* * * * Site under re-construction * * * *
This site contains many of the philosophical essays that I have published over the years in journals and anthologies. Some of these essays, though, will be Op-Ed pieces that I have published in the local newspaper here in Syracuse or elsewhere. I will offer a general description of the essay. I will also offer my current assessment of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the essay.
Laurence Thomas CV
E s s a y s P o s t e d
Self-Deception as the Handmaiden of Evil. There is no human capacity that contributes more to evil in this world than the capacity for self-deception, which is the wherewithal to hold as true that which one knows as some very significant level simply cannot be true. And there is no group of human beings, however one might define a group, that has not engaged in horrendous instances of self-deception. From Hitler’s characterization of Jews as evil to black men in South Africa engaging in what is known as corrective rape: the raping of lesbian women in order to render them heterosexual. And the most brilliant of people can be self-deceived. Kant was self-deceived about blacks whom he held to be obviously inferior intellectually, although there were whites all around him whom he surely did not regard as having much intellectual horsepower. If the KKK in the United States stands as a classic instance of self-deception in the United States, then so does “Don’t Snitch” ideology that is commonplace in many black communities in the United States. In effect, the attitude of “Don’t Snitch” entails that the vicious attack of a black person by black people is justified if that black person reports to the police a wrong done to her or him by another black. From an evolutionary perspective, it is a most poignant truth that no other biological creature can engage in self-deception. Or, in any event, none can engage in self-deception to anywhere near the extent that human beings can. The best explanation for why human beings have the capacity for self-deception is that it had enormous survival value at one point in human history, in that self-deception marvelously facilitated fitting-in. My thinking about self-deception owes much the marvelous work of Robert L. Trivers entitled The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.
Becoming an Evil Society ; Animals and Animals: The Chimpanzee and the Human
Atrocities: The Psychology of Justice versus Evil Innocence, Genocide, and Suicide Bombings
Blog Entry: The Majesty of Parental Love
Parental Love stands as one of the most majestic aspects of human life. A child begins life entirely without a sense of worth. Then with the gift of none other than parental love, a child can come to have a most admirable and remarkable sense of worth. A proper sense of worth that does not wallow in bitterness, though the child is rendered strong and does not suffer fools gladly. A proper sense of worth that does not reek with arrogance, although the child is unequivocally committed to excellence. Parental love at its best is the very foundation of both self-knowledge and strength of character as they should be. What is more, as it should be. A truly just society would put parental love front and center. Parental love at its best is the very best gift that we give that we can give to the future. It is surely an indication of the moral distance that we have yet to travel that parental love does not have the pride of place that it should have in society.
Equality and the Mantra of Diversity
This essay reflects the simple truth that while diversity itself is a good thing, it is nonetheless an unexpurgated truth that diversity at any cost is a bad thing. Good intentions are not enough. For if diversity unwittingly results in the members of some groups having to endure a stigma of being intellectually inferior, then diversity is unequivocally a bad thing. To this end, I distinguish between traditional standards of excellence and idiosyncratic standards of excellence; and I argue that it is better that students are committed under some conception of excellence, be it standard or idiosyncratic, than none at all. For this enables all students, and for that matter all faculty as well, to view one another as contributing to the overall excellence of the intellectual community.
In the end, the idea is an extremely simple one. The self-esteem of individuals is primarily enhanced by individuals seeing themselves as making a positive contribution—and not primarily by being the object of another’s goodwill.
It is has often seemed to me that people are too busy congratulating themselves to be attentive to the reality of being a student in a context where one has to live with the burden of a stigma.
Excellence comes in many forms. Students of every ethnicity should be committed on the basis of excellence. In so doing colleges created a most fructuous intellectual environment where all see that they contribute to that excellence. What is more, all are recognized as being capable of doing so. Intellectual affirmation does not get any better than that.
