Citizen Media Site Launches

If you are reading this blog then your are in the thick of the world of “citizen media.”  Check out what’s happening up the road at the University of Maryland thanks to the good work of Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab and a veteran civic journalist:

Launched Today: The Knight Citizen News Network

For immediate release
March 26, 2007
Jan Schaffer
, (301) 985-4020

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Knight Citizen News Network, a free web portal to help both citizens and journalists create and responsibly operate community news sites, launched today with an array of learning and resource modules contributed by a network of participants. was created to help citizens use digital media in ways that enrich community, enhance public discourse and enliven democracy, said Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, which manages development of the site. It also seeks to open doors for traditional news organizations seeking to embrace user-generated content.

The rest of the news release and access to the links is available here.

On Torture

Peter Levine has been thinking through ways to rebut consequentialist arguments that might condone torture.

John Yoo, who wrote the official memo justifying the use of torture, still thinks that there are situations when torture is acceptable. “Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don’t see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don’t have an absolute prohibition on killing. Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified. But that, in some circumstances, it is justified seems to me to be just moral common sense. How could it be better that 10,000 or 50,000 or a million people die than that one person be injured?”

Most knowledgeable people say that torture is wrong even on consequentialist grounds — because it simply doesn’t work: people say false things just to get the torture to stop.  But what if it did work, Peter asks? What about human rights, the claims of the intrinsic dignity of every human being?

I believe in universal human rights, which rest on a sense of the dignity and intrinsic worth of all people. I also think that virtue excludes the use of torture, which is dishonorable. However, I am not so much of a “deontologist” that I’ll stick to principles regardless of their consequences. I won’t say “fiat lex pereat mundus”–let the [moral] law prevail even if the world perishes. Instead, I hope that the effects of torture prove harmful, because then arguments about consequences will line up with arguments about principles and virtues and the case will be easy.

I think we need more than hope.  How about an argument for why torture is wrong even if the consequences seem to be beneficial, an argument that would put morality before utility.  With state-sponsored torture, we’re talking about the morality of an entire people, not just individual actions. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it in today’s New York Times: “Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

Or from a Kantian point of view, when a state condones torture it exiles itself from the realm of humanity.  Treating prisoners as mere means to our own ends makes us inhumane — and I mean that in a very deep way.  If we want to be part of what we might think of as an international space of humanity, we need treat all others as deserving of fundamental rights. Otherwise we become an outlaw state.  Now we seem to be there.

Continental Kantianism

Is the following secret or common knowledge? Many continental philosophers (including Levinas, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard) are Kantians, at least with respect to morality. This may be surprising given that none of them cares much for concepts such as autonomy and reason, two concepts that seem central to Kant’s moral philosophy. But I think they all care deeply about the principle of humanity as a regulative ideal, about ethics as a call, a command, as something that exceeds the world as it is here and now. I’ve been tinkering with a paper on Levinas and Kant for a while on this point. And now I’m re-reading Lyotard and finding the same kind of thing there (see Just Gaming). To make sure that I am not inventing all this, I am reading Christine Korsgaard’s decidedly un-continental work on Kant. And having read so much Levinas in the past few years, I am struck by the resonance of her reading of Kant and Levinas’s ethics, and now even Derrida and Lyotard. Here’s the first paragraph of Korsgaard’s prologue to her book, The Sources of Normativity. It could have been a prologue to Levinas’s Otherwise than Being:

It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are. Why should this be? Where do we get these ideas that outstrip the world we experience and seem to call into question, to render judgment on it, to say that it does not measure up, that it is not what it ought to be? Clearly we do not get them from experience, at least not by any simple route. And it is puzzling too that these ideas of a world different from our own call out to us, telling us that things should be like them rather than the way they are, and that we should make them so.

Isn’t that beautiful?

This paragraph follows a quote from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which Korsgaard uses to set up her “very concise history of western metaphysics.” But it also shows how those who might have spurned Kant ought to take another look:

One should guard against thinking lightly of [the bad conscience] merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness. For fundamentally it is the same active force that is at work on a grander scale in those artists of violence and organizers who build states . . . only here the material upon which the form-giving and ravishing nature of this force vents itself is man himself, his whole ancient animal self . . . This secret self-ravishment, this artists’ cruelty, this delight in imposing a form upon oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material and of burning in a will . . . as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation.

