Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bush/Cheney Administration And Their Conservative Supporters
Did Not Take 9/11 Seriously

As with most military (and quasi-military) threats, the line among conservatives has often been that only they take the problem seriously--liberals underestimate it. And now that we know that the last administration tortured prisoners during interrogations, it is common to hear that this was, in effect, a consequence of their more-serious attitude toward terrorism.

But none of this is true. First, it is not true that Bush, Cheney and their conservative supporters took 9/11 seriously while liberals did not. Liberals wanted to focus on al Qaeda and Afghanistan--that is, the group that actually attacked us and the military actions against it. We argued against taking our eye off the ball, against starting an irrelevant war that would divert resources from the task at hand--retaliation for 9/11. We argued against any war against Iraq in the absence of substantial evidence in support of Iraq's involvement with 9/11. Bush, Cheney and their supporters were willing to push the actual response to 9/11, the action against al Qaeda, to second place, on the basis of patently inadequate evidence, in order to begin an unrelated war for impenetrable reasons.

It is liberals who took 9/11 seriously, not conservatives.

Taking 9/11 seriously would involve retaliation against al Qaeda, focused like a laser would not involve gallivanting off on unrelated adventures while bin Laden slipped away unpunished.

Conservatives have long argued for the conclusion that it would be reprehensible to fail to take the 9/11 attacks seriously. And I certainly agree with them on that point. They are simply wrong about which group did take it seriously, and which group saw it as an excuse to do other things they already wanted to do.

Now we are told that the Bush/Cheney administration tortured prisoners...and the excuse is: because it took 9/11 so seriously. But, especially in light of the above, this claim simply does not hold water. The administration did not take 9/11 too seriously, and, in fact, it did not take it seriously enough. It used it as a stalking-horse for its other projects. In fact, it now seems that torture was used after Iraq was already invaded to elicit "information" about Iraq-al Qaeda links. This can hardly be attributed to "caring too much" about the 9/11 attacks. A genuine concern with those attacks would involve a clear-eyed search for the truth about them, not a devious attempt to shore up a botched response to them.

"Taking x seriously" does not mean doing something crazy in response to x. Rather, it means something more like: addressing x rationally, with great energy. (This is part of Richard Clarke's concern discussed here.) Bombing Venezuela--while admittedly an extraordinary response--would not constitute taking an attack by China seriously.

The main error of Bush, Cheney and their supporters was not taking 9/11 too seriously. It was not taking it seriosly enough.
Richard Clarke: The Trauma of 9/11 Is No Excuse

As with just about everything Clark writes (er, with the possible exception of his fiction...), this is worth a read.

Clarke's argument here is not entirely new--which is a strength, of course, not a weakness, in that it builds on things we already have good reason to believe. In this piece he emphasizes the Bush/Cheney team's (irrational) overreaction to 9/11. That is: having irresponsibly ignored the threat of terrorism before 9/11, they reacted to the event not in a rational way--not by seeking out and implementing the most effective policies. Rather, they siezed on the most extreme policies and implemented them without genuine regard for their effectiveness. In part, Clark contends, this seems to have been done for political reasons, in order to prevent a loss in the 2004 election. 9/11 did have an effect on people, Clarke argues, but that effect does not justify the wild leap to discussions of invading Iraq--discussions which began "while the Pentagon was still burning."

It's long been astonishing to me that, after having done approximately as badly as any administration could have done concerning 9/11, the Bush administration has managed to stave off any serious, broad-based public outrage. They managed to establish the parameters of the debate so that the central question was something like "Did they overreact a bit because, well, they just plain cared too much, or was their response a reasonable one?" instead of, as it should be: "Was their handling of the relevant issues merely horrifically bad, or did it rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors?"

Anyway, read the piece. Clarke is always worth taking seriously.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Drag Me To Hell


* I like Sam Raimi. I really like all the Evil Dead movies (well, I only kinda like 3). I dunno what to say. This movie's definitely got its moments...but, well, there're only so many evil-things-puking-gunk-on-the-protagonist scenes you can take. Lots of loud noises and stuff jumping out at you. And fairly predictable, ending-wise.

Jeez, I see it's getting 95% on the yet again I'm way out of the mainstream... But I know zero about movies, so don't take my word for it.
Sotomayor and Objectivity, Again

Myca (in comments) provides us with these quotes from Sotomayor:
I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.


I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.
See now, those are clear expressions of the sane view. And that's very good news to me.

(Technically, we should probably just note that we now have evidence on both sides of the issue, but I'm getting unpopular enough as it is, so I'd better not be too punctilious here. Equivocal, possibly-nutty claims on the one hand versus unequivocal, sane claims on the other makes it pretty clear where the smart money should be.

I will insist on one point, though: I still believe it was wrong to automatically and defensively dismiss the Po-Mo-y interpretations of Sotomayor's claims in the Olmos lecture. Anybody familiar with the intellectual left would recognize those claims and realize that they are most at home on that left. And also: such claims survive in part because it's so easy for liberals to interpret them as being benign. But since its common for liberals to interpret them benignly, it's also common for liberals to utter the claims, intending to express something benign. (Which, of course, I suggested in the original post. I've always made it clear that I would bet on the benign interpretations.)

Sadly, my guess is that this is just the tip of the us-versus-them iceberg, and that more apologies for the illiberal left await us in the future. This is, in fact, one way in which conservatives gain power: liberals gain power, then the leftier-left begins to reassert itself, liberals are fine with that and, in fact, dismiss objections against them or actively defend them, centrists get fed up with the patent leftist nonsense, then they move back to the right. I've said many times that that's what I think happened during the Clinton administration, when liberals defended the illiberal-left PC movement on campuses. I know a whole slew of people who were driven rightwards by such nonsense. I hypothesize that there's a decent chance it'll happen again this time around.

However, with regard to Sotomayor in particular: I'm way heartened by the quotes Myca dug up.
Sotomayor, Minnow, Objectivity and the Intellectual Left

So, I've gotten some grief for pointing out (here) that some things Sotomayor said in the Olmos lecture suggest (but by no means entail) that she is sympathetic with (though not necessarily gripped by) certain views on the extreme intellectual left. (I was also careful to note that I think her actual decisions are more important than a few philosophical speculations in one academic talk.)

Now, given how much care I took to make my claims modest, I've been a little surprised by certain reactions to them. Some folks already seem committed to Sotomayor, whereas I'm genuinely neutral about her. I want to know what she thinks, but I have no antecedent commitment to (nor against) her.

As I noted in the post in question, Sotomayor professes agreement with Martha Minnow on the following point:
there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging,
As I also noted, there's a more benign and less benign reading of that claim. I also noted that I'd be fairly surprised if she believed the less benign one, but that's to invoke a principle of charity; what she says is ambiguous as between the two.

