Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

I love Halloween because I love clever costumes. My best was in college. My girlfriend wore a blue dress with a ribbon in her straight blond hair and little black shoes. I wore a white trash bag with yellow, red, and blue dots. We went as Alice and Wonderbread.

The next year I couldn't talk her into wearing a sequined dress with a beehive hairdo while I wore a long robe and long white beard -- we would have been Diana Ross and the Supreme Being.

But at the party we went to I saw a guy, at least six feet tall, dressed as a condom. He was drinking whiskey, so I went over and warned him that he'd better stop soon or he'd be a midget before the night was through. He didn't find it very funny, but then, he did kind of look like a dick.

Best Halloween costume you've ever worn or seen?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Eight Words

Another very interesting discussion over at Mahablog about the eight word problem. The idea being that the Republican Party has its bumpersticker -- "less government, lower taxes, and a strong military." It may not govern to those priorities, but for PR purposes everyone knows what the Republican brand is supposed to represent. No one, on the other hand, knows what the Democratic party stands for in terms of worldview. What is the problem? Why is it so difficult for Democrats to clearly and succinctly state guiding principles, values, and goals?

I agree with Maha that the standard canard -- Democrats don't have any ideas -- is nonsense. Why have we not seen major policy initiatives from Dems for a while? Hmmm...could it be that they control nothing and have no chance of getting them enacted? Or might it be that they are in the opposition and therefore have been, oh, I don't know, opposing? Or perhaps it is because they have finally figured out that Republicans do a lousy job of working out and selling the actual points of their own plans and have been succeeding in the last few decades by simply running negatively against Democratic proposals and by forcing them to put on the table and defend what they actually do, Dems are playing a successful prevent defense. On the flip side, of course, there are many, many ideas on this side of the aisle. Democrats are flush with ideas. The ironic thing is that when we actually do propose them, we are accused of being too wonkish, too brainy.

And maybe that is the problem. We are too smart to be oversimplistic. Our views are nuanced, whereas theirs are jingoistic and oversimplified. They see black and white where we see subtle shades of grey.

No. There are smart, nuanced views on the right, especially amongst the realist camp. They may be right, they may be wrong, but when you look at the best the other side of the political divide has to offer and not the worst, there is not a universal lack of informed, intricate intellectual offerings. Further, there is a similar lack of nuance on the left. For example, one frequently sees a conflation of the notions of religion, fundamentalism, closed-mindedness, and being irrational and anti-scientific. Even as a trained philosopher and teacher of critical thinking who should know better, I myself fall into this trap from time to time. Especially when infuriated by some bit of nonsense from the far end of the political spectrum, it is all too easy for progressives to paint those who differ from our views with too broad of a brush.

So, then what is it? Why can't we successfully brand our party the way the Republicans have so artful done? I think we are looking in the wrong place. It isn't that we can't brand it, it's that we can't brand it successfully. We can come up with bumperstickers that capture our core values, it's just that they all make for lousy advertising.

This is not because the policies they represent are unpopular. When you look at education, health care, economic issues, not to mention national defense and homeland security, people do when asked about specific policy initiatives prefer the democratic offerings. The devil, in this case, is not in the details, but conversely in the generalization. When you clearly enunciate the values which give rise to progressive policies, they are fairness, thoughtfulness for others -- especially the less fortunate, equality, justice, responsibility, restraint,... These are all wonderful things. Our values are virtues.

But therein lays the problem. Let's be honest, they are selling chocolate and we are selling broccoli. They are promising more recess and we are reminding the teacher that she forgot to assign homework. "Less government" = it's ok to be bigoted and think those poor people are just lazy and shiftless so you have no responsibility to help them; "lower taxes" = greed is good, don't you want more money to buy more cheap plastic crap at Wal*Mart which will finally make you happy?; "strong military" = you don't actually have to serve (or get off the couch), because just by being American you become Rambo by syllogism (America is strong, you are American, therefore, you are strong -- QED), you buff, virile, well-hung guy, you. Their promises capture everything tv informercials and spam try to tempt you with. And what do we promise? Nothing: we chastise, we moralize, we tsk, tsk, tsk.

Is all lost? I think not. I've argued before that there was a time when we had a successful brand. Think back to the early 70s (those who can). We had long-haired, guitar-playing, sweater wearing, multicultural kids holding hands and singing with candles that they wanted to buy the world a corporately produced carbonated beverage in perfect harmony. It was cheesy and campy, sure, but it was about freedom, peace, togetherness, caring, good sex, and the care-free silliness of the Beatles in Help! Given the choice, you wanted to be us, not what the repressed, grey-suited Man wanted us to be. But it wasn't just a marketing scheme trying to create some way to sell ovaltine to young baby boomers, it came in part from the liberation movement and the all the possibility that came with expanding freedom; and it came in part from the huge generation who happened to be at the age where they had to consider what they wanted "real life" to look like. Put the two together and there was a sense that a different model of living, a happier model was possible. Love was in the air -- of course, the notion of "love" was loaded with all kinds of political baggage, but that is exactly the point.

Before we can come up with eight words, we need an image. A picture is worth more than eight words and we need a picture of the life we are promising. The liberated couple (gay, straight, or interracial) with a kayak on top of their hatchback, off to enjoy a preserved nature and each other. The mother who is satisfied with her career because she has found balance in work and family life in part because her husband changes diapers while cracking jokes. I think that the Republicans have successfully come up with eight words because there is an implicit image those eight words are describing -- the idealized white suburban life of the late 50s. Before we can hope for any success with our eight words, we need the image beneath that they invoke. We need to be able to clearly enunciate the life that we are envisioning.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Opiate, M'asses

So last weekend, Gwydion posed the following question:

Religion, as we all know, is the opiate of the masses -- and now I find myself wondering whether Comedism's actually any different. Specifically, I'm thinking about the work with biofeedback (read to prologue to Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open for a brief intro) that reveals the clear correlation between the telling of jokes and a sharp rise in adrenalin production. Are you, by preaching every weekend, simply giving yourself a fix? And are those of us who enjoy the "sermons" doing the same thing?
The answer is yes...and no.

There is no doubt that laughter and joke telling both, in their physical manifestations, have physiological effects, many of which are helpful and healthful. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but at least most ailments don't have humor-resistant strains. The physical benefits of a good Comedist life filled with love and laughter are undeniable.

And there is even a connection between the physical and spiritual aspects. Many traditions speak of transcending one's body, of achieving a state of consciousness that moves beyond the material. Think of the way true deep uncontrolled laughter makes you lose control of your various bodily faculties -- often itself a quite hilarious result. A good laugh may shoot milk through your nose, make your sides split, bring tears to your eyes, and make it hard to breathe; yet you find yourself in a state of bliss, joy, and focus becoming one with the joke. True, similar states can be brought about through chemical substances, so if you consider the opiate comment in this context -- if other religions are the opiates of the masses, Comedism is some seriously good shit.

