Friday, December 05, 2014

Tommy the Chimpanzee

The Nonhuman Rights Project recently filed a lawsuit for a chimpanzee, called Tommy, arguing that scientific research has established that chimpanzees are self-aware and capable of some kind of autonomy, and that therefore the common law boundaries of what counts as a 'person' should be expanded so that Tommy can have the right to bodily liberty as defended by writ of habeas corpus under New York law. The reason for focusing on habeas corpus, of course, is that it is a legal protection that does not have to be sought by the person it most directly concerns; any one can seek the writ of habeas corpus on behalf of anyone who is held in custody. The matter went to appeal. Today the appellate court rendered its decision (PDF), pointing out, in summary, that

(1) There is no precedent for considering chimpanzees persons for the purpose of habeas corpus relief; and
(2) the common law ascription of personhood for the purposes of rights and protections does not depend on self-awareness and autonomy but on the in-principle capability to exercise social obligations and duties as part of the social community, and thus
(3) to ascribe personhood to a chimpanzee would also be to ascribe social duties for which he would be accountable under the law; and
(4) the most appropriate manner of proceeding in order to protect animals and given them rights in a broad sense is to work for laws providing more complete protection (in the case of Tommy there was no claim at all that any laws were broken).

The NhRP put out a press release in response to the decision. They respond:

(1) "First, it denies the relief of a writ of habeas corpus to Tommy simply because no one has ever sought a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a chimpanzee or any nonhuman animal before." -- This is an outright lie. The judges consider common law precedent for the obvious reason that such precedent is the primary interpretive principle for the matters in question, but then explicitly point out that this is not sufficient to end the question. There is no way the decision can be interpreted as a denial of relief "simply" for lack of precedent.

(2) "Second, the Court erroneously claims that in order for Tommy to have rights he must be able to assume responsibilities." -- This is a confusion, and an unsurprising one, but is also not true. The claim made by the judge was that he could not bear legal duties, submit to social responsibilities, or be held legally accountable. The court makes clear enough that it is a matter of exercising social responsibilities or having legal recognition in a way that can properly represent the society as a whole; and although they are fairly vague about the details, it is clear that chimpanzees currently do not and cannot be imputed responsibilities, legal duties, or accountability under law as things stand now.

(3) "Third, the ruling further contradicts the Court in Byrn by resting Tommy’s eligibility for legal personhood on his species." -- This is simply mistaken. The Court in Byrn, by NhRP's own admission, simply noted that this kind of matter is one of legal personality, not biology; but the decision only deals with legal personhood, and does not rest it on his species, but on the inability to exercise responsibility as recognized by law. There is no contradiction thus far. It is NhRP that is attempting to rest Tommy's eligibility on his species, not the court; NhRP's appeal to science is entirely about what kinds of capabilities are possible in animals of the chimpanzee species, and they have repeatedly insisted that biological research about the chimpanzee species is the ground for extending the right in question.

Of course, the Nonhuman Rights Project will appeal, and they will keep bringing up such cases until some judges crack. But the intellectual slovenliness of the response strongly suggests that they will not succeed in doing this with the case of Tommy.

An Environment of Other Selves

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a "self," can exist except in contrast with an "other," a something which is not the self. It is against an environment, and preferably a social environment, an environment of other selves, that the awareness of Myself stands out.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Collier (New York: 1962) p. 29.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

An Unkindness

I happened to eat at Chipotle today, and the cup had a whole series of questions on it, one of which was:

You know it's a "murder of crows" and a "wake of buzzards" but it's a what of ravens, again?

The answer is an "unkindness of ravens". Likewise, it's a "dole of doves", a "charm of finches", a "scold of jays", a "deceit of lapwings", a "watch of nightingales", a "parliament of owls", and an "exaltation of larks".

