Saturday, March 31, 2007

Saint Shecky's Day Eve Reading --- In the Beginning

On this day before the holiest of days, let us read from the Comedist Manifesto, da holy skriptures...

In the beginning, there was the LORD. And He was funny.

On the first day, the LORD made light. He made light of everything. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the second day, the LORD created the Heavens and the Earth (in a way that is completely consistent with our best current geological theories). And He created the sun, and did moon the Earth. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the third day, the Lord looked upon the Earth and created the land and seas. Upon the land He did create plants. And then He took the plant from the Earth and the water from the sea and created the squirting lapel flower. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the fourth day, the LORD created the animals. He created the chicken and its rubber facsimile. He created the elephant. And He sayeth unto the pachyderm, "Funny, you don't look Jewish." And he did elongate the trunk. The giraffe, upon seeing this, laughed and craned his short neck to gaze again upon the elephant's protruding proboscis. And the LORD sayeth unto the giraffe, "Think that was funny spot boy? Watch this." And the LORD placed the elephant and the giraffe side-by-side. And He did giggle. And the LORD did lose track of how many zebras He had created. And so He put bar codes on them. And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the fifth day, the LORD created man in His own image, only not quite so well-endowed. And looking upon his loins, man sayeth unto the LORD, "What is this, some kind of joke?" And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the sixth day, the LORD sayeth unto man, "No, but this is." And the LORD created woman. And woman did look at the loins of man. And she did laugh. And the LORD sayeth unto man, "Behold, your wife...please." And man did sayeth unto the LORD, "Behold her? I just met her." And the LORD sat back and said, "This is funny."

On the seventh day, the LORD did rest and sayeth unto the angels, "Watch this." And the LORD did sayeth unto man and woman that they could live in the apartment above the Garden of Eden Novelty Shop, rent-free. But that they could not partake of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. And as a joke, the LORD had created woman a week before her period and had placed only a small amount of chocolate in the apartment. And she was pissy. And so woman did go to the Tree of Comedy. And she did take the yellow, elongated fruit. And she did cast aside its casing. And she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. Seeing this, man did comment upon the shape of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy and its similarity to the shape of his own loins. And he did quip that woman seemed to have no problem taking the fruit into her mouth. And woman did retort that the fruit was much larger, although just as hard. And man did turn to storm away. And man's foot did fall upon the peel of the fruit of the Tree of Comedy. And man did fall...down a flight of stairs...onto a skateboard...across the floor...out a window...and head first into a perfectly placed pool of jello. From the jello, the hindquarters of man did protrudeth. Looking down upon the hindquarters of man, woman did ask the serpent about the sphincter between the hindquarters. And the serpent did sayeth unto woman, "Rectum? Damn near killed him." And the LORD sat back and said, "This is fucking hilarious."


Friday, March 30, 2007

Comedism's Holiest Weekend

In the run up to April 1, Saint Shecky's Day, the holiest day of the year for Comedists, it is time to reflect upon the history and theology of Comedism.

For those new to the Playground, Comedism is the new religion wherein that which is sacred is that which is funny. It all started a few years back when I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy. I was teaching Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of God and I found a flaw. God, by definition, according to this argument, is an all-perfect being having every positive attribute to an infinite degree. Yet, when I looked at the holy books of the major religions, there was one positive attribute completely lacking. They could hold their gods to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, but there were no grounds for saying he was omnihumorous, all-funny. No, missing from the Torah, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Upanishads, all the standard sacred texts were jokes. None. Show me any good zingers, one liners, yo mama jokes, any place where you get "And the Lord sayeth unto Gary, 'Knocketh, knocketh...." None.

Then I was teaching a night class in ethics and we were discussing the difference between moral precepts and social mores. A student raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" I looked him in the eye and said, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." At that moment, I knew I was in the presence of the something bigger. Set-ups that perfect don't just happen randomly. No, it had to be Comic Divine Intervention. I knew I had been called to spread the laughs.

Climbing the corporate ladder in the faith industry is tough these days; you've got to be Pat Robertson or Mother Teresa, neither of which are particularly practical. But if you look at those who are truly revered, they figured out the secret to real religious success is like gotta get in early. So I decided that what I needed to do was to start the new religion, Comedism.

The central theological notion in Comedism is the joke. Jokes have two parts, the set-up, where you take a situation you think you understand (a chicken crosses the road or the pope, a rabbi, and a viagra salesman walk into a bar), and the punchline (to get to the other side or at least the beer isn't flat anymore) that forces you to reinterpret the world differently than you understood it from the set-up. The humor comes in the moment where your mind is forced to try to reconcile the irreconcilable views of the set-up and the punchline, where you are wrestling between the different interpretations. Without more than one way to see the world, jokes are not possible. And so Comedists understand that the universe is multifaceted, that there isn't a privileged way of seeing. There can be no such thing as a Comedist fundamentalist, there is no literal interpretation to be taken as THE TRUTH, no to be funny, you need to be able to see the world in many different ways.

This makes Comedists more tolerant. We are strongly in favor of gay marriage. After all, "Take my civilly united, legally recognized, domestic partner, please" really screws up the timing and it simply is wrong to deny a substantial portion of the population even the possibility of telling mother-in-law jokes. Humor, not hatred.

That's not to say we don't have a Holy Skipture. Well,...not yet. Our Holy Book is the Comedist Manifesto and last year on Saint Shecky's day the first section was revealed. Tomorrow we will read from it and then Sunday on the holiest day of the year another piece shall be given unto you.

We also have a holy symbol, an eaily recognizable icon that identifies us. Jews have the star of David, Chirstians have branded themselves well with the cross, and Muslims have the crescent. We have this. Wear it with pride, my fellow Comedists.

Until tomorrow, my friends,

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Objectivity and the Hive Mind -- News as a Link, Not an End

Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise gave a wonderful talk yesterday as this year's Norman E. Richardson Lecturer (one of Gettysburg's big philosophy events of the year). As good as her stuff is on-line, she's better live. Her talk took a look at collective knowledge production and one thread of it concerned the places where on-line communities can play a role in that process.

Hilary Putnam argues that we have a division of intellectual labor in producing knowledge and Lindsay argued that we now also have a division of labor between knowledge producers and knowledge disseminators. There is a split between the scientists who search for truth and the press that reports it. That split has meant that we are left with reporters who are assigned to beats they don't completely understand, put on deadlines that don't let them dig as deeply as they might, and are on understaffed and under-resourced bureaus that make he said/she said reporting all but a foregone conclusion.

But pointing to a case of her own reporting, Lindsay pointed out where the dissemination step could be a link in the knowledge production chain, rather than the end of the line. She cited the case of Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut a who was using a computer in teaching a seventh grade class. The computer was infected with spyware and malware and after being barraged with pornographic pop-ups, she was fired and convicted of four felonies. Lindsay first reported on the story for AlterNet, but expressed a feeling that the story as it came out was too bare boned, that it told the story of a "Questionable Conviction" which was, she firmly believed, actually a gross miscarriage of justice, but as someone who did not have all the technical knowledge needed, was unable to nail down the story as she would have liked. (The case is quite tragic, please do read about it and if you can contribute to her defense fund.)

But then it hit the blogs and as Lindsay refers to it, the "hive mind". Suddenly, the expertise was there from a number of directions. The case began to be undermined and PC Magazine and eventually AP picked up the story. There is not a happy ending to the story, at least not yet, but the fact is that this woman who seems to have been railroaded at least has had some light shone upon her case gives some reason for hope.

What drew Lindsay's interest is that it happened because the news dissemination was not the end of the line. It was not merely a case of here are the facts, period, end of story. Rather, it was an open invitation for further investigation. This is, however, quite a different model than the press is built upon. The professionalization of media has taken the town square aspect away from reportage. When papers had clear viewpoints (as they still do in, say, Britain), there was understood to be an active intellectual role for the reader. The left-leaning outlets would always say one thing, while the right-leaning papers another, and you knew that critical faculties were required in determining rational belief.

But the adoption of objectivity as a meaningful standard in journalism has meant that the media has been able to see themselves as the arbiters of reality itself, that there is no room for further work once they have delivered truth unto thy readers, or at least that anything some further with the results of the reporting is mere opinion or speculation. According to the standard view, journalists are the definitive sources for rational belief, but under Lindsay's model, reporters are facilitators for wider work by the distributive intelligence of the community at-large.

Is this a sustainable model? Does there need to be a central check placed upon the community to avoid group-think or will its own skeptical concerns be enough to keep it honest? Will the role of journalists change overall or will this remain something that happens on the margin? Will it be a gradual conversion or are we on the cusp of something significant in terms of the way that we come across facts and ways that the facts can be made sense of?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

George I, King of the United States

From Hanno:

I know, I know, people do not like history. But here me out, I have a story to tell. Charles I became King of England in 1626. He ruled by tradition with the help of Parliament, an institution which came into being slowly over time, with odd powers and procedures, split into two parts, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, one for the aristocracy, one for the non-aristocracy. The principle power was power of the purse. The King could get money from his land, and from tariffs, but if he needed real money, say the money to fight a war, he needed to ask Parliament to pay. England was at war with Spain and France between 1625 and 1629, and the war did not go well. It was expensive, and showed no results.

The King had a favorite, namely the Duke of Buckingham (his father's lover, whom his father (James I) had raised up from the gentry to nobility). The Duke, hand picked by the King, led a military expedition into Cadiz, and it was a disaster, in large part due to the incompetence of Buckingham. He was chosen by Charles again to lead another expedition in 1627, which also led to disaster. Both expeditions were a waste of life, power and money, mostly due to incompetence.