But, of course, the comment comes from Karl Marx and was initially intended to convey the thought that organized religion has the sociological function of making sure that the majority of people, the exploited workers, would ignore their lot and leave the oppressive system in place. Like stoners watching cable, they would be too transfixed to take real action. The structure would enforce a metaphysical worldview that justified, even glorified, their suffering making sure that they would never try to change anything.

But Comedism is not an organized religion, no, by its nature it is a disorganized religion. If we learned nothing else from the Marx brothers (minus Karl), it is that those in positions of authority are to be mocked mercilessly. Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor taught us that the structure itself needs to be challenged. And Gallagher enlightened us by showing that a really big hammer can smack the hell out of a watermelon. Comedism has no orthodoxy because its orthodoxy is to attack and overturn orthodoxy. If anyone tried to be a serious leader in this religion,...

Comedism is the opposite of what Marx was concerned about because the central theological concept is the joke. A joke has two parts: a set up, that makes you think of a situation in one way, and a punch line that forces you to realize that you should have been thinking about it in another. This multifaceted picture of reality is the essential insight of Comedism. A true Comedist Sage (or parsley, rosemary, and thyme) will always look at the universe in different ways, will always see possibility, will always think about how to make the world a funnier place for all in it (except for armadillos which are already pretty darn funny, Saint Shecky be praised). So while other religions may in fact be the opiates of the masses, Comedism is an opiate m'ass.

We will close this week with Karl Marx's favorite joke:
A bourgeois owner of the means of production walks into a bar and orders a glass of Chateau Neuf d'Paup. The bartender says, "In zis bar, ve only zerve bier. Get out of heir bevor ze alienated vorking pipples start ze revolution, schvine."
Yeah, he loved that one.

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 27, 2006

Semantics, New Jersey, and Marriage

One of my pet peeves is the use of the phrase, "It's just semantics" when someone is dismissing something as trivial. As someone who works with questions of semantics (the part of language dealing with meaning) for a living, let me tell you it is anything but. Semantical questions are usually not only quite intricate and difficult, but even straightforward ones can have real effects. If we have learned nothing else from the warnings of George Orwell and George Lakoff, it ought to be that playing with words is more than mere play. And so it is that New Jersey's legislators must play with semantics in reconciling the state's laws with the question of the legal status of committed gay and lesbian couples.

The state Supreme Court declared that denying homosexual couples the rights, protections, and privileges accompanying marriage was a violation of the state statute requiring equal protection under the law for all citizens. Ummm...yeah. But now, in giving these honest, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens access to the special rights that everyone else seems to already have, the question will be what to call it. Shall we allow gay people to marry or give them the separate but equal status of being civilly united?

A mere matter of semantics, no? What does it matter what we call a thing?

Consider the following exchange between former White Press Secretary Scott McClellan and the press concerning the status of Iraq and whether or not there is currently a civil war in that nation:

"What conditions would have to be met to have a civil war? In other words, what
conditions are not in effect now that lead you to say there is not a civil war?"

An answer to this question would be a hypothetical set of states of affairs, say, a breakdown of the central government, complete polarization oethnicallyly mixed neighborhoods, a declaration of independence by the Kurds -- something like that. Is that what McClellan gives us? Um, no. Here's what he said,
"Well, you can, again, look back at what General Casey said yesterday. And I think... I'll tell you, you know, the Iraqi people have continued to come together because they want to chart their own future. Iraqi political and religious leaders have continued to urge calm and restraint in the aftermath of some of the attacks that took place, particularly the attack on the Golden Mosque."

No trace of what would constitute a civil war, yet -- but he continues...

"So Iraqi political leaders are continuing to move forward and they recognize the importance of doing it as quickly as possible to form a government of national unity. They understand the importance of moving as fast as they can. So I think you have to look at those aspects of what's taking place on the ground."
That's nice, Scott, but the question was what would make it a civil war:
"There is certainly the dramatic images that people see on the TV screens which are much easier to put into a news clip. But there is also real progress being made towards a democratic future for the Iraqi people and I think the President will touch on this in a little bit in his remarks."

O.k, but the question was what would have to change in Iraq for you to call it a civil war. It was a non-answer answer. A lot of words, but they address a topic completely different from the question asked. Why is the question being avoided so assiduously?

Because semantics matter. It matters what we call a civil war because that will be a part of defining success or failure in Iraq. It matters if what is happening in Darfur is called by the name genocide because it then comes with added moral responsibility.

And it matters whether they call it marriage in New Jersey. To not call it marriage is to say to fellow citizens "Ok, we'll grudgingly give you civil rights, but only because we have to. But we will still make sure you know you are inferior because we won't let you call your marriage a marriage." The move define marriage as a bond between one man and one woman is nothing short of semantic bullying. It is a move to either keep people from getting protection under the law or to make sure that even if they are granted their supposedly guaranteed protections under the law that they still know they are not in the in group, that they are not welcome in this culture, that they are to be seen as inferior.

A little bit of semantic work, here. The word "marriage" is ambiguous, it has several distinct meanings. It is a religious rite, a social status, and a legal status. These are all different. If you want to only let certain people stand in front of your church, mosque, shul, or temple and go through some ceremony, hey, it's your club, you make the rules. No one is telling you otherwise. But when you start talking legal status, legal rights, and legal protections, that's is a different ballgame and that is what is at question in New Jersey. When we talk about legal marriage, separate is not equal and fairness, justice, and care for our fellow citizens requires us morally to support gay marriage.

And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell him he shouldn't be worried about it -- after all, it's just a matter of semantics.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Metaphysics of Marriage

The big news around these parts this week is that Aspazia, my beloved friend, colleague, and fairy blog mother, has gotten engaged to her beau Za. This is a happy thing. He's wonderful, she's wonderful, and a new philosophical puzzle has been introduced -- life is good.

Yesterday, Spaz was saying with a sentiment that was either annoyance, bewilderment, or both that people had been treating her differently since the moment. First, she's been getting the same question you ask a six year old on her birthday, "So, do you feel any different?" And she says that she is now getting a different sense from people she talks to, as if she is now taken more seriously, treated like a real adult. (She was, of course, reassured that in this department she would never be treated like a serious adult.) And she then made a parting claim before running off to class that possessing a ring in no way changed the relationship and that there was no ontological difference (that is fancy philosopher speak for "nothing in reality has changed.")

I've been wondering about that question ever since. Does the act, in fact, make an ontological difference? Is engagement or marriage any different from, say, a birthday? On the birthday, we attribute to the individual a status she did not have the day before (being six rather than five years old -- five and 364/365ths to be exact), but she is not really a year older, just a day older. The purported difference is really no different than the daily change with which it is being contrasted.

In the case of being engaged or married, you supposedly acquire a new property: she was not a fiancee before, but is now. If Aspazia were the caricature of a logical positivist and held that a thing is just the set of all its observable properties, then she would not, in fact, be different, except for the really cool ring. No part of Aspazia -- physiological, psychological, or otherwise -- has significantly changed in a way it otherwise would not have but for the popping of the question. But then, of course, she'd be saying this whole ontological discussion is a bunch of pseudo-speak, anyway.

