A COMPLETE COURSE IN ENVIRONMENTAL PHILOSOPHY SHOULDN’T TAKE MORE THAN TWENTY-THREE MINUTES. TIME ME.

LESSON #1: DEFINING ONE’S TERMS

Environmental Philosophy (henceforth EP) is that series of phonemes and/or chicken scratches that sustains itself by assiduously refusing to define any of the dozen or so terms which can then be randomized to form sentences which sound deep but say absolutely nothing. Unfortunately this same definition also applies to Continental Philosophy, so what distinguishes the two are their constituent defining undefined terms. Whereas Continental Philosophy drones on about things like – as if there are things like – being, nothingness, authenticity, in short all the brooding words, EP plays its game of jacks with environment, biosphere, sustainability, all the warm fuzzy ones.

“What’s the environment?” you ask?

You’ve just failed the first quiz. What did I just say? You don’t ask. Got it?

“Got it!”

LESSON #2: ITS SCOPE

The word universe means all that is. At one time we thought that wasn’t much. Now we know it’s a helluva lot more. More specifically the universe consists of a whole bunch of worlds, one here, one there, and so on, and a whole bunch more nothing – or maybe something, who knows? – in between. But EP isn’t concerned with any of that. It’s concerned only with those worlds which are life-sustaining, and of those only the ones that are anthropic.

Well no, that’s too quick. Most environmentalists – remember: don’t ask! – hug trees, but not rocks. But there’s nothing in environmentalism per se that rules out concern for the integrity of rocks. That said, we’re going to stick here with the tradition, if the fifty years since EP became a thing can be called a tradition. Traditional EP takes no interest in worlds without a biosphere. And since the only biosphere we know of, at least for sure, is our own, that’s where the scope of EP’s inquiry stops.

For some it would stop at the top of the biosphere – that’s about 200 kilometres, right? – even if our planet was not anthropic, or anthropic but as yet uninhabited by humans, or anthropic but no longer inhabited by humans. These are the crazies. They’re the people who’d mourn the extinction of the human race only because then trees would have no one to hug them. These are the dangerous people. They’re dangerous because if they thought the trees would be better off without us – and let’s face it, they probably would – these people would wipe us out without a second thought the moment they found the wherewithal.

LESSION #3: ITS ETHOS

 Fortunately – not for the trees obviously, but for the rest of us – the crazies are few and far between. Most EPers confine their interests to the one world we know is inhabited by humans, and because it’s inhabited by humans. But even here there’s a palpable split between those who think of us as being merely on the world, and those who think of us being of it. On the former view we’re alien invaders. Even if technically native to the planet, we’re like the Morlock, having recently crawled up from some cavern deep under the earth’s crust.

On this view our task is plunder, albeit plunder constrained by principles of husbandry. And it’s that constraint which, as we’re about to see, renders this first view indistinguishable from the second. But only from the outside. From the inside, that’s to say phenomenologically, the two are as night and day, because they have completely different vocabularies by which to say the same thing.

For example, only on the second view are we as much a natural part of our biosphere as the trees, the frogs, and the lichen. As we’re assured by the “Desiderata”, “[we] have a right to be here.” And so on this view EP is the study of our rightful place in the natural order. Here there can be no suggestion that we’re acting contra natura, because nothing can act contrary to its nature; otherwise it wouldn’t have been its nature.

There’s no fact of the matter as to which of these two conceptions is correct. But there is a fact of the matter about which is the more useful perspective to adopt. If I’m an SS officer in Warsaw, or an IDF soldier in the West Bank, it would be unseemly to expect a great deal of cooperation from the people over whose lives I’m running roughshod. But if I shed the uniform and my sidearm, apologize for my past intrusions, and ask to be accepted, if only provisionally, into the Polish or Palestinian community, I might be pleasantly surprised. And if I cast my lot in with the Poles or Palestinians, even if against my erstwhile own, I might be more pleasantly surprised still.

