Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Moral Issue Of Land

In my daily readings a while back I came upon this:
"[The prince] is to give his sons their inheritance out of his own property so that none of my people will be separated from his property."  (Ezekiel 46.18)
Central Oregon

And this, written by Alan Paton.  His younger Jarvis (in Cry, the Beloved Country) also writes prophetically about South Africa.  What he says could have been written about any number of places, though:
"It is true that we hoped to preserve the tribal system by a policy of segregation.  That was permissible.  But we never did it thoroughly or honestly.  We set aside one-tenth of the land for four-fifths of the people.  Thus we made it inevitable, and some say we did it knowingly, that labour would come to the towns.  We are caught in the toils of our own selfishness....No one wishes to make its solution seem easy....But whether we be fearful or no, we shall never, because we are a Christian people, evade the moral issues." 
As a child I thought prophets were people who predicted the future, or who spoke things God wanted to say, like spokespeople.  As I've grown older, my notion of prophets has expanded to mean those people who disrupt our quotidian secular and economic concerns in order to remind us that love and justice may and must constrain our actions.  What could be more important than that?

Zena Reservoir and Overlook Mountain

The question I am pondering this morning: What do love and justice require of us when it comes to land ownership?  

This question is made more poignant as our state legislature is considering eliminating perpetual conservation land easements.  One argument against them is that it seems unreasonable to put limitations on future people.  We may rightly ask: can we consider those people who do not yet exist - and who therefore may never exist - as factors or agents in our moral reasoning?
Dakota prairie

And yet every time we consume a non-renewable resource we are making an irrevocable decision about what the land will yield for perpetuity.  Land easements may be one way to offset the effects of our other decisions, and they are at least reversible if the future proves them foolish.

Jarvis correctly diagnoses us: when we think about the future, frequently we are moved by fear.  Isn't that why the prince Ezekiel spoke of was tempted not to give up his land?

I also find that when I think about the future, I am also motivated by love, and that love is perhaps my strongest, my most angelic impulse.  I save, teach, build, conserve, and create for my children, and for others like them.  I may not be able to give them a better world, but I do feel - I admit it is, at its base, a feeling - that I owe them at least as good a world as I received.

Twin Falls, Idaho

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Secret Poison

South Dakota's Attorney General announced today that he wants the state legislature to protect the names of the manufacturers of the poisons used to kill criminals sentenced to death.

To which I reply--in appeal to the Christians of South Dakota, at least--the scriptures condemn those who make poisons to kill other people for profit.  Why then should we offer them a special protection here in our state?

The answer appears to be that if the producers' names become public, they may be shamed into no longer selling human-killing drugs. What they do may be legal, but let them at least face the scrutiny of the marketplace. 

If you're ashamed of what you sell, maybe you shouldn't sell it any more. 


Unless you're Mossynoecians, that is.  The Mossynoecians are mentioned in several ancient texts, notably Xenophon's Anabasis and Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica. They surprised Greek visitors because they regarded love and procreation to be public goods that could be practiced outdoors, while they regarded commerce to be dirty and shameful, something to be practiced indoors.  But I take it South Dakota is more like the Greeks than the Mossynoecians.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What Philosophers Do

Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I am a little hesitant to tell them that I am a philosophy professor.  I'm afraid to answer largely because I know that much of the time my answer makes the person who asked feel a little awkward.

I think this is because most people I meet don't know what philosophy is, or what one does with it.  So when I say what I do, they aren't sure what to say next. 

So let me tell you what I do: I ask questions, and I teach others how to do that.*

You could say I'm a professional trainer of skeptics.  I train people in curiosity.   My aim is to be like a child again in front of big ideas, and to show my students that it's alright to indulge in a little wonder.

Because we don't just learn by being given good answers; more than anything, we learn by asking good questions.


* By the way, it's a fair question to ask if you want to know how I do that. 

And it's also fair to notice that by suggesting that you ask that question I've just given you a little example of what I do.

One Reason I Love Winter

Morning frost