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Educating Professionals

photograph of graduation caps thrown in the air

Universities around the country have, in the last century, shifted their focus from a traditional liberal arts curriculum to an increasingly “practical” or vocational form of education. There is a popular conception that the purpose of higher education is some form of job-training. A cursory Google search will produce a number of articles asking whether college is a “sound investment,” or whether college graduates make more money than their peers who elect to forego college for work. Virtually every one of these articles defines the worth of a college degree in purely economic terms. There is little room to deny that, in our modern liberal democracy, making money is a practical necessity. Yet, I think there is something deeply confused about the attempt to reduce the value of education generally — and higher education specifically — to the economic gains that come from education. I have argued elsewhere that conflating the so-called “practicality” of education with the “vocationality” of education is a conceptual mistake, so I will not rehearse those arguments here.

Instead, I intend to discuss a related problem present in the ways we conceive of the nature, purpose, and value of higher education. Following the 2008 recession, there was a marked shift in students’ and educators’ priorities toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. People seem to see STEM fields as a means to a professional end — scientists, engineers, and folks in tech tend to make money, and that’s something people in a precarious economic environment want. We can see the need for economic stability reflected in every aspect of the university, including many college and university mission and vision statements.

It is not difficult to see the ways in which gaining technical proficiency in biology or engineering, for example, will prepare students for a career. However, what some students and educators fail to recognize is that even areas within sciences that most directly correlate to in-demand jobs need the humanities. In preparing a guest lecture on engineering ethics, I looked into the nature of professional ethics generally. This led me to think about the nature of a profession and why it is important that certain professions have ethical guidelines by which practitioners must abide. The word “profession” is derived from the late Latin professus, which roughly means “to profess one’s vows.” One might wonder what a profession of one’s vows has to do with a “profession” as we consider it today. The answer is surprisingly straightforward — in the monastic tradition, monks were asked to make a public declaration of their commitment to living a more just, ethical life in light of their training. Accordingly, they would profess their commitment to living according to this higher standard. Such dedications bled over into highly skilled and highly specialized trades — as jobs require increasingly specific training, it becomes increasingly important that the people who take on these skilled positions profess to self-govern according to higher standards, if only because the number of people who have the knowledge to provide a check on them has become vanishingly small. There can be little doubt that technicians at every level need to behave ethically, but with a larger peer group, there are more individuals, and more opportunities to recognize and correct potential abuse. As William F. May powerfully states, “if knowledge is power, then ignorance is powerlessness. Although it is possible to devise structures that limit the opportunities for abuse of specialized knowledge, ultimately one needs to cultivate virtue in those who wield that relatively inaccessible power.”

It is not difficult to see how we can take this idea of professionalism as tied with virtue and apply it to higher education today. Let’s take the example of our engineering students. Within the field of engineering, there are different fields of sub-specialization, the result of which is a (relatively) small number of professional peers — those with the specialized knowledge to recognize and correct potential problems before they become catastrophic. The fact that students in a senior-level engineering class already have narrowly defined expertise that differs from peers in the same class highlights the need for a curriculum that instills ethics early on.

This problem becomes more acute as students graduate and enter the profession. As the number of engineers who have the specific knowledge necessary to evaluate the choices made by any given engineer is so small, we must rely on the engineers themselves to abide by a higher standard — especially in light of the public-facing nature of the work engineers undertake. Engineering is a profession, and as such we need engineers who profess to, and actually do, live and work according to a higher standard. Such a profession requires more than mere compliance with a code of conduct. As Michael Pritchard notes, “professional codes of ethics are not static documents. But even if a code is relatively unchanging, it is not simply an algorithm for decision making. It must be applied – which calls for independent judgment on the part of the professional.” In light of this understanding of the nature and demands of professionalism, I propose that universities insist upon an increased emphasis on humanities — those fields whose value is less directly connected to vocational outcomes and are more easily connected to the development of character, person, and civic responsibility. Humanistic fields are just as valuable as more vocationally-directed fields, even to those vocational-directed fields themselves.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many institutions were ill-prepared to handle the influx of people looking for STEM degrees following the 2008 recession. The BLS additionally cautions that the pandemic is likely to cause another STEM surge, offering us another opportunity to shape industries and mold the next wave of future professionals. In considering how to do this, and how to do it well, it should be clear from what I’ve said that we need to emphasize the connections between the humanities and STEM fields. While we often like to think of science as purely descriptive and divorced from considerations of value (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), that is simply not an accurate, or at any rate a complete picture. The ultimate aims of science are, I suggest, intrinsically value-laden. I don’t have room here to defend this claim, but for a careful discussion, see Heather Douglas’ Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (especially chapters 4, 5, and 8). For now, let’s return to our example of engineering students. In my discussions with students, many report that they went into engineering with high-minded goals about improving the quality of life for those around them. They see the end for the sake of which they pursue STEM not as mere financial stability, but for the betterment of human lives; yet most report that they have had little or no formal education in ethics or value theory. The narrow scope of their education illustrates that colleges and universities are not doing enough to truly prepare students for the non-technical aspects of their chosen profession. The solution, I propose, is to return to a more well-rounded form of education; one that emphasizes humanities and integrates humanistic education with STEM fields.

