Tuesday, October 30, 2007

CFP: North American Society for Social Philosophy

The theme of this year's conference is "Gender, Inequality, and Social Justice." In addition to the obvious opportunites for feminist theory, the theme also invites work on environmental justice and some topics in feminist medical ethics.

The website of the North American Society for Social Philosophy will have more information (though it has not yet been updated).

The 25th Annual International
Social Philosophy Conference

Sponsored by the
North American Society for Social Philosophy

July 17-19, 2008
at the University of Portland (Oregon)

Special attention will be devoted to the theme "Gender, Inequality, and Social Justice" but proposals in all areas of social philosophy are welcome.

The Program Committee will be chaired by:
Professor Jordy Rocheleau of Austin Peay State University and
Professor Richard Buck of Mount Saint Mary’s University

A 300-500 word abstract should be sent to the program chairs. Individuals who wish to be considered for the award for best graduate student paper should submit their entire paper and abstract. Electronic Submissions welcomed and encouraged.

Jordy Rocheleau
Department of Philosophy
Austin Peay State University
Box 4486
Clarksville, TN 37044
tel. 931-221-7925

Richard Buck
Department of Philosophy
Mount Saint Mary’s University
16300 Old Emmitsburg Rd
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
tel. 301-447-5368

The deadline for submissions is March 15, 2008
or, for those living outside the United States and Canada, January 15, 2008.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Global Environment Outlook-4

Khadimir alerted me to the UN's "The Global Environment Outlook-4," a 5-year report about the sorry state that the whole world is in. The BBC headline:
Continuing destruction of the natural world is affecting the health, wealth and well-being of people around the globe, according to a major UN report.

In the report, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon writes
This assault on the global environment risks undermining the many advances human society has made in recent decades.

Bad news all around.

Since David Sobel’s book Beyond Ecophobia, there has been some debate about whether reporting of environmental news in such dire terms is serving to fuel political change. Or if, by creating an association between fear and the environment, apocalyptic reports will push people to tune out.

Sobel recommends that education introduce students to nature with an eye to play, empathy, and exploration. Only once people (children) have cultivated an attachment to natural landscapes should the environment as problem be introduced.

There is some reason to this. But political change to address environmental problems cannot wait for us to reform education and then for biophilic children to grow into environmentally-aware adults. Tell-it-like-it-is reports are necessary for motivating global political change NOW.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What’s natural about natural childbirth?

Jender at Feminist Philosophers has a recent post about natural childbirth. She writes that the literature supporting natural childbirth is too often misleading.
Telling women that if they shop around hard enough for the right midwife, and work hard enough on their relaxation techniques and positions they’ll have a great uncomplicated time is SERIOUS misinformation.

She raises an issue similar to my post earlier this week, where I argued that a general preference for ‘natural’ ecosystems over ‘improved’ or ‘disturbed’ landscapes can be justified empirically but not with metaphysics.

‘Natural’ childbirth can mean many things to different people, from vaginal birth, to a birth without pain medications, to a birth that minimizes interventions, to a home or unassisted birth. Sometimes--perhaps too often, as Jender notes--there is a belief that if labor and birth are allowed to progress in their own time and their own way, then the labor will be less painful and delivery will be uncomplicated. And then, when the labor and delivery are slow or complications do develop, a mother whose goal is natural childbirth could feel disappointed, cheated, or even ashamed, as though she was unable to achieve what “should” be a natural biological function.

But this view entails attaching a prescriptive metaphysics to the concept of ‘natural.’ It is analogous to saying that wilderness should be valued more highly than agricultural fields because wilderness is ‘natural.’ But I like to eat bread and grapes and artichokes! Still, without buying into a flat-rate preference for natural landscapes over cultivated ones, I think we can still justify on empirical grounds why we should look to what is natural to identify the conditions in which humans and other creatures flourish.

Likewise, empirical evidence and some well-accepted criteria for healthful outcomes are what is needed to support natural childbirth and, most importantly, to support educating expectant mothers about the physiological process of birth. A good education would include what sort of pain can be expected and the average duration of active labor (which, for first-time mothers, is 20 hours, more than many practitioners allow before augmenting with pitocin).

When C-section rates rise, so do mortality rates for mothers. Mothers who have had C-sections are more likely to have additional complications, take longer to recover (on average, of course), and are less likely to breastfeed. In addition, they are more likely to have complications with subsequent pregnancies. Other interventions, such as pitocin induction, epidural pain-relief, and electronic fetal monitoring are implicated in poorer outcomes insofar as they contribute to the likelihood of unplanned caesarean birth.

The evidence supports taking steps that are likely to give women more control over birth, more autonomy during labor, and more choice than is usual in US maternity wards. But intending a natural childbirth is certainly no guarantee that labor will progress according to a plan! It would be heartless to deny the necessity and high value of medical interventions when needed, not just for emergencies like placental abruption, but also for pain relief when unexpected pain is harming a mother’s ability to give birth.

