The recent women’s march in the US has stirred up some conversations about women’s equality. I’d like to give you an example how conversations about equality sometimes go. Doing so will help us to see that there are actually a couple of different things we mean when we talk about equality.
Speaker A: “I’m so supportive of the Women’s March! It’s so important that women stand up for their rights. We still make less than men do in the workforce. Women should have full access to reproductive healthcare and protections against domestic violence. They still struggle to be taken seriously in their fields and are often penalized for having children. The president has said horrible and offensive things about women and has even admitted to sexual assault. We’ve got to make our voices heard.”
Speaker B: “I think this Women’s March is awful! What are all these women complaining about? No man tells me what to do! I can vote, I have a job, and I can do what I want with my life. Women in the US have more freedom than any women in the world. There are women in other countries who are way worse off. What the president said was just locker room talk—that’s just how men are! Women in the US need to stop blaming everyone else for their problems and take charge of their own lives.”
Clearly Speakers A and B disagree, but what exactly do they disagree about? Once we look a little closer, we'll see that they're actually talking about a few different things.
One of the things philosophers are trained to do is make distinctions. It's where they get the reputation for being “hair-splitters” (making small or fine distinctions that seem unimportant). But we don’t always know which distinctions are important and which aren't until we make them. Let me introduce a few distinctions that philosophers have made about equality.
Formal vs. Material: Let’s use jobs to illustrate this distinction. Women aren’t prohibited from doing any job they want to do. They can be teachers, doctors, construction workers, astronauts—whatever they want. When it comes to jobs, they have formal equality, which means there are no laws preventing them from doing any job they want to do. But, even though there are no legal barriers, there might be other things that prevent women from entering or succeeding in some careers. For example, there is a widespread perception that women aren’t as good at math as men are. There’s no evidence that this is true; it’s just something people (men and women) often believe. Suppose there’s a job opening for a mathematician. The hiring committee is made up of people who have this perception that women aren’t as good at math. How likely is it that they’ll pick a woman applicant over a male applicant? Probably not that likely. Situations like this illustrate material equality (or lack of it). Material equality is about making sure things are equal in practice. Just because the laws prevent discrimination of certain kinds, that doesn't mean that everything works out the way it should.
You can see that some of what's going on between Speakers A and B is the difference between formal and material equality. Speaker B says that women can “do whatever they want,” which is true in the formal sense. It’s also true that women have come a long way in formal equality: getting the right to vote, the right to own property, and being able to challenge discrimination in court are all important steps. But Speaker A is talking about material equality. Women can do the same jobs men can do, but they aren’t paid equally for it. They also aren’t treated with the same respect as men: their male colleagues don’t see them as equal players and they are less likely to be promoted.
Individual vs. Systemic: Notice that Speaker B appeals to her own experience as a way of arguing against Speaker A. She says that she can do what she wants and that Speaker A is blaming others for her own problems. Speaker B might see her own life precisely this way. She has worked hard, never let anyone hold her down, and she feels as though she can achieve whatever she sets her mind to. And all of that can be true. As far as her individual perspective is concerned, women are equal.
But Speaker A might be taking a different perspective—what philosophers call systemic. Speaker A is talking about large-scale issues that affect women as a group: things like equal pay, healthcare, and maternity policies. Just because something affects women as a group, that doesn’t mean it affects every woman in the group. Take maternity policies as an example. Not all women have or want kids. From those individual perspectives, they may not see the problems that women with children face. But from the systemic perspective, maternity policies can seriously affect women’s presence in the workforce in general even if there are individual women who aren’t affected by it.
There’s a lot more we could say about the conversation between Speakers A and B, but let’s focus on the distinctions we just made. What do these distinctions tell us? One of the things they tell us is that when two people are talking about different things, they can both be right. Saying “women can do anything they want” might be true in the formal sense, but maybe not in the material sense. Saying, “women aren’t taken seriously in their fields” might be true in the systemic sense, but maybe not in the in individual sense.
The other thing these distinctions tell us is that to make headway and work out disagreements, we have to make sure we’re talking about the same things. If my conversation partner are talking about formal equality, but I'm talking about material equality, we'll end up just
The hot question on everyone’s minds seems to be: is it morally acceptable to punch a Nazi?
Here we must tread VERY carefully because this path is strewn ambiguities. There are lots of responses that sound like important points, but are either aren’t relevant to main question or require further argument to get off the ground. Let me give you a few examples:
“But the police hurt protesters!” That might be true and it might also be wrong for the police to hurt protesters. But both of those things can be so without them having any bearing on the Nazi-punching question. A person can hold that aggressive policing is wrong and punching Nazis is also wrong without contradiction or inconsistency (unless their reasons why are the same in both cases).
