Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Monday, March 28, 2005

Johnny, where are ye now?

As Matt and Ezra argue about whether Howard Dean should be appearing in public to bash privatization, I can't help but think about the man I wish was in position to be the public face of this fight.

He's an excellent speaker. He can stay on message and express complex messages in simple terms. He has more populist cred than anybody on the national scene. Bread-and-butter issues are his bread and butter. I imagine him following Bush from city to city, stalking the handpicked-crowd Social Security Privatization tour, drawing bigger audiences and turning every Bush appearance into a disaster for the privateers. But instead he's bumming around Chapel Hill, listening to small-time indie bands and running through the menu of Ye Olde Waffle Shop.* So I guess I'll have to wait until 2007 or so to see him actually do anything.

*Actually, he's starting the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Law School. But as an academic who can only dream of the politician's power to generate better short-term outcomes, it's frustrating to watch John Edwards slide, however temporarily, into my ineffectual world.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Rapper restricted to pencils

A rapper named C Murder, who is in jail for (guess what?) murder, has been banned from using pens. Apparently the concern is that pens, which are hollow, might be used to smuggle song lyrics out of prison.

You wouldn't want to go up against C Murder in an MC battle. Being such a fearsome rapper that the authorities deny you pens would make for some awesome boasts. Also, if you dis C Murder too much, he might murder you.

On being good

Dennis wonders about how much one can ignore the sufferings of faraway people and still be a good person. This, as it's widely known, is a salient question for hedonic utilitarians. Our theory of moral action instructs you to allow x amount of pain to your best friend in order to prevent 1.1x pain to somebody you'll never know. But this is wildly at odds with common intuitions and sentiments. Does utilitarianism really say you're a bad person if you buy your friend lots of good scotch on his birthday instead of sending the money to sufferers in a faraway land?

First, a comment that won't solve the problem: My close relationships with others are probably the greatest source of pleasure in my life, and I suppose this is true of happy people everywhere. So a big bonus accrues to acts that bring you closer to others. But often this won't be enough -- more happiness will still be created by helping the poor than by doing things that foster friendship.

My view about the moral goodness of a person is as follows: the goodness of a person is measurable in terms of the intensity of her total intrinsic (noninstrumental) desire to bring about pleasure, minus her total intrinsic desire to cause displeasure. In measuring desire here we count latent and occurrent desires the same way. If we just counted occurrent desires, morally good people would suddenly become morally worthless when they fell asleep. We include all the ways that pleasure comes up in one's desires -- the desire to give good massages gets counted in, even though its content includes stuff other than the mere existence of pleasure. We don't score this desire as highly as you would an equal-strength desire for the happiness of all beings -- we score it proportionally to the role that pleasure plays in it.

I'd like to have a view about how high you need to be on this scale to be a morally good person, and how low you have to fall to be a bad person. Maybe I can just go contextualist (or perhaps subject-sensitive) and say that "good" is like "big." Whether it applies depends on the context of assertion (or maybe the kind of thing being talked about). "Big" in astronomical contexts works differently from "big" in biological contexts, and "good" when talking about philanthropists works different from "good" when talking about people who are seized by an impulse to vengeance.

In any case, utilitarians need not say that you're a good person only if you're motivated to do the optimal action some or all of the time. Utilitarians can just say that being a good person just requires some high level of motivation to bring about happiness. You'd have done a better action and been a better person if you optimized, but you're still good for satisficing.

This still could leave us with the conclusion that helping faraway sufferers while ignoring those near you is the mark of the best people. To blunt this conclusion, let's consider some facts about desire and vivid images. Suppose I desire a sweet dessert, and I can choose between pie and ice cream. If I suddenly see a picture of pie in all its luscious pie glory while the ice cream is hidden from view, this image may cause me to choose the pie, even though I believe that ice cream is likely to be a little tastier. Now consider how much more vivid our images of our friends' happiness are than our images of faraway people's happiness. Even if a person desired nothing but the maximization of aggregate happiness, the power of vivid images might cause her to focus disproportionately on the happiness of those close to her. While the morally best event will always be the one that maximizes, the peculiarities of human motivation may cause the morally best person to fall somewhat short of maximizing. Perhaps such a person would be irrational, but I see no reason why a perfectly moral person might not occasionally be irrational.

