29 September 2003

Ethical Dilemma [Filed under: Uncategorized]

I’d like to test your moral intuitions. Perhaps you might recall my dearest Caroline, perhaps you might recall the regularity of my Monday visits to her place of employment, perhaps you might be wondering if she remembered me this week with a week away separating me from her memory. Perhaps you might wonder if I saw her at all, or if the other girl was again working my regular section in Caroline’s stead. Wonder no more. The inexorable wheel of Fortuna spins on, and Caroline has been relegated to working a more populous and pleasant section of the restaurant than the loud and smoky bar area that I have made my resting place. I have made it my public and regular habit to sit at a two-chair table on the North-East end of the bar, but she is now working the South-West end. The past few visits I have caught a few fortuitous glimpses of her shining smile as I sat reading at my table, but my server has been Margaret (who, I should say, is also quite lovely, very friendly, and good about not pestering me too much while I read).

Thus, the ethical dilemma: is it morally permissible to request that I be seated in Caroline’s section, rather than taking my regular table in the seat-yourself bar area? In doing so, I would be overtly breaking an easy and established habit, declaring through my actions that it is Caroline that draws me to the Brewery, and not the horrendously un-vegetarian menu. I would be proclaiming my admiration for a barmaid who would be perfectly happy not to have her patrons doting on her. I would be diverting my funds from the deserving pockets of Margaret’s apron to those of Caroline simply because she was the victor in a capricious comparative judgment of beauty. Am I morally reprehensible for having such thoughts? Would I be blameworthy for making the switch?

NP: Hilary Duff, Anywhere But Here

25 September 2003

I’m back! (sort of) [Filed under: Uncategorized]

I have safely returned from the beautiful San Juan Island, complete with renewed zest for life and a bad case of the post-vacation blues. It was a wonderful trip, and I enjoyed immensely seeing everyone, and the SCUBA diving was fantastic, and I want to write all about it, but… despite my missing Hurricane Isabel directly, I am still feeling the after-effects of her fury. We never lost power, but we did lose our internet connection, which is still out, as far as I know. Why? Because Comcast is the worst company ever. I understand that they were hit by an unavoidable and severe storm, but since I signed on with them I have experienced nothing but constant service interruptions, horrible customer relations, busy signals because they don’t have enough staff to handle call volumes (even during non-hurricane periods), and an absolutely useless homepage (I won’t even link to it, because I refuse to send them any traffic). If you do happen to visit their page, I challenge you to try to find any useful information about local service interruptions, their efforts after the hurricane, anticipated fix dates, or anything that a customer without service might find interesting or useful. Go ahead and try. The up-shot of this little rant, of course, is that I have to relegate my internet time to lunch at work, or I have to stay late and type from the office, and because of our corporate firewall, I have lost all access to my shell account. Comcast sucks.

I do wish to note, however, that as the children in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events mature, so do the books. The silliness of the previous books is much diminished (though not absent) in Book the Tenth: The Slippery Slope, but we learn lessons in privacy and decency, as well as something about C. P. Snow, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Friedrich Nietzsche. If I had to choose three authors who most helped me survive during graduate school, that would be the list. Add to that that Lemony Snicket plays the accordion for the Magnetic Fields, and you may begin to see why I’m such a fan of his work. Or maybe you don’t. Eh.

NP: The Magnetic Fields, Long-Forgotten Fairytale

17 September 2003

And he’s off! [Filed under: Uncategorized]

Goodbye, world. I’m leaving you for greener pastures, bluer skies, and fresher air—in a word, Seattle. I’ll be gone a week (don’t even think of stealing my stuff—my mean and nasty roommate has sharp teeth and claws to chase away any would-be baddies). I’m going SCUBA diving on Monday at Edmonds Underwater Park, so if I don’t return, you might check there. The water is supposed to be a balmy 50° F… I’m so excited.

Lemony Snicket Day approaches. Book the Tenth: The Slippery Slope is out on Tuesday—don’t forget!

Yale finally got around to rejecting me today. It hasn’t quite been a year since I applied.

Note to self: Beauties board trains in Tenleytown.

NP: In Grid, Tu Es Foutu

14 September 2003

Wunderbar!!! [Filed under: Uncategorized]

Jasmin Wagner (formerly Blümchen) has released a new single! Word was, some time ago, that she had given up on singing to pursue a career in movies (she appeared briefly in the surprisingly not-horrible Driven). It seems, however, that she released a Best Of… 2 CD compilation and DVD containing all her videos back in July to build anticipation for her return to Pop Stardom. Last week, she released Leb deinen Traum [Live Your Dream], which, as Jutze pointed out, sounds like a poor-man’s t.A.T.u. Of course, any resemblance to frequently half-naked Russian teenage lesbians who don’t sound half-bad when covering the Smiths is, in my book, a Good Thing.

