Thursday, July 29, 2004

Dear Brian,

I've been planning to have you chair my dissertation committee. So could you please not flee the country?

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Patriot Act and intentional contexts

Alex Tabarrok says that the Patriot Act has been "used to intimidate a New York artists' collective."

Orin Kerr replies that this is what happened:

the FBI opened a bioterrism investigation after an investigation of a person who fell unconscious led to the discovery of lots of biology equipment in an art professor's home. Evidently, the FBI suspected that the equipment might be part of a biological weapons lab, and opened an investigation. I gather that the alleged "intimidation" is that the grand jury issued subpoenas ordering three artists to testify, and the artists reported that they were very intimidated by the subpoenas (understandably, I might add). What's the connection to the Patriot Act? The Patriot Act expanded the biological weapons statute; if the biology equipment had been a bioweapons lab and not an art project, possession of the bioweapons lab would have violated the Patriot Act. Was the Patriot Act "used to intimidate" anyone here? I don't think that's a fair conclusion. First, it seems that the law enforcement officers opened an investigation in good faith; second, the officers could have used another criminal statute as the predicate offense to open an investigation if the Patriot Act had not been passed.

Tabarrok and Kerr are talking past each other; the 'used to' locution is ambiguous and they're each using it in different ways. There's an intentional reading, where the Patriot Act has been used to intimidate artists only if the Feds were thinking, 'hey, let's go intimidate some artists.' There's also a nonintentional reading, where the Patriot Act has been used to intimidate artists if some artist-intimidation happens, even if the Feds were just thinking 'let's go see if there are any weapons over there.' The latter is what happened. (The former doesn't really make sense -- why would anyone want to intimidate a bunch of artists?) Now, is it good to live in an America where this can happen? I'm in more of a philosophy of language mood than a political philosophy mood now, so I'll let you decide.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Imagining that Soames is Tyson

Consider one sense in which I can imagine that Scott Soames is Mike Tyson. Suppose Soames gets into a heated argument with some two-dimensionalist at a conference, and they come to blows. Soames unleashes a barrage of punches and floors the two-dimensionalist with a devastating uppercut. As I watch this, I can imagine that Soames is Tyson. Imagining this consists in seeing his punches as having Tysonian fury and power, and perhaps imagining that he has a Tyson face tattoo. I think of Soames as having Tysonian properties. But I don't imagine that Soames is leading a double life, bulking up and fighting as Tyson, then slimming down and writing books as himself.

However, I do something different when I imagine a possible world in which Scott Soames is Mike Tyson. It's not that I imagine there being a bizarre Soames-Tyson hybrid who has a mixture of their descriptive characteristics (he knows how to box, but he can also use the diamond! sorry). This person won't succeed in being both Soames and Tyson. To imagine that Soames is Tyson, I have to imagine him living a double life. It needs to be a Morning Star - Evening Star kind of case where two seemingly different things are actually one and the same.

Maybe when I imagine that X is Y in the former case, X is taken to designate rigidly, while Y is taken as a descriptive term. In the latter case, both designate rigidly. I'm not sure what the moral of the story is beyond this, although it gives us a weird context in which proper names work as definite descriptions.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Paging Dr. Dennett

Like everybody else, I enjoy the Philosophical Lexicon.  I thought up some possible submissions, both dealing with Michigan philosophers whom I hope to meet in the coming months. 

gibbarish, n.  Language which doesn't describe the world, but rather allows one to express one's acceptance of norms.  v. gibbar, to speak gibbarish: "Simon gibbar'd, 'Hooray for tying yourself to a tree!'"

vellemania, n. An inexplicable obsession with bringing anti-rationalists into the Kantian tradition. 

Sunday, July 18, 2004

"Three minutes" video

It's cool how Edwards isn't just playing the attack-dog VP role.  He's also the friendly dog that everybody wants to pet, and they ask John Kerry if they could pet him, and they get to know Kerry that way.    

Will Saletan wrote this during the primaries about how Kerry needs other people to sell his candidacy:

At Edwards' rally, the candidate was introduced for maybe three minutes and spent the rest of the event making the pitch himself. A Kerry rally is nothing like that. It's more like a roast. First Shaheen sang Kerry's praises. Then a former state senator sang Kerry's praises. Then Ted Kennedy sang Kerry's praises. Then Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., sang Kerry's praises. Then Kerry spoke for a bit and handed the mike to his stepson and wife, who sang Kerry's praises. It's like going to a concert and sitting through a bunch of speeches in which the musician's friends attest, "This guy can sing."  

