Monday, September 15, 2014

Is Reading So, Like, Nineteenth Century?

Don Quixote in the Library, Adolf_Schrödter, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Every September we go back to school and every September I go over the idea that to be successful in your philosophy class you have to read some difficult texts and every September the students get a little glazy-eyed and there are are questions having to do with the point of reading for class.

And every September I try to explain, in a brilliant impersonation of a movie-land Boring Professor, why being able to read things for yourself really matters in terms of forming your own opinion and not just being spoon-fed ideas from people who are actually trying to talk you into something. Every September I try to talk about how if you're not already skilled at reading difficult things, part of the point is to help you read difficult things. Every September, yada yada yada.

Every September I get vaguely irritated thinking about the range of forces that work together to make students think that the point of education is "efficient knowledge transfer" -- a range that weirdly includes sci-fi and pop culture but also certain educational administrative entities and ignorant news-y education pundits and know-it-alls.

Every September I ponder the obvious implicit question: if that's what knowledge is, what the hell are we doing reading anything at all? Hey, Prof, the 1850s called -- they want their learning methods back.

Every September I reflect on the fact that even if university classes are sometimes about efficient knowledge transfers, humanities courses are really about something else, and about how even if that something else is hard to pin down, at least it has something to do with learning how to think for yourself -- something that, contrary to widespread opinion, I'd like to affirm is actually very difficult, and something that seems to me to have something to do specifically with encountering words.

Every September, this prompts me to start thinking about what the deal is. Hey reading, you think you're so great. What makes you so special?

Every September, I think about how exchanging ideas works pretty well when you're using words -- and how once you're using words anyway, it's hard to see the point of presenting them in some ridiculous ephemeral form like a video when you can just, you know, write and read the words themselves instead.

Every September I think about the novels I've read and how I like to use them as examples in class and how this is a problem that just gets worse and worse. Every September I mention examples like "Orwell's book, 1984" and every September the students are, like, "What about that movie -- "The Dark Knight"? and I'm like "Sorry, I'm old and steeped in a culture of words. I'm sure I haven't seen it. Why don't you tell us what happens?

Every September I think about my commitment to the uncomfortable truth that encountering the Human Condition through movies is not like encountering the Human Condition through words -- which is obviously not to say Movies = Bad and Books = Good or anything like that.

And every September I think about the way that the drama of film is just not the same as the drama of word; I'm reminded yet again about how film has this tendency to glamorize, and I encounter the uncomfortable fact about myself that cruelty and violence, presented in the right way, are things I can enjoy watching, even when the same thing, described in words, would horrify.

Then every September when I think about these things I'm reminded of the book and the movie Gamorrah -- which if you don't know is an incredible non-fiction book about organized crime in Italy written by a young guy who sort of got to know people and then had to go into hiding -- and I remember how when I first saw the movie I was, yes, shocked at what it depicted but also, yes, kind of enthralled with the visual beauty of it, by the beauty of the crumbling slums, shot somehow in the sun to make them look like artwork, by the beauty of the kids, with their black hair and expressive faces, and even, yes, by the beauty of the scene in which some gangsters are all in a salon getting their nails done and they all get shot.

Every September I remember, with a shudder, how when I read the book I felt so chastened, by the way the same events described in words brought home the reality of poverty and violence, brought home the horror of having to choose between killing people for the mob and not having enough to eat or worse, brought home how an Italian slum where life is cheap is a place no one wants to be, brought home how sunlight and whatever have nothing to do with it.

And every September, this circles me back to the importance of reading, and I feel a burst of unapologetic fervor about it: yes, there's going to be reading; no, there's no shortcut, no, we're not going to watch a video.

And if that means I'm stuck in the nineteenth century - well, whatever. There are worse things to be.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Prestige Markets, Or, Explanatory Problems in Economics

Harvard. Prestige, we has it.
A few months ago I read the book Flash Boys, which is the Michael Lewis cowboy shoot-em-up story of the recent High Frequency Trading shenanigans. Early in the book, Lewis gets talking about the American Banker Lifestyle and its associated ecosystem, and how in that ecosystem it's REALLY important to work for the "right" bank.

And the "right" bank, it turns out, isn't the one that is the most successful financially or the one that has the best job amenities or whatever. The "right" bank is basically a matter of cool. Central to Lewis's narrative is how the Canadian outsider hero of his story comes to town and is a little mystified by the way the whole thing works -- and how the Canadian bank he works for, RBC, is never really in the running for cool, even when they start to make a gazillion dollars and come out on top of various official rankings and so on. Though you'd think money is the thing -- money isn't really the thing.

In banking, it seems hierarchy isn't about money. It's about ... something else, something associated with aggression and masculinity and something something I'm not clued into. When I read that I thought, "Wow, people are really motivated by ... something."