But if we look at the father of real logical positivism, one of the things that Moritz Schlick borrowed from David Hilbert's reconstruction of Euclidean geometry was the notion of a thing is defined in terms of its relations. So, has there been a change in her relations? This is more interesting.

She argues, no. Life, from all empirical observations, is the same: all the same stresses and joys, all the same projects, all the same everything.

At the same time, from the socially constructed side, she is now in a new category. Few social institutions come with the baggage of marriage (as Groucho once said, "Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"): carrying everything from fairytale pictures of love to the supposed weight of protecting the moral fiber of the community, marriage, especially for women is culturally loaded. As a top drawer feminist scholar and philosopher, of course, none of that is news to Aspazia, and she quickly cuts through it. That cultural load also comes with legal ramifications upon marriage, but again all of that is accidental legislated convention that could be altered in any way at the whim of elected representatives. Nothing real there.

But then I think to Austin again and the idea of doing things with words. Words, even small ones like "yes" can be used to make major changes in ones relations. When I make a promise, say, sign a mortgage, I am different; I am now a person with an added responsibility -- to fulfill my promise by paying off the loan. I am now a debtor, or more of one, than I was before. When one says "yes" to a proposal of marriage (something that apparently took a shocked Spaz an uncomfortably long time to actually get around to uttering), one seems to have agreed to a change in the relation. Sure, that change in a certain way is socially constructed because it requires people and a social institution, but it does seem in some way more real than the sort of socially constructed senses above.

Perhaps it is because engagement and marriage come with new responsibilities. But, of course, they are responsibilities to which most monogamous couples these days will have already been committed and will have clearly voiced that commitment before the ring. Is this just a formalization of the pre-existing structure? If so what does the formalization mean? I think Spaz is wrong to say it does not mean anything. The question is what? And if it is nothing, does that mean that when a logical positivist proposes, he pops the pseudo-question?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jeremy Bentham in the Lab

I've got a colleague who does pain research (and, no, there is no truth to the rumor that my 8 am logic class is one of his experiments). He studies physiological issues related to pain. Where pain is usually the result of an undesirable change to the body, he conducts clinical studies employing a quite incredible machine that is able to stimulate pain receptors causing in his volunteers pain from the mild throb to "MOMMY!!!!!" But the instant the machine is turned off, the pain immediately goes away and there is no lasting effects, no damage or healing necessary.

I've been thinking about this research and Jeremy Bentham popped to mind. Bentham was a thinker at the turn of the 19th century who formulated an ethical system called utilitarianism. Consider sitting on a park bench minding your own business when a person you don't know walks by and hands you a fresh baked, home-made chocolate chip cookie for no good reason. A few minutes, again, for no good reason, someone walks by and punches you in the nose. Bentham argued, quite in line with our intuitions, that the first act was morally good and the second is morally wrong because the first created pleasure and the second, pain. Your acts have real consequences in the real world and morality is about helping to make the world around us the best place for everyone in it. An act is good if it brings about the most pleasure and least pain and morally wrong if it causes more pain or less pleasure than otherwise might have been. Morality is based on consequences and the relevant consequences are the pain or pleasure experienced by real beings (Bentham saw no reason that any being who felt pain or pleasure should be excluded from moral consideration).

These ethical calculations, of course, are to take into account the sum total of pain and pleasure, so the fact that my colleague's research could lead to advances in pain management means that the research is not immediately to be condemned on utilitarian grounds. The long term benefits to potentially a large number of people certainly outweigh the short term discomfort of a few test subjects as long as he is conducting his research in good faith, which he is.

But now consider a fictional colleague in Health and Human Sciences doing pleasure research, Dr. Whippet, who instead of the pain machine, administers a shot of nitrous oxide, providing her test subjects with a short period of intense pleasure to study the same sort of physiological responses. Suppose that her research has the same potential for medical usefulness, but in different applications (assume that some pain research of this sort is also necessary).

Bentham would have to consider her research to be morally superior. If you were a student who had to pick a senior project director, you would be morally obliged to choose her pleasure research over his pain research even though both projects are necessary (assuming that your senior project will not make huge advances in either research project). That seems a bit counter-intuitive to me. Would Bentham be wrong here? Is pain itself really morally relevant?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Another Two Cents on Senator Obama's Presidential Tease

A lot has been made of Barack Obama's tease this weekend about possibly throwing his hat into the ring for 2008. I think it is a good move, both in terms of his chances to get elected and in terms of his ability to govern.

The line frequently heard is that he is too unseasoned. He needs more time in the Senate to mature. I must confess, I'm not sure what that means. Perhaps the problem is that at this point, he's insufficiently co-opted by the establishment. Maybe it's that he hasn't had enough time with big money lobbyists, another half a decade or so would fix that right up. More time in the Senate is supposed to educate him about what? The process? Foreign affairs? These are things he can only learn in the Senate? Is it that he needs more connections on Capital Hill to govern effectively, lest he be another Jimmy Carter? Please explain to me what a term and a half would give him that he is now lacking. It sounds to me like the Republican line that nominated Bob Dole.

I think it is a good move for him politically because his star can shine no brighter than it does now. He has nowhere to go but down. The longer he waits in the Senate, the more he gets tarnished with votes against bad bills that have nice things for grandmothers packed in so that he can be portrayed as a hypocrite whenever he says he loves his grandma. He is near or at the zenith of his possible popularity, so waiting would only harm his chances.

I think he would be good for the Dems and good for the country. His nature would do wonders for the campaign. His lightness is the opposite of Hillary's heaviness. The dour nature of Democrats after decades of getting our heads handed to us could be transformed. He is not a magic bullet for the party's ills, but he is a smart man who does seem to care. Yes, he has been wishy-washier in the Senate than many of us would prefer. But people grow into the Presidency in ways one does not in the Senate or any other position. He seems to be starting from a good place to grow from. I see no good reason that Senator Obama should not run.

What Is The Purpose of Graffiti?

I was in the men's room of a local Chinese restaurant this weekend and noticed graffiti on the wall. Nothing too strange there, except that it was in Chinese. I began to wonder what the graffiti said. Not literally, that is, I didn't much care if I should dial some international number for a good time or if a Chinese-speaking former occupant of my place at the moment was lamenting "here I sit broken hearted," I wanted to know what was the real meaning behind what philosophers of language call the "speech act."

J.L. Austin correctly pointed out that we not only mean things with words, but we also do things with words. The intention of the speaker or writer is often more than just conveying the fact contained in a proposition. If I tell you your fly is down, I'm not merely stating a truth of the world, I am warning you to fix it before you suffer widespread embarrassment. Two people could offer reasons for having done something that ended badly and where one may be uttering those words as an apology, the other might be explaining why he did it and why he would do it again, despite the outcome. To each set of words there is more than a literal meaning, there is also an utterer's intent, there is something that she was trying to do by uttering those words in a verbal, written, or signed fashion.