We do not need technically proficient but ethically unimaginative or inflexible workers to fill the needs of our consumer economy; rather, we need professionals understood in the broad sense I’ve described. We need to cultivate and encourage our students to commit to living according to the highest standards of moral virtue. As Rena Beatrice Goldstein argues,

“Virtue enables a person to navigate challenging human encounters in many spheres, and virtue curricula can help students learn to navigate well by practicing virtue in different environments. It takes time to develop virtues like open-mindedness. Indeed, being open-minded with strangers in the civic domain may require different motivations than being open-minded with one’s peers, family, or friends. Practicing virtues in a variety of domains can help students develop the right motivations, which may be different in different domains.”

I propose that we see the next STEM push as an opportunity to re-emphasize our commitment to all of the core values of higher education: personal growth, civic responsibility, and professional excellence. When we consider “professional excellence,” we must build into that concept a healthy understanding of, and respect for, the stable virtues cultivated through sustained humanistic study.

Why We Shouldn’t Have to Have the White History Month Conversation

A close-up photograph of a section of dates on a calendar.

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a historian from Harvard University, helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). A little over a decade after the organization’s founding in 1926, the group sponsored Negro History Week, an event where communities across the country would come together to celebrate, host lectures, and conduct performances to commemorate the legacy of African Americans who had broken race barriers and made extraordinary achievements. A little more than thirty years later during the 1960’s, also the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. To this day, Black History month is a time to recognize the accomplishment of African Americans who helped make the United States what it is today. However, as with every topic regarding race in the United States, there is always controversy, confusion, and opposition. In terms of Black History Month, it is the controversy is between African Americans and their white counterparts. Why is Black History Month so crucial, and what differentiates it from cultural pride? Consequently, why shouldn’t we ask why there is no white history month?

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Computer Simulations and the Ethics of Predicting Human Behavior

A row of black supercomputer processors

In an episode of the British sketch comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look, a minister of finance is sitting across from two aides, who are expressing their frustration at how to deal with a recent recession. They have run a number of scenarios through a computer simulation: increasing or decreasing value-added tax, lowering or raising interest rates, or any combination thereof, fail to produce any positive result. The minister then suggests adding a new variable to the simulation: “Have you tried ‘kill all the poor’?” At his behest, the aides run the simulation, and show that it wouldn’t have any positive result, either. The minister is insistent that he merely wanted to see what the computer would say, as an intellectual exercise, and would not have followed its advice even if the results had been different.

Although this example is clearly fictitious, computer simulations that model human behavior have become a reality, and bring with them a number of ethical problems. For instance, a recent article published at The Atlantic reports results of the Modeling Religion Project, a project which addresses questions about “the most compelling features of religion” by “turning to an unconventional source: computer modeling and simulation.” According to the project, some of these models “examine processes of group formation, religious leadership, extremism and violence, terror management, ritual patterns, and much more.” One such model, called MERV, models “mutually escalating religious violence,” while another called NAHUM models “terror management theory.” For instance, one recent publication coming out of the project called “Can we predict religious extremism?” provides a tentative answer of “yes.”