If that's the way you have to run a Kerry campaign, we have just the guy to do it.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Goodbye to the sane guy

Today my grad school buddy Brandon Butler announced his decision to leave philosophy. It's kind of funny how whenever he and I talked about this before, I thought he should stay in the profession. But now that I have to look at things from the other side of the decision, I think he's making the right choice in leaving.

Some good reasons for him to leave have to do with the two-body problem -- he wants to live in a good city and he has a wonderful girlfriend whose job puts constraints on where he can live. So it's good that the job market / location mess won't be in his future. But the biggest reason, I think, has to do with his level of obsession with philosophical research.

I can get a crazy amount of excitement from defending a particular philosophical doctrine or attacking an orthodoxy I dislike. I reflected on this as an undergrad and knew that if I end up doing philosophy for a living, I had better not ever go uncrazy. And I think the only thing that's decreased my intensity is seeing that some of those orthodoxies make more sense than I first thought (Kripke's semantics for proper names, for example) and some of the doctrines I used to love aren't that great (infallibilist epistemology). For the most part, I'm still crazy. Crazy about hedonic utilitarianism, crazy about defending internalism about semantic categories, crazy about attacking irreducible moral properties. When you think that some position is wrong and you have just the argument to beat it, writing a paper is fun.

Judging from what he wrote, I think Brandon isn't crazy. I mean, he has positions he agrees with and disagrees with, but I don't think he has the kind of mad lust for the ethereal blood of theories that makes the game fun for me. (Maybe in a world where metaethics was ruled by Moorean intuitionists and he had to join a small band of naturalist rebels to defeat the Empire, he'd be in it... but this isn't that world.) He's right about the importance of being a good researcher for career advancement, and if your heart isn't in the research game, you probably won't publish enough to get a good job. Actually, I think there's some hope for good teachers who don't do much research at small liberal-arts colleges, but there probably aren't enough of those jobs out there that one can be confident of getting one.

In the end, law school isn't such a bad place for a smart liberal guy to end up. We had a really bright student from my year -- Steve Bero -- go to Columbia law after his second year, a year ago. There's lots of need in the world for utility-increasing superlawyerheroes, even if their super power is just making a lot of money and giving some of it away to good causes. (It's even better if they do some socially beneficial stuff as lawyers!) I've even considered jumping ship for law school myself, since that could be a better way to crank out the hedons than philosophy. I don't know if it is -- I have high hopes for what a good ethics class could do -- and that's why I'm staying in philosophy for the time being. There's some pleasure in having your friends choose appealing option A when you had to go for appealing option B, since you can kind of have it both ways. That pleasure will be mine.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Why don't consequentialists go continuous?

Reading Gibbard today, I ran back into a familiar set of categories that ethicists use to classify acts: the forbidden, the optional, and the required. Utilitarians have often had trouble trying to fit these categories to their theory -- are you required to do exactly that set of actions that will maximize aggregate utility? If so, utilitarianism seems too demanding, because it requires you to give almost all your money to charity and devote your entire life to helping others.

I don't think these categories are as essential to our ethical life as they're made out to be, and I think utilitarians and other consequentialists might do well to set them aside. Rather than use these discrete categories, we could just go for a continuous scale of the goodness of actions. If you decide to give away all that money and devote your life to helping others, your decision is heroic. A decision to forgo luxuries and send 10% of your income to Oxfam is commendable. The occasional contribution to charity is good, but merely good. On the negative side, vandalism is bad, killing someone is massively evil, and perpetrating genocide in the Sudan is hellishly villainous. These descriptions of actions (from heroic to hellishly villainous) mark points on a continuous scale, unlike the discrete forbidden-optional-required system.

In any case, the forbidden-optional-required system seems to be a relic of deontology to me, and I don't know why so many consequentialists have felt the need to fit their theories to it. My hunch is that it has something to do with metaethical internalism, but I really can't figure out how, so that could be completely off.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Smart girls and faculty werewolves: HP3

[Spoiler warning for those of you who haven't seen the 3rd Harry Potter.] I'm with Cleis on how good Prisoner of Azkaban was. While I thought the first half of the movie dragged a little bit (the whole Dursleys-being-mean intro has become tiresome, ditto the constant minor provocations from Draco Malfoy) the time travel sequence at the end was delightful.

Hermione is probably my favorite mass-media female character since Willow Rosenberg from Buffy. Part of what makes her so sympathetic is her inability to restrain her amazing intelligence when it'll unfairly get her into trouble. I'm thinking in particular of the scene where she answers Snape's question correctly (but out of turn)* and Snape docks Gryffindor points for it. So when I see her winning with all the smart plays in the last part of the movie, running the whole time travel plan, distracting the werewolf, and busting Sirius out of jail, I'm completely digging it.

