Silicon Valley, CA | Member Since 2013
Appiah, Ghanian-born philosopher at Princeton, has written a dense but insightful book on the connections between moral philosophy and the moral sciences. He examines key notions underlying Western moral theories – character, intuition, and moral modules – and complicated them with findings from the current moral sciences. The term “moral sciences” reflects an old usage, a remnant of a time when disciplines studying human behavior were studied in philosophy departments. Appiah wants to bring back that unity.
Character, the underlying concept of virtue ethics, is the idea that certain habits or tendencies can be cultivated to make for a good moral life. For Aristotle, happiness requires virtue, so living virtuously is a component of one’s own flourishing. Appiah complicates this concept by pointing to current research on the situational changes in human behavior. Things as petty as finding a dime or being in a hurry affect whether or not one will be generous to others. This situationalism contrasts with the globalism of Aristotle’s approach, in which character is stable in all situations. It’s not comforting to think how many faces we present to the world.
Intuition, that other great bulwark of moral philosophy, is also up for grabs. Every moral theory, no matter how logic, involves a certain amount of “it just seems this way!” Hence the intractability of philosophy. But ‘experimental philosophy’ surveys examining laypeoples’ moral intuitions show that layfolk are just as divided on their intuitions as philosophers are, and philosophical debates reflect differences in moral intuition in the broader population. For example, take the famous trolley problem where an out-of-control trolley is heading toward a group of four people. If you flip the switch, it will go on another track and kill only one person. Most people agree flipping the switch is okay. But if you can only stop the trolley by pushing a fat man onto the tracks, killing him but stopping the trolley, people are more divided on their intuitions. The underlying intuition is that “directly” harming someone is wrong, but indirectly doing it is kosher. But the outcome is the same. Is this intuition something we should heed, or is it a moral illusion, akin to a visual illusion? How could we know?
The same goes for the alleged moral modules. Far from being cross-cultural, Appiah demonstrates that cultures vary widely in how concepts like purity and cleanliness, honor and shame approached. Cultures with strong purity codes, such as ancient Israel, see things such as menstruation and homosexual acts as unclean. Modern American society is more likely to see this concern with purity as silliness, as “impurity” does not actually harm anyone. (Young boys consider cooties unclean, but there is no real harm in touching a girl.) How do we deal with the empirical diversity of moral behavior and intuition?
Appiah ends with a call for moral sciences that encapsulate the complexity of human life, neither reducing moral philosophy to a series of algorithms (utilitarianism) nor a series of moral conundrums (intuition pumps).
I agree with much of what Appiah says. However, at heart I am still a virtue ethicist. Studies showing the variability of character only point to a problem for virtue ethics, not a defeater. Spiritual practices such as Buddhist mindfulness and Ignatian self-reflection serve to unify the self and make us aware of little ways, unseen ways, in which we act. Appiah didn’t address this, but I suspect empirical findings would show that people who engage in systematic practices of self-reflection are less fickle in their behaviors.
The narration was good too.
I have been curious about the Great Courses for a few years now, but they have always been too expensive! Now that they are in the Audible store, however, I was willing to try one. This course, co-taught by two medievalists, was amazing. I did a directed reading last quarter on the life and hagiographies of St. Francis, but I still learned so much from Cook and Herzman.
One strong point of this course was the contextualization of Francis. They show what the moral and social issues of Francis’ day were and how Francis responded to them. In a developing market economy where money was being used more, Francis stressed absolute poverty. In an age where universities were beginning in Europe and theology went out of the prayerful world of cloisters and into the rational world of the classroom, Francis was an uneducated preacher with a simple message, a man who taught by dramatic gesture and stressed deed over act. He may look like a foolishly happy simpleton, but Francis was a man who saw the problems of his age and made himself the antidote.
Cook and Herzman’s discussion of the “Canticle of Creatures” was amazing. They show how he draws on the Psalms, on Genesis’ creation stories, and even on classical natural philosophy. They argue that this poem is not just an example of Christian nature mysticism, but the first piece of Italian literature.