Well, let me just add another data point, found via one minute on the Google--a passage from a review of Professor Minnow's book Law Stories (co-authored with Gary Bellow), discussing the alleged method and philosophical orientation of the work:
This narrative, or cultural, turn, as it is sometimes called, challenges conventional scholarship by questioning the usual pairings between disinterest and knowledge, distance and objectivity, generality and truth. Rather than celebrating objectivity, generality, and precision -- the goals of social science -- narrative scholarship claims both to reveal truth and to unsettle power by separating these couples. Narrative scholarship seeks to incorporate subjective, contextualized, and particularistic accounts of social life as the object, method, and report of research (see Ewick and Silbey 1995). By displaying the relays of interaction and ambiguous meanings within any social encounter or setting, scholars can not only dislodge simplistic models of lawyering and legal decision making, they are also more accurately representing human reason and understanding.

The two virtues that have been claimed for narrative -- to reveal truth and to unsettle power -- are not separate or unrelated. Indeed, the political commitment to giving voice and bearing witness through narrative is underwritten by the epistemological conviction that there is no single, objectively apprehended truth. Conversely, the espitemological [sic] claim that there are multiple truths is based on the recognition that knowledge is socially and politically produced. Together, the two claims regarding narrative scholarship argue that the stories which have been buried, silenced, or obscured by the conventional methods of both social scientific and legal scholarship have the capacity to undermine the illusion of an objective, naturalized world which so often sustains inequality and subordination.[*]

To repeat some crucial bits for emphasis:
Indeed, the political commitment to giving voice and bearing witness through narrative is underwritten by the epistemological conviction that there is no single, objectively apprehended truth. Conversely, the epistemological claim that there are multiple truths is based on the recognition that knowledge is socially and politically produced.
So, it seems that Professor Minnow believes:

(i) There is no single, objectively apprehended truth
(ii) There are multiple truths
(iii) Truths are socially and politically produced.

Now, this is like a hit-parade of confused claims. We get alethic pluralism...we get a hint at skepticism...we get relativism/social constructionism...and from the above, we can add: particularlism. But I'm not currently interested in the truth or falsehood of the claims here. Rather, I'm interested in the facts that:

(a) These are uncontroversially claims characteristic of the far intellectual left.
(b) These are claims apparently endorsed by Professor Minnow.
(c) These are claims that are very much in the vicinity of the "no objectivity" claim discussed in the last post

My conclusion: this supports my contention that Sotomayor may (may) have been expressing sympathy for some far-intellectual-left positions. Note that she does not simply assert that there is "no objective stance" and "no neutrality"--she says:
...because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.
That is, in effect, she says: I agree with Minnow--there is no objective stance. Therefore, we can get some traction on what Sotomayor may mean by finding out what Minnow means. Which we just have. So, my suspicions are confirmed, though only to some extent.

What we really need to know is what Minnow means by the actual claim in question--the no-objectivity claim. But I haven't been able to find it yet.

Let me repeat for the benefit of my liberal friends: I'm not on an anti-Sotomayor jihad. I just think we ought to know what she thinks, and I don't see why we should bend over backwards to pretend that there's no prima facie cause for a bit of concern. I've long thought that it's a real weakness of liberalism that it's too easy on the illiberal left. If a conservative were up for SCOTUS, and was saying a bunch of things that suggested sympathy with the divine command theory, we wouldn't be dismissing concerns as silly and unworthy of attention. In fact, when Bork was up, liberals were freaking out about him accepting a kind of natural law account. So there is precedent for attending to the philosophical views of SCOTUS nominees.

[* It's important to note that this passage is describing an approach to legal scholarship, not to adjudicating cases. So we'd have to sort that out if we were to get really serious about this.]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Deleted Post On Abu Ghraib Allegations

The White House and the Pentagon have both denied the allegations. I'm taking this down and hiding comments until we know more. I've become so outraged by all this that I'm on rather a hair-trigger. But this is the sort of thing, I think, that requires us to be very judicious. Even false allegations are likely to be incendiary. I have to say, these new reports strain credulity. Sadly, however, we know enough to know that they are within the new, revised realm of the plausible in which we now operate.
One Way to Understand Relativism:
Relativism and Nihilism

I suppose I've gone on about this here before, but it seems to me that, if you want to make some sense of the various relativism debates, you have to treat the distinction between relativism and nihilism as in some sense central.

When people say or read claims like (taking cultural moral relativism as our example):

(CMR) Morality is relative to culture

or, more specifically:

(CMRo) Moral obligations are relative to culture,

They have a natural and reasonable inclination to

interpret them as an expression of moral nihilism, meaning:

(CMN) Morality is not real; it is a culturally-sustained fiction

or, more specifically:

(CMNo) Moral obligations are not real; rather, they are culturally-sustained fictions.

But there is a vast difference between the two sets of claims. The prima facie meaning of (CMRo) is something like:

Moral obligations are real/genuine; and they are relative to culture.

So construed, relativism contrasts with nihilism; it is in a certain sense on the side of realism: it holds that moral obligations are non-fictional. They're the real thing. (Though they have a funky nature...)

And--according to me, anyway--the best (inter alia: most natural) interpretation of claims like:

x is relative to y

is something like:

x is grounded in y


x supervenes on y


y is the truth-maker for x.

Thus "moral obligations are relative to culture"...which, changing nothing significant, but restating to make the grammar come out right, is equivalent to "moral obligations are relative to cultural facts" best interpreted as meaning something like:

(R) Moral obligations are grounded in (or supervenient upon) cultural facts.

On this way of looking at things, what is central to relativism is a certain kind of dependency claim. The central aspect of CMR is the claim that morality depends on culture. That is: truths or facts about morality depend on truths or facts about culture. Relativism, so construed, is not the view that there are no moral truths or facts.

If we take the dependency claim as central to relativism, then we see that the famous plurality claims are peripheral to the view. Take CMR again, which is often associated with a descriptive and a normative plurality claim. Descriptively, we note that there are many cultures, which relevantly disagree. Add the dependency claim, and you get the normative plurality claim, that there are many conflicting (systems of?) moral obligations. Difference in culture + the claim that morality depends on culture --> differences in morality. But there needn't be more than one culture, and some day there may be just one. If we take either of the plurality claims as definitive of CMR, then when the second-to-last culture dies out, we'd have to say that CMR has become false! Then some version of objectivism would be true! But that's clearly not right. If morality is dependent on culture, then CMR is true no matter how many cultures there are. Including: one. If CMR is ever true, then it's always true, even if there is only one culture. (Even if there's none...but that raises other problems...) The depency claim is central; the notorious normative plurality claim is merely a consequence of the conjunction of the dependency claim with the descriptive plurality claim.

