Marriage is Magic

I made the mistake of teaching a set of essays on gay marriage at the end of the semester. I call it a “mistake” because I find it very difficult to give my traditional charitable interpretation to the work of folks like John Finnis and Robert George, who make arguments from a definition of marriage as “one-flesh two-body union” that they claim must exclude homosexuals but include infertile heterosexual couples. Yet they resist the objections that this is a) a narrow doctrinal definition or b) a definition that draws norms from crude anatomy or c) a definition that falls for some other version of the naturalistic fallacy. After reading widely on the subject, I still can’t accept that a rational person would deny that this “one flesh union” definition is all three: only bad faith or completely incommensurable languages seem to justify our disagreements. You might as well just say, “Marriage is Magic.”

This is why I believe that the legal situation in most of the US that tries to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, including the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” which abrogates the part of the US Constitution requiring that state grant “full faith and credit” to “acts, records, and proceedings,” is unjust. But when we make this case, we are confronted with the force of cultural and linguistic traditions that restrict certain performative utterances to certain speakers. Most speakers cannot meaningfully utter statements like “I dub this ship ‘The Sylvan Nymph,'” or “I now pronounce you a citizen of Aztlan.” Similarly, if I offered you a knighthood you’d be right to scoff. When we advance arguments in favor of gay marriage, some people deride these arguments as simple violations of convention.

The thing is, they’re not entirely wrong. Conventions bind us. My wife and I tried to get engaged for months, but none of our conversations or decisions seemed to stick. She asked. I asked. We said yes. She gave me a plastic decoder ring out of a crackerjack box. We discussed what a great idea it was. We planned details. We speculated about dates. We digressed. We sent each other links to dresses and suits and honeymoon spots. But for some reason we still weren’t engaged.

Then one day I went ring shopping. This process took months because I refused to buy a natural diamond… but I had become convinced that it had to be a diamond or else the ritual wouldn’t work. It was an ordeal, let me tell you, and I think it had to be! When the ring finally arrived, we went for a walk in front of Nashville’s Parthenon. I knelt to tie my shoes, told her I loved her, and pulled the ring from my pocket. Suddenly we were engaged! We called everyone we knew, and declared it. It was settled: we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. That’s magic.

I call it “magic” to show how hard it is to resist cultural norms, especially in ways that have cross-cultural force, like the engagement process.  When an Irish atheist (me) and an Italian lapsed-Catholic (her) try to get married, they’ve got to communicate that to themselves and to each other’s families using some pretty broad semaphore. And why shouldn’t we use “sorcery” to describe this kind of signalling, if the traditional model of autonomous contract captures barely a sliver of the phenomenon? A sufficiently communal socio-cultural ritual is indistinguishable from magic: like a magic spell, it makes things happen in ways and for reasons that none of its participants can really understand.

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Emotions: Appropriate or True?

One of the major debates in the philosophy of emotions is whether they ought to be treated as propositional attitudes and judgments capable of truth-tracking or simply as moods that can be appropriate or inappropriate to a context, but not falsifiable or verifiable. The question is whether emotions are a kind of intentional cognition or not. In this way it is tied to many other debates about intentional states and cognition in ethics, theology, and language in general: the idea that some or all of our attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are not expressions of meaningful propositions and that to evaluate them as such is a mistake

The appeal of non-cognitivism about emotions is that it recognizes the complex details of emotional phenomena, especially the way that passions are embodied and pre-linguistic, and frequently non-deliberative. There are a couple of other reasons that some non-cognitivists adopt their position, the most important of which is that this position is connected to non-cognitivism about ethics in general. Non-cognitivism about ethics is the claim that ethical propositions are neither true nor false. I’ve discussed my objections to non-cognitivism in ethics under the heading of anti-realism and relativism before: basically, I reject the claim that ethical propositions must track some fact about the world (like the painting being level or crooked) in order to be truth-tracking. (Our minds are in the world, and our ethical sentences can track facts about our minds without becoming subjective, i.e. simply tracking an individuals’ preferences or desires.)

