What Makes for a Millennial?

Now that newspapers are dead, our news source websites (like Slate, Huffington Post, Vox, Drudge Report, the Root, etc.) are continuously running vacuous think-piece articles to make news stick. One super-popular topic is the riddle of “The Millennials,” the generation born from around 1983ish to 2000, who follow Generation X, and were children of the Baby Boomers.

I, for one, do not find these broad categories of generations very helpful, especially as how things change so quickly. To highlight this point, I feel like there is a great difference between my generation, which I identify as those born from around 1986ish-1992, and those born 1993-2000. Those of my generation (let me call this Gen Ya), I would characterize as having grown up with the introduction of the internet, the rise of social media, and the shift from stationary computers to mobile devices. More importantly, we were the generation that entered adolescence in the 9/11 era, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and started college, or entered the job force, during the Great Recession. Our vision of financial security and trust of banking is fundamentally different than our parents, who grew up in the economic boom of Post-WWII, and reaped the benefits of the 90s “Goldy-Locks” economy.

Meanwhile, Generation Yb never knew a world without the internet, cell phones, plasma-screen televisions, and streaming music. They are the true “Digital Natives.” Secondly, they missed out on the political and economic uncertainty & anxiety of the post-9/11 era, the thickest parts of the great recession & housing boom. Rather, their political landscape is characterized by the emergence of identity politics as a national movement. Young ones grew up with the abrupt shift in LGBTQ visibility, and a powerful resurgence of racial activism in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the continuing visibility of Latino/a political work, and the return of open class-based dialogue in the Occupy Wall Street movement, Fight for $15, and the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The kids are all right, but they are not all the same.

Animal Souls & Animal Rights

One time I had a disagreement with somebody on the matter of animal rights. This person said, to her dismay, that her daughter was dating a fellow who was an environmental studies major, and offered an anecdote about a professor who claimed that animals ought to have a similar legal and moral rights as humans. I mentioned to her that I am of that persuasion, to which she responded, “Well, that’s silly. For one, animals don’t have souls…”

This argument seems strange for a number of reasons, but before the theological and moral implications of such a view, the reasoning is terrible: my counterpart in discussion committed a logical fallacy by “Denying the Antecedent.” Her argument is such,

If P(a being has a soul), then Q(a being has rights)
Not-P(This being does not have a soul)
Thus, Not-Q(This being does not have rights)

This form of syllogism does not work. For example:

If P(One plays the Sousaphone), then Q(one is an attractive person)
Not-P(I do not play the sousaphone)
Thus, Not-Q(I am not an attractive person)

The conclusion does not follow from the premises, because it was never established that the only way for a being to have rights is to have a soul.

Legally speaking, this is false. Corporations do not have souls, and yet they are recognized as persons with rights.

Morally speaking, it is very difficult to link the concept of rights, which comes out of the Western Enlightenment tradition, to the liturgy and text of the Holy Bible, because there is no “Bill of Rights” in the Bible. Notice how what a nation deems to be a right is highly contingent on a number of cultural, environment, and economic factors. This isn’t to mean that the notion of rights is wholly a matter of taste and opinion, but rather that rights are, in my view, a legal method to address concerns about welfare and equality in a society. Rights themselves are subject to revision, but the moral directive is universal.

Theologically speaking, I’m not even sure what “animals don’t have souls” even means. Does this person think that all human beings have a “Casper-the-Ghost” phantasm inside of themselves that is responsible for their cognition, emotions, and self-identity? And that animals are mere biological machines without nuance? Besides being scientifically false (as it’s well-confirmed that animals do have subjective experiences, group dynamics, friendships, use tools, and even play games), I don’t even think this is Biblically true. The book of Ecclesiastes in the 3rd chapter states that man and beast go to the same place: the ground, and there’s no way of telling if the experience of the hereafter is any different.

Animals are sentient beings, and by the virtue of experiencing pain and pleasure, we are bound to respect their life. We do not need a law-giver, divine, paternal, legal or otherwise, to recognize this point.

