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Year in Review

blurred photograph of fireworks in night sky

What’s your favorite read from 2021?
Daniel Burkett: “Background Checks for Alcohol” by Tim Hsiao

One of the most important aims of moral philosophy is ensuring we have consistency across our ethical beliefs, and there’s nothing more exciting (or infuriating) than discovering that we may, in fact, hold two grossly inconsistent positions. This piece did precisely that for me, and – I assume – will for many others.

Richard Gibson: The Moral Dimension of Literary Translation” by Beatrice Harvey

I suspect like most monolinguists, the intricacies of literary translation never really occurred to me. Harvey’s piece does a superb job of introducing the reader to the processes’ intractable ethical issues, while at the same time drawing in themes of imperialism and colonialism; topics which don’t get enough coverage given their pervasive impact on practically every aspect of society.

Giles Howdle:Should Speech Have Consequences?” by Benjamin Rossi

What I particularly enjoyed about this piece was how it manages to elegantly transcend the typical slogan-hurling “free speech debate.” The article’s consequentialist approach to the topic weighs up an abundance of interesting and relevant considerations, many of which I hadn’t consciously considered before, while retaining a great sense of coherence and clarity.

Benjamin Rossi:Praise and Resentment: The Moral of ‘Bad Art Friend’” by Megan Fritts

I loved the story upon which this column was based, and I thought Megan did a wonderful job drawing out some of the ethical quandaries the story raises.

Jake Wojtowicz:Background Checks for Alcohol” by Tim Hsiao

I found Tim’s piece fascinating. He argued that alcohol is more dangerous than guns, so if we want to put checks in place for buying guns we’d better also put background checks in place for buying alcohol (or there shouldn’t be checks for either). It was a provocative and interesting piece arguing for a wild conclusion that really got me thinking.

Rachel Robison-Greene:Parents’ Rights and Public Education” by Tucker Sechrest

The article does an excellent job at identifying the various values at stake: autonomy, paternalism, rights, knowledge, and the public good. It makes a compelling case for the view that education isn’t and can’t be just a transmission of the personal values of each individual parent. The primary obligation of our public school system is to care for and create reasonable citizens and responsible, autonomous adults who are armed with the necessary information to operate in a world in which a significant body of knowledge is increasingly necessary. Some of this material will be social and historical. We can’t stop teaching about race or ban books on the topic simply because parents don’t want their children to know about it. This piece is important and timely.

A.G. Holdier:Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?” by Megan Fritts

This analysis of NFTs as aesthetic objects goes beyond a treatment of a fleeting cultural hiccough to explore an important point about artistic experience itself: namely, the value of (something like) reality that we often take for granted in our discussions about art. While it remains to be seen whether or not “non-fungible tokens” will develop beyond a pandemic-era quirk, their present cachet deserves the kind of philosophical reflection that Megan aptly demonstrates here.

Megan Fritts:On Journalistic Malpractice” by A.G. Holdier
Marshall Bierson: Losing Ourselves in Others” by Rachel Robison-Greene

This piece does a wonderful job of articulating the ways in which our psychological need to defend our identity, can get in the way of clear moral understanding. I think it both helps us empathize with those who we think are blind to important moral realities and encourages our own humility as we recognize that our own moral thinking might well be blinkered by in-group bias.

Year in Review

photograph of light trail from sparkler firework

What’s your favorite piece from the past year that our readers might enjoy and may have missed?
Benjamin Rossi:Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and Compassion” by Rachel Robison-Greene
“Rachel’s contribution to our first ‘Under Discussion’ series presents a compelling and sensitive case against cancel culture, drawing on lessons from both history and philosophy.”
 
Beatrice Harvey:Yes Elon, There Is Space Law” by Evan Butts
“Butts reminds us that our cultural fantasy of space exploration comes with imperialist baggage. His critique of SpaceX is salient and well-argued, and he draws attention to problems that future generations will have to grapple with as technology advances.”
 
Kiara Goodwine:The ‘Wall of Moms’ and Manipulating Implicit Bias” by Meredith McFadden
“I enjoyed this piece because it thoroughly examined how allies, and their activist strategies, can themselves perpetuate biases about the very groups they seek to serve. It also drew strong parallels between the implicit biases held by both the aggressors and the ally ‘protectors’ during the 2020 racial justice protests.”
 
Marshall Thompson:Should Republicans and Democrats Be Friends?” by Benjamin Rossi
“This piece does a wonderful job laying out the real world complications created by profound political disagreement. There is often not much we can do to address polarization ourselves, but that does not mean polarization does not change how we live. This piece does a great job looking at one of those potential implications: what sort of friendship should we have with those with whom we have vehement political disagreements?”
 
