“Ethical Omnivorism” is a False Moral Choice

Yesterday the Toronto Star published an article with the title, “Why eating vegetarian may not be the most ethical diet.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of these kinds of misleading articles, so I guess we’re about due for one. This is less bad than most but the article title and lede (“loading up on fruits and veggies at the superstore won’t save the planet — or your soul”) are unfortunate, and like most lazy controversy journalism the article offers a set of quoted points and counterpoints without offering relevant background information. Continue reading ““Ethical Omnivorism” is a False Moral Choice”

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Are Religious Beliefs Causes?

To answer this question, one could begin with a philosophical quandary: are beliefs of any sort causes of human action? I expect that most would answer this question with a resounding “of course,” but it is not entirely moot. Without regressing into the metaphysics of free will, the issue has to do with the basic agents of human action and societal development. Marx, for example, placed the locus of social change and indeed all of history not primarily in the hands of individual actors, motivated by core beliefs, but in social structures and material infrastructures. It is not hard to conceive of cases in which actions are not primarily motivated by beliefs, much less fundamental ones.

For example, human beings have sets of nearly automatic reflex behaviours. In these cases, beliefs are not necessary causes of action, unless we take a very broad view of what constitutes a belief. Of course, the kinds of actions that are ostensibly the result of beliefs are more complex than, say, jumping at a loud unexpected sound. But reams of empirical studies show that things like patterns of consumption, movement, diet, health, and so forth, are determined by infrastructural and economic factors, among others. And even here it is not clear if beliefs are a necessary cause for action (again depending on how we define beliefs) and they are almost certainly not sufficient in themselves.

Reciprocally, one could begin with a similarly abstract question: what are the causes of beliefs? Sociological and psychological research firmly establishes that beliefs are demographically predictable, and thus, determined in part by a wide variety of “social” (for lack of a better word) processes. The social determinism need not be due to overt forces like coercion or propaganda; the subtle cultural workings of everyday life have a discernable effect on people’s world views. In short, no matter how rational and well-established your beliefs, they are, in a sense, not entirely your own. So even if beliefs are subsidiary causes of action, the beliefs themselves might have “external” causes, so to speak.

In ever-lasting tension with these views of human belief and action is a taken-for-granted assumption that underlies nearly every extant society: human beings are capable of independent, rational thought; beliefs are at least in part a result of thought processes; beliefs cause actions; thus, people are responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental basis for virtually all legal systems and democratic political systems. It not only expects responsibility, but garners reward: meritocracies require the assumption that success is in large part the result of individual thought and action.

This philosophical dilemma sets the stage to go about answering the title question, and indeed, why it should even be asked in the first place. Continue reading “Are Religious Beliefs Causes?”

Free Speech is a Paradox

The following statement captures an idea pervading the internet over the last few days:

“Free speech, however, is not a toy. It is a responsibility, a compact, which democracy presupposes we are mature enough to use justly. We are called on as citizens not to use our rights for bacchanals of self-indulgence and emotional expectoration, but to do the work of maintaining society. What does it mean when we see words as weapons that we have no responsibility to use ethically?”

Here the author offers a deeply normative vision of what free speech means. The crucial point being missed here is that ethics is not an absolute set of rules that we can consult to sort out what counts as responsible discourse. Whose ethics? Obviously this writer’s vision of ethics is at odds with those she critiques, and probably even at odds with those who she purports to show solidarity with. Free speech is very much about allowing for the conflict between different visions of ethics. Ethics is the source of the dilemma, not the way out.

Democracy? Pfff. Maintaining society? Get lost. See what free speech entails? There is no underlying logic to be found if we dig deeper and deeper into the notion of free speech that will bound our reasoning and discourse to ethical norms. Free speech doesn’t demand rationality and reasonableness. It allows cheap rhetoric and sophistry.

“You shouldn’t say that, it’s unethical,” is precisely the kind of self-contradictory statement that the idea of free speech simultaneously stands for and against. Free speech is paradox. Simply consider that the notion of free speech contains in it the right to advocate the abolishment of free speech.

The challenge of free speech is not to make discourse answerable to ethics, but to be able to live with a radical relativism of ideas. Even this very statement reveals the deeply paradoxical nature of free speech. Here I advocate a normative vision of free speech that differs from the one offered above. And where is ethics to help sort out this mess?

Not all beliefs can happily coexist. There is no harmony to be found. The blessing and curse of the notion of free speech is that the conflict between competing ideas and ethics is inevitable.

There is simply no inner peace, no resolution, to be found in trying to concretize the norms of free speech. The human desire to have well defined ethical principles to guide our lives is common enough, ubiquitous even. But if it is inner peace that you seek, you need to accept the imminent conflict. Embrace the paradox.