What are the writers of graffiti trying to do?

Most times, the content of the graffiti is trivial. I don't know Joey P. and will most likely never meet him. If I ever met someone named Joseph whose last name started with the letter P, I will most likely have forgotten that someone of a similar name also, at some time before me, occupied the third stall from the end at some rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike, although I will assume he had the same problem getting the door to close. I also don't care if some other person named John actually rules or if the person who most likely doesn't know him believes that he regularly engages in certain interpersonal acts with other men. If so, I hope he enjoys it; if not, I hope his family is healthy.

With the exception of the occasional bit of political graffiti (which you tend to find on bridges rather than bathroom walls) if the purpose of the speech act is not to convince the reader of something, what is it? Is it an expression of what Nietzsche would call the will to power, an act of creative (some more, some less) self-affirmation? By writing on this wall, I thumb my nose at the rules and assert my own existence in the face of the universe. Is it an expression of disaffection, someone who generally feels powerless is striking back with an act of civil disobedience? The examples that one sees spray-painted on the sides of buildings seem to be a hybrid of social/political comment, an act of acquisition -- this wall is mine, and authentic artistic expression. Some are quite striking. The bathroom variety, on the other hand, seems to generally lack the aesthetic inspiration -- perhaps the muse is put off by the smell.

In the case of the Chinese restaurant, because of its location, the patrons are almost exclusively Anglo. The wait staff is comprised almost exclusively of native Spanish speakers. The owners and kitchen staff are the only ones who generally speak the language and we can most likely rule out the owners. The writer must know that his audience is not only limited, but must know exactly who it is limited to. But in the usual case, who is the intended audience? What is the graffitist trying to say? As someone who cannot even underline in books I own because of my childhood experiences in public schools, I've never understood it.

Friday, October 20, 2006

More Evidence of Comic Design

For those new to the Playground, weekends are reserved for Comedist sermons. Comedism is the new religion wherein that which is holy is that which is funny. Here is an introduction to Comedism; passages from our holy book, The Comedist Manifesto; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the fundamentalist War on Comedy.

Today we look at yet another piece of evidence to support our theory of Comic design. Sometimes the world is simply too funny, the jokes set up too perfectly for it to be a matter of pure chance. It must be humorous Divine intervention.

It was announced this week that Cracker Barrel is allegedly up to their old discriminatory tricks. They are being sued by an African-American mother and her daughter for refusing to serve them. Who is this woman? The mother of none other than Chris Rock. Yup, Chris Rock with a personal issue with CRACKER BARREL. You cannot tell me that a set-up that crisp, an issue that loaded, and comedian that sharp could all come together accidentally. Nope, we have more evidence that the universe is one big joke.

Karma and Justice

Karma is supposedly a cosmic sense of justice, of just desserts, of reaping what one sows, of getting what one deserves. But the concept has the curious property of enlarging the scope of justice beyond the act to include other non-related acts -- that is, because of good or bad things you did before, you will gain more benefit or greater harm from some other, independent action in the future. Yet, when we think of justice, we think that gain or penalty ought to be tied to the act itself, regardless of who it is that commits it. It is the act and not the person that is being judged...or is it?

I taught for a while at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The students there, of course, have enlisted in the Navy or Marines in order to attend. As such, they are not just college students, but also employees of the federal government. They get a paycheck for going to college as well as having their room, food, clothing, and instruction paid for by the tax payers. They also have to live under a stricter code of behavior with stricter punishments. If they are found guilty of an academic misdeed, they are not only are expelled from the academy, but under the contract they sign to be admitted, must repay the government for all costs incurred in educating them up to that point. To teach there, I had to sign a contract pledging to report any knowledge of such infractions.

Then, it happened. I got a paper where portions were clearly plagiarized. It was written by a good kid who did a dumb thing. This was not one of the sleazy kind of students who are always trying to get away with something; he was a hard-working, respectful, good-hearted young man who no doubt had one of those weeks where he was overwhelmed and in a moment of weakness did what he knew he shouldn't do.

I knew all this and knew that he didn't have the $100,000 it would cost him, a punishment that in no way fit the crime here. So when I called him to my office I decided that I would give him enough rope to hang himself. If he copped to it and expressed authentic remorse, I'd give him a second chance; if he tried to play me, I'd take the case to the authorities. Without a single word from me, he immediately broke down, admitted it, and apologized. I told him I'd give him a zero for the assignment, that he needed to write me a passing paper for next week, and never, never, NEVER do this kind of thing again.

He got off easy because of karma. If he had been a sleazy gamer, I'd have simply done what I was supposed to do under the contract. He got a second chance because he was a nice guy. Was that fair? Should we treat people differently for doing the same thing? He knew the penalty, he signed the contract and willingly agreed to be part of the system, and then committed the act anyway. Shouldn't he have suffered the consequences he agreed to, even if they were out of line with the lack of severity of the crime? I signed a contract that I violated. Did I do something wrong in showing care and compassion? Is karma doing justice in a larger context or is it unjust because it imports morally irrelevant facts into the discussion of a different action?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Neo-Conservative Post-Mortem

There were many failed ideologically-driven grand political experiments in the 20th century. Neo-conservatism is the first of the new century. A project that I would love to see taking place amongst some of the smarter minds on the blogosphere is a working out of the foundational principles of this view and an examination of where and why they failed. This way, when they are brought back in modified form, we will know what we are looking at and how to address them.

As I say, my hope is that smarter people than me will take up this issue, but here are my thoughts on what a rational reconstruction of neo-conservatism would look like:

1) A Modified Neo-Liberal Hegelianism: Francis Fukuyama argued that there is a natural state to governments in this historical age. If left alone, any nation would spontaneously tend towards liberal democracy with a free market economy. Repressive regimes serve as barriers to this natural state and if removed, the country would naturally move towards a representative democracy based on individual freedoms and consumption.

2) Technologically Advanced/Covert Military as a Primary Tool of Foreign Policy: Old style diplomacy coddled dictators and enemies of the state and led to no advances, only setbacks for American foreign policy, a new robust military-based picture would be more effective. To carry this out, the armed forces are to be transformed from the heavy infantry ground force model to a lighter special forces and overwhelming air power model. In accord with 1), the goal of the military is not occupation or major land wars, but assassination. If the heads of regimes can be toppled at any moment by our covert forces so that liberal democracies would then blossom, other leaders would have to fall behind US demands and interests for fear of being overthrown at a moment's notice.

3) A Corporate Social Darwinism: Absolute faith in is put in the efficiency of the private sector and absolute distrust exists for anything in the public sector. Markets are good and large corporations who dominate them do so because they are the fittest economic beings. Corporate influence is on policy is not problematic as it only increases effective, efficient action. Governmental action will be slow, bureaucratic, and contrary to the ultimate good.

