This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.
This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.
I believe Christine Blasey Ford; I believe Brett Kavanaugh did precisely what she accuses him of doing. My reasons for offering this expression of my beliefs are quite simple: Brett Kavanaugh has done everything possible–especially during his ludicrous interview to Fox News yesterday–to indicate to me that he not only did what Ford alleges he did, but that this kind of behavior was par for the course for him and his drunken prep school buddies. (As various other testimonials about his rapey and drunken belligerent behavior on other occasions seem to confirm.) I’m not convicting Brett Kavanaugh in any legal domain and of course, were the Senate not to vote in favor his nomination, they would not be doing so either–they would merely be letting him continue in his present position at the highly prestigious Federal Appeals Circuit as a judge; still, given these two sources of information available to me about what happened some thirty-six years ago, I’m inclined to find one of the pair named in my opening sentence above vastly more credible.
Ford, that is. Not the dude who looks like just about every other rich, privileged, self-satisfied, smug, drunken frat boy it has been my misfortune to either personally encounter or read about. There is a history to these matters, and in almost every single reckoning, dudes like Brett Kavanaugh are the guilty ones, yet almost always unpunished, and women like Ford, who have been assaulted or harassed, are forced to suffer further indignities. (Three women friends of mine have been raped; not one of them ever filed a report. Their rapists still walk free.)
Seeing isn’t believing. Most of the knowledge we claim about the world comes from testimony, written or otherwise. I know the sun is 93 million miles from the earth; reliable, authoritative, scientific sources tell me so. I know Napoleon came to power in 1799; reliable historical sources tell me so. Neither of these claims graduated to the status of knowledge via a courtroom; they went through ‘standard epistemic channels’: statement, corroboration (possibly via other testimonials), confirmation by taking actions based on the truth of these propositions, and so on. If we were to examine the corpus of our beliefs, we would find that the grounds we have for believing them are exceedingly varied; very few of them have been vetted by any kind of legal standard. There is no reason to hold, as many obfuscators would have us do, that the grounds for rejecting Kavanaugh’s nomination should be a ‘conviction’ by the standards of a criminal court. It should merely be enough that we find ourselves agnostic no longer, and inclined to believe one account. On which we could base our future actions. Like we do every single day of our lives. Context matters, yes, and this is a nomination process for the next Supreme Court Justice. But it is no more, and no less, than a highly dramatized job interview. There are no criminal penalties here. Our standards should be appropriately configured.
And when I do that, I find that I”m in a very familiar epistemic situation: on one side, a graduate of an institution–a fucking petri dish for toxic masculinity–that breeds and confirms privilege, which condones drunken behavior, imbued with a sense of entitlement, allegedly engaging in a species of behavior that is, by all historical and cultural accounts, very common to such places, and on the other side, a woman alleging an assault whose parameters sound very familiar, and who did not speak up for years because she feared precisely the reaction sent her way by the Republican Party.
The evidence is in: Brett Kavanaugh is a lying, rapey, fratboy.
I’m a professor of philosophy, and quite frequently, I teach classes on social and political philosophy and philosophy of law; the subject matters of these classes and their attendant discussions, very often stray, as they should, into ethical theory and its foundations. There, on numerous occasions, my students raise the The Trolley Problem and ask me what I think the ‘correct solution’ is. I’ve come up with a variety of responses over the years and have ‘settled’ on something like the following:
The Trolley Problem is not a problem or a puzzle to be solved. There is no solution per se. It is a mistake to ask anyone for their solution to it. The Trolley Problem is rather, designed to illustrate the insuperable difficulty of ethical decision-making, to suggest that very often, if not always, we will find ourselves unable to make what we, or anyone else, would consider to be a ‘correct’ or ‘satisfactory’ solution to an ethical problem. Indeed, the fact that such ethical decisions will leave traces of dissonances within us and others should suggest to us that any decision-making ‘calculus’ or ‘procedure’ is likely to be flawed, and that at best, we should only expect ‘approximate’ or ‘satisficed‘ resolutions of ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas serve to educate us about the dimensions of the human problem that generated them, and may further guide our ethical decision-making in related domains. But that is all they are supposed to do; they are not supposed to adjudicate between ‘rival’ ethical frameworks and show that one leads to ‘better’ decisions than the other. There is no ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ that is ‘correct’; instead, if the problem is fully fleshed out, at best we should expect to learn about the kinds of human situations that can give rise to them, and how we may ‘work around’ them in the future. We will gain, as a bonus, an added insight into why human affairs have been quite so messy and complex over the years. That is all we should expect from our reading of, and ‘resolution’ of, ethical dilemmas.