Blog Entry: How White Liberals Harm Black Folks
The good of racial and ethnic equality is beyond dispute. But something has gone terribly wrong when in the name of equality one group of people is not willing hold the individuals of another responsible and accountable for their inappropriate behavior. Such as become the case with many white liberals with regard to blacks. And the proof of this is that black-on-black crime has become so horrific that the Klu Klux Klan need not do a think but set up bleacher seats and applaud the killing of blacks by blacks.
Group Autonomy and Narrative Identity: Blacks and Jews
Au-delà du mal: Juifs et Noirs
The Morally Obnoxious Comparisons of Evil:
American Slavery and the Holocaust
Honesty as a Vice
Reflections on Redemption: Rape and Other Wrongs
Crimes Against Humanity & the Moral Community: Some Strawsonian Reflections
The Use of Bad Arguments in Defense of Homosexuality
Rationality & Affectivity: The Metaphysics of the Moral Self
“Trente Ans Après” / “Abortion and Moral Repugnancy”, “Moral Psychology”
“Erogenous Zones and Ambiguity: Sexuality and the Bodies of Women and Men”
The Grip of Immorality: Child Abuse and Moral Failure
Morality and a Meaningful Life;
“Will the Less than Perfect Still be Love”
N.B. Some of the PDF files need to be downloaded first, and then printed
S i g n a t u r e E s s a y Moral Deference There are not essays in philosophy that have a real life story behind them. “moral Deference is an exception to that rule. Passing over the details in order to respect privacy, here is the story behind it. A white woman had been raped by a black man; and my presence in the building called to mind that experience. Immediately, two alternatives seemed manifestly clear to me. On the one hand, I could go on and on about the fact that I was not the black man who had raped her. Accordingly, I could excoriate her for even allowing my presence in the building to call to mind the experience. On the other hand, I could understand that rape is obviously one of the most traumatic experiences that a woman can have; and when it involves different races that only makes matters worse. Thus, I could endeavor to be mindful of her pain—to defer, if you will, to the reality and magnitude of her pain. I chose the latter option. I chose the path of moral deference.
The present on line version is a considerably revised version of my paper “Moral Deference”, published in The Philosophical Forum (1992). The 1992 version was essentially written overnight, while I was in the throes of wrestling with the experience described in the preceding paragraph. The 1992 version was a veritable rush of thought, as I moved back and forth between reflecting upon her experience as a victim of rape and reflecting upon the black experience. Although my presence had initially called to mind her experience of rape, it became evident very quickly that she was struggling in a most profound way to separate her visceral feelings from the reality. And it became just as evident that I could play a positive role in that regard. So I choose to behave; and that is one of the proudest moments of my life. That experience of moral deference towards that woman profoundly configured my life. The person that I am today owes much to that moment.
The most fundamental aspect of moral deference as I conceive of it is that it is not as much about blame as it is about helping others to grasp the perspective of lived pain. I think that moral deference can be owed to all sorts of people, including the poor white struggling to be accepted and to do right by others. One commands moral deference only insofar as one exhibits both strength of character and goodwill.
Insofar as I can be said to have a signature essay, “Moral Deference” is it. More than a decade later, a search via Google of the phrase Moral Deference turns up quite a few references to the essay "Moral Deference".
Becoming an Evil Society. When I wrote this essay 15 years, technology had not yet achieved its ascendency. Why, most people (of whatever age) did not yet have a cell phone. There was an awareness that the ordinary person had of the other that was par for the course. That is no longer the case. Indeed, it has become stupefying just how indifferent people have become to those around them as each individual fidgets with her or his gadget. These days, it is not out of the question that a person could fall in front of other individuals and no one would notice precisely everyone besotted with her or his gadgets. The irony, then, s that the essay is more applicable now than it was when I first wrote it precisely because that simple moral principle known as the Golden Rule is increasingly losing its grip upon individuals.
Rationality & Affectivity (a Critique of David Gauthier). This essay marks a fundamental point in my intellectual development. It is my first sustained articulation what I found problematic with Kantian ethics. Ironically, the target of my discussion was not Kant at all, but the distinguished moral philosopher, David Gauthier. His book Morals by Agreement (Cambridge University Press, 1996) was a most sophisticated attempt to make a case for morality by way of hard bargaining theory. Many say that it is the most sophisticated attempted ever made.