These and other models have been used to test out various policies in an artificial environment. For example, the Modeling Religion in Norway project is currently modeling policy decisions concerning the immigration of refugees into Norway: “Governments and organizations seek policies that will encourage cohesion over conflict,” the project outline states, “but it’s hard to know what ideas will lead to harmony and tolerance, facilitating integration between local and immigrant communities. Problems like these need a road-map that can point us towards a better future, and tools for considering all of the possible outcomes.” One study suggested that, since Norwegians have a strong social safety net, religiosity is expected to continue to decrease in Norway, since one factor that predicts higher degrees of religiosity is a feeling of “existential anxiety” (to put it bluntly, the researchers suggest that the less worried one is about dying, the less religious one will tend to be).

While such models might be interesting as an intellectual exercise, there are a host of ethical concerns when it comes to relying on them to influence policy decision. First and foremost there is the concern about how plausible we should think such models will be. Human behavior is complex, and the number of variables that influence that behavior is immense, so it seems near impossible for such models to make perfectly accurate predictions. Of course, these models do not purport to be able to tell the future, and so they could still at least potentially be useful at predicting broad trends and changes, and in that regard may still be useful in guiding policy decisions.

Perhaps an even more significant problem, however, is when the example of comedic fiction becomes disturbing close to reality. As The Atlantic reports, Wesley Wildman, one of the directors of the Modeling Religion Project, reported having developed a model that suggested that the best course of action when dealing with extremist religious groups with charismatic leaders was to assassinate said leader. Wildman was, understandably, troubled by the result, stating that he felt “deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.” Wildman also stated that according to a different model, if one wanted to decrease secularization in a society that one could do so by “triggering some ecological disaster,” a thought that he reports “keeps me up at night.”

Some of the results produced by these models clearly prescribe immoral actions: there seem to be very few, if any, situations that would justify the triggering of an ecological disaster, and it seems that assassination, if it should ever be an option, should be a very last resort, not the first course of action one considers. Such simulations may model courses of action that are most efficient, but that is hardly to say that they are the ones that are most morally responsible. As Wildman himself noted, the results of these simulations are only potentially useful when one has taken into consideration all of the relevant ethical factors.

One might worry about whether these kinds of simulation should be performed at all. After all, if it turned out that the model predicted that an immoral course of action should result in a desired benefit, this information might be used to attempt to justify performing those actions. As The Atlantic reports:

[Wildman] added that other groups, like Cambridge Analytica, are doing this kind of computational work, too. And various bad actors will do it without transparency or public accountability. ‘It’s going to be done. So not doing it is not the answer.’ Instead, he and Wildman believe the answer is to do the work with transparency and simultaneously speak out about the ethical danger inherent in it.

If one is indeed worried about the ethical ramifications of such models, this kind of reasoning is unlikely to provide much comfort: even if it is a fact that “if I don’t do it, someone else will,” that does not absolve one of their moral responsibility (since they, in fact, did it!). It is also difficult to tell how being transparent and discussing the ethical danger of their simulation’s proposed course of action would do to mitigate the damage.

On the other hand, we might not think that there is anything necessarily wrong with merely running simulations: simulating ecological disasters is a far cry from the real thing, and we might think that there’s nothing inherently unethical in merely gathering information. Wildman certainly does seem right about one thing: regardless of whether we think that these kinds of models are useful, it is clear that they cannot be relied upon responsibly without any consideration of the moral ramifications of their results.

Human Dignity, Capital Punishment, and the Pope

Scrabble tiles spelling out the phrase "Death Penalty" on a gray background

Since his elevation to the papal seat in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly made international headlines with comments suggesting a desire to change Roman Catholic doctrine on matters ranging from marriage to contraception to the nature of the afterlife and more. The beginning of August saw Francis make more than a remark with the publication of a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church officially labeling the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases.

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Political Incivility, Justified?

Photograph of many people holding signs at a political rally

“Civility” has been in the news recently. Stories of allegedly uncivil behavior in politics have received much coverage. The most recent event to kick off so much consternation was the decision of the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia to refuse to service to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders because of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy and the President’s desire to ban transgender people from serving in the military. Even more recently, Maxine Waters, a Democratic congressperson, told rally attendees that protestors should take even more confrontational steps against Administration officials—confronting them as they go about their daily lives pumping gas, shopping, or eating in restaurants. The President himself has been accused many times of acting uncivilly towards others. One need only browse his past tweets to see comments using demeaning and insulting language to describe individuals he views as enemies of himself or his administration. Continue reading “Political Incivility, Justified?”

