Book recommendations about democracy & the workplace

Elizabeth Anderson’s new book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), was even more of an eye-opener for me than her last one (The Imperative of Integration). In her latest book, Anderson defends answers two main questions: (a) “why do we talk as if workers are free at work, and that the only threats to individual liberty come from the state? (xx)” and (b) how could we talk differently about the ways that employers constrain workers, potentially helping restructure workplaces to better serve the interests of workers?

In answering those questions, Anderson critiques the ideology that undergirds the dictatorial control that many employers exert over their employees, both on and off the job. In doing so, she carefully analyzes the historical context in which that ideology arose and explains why that ideology (which appeared to be rational prior to the Industrial Revolution) cannot be defended in the world as we now know it.  The book also includes critical comments from two historians, a philosopher, and an economist, as well as Anderson’s responses to them, which I found very useful.

While reading it, I couldn’t help but think back on Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, another excellent book about how workers could have more say in their working conditions, and the many benefits that could be gained from structuring workplaces as democracies. I particularly appreciated the clarity with which Wolff explains distinctions between various kinds of capitalisms and socialisms, which are easy to mix up (and often are mixed up).

While you are at it, or if you want something on the lighter side that engages with similar ideas, why not try The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki?

Book recommendation: New York 2140

The earth’s climate is changing, and humans are a significant cause of that change. The effects of climate change include, among other things: rising sea level and global average temperature, increasing severe weather events, ocean acidification, desertification, extinction of species, not to mention the illness, displacement, and other problems that will accrue directly to us humans. Those are the facts, the reality we have to face up to. But questions about how best to move forward are hard to answer, and it is hard to motivate people to productively address the situation. I think that is partly because it is hard to imagine how those big changes will impact identifiable humans who we care about.

Thankfully, we have Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s excellent novel, New York 2140, to help us with that. It is a real page turner full of interesting characters, dramatic events, and human ingenuity in the year 2140, after sea levels have risen 50 feet, turning much of the city into a new Venice of canals instead of streets and people living in the upper floors of skyscrapers with submerged bases. I liked the book’s attention to the economics involved in bringing about and adapting to the climate crisis – I don’t see a lot of that elsewhere, and it gave me some good food for thought.

You may also want to listen to a great interview with the author about his book on Science Friday.

Book recommendation: Minimizing Marriage

Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, by Elizabeth Brake, is a thoughtful, respectful investigation of the moral and legal status of marriage as it actually exists and as it could exist in a more ideal society.

Brake argues forcefully that current marriage practices privilege amatonormative relationships (those between monogamous sexual pairs) in ways that unjustly discriminate against other caring relationships (like friendships and relationships between people who live together without sexual/romantic intimacy) and thus that we ought to extend marriage rights to a wider range of voluntary relationships between consenting, caring adults.

I couldn’t agree more. I wish I had written this book, but thankfully Brake already has, and has done so more skillfully than I ever could. Now I just hope that more and more people read it.

Book recommendation: A Primate’s Memoir

We’ve entered summer reading season (hooray!!). What do you like in a book for summer?

(a) humor
(b) plenty of adventure
(c) a window into the cultures, politics, and economics of far off places
(d) science that doesn’t require expert background knowledge
(e) all of the above

If you choose (e), then allow me to recommend A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert Sapolsky. I loved this book!!

Book recommendation: Beyond the Binary: Thinking about Sex and Gender

I usually categorize the books I read into “for work” books and “for fun” books. That isn’t because the books I read for work are never fun (they often are), but because I generally read at a different pace and with a different set of purposes, depending on which kind of book I have before me. It is a rare book that I would say that I read simultaneously for work and for fun, but I recently read one that did a lovely job straddling that line for me. It was Shannon Dea’s Beyond the Binary: Thinking about Sex and Gender, and I strongly recommend it.

While most of the time that I spend thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality, I’m primarily concerned with ethical and political questions, Dea’s book brought to light a range of metaphysical issues relating to sex, gender, and sexuality in a way that unquestionably deepened my understanding, but would definitely be accessible to more novice readers as well. It is a real gem of a book – a great example of integrating empirical research, narratives, and philosophical argumentation to show that concepts relating to sex, gender, and sexuality aren’t nearly so simple as many people would like us to believe.