What bothered me about Gauthier’s argument is that it does not do justice to the reality of the emotional structure of human beings. It seems to me that for Gauthier our emotions are mere “add-ons”. And I think that in so many ways the same can be said of Kantian moral theory. Feelings of love and joy and trust are a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. These feelings are not the by-product of a rational argument. Nor do they represent a distorted configuration of what it means to be a human being, as if the “real self” would be entirely without such sentiments. Quite the contrary, these are an integral part of what it means to be a human being. “Rationality and Affectivity” aims to capture this truth.
It is manifestly the case that when these sentiments have the proper expression, in the way that Aristotle grasped the matter, they can occasion a marvelous moral majesty. It is not just that case that rising above these sentiments in order to do what is right commands our respect. The proper moral theory must do justice to both truths. I do not believe this to be the case with the argument of Morals by Agreement.
My argument against Gauthier is a quite simple one, namely that one does not show what morality is like by showing what manifestly selfish individuals would do or agree upon. For so to argue is to ignore inexcusably the fundamental difference in motivational structure between the selfish person and the moral person. Even if the selfish and the moral person would agree to the same thing from time to time, it follows ex hypothesi that they would do so for fundamentally different reasons.
Animals and Animals: The Chimpanzee and the Human. Every now and then, one makes what one takes to be a simple point only to have it turn out to be quite the controversial one. This essay is a case in point. My thesis is about as simple as it gets, namely that in terms of the capacity for moral responsibility, human beings surpass chimpanzees (gorillas) by far. Accordingly, there is a significant moral difference between chimpanzees and human beings. I do not think for a moment that chimpanzees should be treated cruelly. But clearly it is human beings who should be more attentive to the capacities of chimpanzees—not the other way around. No one is arguing that chimpanzees owe human beings more respect or even that the two species need to cooperate in a more fruitful manner. And recall the case of the gorilla Travis, which I discuss, who mauled the face of Charla Nash. No one has even come close to suggesting that Travis should be held accountable for that behavior.
Yet, if one reads the Great Apes Project, a list of very distinguished people—Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins, among others—hold that my view is very nearly blasphemous; and many of the authors seem to hold that it is none other than sheer arrogance that would have a human being suppose that there is a significant moral difference between chimpanzees and apes. But the idea that we have two species, chimpanzees and human beings, with no significant moral difference between them has to be false; otherwise, it would be just fine for human beings to have their children cared for by apes; and no one has come even close to making that claim. In the article, I use this point in a very forceful way in the essay.
Writing “Animals and Animals” was rather engaging for me precisely I wanted to make no more than the most minimal but yet moral significant claim possible. Thus, a I remark in the essay, the view that I defend does not entail that chimpanzees do not have a right to life; for the absence of moral responsibility does not entail the absence of a right to life.
The Grip of Immorality: Child Abuse and Moral Failure. Arguably, no essay occasioned moral self-knowledge on my part than this one. I dared to wrestle with one of the most abominable problems of humankind: child sexual abuse. As worked upon this essay, I remember so vividly wondering just how it is that one knows in a most phenomenological way that one has not been a victim of systematic child abuse. One would like to think that there would some very visible and uncontrollable form of affirmation that would settle the matter beyond dispute—an uncontrollable piece of bodily behavior or sentiment. Alas, nothing of the sort is true. There are no visible bits of behavior of that sort.
is most indicative of the absence of child sexual abuse is the inability to engage in rich and wholesome trusting relationships. This stands to reason once one considers the matter; for if anything is true, it is true that systematic child sexual abuse is a profound violation of the child’s trust in the adult in question, be the adult parent or relative or family friend. Indeed, when we look at folks who tend to form destructive ties, we invariably find some form of abuse. When the ties are particularly destructive, the abuse is often sexual. It is as if sexual abuse badly damages, and often destroys, an internal emotional gyroscope.