A Call to Vigilance in the Fight for Congressional Ethics

As Donald Trump prepares to assume the Presidency of the United States, many have speculated on whether the candidate will be constrained by the United States’ system of checks and balances. Some, such as Newsweek’s Stacy Hilliard, have assured concerned citizens that U.S. democratic institutions will function as designed, ultimately withstanding any single leader and keeping Trump in line. Writing just days after Trump’s victory, Hilliard argued that Congress would provide the strongest check on the President, noting that, “The legislative branch’s purpose is to be the voice of the people, and it historically does not like being dictated to from the White House.” Though Trump’s policies may be worrying, she argued, Congress would act to filter out the workable from the impractical, discriminatory and unconstitutional, constraining his presidency within the bounds of a long-stable governmental system.

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Jupiter’s New Companion

Late on July 4th, NASA tweeted that their space probe, Juno, successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit after five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. Juno is the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The probe broke multiple records during its journey, including fastest man-made object at 165,000 miles per hour, and farthest solar-powered spacecraft from Earth. Juno more than broke the 492-million-mile record held by the Rosetta mission.

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Social Media Vigils and Mass Shootings

In the wake of the largest mass shooting in the United States to date, Facebook and other social media sites have been flooded with posts honoring the victims in Orlando. Many such posts include the faces of the victims, rainbow banners and “share if you’re praying for Orlando” posts. Although there is nothing particularly harmful about sharing encouraging thoughts through social media, opinions are surfacing that it might do more harm than good.

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Campaigning on Literacy

This is the fourth in a series about American History and the Ethics of Memory. This post originally appeared on February 9, 2016.

It was a hotly contested presidential election, and the mudslinging was fierce. There were allegations of fiscal corruption, sexual impropriety, and—perhaps most damning of all—bad writing. 

The Democratic candidate, it was rumored, spelled Congress with a K. Couldn’t construct a complete sentence. Had to hire someone to write his letters for him. Was almost entirely illiterate.

The charges went viral. They even inspired snatches of satirical poetry in the newspapers:

Then a nice writing-man I have hired for my use,

To hide the bad spelin I skrawl

And them are as says how my grammar is bad,

Don’t know nothing of it all.

The man the poem was mocking, the one supposed to be guilty of these several crimes against the English language, now appears on the $20 bill. The John Quincy Adams campaign’s efforts to smear their upstart rival’s literacy did not stop Andrew Jackson from winning the White House.

Modern scholars have actually tried to figure out, “Could Andrew Jackson Spell?” The evidence is inconclusive, but the question doesn’t seem especially important for us now. What is relevant today is what the episode suggests about how we evaluate candidates—the role ideas about literacy play in political discourse, and to what effect. Left-leaning commentators’ gleefulness over Sarah Palin’s recent display of verbal clumsiness, in her speech endorsing Donald Trump, doesn’t look very different from the hilarity that ensued among Adams supporters when they heard about a 25-line letter by Jackson that included 23 misspellings.

Spelling Congress with a K doesn’t by itself seem like a disqualifier from the presidency. An effective chief executive must be able to do many things with Congress, but spelling is lower on the list than cooperating, negotiating, persuading, and maneuvering. The general idea behind the Adams campaign’s gambit was that by portraying Jackson, born in the backwoods of Tennessee, as illiterate, they could persuade voters he lacked the aptitude to manage the complexities of the national government—as the incumbent Adams, scion of one of the founding families of the republic, obviously could.

Arguably there was some truth to this. By all appearances, Jackson failed to comprehend the function and importance of the Bank of the U.S. when, with devastating economic results, he effectively destroyed it in the 1830s (one of the reasons many people would like to see an American woman replacing Jackson on the $20 bill, rather than Alexander Hamilton on the $10). But this may have been a coincidence. People who did grasp the ins and outs of central banking in the 1830s probably were highly literate, but the converse isn’t necessarily true. Plenty of people who knew the correct spelling of Congress still didn’t understand what the Bank of the U.S. was good for, just as many well-read and eloquent people in 2008 had no idea what a collateralized debt obligation was.

