Bacha Posh and masculine civil spheres

Last week Jenny Nordberg published a fascinating piece on the Afghan practice of Bacha Posh.  Much of Afghanistan’s civil culture is close to full-blown gender apartheid.  This creates serious trouble for families that have no sons.  Their daughters can’t attend schools, don’t have access to most jobs, can’t leave the house without a male escort, and so are unavoidably unproductive in the family.

To deal with this problem there’s a practice called Bacha Posh, by which families can effectively re-assign the gender of one of their daughters.  They can decide, one day, to start dressing up a daughter as a boy, and then everyone treats her as a boy.  Continue reading “Bacha Posh and masculine civil spheres”

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Well-being and the end of life

Atul Gawande’s article on end-of-life care in this week’s New Yorker is heart-breaking and thought-provoking.  At bottom, it’s an article about well-being, and how easy it is to lose track of what matters to us.  Here’s the basic idea:

People have concerns besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The hard question we face, then, is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a health-care system that will actually help dying patients achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.

Gawande gives us a series of real-life illustrations.  Here’s one:

Susan Block and her father had the conversation that we all need to have when the chemotherapy stops working, when we start needing oxygen at home, when we face high-risk surgery, when the liver failure keeps progressing, when we become unable to dress ourselves. I’ve heard Swedish doctors call it a “breakpoint discussion,” a systematic series of conversations to sort out when they need to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value—being with family or traveling or enjoying chocolate ice cream.

I wonder how much this is just a period of adjustment that will be solved by time.  Even 20 years ago, “fighting to the end” meant something different, because the weapons we were fighting with were different.  It’s only been the current elderly generation that has had to often, almost as a matter of routine, face the possibility of forgoing all these other values (family, touch, awareness, etc) in favor of more time with a machine-assisted pulse.  I don’t think many people who watch one of these bad deaths come away wanting the same thing for themselves.  And so I think, by the time the next generation starts facing the end of life, our values will be more sanely balanced, and we’ll stop using length of life as an easily measured proxy for well-being.  I hope!

I suppose the pessimistic view is that we’ve shown ourselves nearly incapable of letting go of easily quantified proxies for well-being.  There was a time when wealth was a decent proxy for well-being.  (The time when most people were below whatever threshold of income is necessary for a reasonable degree of self-determination.)  But now that nearly everyone in the developed world is well above that threshold, money is no longer a good proxy for well-being.  And yet many people continue to pursue money at clear cost to their own well-being.  Maybe we’ll be similarly foolish when it comes to death, continuing to pursue the maximally long life even at clear cost to our own well-being.

Related articles:

Well-Being: Psychological Research for Philosophers
By Valerie Tiberius, University of Minnesota (Vol. 1, September 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Welfarism
By Simon Keller , University of Melbourne (Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Torturing animals is bad

Last month the New York Times Magazine ran a gut-wrenching article exploring the relationship between animal cruelty and human-on-human violence.  A taste:

The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now Continue reading “Torturing animals is bad”

Are liberals confused by economics?

I’m saddened to see this Buturovic and Klein survey treated credulously on a philosophy blog. The survey has problems that should worry anyone who has thought about the difference between facts and values.

The basic idea: Buturovic and Klein asked a bunch of people to classify as true or false a list of propositions considered true by a broad range of economists. Liberals were much more likely than conservatives to label propositions false, thereby contradicting the consensus view of economists. The upshot, according to Klein, is that conservatives are better informed about economics.

But the questions in the survey are terrible. Continue reading “Are liberals confused by economics?”

What have sex and violence done for us, lately?

Much fretting about violence in video games is rooted in the worry that the games will foster violence in the real world.  (If I shoot enough extra-terrestrials in “Space Invaders,” I might end up shooting extra-terrestrials in real life.)

Earlier this week on the NYT’s Economix blog, David Leonhardt speculated that, in fact, violent video games might be partly responsible for the level or declining rates of violent crime during the current recession.  He cites earlier research suggesting that violent movies reduce violent crime.

Ryan Sanger recently discussed similar dynamics in the realm of pornography:  increased access to porn seems to correlate with reduced frequency of rape.  As Sanger notes, the implications for the debate over simulated child pornography could be especially controversial.

None of the research is anywhere near decisive.  But if it turns out that porn and media violence have positive social consequences, the rubber will meet the road on the issue of government regulation of content.  We’ll be in a situation in which the utilitarian justification of a set of related laws changes its valence.  It’ll be interesting to see the debate unfold.

Related articles:

The Duty to Obey the Law
By David Lefkowitz, UNC Greensboro (October 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Tragic atheism, why?

Over the last month I’ve seen a bunch of posts debating religious belief similar to this from Damon Linker:

Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss… The studied insouciance of the new atheists can come to seem almost comically superficial and unserious.

I’m totally in the dark about why Linker thinks a loss of faith should be accompanied by a permanent sense of loss.

When a kid learns there’s no Santa Claus, there usually is a sense of loss:  it’s sad to find out that there’s no benevolent toy-maker.

But this sense of loss is short-lived. It doesn’t take long to realize that Christmas is pretty awesome, even without Santa. You get time off work, you give and get presents, you spend time with family and splurge on food.  Before long, you realize that Santa has nothing to do with what’s great about Christmas– and he never did.

A Santa-believing analog of Linker would say: “Those who claim to embrace happily a Santa-less Christmas have failed to grapple with the true horror of Santa-less-ness. I can respect those who don’t believe in Santa. I just can’t respect those who aren’t made permanently gloomy by their non-belief.”  This is a silly thing to say!  All the good stuff about Christmas is still there.

Related articles:

Hume on Miracles
By James E. Taylor, Westmont College (June 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Online classrooms

Anya Kamenetz has new book titled DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.  You can read her article-length distillation of it at The American Prospect.  Kamenetz’ vision of higher-education’s future is pretty techno-utopian, but less naive than many in the “facebook will revolutionize college!” caucus.  A taste:

Whether hybrid classes, social networks, tutoring programs, games, or open content, technology provides speed skates for students and teachers, not crutches. To save money and improve learning, educational technology has to be well-designed and carefully implemented. The roles of professors will shift, and new jobs will be created in place of the old. “Technology can’t make a bad teacher into a good teacher,” says Sarah Robbins, an expert on the use of gaming in teaching who goes by the Internet handle Intellagirl. “Students who don’t want to learn won’t suddenly become great students when you put a gadget in their hands. Learning to teach with technology is less about ‘how does it work’ and much more about ‘why should I use it.'”

I’m excited about the increasingly huge amount of high-quality educational material available online.  I depend on wikipedia more every year, and I’ve gotten a lot out of MIT’s and Yale’s free online courses.  These materials are great at making huge amounts of information available to people who want to learn it.

But especially at the introductory levels, philosophy classes aren’t (or, I think, shouldn’t be) about absorbing information.  Rather, lower-division philosophy courses should about learning a style of thinking.  Students should come out of their first philosophy class better able to recognize philosophical problems, to recognize and understand arguments, and to critically evaluate arguments.

To develop new thinking skills requires more active engagement from students than is needed to memorize a set of facts, or to become familiar with a body of literature.  To develop these skills requires discussion and writing, lots of failure and correction, and modeling by the instructor.  I worry that these things are more effectively accomplished when students are physically present, where the stakes are higher, and instructors and peers alike can challenge passiveness.

And so I worry that the move to online delivery of college courses, while a boon for the spread of high-quality, reliable information, will come at the cost of high-quality critical thinking.

Related articles:

You can find many cool sample syllabuses here on the Philosopher’s Eye, in the Teaching & Learning section.