So anyone who has over the years, as a general pattern, formed wholesome trusting relationships, then she or he has a most profound form of affirmation regarding the quality of her or childhood. Indeed, that is the best evidence that one could have. It is the pattern and not the isolated instance here and there.
This essay was written in honor of Kurt Baier. The subtitle of the book is “Themes from Kurt Baier, with His Reponses”. So I set the stage for the argument concerning child abuse discussing his work in Section I of the essay. I turn to the topic of child sexual abuse in earnest in the following sections, but beginning with the penultimate paragraph of Section 1.
Forgiving the Unforgivable: The case of the Redeemable Nazi. This was perhaps one of the most difficult essays that I have ever written. And part of the explanation for this is that I wanted to advance the possibility of an unusual thesis, namely that there are circumstances under which one could be warranted in forgiving a Nazi. What kind of Nazi might that be? Although my students made it clear to me that he couldn’t be one who put Jews in the gas chambers, it seems that he could be one who put Jews on trains to the camps. We have no less of a Nazi in each case. Yet, we have a fundamental difference in the kind of deeds that they committed.
In reflecting upon this essay, I intrigued by the extent to which it seems to me that moral luck makes a difference. It can be a matter of luck that one has the time to redeem oneself. It may be no one is morally required to give one that time, but one has been afforded that time nonetheless. What one does with that time makes all the difference in the world; and I describe a former Nazi, whom I call Adolph Paul-Damascus, who entirely transformed himself.
As I say at the end of the essay, it seems to me that the fundamental difference between righteousness and justice is that the righteousness keeps alive the hope of redemption whereas justice does not. This is what we already know, namely that righteousness is superior to justice.
Evil and Forgiveness: The Possibility of Moral Redemption. Forgiveness is an unwieldy moral concept in that in whether a person should be forgiven or not often seems to be tied to nothing more than how the person wronged feels. My aim in this essay has been to advance the discussion by offering a very rich account of when a person has become righteously contrite, and so is entitled to foregiveness. I offer four conditions for when a person can be properly called righteously contrite. Then I go on to show that, in fact, there are certain things that are indeed owed to a person who has become righteously contrite. For instance, if it is known that an individual has indeed become righteously contrite, then people owe it to the individual to acknowledge this, including those who were the victim of the individual’s wrongdoing. By contrast, if the victims were friends with the individual, they have no obligation whatsoever to re-kindle the friendship. Genuine forgiveness does not require that we completely restore relationships.
This essay is a considerable departure from “Forgiving the Unforgivable,” even though I wrestle with many of the same issues. Or perhaps it would be better to say that this essay completes "Forgiving the Unforgivable". The truth is that most who commit egregious wrongdoing never become righteously contrite. We must not let this truth be an impediment to our acknowledging righteous contrition when it occurs. For that attitude bespeaks none other than moral arrogance. Or so I argue.
Forgiveness as Righteousness. In this essay, I distinguish between restorative wrongs and ineffaceable wrongs. In the typical case, stealing a car is a restorative wrong, since the car can be replaced with one of equal value—even one of greater value. I claim that with restorative wrongs forgiveness is rather like justice as equity. As the name would suggest, ineffaceable wrongs are wrongs for which restoration is really out of the question. There is no way to restore the death of a child whom one has murdered.
Nowadays, there is a tendency to treat all wrongs as if they were an ineffaceable wrong. In this essay, I look specifically at the case of rape and ask: When might a woman be justified in forgiving a rapist—nay, even open to criticism for not doing so? The idea is not to make the case that forgiveness in such an instance should be easy; for surely that is morally obnoxious. Rather, the aim is to show that even in that context we can tell a story where a person looks morally inured should she not forgive.
In Forgiving the Unforgivable, I have claimed that forgiveness is a gift. And it might seem that this line of thought precludes the idea of criticizing a person for not forgiving another. Not so, however. Gifts are a form of kindness and we can indeed be open to criticism for not being kind. As Judith Jarvis Thomson observed in her famous essay “A Defense of Abortion”: If I have box full of chocolates, it really is awfully mean of me not to offer at least one piece of chocolate to the child standing next to me who is longing to have a taste of the chocolate. Some people seem to be intent upon wallowing in their suffering although so much has gone well for them. Such a person can be open to criticism for not forgiving.
