Tag Archives: public ethics

Michael Walzer “retires” from Dissent so that he write a bunch of other cool stuff

So this is Michael Walzer’s idea of retiring, as written up The New Republic:

There is no drama surrounding Walzer’s retirement. He was not purged or anything like that (remember, Dissent is anti-Stalinist!). “I just can’t keep up anymore,” he said. Walzer’s co-editor, Michael Kazin, will run the magazine, which in addition to its print iteration has an increasingly robust online presence. Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (and a New Republic contributing editor), will continue to contribute to Dissent as well as write a book on national liberation movements, a subject on which he is currently lecturing at Yale. Plus, volumes three and four of The Jewish Political Tradition aren’t just going to co-edit themselves.

Wow. Just wow. I have to admit I was crabby when I first saw his initial foray into Jewish thought, as I thought I was going to miss him in the realm of (okImagoingsayit) “pure” normative political theory, but…he’s so good at both, and his philosophical perspective was so deeply informed by the Jewish tradition anyway that he was right; there was no way to understand the one without the other.

The New Republic writer highlights his book on the notion of a Just War, and it’s a very good book, indeed. But the real deal–Walzer at his unparalleled best– is Spheres of Justice. Drop what you are doing and read it.

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Should movies have ethics?

Well now I do have a conundrum. I’ve always been one of those people who are rather impatient with those who complain about how movies distort history/get the book wrong. Does it really matter if the elves were not at Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s book, but Peter Jackson gave some of his hunky actors more screen time and, thus, put elves at Helm’s Deep?

I am pretty sure that Abraham Lincoln was not really a vampire hunter, and I sincerely hope there are no teenage vampires in Washington state.

I don’t think either Beatrix Potter or Jane Austen charged about solving mysteries in between writing novels and doing beautiful illustrations of small animals in frocks.

So up until about this morning, I’ve been in the “it’s a movie categorized as drama, fer Chrissakes, not a documentary” camp and thought little more about it.

But the controversies around Zero Dark Thirty strike me as rather important. It’s a drama–straight up. When you have “based on real events,” shouldn’t the viewer know full well that you are dealing with artistic license on the scale of “these people lived and did something roughly related to the topic herein presented” but treat the whole story as a matter of fiction until they have investigated the reality behind the story?

I’m betting Jesus does have relatives alive in the world. Whether DaVinci ever thought about them is another story.

So torture makes for good drama, as the Bond films have been making clear for roughly 40 years. But the problem is that there appears to be a strong consensus among interrogators that torture doesn’t work all that well. In fact, many have come forward and argued that the movie suggests that the CIA’s use of torture yielded crucial information to catching bin Laden, when that information was obtained using more humane–and far less cinematically titillating–methods. That gap between the state of the practice and what is shown on screen strikes me as rendering the movie rather into propaganda territory. It’s one thing to lay bare the reality of the CIA’s torture policy; it’s another to hint that it was effective when it wasn’t.

The major ethical arguments for torture are all consequentialist in nature. Take away the ends, and you have little left to stand on.

Either way, I’m now confused about my position. The movie fairly does not purport to be a documentary. But…

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The public versus the private and the urban versus rural in gun laws and control

Weeks before the Sandy Hook shootings, my students and I explored the case of Stand Your Ground Laws versus castle laws. The former are the laws under question with Trayvon Martin case; the latter appear to be a fairly well-established part of law coming from the English tradition. This was a seminar on social justice, so it’s not like we had a big showing on the pro-gun side, but my planning students distinguished between the STG laws and castle law mainly based on the public sphere component in the first made most of my planning students very uncomfortable. For them, the communitarian, public sphere question meant that people in the public realm should be unarmed, while most could understand individuals wanting to own a gun for home use.

Andrew Sabl and I were chatting via email about the difference between that idea and the civic republican tradition, which holds that people have a duty to protect not just their homes, but their ‘public’ space as well.

