Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Gone Writing!


I am in the final stages of a number of major writing projects at the moment.... I'll stop to catch my breath on here when they are finished in month or so.


Sunday, May 19, 2024

Russell's Marriage and Morals (Reading group, meeting #2 notes)


This is part 2 (part 1 notes here) of some notes/questions for the Philosophy Meetup reading group on Russell’s 1929 book Marriage and Morals. This is a quick summary of some points from chapters 7-11.

Chapter 7:  The Liberation of Women

Russell begins the chapter by contending that two developments have caused the alteration in sexual morals- the development of contraception and the emancipation of women.  This chapter focuses on the latter, which he sees as part of the democratic movement which began with the French revolution.   He also notes his mother was a staunch supporter of female enfranchisement in the 1860s and that Russell was born by the first female doctor, who was not at that time qualified to be a medical practitioner but was a certified midwife. 

Russell also notes that another influence driving the emancipation of women was the increase in income they made outside the home (which decreased their dependence on their fathers and husbands).  The war accelerated this. 

Russell notes that equality between the sexes has profound implication for sexual ethics, given that men have been permitted to engage in illicit sexual relations but not women.  For example, men were not expected to be virgins when they got married, but women were.  Russell contends that what made this system possible was prostitution.  Should women also be morally permitted to engage with male prostitutes, in the name of equality?  Or should men be bound by the same sexual restrained morality imposed upon women?  Russell contends that the fair solution is to relax the traditional standards of feminine virtue and allow women (like men are) to engage in prenuptial sex. 

Questions to consider:  how have things changed since Russell was writing?  Have societal attitudes become more equal in terms of the sexual morality expected of men and women?  And are such developments a sign of societal progress, moral decay or a bit of both?

Chapter 8:  The Taboo of Sexual Knowledge

The question guiding this chapter is articulated in the opening paragraph:  how should the relations of the sexes be regulated?  In particular Russell is concerned about the harms of ignorance of such matters.  He believes it is critical that people be well informed.  The ignorant cannot make the right decisions.  He addresses the ignorance of children, and the role of parents and educators. 

Questions to consider:  How has technology (e.g. the internet and social media) influenced social mores about sex?  Russell addresses things like laws deeming literature obscene, but technology has changed significantly over the past century.  Now adults and children can gain access to almost anything on the internet.  What impact (both positive and negative) do you think this has had on attitudes about sex and sexual relations?  What is your view on government censorship of sexual content (e.g. in magazines or the internet)?

Chapter 9:  The Place of Love in Human Life

This chapter starts with the following statement:  I regard love as one of the most important things in human life, and I regard any system as bad which interferes unnecessarily with its free development.”  Questions:  Do you agree/disagree with this claim?  What can the government do to help facilitate the realization of love for the population?


Russell sees work and economic success as the biggest threat to love in his day (before that he thought the biggest threat was the Christian religion). Questions:   How can we manage balancing career and love/family life?  Do you have any lessons or insights you have learned from your own lived experiences?

Russell also identifies the fear that a person may lose their individuality as an obstacle to achieving love. 

Chapter 10:  Marriage

In this chapter Russell considers the legal institution of marriage, in particular its impact on the relationship between a man and woman.  Russell remarks that, as a society becomes what he refers to as more “civilized”, lifelong happiness with a partner seems to be harder to achieve.  He claims that marriage is easiest when little differentiates men and women as potential partners (this minimizes regret about being with your partner!).  He also remarks that, when there is no opportunity for men to have sexual relations with other women they are more likely to make the best of their marriage vs stray.  He believes the same applies to wives.  Problems with marriage arise, argues Russell, when people expect their marriage to contribute great happiness to their lives.

Questions:  Do you agree with Russell on this point?  Should we expect our romantic relationships to contribute great happiness to our lives?  Is this both a desirable and feasible aspiration?

Russell also remarks that the emancipation of women has made marriage more difficult as a wife is no longer required to adapt to her husband (and most men are not likely to relent on the tradition of masculine domination to relent to their partner).  He also notes that love flourishes when it is spontaneous and voluntary vs imposed by duty, but because marriage is a legal convention it makes loving one’s spouse a duty which can be counterproductive.