Last, I thought they did a great job showing how Francis’ message was disseminated in the Church and in his orders. Their re-enactment of the dialogue between Francis and Innocent II approving the order really showed how radical his path was. They also guide the reader through the complicated thicket of post-Francis controversy between the spirituals and the progressives, between those who wanted the letter of Francis’ example and those who desired its spirit. Both sides exist to this day. They also spend a lecture on St. Clare, emphasizing that she was not just a passive vehicle for Francis’ teaching but a great mystic and teacher in her own right.
That said, I wish Cook and Herzman had discussed the hagiographic tradition. Though they discussed Thomas of Celano and Bonaventure, they didn’t talk about less official writings like the Legend of Perugia, or later ones like the Little Flowers. Though they talked about the Canticle, the two Rules, and the Testament, they didn’t talk about the various exhortations and letters he wrote. Giving a roadmap to the different types of literature and hagiography in the Franciscan canon would have been a good way to get people into Regis Armstrong’s scholarly edition of the early documents by and about Francis.
One of the perks of studying history is looking at the past to imagine who we can be in the future. This book is great proof of that utility of history. O’Toole, a historian at Boston College, chronicles the changes in Catholic America from the days of the first colonials to today’s post-Vatican II era. He marks its history in six stages:
1. The Priestless Church: 1-2% of Americans Catholic, few priests, lay organization and reliance on private and family devotionals with visiting priests 1-3 times a year
2. The Church in the Democratic Republic: growth and stamping-out of ‘trusteeism’, a movement of lay power, more priests led to ‘churchifying’ process of vestries, choirs, weekly mass, diocesan conventions, more passivity of laity, beginnings of montanism and cult of the Pope
3. The Immigrant Church: explosion of European Catholics led to 18% of America being Catholic by 1900, immigrant churches both keeping ethnic traditions alive and dividing parishes on ethnic grounds, populist private devotions alongside passive and bored liturgy, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements led to more patriotism
4. The Church of Catholic Action: Catholic Worker movement, St. Vincent de Paul Society, work for social justice, labor living standards in 1910s and 1920s, but later move to affluence and suburbs in settled 1950s. Beginnings of ecumenism and popular media figures such as Fulton Sheen.
5. The Church of Vatican II: Shocking changes, increased lay participation in many areas, leading to polarized church: conservatives such as “JP II priests,” Humanae Vitae opposers, versus liberals calling for more change, womens’ ordination.
6. The Church of the 21st Century: Loss of white Catholics, growth of Hispanic Catholics, sex abuse scandals, and …?
What can we learn from this?
First, there seems to be a constant tension between Catholics as an ethnic culture and Catholics as more inclusively or theologically defined. The ethnic identity of the immigrant church brought together tightly-knit communities, but led to division, with parishes catering to Italians, to Poles, to Anglos, and to slaves. (As a friend who converted to Greek Orthodoxy complained, sometimes they are more interested in being Greek than Orthodox.) And as those immigrants’ children and grandchildren lost their ties to the Old World and blended into that bland thing we call “white,” they lost their Catholic identity too. One of Vatican II’s aims was to remove the “ghettoizing” of Catholicism and bring it in dialogue with the modern world. But then we have to find new ways to identify ourselves, not just outside narrow ideas of ethnic divisions but also opening ourselves to ecumenism, interfaith, and other broadening movements.
A second contimuum of American Catholic life has been a tension between lay and clerical power. On the one hand, clerical power has been used to ignore the realities of the laity (e.g. birth control) and hide real problems (e.g. transferring sex offenders from parish to parish). But too much lay power diminishes the priest’s ability to be a prophetic role model for his flock. When Catholic priests pushed for racial integration and equality in the 1960s, their parishioners, empowered by ‘Vatican II theology,’ ignored and sometimes yelled at them. This is a tension hardly solveable by a single papal encyclical or bishops’ decree. But having a historical lens for it will help us see it when it pops up next.
Lastly, many of the so-called post-conciliar “changes” are nothing new. They’re just revivals of old trends. Current lay outspokenness has precedent in the nineteenth century. Priest shortages were a problem in the eighteenth century. Concern for social justice dates back a century ago. History rhymes.
