Friday, December 29, 2006

The death of Gerald Ford

Now the mourning has begun. We find countless stories of a man described as 'good', 'honest', and 'principled' by friends and colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. What a pity that such a good and honest person would make such a deeply unpopular decision, namely, to pardon Richard Nixon he crimes he did (or may) commit.

Many people have voiced views on all sides, but have a different slant. The question of whether Ford should have pardoned Nixon got us talking about Ford as president. What the hell was an unelected person doing as president in the first place? Presidents before have served terms where they lacked a vice president. The fact that Nixon sacked Spiro Agnew did not then hand whatever mandate Agnew had to his office to someone of Nixon's choosing. Ideally, Nixon should never have had a second vice president and when he was forced to resign the country should have held a special election. I genuinely think this is the big wrong. There are lots of good, decent, hard working people in the United States (and elsewhere). That doesn't qualify someone to assume the presidency of the US shortly after becoming appointed. The trouble with Ford is not merely the pardon business, but that he would ever have thought it acceptable to assume an elected office by appointment knowing full well that he was about to become America's unelected president.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The collapse of "the hierarchy of esteem"?

A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute claims that students select universities from a "hierarchy of esteem," choosing the most prestigious universities that will admit them. However, HEPI also claims that students could choose to live closer to home when studying and so that could challenge this "hierarchy" in higher education. The report argues (reported by the BBC):

"....It says there is a widespread and probably accurate perception that degrees from some universities are more valuable in the job market than others. Although it may be regrettable, students tend to apply to the most prestigious institutions that they think they can get into, it adds. Institutions then select the most able and employers favour candidates for jobs from those institutions. This it describes as "a vicious (or virtuous) circle that perpetuates the hierarchy of esteem". The memo says that while factors may play a part in breaking this pattern, the only way to ensure it is broken would be for the government to control admissions to universities and deny freedom of choice to students. This could mean admissions based on catchment areas as in other countries....."

For one thing, until students choose universities because of location rather than quality or esteem, then it seems this "hierarchy of esteem" will continue. Moreover, it is far from certain why this will be the case if HEPI reminds us that the thought that some degrees at universities are more valuable than others is "widespread and probably accurate"---if it were inaccurate, then perhaps there might be a problem. But that is not the case. Indeed, students rightly choose the best places to go and this, in turn, is recognized by employers. Ok. So when employers are correct to identify students from certain programmes as more capable than others it helps reinforce the good work behind creating, maintaining, and fostering such degrees. A highly successful programme will be just that and it will make it challenging or more difficult for new competition. New competition is often a good thing. However, why should we wantonly punish successful university programmes because they, well, succeed? It is insane. Some programmes do better than others in the RAE, supported by the government. Either the government supports its best programmes or it does not. I never fail to be amazed at the number of fairly radical schemes proposed for any number of bodies to alter higher education in the UK, whether it be the new 1-4 RAE scale or metrics debate or now this. Something as important as higher education surely demands greater thought and support than what we have seen lately. The mind boggles.

Brooks Blog Readership

The current readership of this blog is:

United States - 66%
United Kingdom - 18%
Germany - 3%
Italy - 2%
Canada - 2%
"Unknown country"(!) - 2%
Sweden - 1%
Kenya - 1%
Israel - 1%
France - 1%
Finland - 1%
Colombia - 1%
Austrai - 1%

These figures are based on the last 100 visitors to the blog. General information can be found here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Who needs "a coalition of the willing" when you can get your paws on "an alliance of moderation"?

...or so Tony Blair asks us today. He argues that "moderate" Muslim states should form "an alliance of moderation" to keep states like Iran in check. The BBC reports him saying the following (so it must be true!):

"We must recognise the strategic threat the government of Iran poses - not the people, possibly not all of its ruling elements, but those presently in charge of its policy. They seek to pin us back in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Palestine. Our response should be to expose what they are doing, build the alliances to prevent it and pin them back across the whole of the region."

Ok. So Blair doesn't like the Iranian President. Blair and Bush have done everything possible to discredit him (and his wide popularity in Iran), even going so far to claim he was one of the persons chiefly responsible for the hostage taking of US embassy workers in Iran many moons ago. I find two things hilarious about Blair's position. No, ok, three things.