“The guy who punched Spencer was a bad dude.” This might be true, but does his character mean that his action was wrong? A super villain in a comic book can give to charity. Even though super villains are bad, it seems they’re still capable of doing good actions.
“Punching Nazis is effective in getting Nazis to stop Nazi-ing.” This might be true, but does that make it morally OK? Only if you ALSO hold that getting Nazis to stop being Nazis is justified by any means, which is a separate argument you’d have to make. You’d also have to argue that the moral importance of getting Nazis to stop Nazi-ing is morally overriding to any of the moral problems that punching people presents.
“Don’t stoop to his level.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it’s not answering the question. This presumes that what’s important is whether punching the Nazi damages our own characters. It might, but then we’d have to argue that our characters are the most morally important thing in this case. It also assumes that being a Nazi is morally equivalent or comparable to one act of physical force, which is a pretty questionable comparison.
So much for those. Now, there’s some more work we have to do before we can get started on our main questions (you can see why my students get frustrated with philosophy sometimes).
There are ways of approaching this question that require accepting a lot of other conclusions. The most obvious one is strict pacifism or non-violence. On versions of this view, violence is never OK no matter what. By definition, then, punching Nazis is wrong (because all punching is wrong). Now most people aren’t pacifists of this stripe. If you’re a pacifist and you want someone to agree with you that punching Nazis is wrong, you have to get them to agree with all your other principles about violence. You might be able to do that, but it’s a pretty big task. So when we make moral arguments that involve a lot of people we usually try to limit how many other principles we have to argue about. Likewise, if you think punching Nazis isn’t the Christian thing to do, you’d also have to convince people that they ought to be doing the Christian thing in order for them to be convinced by your conclusion. You don’t have to be a strict pacifist or a Christian to think that punching Nazis is wrong, so we can limit ourselves to reasons and arguments that don't require these commitments.
One more thing (see how hard philosophy is?!): we’ve got to go ahead stipulate that the person we’re punching is really a Nazi. I’m sure there are people who want to argue that Spencer isn’t one. Some of you will scoff, but I don’t want to dismiss this point. It might matter to our answer if there’s some ambiguity. So stipulating that the person really is a Nazi will help us get at the heart of the matter.
OK now we’re ready. Let’s start with reasons why it might be OK to punch a Nazi. The most obvious one, I take it, is that HE’S A NAZI. Nazis are pretty much the epitome of the morally awful. They are all the way at the end of the spectrum of human virtue and they’re not at the good end. The whole point of being a Nazi is that you hate and want to eradicate certain groups of people from the earth because you think they belong to an inferior race. On no reasonable definition of “morally OK” is that morally OK. It’s not overstating the case to say that being a Nazi might be the worst way of being a human being.
You could go further and say that not punching Nazis is treating them with a level of respect they don’t deserve. In being Nazis, they’ve declared themselves the morally worst of the worst. And what about the people Nazis hate? The very definition of being a Nazi is that you want to exterminate some other group of people. You could argue that all of us in the moral community should stand up for our fellows especially when they’re threatened by someone else. Punching Nazis sends the message that what they do is so morally egregious that they don’t even deserve the basic forms of respect that we generally owe to people—that’s how awful they are.
OK, now it’s time to think of some complications.
One of the most common responses to pro-Nazi-punching arguments is a free speech argument. Free speech, this argument goes, requires that we don’t punch people who say things we won’t like. Let’s try switching up our example a little bit to see why. There are plenty of people who think abortion is wrong. If you ask some of them, someone who identifies as pro-choice is a person who thinks it’s OK to kill babies. Now, you might think that’s not the right way to define pro-choice, but in the minds of these pro-life people, you’re trying to defend the indefensible—kind of like how Spencer might claim he’s not a Nazi, just a pro-white race guy. We just wouldn’t buy his rhetoric, but then again people who are pro-life wouldn’t buy yours either. So pro-life people think that anyone who identifies as pro-choice wants to kill babies, which they think is obviously morally evil. They might say, “Those pro-choice people can’t be reasoned with! Their whole platform is all about killing babies!” Would it be OK if they decided that the only way to deal with people who are pro-choice is to punch them?