4) Domestic Agenda Inversion: Domestic issues to be pushed will either further corporate interest or the political interest of the administration. Instead of taking power to put in place a vision, the vision will be shaped with an eye towards keeping the power. Rhetoric will be expanded, but action will be minimized. By demonizing the opponent, power can be protected. Actually defeating the political opponent will cause there not to be an opponent and the "trench mentality" will be unsustainable.

5) Inverted Post Modernism: The deconstructionists of the 80's argued that reality is socially constructed and sought to "deconstruct" it in order to expose the political foundations of widespread beliefs that are accepted as necessary truths. This view is accepted, but deconstruction is for losers. The winners would be the ones who actually do the preconstruction, who use the power to create the reality. For this purpose use is made of the Straussian line that marries the Platonic distaste for democracy with a linguistic strategy for allowing the people to be more than happy to surrender their power. The people are not smart enough to be in control, so the key is to speak in code so that they willingly hand over their power thinking they are in power. This is essential so that the leaders can do what really needs to be done and not worry so much about its popularity. The unending war on terror and all of its various names are transparent attempts to wrest all power from the people, approved by the people, for the well-being of the people.

Thoughts? What am I missing here?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bad Idea of the Day

We secretly develop and place in the American arsenal something called "nukular weapons" which when set off cause pain, but not permanent injury to those who cannot properly speak the English language.

What's your bad idea of the day?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Somebody Please Explain Situational Ethics To Me

One of the bogeymen of the right is "situational ethics." I will admit that I haven't a clue what it is they mean. Some mean ethical relativism, and that has its own set of problems, but others clearly intend something else and I'm not sure what it is or why it would be so scary.

It could mean that details of the situation play no role in whether an act is morally good or not, but this is clearly false. If I walk up to a woman and ask her to sleep with me, it matters whether that woman is my wife.

It could mean that we all have the same moral responsibilities. But this is of course false, those who marry, those who have kids, those who have elderly parents in their care clearly have responsibilities that others don't.

It could refer to a meta-ethical decision procedure for determining what is the morally right thing to do in a circumstance. When we decide whether to do X or Y, we may appeal to virtue, duty, utility, care, or rights. It could mean pick one and stick with it come hell or high water. But, of course, actions that, all other things being equal, I would never consider doing would in extreme circumstances become morally necessary. While I do not agree with the arguments for the permissibility of torture or American exceptionalism, both of these are examples of conservative arguments that change moral systems in midstream. Again, while I don't buy the argument in either case, there are what Ross called prima facie duties which you should do, all other things being equal, but in the messy real world, all things are never, in fact, equal.

It could simply mean that one must be morally consistent and hold that you live up to whatever moral bar you hold everyone else up to. But this sort of hypocrisy seems much weaker than the charge they are making.

So what else could it mean? Is it really a claim that there is to be no serious moral deliberation, that there is only a set of absolute Divinely given rules? Is it an attempt to substitute theology for ethics? Please, somebody explain to me what they mean by situational ethics.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Alice and Beliefing

I'm teaching Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in my first year seminar this semester and we were having an interesting conversation Friday that led to a question I'm not sure I have a good answer for.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice and the White Queen have the following exchange:

"You needn't say 'exactually,'" the Queen remarked. "I can believe it without that. Now, I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I ca'n't believe that!" said Alice.
"Ca'n't you?" said the Queen in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one ca'n't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

The part that sparked discussion was the Queen's command "try again."

On the one hand, there are beliefs -- most of our beliefs, I would think -- that we have that we passively acquire, that is, we come to believe them without forming a desire, an intention of believing them. At the same time, there are some things that we want to believe; some of them we do believe and others we don't. For the act of trying to believe something, we coined the delightfully awkward term "beliefing" which seemed to fit the Lewis Carroll-like spirit of the conversation.

The White Queen demanded that Alice belief that she is over a century old and claimed that with enough practice, one can believe propositions that one has beliefed. Is this true?

On the one hand, there is self-deception. We have all at sometime or another fooled ourselves into believing something we knew was wrong. In such cases, did we really knowingly form a false belief or just give ourselves room to ignore the inconsistency?

On the other hand, believing does not seem like other sorts of doing. If a man with a gun said, "Believe that my great-grandmother's maiden name was Johnson or I'll kill you," I'm not sure I could do so. I could say I believe it. I could act the way someone who believed it would act. Under the circumstances I certainly would belief it, but I'm not sure that even the intense beliefing would give rise to actual believing.

Lindsay at Majikthise brought up Quine's argument (which was also in Poincare, Duhem, and Reichenbach before him) last week that we can consistently add any idea at all to our set of beliefs if we are willing to tweak, twist, and jettison other parts of our web of interrelated beliefs. But this is the logical question of whether one could consistently believe any given proposition. The question here is not the logical one, but the psychological claim whether belief can be intentional. Can the desire to believe, that is beliefing, be enough to generate authentic belief? If so, given that there are lots of things we want to believe but don't, under what circumstances does it work?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Passing the Plate: A Man Walks Into A Bar

In many houses of worship, they pass a collection plate. Comedists donate jokes of value. The theme this go 'round is the old standard, "A man walks into a bar..." Dig deep, give your best.

My contributions:

I believe this one was first told to me by "You Know Who"

A sandwich walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender looks up and says, "I'm sorry, we don't serve food here."

And my all-time favorite:

A man walks into the bar of the penthouse restaurant of the Hilton in Times Square. A drunk walks over puts $100 on the bar and bets him the he could jump out the window and fly around the building.

The guy says, "You're drunk."

The drunk says, "I may be, but I'm going to do it whether you take the bet or not, so you might as well make the money, right?"

So, he puts $100 on the bar, the drunk opens the window, flies around the building, picks up the $200 and puts it in his pocket."

Incredulously, the guy asks, "How did you do that?"

"Easy," says the drunk, "I'm an architectural engineer and if you look at the height and location of this building with two larger buildings to the east and west, it creates a windtunnel that could support up to 300 pounds or so. You just lean your body and the air currents take you around. Now you go do it to that guy."

"I don't know," says the guy.

"Look," the drunk tells him, "if you don't I will, and you're down $100."

So the guy walks over, makes the bet, opens the window and plummets to his death.

The bartender looks up and says, "You're a real bastard when you're drunk, Superman."

The Real Analytic/Continental Divide: Fashion

There is a civil war in philosophy. On one side you have the continental philosophers -- think cigarette-smoking, angst-ridden souls who try to impress you by randomly lapsing into French, German, and Greek -- and on the other you have analytic philosophers -- think science-worshipping logic techno-geeks. Aspazia, a few days ago, set out the distinction in terms of the respective rhetorical bad habits of each side. I've always thought the real difference is that the continentals got dates.

