Thinking the Unthinkable: OCD and Virtue Ethics

Daniel Callcut (who happens to be my former graduate advisor) wrote a really excellent piece for Aeon. I encourage you to check it out because understanding it will help you understand this post. Besides, it’s just a wonderful piece to read.

The query is basically this: If virtue is (at least, in part) not even being able to think certain things, what happens now that anyone can access unthinkable things on the internet?

At first, I was taken by this. It seems true, at first, that virtue is not being able to even imagine–not being able to think–certain things.

But, alas. As always, I’ll have to disagree with my former advisor.

I have studied certain what I’ll call mental illnesses. I know Callcut has, too, so I’m surprised he overlooked this. However, in our current understanding of things like anxiety and OCD, thoughts “arrive like butterflies.” We do not have control over many of our thoughts. They are generated by what I’ll call externals.

For people with anxiety or OCD, these thoughts are, in fact, highly distressing. Callcut indicates that whatever one pays attention to is who one actually is. However, in the case of OCD, people pay quite a lot of attention to thoughts they find highly disturbing–and they try to push these thoughts away. A person with, say, a sexual obsession may have thoughts of groping other people and this may highly distress the person. However, it is known that someone like this is extremely unlikely to act out on these thoughts.

So it seems what we pay attention to is not at all who we are.

This is a critical matter. I hope Callcut and others will take a look at instances like these and revise accordingly the idea that virtue is not even having certain thoughts, for our person with the sexual obsession in the case above is, quite probably, a virtuous person.

-Jennifer

UPDATE 5/21/2019: I made a related video on this:

A Story for the Long Road

This year marks 15 years since I graduated with my undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology.

I was a teen mom. At the age of 14, I got pregnant. At 15, I gave birth. I attended a school for teen parents—and it was my dream to not only graduate high school, but to go on to college for two things (1) to learn and, (2) to be able to support my daughter.

I graduated high school in 1998, which was a feat in itself for a teen mother:

Jennifer Lawson’s High School diploma.

After I graduated from Stetson University, my dream school, I made a plan for graduate school. My goal then was to get a PhD in philosophy and work in academia. I was accepted to the University of North Florida in the Master’s program for Practical Philosophy and Applied Ethics. This particular study is geared toward making decisions in the real world. I loved it.

During the time I was at UNF, I worked hard. I was a Teaching Assistant, a Research Assistant—and still a mom on top of it all.

But I got merely 3 hours of sleep each night.

Soon, my health deteriorated.

At this moment, I still haven’t finished my Master’s Degree. I wound up very ill from pushing myself too hard. Maybe I will finish. Maybe I won’t. What’s clear is that I haven’t given up on learning.

I took time off to recuperate, rest and recover, all the while remaining active in as many things as possible.

Ten years later, and here I am. I just got a job I love, which also happens to pay well.

There’s many stories in the news right now about mostly young people who accomplished their goal of graduating college, often overcoming hardship.

Sometimes life goes according to plan. But sometimes it doesn’t. You have to be flexible. Yes, you need determination. Yes, you have to fight obstacles. But you must also never forget to take time for yourself and your loved ones.

My life didn’t go according to plan. Yet, I still took the hard road. I did graduate college. I did go to graduate school. And now, I have a good job.

You dreams are worth it. Never give up—even when the road not taken winds up taking 10 years.

On Becoming a Grandmother at 40

I am expecting to become a grandmother in just a couple of months. My daughter is pregnant with twins. I was a teenage mom, so I’ll not even be 40 when my grandbabies arrive.

The prospect of becoming a grandmother has hit me in different ways than becoming a mother. I want to be there for my daughter and her family. Even moreso, I want to live to see my grandchildren graduate (at least) high school. This means trying to take care of myself as best as I can.

Often, when we think about self-care, we think of having a spa day. It can most definitely be that, but it is more about loving yourself. When you think you are worthwhile, worthy of love and love yourself, that’s when real self-care begins. It costs practically nothing to get to this place in life. It certainly doesn’t mean expensive spa days, but it might mean counseling–a very worthwhile expense.

The babies coming into my life make me want to love myself, for what better gift could I give them than being a great role model and helping them love themselves?

It’ll be a couple of months. We are still preparing. But whenever they end up getting here, I’ll be ready with tons of love and, hopefully, a long, grandmotherly life to give them.

-Jennifer

Converting a CV into a Resume

About 15 years ago, I decided to devote my entire life to academia. So, I did all the things academics do–conferences, refereeing papers, academic blogging, and so forth.

It turned out I left academia and I found it difficult to convert my CV into a resume. This post is for those in a similar situation.

If you are in academia and wish to convert your CV, I’ve found that, first, your academic work counts and matters! You may need to explain what you’ve done to non-academics, but all the things you have done are very important and transfer into the private industry.

As a TA and RA, I didn’t typically utilize people such as Departmental Administrative Assistants. I made copies myself. I answered emails myself. I took phone calls myself.