O’Toole’s book had to gloss over a lot of fascinating things, particularly regional and ethnic diversity. He barely covered Hispanic or African-American Catholicism. But for what it does cover, I enjoyed this audiobook.
P.S. As other reviewers noted, this narrator needs help pronouncing some Catholic terms. Convent sounded like coven and piety was pronounced "pee-eh-tee." It's not like O'Toole dropped bombs like "homoousios."
It’s hard to give anything but a five star rating to Nouwen. Sometimes I suspect the man had God ghost write his books. This one, a short introduction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Abbas and Ammas, meditates on silence and contemplation. Ministers, he writes, tend to be doers, caught up in parish committees and ministries of caring. (I found his constant reference to ministers puzzling. Is this written for clerics? But then again, all Christians are called to be ministers.) We forget the need for silence, alone time with God. The Desert Fathers spent years in silence with God. But that did not make them alone or apart from the world. It made them more open and compassionate with those who came to visit them. Silence and contemplation, while they are fostered by spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, are less a state of mind to engage in at times and more a state of being to live at all times. Nouwen is always an inspiration.
It is well-known that Christianity has a just war theory, most famously articulated by Augustine. But fewer people know that shariah, the Islamic tradition of jurisprudence and ethical norms, also has a just war theory embedded in it. Kelsay, a scholar of Islam at Florida State University, has written a book about this just war theory, detailing its sources, history, and current interpretations.
We often hear the phrase “Sariah law” in news reports. Kelsay rightly terms this “shariah reasoning” to convey its fluidity. Shariah draws from, firstly, the Qur’an, Allah’s revelation. But it also draws on stories about the prophet Muhammad and how he behaved as a political and military leaders. As the centuries wore on, scholars of shariah reasoning, the ulama, drew on kalam (logic, or philosophy) and changing historical circumstances such as the Crusades and more recent colonialism. Shariah reasoning norms about just war were formulated at a time of Islamic power, when Muslim empires such as the Ottoman were in full force.
Some of these moral norms seem obvious. For example, it is prohibited to directly and intentionally harm non-combatants. If you are laying siege to a city and have to burn it to the ground, killing women and children, then that is not direct harm. But if you have taken the city and women, children, and elderly are surviving, one cannot execute them for fun as so many victors did (e.g. Israel in Canaan). The category of “non-combatants” is fluid; traditionally women did not fight, but they do in the modern Israeli army. There were also norms against killing Muslims. When conquering a city, for example, a siege could be ended if the city converted to the faith. If a fellow Muslim city was attacked, it was often considered the duty of other Muslims to come to their aid. This made Islamic a unifying factor in the Middle East, bringing together many groups who were separate tribes with separate gods at Muhammad’s birth. In general, shariah reasoning was very conservative, relying far more on historical precedent than historical present. Shariah reasoning was the expertise of a small group of authoritative scholars, the ulama, and their interpretations reigned supreme.
But times have changed. Norms formulated at the height of empire are now supposed to apply to Islamic disempowerment and colonialism. With the loss of Islamic empires came the loss of the ulama, and with rising literacy came the ability of many Muslims to render their own verdicts. When Muslims are now living all over the world, in some countries where the government could care less about Islamic law, how are they to interpret their tradition?
One group, Islamic militants, seeks to bring back the glory days of Islamic empires. People like bin Laden argue that shariah reasoning permits holy wars. The ends justify the means. Critics point out that attacks such as 9/11 violated norms about killing non-combatants, but bin Laden points out that all Americans are guilty of shedding the blood of innocent Muslims by voting in politicians who support exploitative policies in the Middle East. They evoke principles of reciprocity: they have killed us, so we have the right to kill them. An eye for an eye. Worse, they refuse to tolerate Muslims who seek compromise and peace with the West. Their historical precedent for today might be the Crusades.
