Author: Spencer Case

Beyond the Hypatia Affair: Philosophers Blocking the Way of Inquiry

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry. ~American Philosopher Charles S. Peirce Philosophers are notorious for their willingness to consider questions that ordinary people find silly, such as whether or not we have knowledge of the material world. Recently, however, some philosophers having been trying to take hard questions about gender identity off the table. This camp remains a minority, but an energized and noisy minority that seems to be enjoying cultural ascendance and a sense of empowerment. We caught a glimpse of this in 2017 with the “Hypatia Affair.” To recap, an untenured philosopher named Rebecca Tuvel wrote a paper arguing that if it’s possible to transition from one gender to another, then interracial transition is possible, too. Its appearance …

Bearing Witness: My Journey Out of Mormonism

My parents named me after Spencer W. Kimball, who was the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the time I was born. The church derives its informal name, Mormonism, from the Book of Mormon, which is purportedly the work of Hebrew prophets in the ancient Americas (though it’s not clear where, exactly). Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, translated the Book of Mormon from golden tablets that the angel Moroni helped him discover. Near the end of the Book of Mormon is a passage known as “Moroni’s promise”: And when you should receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4). Many people say that God has fulfilled this promise to them. What it’s like to receive …

Moral Zealotry and the Seductive Nature of Evil

A tempting fallacy about morality is to think that wickedness must arise from transparently abhorrent motives, and goodness from nice ones. Few explicitly endorse this crude dualism, but many breezily equate hatred with evil, love with goodness, or both. This way of thinking makes it difficult for us to see the dangers of moral zealotry, one of the most insidious motives for wicked behavior. The notion of moral zealotry as a vice is somewhat puzzling. Shouldn’t we want people to be as moral as possible? Republican Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater is often quoted as saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That’s true of idealized people who have perfect knowledge of justice and how best to pursue it, and whose commitment to goodness is untainted by less saintly motives. The rest of us are at risk of having our minds hijacked by intense, but not necessarily reflective, moral passions. People so hijacked are moral zealots. A paradigmatic example is early twentieth century anti-alcohol …

The Boy Who Inflated the Concept of ‘Wolf’

One of Aesop’s fables is about a shepherd boy who, out of boredom, repeatedly cries “Wolf!” when no wolf is present. As a result, the villagers lose faith in his testimony, and no one listens to his warnings when a real wolf shows up to devour his flock. The story shows why it’s bad to lie and why it’s in our interest to be honest. But lying is not the only manipulation of language that degrades trust. Consider a slightly different story. Suppose that instead of one shepherd boy, there are a few dozen. They are tired of the villagers dismissing their complaints about less threatening creatures like stray dogs and coyotes. One of them proposes a plan: they will start using the word “wolf” to refer to all menacing animals. They agree and the new usage catches on. For a while, the villagers are indeed more responsive to their complaints. The plan backfires, however, when a real wolf arrives and cries of “Wolf!” fail to trigger the alarm they once did. What the boys …

A World Without Animal Farming

A Review of The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, by Jacy Reese (Beacon Press, November 6 2018, 240 pages).  In a world distressingly full of evil, we can discern moral progress by looking at the benighted past. Only two lifetimes ago educated people endorsed chattel slavery. The raises the sobering question: how might present arrangements appear to inhabitants of a more enlightened future civilization? Supposing that moral progress continues, there’s good reason to expect that our descendants will wince when they reflect upon our treatment of animals. Every year, tens of billions of land animals, and more sea creatures, are killed in so-called “factory farms,” having lived lives of unrelieved mental and physical anguish, because humans enjoy eating their flesh. A chilling line in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars comes to mind. The Greek historian reports a dialogue between a group of Athenian emissaries and the representatives of Melos, a city-state that wanted to remain neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta. The emissaries bluntly assert that …

Is Service-Learning a Disservice to Philosophy?