Then I realized the real dividing line...fashion. Walk into a meeting of the American Philosophical Association and without saying a word to anyone, you could easily partition the crowd into continental and analytic classes by just looking at the clothes. (The third group of philosophers -- Americanists -- can also be easily spotted: they're the ones in front of the hall with big pleading eyes and signs that say, "Will talk about Dewey for food.") Analytics and continentals dress differently...and that's putting it nicely. Continentals dress themselves to the nines whereas it is hard to find nine analytics who can dress themselves. So, being a science-worshipping logic techno-geek, I started to think about what accounted for this difference...and I believe I have an answer:

The nature of fashion is predicated upon the satisfaction of the "goes with" relation, G. An outfit meets the conditions of fashion acceptability only if it is comprised of a bottom covering, b, and a top covering, t, such that it is true that Gtb.

While the satisfaction of the "goes with" relation for top and bottom coverings is a necessary condition for an outfit to be categorized as "sharp," it is not sufficient for sharpness as the if-clause requires accessorization.

Initially, it was thought that accessories would require the "goes with" relation to be expanded from a binary to an arbitrary n-ary relation, but it was shown possible to group accessorization constants into a single variable which have been determined to satisfy the relation themselves. That is, one can show that shoes and a belt go together independent of the outfit and that if a given bottom covering, say a particular pair of pants P, and given top covering, say a given shirt S, have been demonstrated to go together, that is for which GPS has already been demonstrated, then for a pair of shoes, h, to be fashion acceptable they must satisfy the "goes with" relation G(PS)h. Such iterations must be repeated until a complete outfit has been assembled.

The reason why analytic philosophers (and similarly mathematicians and cognitive scientists) have a difficult time dressing themselves or dress poorly is that the satisfaction of any sentence involving the "goes with" relation is not finitely decidable. There is no algorithm by which one can in a finite amount of time, much less in the morning before you are too late for class, decide with deductive certainty whether an outfit is sharp and properly accessorized. Now, there are rules which by which we can rule out entire classes of ordered pairs, e.g., let x be a member of the class of checked clothing and y be a member of the class of striped clothing, it is fairly trivial to show that for all such x and all such y, Gxy must be false (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to provide a proof). But for the general case there is no finitely executable decision procedure such that for any two arbitrary articles of clothing one may determine the satisfaction of G.

There were, of course, hopes in the 40s and 50s for such a breakthrough. But the dream of a "Cou-turing machine" faded with the suicide of Alan Turing. "Not only did he have the greatest mind in history for devising formal solutions to problems like this, but as a snazzy dressing gay man himself, he was the only one who could bring all the elements together -- the Carson Kressley of the post-war computation theory set. Bloody MI-5, with their homophobic poppycock," a former colleague was reported to have said, "They doomed all of us geeks to a series of lonely Saturday nights."

While that explains the lack of fashion sense on the analytic side of the aisle, the continental fashion phenomenon is also easily saved because we are dealing only with an infinitely more simple limiting case. For continental philosophers, the "goes with" relationship is trivially true because it can be shown as a direct result of a basic lemma (the Klein theorem -- that's Calvin, not Felix) that for all pieces of apparel x and y which are proper subsets of the class B of black clothing, the sentence Gxy must be true.

So, what is to be done with this initial working through of fashion logic? My suggestion is that work be directed at developing theorems which hold for non-black clothing. The place to start would be with a possible generalization of the simplest lemmas which are known in the field as the "Garanimal postulates." Unfortunately, little work has been done finding a material instantiation since the initial work in the mid-70's with various forms of corduroy, but with new techniques there is hope that the work could be revived in a new, more mature form. If anyone out there is looking for a dissertation topic...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Moral Luck and the Division of Moral Labor

Ethicists think about a notion termed "moral luck." The idea is that histoical accidents often play into what responsibilities we have. Two people are walking past different swimming pools, one has a drowning child and one doesn't. Both people were doing the same thing, but one now has a moral obligation the other doesn't -- that's moral luck.

We can expand this idea to include all sorts of factors. If I have the means to not only live a good life, but surplus to help others, it seems that I should. If I can make a difference, then that seems moraly relevant to my choices. More means indicates more responsibility.

But what counts as means here? Certainly wealth and time, but what about knowledge? If you know about a problem, does that convey a responsibility to help be part of the solution? (This seems to be part of the desire to remain willfully ignorant on the part of many -- don't ask what is in the sausage...)

But then we come to a question asked by Susan Wolf, a big name in contemporary ethics whom I had the privilege of studying under in grad school. How much is enough? Classical ethical systems demand that we do the best thing, maximize the goodness we can create. Do we have to be maximally good, or is there some level where I am good enough?

Combining these two into one question: I find out about a lot of problems, how much do I have to give to each? How much time, money, and effort do I have to devote to homelessness, Sudan, political corruption, domestic violence, global warming, uninsured children,... How ought we divide up the moral workload? No one can do it all. No one can care about it all. How do I know what I have to do under the division of moral labor? I know I have to care about my actions and the well being of those closest to me, but that does not exhaust my responsibilities. How much more am I morally obligated to take on?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Who Do You Feel Sorry For?

I feel sorry for Katherine Harris. It took years of hard work and concerted effort to become the biggest joke in Florida politics, but a couple of IM's leaked to the press and Foley wiped her right off the late night map.

I feel sorry for George Smoot. Sure, he's achieved immortality as a Nobel Prize laureate, but his name is still Smoot. Third grade must have been one tough year.

Finally, I feel sorry for the New York Yankees and their fans...actually, no I don't.

So who do you feel sorry for this week?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Deep Tautologies

I love language.

I had cause in the car last weekend to repeatedly utter the sentence, "We'll get there when we get there." Now if understood literally, the sentence is what we call a tautology, that is, it is a sentence that because of its form is always true. But like a meteorologist who boasts about his 100% accurate weather predictions because he simply repeats "Tomorrow it will rain or it won't," these sentences are always true because they contain no information -- they say nothing, so they can't be wrong. But yet, we use them all the time to convey information. How does this happen? This was a question Hanno and I pondered a while back and to prove that I, Hanno, or perhaps both of us are real philosophers, here's what we came up with -- There are at least three ways in which you could have a meaningful sentence that looks like a tautology:


A sentence is a pseudo-tautology if the A's in a sentence of the form "A is A" are really different A's. My favorite is one that came out of Hanno's mouth years ago when we were discussing the history of logic and he said, "That was before Bertrand Russell was Bertrand Russell." Of course, there was never a time before Bertrand Russell was himself, but I understood what he meant because I realized that the first occurrence of the name referred to the man himself and the second to a definite description like "the famous logician/philosopher who came up with Russell's paradox and the theory of types." The name meant two different things -- things of the sort Russell himself helped to disambiguate -- and so the sentence was meaningful if not hilariously ironic on several levels.


A term Hanno coined from computer programming lingo for sentences that really represent other sentences. "We'll be there when we're there" really means "Stop complaining. Be patient." Many pointers like this appear in form to be declarative sentences, but are really commands. The idea is that if you can disguise your imperative as a sentence that is always true, then your advice comes across as necessarily true, as something that must be followed. There is a raging debate amongst really geeky philosophers of language over whether we figure out what command goes with what seeming tautology based only on pragmatic aspects of language like context or whether the type of noun phrase used in the fake tautology is part of the inference, what H.P. Grice termed an "implicature."