Another thing about looking at things this way: the head-spinny nature of relativism is to some extent mitigated. It's just another philosophical view about what grounds moral obligation. Utilitarians think it's facts about happiness; cultural moral relativists think it's facts about culture. But there's nothing all that weird about relativism. It's false...but it's not a completely different kind of view.

But wait, isn't it well-known that relativists think there's a confusion involved in making non-relativised claims? Like e.g. "Jones shouldn't lie to Smith"? Doesn't the CMRist think that we ought really to say things like "Jones shouldn't(C) lie to Smith?" Roughly: it's wrong in culture C for Jones to lie to Smith. Well, it's plausible to construe CMR as the view that cultural facts are morally salient facts. According to CMR, perhaps Jones shouldn't lie to Smith if they belong to a culture that rejects lying. But that's analogous to a case in which utilitarianism rules against lying in because it will have overall worse consequences in those circumstances. In both cases the obligation obtains only given that certain other contingent, morally-relevant facts obtain. In both cases the obligation is limited. So in some sense this localized feature of obligations--specific obligations, anyway--is preserved...but again, it's a feature of at least some normal, non-relativistic theories.

On this construal, it'd probably better to call CMR "moral culturalism," actually.

This view doesn't capture all of the features normally attributed to relativism in general and CMR in particular, but it captures many of them. We also normally think of the CMRist as denying that there are any more general obligations from which our obligations to obey our culture spring. If we insist on preserving that feature of the view, things do look rather different...though I think there are difficulties involved in distinguishing the two views, actually. But that's a long story.

But you needn't buy the claim that CMR is really just moral culturalism in order to buy the more general (and I think more important and less-controversial) point above: that you have to treat the relativism/nihilism distinction as central.

Finally, I said above that people tend naturally to interpret relativism as nihilism, e.g. to interpret (CMRo) as (CMNo). This is natural, I conjecture, because people do recognize the centrality of the dependency claim to the theory--they recognize that CMR is saying that morality is grounded in culture. But they also recognize that mere culture per se--roughly: mere tradition--cannot ground moral obligations (nor epistemic ones, nor truth). They recognize that, if nothing more substantial than cultural agreement underlies putative moral obligations, then moral obligations are unsupported--they have no rational force, no genuine authority. And that is nihilism. So relativism is an unstable position, which degenerates into nihilism. And that's why people so often interpret (CMR) as meaning (CMN)--they skip the intermediate steps and go straight for the nihilism.

O.k., that's radically oversimplified, but I think there's truth in it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Has A Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Made Our Carriers Obsolete?

This is some very scary stuff.
Matthew Alexander: Torture The #1 al Qaeda Recruitment Tool, Costs American Lives

Matthew Alexander, who has actual experience in these matters, vs. Dick Cheney, who does not.

This video affected me very powerfully.
Sotomayor: The Olmos Lecture (1):
Liberal or Lefty?
Fallibilist or Irrationalist?

Probably no time for anything extensive today, unfortunately, but here are some quick points about a central bit of Sotomayor's Olmos Lecture.

Now, let me repeat that I'm neither pro- nor anti-Sotomayer at this point. I have no fixed opinion of her, and it's not clear that I have any right to an opinion of her. I'm not a lawyer, and I've never read anything she's written beyond the transcript of this talk, which I'm not sure ought to be taken very seriously. People say a lot of things in talks... I've heard reports that her actual decisions tend to be fairly narrow and cautious, and (if true) I think that's more important. People often explore or express philosophical views they don't really hold, or don't hold strongly, or don't hold for long. But we shouldn't pretend that there's no cause for concern in the Olmos address.

Quoting Sotomayor:

...No one person, judge or nominee will speak in a female or people of color voice. I need not remind you that Justice Clarence Thomas represents a part but not the whole of African-American thought on many subjects. Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that--it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others. Not all women or people of color, in all or some circumstances or indeed in any particular case or circumstance but enough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging. The Minnesota Supreme Court has given an example of this. As reported by Judge Patricia Wald formerly of the D.C. Circuit Court, three women on the Minnesota Court with two men dissenting agreed to grant a protective order against a father's visitation rights when the father abused his child. The Judicature Journal has at least two excellent studies on how women on the courts of appeal and state supreme courts have tended to vote more often than their male counterpart to uphold women's claims in sex discrimination cases and criminal defendants' claims in search and seizure cases. As recognized by legal scholars, whatever the reason, not one woman or person of color in any one position but as a group we will have an effect on the development of the law and on judging.
Focus on this bit of the above:
Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.
This is a crucial--and very confusing--claim. It's not technically an inference, but is, rather, an explanation of the fact that Judge Sotomayor believes something. However, such explanations are almost always used to indicate that the explanans constitute premises and the explanandum constitutes a conclusion. I don't see any way around interpreting this as an indication that judge Sotomayor accepts the following inference:

(1) To judge is to exercise power
(2) There is no objective stance, but only a series of perspectives (no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging)
(3) The experiences of women and people of color affect their decisions
Now, this is weird for more than one reason. Here's a really simple reason why it's weird: the conclusion is likely to be true and fairly uncontroversial, but the premises suggest (but do not entail) some pretty heavy-duty, radical, and largely indefensible philosophical positions. First consider the conclusion, (3). Now, nobody ought to deny that our experiences affect our decisions--and that goes for us white boys as well as non-whites and non-boys. In fact, Sotomayor goes on to point to what seems like empirical evidence for the claim:
The Judicature Journal has at least two excellent studies on how women on the courts of appeal and state supreme courts have tended to vote more often than their male counterpart to uphold women's claims in sex discrimination cases and criminal defendants' claims in search and seizure cases.
(She also offers one anecdote, though anecdotes of course don't help.) So: right, our experiences of all kinds (and not just those associated with our race and sex) tend to exert some influence on us and our decisions. Nobody will dispute this, I presume.

But now consider the premises.
Premise (1) says that "to judge is to exercise power." Now, again, on one reading there's nothing wrong with that at all, but it's the kind of claim that reeks of far-left quasi-philosophical nonsense. The benign reading is:
To judge is to do many things, and one of those things is to exercise power.
True and uncontroversial.

But, again, such claims are common among the Po-Mo/cultural studies/critical theory set, and are often used to express claims like:
All judging is is an exercise of power
Judging is primarily nothing more than an exercise of power
The intellectual far left is obsessed with nothing if not with power. Such people want to deny the very possibility of principled, reason-guided decision-making. There may be no more pernicious view in existence.