Both my planners and the civic republicans come from similar, communitarian goals of public safety, but they arrive at completely opposite conclusions for policy.

It strikes me that public space-private space distinction is somewhat relevant here, but I am not sure what to do with it. I do know that gun control, like transit policy, is one of those areas which begs for urban-rural distinctions in policy context, and those differences are getting largely ignored in the discussion with the various sides shouting past each other. Guns make much more sense in rural areas than they do in cities–most people in the country do keep guns for a variety of purposes, including hunting, but also to help deal with predators and sick animals like rabid skunks and raccoons, etc, where people can not rely on animal control or police to help. In those contexts, it’s tough finding 40 people in one spot, let alone shooting them. Sure, you can do it, but it probably involves a special occasion, school, or church. But cities are different, with their densities of people in buildings, trains, and sidewalks. My BoA on a normal day has 40 people in the lobby, let alone post office or DMV, which has lines out the door. The possibilities for human harm in short time become greater.

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What moral standing do you need to have to feel bad about the Sandy Hook shootings?

How much are you allowed to grieve for the kids at Sandy Hook?

There are people who feel the need to police emotions surrounding public events because, they argue, people feeling things aren’t feeling the right things in the right way: people who are having feelings must selectively grieve for white kids and not children of color; people don’t follow the right policy prescriptions that would have could have should have prevented the tragedy over which people are now grieving; and/or you don’t actually know the people involved so your pain must be phoney baloney mass hysteria, like English people after the death of Princess Diana.**

I’ve been thinking about this. Surely, there is a “cheap grace” aspect to public mourning relating to policy failures. But policy is not nearly as deterministic as people like to believe, and I’m less willing to pass judgment on public displays of emotion than I was when I was younger.

Here’s a selection:

Thai Noodle House Restaurant Owner in Hot Water After Racist Sandy Hook Shooting Comments:

I have trouble labeling his comments as racism because the many, many classes I’ve taken discussing the nature of racism (you need more power and privilege in order to be racist), but the fact that I’m willing to quibble about the term ‘racist’ over his comments doesn’t mean he’s not being a jerk. Here’s the quote:

“I don’t care if a bunch of white kids got killed. F**k Post-Racial bullshit. When kids from minority groups get shot, nobody cares. When Israel launched missiles at the school on Gaza, everybody was too busy jerking off. Why should i care about people who dont give a damn about me? Personal responsibility, right?”

1) Not all of the victims at Sandy Hook were white (only in his imagination: it’s Connecticut, they must be white; people are worried, those kids must be white. Yes, most of them were, but that hardly excuses the impulse to erase the children who aren’t white so you can air your grievance),

2) I saw a great deal of concern expressed over children in Gaza, and I’m not entirely sure how schilling noodles qualifies as “leading the revolution to save children in Gaza while others jerked off” and

3) it’s not clear from an ethical standpoint that you’re a bad person if you show people who are closer to you, both geographically and chronologically, more care and concern than people remote to you. See the work of global cosmopolitan ethicists like Kwame Appiah or many of the feminist ethicists who have challenged abstract notions of “future generations” being more worthy of care than children who are in need now.

All of that said, it’s true that white kids get more of everything, including media and social care, from a racist system than children of color. That is despicable. The question becomes: would people be somehow “better” if they showed 100 percent strict alignment with some race-ethic around children in this particular tragedy: since I show little empathy or care about children in black families who face gun violence, I should show little empathy or care about children in white families who fall victim to gun violence. I don’t know them, thus I don’t care. Yay me, let’s celebrate my equality towards the races. Woo!

Empathy and care are not like a cake where, if I give some to you or to an animal, that means there’s less for everybody else. It’s entirely possible that the people sickened by the murders at Sandy Hook are also worried about children in Gaza. It isn’t that nobody cares. It may be the right people who are positions of power don’t care enough to undertake the work of preventing the deaths of children in Gaza, but acting like people don’t care at all is probably wrong. Continue reading

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