All posts by joe

The Rorty Reader

This is a review of The Rorty Reader.

I came across Rorty when I was doing research on the subject of human rights. After reading four other books on the subject (Nussbaum, Sunstein, Bietz, Morsink) I came across a reference to Rorty’s “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” Amnesty Lecture and read it. Overall the experience was like playing four games of chess (other authors) and then being hit by a snowball in the face (Rorty).

One of my first reactions was “why was I not previously informed of this man’s existence?” Part of the reason is that I was a science major; but nevertheless it seems like I should at least have heard of him in passing and been vaguely familiar with his ideas. Another initial reaction was “how did this man end up this way?” Not as a value judgement, but just as matter of pure curiosity: he was both alien and made perfect sense at the same time.

Really my first recommendation, if you’re considering reading this book, is to go spend twenty minutes reading the Amnesty Lecture. It’s in this book, but it’s also easily available on the internet. My personal reaction was to check out this book from the library to get a more whole picture of who Rorty is and what his influences were. Voparil’s introduction is readable and helpful to put the works in succession and biographical sequence. Because there is so much to read in the world I partially read the first half of this book, but read more or less solidly through the last half, and ended up buying his book Achieving Our Country, which I hope to read soon.

From Anticlericalism and Atheism, as quoted in the introduction to the Reader.

In the end, for me, the primary interest in Rorty is the combination of his study of language as a tool, his skill as a writer, and his interest in making the world a less cruel place. For those reasons, I find his late writings more compelling, when he started to cut loose from purely academic-philosophical tasks in favor of those that are more generally humanistic and political. If you are not a professional philosopher, or at the very least were not a philosophy major or otherwise have not read a lot of Wittgenstein, Quine, et al, you may still find that you need to keep Wikipedia handy to fill in meaning into the various references he makes, even in the more “political” writings. Because Rorty is such a commanding, voice-filled writer (as compared to, say, Rawls, who writes with all the verve and style of board game rules), the overall effect is to pique interest in what the writers that Rorty refers to signify. Rorty’s name- dropping creates a desire to make that whole web of Rorty’s understanding your own, rather than to confuse or disorient. Rorty’s skill in writing and interest in storytelling should be a model for any person inclined towards making philosophy relevant outside of a siloed academic context.

Like most people apparently — or so says the introduction — I find that I don’t agree with everything Rorty writes. In particular, as a person who studied biology, and for whom the context of humans-as-animals helps in making sense of the world, I find Rorty’s desire to cut loose all human behavior from “natural” causes . . . well, disorienting, and seemingly wrong. (If Rorty weren’t gone I would have loved to read a review by him of, say, Sapolsky’s Behave). But then there is the other half of what he writes where I am learning something, a way of thinking, that is new and that I haven’t considered before. And for the half where I disagree, Rorty often has reasons, framings, not so much as to why a naturalistic way of thinking is wrong, but as to why it is not useful . . . and often I have to concede that is is at least partly right.

Anyway, go read the Amnesty Lecture already if you haven’t. Then go read some book — this one or another — by Rorty. He should be more widely read.

Human Rights Reading: Nussbaum, Sunstein, Morsink, Beitz

A couple of experiences related to human rights recently got me thinking about what the basis is for their existence, and how to think about them as individuals, as political constructs, and his philosophical constructs. I hope to put together an essay that actually makes sense on that topic, but in the meantime here’s my thoughts on four of the books I’ve read as background reading.

Martha Nussbaum: Creating Capabilities (2011)

Of the four books listed here, I think this is the most useful for me personally. Two key concepts I got from this book are:

(1) They can be both a political construct and a philosophical construct.

(2) As a political construct, human rights can be an “overlapping consensus”, as a conclusion that can be arrived at from different philosophical constructs: as an Aristotelian observing humans as animals, a Mill-style utilitarian, from various religious traditions, as a Marxist, et cetera.

Ironically, these are not the two concepts of the book is really about. They’re just two concepts that Nussbaum goes over as she is making her way to her primary thesis, which is to describe her “species” of human rights, which is the Capabilities Approach. The capabilities approach I think is a helpful incremental addition to human rights theory, in that it adapts it slightly to make it more inclusive, especially in dealing with people with disabilities and nonhuman animals.