Were I re-writing this essay, I would draw attention to the way in which bitterness can be an impediment to individuals not forgiving. And surely some people can be open to criticism for being bitter. I would also draw attention to the fact that there are wrongs which are not restorative although they are not ineffaceable. If I slam the door in your face, I cannot take that back. Yet, in the typical case, no irreparable wrong has been done.
Atrocities: The Psychology of Justice versus Evil. Drawing upon Philip Zimbardo’s poignant prison experiment, I argue that fitting in with a group is a form of self-preservation and that the prevalence of atrocities taps into this evolutionary reality. Thus, most of us prefer fitting into being just. I suggest that in order to be the kind of person who would prefer being just to fitting in, it is necessary that one’s moral upbringing be relatively flawless. And this point, if correct, harkens back to Plato’s conception of the just person. No one can rightly require that, in the face of horrendous evil, we be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the moral good of others. That willingness must come from within; and it is moral upbringing that serves as the best moral foundation for that sort of moral fortitude.
Excellence and Commitment: One Individual at a Time. One can buy lots of things, including information. What one cannot buy, however, is a commitment to another’s excellence. These remarks, published in the Business Journal of Central New York, explain why I walked out of the classroom when I saw a student engaged in text-messaging on the very front row. As I say in the essay, one cannot expect a committed professor to see all the ways in which a student might be excellent, but be oblivious to the ways in which a student’s behavior might undermine the learning climate of the classroom. Many have suggested that I should have simply asked the student to leave. I explain why in this day and time that approach is problematic. My actions received more attention than I would ever have imagined. See “If You Text in Class, This Prof will Leave”. Finally, in this regard, the issue was about race only in the following tangential way: A student of any ethnicity may not ask me to respect her or him and then not give me the respect that I deserve. As I have noted in conversation, the Asian students in every course that I have taught have been marvelously respectful whatever their thought about me have been. Is it wrong to notice this? I should think not. In any case, there is an ole fashioned line of argument that many a minority might have said to another minority of the same group: Don’t you dare disrespect me in front of “others”. And everybody understood what that meant.
As it happens, the demand for Ethics and Value Theory for the Fall of 2008 shot through the rough. I have a very simple explanation for that, namely that students could see that I am prepared to hold all students to the very same standards of excellence, be they black or white or Asian or Latino or Arabic. In the good ole days—way back in the day—this used to be referred to as equality.
Group Autonomy and Narrative Identity: This was an extraordinary essay to write. Three students played an instrumental role in my writing it; for they helped me to combine the two essay that make for this one essay.
This essay is, at once, one of my most creative essays and one of most controversial essays. One makes my essay controversial is the difference that I claim exists between blacks and Jews. That difference quite simply is that Jews have a narrative in a way that blacks do not. This difference is owing to slavery. I do not claim that blacks may come to have a narrative; and Kwanza is no doubt an attempt to do just that and the Nation of Islam is no doubt another such attempt. Nor do I deny that blacks in Africa have a narrative. There are, however, many black peoples in Africa and not just one black people. American blacks are sufficiently distant from blacks in Africa that it is not at all clear how blacks in America can claim the narratives in Africa.
The Jewish narrative has been quintessentially theirs for thousands of years. And ultimately no one but Jews get to define that narrative. Not so with blacks in America. Christianity even as blacks engage it is not a black narrative.
Finally, the thesis that there is not a black narrative for blacks in the United States should not be confused with the obviously false claim that there is not a black culture. That is obvious on all accounts. Culture, however, is porous. Indeed, young whites today imitate black culture in a way that was simply unthinkable—and unacceptable—50 years ago. And while we may be surprised that a white can sing like an incredible black soul singer, that white does nothing inappropriate. By contrast, any non-Jew who wears a yarmulke as a piece of clothing decoration, for instance, does what is in fact inappropriate. That is the power of a narrative. The same holds for the hijab. A woman who puts on a hijab had better be a Muslim.