When the King went back to Parliament to ask for more money to continue the war, parliament gave provisional approval: OK, but only if the Duke of Buckingham, your friend, is not in charge. Today, this would be called 'micro-managing the war.' The King was appalled: this directly challenged his authority to wage war, as well as his authority to choose who will execute his chosen policies. But Parliament was adamant: if you use our money to fight your war, we demand competent leadership with shown results. Otherwise, bugger off.

We can now see why our own Congress (modeled after Parliament) has the power of the purse, and why the Senate has 'advise and consent' power. We can also see why it steps on executive power, and why when the executive fails to live up to its obligations, the legislative has the power to step in. This move is not new, it is not post-Watergate erosion of the power of the president. It is more than 400 years old, and at the heart of our system. Those powers were established precisely because of circumstances like the present, where the King has bad advisers, and sticks to them out of pig headed notions of loyalty, and follows bad policy which squanders men and money. When George wants his advisers (no matter how incompetent) and his war (no matter how stupid), he wants to be King, like Charles. And when he gets annoyed at the opposition, and moves to subvert it, he is acting like Charles. King George likes to remind us that our taxes are our money. That is right. Because it is our money WE get to decide what to do with it, through Congress, not through the executive. And if we want to set a deadline for withdrawal, or we want a new Attorney General, it is our right.

Well, the story becomes more interesting still. Buckingham gets assassinated, but the war goes on. Charles dissolves parliament (which he had the power to do), and does not call it into session for more than 10 years. England becomes a fairly well functioning non-democratic state. Eventually, however, he had to call them, ask for money, and this time he cannot control the situation, and it leads to the English Civil Wars (1641-1659), and the decapitation of the King (1649).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Does Learning Science Mean Doing Science?

As an undergrad I majored in both philosophy and physics and I have a confession my former physics profs will surely not like -- everything I know about physics, I learned from my theory classes. You see, science classes come in two flavors. There are theory classes where a prof stands in front of the room and lectures and then there are lab classes where for many hours, students walk in ill-prepared and tried to figure out which one of these things we've never seen before is a potentiometer, fumble their way through procedures that yield results that are not even close to what they were led to expect, and then plug and chug their way through scientific and error calculations that frankly mean little to them. I will freely admit that all my experiences in lab classes were a waste of intellectual time and curricular space that could have much better utilized.

The idea is that science is about explaining the natural world and you can't believe it if you don't see it. You learn the theories, but how do you know they don't really work, if you don't test them? Science has two parts -- observing phenomena and accounting for them, science education ought to cover both and so virtually every class in the sciences is paired with a complementary lab (although given today's lab fees, they are hardly complementary).

One of the problems we face in teaching science is that students take no more than the required number of science classes. Study after study has shown that if the science requirement at a school is two science classes, non-science students will take an average of zero science classes beyond the required two. In a world in which virtually every major problem facing our planet has a scientific component, the fact that our educated population avoids science at all costs is a bad thing. And I believe that labs are partly to blame.

There are several downsides to this theory/lab arrangement. The first being that students have a three to four hour chunk of their weekly schedule carved out in order to take any science class. This will take a day from Monday to Thursday and eliminate the entire afternoon and since half the other classes at the institution are offered in the afternoon (about a quarter MWF and a quarter TTh), by taking a science class, you've just weedwhacked twenty-five percent of the student's possible courses for the next semester for each science class taken.

But the real cost, I believe, comes from the faculty side. Labs require instruments and other equipment for which there is limited funds and space and the use of which is more time intensive in terms of oversight. As such, a single theory class that can be held in a lecture hall will require multiple lab sections. This means that a science instructor will teach the lecture course and a couple sections of the associated lab and have fulfilled ALL of their teaching duties for the semester.

At different institutions, people teach anywhere from two to five courses per semester. I teach three per semester with them always intentionally have a large curricular footprint. I teach one at the intro level, one at the second level (which we reserve for standard courses -- ethical theory, logic, history of philosophy), and one upper level funky interesting topics course. I make sure that those three classes cover a variety of topics from logic to ethics to philosophy of science to philosophy of language to history of philosophy. Since we have a small department, we try to be as broad in our offerings as possible.

Science profs, on the other hand, because of their lab commitments, have incredibly small curricular footprints. They teach their one class, its labs, and that's it. If it's at the upper-level, intro students never see them. They teach their one course and that is all.

If you want to see a science professor get angry, just tell them that they teach all those labs to get out of teaching real courses. You'll see faces get flush, veins pop out of heads and necks, and receive a high decibel screed about not understanding how time intensive it is to prepare labs and grade lab reports. They are incredibly touchy about this issue. Maybe it's because it's true, maybe it isn't; but either way, it does mean that there are fewer science classes taught.

And guess which classes are the first to go...the interesting ones that are not needed by majors. The sort of classes that non-majors would be fascinated by. I love to team-teach classes with scientists. I've taught several that look at the foundations of science or at the history of science and they've always gone wonderfully. But whenever I get an idea and find a science colleague interested, it's always a matter of "I need to figure out a way to get one of my labs covered" or "I can't do it because I need to teach the lab." Labs do cost classes, classes that would be more likely bring in non-majors who would then understand more science.

I am not saying there is no place for lab classes. Those who are being trained to go on in science do need training, they need to learn how to work in labs. But there is a difference between training and teaching and the overabundance of labs put the training aspect before the teaching aspect. Most students don't need training, they simply want to be taught about science -- and for most of them they are right, that is what they need. I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class. I tell the students auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, ask me any question. A stunning amount of questions are about science and these are from students I personally know would rather shove an ice pick in their eye than take a science course. Students want to know about science and need to know about science, but are not learning about science and part of the reason is the idea that learning science means you have to be trained to do science, part of the reason is the faulty assumption that all science classes need labs.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Weakness is Provocative

Tom Dachle was at Gettysburg last week with Dick Armey to give a public discussion on current events. The attraction to hear Tom Daschle talk about politics is much like the desire to go see the Temptations, never a big fan but it evokes a sense of nostalgia for gentler times.

My first thought when I heard of the line up was, "Nice theme, they have Dick Armey who tried to destroy the Democratic party and Tom Daschle who actually did." While that may be overstating the case somewhat, it ain't by much. It was Daschle who led a Democratically held Senate to the chopping block and convinced so many that if we only play nice and cooperate with the Bushies, putting our heads down gently and not resisting, they won't actually bring down the blade. No matter how absurd their position, no matter how far out of the mainstream their views, no matter how much against precedent or reason they move, the Daschlean position was to offer meet them halfway and then expect that they will return the favor by working with us. Clinton triangulated and won, so we will continue with the same strategy. Blue dog dems continue to cling to Daschinalia.

But it failed miserably and will continue to do so for two reasons. First, the reason it worked for Bill Clinton was that he realized that Gingerich had dragged the GOP so far to the right that it left an easily occupied gap between the parties where he could camp out and appeal to the "they're both wrong" faction of the American electorate. Clinton was successful because he could play himself off against the party. Of course, this move, while securing him a second term also served to reinforce every attack by the Republicans and doomed the Democrats to minority status until the complete incompetence of Bush became undeniable. It's strength was in portraying Clinton as independent of the party and it's weakness was in undermining the party for Clinton's benefit.

When the blue dogs try it, it backfires because it continues to undermine the values that are the strength of Democratic party -- fairness, caring about morality and dignity, concern for all, especially those who are vulnerable -- and is incapable of providing the advantage because they are not a solitary executive, they are the mass of legislators -- when they do it, they are moving the party itself. They have nothing to contrast themselves to and only succeed in costing the party power by losing or costing the party power by shifting the entire politcal landscape rightward making them and all other Democrats irrelevant.

But it fails for a second reason. The neo-conservatives have no interest in governing with Democrats. In the documentary Why We Fight, member of the neo-conservative Continental Congress, William Kristol quotes Dick Cheney with the neo-con bumpersticker "Weakness is Provocative." They see everything as a big game of chicken -- first one to blink loses. Always double the bet...whether you are holding the cards or not. Any pause for reflection, any ease in resistance, any attempt to negotiate is a clear sign of weakness and weakness is provocative, it does and ought to provoke an attack. "Weakness is provocative" is their mantra. You see it in their failed foreign policy (diplomatic engagement is weakness), in the way they seek to manipulate the press (Democrats are not wrong, they are traitors), and you see it in their approach to domestic governance. Their primary targets were not those who most resisted their policies, it was those Democrats who were the closest to them, the conservative Dems like Tom Daschle and Max Cleland. If you met them halfway, that meant you were weak and could be attacked as being unAmerican for only going halfway. It meant you wouldn't, and more importantly couldn't, fight back at full strength. In their eyes, compromise is weakness and weakness is provocative.

Of course, this is nonsense. Strength comes from results and results come from principled positions coupled with the pragmatism needed for working in the world of real politik. Sure, part of real strength is having a big stick, but it is also in speaking softly, not being a schoolyard bully. Leadership is being a source of inspiration, not resentment. It goes without saying that this is why we have lost our standing in the world as a result of the neo-con misadventures.

But the question here is not one of adopting or not adopting the axioms of neo-conservatism, rather how to approach politcs when your opponents are neo-conservatives. Any athlete knows that the way you prepared for last week's game will not be the same as preparing for your next opponent, no matter how well you played last week. If triangulation worked for Clinton, that does not mean it will continue to work. The other side has been watching the tape of last week's game and they know your plays. They're ready for them.

