A Philosopher's Blog

Dr. King’s Day

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2011
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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When reflecting on Dr. King’s day I generally use his “I Have a Dream” speech as a focus. In that speech Dr. King compares the situation of 1963  with that of 1863 and it seems proper to keep making comparisons between how things are now with how things were in the past.

King focuses on three primary problems: discrimination, segregation and poverty. While the situation in 2011 is clearly vastly better than in 1863 and significantly better than in 1963, there are clearly still problems that remain in these areas.

Although, as people like to point out, we have a black president discrimination is still a factor in American life. It is no longer legal, but persists in various ways. While it is unlikely that there will ever be a time when people are evaluated based solely on relevant qualities, this is still an ideal worth striving for.

Segregation is, oddly enough, still quite real. Interestingly enough the segregation that occurs today is not based on legal restrictions but is rather based on choice and economic factors. Choice occurs when people elect to self-segregate. The economic factors also tend to divide people by race, mainly because income still tends to divide along racial lines. Since neighborhoods tend to be divided on the basis of economic class and class and race still correlate to a significant degree, segregation still occurs.

Since the segregation is not based on laws, there is the serious question of what, if anything, should be done to address this. After all, if people segregate by choice, then there seems to be little grounds on which to justify forcing people to move so as to lower segregation. As far as the economic based segregation, attempts to push the rich and poor together or attempts to lessen income disparities would tend to met with great resistance. As such, it seems likely that segregation will endure now and even forever.

Poverty is still clearly a serious problem. After all, unemployment is still rather high and income is still correlated with race. Now that there is an overall economic problem it is harder to address specific economic inequalities. After all, the main focus seems to be on getting the economy on an upswing. Once the economy is doing better, attention might be turned to more specific sorts of inequalities.

As a final point, in these times of angry rhetoric we should consider Dr. King’s words: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

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The Value of Diversity

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2010
Milbank Diversity Committee
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Diversity, we are constantly told, is a good thing. It is something to aim for and it is something that the law should compel or at least facilitate. Unfortunately, folks are not always clear or precise in regards to what is meant by the term and just why it is a good thing.

The easy and obvious view of diversity is a variety in ethnicities in an area or group. For example, people speak of the military as being diverse because there blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians and so on. Another common form of diversity is cultural. This, obviously enough, involves a variety of people from various cultural groups (which may or may not also involve ethnicity as a factor). A third common form is gender diversity. Traditionally this involved having a mix of males and females, but has been expanded to include sexual orientation (straight, bisexual, gay, trans, and so on). Other forms of diversity (ideological, for example) are also possible.

It is commonly assumed in some circles that diversity is good. However, it is reasonable to inquire as to the nature and extent of this value.

The value of diversity is typically presented as extrinsic: diversity is supposed to have various positive effects.  In the case of communities, diversity provides a greater variety of restaurants and is supposed to make the area more interesting. In the case of the military, diversity is supposed to provide useful things such as a variety of language skills, understanding of different cultures, and other things that can be useful in operating in other countries. In the case of academics, diversity is supposed to bring in a variety of opinions and perspectives other than those held by the white males of the old academy.

One concern with this sort of view is that it seems to rest on the assumption that individuals represent their groups. So, for example, adding an Hispanic woman to the faculty will provide a perspective that must be distinct from those held by a white male (who represents his ethnicity and gender) or a black woman (who also represents her ethnicity and gender). To assume that a person must somehow represent or instantiate the perspective of his/her group or even be different from others seems to rest on stereotyping. In fact, it might be suspected that this sort of view is analogous to racism/sexism/etc. in that it assumes, uncritically, that people will or will not have certain qualities based solely on their membership in a group (ethnic, gender, cultural or other).

That said, it is not unreasonable to believe that people who differ in ethnicity, gender, and so on will tend to be be different in other ways. But, whether these differences are significant or valuable is another matter.

The value of diversity is also put forth as being an end in and of itself. That is, it is presented as having intrinsic value. So, for example, having a diverse faculty would be valuable even if the diversity had no discernible effect on education. While I will admit that arguing for intrinsic value is tricky, it seems unlikely that diversity is valuable in and of itself. Rather, as noted above, its value seems to stem from its consequences.

People also argue for diversity in terms of equal opportunity. That is, we should strive for diversity as a means of creating more equal opportunity and to reduce discrimination. In this case, the end is not to achieve diversity, but to end discrimination. This should, in theory, create more diversity by removing unfair obstacles. Of course, some people do take diversity to be the goal. That is, the end is not to allow equal opportunity but to ensure that the population in question is divided among certain groups. In general, the usual idea is that the diversity of the specific population (for example university faculty) matches the diversity of the general population.

One obvious concern with this sort of approach is that it can directly conflict with non-discrimination and equal opportunity. For example , individuals could be excluded from a job based on their membership in an over-represented group rather than on the basis of their qualifications for that job. It is, I think, rather well established that denying a person a job on the basis of race, gender and so on is unjust. Excluding someone in the name of diversity is no more right than excluding someone in the same of uniformity.

This was a suggested topic. You can suggest another topic here.

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Males Trying to be Men

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2010

I happened to catch the segment on the Daily Show about the “mancession” and related matters. This reminded me of the various “men” movements that have sprung up over the years and how damn silly they are. But first, I will look at some serious issues.

One concern that I have written about before is that men have become the minority in higher education. Naturally, there are some academic branches that are still male dominated. However, the general college population is now predominately female. Interestingly, the feminists who were so very loud when women were the minority are now silent about the plight of men. This situation is, of course, as much a matter of concern as when women were the minority.

Another concern is the matter of economics. The unemployment rate for men is higher than for women and there are indications that women might very well out earn men soon. Economic equality is a good thing (read Mary Wollstonecraft‘s Vindication of the Rights of Women for an excellent argument) and hence we should be as worried about men as we were about women.

If arguments are wanted as to why we should be concerned about the situation that men are facing, we can simply dust off the old feminist arguments for equality and equal opportunity. Naturally, men are still doing well in many ways: men still dominate politics, business and higher education. However, it is wise to be concerned that men might be facing some of the same problems that women faced (and still do).

Now, switching to something less serious: males trying to be men.

The segment I saw on the Daily Show showed males trying to be men by going out into the woods, passing around a talking stick, and speaking about their feelings.

As I see it, joining a male group to cure one’s lack of manliness is like going to a bar to cure alcoholism. Clearly, a male who is passing around a talking stick or standing in a circle to talk about his feeling is hardly a man at all.

I am not saying that a male needs to chug beer, hoot at women, and kill wild animals with his bare hand in order to be a man. I’m just saying that participating in male groups of this sort won’t make a male into a man. In fact, they would seem to clean out any residue manliness the male might have left.

So, what is the way to be a man? There are actually many ways, despite the stereotype of there being just one way. I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

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