Certainly, utilitarianism is still going to push us towards expending a lot of effort on helping those far away, even at the expense of our relationships with those we're close to. And when we consider actions as events, rather than as reflections of agents' moral worth, the best action will be the one that maximizes total pleasure, no matter whose pleasure it is. But one can be a good person even if one shows extra favor to friends, and the best person -- if affected by images as we are -- would tilt slightly toward increasing her friends' happiness.

Beware my laser eyes!

I just got LASIK today. It went well, and now I have a bunch of short thoughts that can't really be expanded. This isn't an effect of LASIK (I hope) -- it's an effect of me staying up too late.

-I appreciated the importance of the doctor and nurses' small-talk with me in the operating room. It's a little scary to have your eye taped open so a large machine can do something mysterious to it, and the banter distracted me from that.

-During said banter, I gave increasingly specific descriptions of what I studied: "Philosophy" then "Ethics" then "How moral facts fit into the scientific picture of the world." I really need to not say that last one anymore; the doctor suddenly started talking about The Da Vinci Code. Maybe if I say "What moral facts are, and how we can know them" that'll be better.

-I've seen this thing before, often at doctors' and dentists' offices, where the top person in a medical practice is a man, and all the others are women. Mostly the women take care of you, but at the end of whatever you're doing the man comes by and does something quick but (supposedly or actually) important. I'd like to think that this isn't evidence of sexism somewhere, but I keep seeing it and I don't know how else to explain it.

-While my vision is still a little foggy, it's almost at the level my glasses took me to, and it'll only get better.

-The procedure temporarily made my eyes very light-sensitive, so they gave me sunglasses. I was hoping for someone to ask me why I was wearing them, so I could say "I just had laser surgery on my eyes today. Now I have to wear these, or my eyes might shoot laser beams and destroy everything." Nobody asked, but I can still post it here. Wonderful are blogs.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

More Matt

It's been too long since I posted another of my usual fawning links to Matt Yglesias. If you haven't been reading his political advice to Democrats on why they should strike back hard against Bush's not-yet-revealed privatization plan without presenting a clear counterplan, he makes the case here in one post. I talked about a lot of this stuff a while ago in explaining why Democrats have rightly given up on bipartisanship, and Dennis left some good comments.

Matt's also been up to some earnest wonkery about the Social Security trustees report. He points out that after the system "goes broke" in 2041, you'll still be receiving higher benefits than you will if Bush "fixes" it by implementing price indexing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

teaching in the small

While I was eating my Spicy Szechuan Tofu at the Union, two kids sat down with me and read me a questionnaire about religious and moral issues. I could tell where it was going from the beginning, but the girl was cute and I don't mind chatting with proselytizers, so I answered their questions politely. Then they tried to convert me to Christianity. I ran the problem of evil back against them, and I tried to convert them to compatibilism* and hedonic utilitarianism. Probably nobody got converted, but I think we all had a pretty good time.

I really think I could do this "teach philosophy in a red-state university" thing. Whenever I'm talking to little religious undergrads who assume incompatibilism in responding to the Problem of Evil, and think that you can't get morality without the Bible, I feel like I have awesome powers. I can spin out amazing theories that can reshape the way you think about the world, and do all that stuff that's supposed to happen in a good philosophy class. I'm only about 85% sure about compatibilism being right, and error theory occasionally has appeal for me (though, to be sure, I can't see how God would be helpful in setting up morality). But I get a real kick out of spinning out these theories to kids who simply hadn't ever encountered them before, and who had unthinkingly assumed their falsity. Heck, if I can get this kind of kick out of talking to some kids who were carrying around the ulterior motive of converting me, imagine how it'll be when I'm lecturing on these topics to a class of 300, and maybe even 50 of them are paying attention! I haven't had a chance to teach on compatibilism as a TA, but I'll make sure to do it when I'm running intro philosophy lectures in the future.