You need to study the films of the other team and prepare for them and when going up against neo-conservatives, the key for Democrats is to go back to being Democrats. We need to take back the discussion and we need to take it back on moral grounds. We win a fair fight. We need to be unafraid to stand up for equality and call it equality. We need to stand up for justice and call it justice. We need to stand up for the rule of law, for the dignity of all people, for the defense of the most vulnerable. We need to appeal to the best in people and they will respond, but we need to do it clearly and unapologetically. The minute we mince our words, compromise on our principles, or waffle, we lose. We have a great opportunity in having an ideologically rigorous and extremely weak opposition -- it means that the right play to call is being exactly who we actually are. Bill Clinton did everything he could to make sure there were no differences between the parties, George W. Bush has done everything he could to make sure there was. That means that at this point, for pragmatic reasons, because of what this administration has done to the political field of play, we need to stand up and loudly proclaim how different we are from what has been seen for the last seven years. Right now, because of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom Delay, and the whole lot of them, we need to stand up against their failed policies. In this context, we win by not being Tom Daschle -- compromise is weakness and weakness is provocative.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Feasts of Saint Marcel and Saint Chico

This week we have two Comedist celebrations. It was the anniversary of the birth of Marcel Marceau. We will honor him with the usual moment of silence...

(extra credit if you name the film he spoke in)

It is also the birthday of Leonard Marx, better known as Chico. On the evening when the brothers were playing poker and the nicknames were created, the thing that most stood out about Chico was his unrelenting pursuit of the chicks and thus "Chico" would be name henceforth.

Always the gambler, Chico would play with the money he made from the act. Sometimes he won huge amounts and would be very generous with his winnings; but as happens, he was often broke. Groucho was the financially conservative one in the family and invested in stocks, always saving his money. Whenever Chico was busted, he always knew to go to Groucho who would bail him out after a lecture...until 1929. When the stock market crashed, Groucho lost everything -- years of savings, a fortune wiped out. Despondent, he looked up to see Chico walking in after a VERY good night at the table. With an ironic lecture about looking after one's money, Chico bailed out Groucho.

The con-man aspect went beyond the gambling table, though. Chico was a very talented talented piano player before they were film stars, he would work evenings in bars playing for the customers. He would often double book himself in order to bring in more money for the family and get Harpo to fill in at one of the gigs -- out of costume they could pass for each other. The only problem was that Harpo only knew a couple of songs that he would play over and over and get them both fired.

On screen, Chico was best in rapid fire pun-trading with Groucho. A few of my favorites:

From Animal Crackers,

Groucho: What do you get an hour?
Chico: For playing, we get-a ten dollars an hour.
Groucho: I see. What do you get for not playing?
Chico: Twelve dollars an hour. Now for rehearsing we make special rates. That's-a fifteen dollars an hour.
Groucho: And what do you get for not rehearsing?
Chico: You couldn't afford it. You see, if we don't rehearse, and if we don't-a play, that runs into money.

From Duck Soup,
Minister of Finance: We'll have to raise taxes.
Chico: Hey, I got an uncle who lives in taxes.
Minister: No I mean taxes, dollars.
Chico: That's where he lives, dollars, taxes.

My absolute favorite, from A Night At the Opera,
Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing a-here?
Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause, that's in every contract. That just says if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Chico: Well, I don't know...
Groucho: It's all right. That's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause.
Chico: Ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't a-no Sanity Clause!

Live, love, and laugh

Irrevend Steve

Friday, March 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Philosophers' Playground

Have a piece of cake! Today is this humble little playground's first birthday. I can't believe it has been an entire year since I let Aspazia talk me into starting a blog, but it has been a lot of fun. I could not be more surprised or pleased at the community of diverse, intersting, and thoughtful people that stop by to chat, joke, and occassionally mix it up. You are all wonderful and make this an enjoyable part of my day. I want to thank all of you who are regular commenters, irregular commenters (some more irregular than others), people who link to the Playground from their blogs, and those who stop by to read. I especially want to thank The Wife who puts up with one more thing in our hectic lives.

I called the blog the Philosophers' Playground because I hoped people would come out to play and I could not have asked for better playmates. Thank you all so much.



Thursday, March 22, 2007

Thoughts on the Jeopardy Three Way

Interesting questions from dg,

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on last week’s Jeopardy 3-way tie. If you haven’t seen the game, two players were tied for second going into final jeopardy and the player in the lead (actually a Mt St Mary’s CS professor) wagered so that if all three got the final Jeapordy question right then they would end in a three way tie – the first time that has happened in the show’s history. The question that interests me deals with the fact that the player in the lead (Scott) probably should have wagered a dollar more so that he would be the sole champion, but he admits that he wagered for the tie because it would be really cool and because it didn’t really come at any expense to him (other than the additional money he would have wagered) – in the event of a tie, all three player’s came back this week and all won the money they ended the game with. I’m curious – do you think this move was ethical?

In most competitions, we assume that players are playing to win, and we would find it unethical if we find out they were point-shaving or throwing a ballgame. So does that apply in this situation? On the other hand, one could argue that Jeopardy isn’t a zero-sum game – in particular, all three players won $16K because of his move while if he had wagered a dollar more he would have only won $16,001 and his opponents would have won a lot of Rice-a-Roni. So maybe what he did was not only not unethical but actually admirable? OR if you view it as a game against Merv Griffin maybe he won by bleeding them for more money? Should the tv show not have aired because it violates our trust in the premise of Jeopardy, or is this whole thing just really cool in the same way that I like watching tie-breaking procedures in athletic conferences and secretly root for ties in the electoral college just because it would be fun to watch it play out?

I’ve had a lot more thoughts on this question (and on the ethics behind non-cooperative game theory more generally), and I have spent more time than I would like to admit discussing it online this past weekend. But I was curious to hear your point of view and/or how ethicists would deal with this question.

The place to start the discussion is that competitive games do require a social contract. All the players go into the game agreeing to a general ethos that governs many aspects of play...the level of competitiveness (where is this game on the scale from just fooling around to completely cut-throat), how much rule-breaking will be tolerated (from completely straight play is expected to whatever you can get away with as long as you don't get caught), and a number of other factors. What is acceptable in the game is a function of the game's community ethos -- a children's basketball game would have a different ethos from an adult pick-up game which again is different from a professional championship game -- and this ethos derives from what the community of players value in the game, what they are trying to get out of the game. Is it strength of opposition and maximizing the level of competition, friendship and commeraderie, exercise and health, the opportunity to learn the sport and sportsmanship,...? Unsportsmanlike play is a violation of the understood spirit of play.

In Jeopardy, which holds itself up as the Cadillac of game shows for smart people, the ethos is one of strict rule following and playing your best, smartest, most strategic game in order to try to win. Scott certainly played within the rules, did not throw the game, and played to win...he just played to win in a very unusual way. The two players who were tied in second-place were playing for a first-place tie because that was the best they could acheive. He, on the other hand, with the wager of one additional dollar would have won. If he had bet two dollars less and thereby intentionally cost himself the game but conveyed the sense that "I could have won if I wanted to," that would be a violation in that he was expected to play his best to win.

But playing your best to win doesn't in this context doesn't necessarily mean playing to beat the others as long as anything he did to not beat his opponents didn't make the game easier for them because winning here is not exclusive. If he was whispering answers to them or intentionally ringing in slowly, that would compromise the level of challenge in the game and undermine the ethos. But his way of winning while not beating his opponents was actually much more clever, something that is held in high esteem in the Jeopardy watching and playing community. His choice showed a deep commitment to the values of of those who love Jeopardy. It was not unsportsmanlike because he acted in line with the community ethos.

The sort of people who love Jeopardy (I've met Scott Weiss briefly -- when I worked at Mount St. Mary's for a year, he was just starting there and we went through new faculty orientation together) do not care as much for money as they do for (1) fair play, (2) breadth of knowledge, and (3) problem solving ability. Problem solving ability is tied to a love of puzzles which is correlated with an attraction to degenerate situations. Scott was clever in setting up something that you thought you'd never see and this showed him not to be less of a Jeopardy committed member of the community, but more in creating a scenario that would appeal to Jeopardy lovers.

That being said, the other two winners no doubt feel (quite correctly) like they cannot in good faith call themselves Jeopardy champions since they were given the win as a gift. They didn't win it outright, they didn't show themselves to be smarter than Scott Weiss, but rather were awarded the win at the whim of Scott. Scott ended up tied for first, but certainly was the biggest winner in that he not only showed himslef to be smarter than his Jeopardy opponents, he showed himself to be smarter than Jeopardy, making the show bend to his will to create a bizarre situation that is highly unusual. He used his bet to manipulate things into an unnatural state. The tie really gets an asterick in the record books because it wasn't a natural tie. In some contexts this asterick would make the action unsportsmanlike, but here because the community would appreciate the unnatural state, it was not only morally fine, it was pretty darn nifty.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Odd Legacy of Political Correctness

Ann Coulter was roundly condemned for using a slur in making a baseless accusation about John Edwards' sexual orientation, John McCain was forced to apologize for referring to the deaths of US servicemen and women as "wasted" – an odd trend has appeared in our contemporary political discourse wherein we care more about word choice than we do about the actual content of statements made. Does anyone, for a second, think that Ann Coulter's comment would have gotten any media attention outside of Fox News if instead of the f-word, she had merely accused Edwards of being "gay"? When John McCain wiggled out of his "wasted" remark, his comments in no way changed the point he was originally making. If the purpose of words is to express ideas and the ideas themselves are not problematic, why in the world are the words, the mere verbal symbols used to express those ideas, more controversial?