Karl Marx once groused that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” He might have been pleased to learn that some philosophers now teach, and advocate for, courses that contain significant activist elements. Pedagogy that includes service projects outside the classroom are often denominated “service-learning.” One variation currently being piloted, “Engaged Philosophy,” gives students autonomy over planning, implementing, and writing about a service project of their choice.1 The Engaged Philosophy website showcases successful projects. For example: Vanessa made crafts and sold them to raise money for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also collected scarves for the homeless and tied them around trees in downtown Minneapolis. Two students worked with local Starbucks managers to get their coffee shops to compost and have clearer recycling signs. Two students brought dogs from a local shelter, Indigo Rescue, to campus during midterms to help students relieve stress. They also collected money for the shelter and raised awareness about dog adoption. Although service-learning has yet to become mainstream …

The Real Gender Trouble

A Review of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson, Encounter Books (February, 2018) 264 pages. In his new book, When Harry Became Sally, Ryan Anderson provides a sustained critique of the transgender rights movement. The book’s irreverent title is sure to turn heads; its contents will probably change some minds, too. Although Anderson is an outspoken social conservative, most of his arguments in this work could be advanced by someone who is politically left of center. Anderson is at pains to distinguish his criticism of transgender activists – by which he means people who promote a certain ideology, regardless of their sexual identities – from condemnation of transgender individuals as such. Surely he knows that such protestations will not insulate him from the charge of transphobic hatred. Here I analyze Anderson’s criticisms of the transgender movement and offer a few criticisms of my own, which I intend to be constructive in spirit. The Transgender Movement’s Philosophy Although they don’t usually acknowledge it, transgender activists make philosophical claims, which are …

Sarah Haider on Normalizing Dissent: A Conversation

After a couple of false starts, Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) finally kicked off its Normalizing Dissent Tour at the University of Colorado Boulder. On the evening of Thursday, October 5, more than 90 people assembled to hear a panel of three Ex-Muslim women – EXMNA co-founder Sarah Haider, Saudi activist Ghada, and writer and editor Hiba Krisht – discuss “Islam, Modesty, and Feminism.” At the request of Secular Students and Skeptics Society (SSaSS), the student organization that invited EXMNA, campus security took the unusual precaution of searching all bags for weapons as the audience filed into the lecture hall where the event took place. Fortunately the event, which included an hour-long Q&A, proceeded civilly. Krisht, who was raised as a Shi’a Muslim in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, said in her opening statement: “I felt I was lying with every movement, lying with what I was wearing, lying with my actions because I would pray in front of them [her family] even though I didn’t believe in God.” Ghada described an upbringing nearly as harsh. When as …

The Rage Against Selective Outrage

There’s a lot of outrage about selective outrage. If the Left and the Right agree on one thing it is that the other side routinely engages in selective expressions of outrage, and that they are terrible for doing this. To be selectively outraged is to be guilty – of irrationality at least, and probably of moral hypocrisy as well. Social media affords endless opportunities for “calling out” those who seem to exhibit these sins. Here I caution against this unproductive fascination with our opponents’ selective outrage. The standard of avoiding all selective outrage is psychologically unrealistic. And, ironically, most outrage about selective outrage turns out to be selective itself. How much rage is “selective outrage”? What is selective outrage? Sometimes people use it to mean pretend outrage, in which people cry “crocodile tears” over things that don’t really upset them. I think we should reserve the term for displays of outrage that are sincere, though disproportionate and lacking in intellectual integrity. The trouble is that our minds are awash with partisan bias. Partisanship colors perceptions …

Is it Wrong to Blame Islam?

Jihadi terrorists claim to act on the authority of Islam. Could they be right? Some very influential people seem to think that it is morally wrong even to consider this hypothesis. During his 2015 speech at a Boston mosque, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values.” Unfortunately, our values don’t guarantee that major religions are necessarily free of destructive ideas any more than major political ideologies are. When a religious apologist argues that his religion is good, he concedes that religions can be evaluated. Most people, if they heard credible stories of Muslim converts cleaning up their lives, or reports that Muhammad was a tolerant man, would think that this was evidence that Islam is a force for good. If so, then the evidence could turn out to support the opposite claim. The Warrior-Prophet of Islam Muhammad, who was a warrior as well a prophet, declined to disguise his religious intolerance. In his “farewell sermon” in 632 C.E., he …