The other group are Muslims, often in American and Europle, who look not back to ‘glory days,’ but forward to a global world. Scholars such as Indian-American Abdulaziz Sachedina argue that Islam can provide the basis for democratic pluralism. They argue that it is the only way to move forward to create a peaceful and just society. They point to Muhammad’s practice of “protected peoples” in which Christians and Jews were kept exempt from persecution as long as they paid a special tax. They also point to the very beginnings of Muhammad’s movement, when Islam was a peaceful minority group. Militants and fundamentalists dissent, crying out that this relativizes Islam and makes it one voice among many, when in fact it is the one true voice. They also point out that democracy has hardly worked. One of the best parts of this book was the end section where Kelsay reads from Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush slamming him for ignoring both Christian just war theory and democratic principles. A dramatic about-face.
Given that I am taking classes on Islam and the Crusades this fall, this book was a great way to prepare for my courses. Still, I am unsold on the idea of “just war.” Just war theories still have to be practical, so some amount of “collateral damage” must be permitted. At the end of the day, just war theories that impact a conquered group are made with no input from that group. And in the heat of battle, with testosterone flowing and blood pumping, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that these norms will be followed. Still, that is not a criticism of Kelsay. I only wish he had explored how much these norms were followed throughout Islamic history and how they compare with Christian theories of just war. In some ways Muslims have political theology easier, since their founder was a political leader. Christians took centuries to go from persecution to power, whereas Muslims did it in one generation. I am recommending this book to a Muslim friend interested in interfaith issues and pluralism.
P.S. As for the narration: the narrator was good, but the book was so dense I had to switch from 1.25x to 1x speed. And of course, you miss all the footnotes and references in the audio version.
I liked the narrator of this book.
This was an Audible impulse buy, but I'm glad I got it. DuBois, an African-American university professor in the early 1900s, wrote this book as a response to Booker T. Washington's plan for the post-slavery black community, and as a documentation of the kind of demoralization, fragmentation, and hopelessness of black America post-Civil War.
Washington's approach was pragmatic. African-Americans should stop lobbying for political rights. (Perhaps he felt it would incite too much backlash?) They should not dream of going to college, but of attending technical schools and going into the trades. Black America will succeed by putting their heads down and working hard for economic prosperity, with healthy doses of thrift and sacrifice.
DuBois' response was that a culture needs more than bread to live on. African-Americans needed to gain the ability to think about the world they live in, to articulate their experience and what they have to offer to our country. This could only come about through liberal education, not trade school alone. DuBois points out that the teachers at Washington's trade schools were not trained at trade schools, but at black colleges. These colleges also produced needed moral, spiritual, and intellectual leaders of the black community: professors, preachers, doctors, and other professionals.
Besides, Du Bois points out, Washington's ethic of "buckle down, work hard" doesn't even work. Du Bois documents the very real economic plight of the supposedly freed men and women. Though they are legally free, they are trapped in a cycle of indebted tenant farming. The few who, through ingenuity and the luck of a few good harvests, save up the money to buy their own land, are often cheated by whites who take their money and run. This and other structural inequalities, such as poor education funding and unstable families due to the heritage of slavery, expose Washington's philosophy for the canard it is - so says Du Bois. This book has made me curious to read Washington and hear his side of the story.
Formerly, said Du Bois, the 'best' blacks (the house slaves) and the 'best' whites were intimate, living together and having bonds of quasi-family ties; now they are segregated. How then can we understand one another? What's so sad is that most of this book can still apply today. In some ways, not much has changed for African-Americans living with the legacy of slavery and subsequent political and economic disenfranchisement. As a historical work, Du Bois' book is important to read 113 years later; his bristling literary style, full of high-brow literary allusions, only adds pleasure.
The popularity of John Dewey, American pragmatist philosopher and education reformer, has largely waned. But during his 90+ years of life, he was one of the most famous public intellectuals alive, teaching at Columbia University. But now he is mostly cited in education circles, perhaps more than he is read, and apart from the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, is largely ignored by the academic philosophy establishment. You won’t find his books at Barnes and Noble very often.