The point here is that punching isn’t a tactic we can limit to some subset of people. We can’t claim that you’re only allowed to punch people if you have this set of views rather than this other set of views. The rules of free speech apply equally to everyone. If they don’t apply equally, they don’t do their job. So do we want to make the rule that we can punch anyone who we think is the morally worst of the worst knowing that some people think that philosophers or feminists or Muslims or Patriots fans are the worst of the worst?
A common response to this sort of example is that being pro-choice isn’t at all like being a Nazi and the pro-lifers are wrong. Nazis are obviously worse. That might be true, but now we have to ask: how do we know that? We know that by making arguments and trading reasons. There is no convincing argument that Nazis are actually not so bad whereas there are some convincing arguments that pro-choice people aren’t the worst of the worst. You’d have a hard time convincing some pro-lifers of that, but there’s at least more room for reasonable disagreement in the pro-choice case.
Now the problem is: who gets to decide when there’s room for reasonable disagreement? Well, we all do. All the members of the moral community collectively decide together. There’s a subtle distinction here that I think gets lost in the conversation. The free speech objection to punching Nazis assumes that we’re using private judgment to decide who is the worst. If that’s true, then we do run into the problem of people deciding to punch whoever they personally think is the worst. But most people making the pro-punching Nazis argument are appealing to our collective judgment. We’ve decided together that Nazis are the worst because we’ve seen who they are and what they do, and we’ve decided there’s no justification for their behavior or their ideas.
The question we have to confront is whether or not punching Nazis undermines our ability to do the very task we need to do to decide that Nazis are the worst. To conclude that Nazis are the worst, we have to do some debating, talking, and collective decision-making. To do that, we have to abide by some basic ground rules of conversation. One of the basic ground rules of conversation is that you don’t punch somebody unless they threaten or attack you. We’re not going to have a very good conversation if we don’t limit the punching. So is allowing people to punch Nazis damaging to our ability to have the big collective moral conversation that we need to have to figure out who’s the worst and who isn’t?
At this point, our thinking runs into a fork in the road. One fork says that punching Nazis doesn’t undermine our ability to make collective moral decisions because Nazis are a special case. They are SO AWFUL that the rules don’t apply to them. The other fork says that there are lots of really good cases in which punching Nazis is totally OK, but that doesn’t include just standing there being a Nazi. My own Nazi punching scale, at the moment, looks like this:
Is Nazi yelling hateful things at someone else? Punch Nazi!
Is Nazi physically attacking someone? Punch Nazi!
Is Nazi just standing there? Hm, better keep fist closed just in case. And don’t be nice to him.
Am I in a resistance movement fighting Nazi rule? Definitely punching Nazis!
But that’s just provisional.
Since the election and subsequent protests, some people have been calling on others not to be divisive. This is a great instance of something that sounds on the surface like a common sense and positive sentiment. Division sounds obviously bad. Unity sounds obviously good. But like most things that sound good there might be more to it than it seems. We have to be clear about just what “divisive” is supposed to mean.
Consider an example (which I’m borrowing from another philosopher). Suppose you run over my bike with your car either out of carelessness or because you don’t like bikes. I am upset about my bike and I express my anger toward you. You respond by telling me that expressing my anger is “divisive.”
Let’s make this example complicated in different ways. Suppose the incident has just happened. You haven’t apologized and you also haven’t offered to help me fix my bike. In this case, it’s hard to see how my anger is divisive. I have the right to be mad: you destroyed my bike. Telling you that I’m angry at you isn’t being “divisive.” “Divisive” suggests that I’m intentionally trying to drive a wedge between us for some ulterior purpose. But expressing my anger isn’t an attempt to harm our relationship. It’s an attempt to communicate to you that I’m unhappy with what you’ve done. It may not be pleasant for you or for me, but just because an interaction or conversation isn’t a happy one, that doesn’t mean it’s divisive. In order for that to be true, we’d have to argue that all unpleasant conversations are divisive, but we have lots of reasons for thinking that’s not so. Spouses, for example, have fights. Those fights are unpleasant, but spouses work through their anger and come to a resolution that both people can be happy with. The fight was angry, but not divisive.