Non-cognitivists also sometimes enunciate reasons tied to first-person epistemic privilege: if an emotion can be true or false, cognitivism seems to suggest that I can be wrong when I am angry or sad or ashamed. I tend to think this is true, in the sense that we can misrecognize our own emotions. Experiments show that a person given adrenaline can be tricked into experiencing the the heightened state as either angry or euphoric, depending on how an actor in the room with them behaves. In this sense, we can literally mislabel our emotions, or else draw distinctions that do not actually exist in our emotional states. (Of course, it is also possible that subjects in the experiment actually did experience different emotions, as the behavior of the actor created reactions that changed the valence or admixture of neurochemical reactions to produce euphoria or anger.)

Another reason to adopt non-cognitivism is to undermine the hierarchy of reason and emotion: if all emotions are only imperfectly expressed propositions, then they can be “trumped” by coldly rational articulations of the reasons these emotions express. This is partly tied to first-person epistemic privilege, but non-cognitivists often want to claim a kind of exemption for the passions, since they express a set of moods and attitudes that might be damaged by overexposure to ratiocination. Like religious beliefs, a non-cognitivist about emotions might argue that the there is something improper about trying to constantly translate and interpret the moods and passions a person experiences into propositional logic or a sentential calculus.

One way this debate sometimes plays out is that defenders of non-cognitivism charge cognitivists with “intellectualizing” the emotions, and in so doing, of participating in the denigration of the emotions in favor of reason. Yet I think  this charge is exactly reversed: I think we have an obligation to acknowledge the ways that emotions figure in our reasoning and rationality, not simply as inputs translatable into preferences, but through a complicated interplay of attention and processing that is often impassioned or mostly at the “gut level.”

But this dynamic approach to embodied cognition does replicate the hierarchy between reason and passion in one way: it means that we must submit emotions to rational reflection. The role of emotions in cognition means that we cannot simply “leave the passions alone” or refrain from judging or inspecting them. In fact, it suggests that we ought to be especially wary of the emotional component of cognition, precisely because it’s constantly interacting with the purely propositional kind of reasoning, and yet it is far too easy to ignore this role. We can recognize this when the emotions in question are racist or sexist, but then only because of two centuries of patient work by feminists and anti-racists. Other kinds of systematic emotional biases are similarly fraught with ethical implications, but they are more difficult to remark upon because there is no built-in constituency for the in-group bias, or for my favorite example: the status emotions tied to the moral intuitions related to hierarchy and authority.


In Ted Chiang’s short story, “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” he offers us a typical science-fictional hypothetical, in the form of a staged debate regarding the value of seeing beauty in others. What if you could remove your own capacity to see the beauty in a human face? While at first this seems like an absurd question, Chiang slowly submits a pseudo-scientific neurological explanation and a set of political and ethical arguments that many of his readers will find familiar. By the end, he’s produced both an engaging short story and a kind of policy briefing on a thorny problem: what should we do about the ordinary discrimination of beauty and ugliness?

The deeper societal problem is lookism. For decades people’ve been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive. People do it without even being taught by anyone, which is bad enough, but instead of combating this tendency, modern society actively reinforces it.

Educating people, raising their awareness about this issue, all of that is essential, but it’s not enough. That’s where technology comes in. Think of calliagnosia as a kind of assisted maturity. It lets you do what you should: ignore the surface, so you can look deeper.

Unions versus Women

Literacy is one of the major factors in female empowerment:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • Increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

I first learned about the curiously roundabout role of literacy in exercising more basic entitlements and capacities from Amartya Sen:

“Women are often deprived of their due, thanks to illiteracy. Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use even of the rather limited rights they may legally have (say, to own land, or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rulebooks that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rulebooks. Gaps in schooling can, thus, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.”

In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes (on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand) that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are forced to pay tutors which causes families to make cost-benefit choices and frequently to prefer their sons to their daughters, eliminating the benefits of universal provision of education. He concludes:

“Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.” (via)

Sometimes the entrenched interests of the rent-seeking middle-class are hard to recognize domestically but spring into focus when presented in a distant place. In this, we seem to suffer from a curious kind of far-sighted astigmatism. Of course, Sen would be the first to admit that many of the rich are rent-seekers, too: this is what it means to be a capitalist, to seek rent on capital. But then who is blameless of rent-seeking? Should we turn our attention to “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society“?