This is precisely the state of mind that dominates the Sane Wing of the environmentalist movement. It doesn’t naively abandon the view of “nature red in tooth and claw”. It inserts itself into nature, from whence it had always been in the first place. It accepts, as Val Plumwood once remarked, that we too are food. And it doesn’t require, as some have insisted, that we now become submissives. We can still walk upright and tall, but gingerly. Not with mincing steps, but with footfalls carefully placed nonetheless.

LESSION #4: ITS THEOLOGY

 If we have a right to be here, then so does everything else. And this talk of rights is not, for the Sane Wing EPer (or SWEPer), just a facon de parler. She thinks of her world, and of herself, as being governed by laws of nature, laws of physics and chemistry, certainly, but also by some kind of moral natural law. The so-called lower animals follow these laws by instinct, but humans have to discover them. So there’s no contradiction in supposing both that a) we cannot act but according to our nature, and b) we sometimes act contrary to the moral law.

This idea that there are moral laws, and hence duties incumbent upon us independent of having been posited by some sovereign or community of sovereigns, is pulled out of the environmentalist’s ass. How did it get there? you ask? Well, you get pregnant by sitting on a toilet after a man’s peed there. So you must get moral natural law up your ass by sitting on a pew in church. There’s simply no other way it could have got up there. And once you’ve got the moral law in hand – you might want to give it a rinse first – you’ve just assigned purposivity to the cosmos. How so? Because if there’s no answer to the question, “What do we want the law to do for us?”, there’s no answer to the question, “Why should we obey it?”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that at the very core of the SWEPer’s weltanschauung is an oft unrecognized but ineluctable theological commitment. She may not believe in God, but she sure as hell believes in teleology, and in herself being duty bound to fulfill that telos. She is, in short, a Thomist. And from her Thomism we get the predictable litany of stupidities philosophers qua philosophers have always railed against.

Why, then, do they suddenly get stupid when teaching a course in EP? I think it has something to do with what makes them volunteer to teach EP in the first place. Analytic philosophy is a blood sport. “If you want to bleat about ‘justice as fairness’,” we tell them – well, okay, I tell them – “or about a learning environment safe from feeling offended, take it outside!” In short, analytic philosophers come across as assholes, because, well, we are. But EP, not unlike Women’s Studies or Feminist Ethics, is this outside invited back in. It’s a time out. It’s an opportunity to show the kinder side of philosophy, and so to be thought more kindly of. It’s self-promotion. Speaking of which, this is why it takes them a full semester to teach what I can in twenty-three minutes. You are timing me, right?

But I digress. We’re talking about stupidities. Let’s start with …

LESSON #5: NATURAL KINDS

 Here’s the argument that’s driving our intuitions:

  1. A turkey is best carved at the joints.
  2. If it didn’t by its nature have joints, it couldn’t be best carved at them. So
  3. turkeys have natural joints.
  4. Turkeys are part of the world. Therefore
  5. the world has natural joints. That is, even if turkeys were the only constituents of the world that had natural joints, the distinction between things that do and do not have natural joints would itself be a natural joint. So since, cf. (5) the world has joints,
  6. the world can be carved at its joints.

Now it might be supposed there’s some equivocation here, and there is. But only because it’s trying to be pithy. That pithiness is not enough to undermine the soundness of the argument were it more carefully formulated. So yes, the world has joints. If you bend it it’ll break at some places but not others. And that’s just what we mean by having joints. Now let’s see about kinds.

The world is not an amorphous mass of atoms in the void. There are regularities in the configurations of these atoms. Were this not so, then save by the perpetual grace of some mother hen God, we couldn’t live in this world. But we do. We survive, in fact flourish, by noting these regularities in our environment and exploiting them. And these regularities are what we call natural kinds. So, for example, a turkey is a token of one natural kind, a stick a token of another. What makes us think so? Because tokens of the type turkey can be used for one thing, tokens of the type stick for something else.

Some discussants get hung up on the word ‘natural’, which they rightly take to be distinguishing natural regularities from artificed ones. A toaster performs as reliable a function for us as a tree, but whereas “only God can make a tree”, only Tim Horton’s can toast the perfect bagel. So a toaster is a token of a kind, though not a natural one. Now we just need to know whether a regularity that is of no use to us can be, though natural, not a token of a kind. And the answer is clearly yes.