Then I a week or so ago I read this Washington Monthly article about how students at Harvard, who come in to university determined to something interesting or different or altruistic, and who have never even really heard of investment banking when they arrive, are nonetheless lining up like lemmings for the Wall Street jobs come senior year.

The article showcases how the banks have created a system on campus that attaches prestige to banking jobs and taps into the students' shared mania for competition. It's like the kids go, "Oh, that's the plum? Oh, OK -- look, I can get it!" with little sense of why this particular thing would be the thing at all or what the point is of any of it.

And I thought -- aha, that's it! It's "prestige" that is the word I was looking for, for what so often motivates people in surprising ways.

Once you think about prestige as itself a kind of consumer good, you can see some interesting things. Because it's a social value, it's entirely a matter of culture what does and does not grant prestige. And culture is, as always, fickle. Men can often get prestige through money and career achievement -- but not always. For women it's almost like "being hot" is a necessary -- but certainly not sufficient! -- condition for prestige. One of the effects of racism and other -isms is that some people can't get prestige, because no matter what, other people don't see their accomplishments with a prestige-oriented halo.

As the New York Times explained the other day, it's difficult to get men to want to be school teachers. One reason? It's a "status" thing. Low prestige.

I know it's not news that people are motivated to gain prestige. But these examples seem to suggest that people are not just "sort of" motivated to gain prestige, but that they're really motivated to gain prestige. And the Harvard example suggests that it's not all that hard, in certain contexts, to nudge people's perceptions about what does and doesn't count.

From the economic point of view, does the pursuit of prestige reflect an irrational obsession with status over "real goods" or does it reflect the rational pursuit of subjective, but proper, goal?

Actually, I think you could say either -- but in some ways both answers seem wrong to me. Many of the goods we pursue are social goods, and it would be most peculiar to set up a theory in which it's always irrational to pursue a social good at the cost of, say, material objects or other kinds of experiences. The whole idea of rational choice theory is that it's supposed to be neutral with respect to what is, actually good: so if what you want is status and prestige who is any theorist to tell you you're wrong?

On the other hand, it seems strange to say that a person who gave up a lucrative career they would otherwise have loved only because their friends made it seem appealing and they got all competitive about it had actually not lost anything at all. So that the prestige points -- even if they are fleeting and fade -- are just as good as the everything else points. Yet that is what we'd have to say if prestige is an ordinary good alongside others.

It seems to me to matter what the context is for the given preference and how the person came to have it. That's not a radical view: some theorists of preference have said it's essential, in using preferences, to pay attention to where the preference came from.

The thing about that, though, is that once you start talking not just about preferences but also about where those preferences come from, you're suddenly actually talking about "why people do what they do" -- which, in case you haven't noticed, is kind of a complicated humanistic contextual etc. etc. kind of question.

That is, it's not the kind of thing you can understand with economic models and axioms and stuff. You actually have to read some history and literature and philosophy and sociology and probably art and music theory and all kinds of other things.

If you do happen to want to learn those things I'm happy to tell you those departments still exist and we still get together and talk about stuff -- but with the way things are going, it might not be for long.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Encounters The Movie Snowpiercer

A few days ago I saw the movie Snowpiercer -- which, if you don't know, is nestled the tiny Venn diagram overlap area among the categories "South Korean science fiction action film," "based on a graphic novel by some French guys," and "enviro-dystopian stories that take place after an enormous geo-engineering catastrophe."

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you it's the story of what happens after an experiment to counter-act climate change goes horribly wrong and freezes the whole planet, or that it takes place on a very very very long train that was set in motion just before the freeze and that circles the whole earth once a year, busting through the snow and ice, or that the people on board the train are the only people alive, period.

At the time of the movie they've been on the train for seventeen years. I'm also not spoiling anything by telling you that as the details emerge, we learn that the train is divided into sections, with people at the front doing things like dining on steak and partying while people at the tail section are filthy and barely surviving on disgusting protein sludge and crammed into tiny spaces.

The tail people are constantly tormented by vicious representatives from the powers-that-be from the front of the train, who remind everyone over and over that life on the train can only continue if everyone stays in their proper place: front people chilling at the front, and tail people suffering and dying in the tail.

The movie has a lot of themes, but perhaps most obvious is the theme of social stratification and inequality: it's pretty much chance who got the front section tickets, who got crammed into the rear, and who was just left to die, but of course the front section people have elaborate justifications for why the tail people MUST stay in the tail and how they ought to be GRATEFUL to be on the train at all so the should SHUT UP and stay where they are and STOP COMPLAINING. Sound familiar?