Well, first it's simply flat-out false, and not even close to being true. Among other things, acts of judging are also often (and often primarily) attempts to render just decisions. They are also often acts of actually rendering just decisions (and that's often what they are primarily). They are often attempts to render fair resolutions of disputes, and they are often acts of rendering genuinely fair resolutions of disputes. They are often attempts to correctly and objectively apply the law, and they are often acts of actually correctly and objectively applying the law. One thing is certain: they are not always and
only exercises of power. (Though, again: it's not clear that that's the claim being made.)

In addition to being false, the view is pernicious, and it's pernicious for the same reason that so many similar views on the intellectual left are pernicious: they entail that one ought not even attempt to be rational, fair or objective. They elevate prejudice to a virtue. Recoginzing that we ought to be fair, but often fall short, is one thing. Asserting that we need not even try because our quirks and prejudices are perfect as they are, or are insurmountable, is not just nonsense, it's dangerous nonsense. So if judge Sotomayor believes that--and I must say that I find it very unlikely that she does--then she cannot be placed on the Court.

Now consider premise (2): There is no objective stance, but only a series of perspectives (no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging. Again, this may mean at least two things. It may mean something like:

(O1) We're not normally capable of achieving perfect objectivity

or it might mean:

(O2) We can never achieve any degree of objectivity no matter what we do.

(O1) might be true; (O2) is certainly false. People are often objective, sometimes astonishingly so, sometimes, apparently, perfectly so. Humans do have a wide variety of quirks and prejudices. But when I add 2 and 2, none of these quirks and prejudices have any significant effect on me--not in most cases, anyway. So it's in
no way clear that we can never achieve perfect objectivity...but we needn't defend nor even care about that conclusion.

Remember that we aren't interested in whether perfect objectivity is possible. We're interested in whether objectivity is possible. A common error here is to accept the following inference:

(i) Perfect objectivity is not possible

(ii) Objectivity is not possible

But that inference is no better than:

(i) It's not possible to be in perfect shape

(ii) It's not possible to be in shape

Objectivity, like fairness and neutrality, is largely a matter of degree. We are obviously capable of being objective at least some times and at least to some extent. More to the point, we are obviously capable of being sufficiently objective to accomplish many of the goals we need to accomplish. That's how we got to the moon, for example.
So, strictly speaking, (2) seems false. There is objectivity, and there is neutrality--that is, we can often be sufficiently objective, and we can often be sufficiently neutral.

One thing that helps judges be neutral and objective is that they are very often
disinterested in more than one sense. Even the leftiest judicial theorist must admit that a male judge adjudicating a dispute between two other males, neither of whom he cares about nor relates to, can have a fairly easy time being objective. In fact, using disinterested parties to adjudicate disputes is a method we've developed in order to get fairer and more objective decisions. And note: the lefties in question must assert that our judicial system is no fairer than a system in which people are actively encouraged to judge in an idiosyncratic and prejudicial manner. And that's insane.

Many of our decisions are impartial simply because we
are indifferent to the dispute. Also, some people are better than others at transcending their positions and setting aside their prejudices. Those people almost certainly make better judges. Perhaps adjudicating disputes between a person you related to and a person you don't is harder, but it's certainly not impossible to put your feelings aside and judge on the merits of the case. People do it all the time. Outside of court, with regard to ordinary affairs and disputes, I've done it and you've done it too.

However, (2) might really mean something weaker and less obviously false. It might just mean:
we're never perfectly objective (though we might be objective in some ways and for some purposes); I might take up a neutral stance with regard to some question Q, but that's not a God's-eye position about all things. There will still be other questions about which I'm non-objective. Meh. That's not perfect, but it's reasonable. It's a bit of a stretch as an interpretation of the actual words, but if I had to guess, I'd guess that it's probably what Sotomayor means. But if it did turn out that she meant the former thing, i.e. meant that no measure of objectivity or neutrality was possible, again she'd have to be kept away from SCOTUS. But, again, I seriously doubt that's what she thinks.

Finally, let's cut to the chase. Smart money says that good judges are often appreciably objective; but smart money also says that they're also significantly non-objective. Since we have excellent reasons to think that quirks and prejudices frequently affect judges, we have good reason to make sure that the quirks and prejudices of the court are in some sense representative of all of our quirks and prejudices. And that means more women and more minorities on SCOTUS.
To err is human. The liberal position for diversity on the court ought to be based on a recognition of our imperfect rationality. It ought not be based on any crackpot theories that try to denigrate reason and elevate prejudice and irrationality to virtues.
Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down

Well, let me note once again that I know nothing about literature, so don't expect any insights here. But I did enjoy A Long Way Down, and if you like Nick Hornby, you're likely to like it, too. It's not formulaic or predictable, the characters live and breathe, and their words and thoughts are frequently a hoot. Not a book that changed my life, but interesting and enjoyable and when you're done you feel like your time was reasonably well-spent. That's a lot more than I can say for most novels. Philosoraptor says: check it out.
Sotomayor: Cause for Concern

There is definite cause for concern in some of what Sotomayor writes here. On a quick read, it doesn't seem as bad as some on the right are saying...but some of what she says (especially in the last two pages) is clearly consistent with some pretty worrisome, pretty loony, very lefty, theories.

The characteristic mistakes of the right in these matters: they pretend that it's easy to achieve objectivity...and they tend to fairly uncritically judge that their own preferred views are the objectively correct ones. The characteristic mistakes on the left tend to involve mindlessly parroting dopey PoMo theories to the effect that even approximations of objectivity are impossible...and not even a worthy goal. The lefty error may be marginally crazier, but the righty one has probably done more real harm in the world.

The benign interpretation of what Sotomayor writes on the other end of the link is that she thinks that we ought to aspire to objectivity, but can't always achieve it. That's true and obvious, and anyone who disagrees with either conjunct doesn't belong anywhere near SCOTUS. Unfortunately, some of what she writes suggests sympathies with leftier types who do deny the first conjunct, or who deny that even approximations of objectivity are possible. If that's what she believes, then she simply can't be allowed onto the court. If I had to bet, I'd bet that she believes the benign thing and not the crazy thing, but I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Complete Reboot of BtVS...Without Joss Whedon or Any of the Cast?

Possibly the stupidest damn idea ever to come out of Hollywood. (Think about that statement...)

Not only will I never see this no matter what--not even when it when it shows up with the other shitty movies at 3 a.m. on USA--but I'm going to actively discourage people from seeing it.

We ought to just go ahead and start the movement now: Don't See Boycott Bullshit Buffy.
Fox Nation on Sotomayor

Nice people.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Help Africa By Reducing Aid?

Wow. This is an issue about which I find myself completely neutral. Like any good liberal, I want us to help the disadvantaged...but I find myself largely sympathetic with conservatives about the value of self-reliance.