Cartoon Controversy Redux (In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo)

This was the first blog post I ever published, written almost 9 years ago in response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, when I was a sophomoric philosophy undergrad. Not a particularly good piece, and I’ve changed my views about particular things, but it seems depressingly relevant today.

As far as I see it there are only two possible issues worth discussing here: 1) Free speech; 2) Hate speech. But what about blasphemy, you ask? Surely that is an important issue! We’re talking about eternal salvation here!

It is only worth talking about blasphemy insofar as it helps define the limits of acceptable speech, and whether or not satirical cartoons constitute hate speech. I am inclined to think that the Muslims who are protesting the publishing of the infamous Mohammed cartoons are protesting on religious grounds, not racial. Why? Partly because it is impossible to categorize Muslims ethnically. Many Pakistanis, Arabs, North Africans, Indonesians, and others can all be categorized as Muslims, but do not share ethnic or racial commonalities. When Muslims denounce the representation of Mohammed, satirical or otherwise, they are doing so because it is blasphemous, not because it negatively depicts an ethnicity. Continue reading “Cartoon Controversy Redux (In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo)”

Why Do Men Defend Jian Ghomeshi?

Since the bombshell about Radio Q host Jian Ghomeshi broke, I have seen a lot of predictable responses on the internet. The predictable victim-blaming, the predictable “innocent-until-proven guilty” retorts, the predictable trivializing of the issue.

Though the details of the allegations are no doubt very important, I am, like others, mainly interested in how people respond to these situations, for the responses are immensely distressing, and indeed, cases-in-point of pervasive sexism, misogyny, and dare I say it, “rape culture.” I am most distressed by the legions of men who are vociferously coming to the defence of Ghomeshi.

If you are a man and you find yourself siding or identifying with Ghomeshi, I wonder why? Is it because you can imagine yourself in a situation that you might be “wrongfully” accused of being a creep, or worse, of sexual assault or harassment? Continue reading “Why Do Men Defend Jian Ghomeshi?”

Easter Eggs in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

Philosopher Simon Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has been an invaluable resource in my studies, and to my general philosophical thought, since my undergraduate days. While decidedly British and “analytic” (whatever that means) in tone and focus (e.g. Bertrand Russell’s entry is fairly long, while Foucault’s is fairly short), it is by far the most comprehensive and useful philosophical reference work I have come across. It astounds me that every entry was written by a single author. I can’t imagine how to begin writing such a work. With the letter “a” I guess. Anyway, what makes this reference work particularly interesting is that Blackburn does not shy away from letting his own voice and implicit arguments emerge throughout the text, instead of trying to feign impartiality and authoritativeness. Over time, Blackburn’s philosophical leanings and sympathies reveal themselves as one gradually reads through the entries (making Blackburn’s entry on hermeneutic circles nicely reflexive). Overall the picture one gleans is of a philosopher with an expansive generalist grasp, and all around sensible interpretation of a vast range of philosophical issues. But one peculiarity that also reveals itself through repeated use of the book are the Easter eggs – small offhand jokes and cattily dismissive entries – that Blackburn injects throughout the book. Here are some examples:  Continue reading “Easter Eggs in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy”

Jack Layton, Hope, and Cynicism

Now that the outpouring of public emotion and sympathy towards Jack Layton’s passing has now calmed, I thought I would take the chance to offer some (hopefully non-knee-jerk) reflections on a now notorious op-ed piece written by Christie Blatchford which ostensibly took issue with the “spectacle” surrounding Jack Layton’s death.

I can’t say much about how this piece fits into Blatchford’s corpus and whether or not it is a lapse or typical of Blatchford’s attitudes. Though I try to pay heed to media sources lying across the “left-right” spectrum (lest I be flippantly denounced as an uncritical product of the liberal media) after many attempts, I have found myself unable to take serious the National Post where Blatchford does much of her writing (and where the piece in question appears). Blatchford also writes for the Globe, but since I pretty much exclusively read it online, and to read most of Blatchford’s columns require paying a fee for “Globeplus,” I am again at a loss (though I did get access to a piece in which Blatchford carelessly repeats the tired falsehood that Layton and Chow were living a subsidized community housing was both making MP salaries). In any case, I don’t really think one needs to understand the piece in question with reference to a broader body of work – I simply make this admission as a disclaimer to pre-empt any argument that either Blatchford had an off-day, or that the piece somehow makes sense with reference to a larger set of interrelated ideas expounded elsewhere. Continue reading “Jack Layton, Hope, and Cynicism”