, causing a negative emotional reaction in this person (to the point where causing this reaction appears morally relevant), we might be inclined to believe that the joke teller acted wrongly. However, this same emotional reaction being caused by someone saying “The Mets suck!” does not elicit the same concern. The emotional reaction in the latter case, if equivalent to the rape joke case, strikes us as unreasonable, despite the fact that the statement is rather boorish. Continue reading

The Ethics of Comedy Pt.1

Is it wrong to tell rape jokes? Sexist jokes? Racist jokes?

Does it say something negative about your moral character if you find such jokes amusing?

I think most people’s natural reaction to these questions will be something like “not necessarily” or “it depends on the circumstances.” For example it might be morally wrong to tell a sexist joke at a faculty meeting, but acceptable to tell one when you’re on stage at a comedy club. The same goes for showing outward amusement when such jokes are told if you’re part of the audience rather than the performer. The argument seems to be that the morality of such behaviors depends on the context in which the behaviors are performed. One might argue that, just like it is wrong to kill someone for sneezing on your salad, but not wrong to kill someone who is trying to stab you with a sharpened frozen carrot, it is wrong to tell a rape joke to Suzy in accounting, but not to a crowd of people in a comedy club.

Now in comparing a paradigm case of self-defense with unjustified retaliatory killing, the relevant difference is pretty obvious: in SD someone is trying to kill you, and because you are totally innocent they are morally culpable, they’ve created the requirement that significant harms be distributed, and because they are not innocent we are justified in making sure they incur all of the harms. In the case of salad-sneezing, while you have a reasonable claim to some form of redress, killing certainly isn’t part of that reasonable claim; killing isn’t anywhere near proportional. In that case you’re creating the harms that someone must incur. So in these cases there seems to be a pretty straightforward story to tell, is this true for the comedy club case? Continue reading