Besides, it didn’t work. Jackson beat Adams. The election of 1828 proved to be an early installment in the long American tradition of affection for politicians who are “regular guys” (or, in the lexicon of pollsters during the election of 2000, people you’d like to have a beer with). Not for the last time, a bookish and bespectacled candidate inspired more distrust among voters than a rough-edged, inarticulate one. Never mind that the supposedly effete Bostonian went on to serve nine terms in Congress and successfully defend the Amistad rebels, while the manly frontiersman earned a reputation for exterminating American Indians. Maybe the Adams camp would have done better for their candidate, and the country, by talking more about principles than orthography.

Which may be useful to remember in our own era. The whirlwind of attention paid to Sarah Palin’s recent speech has been dominated by derision of her odd phraseology and general incoherence—which is a perfectly legitimate (and certainly amusing) subject for Saturday Night Live (“She sounds like a greeting card from a Chinese dollar store!”). But even the venerable New York Times’s coverage devolved into a listicle called “The Most Mystifying Lines of Sarah Palin’s Endorsement Speech.”

The first question about that speech or any other politician’s shouldn’t be whether or not it’s a fluid sequence of grammatical sentences (as nice as that would be) but whether or not it’s bullshit—a word I use here in its technical sense to refer to indifference to truthfulness. Misused and made-up words are great fodder for social-media mockery (refudiate! squirmishes!), but they’re less outrageous than (to choose just one example from Palin’s speech) the claim that military veterans are not “treated better than illegal immigrants are treated in this country.” And they’re far less damaging than an attitude toward political discourse that doesn’t care whether that claim, or any other, can even be backed up. Sarah Palin may be inarticulate, but there is  more important work to be done than pointing that out.

Pleasure (and Happiness and Good Lives)

Philosophers known as hedonists, and probably some slightly more normal people as well, have held that pleasure is the only thing we desire in itself, that pleasure is the only thing good in itself, and that it is the only thing that makes a person’s life good. To evaluate these claims, we must distinguish three distinct types of pleasure: sensory, or the pleasure of a massage or caress; intentional, or taking pleasure in some object or activity, as when I take pleasure in a round of golf or in the new car that I own; and pure feeling, the warm glow we get when learning of some award or accomplishment. Philosophers these days often seek to reduce the first and third types to the second. Sensory pleasure is supposed to be simply a sensation we take pleasure in. But this will not do. We can have sensory pleasures that we take no pleasure in, if they are guilty or addictive pleasures. Then we have sensory pleasure but no intentional pleasure. And masochists take pleasure in sensory pains. Then they have intentional pleasure but sensory pains. Nor can the reduction go the other way, attempts at which used to be more common. We can take pleasure in various activities without having any particular sensations. The pure feeling type falls between the other two: it is a bodily feeling, but without specific location in the body, and it takes objects, as does the intentional kind.

Now we can ask whether any of these types fills the exalted bill of the hedonists. We sometimes do aim at sensory pleasures, as in sex, food, and music, and they are good. We might feel frustrated or impoverished without them. But unless we are Don Giovanni, Falstaff, or Mozart, they are not the cornerstones of a good life. Pure feeling pleasures or warm glows are far more rare and not aimed at directly. Intentional pleasures are more diverse and numerous. They are therefore the best candidates for sources of goodness in our lives and goals of our desires. Focusing on intentional pleasure therefore makes hedonism more plausible, while naive attacks on hedonism most often implicitly focus on sensory pleasures.

Nevertheless, even the more sophisticated versions that view intentional pleasure as our ultimate goal and/or source of value in my view does not survive close reflection. We take pleasure in many different kinds of objects and activities. But we do not aim directly at taking pleasure. Instead, we aim to engage in the activities and experience the objects, the pleasure being a byproduct of their successful pursuit. In fact we find activities most pleasurable when we are fully “in the flow,” therefore directly aware of the pleasure we take in them only in retrospect or future prospect. When we desire an object, we typically have pleasant thoughts about it, but we desire the object, not the pleasant thoughts or the pleasure we will take in fulfilling that desire. Thus, pleasure of the intentional type is not the typical aim or object of our desires.