Deep Tautologies

The third and most interesting ones are what we dubbed, "deep tautologies." The idea is that a tautology is only a tautology if the A's in a sentence of the form "A is A" are what we called, sharply delineated, that is, it is the sort of term that (a) do not admit of degrees and (b) have a set of clear criteria which draw a sharp line between those things that are and are not A. "Pregnant is pregnant" makes sense, but "beautiful is beautiful" doesn't because things are more or less beautiful and there is not a sharp line separating all things into the beautiful and the non-beautiful.

But some terms have both a well-delineated and a non-well-delineated sense. Take green. Green has shades. Something can be a little green, but not too green. But then there are cases where something is or is not green. If a waiter delivers a plate and you say "Take it back, this meat is green," and the waiter says, "But it is only a little green around the edges," you may indignantly respond, "Green is green." In other words, when I used the word "green" to describe the meat, I meant it in its well-delineated form. Shade and amount does not matter. There is green meat and not green meat. That is all. So when we use deep tautologies, what we are conveying to our listeners is that we mean the ambiguous word in the well-delineated sense.
Ain't language fun?

Ethics of Waste

This is not a question about sustainability, those tend to be easy from the moral side of the house. Yes, we should reduce consumption, reduce toxic emissions, be more efficient, and live within our ecological means. My question is about one's ethical requirements when it is clear that all other things being equal, something is going to go to waste. Waste seems inherently morally undesirable, but does that mean that avoiding waste gets figured into the ethical deliberation?

You are at a ballgame and have purchased an upper reserved ticket. Your team has had a lousy year and there are LOTS of better seats open and they are not going to be filled. Is there anything wrong with moving down? On the one hand, you are taking something you didn't pay for...That's stealing. On the other hand, it is not a scarce resource. That better seat would go unfilled if not for your butt. Why should you enjoy the game less when you could enjoy it more and hurt no one in the process? Is it a moral insult to the people around you who did pay more for that seat? The idea is that it is unfair for them to have to shell out extra money and get less in return. They played by the rules, why should they get penalized by paying more for the same thing? The response, I suppose, is that what they paid more for was seat insurance, the guarantee that the seat would be theirs. If a lot of people showed up for the game, they'd still be there but you'd be SOL. Is there a difference between sneaking into better seats and sneaking into the stadium without paying at all if the game is not sold out? Does the fact that the seat would otherwise be wasted turn what would normally be wrong into something morally allowable?

Similarly, if you are a vegetarian for ethical reasons, believing it is wrong to kill an animal for the sake of eating it and you see cooked meat that is going to be thrown away, would it be problematic to eat it? There is no individual animal in the world that otherwise wouldn't have been killed and isn't it more of an insult to the animal that it be killed and wasted, than at least someone getting some sustenance from it? Is the fact that something would otherwise go to waste morally relevant? Does it come in as a factor in the circumstances?

Along these same lines, what of the Christian slogan, "Jesus died for your sins." If that was true and we all stopped sinning, then he died for nothing. It would trivialize the sacrifice. On the other hand, if it is true, then the more we sin, the more Jesus will have died for, the more meaningful the act will have been. Does that mean that a good Christian ought to maximize sin out of respect? Surely not, but why not?

Is waste intrinsically wrong?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Random Ironic Occurance Or Comic Design?

The intelligent design crowd thinks that the intricate nature of reality is evidence for the existence of their Creator, but complexity is one thing, an actual joke arising ex nihilo is another:

So on the TSA's no-fly list is the name "Robert Johnson." That means that anyone with the name Robert Johnson gets hassled, delayed, and/or strip searched before getting on a plane because of Bush's "War on Terra."

Seventy years ago, blues legend Robert Johnson recorded the "Terraplane Blues." Random ironic occurance or evidence of Comic Design? You decide.

(Hat tip to Lindsay at Majikthise)

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Silver Lining In A Very Dark Moral Cloud

A shorter version of this essay appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Amish school shooting in Lancaster County is a tragedy beyond words. As a teacher of ethics, it is often difficult to face students' questions about horrific acts of this sort. In the face of such evil, there is nothing to say but to express dismay and sadness. But in the midst of such horror, sometimes it is possible to see a glimmer of the best part of humanity.

Immediately following the incident, mental health professionals were dispatched to help answer questions and tend to the needs of families and members of the close-knit community. In an interview with National Public Radio, one member of the team reported that the community expressed concern not only for the victims and their immediate families, but also for the family of the perpetrator,

"They were talking about how they could support and help his family. They were planning on sending a contingent over, perhaps bringing them some food. They had already gotten to the point of forgiveness."
In a time of shock of grief, these people were still able to keep themselves open to the pain of others, especially those who were related to the source of their own pain.

It is too easy when tragedy has befallen us to lapse into black and white thinking and condemn by association anything remotely connected with those who are guilty. Our long-nurtured tribal mentality displays its ugliness across the globe, whether it is the killing of relatives to protect the honor of the family in Asia and the Middle East, the bulldozing of the homes of the families of suicide bombers in the territories occupied by Israel, or the condemnation of Islam as a religion and all Muslims as we have heard from Christians in this country, including Franklin Graham who referred to Islam as "a very wicked and evil religion." It is all too easy when we are angry, hurt, or grieving to dehumanize others in an attempt to reconcile our baser craving for retribution with our more noble desire for justice.

But with the Amish families, we saw both terrible suffering and an authentic understanding that there were others in pain as well. Doing the right thing requires rational consideration. In the case of hard ethical dilemmas this thought can become very intricate and subtle. But the initial ethical impulse that forms the true basis for morality is empathy, the ability to understand and feel the anguish of someone else, the deep sense that other people are, in fact, people.

At a time when it would have been understandable, even forgivable, for those closest to the atrocious act to ignore the agony of the perpetrator's family, to lash out in an attempt to claim the space needed for them to work through their own grief, they instead opened their hearts to these fellow sufferers. This was truly an act of great ethical maturity.

I hope that we all can learn a lesson from them. In a world where we have begun a "war on terrorism" because we had become victims of the hatred of others, we need to learn to seek justice like these Amish families who were able to fully feel their own anger, grief, and despair while allowing everyone to retain their humanity. I solemnly hope that their wisdom and maturity in this time of great distress and sorrow may rub off on the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Silent Letters

The English language is an odd mishmash of German, Dutch, Norse, French, Celtic, and Latin. So many pieces that don't fit together so well have resulted in a language that is really odd.

Consider how many words in English have utterly irrelevant letter polution. A silent letter is one that is neither (a) pronounced nor (b) operative. A letter is pronounced if its sound appears in the word in its place in the word and a letter is operative if it affects the way a word is pronounced, even if it itself is not pronounced. So the second “s” in kiss is pronounced, but not operative – there is an s sound at the end, but it does not depend on that “s” being there. The “e” in rate is silent, but operative because the “a” would be short without it.

