Today is the winter solstice -- tonight, actually, at 10:27 PM EST. Advent continues until Sunday, but the old Yuletide would begin today. The days get longer from here. 

The Jólfaðr, or possibly myself in about five years. 

Philosophers Under Fire

A mass shooting in Prague happened at the philosophy department of a major university.
An armed man opened fire in a university building in downtown Prague on Thursday, killing at least 15.... The bloodshed took place in the philosophy department building of Charles University, where the shooter was a student....

Police gave no details about the victims or a possible motive for the shooting.... Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan said investigators do not suspect a link to any extemist ideology or groups.

The Czech Republic has a constitutional right to bear arms, although you have to take a test to show you are worthy. Many US states -- including North Carolina, where I live -- impose such a test on concealed carry licenses, but allow ownership without testing as long as you aren't disqualified by being a felon or similar. 

The Czech system generally works very well: as the second article points out, in a country with a population larger than New York City that had only seven gun-related homicides the previous year. There will of course be a push to enact further restrictions after this, since gun control advocates all think alike and can never resist using any tragedy to push their agenda. The fact that this system is normally highly effective while also respecting a key human right is of no interest to them, because they are devoted to eliminating that right from existence. 

Philosophy departments are normally argumentative spaces, where people clash about the most important ideas in sometimes stark ways. It is perhaps surprising that there isn't more violence associated with them. However, philosophers generally understand the value of freedom of speech and thought, and usually tolerate such differences well -- even conservatives can exist in a philosophy department, which is basically not true in most liberal arts academia. I always admired that aspect of the thing: you could hear a Marxist field their arguments, followed by a conservative Jew, followed by a utilitarian who formally rejects both of their frameworks; and you could then think, freely, about which of their arguments really made the most sense. 

I also carried a pistol in my jacket, just in case. Fortunately no recourse to it was ever required. 

“We Shouldn’t Bend Over…”

Do you people hear yourselves?

"In some ways, Aidan’s act mirrored that of Anne Frank..."

Come on

Now That’s How They Do It in Egypt!

Colorado on the Nile!

I was an election monitor in Egypt in 2018. The election was conducted in a verifiably secure and honest manner, as well it could be since they’d disallowed all opposition. The only other candidate was the President’s best friend, who — I am not making this up — ran on the promise that if he won he’d resign immediately in favor of said President. 

If you’re losing as obviously as they are, and you feel as they do that this is the biggest threat facing humanity, I guess you go all the way. ‘Our side can’t win, so let’s not play the game.’

For a scholarly discussion of this question, here’s Eugene Volokh. UPDATE: A counterargument by Lawrence Tribe and J. Michael Luttig. I think Volokh is stronger on the merits, but consider both views.

Cleaning the Augean Stables

Commenter juvat asked the other day if it was possible to redirect the Potomac to wash away DC. Turns out they’re already on it. When they were building the African American Museum in DC, they broke through a subterranean barrier and unleashed hydraulic forces that threaten to destroy the Federal district. 

No really. It’s the lead story in the Washington Post. 

Philosophy and Pseudonyms

Aeon publishes a piece that, inter alia, points out that philosophers have often liked to use pseudonyms.
[W]hat might the forging of a work of philosophy be, beyond attributing the work to someone else, à la pseudo-Augustine or pseudo-Aristotle? If faking a painting gets you something and faking a passport gets you somewhere, what does a fake work of philosophy get you?

Presumably, what we care about most in a philosophical text are its arguments, its attempts to get at the truth and its means of getting there. If the argument is what interests us, then should the authorship matter, given that the argument is exactly the same, regardless who wrote it? Of course, historical context is important, both for understanding how the text might have come to be and what the text means. But unless this exploring of context is employed in the service of understanding and elucidating the arguments, we are treating the work as a historical curiosity rather than a source of insight. In the case of the Ḥatäta Zera Yacob, this would be a mistake, for the arguments are powerful and abidingly relevant. These arguments – about the causes of human suffering and conflict, the epistemology of disagreement and the twin temptations of relativism and blind absolutism, the relation between the world and our cognitive faculties – are precisely what tends to fall out when the discussion of the Ḥatäta focuses exclusively on the topic of authenticity.

There's a whole tradition of philosophical interpretation that turns on the idea that philosophers often speak ironically in order to avoid actual death. It goes back to Plato:

Irony is both a figure of speech and a mode of existence or attitude toward life. Deriving from the ancient Greek term eironeia, which originally referred to lying, irony became a complex philosophical and rhetorical term in Plato’s dialogues. Plato (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BCE) depicts Socrates deploying the method of elenchus, where, rather than proposing a theory, Socrates encounters others in conversation, drawing out the contradictions and opacities of their arguments. Often these dialogues would take a secure concept and then push the questioning to a final moment of non-knowledge or aporia, exposing a gap in a discourse that his interlocutors thought was secure. Here, Socratic irony can be thought of as a particular philosophical method and as the way in which Socrates chose to pursue his life, always questioning the truth of key ethical concepts. 

Socrates famously did not manage to avoid death even through the use of this method. The fact is that philosophy done seriously is very dangerous: speaking the truth always is. There are times and places in which it can be done without fear -- I think Immanuel Kant is especially sincere and fearless, partly because he had nothing to fear. It is not only Socrates who was actually killed for speaking what he took to be the truth. Of course in this season we also think of Jesus, and it was not only the two of them either.

