Prof Pogge teaches ethics at Yale, but does he shave himself?

[ by Charles Cameron — Pogge’s ethics, Russell’s barber paradox, and self-reference ]

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It’s that old ouroboros [1, 2, 3, 4] rearing its ugly head again, with its tail firmly between its teeth:

DQ 600 ethicists & barbers

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The riddle, koan or potential paradox posed in the upper panel alludes to the matter of Yale’s professor Thomas Pogge, a noted ethicist, and some unbecoming behavior of which he has been accused — but as professor Judith Stark writing at Conversation suggests, there’s further interest beyond the case of Pogge and his accusers.

Responding to the question posed by the title of her own piece, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?, she writes:

This is an enduring dilemma in the area of ethics and one that has recently come to light with charges of unethical behavior brought against a prominent philosopher, Professor Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Pogge has been accused of manipulating younger women in his field into sexual relationships, a charge he has strenuously denied.

Without making any judgment on the case itself, this situation raises larger questions about how the behavior of the experts in ethics is to be reviewed and evaluated.

Profession and practice are, in their own way, like word and act — or are they?

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In the lower panel, I’ve placed a discussion of Bertrand Russell‘s “barber” paradox that in Russell’s view partially but not fully resembles his paradox of the “class of all classes that are not members of themselves” — the question there being whether this class is a member of itself or not. I’m not in a position to argue such matters with Russell, so I’ll just say that he views both the “classes” and “barber” paradoxes as (different but similar) seeming knots which, when you pull on their loose ends, disentangle themselves, pop!:

Russell writes of the “barber” paradox that it is a variant on the “classes” paradox in which “the contradiction is not very difficult to solve.” The “classes” paradox is harder, he says, but he finally dismisses it as “nonsense, i.e., that no class either is or is not a member of itself, and that it is not even true to say that, because the whole form of words is just a noise without meaning.”

Or as Wm. Shakespeare might have said, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — to which Witty Wittgenstein might have quipped, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — which, alas, has the air of a tautology, with the entire Tractatus thereby eating its own tail..

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What do you think? Is the entire question of ethicists behaving ethically or unethically moot? a koan? does it eat its own tail? does it just melt into thin air, and leave not a rack behind?

Sources:

  • Judith Stark, Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behavior?
  • Esther Inglis-Arkell, The Barber Paradox Shook the Foundations of Math
  • Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950
  • 4 comments on this post.
    1. Graham:

      I’m glad that some form of skepticism of this paradox is endorsed by Russell himself. I’m operating in an intellectual paddling pool by comparison and even I reacted to it with instant skepticism of the “eh? come again?” sort.
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      I get that it is a paradox if expressed as it is expressed in the source. I’m assuming that it is understood to be a paradox only because it is designed to be.
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      But why does it have to be expressed as 2 sets, and 2 sets so named? Why not 3 sets, those that shave themselves and are not the barber, those shaved by the barber, and the barber a set of 1? I get that this might be considered a juvenile sort of dissent. But the paradox works as a paradox only because of an arbitrary set of assumptions. Is there a maximum 2 set rule?
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      And, an area on which I have no expertise but which occurs as speculation, would that alleged paradox be viable, or even expressible, in other languages?
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      For what it’s worth, little though it might be. Not trying to be a twit. It just seems to be a conundrum more of choice of language than anything.
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      It took me years to really get the point of the classic and most widely cited [among western laypeople at least] koans about the one hand clapping and tree falling in the forest. I was the pesky guy clapping with one hand to demonstrate, albeit willing to entertain an Anglocentric linguistic debate about whether that gesture meets the definition of ‘clapping’. The tree thing I still struggle with. I’m not willing to concede that the definition of ‘sound’ requires a hearer…
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      They won’t be giving me my monk’s robes any time soon, to be sure. That’s probably a wise decision.
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      The ethicist question is definitely an interesting one. I’m tempted to say no, they needn’t be held to higher standards of behaviour. They’re scholars whose profession is the study of ethics, but they are humans not saints. Ethics is their study, discipline and profession, not necessarily their character, at least not more than any other man or woman. Now there subject is such that I admit struggling to come up with an analogy using another discipline or trade. The best I can do is to note that a theologian or a scholar of myths need not himself be a god, nor a military historian a successful general.
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      The study of something can often overlap with the identity of the subject [I can’t think of an example offhand but am willing to concede the notion] or at least the practice of what is studied [the study of war with the profession of arms, but the soldier does not himself encompass the definition of “war”]; the study of aerospace engineering/physics with the design or even piloting of aircraft although, notably, the professional in this field cannot himself fly without mechanical assistance and does not himself define “flight”].
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      There’s room for more combative responses too. The exact content of “ethics” is seemingly perennially under dispute. There will be less obvious cases than this, presuming the allegations are true, in which such an ethicist might retort that they simply hold to a different set of principles. We’d have to see how that went in a court.

    2. Charles Cameron:

      Thanks!
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      I suspect the atmosphere around how we understand words has shifted notably in the last fifty years or more, and that many people are now less entrained to the general idea that “if i think it (in words) it is so” and or that words have an accurate one to one correspondence with what they name. I hope that makes some semblance of sense.
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      In my view, (western) people at the beginning of C20 would have thought the barber paradox described a real situation to be considered and found paradoxical, precisely because Bertie Russell hadn’t as yet shown it to be a category error. That, plus Wittgenstein’s self-biting Tractatus, plus the introduction of the notion of the koan by Suzuki, plus an increasing interest in the world’s mystical traditions and thus with paradoxical thinkers in our on such as John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart has, I think, made us much more susceptible to question verbal formulations..

    3. Graham:

      Interesting way to look at it. I think I understand what you mean by a change in our understanding away from words having an “accurate one to one correspondence with what they name”. I am especially struck by it because it seems at least a little like an alien notion. I don’t exactly think of myself as all that skeptical or symbolic a thinker [I don’t know what I mean by symbolic- I was struggling for a catch all term to mean thinking of words as imperfect descriptors of “things”]. I’m willing to see that as a change in ways of thinking in recent times, but I wonder to what degree this can be so.
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      I assume platonists among other traditions would have had this idea.
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      More prosaically, I would have thought anyone with modest exposure to other languages than their own would have been capable of the idea. I’m unilingual myself but I find I may have slightly more capacity than my father to see words/ideas/things as a bit distinct from one another, and I don’t automatically assume the English word is the “right” word and some other language’s word for the same concept is ‘wrong’ or at least ‘less right’. Or that the way another language has fewer words or variants for one set of concepts than English but more for another set can be objectively graded.
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      It occurs to me that I may be arguing for or against some part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. But I don’t know which…

    4. Charles Cameron:

      For me, I think the shift was from thnking in words, including when reading, in such a way that I then expected the world to agree with what the words said, and thinkingn first about the world, and then loking for words that adequately described what IU had observed.
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      Something similar can be found in Martin Luther’s question as to whether his prophetically inclined colleagues & flock were looking to current events to see what the Bible might have to say about them, or looking to the Bible, and then trying to shoe-horn current events to fit what they’s read there.
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      But shoe=horn wasn’t his word..

      As to Sapir-Whoft,m I think having the use of two or more languages does promote flexibility of this sort, but for me it was a “mystical experience” of the world without my commentary that was and is mostly responsible.