(And, incidentally, I have great confidence that I'll never know whether the lots of aid or less aid position is correct here.)

But I have to sit up and take notice when the President of Rwanda is sympathetic with the less aid position.

Though I find the following paragraph in Kagame's op-ed more than a little puzzling:
Aid has not only often failed to meet its objectives; it has also rarely dealt with the underlying issues of poverty and weak societies. We see this with our neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers – the largest and most expensive presence of its kind in history – treat the symptoms rather than addressing the issues of capacity, self-determination and dignity.
See, that seems like the kind of case in which it's very important to treat the "symptoms." When the symptoms are people getting killed an brutalized, I'm all about treating the symptoms if that's the only genuinely available option. So why not say the same about starvation? I dunno.

On-going aid of the typical kind is unlikely to be free, even to the people who receive it. I fervently hope there's a better solution, a solution that emphasizes independence and self-reliance without sacrificing people in the short run...but I'm a little skeptical.
Dutch Now Making Fun Of Us Over Gitmo NIMBY Panic

Well that's just great.

I think this may be one case in which it may be true to say:

...the terrorists have already won...
Relativism Again

So comments, e-mails, and in-person reactions to this post have convinced me--rather I should say reminded me of--something. And that is: one shouldn't simplify things about the relativism debate, especially in contentious ways! Lord knows the debate is enough of a disaster as it is. So I appreciate the harassment about it, and regret my slackness.

The point of the post in question was to distinguish relativism in philosophy from relativism in anthropology. There are several different versions of the latter view, but to...wait for it...simplify for blog-purposes, it's roughly the view that we should see or judge other cultures "on their own terms." This can mean, roughly: don't judge them too quickly, or it can mean something more like: we're never in an epistemic position to judge them at all. Unsurprisingly, the weaker claim is more easily-defended.

In that recent post, I said that cultural moral relativism is the view according to which:
Action A is morally right =*
Action A is traditional or orthodox.
Now, that's a very contentious super-simplification, and several people have (rightly) expressed unhappiness with it.

The telling of even just my take on the full story would take years and cost thousands of lives, so it's not really bloggy material, but I'm plagued with guilt about contributing to the confusion here, so let me say what at least part (necessarily a rather small part) of the story looks like to me. (I'm casting this again largely in terms of moral relativism, but ethics is not particularly my there are likely to be more raggedy edges than usual... Perhaps needless to say, there are also alethic versions of relativism, versions in which the dependent variable is epistemic justification, and some other notables.)

The view expressed above is really to sketchy to live. It is, in particular, ambiguous as between a couple of very different views, the most salient of which are probably roughly these two (again, I'm shortening and simplifying...perhaps at my peril...):

1. There is something like a general or universal principle according to which one ought to do what's (to simplify...) traditional/orthodox/accepted in one's culture.

2. Principles of moral rightness spring out of/supervene on/are grounded in something cultural say (simplifying again...) traditions. Each culture/tradition somehow grounds or produces its own moral principles. Roughly: principles supervene on cultural facts.

I ran the two together because they are similar in many ways (for example they have basically the same moral consequences), because many advocates of moral relativism are unclear which of the two views they advocate, and because, consequently, both might reasonably be called versions of relativism.

Now, my current view is that 2 is something close to relativism proper (to the extent that there is any such thing...), whereas 1 is a version of a view that, in print, I've called "quasi-relativism" and "moral culturalism." I don't think quasi-relativism ought to count as a version of relativism, but I suspect that I've got fairly persnickety inclinations, so I've been willing to loosen up my view on that point.

However, even the above is somewhat contentious, and I should note that there are several other plausible characterizations of the view that make sense. Here are just a few notable examples:

3. There is a plurality of maximally-general moral principles. (Perhaps The principles are not in any way grounded in/supervenient upon cultural facts, facts about individual psychology, nor any such thing.)

4. There are no universal or objective moral principles.

5. To be well-formed, every claim of the form 'S is obligated to do A' must come with a qualifier/subscript/"for" clause. (Roughly: 'S is obligated to do A' is not well-formed, but e.g. 'S is obligated(sub C) to do A' is well-formed.)

[6. There are different types of moral obligations.
(This may or may not be an aspect of 2...and, though I'm leaving out lots of alternatives and sub-alternatives, I thought I ought to include this one. What does it mean? Aye, carumba, that's a whole big thing right there. Let's leave it as something suggestive for now, and maybe dive into it later...)]

(Yargh. Let me say again that this is a sketchy, partial picture...but I've got actual work to do!)

Briefly consider 4: That's a very common type of characterization of relativism, but I'm skeptical of it because it fails to distinguish relativism from nihilism. Moral nihilism is the view that there are no (genuine, real, or non-fictive) moral obligations; alethic nihilism is the view that there are no truths. And so on.

My hunch is that what's crucial to relativism is the positive claim, roughly:
There are relative obligations (whatever that means)
Rather than the negative claim:

There are no non-relative obligations.
However, I think it's sensible to think of relativism as a complex view to the effect that (a) there are "relative" obligations and there are no objective ones. That probably captures the spirit of the thing best. My own tentative view here, though, is that thought-expriments suggest that, should the two claims pull apart, we'd be more inclined to call the positive claim by itself relativism than we would be to call the negative claim by itself relativism.

I'm also tentatively inclined to think that it's sub-optimal to call 3 relativism, and that because, well, nothing's relative to anything according to that claim. That's a view I'm inclined to classify as a version of normative pluralism, but not as relativism. But, again, I can easily see this going the other way, and I don't have that much interest in the terminological dispute...I just don't think that's the kind of view that's generally been at issue.

Whew, o.k.. That's fast and sketchy, but my conscience is pestering me a bit less now.

The really crucial things to realize are these, by my lights:

It's crucial to distinguish relativism from nihilism. It's also important to distinguish it from skepticism, fallibilism, various kinds of diversity claims to the effect that people believe different things or cultures differ, social doxastic determinism of the kind discussed in the so-called strong program in the sociology of "knowledge" (better called; the sociology of belief), and a few other positions I'll skip here.

O.k., don't take any of that as gospel, needless to say...

(Sidebar...or bottom-bar...:my own view of the terminological matter is something like this:
I would like to get the views divided up and clumped together in ways that reflect real/important similarities and differences. I'm less concerned about providing some kind of analysis of the term 'relativism'. My current preferred view on the matter is that the optimal approach might be to articulate the array of relevant views in the vicinity, develop a non-sucky nomenclature, and investigate the interesting views. 'Relativism' could be abandoned entirely. (Actually, that's a very slight overstatement of the case, as you can tell from the above...))

[You might want to check out commenter Richard for another view of the matter--one of many views with which I don't agree, but which I think plausible, ergo worth attention.]