So what’s all the fuss about pleasure, especially among philosophers? One explanation is the equation, or I would say confusion, of pleasure with happiness. But happiness is not of fundamental importance to a good life either. In my view happiness is a judgment, most often implicit, that one’s life is going well, sometimes producing a feeling of pleasure. What’s really important is that one’s life is going well, that one’s rational, by which I mean prioritized, coherent, and informed, desires are being satisfied. Desires are coherent when the satisfaction of one does not frustrate the satisfaction of more or deeper desires. They are informed when one knows what it would be like to satisfy them. The satisfaction of such desires is a measure of one’s welfare, of how good one’s life is overall or at a given time. Nonsensory pleasures are both effects and symptoms of a high degree of welfare. But they come from fulfilling desires for more important things. Fulfilling rational desires brings value to our lives, not the pleasure we take in doing so, although the pleasure is a sign or reflection of that value.

It has been my pleasure to produce this post. But the important thing is that I have produced it and that you have read it, whether or not you took pleasure in doing so (but I hope you did).

The Nuances of the Death Penalty

In the wake of a violent crime and loss of a family member, complicated decisions often must be made in an attempt to find a suitable resolution. In 2013, Darlene Farah’s 20 year-old daughter, Shelby, was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida by 24 year-old James Rhodes.  After security camera footage and Rhodes’s confession made the case clear-cut, Rhodes and his attorneys came up with a plea deal for him to get two consecutive life sentences plus 20 years in state prison with no trial or chance of his appeal. Despite Darlene Farah’s desire to accept the plea deal and allow her family to begin healing, the Florida State Attorney’s Office has decided instead to seek the death penalty for Rhodes.

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Is Envy Always Malicious? (Part One)

envy

This post originally appeared on November 18, 2014
Imagine you check your email and find a congratulatory message from your boss announcing that your colleague has just been promoted. This colleague joined the company at approximately the same time as you did, and works in your sector. You were in line for the same promotion and were anxiously waiting for the outcome. How do you feel?
It’s reasonable to suppose that you might feel a burning, intense, painful bout of an emotion hard to confess even to yourself: envy. It doesn’t matter that you like this person, that she works hard, that she is brilliant and competent, and that she fully deserves this honor. If anything, being fully aware of her merits is likely to make you feel worse. Even if you acknowledge that it is an objectively just outcome, you can’t help but ask “Why not me?!”
Let me assure you that you are in good company: envy can be found in all ages, with all genders, and in all strata of the society. According to anthropologists (Foster 1972, Lindholm 2008), it is panhuman phenomenon, whose disquieting traces can be found everywhere in human history and culture. The Bible, the sacred text for Jews and Christians, is filled with stories of envy, most notably Cain and Abel. The fall of Adam and Eve, Satan’s rebellion against God, and Christ’s crucifixion have all been interpreted as caused by envy (Acquaro 2004, Schimmel 2008). All main human religions condemn envy, and most peasant and tribal societies share the superstition of the evil eye, a destructive power emanating—usually involuntarily—from the look of an envious person. Many publicized crimes and intergroup conflicts have been attributed to envy (Schoeck 1969, Beck 1999). Young children are warned about the evils of envy when hearing the fables of Cinderella, Snow White, and many others. There are countless literary tales of envy and the misdeeds it provokes, but we do not need to look into fictions to see what envy looks like. As advertisers, economists, and psychoanalysts all know, envy populates our daily interactions. (Beck 2008, Vidaillet 2008, Zizzo 2008).
Notwithstanding its ubiquitousness, envy may be the only “deadly sin” that is still considered unforgivable and difficult to confess openly and straightforwardly. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld vividly put it: “We can often be vain of our passions, even the guiltiest ones; but envy is so sneaking and shameful that we never dare confess it.” (Maxims) Even though it may be not framed in moral terms for everybody, feeling and expressing envy is still stigmatized and seen as a social taboo. And yet, feeling and acting on envy is as widespread as ever, as the popularity of novels, self-help books, and editorials that deal with the topic shows. This is unsurprising: class inequality has not only not disappeared, but it has possibly increased in some affluent societies, like the United States. Furthermore, there will always be scarcity of some goods, such as honor and “coolness,” and hence competition for them, and envy for those who succeed in securing them.
Envy thus has an important positive signaling value: it reveals to us what we care about, what we feel we lack, and what we are prepared to do to get it. But is it otherwise always bad? In my work I argue that while envy undoubtedly shows a dark side of human nature—our tendency to covet the possessions and talents of our neighbors, cast an evil eye on them, and rejoice of their misfortune—it also presents a more luminous one: our tendency to work hard in order to reach and surpass those neighbors, and strive for excellence.
Furthermore, I don’t believe that envy necessarily involves hostility and aggression toward the envied. Social psychologists and philosophers are divided about whether a non-malicious emotion can be appropriately categorized as envy. I defend the view that what I call “emulative envy”, while being a kind of envy proper, is neither morally nor prudentially bad. In my next post I am going to describe what this emotion looks like. In the mean time, what do you think about this: is envy always malicious? Have you ever felt a “benign” kind of envy?

