Editor-in-chief of The Daily Ant Liveblogs Templeton Foundation Ceremony Honoring Philosopher Alvin Plantinga

The Daily Ant is an online magazine that features premier ant content, including but not limited to their “Philosophy Phriday” series (see here for the updated list of contributions). Tonight, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Ant gave a play-by-play of the Templeton Foundation ceremony honoring Alvin Plantinga. You can read it yourself here!


Mooch Monday: Sackful O’ Ants

Here is a guest post I did for The Daily Ant.


The Daily Ant

Very few things have nothing to do with ants, and Anthony Scaramucci (or, as he is known in the adult cartoon we call reality, “The Mooch”) is no exception.

Many readers will have only just recently learned their Moochian Myrmecology from intrepid journalist and gleeful polemicist Matt Taibbi. Who is Matt Taibbi? Well, let me put it this way. In 2005, Matt Taibbi wrote an essay called “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” which, like Donald Trump, earned condemnation from both Hillary Clinton and Anthony Weiner. In 2012, he wrote this touching eulogy on the occasion of the actual death of Andrew Breitbart. In the very same year, he also wrote this love letter to David Brooks. (Which reminds me, I swear I once heard Ann Coulter describe David Brooks as the “Elisabeth Hasselbeck of the New York Times,” but I can’t find the…

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James Comey Don’t Give a Shit

Many of you will have seen the viral video, “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.” If not (or if you need a refresher) watch it now:

Many of you will have also followed the news. Anyway, thanks to Dan of Xark for the script on which the following is based. This post is dedicated to Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare.

James Comey Don’t Give a Shit

This is the James Comey. Watch it run in slow motion.

It’s pretty badass. Look. It runs all over the place. “Whoa! Watch out!” says that Republican. Eew, it’s got a Democrat! Oh! It’s chasing a Republican! Oh my gosh!

Oh, the James Comey is just crazy!

The James Comey has been referred to by Benjamin Wittes as “the only truly subtextless man I’ve met working in senior levels of government in Washington.” It really doesn’t give a shit. If it’s hungry, it’s hungry.

Eew! What’s that in its mouth? Oh, it’s got an illegal NSA program? Oh, it runs backwards? Now watch this: look, a Gonzales is heading to the hospital to get a mentally compromised Ashcroft to approve an illegal NSA program. James Comey don’t care. It just does what it thinks is right. Whenever it thinks something is right it just — Eew, and it eats Andrew Card… Watch it dig graves for all partisan politicians! Look at that digging.

The James Comey is really pretty badass. it has no regard for any politician whatsoever. Look at it, it’s just doing his job, and eating politicians. Eew! What’s that? Jared Kushner? Oh that’s nasty. It’s so nasty. Oh look the James Comey is chasing things and devouring them with its pure credibility.

James Comeys have a fairly long body, but a distinctly thickset broad shoulders, and, you know, their loyalty is only to what they think is right, allowing them to move about freely, and they twist around.

Now look: Here’s a House Intelligence Committee full of politicians. Do you think the James Comey cares? It doesn’t give a shit, it goes right into the House Intelligence Committee to get some fresh meat. How disgusting is that? It eats congressmen for breakfast. Eew, that’s so nasty.

But look! The James Comey doesn’t care! It’s getting stung like a thousand times. It doesn’t give a shit. It’s just hungry. It doesn’t care about being stung by politicians. Nothing can stop the James Comey when it’s hungry. What a crazy fuck! Look, it’s eating the Trump Administration, that’s disgusting.

It’s testifying again. See?

Now, what’s interesting is that other humans like these politicians here (and here), they just wait around until the James Comey is done eating, and then swoop in to pick up the scraps. They say, “You do all the work for us, James Comey, and we’ll just eat whatever you find, how’s that? What’daya say, stupid?”

Look at this politician: “Thanks for the treat, stupid!”

“Hey, come back here,” says the James Comey.

Politicians don’t care, and you know what? The journalists do it too. Look at these little hacks. They’re like “Thanks stupid! Thanks for the truth! See you later.” Then James Comey does all the work and all these other humans just pick up the scraps.

At nighttime the James Comey goes hunting, because it’s hungry. Look! Here comes a fierce battle between a President Trump and a James Comey. I wonder what will happen?

Look at this, there’s the James Comey just eating politicians, and then look, “Get away from me!” says the President Trump, “Get away from me!” James Comey don’t care. James Comey smacks the shit out of it. And the President Trump comes back and it lashes at the James Comey.

Oh, little does the James Comey know, FYI: it’s been stung! It’s been bitten by the President Trump, so while it’s eating the politicians – eew, that’s disgusting – all the poisonous venom is seeping through the James Comey’s body, and it passes out. Look at that sleepy fuck.