What we see here is a leftover effect of the political correctness movement of the 1980s and 90s. The idea began with philosophers examining political discourse who made the seemingly trivial discovery that words both denote objects and have a more emotion-laden connotation. The old joke, "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" "That was no lady. That was my wife" is funny because the word "lady" both denotes an adult female and comes with the connotation that she is upper class status or has proper manners. The same holds with the terms we use to refer to groups of people. These words not only refer to those of a given racial background, gender, or sexual orientation, but also convey something about how that group is thought of. Since the power to give the names that stick come with political power, it was held, by unraveling the words we use for things, in their terms "deconstructing" the terminology, we will learn about the power structure and the history of oppression that led us to the current state of affairs.

This notion that words are pregnant with remnants of social power led to the thought that if we replaced the old tainted terms with new value neutral or affirming terms that attitudes would be changed, that social justice would be easier to achieve. And this led to a new power structure that demanded the use of these new appellations – people were no longer handicapped, they were challenged; it had to be made clear that the membership of minority groups were Americans whether they are African, Asian or Native American. This led to formal speech codes on some college campuses, but a widespread concern through the culture for using the appropriate idiom, names that would seem to change randomly and would leave the speaker eternally worried that an innocent statement would suddenly be rendered sexist, racist, or homophobic by inadvertently using the wrong designation.

This move, designed to strip away old biases weighing down innocuous thoughts, turned into exactly the opposite. Now, unfortunately, we worried less about what we said and more about how we said it. The contribution that John McCain – and Barack Obama who was flagged for the same linguistic "gaffe" earlier – was lost to us because we were sidetracked into this silly conversation about terminology. The pressing question about what to actually do about the war in Iraq was lost over this semantic silliness about how we talk about the war in Iraq.

Ann Coulter has made a living being blatantly offensive. Her work is filled with ad hominem attacks, many clearly on the wrong side of the line. Yet, it is not her calls to bomb the New York Times, her contention that "the conventions of civilized behavior, personal hygiene and grooming" do not apply to Muslims, or her claim that her biggest moral dilemma was figuring out whether it would be advantageous to her career to assassinate Bill Clinton, that finally seems to have put her over the edge. How peculiar that we are willing to tolerate this sort of uncivil non-contribution to our political discourse as long as it does not include the word "faggot."

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says that a word means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less...The question is which is to be master – that's all." By ruling out the deeply meaningful contributions of Senators Obama and McCain and allowing the rest of Ms. Coulter's rants, sadly it seems as if we are no longer masters of our own political deliberations, the words control us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Planned Communities and Planned Economies

I was driving past one of those new upscale planned communities the other day and noting the irony that those who buy into the planned community are likely those who most strongly oppose a planned economy. Social engineering in one milieu is seen as desirable to those in their socio-economic niche, whereas social engineering in the other is held as problematic. It made me think of Otto Neurath, the economist/sociologist/philosopher who thought very hard in the 40s about how one could restructure economies to make them more fair.

When Aspazia team-taught a class a few years back with a colleague from the economics department, she was struck by how axiomatic it was asserted by the economist (who is left-leaning in her worldview) that government interference in the marketplace would always lead to negative unintended consequences. You could make small corrections in things, but you could not interfere with the machine without screwing it up. You had to leave the market be for the good of everyone.

It is certainly true that our experiments in planned economies have met with stunning failures in that the standard of living, the ecological state of the nation, and technological advancement in the countries with non-market economies lagged behind their capitalist counterparts. My question is why. Seems like it may be one of three possibilities:

1) It can't be done: Is it that economics is a purely descriptive science and a planned economy is like a planned physics, just something that is in principle not possible? Are the laws of market immutable in a way that we have only to react to them, making it impossible to shape the economy beyond some minor tinkering around the edges without upsetting the whole apple cart?

2) They did it badly: Could it be a matter of sophistication and the immaturity of the science? When we look at the examples of planned economies in the past, should we also think "hey, all the experiments in brain surgery from the 1920s through the 1960s failed, too"? Are economies just extremely complex systems with so many intricately connected moving parts that while it would be possible in principle to plan a successful economy, it takes more knowledge than we had/have to do it in a way that the "patient" lives?

3) It is possible in theory, but not in practice: Is the impossibility of a successful planned economy not due to the complexities of the economics, but rather due to the fact that economic and political realities are inextricably linked. Even if an economy could be successfully planned in a laboratory setting, when you throw in the fact that those who would manage the economy would be under the control of people trying to seize and solidify power through accumulating personal gain, through appeasing corporate interests, or by playing to the gallery to woo portions of the electorate, you would always undermine those working to promote the needs of the economy.

So is a planned non-market economy that provides a high standard of living for its people, a fair distribution of wealth, reasonable and humane work expectations and safety, and technological advancement in principle impossible, in principle possible but technologically beyond our abilities at this point, or in principle possible but realistically impossible? Or is there another possibility here?

Monday, March 19, 2007

What Are The Most Pressing Moral Issues Today?

Regular readers know I've been working on a book called Was It Morally Good for You, Too?: A How-To Guide to Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words. The idea is to present a readable, funny, but robust framework in which to meaningfully discuss ethical issues that both shows why moral judgments are not subjective like one's favorite flavor of ice cream and explains why ethical systems cannot do all the intellectual heavy lifting for us. The reason Americans suck at talking about moral issues is that we don't know how to do it; we don't really know what it is we are supposed to be arguing about, so we argue past each other, close-mindedly declare our positions to be unassailable without argument, impugn the characters of those who disagree with us, or simply retreat to an anything goes, shoulder shrugging relativism. I hope to be able to show why the need for rigorous, good faith moral deliberation in our own minds and discourse with others is not only unavoidable, but gives us a means to progress in our understanding about questions that have seemed intractable...if we learn how to talk about ethics well.

One of the chapters that I have been revising recently considers ethical questions in the political sphere. When I started working on the book a year ago, the most pressing question was the moral standing of torture. While that sadly remains a question of interest, it no longer occupies the central place in our contemporary moral considerations it once did. A book like this has a problem of needing to remain current, even if some of the issues are perennial.

So my question to everyone today is, what issues need to be in that chapter? What moral concerns are we facing today that need to be discussed around the dinner table? What ethical tangles are we talking about or not talking about that require our thoughtful attention?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Comedist Wisdom

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

One of the problems with being such a young religion is that not all the theological infrastructure is in place, yet. We're still working on our rituals, holy days, not to mention our holy skriptures. One of the things that other religions have are aphorisms, bits of wisdom that can be dispensed mid-conversation that can make one seem wise and righteous. They have the golden rule, catchy Yiddish sayings, quips from Confucious, we need to get in the game because at this point we're pretty much working off of "take my wife...please."

So I propose that we begin compiling snack-sized bits of Comedist wisdom:

True, there is no "I" in team; but there is one in recital and without it, you are left with rectal.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, unless the beholder has her contacts which case there just isn't room and she can actually see your face.

April showers bring May flowers, but if June finds out about your showering with May or April it will take more than flowers.

Do unto others...that's it.
Other one-line paths to enlightenment, my friends?

Live, love and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gay vs. Cool

Aspazia has an interesting post on the utterance, "that's so gay." The context of her discussion is to question Vanessa, from Feministing's contention that uttering the phrase is an act of deliberate homophobia. Spaz does not contend it to be innocuous, but argues that the usage has become so standard and prevalent amongst younger speakers that the metaphor is now dead, that is, it simply means what it means now and does not conjure a reference to homosexuality at all in the mind of the ordinary speaker.

My inclination here is to split the difference and agree with Spaz that labeling the phrase as hate speech is too strong; those using the phrase are generally not acting with the explicit intention to vilify gays (it is, say, not like telling a homophobic joke designed to intimidate or demean gays), but are fully aware that the phrase denigrates behavior by associating it with homosexuals who are recognized as a social undesirables. The utterance does reinforce the status of gay men as inferior, but what I want to discuss is a second harm that comes from singling out the sort of behavior that tends to get smacked by this insult.

Gay, in this locution, stands opposed to cool. Now, the term cool is ambiguous. Three of its many meanings are (1) possessing significant social status -- those are the cool kids, (2) a stoic, disaffected stance towards life -- it's ok, be cool, and (3) something unexpectedly interesting -- wow, that's really cool. The first two are often coupled, that is, the in-crowd, those with the most social capital, generally adopt stances of alienation from their surroundings. This has led to what has become known as the tyranny of the cool. I've seen it at virtually every college and university I've taught at.

When I was at a different college teaching a mandatory ethics class a bunch of years back, I had just had one of those classes where trying to start a discussion was like riding a stationary bike -- you work and work and it just ain't going nowhere. Afterwards, a student comes up to me and asks a fantastic question. I look at her in amazement and tell her that she has an incredibly deep insight here and asked why she didn't just ask that question a couple minutes ago when I was trying so hard to spark conversation. In a moment of honesty that you don't often get from students, she confided that if she asked a question like that, she would be ostracized. I was stunned, but launched into pep talk mode -- it's YOUR education, don't let them keep you from it...if they try to stop you from being the smart strong young woman you are, fuck 'em, you show them who's calling the shots here... The next class, I asked a question and she immediately answered with a thoughtful response. I then saw her best friend, a real Heather, give her the hairy eyeball. Cool is enforced.