Or so they say. It's an interesting convention in English, giving a morally symbolic name to a flock of birds or a herd of beasts. Some of these, like a dole (or dule) of doves, go back quite far -- this use of 'dole' or 'dule' goes back at least to the fifteenth century Book of St. Albans; 'dole', of course, means sadness, as in the mourning coo doves make. This is also where we get "unkindness " as the name for a flock of ravens (probably reference to folklore about how ravens treat their young). Book of St. Albans is the most common name of a work often attributed to Dame Juliana Berners on subjects like hunting and heraldry. In the mix there is a list of "companies of beasts and fowls" (which you can find here by going to page 114); the names it attributes to these collectives are 'terms of venery', that is, they are hunters' terms. But even in the fifteenth century, Dame Juliana was having a bit of fun with the naming, since among these various collective nouns for animals we find entries like "superfluity of nuns", "bevy of ladies", "disguising of tailors", and "pontificality of prelates", as well as, if I am reading it correctly, "incredibility of cuckolds" and "abominable sight of monks". So we don't have any way of knowing which of the animal ones were really used by hunters and which of them is the author joking. The jokes seem to have been quite widespread, though, since there are other lists of this sort from around the same time. The list that we get printed by Wynken de Worde is very similar, for instance, to a list given with Caxton's printing of John Lydgate's The Debate of Horse, Goose, and Sheep, but the lists from the two printers are not exactly the same; I think a lot of popular references do not clearly distinguish the two lists, and I don't have the kind of access to manuscripts and early editions that would allow me to untangle this.

The list made it into Gervase Markham's The Gentleman's Academy (1595), which is basically a revision of the Book of St. Albans; Markham was an extraordinarily popular author in his day, and thus the convention was established. A lot of the collective nouns for animals and birds go back to this one list, including "muster of peacocks", "barren of mules","gaggle of geese", and "pride of lions". That's where English gets its double tradition of collective nouns -- we have a generic version ("flock" or "herd") and for animals that are well known we have a venereal or fanciful version.

For all fanciful collectives that do not go back to these original sources, and for some of those that do, the history of the term is very difficult to trace. "Pride of lions" and "gaggle of geese", which are probably the most widely used fanciful collectives, are found in the original lists and then are hardly heard of until a resurgence in the nineteenth century; I suspect in part due to Joseph Strutt's The Sports and Pastimes of England (1801), one of the places the old list resurfaces. "Murder of crows" seems to be from the Lydgate (Caxton) list. In any case, its resurgence is more recent, through James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks (1968), which is responsible for the resurgence of a number of the original terms.

But the tradition seems to have become self-sustaining; people keep adding to the list from all sides, often with very bad puns. Some of these can't be traced, but some novel additions have an entry into English that can be pinpointed exactly. For instance, "surprise of unicorns"; we learned that this was the company term for unicorns in Jane Yolin's "The Boy Who Drew Unicorns" in the 1988 Doubleday book, Unicorn Treasury: Stories, Poems, and Unicorn Lore. "Flight of dragons", as far as I can determine, comes from the 1982 TV movie, The Flight of Dragons, and its theme song, by none other than Don McLean.

So that's more or less the story, as far as I can tell with my limited means for researching it, of one of the English language's more charming and playful features, the venereal collective or fanciful company term.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Thinking Historically

There's a knack to thinking historically, and most people don't have it. (I mean 'thinking historically' in a broader sense than 'the way professional historians think', in order to include reasonable amateurs and people whose background is in history-related but not purely historical fields.) It's the sort of thing that requires practice and it is not easy to articulate what it involves. I think the best way to think of it is as a sense of what the evidence could actually get you. Take, for instance, Tim O'Neill's famous example of "The Most Wrong Thing on the Internet Ever", which Darwin reminded me of a couple of weeks back:

Many things make this a genuine candidate for "The Most Wrong Thing on the Internet Ever", but most of them can be summed up by saying that whoever made this graph has no sense of how historical evidence works; and nobody who has any sense of how historical evidence works could take this seriously. How would you even begin to use historical evidence to establish a measure of "Scientific Advancement" and plot it accurately over millenia? What causal course of events could have led to "Scientific Advancement" reaching the same level in 1000 in the alternate timeline that it actually did in 2000? And so on and so forth. You don't even need any particular specialized knowledge to see that it's looney; you could see it even if we labeled it instead as the scientific advancement of an otherwise unknown tribe over two hundred years. There is no proportion between the kinds of conclusions being presented and the kinds of evidence and inferences a real historian doing real historical work could possibly be using. One looks at it and wonders, "Why would one even think this makes sense?" And yet, it seems, some people don't look at it and wonder that.