Now the James Comey is going to pass out for a few minutes, and then it’s going to get right back up and start eating all over again, because it’s a credible little bastard.

Look at this! Like nothing happened! The James Comey gets right back up and continues eating the politicians.

How disgusting.

And of course, what does the James Comey have to eat for the next two weeks?

President Trump.

Some reactions to Laura Kipnis, “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial”

Last month the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) published an excerpt from Unwanted Advances by Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis. Below are four or so aspects of the excerpt that puzzled me or that I find objectionable, partly in themselves, and partly in light of material that exists elsewhere in the public domain. I’m not going to summarize the details or who the people in question are – so read the excerpt if you want to follow what’s going on.

(1) Purposeful asymmetrical access

First, the excerpt gives the impression that Kipnis enjoyed extremely lopsided, asymmetrical access to the main case study. The excerpt makes it seem that, in addition to court documents and anything already in the public domain on both sides, she only sought out the more personal take of the accused professor. Because this controversy is supposed to be a factual example supporting Kipnis’ broader points about sexual agency, Title IX, and the politics of campus bureaucracy, it may be difficult to believe that, in addition to legal documents and proceedings, only one side was personally consulted. But that is evidently the case.

Outside of the CHE excerpt, Kipnis has presented at least a few different (but overlapping – I’m not trying to imply that they are necessarily contradictory) explanations for why she didn’t even attempt to contact the professor’s accusers. In a public Facebook comment responding to this very concern, she writes,

The students’ accounts–including the various changing versions of their accounts–were already on record. I reported those accounts in the book.

I am perplexed by this explanation, because in addition to court records of his own complaints, the professor’s account was also on the record (paywall). But even the court records Kipnis seems to have access to are lopsided in the professor’s favor, because the graduate student’s side of things is not in fact directly documented in them (the professor’s own suit did not make it past a motion to dismiss, because the court decided that even if the facts as he alleged them were true, he didn’t have a discrimination case – so the facts claimed therein were not adjudicated); rather, her case is merely summarized in university (not court) documents by the very institutions of which Kipnis is rightly skeptical (see, e.g., footnote 1 on page 2 here). But even setting aside the odd claims about what was on the record, the point of getting personal interviews is to find out whether, from the subject’s perspective, the court and other venues really tell the whole story, and attendant to this, to acquire any evidence that for some reason may have not yet come to light. [UPDATE: While the grad student’s side of the story was not previously directly on the official record, now it is. You can read a useful summary, with a link to the primary source material, here.]

In any case, this is a bit different from (but again, not necessarily inconsistent with) what Kipnis says in the book itself. In a footnote (pp. 15-16) to a discussion of a different case, she writes of all her cases,

I didn’t interview the accuser in this case or the other cases I discuss, which would have been impossible – any respondent who gave me the name or contact information for a complainant would be subject to retaliation charges. The privacy constraints are one thing that make Title IX difficult to write about (also so impervious to oversight).

I am perplexed by this explanation, because it leaves out any other means of finding out if an accuser wants to talk. Aren’t accusers interviewed a fair amount (e.g., for the CHE post linked to previously)? Aren’t there ways to, at the very least, communicate a desire to interview someone (to get a fuller picture) without first getting their contact information (e.g., by sending a request through someone else – like a legal team, a department, or a university)?

And finally, this is different from (not contradictory with) a third explanation Kipnis gives in her response to a public letter that the Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association adopted by majority vote.

The graduate student’s story has already been ratified as the official story. It wasn’t my goal to retell that story, I was reporting on what got left out. … I’d also like to remind the Graduate Student Association that [the graduate student] (and a fellow grad student in your department) not long ago brought me up on Title IX complaints for writing eight words about her. To suggest that she or her friends would have been eager to speak to me about her relationship with [the professor]—and I should have sought them out for interviews—is disingenuous at best.

First, where has the graduate student’s story been “ratified as the official story”? One of the central claims of the graduate student was officially determined to lack sufficient evidence, as has been widely reported: the professor was found guilty of harassment, not rape. Of course, lacking sufficient evidence is consistent with the claim being true, but the latter has hardly become the official story.

Presumably, the “eight words” written about the accuser (in an earlier piece – here is a PDF from Kipnis’ website) were also written without consulting her (or the accused), to get her take on whether the words were accurate. In fact, the accuracy of the words is the stated motivation of at least one of the Title IX complainants (described in the Daily Nous), in the first place. Maybe, in the end, the graduate student would not have wanted to talk to Kipnis, but given the plausibility that she might want a say in what is publicly said about her going forward, wouldn’t it have been at least reasonable, and ethical, to try?