Friday, May 22, 2009

Exorcising The Atheist Daughter Edition

Whoa. I say this is fake...but this kind of craziness apparently knows few bounds, so I dunno...
Dick Cheney Is A Liar

You already know that, of course...but McClatchy discusses some of the biggest lies of the most recent speech here.

And he's not just any old liar--he lies big, he lies repeatedly, he lies about issues of the utmost importance, and he held an office that gave him a special obligation not to lie. Without him and his lies, we would probably not have engaged in the gratuitous war that has killed 4,300 American troops, wounded over 30,000 of them, and killed at least tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Dick Cheney is a liar, and a consequential one.

Don't forget it.
Reuters: Test Of New Flu Virus Suggests More Are Out There


[h/t Canis Major]
Is the Right Rooting for a Terrorist Attack?

There's been some chatter to the effect that conservatives (or perhaps more accurately: Republicans) may be rooting for another terrorist attack.

My guess is that the right is "rooting" for an attack in the way that liberals were rooting for failure in Iraq.

And that way is: sorta but not really.

Rather, liberals were convinced (rightly) that the Iraq war was idiotic and a disaster. They were also convinced that it was unlikely to succeed. And that if it did succeed in some ostentatious way, history and the public would--irrationally--view it as having been a good idea. Bush did something terrible by getting us into the war, but he was likely to be remembered as a hero if it was an ostentatious success.

Now, speaking for myself, if I could have pushed a button and made the Iraq war into an ostentatious success, I would have done so.

But there was a part of me that was kind of rooting against it.

Partially it was because I think that truth is important, and it would have been a tragedy for the disastrous George W. Bush to have gone down in history as some kind of hero. Partially it was because I knew that the kinds of thinking and kinds of policies that got us into Iraq were disastrous. Had we lucked out in Iraq, it would have reinforced executive authoritarianism and outright manipulation of public opinion through lies, fear-mongering and selective use of evidence.

So, yeah, a part of me was relieved that the war limped vaguely in the direction of a barely-averted disaster. I'm not necessarily proud of that, but the reasons behind my attitude were not purely political.

My guess is that conservatives are in a similar position today: they think that the liberal attitude toward the "war on terror" is naive and dangerous, they think that Obama is a bad president, and they think he's abandoning good policies. But if they could push a button and avert another terrorist attack, they would do so. (Well, maybe not the Ann Coulter wing of the party...but, ya' know, the sane ones...)

But if one occurs during Obama's term of office, they'll blame him, and take a certain I-told-you-so-ish satisfaction from it.

(Oh, who am I kidding? If it happens any time during the presidency of any Democrat, or during the presidency of a Republican who succeeds a Democrat, that will be the attitude of many of the hard-core rightosphere types, anyway...)

Now, there is a relevant difference here:

We were right about Bush and the Iraq war, and they are wrong about Obama and Bush's anti-terrorism policies. That matters, of course. We gave Bush more chances than he deserved, and he failed ostentatiously, largely due to dogmatism. Iraq was, objectively, irrational. Bush richly deserved to fail, and it's hard to ignore such facts even when the consequences would be disastrous.Obama, however, is reasonable...but the opposition has given him no chance at all.

One final important point:
One thing complicating everyone's attitudes is the political implications of failure or success. Democrats stood to gain a little politically--though not much, since they all freakin' went along with it--from failure in Iraq; and they stood to lose a lot by ostentatious success in Iraq. Republicans stand to lose a little politically if we have no attacks during Obama's tenure; but they stand to gain tremendously if we do have one. Democrats rallied around a Republican president on 9/11; I expect there will be no such rallying around a Democratic president after another attack. One factor is that presidents now know what they're up against (perhaps Bush should have, but that's a different discussion...). But one factor is just the character of the parties and their supporters. Democrats who failed to rally around Bush would have been called unpatriotic or treasonous. Republicans who fail to rally around a Democrat will be seen as fervently pro-defense or extra-super pro-American or some such thing. And, of course, since Obama is taking a less-aggressive (or: less psychopathic) stance on things like interrogations, he is making himself more vulnerable to criticism if there is an attack. Bush and Cheney went radically overboard in their anti-terrorist policies...but will only pay any kind of price if their crimes were so egregious that they cannot be ignored. But if there is another attack, and any sign that Obama did less that 110% of what was reasonable to do, he will pay a heavy price.

So, are Republicans rooting for another terrorist attack? Well, they have strong incentives to do so...and, if there is one, they'll take a certain rather abstract satisfation at being (in their minds) right... Though I'm honestly unsure whether that should count as "rooting" for it. All things considered, I think I'd say "no."
David Corn: "The Great Obama-Cheney Face-Off"

At Mother Jones.
FAIR's Very Confused Post On Torture


Very confused, that is, unless I'm really missing something.

The analysis is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Our Wimpy SuperMaxes?

Anybody else starting to worry about the inadequacy of our "supermax" prisons? Apparently, were we to put detainees from Gitmo in them, they'd prance right out and be frolicking their way to the bomb store in hours.

Man, we really ought to build better prisons than that, I say...
Dick Cheney and the Limits of Respect for the Office

So, it seems reasonable to think that one has, as a citizen, an obligation to respect the office of the president, and, presumably, that of the vice-president.

However, presumably there are limits to these obligations--especially, perhaps, for ex-presidents and VPs.

I'm wondering about the limits of these obligations.

And, specifically, about whether Cheney has stepped far enough over the line that we are now entitled to say what we honestly think about that...person.

I'm not talking about gratuitous vituperation. I'm just talking about speaking the unvarnished truth insofar as we can discern it.
The "Playing God" Fallacy

Not making this up:

Joe Barton (R-Fever Swamp), on trying to address global warming: (Via Sullivan's site)
You can't regulate God. Not even the Democratic majority in the US Congress can regulate God.
This is, of course, just a version of the "Playing God" fallacy. If this argument were sound, it would, apparently, mean that we should stop trying to do, well, anything, especially anything that requires big technology. Swine flu vaccine? Playing God. Electricity? Playing God. Airplanes? Really playing God. Building a fire? Playing God...

If the argument were used consistently, it would apparently mean that we should refrain from doing virtually everything, from CPR to space flight. But, of course, it's never used consistently--it's only used to block whichever course of action the fallacy-employer doesn't care for. See, keeping Terry Schiavo alive with extraordinarily complex life-support technology: not playing God. Letting nature take its sad and awful course: playing God.

And, more to the point:

Destroying the environment with pollutants from power plants and internal combustion engines: [not --ed.] playing God.

Refraining from doing so: playing God.