Can Emotions Have Abstract Objects? The Example of Awe

As part of the annual conference of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions in Athens last June, I gave a presentation that became a paper called “Can Emotions Have Abstract Objects? The Example of Awe.”

Now that paper has been published in the journal Philosophia, and is available for free to anyone via the link above (which takes you to a full text, read-only version). I welcome any questions or comments you may have about it!

Women’s March on Washington

I’m thrilled to say that on January 21st, I’ll be joining what will likely be hundreds of thousands of others for the Women’s March on Washington. There is something amazing about the experience of publicly and collectively expressing what you value most deeply; I always look forward to opportunities to do that.

But on this occasion, I’m especially thankful that I’ll be meeting up with personal friends of mine who will be coming from various places across the country. While we are different in terms of gender, race, age, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, political commitments, professions, and in all sorts of other ways, we all share a commitment to transforming our communities into ones in which the rights, dignity, and safety of all are protected and respected.

I hope you’ll join us in spirit, if not physically at one of the sister marches nearest you.

Moral philosophy on network television!?!?

I became a fan of Grey’s Anatomy when I spent six weeks in Argentina – reruns were on television just about every moment of every day, so whenever I got lonely, or missed Seattle, or wanted to hear some English, it was there for me. Since then, I’ve often imagined a show that, instead of following medical students through surgical internships and residencies and beyond, would follow graduate students getting their PhDs in the humanities. If you’ve been through it, you know that there is a lot of dramatic potential there (and if any tv execs are out there and want to hear a more detailed pitch – I’m ready)! Plus, who doesn’t enjoy seeing lives like their own represented in mass media, so long as it isn’t as the butt of a joke or a mere token or an offensively simplified caricature or something?

Well, part of my wish has been fulfilled. This fall, NBC is airing a new show called The Good Place; the title refers to a place kind of like heaven, which is where it takes place, and one of the main characters (Chidi) is a moral philosopher! I never thought I would see a major network television show where a character holds up a copy of Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other and starts giving a brief introduction to contractualism, or where the lead character reads some Kant and Aristotle and starts using what she’s learned in her life outside the classroom!

Is it a perfect portrayal of the life of an ethicist? Of course not – it does play up certain stereotypes (though it violates others), and we could easily get nit-picky about the content of Chidi’s lectures if we wanted to (it isn’t like there is no critical thinking to be done about any given product of mass media). Nevertheless, for now, I’m pretty stoked about the fact that lots of different people might be getting their first exposure to the possibility of real people earning a living by thinking about morality, and the idea that maybe we do make valuable contributions to society sometimes.

Early & Absentee Voting Guide

Being a voter is important to me, and in fact, I can’t wait to vote in this fall’s election. Today I learned that I don’t have to wait as long as I thought! NPR put out a Complete Guide to Early & Absentee Voting on their website, and I learned that in Indiana, I can vote in person as early as October 12!

I’ve never voted early before, but since I’m volunteering to drive folks who need rides to the polls on Election Day, I’m thinking it might be good to vote early myself so that I’ve got the whole day available to help others who need help to get to their polling places.

If you need to know your state’s voter registration deadline, how to vote absentee in your state, or anything else like that, check out the guide at the link above to find what you need (and more).

Elections: Not Just For Presidents

As someone who has moved around quite a bit in the last few years, it can be hard to keep up with local and statewide elections, which don’t always get the kind of media attention that national elections do. That is one reason why I love Vote Smart!

As they say on their website, “Vote Smart’s mission is to provide freefactualunbiased information on candidates and elected officials to ALL Americans.” My favorite tool on their website is Vote Easy, which asks you a few questions about your values and priorities and then lets you know which candidates in your area are the closest match to you. Because even if you already know who you want to vote for in the presidential election (I sure do), you may not know who is the best fit with your views on a statewide level, and those elections matter just as much.

Vote Smart is a truly nonpartisan organization that doesn’t accept money from any organization that supports or opposes any candidate or issue. 90% of the people who work for Vote Smart are volunteers committed to helping the rest of us access candidates’ voting records, interest group ratings, public statements, campaign finances and more information that helps exercise our right to vote in an informed way. Thanks for the good work you do, Vote Smart!