*compatibilism is the view that we can have free will even if determinism is true.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The straw wolf's bite

A comment I left on Right Reason:

It always amuses me when people object to a criticism of utilitarianism by saying that it might work against crudely hedonic forms of the theory, but not against versions incorporating more sophisticated accounts of well-being, and that it's attacking a straw man.

As a Benthamite, I look at myself and realize that I am a straw man! Aaaaaah!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Creationists versus Volcanoes

Creationists are preventing Volcanoes of the Deep Sea from appearing in several Southern IMAX theaters, including some in science museums. Apparently the Creationists are worried about speculation that life might've started in undersea volcanic vents.

The film (I haven't seen it, I'm only relying on reviews and the description in the article) doesn't even focus on evolution. What's so freaky about this situation is that it underscores how evolutionary theory is integrated with the rest of our scientific theorizing, and how right-wingers who become aware of this won't hesitate to attack scientific accounts in other fields simply because they connect to evolution. I just hope the people running the science museums are the kinds of people who we need so badly in the South, and they don't give in to the pressure.

Perhaps one positive consequence of the last election is that the big papers are sensitized to the influence of the Religious Right out in the provinces and will cover this stuff. May the backlash be mighty.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Support party Islam

Does anyone know if the 'Arabian Nights' image of the Middle East is merely a creation of Western fantasy, or if it's something that many Arabs/Persians/Turks regard as a genuine part of their own culture? If the latter, that's probably good news for our hopes for cultural transformation in the Middle East. It'd mean that lots of Moslems view a portion of their cultural heritage as compatible with drinking, having a good time, and the presence of scantily clad dancing girls.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1123) gives me hope that there is actually a nice happy licentous historical culture to point back to here.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

I wonder if there'd be any way to gin up a "Xena, Warrior Princess" style Arabian Nights sword-and-sorcery TV series intended for Arab audiences. Getting Al-Hurra or one of Prince Alwaleed's media outlets (heck, maybe Al-Jazeera would even do it!) to pipe this into the Middle East could be a useful way to promote the cultural transformation we want. Little girls wanting to the Arab Xena and horny teenage boys being attracted to hot shamshir-wielding chicks would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Night's report

I went to Goodnight Gracie's, where an excellent blues band was playing lots of songs about trains and loving and why you shouldn't leave. For once, the gender ratio was looking good. I would've been a little more excited about this if I was feeling perfectly healthy, but I'm well enough to dance. So dance I did, and imagine my surprise when this girl named Katie shows up and compliments my dancing and my shirt (it was the bright yellowy tie-dye) and starts dancing with me. I hadn't even done my twisty-leg bit yet, so I kicked that into high gear, to widespread amusement. So widespread, in fact, that Katie's two friends got up and started dancing with me. I think this was some kind of friends and moms night for them, because their reasonably attractive moms were all there. The moms didn't get up and dance with me, though that would've been funny. I would've been more flirty and gotten someone's number, but none of the girls really caught my fancy. Still, a good situation.

I spent the rest of the night doing happy dances alone (the bright yellowy tie-dye is perfect for this. Invariably there's some middle-aged salt-of-the-Earth black men around when I'm wearing it, and they're wholeheartedly amused at my wacky moves) or doing sexy slow things with Princess Sara of Italy. I have to work on my 2-person dancing skills, but there's time in my life for that.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Back in action

I'm sorry for not responding to the very helpful comments that people gave to the last post -- I was visiting my brother in Chapel Hill from Thursday to Monday, and I've been in the claws of the flu since then. I'm starting to feel better, so now it's time to get back to talking about the intuition test that y'all were helping me out with. Apologies in particular to folks like Tony and Max whose questions on the last post will be answered shortly. Right now I just want to explain what this whole thing was all about.