First, the choice is between "moderation" and "extremism"---are these the only two paths for Muslim states? Not only is this categorization a bit patronizing, but suggests that Muslim states cannot aspire beyond moderation without being some kind of totalitarian terrorist state. It's nonsense.

Second, Iran is not the cause of the world's problems. I have argued before (admittedly whilst a graduate student in grad journal) that Iran may be a helpful place to look at if one wants to spread democracy in the region. Iran and Turkey have held regular elections for some time now---we may not like how they select candidates, but then again we don't like how buckets of money select candidates for us in liberal democracies either. There are at least half a million things I dislike about Iran. But their elections are not won by persons holding 90 or more percent of the vote, as we'd find in Egypt and the good ol' days in Iraq. Not only is Iran not the source of the world's problems, they show that elections can take root and be taken seriously in the region. It is true: they could be done better. So guess what? Our task should be to help them develop what they have, perhaps rather than castigate them for the progress they have made over their neighbours. If we believe in democracy, we want to foster it--not accept it only when it agrees with what we think is right.

Third, who are the lucky states in this "alliance of moderation"? Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia? If so, not so moderate are they...?! Heck, Afghanistan and Iraq aren't even in control of their full territories yet, so we have some pretty nifty folks to help keep the torch of "moderation" (whatever this is) for the region shining bright.

In the end, it is all madness. Rather than working with the world as we find it and---to borrow a phrase from Ronald Dworkin---"making it the best it can be" our political leaders seek to denigrate its enemies even where they could become far more useful allies than the totalitarian nightmares, erm, "alliance of moderation" we are now being sold. The general public must get wise to this nonsense. And the sooner, the better.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A new approach to marking!

One alternative to a previously discussed method of marking exams is this one, compliments of Leiter's Law Reports. Frightening stuff---I prepare using stairs to shotguns!!!

Monday, December 18, 2006

How could a third be wrong....?

A third of UK graduates believe they have chosen the wrong degree. (Full story is here.) An excerpt:

'A third of graduates believe they studied the wrong course at university, a survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests. Most of these said, with hindsight, they would have taken a more scientific or technical course, a business-based or a professional qualification ... The survey found that within 12 months of graduating, 63% are paying into a pension. But evidence of a gender gap emerged again, with only 57% of women who graduated in 2005 saving for a pension compared to 70% of men. The poll found two-thirds of those surveyed felt their university could have offered better career advice'.

So why exactly did any student think anything went wrong? The worry seems to be that in the end far fewer started in careers with a proper pension scheme. Does this mean that students genuinely think they made a mistake of what to study at university? I doubt it. See the following excerpt from the same news piece:

'.....The overwhelming majority of respondents were positive about their time as a student - 90% said they would go to university if they had their time again. And 84% said their time at university had been helpful in gaining independence and life skills. Three-quarters said it had helped them in terms of communication skills, presentation skills, team-work and confidence...'.

The problem seems to be not that students thought they spent their time poorly, but that their expectations for post-graduation were unrealistic. Then perhaps they might be right to think they could have received better advice to lower unrealistic expectations, but it isn't entirely clear that they would choose their degrees differently otherwise. Given how few students apparently take maths at A-level, it is hard to believe so many honestly think they should have studied science. Don't get me wrong! I think if this was true, it would be great: I nearly pursued a minor in chemistry myself---I loved it. However, it seems too implausible.

The Philosopher's Carnival #40

Welcome to this 40th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival! I highlight some of the many great posts appearing across the web these past few weeks:

The Wages of Ignorance has a terrific post on method. A taster: 'What I really like about Williamson's armchair philosophy though is not just its insistence on rigour, persistence, and patience in using our philosophical methods, but that we must embrace an accompanying intellectual honesty in evaluating how far we have fulfilled the requirements of good philosophical work'.

Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants goes after category mistakes. The discussion is great, although I am not surprised to discover the Wikipedia gets it wrong!

The Splintered Mind has some wonderful reflections on Chalmers and modal rationalism. A taster: 'Now, actually, I’m quite happy with that, but I’m not sure Chalmers should be, and it isn’t the tenor of The Conscious Mind as I read it. And if materialism is true, then I’d say it’s not -- or shouldn’t be -- construed as a metaphysical thesis at all, but rather as a scientific thesis, a claim only about the “laws of nature”, and not a claim about Kripkean “a posteriori metaphysical necessity” or the like'.