Think of all the things that are artificed and yet not tokens of a kind. This pen is a token of a kind, as is this sock. But this-pen-and-this-sock is not a token of a kind. If it were then the kind of which it is a token would have a name, because the regularity it betokens would have a function for us which would have behooved us to give it one.

All the more so, then, must this be so of natural useless regularities. If we want to say that every useless natural regularity is also a natural kind, then we have to find a way to define a regularity independent of its possible use. But that, as any information theorist will tell you, can’t be done. And because it can’t be done, and yet we want to be realists about natural kinds, every configuration of atoms in the void will count as a token of a natural kind, and then the concept of a natural kind will cease to do any work. So it follows as a matter of logic, never mind of metaphysics, that there are no natural natural kinds, and any non-natural natural kinds there might be owe their being a natural kind exclusively to us.

Or, to put the case another way, if there are x atomics, there are a set number of ways those x atomics can be configured. If, over the course of their existence, a small subset of those atomics are configured the same way twice, that configuration is a regularity. Given the number of atomics, and the sheer size of the universe, that’s likely to be a helluva lot of regularities. In fact what would astonish would be if there were a subset of those atomics that didn’t configure the same way twice in the course of their existence. So there might not be anything left that isn’t a token of a natural kind. But if there’s nothing that isn’t a token of some kind, it’s being what it is isn’t very interesting.

Hence natural kinds, if they’re anything at all, are just one of those meaningless dozen or so postulates I referred to in Lesson #1. Call me Torquemada if you will, but I say consign that kind of patter to the flames!

LESSON SIX: REVIEW

Since I promised twenty-thee minutes, let’s save ourselves some time. Without natural kinds we can’t get the concept of life, without the concept of life we can’t get the concept of species, and without the concept of species we can’t get notions like equilibrium, sustainability, extinction … the list goes on and on and on. In other words, EP can’t have a domain of discourse. And if it can’t have a domain of discourse, there’s nothing for it to talk about.

How do we salvage it? By dropping all pretense at realism and acknowledging that all these terms – animate versus inanimate, speciation, equilibrium, sustainability – they’re all about us, about our needs and druthers, about the way we need to carve up the world and manipulate it, given our aspirations to survive and flourish in it.

But in the service of these ends we already have carved these concerns up into their various disciplines: the natural sciences, ethics, economics, political sciences, and so on. So by all means keep EP, but keep it as one of those fluffy liberal education interdisciplinary touchstone courses. You know, like Lib Ed 1000. What’s it called again? Ah yes, “Getting in Touch with Yourself”.

Good grief! Or in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I shall retire to Bedlam!”

Okay, time! I make it twenty-two minutes, eighteen seconds. Forty-two seconds to spare. I feel like I’m on a roll. Phil of Science? Phil of Mind? Bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em all on!

Or maybe not. What if T.S. Eliot was wrong? What if the world doesn’t end with a whimper, but with brevity?

Texting and Driving

TEXTING AND DRIVING

Most accidents are caused by carelessness, most car accidents by careless driving. Careless driving can be caused by any number of things, including impairment but also a desire to impress one’s buddies. Or, less plausibly, one’s date. Impairment, in turn, can be caused by any number of things – overtiredness, forgetting one’s glasses, having to pee – only one of which is a high blood alcohol level. But we don’t punish anyone for having to pee. We punish him for his careless driving. So some libertarians argue that neither should we be disciplining anyone for drunk driving. We should discipline him if, but only if, he’s violating the rules of the road.

But the argument proves too much. It’s not slaloming the center line that causes a head-on. It’s failing to be on the right side of the road when another vehicle is approaching in the other lane. So it should be perfectly legal to slalom. And of course the same could be argued vis a vis firing a gun down main street. If there’s no one on the street, no harm no foul!