Nussbaum also gives excellent ripostes to arguments that human rights are a sort of cultural imperialism, partly from the way the Universal declaration as drafted, but also that the overlapping consensus extends to other cultures whose values mirror many of those are found in human rights. More importantly, she points out to the reality that the international adoption of human rights instruments is been stronger and a lot of non-Western countries than it has in Western countries (especially the United States as to social economic rights), with India and South Africa as the two most notable examples, using human rights in part as anticolonial political constructs.

Richard Rorty’s Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality (pdf) is also very much worth reading. I don’t really agree with his lack of grounding of human rights in some empirical reality – I think human rights does line up with actual common human needs in most cases – but he makes excellent points about how the purpose of human rights should be more pragmatic and about changing the world, rather than about establishing a perfectly coherent account. In this way I find he lines up a little bit with Martha Nussbaum, in that he prioritizes the political use of human rights over philosophical construction. For another way of saying it would be, that neither one of them is particularly bothered that they can’t give a unified logical explanation for why human rights are what they are, because they actually make people’s lives better. I do think, however, that Nussbaum gives the more coherent account with the use of “overlapping consensus” because for different people there are very real groundings in human rights that cause them to be persuaded that they are worthwhile.

Johannes Morsink: Inherent Human Rights (2009)

The first thing to know about this book is that Morsink has paid more attention to the drafting process of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights than most people. This is very helpful because the UDHR is a watershed moment for human rights, and it’s helpful to understand what the process was that created it. The drafting process may not give all the answers to “why” or give complete philosophical grounding to the document. But it does help to rebut arguments of ethnocentrism of the declaration and enforce a sense of universality, and to understand how the specific words that were in the Declaration ended up there.

There are a dizzying array of philosophers who will give you different answers as to whether human rights are a valid construct, and how they came to be. Morsink’s central thesis is that all humans will have an immediate revulsion to most human rights violations, which forms a “shared conscience of humanity”, and that human rights would exist in all places and for all people, because they are “inherent” as the title suggests. I’m not sure this is ever explicitly stated, but it seems strongly implied here that the Universal Declaration is the best textual formulation of this because of the intent and grouping of its drafters, as approximately representative people who were reacting to the Nazi atrocities, but also trying to create something more permanent and universal.

He also defines himself as a “cosmopolitan”, which essentially means someone who, for the establishment of at least some moral principles (like human rights), groups humanity together first before relations or smaller communities. In Morsink’s words, cosmopolitans “look on the whole world as one unified ethical community, where all members of the human family have both their own inherent rights and the relative duties to respect the same rights of their brothers and sisters around the globe.” In this way he is very similar to Martha Nussbaum, who he discusses pretty extensively; Although Nussbaum is perhaps more careful to indicate that while cosmopolitanism might be part of her comprehensive worldview, it is not at all necessary to be a political supporter of human rights generally, or her capabilities approach, which are political, overlapping-consensus constructs.

Personally, I do buy into the sense of cosmopolitanism and inherence to a certain degree. I think there are historical contingencies to it – to this particular air on and type of civilization that we have – but since when I can be in any other civilizations anytime soon, that’s not such a great omission. I also wish he would’ve spent a little bit more time dealing with humans as animals, as part of inherency. In some cases he alludes to his inherence principle is something that is on the basis of a biological account of what humans are, which I think might bolster his some of his central principles of inherence and cosmopolitanism. But his primary line seems to be more on moral intuitionism, a sense that if you tell somebody about an atrocity, they will immediately condemn it is wrong. In this way seems to be a bit closer to Rorty’s human-rights-as-sentimentalism than Morsink thinks he is.

If you’re going to read several books on human rights, and cosmopolitanism and inherence seem plausible to you, then Morink is well worth reading. He is about par for academics on readability: while he does use some jargon and dive into side debates that seem sometimes of limited import, for the most part the text is straightforward and understandable.