Are democracy and liberalism inseperable? There is a debate here at Blackthumb. Hmmm. My view? Well, I had thought Zakaria had conclusively shown that illiberal democracies exist all over the world. If so, democracy and liberalism are at least distinct. Thus, the two can (and do) come apart. The discussion is interesting with great comments. Elsewhere, we find debates on problems between power and liberty well worth a look as well. The n-Category Cafe looks at MacIntyre on rational judgement that will be of interest, too.

Brains has interesting thoughts on heterophenomenology (did I get the spelling correct...?!). An excerpt: 'We can (defeasibly) infer whatever (descriptions of) mental states our best evidence tells us we can infer. It may be that we infer (descriptions of) beliefs, but we may also infer (descriptions of) desires, chunks of information stored in working memory, conscious experiences, or whathaveyou. If we infer (descriptions of) beliefs, our descriptions may or may not match the subject’s descriptions, and the same is true of any mental states. For instance, when my daughter tells me she is not hungry, I rarely if ever infer that she has a belief that she is not hungry (as mandated by HF). Sometimes I infer she is not hungry, whereas other times I infer she doesn’t like what she is eating. It depends on what other evidence I have. Furthermore, I have evidence that my inferences are pretty reliable, even though they go beyond what HF allows (though in other ways, they are more prudent). In short, what data about mental states we extract from first-person reports should depend on the total evidence we have (linguistic, behavioral, and neurological)'.

PrawfsBlawg has some teriffic posts on shame punishment, including here, here, here, and here. For those still open to shame punishment, see my papers on Nussbaum either here or here.

Over at the Leiter Law Reports, Leiter posts a wonderful paper on interdisciplinary appointments in law. I strongly encourage readers to see this and the ensuing discussion. Apt comments follow over at meditations71 as well.

Is the blogosphere imploding? One should definitely check out this post and discussion over at Crooked Timber on this.

What about Chinese philosophy in the US? The Leiter Reports has an excellent post and discussion here. My view? Well, as our world continues to shrink, philosophers everywhere will simply have to learn more about each other's tradition. Today, few programmes seem to teach Chinese (or other Asian) philosophy. I doubt this can remain the case in twenty years.

Other fine posts around the web:

Larry Solum on path dependency--an excerpt: 'The phrase "path dependency" is used to express the idea that history matters--choices made in the past can affect the feasibility (possibility or cost) of choices made in the future. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon introduces this idea to law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory'.

Brood comb on familiar faces -- an excerpt: 'This a priori relation of possibilities is there, be it if what we characterize as two is in front of us, or if as in the case with the experiment done with the kids mentioned in the other post, one or both of the things are tracked (as hidden behind the screen), or even if we have imaginary gestalt. This is, I think, what is behind our intuitive understanding of what we express by 1+1=2. The equation shouldn’t be taken as identifying two separate sides, namely a)1+1 and b)2 , but as expressing that the whole, if it is characterized as two, can be also characterized as one and another one. The identity is in the whole, and the equality is expressing the necessity that in every possible world the whole which is 2, is also 1+1 and vice versa'.

Lemmings on context sensitivity---a taster: 'What would a normal or standard location be anyway? To account for the 'the evening sky' part it thus seems that we need to contextualize after all. Perhaps a mixed approach will do. On a mixed approach, 'x is the brightest object in the evening sky' is true at a scenario iff x is the brightest object to a standard observer located at the center under standard conditions. Even though we appeal to the center here, we do not run into trouble, as the analysans is a modal claim'.

Knowability looks at 'taking epistemology seriously': 'You might think that I’m illicitly assuming that for any pair of consecutive rows the question ‘Do they have the same alethic status?’ has an answer. Sadly, no! Most everyone will agree that ‘true’ goes in the first row, and they’ll agree that ‘Do the first and second rows have the same alethic status?’ has an answer: ‘yes, they do have the same status’. And most everyone will agree that that ‘Do the second and third rows have the same alethic status?’ has an answer: ‘yes, they do have the same status’. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. If one is like Michael Tye, for instance, one will agree with what I just said about the first three rows, but one will hold that ‘Do the nth and (n + 1)st rows have the same alethic status?’ sometimes has an answer but sometimes it doesn’t. Fine: when does it first not have an answer? We know it has answer for the first three rows. Does it first fail to have an answer for rows 10,000 and 10,001? Then that’s our sharp cutoff. That is, whereas the pumpkin claim was true and not false when evaluated with respect to S10,000, there is no answer to whether it’s true and not false when evaluated with respect to S10,001.Eventually, we take seriously both epistemicism and nihilism!'