What struck me as brilliant in a sneaky way was the idea was making it a TRAIN. The plot of the movie is the story of a tail section rebellion. Since it's a train, the rebellion has to move forward through all the sections. Which means that as our bedraggled tail rebels fight, they cannot avoid passing through classrooms and sushi bars and night clubs, past dentistry and gardening and a woman sipping a cup of tea and reading a book.

The physical linearity space of the train reminded me immediately of these "shot-gun" houses I encountered when I lived in New Orleans. The story behind those -- urban myth or truth, I don't know -- was that at one time houses there were taxed by width, so people started building these long long houses with all the rooms in a row. And the thing about a shot-gun house is the thing about a train: because of the linearity of it, everyone has to encounter everyone else.

This is a big deal in a movie with social themes. Because it means you can't mentally put yourself somewhere else. Usually if you see class struggle and fighting you see either everyone is fighting or you see one group is being violent while the others are being killed and hurt. And maybe you can imagine yourself doing something completely different. Like teaching class. Or gardening.

But because it's a train, no can do. The train brings everyone together. The effect of this is that after endless images of dirt and pain and fear and fighting you're suddenly face to face with what are plausibly ordinary scenes of your very own life: you're sipping tea, and reading a book -- or you're teaching your students. But then here are these other people, close to death, right at your feet. Because the cars are all in a line, the train implicates everyone.

I have to say also that during the first part of the movie I found myself frequently returning to the thought that, wow, it might be better to be outside dead in the snow than to be on that train.

that reminded me of a disturbing reading experience I had the other day. I was reading Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer's new book on Sidgwick, and in it they're talking about a potential objection to the utilitarian idea that we should evaluate options by comparing the overall consequences of our actions.

The example includes the following thought experiment asking us to evaluate three options:

1) Peace

2) A nuclear war that kills 99 percent of the population

3) A nuclear ware the kills 100 percent of the population

The authors say "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (1) and (3) would be worse than (2)" -- the potential problem being that (3) seems SO MUCH MORE worse than (2) than (2) is than (1), possibly tough for the utilitarian to explain.

When I was reading I was tired. I misread them as saying that "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (3) -- that is, that it would be best, if there's going to be a nuclear war, if everybody died. I found myself nodding along in agreement with this.

I thought that they were saying that a war that leaves a smallish bedgraggled group of people, alone on earth, to torment one another and fight over the remaining resources, in a horrible world shot through with radioactivity, would actually be worse than a world with no people, where the cockroaches or whatever would be left alone, to re-evolve, hopefully into creatures who were wiser and more peaceful than we're evidently able to be. Seemed right to me.

So it was a bit of a shock to realize this idea, which had struck me as kind of commonsensical, was actually the one they were saying was insane.

I'm sure it says more about me than about anything else that I think it'd be better for no one to be left on earth at all.

But mostly it probably means: when it comes to planning for the post-apocalypse, don't put the Accidental Philosopher in charge.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Philosophy 101, Fall 2064! Brought to you by RitBull™! The "Smarter" Energy Drink!

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Topic 1: Theism and the Problem of Evil

In this topic we're talking about the question that just won't go away: if God is so great, why does bad shit happen? Special focus on: does bad shit really happen, or does it just seem like bad shit is happening?

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Topic 2: Justice and Inequality

In this topic we get very current-eventsy, asking deep questions about whether it's "fair" that some people just inherit huge sums while others have to beg for food. Our discussion will center on the question, "Wait, 'fairness?' Is that really even a thing?"

NOTE: We're thrilled to be sponsored by the Liberty-FTW! Institute for presentation of this great topic! Thanks, liberty guys!

Topic 3: Philosophy of Science

Is science for realz? You may not know it, but for hundreds of years philosophers have been, like, OMG we're not sure! Special consideration of the question: Science after Hume: is it all just a matter of faith?

NOTE: A big shout out to our fantastic sponsor, the Center for a Happy, Healthy Climate. Check out their new video: Carbon Dioxide Is Your BFF!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Online Education and the Fragmentation of Society

For various reasons I recently agreed to make an online version of my philosophy of sex and love course. This is not a "MOOC" -- and it's not going to replace my on campus philosophy of sex and love course or anything like that. It's just going to be offered alongside the campus version in the regular way, through my university, with graduate students grading the tests and essays.

As I set about constructing the lectures that I would later read into the microphone, I noticed right away a certain problem arising: I couldn't know which parts of what I was saying would strike people as obvious, as new but plausible, as mysterious, as dubious, or even as offensive. It's something relatively straightforward to deal with in a classroom. But online? Not so much.

For example, one of the first readings we do in that class is Martha Nussbaum's paper "Objectification." Early on she refers to the ideas of the feminists and legal scholars Dworkin and MacKinnon, that the objectification of women is a huge societal problem and that it is deeply connected to sexuality and the depiction of sexuality in pornography.

