TUESDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2020
When professors and press interact: According to an ancient text, we humans see through a glass darkly.
(We refer to Corinthians 13:12, not to the Bergman film.)
In a fashion which can almost seem humorous, we tend to do so very darkly when professors and press interact. Consider what happened last Saturday morning.
The pairing was a natural. A moral philosopher had chosen to speak about a significant current event. At the same time, the New York Times had a brand to advance.
Even better, the professor in question was offering a "human interest" hook. Is there any better way for professor and press to collude?
The setting was perfect for interaction. Perhaps in a slightly humorous way, the column started like this:
MUDD (10/10/20): The other day, my 7-year-old, having gotten wind of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, asked me point blank, “Mommy, are you glad that Trump got the coronavirus?”
I am a moral philosopher, and yet I had a hard time coming up with an answer. The question demands we grapple not only with the moral meaning of the president’s illness but also with our complex and contested reactions to it.
A 7-year-old had approached a moral philosopher with a perfectly decent question. And sure enough:
Initially, the philosopher had been stumped!
For the record, one can imagine different answers to this child's decent question.
The headline on this column reads, "What Moral Philosophy Tells Us About Our Reactions to Trump’s Illness." That headline may seem to suggest that there's some sure thing this branch of philosophy "tells us" about the situation at hand.
Presumably, that isn't the case. Presumably, different moral philosophers could assess that question in substantially different ways.
There may be more than one possible answer! For what it's worth, the moral philosopher so confronted continued her column as shown:
MUDD (continuing directly): To be clear, I am not debating whether it is morally wrong to wish for the president’s death. It is wrong. Full stop. Nevertheless, now that Mr. Trump has been declared healthy enough to return to work, I think it is important that we assess the moral significance of the positive reactions his run-in with Covid-19 has produced.
As a general matter, we would agree that it's wrong to wish for someone's death. For the record, that isn't the question the philosopher had been asked.
Let's make this a bit more tangy. If someone thinks that Donald J. Trump is causing other people's deaths, would it obviously be morally wrong for that person to wish for his death?
If you're speaking to a 7-year-old child, it seems to us that the obvious answer would be yes. For ourselves, we've long expressed two views about the commander in chief:
We've suggested that he seems to be some serious version of mentally ill. Also, we've suggested that this unfortunate fact should be regarded with pity.
At any rate, Professor Mudd said it's morally wrong to wish for the president's death. From there, she ruminated at length, wondering whether "those who rejoice in Mr. Trump’s misfortune [can] claim the moral high ground."
As we continued reading, it seemed to us that she gave the standard philosophical answer. We heard it described, tongue in cheek, by an instructor (and friend) during our college days:
QUESTION: Would it be morally wrong to wish for someone's death?
ANSWER: In a sense, but not as such.
Eventually, Professor Mudd described what she actually said to the child. Her answer had gone like this:
MUDD: Here’s how I explained the moral quandary to my 7-year-old: I am sad that Mr. Trump got sick because in general suffering is bad, and I don’t want anyone to suffer, but on the other hand I think he should suffer consequences for the harm he has done. This answer seemed satisfying enough at the time, but it left out an important distinction.
In the end, as it turns out, Mudd wants Trump to go to jail. So it can go, in the New York Times, when professors and press interact.
Does moral philosophy really "tell us" that Trump should go to jail? In the Hamptons-based realm of the New York Times, that formulation may seem to make some sort of "philosophical" sense.
For ourselves, we saw nothing in Saturday's column which seemed to derive from anything resembling "philosophical" insight or expertise. We decided to see what the professor's focus as an academic may be.
According to the Times' identity line, the professor is currently an assistant professor of philosophy at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
Previously, she'd served as a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Southampton. At that previous post, we found this account of her academic work:
Sasha's primary research interest is in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its legacy, especially the problem of normativity and naturalism in the post-Kantian tradition. Within Kant's work, Sasha has focused on the relationship of practical to theoretical reason, Kant's so called "unity of reason" thesis, and Kant's attempts to ground fundamental normative conclusions in his account of agency. She also explores Kantian approaches to contemporary topics: including the nature of practical reason, and the possibility of a unified account of normativity. Her wider research interests include the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, and various issues at the interface of the Philosophy of Mind and Action, especially concerning the emotions. She believes that appropriating and developing the thought of eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers is one of the best ways of gaining insight into contemporary philosophical problems.
As a British Academy Newton Advanced Fellow, Sasha co-directs with Dr. Lucas Thorpe (Bogazici University) a project entitled: "Agency and Autonomy: Kant and the Normative Foundations of Republican Self-Government." The project investigates Kant's contributes to republican political philosophy in light of his understanding of autonomy and human agency.
The professor is exploring the problem of normativity and naturalism in the post-Kantian tradition. She's interested in the possibility of a unified account of normativity.
Let us offer a guess:
No one reading last Saturday's Times would have had any real idea what that salad might mean. Nor is it obvious that anyone should know any such thing.
Is there any possibility—any chance at all—that any such research will ever shed light on any actual moral question which might actually arise in the actual everyday world?
More specifically, is there any chance the this professor's work, and that of her colleagues, has any connection to the world in which an apparently disordered person has been traipsing about the countryside, making the crazy statements of an apparently disordered person for the past several years?
We're prepared to suggest that the research described in that account will never help us assess the moral dimensions of the situation at hand. The professor wants to see Trump in jail. But so does every one of our reigning "cable news" hosts!
At any rate, when a 7-year-old child asked a very good question, the philosopher was briefly stumped. She then offered an answer, about which she had second thoughts.
Is there anything anyone can actually learn from ruminations about the problem of normativity and naturalism in the post-Kantian tradition?
Our initial guess would be no. A second observation would be this:
The New York Times frequently produces moments like this. At such moments, it can appear that our most foppish upper-class newspaper is exploring the deep thoughts of our "philosophers," who are drawing on the western world's greatest intellectual traditions.
Such presentations reinforce this upper-end newspaper's brand. Slightly more gullible subscribers may be not question this ruse.
In our view, last Saturday's intersection between professor and press was perhaps highly Potemkin. We saw no particular "philosophical" insight at all.
Are there any "Kantian approaches to contemporary topics" which could be of any real service? Again, we'll strongly suggest the possibility that the answer is no.
More widely, how often have press and professors joined hands to give us real instruction? As we read the account of this philosopher's work, we thought of a question we asked long ago:
Moral philosophers to the side, where the Sam Hill are the nation's logicians? Where have our expert logicians been during these many long years?
Tomorrow: Senator Hawley's logic