Rixa has written recently on what should be done about rising caesaraean rates. She quotes Michael Odent:
The primary objective should not be to reduce the rates of caesareans: it would be dangerous, if not preceded by a first step. This first step should be an attempt to promote a better understanding of birth physiology and particularly a better understanding of the basic needs of women in labour.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Scruffy Philosophers, with and without neckties

In Philosopher’s Carnival #55, Thom Brooks links to Crooked Timber’s post about the relative scruffiness of philosophers, particularly analytic philosophers.

I just completed an unscientific poll of the folks hanging out near my office, and all agree that, yes, a good number of analytic philosophers are scruffy. And most of the remaining are dapper or natty. (Maybe sartorial language is different in the UK, but here in the States, we pretty much only speak of guys as being "scruffy.")

The few who are neither scruffy nor donning neckties—are the women.

Yes, there are actually some women who are analytic philosophers! You’d think that our scruffy colleagues had not yet noticed. We’re the neat and tidy ones wearing skirts and two shiny earrings—because studies of student evaluations show that students respect us less if we don’t.

It's nice that the guys can joke about their scruffy image, but as long as we're still get tenured at lower rates --grasping at straws--we publish and try to dress well, too, just in case it helps.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A preference for what is natural

So often in what I read and in conversations with students about environmental problems, there is an implicit assumption that what is “natural” is better than whatever has been “disturbed” or “improved” by humans.

Most of the time, I feel that my task is to demand that the speaker think more critically about
1. why we should prefer a natural to an unnatural state since, for example, a world without smallpox seems to be a better world overall;
2. whether we can really ever identify a “natural” state, after millennia of human disturbance in most tropical and temperate regions and with the propagated effects of climate change, pollution, and transported species reaching even into apparent wilderness regions.

But to be fair, the shorthand of preferring natural conditions to unnatural ones is very often legitimate. Whether our concern is for human well-being or stability in ecosystems, the natural state is one that has been tested and proved, and the unnatural one has not. The proper justification, then, for this preference for what is natural is empirical evidence, not metaphysics.

Critics of the popular desire for political action on global warming like to point out that there are plenty of people who stand to be better off should their climate grow a little warmer. It will be possible to grow more wheat in Canada, for instance, and the Northwest Passage will become a viable alternative to shipping goods overland or through the Panama Canal. While it’s true that human changes may improve the world for some human goals, the fear is that they will disturb delicate systems with uncertain, and probably unwelcome, results.

A recent report in Science (Araki, Cooper, and Blouin, “Genetic Effects of Captive Breeding Cause a Rapid, Cumulative Fitness Decline in the Wild”, Science 318: 100-103) adds another case to the roster of well-intended interventions with negative long-term implications. It seems that captive breeding and wild release of fish stock may lead to lower reproductive fitness in only a few generations.

The report concludes
The evolutionary mechanism causing the fitness decline remains unknown. We suspect that unintentional domestication selection and relaxation of natural selection, due to artificially modified and well-protected rearing environments for hatchery fish, are probably occurring…To supplement declining wild populations, therefore, repeat use of captive-reared organisms for reproduction of captive-reared progenies should be carefully reconsidered.

This indicates that the study species--steelhead trout--are being domesticated. The alternative to stocking wild populations is to do more (much more) to prevent decline in the first place. This means reducing how many are taken and/or preventing habitat destruction. Neither is easy or popular.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

CFP: Feminist Metaphysics Volume

Call for Abstracts/Papers

Feminist Metaphysics

This volume is to be published by Springer Publishing as part of a series on Feminist Philosophy. The series will include five volumes on: Feminism and Aesthetics; Feminist Philosophy of Religion; Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science; Feminist History of Philosophy; and Feminist Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy.

Series Editor: Elizabeth Potter
Volume Editor: Charlotte Witt

As the first collection of papers devoted to the topic of feminist metaphysics, this volume is a landmark in the development of feminist philosophy. Although feminist metaphysics remains a contested field within feminist philosophy, its history stretches back at least to Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Feminist interest in metaphysics includes broad questions concerning the ways in which ontologies and metaphysical frameworks are implicated in the oppression of women or their exclusion from intellectual history, and specific questions concerning the adequacy of theories of personal identity, of the self, and of the body. Most of the papers in the volume will be previously unpublished, original work approximately 8500 words in length.

Possible topics include (but are not limited to!): the relationship between metaphysics and feminist theory; essentialism and anti-essentialism about sex and gender; theories of the body and embodiment; theories of subjectivity, agency, personal identity and the self. I welcome contributions from diverse feminist perspectives including those of analytic and continental feminists, feminists of color, and feminists from diverse cultural and national origins. The choice of papers to include will reflect the editor’s desire to include a range of topics and perspectives in this landmark collection.

