Archive for category Ethics

Douchebaggery and Assholishness

Is douchebag the white racial epithet we’ve all be waiting for?

The douchebag is someone—overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males—who insists upon, nay, demands his white male privilege in every possible set and setting. The douchebag is equally douchey (that’s the adjectival version of the term) in public and in private. He is a douchebag waiting in line for coffee as well as in the bedroom.

So says Michael Mark Cohen in his splendid piece ondouchebaggery.

A douchebag is a subspecies of asshole, who, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rumination on assholishness is “a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.” The example Coates gives is of certain people who talk on the cell phones, play music, and even hold parties in the “quiet car” on Amtrak trains. In what could easily be an Augustinian example of the stain of original sin, Coates recognizes that it is not that the offenders don’t know the rules, but that they just don’t care. Indeed, although they could be loud in any other car, it is important for some reason (sin) that they be loud in the quiet car, because it is the quiet car.

But we’re not talking about general assholishness here, but rather more specifically douchebaggery. Cohen notes:

While anyone can be an asshole, though, the douchebag is always a white guy—and so much more than that. The douchebag is the demanding 1 percent, and the far more numerous class of white, heterosexist men who ape and aspire to be them. Wall Street guys are douchebags to be sure, but so is anyone looking to cash in on his own white male privilege.

This narrowness of categorization—perhaps unique in the history of America’s rich history of racial and sexual slurs—is what makes the word douchebag such a potentially useful political tool.

White people tend to be oblivious to white privilege. Indeed, that’s part of the privilege: to feel exempt from having to deal with your life in terms of race. To be a douchebag, though, is to somehow have a sense of one’s white (and male) privilege and to insist on exercising it wherever possible.

Not every white male is a douchebag, of course. It is not metaphysics but practice:

 And if we needed further proof that the douchebag is a social construction, and a set of personal choices, rather than some form of white male essentialism, I give you the paradox of Michael J. Fox: Alex P. Keaton is a douchebag, but Marty McFly is not.

The point is you don’t have to be a douchebag. In order to help attain self-awareness, I warmly recommend you read Cohen’s essay.


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At Group Sex Parties, Strict Rules Make for Safe Spaces – The Atlantic

Now this just raises so many questions.

The first of which is: Why am I never invited to these parties?!

But seriously….At Group Sex Parties, Strict Rules Make for Safe Spaces – The Atlantic.

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LMAO? No! CMEO (“crying my eyes out”).

The thing about Facebook that causes me the most grief is having to view posts that are pitiably stupid and mean-spirited put up there by people (I thought) I know (or knew) and love (or loved) and that are then commented on by other people who find these execrable posts amusing and “so true.” Good thing there is a “hide this post” option.

The most recent experience of this kind had to do with a post in my stream mocking people who are receiving government assistance funded by taxpayer dollars.

What does it say about us, though, that in tough times we take out our frustrations on those who have it worse than we do (and not on those people and policies that have caused the problems in the first place)? It says we are victims of ideology, propaganda, duped by those whose interests are served by our failure to challenge them and by our kicking others when they’re down instead. The people who post these cynical and mocking comments about the poor are not bad persons. They’re just not as good as they could be at being persons with a sense of humanity and common cause. I’d say shame on them, except it is more correct to say shame on all of us who let it get this way.

So, please, Facebookers, before you piss on somebody in the gutter try to think about how they got in the gutter in the first place. There but for the grace of God go you (or I). End of rant.

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Milton Greenberg on Tenure’s Dirty Little Secret

The fact is that nontenured and non-tenure-track faculty are toiling in undesirable positions at low pay and subsidizing the interests and security of tenured faculty members whose performance is not necessarily superior to nontenured faculty or even compatible with the needs and interests of students or the institutional mission.

Read more here.

Dispute it… if you can….

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The Death of Honesty? More thoughts on lying

In former days, there was not much hesitancy in our society about using a moral language to teach children essential virtues such as honesty. For us today, it can be a culture shock to leaf through old editions of the McGuffey Readers, used in most American schools until the mid-twentieth century, to see how readily educators once dispensed unambiguous moral lessons to students. Nowadays, when cheating is considered by some teachers to be an excusable response to a difficult assignment, or even a form of pro-social activity, our society risks a future of moral numbness brought on by a decline of honesty and all the virtues that rely on it. As the Founders of our republic warned, the failure to cultivate virtue in citizens can be a lethal threat to any democracy.