But then why not take the same view of attempts? Any number of things could have caused that fatal shooting, including that the victim was mistaken for a deer. But we don’t jail people for making legitimate mistakes like this. Another possible cause is someone was intending to kill him. We should outlaw intent and success, since otherwise we can’t outlaw anything. But why should we outlaw intent alone? So if the gun jammed, then once again we have no harm and so no foul!

All right, so the libertarian argument fails. We can outlaw drunk driving. But why make it a case of criminal endangerment? Other than at the moment of failing to hand the bartender one’s keys, drunk driving isn’t an intentional offense, whereas failing to shovel one’s sidewalk within 24 hours of a snowfall most often is. For the former you get a criminal record, for the latter a modest fine. Isn’t this ridiculous?

No. The reason for this isn’t rocket science. We criminalize, even strict liability offenses, when the possible consequences are sufficiently dire. If as many people died as a result of unshoveled sidewalks as die by the hood ornaments of drunk drivers, we would make failing to shovel your walk a criminal offense.

But that being the case, why haven’t we made texting and driving a criminal offense? A decade ago texting killed or maimed a tiny fraction of what drinking did. Today that ratio is reversed. [Insert link.] Today texting kills or maimed far more people than drunk driving did even before we had criminalized it. And yet I predict that texting and driving will never be made a criminal offense. Certainly not in my lifetime.

What this shows, I submit, is that there’s more to criminalization than deterring harm. In fact harm need have nothing to do with it. It’s political. If marijuana kills, it kills like tobacco kills, and only if one smokes as much grass as a smoker smokes cigarettes. That’s pretty much unheard of. By contrast, alcohol kills by the millions! But marijuana was the drug of choice of those people. It’s only been since it became the drug of choice of our sons and daughters that we started thinking of decriminalizing it.

Texting while driving is what we all do, where by ‘all’, according to the latest stats, is meant well over 90% of us. [Insert link.] And we’re not going to give it up. We accept that if we’re in an accident and it can be shown we were texting at the time, we’re probably going to be found at fault. And we might even accept being pulled over and fined if a cop sees us texting behind the wheel. But a criminal record? Don’t be absurd!

The criminalization of drinking and driving has reduced its frequency, and so it has saved lives. Far more lives would be saved by criminalizing texting and driving. Or by just making it impossible, which can be easily done. We already have the technology. But it won’t happen. It won’t happen because we can no longer breathe if we’re cut off from knowing where Caitlyn is in the mall now as distinct from twelve seconds ago.

What this says is that whereas our being social animals was naturally selected for, our environment has changed such that our sociality is now going to select against us. Given the stats and projections on texting-related deaths on our streets and highways, by some estimates texting will have driven us to extinction within two generations. That’s faster than even unchecked global warming is predicted to wipe us all out. It follows, therefore, that by any measure texting is a far more urgent threat than global warming, vaccination refusal, and Creation Science combined.

Go ahead. Call me Chicken Little. A prophet is never honored in his own country.

Trigger Warnings

TRIGGER WARNINGS

I take it that no one thinks we have a categorical obligation not to upset each other. But many of us think, myself included, that we have the right to try to protect ourselves from being upset. And so to give effect to this right, some people think others have an obligation to provide me with (what’s come to be called) a ‘trigger warning’, i.e. fair warning that they may be about to upset me.

In all likelihood they won’t upset me. (Is anyone shocked by the “mature subject matter, depictions of violence, scenes of nudity, and strong language” the networks feel compelled to warn us about at the outset of some standard Friday night fare?) But better safe than sorry. So we allow the pro-Life lobby to display their posters of aborted fetuses in the hallway leading from the Student Union to the gym. But we warn potential users of that hallway so if they don’t want to be exposed to those images they can reroute themselves.

On the surface this seems reasonable enough. But it presupposes two things. First, that we all share a common take on what others might find upsetting. And second, that you don’t have a right to try to circumvent my efforts to protect myself. Huh?