It's a difficult set of ideas to explain briefly. I like to focus on the quote from MacKinnon that "All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water" -- which I take to mean roughly that because of the way society is set up, women are not only surrounded by objectifying practices, they often have to choose to be objectified to get along in life, and may come even to experience a preference for objectification -- to, in Nussbaum's words derive our "very nourishment and sustenance from it."

That's just an interpretation. In class, I like to bring up this quotation and ask the students what they think it means and what they think about it.

It's often a pretty lively discussion, because the ideas seem to some people kind of obvious, to others surprising but maybe true, to others completely obscure, and to others implausible.

It's in moments like this that three significant things happen in IRL classrooms.

First, the students who find the idea obscure or implausible can say why they do, and we can talk about it. As I was making my lecture, I realized how many different questions people had had over the years, and how the diversity of experience in our world guarantees the range of what seems "obvious" or "expected" will be vast. Since the world changes and there are always new students, I have no idea what, in the future, they'll be puzzled by or think is weird. If we're there in the classroom, they can tell me, and we can talk about it. Online? Not so much.

Second, students encounter first-hand the range of other student views. In some cases this makes more of an impression on them than anything I might have to say as the teacher. I remember teaching Intro to Philosophy years ago and we were doing a discussion about the existence of god and the problem of evil, and this one student said very in very strong terms that of course he was an atheist, that he had never believed in god, but thought that blah blah blah. And this other student was in my office the next day and his eyes were wide as he said "And that one guy -- he said he was an atheist, had never believed in god! It's kind of more OMG if it's your peer than some weird grown-up at the front of the room.

Finally, students - duh! - learn from one another. Almost always someone who finds the fish-in-water remark intuitive can explain to someone who doesn't why it rings true to them.

It  might seem that all of these things can happen in an online course, because ONLINE DISCUSSION. But I don't know. For various reasons it is difficult to replicate online the particular kind of constructive -- even interested -- back and forth that can happen when a bunch of people are in a room together.

Often, online interaction entrenches people in their own views. They see commenting as offering, rather than listening to, an opinion.

And so it occurred to me that if you start with a bunch of people coming from different viewpoints, the move to online education might erase, even further, the tiny opportunities we have no to exchange with one another in ways that make us see our commonalities as well as our differences.

In an online course, I can try to guess what will seem obvious to people, and try to challenge it through my lectures. But really -- those future people, who the hell knows what they'll be thinking?

Monday, August 11, 2014

We Are In Exile, From We Know Not What

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, via Wikimedia Commons

What if you were plucked up out of your life and sent to another planet where things were similar but just worse all around? What if the people were sort of like people here, only they were really slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? What if the natural environment were really harsh, so that just getting food and water took a huge amount of time and effort?

What if your travel transmogrified you, so that when you arrived, you too became slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? Suddenly you're scarred and mottled and covered in acne - and so is everyone else.

Got the mental picture?

Confession: sometimes I feel like that person now. I mean, I feel like I came from somewhere else, where beings were beings -- where intelligence and beauty were everyone's birthright and peace and pleasure had a proper home. The home planet. A better place. Then I look around at the human condition and think to myself, "My god, how do people live like this?"

If you think of humans as essentially noble intelligent creatures, the conditions we're living in are appalling. We're easily brought down by any number of simple viruses. We're a weird assortment of misplaced orifices and skin you can damage with a fingernail, without even the dignity of fur or a tail. We can't get our basic needs met without either enslaving other people or coming up with ridiculous gadgets. You get even two of us together and get us on virtually any subject, and we'll find something to disagree about. And our poor little feelings are so easily bruised. The icing on the cake: less than a hundred or so years of muddling through, BAM! It's over. No do-overs. No second chances. No probation, and no court of appeals.

I feel like it's the kind of thing you're not supposed to talk about in polite company. The Party Line, at least these days, is gratitude and appreciation. The idea that you're dreaming of better world seems vaguely politically suspect, something like a First World Problem.

And, indeed, I used to think I was in a small minority feeling this way so often, missing the home planet, that maybe I was depressed or sick in the head in some other way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it as a pretty common feeling -- it just has other names. What is heaven, but a home planet that's in the future rather than the past? Same for post-humanism. Same thing for any number of yearnings for Something Else.

And then I remembered reading in Proust about art and the way a painting could be an indication of something from a better world. This article in the Independent about Dutch art in literature confirmed my memory and put it in context. It's in The Captive, and the character of Bergotte is dying, and he goes to revisit Vermeer's "View of Delft."

As the article says, there is a tiny patch of yellow wall, so perfectly painted as to represent beauty in itself. And the yellow patch -- and particularly the perfection with which it is painted -- "appears to the dying Bergotte like a coded signal from a better world, 'based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again.'"

