A Journalistic Model for Philosophy, Composing, 10/06/2014

I didn’t post this Monday for two reasons. One of those was a very ordinary reason — I spent most of Sunday after posting my Tom Green story partying on a beach with my girlfriend until we were rained out and went home to pass out in the crooks of each other’s arms. So I had my priorities straight for this weekend. 

Also, I was focussed on pointing people on my facebook and twitter feeds to the article I published that morning with rabble.ca’s Campus Notes column. It was a revision of my post from this May about the dismissal of Robert Buckingham from University of Saskatchewan and the further catalogue of my grievances regarding their TransformUS program that would have overhauled and cheapened the entire institution in the name of austerity. However, the revised version on rabble goes just a little farther in one direction than the original post.

Robert Buckingham, whose firing this
May started this entire mess.
I added some material to the section at the very end, which departs from a more pure summary of the situation at University of Saskatchewan and my subsequent outrage. It contrasts two moral philosophies, one that is quite prevalent today, and one which I think should be more so. The moral philosophies that prioritize rights is about protecting our abilities to do things, and institutions have come to be treated almost as if they had the same or similar rights that humans do. I can insert a link to the Citizens United decision, but I won’t because the actual text of that decision is far more nuanced than many of its effects or public image. All we need to learn about this morality is to watch the public conversations that unfold about whistleblowers. 

We hear the conclusion that the corporation has a right to fire employees who go against the directions of leaders, or who speak out against injustices their employers commit. The corporation is referred to as if it has rights, freedoms to act and pursue ends which trump the rights of communities not to be deceived or harmed by corporate activities. It’s not as though the corporation itself has rights enshrined in law equal to those of human citizens. It is that we all too often refer to corporations as if they did. 

I opposed a morality that, instead of cataloguing and protecting rights to act without interference, tracked the physical effects of actions, and assigned responsibility for those effects. At heart, it’s an ecological morality, one that prioritizes reparation and redress for harms done. Rights don’t enter into this philosophical picture because this is not a morality about making claims for others to follow, but owning up for your actions. 

All this is an extremely general set of comments about fundamental moral matters, a loose enough conversation simply for a reader to get hold of the basic difference between these perspectives. There is a huge academic literature which I’m leaving to the side for the sake of the brief discussion of some of the ideas that I briefly discuss in my rabble piece. But they are discussions that will get people thinking about moral philosophical matters at fundamental levels. And it’s a discussion that’s connected to a fascinating event of real-world injustice, the TransformUS program and the wider trend in university corporatization it signifies. 

In this sense, blending a discussion of fundamental philosophical concepts with political phenomena unfolding in the everyday world, I wrote a piece of philosophical journalism. It may be one way that folks like me can do philosophy outside the confines of a university system that, under the increasing pressure of that very corporatization, has less and less room for genuinely critical thought. It’s also the kind of philosophical work that can engage with the public outside the tuition-paying group, engaging a genuinely popular audience with the same level of respect that is usually reserved, in academic circles, for disciplinary peers. In that sense, you can call this work one more experiment in the future of philosophy.

After all, it isn't as if more philosophical training among those writing in the public sphere about related issues can't hurt at this point. The insipid coverage of the recent Eugene Goostman program illustrates that (I won't link because I couldn't settle on a single article that I'd noticed yesterday was dumb enough). The Turing Test is actually about whether an artificial cognitive processor could form and act upon the actual intention to deceive, not whether someone could design a chatbot algorithm with enough caveats in its presentation to convince people to overlook its egregiously unnatural errors in expression. If more writers had actually read and bothered to think about the original essay in which Alan Turing laid out that test, coverage would have been much more provocative and intelligent. 

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