NP: Jasmin Wagner, Leb deinen Traum (surprise!)

Sweet Caroline: On the Mutability of Tastes [Filed under: Uncategorized]

A long dispute in economic theory involves the role of tastes and the sense in which we might distinguish differences in tastes across time or among different people. The main complaint is that attributing differences in behavior to differences in preferences seems at best tautological, and presents not so much an explanation as an obfuscation. In fact, this objection was formalized in one of the most famous papers in modern economics: De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum [There is No Disputing Tastes] by Nobel Prize Winners George Stigler (1982) and Gary Becker (1992), which appeared in the American Economic Review, vol. 67, in 1977. Stigler and Becker argued that a more nuanced formalization of decision constraints could capture all the richness and variety in behavior that had traditionally been chalked up to differences in preferences. They went so far as to propose that much (if not all) of modern economics could be reformulated on the assumption that all tastes are the same.

I have never been a fan of Becker’s work, so I am particularly pleased to be able to present a definitive case where it is more useful to speak of changing tastes than changing constraints. I am also no fan of Mondays at work, which is where this tale begins…

The first day of the week at work is always difficult—I have email to read, meetings to attend, the cloudy after-effects of hangovers to suffer through, and our systems management always performs a hardware audit when we start our computers for the week that adds about 15 minutes to boot-up time. The past few Mondays (Tuesday after Labor Day was effectively a Monday) have been particularly bad. I have been quite busy at work, and it has been the Mondays when I have learned of my new responsibilities and tasks. Three Mondays back, I had a meeting with one of our SVPs, during which I was charged with finishing a painful piece of research within a very short time frame. I was also informed that I would be taking on some management responsibilities. And that I had a new research project to undertake. And that there would be two other tasks of immediate importance that would fall on my shoulders. And… and… and it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Enter Caroline, stage left.

When I finally found my way out of the office, I wandered toward the Rock Bottom Brewery in Bethesda, wanting nothing more than to drown my frustration in a tall, dark glass of foamy oblivion. Normally, I am an ardent admirer of the Stillwater Stout, and I have a weak spot in my soul for a well-crafted Pale Ale, so I generally enjoy imbibing at the Rock Bottom, but enjoyment was not my goal. I wanted something to drink, but I had no desire to enjoy it, so I decided to order something out of the ordinary. I would order the Red.

I was neither happy nor pleasant; I wanted beer and forgetfulness, ale and Lethe, to be left alone and nothing else. Instead, I was greeted at the table by the sweetest smile I have seen in ages. My saucy barmaid made the maintenance of my malaise impossible. She was pretty in all the ways that one could want, she was pleasant and efficient and friendly and bright, and her presence was incredibly warming. Immediately upon ordering the Red I regretted it—nothing but a heady stout could match its intoxicants against hers, and only the Pale would be sweet enough to compete with her. She was wonderful. I passed the hour or so reading Chamfort and averting my eyes when, having wandered from the page timidly in the direction of my lovely, they were invariably met by hers, beaming back her beautiful smile. For the first time since I joined the Mug Club several weeks before, I actually remembered to use my Club card, which records for posterity (and prizes) the quantity of beer that I consume. I had bought one pint; she credited me with six (the maximum allowed in one visit). The receipt said her name was Caroline.

I know it’s odd to read in bars, but I have so little patience for trivial small-talk with strangers, and I have no interest in televised sports, particularly of the American sort, and I know few other people within a thousand miles. This time, however, it seemed to work in my favor. When, after a similarly harrowing Monday (Tuesday, but it was just like a Monday) at work, I returned the next week to the Rock Bottom Brewery, the same saucy barmaid greeted me and offered to get me a Red because she remembered me and remembered what I had ordered the week before. How could I possibly object? I imagine that I was so easy to remember because I was such an anomaly—no one reads in bars, especially when the football’s on. But I found myself reading again, and drinking the Red that I probably wouldn’t have ordered, given my tastes. Somehow, though, the beer was more pleasing to the palate than it had ever been before, and I noticed that the color complemented perfectly my server’s rosy complexion and cherrywood hair.

This past week, when the eternally recurring Monday was once again upon me, I barely managed to make it through the day at work. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. As I was walking past the Rock Bottom, though, I hesitated. Perhaps she would be working that night? Perhaps her smile would ease the tension and help the sleep come more quickly and more gently? As it turns out, she was working that night, but she was working a different section of the restaurant, so when I took the same table as before, I was greeted by an entirely different waitress, and different, whatever Arby’s says, is not always better. My disappointment, however, was dissipated when she immediately presented me with a Red. Caroline, she said, had seen me come in and had told her that I’m a Red drinker. Caroline, she said, had suggested that I would appreciate the beer. Caroline, of course, was entirely correct. You see, Caroline thinks I’m a Red drinker. So now I am.