My garden-variety Disappointedness With Life, the tech geek's post-humanist Dream, and Proust's hearing of the faintest call from a world, unlike our own, of sense and beauty where we can finally live in peace and happiness -- these might seem like different things but I think they all speak to the same feeling, widely shared if not widely discussed.

It's the feeling of Exile from Something Else, We Know Not What.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On The Self-Satisfaction Of The Casually Dressed

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at The Kramer Is Now we have a belief -- not a confidently held belief, not a conviction, but still, a belief -- that whatever they might say to the contrary, the vast majority of people care a whole heck-of-a-lot about their clothing and appearance.

The Accidental Philosopher is an uninteresting case. I've always cared a lot about my appearance and I've never been shy to say so. I want to wear just the right sort of thing; I want my hair just so; I love a beautiful pair of shoes. I'm frustrated when my reality fails to measure up to my ideal, which it almost always does. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes: the blue and green dress I loved so much that after I outgrew it I wore it as a shirt; the crazy '70s backless one-piece jumpsuit; the first pair of high-heel sandals, purchased years after I started begging for them.

A lot of people are with me on that. But this post isn't about us. This post is about those other people. In particular, it's about those people who think, and often feel compelled to point out, with a hint of self-satisfaction, that they're the kind of people who really just don't care what they put on, as long as it's comfortable, warm, easy to clean. This post is about how we cannot cede to these people the moral high ground they think they're standing on.

A couple of years ago a guy wrote in -- I think it was to The Chronicle of Higher Education -- explaining exultantly that he just couldn't understand all this talk about clothing in academia and what to wear to teach class, because he just didn't care about clothes, in fact, he boasted, he just got up and put on whatever his wife bought for him and that was that. Voilà! Man, clothed!

In the comments a lot of people were already like, WTF?, pointing out that if a woman said that about husband it would be weird all around. But I found myself thinking more directly, "There is no way that is true."

Imagine if the wife had set out comfortable, warm, easy to clean pants that just happened to have giant red, white, and blue stars on them. Imagine if what she set out was made of skin-tight latex. Imagine if she set out a shirt that was comfortable, warm, and easy to clean, but just happened to have a visual depiction of the man's naked chest sewn on to the front. Do you think he'd just put these clothes on, go to campus? There's no way. I think he'd freak the fuck out.

Years ago when I was young I dated a guy who liked to say he didn't care about clothes. He was a jeans-and-T-shirt type. My own clothing interests he seemed to classify under the category of "Yeah, you never know what interests women are going to have." Any role my clothing might have played in his being sexually attracted to me was an issue swept under the rug and never discussed.

Then one day I borrowed someone's sensible and ugly winter coat. And gee -- it turned out this coat wasn't very attractive -- a fact that this guy eventually told me, going on to suggest, with an attempt at tact, that I wear something else. Hmmm. A little later someone offered the two of us a bunch of quality hand-me-downs. We had very little money and always needed stuff, so anyone who didn't care about their appearance would have said "yes" immediately. But I suspected this guy would not like these clothes. They weren't the right cut of denim. They weren't the right kind of shirt. There were brands suggesting class issues he didn't want to identify with. And I was right: he turned down the offer.

I don't blame him -- I wouldn't have wanted to wear them either. But it shows: in this case, "not caring about clothes" was really more about projecting a certain image of not caring about clothes.

And I think that is often true. Or, perhaps we can say more charitably, that it's not about projecting "I don't care" but rather about projecting an image identifying with a certain set of people -- people who aren't bankers, who don't read GQ, who've never shopped for a tie in their lives. I think this is probably right. And I think most people who "don't care about clothes" are hoping to project an image identifying themselves with a particular set of values, or to reject pretension in favor of simplicity or anti-elitism. Everyone can wear jeans and a T-shirt, you might say, so if we all wear jeans and T-shirts, we can all be the same.

That's fine. Admirable goal. But let's not get confused. It doesn't mean these people don't care about what they wear. They care a ton. They just care in a particular way. So right away, just forget that whole self-satisfaction that is supposed to be based on being Above All Of That. Nobody's above anything here.

And once we're clear that we're all in the same boat about caring, and it's just some people care about X and others care about Y, I think the hope that T-shirts and jeans are somehow inherently more closely associated with progressive values than other clothes isn't quite sustainable.

Look at it this way. For obvious reasons, women can't just opt into the whole "I just wear T-shirts and jeans." Women face relentless bizarre pressures to triangulate sexy-but-not-too-sexy-and-don't-be-frumpy norms. Unless she happens to be a hottie, a woman who throws on comfortable jeans and a T-shirt isn't going to command respect in the workplace and she isn't going to be found attractive by the men she's hoping to date. So it's never so simple.

Other people can't opt in either. Because of racism, black people have to craft their self-presentation just in the service of simple aims like catching taxis and not being harassed in stores.