. It goes without saying that honesty is very important. Yet, I am struck by what seems to be an utterly inflexible attitude regarding the matter—one that flies in the face of commonsense. Who wouldn’t lie to a would-be-rapist or would-be-murderer? I must confess that I would not want as a friend anyone who wouldn’t. And I am thinking here not in terms of my own self-interests, but in terms of what I value in a friendship.
Honesty as a Vice
Reflections on Redemption: Rape and Other Wrongs. These remarks reflect a development—a nice evolution—in my thought regarding forgiveness. Victimhood is much valorized these days—so much so that we lose sight of the moral truth that people can change for the better. The point of these reflections is to create some moral space. There is a difference between forgiving a person and acknowledging that a heretofore vicious person has become an upright individual. I make the simple point that the latter is required of a person even if the former is impossible.
The Morally Obnoxious comparisons of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust. The 90s gave rise to a most vicious discussion especially in the United States regarding the issue of suffering and evil, namely who suffered more, blacks or Jews, and which was worse, American Slavery or the Holocaust. People seemed to have had a field day arguing that one group had suffered more than the other because, after all, one event was obviously more evil than the other. This went on with an intensity that was baffling. I mean it was never clear just what the stakes were and what turned upon having suffered the most or one event being more evil than the other. For instance, having suffered the most hardly entails that one understands all lesser forms of suffering, since suffering is often profoundly incommensurable. How, for example, would one compare being raped with being paralyzed? What on earth would it mean to say, “I am so glad that I was raped but not paralyzed or the other way around?” Or imagine the following retort: “Paralyzed you were. But at least you weren’t raped!” Or, “Raped you were. But at least you weren’t paralyzed”. Any such mode of comparison is despicable in its own right. The comparison is downright invidious.
It has been my view from the outset that American Slavery and the Holocaust (mentioned in the order of their temporal occurrence) were radically different forms of evil. And “The Morally Obnoxious Comparisons of Evil” represent my most seasoned reflections upon this debate. The perpetrators had radically different aims and thus radically different conceptions regarding what counted as success.
Crucial to my line of thought is precisely the view that evil by its very nature is often incommensurable. New Jews who survived the Holocaust thereby understood American Slavery. Likewise, no black who survived American Slavery thereby had deep insight into the Holocaust.
Finally, in this regard, I find it striking that when I read the works of Douglass on American Slavery and Wiesel on the Holocaust, I do not make any comparisons at all between the two in order to be profoundly moved by what each author says.
What makes my essay perhaps wildly controversial is that I think reparations has proven to be a misguided argument, whether this is in regard to the Holocaust or American Slavery.
Crimes Against Humanity & The Moral Community. is an attempt to extend P. F. Strawson’s seminal essay “Freedom and Resentment” to the issue of crimes against humanity. This essay by Strawson is among a handful of essays in philosophy that have been and continue to be a source of profound philosophical inspiration for me.
If there is any act of human behavior that is unequivocally knowable for what it is, this is the case with those acts that constitute crimes against humanity. No one participate in such crimes and not know the nature of what it is that she or he is doing. No one can know of such crimes and not know what they are. No one can fail to know that such crimes are evil.
The applicability of Strawson’s essay here that assessments of goodwill are ill-will are inextricably tied to the presupposition of free agency. Trees and other inanimate objects are not thought to display either goodwill or ill-will. Animals do not either—at least not in the robust sense that we attribute either goodwill or ill-will to animals. To be sure, we can be mistaken here and there. But over the long-run we get this right; and the more substantial the behavior, the more unlikely it is that we will be mistaken in our assessment of the behavior. It takes a very long and unobvious story in order for it to turn out that someone’s cutting off one’s arm is an act of goodwill! Similarly, if a person swam through shark infested waters in order to save one from drowning, this is not easy to turn into an act of ill-will.
In an increasingly subjective world, moral objectivity yet has an unequivocal foothold in reality. The reality of crimes against humanity makes this manifestly clear.