NP: The Decemberists, The Soldiering Life

7 September 2003

On Moral Theory [Filed under: Uncategorized]

I recently began reading The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory by Richard A. Posner. I have always had an intellectual interest in speculative spheres, from ontology to theories of personality to aesthetics and eudaimonology, as well as more concrete problems of political organization and social order; more empirically: I was a philosophy major in college, and I have been accepted to Law School for next year. This book falls squarely in the intersection of some of my dominant interests. I have never been a big fan of Posner (what little I have read always left me with the impression that he was too enthusiastic about cost/benefit analysis, and that he has mistaken the mathematical convenience of quasi-utilitarian arguments in lazy economics papers for evidence of their validity in application), but I simply can’t resist a book that begins like this:

With terms defined and other groundwork laid, we are ready to proceed to the exploration of the thesis of this chapter: that academic moralism is a useless endeavor.

You see, the utter futility of the academic moralist’s raison d’être, combined with the altogether wrong-headedness of the modern approach to theorizing about moral phenomena, divorced from metaphysics, is the single largest source of my intellectual frustration with the academy. And yes, I am familiar with the so-called (Sokaled?) social critics. I have read Gross and Levitt (and Sokal and Bricmont).

It seems odd to me to sit around and theorize about whether it is “morally permissible” to kill one person with a runaway trolley when the alternative is killing five. [Don’t laugh! This is precisely what academic moral theorists do. More on this below, but for now, take a gander at a Google search on the trolley problem.] Should such an unlikely event arise in actuality, it is highly improbable that even a philosophy professor at the helm of said trolley will engage in anything resembling “moral reasoning” in deciding a course of action. Rather than working through the appropriate hedonic calculations, or poring over class notes (“oh, we resolved this issue in lecture last week!”), a “decision” is likely to be driven by revulsion, horror, panic, and all the physiological trembling that arises when faced with an inescapable and terrible situation. Even over a longer horizon, when a moralist might hope that his dogmas have been absorbed and adopted by a wider population, the physiological reaction is sure to be impervious to enlightenment, and at any rate is ignored by these otherwise brilliant academes.

One of Posner’s primary arguments seems to fall along these lines. It is in precisely the most contentious moral quandaries that an appeal to moral intuitions is most otiose. When we agree, there is no interesting moral dilemma, and on the solution of honest moral problems there is nothing near agreement, and no cogent method to resolve the disputes. Thus, modern, academic moral theory (which generally hinges on an appeal to intuition) is altogether pointless. Unfortunately, even in the first fifth of the book, Posner seems to forget his own point. In trying to show the futility of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous analogy between abortion and being stuck to a famous violinist for nine months, Posner writes:

What is important for the present discussion is that abortion is killing rather than letting die. So because opponents of abortion consider the fetus a full-fledged human being—and Thomson grants them their premise for the sake of argument—they consider doctors who perform abortions and the women who hire them to be murderers. This is consistent with not deeming the failure to rescue a true stranger a crime at all even if such failure could be thought a “taking” of innocent life; action and inaction often carry a different moral valence even when the consequences are similar.

Don’t look now, Judge, but you’re making a moralistic argument.

More interesting to me, though, is the separation of moral argument from any metaphysical commitments, a problem which Posner mostly brushes aside. One often encounters in academic debates the question of “moral permissiveness” without any discussion of whose permission is being sought or what the consequences are of acting without it or against it. Many of the partisans involved would respond that we may speak of moral truths much like we might of truths mathematical; namely that we may elucidate them and argue them without knowledge of or commitment to any underlying ontological claims. That we have a moral sense, or that there are moral facts, is as indisputable, and no more unprovable, than that there are such things as numbers. That action x is morally wrong is as true as the irrationality of the square root of 2 (where values of x are determined, naturally, by [rhetorical coercion to] agreement of moral intuitions). The problem is that with numbers (and mathematical objects generally) we have rules for manipulating them and discerning their properties—namely, some axiomatic formal logic structure—but in the moral realm there is no such structure apparent. Most often, the moralist hopes to obscure the rules of debate, which, if articulated, would generally run something like:

  1. There are such things as moral facts.
  2. We (I) know there are such things because we (I) have intuitions about them.
  3. (My) intuition properly, correctly and infallibly discerns those facts.
  4. This debate centers around (your) uncertainty as to what (my) intuition recommends.
  5. A solution consists of a reasonably full articulation of (my) intuition.
  6. The claims of (my) intuition in this particular case may be arbitrarily generalized to moral principles that apply to all problems that can be tortured into vaguely resembling the current issue.
  7. (My) moral intuitions are the authority for appeals in this debate.
  8. See point 3.