The Second Bill of Rights, Cass Sunstein

This is not explicitly the human rights book, but it really is because it deals with the omission of social economic rights from the culture and law of the United States. Sunstein primary focus is on FDR’s administration, and how the new deal conceived of socioeconomic rights as one of its core projects. FDR was really engaged with a sense of “security” as addressing economic problems that threatened everyday Americans in the course of the Great Depression, but also in connection with the second world war.

I think one of the most remarkable parts of the book is near the beginning, and a section entitled “Roosevelt’s Realism” and summarizing the doctrine of legal realism is applied to property rights in the 1920s. Son Steen deals primarily with the legal scholars Robert Hale and Morris Cohen but also Jefferson, to make the point that property rights are a creature of government, rather than something that is inherent in each individual person. In other words, property rights are delegated by the community as a whole for the community’s benefit. In that account, often that delegation is private ownership and market forces. But it also has shades of Marxism, that those property rights can be withdrawn or at least dramatically limited when they’re no longer in the community interest. Sunstein quotes Roosevelt “the thing that matters in any industrial system is what it does actually teach human beings…”.

It deals with the specifics of the New Deal, and how Roosevelt formed conceptions of rights and freedoms, culminating (for purposes of this book) with his second Bill of Rights that he released to Congress in March 1943. I had never heard of this particular formulation of rights before, but it looks a lot like the economic and social rights that you find in the universal declaration of human rights five years later, like a right to adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, among others. It’s longer than I want to put in here, but it’s worth a read by itself just to see what America could have been if it’d actually integrated fully into our legal system and our conception of ourselves.

The rest of the book, deals with how that didn’t happen. Sunstein deals with the apparent lack of a socialist tradition of the United States, but how nevertheless the Supreme Court seemed poised to accept a lot of these very socialist-seeming rights into the American constitutional order. None of this is explicit, but by slow drift in the same way that rights to privacy and same-sex marriage have been found in the Constitution in ways that more reflect social norms more than the words that are actually in it.

The deathknell for all this was the election of Nixon. (Which, I might add, from having recently partially read Perlstein’s Nixonland, was clearly a racist reaction to the idea that the New Deal and War on Poverty were largely attempts of out-of-touch elites to help blacks at the expense of middle-class whites . . . which all sounds uncannily familiar). Nixon appointed a bunch of conservative justices they quickly put an end to any rights based upon poverty. The the worst and most definitive of these was San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, in which the court found that the state of Texas had no obligation to give equal quality of education to poor students and wealthy students.

Overall, it mostly seems like a shame that Sunstein’s book was released in 2008 and not in 2016 or 2019. Today Bernie is running essentially as an FDR-style candidate with a platform that strongly mimics the second Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on healthcare, education, and economic security. This book is a helpful reminder that the United States is not as much of an ideological outlier with respect to socioeconomic rights as it might seem from our current state of affairs; it’s just that the combination of racism and reaction combined to become powerful enough to suppress them, for (at least) a few decades.

Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (2009)

While this book was of some use for background reading on various debates around what the title suggests, I found it to be less than satisfactory in terms of helping me conceptualize human rights. I admire the goals that Beitz sets out for himself, and his purposes: in the introduction he says he set off writing this to determine whether skepticism of human rights can be resisted, and because the practice of human rights “is bound to seem puzzling”. I agree with this: the Universal Declaration kick started something that has taken off and become quite large, and it’s hard to figure out why that has happened.

However, I found Betiz’s model lacking, both in scope and effectiveness in addressing his self-imposed task. His conclusion is perhaps indicative: he feels that any theory of human rights should be “modest”,  understood as “responds to contingent historical circumstances”, and is just a way to “interpret the normative discipline implicit in the practice” of human rights. In other words, he seems to seek to describe human rights, especially as in national and international legal system, rather than something that ordinary people can understand is helpful in interpreting their everyday lives. And there’s not much more that a political philosopher can do than that, apparently.

The first 50 pages of the book are a summary of the facts of human rights “practice”, which is to say a description of how governments, NGOs, and international law used human rights.  The next 50 pages or summaries of prior theories of human rights, naturalistic theories (which includes Martha Nussbaum and Morsink, although Morsink’s main work on inherent human rights is not cited because it was concurrently released), agreement theories in which human rights are considered almost a form of social contract.