To illustrate this claim–and to further make the point that literature can provide moral instruction as well as, if note better than, formal ethical theory–I tell them the story of reading Alistair Maclean‘s WWII novel HMS Ulysses as a teenager, and the effect that one particular incident within it had on me. The precise details are a little hazy–as might be expected, given that I read the novel more than thirty years ago–but the outline is quite clear. An Allied convoy consisting of merchant ships and destroyer escorts is headed to Murmansk to deliver supplies to Russian forces; a German U-boat sneaks in and torpedoes one of the ships of the convoy; as the ship burns but refuses to sink, the captain of the HMS Ulysses orders it sunk in order to prevent its burning ruins from attracting German long-distance bombers and other U-boats from attacking other ships in the convoy; this order is reluctantly executed by a young midshipman despite the fervent expressions of horror and dismay by junior officers and enlisted men; after the torpedo is fired, we find out that that midshipman’s brother was one of the sailors on the ship he had just torpedoed.
When I finish telling this story, suitably embellished to bring out the horrors of the situation being described, I describe the conclusions I drew upon reading it:
War is a cruel and inhumane business; it makes monsters out of all us; military discipline is fascistic. We should not fight wars because we should not put men and women in conditions that require them to take decisions like the one the captain of the HMS Ulysses and the midshipman had to take.
There was no ‘correct solution’ for this WWII trolley problem. The only solution to it was to not fight the war that allowed it to develop. But notice again, that WWII was a gigantic Trolley Problem all of its own with no ‘solutions’ except for very difficult, painful, and entirely ‘suboptimal’ ones. By its end, the Allies had committed many war crimes in an effort to combat other moral atrocities.
There is no getting away from the difficulty of ethical decision-making; any ‘professional’ ethicist who believes otherwise is a charlatan. Those who believe such solutions obtain are deluded.
In August 2012, my wife and I went on a road-trip through parts of the American southwest and west: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were our most prominent destinations. We camped and hiked in several national parks; I made note of some of those experiences here. Among the national parks we hiked in was Grand Teton National Park; there, we went on a day hike up to Surprise Lake. The views, as promised, were spectacular; we sat by the shores of an alpine lake and gazed at the surrounding peaks and glacial cirques, awed and humbled by the stunning setting for our well-earned picnic lunch. (My wife, by some measure the more enterprising of the two of us, even partook of what seemed like a bone-chilling dip in the waters of Surprise Lake.)
On the way back to the parking lot, we met climbers returning from their ascent of the Grand Teton. I stopped to ask how their climbing had gone; I was curious and envious in equal measure. I knew the views they must have enjoyed would have been even more spectacular than ours; and of course, mountaineers and climbers have always enthralled me with their feats. The climbers enthusiastically responded; they had made it to the summit in good time, and were now headed back to the parking lot for some well-earned rest. When I enquired further about their experience up on the peak, they replied that it had been a ‘totally doable climb; you’ve got to have a head for exposure, of course.’ On hearing this, I turned to my wife and said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never climb the Grand.”
I’m scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember. Even the mention of exposure up on the mountains was enough to send a little chill through my heart. I wanted to see what the views from the summit of the Grand were like; I knew that up on its ridges and faces, I would encounter a spectacular alpine landscape. But it felt beyond my reach; quite simply, I did not have the mental wherewithal to venture into that domain.
This past August, I climbed the Grand Teton in the company of my guide, Chris Brown, (of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) and another climber, Kirk Nelson. We ascended via the Pownall-Gilkey route, one made easier by the presence of roped slings on its most challenging pitch. There was some exposure but none of it paralyzed me; I had started to accept my unease at being exposed to precipitous cliffs as an inseparable part of the climbing experience. When I made it to the summit, I was visibly overcome with emotion; at that moment, the feeling of having managed to work through one of the most persistent fears present in my being was among the most powerful I had experienced in a very long time. For I knew that at that moment, I had, in a manner of speaking, found entrance to a new world, one in which I would not be limited by a fear that would hold me back from venturing forth to explore its offerings. I had not imagined that this task was one I was capable of undertaking, but there, on that summit, I had proof of its successful accomplishment. It was, as the cliche goes, a transformative experience; I saw myself in a whole new light.
Our self-discovery is not merely a matter of introspection; very often, if not always, it requires acts that change, by active construction, the person we are. And could become.