And if you violate the second sense of cool, your behavior is branded "so gay." This goes for reacting authentically even to something that is cool in the third sense. If you acknowledge that something is incredibly cool by expressing excitement, no matter how much that excitement is called for, bam, you're Any behavior that is engaged, intellectual, caring, authentic in any way or that makes any sort of contribution to the larger community is labeled as gay. Of course, gay is everything we want from our students. We ask questions that are designed to be provocative, but if they allow themselves to be provoked they get labelled as gay. Real men are tough, show no emotions, have ice water in their veins. Cool means never being affected by the world around you. In high school, I'll never forget one kid who was so cool he would never laugh. He would literally look at you with a straight face and simply say, "that's funny" in that same slow monotone that Clint Eastwood used for "are you feelin' lucky, punk." This had the effect of making everyone who actually laughed at the joke feel, yup, gay because they were failing to live up to his higher example of masculinity.

The irony, of course, is that those who were cool in the second sense were doing so in order to become or remain cool in the first sense, but much of what is cool in the first sense is a result of trendy fashion and much of that is appropriated directly from...wait for culture. Spaz takes great joy in explaining to frat boys with earrings and tight fitting Abercrombie and Fitch clothing that their incredible efforts not to seem gay actually makes them seem extremely gay, but of course, they are trying so hard to appear gay in order to avoid being gay -- not only in the metaphorical sense we are talking about, but they are even more dreadfully afraid of ever being thought to actually be homosexual. So they make themselves seem gay so as not to be confused for an actual gay.

The phrase "that's so gay" when used by these folks as a weapon of conformity is pernicious because it does keep gay men in a position at the bottom of the social pecking order, but also because it is used with the express intention to destroy passion. The term "gay" is used to make sure no one does anything, because if someone does something then everyone else -- including them -- may have to do something too and this is not only inconvenient, but threatens the social order in which they sit comfortably at the top. As long as those who are passionate -- and it can be passionate about anything, it doesn't matter what -- are tied to gay men and forced to reside at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy it will keep down the society's best, doubly so for those who are gay. Of course, the irony of it all is that those who are the coolest, think they got there through some sort of meritocracy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Senator Clinton, Here's Why Being Gay Is Not Immoral

Yesterday, in response to General Peter Pace’s homophobic outburst, Hillary Clinton balked at answering the question, “Is homosexuality immoral?” punting with the statement, “Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude.” Senator Clinton? Glad to meet you. My name is “Others, Professor Others.”

Is homosexuality immoral? Step one, we need to figure out what is meant by the term “homosexuality.” It could mean sexual attraction felt towards those of the same sex. Since this attraction is not something we choose, it is not something that can be judged moral or immoral. Perhaps it is a lifestyle. The term “lifestyle” is either so vague as to be meaningless or specific enough that it fails to cover most gay people since any person’s lifestyle will differ from everyone else’s and even change over time for any given person. My guess is that it is meant to be a wink-wink nudge-nudge reference to the fact that all them gays have a lot more sex than straight people and we’re really talking about promiscuity here. But, of course, many gay men and lesbians are in long-term, stable, happy monogamous relationships. What is really at issue here? It’s same-sex sex. Is it always and necessarily wrong to get hot and heavy with someone who brings the same dish to the pot luck?

To answer this question, we need to figure out how to determine when something is immoral. Traditionally, there are five competing moral systems that do this job for us and it is fair to say that we employ all of them, seeing each to be operative in some cases and not in others. Each consider one of the parts of a moral situation – who did it, what he did, to whom it was done, the effects of having done it on all involved, and the effects of having done it for those to whom we have special moral responsibilities. Virtue ethics looks at the actor – was this the sort of action that will lead to the formation of a good character? Duty ethics looks at the what – all things being equal, is this the sort of act that should always or never be done? Rights-based ethics looks at the to whom – did the act violate anyone else’s rights? Utilitarianism looks at the consequences writ large – did the act leave the world a better place than any of the alternatives? And care-based ethics looks at the results for those with whom we have special relationships – did the act alienate or further embed you in the life of someone you care about?

Of course, using any of these tools to judge sexual acts will be impossible in the abstract since each encounter has its own particulars that need to be considered. Is it a budding romance or a casual hook-up? Are the people committed to others? Is everyone sober and in a rational frame of mind? But our interest is whether the mere fact that those making love to one another have the same genitalia is by itself sufficient to put one on the wrong side of the moral line using any of our ethical systems.

In this way, there is no reason whatsoever to think that you couldn’t have morally good same sex sex. You could have to willing, satisfied partners who were generous, caring, and responsive, who treated the other person as an end in him or herself and not a mere tool for pleasure. In this case, none of our systems would object to the act.

Let us consider some of the standard objections:

God considers it an abomination

This is a theological claim, not a moral one. Trying to kill your child is immoral. Abraham did it. God asked him to. Abe chose religion over ethics there. The two are different. If you want to follow Kierkegaard in saying faith is more important than ethics, fine, just realize that your zeal may lead you to be unethical, Mr. High and Mighty (and, may I add, really, really scary). The vast majority of lessons taught by the world’s major religions are good ones and line up remarkably well with morality, the world would indeed be a better place if the faithful would actually abide by them, but simply because it is a behavioral norm in a religious community does not make it a moral imperative. Someone who eats a cheeseburger may be a bad Hindu or Jew, if on Good Friday a bad Catholic, but that does not necessarily make them immoral for having eaten it.

They aren’t married

The word “marriage” has at least three meanings: (1) a religious rite, (2) a legal status implying shared rights, privileges, and responsibilities, and (3) a social status of mutual exclusive commitment. None of these makes a marriage license into a “have sex free” card. Sex and marriage are two entirely distinct things. Is it immoral to have sex with your spouse? Of course not, just don’t expect it too often. Of course, the folks we’re talking about are barred from getting married in the first place in most locales, a moral problem of it’s own, but that’s a different problem.

It’s not natural

Step one, what is meant by the word “natural” here? Is homosexuality found in nature? Sure. Eight percent of rams seek only to have sexual relations with other rams. Homosexual behavior has been widely observed in bonobo chimps. Maybe natural means “serves a biological function.” But, of course, we do many things that serve no biological function and aren’t morally wrong, e.g., forwarding bad jokes by e-mail to relatives we never speak to. Maybe it means “against human nature.” But to gay men and lesbians it is exactly a part of their nature. To try to be otherwise is what is unnatural. Maybe it means that it can’t result in a baby…

Sex is only for having babies

No it’s not. The number of different functions and roles that sexuality plays in the intricacies of human relations is staggering. Sex not only satisfies physical urges, but is used – like our bonobo cousins – to relieve tension. It is a way that we show tenderness and care to someone who is special to us. It is how we seek our own pleasure. As Freud was so fond of pointing out, it is a repository for all sorts of inner-baggage that has nothing to do with the act itself or any biological function it might contribute to. It is where we leave ourselves naked and vulnerable and where subtle and not so subtle power plays are made. It is gentle, fierce, playful, nerve-wracking, selfish, and selfless – an act wherein virtually all human emotions superpose, amplify, and conflict. And it's fun. All of this and it makes babies, too. Making babies is crucial to the survival of our species and should not be taken lightly, but simply because that is how you make babies does not mean that you can’t do other things with it as well. Surely, some of the reason we have sex are bad reasons and one can certainly act immorally in having sex for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, e.g., rape. But one can live a good, caring, moral life and make love to one’s sweetie when there is no chance of conception.

There is absolutely no reason to consider sexual relations between same sex partners necessarily immoral. Are there cases when it is, of course. Is that all cases? Of course not. If you have any further questions, Senator, feel free to ask.

Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein

Today is the 128th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein and I propose we dub this international science day, a holiday dedicated to thinking about science and the role science and scientists do and ought to play in our society. Einstein left a legacy that effected both science itself and the relation between science and the broader society. What made him special in both cases was the fact that he was not a mere technician, but an intellectual. Einstein's thinking was rarely constrained by conventional wisdom -- even when he was wrong, as he was with quantum mechanics, it was for reasons beyond an appeal to tradition.

Many of his great successes were not the result of completely novel theories, but in his ability to free himself from presuppositions so deeply ingrained that they largely went unnoticed or unchallenged by the rest of the world. The central equations for the special theory of relativity, the Lorentz transformations, were published by several other physicists prior to his famous 1905 paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," but it was only Einstein who turned them into the theory of relativity. It was only he who would take the leap and challenge Newton, the most successful theory in the history of science.

H.A. Lorentz, just years before him, tried everything he could think of to figure out how to shoehorn the equations and their resulting bizarre effects into the classical worldview. Einstein's brilliance was his ability to translate the seemingly incomprehensible into thought experiments that exposed unnecessary assumptions and allowed him a different way of seeing. At sixteen he wondered what would happen if one drove a motorcycle at the speed of light and looked in the rear view mirror. Since we see behind us in the mirror because the light from behind bounces off the mirror to our eye, if we were going at the speed of light would we see the world behind us, a frozen image, or a blank mirror?

The answer turned out to be that we would see the world in the mirror just as we always do, but this counter-intuitive result only came to him when he realized he needed to think about time differently than he and everyone else had, a difference that came to him when he walked away from a train station and glancing back at the clock realized that if he were walking away at the speed of light it would look like the clock never moved, like time would be standing still. Finding the extraordinary in the mundane, discovering assumptions and questioning them. Einstein was not merely a technician, he was an intellectual.

This meant that he was not afraid to leave his domain and provide a scientist's voice in the larger world because he was well aware of the role the larger world -- especially the political world -- played in science. As a young man, he had seen his father and uncle's business manufacturing electronic components run into the ground by large companies, especially Siemens, a company with unparalleled access to the Kaiser. And that Kaiser represented everything that Einstein loathed about the Germany of his youth -- marshal, arrogant, nationalistic. He left at 16 renouncing his citizenship only to lured back to Berlin before World War I.