Citations
Aquaro, G. R.A. 2004, Death by envy: The evil eye and envy in the Christian tradition, Lincoln, NB: Universe.
Beck, A. 1999, Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence, New York: HarperCollins.
Belk, R. W. 2008, “Marketing and Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 211–226. Foster, G. M. 1972, “The anatomy of envy: A study in symbolic behavior,” Current Anthropology, 13: 165–202.
Lindholm, C. 2008, “Culture and Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 227–244.
Schimmel, S. 1997, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schimmel, S. 2008, “Envy in Jewish Though and Literature,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 16–38.
Schoeck, H. 1969, Envy: A theory of social behaviour, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Smith, R. H. (ed.) 2008, Envy: Theory and Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vidaillet, B. 2008, “Psychoanalytic Contributions to Understanding Envy: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 267–289.
Zizzo, D. J. 2008, “The Cognitive and Behavioral Economics of Envy,” in Smith, R. H. (ed.), 190–210.

What We’re Reading, June 26, 2015

Check out these links suggested by members of The Prindle Post staff:

18-year-old arts student creates ceramic-dispensing vending machine to question how much we value art

I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter

Shoes That Put Women in Their Place

Can Mission-Driven Food Companies Avoid Selling Out?

Columbia becomes the first US university to divest from private prison companies

What If Authors Were Paid Every Time Someone Turned a Page?

Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11

What have you been reading lately? Share a link with us in the comments!

From Outrage to Integration

This post originally appeared on July 20, 2015.

On my way to lunch the other day, about a week after the horrific shootings in Charleston, I found a noose suspended over an otherwise sunny sidewalk. I took it down and threw it away.

I spent the rest of the day distracted. I live outside of Austin, Texas—a liberal enclave if ever there were one. If I’d heard that this had happened elsewhere, I’d have been discouraged, though not surprised. But on one of the main streets in my town? A block from campus? On a breezy, beautiful summer afternoon?

Who would do such a thing?

I don’t know, of course. But if I had to guess, I’d say that it was someone who did it on a dare. Or someone who wanted to be shocking for being shocking’s sake. Or someone trying to get upvotes in some dark corner of reddit. Whoever it was, though, I doubt that I would be pleased to find out. It probably wasn’t the Platonic form of American racism: the Angry Southerner, complete with cut-off t-shirt and muddy boots. Given the demographics here, it was probably someone much like me: white, male, from a middle-class background, raised in a fairly segregated environment, and perfectly polite and pleasant—even to people of color—in various professional circumstances.

And yet this person hung a length of rope from a tree, in a town where you can still visit the slave’s section of the cemetery. How should we—how should I—respond to this act?

I’d like outrage to be sufficient. I’d like it to be enough that I denounce the perpetrator, that I share my anger with my friends, that we complain together about those people.

But it’s not enough. Outrage pushes racism underground; it doesn’t end it. More importantly, outrage doesn’t counteract the effects of racism. When, in the future, my sons encounter reminders that lynchings still happen, they won’t worry about their safety. They’ll never be concerned that someone is angry about their presence in a particular place, or that someone is so upset about “how things are changing” that he wants to place a symbol of death near city center. My sons will—I hope—mourn that this is how things are. Still, they won’t be mourning that this is how things are for them. If that isn’t an advantage, I don’t know what is.