Those interested in submitting an essay for this volume should send a 200 word abstract by January 15, 2008. Acceptance decisions will be based on the preliminary draft of your essay, which will be due by May 15, 2008. Authors whose submissions are accepted on the basis of the preliminary draft will have until October 2008 to complete their essays (8500 words). Inquiries, abstracts and submissions should be sent electronically to Charlotte Witt (Charlotte.Witt@unh.edu)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fixing Environmental Problems with Spirit

I’ve been reading an article in Harper’s, reprinted from Orion, by Curtis White. It's titled “The Idols of Environmentalism.”

The title resonates with two cultural warnings against idols. First, there is the Biblical command against worshiping false idols. White calls for a “return” to a relationship with nature that is spiritual rather the scientific.
In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual…Environmentalism should stop depending on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care.

The title is also an intentional reference to Francis Bacon, who wrote in the 1600’s in support of organizing modern science to improve human life. Bacon was concerned to recognize that some kinds of bias would systematically undermine or twist inquiry, and one of these biases was the “idol of the tribe.” These are beliefs that are shared and taken for granted, such that evidence which contradicts them is ignored or explained away.

White believes that the current “idols of the tribe” that mislead environmentalists are the belief that our environmental problems are uniquely caused by outsized corporate power and the belief that science will be what solves them. These two false beliefs, he argues, support each other.
Our dependence on the scientific language of ‘environment,’ ‘ecology,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘habitat,’ and ‘ecosystem’ is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the kind of rationality that serves corporate capitalism.

White is here rejecting two principles of mainstream environmentalism:
1. That science, even “value-free science,” is a force (and one of the strongest forces) for protecting and improving the environment;
2. That even if corporate greed is a cause of environmental problems, capitalism and the current economic system can be used to slow and even reverse environmental damage through trade agreements, green products, LEED certification, conservation easements, etc.

It would be natural to ask White what he thinks we should do, if we are to give up scientific and economic tools for environmental reform. What is left?

He eloquently counters this move,
I am tempted to quote Voltaire’s response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. “What!” he said. “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!”

White nonetheless does suggest something to take the place of science and capitalism, and that is “spirit.” I can only think that he is suggesting that we (all of us) abandon our jobs, our homes in the city, our social networks, and move to a place where we can be reverent of nature. But where would that be? And given the size of the population, what should we do with all the others, those who would not be able to survive without the efficiencies of urban environments?

Lurking behind the recommendation that we abandon our modern society in toto is a disrespect for the value of humanity, for the value of individual human lives. This is not a different way of being an environmentalist, it is a way of giving up doing or being anything. It is an open invitation to relativism—White recedes into a corner with his Spirit while everyone else holds on to their own gods and idols.

White is also sorely out of touch with who scientists are—with who they are as people. He contrasts science (the “rational”) with “care.” But I know of no one who is more caring of living things than the scientists who study them, even including the pill bugs! Who inspires more care of nature, churches or science? The answer is not obviously with the churches.

One of the “good children of the Enlightenment” and not easily disillusioned, I still look first to ignorance (and second to greed) to explain our shortcomings.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

What's popular in philosophy?

The campus bookstore at my university has invited the philosophy department to assemble a shelf of book recommendations. Presumably these should be books that might actually sell, and not, for example, Quine’s Word and Object or Carnap’s Aufbau, no matter how influential they might have been.

This has prompted me to consult Amazon for popular titles in “Philosophy.”

What counts as “philosophy,” or as “metaphysics” for that matter, depends on who you ask.

The Amazon listing of bestselling philosophy books includes titles such as “The 48 Laws of Power” (#231) and “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” (#26,114).

One wonders about the prevalence of numbers in the titles of popular books--perhaps Wittgenstein could be a popular author if instead of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus it were titled “7 Propositions on Language and Reality.” Especially since language seems to be a hot popular philosophy topic, with Steven Pinker showing up in every list.

So, if we confine our picks to Philosophy that Philosophers Would Recognize, the bestselling list looks something like this:
Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (#70)
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (#303)
Thomas Cathcart and David Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes (a humorous but respectable survey of philosophy assembled by non-philosophers) (#384)

After that, the next most popular titles are clearly bought as college course texts:
Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Plato, The Republic
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
(that last one is a surprise, eh?)

One of the most popular collections of current philosophical research articles is
The Daily Show and Philosophy (#2976), which probably explains why my students write essays about that utilitarian, Jon Stewart Mills.

In philosophy of science, the most popular books are
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (#103) and
Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell (#3539)
which makes me wonder when it was that philosophy of science became engulfed by questions about religion.

Meanwhile, some of the books that I had hoped to pick for the bookstore shelf like Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy are ranked lower (higher?) than 200,000.