The war was a realization of his worst nightmares, not only the unnecessary carnage but the complete trampling of everything civilized and humane. To object to the war made one a traitor. When 93 of the leading German intellectuals signed the so-called "manifesto to the civilized world" declaring German militarism and national identity one and the same, he was sickened and spoke out against the war in no uncertain terms. He was vilified by the nationalistic German right. He was the Michael Moore, the Jane Fonda of the times; his name causing bile to raise in the throats of German conservatives during and after the war. He was never one to shy away from speaking out when he saw injustice anywhere with respect to any group. the scientist is not a technician to be locked in his lab speaking only to technical conferences. Scientists are to be public intellectuals. When the scientists' voices are missing from public discourse, their place is taken by charlatans and charismatics, and the results are never pretty.

On this anniversary of Einstein's birth, we need to think about the connection between science, scientists, and society. When we train the next generation of scientists, are training a generation of technicians or a generation of intellectuals? Will they be like Einstein and Frank von Hippel, citizen-scientists? When we have to face the next generation of challenges will their voices be heard?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is Equality Inevitable?

From Maria Montessori: A Biography by Rita Kramer

"Feminism would triumph, she insisted, not as a result of propaganda, not because of lectures or newspaper articles, but because it was a social inevitability. As mechanical progress diminished the work of the housewife, as the new inventions left more of her time and energy free, she would begin to participate in the new movement spreading through every class, first in the towns and industrial centers, eventually in the farmhouses and fields. She talked about the women's study groups that were being formed in Rome, in Milan, and predicted that 'the movement itself will disappear when it has succeeded in persuading men that women can and should do more with their lives than what they are allowed to do today. Eventually the woman of the future will have equal rights as well as equal duties.'"
Montessori was convinced that sexism, classism,and bigotry ofall forms were based upon factual errors inherent in widely held socialbeliefs. Science, she thought, would overturn these fallacies and social justice would necessarily advance in tandem with our understanding of the natural world. So are efforts needed to keep moving moral rightness forward or just to speed it up? Does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice or do we need to do all the bending?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Women and the Culture of the Military

As I've been reading about Pfc. LaVena Johnson's suspicious death and the situation for female troops in Iraq,

(from a Salon article on the matter) I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few months, interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on the topic, and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection.
it has taken me back a couple years to my time teaching at the United States Naval Academy. After a some high profile scandals, the Academy decided to create a mandatory ethics course for all midshipmen (even the women there are called midshipmen).

Architecturally, the class (at least as it was taught then) was the pedagogical version of the Hindenburg. It is a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class with Monday being a large lecture hall lecture from a philosopher on the moral system of the week, Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kant's deontological approach, utilitarianism, the usual stuff. Wednesday and Friday were smaller "breakout sections" led by naval officers whose training in the material was a one hour meeting earlier in the week in an instructor's group session led by the philosopher. That means that someone with one hour's worth of training was leading two hours worth of discussion about some tricky philosophy he or she had no background in and in many cases was openly hostile towards because this course was new and anything that wasn't there "when I was at the Academy" is surely bullshit designed only make things easier than I had it. So you had the least successful means of teaching philosophy, the large hall lecture paired with unqualified, sometimes hostile lecturers for the majority of the class.

I was brought in over the summer to try to develop some auxiliary materials for the course -- case studies, role playing exercises, film clips with discussion questions -- activities for the officers to help them set up their sections. My natural inclination, of course, was to tie the theoretical questions to issues that would be more easily grasped. Illustrate the conflicts in action and then allow the step to the more abstract level. So in my search for issues around rights-based ethics, I took a clip from the film The People vs. Larry Flint. It seemed a good way to begin an obvious discussion around the possible limits of even very desirable rights like free speech. A colleague vetoed it quickly telling me that they were told in no uncertain terms that pornography was not an issue that they could discuss in moral terms. It was off-limits. Why? Because they had a bunch of eighteen to twenty-one year olds with hormones shooting through the roof and no constructive way to express their sexuality. As a result, there were unhealthy ways and they weren't to be mentioned.

So you take a situation where you have a hyper-charged testosterone-laden culture that is still bitter about having to make the Academy co-ed and protect the sort of male dominant picture of sexuality present in porn and then wonder how these things happen. Those at the Academy, after all, are not just ordinary members of the service, they will be officers on the track towards high leadership. These are the people who shape and enforce the culture.

The conservative reply to the report out of Iraq will no doubt be just like the ones I heard at the Academy around the time of the Tailhook scandal (also something that was not to be discussed -- the head of the Leadership, Ethics, and Law section at the time was an aviator) -- will be the "few bad apples" line, the same approach we saw in response to Abu Ghraib, Enron, and every other major ethical scandal of the last several years. further, it is also the reason behind all of their "personal responsibility" rhetoric -- the idea is that if we can look only at the responsibility of the individual actor, we are no longer in a place to ask about how we who are not acting need to pitch in. If THEY did it, I must be responsibility free and therefore don't have to do anything but smugly consider myself superior.

Now, on the one hand, it is perfectly true that not every male in the service is part of this problem and it is further absolutely correct that those culpable ought to be held responsible. But what we are seeing here again is an example of the classic conservative rhetorical move to restrict the scope of the discussion. By focusing only on the most immediate actors, it keeps us from asking about the larger social causes because they would then require larger social fixes. It is a simple fact that people conform their behavior to cultural expectations and every group has cultural norms. This fact does not excuse people when they act in a way that is immoral, but encouraged by the culture, but it does mean that we ought to do our best to change the social expectations operative in the culture. Sociology is a real study and social effects are real.

This problem is certainly a problem with a subset of the troops, but the behavior of these members of the military occurs in a context where they believe that their behavior is protected, where they believe that their status as dominant is deserved and safe, where the underlying presuppositions about women are actively reinforced. There is a hostile ENVIRONMENT and that environment is not only the result of the acts of individuals, but a result of a culture that has been fostered, a culture that can, and must, change.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

In Praise of Inside Jokes

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Before we get to this weekend's sermon, let me address a couple of questions from the congregation. Brother Phil asks,

"How would the 'comedist school' relate to other philosophical categories? Is it 'analytical' or 'continental'?"
Analytic or continental? Since some who hear of us are pissed and think we're out of control, I'd have to say we are incontinental?

Brother Claude asks,
"Why is Comedism monotheistic? How can the same god have brought us slapstick and absurd humor? Isn't a pantheon of gods bickering and shoving cream pies in each other's face more funny?"
The true beauty of Comedism is that our central theological commitment is to that which is funny and since funny requires seeing things from multiple perspectives, Comedists are free to simultaneously be monotheistic (that is, believing in the existence of a single Cosmic Comic), polytheistic (believing that the Humorous Gods form the ultimate comedy troupe), or pantheistic (believing in the divinity of cookware).

Friends, my single biggest laugh this week came from the "Brain Hammer," the wonderful blog of good brother Pete Mandik. Earlier this week, he had a list of philosophical "yo mama" jokes. While many of them were good solidly constructed jokes, the one that really got me was
"Yo mama's so fat that when she sits around the house, she sits AROUND the house in every possible universe."
Now the root of this joke is as old as fat mamas, but the twist was to make it a joke about theories of modal semantics and would only be funny to those people in that club (fortunately, we just happen to have a regular here who wrote his dissertation on interpretations of modal semantics and another who is looking at this sort of question for his dissertation, so for them -- is that a good one or what?) This is an inside joke. A joke designed to appeal to a particular segment of the population that knows it is a distinct minority.

Inside jokes become extra funny when they are gotten. Jokes that really aren't that good, become instantly better with the recognition of them as inside jokes. The reason is distinctly Comedist -- again, the central theological notion behind Comedism is that there are always other perspectives from which to see life, jokes depend upon this multi-perspectival stance. An inside joke not only makes a funny, but also is an active affirmation of the fact that this little group that the teller and hearer are a part of is there to give another angle on reality. They exist to enrich the world by providing another route to humor.

It is true that there is the price of exclusion. Inside jokes mean there are people on the outside. It creates an us vs. them and this is not always healthy. but what makes the inside joke funny is that the inside group is small. Everyone understands the humor of the dominant group since they control the culture. You can't have inside jokes if you are the ones in power. But small groups, those with less social cache, they have the power of the inside joke. When you hear an inside joke and are on the outside, you know you were just left out. And even they are then explained to you, they cease to be funny. It is only the persecuted minority that gets the laugh. That is how the powerless get comically transformed into the powerful and once again there is another way to look at something. The Cosmic Comic be praised. All is funny.

So what are your favorite inside jokes? Here's mine:
Did you hear about the new physics nightclub? It's called the h-bar.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Democracy, Atheism, and Reference

A few more philosophy questions (imagine that).

C. Ewing asks,

"If we are obligated, as we'll just assume for this, to follow the general will, and the general will really is for the best of all concerned (and hence, the ultimate goal anyway), then how do we justify dissension? This is, if we're assuming our social contract is the moral notion, and hence we cannot have dual notions."
In other words, when we lose the democratic game, why should we keep on playing and how do we justify continuing to advocate for our positions when they are losers?