This gave me skills I now use at my private industry job–being a Executive Assistant.

Handling paperwork, working on top projects in one’s field–these all matter to private industry employers.

You have skills. Show them off!

Here is my CV cum resume. Take a look at it. It secured me a job in private industry.

As you can see, it’s a bit longer than most resumes. I didn’t hold back. If I have skills and experience, I want to demonstrate them. I encourage academics going into industry to do the same.

It’s easy to think you have no skills, but you do! You have amassed a great amount of diverse skills as an academic. Show them off. And good luck transferring into private industry!

-Jennifer

What Gender is My Keurig?

An article in the New York Review of Books got me thinking that we need to seriously think about AI.

Sure, there’s people who think about AI–and think seriously about it. But I mean non-experts. All of us should be thinking about AI because it might mean a total revolution of basic concepts.

I was thinking about this a while back and I briefly wondered the gender of my Keurig. Well, I figured, it’s Keurig-gender. (I also figured there were multiple Keurig-genders.) I left it at that.

Keurig-gender, for me, was not male or female as we know it. It was a specific type of gender of the species Keurig.

This might sound a bit crazy to you, but the day might not be far off when we do need to consider the gender of AIs–and it’s totally possible to have a “smart Keurig” in such a future.

It might be easy to think of AIs as having no gender or being genderless. After all, many conflate sex and gender and a Keurig or an Alexa have no sexual parts. But sex and gender are not the same. Whatever we decide gender is, it happens that most humans have one and if we are thinking about creating subhumans or humanoids, they will likely have one, too.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. There are many things we have simply not explored regarding AIs. It’s time we do–before time is up.

-Jennifer

Rawlsian Politics: Voting Using the Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls is one of the most influential contemporary philosophers. His work has been used all over the place and proved to be helpful in many ways. Today, I want to discuss the practice of voting using some ideas from Rawls.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls posits what he calls “the original position.” In this position, we do not know who we are or what place we have in society. Thinking using this scheme is called being behind “the veil of ignorance.”

If we use the veil of ignorance when voting, we think about policies and their effects by not knowing who we are or what place we have in society. You can imagine that you are an immigrant, a poor white person, a person with disabilities–or any number of things. The point is: You do not know who you are in society.

When you vote using the veil of ignorance, I think you will see that you will favor policies that benefit marginalized people simply because you do not know if you are one of them.

Think about using the veil of ignorance when voting and let me know the conclusions you come to!

-Jennifer

Slave of the Passions?

David Hume famously wrote that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.” Hume did outstanding work on moral psychology, but I wanted to discuss the “back and forth” between reason and emotion.

This back and forth–where one is cognizant of one’s emotions and then learns to regulate the is known as emotional regulation. As human grow and develop, hopefully they develop this back and forth play and learn to moderate emotions as needed.

Regulating one’s emotions is an important part of maturing and living a healthy life. Some philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, discuss the intelligence of emotions. They may be intelligent, but they can also get out of hand, in which case, that’s not too bright.

Just as emotions can get out of hand, so too can reason get out of hand. Much ink has been spilled recently about EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and its importance. Being overly cognitive and having an emotion deficit can be a problem, too.

The key, as in most cases, is balance. Learning to regulate one’s emotions may be a lifelong task for some, but it’s well worth it.

-Jennifer

The Inflexible Flexibility of Harry Potter

Jonathan Lear has famously argued we need flexibility because each of us individually and as a species are vulnerable to things like cultural breakdown. Lear cites Plenty Coup–his life and the lives of the Crows to make this case.

Over the years, I have either agreed with him or taken issue with numerous points in the book Radical Hope.

What I want to do today, on International Harry Potter Day, is draw lessons from the Harry Potter series that we may learn about flexibility.

Contrary to Sitting Bull, Plenty Coup sided, in various ways, with the United States. The Crows had scouts working with the United States, for example.

We can get into historical debates about these facts. For instance, we can point to the fact that the Crows and Sioux were already enemies prior to the United States’ invasion.

But let’s just stick with the facts.

It is well-known the Crows sided with the United States–or worked with the United States–in many ways.

Sitting Bull is famous for not working with the United States and for fighting for freedom and resisting tirelessly the United States’ policies.

Which one is the best choice?

Lear sides with Plenty Coups. In the past, I have sided with Sitting Bull. But I wonder if this is not a false dichotomy. Let us turn now to Harry Potter.

Although the Potter series is fictional and has the familiar trappings of being such, there’s simply tons of realism in the books. I have mentioned flexibility as one of the virtues Harry and gang needed in order to defeat Lord Voldemort. And it’s true. Read to books, if you haven’t already, to learn all the ways Harry Potter had to be flexible and resilient. In fact, I would argue that without these virtues, it’s basically impossible for Harry to have defeated the Dark Lord.

But was Harry also a bit stubborn and stuck in his ways–the way Lear argues Sitting Bull may have been?

Of course.