Two seconds of thought reveals this argument to be stupid. Two seconds. Shows you how much time folks like Congressman Barton spend thinking...
How Does a 14% Guantanamo Recidivism Rate Strengthen "the Arguments of Critics Who Have Warned Against the Transfer Or Release of Any More Detainees"?

That quote from the NYT. In rather more detail it looks like this:
An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.

The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against the transfer or release of any more detainees as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January. Past Pentagon reports on Guantánamo recidivism have been met with skepticism from civil liberties groups and criticized for their lack of detail.
Right, well, the first question that comes immediately to mind is:

1. How on the damn Earth does a 14% recidivism rate strengthen arguments against releasing apparently innocent prisoners?

And, um, since--unless someone out there is arguing for releasing apparently guilty ones--that's what we're really talking about here.

The second question that comes to mind is:

2. What are ordinary recidivism rates like?

This question is raised and answered--sort of--later in the story. The answer given is: "as high as" 68%...though unless you're particularly gullible, you probably won't believe that figure. But suppose it were 50%. Heck, suppose it were 30%. If so, that 14% rate still doesn't provide us with a decent argument against releasing the apparently innocent among the Guantanamo detainees. This should be too obvious to need saying, but: the question that should determine whether detainees should be released or not is: are they guilty?

(Note that one thing we seem to be assuming here is that this is actually recidivism we're dealing with. It would be very interesting to know whether any of the people who engaged in terrorist training etc. after their release had been non-terrorists before their imprisonment...)

Perhaps the argument is that these folks are likely to be so dangerous that even such a low recidivism rate is unacceptable. This seems extremely implausible to me, but I'm willing to be convinced about the point.

And finally, of course, one wonders:

3. How does any of this provide any kind of argument for transferring prisoners to normal American prisons?

The answer there, of course, is simply: it doesn't. None at all.

Finally, it's worth noting that the Pentagon got this 1-in-7 figure through a complex method of investigation that civilians know as "making shit up." The real number is apparently much lower:
The Pentagon has provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists, and only a few of the 29 people identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release.
Though there's some Times-y hedging immediately thereafter:
Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.
Ah, right--merely training with terrorists! Well nothing wrong with that! [/sarcasm]. See, that's good enough for me. "Simply" training with terrorists is something I'm willing to count as recidivism here. Let's not get overly picky just to make the story a little juicier, shall we not? So I'm willing to accept the '29' figure (which includes those who merely consort with terrorists)...but that gives us a recidivism rate of closer to 1 in 18.4, not 1 in 7.

Maybe I'm just missing something here...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Heels Visit White House


OBAMA wins and the HEELS win...and now HERE THEY ARE TOGETHER!!!!!

It's like a beautiful, beautiful dream...
What If Motivational Posters Were Cool?
TR Edition

via the inimitable Metafilter: Teddy-Roosevelt-o-centric motivational posters...

...that, believe it or not, rather rule...
Colin Edition


Looks pretty badass.
College Towns and Unemployment

At Sully's digs.

Turns out that college towns (e.g. Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Charlottesville, Champaign-Urbana) tend to have lower unemployment rates than their states' averages and lower rates than prominent large cities in those states.

I'd like to see comparisons to similarly-sized towns, actually...I'm not sure how much it tells us to compare Chapel Hill to Charlotte...
Bottom-Up Change on the Torture Debate

Jared at Bottom-Up Change responds to my post on Krauthammer's recent defense of torture.

I'm particularly interested in this important argument:

What Krauthammer concludes from Alter’s piece, and Nancy Pelosi’s awkward position about waterboarding, is that all the outrage over the torture memos today is really “false”. Our correct intuitions about torture were the ones we had immediately after 9/11, when many people, including liberals like Alter, were considering the use of torture to extract information from terrorist suspects.

But the problem with this argument is the following, and it’s not hard to see. Just because many people, including possibly Nancy Pelosi, were not as disturbed about torture shortly after 9/11 as they are today does not mean that these intuitions were correct back then. I concede that if there were a very significant terrorist attack tomorrow, the percentage of Americans who would support torture as a method to gain intelligence would increase dramatically. Perhaps Pelosi would go back to not speaking out against torture. But that does not prove that these “aftermath” intuitions would be correct. It is often the case that our intuitions about right and wrong are distorted when we are angry or have recently been harmed. One reason why we have laws, I believe, is to check the darker emotions of individuals that may lead them to act in uncivilized ways.

This is a version of what we might call the Pelosi Is Irrelevant Argument. Now, I have no interest in Nancy Pelosi one way or the other. She's never really inspired me, nor inspired much confidence in me, and if she's guilty of something, she's guilty. I have no interest in stretching to defend her, especially not on partisan grounds. I don't have any particular loyalty to the Dems.

However, I'm skeptical about the Pelosi Is Irrelevant argument. Here, for example, is an argument to the effect that Pelosi's immediately-post-9/11 judgment is relevant here:
Suppose that Pelosi is not an overtly unreasonable person. Suppose also that she judged e.g. waterboarding to be permissible immediately after 9/11. This is some evidence that such judgments are the kind reasonable people might make under such circumstances. Consequently this shows that decisions to waterboard were reasonable in a very ordinary and straight-forward sense: that is, in the sense that a reasonable person might very well make such a judgment under those circumstances. That is, this provides some mitigating/excusing evidence in defense of those who tortured and those who ordered torture.
Needless to say, the fact that any single person judged that p never gives us conclusive evidence that it was reasonable to judge that p...but the more people who do so judge, and the stronger our antecedent reason for thinking them to be rational, the stronger evidence of reasonableness is their judgment. (And, of course, none of this could show that the decision to torture was optimal...only, at most, that it was excusable.)

Personally, I've never had a very high opinion of Pelosi; she has never struck me as being particularly smart. (Which seems to make her about par for the course in Congress...) So I'm somewhat less impressed by the allegation of her complicity. But those who think highly of her should be impressed--if, that is, it turns out to be true.

It's become fairly common on the left to say that Pelosi doesn't matter, that the GOP is simply throwing up a distraction. And, of course, they are. They seemt to care more about the fact that a Democrat when along with the plan than that Republicans engineered it. (This, again, is par for the course in recent years: Republicans boldly lead us down the road to perdition, Democrats meekly follow, thus getting us to perdition and giving Republicans cover for having masterminded the whole affair...)

But ignoring the motives and well-known characther flaws of the GOP, Pelosi's complicity would matter, in that it would give us a little more reason to think that there is significant difference between what seems reasonable now and what seemed reasonable in the crazy days immediately after 9/11. It's not clear how weighty it would be if she did acquiesce to torture...but the fact cannot be dismissed as evidentially weightless without further argument.

I think it's hard to find our way through this tricky terrain...but that's my thought on it for today.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ammunition Shortage?