The key is that the general will changes with time. We can agree that a democratic system is not perfect, that it will lead to rash errors in which wishful thinking, coercion, or fear mongering sometimes wins out over reason, but still hold that on average it has the best shot of being effective or that it is the least worst alternative. For these reasons, it seems rational to remain loyal to the system, even when it fails to operate in the desired fashion because there appears to be a self-correcting mechanism -- you can reconsider things later and get them right this time. As such, democracy is like baseball. Even if your team was a real dog this season, there's always next year. Women's rights, slavery and civil rights, some of our greatest achievements have been long in the making and taken generations of slow progress fueled by those who refused to give up the cause when the popular sentiment was against them. We need dissent to keep us honest. If we are not constantly forced to reconsider and hone our arguments, we get intellectually lazy and fallacies easily creep in.

BeepBeep asks,
"If a theist claims that god exists, the burden of proof is with them as they are making the positive claim for the existence of something. An atheist is, therefore, (by definition), just stating that they don't believe the initial claim. If an atheist says that they don't believe in the existence of a god, the burden of proof is still not with them, as they are not making a positive claim for the existence of something. It is just a negative response to a positive claim." My response, "it depends."
Epistemologically, there are several brands of atheism.

Negative inductive atheism, we can call the first stance, is exactly the sort of inference you describe here. Are the respondents on this blog aliens from another planet? There is no evidence in favor of this hypothesis (well, little evidence) and since there is no good reason to believe it, I don't. In the same way, one could argue as you do that there is someone making a claim of the existence of a being and therefore assumes the burden of proof for it and if they have not met that burden then rationally, one ought not believe in the existence claim.

Positive inductive atheism would be what we could term the position in which one argues that there is evidence to believe in the falsity of the magical, invisible man in the sky hypothesis. Folks with this view often point to the incredible successes of purely naturalistic explanations for phenomena that were thought at earlier times to be entirely unassailable by scientific methods. With all the things that had been thought to be the result of magic, spirits or supernatural causes that we now understand and can control by the use of science, there seems to be reason to be suspicious of claims that any part of the universe is beyond scientific understanding. This is an inductive argument based on the historical relation between science and religion, and judging that the successes that science has had in the past in realms like astronomy, biology, geology, and psychology will thus probably go all the way down to eliminating non-naturalistic elements in all our beliefs.

Deductive atheism would then be the name for those who claim to be able to show that the notion of an all-being is self-contradictory, that the Judeo-Christian God or any supernatural being could not exist. Those who champion arguments like the problem of evil are taking this line. A world which contains terrible suffering by innocent children, the argument goes, could not have been created by a being who is all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful because if He knew about it and could stop it, but didn't, then he would not be all-loving. This is a deductive argument to show that it is impossible for a particular type of god hypothesis to be true.

Linguistic atheism would be a name we could apply to those folks like the Logical Positivists of the first half of the 20th century who were atheists, not because of deductive arguments or the lack of evidence, but because, they contended, God talk -- indeed metaphysical talk of any sort -- was simply meaningless. It isn't, as Saint Anselm argued, that the atheist and the theist both agree on what is meant by God, they just disagree on whether one exists. According to Carnap and company, the whole question is really a pseudo-question. It looks like a question, it sounds like a question, but it really isn't. A question is a request for information, if there is no such information to be had, then the string of words is not a real question even if it is grammatically proper. If you and a friend were to get into a huge screaming battle over what color my sister's car is, you would be debating forever, not because it is a deep mystery of the cosmos, but because I don't have a sister. In the same way, the Logical Positivists argued that questions like the existence or non-existence of god were simply meaningless squabble, linguistic muddles that were the result of taking anything that looks like a question seriously.

As such, there is only one of these atheistic stances that functions on the question of the burden of proof.

Since we've brought up questions of meaning, Jeff Maynes asks,
"What role out linguistic intuitions play in theory choice? (e.g., in choosing a theory of reference)"
Oy gevalt.

Starting with the folks we just talked about, in 20th century there came to be an understanding that many of the traditional philosophical problems were really linguistic problems. Our ordinary, everyday, spoken language is mushy, slippery, vague, ambiguous, not good for framing rigorous philosophical questions. So they wondered how much of philosophy really had content, how much was meaningful and how much was the result of muddles coming from our ill-equipped language misshaping our discussions. As such, they tried at first to create a new artificial language that would be cleaner, clearer and more rigorous, but they had to give up on that project because of insurmountable technical difficulties. They then set to work trying to understand how language does and should work. How does the linguistic structure in which couch all of our thoughts relate to the real world itself that we are trying to think about? this led to questions of reference.

There are now several intricate, sophisticated, and competing notions of reference. Jeff is asking how one should go about determining which is the best. This cannot be an empirical question because it does not deal with how the world is, rather with how we ought to interpret the foundations of the language in which we report how the world is. The usual means is an appeal to intuition in the form of testing boundary cases. You say, ok, assume this is the correct account, in this situation, it has this result but surely THAT can't be right. Mine gives THIS result which makes much more sense in terms of our usual understanding. Of course, the converse will then be done by those on the other side and if your example involves a something really cool and memorable like a swampman, rooms that speak Chinese, or undetached rabbit parts, then you get famous.

The problem here for Jeff is that the whole move to acquire a rigorous understanding of reference is to allow us to have something firmer than mere intuition to refer to in determining when something is meaningful and what it means, but if the selection of a view of reference relies on intuition, then the move undercuts the whole motivation for it in the first place. The question then becomes, if not intuition, then what?

My answer to Jeff is...hey man, I gave you your undergrad training, don't ask me to write your dissertation, too. ;) It's a hard question and fortunately there are well-trained, thoughtful, smart characters like Jeff who in five years will have several hundred pages to explain to us the right answer which will then be put on microfilm and stored away where no one can find it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Philosophy (uhh) What Is It Good For?

A couple of BIG questions.

Kerry, not playing nice, asks,

"What is philosophy, and what good is it? (bwah-ha-ha!)"
Let's treat them in order. What is philosophy? An old textbook I once picked up said that when you know more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing, then you are doing philosophy (knowing less and less about more and more until you knew nothing about everything was its definition of sociology). A friend from grad school once put it this way -- when you ask why once, you are doing science; when you ask why twice, you are doing philosophy (when you ask why more than twice, you are just a three year old annoying your mother).

We could approach the question sociologically and ask what is it that those labeled philosophers do (apparently, not much except to write blog posts), or we could ask normatively, what should they be doing. Clearly, writing and evaluating arguments is part of the process, but others do that as well. What differentiates philosophy from other analytical disciplines is that it deals ultimately with non-empirical claims in a search for truth. These unobservable truths tend to fall in a couple of categories.

(1) Judgment claims: things like ethics (what actions are good) and aesthetics (what makes something beautiful). These talk about how things should be and not necessarily how they actually are and therefore go beyond questions of direct observation.

(2) Methodological claims: how it is we go about thinking about things. Certainly throughout its history, but especially in the 20th century (from the analytic, continental, and American perspectives), philosophy became thinking about thinking. Questions about logic, the nature of the scientific method, how political power influences beliefs, reflecting on direct lived experience.

(3) Metaphysical (ontological) claims: discussions about what the world is really like beneath what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch. Are humans really free or are our actions determined? Are the mind and the brain the same thing? How do we know there are other minds? Does God exist? If so, why do we have Ann Coulter?

(4) Meaning and metaphilosophical conversations: Philosophy looks at words and concepts and tries to gain deeper and more rigorous senses of what they mean. Also looking at the foundations for that practice. Philosophers look at the foundational presuppositions under eveyone's disciplines including their own -- we take seriously the question, "what is philosophy?"

Now, to the deadliest question in all of philosophy, "So what?" What is it good for? On one end of the spectrum is Socrates who argued that philosophy is a necessary part of a meaningful human existence -- the unexamined life is not worth living. On the other end is Bruce Goldberg, my first phil prof, who was a student of Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein (that actually means some of us know what's coming next). When a frat boy in the back of the lecture hall asked Goldberg what good was all this philosophy nonsense, his response was (and I'll never forget this as long as I live) "nothing, but there are some weirdos out there who can't help but think about this stuff and its safer than having them out on the streets."

I think both are insightful, but not completely correct. Certainly, when you look at the technical work of professional philosophers, it isn't necessarily applicable to the BIG QUESTIONS (tm). Whether Glymour and Friedman's objections to Reichenbach's geometric conventionalism in classical and relativistic gravitation theories fails to fully account for the non-naive theory-dependence of his view...who gives a flying... But at the same time, there is something valuable in thinking about who we are, why we believe what we believe, and how we ought to act towards others. The utilitarian value in philosophical training at any level is the ability to both think clearly and rigorously while also looking to "think outside the box" by looking for and questioning presuppositions that we never realized we were presupposing.

I think the other benefit is in exploding the primacy of "common sense." The universe and life in it is complex. Simple answers are appealing, but they turn out to very rarely be right. Philosophical training involves seeing a series of positions and thinking, "ah, that's right" then finding out that "no, it's not." Philosophy leaves you with a skepticism for neatly packaged answers to difficult questions and an appreciation that thinking hard about things often means looking in places you weren't expecting and taking nuanced and sophisticated views seriously instead of fortune cookie aphorisms that simple jibe with your intuitions or what you want to be true.

pm asks another doozy,
"what is freedom?"
Freedom is an ambiguous term, it has several meanings. In one metaphysical sense, it means having one's actions not pre-determined. The question is whether I type the word "guacamole" out of nothing more than the ability to realize the content of my own will or whether it was the hand of fate that forced my fingers onto the keyboard to create the symbol for a zesty avocado dip. Freedom means having the ability to choose which action to take.