The Use of Bad Arguments in Defense of Homosexuality. This essay reflects what can only be called an about face in my thinking. But I think I can now give articulation to my earlier reservations. To begin with, only human beings are capable of conception of self-identity. Animals are not of a self-concept; accordingly, the idea of animals being gay or not gay is just so much nonsense. In the relevant sense of the term, only human beings can be gay. The first part of the essay is devoted to this topic. I also discuss the issue that being gay is simply a matter of biology. This claim made quite as if it were a self-evident truth nowadays that decisively settles everything is examined and shown wanting in numerous respects.
Now, modern society is animated almost entirely by the idea that if no one is armed by an activity or (in any case the harm is consensual), then the activity is acceptable and not open to criticism. This strikes me as woefully unacceptable and out of step with the dignity of human beings. I think that the idea of gay marriage should be defended by way of ennobling ideal of human dignity and that we should not confuse the goal of gay marriage with the gay lifestyle. In fact, I think the exact same thing with regard to straight people. An endorsement of marriage is one thing; an endorsement of all the foolish and undignified things that people do is quite another; and the former should not in anyway be taken as a prelude to the latter.
Although my essay might be rightly characterized as a conservative defense of homosexuality, I am critical of both liberals and conservatives. I think that liberals, in their rush to establish homosexuality as legitimate, are too quick to read the present into the past. I suspect that there are many conceptions of homosexuality—and not just one conception of it. Conservatives, on the other hand, are too quick to invoke biblical passages as if that settles everything. There is much that biblical passages do not make clear, as the case of Jews make abundantly clear. The New Testament says much against Jews; yet Christians all over the world have manage to put a much, much softer gloss upon these texts.
Perhaps the success of the paper lies in the fact that I am likely to have succeeded in making everyone unhappy.
Trente Ans Après This is an essay on abortion, which I was invited to write for a volume published in France in honor of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous essay “A Defense of Abortion”. My essay Abortion and Moral Repugnancy, which appears in Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy (Blackwell 2007), draws upon “Trent Ans Après”. Inspired by Aldoux Huxley’s novel Brave New World, I ask a very simple question, to with the following:
When it shall come to pass, and surely it shall, that we can just as easily transfer a foetus from one womb to the other, without additional costs or inconvenience or health risks, what reason could there be for not doing so?
On the one hand, I would not think to argue that a woman should always opt for a womb transfer, as I refer to it. On the other, it simply cannot be that option for an abortion in this instance would never be the indecent thing to do. Abortion relieves a woman of a burden that she is not prepared to take on; a womb transfer also relieves a woman of a burden that she is not prepared to take on. If this is right, then the attitude that the foetus has no more moral value than a toe-nail cannot be quite right. From the fact that the foetus may not have the same moral value as a full-fledged person, what most certainly does not follow is that it has no moral value at all.
It is typically argued that the knowledge that one’s child is out there somewhere, owing to a womb-transfer adoption, causes great pain. But this is a very odd claim. Why great pain as opposed to great joy? A would-be-person is not killed and a couple that wanted the child is made ever so happy. Why does that not count as a win-win situation? Perhaps even a win-win-win situation.
Finally, no one denies the importance of the rights of women. But in the name of asserting their rights, no group of individuals is justified in denying extant moral value in a creature. We do not, in the name of asserting our rights, do that to dogs or cats. So it is rather odd that we are so adamant about doing so with regard to that which is unmistakably human, even if it is not yet a full-fledged person. For as the case of dogs and cats show, a living thing does not have to be a full-fledge person in order to have moral value.
Moral Psychology This essay is very much a precursor of my present intellectual thought, especially my ideas as developed The Family and the Political Self (Cambridge University Press, 2006). The essay also reflects the area of philosophy that best characterizes my specialty: moral psychology. Upon re-reading the essay, I found myself understanding better than ever the nature of my disagreement with Kantians. I hold that Kantians cannot do justice to the fact that we are quintessentially social creatures. That is, human beings need one another in a way that Kantian theory does not fully allow. For Kantians, the fully developed self (which by definition is a psychology wholesome self) is a self that is guided entirely by rationality. Thus, ideally human beings are rather like gods. Human beings may associate with one another, but there is no need for them to do so. The psychological well-being of human beings does not turn upon their doing so. Kantian theory cannot, I believe, do justice to the sublime truth that the love of friendship or the love family occasion a more complete and wholesome self in the way that Aristotle seems to have supposed.