Now let’s complicate the example in a different way. Suppose that you and I have an ugly fight about the bike. You don’t apologize and you don’t help me fix my bike. But we’re co-workers—in fact you’re my superior—so we have to keep working together. Because of that, I decide to try to let it go. Time goes by, but occasionally, you say things like “I would NEVER run over someone’s bike with my car. I’m an excellent driver.” When I hear you say things like this, I get angry and say, “Well, what about the time you ran over my bike?!” You then tell me that by “bringing up the past” I’m being “divisive.” Again, we have to ask what “divisive” means. In referencing the earlier incident, I’m certainly challenging your statement that you’re a good driver, which you probably don’t like. But the fact that what I say makes you angry and uncomfortable doesn’t mean I’m being divisive. It’s important to note in this case that there wasn’t a proper resolution to the incident. I just decided to try to let it go because we have to work together, but since you never apologized or offered to help, we didn’t really come to a resolution that BOTH of us could be happy with. You refused to budge and I didn’t have any other choice but to try to forget about it. But that’s not really satisfactory for me: I had to fix my own bike even though it was your fault. AND you refused to acknowledge that. AND you then tell everyone that you’re an excellent driver who never runs over bikes.
It’s pretty clear that I haven’t really let go of the fact that you ran over my bike, but now we can ask the further question: why should I let it go? Remember the reason I decided to let it go in the first place is just because we have to work together. I just did it to make my life easier, not because I was trying to cut you some slack or because I think you’re an OK person deep down. Things might be different if you had apologized, helped me fixed my bike, and if you realized that you weren’t the best driver in the world. Then we would have come to a resolution. After that, if I kept bringing up the fact that you ran over my bike, you could make the case that I was being “divisive.” But that’s only after we’d already agreed to a resolution that worked for both of us. Absent that, it’s not clear why I should just forget about it, especially if you refuse to acknowledge what you did.
Let’s do one more version. Suppose that people running over other people’s bikes in the office parking lot is a common problem. Bike riders in the office are complaining about the fact that the drivers aren’t watching where they’re going. Drivers don’t seem to notice how many bikes they’re running over and when they do run bikes over they don’t apologize. Suppose that the bike riders in the office keep bringing the issue up at office meetings and the drivers tell them that they’re being “divisive.” This seems unfair. The bike riders are worried for themselves and their bikes. They’re trying to bring up a persistent problem that they think isn’t being dealt with properly. Again, being “divisive” makes it sound like the bike riders are trying to make people mad at each other. But as long as the problem persists and the drivers don’t seem to do anything about it, the bike riders are just trying to bring the problem to everyone’s attention so that there can be a solution. Trying to get people to talk about and acknowledge an ongoing problem may not be a happy or pleasant thing, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s divisive.
Suppose the office tried to work on a solution in good faith and the drivers were willing to help and do their part. Suppose now that the bike riders believed the drivers were sincere, but they refused to take suggestions, constantly pointed out problems, and didn’t try to offer any solutions of their own. Now you could make a case that they are being divisive because they refuse to participate in solving the problem even though everyone else had finally gotten on board.
So are people being “divisive?” Well, that depends. Are they expressing anger that they have a right to feel? Are they trying to point out a problem that isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Or are they trying to derail a good solution? Are they trying to be negative for the sake of being negative? In order to answer any of these questions, we’d have to listen to what’s being said and consider the context.
Today the helpful philosopher is here to talk about some stuff from the wild world of academia, namely tenure.
Tenure isn’t something the people outside of academia are particularly familiar with, so I’ll tell you a little bit about how it works. When academics get jobs at universities or colleges, they sometimes are hired into what is called a “tenure-track position.” It’s important to note that not everyone who teaches at a college is tenured or tenure-track or even full time! Some people who teach at colleges work on a part-time class-by-class basis with no benefits (these positions are called “adjuncts”). There are other people who have contract positions: they receive benefits, are employed full time, and usually have titles of “visiting” professor. There are other types of positions as well, and I can talk about those another time. For now, let’s stick with tenure.
In tenure-track positions, there are three stages: assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. Associate and full professors have tenure, and assistant professors are working to get it. So what is tenure? There are lots of different answers to that, but essentially it means job security. Once you have tenure, your college can’t fire you because of your research program. When you are granted tenure, it’s because (among other things) the college and your professional peers in the field decide that the research you do is promising and valuable. So you’re granted tenure on the assumption that you’ll continue to do high quality research.
At this point a lot of people balk at the idea of tenure because it seems like “a job for life.” That’s not how tenure is supposed to work, but it is true that the whole point is to put up barriers to dismissing that person. The question is of course: why would we want to do that?