Most liberals I know don't buy a lot of y'all may be unaware that there seems to be a fairly significant ammunition shortage these days. I'm not sure how much is real and how much is mere rumor...but it seems to be at least partially non-fictional. And one cause is said to be people buying ammo up in anticipation of some kind of stringent firearms restrictions allegedly to be instituted by the Obama administration and the Democratic (oops...that's Democrat-Socialist...) Congress.

I just thought you should know...
Not How To Defend The Liberal Arts
A Quick Response to Lane Wallace

Over at Sullivan's digs, Lane Wallace articulates a defense of the liberal arts with which I largely disagree. She begins with the following, which describes an apparent challenge for the humanities:
A recent New York Times article noted that Humanities now account for only 8% of all college degrees, and that proponents are having to work harder than ever to justify the worth of a humanities, or liberal arts, course of study. The article quotes Anthony T. Kronman, a Yale law professor, as saying, reluctantly, that the essence of a humanities education may become "a great luxury that many cannot afford."
Wallace responds by saying that she didn't recognize the value of her degree at Brown, but while working in a cardboard box factory:
In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn't matter what I majored in. It didn't even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, "Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again." A piece of paper that was proof to any potential future employer that I could stick with a project and complete it successfully, even if parts of it weren't all that much fun. A piece of paper that said I had learned how to process an overload of information, prioritize, sort through it intelligently, and distill all that into a coherent end product ... all while coping with stress and deadlines without imploding.
But this doesn't give us a defense of the humanities, really. This is, if anything, a defense of getting a college degree, plus the claim that it doesn't matter what it's in. But though all college degrees may be good, some may be better than others, and this might leave the humanities still in need of a defense. After all, why major in English if you can major in physics instead? The value of the latter is beyond reproach...but what can we say in defense of the former?

Wallace gets much of the answer right (IMHO) when she says that you should study what you're passionate about...though she asserts this on the practical grounds that you'll do better if you like what you're studying. I'd rather say: study what you are passionate about because that's what college is for--but I won't really try to defend that position here. Your time at college is supposed to be a purely (or at least largely) intellectual endeavor...sometimes it's the only purely intellectual endeavor in which people engage in their entire lives. But it's less and less an intellectual endeavor and more and more a vocational one...leaving many people with no purely or perhaps even largely intellectual undertakings anywhere in their lives. The businessification and vocationalization of the university may be a very serious error indeed...but that's a bigger topic for a longer essay.

Back to the point about majors: it does matter what you study. It matters very much.

There is all the difference in the world between/among majors. Of course there are smart people and rigorous classes in every discipline, and their opposites in every one. And I think students should take this into account when choosing a major. By all means, study what you're passionate about...but don't turn a blind eye to the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen subject.

These numbers tell you some very important things about how challenging majors tend to be, and how well you can expect them to hone your mind if you take up their study.

I used to teach the LSAT, and I can attest to the fact that it is (despite what test-prep services will tell you) a beautifully-constructed test, and not a bad measure of reasoning abilities. If you really are torn between, say, majoring in education and majoring in math, you ought to take into account the fact that education majors average 8.7 percentage points below the mean on the LSAT while math majors average 12.8 percentage points above the mean. And if you're trying to choose between, say, econ and sociology or philosophy and management, you also ought to think about these scores (and about the corresponding GRE and GMAT scores). (Of course we're not sure which way the causal arrow goes here...but the smart guess seems to be that some majors both attract smarter students and are better at sharpening students' minds.)

It is no secret in academia that there are enormous differences among the disciplines. To the extent that you are interested in honing your mind, there are certain disciplines to favor and certain ones to be wary of. If you're passionate about one of the less-challenging disciplines, you should go into it recognizing that you will have to work harder for roughly the same intellectual results that you might gain from, say, chemistry.

Again: your major matters.

But Wallace does suggest some specific reasons in favor of a humanities education:
In an increasingly global economy and world, more than just technical skill is required. Far more challenging is the ability to work with a multitude of viewpoints and cultures. And the liberal arts are particularly good at teaching how different arguments on the same point can be equally valid, depending on what presumptions or values you bring to the subject. The liberal arts canvas is painted not in reassuring black-and-white tones, but in maddening shades of gray.

What's the "right" solution to the conflict in Sudan? What was Shakespeare's most important work and why? Was John Locke right in his arguments about personal property? Get comfortable with the ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education, and you're far better equipped to face the ambiguities and differing viewpoints in a complex, global world. (The late David Foster Wallace expanded on this point in his acclaimed 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which, if you missed it at the time, is worth taking the time to read.)
Here I think that Wallace points to one of the weaknesses of the humanities, not one of its strengths. Outside of philosophy and history, anyway, there seems to be entirely too much emphasis on ambiguities and shades of gray (the "scare quotes" around 'right' are almost mandatory there...). The triumph of postmodernism, cultural studies and the like has left many humanities disciplines swimming in a sea of murky thinking and knee-jerk relativism. Theoretically, learning to deal with ambiguity and unclarity could be a good thing...but currently in many of the humanities you're at least as likely to drown in it rather than learn to deal with it. Now (to point back toward an earlier point) the humanities in general seem to be a little bit better than average for honing the mind. So if you're passionate about one of them, there's nothing on that front to hold you back. You should, however, be wary of trendier, lit-crittier departments and boutique majors revolving around various types of oppression and Continental pseudo-sciences...but the more respectable bits of the humanities are plenty rigorous and respectable, and the bits that aren't floundering in the postmodernist/cultural studies swamp may very well teach you do deal with--and not drown in--ambiguity.

But, penultimately, do the humanities really face that much of a challenge? Perhaps one thing to remember here is that few people ever decdicated themselves to the humanities. A higher percentage of college students used to do so, but a smaller percentage of the populace went to college. We've pushed for a system in which more people attend university...but most of the students coming in don't really have many overtly intellectual goals; they want to party when they're there and they want to make money when they get out. So it's no surprise that they mostly gravitate toward the business major--a fairly undemanding major that won't interfere too much with their drinking schedules, and that seems to be directly connected to making money after graduation. (Surveys show that of the three major types of reasons for going to college--(1) vocational, (2) social and (3) intellectual--that's how they are ranked in order of importance by incoming freshmen). So perhaps it's true that a humanities major is a luxury...or at least rare...and perhaps it's always been so. Maybe there's no real problem here at all.

Though, perhaps what the humanities should emphasize is that--in terms of training students' minds and helping them to acquire actual skills--students would be better off studying virtually any of the humanities than they would studying business. Perhaps the real luxuries are the less-demanding business majors. It may very well be that a history major and a business minor will leave you better-prepared for a non-mediocre career in business than a buisness major and a history minor...or, God forbid, a marketing major and a management minor.