The Paradox of the Ravens

Deductive Logic is a process of looking at conclusions to see if they flow from their premises. Notice, this is not about truth, an argument can be valid without the premises themselves being true. For example,

A. All men are mortal
B. Socrates is a Man
C. Socrates is mortal

This argument is valid, as well as sound, because its premises happen to be true. A valid, but not sound argument could be,

A. All politicians are secretly reptiles
B. Russ Feingold is the former Junior Senator of Wisconsin
C. Russ Feingold is secretly a reptile

All right, this is all fun and games, but how do we make sense of INDUCTION, that is to say, us looking at the world, and making an argument. The problem with induction is, as David Hume argued, plenty of instances do not confirm whether something is NECESSARILY true. For example, all swans in the UK are white, thus for years people thought all swans are necessarily white. However, as soon as the British found a single black swan in Australia, that necessary connection was destroyed, (for a more contemporary example, the existence of intersex people destroys the idea that biological sex is dyadic).

In the middle of the 20th century, a band of merry philosophers called the Logical Positivists attempted to figure out how all social, intellectual, political, ethical, and ontological issues could be solved in a very specific, definitive, scientific way. One of these individuals, Carl Hempel, attempted to figure out a system of inductive logic that would mirror the certainty of deductive logic. However, he ran into a problem which he highlighted as the Paradox of the Ravens.

So, suppose we make a logical form of a well-confirmed observation, “All Ravens are Black” >> All Ps are Q

In logic, if All Ps are Q, necessarily, than Not-Qs must be not-P. That is, if something is not black, than it necessarily cannot be a raven. This should be uncontroversial, but these two terms are equivalent: “All Ps are Q” is equal to “All not-Ps are not-Q.”
And here lies the issue: when I observe not-black things, my computer for instance, why do I regard this as being a very different act than observing a raven? The paradox of the ravens would suggest that all induction of non-black things would confirm the proposition that all ravens are black, and yet that seems very odd.

As it turns out, induction does not easily reduce to logical forms, and the positivist project turns out to be a dead-end in the history of 20th century philosophy.

Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #5 : “I Nietzsche Right Now”

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I had the great pleasure of taking a seminar with perhaps the greatest female Nietzsche scholar in the United States: Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Her bombshell of a book, “American Nietzsche,” won her a host of awards. In her research, Ratner-Rosenhagen demonstrates that Nietzsche’s ideas were not only received by popular American culture, but that the Eccentric German was very influence by certain American thinkers, particularly Emerson (R-R draws attention to Emerson’s “Over-Soul” in comparison to Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch”). How funny to think that one of the most “European” of thinkers might this whole time be a disguised Americanist!

What, exactly, can we learn from this wild, idiosyncratic writer? To begin, Nietzsche was a 19th century scholar of Classics (ancient Greek & Latin), the youngest-ever tenured professor at the University of Basil, at only 23. After a series of health problems, he retired in his 30s, and spent the rest of his adult life living out of a suitcase and writing a series of eccentric books. Nietzsche is very much a philosopher, but unlike most English-language philosophy, Nietzsche’s work was poetic, unsystematic, allusive, and aphoristic. He is critical of Religion, but also damning of the Enlightenment Project: long before Freud, he posited that we are motivated by a Will-to-Power, and despite our best efforts, we are not compelled by reason, but by our deep-seated, unconscious minds.