Let us then return to the trolley problem and the question of “moral permissivity.” Two days ago, I came upon an interesting website—a communal weblog for people somehow connected to the 617 area code who have an interest in philosophical issues. The top post presented a minor variant on the basic trolley problem and asked whether action would be permissible. Naturally, I wondered whose permission was being requested, and I glibly posted my question (along with the requisite reference to Sissy Jupe) as a comment. It was much later (today) when I realized that the initial inquiry had been posted by an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, a student of Judy Thomson who wrote her dissertation on moral permissivity in trolley situations. I was unable to find an answer to my simple question in her dissertation, but it bears repeating: what does it mean for something to be “morally impermissible?” What happens to someone who acts without or against moral permission? I understand that such an act is supposed be “wrong” (whatever that might mean) but I completely fail to see the practical implications of that wrongness, particularly when the claim is divorced from any metaphysical basis. As far as I can tell, my moral transgressions in this sense allow moral theorists to look upon me with great disdain (“That homunculus didn’t push the fat man! What an unsophisticated moral naïf”) but little else. When divorced of its metaphysical underpinnings, moral theory loses its claim to metaphysical importance.

So the moralists expend tremendous energy formulating principles that resonate with their intuitions, and claim that these principles must be right because we don’t disagree with them, or they try to construct asinine counterexamples to show that their intuitions differ from what is entailed by someone else’s principle. Lamentably, their dismissal of conflicting intuitions is often hopelessly ad hoc and arbitrary. Another professor from the same website, Elizabeth Harman from NYU, tries to explain how “potentiality properties” can help us distinguish between human babies and cats [pdf]. [What are “potentiality properties?” Professor Harman helpfully explains: “A ‘potentiality property’ is a property of having a potentiality” (p. 5).] Thankfully, we now know that allowing contraception does not also require us to allow cosmetics testing on babies. Section 8 of her paper on Potientialities is seemingly a response to one of my former philosophy professors, Michael Tooley. [In fact, I once wrote a paper about potentialities for one of his classes, in which I proposed several problems with the concept of potentialities. For a paper written by a poorly educated, drunken state college student, it wasn’t bad.] Professor Harman’s defense against Tooley’s objections borders on the absurd, but in a highly entertaining fashion (one might say, on the wrong side of the border). I recommend page 20 in particular for good laughs. Of course, if you’re actually looking for a reason to change your current opinion on abortion, or for an argument to persuade the mob to avoid testing chemicals on babies, I don’t recommend any page at all.

All this is to say that, even though it is currently 2:30 a.m. and I am exhausted, and that Posner never really discusses the metaphysical problems of modern moral theory, and accounting for Posner’s economic quackery and lack of subtlety, I am looking forward to a good read. The targets are large and plentiful, so the aim needn’t be so precise.

NP: Cowboy Junkies, To Love is to Bury

3 September 2003

Kantianism [Filed under: Uncategorized]

My 1961 copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines Kantianism thusly:

Kant′i·an·ism (-iz’m)
n. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). He held that the mind furnished the forms of experience and the sense organs furnish only impressions. Our knowledge is therefore only subjective. But Kant shows the necessity of a belief in God, freedom, and immortality, if we are to have the institutions of civilization. And he further shows that without the a priori idea of intelligent design in nature we could not recognize any phenomena of life in plants or animals or other organisms.

Now, it has been more than 6 years since read much Kant, and I shouldn’t be considered an expert in anything, so I’m not in much of a position to critique the accuracy of the content of that definition. Certainly, the first half is reasonable, and I seem to recall him saying some things in Der Einzig Mögliche Beweisgrund… that could be understood to mean something like the second half of the definition. I’d even be willing to say that the definition reflects a familiarity with Kantian philosophy about as well as any 5-sentence summary could hope to do. What bothers me is the “But.” Without that little conjunction (that fails, I might add, to conjoin anything), the definition would present a (possibly imbalanced) survey of major themes and ideas Kant dealt with, presumably what one might hope to find in a dictionary. But the “But” transforms the definition into an exegesis, or an editorial, or perhaps an apology of Kantian philosophy, which I would never hope to find in a dictionary.

A more recent (and concise) definition from our friend Webster may be found at dictionary.reference.com.

NP: Sinead O’Connor, Just Like U Said It Would B

Another First! [Filed under: Uncategorized]

I can’t believe that I’m the first to write about this, but nothing else came up on a Google search. I was looking through my referrer logs today and I noticed that I got hit 86 times yesterday from someone supposedly following a link from a website called Jerseyhotels.com (I am not going to link to the page). This strange visitor left only his IP address:, which, according to the WHOIS server at APNIC.net, originated in China. Since I highly doubt that the booking page for a hotel site would have linked to me, and that the same person in china would have followed that link 86 times in rapid succession, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I have been spammed. Naturally, I have blocked access to my site from the above IP (the whole subnet, actually), but I’m worried that my interim solution will become untenable as a long-term approach to fighting referrer spam, which ultimately just eats up bandwidth. And money.

(Read more…)