A couple of weeks ago, in a reunion of sorts, I had lunch with some folks I to went high school with; six of us attended. Out of the attendees, I was meeting three after a gap of thirty-four years. This is the longest interval of time in my life between two meetings with the ‘same person.’ The reason for those quotes should be evident to all of those who have undergone such encounters: very often, our intuitions about the identity of those we meet after such a long time are shaken by the differences between the two stages of their ‘growth’ or ‘evolution’ that we have encountered. Moreover, in these encounters, we experience something of the puzzling nature of time and memory: Where have all those years gone? Is the past a place? Why do those past events seem so ephemeral? How can the memories of events so distant in time be so much fresher than the memory of yesterday’s events? The chilling thought crosses our mind that perhaps we will experience a similar sensation on our deathbeds, if we are fortunate enough to be lucid to experience them as such–will we experience then, just as now, the curious sensation of two points in time, seemingly separated by an insuperable gap, folding as it were to make contact with each other? Will all that came before seem like a ‘mere dream’?
That afternoon in Palo Alto, as I sat in a backyard patio, enjoying pizza and salad in the company of my high school friends, I was struck by variants of these thoughts. Across the table from me sat my five-year old daughter, on my left sat a classmate from thirty-four years ago. My daughter perplexes me consistently with her ever changing self; she is not the girl she was a year ago; she is not the tantrum throwing toddler from three years ago; she is not the babbling language learner from four years ago; she is not the infant of five years ago; soon, her present self will change, ever so imperceptibly, into its next ‘stage.’ My friend looked a lot like she used to but she sounded different; her accent was modulated, she spoke of college-age daughters. At another end of the table sat another friend; his turban was gone, his hair was a silvery white–his appearance was so radically dissimilar that I put the older self I knew out of mind and concentrated on the one present at the moment. In the case of yet another one of my friends, we had realized that we had hardly known each other in school, hardly ever conversed; yet, here, now that we had met, our new selves liked each other well enough to fall almost instantly into a pattern of behavior that approximated that of old friends; our old selves were the anchoring memory that allowed us to so easily trade in a kind of otherwise inaccessible familiarity.
Here, new relationships were possible, indeed, they were necessary. The older lives offered material for reminiscing; our new selves and lives possibilities for new friendships configured on different grounds.
This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.
So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did. I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?
Classes began yesterday for the fall semester of 2018. I returned to Brooklyn College, to campus, to find an office in disarray: a paint job had resulted in displaced furniture, books, and worse of all, networking cables, resulting me in not having an internet connection all day. It was a rude and chaotic end to the summer, an unpropitious start to the fall’s reading and writing and learning. I was in a foul mood for most of the day; only the presence of my daughter–who accompanied me to campus because she had no camp this week–in my office and classroom restored some of my good humor.
I’ve been off the blog for a while; for most of July and August. My blogging was sporadic in June as well. In part, this was because of increased responsibilities both personal and professional, but mainly because I traveled to Colorado, Wyoming, and California for various climbing, hiking, and camping trips. With those done, I now face some onerous deadlines for writing projects; the good news–I think–is that the proverbial batteries have been recharged and I’m ready to get back to work. I express that notional doubt because like those who spend some extended time in the outdoors, you wonder whether you have, in a manner of speaking, ‘left your mind out there somewhere,’ that return to enclosed and crowded city spaces might prove to be a bridge too far. We will soon find out once I find myself–again–staring at unfinished drafts and recalcitrant passages of writing.
In many ways, the summer was transformative on the non-academic fronts; I became a slightly better climber and developed some confidence to take on more ambitious ventures in the mountains; I worked through, many times, my fear of heights and exposure (indeed, I owe at least a pair of posts on the subject of being present for one’s fears and ‘mastering’ them through familiarity); my daughter showed a love for the outdoors that was heartening–she hiked a pair of fourteeners and spent three days climbing outside in Boulder Canyon, El Dorado Canyon, and the Second Flatiron. I can only hope that she will stay with this passion and let it guide her in the years to come. Much more on those hopes too. (On the academic front, little transformation happened; my reading and writing fell off sharply.)
Two classes loom ahead of me: a repeat of last spring’s philosophy of law seminar with the same set of readings, while my philosophical issues in literature calls on a new set of five novels for reading and discussion:
There is plenty in these texts to spark discussion if they are read; I picked novels with slightly more explicit philosophical content to make class discussions a little easier.
Every semester begins with hope; new books and new students always bring that to my doorstep. I’m ready for fall’s latest installment.