Still other people, for all kinds of reasons, aren't going to be comfortable in the standard-issue-anti-elitist uniform. Maybe they grew up wearing something else, and jeans feel alien and strange.

So there's at least one sense in which that particular uniform rests on certain assumptions about conformity, and even on some white-guy-privilege.

Furthermore, when people wear all different kinds of clothing, and there's less pressure toward conformity, it's easier to be different: more people can feel like they belong, because belonging doesn't mean dressing the same.

If that's true, then the world needs the backless jumpsuit, pink boots, wearing some crazy stuff people.

So next time you see someone in a crazy outfit, don't think "I don't care about what I wear." Think, "Maybe it's time to buy some pants with giant stars on them." Dress all in blue. Or something. Fly your freak flag, knock yourself out, all of that jazz. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sitting Quietly In A Room Alone: It's The Boredom, Stupid!

Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein
By now I'm sure you've heard about those recent studies that found many people would rather give themselves painful shocks than sit quietly doing nothing. Reading about this research in the popular press, I was like "Can you say Rorschach Test?" It's like everyone who encountered the basic facts had their own spin on how to interpret what happened.

The facts are roughly these: when told to sit quietly alone for 6 to 15 minutes, almost everyone found the experience unpleasant, and many people -- in one case 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women gave themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sitting there.

The conclusion in the abstract for the actual scholarly paper says simply, "Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative."

OK, I admit to being a little bit surprised about the shocks -- but really, is it really news that people find it hard to sit quietly doing nothing? Almost no one ever does this by choice, when people do manage it it's a whole special activity called "meditation," and people who regularly ponder things just in their own minds for long periods of time are considered strange and even sinister. So: how is this a surprise?

After all, it's only been like three-hundred and fifty years since Pascal said that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

But everyone had their own ideas about the significance of the findings.

The Guardian, and some of the researchers quoted, seemed to emphasize the "being alone with your own thoughts" aspect of the whole thing -- as if it were the thoughts people were having that bothered them, as if people just use activities to avoid thinking about things.

This makes no sense to me. People are constantly thinking about things -- I mean, it's not like brooding and worrying are nineteenth-century activities.  The fact that people want to brood and worry while pacing, listening to stuff, and texting doesn't mean they're not brooding.

Many Guardian commentators wanted to pile on the whole "Kids Today! They Can't Think!" ridiculousness. Yeah -- I'm sure you guys all sit around alone contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics all day.

Predictably, The New York Times linked the whole thing up to the OMG modern society is so BUSY we have no time to THINK we're always RUSHING AROUND! As if we're the first generation in the history of the universe that spends a lot of time doing things and talking to other people.

Personally I was astonished that no one mentioned boredom. Isn't it just boring to sit alone with your thoughts doing nothing? I spend a lot of time thinking about things, but I'm almost always reading, typing, writing, talking, listening, drawing, or doing something other thinking-associated activity. Often I'm also doing other activities, like drinking coffee, or looking out the window, at the same time.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things doesn't mean I don't contemplate. I contemplate all the fucking time -- I'm a philosopher; I'm stuffed to overflowing with contemplation.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things is because sitting quietly alone in a room is BORING.

It might seem like this boredom hypothesis is less exciting or revolutionary than the "people can't be alone with their thoughts" hypothesis, but in my view that's not the case. Because the fact that boredom can make people crazy and self-destructive is a profound and unreckoned with truth.

Often our modern western theory of people sneaks in an assumption that beyond basic needs what people want is best described as pleasure or happiness. It depends on what you mean by those things, of course -- but given the depth of the hatred of boredom, it seems to me that pleasure and happiness are barely scratching the surface.

Interestingly, the Guardian subheadline for the story says "Report from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities tackles question of why most of us find it so hard to do nothing."

But as far as I can tell the report does nothing of the kind. The report tells us HOW EXTREMELY most of us find it so hard to do nothing, but it tells us nothing about WHY most of us find it so hard to do nothing.

In that area, we haven't really made any progress-- we're just back with Pascal, observing the human condition. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Economics Imperialism And Its Discontents: Altruism Edition

Family, by Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia  Commons
 As we've observed before, economists are famous for their calculated pose of mystification when it comes to activities we all recognize as ordinary parts of human life -- you know, like caring, playing fair, voting, etc. etc.

And it's not news that one of our human aspects that doesn't fit obviously into the economic toolbox is altruism. The economic agent is self-interested. Altruist people are other-interested. It's a real poser.

You might think that the differences doesn't matter much because economic modeling is about what we do in marketplaces, and in markets people pretty much are self-interested, or something like that. I'm a little skeptical myself -- but it doesn't even matter, because this easy-going, commonsensical answer isn't even the one people seem to be going with.