I've noted before that historical study is in great measure a kind of causal reasoning -- indeed, it's an extremely important kind that has hardly been studied properly. And I think along these lines that some of this historical sense is just a matter of recognizing, for historical causes, the most obvious things about how causes work, that effects require causes, and that effects and causes in particular cases have to be adequate to each other.

Some of it is, beyond this, concerned with the kind of evidence historians typically work with (textual and material culture). If we're working with texts, for instance, all texts are from a perspective and for a purpose; ignoring this can mislead you very quickly. Sometimes the problem arises with handling perspectives themselves. In general people don't regard their own perspectives as unreasonable, which is why historians, faced with an apparently unreasonable perspective, are always trying to find out how it could have been seen as reasonable at the time and place and in the circumstances in which it is found. (One of the common signs of someone not having this knack for thinking historically is that they take the historian's insistence on trying to show how a perspective could be reasonable in a certain light as a complete defense.) If you're dealing with a situation in which there are a number of agents, they will have different perspectives, and it is how things seem from their perspective that will govern their actions. We can often only gather basic facts about these perspectives; but ignoring them is a good way to get things wrong. This is why professional historians are almost always suspicious of historical claims in which one 'side' is shown as very stupid or very evil. It's not that there are no stupid or evil people; it's that real life is not some crazy melodrama in which even villains go around doing things in order to do stupid or evil things. People generally have reasons; the reasons are not always good or intelligent, but you can often trace out why they thought those reasons were good or intelligent reasons. Where this doesn't seem to be in view, historians will start asking questions.

All of this is prior even to matters of detail -- familiarity with the period, acquaintance with primary sources, and the like. Thinking historically in this sense obviously doesn't guarantee correctness -- even rigorous historical analysis doesn't guarantee correctness, and we're talking about something much broader and looser here. It doesn't save from mistakes. But it does protect somewhat against the kinds of mistakes that drive professional historians up the wall -- the mistakes that should not even be mistakes, the errors that border on perverse (and sometimes pass over). As I said, there's not really any full account of what this historical good sense involves, since historical reasoning itself is somewhat understudied (particularly given its complexity); I certainly don't have one, and it might not even be possible to give a full account of it. But it's the sort of thing that's worth thinking about, if only because we really do find people waving around things like "The Most Wrong Thing on the Internet Ever".

An Incurable Weakness in Human Nature

All men are sensible of the necessity of justice to maintain peace and order; and all men are sensible of the necessity of peace and order for the maintenance of society. Yet, notwithstanding this strong and obvious necessity, such is the frailty or perverseness of our nature! it is impossible to keep men, faithfully and unerringly, in the paths of justice. Some extraordinary circumstances may happen, in which a man finds his interests to be more promoted by fraud or rapine, than hurt by the breach which his injustice makes in the social union. But much more frequently, he is seduced from his great and important, but distant interests, by the allurement of present, though often very frivolous temptations. This great weakness is incurable in human nature.

Men must, therefore, endeavour to palliate what they cannot cure. They must institute some persons, under the appellation of magistrates, whose peculiar office it is, to point out the decrees of equity, to punish transgressors, to correct fraud and violence, and to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent interests. In a word, OBEDIENCE is a new duty which must be invented to support that of JUSTICE; and the tyes of equity must be corroborated by those of allegiance.

