John Corvino on the moral worth of gay sex

Corvino is speaking on the 29th at Rice U, and in looking for some background I discovered he’s got a DVD on GLBT sex and its morality. (Thanks to John in comments for the correct date!) There is also an extended trailer; see below.

In fact Corvino is a very experienced speaker, and though I didn’t see new arguments in the trailor, the presentation is great.

However, the point for me of putting this up is really connected with the thoughtful post here about civility. Unlike a number of people commenting on that post, I do not think of philosophical discourse as particularly calm and reasonable. Somewhat relatedly, I am wondering what people would expect from students who were asked to watch the DVD in class. Here in Houston I wouldn’t count on all my students remaining calm. Also, I’d probably be protecting myself by giving those who found it upsetting permission to leave. I’d probably cast it as asking people who cannot respect the humanity of LGBT students to leave.

What would you expect? And what would you do?

No doubt my view about philosophy’s civility was shaped in part by seeing some fairly volatile philosopher commenting on blatant and culpable philosophical error. I do remember remarking on US seminars when I first returned to the country that they were interestingly different from Oxford’s. The bullwas still forced to its knees, but no one was insisting in spilling blood.

Reader query regarding Logic, Eloise and Abelard

I’m a logician/philosopher of logic and recently I’ve been working in game theoretic semantics. In this area, it is quite common to talk about two game players: Abelard and Eloise. The normal way of things is that Eloise tries to show that there is a model for a collection of sentences and Abelard tries to show that there isn’t. Or Eloise tries to show that a sentence is true in a particular model and Abelard tries to show that the sentence isn’t true in the model. Eloise tends to show things are true or things exist (the E is connected to the existential quantifier) and Abelard plays the dual role (associated with the universal quantifier). Along with this choice of names comes the practice of using feminine pronouns for Eloise and masculine pronouns for Abelard.

Wilfrid Hodges says this in the Stanford entry Logic and Games:

“There are two players. In general we can call them ∀ and ∃. The pronunciations ‘Abelard’ and ‘Eloise’ go back to the mid 1980s and usefully fix the players as male and female (though feminist logicians have asked about the propriety of this type-casting).”

The only hint of the feminist logicians’ question that I can find is page 12 of the file from Hodges’ website. Here, he describes how he introduced the use of the names and mentions that someone wanted to present a conference paper “on the dangers of personalising the mathematical content”. The conference was cancelled.

Regardless of the particular issue that Hodges is thinking about, I have been wondering whether this is a good practice or not. I’ve done a bit of twitter surveying with very limited success. One female logician said they were worried it may affect someone. One female logician said they had no problem with it. Two male logicians said they didn’t see a problem. And one female philosopher (non-logician) said she didn’t find it problematic. As you can see, I got very few responses!

Given that logic is in such a bad state of affairs in terms of gender imbalance, I want to try and get this right. I’m particularly concerned with not affecting students new to logic. I don’t want to use the convention if it is problematic; on the other hand, having any convention that encourages the use of feminine pronouns and examples of women involved in logic may be a good thing.

I’d appreciate any thoughts, comments, or references that you may have.

The Role (and Limits) of Civility

Yesterday morning, on the show Morning Joe, Chris Matthews started a heated exchange with RNC chairman Reince Pribus over whether Mitt Romney was using his own “race card” when he joked about his birth certificate.
Here’s the video of the exchange:

I recommend reading two brief commentaries on this event: Elon James White’s take at The Root and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take at The Atlantic. (Heck, I would recommend their commentaries for just about anything.)  White argues and Coates implies that even though Matthews was yelling, talking over Pribus, and cutting him off, his incivility was not really inappropriate here, and actually sorely needed.

In the comments on Coastes’ piece, I came across this exchange that connects Matthew’s outburst to the domain of academia:

I dunno. I exist in a world where the open expression of anger pretty much instantaneously disqualifies you from the discussion unless you’re very, very careful. If I’m in a debate with fellow faculty and I get angry, I’m done (I’ve actually thrashed a couple of colleagues in public debates specifically and knowingly because I held my cool and they lost it in front of everyone). If I get angry at a student, I lose the whole class. Now, I can rant about something independent of that, like injustice or discrimination and get away with it. But if I start yelling AT someone, I’ve generally lost the debate, at least in my world.



I see what you’re saying. But in the world Chris Matthews inhabits, there is little time for a calm, reasoned, thoughtful rebuttal to horsepucky.

I think some people that really need to hear what Matthews is saying–otherwise well-meaning people that are blind to racism unless it comes packaged in a white hood–may be turned off by his explosion, and that’s unfortunate. But I don’t think he was trying to persuade anybody to his point of view; I think he saw himself as getting to the truth, and calling out somebody who was lying to him.



Even if you don’t care about American politics, there are a lot of interesting things going on in the clip above.  Issues of anger, civility, silencing, moderating, calling out injustice, race, humor, and ignorance all come out in this five minute clip.   Even if the world of politics in the media is incredibly different than the world of academic philosophy, Matthews’ comportment is salient to some of our own concerns about the role (and possible limits) of civil discourse in academic discourse.
(As I like to remind myself: In the face of unreasonableness, responding irrationally is sometimes the reasonable thing to do.)

Lastly, let me lay my cards on the table: When I first watched this clip, I thought Matthews was wrong to be so abrasive and cut of Pribus and talk over him. But after thinking about it more at length today, I’m not so sure anymore.   I find myself wondering if it actually was healthier for the discussion as a whole (across the whole media) that Matthews relentlessly hammered home this point that Romney’s birth certificate joke is not race-neutral and it’s bs to insist it is.  This conclusion is making me wonder whether there might be limits to the appropriateness of certain aspects of academic discourse, such as the principle of charity, respect of past scholarship, and never insinuating that an argument is insincere.