Philosophy Gets Political at the 17th Annual SUCO Philosophy Conference

Chynna Johnson, Staff Writer

   Last Friday and Saturday, Oneonta held its 17th annual philosophy conference. After months of tedious work, 29 students presented papers on various philosophical views to a live audience. Students were divided into separate sessions based on topic, and provided deep insight into a targeted philosophical theme. The speaker was then asked questions about the motivation for their paper and afterwards, any conflicting views students had with the presentation were brought to the forefront, creating compelling discussions. There were also two keynote speakers; Sebastian Purcell, a professor at SUNY Cortland spoke about “Liberation Ethics: An Outline,” and Tatiana Patrone discussed her thesis, “In Defense of the ‘Human Prejudice.’”

   As far as student presentations were concerned, several intriguing presentations from the numerous insightful works of the weekend included “Redefining the Political in Political Liberalism,” written by Alexander Ades from University of Miami, and “Anything Demons Can Do Dreams Can Do (Better),” by Colin Gallent from Connecticut College. Ades addressed the issues encompassed within an overly consensual conception of politics. According to philosopher John Rawls, liberalism is equality for all and democracy is that equality within a defined community. Religion complicates this equality because there is no way to confirm political conception. Politics is based upon reason, whereas religion seeks truth. Even if religious beliefs do coincide with political views, those that are devout to their religion choose to perform certain actions and think certain ways for the good of their religious doctrine and not necessarily for political reasons. Faiths, such as Catholicism come into play when issues of abortion and same sex marriage arise. Here, one can see the definite divide between faith and equality: settled conventions engrained historically versus justice. Ades was questioned if he would then choose a secular divide for the good of his argument. He explained that he agreed with Rawls in the sense that the two sides need to come together, not be separated secularly. Ades was professional in appearance and his ideas were well thought out and clear, overall presenting a thoughtful piece without forcing his views upon anyone.

   Following Ades’ views on political liberalism, Gallent presented his thoughts on the Dream Argument. Rene Descartes’ Dream Argument says that the act of dreaming makes one not fully trust their senses and therefore everything must be called into doubt without justification to determine what in fact is “reality”. The Demon argument, on the other hand, says that there is an evil demon that presents a complete illusion of an external world, including Descartes’ senses. In the Dream Argument, one is skeptical of what they see versus being skeptical about how one sees. There is an unreliability of sense experience. In the Demon Argument there is skepticism with regard to justification. For example, “If it may be the case that I think I see blue when I really see red, how am I to reason anything is red?” There are so many things we accept in dreams that we find to be obviously false upon waking. But how do we know this isn’t a dream? Well, Gallent concluded that, “we are probably dreaming.” Many complications arose through his decision, resulting in vigorous questioning. Gallent held his composure through questioning and answered to the best of his ability while attempting to withhold his standpoint. What was so pleasing about this conference was the degree to which the students had delved into their topics, able to answer any question asked of them.

   Switching gears, on the second day of the conference, professor Purcell gave his presentation on “Liberation Ethics.” His main concern was centered upon the cause of moral failure. The core of Purcell’s speech was based on the idea that human ethical deliberation is constitutively defeasible. Ethical deliberation has two parts, judgment of fact, yes, but also judgment of value. For example, Purcell says, imagine you are stranded on an island with a limited amount of medicine. You can either save your own biological three kids with the medicine or potentially save four kids across the island – but not both. What is morally and ethically right? The next point he made was systematic distortion due to oppression and privilege. Privilege results in distortion as seen through disparity of racial perception. 75-percent of whites think blacks have the same chance at a job as whites, yet less than half of blacks say the same. Distortion also results from lack of knowledge, when applied to globalization. In Taiwan, Fox Conn hires under aged workers in assembly lines and the conditions are so terrible that an alarming amount of people commit suicide. Instead of decreasing hours or improving conditions, the company just put nets outside of the buildings. Many Americans aren’t aware of these crude facts when they buy their iPhone, due to their sense of privilege. Building off of that point, people were shocked by Joseph Kony, only they learned about it after he was no longer leading. Continuing on with the issue of globalization, in Fukushima, Japan, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 16,000 people died from earthquake damage in both cases. Yet the US stepped in to aid Japan because Japan is more necessary to the global economy. In order for people to develop a deeper moral understanding of other societies, they need to recognize that they are privileged and see the conditions people live in, not just the economics of it.

   Liberation ethics incorporates feelings: it searches for solutions through a lens not of one’s own privileged state, but aims to extend the vantage point into the minds of others to develop truths. Purcell’s presentation implies that morality contains deep layers of understanding and “the right decision” depends on what situation it is being applied to. What is moral is not clean cut or universal, it is based on a variety of factors and takes into account feelings and emotions, not just what is told to citizens on a consensual level what should be ethical. Purcell engaged his audience right away, his passion for the topic building throughout, brilliantly connecting real world issues to ethical liberation as motivations for understanding. His views spoke to the audience on a deep level and he responded genuinely and thoughtfully to any contrasting views they spoke out about. His speech was ultimately so simple, why can’t we be good? Why are people cruel, why don’t they understand others? Well, Purcell suggests it’s not so simple and people aren’t just cruel on their own. They are guided by systematic distortions and perception has to change in order for progress to happen.

   The Philosophy Conference’s faculty advisor, Dr. Michael Koch stated “it was an exemplary conference, especially from the perspective of student involvement. Both Oneonta and others from the U.S. and Canada were very fervent in their involvement, everyone was very engaged. What is important to me is that this conference is student organized. I’m the faculty advisor but a large effort comes from the philosophy club. It’s that aspect that makes the conference so special.”

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