David Hume, "Of the Origin of Government". Hume takes this idea very seriously, making the claim (just prior to this) that all of government exists to maintain courts: we invent duties of obedience and allegiance to government in order to make possible the judicial function of government. This position seems fairly unique to Hume.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

An Agreeable Melancholy

...nothing is so improving to the temper as the study of the beauties, either of poetry, eloquence, music, or painting. They give a certain elegance of sentiment to which the rest of mankind are strangers. The emotions which they excite are soft and tender. They draw off the mind from the hurry of business and interest; cherish reflection; dispose to tranquillity; and produce an agreeable melancholy, which, of all dispositions of the mind, is the best suited to love and friendship.

David Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion". 'Melancholy', I take it, is being used in the old-fashioned sense of that temperamental humor most conducive to reflection.

Of course, Hume immediately goes on to argue that the second reason delicacy of taste is favorable to love and friendship is that it makes it difficult to find people to love and be friends with. This seems to anticipate some Romantic conceptions of love and friendship; that portrayed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance.

Monday, December 01, 2014


In academic life there are very few things more dangerous than fads; academic ideas are simply not the kind of idea that remains intact when made into a fad. We've seen this recently with 'trigger warnings', which became a very big thing for a while. The basic idea makes sense; triggering does happen, and there are elementary things that can be done, relatively easy, that can reduce the chances of it happening. But the idea began to be applied by people who had only the dimmest idea of what triggering was, and of the actual work done about it, and, as inevitably happens in fads, the practice soon had little more than a purely superficial resemblance to the original idea. The absurdities were quite obvious to anyone who bothered actually to look up even a little of the research on it -- what will trigger post-traumatic or suicidal experiences is not perfectly predictable (e.g., it can be something otherwise entirely innocuous), for instance, so comprehensiveness was never in the cards. Perhaps even more obviously, someone with common sense would have perhaps realized that heading a syllabus, post, article, or discussion with something that effectively says "You remember that traumatic event you had? Remember it at all? Well, we're going to talk about things that will likely make you remember it very vividly," and, not only that, says it pompously and with much fanfare, is not the smartest way to handle the actual problem. What should have been a low-key exercise of reasonable courtesy that doesn't need to draw attention to itself in order to be effective, as long as it gives the relevant people the relevant information -- "OK, class, next time, we'll be discussing the role of consent in rape law, and the discussion can get into some unpleasant matters, just so everyone knows what to expect" -- became a signaling exercise, in which you attempt to make as obvious as possible that you are clever and caring enough to worry about these things, and in ways that seem quite divorced from the actual problem that was supposed to be addressed in the first place.

We're still dealing with the ramification of trigger warnings; there has been some heartening reaction to the absurdities, but it's still entirely possible that within a few years trigger warnings for syllabi will be quite standard, governed by completely arbitrary requirements that have very little to do with actual triggering and a great deal to do with the need of someone in administration to feel like they are doing something. But even if that's not the case, we still have other fads waiting in the wing. One of these is 'microaggression', so I thought I would point out a few things.

Microaggression is a concept first developed in the context of psychiatry, and as with triggering it's an attempt to get a handle on a real matter, the fact that people can experience denigration as part of their community membership in the course of everyday life. The strict meaning of 'microaggression' is precisely this, in fact: everyday exchanges, in themselves minor, that depreciate someone because of their group membership. There are several things that directly follow from this.

First, that everyone experiences microaggressions. Scoffing at Republicans in passing, for instance, is a microaggression against Republicans (a microinvalidation, to be precise). (Another example is that men are microinsulted whenever someone says anything suggesting that males are more violent than females.) There are obvious reasons why one would focus on the effect of microaggressions on minorities: greater systematicity, for instance, and greater potential for harm. But microaggression is not eliminable. We see some of the problems if you look at some cases that are occasionally proposed. For instance, it is occasionally said that placing homosexuality and zoophilia in a common category is a microaggression, which it strictly speaking is, against homosexuals; but treating it as a microaggression is itself a microaggression against zoophiles, because it carries a denigrating message about people who are members of the zoophile population. This is actually quite a general problem with any systematic and generalized campaign to deal with microaggression: it is immensely difficult to do this without denigrating anyone at all for membership in any kind of group.