Below is a partial list of words (no proper nouns) with silent letters. Words in parentheses are operative, but not pronounced; and words in brackets are pronounced, but non-operative. Any help filling in the missing letters?

A – weather
B – bomb
C – science
D – (edge)
E – lye, give
F – [raffle]
G – gnu
H – rhyme
I – waiter (I know it becomes water, but it's a degenerate pronunciation)
J –
K – knight
L – [bill]
M – mnemonic
N – damn
O – phoenix, double
P – psychology
Q –
R – [ferry], (sommelier)
S – scent
T – catch
U – building
V –
W – two, crow
X –
Y – (play)
Z – [dazzle]

Monday, October 02, 2006

Google Boggle

So according to Google Zeitgeist, the most popular searches of last week were:

1. elin nordegren
2. ryder cup
3. deal or no deal
4. america's next top model
5. tmx elmo

Your job is to create a limerick including all of them. Best entry receives a year's free subscription to The Philosophers' Playground.

My attempt:

Elin Nordegren is the wife of Tiger,
Who just finished playing in the Ryder,
her nude pics, deal or no,
had folks tickling more than Elmo,
If she's not the next top model he should hide her.

Top that.

Poisoning The Well With The Enemy's Propaganda

Fascinating quotation from one of the President's speeches from last week:

"You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism. If that ever becomes the mind-set of the policymakers in Washington, it means we'll go back to the old days of waiting to be attacked -- and then respond...Some have selectively quoted from this document to make the case that by fighting the terrorists -- by fighting them in Iraq -- we are making our people less secure here at home. This argument buys into the enemy's propaganda that the terrorists attack us because we're provoking them."
There are a couple of points that deserve discussion.

First, of course, is the strawman -- on the one side, there is Bush's policy: fighting terrorism, while on the other side is his politcal opponents' policy: not fighting terrorism, and the other side is, of course, putting forward the pollyanna suggestion that by not fighting terrorism, the terrorists will just go away. Of course, they won't so don't listen to those silly opponents of the President.

Ummmm...and just who is saying don't fight terrorism? No one is saying don't fight terrorism and no one is saying that fighting terrorism in itself causes more terrorism. What the other side is actually saying is that fighting terrorism badly, as the administration's policy has done for the last several years, does increase terrorism. Indeed, it seems the opposite of irrational to contend that it is a bad idea to continue to fight terrorism badly in the same ineffective way when all of the evidence and best analysis by the top experts are telling you that you are fighting terrorism badly and it is causing more terrorism. It is certainly true that if you've shot yourself in the foot, one way to stop the pain is to keep firing at it until you no longer have a foot to hurt. I'm just not so sure it is the best way to ease the pain.

The second point is the use of the phrase, "the enemy's propaganda." This is a classic example of what we call in logic "poisoning the well." The idea is to attack someone else's position while avoiding talking about the actual merits of the position altogether by associating it with something undesirable or insulting. The position in question, that the war in Iraq has -- contrary to every insistance by the administration -- made us less safe and not more safe has recently been supported by the National Intelligence Estimate, a document compiled by the intelligence apparatus of the US government. In order to avoid talking about the point, one for which there is now good reason to believe, it is easier to draw attention away from it by labeling anyone who considers it to be a dupe of the enemy. Instead of winning the argument, the attempt is to simply kill the argument off.

What they don't want to talk about is that Bush has done more for radical Islam than Osama bin Laden could have ever dreamed of. The neo-con foriegn policy has obliterated the Muslim moderates -- look at Iran that had a reformist government until W came in with his wonderful "axis of evil" attitude and cut them off at the knees. Everything the fringe said would be true and the rational center thought was nonsense suddenly came to be. bin Laden was seen as a wacko with his far out claims that the US would invade an oil rich Arab country and take it over. He was the Islamic Pat Robertson, not taken seriously by the majority until we actually did exactly what he said we would, and suddenly the credibility of those who could save the Middle East was shot to hell and the majority said to the extremists, "I guess you were right."

Liberals are not soft on terrorism when we say, "if you want to stop the fire, quit pouring gasoline on it, you moron." Conservatives have not listened when liberals have called for real measures to actually defend ourselves like port security. The idea that we are namby-panby idealists in wonderland is BS. The real efforts of homeland security under the conservatives have been incompetent and shameful, most of all when much of it reduces to nothing more than a public relations campaign. If you try to spread "democracy" by destroying anything that would contribute to the actual infrastructure of a stable society capable of supporting actual democracy, then you will not be taken seriously and you will generate more and more desperate and more and more violent resistence. And that is a bad thing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Point That Seems To Be Missing From The Torture Debate

I've been following the arguments around the question of torture. On the side opposing torture are arguments from duty (to be moral one may not create such pain that it destroys the humanity and autonomy of another), virtue (torture corrupts the character of the entire nation that condones it), rights (the right to bodily autonomy is a universal human right and we cannot violate it without overstepping a moral line), and utility (torture does not really give the benefit of reliable information and will result in the harm of our soldiers being tortured). On the other side is "but what if 24 were a documentary and that was your wife and child being raped and killed by terrorists, you'd want every available means used, wouldn't you?"

The justification that is given for the inhumanity of treatment of detainees is the same that is given in the case of the death penalty -- these are not normal people, these are bad guys who deserve it. But notice an important difference between the current question of torture and capital punishment: capital punishment is a punishment, it is a penalty meted out after someone has been found guilty of doing something horrendous, that is, there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that they did something. The torture in question, on the other hand, is not retributive, it is not giving someone "what he deserves," it is not a punishment for something the person has done, rather it is an attempt to find out something the person might know.

The operative word in that last sentence is "might." The point is that you interrogate a person because you do not know what he knows. If you knew what he knew, there would be no reason to interrogate him, you already know what it is that he knows. So any given prisoner under interrogation may or may not have useful information, may or may not be able to corroborate what you think you know. You may have good reason to suspect that thins person probably has some information about something or other, but you don't really know. Interrogation is always a hit and miss sort of thing. The interrogating side is always dealing with partial information, some of which is false, some of which is purely speculative, and they are hoping with each new interrogation to fill in more pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes those missing pieces will make you realize that the information that led you to believe that this person had valuable information was a curveball and that you now realize that this person could not have known what you thought he knew. If you had known then what you know now, you would not have wasted your time interrogating him.

As such, when you argue in favor of torture as an interrogation method, you are asserting that it is morally acceptable to torture innocent people since some will most likely be accidentally included because of incomplete or inaccurate intelligence information. As such, the faux retribution frame won't work. You can't hide behind the fact that these are bad guys who deserve it since you don't really know how bad they are because you don't know what they know. So even if it were true that torture was a realiable means for gaining reliable intelligence, the moral fig leaf doesn't quite cover.