Hacking the Social: Can the Profession’s Misogyny be Shamed and Tamed?

John Protevi, Mark Lance, and Eric Schliesser have created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere with their call to shun sexually harrassing philosophy professors:

We believe there are informal sanctions that could make a difference.  The Feminist Philosophers blog recently suggested not inviting serial harassers to conferences.  One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc.  We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know.

By and large, however, philosophers have, to date, seemed unwilling to engage in such informal social sanctions.  Of course there are some good reasons for this.  One might not be convinced that the person in question actually did what they are said to have done.  One might be in a vulnerable position and not want to risk reprisal But these explanations for inaction only go so far.  There are many cases in which the behavior is well known to a wide range of people who are tenured and of substantial standing in their own right, and thus immune to immediate job threats.

Off the bat, it’s important to note that their tentative blog post has generated more buzz than an entire blog devoted to sexual harassment in our field, and that few people are linking back to the original anonymous post from which they got their idea. If that’s not an example of different uptake for men than women, I don’t know what is!

My first reaction was concern about a lack of due process and a further departure from blind peer review standards. I do tend to think that philosophy would be better off if it adopted stricter blind review standards, and that women would benefit the most from such standards.

On reflection, however, I’ve decided that we’re just talking about “The No Asshole Rule” (indeed, this is how it was presented in the original Feminist Philosophers post) which I wholeheartedly endorse. Here’s how Bob Sutton puts the justification for such a rule:

There’s lots of evidence that an asshole’s behaviour drives out the best employees and the people who witness it, reduces commitment and productivity and increases absenteeism. Organisations should also calculate the TCA – Total Cost of Asshole. One Silicon Valley company employed a salesman who constantly abused staff. It calculated that he cost the company £80,000 in one year – on new staff and time spent by senior management to rectify the problems he caused.

In short, assholes aren’t worth the damage they cause, famous or not. I’ve certainly seen evidence of misogyny in my profession, as well as practices that were not deliberately misogynistic but still created an environment hostile to female graduate students and faculty. This likely contributes to the low number of women entering the profession, in part because many women from my generation have avoided philosophy in favor of better options outside of the academy. (Go to any of the top law schools and law firms in the country to see where some of them ended up.) Still, if harassers make the profession hostile to women, then this will damage both the women harassed and the profession as a whole. In exchange for one smart asshole, we lose dozens of smarter scholars and colleagues to other fields or to the world outside of the academy. That surely contributes to the increasing irrelevance of our profession.

If you think about it, we all avoid people we don’t like. Coming to understand that someone is a harasser is a good reason not to like them. And here we pit the two kinds of deference that I’ve described in other posts: deference to expertise or fame, and deference to first-person testimony. Really, we ought to reject the first sort and embrace the second. So long as we pretend that philosophy is the work of singular geniuses rather than of research communities, I think we’ll be prone to ignore the obvious sense in the No Asshole Rule. In reality, there’s no one whose insights into Aristotle or Quine are so revolutionary that we couldn’t do just as well without their poisonous presence.

That said, I’m not sure that this can really be blamed on the star system. Since we’ve mostly heard from women philosophers, we’re mostly hearing the stories from graduate school and professional conferences, where the star system tends to play an outsized role. I’ve known and known of some obscure misogynists: tenure and unaccountable power over others seems to do the trick often enough, and it’s easier to get away with harassing undergraduates than graduate students. In general, I believe that misogynistic (and racist, and heteronormative, and ablist, and class-sist) institutions survive precisely because of this unaccountable power. This is also why I believe that the idea of formalizing this shaming is a mistake: this type of shaming works best when it’s a subtle social pressure. Better, instead, to let potential harassers fear that their next rejected paper is due to that drunken pickup attempt at the APA. What’s more, if there were, for instance, a website that listed accused harassers’ names, it would be open to abuse and probably legally actionable. We’re not the UK, but even in the US it’s still possible to lose large amounts of money for character defamation that leads to lost wages.