Analytic and continental philosophers each have their own hurdles in coming to terms with Kant. For example, analytic philosophers seem to feel a need to do more to overcome the metaphysical foundations in Kant’s theory in order to get to a more commonsensical understanding of reason as a source of normativity; continental philosophers seem to need to find a way of conceiving of autonomy that avoids the binary logic of heteronymy/autonomy. But once they make it through such difficulties I think they share a kind of awe at the “strange beauty” of a command to make the world otherwise than it is, of the power this “other world” holds over us here in this one that is full of so much injustice.

Shortcomings of the FSP Index

I’ve learned this morning,  from a comment to my last post and from an e-mail from a friend, about a problem with Academic Analytics’ Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index.  In putting together the data for the index, Academic Analytics used the database company, SCOPUS, which bills itself primarily as covering life science, health science, physical science and social science. I looked through their spreadsheet of journals and databases, and it did include the Philosophy Documentation Center, but this is not as much as one would hope for.  So I contacted Bill Savage at Academic Analytics and asked him about this.  He told me that they knew of the issue but thought it would be ameliorated because people in the humanities primarily publish books.  I told him that this was not at all the case in the dominant strand of philosophy in the States, analytic philosophy, though it was true of other strands (continental, critical race theory, feminism, critical theory).  So in effect, the FSPI, which gives significantly more weight to books than journal articles, does not accurately gauge the productivity of all philosophy programs in the U.S.  Savage said that SCOPUS is working on adding more and more journals to their database, so future rankings should be more accurate.

So, dear readers, the jury is still out.  I’m glad that the index, even with its weaknesses, shows the good work that under-recognized departments are doing.  Based on two and a half years of studying and applying survey research methodology (more than a decade ago), I still think the Philosophical Gourmet is a poor indicator of anything beyond what the people who are asked to respond to the survey happen to think. The findings are not generalizable. In other words, if you want to know how 270 people in high-brow departments gauge their colleagues, read the Leiter report.  But if you want a real gauge of what the profession as a whole thinks or of the quality of various institutions in the English speaking world, look elsewhere.

In the end, I think the best gauge of a graduate program is to be had by talking with search committees at the hundreds of colleges and universities who hire new faculty year after year.  In the end, it’s not how we rate the faculty as much as what kind of teachers and scholars emerge from a program.

Ranking Philosophy Programs

There are now two sets of rankings of Ph.D.-granting philosophy departments in the United States: Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet (PG) and Academic Analytics’ Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index (FSPI). The latter only ranks the top ten, so I’ll stick with comparing both rankings’ top ten. Only two universities are listed in both rankings: Princeton and Rutgers. The rest are entirely different. FSPI ranks Michigan State first; PG ranks NYU first. Here’s the run-down:

Academic Analytics’ Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index

1. Michigan State University
2. CUNY Graduate School
2. Princeton University
4. University of Virginia
5. Rutgers
6. University of California – San Diego
7. Pennsylvania State University
8. The University of Texas at Austin
9. SUNY at Stony Brook
10. Rice University

Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet ranking

1. New York University
2. Rutgers
3. Princeton University
3. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
5. University of Pittsburgh
6. Stanford University
7. Harvard University
7. MIT
10. Columbia University
10. Univ. of North Carolina –Chapel Hill

The discrepancy can be explained by different methodologies. FSPI is based on data generated by a web-crawler of individual faculty members’ productivity in terms of scholarly publications, honors and awards, and grants. Comparing the sheer volume of scholarly publications is, I think, a bit dicey, since it equates publication in more- and less-selective presses and journals. However, the honors, grants, and awards criteria, a better gauge of quality, probably balances things out. Also FSPI takes into consideration whether one’s journal articles are cited in others’ journal articles — certainly an excellent indication of the influence of one’s work.