Russell does contend there is reason for hope, and stipulates the conditions that he believes make for a happy marriage:

It is therefore possible for a civilized man

and woman to be happy in marriage, although

if this is to be the case a number of conditions

must be fulfilled. There must be a feeling of

complete equality on both sides; there must be

no interference with mutual freedom; there

must be the most complete physical and mental

intimacy; and there must be a certain

similarity in regard to standards of values. (It

is fatal, for example, if one values only money

while the other values only good work.) Given

all these conditions, I believe marriage to be

the best and most important relation that can

exist between two human beings.

Questions:  Do you agree with what Russell argues?  Is marriage more challenging now than during Russell’s time?  What role should love and duty play in romantic relationships?  How easy should getting a divorce be? Are high divorce rates a sign of progress or sympathetic of something morally problematic?

Chapter XI  Prostitution

Russell addresses what he takes to be the origins of prostitution (i.e. to meet men’s sexual needs), as well as the risks of STIs.  He argues that “sexual relations should be a mutual delight, entered into solely for the spontaneous impulse of both parties”.  He thinks this should also hold in marriage.  He contends that sex should not take place for economic motives. 

Questions:  What are your thoughts on prostitution.  Should it be legal?  Is sex for money morally problematic?  And if so, why?



Thursday, May 09, 2024

New Puppy (Moe)

It has been 7 months since I lost be much loved companion Rocky.  Last night we welcomed a new family addition to the house-- 4 month old "Moe" (pictured) is a Teddy Roosevelt terrier.  

You can find out more about this breed of dog at this site.

It has only been one day, but so far he seems to be fitting in perfectly!



Friday, April 26, 2024

Russell's Marriage and Morals (Reading group, meeting #1 notes)

This spring/summer I am running a reading group on Russell's Marriage and Morals.  Below are my notes/questions for the group's first meeting in April.

Russell reading group notes for meeting #1 (chapters 1-6) 

Background note:  Russell was married 4 times in his long life.  From age 22 till his death at age 97, there was never a year he was not married to a woman.  His marriages were always within a year of a divorce.  Perhaps the idea of being single for a few years was unpalatable to him, or perhaps that could not rival the joys of romantic companionship? Marriage #1 lasted 27 years, #2 lasted 14 years , #3 16 years years, and his final marriage lasted till his death (18 years later). If you are curious about Russell’s love life you can read this.

Below is a brief summary, with questions we can focus on to get the discussion going:

Chapter 1:  Why a Sexual Ethics is Necessary

Russell gets straight to the answer of this chapter by asserting that there is “no country in the world where sexual ethics and sex institutions have been determined by rational considerations" (exception might be Soviet Russia) p. 5).  The issue of which sexual morality would be best for the general happiness and wellbeing is complex, he contends, but certainly tradition and superstition are not the best guides.

Furthermore, Russell believes that the answer to this question must be context specific, and so will vary depending the circumstances of the society in question.  And there are 3 layers to the sexual morality of a community—that covered by the law; that the object of public opinion; and the domain where the individual has discretion to decide.

Question for discussion:  what ideals, norms and expectations about romantic and sexual relations were you raised with?  What were the common attitudes about sex? (e.g. wait till marriage?, something done primarily for offspring, love, out of service, etc.?).  Was there pressure to marry and have children?  What was the advice and expectations you received about picking a suitable mate?  How many children were you expected to have?  And what were the societal attitudes around things like divorce, parenting, etc.?  Was your family patriarchal?  Do you think things have changed within families since your childhood?

Meta-question to ponder:  Do you think tradition has served as a useful guide to the sexual morals of your community?  Why/why not?

Chapter 2:  Where Fatherhood is Unknown

Given the title of this section I did some research to find out the estimates of “cockoldry” – sexual behavior in which a pair-bonded female mates with a male other than her partner. Maternity is always 100% certain, but before paternity testing there was never certainty about paternity.  Credible historical estimates put the rate of cockoldry in Western societies at about 1%.

Chapter 3:  The Domain of the Father

Russell claims that a father’s feelings towards his offspring are driven by a love of power and a desire to survive death--  that his children are a continuation of his life.

He argues that jealousy is driven by the fear of the falsification of descent. 

Russell contends that marriage customs have been a blend of 3 factors—instinct, economics and religion.

Questions:  What are your thoughts on jealousy and celibacy/excess of sexual indulgence? What do you think about the pro and anti-sexual elements of religion?  The notion that sex is only for creating offspring is quite foreign to us now that birth control exists. Russell asks:  “what lead the church to condemn all fornication?  And was this condemnation valid? Are there other valid grounds for such condemnation”?

Meta-question to ponder:  is there a viable account of “sexual virtue”, and if so, what is it?

