A Philosopher's Blog

I want my white hat back.

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2007

Like most American men my age, I grew up watching westerns and war movies. For the most part, things were rather black and white. Good guys wore white hats or American uniforms. Bad guys wore black hats or Nazi uniforms. Naturally, these shows and movies helped shape my conception of good and evil.

The main lesson I learned was that while the good guys could play rough and even kill people, there were certain things that good guys just did not do. The western villains ignored the laws, trampled the weak, locked people up in nasty places, and shot people from ambush. The Nazis tortured people, mistreated prisoners and invaded weaker countries. In contrast, the western hero protected the weak, freed people, and faced the bad guy down in the open. The American soldier did not torture, treated prisoners well, liberated the oppressed and freed countries from invaders.

As I grew up, I learned that worlds of the westerns and war movies were largely worlds of make believe. I learned that Americas had done many terrible things. Despite that, I still believed that Americans mostly wanted to be the good guys and wanted to do the right thing. While that belief faded for a while into cynicism, it never wholly vanished. I still believe in good and evil. I still believe that America can be a great force for good.

Many people talk about America being good and our enemies being evil. In many cases, these people also advocate doing things that would earn them a black hat: torture, spying, suspending liberties, invasions, assassinations, and other terrible things. They justify such things, ironically enough, by claiming that we are in a moral struggle between good and evil.

I do agree that we are in a moral struggle. After all, each day is a moral struggle for each of us. Every day we are faced with choices, however small, that have moral significance. But, doing evil is not the way to win a moral struggle.  The way to win a moral struggle, as Dr. Martin Luther King Junior argued, is not by using evil means and giving in to hatred. A moral struggle is won by being moral.

The actions of America in recent years have made me feel shame for what I have, as a citizen, permitted to be perpetrated in my name. Because of this, I would not feel quite right wearing that white hat now. But, I do want my white hat back. Perhaps someday both America and I will earn that right.


Descats’ Meditations on Furry Philosophy

Posted in Epistemology, Humor, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 6, 2007

Excerpt from Meditations on Furry Philosophy,by R. Descats (translated by Michael C. LaBossiere from the original Feline)

 Here I sit in my litter box, thinking of the things that I held to be certain in my kitten hood: the tastiness of mice, the evil of dogs, the existence of warm sunny places in which to rest, and so on. I went through life, as most tomcats do, certain of my excellent senses. However, one day while attempting to secure a tasty bit of fish in my servant’s (1) fish tank, I happened to note that to my eyes my leg appeared bent when I thrust it beneath the water. So shocked was I that I pulled my paw forth and forgot all about my dinner. Being a philosophic being, as most cats are, I sought a warm spot atop a pile of freshly washed linens and contemplated my experience. After several naps, I thought about the fact that though my leg had appeared bent, I could feel no change (other than it becoming wet) when I inserted it in the water. It was clear to my remarkable intellect (2) that my senses, which I had previously put so much stock in, had deceived me! This revelation so startled me that I missed my next four naps contemplating its implications. After securing a tasty morsel from my servant’s plate whilst he was pouring himself a beverage, I retired to my litter box for some deep thinking. I spent numerous days in my litter box contemplating all that I held true and it is only now that I have begun scratching my findings into the nearby furniture for the benefit of posterity. (3)

 Sitting here in my litter box, I am attempting to doubt all that I can until I reach that which I cannot doubt. I will begin with the easy doubting. I can easily doubt that dogs, materialists, republicans, and other such beings do not exist, for they have no importance to me. With a little more effort I can doubt the existence of fleas, furniture, my next door neighbor’s garden (which is an excellent substitute for my litter box), the bricks my next door neighbor hurls at me when she spies me using her garden as a substitute litter box, and dirt. I can even doubt that my servant exists and even my litter box. I can even imagine that only I and I alone exist. (4) But, can I go further? Can I imagine that my body does not exist? Yes. I can imagine not having my beautiful tail, my elegant whiskers, my shiny coat, and my wondrous eyes. I can even imagine not having my teeth and claws, which I use to bite and slash mice, materialists, deconstructionists and other vermin. But, can I imagine it being the case that I do not exist? No. For when I think, I know I exist. I think, therefore I am comes to me clearly and distinctly by the light of feline reason, so it cannot be false. Besides, how could it be that I not exist?(5)

 But what am I? Since I can imagine myself existing without my tail, whiskers, eyes, in short, without any of my bodily parts, it follows, clearly and distinctly, by the light of feline reason, that I am not my body, which is but extended substance with various modes. What them am I? I clearly and distinctly perceive, by the light of feline reason, that I am a thinking substance, without extension…


1. Descats, like most felines, considers himself the master and his “owner” the servant. Those who are owned by cats will understand what he means.

