Newsletter: December 2021
[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]
The days are getting shorter and darker—at least up here in Alaska—but we’re entering a month of festive holidays and good cheer. Happy Hanukkah to those of you who celebrate it. And kind wishes to all who are separated from family and loved ones.
The big news in the world of online philosophy is that I announced my January courses a week ago. I’m offering two ten-week courses, which meet once a week for 75 minutes over Zoom. “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy” reprises (with small modifications) my successful course from last winter. With the help of ancient Greek and modern thinkers, we’ll ask what, and how, we can learn from literature. In “An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas,” we examine arguments that challenge us with bold, and sometimes unsettling, conclusions.
The courses cost $349 CAD, which is about $275 USD, £205, or €245. I have gift cards available and also offer a pay-what-you-can option for those who aren’t able to afford the full course fee.
Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. If you know of someone who might enjoy these courses, please do spread the word!
The launch of these courses is a good occasion to acknowledge some of the work that’s gone on behind the scenes. You may have noticed that my website has recently undergone a big transformation. That work, along with less visible work in the dark arts of search engine optimization, has been due to Rachel Keith. She’s worked wonders in a very short time. Even less visible but far more profound has been the help of Philip Ryan, a business manager and consultant. Philip patiently and expertly hand-held this rookie entrepreneur through the steps of starting a business. If you’re looking for business or web services, I heartily recommend both Philip and Rachel.
I have less than two weeks left in my teaching term here at Outer Coast. In the last week, snow has started to settle on Sitka. Last Sunday I went for a five-hour there-and-back hike through the snow up Kaasda Héen (“Indian River” on most maps, but that’s a name that ought to change) to a waterfall. The snowy forest trails were silent and magical.
Some people have remarked on the title of my new course on “dangerous ideas.” The concept for the course was motivated by a common misapprehension about philosophy. The way philosophy is often marketed to the general public, it can seem like a collection of the peculiar opinions of interesting minds. Descartes thought that the mind and the body are two separate substances. Locke thought the mind is a “blank slate” at birth. Kierkegaard thought we need to make some kind of “leap of faith.” And so on.
Everyone has opinions. What makes for a philosopher is not the peculiarity of those opinions. It’s that these so-called opinions aren’t opinions at all. They’re conclusions arrived at through careful argumentation. And it’s the rigour, depth, and insight of those arguments that make for great philosophy.
We miss the real stakes in philosophy if we respond only to the conclusions philosophers reach, agreeing when they align with what we already believe and disagreeing when they diverge. So how to teach philosophy in a way that engages with the arguments themselves? The idea for this course is to present arguments whose conclusions are in some way difficult to swallow. Working through that discomfort forces people back on to the arguments themselves.
Peter Singer’s classic “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is a paradigm of a “dangerous idea” in this regard—and is the subject of the seventh week of class. The conclusion of Singer’s argument is unsettling: you are morally obligated to give most of your money to charitable causes. It’s not that it would be nice of you to do this. It’s that not doing this is wrong.
Accepting Singer’s argument calls for drastic changes in the way we organize our lives. We could resist those changes in one of two ways. The first is to dismiss, ignore, or try to forget Singer’s argument. The second is to come up with a reasoned argument for why we shouldn’t accept Singer’s conclusion. The first option is intellectually dishonest. The second option is difficult.
If we want to avoid the charge of intellectual dishonesty, then, we either face the difficulty of meeting Singer’s challenge or the difficulty of resisting it in a reasoned way. There’s no easy way around Singer’s argument once you encounter it. That’s what makes it dangerous.
I’m now going to give a brief summary of that argument. Danger ahead.
Singer begins with a thought-experiment. Suppose you were walking by a shallow pond and saw a child drowning. You can rescue the child at no real risk to yourself, but you’re wearing new clothes and they’ll get wet and muddy if you jump in. In a case like this, Singer proposes, you have a moral obligation to rescue the child. You’d be doing something wrong—something monstrous, even—if you decide to carry on your way and let the child drown.
The world is full of drowning children, Singer says. At the time he was writing the paper, in the early 1970s, the Bangladesh Liberation War was causing widespread suffering. Millions of people were starving or displaced. Humanitarian organizations like Oxfam provided famine relief and support for the vulnerable. Donatons to these organizations saved lives. Like with the drowning child, Singer argues, you are morally obligated to help.
There are obvious differences between a child drowning in a nearby pond and a starving refugee half a world away. But none of these differences are morally relevant, says Singer. Distance doesn’t diminish your moral obligation. Nor do differences in country or culture. The fact that others could help also doesn’t change the obligation that bears on you. If other people were walking past the drowning child, ignoring its cries, that would in no way diminish your obligation to rescue it.
So how much are we obligated to help? Nothing beyond covering our basic necessities matters enough that others should die, Singer says. That new iPhone? The money you spent on it could feed a lot of people. That holiday in Mexico could have bought a lot of anti-malarial bed nets.
If you take Singer’s argument seriously, it calls for living a modest life and donating the rest of your income to effective charities. To give Singer his due, he walks the walk. Despite being one of the most prominent philosophers in the world, he lives modestly and donates lavishly.
You don’t have to follow Singer’s lead in this. But if you don’t, you’d better be able to give a good reason why not. You’ll have a chance to hash things out in early March if you join my course!
…And then you can ask me how much of your course fee is being donated to charity…
In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy end of the year. And, in this season of extravagant gift-giving, keep Singer’s argument in mind and consider who else might benefit from your generosity.
With best wishes to you all,