Thus, unlike Kant or the Utilitarians (like Jeremy Bentham or JS Mill), Nietzsche scoffed at the idea that morality was a product of reason, just as much as he found it unlikely that morality had anything to do with God. Instead, Nietzsche would argue for “A Transvaluation of Values,” that is, the act of a person creating values for their life was, ultimately, more important than what those values were in particular. There is more to be said about Nietzsche’s ideas about the Ubermensch and the Will-to-Power, but I find his notion of the Eternal Return to be the most powerful idea for a discussion of ethics.
As a trained Classist, Nietzsche believed there was a great deal of wisdom from the Greeks that was lost with the introduction of Christianity to Europe. One of those things is the notion of cyclical time: Judaism, and later Christianity, distinguish themselves from a great number of pagan faiths by positing that time is linear. There is a beginning, a journey, progress, and an eschaton (an end-point). The Jews speak of “The World to Come,” the Christians look to the Second-Coming of Jesus Christ, the Greeks believed in Fate. There was nothing we could do to escape one’s fate, and in time, everything would repeat again. One had to accept one’s fate, there was little else you could do.

Nietzsche took this very seriously, and proposed a question, not a hypothesis, but a serious matter to ask yourself: Suppose a demon told you that, just as how you have lived your life, so will you live it again, in repetition, for all eternity. After all, if the universe is eternal, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, than it seems likely that everything we have experienced will happen again. Does this fill you with joy or dread? If ethics is a conversation about how we ought to live, isn’t this the ultimate question? Even if there is no “Moral Lawgiver” or objective morality, the idea of an Eternal Reoccurrence forces me to consider why I do everything I do. Can I accept my fate?

Perhaps then, the only real agency we have in life is in how we accept the circumstances of our blind fate; this is the only moral test to speak of.

The Bible in Three Minutes

The Bible is not quite a philosophical text. In fact, the early Church Father Tertullian asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Still, the Bible is the most important book in the Western Canon, and much of Western philosophy makes the most sense in dialogue with the religious and cultural tradition it springs from. What follows is a brief run through a most challenging book.


The world is created by God, and things go south pretty quickly. God makes a convenant with Abraham, making his decedents God’s people forever.

The Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt. Moses leads them out of Pharoah’s hold, and God begins giving laws to the Jewish people. These first five books would become the Torah, which is the primary law of Judaism.

This book is mainly laws God gives as the Jewish people wander through the desert for 40 years. Many of the laws make sense for a nomadic community, but some of them are sort of peculiar, or don’t seem to have a direct purpose, other than to distinguish the Jewish people from their neighbors.

More laws, but also stories about the Jews wandering through the desert. Perhaps most important is Moses producing water from a rock, which ultimately frustrates God to the point of preventing Moses from ever entering the Promised Land.

More laws, some poetry, and the Moses dies right before the Jews cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land of Israel.

Joshua takes over from Moses, and engages in a lot of wars with other nations in the area.

The Jewish people break into 12 tribes, and there is a lot of fighting and violence. The book ends with the most horrifying story in the entire Bible: The Levite and the Concubine.

One of my absolute favorites, a short book about a Moabite woman (a gentile) who accepts the God of Israel, and later begins the line of the House of David. This book suggests that gentiles can become Jewish, and belong in the tradition.

1 & 2 SAMUEL
The Jewish people are upset that there is no order, and demand to God for a king. God tells them its a bad idea, but lets them have a king named Saul, who is not that great of a guy. A prophet of God, Samuel, anoints a boy, David, to be the future king of Israel. More violence and political conflict. David becomes king, and wants to build a temple for God. More violence, and David abuses his power to sleep with Bathsheba and have her husband killed. David is a flawed protagonist.

1 & 2 KINGS
David’s son Solomon becomes king. He builds the temple for God in Jerusalem. The Assyrians invade the northern part of the kingdom, God saves the day, but after the Jewish people keep worshipping false gods, the Babylonians invade Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed, and all the intellectuals and politicians are exiled to Babylon.

Mostly retells the same events from 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, but makes David and Solomon look better. At the very end, Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, defeats the Babylonians and liberates the exiled Jews.

The Babylonian-exiled Jews return to Israel and are disappointed to see how their culture has changed since they were gone. Ezra the prophet commands that all foreign wives need to be divorced. (Note, the Book of Ruth is seen as a counterpoint to this notion).