 2. Cats, like most French philosophers, are shameless egotists.

 3.  Most of the vulgar believe cats scratch things for the merry hell of it. While sometimes this is the case, often the cats are “writing” in this manner. After all, they cannot hold pens and they have a hard time working with computers.

 4. This is actually easy for a cat to believe, since it is usually one of their most cherished pre-philosophic beliefs. The hard part is getting cats to acknowledge other entities.

 5.  See footnote #2, above.


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2007

The typical food stamp recipient receives $21 a week in federal aid. Recently, some law makers decided to see for themselves what that would buy. They decided to go for a week eating only what $21 would purchase. Given that the budget per meal would be $1, it was hardly a shock when they found that they could buy very little food and almost nothing that would be considered high quality, healthy food.

Given the scant support available, it is good that a bill has been proposed to significantly increase the aid provided, especially to families. Although this proposal certainly seems pro-life, pro-family and pro-American values, there are some who disagree with this.

The classic objection is that the poor are lazy and simply milking the system. While there are no doubt some people who do exploit the system, the evidence seems to show that most of the adults on food stamps work. I make special mention of adults because many of the Americans on food stamps are children. Saying that these kids are lazy and exploiting America is a rather cold and cruel thing to say. Even if you believe that adults should take care of themselves, it is morally unacceptable to let children go hungry simply to hold true to an abstract political ideal about rugged individualism.

Of course, some people have said that the poor are putting their children in this situation by being irresponsible and by having children in the first place. This does raise a point of great concern. On one hand, I believe that people should not have children unless they are responsible enough to care for those children. In my own case, I would not even have a pet if I could not provide for it. It is, to say the least, morally irresponsible to have children without the means to provide them with adequate food, care and shelter. On the other hand, the view that only those who are adequately wealthy have the right to have children certainly strikes me as morally questionable. As Aristotle claimed, a family is one of the great goods in life and to claim that poor people should not have families is to say that they should be denied yet another good.

Laying aside the philosophical points, the fact is that there are kids now who live in poverty and are hungry. To say that the poor should not have kids does nothing to help these kids.

It might be said that the kids are not our responsibility. It would be nice to help them, but we have no obligation to do so.

Perhaps this is true-perhaps we owe nothing to other people, not even children. Perhaps we are not our brother’s keeper. Perhaps our hearts are cold and empty. I would like to think that we are better than that, that we will not let children suffer because of ideology.

One final point-food stamps are a medicine that eases the symptoms but does not cure the disease. Providing more aid and support is a good thing, but what is truly needed is a way to ensure that people can earn a living wage and put healthy, adequate food on the table for themselves and their kids.

If, as the Bush administration claims, we have a culture of life and should follow Christian ethics, then we should feed the hungry and see to it that the children suffer not.

Philosophy Professor/Profession

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2007

I was recently asked about the work environment, salary and job prospects in the philosophy profession and thought I’d post my answers:

In general, the work environment in philosophy tends to be good. Schools can vary greatly, but working in academics is generally a very positive experience (professor is the # 2 rated job in America).

Typically, a professor has an office that might be shared or private and teaches in various classrooms. Schools vary greatly in assigned responsibilities. A community college might require 4-6 classes a semester, but have no other expectations. A major research university might require 1-2 classes a semester, but expect committee work, professional service, research and such. For the most part, the work load is not unreasonable relative to the salary. Starting salary in a tenure line ranges from $30,000-60,000 depending on many factors. Interestingly, prestigious schools do not always pay more than community colleges. For example, a friend of mine is a professor at Cal State and makes $63,000 a year with a PhD. One person who has an MA makes about $65,000 at a nearby community college and has the same number of years, etc. Unions tend to be a major factor as well. Public schools in strong union states tend to pay well.

The job outlook is quite variable. When I was looking for a job in 1993 the market was horrible. The standard job listing in philosophy is published by the American Philosophical Association and is called Jobs for Philosophers. When I was looking, my classmates and I called it the Job for Philosophers because it was so thin due to the small number of jobs available. Now that many of the old white guys are retiring or dying and the economy is generally good, there are many more openings. So, the JFP is has been fairly fat in the past few years. But, things could change quickly. University budgets could drop, there could be a bumper crop of PhD s to saturate the job market and so on.

Overall, being a philosophy professor is a good job that pays reasonably well. The opportunities have been quite good in recent years-relative to when I graduated.

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