Aristotle intoned that a person who had no need of friends is either a beast or a god. This entails that he took friendship to be a defining feature of personhood as it should be. Whatever else is true, Kantian theory cannot attribute this level of importance to personhood.
The essay “Moral Psychology” reflects my view that human beings are quintessentially social creatures. There is, I argue, a congruence between psychological health and moral health; and the exceptions prove the rule. A child might not learn the language of his parents, which is the language of their community, which is the language of nation to which that community belongs. But in the majestic words of Bernard Williams, this would require one long and unobvious story. A child who has been the undisputed object of the love of her or his parents might become a serial killer. But here, too, a long and unobvious story would be needed to explain this.
When adulthood is well in place, and parental love is no longer the grounding of a child’s sense of self-worth, human beings yet need affirmation from others. This is the argument of “Moral Psychology”. To the extent that moral theory fails to recognize this, it is impoverished.
Erogenous Zones and Ambiguity: Sexuality and the Bodies of Women and Men I had enormous fun writing this essay. Men and women are different in a variety of ways. A wonderful illustration of this comes from a rather unexpected quarter: the Jewish community in the IV quarter in Paris. A gay bar opened up right adjacent to this Jewish community. Immediately, there were protests. The gay bar closed down. In its place, a lesbian opened up—and to virtually no protests. The lesbian bar is there to this day.
Needless to say, it is not as if the Jewish community has no idea what a lesbian bar is. Rather, it is that by and large men and women have rather different approaches to sex. Men are driven by their erections; and with rare exception, a sustained erection is an absolutely decisive sign that a man is sexually aroused.
Although women can, of course, be just as desirous of sex as men, there is nothing analogous to an erect penis that counts as evidence of this. The issue is not whether there are tell-tale signs in this regard. Of course, there are. The point, rather, is that for woman there is nothing as decisive as an erection that serves as an indicator of sexual arousal.
Men are not coy when it comes to sexuality. By contrast, women can be notoriously coy in this regard. When men want sex, this can be ascertained rather quickly and decisively. And if they really have no interest in it, then that too is rather easy enough to determine. Not so with women.
The essay “Erogenous Zones and Ambiguity” embodies these insights.
Morality and a Meaningful Life This is one of the essays that I most enjoyed writing. I argue that the just person is favored to live a more meaningful life than the unjust person. Obviously, this claim is much weaker than Plato's view that any just person is happier than any unjust person. But I would like to think that that I have come as close as one can to Plato's thesis. If I Have, that will be good enough to me. In life, there will always be exceptions. And there is no reason to that that there cannot be exceptions to Plato's thesis. Surely, there are unjust people here and there who are truly happier than most any just person whom we might encounter.
That is why the idea of being favored is so crucial to my argument. Whether a person is favored or not is extremely important. Yet, being favored is no guarantee. For instance, children raised by parents both of whom have a Ph.D are favored to have a pretty extensive language; whereas a child without such parents is not. Being favored in this regard is quite significant, although there is no guarantee whatsoever that the child whose parents both have a Ph.D will have an extensive vocabularly. Likewise, the child without such parents could turn out to have a most phenomenal vocabularly. As one might imagine, the idea of being favored comes from the idea of horse racing. A horse can be favored to win, although there is no guarantee whatsoever that the favored beast will win.
Crucial to my argument is that affirmation is absolutely indispensable to our lives. I hold that the truly just person favors better in this regard than the unjust person. For the friendships of the truly just person are more profound and more rich than is typically the case with the friendships of unjust people. Painfully, and this a weakness of the article, most people do not realize this until it is too late.
Excellence and Commitment: One Individual at a Time