The Philosophical Gourmet’s methodology is as follows, according to its web site:

This report ranks graduate programs primarily on the basis of the quality of faculty. In late September and early October 2006, we conducted an on-line survey of 450 philosophers throughout the English-speaking world; over 300 responded and completed some or all of the surveys. The survey presented 99 faculty lists, from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand . Note that there are some 110 PhD-granting programs in the U.S. alone, but it would be unduly burdensome for evaluators to ask them to evaluate all these programs each year. The top programs in each region were selected for evaluation, plus a few additional programs are included each year to “test the waters.”

Leiter lists the names and affiliations of the people who filled out his survey. The full list is available here Note that there is no one on the list from Michigan State, Penn State, or Stony Brook: and only one each from Rice, and CUNY — and none of these schools show up in his top ten even though they do show up in FSPI’s top ten. But four of Leiter’s responders are with NYU; nine have been affiliated with Stanford; thirteen with Michigan; twenty-two with Pittsburgh; and another twenty-some with Harvard — and all of these schools show up in his top ten. Leiter notes that no one who has received a Ph.D. or taught at a particular institution may rank that institution. That’s goood. But still one might suspect that the entire pool of respondents comes from a particular orientation and holds a certain set of conceptions of what counts as quality faculty. Few hale from truly pluralist departments, and so it’s not suprising that truly pluralist departments don’t end up on PG’s top ten. In fact several of PG’s top ten bill themselves on their own web sites as working solely in the analytic tradition.

Note the following.

Schools ranked in the top ten by Academic Analytics that don’t appear in the top ten Philosophical Gourmet rankings:

Michigan State University (lots of strengths in ethics, continental philosophy, feminist philosophy, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of science)

CUNY Graduate School (mostly analytic, diverse interests)

University of Virginia (strong analytic department with strengths in ethics and political philosophy)

University of California San Diego (analytic faculty, strengths in philosophy of mind, history of modern, ancient)

Pennsylvania State University (some faculty have left since the study was done, but it still has its characteristic strengths in continental philosophy, pragmatism, and feminist theory)

The University of Texas at Austin (at the time of the study, it had a bit more strength in continental philosophy – Louis Mackey and Robert Solomon have since passed away)

SUNY at Stony Brook (a school exceptionally strong in continental philosophy, feminist theory, and critical race theory)

Rice University (also has strengths in continental philosophy)

Schools ranked in the top ten by the Philosophical Gourmet that don’t appear in the top ten Academic Analytics rankings (links can be found here ) :

New York University
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
University of Pittsburgh
Stanford University
Columbia University
UNC-Chapel Hill

No doubt these are excellent programs, but to say they are the very best based on the judgment of an unrepresentative cohort of faculty selected by someone with already marked views about what counts as quality is simply bad logic. I’d opt for the Academic Analytics’ Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index any day. It more accurately reflects the productivity and range of scholarship in philosophy today.

EDIT: More on this topic can be found in this subsequent post.

Charles Taylor Wins Templeton Prize

The philosopher Charles Taylor was awarded the 2007 Templeton Prize of $1.5 million on Wednesday. I like it when good things happen to good people. I also like how Taylor questioned the very notion of the prize “for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.” An intellectual might indeed wonder whether there are spiritual truths “out there” waiting to be discovered, but of course this is the raison d’etre that Sir John Templeton set up the prize. See the New York Times article in which Peter Steinfels writes, “Professor Taylor immediately noted that the idea of ‘discovery’ in spiritual matters was ‘an analogy to scientific discovery in chemistry, physics and so on.’ In answering a question later, he went further, worrying aloud that ‘the notion of discovery here by analogy with natural science a little bit falsifies the picture.'” No doubt.

The Global Blogosphere

If you want to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground the world over, visit Global Voices online. It’s a metablog based at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at the Harvard Law School. The content comes in from volunteer editors, themselves bloggers, from all over the world. Each editor “listens in” on the blogosphere in his or her part of the world and then sends in regular roundups of what bloggers are saying. Check out the regional roundups or just click on a country. This is a great way to hear how people are making sense of events the world over.

For example, read about how dismal the situation still is for women in Afghanistan or how the right to own property is doing better than the right to vote in China or the situation of street children in South Asia. The roundups also provide links directly to the blogs.