No -- instead we have "economics imperialism," which self-consciously attempts to use economic methodology to analyze all aspects of human life -- crime, family life, love, sex, you name it. It's "imperialism" because it's intended to colonize the other social-explanatory disciplines, like sociology. The idea of "economics imperialism" is to use the economic model of human behavior to explain and understand everything. Or, as the NYTimes "Economix blog used to say, "Explaining the Science of Everyday Life."

Before we get to the main point, let me just say briefly that the the epistemic and explanatory difficulties seem to me to be vast. Just for starters, consider this. The economic approach is supposed to be "scientific," relying on human behavior and observables and avoiding analysis of murky subjectives like mental states etc. But how is this supposed to work in explanation? Suppose someone does a surprising thing. How can you know whether a) they were behaving irrationally in trying to satisfy an unsurprising set of preferences or whether b) they were behaving rationally in trying to get to satisfy a surprising set of preferences? You always have one equation and two unknowns.

But whatever. Our theme for today is something different, to do with the massaging of preferences so they can be both self-interested and altruistic. You might think "altruism" means caring for others at your own expense. But in his canonical work on the economics of family life, Gary Becker proposes a definition in terms of utility functions: altruism is when one person is made better off by another person being made better off. E. g., a parent's altruism for a child is understood as the parent having some set of preferences such that when the kid does better the parent is more satisfied and thus better off. So -- as we get to below -- it's not really caring "at you own expense" at all.

You might put it by saying that "self-interested" doesn't mean "selfish": A's preference for B to prosper is "self-interested" in the sense that A will do better when B does, but it's not selfish, because it is, in some sense, other-directed.

So far so good. Becker goes on to derive a huge range of "theorems" based on his approach -- like the "Rotten Kid Theorem," which posits that an altruistic parent will (should?) structure incentives in the family to make selfish kids behave in ways that do not harm the interests of other family members. For example, if you promise to apportion your inheritance to your kids in accordance with their needs, siblings will be incentivized to help one another out  -- lest they get left out of the will because all the money went to the brother who never finished school and lives in a cardboard box or whatever.


1) In Becker's approach, every family situation considered consists of one altruist and a bunch of selfish kids. That is, there is no way to model a family with more than one altruist, which means there is no way to even talk about any of the vast number of life contexts in which there are two or more adults who care about one another.

There's a reason for this. As I said, the book is full of theorems. If you have more than one altruist you have multiple interdependent utility functions, and all the cool-looking and intimidating math stops working.

At one point Becker suggests a "wife" could be modeled as one of the "selfish children," but you don't even need this level of ridiculousness to see the problem: the whole thing rests on avoiding the state of affairs many people most desire, of equal persons in a loving and reciprocal home.

2) If an altruist gives something up in order for their target to prosper, you might think the altruist is worse off and the recipient is better off. But in Becker-land, you'd be mistaken! Indeed, since they're both acting in accordance with their preferences, how can you deny they're both better off? That would violate some fundamental economic assumption or other of what economic "well-being" is. 

Becker says the altruist is better off in the sense of receiving "psychic income" for her pains. It's a funny choice, no? You got the car, but I got the "psychic income," so ... we're good, right?

It's weirdest if you imagine it among equal adults who live on intimate terms. If one is altruistic and the other is a selfish bloodsucking vampire, there's no problem with the distribution of goods: they each got what they preferred, after all. According to the model, things are working efficiently and thus well.

3) You know how sometimes when there's a nicer business that tries to do a little altruism or do-gooderism or at least exhibit a bare and basic kind of community spirit, and it's surrounded by bigger and meaner businesses that take a more cut-throat, remorseless attitude, and the nicer business ends up having to take its little business lunchbox and go home?

Well as I reckon, if you use the economic model to analyze interpersonal altruism, you're going to get the same result. Imagine you're the baby bear of altruisism -- just right! -- but you're surrounded by bloodsuckers -- the "ticks" of modern society, if you will. Every time you engage with these people, you'll get a little more psychic income and they'll get a little more ... whatever selfish and self-oriented actual thing they want is. Money -- or food, or attention, health, prestige, etc.

Where will it end?

I'll tell you where it'll end. Eventually you'll be lying there stuffed full of psychic income, but the cupboard will be bare, and you won't be able to afford antibiotics, and you'll die of some easily preventable disease.

Someone may have tried to tell you that economic theories don't have moral implications. Those people were lying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth And Lying In Fiction And Non-Fiction

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman (formerly thought to be Madame Roland) via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday for the first time I read a David Sedaris story and found myself thinking, "Is that really true?"

Mostly I like David Sedaris. His stories are often funny and sad, and as someone who is frequently amused and sad at the same time, I'm always surprised how few things there are to read that bring the two moods together. Maybe that's why I like Philip Roth so much too -- though maybe Roth is more like "funny and angry" -- a notoriously easier combo to bring off.