None of this is a problem in the original psychiatric context; this is precisely the sort of thing psychiatrists have to deal with on a regular basis, and, indeed, could not possibly avoid dealing with. Psychiatrists have to be aware of the problem. Microaggressions wear people down, frustrate them, make little things much harder to do than they otherwise would be, so it comes up naturally. What is more, psychiatrists professionally have to keep in mind that they, regardless of their background, will engage in microaggressions, and that this will sometimes have an effect on treatment or interaction, and have to develop the professional habits required to handle them appropriately in the psychiatric context. It is precisely one of the points of discussing about microaggressions in a psychiatric context that everyone commits them, that they are pervasive and not perfectly eliminable.

When we get to non-psychiatric contexts, however, we face much more severe problems. One can entirely see the reasonableness of pointing out regular forms of microaggression; we do this already, in fact, in trying to avoid derogatory names, and having a concept for doing it more deliberately is not a problem. But people in general are not professional psychiatrists; they are not trained for handling the relevant situations; they do not have the psychiatrist's luxury of being able to assess matters at the individual level, or at a small group level, in order to determine what is causing the problem in a particular case within a relatively well-established space of well-defined rules; they have neither the means nor the background required to handle microaggressions as a psychiatric problem. They usually have to use blanket methods, and these are simply not precise enough to handle any but the more obvious and consistent forms. It is simply going to be the case that the majority of people will have no more sophisticated tool for handling the problem than common courtesy.

This is potentially dangerous when we start talking about microaggression in the classroom. If you look at much of what is said about microaggression in the classroom, it becomes clear that any chances of avoiding it at all are miniscule. It is a possible microaggression to assume that students can afford the textbook -- this is actually a standard example in discussions of the issue. It is a possible microaggression to assume that students will be able to handle the vocabulary of the text, and a microaggression to do anything that could be interpreted as assuming that if they can't, their education has been inferior. It is a possible microaggression to structure your syllabus in a way that does not take into account the specific details of one's students' religious beliefs. And one can see the absurdity arising here, as well; it is a microaggression to do anything that suggests that it is OK to hold that homosexuality is immoral, and it is a microaggression to do anything that suggests that fundamentalist belief that homosexuality is immoral is ridiculous, absurd, or immoral. The absurdity is not the concept itself. The absurdity is thinking that you can handle it properly, in any but the crudest way, in a classroom. Classrooms are not psychiatric contexts. Teachers don't generally meet their students before the first day of class. Teachers cannot foresee all possible group memberships that might be important to students. Teachers cannot usually get to know all their students well enough to learn what they would need to avoid microaggression, or correct for it when it happens.

Even the conventions for handling these kinds of problems are not standard across disciplines. I remember a student I had once who was putting together a gender discussion group, in cooperation with both the sociology and the philosophy departments. Some potentially controversial issue ended up being a topic for a particular event, and she remarked to me that she kept getting completely opposite advice from sociology faculty and philosophy faculty on how to run it. Philosophers handle such matters in philosophy by focusing on arguments and evaluation of arguments; sociologists handle such matters in sociology by avoiding arguments and focusing on things that will not involve any kind of critical evaluation of what people are actually saying. Philosophers tend to think of focus on arguments as a sign of respect (in the sense that evaluating someone's argument as good according to objective standards is a high compliment), and the failure to do so can sometimes be seen as dismissive; sociologists prefer studiously to avoid anything that suggests that they will be evaluating answers according to standards, lest it interfere with the tendency to speak freely and openly. Such was her experience, anyway. Different fields will not handle the matter the same way.