I first encountered Dewey after William James, that other famous American pragmatist. Dewey’s book The Quest for Certainty, his review of the history of philosophy, was not the most lively book but it made good points. Pragmatism, the only truly Yankee school of philosophy, stresses the import of thought for action, the practical consequences of philosophical concepts. Rather than the abstract debates over a priori knowledge of metaphysical entities that characterizes Western philosophy, pragmatists called for philosophy to be more like science: more oriented on process, on action. Dewey, who began his career as a Hegelian, extended Peirce’s and James’ thought further. For Dewey, there is no such thing as certainty about entities that exist prior to all experience. Concepts arise from experience and are meaningless unless they bear fruit for experience. This radically recasts or destroys traditional philosophical debates such as free will, the existence of God, and the mind-body problem.
Which brings me to this book. I really enjoyed this book, because Dewey’s points about education are so applicable to my life. Dewey contrasts two modes of education. One, the traditional mode, is based on transmitting static cultural knowledge to largely passive pupils. The “progressive” mode instead seeks to teach not content, but critical thinking; not the knowledge of the past, but the ability to think critically on experiences in the present and future; not information in books but information gained from communities of inquiry and practice. One mode pictures the teacher as a godlike authority, leading the ignorant students to truth, while the other sees the teacher as more of a facilitator. Dewey does not provide examples, but one from my experience will suffice. I spent one year in a high school where science was taught in this “progressive” way. We did lots of fun experiments, but I still can’t tell you some of the basic scientific facts I should have learned, and my preparation for later science courses was subpar.
What’s the rub? Despite his identification with the progressive school of thought, Dewey argues that some moderation is needed. For him, the goal of education is “self-control,” which requires a certain amount of external (teacher) control to inculcate the ability to discipline one’s thoughts and think critically. One of education’s other main goals, the ability to think critically about experience, requires that we at least learn something about the wisdom of the past, insofar as it applies to experiences we will have in the future. So history is not entirely out the window. So education needs to find a middle way between student caprice and teacher control, with a teacher who is not given strict templates of what to teach (standardized testing!) but an ability to adapt content and methods to the students at hand.
One of Dewey’s other main points is that knowledge is not really book-learning, confined to the domain of school then forgotten once the student has moved on from that domain. Knowledge takes place in communities of inquiry. For example, rather than read about archaeological artifacts from the past, students should see the digs, go to the museums, see archaeology at work rather than fossilizing learning. In education systems where learning is done via books and exams – solitary activities – the learning becomes fossilized. One wonders whether online education has made this better or worse.
Dewey died in the 1940s, but his urge to rethink education in a rapidly changing world is more true than ever. For example, he makes the point that those who teach children are older. The knowledge they have needed to make sense of experience may not apply to their students. At my university, the computer science majors aren’t taught Fortran and Pascal; hell, they aren’t taught many software programs at all. Instead they learn theoretical computer science, the principles behind software problem-solving and program design. This ensures that their degree will still be useful in decades to come when even C++ and Java are no longer in vogue.
So I would read this short book. It may be somewhat dated on the debates, but it’s written by a master, the man whom the New York Times deemed “America’s philosopher” on his 90th birthday. It lays out some commonsense but often unrealized or polarized terms for analyzing one’s own schooling. Although philosophy of education gets little attention in philosophy departments now, it is a problem that concerned Plato himself.
(Note: I listened to the audio version on audible. I enjoyed this book, but it was very dense for an audiobook, perhaps too much so.)
Barron's short little book covers the nature of the Eucharist: as meal, sacrifice, and real presence. I enjoyed Barron's Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, and this book did not disappoint. I knew I was in for something good when Barron referenced Babette's Feast in the introduction. As meal, the Eucharist is inclusive and inviting, bringing all to the table to enjoy the banquet of God's love and grace. As sacrifice, the Eucharist is Christ's body, broken for us as a sign of that overflowing grace. As real presence, the Eucharist is transubstantiation, not only bringing the presence of Christ to us in a very real way but making us into the real presence of Christ in the world. I like how Barron included many different approaches, including film, literature, Scripture, and historical debates in the book. I would recommend this for any Catholic seeking some motivation or anyone curious about Catholicism.
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