Nehemiah, a high-ranking official in the Persian court, returns to Israel from Babylon. They start rebuilding the wall to the Temple and figure out who they are supposed to be as a people after generations of separation.

Esther and Mordecai use their wits to prevent a genocide of Jewish People.

God and the Devil make an agreement where the Devil gets to punish Job, a good man, to see if Job renounces his faith. Job loses everything, and argues with his friends why this happened. His friends say he is to blame, Job maintains his innocence. God shows up at the end to silence Job, who later gets his wealth back.

A series of poems and songs written at different points of time. Some are lamentations, some are jubilation, some are beautiful, some are horrifying, it’s the emotional content of the Bible in one book.

Lots of pieces of advice, some of them are especially dubious. The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes are in some parts a response to Proverbs.

Arguably the best book in the entire Bible: the writer reflects on the difficulties of life, and the challenges of faith, identifying that we need to find meaning in what we have right now.

A bawdy poem, a dialogue between two lovers. Some hypothesize this is a metaphor about God’s relationship to the church.

The prophet Isaiah writes about the Jewish people suffering under the Assyrians (and later the Babylonians) because of their unfaithfulness, and how a Messiah will deliver them from their oppression.

The prophet Jeremiah writes about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, why they were conquered, and why there needs to be repentance.

The prophet Ezekiel is exiled in Babylon. He has a number of visions, including a wheel in the sky, an army of skeletons, and a new Temple built in Jerusalem.

Daniel works in the Babylonian court, and has some adventures interpreting dreams and being thrown in a Lion’s den. The second half of the book is a long apocalyptic vision.

The prophet Hosea marries Gomer, who is slut-shamed repeatedly as an allegory about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.

The prophet Joel writes about a Locust plague, and promises things will be better for the Kingdom of God.

The Prophet Amos makes repeated calls for God’s Justice in the World. This is a pretty cool book, and MLK famously quoted from here.

One of the shortest books in the Bible, Obadiah has a vision about the destruction of one of God’s enemies.

The prophet Jonah is told by God to preach to a corrupt nation, Nineveh, for them to repent. Jonah ignores this, gets thrown off a ship, stays in the belly of a whale (fish) for three days, and finally goes to Nineveh. To his surprise, the Ninevehans accept his preaching, and beg God for forgiveness. Jonah is disappointed that God doesn’t want to destroy them all, and God chews Jonah out for his prejuidice.

The prophet Micah writes about Judgement and the hope of restoration in Zion.

Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, falls. There is judgement for their cruelty.

The prophet Habakkuk writes about how God is using Babylon.

The prophet Zephaniah writes about judgement, deliverance, the Day of the Lord, and the sort of thing that an oppressed people think about in a difficult time.

The prophet Haggai writes about how the Temple needs to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.

The prophet Zechariah has a vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The prophet Malachi writes to correct the moral and liturgical failings of the Jewish people post-exile.


Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Prophet alluded to in the Book of Isaiah. He has a ministry in Israel, drawing ire from both the Romans, and the Jewish elites who have made compromises with the Roman empire and control the second Temple in Jeruselem. Jesus is crucified, and resurrected. This Gospel emphesizes how Jesus fulfills the requirements of the prophecy.

The first-written of the Gospels, this one does not have the Nativity, or much to say after Jesus’ resurrection.

Similar to Matthew, but with more details.

Very different from the rest, the Jesus in John is much more detached and etherial. Jesus engages in long, cryptic discussions, and there’s more stories as to what happens after Jesus’ Resurrection.

Jesus returns to heaven, and the disciples have plenty of Adventures around Greece and the Near East spreading the Word. In particular, Paul, a Jew and Roman official, has a vision from Jesus, and begins his ministry.

Paul writes a letter to the Roman church explaining how salvation works. The take-away is that we are all contaminated by the force of “Sin,” and Jesus Christ is the way God has selected to expunge sin from us. Paul, counter to Jesus’ disciple Peter, does not think one has to convert to Judaism to become a Christian.