Not really satisfied with any of these, Beitz eventually gets to his own theory, or rather “model” as he calls it, on page 109, of a 212 page book, which seemed rather like a novel of which the first half is exposition, before the plot starts. Anyway, summarize his summary, the Beitz model has three elements: (1) human rights protect against “standard threats” to humans in a modern nation; (2) human rights apply first to the institutions of states; (3) human rights are matters of international concern.

The main problem I have with this is that it seems more like just a description of what human rights are, rather than an explanation of why we have them any why some people seem to feel they are more “real” than others. In some ways descriptiveness is helpful, but it’s a limited kind of helpful that does not immediate strike me as helpful guidance to making the world a better place.

Secondly I would object to Beitz’s model in that it completely omits individual humans from the picture. They’re only implied implicitly and that they can participate in the political process of the country that they belong in. In introducing his model, he does mention that he wants to consider “evidence of the public culture of international human rights found in its history and in contemporary public expression”, but to me that doesn’t seem like that really shows up in the model itself.

I’m a person coming to human rights with questions like “if I feel like people living in tents in my city have a right to housing, how does that fit in with the idea of human rights?” or “how does Medicare for all fit in with the idea of human rights”?, this book doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It seems almost entirely descriptive, and not in any ways that relate to individuals as they live their lives with respect to human rights; nor does did it give me much insight into why they became a thing in the 19th or 20th century.

Useful as background reading, perhaps, but I don’t feel like I walked away from this book with any conceptualizations that help me understand the world more than I did before.

Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

Continue reading Smoke Days

Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

[Note:  this is a long (but entertaining) story. If you’re just here for the pictures, here’s the gallery , or scroll to the bottom]

Preface: April 2017. This trip happened in July and August of 2017, but its story began in April. My wife and I had a one-year old, and had recently decided to have a second child. I could foresee the fun of being a family of four, but I was definitely not looking forward to the first year of having two very young children: lots of diapers to change, and not a lot of leaving the house for adventures.

Around that time Suzanne and I were sitting in our living room after our daughter had gone to bed, each doing our own thing. I was reading something about cycling, and I said aloud “I miss bike touring.”

Suzanne and I had gone on a bike touring honeymoon five years earlier, and we had plans to go touring with our children. A newborn, however, is not amenable to that, since most medical advice is to wait until one year old before subjecting a child to the bumps and vibrations of cycling. So when I said “I miss bike touring” it was with a degree of wistfulness, knowing that would probably be a few more years before I could do so again.

Continue reading Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

How To Find Campsites While Bike Touring In Europe

I have gone on three bike tours in Europe, mostly in France, but also in Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. I just wanted to give a quick rundown of the ways that I have been able to find campsites, and also hopefully attract other people to this page you can tell me what to do for other countries.

Wherever You Are: Try OsmAnd.

I have only done this within France, but there’s no reason that it wouldn’t work in other countries except that the data coverage might not be as good. OsmAnd is an Android and iOS application that shows OpenStreetMap data, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of cartography. It also has the best filter to show a particular feature type — like campsites — even better than the online OpenStreetMap.

Last summer I spent two weeks biking a loop in Normandy, and used this method almost every night in order to find a campsite. The main advantage of OsmAnd is that it has a lot of information, so it has both municipal and commercial campsites. The downside is that the data is not necessarily verified. One time I showed up at a campsite, and it used to be a campsite, but had become more like a trailer park. The people living there were friendly so I stayed there anyway. And the other ten times I used it I found a for-reals campsite. The idea is: there’s probably going to be a campsite where they are indicated, but is not guaranteed. Usually I did a quick Google search of the campsite name and town to verify that the campsite would actually be there.

The user interface of OsmAnd is decent but complex and it took me a few tries to figure out how to display campsites on the map. Here’s a video of me showing how to find the campsites using OsmAnd:

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has used this method in other countries, and how accurate the campsite data is.

Country-by-Country Maps.