If we blog alone in the forest and no one reads it, does it exist? I suppose the answer is 'yes' if God takes a peek. Of course, that requires that God exists... Speaking of God, have a problem with the Ten Commandments? Then you will appreciate Phil for Humanity's post here.

A puzzle on fictional names is discussed over at 'what is it like to be a blog', not a bat. An excerpt: 'Now I agree with Woods that there is a difference between fictional entities and nonesuches like the present King of France. I think there is a genuine puzzle here which cries out for explanation. I am not sure how to approach explaining this puzzle. I’m happy to hear what you, dear reader, think'.

Frankipedia argues that all existence is linked to technology here. Problems with evolutionary psychology are discussed here.

Matrix fans will enjoy this post from neurophilosopher.

Honourable mention goes to Hell's Handmaiden, the Voltage Gate, Balanced Life Center, and Sportive Thoughts. Let me also acknowledge this post on multiple selves.

I would also like to note a new blog I have just discovered, Epistemic Virtue, cared for by the great Duncan Pritchard. It is well worth a careful look!

Finally, Julius Speaks mentions the top ten books to influence him. When I think about the top ten books to influence me, I immediately think of certain historical texts (in no particular order):

1. Plato's Republic
2. Hobbes's Leviathan
3. Locke's Letter (oooh, I hear you all say--not the Two Treatises..? Well, if it was a top 11...)
4. Kant's Groundwork
5. Kant's Metaphysics of Morals
6. Hegel's Science of Logic
7. Hegel's Philosophy of Right
8. Mill's On Liberty
9. Green's Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation
10. Bosanquet's Philosophical Theory of the State

Yes, yes, I know: millions of others belong in such a list as well. However, when I think of a top ten since, I am more likely to name papers by folks such as Martha Nussbaum, Bob Stern, Leif Wenar, or maybe Fabian Freyenhagen, rather than books. The times they are a-changin'. Articles seem the way to go these days. We all know classic papers that become important books, but it's through papers we often make our names, not books. That is one sign o' the times. (How often do you catch Prince references in a philosophy post...?!?!)

The 41st edition of the Philosopher's Carnival will take place in 2007 at Westminster Wisdom. Many thanks for taking the time to drop by the Brooks Blog. I hope you come back again!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Simon Caney to Oxford

This may be old news to many of you, but perhaps mentioning now that it is officially announced on Oxford's main website. Professor Simon Caney (Political Theory) is moving from Birmingham to join the Politics Department at Oxford University. An official announcement is here. Simon is one of the very best in global justice. His latest work is Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. He's a dear friend who once worked at Newcastle. He is a major catch for an outstanding department.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Famous people from Connecticut

Are here:

Dean Acheson statesman, Middletown
Ethan Allan American Revolutionary soldier, Litchfield
Benedict Arnold American Revolutionary general, Norwich
P. T. Barnum showman, Bethel
Henry Ward Beecher clergyman, Litchfield
John Brown abolitionist, Torrington
Samuel Colt inventor, Hartford
Oliver Ellsworth jurist, Windsor
Eileen Farrell soprano, Willimantic
Charles Goodyear inventor, New Haven
Nathan Hale American Revolutionary officer, Coventry
Robert N. Hall inventor, New Haven
Katharine Hepburn actress, Hartford
Collis Potter Huntington financier, Harwinton
Charles Ives composer, Danbury
Edwin H. Land inventor
Annie Leibovitz photographer, Waterbury
John Pierpont Morgan financier, Hartford
Frederick Law Olmsted landscape designer, Hartford
Kenneth H. Olsen inventor, Stratford
Rosa Ponselle soprano, Meriden
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. congressman, New Haven
Benjamin Spock pediatrician, New Haven
Harriet Beecher Stowe author, Litchfield
Noah Webster lexicographer, West Hartford