Well, as often as not you want to upset me. As a pro-Lifer you want me to be upset when I see what an aborted fetus looks like. Or as an anti-Zionist you want me to be upset by the image of an Israeli gunship casting its demonic shadow over a Palestinian child clutching a teddy bear. That is, you want me not to be able to avoid facing the parallels between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Let’s take these two presuppositions in order.

I teach Philosophy of Religion. Let’s face it. Our religious beliefs, including my own, are a hoot. If we can’t laugh at our faiths we can’t critique them. And if we can’t critique them we can’t deepen them. I make this clear in the course outline, and again on the first day of class. But unless I write every word of every lecture well beforehand – which I’m not going to do – how am I to give fair warning about what might come out of my mouth next? Hell, even I don’t know what I’m about to say until I’ve already said it.

I know not to use the n word or the c word. But can I mention them? I know there are no jokes about Mohammed. But Jesus on the cross saying, “Peter, I can see your house from here!” has never raised a scowl. If some day it does, should I have given fair warning that it was coming? And if I do, what’s the student to do? Keep popping in and out of the room until class is finally over?

Sometimes I say ‘fuck’. So do you. Do you know when you’re about to say fuck? I don’t. I could make it a policy never to say fuck in the classroom or the office or the hallway. But maybe, to be on the safe side, I should make it a policy never to say ‘damn’. And then, to be even more considerate of some Mormon coming straight off his mission, to never say ‘darn’.

Maybe I should learn to talk like Ned Flanders. But hang on. That won’t save me from the wrath of those who find okely dokely offensive. Who could find okely dokely offensive? you ask? Anyone who associates it with Ned Flanders, Flanders with kindergarten Christianity, and kindergarten Christianity with atrocities too numerous and horrible to mention. But if I can’t say fuck or shit, you’d sure as hell better check out the etymology of the heebie jeebies. And while you’re at it, check out golly gee.

Okay, ‘nuff said. The second issue, recall, is whether I can try to do an end run around your right to cover your ears in class, or to refuse to read the assigned text, if thine ears or thine eyes offend thee. As your professor, can I test you on your command of this material? Obviously yes, since otherwise I might only be able to test you on what you knew before registering for my class. Multiply this across all forty of your classes and you’d be entitled to a degree without learning a damn thing!

If I’m a pro-Lifer, can I leave an image of an aborted fetus on the screen of one of the computers in the library? Obviously yes, since otherwise neither could the university leave its logo on the screen, lest someone should find it offensive. Somewhere in that logo two lines cross at right angles. This is subliminal Christian proselytizing, up with which, as a Jew, I will not put!

The women’s washroom is a designated refuge against prurient male eyes. I have no objection to the university likewise providing Moslem students with a Mohammed joke-free room. The problem is Sunni and Shiite students may then just go at each other instead over the legitimate heir to the Prophet’s authority. If you think Donald Trump can be incendiary, try the streets of Baghdad.

No, the most we can do is promise our students freedom from physical injury. Protection of their sensibilities is both beyond our power and contrary to our very raison d’etre.

A related, but not to be conflated issue, is whether we should be allowing the likes of Holocaust deniers to speak on campus. This is a tough one. It’s not that Jewish students are likely to attend the event. But the very fact that others are is bound to make them feel uncomfortable. And understandably so.

The problem is that we have members of faculty, never mind students, who feel the same way about global warming deniers, or anti-vaxers, or any number of unpopular positions. If for the university community anything is a res judicata – anything at all – then we are no longer a university.

The only exception is what might undermine the safety of a community member, and that includes her feeling safe. Hence the perfectly defensible injunction against incitement. But if Holocaust denial is incitement, it’s not Jewish students who need protecting from newly minted anti-Semites; it’s the denier who needs protection from Jewish students. But then it’s the speaker who, if we’re to be courteous, should be afforded a trigger warning.

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to its incoming class of 2020 saying pretty much what I’ve just said. [Insert link.] That it should have been necessary to say it does not speak well for what high school students think university is about. Perhaps instead of a trigger warning that there’ll be no trigger warnings, at the bottom of a student’s acceptance letter should be written the words: Warning: The University of Chicago is a university.