Instead of focusing on how tenure developed historically, I’m going to keep things abstract (I’m a philosopher, after all!): why is tenure a good thing in principle? Colleges and universities do many things. One of the things they do is what I’ll call “knowledge production.” Professors and researchers housed in universities basically make new knowledge that goes into the Big Knowledge Bucket of all of human kind. Classics professors translate texts that haven’t been translated before. Chemists do research on crystals and discover things about them. English professors offer new ways to read old (or new) novels. You get the idea. Some of that work is useful for things like public policy—the government takes research done in, say, the economics department and uses it to change laws. Some of it is pretty obscure. It’s unlikely that the government will need one my papers about Kant to make public policy.
But we can’t always predict what will be useful and what won’t. For instance, several years ago a lot of colleges either didn’t have an Arabic program or cut their Arabic programs because no one thought it was important for Americans to know or study Arabic. Now with developments in international politics knowing and studying Arabic is seen as much more important. Before that change occurred, however, there were scholars housed in universities studying Arabic just because they liked it and thought it was valuable. So what once might have been seen as obscure can come to be seen as important.
Of course, just because my papers on Kant aren’t likely to spearhead new policy initiatives or cure cancer it doesn’t mean they aren’t important in other ways. Human knowledge isn’t just important for its instrumental value; adding more stuff to the Big Knowledge Bucket is good just because it’s good to understand more about the world—even long dead Prussian philosophers. So as a professor one of my jobs is to contribute to the Big Knowledge Bucket.
But knowledge that’s important isn’t always popular. As any Marx scholar or climate scientist will tell you, historical figures and topics of study can ruffle people’s feathers, go against dominant societal views, or contradict beloved ideas. And colleges and universities are just like other institutions: they’re run by people who are influenced and shaped by the times in which they live. They also need money from legislators, donors, and tuition fees in order to run. What you end up with is the following sort of problem:
Prof. X makes a discovery or writes a paper that challenges not just the accepted conclusions of her field, but also goes against public opinion. Her research is sound: it’s not dishonest, it’s well-argued, and it has lots of evidence to back it up. But nobody wants to hear it. State legislators, her peers, and the public get mad at Prof. X; they don’t want people saying the sorts of things she says. They call up her college and demand that she be fired or reprimanded. Her college isn’t immune to public disapproval. They have an image to maintain and people who fund them to please. So what’s to stop them from just firing Prof. X because no one likes what she says?
Tenure is supposed to be the answer. Tenure is supposed to be a protection against this sort of scenario. It’s meant to protect knowledge production and ensure that we aren’t just producing knowledge that everyone likes and that doesn’t rock the boat. It gives academics the freedom to do research that might not be popular or that might challenge established opinion in their own fields. Taking a page from another Old Dead Philosopher, John Stuart Mill, knowledge is like a pond. If the water sits unmoving too long, it gets stagnant. We need to stir things up every once in awhile to keep the pond clear. Academics can’t stir the water if they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs every time they want to explore a new question.
Tenure, like all systems, isn’t perfect. People often think once academics get tenure they “quit” and then get paid for doing nothing. Sometimes that happens, but in the majority of cases it doesn’t. Most academics do some of their most important work after they get tenure because they’re freer to be more creative. Tenure is also an important job perk, just like other job perks like bonuses or vacation. Schools with weak tenure protections can’t attract the best people in the field because you can’t do your best thinking if you’re afraid you’re going to get fired. And when colleges start relying too heavily on non-tenure-track positions, they're hiring a bunch of knowledge producers who they can fire at the drop of a hat.
So when state legislators, like the ones in Missouri and Iowa who just introduced bills to abolish tenure at all state institutions, decide they want tenure gone, it’s not just those “spoiled” professors who are going to suffer for it. State economies, colleges and universities, the students, and the Big Knowledge Bucket are all going to suffer too.
This week’s question comes from a reader: is having children a moral choice?
I’ll take a moment to say that lots of philosophers have written on this subject, so if you’re interested in further reading, there’s plenty to do.
To start with, we need to do a little thinking about the word “moral.” Sometimes “moral” is used as shorthand for morally good: as in, “Returning the lost wallet is the moral thing to do.” In our case, “moral” means “having to do with morally right and wrong:” as in “becoming a vegetarian is a moral choice for some people, but others do it for health reasons” or “whether you pick the green handbag or the red handbag isn’t a moral choice—just pick one already!”
Here I won’t say whether having kids is a moral choice or not. What I will say is reasons to think it is and reasons to think it isn’t. I’ll let you decide what you think.
