About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Rationally Speaking podcast: Q&A with Massimo and Julia

Massimo and Julia answer listeners' questions. In this installment the topics include: what would they teach in a class in critical thinking, their views on analytics vs. continental philosophy, the ethics of profiteering from a drought in examplistan, how do they compartmentalize their rationality, how does modern technology affect the way we think about things, and what is, or should be the primary purpose of our species. Also, is there really a rational argument to prove the divine origin of the bible?


  1. To self evolve our capacity for attaining wisdom - that could be our primary purpose. But if it isn't, should it be?

  2. Baron--

    What about listening to "Play that Funky Music White Boy" over and over?

    Seriously, it was a good podcast. I just listened to the whole thing.

  3. Massimo,

    I sometimes disagree with your arguments, as you initially present them, but then am won over by your rigorous argumentation. These Eurêka moments are a big part why I started listening to your podcast and, frankly, why I am being interested in philosophy again. In this case, however, I'm really not convinced, especially after hearing you bash the continental tradition (rightfully so) for their lack of rigor.

    About the 'Everyone should have a Maid' dilemma, I can see 3 things following from motivated reasoning. You just jump the gap placing slavery in the middle of the discussion, to win us over emotionally, but saying at the same time it's not really the same (disqualifying your argument yourself).

    Another way I see that your argument goes wonky is more serious: you postulate that the maid has only 2 solutions:
    1. Starve (be worse of, basecally)
    2. Be my employee

    But there are many other possibilities, like be someone else's employee (maybe for some other job, that is less base than this one). I think there is a huge set of alternatives that equilibrate the balance of power. Of course the premiss here is that I don't *set out* to exploit the maid. I only want to pay a 'fair' price (fair being in this case dictated by the market value of their job, as it is for yours and mine) for their work.

    Another way I feel myself (and probably thousands of others that hate their job) viscerally opossed to, is the idea that hiring a maid is more exploitative than me working for an employer, if I don't like my job. If I don't work, then I starve (or I could go explore the tens of other alternatives, of course)
    What about the waste disposal guys, are they exploited? I don't see why I could argue not from your point of view, I certainly would not want to do tat kind of job... but neither would I like to be a cop, so they are exploited too.

    I think that your argument basically says that if you work for pay, then you are exploited. I would love to be an Amateur (with capital A) and pursue my interests all day, but I can't because I have to work to survive. There is a virtual continuum that you could follow from Maid to CEO probably, where the difference is only a difference of degree, making your argument universal agains paid work.

  4. Luis,

    thanks for the kind words. Hey, one can't expect to score every time you know? Seriously though, of course being a made is not the same as being a slave, but there are some relevant similarities, which is why I brought it up. The major one is that it (negatively) affects one's dignity. Being someone else's servant ranks close to the lowest form of "employment" before slavery itself and it is the sort of thing that people do if they have few or no other options.

    The idea that "they chose it, they had plenty of other choices" is the typical mantra that libertarians repeat without much thought or appreciation of what "choice" means and how it is constrained. Curiously, it is very hard to find maids among said libertarians...

  5. As a matter of fact Massimo, and this is not to make a point, it is true, my mother has worked as a maid for a time in her life. That's why I took it upon myself to respond. I was a child, and I never saw it as denigrating or shameful, even when I sometimes met with the children of the family where she used to work. Neither did my mother see it as undignified work. It was just a job. Would she have preferred using her other skills to obtain a job? That goes without question, but so do many many people who are not maids.

    And I am not a libertarian, far from it :-)

  6. Luis,

    I'd rather not get into comments about individual cases of which of course I know nothing. I still think that certain kinds of jobs - including but not limited to being someone's servant - are demeaning to the human spirit, regardless of whether the interested party happen to agree or not. (To pick a different example: many conservative Muslims insist that their women are "happy" to oblige to cover their faces in honor of Allah. That may well be true, but it doesn't make covering a woman's face any less misogynistic.)

    And no, I wasn't assuming you were a libertarian, my comment was simply that that sort of argument is often brought up by libertarians and, as much of what libertarians say, is hopelessly flawed, in my judgment.

  7. I'm sorry not to let this go, but I still can't see the coherence in your position. Which of the following jobs are demeaning and which not, in your opinion:

    -Personal shopper
    -Baby sitter
    -Family Lawyer
    -Personal trainer
    -Pool boy

    All these jobs are of personal service to one person or to a family, and can be considered to be servants in the traditional sense. So your point is to say that these people are not aware of being exploited by their 'masters', even if they make good money, and that their work is undignified?

  8. Luis,

    interesting way to put it, but obviously the two of us could disagree about the exact ranking (besides, what's the exact difference between a nanny and a babysitter? ;-) Still, you don't think there is *any* activity done for pay that is demeaning to human dignity? How about if we expand the list and include prostitution, which is legal in some countries? I think my point stands, regardless of whether the two of us agree on the specific status of a particular activity.

  9. Hi again,

    Yes, of course I do agree that there are laboral situations that are demeaning and exploitative, but the undignified quality comes in my opinion from the power balance between employer and employee in each specific case, and not from the nature of the job. Being a diamond miner in Sierra Leone, A kid in a chinese sweat shop, or a or a prostitute under a pimp (Talk about unpacking a term, I hesitate to mention the case) rank far below a maid in a 'fair' employee relationship.

  10. Luis,

    ah, interesting point. This author also prefers to frame things in terms of unequal balanced of power relations:


    You mind find her arguments interesting. I see them as additional to mine, because I am sympathetic to virtue ethics, where human dignity plays a fundamental role.

  11. Thanks for the reference Massimo!

  12. Massimo,

    I enjoy all your podcasts, but especially like the Q&A that you and Julia do.

    At one point in the Analytic vs. Continental philosophy segment, you say that some Continental philosophy begins to sound like some Eastern philosophy, for instance the later Wittgenstein ... which is a funny choice of an example of obscure/mystical continental philosophical writing since Wittgenstein is "The leading analytical philosopher of the twentieth century, whose two major works altered the course of the subject." (The Wittgenstein article in "The Oxford Companion To Philosophy," ed, Ted Honderich.)

    That quote strikes me as a bit over the top, but I don't think the later Wittgenstein is as close to "the sound of one hand clapping" as you suggest. At least that's what Jonathan Lear convinced me of in the essay "Leaving the World Alone" (in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: Critical Essays, Ed. Meredith Williams) There he argues that Wittgenstein is a neo-Kantian. Wittgenstein's "that of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence," is really a reference to what Kant called the unconditioned or noumenal. If you read Wittgenstein the way Lear does, he's not a mystic or out there in la-la land at all.

  13. Chris,

    I did not mean to give the impression that Wittgenstein was a mystic in the same sense as "the sound of one hand clapping." But I think it is undeniable that writing in short paragraphs without even attempting to mount an argument, being rather cryptic, and necessitating of so many and wildly diverging interpretations makes him closer to a mystic than an analytic philosopher. I think Russell would laugh (possibly uncomfortably) at the quote from Lear that you mentioned.

  14. Massimo,
    I'm a long time fan of the podcast as well as a number of your books. I have a 19 yo son who I'd like to encourage in his pursuit of critical thinking. You mentioned that you taught a course in critical thinking. Would you be willing to share your course syllabus and reading list? Thanks in advance.

  15. kc,

    for my course I use this book:


    together with my own Nonsense on Stilts:



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