In my dissertation, I'm going to be defending the view that desire is involved in all human action. In order for someone to try to do A, they've got to desire B and believe that doing A will help to bring about B. Some philosophers have tried to defend this view -- the desire-belief theory of action -- as a truth about all possible actions, even the actions of creatures totally unlike us. These philosophers often rely on a very broad reading of 'desire' which includes every non-belief mental state that could motivate action.

There is, however, a narrower reading of 'desire' which I think is closer to our ordinary use of the term. When you come to believe that you'll get something you desire, or when you visualize getting something you desire, it'll cause you to feel some pleasure. Some connection like this to pleasure and displeasure, I think, is an essential part of the concept of desire. (I don't think that all our desires are desires for pleasure -- nobody accepts that anymore.)

I think we can imagine creatures that would engage in action, but that wouldn't have the experiences of pleasure and displeasure that are an important part of our lives as agents. These creatures (the Neutrals) would be acting without desires. We, however, aren't like the Neutrals. While I don't think the desire-belief theory, with the narrower reading of 'desire', is true of all possible creatures, I do think it's true of human beings. So what I'm going to do in the dissertation is show how much the desire-belief theory can explain about action and deliberation. I'll oppose it to theories according to which additional elements need to be added to the picture to explain action, and also to theories which say beliefs can usurp the motivational role of desires. (This is going to require me to delve pretty deep into psychological research on desire and action, but now that I've found Tim Schroeder's excellent book "Three Faces of Desire", I have some idea which way to go with that.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Neutrals: an intuition test

So here's another of my occasional philosophical intuition tests. Imagine the following:
On another planet, there exist the Neutrals -- intelligent creatures who are exactly like us, except that they are psychologically incapable of ever experiencing pleasure or displeasure. They engage in many motions similar to ours. Like a human, a Neutral would move quickly and suddenly towards his baby if he saw that the baby was about to crawl into a busy street. But while a human father might have an unpleasant experience of fear just as he began to move, a Neutral would not. Though the Neutral's attention would be intensely focused on the baby as he began to move, he would feel nothing unpleasant at all. Even if, in the future, he imagined what could've happened if he hadn't seen the child in time, he wouldn't feel the unpleasantness of horror in imagining.

(Update) To an observer, Neutrals are indistinguishable from normal human beings. When you do things to one of them that would make a person laugh or cry, they show all the outward signs of laughter and crying. But they don't feel the pleasure of laughter or the pain of sadness that we usually do when crying.

Now let me ask you two questions:
Can the Neutrals do things that count as actions?
Can the Neutrals count as desiring anything?

Please post your answers in the comments, and don't hesitate to either disagree with or pile onto a consensus (if one should emerge). If you need more clarification on the example, please ask. Thanks a lot -- you're helping with some cutting-edge philosophical research on the concepts of desire and action!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Lobbyist judges

I haven't followed judicial nominations that closely in the past. But I would've thought that to be nominated to a federal judgeship, some experience as a judge in the past would be useful. Experience as a lobbyist doesn't count. Which brings us to the case of William Myers.

Myers was one of the 10 judicial nominees that the Democrats filibustered in the past. Bush has now renominated him. Myers has never been a judge before, though he was a lobbyist for the mining industry and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for most of the 1990s. His highest-ranking office connected to the legal system was as a lawyer for Bush's Interior department, where he fought to allow gold companies to engage in open-pit mining on sacred Native American land. (Open-pit mining is like strip mining, except that it's used when there's a layer of bedrock between the surface and the ore underneath. Since miners can't just strip off loose soil between the surface and the ore, they use explosives to blast the bedrock out of the way.)

I hear that Arlen Specter's strategy for reintroducing the filibustered Bush nominees is to start with the nominees that Democrats are most likely to accept, and then work down from there. If this is really the most moderate among Bush's rejected judicial nominees, Democrats were right to filibuster them last time and will be right to filibuster again.