Rachel Robison-Greene:Wildfires and Prison Labor: Crisis Continues to Expose Systemic Inequity” by Meredith McFadden
“Meredith’s discussion in this article highlights the ways in which various forms of injustice are interconnected. Exploitation is a common theme when it comes to human interaction with the natural world, our criminal justice system, and our health care system. We should be looking for ways of solving the world’s most pressing problems that don’t involve treating either people or the natural environment as things to be used.”
 
A.G. Holdier:Time for a Paradigm Shift: COVID-19 and Human Consumption” by Rachel Robison-Greene
“This article captures two of the most important philosophical points about the saga of COVID-19 in 2020: the moral consequences of our present epistemological crisis and the anthropocentric foundation of the pandemic as a whole. Regarding the former, Robison-Greene discusses how conspiracy theories and distrust of experts were significant problems from even the earliest days of the outbreak in a way that underlines our social obligation to encourage the development of healthy epistemic social environments (instead of just treating “critical thinking” as a skill for individuals to develop on their own). Regarding the second, Robison-Greene demonstrates how the coronavirus grew and spread as a consequence of multiple commonplace (global) social practices that could easily have additional dangerous consequences if not addressed. Altogether, the article is a great example of how philosophers can (and should!) engage with contemporary issues, offering both depth and breadth to informed considerations of our world.”

Year in Review

blurry photograph of fireworks at night

What’s your favorite read from 2021?

Daniel Burkett: “Background Checks for Alcohol” by Tim Hsiao

One of the most important aims of moral philosophy is ensuring we have consistency across our ethical beliefs, and there’s nothing more exciting (or infuriating) than discovering that we may, in fact, hold two grossly inconsistent positions. This piece did precisely that for me, and – I assume – will for many others.

Richard Gibson: The Moral Dimension of Literary Translation” by Beatrice Harvey

I suspect like most monolinguists, the intricacies of literary translation never really occurred to me. Harvey’s piece does a superb job of introducing the reader to the processes’ intractable ethical issues, while at the same time drawing in themes of imperialism and colonialism; topics which don’t get enough coverage given their pervasive impact on practically every aspect of society.

Giles Howdle:Should Speech Have Consequences?” by Benjamin Rossi

What I particularly enjoyed about this piece was how it manages to elegantly transcend the typical slogan-hurling “free speech debate.” The article’s consequentialist approach to the topic weighs up an abundance of interesting and relevant considerations, many of which I hadn’t consciously considered before, while retaining a great sense of coherence and clarity.

Benjamin Rossi:Praise and Resentment: The Moral of ‘Bad Art Friend’” by Megan Fritts

I loved the story upon which this column was based, and I thought Megan did a wonderful job drawing out some of the ethical quandaries the story raises.

Jake Wojtowicz:Background Checks for Alcohol” by Tim Hsiao

I found Tim’s piece fascinating. He argued that alcohol is more dangerous than guns, so if we want to put checks in place for buying guns we’d better also put background checks in place for buying alcohol (or there shouldn’t be checks for either). It was a provocative and interesting piece arguing for a wild conclusion that really got me thinking.

Rachel Robison-Greene:Parents’ Rights and Public Education” by Tucker Sechrest

The article does an excellent job at identifying the various values at stake: autonomy, paternalism, rights, knowledge, and the public good. It makes a compelling case for the view that education isn’t and can’t be just a transmission of the personal values of each individual parent. The primary obligation of our public school system is to care for and create reasonable citizens and responsible, autonomous adults who are armed with the necessary information to operate in a world in which a significant body of knowledge is increasingly necessary. Some of this material will be social and historical. We can’t stop teaching about race or ban books on the topic simply because parents don’t want their children to know about it. This piece is important and timely.

A.G. Holdier:Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?” by Megan Fritts

This analysis of NFTs as aesthetic objects goes beyond a treatment of a fleeting cultural hiccough to explore an important point about artistic experience itself: namely, the value of (something like) reality that we often take for granted in our discussions about art. While it remains to be seen whether or not “non-fungible tokens” will develop beyond a pandemic-era quirk, their present cachet deserves the kind of philosophical reflection that Megan aptly demonstrates here.

Megan Fritts:On Journalistic Malpractice” by A.G. Holdier

Marshall Bierson: Losing Ourselves in Others” by Rachel Robison-Greene

This piece does a wonderful job of articulating the ways in which our psychological need to defend our identity, can get in the way of clear moral understanding. I think it both helps us empathize with those who we think are blind to important moral realities and encourages our own humility as we recognize that our own moral thinking might well be blinkered by in-group bias.