Interestingly, Kipnis has a reply to the Title IX complainant who wrote about the case for the Daily Nous. There she spends some time explaining why she did not write more than a few words about this particular case:

Let me explain why I didn’t say more about the case. The only account I had access to was the professor’s. Though all the information I drew on was in the public record, there was also a lot of private (and unverifiable) information about the graduate student’s life that I had no desire to comment on, or further circulate, even though the student wasn’t named. Once again, most of the facts and sexual allegations were—and are—in contention. To write about the complexities of that situation would have taken an article in itself, even if I’d been able to interview both parties involved, which I wasn’t. And I would have had to write both sides of the story, not one. But it also wasn’t my purpose to write a reported piece on this case; I was writing two paragraphs in an essay that took on many additional subjects.

I leave it as an exercise for readers to figure out what tensions might exist between this last statement and the refusal to even attempt to contact accusers when writing a (sure to be widely read) book partly about their cases, as well as ways in which one might pull them apart. The main point I want to emphasize is just that, as Kipnis herself recognizes or seems to have at one time recognized, it’s not just non-ideal, but very bad, to write with lopsided access to cases. And it leaves readers in a very epistemologically awkward position, wondering whether the story would be any different if the author had access to the other side’s personal take on things, any new evidence they could provide, whether the access the author did have to the accuser resulted in any unwittingly selective evidence, and so on.

(2) Philosophical Chaos in the Courtroom

Second, there is a long passage about the character witness provided by another philosopher. The witness is said to inspire great confidence, partly because she is “honest.” But isn’t honesty the thing we are supposed to be convinced about?

In this passage, we are also treated to claims about the professor being cool, charming, and pursued by women. Are we supposed to expect that someone with these features is less likely to be guilty of sexual harassment, assault, or rape? What is the relevance of this claim supposed to be to the charges?

Furthermore, Kipnis describes the session with the witness – during which the witness apparently says that she loves the professor – as having an “erotic current”, yet we are to also believe that the existence of 2,000 text messages and “expressions of love and lasting devotion” are decisive pieces of evidence that the professor and the graduate student were dating. Surely context is everything (the philosopher witness was not in fact expressing romantic love, I presume), but Kipnis provides none for the supposed expressions of love and devotion via text.

Perhaps most peculiarly, Kipnis recounts the philosopher giving the following argument: She hasn’t heard any negative comments or whispers about the professor in fifteen years, but had there been anything negative, she would have heard it, “because people came to her about this sort of thing.” First, would it change Kipnis’ – or the court’s – mind if she simply encountered philosophers who have heard negative comments and whispers? But perhaps more importantly: might philosophers not come to a person with negative comments and whispers about a major, influential philosopher who, as Kipnis relates, officiated that person’s wedding(!)?

Finally, Kipnis makes a big deal about the fact that the character witness is also an expert philosopher working on “inference to the best explanation,” who turned the room into a kind of philosophy seminar. Does it similarly count for something that two of the Northwestern philosophy professors who issued a brief public statement in defense of the graduate student (saying that Kipnis’ portrayals are “grossly inaccurate”), are specialists in epistemology, and do significant work on the epistemology of testimony in particular? Swap in the character witness with those two professors, have them utter contrary statements but in the same expert mood (minus the expression of love and admiration for the professor’s coolness and success with women), and does the grad student’s case suddenly become more plausible to Kipnis?

(3) Distinctions and differences

Kipnis sometimes minimizes important distinctions, or exaggerates unimportant ones. For example, she calls the distinction between force and manipulation “splitting hairs.” But isn’t this a perfectly straightforward, and morally important, distinction? Coming up with examples is another exercise for the reader.

On the other hand, the fact that the graduate student and the professor work “in different areas,” and that she has “never actually taken any classes with him,” are distinctions that are apparently supposed to have some significance. But this ignores how graduate programs (at least, graduate programs in philosophy) actually work. A graduate student can work closely with someone who officially specializes in a different area and even without taking any of their classes. In fact, faculty members who are not even one’s advisers can potentially wield enormous influence over one’s career. Were I not writing under a carefully crafted pseudonym, I’d prove it with personal examples. Of course, these things come in degrees, and officially taking classes with someone can create a power dynamic that someone might abuse. But these concerns do not become particularly implausible just because the particular institutional relationships Kipnis mentions are lacking.