It could hardly be otherwise. 'Microaggression', by its very nature, does not automatically indicate any kind of culpability. It isn't intended to do so. It isn't a moral concept at all, or, at least, only touches on ethical matters indirectly. All it indicates in itself is a potential causal factor for a certain kind of cumulative psychological effect. What one should ethically do with an analysis in terms of microaggressions will depend on things that have nothing to do with the analysis itself. In psychiatry, this is a matter of the professional ethics of psychiatry. In a different profession -- like that of philosophy or of sociology -- the moral principles will not be the same as they are in psychiatry, because these fields are doing different things. And if we are talking about the question of professional teaching ethics, the principles are different yet again, and must depend in part on what the professional aims of teaching a given field are. There may be situations in which there is no definite way to handle the matter. (There is no possible way for a psychiatrist to eliminate all microaggressions or prepare specifically for some of the microaggressions that could cause problems, because in a psychiatric context, anything might end up being the problem; the standard advice given to psychiatrists is just to apologize immediately, without defensiveness, and let patients move on in the way they see fit. Any more specific policy than this, at least as covering microaggressions generally, could well have disastrous results in particular cases, psychiatrically speaking, since in psychiatry you have to tailor your response for the particular people with which you are dealing right then and there, and the particular responses they actually have.) The question of how to handle it is a separate question entirely from the question of whether or even when it occurs. And that's inevitable -- most criticism can be a microaggression in some context.

When a concept like microaggression gets used faddishly, it loses its usefulness. It becomes symbol detached from the real problems it was intended to address. It gets used in ways inconsistent with its proper meaning.

There is also the inevitable problem that these fads lead to a patchwork approach to issues of real import. Why, for instance, is it 'trigger' or 'microaggression' that becomes the focus and not, say, 'periperformative speech act'? It seems to be just because some people happen to talk about them in ways that lead others to talk about them, not because these are the crucially useful concepts for justice. Why is there a focus on the issues connected with these concepts, and not others that might be considered just as important, or even more so? The only reason is that this is what people just happen to be talking about. The use of these concepts gives the illusion of addressing the problem on a larger, more systematic and thorough scale; and they could be part of a broader approach that did exactly that. But the way they get used when they become faddish is exactly the opposite way.

(Microaggression got a lot of play last November in various media sources due to events at UCLA; people are talking about it again because of Heather Mac Donald's out-and-out attack on the notion (ht).

But with a Sweet Forgetting

In Drear-Nighted December
by John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

It reads a lot like Poe; I suppose it's the combination of quick meter, repetition, and feminine rhymes.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Due to a late start today I ended up attending church at a parish other than my usual one. A very significant portion of the homily was on a particular text: "Seasons of Love", from the musical Rent. He sang it, and explained the song as he went. Now, he did eventually have a point that had to do with the First Sunday in Advent, by talking briefly about the liturgical calendar, but I confess my view is that, excellent though the song is, the homily of the Holy Mass is perhaps not the most appropriate time to burst into singing one's favorite show tune. It is certainly true that not every priest can be an Augustine or a Chrysostom, and I am willing to make very generous accommodation for that, but I look somewhat askance at outsourcing the substantive content of one's homily to Broadway.

At least it was Broadway. I remember an Easter Vigil homily one year -- Easter Vigil being for all practical purposes the most important liturgical event of the year -- in which a chunk of time, mercifully small, but very prominently placed, was spent discussing the movie Bruce Almighty. I suppose these sorts of things arise from a misplaced urge to be relevant to something or other, or to make a point simply and memorably, when in reality this approach does very little to bring the topic home or to make the topic itself memorable. The key to relevance and memorableness alike is kairos, which is to say, the right time. It's not the effort that falls flat; there are just better things to do in context.

In any case, having to endure people singing songs from musicals while in Church is a small enough admission charge, and perhaps a suitable occasion to exercise my sense of humor and avoid taking myself or anyone else over-seriously. As this is a benefit that deserves to be shared, I present you the primary text of the homily I heard for the First Sunday of Advent:

How did your Advent start out?