But then, it sometimes also means a lack of external factors giving a predilection towards a given action. If someone holds a gun to your head and threatens your life unless you sing Peggy Lee's "I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates." Is your choice free? Well, you could choose not to do it, but that choice was coerced, so in some sense it was not free in that the intention was not created by your will. In a similar sense, we can ask about the freedom of those with addictions. now the force is internal to one's biology and not located in a conscious mind outside of you, but it is still not a matter of unimpeded volition.

We also talk about freedom in political and social contexts. When the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it is not making a metaphysical declaration but rather setting down ground rules for what laws can and cannot do. You cannot be arrested or legal kept from expressing political opinions. Similarly with academic freedom or poetic license, these freedoms are guarantees that certain types of act will be legally or socially protected. When we talk about slaves gaining their freedom, what we mean is that they are no longer under the regime of laws that fail to consider them full citizens.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

On Those Who Butle and Those Who Cuddle

Gwydion asks,

"Who played the funniest butler character in television history?"
To answer this, we need to draw a distinction. There are three sorts of funny butlers:

I. Butlers as the fool in King Lear

The first category contains those butlers who are beneath their employer in social status, but demonstrate that they are superior in intellect. In this category, pm is exactly right that the character of Jeeves (played so brilliantly by Steven Fry) would have to be at the top. Also deserving mention is Eddie Anderson's Rochester on the Jack Benny Show, Hanno's Rowan Atkinson as E. Blackadder in the third season, and an honorable mention for Robert Guillaume's Benson from Soap.

II. Butlers as the schlemiel

The second category would be butlers who are funny because of their incompetence in their job. The character of Manuel from Fawlty Towers would fit this role (although The Wife argues that strictly speaking he wasn't a butler). If we add films to tv, the character of Cato from the Pink Panther films would also fit here as well as the work of Grover and Steve Martin as incompetent waiters.

III. Butlers as the representation of bourgeois values

The third category is where the butler is funny as the butt of the joke. The employer is the unconventional hero and the butler represents the stuffy world that the hero rebels against. Sir John Gielgud's work in the Arthur films is the pinnacle of this category.

Justme asks,
"How did becoming a father alter your views, if at all?"
A number of my views have changed or deepened as a result of having kids. From the intellectual side, I now have no doubt that some aspect of Noam Chomsky's thesis that language grows in the child is exactly right and that the radical empiricist position is absurd. It literally happens overnight that "dada" goes to "daddy" and you know that there was no training on that the day before. There is no doubt that the environment does effect the development of speech, but the way so much of it happens on its own and just appears out of nowhere is stunning.

From a moral point of view, it has made the long view more meaningful. No longer is the phrase "for future generations" abstract for me. My grandfather always told me stories about his growing up and now I look at my kids and can easily imagine their having kids to whom I would tell stories or even their having grandkids to whom they would tell stories of our household and its idiosyncrasies -- when I was growing up, we had these things called trees and they were big and you could climb them. Future generations have now become what William James called live options, there is a sense of reality about the future that I never had before and that comes with responsibilities.

Personally, I have become much more tolerant of loud children and less tolerant of bad parents. You come to realize that kids go through stages, that if you miss feeding them at the right time by ten minutes or they miss their nap by ten minutes, all hell breaks loose and there's nothing you can do about it. Life is a complex place and it is going to happen to the best of us. A loud child doesn't mean a bad parent, just a fact of life. At the same time, you see really bad parents who are not spending time thinking about how to parent well and you see what is happening to the poor child. No one parents perfectly. TheWife and I spend a lot of time talking about parenting and reviewing failures. Nothing touches every single one of your insecurities like parenting; at times you are tired, on edge, worried about them, exasperated by them. As a result, everyone has their bad moments -- times when they had less patience than they should have, said no to a request too quickly instead of taking the time to let the kids try something novel and creative, scolded for something trivial that did not deserve harsh words. But then there are the egregious parenting errors that just come from sheer thoughtlessness, from a lack of understanding of what they are doing at all. Children are so plastic, we mold them into who they become to a large extent and when I see bad parents, it really frustrates me.

I also now put Dr. Seuss in the same class as Plato.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Utility and Relativism

A couple of ethics questions. Singpr asks,

"Is utilitarianism the best available paradigm in evaluating social justice. What's problematic about it?
" Utilitarianism is the moral view in which any act X is to be considered morally good if and only if it brings about the greatest balance of good consequneces over bad consequences. Helping a child get her kite out of a tree causes joy and kicking a stranger in the groin causes pain. First act good, second act bad. A good act is one that leaves the world a better place. In cases in which the action that benefits some and is a detriment to others, select the option that causes the greatest balance when everyone's interests are considered equally. Morally good acts are the ones that leave the best possible world as a result. What could be wrong with that?

There is no doubt that utilitarian calculations are a part of determining when an act is just, but there are classic problems as well. The usual one is the case in which some grievous maltreatment results in overwhelming benefits. Consider the case in which enslaving a small subpopulation would create great benefits for the rest of humanity. Surely you don't want to say that slavery is just. Slavery is wrong because it strips the humanity, basic rights, and autonomy from humans, it doesn't matter how much utility could be gained from their suffering.

To determine the morally right act we need to look at the utility, but several other factors as well (duty, rights, virtue, and care). Most of the time these factors align, but in the hard cases they conflict and we need to think hard about questions of justice. There simply is no simple answers to hard problems. As the philosopher Stuart Hampshire wrote, thinking inevitably leads to conflict and our job is to think about those conflicts carefully and thoughtfully.

BeepBeepItsMe asks,
"What are you thoughts on moral relativism?"
Yesterday relativty, today relativism.

When I teach ethics, the most common view in the room is Ethical Subjectivism, that moral judgments are purely a matter of personal decision. Everyone has his or her own ethical system and the fact that you consider an act morally right means that, for you, the act is morally right. While it comes from a good place, the desire to be tolerant, it is in fact, fatally flawed. Turning tolerance from a virtue into the only virtue undermines all meaningful ethical deliberation and handcuffs those who really think tolerance is important.

Two technical points about ethical subjectivsm: (1) the relativity of moral rightness - on this view, there is no sense of moral rightness apart from what someone believes; (2) the personal infallibility of moral judgment – it is impossible on this view for anyone to be wrong when they make a moral claim because rightness for them is just what they think it is.

Because of these two, reasoning about ethics now becomes akin to choosing a favorite flavor of ice cream. No matter how strong of a rational argument I formulate, I could never get you to assert that, “While I thought that chocolate tasted better, I was wrong; and for rational reasons I now assert that vanilla actually tastes better.” If you came upon two people in a violent argument about their favorite ice cream flavors, you'd do well to think the two are idiots. He screams, she screams, but we need not all scream for ice cream because there is nothing that the two disagree about. His favorite is chocolate and her favorite is vanilla. There is no point of contention to debate.

The ethical subjectivist reduces morality to this same level. A radical pro-lifer and a radical pro-choicer have nothing to discuss; they don’t really disagree about anything. It may be that I can’t understand why you don’t find certain things to be yucky like I do, but, hey, some people are turned on by grown people dressed in diapers, some people like Brussels sprouts, and somebody’s buying those Britney Spears albums. There is no accounting for taste.

But that's nothing like ethics. When we disagree about the moral acceptability of an action, we are disagreeing about something. Consider moments of moral doubt. We all find ourselves unsure about the right thing to do from time to time. That horrible knot in the pit of your stomach wouldn’t be there if the choice was just another version of Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, ribbed or French tickler. In cases of deep moral doubt, we don’t just feel, we think. Sometimes (and sometimes is all we need to see the problem with ethical subjectivism), we find an ethical argument convincing and we then have a good, rational reason for our choices. But if ethical subjectivism were right, because of the infallibility of moral judgment, moral doubt and good reasons could not exist because which ever way you decided would instantly become morally right.

But while it is fatally flawed, there is a good reason why ethical subjectivism is so ubiquitous, especially on the left. It is a reaction to people we all know who assert that there are two sides to every moral question: their side and the wrong side; people for whom everything is absolute and clear-cut. The technical philosophical term for such people is “asshole,” and ethical subjectivism is often an attempt by good, caring, rational, people to not be assholes.

But while the move to ethical subjectivism is motivated by good intentions, it fails on several counts. First, ethical subjectivism fails to make room for competing views about ethical issues because under ethical subjectivism there are no competing views! Everyone is right. If we were all ethical subjectivists, we would not be living in harmony with people who disagree with us, rather we would each be sequestered in our own little ethical bubble where it doesn’t matter how reasonable or wacko the folks in the surrounding bubbles are. If the idea was to create open-minded ethical discourse this ain’t it.

Secondly, the assholes have figured out that beating ethical subjectivists in moral conversation is easier than finding a white guy at the Republican National Convention. In reaction to the assholes’ lack of tolerance, the ethical subjectivist has elevated tolerance from its rightful place as a virtue and set it up on a pedestal as the virtue. There is no doubt that, all other things being equal, we ought to be tolerant. But all other things are not always equal and this slavish devotion to tolerance has allowed the assholes to sneak in hateful, discriminatory, oppressive views into mainstream public discourse. All they have to say is that by considering their horrendously morally objectionable view to be horrendously morally objectionable you are being intolerant, and, since you say that we always have to be tolerant, you must therefore tolerate the intolerance and injustice that they are advocating. The goodhearted folks who make the move to ethical subjectivism get their asses kicked every single time. Yes, it is good to be tolerant, but in some particular cases other virtues have to come first. Sometimes justice, fairness, and even promotion of tolerance itself require taking actions that do not place tolerance at the forefront. Tolerance is an important thing, but not the only important thing.