In The Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson argues that racial segregation leads to three forms of racial injustice: it limits economic opportunity (good jobs tend to be in “white” areas), it enables racial stigmatization (it’s easy to form negative stereotypes about people of color when you rarely encounter them), and it undermines democracy (insofar as lawmakers can ignore the interests of a segment of society). Accordingly, she argues that integration must occur: first, formal integration, which involves repealing laws that lead to inequality; second, spatial integration, ending the de facto segregation of playgrounds and post offices; finally, social integration, where the institutions in which we learn and work are reconfigured to better serve the needs of a diverse populace.

We won’t hear many objections to formal integration. Spatial and social integration, on the other hand, can feel like radical proposals. But if justice is the first virtue of social institutions, then radical solutions are sometimes required. What should we do in a society where some children are—and others aren’t—disadvantaged by accidents of birth? We should actively support policies—at all levels—that reorganize society to counteract the effects of racism, whether that racism is explicit or implicit, conscious or structural, blatant or barely visible.

Frankly, the thought is overwhelming. It’s to our shame, however, that black children enter a world where nooses still hang from branches. It’s time to give direction to our outrage.

Let’s Talk About…50 Shades of Grey (Part I)

50 Shades has swept audiences off their feet, selling 100 million copies worldwide, and making $237.7 million in its global opening in theaters. In many ways, this success could have been predicted by its eerie similarity to other phenomenally profitable franchises (ahem…Twilight), but in other ways, what 50 Shades presents is entirely new. The series follows the love story of an unassuming bookworm girl and an older millionaire businessman—nothing new there. But the catch? He’s into BDSM: he likes violent sex.

At a cultural moment where sex is a hot-button issue, the timing of the movie release couldn’t be more perfect (read: lucrative). But as Emma Green pointed out in her article for the Atlantic, on film, “the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers.” With the book, interested folks could discretely download the books on their e-readers and choose if they wanted to share their guilty fascinations. With the movie, it’s public.

So now that everyone knows you’re curious, let’s talk about some of the major debates surrounding the movie and the issues it brings to light.

One of the biggest arguments is the sheer volume of sex. With a full twenty-five minutes of pure sex scenes, one has to wonder what the motives are. Is it simply an empty shortcut to boost ticket sales? Or is the motive to open up the viewer to a more liberal approach to nudity and sex? One thing is clear: sex sells. But is there something inherently wrong with steamy sales tactics? Or, more specifically, is there something inherently wrong with using fetishized sex to sell?

This leads us to another point—one that was discussed in the Atlantic article: the movie’s representation of a particular community. The fact is that there really are people who are into BDSM. Some of these people have come forth, claiming that the movie misappropriates, among other things, the level of emotion and consent that’s actually involved. The movie didn’t show the couple talking, going on dates, falling in love… the focus is on the sex. And the moments not in the bedroom are uncomfortable: he sells her possessions, and pops up unannounced, and somehow maintains an constant aura of creepiness…uh, no thanks. As Green put it, “the most troubling thing about the sex… isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication.”

Now, it could be that the film is riding the wave of sexual liberalism, giving the public insight into a taboo community and ultimately promoting openness. And some feminists will give it this. In her HuffPost article, feminist writer Soraya Chemalay says that, “this not secret, not silent, non-judgmental openness is a feminist success”.

Many have also brought up the issue of class. Yes, this type of rare sexual preference is glamorous in a marble-floored penthouse between two good-looking people. Basically, would it have been as appealing without the helicopter?

This conversation goes on and on, back and forth and then back again. If you’re interested in reading more about the discussions surrounding the movie, as well as my personal take, head over to the PrindlePost.org. Personally, I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I said it was just because everyone else was, but the truth is that I was genuinely curious…which I was 50 shades of embarrassed to admit.

Trouble in paradise? Hawaii’s homeless population faces problematic legislation

The politics surrounding treatment of homeless populations has long been an area of ethically problematic legislation. The latest conflict in this trend can be seen in Hawaii, where officials are considering legislation that will move the homeless away from tourist areas. The proposals will also criminalize “sitting, lying down, defecating and urinating on sidewalks in Waikiki and other public places.”

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