After all, it was a sustained effort, taking several years, to defeat Lord Voldemort. But Harry didn’t budge.

The other day, when talking about flexibility, I told a couple of people, “You have to be a little bit Gumby.” And, it’s true. You do.

Growing up, I had a Gumby figurine and I can tell you that, although it was pretty flexible, it certainly would go back to its shape and it only moved within a certain range. So the figurine had a lot of flexibility, but it also remained the same.

I think we can learn something from Gumby and from Harry Potter. There are certain things we ought not budge on. But, for many others, keeping flexibility will be a huge part of our successes in life.

This is the story Lear probably should have told about flexibility.

After all, it would be heroic for a young woman to basically tell Hitler, “Fuck you, motherfucker.” That’s not being flexible about Hitler’s policies. On the contrary, that would be utterly grounded in the Good. But, in order for a young woman or group of people to actually defeat Hitler, it took sustained effort and, well, flexibility.

Harry Potter can teach all about the contextual sort of adaptability.

-Jennifer

Harry Potter Day: A Reflection on Trials and Tribulations

Today is International Harry Potter Day. On this day, according to the books, Harry Potter defeated the Dark Lord at the Battle of Hogwarts.

I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan. I know of bigger fans. But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what the books teach us about defeating evil.

Harry and team took over 8 solid years to defeat Lord Voldemort in an often sustained fight of good versus evil. It took courage, wit, cunning, flexibility, thought, deliberation, trying and failing before the Dark Lord was defeated.

One moral, aside from the fact that evil can and will be defeated, that we can take from the Harry Potter series is that, with time and a sustained effort, one may in fact succeed.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for showing us these important things.

Truth as Destroyer?

I came across this cartoon today:

I wondered if this is how we ought to go about things. I also wondered whether there are some things that are true that show believing in certain untrue things has a certain value.

For example, when I took a grad course called “Lies and Self-Deception,” we learned that having a certain amount of religiousity or spirituality leads to a longer, healthier, happier life. That doesn’t mean there is a God. That means one’s belief in a God and certain practices, such as prayer, are conducive to a longer, healthier, happier life. Should we banish a belief in God even though this belief and associated practices help create a better life?

It turns out that truth is not so simple.

Personally, I like to take a positive approach where truth is a builder of new ideas–a creator, not a destroyer.

Are there myths, narratives and constructs that need to be banished by truth? Absolutely.

Likewise, there are new concepts, new ideas we could probably use, too.

So, should we think of truth as a destroyer? Probably not. At least, not merely so.

-Jennifer

Got Language? Thank a Person with Schizophrenia

In a well-known paper in schizophrenia research, Timothy Crow argues that schizophrenia is the price Homo Sapiens pay for having language. In a way, this makes sense. Think of any organism or machine. The more parts they have, the more complex they are, the more things can go awry.

On this view, it could be argued that you should thank a person with schizophrenia (if you are not so diagnosed) because they are evidence of your complexity–in addition to having a complexity of their own!

The features of schizophrenia may seem odd or unusual to those not so diagnosed, but they are really just things that are magnified that you probably experience–an eerie feeling, seeing a shadow and thinking something is there. These are things many people experience but that are more pronounced in people with schizophrenia.

I do not know whether schizophrenia is the price we pay for having language, but it’s worth a thought or two.

-Jennifer

What Kind of World Do You Want?

Voting and political activism and commentary is serious business. Each of us is entitled–up to a certain point–to express views, vote for who we want, and so forth.

When we think of the shape we want our country to be, it’s important to know these are very much philosophical questions. They may be informed and bolstered by empirical data, but ultimately when you take a position on something, it is most likely a philosophical position.

I have remained blissfully unaware of much of the current political atmosphere. That’s not because I wish to be ignorant or think politics unimportant. It is quite the opposite. I take in bits and pieces of information. Some relevant, some not. I will vote as I see fit and I will base my voting strictly on policy issues. This appears to be a good strategy for me right now.

You have the power–with every political comment, every political post, every time you vote–to shape the lives of other people. This is a huge responsibility. It’s important to get it right, to think carefully and clearly about these things and to know that politics may be about you–but it’s not merely about you.

If you happen to think that people are, as a matter of fact, paid according to their worth and, on top of that, they should be paid according to their worth, those are philosophical positions. You can find variations of them in Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick.

Politics is one of the most important things in life. As I said, you have the ability to shape not only your own life but the lives of others as well.

Unfortunately, much of our current political climate is not especially conducive to creating astute political opinions or wise and thoughtful political decisions. There’s hate, fear, anxiety and much more in our political climate.

In the end, however you choose to go about politics, however you vote, you have the lives of others in your hands.

Think about the shape you want your country to be. Think about your fellow human. Try–despite the appeals to emotion and other fallacies–to reason well about politics. After all, we must remember that Adolf Hitler was elected into power. Let us try not to repeat a thing like that–or even come close to it.

Your voice, your vote, your activism, matters. Use it wisely.

-Jennifer