Let’s start with the claim that it is a moral choice. For starters, having kids means that you’re choosing to make another human. That human is also going to be both (a) a moral agent and (b) a moral subject. A moral agent is someone who is (among other things) capable of thinking about right and wrong, capable of acting in moral responsible (and irresponsible!) ways, and meeting or failing to meet moral obligations. A moral subject is someone who is the focus of moral concern: someone who can be hurt, wronged, helped, and cared about. Now, you might notice that not everyone who is a moral subject is a moral agent. Some philosophers, for example, will say that non-human animals are moral subjects, but not moral agents. They are capable of being hurt or cared about, but they can’t meet or fail to meet moral obligations. Human beings spend part of their lives as just moral subjects and part of them as moral agents and moral subjects.
Deciding to have kids usually means that parents take on the responsibility of making sure (as best they can) that kids turn out to be good moral agents: they keep their promises, respect others, and behave in upright ways. It also means that parents take on the responsibility of protecting and caring for them as moral subjects: ensure that they are healthy, feel safe and supported, and don’t suffer if they don’t have to. So in that sense, having kids requires making a commitment to raise another moral person. Parents take on a major moral obligation in that regard.
There’s another sense in which having kids is a moral choice: it has moral consequences. Now, this is a bit tricky because lots of choices have moral consequences. For instance, some people think that eating meat, buying an SUV, and watching football are moral choices in this sense. In evaluating the decision to have kids in these terms, we’d have to think about the good and bad moral consequences it might lead to. You might have heard people say, “I can’t imagine bringing a child into this world; it’s so awful.” They’re claiming that making a child live in a terrible world is bad for the would-be child. Or you might have heard people say, “You guys would make great parents! You’d raise a good kid.” Underlying this thought is the idea that it’s a good thing to bring more good people into the world. Some people have argued that making more humans contributes to climate change and as such it’s wrong to have children (the implied premise being that it’s wrong to do things that contribute to climate change). In response, someone might say that your future child might be the one who it able to solve climate change, so it’s good to have kids. It’s difficult to determine exactly what the consequences of having children will be: there are a lot of uncertainties and causal chains are not well-behaved creatures. But like lots of things we do having children might have moral implications.
Now let’s turn to reasons for thinking it isn’t a moral choice. Human beings are moral agents, but they’re also human beings. They have dreams and plans that are their own. It’s hard to live our own lives if we think about the moral implications of literally everything we do. Think about picking a career: we typically pick careers that are well inside the reasonable boundaries of the morally permissible. Most people don’t decide they want to be assassins. We find jobs doing what we enjoy, what we find fulfilling, and what provides us with the money we need to live. If I was thinking about the moral implications of my choice, it’s possible that I should have chosen something like nursing over being a philosopher. Surely nurses are badly needed and I could have potentially saved lives. I have no desire to be a nurse: it’s not something I would have found fulfilling and enjoyable. In this case, the morally good thing to do competes with my own plan for my life. Oddly enough, we typically don’t think it’s morally required for people to give up their plans just so they can do a morally good thing. Now of course there are limits: it might turn out that something that’s a part of my life plan is outside the boundaries of what’s morally permissible (I can’t for example start that company a uses humans as fuel). And sometimes it’s hard to know what those limits are, but it looks like we have to draw them somewhere if we’re going to allow people to live their own lives.
It might be the case, then, that having kids is like choosing a career. If you think you’ll find it rewarding and enriching, then go ahead. If you don’t think you’ll find it rewarding, then don’t. Maybe we can’t praise or blame people for having kids any more than we can praise or blame them for being a gardner rather than an accountant. Even if this is true, parents are still responsible for raising and caring for their kids (or giving them to someone else if they can’t). Having kids means taking on all the obligations that go along with parenting. Some people want to take on those responsibilities and some people don't.
One of the things that people often say is that citizens and voters should "be informed." But what exactly does "being informed" mean?
As is my way, I like to think about what Old Dead Philosophers have to say about contemporary issues. Why? Well because chances are contemporary issues aren't contemporary at all. The kinds of questions and challenges we face have been faced by humans for a very long time. I like to tell my students that there are no new ideas. They often don't like hearing that, but I find it comforting. It means that I don't have to reinvent the wheel every time I have a problem to solve. I have built-in help and advice from people have already thought about it.
My favorite Old Dead Philosopher is Immanuel Kant. He lived during the 18th century in (what was) Prussia. He was a member of the German Enlightenment. Funny enough, one of the questions he and his contemporaries had was: just what is "enlightenment?" In the same way that we think about the times in which we live (all those thinkpieces about Millennials!), Kant and his fellows did the same thing.