In Germany, another good way to find campsites are ADFC biking maps. The ADFC is the national biking organization for Germany, and their maps show bike routes, bike shops, restaurants, and… campgrounds. They also exist as digital downloads, which requires some navigation of their only-in-German website.

In France, Camping Qualite is a kind of campsite industry association that has its own map. They are usually going to be more full-featured and expensive campsites (so like twenty euros a night, with a pool and a playground).

In Switzerland, the website Schweitzmobil has a configurable map that will show the Swiss national and regional bike routes, and various categories of accommodations. Probably the most useful configuration for readers of this post is showing national bike routes, camping, and farm accommodations.

What others sources for finding campsites for bike touring are there?

Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora

I want to point to two things that exist already, and only need more adoption, that seem like the right direction after Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s phone-scraping practices. One is legal (the GDPR), and the other is technological (Diaspora).

Neither of them seems likely to become part of modern American life overnight, but I think it is important to continually be trying to imagine the world as you wish it were.

1. America Needs Something Like the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation. 

For the last year and a half, every company in Silicon Valley has already been scrambling to increase their ability to give users more choice, control, and specific rights regarding how their data is used. Unfortunately, the protections are only for users in the EU. That is because the EU passed a extraterritorial (meaning applies to anyone in the world) privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, that applies to anyone processing personal data, but that seems extra-targeted toward social networks.

It is a rather large piece of legislation, and would be more than what I intend to tackle in a short blog post to say that the United States needs to copy it verbatim. However: it is already been operationalized; everyone in the industry is familiar with it; it’s better than what we have now. So it would be a good starting point for anyone looking for what strong privacy protections the United States might look like.

One of its particular clauses that I think would have prevented some of the damage from the Cambridge Analytica situation is that users have to give “specific consent” for each use of their data. That means that for each particular use that a company wants to apply user data to, they have to get a specific checkbox or other indication that the user agrees to it; you cannot bury it all in the privacy policy or terms of service. That might be more difficult to pass in the United States where the lobbying power of Facebook and Google would likely be turned against it, because it affects their profitability. After all, who is going to specifically consent to have targeted ads? (Maybe they could pay users a piece of the approximately $80 per U.S. user per year that Facebook gets, mostly from advertising revenue.)  On the other hand, if Facebook was thinking very long-term and wants to regain users’ trust, perhaps it would not be so opposed after all. If you want to read more about this this post on PageFair gives some additional information on how GDPR is likely to affect Facebook.

2. The World Needs A Decentralized Social Media Platform (Like Diaspora, Perhaps)

The operational model of email is a good example of network decentralization, which creates a market that buffers against the sort of monopolization that Facebook has. Right now there’s a lot of people who are angry at Facebook, but they find they are tied to it because there is nowhere to go; it is the primary data source for all of the social connections in our world.

Continue reading Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora

In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died this week, one of my favorite novelists.

Her parents studied and worked extensively with the last member of the Yahi people, who occupied territory in the Sierra Nevada until they were massacred in the Gold Rush. I have never seen Le Guin say exactly how that influenced her, but a lot of her themes are about interactions between different cultures, and imbalances of power and domination. She was excellent writer, in both character and plot, always taking points of view that are unusual but very recognizably human.

My favorite stories by her are the Hainish Cycle: The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores fluidity of gender; The Dispossessed, which contrasted capitalism and communism; and the novella The Word For World Is Forest, which has environmentalist/anticolonialist themes. But the themes are rarely overt; there is nothing polemical. The storytelling approach is always a kind of “what if there was a place with people like this?” that sucks you in from curiosity. But then as you reflect afterward it’s like “wait, the world is kind of like that, at least parts of it, although I hadn’t thought about it like that before.” The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed each won Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also clearly planned stories very well: while you’re reading, the stories cruise along, driven by plot and character. But then at the end, while you also have the usual climax and dénouement to process emotionally, there’s also this intellectual process you often have to go through to reconstruct exactly how the whole thing fit together. Sort of like the same feeling you get at the end of movies like Memento or Donnie Darko where you have to reconstruct some of the plot structure and parallel threads yourself at the end. May the world have more novelists like her that make readers study the world and imagine all the different perspectives within it, and all the ways it might be.