(4) Moral and legal evaluation

Fourth and finally, the general moral perspective of the excerpt is odd. Many of the behaviors described, even on the assumption that the accused professor’s story is correct and he didn’t do anything worthy of official sanction, seem to be good evidence that there is something deeply wrong here – for example, having or allowing an undergraduate student spend the night in one’s bed. Here I agree with some of PZ Myers’ (characteristically hyperbolic) commentary. Of course, this kind of disagreement depends upon an overall view of sexuality and power dynamics that Kipnis and her allies probably find prudish and backward.

Moral Fact Check: What Trump Got Morally Wrong at His Rally

President Trump was in Melbourne, Florida for a campaign-style rally on February 18th. Here is the video:

Based on the transcript provided by Vox, I’ll provide a brief recounting of some of what Trump said, along with the moral facts that support or contradict his statements.

Mr. Trump suggested that the central question of ethics, “How should I live?”, is not answered by fake news.

We are not going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, or what to believe. We are free and independent people and we will make our own choices.

Mr. Trump is correct. Fake news does not answer the question, “How should I live?” The answer to this question is determined by the moral facts, and we discover them not via newspapers – whether real or fake – but via moral reasoning.

Mr. Trump praised the practice of requiring the removal of two protections per every additional protection.

We’ve just issued a new order which requires that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.

This practice is only morally permissible when the protections that are removed are ineffective for their protective purpose, or are otherwise impermissible in themselves. Imagine, by analogy, an order which requires that for every one new prisoner, two prisoners must be released. As stated, this rule is too broad in order to be morally permissible. In order to be morally permissible, the rule must specify that the released prisoners (or the eliminated protections) ought to be released (or eliminated) for independent, moral reasons.

Mr. Trump expressed affection for uncritical support.

I saw this man on TV just now, you. I just saw him on television. He said I love Trump. Let Trump do what he has to do. That’s my guy right there. Come here. Come here. No, I just. I’m coming in. That’s okay.

In fact, letting someone act without criticism is incompatible with loving them. As the succeeding New York Times reported, Mr. Trump restored the bust of Winston Churchill in the oval office. In a 1939 interview with The New Statesman, here is what Churchill had to say about criticism:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”

Partly for this reason, Immanuel Kant was wise to write about friendship that, “from a moral point of view it is, of course, a duty for one of the friends to point out the other’s faults to him; this is in the other’s best interests and is therefore a duty of love” (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:470, translated by Mary Gregor).

Mr. Trump implied that concern for physical safety is sufficient to justify the avoidance of a very small risk.

And I’ve taken decisive action to keep radical Islamic terrorist the hell out of our country. So you probably read where we want to enforce the laws as existing. And so we signed an order a couple of weeks ago, and it was taken over by a court originally by a judge and then a — yes, it’s very sad. The reason is for protection and safety. So the statute is so plain and so clear.

Here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris. We’ve allowed thousands and thousands of people into our country and there was no way to vet those people. There was no documentation. There was no nothing. So we’re going to keep our country safe.

Very often, doing the right thing involves taking on risks, and partly because of this, fulfilling our moral obligations can be difficult. Thomas Aquinas writes as follows about the virtue of fortitude:

“[I]t belongs to the virtue of fortitude to guard the will against being withdrawn from the good of reason through fear of bodily evil. Now it behooves one to hold firmly the good of reason against every evil whatsoever, since no bodily good is equivalent to the good of the reason. Hence fortitude of soul must be that which binds the will firmly to the good of reason in face of the greatest evils: because he that stands firm against great things, will in consequence stand firm against less things, but not conversely” (Summa Theologica, II.II, Question 123).

Of course, taking in a limited number of refugees and immigrants poses very little risk at all – so how much more is it our moral obligation to do so!

Mr. Trump makes ethical concern fundamentally self-regarding.

We want people that can cherish us and the traditions of our country. We want people that are going to be great for our country. We don’t want people with bad, bad ideas. We don’t want that.

In fact, ethical concern is essentially other-regarding. Both Mr. Trump, who professes to be a follower of Jesus, and anyone who wants the United States to be operated according to Judeo-Christian values, should pay heed to this teaching of Jesus:

“What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that! And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Gentiles do that! Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (The Gospel According to Matthew, 5:46-48).

What obligates us to help refugees is that they are fleeing death and destruction, not that they are fleeing death and destruction and they love us.

Mr. Trump commends moving beyond identities constituted by a set of values, to identities constituted by flag and country.

Let us move past the differences of party and find a new loyalty rooted deeply in our country. We are all brothers and all sisters. We share one home. One destiny and one glorious American flag. We are united together by history and by providence. We will make America strong again. I promise. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again. Greater than ever before.

In fact, moral norms override norms deriving from historically contingent nationalistic commitments. So, insofar as “differences of party” track differences in people’s fundamental moral values and commitments, Mr. Trump’s suggestion contravenes the demands of morality.