Kant decided to write an essay (the thinkpiece of his day) about the subject. His answer to the question "what is enlightenment" is that people have to think for themselves. In other words, we shouldn't just take the answers that some authority figure gives us for granted. Kant used examples like the religious leaders and doctors. Sure, sometimes people have specialized knowledge that we don't have and it's good for us to listen to what they have to say. But there's a difference between taking an expert opinion seriously and just following orders. We have to decide for ourselves whether what people tell us is good or true.
The trouble is, as Kant fully recognized, it is really, really difficult for us to think for ourselves. We're busy. We're tired. We have our own daily issues that we have to navigate. Kant also thought that thinking for yourself takes a lot of courage: it might mean that you have to go against what most people think and believe. That can be intimidating and isolating. It's much easier to go with the flow and much easier to get someone else to do your thinking for you. Given how hard it is to do this, Kant thought it was particularly important for a government and a society to encourage independent thought. If you live in a society that wants to help you think for yourself, it's easier to do.
So what are some of the ways we can do this in the 21st century U.S.? I tell my students that they now have access to more information than any human being on earth has ever had. They can literally get on the internet and have access to books, articles, and documents that used to be inaccessible to the vast majority of people. You want to see your senator's voting record? You can find it! You need a copy of Aristotle's De Anima? There it is! So, lack or access to resources isn't a problem for us. The problem is we have to be willing to go digging for it.
The internet is resource rich, but attention poor. And unfortunately attention is one of the things you need if you want to do some independent thinking. You have be willing to read through things that might not be easily digestible. You have to look through more than one link on your Google search. You have to take care to check the sources that are linked in that Wikipedia article. You have to try to read more than one newspaper---maybe even inlcuding some that aren't from the U.S..
All that is tiring and sometimes boring. We're all guilty (your Helpful Philosopher very much included!) of skimming rather than reading. But I think being informed is less about what you know and more about what you're willing to do. It's something we have to make a long-term commitment to and something that we can get better at over time.
This edition of The Helpful Philosopher comes from a reader and it’s about giving kids choices. I’ll paraphrase the question a bit here:
If I think that something is good for my child, should I make her do it? As my reader points out, there are times this answer seems clear and there are times when it doesn’t. We make kids wash their hands when they don’t want to—that seems uncontroversial. But what about something like playing a musical instrument? Or making a child go to church?
Let’s first see what’s at stake in this question. We typically think that parents ought to do things that enrich their children. By “enrich” we usually mean that parents should help their children become good people, learn things, attain cultural knowledge, or develop the capacities to expand their lives and minds in the future. We think this is one of the responsibilities of being a parent: raising a child means helping to prepare them to be independent adults out in the world with the rest of us. Kids don’t always know what’s good for them, so parents, who know what it takes to be independent adults, have to train them in those ways.
Things get complicated because of the “independent” part. As I’m sure all the parents out there can tell you, kids have minds of their own. They have at least some degree of what gets called “autonomy,” which means they can (in limited ways) decide for themselves what they want and what they think. They are people after all even though they aren’t adult people. And we usually don’t force (adult) people to do things they don’t want to even of those things are good for them (setting aside legal stuff like wearing seat belts here).
Now, there are different ways of forcing and different reasons for forcing. Forcing kids to do things they don’t want to do is sometimes just showing them that they can’t have everything their way all the time. Forcing them to wash their hands or forcing them to stop playing with their food is part of training them to be out in the world with other people. Learning how to be autonomous isn’t the same thing as deciding you get to do whatever you want. In order for them to become independent adults, they have to learn what we adults know: the world doesn’t bend to their will. (There are lots of definitions of what it means to be an adult, but the one that I like best is that adults are people who do things they don't want to do with grace and poise.)
Forcing a kid to take piano lessons or learn a language is a little different. Here the usual rationale is that we want to expose kids to lots of different activities. Now this too is part of becoming an adult: adults have to learn how to make a life for themselves and that life will include decisions about how to spend your time. How will we know what we’re going to spend our time doing unless we try a bunch of things? Kids don’t immediately see the value in this, so sometimes we have to make them try stuff. And it’s good for them to have to stick with something for a little while even if they don’t like it—that too is an important thing to know how to do as an adult.