Paul tries to settle a dispute in the Corinthian church. He ends up talking a lot about love, sexual purity, marriage, and how we all need to be on the same side right now.

Paul defends himself, and writes a really bitter letter.

Paul writes a letter addressing if Christians need to follow the Law of Moses. Paul argues they don’t, because Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law.

Attributed to Paul, but perhaps not written by him, Ephesians is a letter about how the Church needs to work together, and how everybody has different gifts.

Paul writes a correspondence to the Philippian church. It’s mostly hopeful.

Paul writes about the structure of the Church, and staying clear from false teachers.

Paul writes about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which he imagines will be soon.

Paul, this time too the authership is in question, writes more about the Second Coming.

Almost certainly not written by Paul, the letter gives a number of instructions of churches, and includes a fair bit of domestic rules for wives and slaves.

Paul writes to a follower for support.

More church instructions, with a very unfortunate part about slaves obeying their masters.

A short letter Paul writes after interacting with a slave. This has been interpreted as both a pro-slavery and anti-slavery text.

Not written by Paul, The letter to the Hebrews discusses Jesus Christ’s status as a high priest and a King, making him able to sacrifice himself the way the high priests of the Temple were able to sacrifice animals.

A sort-of response to Paul, the letter of James is allegedly written by Jesus’ brother, and gives some generally life advice, while also asserting that a faith without good works is meaningless.

Supposedly written by Peter, disciple and the first bishop of Rome, Peter writes to comfort the oppressed Christians in the Roman Empire.

Peter writes to warn against false doctrine and false teachers.

John (probably not John the Disciple) writes about how Jesus is both a man and the Son of God, against other heresies.

Written to an unnamed woman, the letter addresses divisions in the Church’s theology.

A short, personal note between churches.

Another letter against recent heresies. However, Jude quotes a passage from The Book of Enoch, which is a book that did not make it into the final cut of the Bible.

The most difficult book in the Bible, John (who is almost certainly not the same John as before) has a long vision of the apocalypse, of things going haywire, God and Satan having a final battle, and the Kingdom of God triumphant in the end.

Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #4 : Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley

Analytic philosopher is one of the most male-dominated fields in the academy, thus it is a point of pride that Oxford professor Philippa Foot invented the most famous ethics thought experiment of the 20th century: The Trolley Problem.

Foot asked us to imagine that a runaway trolley is barreling down a track with 5 people tied down to it. You are within reach of a lever that will switch the trolley to another track that only has one person tied down. Do you pull the lever?

Foot did not give a specific answer to the problem, because that would miss the point: the Trolley Problem addresses one of the fundamental issues of ethical disagreement: two people can be completely aware of the facts of a situations, and of the consequences of the choices, and still not come to an agreement. Thus, conflicts between parties can be a matter of values or principles that do not reduce to the physical facts.

In her other work, Foot would argue that ethics ought to be based on virtues (which have more to do with one’s character than particular actions), and that virtues are natural properties themselves.

Other philosophers took the Trolley Problem in their own direction, adding new complications. Perhaps the most interesting is Judith Jarvis Thompson’s (of the Violinist argument for the permissibility of abortion) addition of the Fat Man. Suppose a very fat man is standing on a bridge above the track. You know that if you push him, he will die, but he will stop the train from killing the five. Do you push him? Immediately, we are tasked with considering if there is a moral difference between the “Killing” of pushing the fat man, and the “letting die” of selecting the one to die over the five. Once again, “Solving” the Trolley Problem is not nearly as important as identifying the value conflicts that make ethical decisions difficult.

And as long as we are in the realm of hypothetical ethical consideration, yes, I would push the fat man to save five lives. But I would also consider that if we kept pushing people to their deaths to save others (e.i. utilizing torture, oppressive police techniques, unethical medical practices, irresponsible foreign policy), than perhaps we are not the bystanders, but rather, the villains who are tying people to the train track to begin.