Sotomayor and Objectivity

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Well, I guess it’s predictable that any SCOTUS nominee put forth by President Obama would raise the hackles of conservatives, and many of them have already started raising questions about Sonia Sotomayor. We’ll see how this all plays out, but I just want to comment on one conservative complaint that seems particularly philosophical.

While many are raising this issue, Michelle Malkin has summarized it quite clearly (and with the predictable negative slant)-

Sotomayor also referred to the cardinal duty of judges to be impartial as a mere “aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.” And she suggested that “inherent physiological or cultural differences” may help explain why “our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”

There are at least two ways of interpreting Sotomayor’s remarks here, and it would be interesting to ask her which interpretation she has in mind. The first, which is clearly how Malkin is interpreting them, is that judges shouldn’t be too concerned if their own personal experiences and cultural backgrounds bias their decisions, because imparitiality or objectivity is merely aspirational. On this interpretation, Sotomayor is implying that there are “multiple truths”, and that the best we can hope for when it comes to institutions like courts is balance and diversity of opinion. If this is indeed what Sotomayor means, it is troubling, because it suggests a sort of post-modern dismissal of the concept of objectivity. When one scratches under the surface of the post-modernist view, it becomes clear that such a concept of truth is expendable, for on this view ‘multiple truths’ reduces to ‘multiple (strongly held) beliefs’.

The second way of interpreting Sotomayor’s remarks, however, suggests that she is just stating the obvious. On this view, objectivity, or what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere”, is aspirational, but not because there are “multiple truths”. Rather, it is aspirational because each person who seeks objectivity or impartiality necessarily does so from their own subjective viewpoint. For this reason, although objectivity may be an ideal of rationality (at least in judicial contexts), we should always keep in mind that it might be exceedingly hard to reach. And even if one does manage to reach it, one can never be certain that one has. What does seem clear, however, is that keeping such points in mind can help us to make our decisions more objective and impartial, because we are likely to be more on guard against our biases. My guess – or at least my hope – is that Sotomayor actually means something more along these lines, but I don’t expect the conservatives to even note the possibility of this interpretation.

Kudos to Newsweek

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Kudos to editor Jon Meacham at Newsweek for realizing that people no longer buy weekly magazines for their news. The first volume of the new, improved version of Newsweek came out last week, featuring fewer articles written in greater depth and with more individual voices – more like what you’d expect from Harpers (with more varied political slants) than a mass-consumption zine. It’s been so long since I actually noticed an improvment in a media outlet, I figured this was noteworthy enough to deserve a post.

The Garden of Forking Paths

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I’ve just added a new blog to my list of links in the sidebar. The Garden of Forking Paths is a blog run by philosophers for philosophers (and for civilians interested in philosophical issues). A recent post that generated lots of discussion is relevant to any academic: “At what point should one pull a paper from a journal?”. Also, the blog recently had a contest to determine the best collective noun for a group of philosophers. The winner: “A fog of philosophers”. I like this, but would change the spelling to ‘phog’.

Thanks Berry, for telling me about this one.

End the University as We Know It?

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In a recent NY Times editorial, Mark C. Taylor suggests ending the university as we know it. While I agree that universities could use some serious reform, I find Taylor’s most controversial suggestion troubling.

Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

The answer, Taylor thinks, is this:

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Note the Water problem. To address this, Taylor suggests that a university might develop a Water Program:

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

I’m all for interdisciplinary studies, and I’ve team-taught interdisciplinary classes with professors from diverse fields. But the problem with Taylor’s suggestion is that it is logically incoherent. For if we really were to reorganize universities around such problems, and abolish traditional departments in the process, there would be no experts from the various fields to draw from. There cannot be interdisciplinary approaches to practical (and theoretical) problems without distinct disciplines.

A Timely And Timeless “Summation”

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Here’s Frank Galvin’s closing argument in The Verdict (1982). David Mamet penned the screenplay (an adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel). Although the words stand up nicely on their own, Paul Newman’s performance gives them added resonance-



Well…You know, so much of the time we’re just lost.
We say, “Please, God, tell us what is right. Tell us what is true.”

I mean there is no justice.
The rich win; the poor are powerless.
We become tired of hearing people lie.
And after a time we become dead, a little dead.
We think of ourselves as victims — and we become victims.
We become weak;
we doubt ourselves;
we doubt our beliefs;
we doubt our institutions;
and we doubt the law.

But today you are the law.
You are the law;
not some book,
not the lawyers,
not a marble statue,
or the trappings of the court.
See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just.
They are, in fact, a prayer,
I mean a fervent and a frightened prayer.

In my religion, they say,
“Act as if you had faith; faith will be given to you.”

If we are to have faith in justice
we need only to believe in ourselves
and act with justice.
See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.