That said, there are ways we can do this wrong. It’s good to be clear-eyed about your motives. Do I want my kid to take piano lessons because it’s good to expose her to lots of different activities and this is a good one? Or do I want her to take piano lessons because I want her to be “cultured” or “artistic” or “creative?” There’s a line between doing what’s good for your kids so that they can become adults and doing what’s good for your kids so that they become the adults you want them to be. Kids are their own people and who they become isn't something that parents alone can determine. Lots of things will influence who they turn out to be. They aren't like dominos---you can't ensure that they go down the path you specify just by setting all the right pieces in place ahead of time.
Also, it’s good to figure out the differences between persistent, meaningful protest and kids whining about stuff. Pushing kids to do things past a certain point is likely overriding their autonomy in harmful ways. My own parents had a way of compromising on this that (in hindsight of course) makes a lot of sense to me: they would set a timeline. I played basketball and I really didn’t like it, so they made a deal with me: play for one season and if you still don’t like it after the season is over, you can quit. And I did! But playing the season out gave me time to really see what was involved and helped me practice sticking to something even when I didn’t want to do it.
I think it’s good to remember that although there are exceptions most of us don’t grow up scarred by things. Of course, you might hate that your parents made you take piano or you might hate that your parents didn’t make you take piano. You grew into a functioning, well-adjusted adult anyway, and that’s because of AND in spite things your parents did.
I like to joke that one of the reasons philosophers are weird is because we learn how to have our opponents in our minds all the time. Imagine that you start to make up your mind about something only to hear a voice in your head say, "Wait a second! Not so fast."
Learning how to be critical about your own views and your own responses is an important step to making your thinking more flexible. I'm not saying we should go through life second-guessing everything we do, but it's generally good practice to be able to ask yourself whether you're really seeing all sides of a complicated situation.
So how do we go about this? Chances are you already know one way: we often say "If the situation were reversed..." For example, right now lots of people are protesting Trump's election. If you think this is great, you might ask yourself how you would react if Clinton had won and people were organizing mass protests against her presidency. Would you feel the same?
Let's see what the next steps here. You have a couple of options. First, you might say "But those situations are different." If you think so, you'd need to try to explain why and how they're different. That's a good practice because it can help you figure out why you support certain actions in some cases and not others.
As you think through the ways that the situations are different, you can keep using the "if the situation were reversed" test. Do the reasons that you have for thinking that these protests are good also apply in the reversed situation? If, for example, you think "Protesting is a constitutional right," notice that that's true of the reverse case, too. If the reasons hold in both cases, it looks like you'll have more work to do to figure out how the situations are different.
You might find that you can't figure out how the situations differ at all. Maybe every reason you think of to support one case can also be used to support the other. Then you've come to a fork in the road. You can either keep looking--maybe there's something you haven't thought of yet. Or maybe you could rethink your original response. If you wouldn't like it if people protested the candidate you supported, then maybe these protests aren't so great either. Or you could conclude that you'd have to be consistent in the future and support people's right to protest even when you disagree with them. Or you could decide that you should take back some of the criticisms you'd made in similar situations in the past.
The other option you might consider is to suspend your judgment. Maybe you're not quite sure how you feel about the protests. You can't decide if you agree or disagree. I happen to think this position is totally OK to end up in. You're not always going to know immediately how you feel about every complex issue.
This edition of The Helpful Philosopher is about bullying. Sometimes people tell me that calling someone a racist or a sexist is bullying to that person. Is this bullying? I think the answer is usually no, but let me explain why. Let me use some examples.
When I walk down the street and a man tells me to smile and I don't, he calls me a Name That I Won't Repeat. That's bullying.
When I say that a man who has, let's say, publicly said he doesn't respect women as people and has publicly stated that he feels entitled to touch women's bodies without their permission, I call him a sexist. That's not bullying.
The words "sexist" and "racist" are both evaluative and descriptive. Saying something or someone is sexist is not a nice thing. Calling something racist or sexist is to say that thing is not good. But these are also words that describe just like "yellow" or "tangy" or "five feet away." Saying that the man in my second example is sexist is to say that he has done or said things that this word accurately describes. We can then have a further discussion about whether those words or actions are sexist or not, just like we can have a discussion about whether other descriptive terms are aptly attributed to their objects. But that doesn't mean the word is not a descriptive one. We're just arguing about whether the description fits or doesn't fit.
Bullying like the kind in the first example doesn't go this way. Calling someone a name, taunting, and threatening are ways of intimidating someone. The man who calls me a Name I Won't Repeat is trying to make me feel afraid. There are of course times when you can use the terms sexist and racist to name-call: yelling "Sexist pig!" at someone is name calling (and we can argue about whether we should or shouldn't do that). But that doesn't make every instance where we use the term name-calling.