The adoption of a pseudonym, perhaps more properly a nomme de guerre, offers a better defense than irony. It offers an ability to limit the negatives of speaking honestly and freely. It is imperfect, but in an important sense it is better than irony because it doesn't mean speaking indirectly or deceptively. One can be straightforward.

Diplomacy and peacemaking also has sometimes turned on the incognito, in which even a sovereign can say outright what they could never say while performing their role as king or president. The President nor his ambassador may never say certain things, but a nameless man can do so; and sometimes those are the things that desperately need to be understood, and therefore have to be said for the utmost benefit of all. A mode that allows a king or the President to speak freely for a moment without attribution can save the lives of many. 

Philosophy is much the same. It can be a desperate business even in relatively good times. In the times when it is needed most, all the more.

Pick up the Tempo

Eliminating the Good in the name of Equality

Some philosophers from the British zone are worried that loving families may need to be eliminated because they provide benefits to their children not shared by others. This isn't the first time I've encountered this argument from Swift and company, but here they are again.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’   

Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions—from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories—form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations....

‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’   

It’s not the first time a philosopher has thought about such a drastic solution. Two thousand four hundred years ago another sage reasoned that the care of children should be undertaken by the state.

Plato pulled few punches in The Republic when he called for the abolition of the family and for the children of the elite to be given over to the state. 

Well, Plato wasn't at all concerned about equality in that discussion in Republic V. The model society he proposed was inherently and intentionally unequal. His intention was to divide society into the most rational, the most spirited, and everyone else: the ruling would be done by the most rational, the fighting by the most spirited, and everyone else would work for a living. 

The reason he wanted to separate them from their children was partly to ensure that the elite received the most fitting upbringing for exercising their power, but mostly because he didn't trust that parents would admit that their offspring weren't really fit for the ruling class and allow them to be demoted to the workers. In other words, it was to preserve the inequality of the most-rational that he proposed this idea. 

Our philosophers are interested in equality, however. They tried to construct an argument in favor of continuing to have natural families, and did decide that at least a few of the benefits are allowable.  

‘It’s the children’s interest in family life that is the most important,’ says Swift. ‘From all we now know, it is in the child’s interest to be parented, and to be parented well. Meanwhile, from the adult point of view it looks as if there is something very valuable in being a parent... Parenting a child makes for what we call a distinctive and special contribution to the flourishing and wellbeing of adults.’

Thus, they set about determining which of the contributions of the family were defensible against the countervailing claims of equality.

‘Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,’ he says. ‘It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realise these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.’

In contrast, reading stories at bedtime, argues Swift, gives rise to acceptable familial relationship goods, even though this also bestows advantage.

Indeed, as he goes on to point out, the evidence suggests that it conveys even more advantage than private schooling. AVI will here want to point out that probably the kinds of people who are genetically inclined to spend time reading to their kids are also genetically likely to produce successful offspring no matter what you do, which if true would be a counter-argument against all of this meddling they propose.

I notice, however, the popularity of the argument that we can't allow private schools because all of our children need to suffer public schools would be better if the rich also attended them. This argument is especially popular, I notice, among those who are politically or economically empowered by the public school sector. If anything I would go the other way and eliminate public school entirely, in favor of universal school choice.

An alternative perspective -- one that Plato actually would endorse -- is that maybe equality isn't that important. You can't do without it completely, but you should definitely minimize your appeals to it. In Laws VI, Plato attempts to paint this as 'another, better kind of equality' while noting the dangers of the first kind. It's fine to have one test for everyone, and let the best man win (or woman, as equality between the sexes really was important to Plato both in the Laws and the Republic).

Aristotle, who is even less interested in equality than Plato, discusses the matter in Politics II. He comes down quite on the side of the natural family, as he does on the side of rule by the most virtuous rather than by the many per se. The closest he ever comes to a notion of political equality being important is when he says that the least dangerous people to empower are the middle class, because they will be so interested in minding their own business that they will neither embark on grand government schemes (as the rich like, but it takes too much of time for a man who also has to run his business) nor on redistributing property (as the poor would, but which would take away from the middle class also). That isn't a suggestion that equality is the big deal, though; it's favoring the middle class as a locus of power over either the poor or the rich.

Making the crackhead and the corrupt politician the equals of the working man and the shopkeeper would be a kind of step forward from where we are today; but it isn't the ideal relationship either. You really want a fruitful inequality in which the human good is maximized. Swift is finally able to see that the human good really does flourish best in the natural family, but even so he keeps turning back to this artificial and negative conception of putting artificial equalities over actual good.

A Day of Rest

After long travels, it's nice to settle down for a little while. A very little: I've got some VFD night classes starting up tomorrow and running past Christmas, in addition to my regular work. But today I didn't go anywhere, and I'm not doing anything I don't want to do. 

Actually I did work several hours this morning; but I enjoy the work. Then I made brunch for my wife, who loves my cooking, so that is also rewarding. 

War atop the World

Here’s an article on a largely overlooked theatre of WWII. It wasn’t inconsequential: some 600 American aircraft were lost, and 1,500 men. A new museum has opened to honor their sacrifice.