Read all of William Damon’s essay here.


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Is Lying Ever Permitted? An Exchange

Over at First Things, you can find a discussion on the matter of lying.  Janet Smith argues that sometimes it might be morally permissible to lie.  Christopher Tollefson and Alexander Pruss reply oh no it’s not.  Professor Smith counters, no, really, it is okay sometimes.

Thanks to Edward Feser’s blog for drawing my attention to this exchange.  Here is his reply in defense of Tollefson and Pruss against Smith, more or less.  Feser has written on this topic before, and there are links to his early posts in this one.

Have a look, then decide for yourself.

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Two Plays with a Jewish and Yet Universal Perspective

By coincidence – or, if the subject of one of them is to be believed, by design – we saw two plays this weekend with themes of God, truth, love, loyalty, friendship, family, freedom, slavery, and redemption from a Jewish perspective.

New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, by David Ives, wonderfully performed at the Lantern Theater, tells the story of philosopher Baruch (“Bento”) de Spinoza (1632-1677), his trial for heresy, his expulsion from Amsterdam, and his excommunication from the Jewish people. Was Spinoza an atheist, or was he the most God-drenched of men? He saw God and nature as the same (“Bento’s Rule”: Never just say “God;” always say, “God, that is to say, nature…”.) He deemed sacred scripture to be superstition meant to direct the actions of people in a certain manner, and not as a conduit to truth. He advocated a determinism that struck his accusers as fatalism and the undoing of all ethical life. He believed the “peace” accord struck by the Jewish community and the “tolerant” Dutch protestants came at too high a price, and although he protested unceasingly his commitment and love for the Jewish people, he was unwilling to renounce his freedom to think his own thoughts. This made his love for a Christian woman and the loyalty of friendship impossible for him (the former in his refusal to convert to Christianity, the latter in his friend’s willingness to inform on and testify against him). The question that haunts me in this story – magnificently acted all around – is this moral and political one: Should Spinoza have been excommunicated? Spinoza himself, on his own views, could not really answer this question. Could we?

The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez, performed at the Arden Theatre, tells the story of a seriously wounded and on-the-run Confederate soldier returning to his home at the close of the Civil War. He, Caleb, is a Jew, and he finds one of his slaves, an older man named Simon, still occupying his home, both of their families (slave owner and slave) gone away. Another young now-former slave, John, enters the story, and he also seems to be on-the-run. The former slaves are Jews, too, having been raised and educated as Jews in the Jewish slaveowner’s home. A recurrent question is: Are we Jews or are we slaves? Scripture teaches that Jews could have slaves but not Jews as slaves. So what is the truth of their status (or former status)? The situation and context of the play provides ample space to pursue the intricacies of slavery, freedom, religion, family (the twists and turns of the plot are dizzying at times, as evidenced by vocal reactions from the audience at points). The older man, Simon, has kept the faith, despite intense trials, but the young Caleb has lost his belief in God. He saw the horrors of war, and fell into despair. John, who has been looting the abandoned homes in the area, is also troubled by his past, wanting explanations that are not forthcoming. Both Caleb and John, intertwined in a classic master/slave dialectic, are seeking their freedom by demanding certainties. “Two peas in a pod.” Simon tells them, in effect, that our freedom does not consist in having the answers but in being able to ask questions. To lose the ability to ask questions – especially about ourselves – is to lose our freedom.

Spinoza would have agreed.

The Whipping Man ends in silence, in a situation in which nothing meaningful can be said. But the characters must live on, despite the deep uncertainty, guilt, failure. The play left me thinking that we are John and Caleb. We cannot un-live our own histories, cannot wrest free from our past, cannot really know what to make of all our intentions and entanglements. But we must live on, find love when love is in question, help each other when we don’t really know ourselves. It is our only hope.

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What I Believe…?

Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way. Or take the example of buying cheap clothes from a department store. Regardless of what I say, if I don’t ask some basic questions about where the clothes come from I believe in sweatshops. Or at best I believe in ignorance, in not asking questions and in the virtue of being an uncritical consumer. Again these beliefs are not ones I will admit to myself (bring to my mind) but rather they are beliefs I enact as a result of my basic desires (arising from my heart). Finally, if I didn’t stand up to protest against rendition flights, if I didn’t voice my disgust at the practices that go on in places like Guantanamo Bay in my name, then I believe in torture.

link: » I Believe in Child Labour, Sweatshops and Torture

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As low as it goes?

Concerning the prosecutors (persecutors) of David Drake,

…you might think that, morally speaking, they could sink no lower. Alas, when one advances blindly across the boggy ground of realpolitik, when pragmatism takes up the baton and conducts the orchestra, ignoring what is written in the score, you can be pretty sure that, as the imperative logic of dishonor will show, there are still, after all, a few more steps to descend.

–José Saramago, Death, With Interruptions [p. 59]

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Moral Views, Lying, and Euthyphro

You promised the Jews to hide them from their murderers. To keep that promise, you have to deceive the Nazis. Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles.

So says Peter Kreeft in the course of defending the group Live Action‘s…er…actions against its critics.

I am interested in the italicized passage (emphasis mine).  I have described moral positions as follows:  One can take an “absolutely absolute” position, which holds there is one right way for everyone, regardless of circumstances (what Kreeft calls “legalism”).  One can take an “absolutely relative” position, which holds there is no right way at all, everyone calling whatever he does “good” with no justification for criticizing another’s choices or actions (Kreeft’s “relativism”).  I’d call both of these positions untenable, but perhaps Kreeft does better by calling them “morally stupid.”

There is a third position – call it “relatively absolute” – that is the view of Aristotle (among others). This view holds that all of us are bound to develop certain virtues (excellent ways of choosing and behaving) – that is the absolute part – and yet each one of us must live out those virtues, manifest them, in our own ways according to our own capacities, circumstances, and situations – that is the relative part.

Regarding lying as sometimes “a good thing to do,” I recommend comparing Kreeft to Feser, here. There is much blogosphere discussion about Live Action and the moral status of its strategies against Planned Parenthood (see here and here and here and here). Perhaps a topic for another day….

In this same piece by Kreeft, he writes the following in regard to moral intuitions:

These instinctive intuitions and judgments are not infallible, of course, and logic can often reveal our errors. This is what Socrates did, and four cheers for his doing it. But any argument that begins by contradicting our moral common sense is almost certainly going to be wrong.

A good example is Euthyphro, the young man in the Platonic dialog by that name who is impiously prosecuting his own father for murder while professing to be an expert on piety. (‘Piety’ was the ancient virtue of respect both for gods and for elders, ancestors, and family.) In reasoning with Euthyphro, Socrates does not begin with logic, he begins with an instinctive astonishment, which is an implicit moral judgment that Plato expects all morally sane readers to share. Until we read Socrates’ arguments, we don’t clearly know why Euthyphro is wrong, but we know that he is wrong.

Not so fast…Do we really know Euthyphro is wrong to prosecute his father?

Here is the logic of Euthyphro’s critics:  “Son, your father is one of us, we just don’t prosecute one of our own; the so-called “victim” of your father was an *other* (a hired servant), who killed one of our own (albeit a lesser one – a slave).  What your father did was right *because* it was your father who did it.”

Here is Euthyphro’s logic:  “It doesn’t matter who offends against the gods – even if it is one of our own, the actions are wrong and stain the family.  We must act to rid ourselves of that stain, even as we would definitely insist that justice be done to another family if they had wronged us.”

Now who, really, is wrong? Who had moral courage?  Who was pious?

As Kreeft says we must, Euthyphro reasons first by analogy (What if the roles were reversed and someone killed on of our own?). Euthyphro then – with Socrates’ help, of course – ascends to principle (or tries to, anyway):  we must find a justice/piety that is universal, or it is no justice/piety at all.

And yet we are supposed to just *know* that Euthyphro is wrong.  If so, it can only be because Euthyphro’s father was one of us, and our side is always right.  How is that not “relativism”?

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