Anyway, yesterday I read the story in The New Yorker about how he gets one of those step tracking devices and becomes obsessed with tracking his steps to the point where he changes his existing pick-up-the-garbage-around-town routine from a bike oriented thing to a walking oriented thing and that it now takes him around nine hours a day. He gets up to sixty thousand steps a day, which is twenty-five and a half miles, which is, of course, kind of insane.

I get that he's an obsessive guy -- and I get that one point of the story is how obsessive people can get obsessed with anything to the point where some number tracking some pretty pointless thing can nonetheless come to rule your life. 

But the story is presented in terms of an utterly pointless thing becoming a complete obsession. It's a little hard to believe. There was no connection to something else? Wanting to lose weight or walk more for health? (He does lose weight but that's presented as an afterthought.) It's just a random thing that happens to an otherwise successful middle-aged guy with a nice home and partner there to eat dinner with and talk to?

I don't think he is lying. But I started wondering if there hadn't been something left out, something that would make the story seem less strange, less striking and interesting, if it had been included. Like -- a way the obsession was connected to other things. I even developed the base suspicion that the obsession itself had been exaggerated on grounds that twenty-five and a half miles a day is a story, in a way that five miles a day isn't, really.

It's likely that one reason I had these thoughts has to do to the fact that I took a memoir class recently and for that class wrote some things about my life. For the first time I was giving serious attention to the process that starts with memories and turns them into narrative. 

Frankly, it's a somewhat creepy process. A good story has certain elements that make it interesting and fun to read. A particular narrative arc or structure. Engaging characters. An interesting setting. Memories aren't like that.

And when you put the memory materials into the narrative machine, you don't put in fake stuff, but you do shape the stuff you've got to make the story good. You are telling a particular version of things. Your version has to commit to all kinds of decisions about very murky things like: Did this cause that? What was that person like? Was some moment in your life primarily a turning point, a triumph over adversity, of a piece that came before, evidence of something characteristic,  typical or exception?

To me, this kind of "shaping" felt a whole lot like lying.

The weird thing is -- and I was acutely conscious of this taking the class -- that when you think for even a moment about these decisions, they're the same decisions anyone has to make in describing anything.

I don't care if you're writing a historical narrative or making a theory about things or people or doing a philosophy thing or even just writing a stupid managerial report: you have to figure out, from an endless jumble of random and disconnected facts and make endless decisions about which ones are important and which ones are connected and how to put them all together in a way that's meaningful.

So at some level, it's all just a big fake-out.

In certain ways, non-fiction narrative seems like a special problem. Because if you're crafting real events and facts for a narrative, there are many things that might pressure you into making the narrative be "about" something or other.

For instance, aren't you kind of sick of the "triumph over adversity" and "what I learned" narratives? They're such a big part of modern North American culture. When events and facts are massaged into this narrative, they're extra dangerous, because they're reinforcing an already overly represented idea about life: that yes, sometimes, it is possible to overcome obstacles or change. As they say in "Wag the Dog": "It's a story of loss and redemption!"

If it's non-fiction and it's one of these narratives, you risk being manipulated in a special way, because "oh that story again" allows the response, "But it's true!" When really -- well, you know.

And yet -- the matter seems to me complex. Because there might be times when only a true story will do.

I recently heard someone talking about how stories are used in social science to exemplify how certain theories would explain human behavior -- e. g. Mary found herself in X situation and because she had to compare Y and Z alternatives she used W method and found her answer. The speaker pointed out the ways these stories build in assumptions about human behavior that draw on, rather than challenging, stereotypes -- associated with gender, race, etc.

We use stories in philosophy all the time, to imagine things, carry out thought-experiments, or just give simple examples where real examples are too complicated. And it is so true -- there's a real risk of telling the stories in a way that just builds in an understanding of how the world is.

And I thought to myself that at least stories crafted around actual events and people have fixed points that can't be changed and have to be accommodated. So you can't just say anything that "seems right." There will be recalcitrant facts.

And this, too resonated with my memoir writing experience. You might want to say "X happened." But then you find for X to make sense, you need to explain Y. And then for Y to be comprehensible to the reader, uncomfortable fact Z has to be fit in somehow.

Looking back, that might have been my favorite part of the memoir experience -- you might be massaging reality to fit into a narrative, but reality is right there pushing back at you.

At the end of the David Sedaris story he talks about how his local council is going to name a garbage truck after him, and they call to ask what font he wants used. I found myself with a million questions about this part of the story. People name garbage trucks? Is that just a British thing or is that everywhere? How does that get decided? You really get to choose the font?

It's nice that with a true story there are answers to these questions, even if they're things you'll never know.