New Year’s Resolutions and The Problem of Self-Promising

Photograph of an open notebook with a pen on it; written on the notebook is "New Years Resolutions"

For many people, early January provides an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year with an aim to set goals for improving one’s character going forward. Though difficult to trace, the practice of setting ‘New Year’s resolutions’ may have its roots in ancient religious celebrations thanking various gods for their favor and promising continued faithfulness throughout the coming year. Of the many who christen a new calendar with some hopeful ambition, it is estimated that fewer than 10% actually succeed in setting new habits or breaking old ones. I take it for granted that most readers will, in general, agree that promises should be kept – what, then should we think about breaking resolutions? As we look forward to 2019, should we be worried that we might be setting ourselves up for additional moral failures if we similarly neglect the gym, the savings plan, the sleep schedule, or the nicotine patch? In short, is it wrong to break a promise to yourself?

Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher (and eponymic inspiration for a certain cartoon stuffed tiger), certainly thought not; in Book II, Chapter 26 of his magisterial 1651 work Leviathan, Hobbes writes, “Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himselfe [sic]; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely [sic], is not bound.” Because any promise requires both a promise-maker and a promise-receiver – where, in virtue of the promise, the former is bound to act in a particular way with respect to the latter – a case of self-promising is, at best, odd. A promise-receiver is always able to release a promise-maker from their obligation to fulfill the promise, so if the receiver and the maker are one and the same, then promising something to yourself — as in the case of a New Year’s resolution — could never actually be binding. If you (as the maker) no longer wish to fulfill the promise, then you (as the receiver) can automatically release yourself from the obligation.

Consider a promise that Calvin has made to Susie about repaying a debt of two dollars; as the promise-maker, Calvin can only be released from his commitment if Susie, the promise-receiver, chooses to free him. Such is, Hobbes thinks, the function of a promise: it guarantees future action even if the agent desires to do otherwise. If Calvin fails to return the two dollars, then he has committed a moral violation — that is to say, he has done something wrong. But what if Calvin has only made a promise to himself? Say, for example, that Calvin has made a New Year’s resolution to eat a healthy breakfast every day, but finds himself tempted to instead eat a bowl of chocolate cereal sometime during the first week of January. As the promise-receiver, Calvin could simply release himself (as the promise-maker) from the obligation to eat a healthy breakfast and continue on without a moral care. Consequently, the lack of their binding obligation led Hobbes to think that self-promises were simply impossible.

However, several contemporary philosophers aren’t so sure: Derek Parfit has argued that a past version of yourself and a future version of yourself are not exactly the same thing as the present version of yourself, so it is not quite right to say that you are simultaneously promise-maker and promise-receiver — to break a resolution, on this view, is to break a promise made to a historical version of yourself. Connie Rosati contends that self-promises serve as a validation of our sense of personal authority, so to break a resolution is to undermine that which gives us confidence in our general ability to make decisions and exercise our autonomy. Rather than see self-promises as impossible, these views present them as gauges of our sense of self over time.

Most interestingly, in arguing against Hobbes, Allen Habib thinks that the power to release yourself from a reflexive promise actually serves as evidence for the normative power behind promises in general, saying “the possibility of promisee release adds flexibility and power to the practice of promising, and this in turn makes the sorts of arrangements that can be made with promises more subtle and useful.” That is to say: Habib rejects Hobbes’ implicit idea that obligations are only truly obligatory if they are unavoidably binding. What happens if a promise somehow becomes impossible to fulfill (Habib uses the example of a casino burning down on Tuesday after I promise to drive you there on Wednesday)? In such a case, whether the promise-receiver intentionally releases the promise-maker or not, the promise itself has become “orphaned” and, thereby, is no longer binding.

In general, Habib argues that it is actually beneficial to maintain this more flexible view about the contextual features of promises writ large, including in the case of self-promises. So, concerning Calvin’s resolution about healthy breakfasts, his obligation to honor his self-promise might be justifiably jettisoned if the context he finds himself in changes sufficiently (say, if he finds himself trapped inside a chocolate cereal factory with nothing else to eat), but might not justifiably change simply on a whim (at least not without Calvin being guilty of shirking the obligation just as much as he would be guilty towards any other promise-receiver).

So, as we look ahead to 2019, if you are the sort of person who is inclined to commit to a project of self-betterment, then know that you have some philosophical heads supporting you in your quest. And if your resolution involves looking for a few new philosophers to read, then any of the names mentioned in this article would be a good place to start.