I wasn't too dissatisfied with how they portrayed Remus Lupin, my other favorite character from the books. I try to teach my sections the same way Lupin teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts -- plenty of student involvement, reverence for the importance of the material, and a hope that students will be able to use the lessons of the class to overcome evil magic (bad arguments) when they leave school. I have to say that the scene in the Shrieking Shack was disappointing. In the books, Lupin gives the kids back their wands and makes them full partners in discovering the truth about Pettigrew's treachery. (I read it and thought, "Now this is what a good section looks like!") The movie indulges in an unneccessary 'gotcha' moment where you think Lupin is helping Sirius Black do evil, and then the grownups pretty much solve the mystery themselves. But the movie did mostly portray Lupin in a way I could be happy with -- concerned with teaching well, available after class, and taking an active interest in his students' development (see his teaching Harry the Petronus Charm).

On a sidenote, it's amusing how the movie tacitly encouraged fanfiction writers' hopes that Remus is gay. I'm not just thinking of the passionate hug for Sirius. I'm also thinking of his final scene, where the talks about how the parents would all be writing angry letters if they found out that someone like him was teaching their kids, and his resigned talk about how he faces the same kind of prejudice everywhere he goes. He's talking about how he's a werewolf, of course, but the gay subtext is there. I'm always happy to see the slash writers get a present.

*This might be, in part, an idiosyncratic preference. My first girlfriend was always earnestly overanswering the professor's questions in lecture. The fact that it annoyed everyone else only made me feel closer to her. Then when I met her and she spent an hour laying out Elrond's family tree, I fell in love.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Edwards: lackey of Big Children

At Fafblog, Giblets makes the case against Edwards.

He is a trial lawyer! As a trial lawyer Edwards repeatedly stole money from poor corporations to give to greedy children crippled by their products! Do we really need a vice president who is a lackey of Big Children? Giblets thinks not!

He is an unaccomplished liberal! What war's he started, huh? How many pointless quagmires has he stranded the American military in? Can he take a look at the monstrously-swelling national debt and say "I did that"? How many no-bid war contracts has he handed out to incompetant corporate cronies? Giblets will take John Edwards seriously when John Edwards starts doing something serious.


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Enter the Meatrix

Today my little sister showed me the Meatrix. In addition to making exactly the right points about the awfulness of factory farming, it has a lot of Matrix parody value. Watch it and you'll see why I changed my diet a year ago.

I divide meats into 3 categories: the Normal, the Weird, and the Fallen. Unethically farmed meats that someone else would eat if I didn't eat them are Normal (Normal here isn't a normative term that attributes any positive value, it's a descriptive term that is appropriate because these meats are the most common). Weird meats are those where the animals live under non-cruel conditions. This gets its name because it includes many of the unusual things that I'm happy to still be able to eat, like squid, shrimp, and alligator, as well as most fish. Fallen meat is any kind of meat, Normal or Weird, that would go to waste if I didn't eat it. When my roommate left for two weeks and a sausage was in the fridge, it became Fallen meat. By eating only Weird and Fallen meat, I generate no economic demand pressures on factory farming. So that's what I do.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Here's Johnny!

It's great to see that Kerry made the right call, picking John Edwards. Edwards' concern about poor people was one big reason I volunteered for him during the primaries. (I also thought he was the most electable, but that debate is behind us.) While I'm not usually into the personal stuff about candidates I support, I can't help but like the essay he wrote for school back when he was 11, titled "Why I Want to be a Lawyer". Scroll down the page a little to find it. Ain't that sweet?

Friday, July 02, 2004

Things that happen at night

The moon is full tonight, and it has turned Neil Sinhababu, a mild-mannered liberal philosophy graduate student, into a mild-mannered liberal philosophy blogger.

So why "Ethical Werewolf?" For one thing, I wanted my blog name to be like a Halloween costume -- to be silly and fun and also represent something I think it'd be cool to actually be. It'd be pretty awesome if I roamed the land as a big powerful beast every full moon, searching for ways to increase aggregate pleasure and decrease aggregate pain. (Here you might be tempted to make the 'utility monster' objection against the hedonic utilitarianism that I endorse. But a bold werewolf will outsmart you by biting that non-silver bullet.) For another thing, I have interests in both ethics and werewolves. Ethics is my area of specialization in philosophy -- among other things, I'm interested in defending utilitarianism and in attacking irreducible moral properties of either the Cornell-realist or the Moorean kind. I also tend to like friendly werewolf characters in fantasy. Oz from Buffy and Remus Lupin from Harry Potter are particularly memorable examples.

I'm thinking that this blog will cover a mix of philosophy and politics, with the odd personal note thrown in if something interesting happens to me. Thanks to Dana and Brandon for pushing me to start a blog. I think this is going to be fun!