Chapter VI:  Romantic Love

Two quotes I noted:

p. 66 “The essential of romantic love is that it regards the beloved object as very difficult to possess and as very precious.  It makes, therefore, great efforts of many kinds to win the love of the beloved object, by poetry, by song, by feats of arms, or by whatever other method may be thought most pleasing to the lady.”  Thoughts on this?  Russell emphasizes how important it is that a woman be hard to get.  Is this a sign of those times?  Or perhaps an insight into Russell’s own attachment style/ideal of love? 

p. 76 “In romantic love the beloved object is not seen accurately, but through a glamorous mist; undoubtedly it is possible for a certain type of woman to remain wrapped in this mist even after marriage provided she has a husband of a certain type, but this can only be achieved if she avoids all real intimacy with her husband and preserves a sphinx-like secrecy as to her inmost thoughts and feelings, as well as a certain degree of bodily privacy”.

Questions:  what your thoughts on romantic love?  Is it a healthy / feasible ideal in the contemporary context?  What are the pros and cons of being “a romantic”?

 Looking forward to our discussions.



Page Proofs

In the "home strength" to get this lengthy project finished...


Saturday, April 20, 2024

Daniel Dennett (RIP)

Daniel Dennett, one of the world's most prominent philosophers, passed away yesterday.  When I was a an MA student I took a graduate seminar in 1995 which was dedicated to a semester-long analysis of his 1991 book Consciousness Explained

The NY Times has a nice piece on the importance and influence of Dennett here.  A sample:

Daniel C. Dennett, one of the most widely read and debated American philosophers, whose prolific works explored consciousness, free will, religion and evolutionary biology, died on Friday in Portland, Maine. He was 82.

....He graduated from Harvard University in 1963 and two years later earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University. His dissertation began a lifelong quest to use empirical research as the basis of a philosophy of the mind.

....Underlying the increasingly acrimonious debate between the scholars was a natural friction in the scientific and philosophical communities over which side merited more credibility on the subject of evolution.

A major loss for the intellectual enterprise. 



Thursday, April 11, 2024

Genetic Protection Against AD


EurekAlert has this news item about a study on the genetic variant which protects the brain from AD.
A sample from the news item:

The researchers discovered the protective variant in people who never developed symptoms but who had inherited the e4 form of the APOE gene, which significantly increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

“These resilient people can tell us a lot about the disease and what genetic and non-genetic factors might provide protection,” says study co-leader Badri N. Vardarajan, PhD, assistant professor of neurological science (in neurology, the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, and the Taub Institute), who is an expert in using computational approaches to discover Alzheimer’s disease genes. 

"We hypothesized that these resilient people may have genetic variants that protect them from APOEe4.” 

To find protective mutations, the Columbia researchers sequenced the genomes of several hundred APOEe4 carriers over age 70 of various ethnic backgrounds, including those with and without Alzheimer's disease. Many participants were residents of Northern Manhattan who were enrolled in the Washington Heights/Inwood Columbia Aging Project, an ongoing study that has been conducted by Columbia University’s Department of Neurology for more than 30 years.



Thursday, April 04, 2024

Loneliness and the Brain

Nature news has this interesting piece on the impact of loneliness on human health.  A sample from the article:

The COVID-19 pandemic might ["editorial snark:  ya think!"] have exacerbated loneliness by forcing people to isolate for months or years, although “that data is still emerging”, Kotwal says. Older adults have long been thought of as the demographic most heavily affected by loneliness, and indeed it is a major problem faced by many of the older people that Kotwal works with. But the Cigna Group’s data suggest that loneliness is actually highest in young adults — 79% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 reported feeling lonely, compared with 41% of people aged 66 and older.

Historically, staying close to others was probably a good survival strategy for humans. That’s why scientists think that temporary loneliness evolved — to motivate people to seek company, just as hunger and thirst evolved to motivate people to seek food and water.

In fact, the similarities between hunger and loneliness go right down to the physiological level. In a 2020 study, researchers deprived people of either food or social connections for ten hours. They then used brain imaging to identify areas that were activated by images of either food — such as a heaping plate of pasta — or social interactions, such as friends laughing together. Some of the activated regions were unique to images either of food or of people socializing, but a region in the midbrain known as the substantia nigra lit up when hungry people saw pictures of food and when people who felt lonely saw pictures of social interactions6. That’s “a key region for motivation — it’s known to be active whenever we want something”, says Tomova, who is an author on the study.