Monday, November 24, 2014

Data And The Spread Of Knowledge Pretense

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica, 1504, via Wikimedia Commons
The aphorism industry would you have you believe that one of the signs of intelligence is knowing how little you know. It's a nice picture, like we're all sort of mini-humble-Einsteins, meek in the face of a mysterious universe. But to me trends seem to be going the other way -- by which I mean, the more knowledge we're gaining, the more knowledge pretense there seems to be.

By "knowledge pretense" I mean the idea that it's important to have "an answer" even if you don't know whether it's the right answer and maybe even if you know it's the wrong answer.

It's like, no matter what problem you are facing, in our era of metrics and optics, you hear constantly about the importance of gathering more data. Gather data. Plot it visually, and run it through some software. Some numbers will come out.

But with a lot of modern problems the issue isn't that we don't have enough data, it's that we're trying to measure and what we have data on are two completely different things. But no one wants to admit we just can't know. So we gather more data.

For example, everyone wants to improve K-12 education. And we keep coming up against the problem that what we want to improve is really really hard to measure. "How much a student learned" just isn't the kind of thing you can go around easily quantifying.

But instead of acknowledging that, and admitting there's a lot we don't know, there's this relentless rhetoric about the importance of data, gather more data, it's important to get more data so we can understand, make rankings, evaluate. Then when that doesn't work everyone freaks out. But of course it doesn't work. The answers measure what we don't want to track and so can't help but be wrong.

I was first alerted to this problem in my research in ethics. The approach I favor involves acknowledging that there are multiple values -- such as justice and benevolence and respect for others' autonomy -- and then thinking about how we should weigh those values against one another when they conflict, as they so often do.

It's a common knock on this kind of approach that to do that last bit -- think about it, weigh values against one another -- you have to make a judgment call. The theory itself doesn't give you an answer. Often, the explicit implication is that a more unified ethical approach, like simple cost-benefit analysis, would allow you to avoid this problem, by giving you an answer in every case. One principle, a complete set of answers. Voilà! No judgment required!

But this line of thought has always really bothered me. It's no advantage that your theory gives you an answer if you have no reason to think it's the right answer. If there really are a plurality of values, unified approaches like cost-benefit analysis give you the wrong answer. How is it any improvement to get an answer if you know it's wrong?


Isn't a judgment call better than an answer you know isn't right?

Here, I believe, we get to the deep cultural nub of the matter, which is that for some reason in our modern era nobody wants to make a judgment call.

Some people who want to improve education find it alien that the answer might partially involve attracting and retaining people with really good judgment who might exercise that judgment in making decisions. The suggestion that we should use our collective judgment to sort out tricky issues about distributive justice or the environment is scorned as touchy-feely, old-fashioned -- not the kind of objective data-generated answers we've come to know and love.

It's like everyone wants everything to run by algorithm or something. WTF? Why is this?

I'm sure there are many reasons, but I suspect lurking in there are the following. There's the anti-elitism of "who gets to decide?" There's the fear that someone is looking out for their own interests in an unfair way. And mostly, I think, there's the sense that somehow a judgment call is arbitrary. What's a judgment call but just what some person happened to think about something?

I get these are concerns. But honestly, they don't seem weighty enough to me to avoid the alternative,  given that that alternative is knowingly preferring the wrong answer, just because it looks like "science," which seems to me an exercise in utter perversity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Impotence Of Rational Thought, Or, You Know It's Somebody's Job To Make You Feel Bad, Right?

Self-Loathing Comics! How did I not know about this?

I don't know if you read the piece in the Guardian last week by the feminist who "confesses": "I feel guilty but I hate my body."

I thought it was a good and interesting piece, and I'm sure the point of view expressed is -- well, shall we call it "relatable"? Is that the right word for millions of women of all ages and body types screaming "Oui! Oui! Moi aussi!"

But personally, I wasn't surprised at all to hear that a feminist woman hated her body. What could be less surprising than any woman hating her body in the 21st century? Why is it a "confession"?

I guess it's supposed to be a confession because somehow as a feminist she's supposed to "know better," but I've always thought that was pretty much a dead end kind of thought. I mean, who thought "knowing better" was the key to all mythologies? How often are intense feelings like self-loathing impacted by rational thinking? Like, never?

If you ever want to experience the impotence of rational thought, just try to think yourself out of anything like self-loathing, or feelings of inadequacy, or really any negative emotion in which you compare yourself to others.

Your thoughts will just sit there like cartoon bubbles, inert, powerless, hovering over you. Your cartoon bubble might say in 18 point bold point font: "you are good and smart and beautiful!" You might try to think it. You might reason it out. You might even come to think it is true. Still, you get that thought into your brain alongside some bad feelings, it's like a bug going into a the ring with an elephant. "Oh, it was cute you had that though but ... oh."

I was also struck that there's so little reflection in the essay about the various causes. In keeping with our highly individualized times, it's a very individual essay, about what is and isn't "wrong" with certain kinds of eating and certain kinds of thinking about eating.

I always think that in these situations that it's important to remember - among other things - the wide array of forces assembled against you. I mean, in addition to all the usual suspects, you have to remember that it's practically the first commandment of capitalism that you have to feel bad about yourself.

Can we pause to remember there are armies of people whose whole job it is to induce you to feel like you are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough -- and while we're at it, you smell, and you're fat, and your dick isn't big enough?

After all, the insecure consumer is the consuming consumer. And the consuming consumer is the lynchpin of the new categorical imperative: "economic growth." If you're not feeling inadequate, you probably won't buy as many things.

Obviously, I do not mean to imply that somehow in a world of equality and mutual respect and free love that people would go around feeling magically happy and self-loving and so on. People don't NEED capitalism to feel awful. They can do it by themselves. And they can do it to each other, very effectively. And obviously, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing gendered about body-loathing and disordered eating, because obviously there is.

I'm just saying that when you feel bad, it's worth taking a moment to remember that among the many factors and causes the set-up is not neutral. They're using sophisticated tools, honed through eons, to target your emotions. Against that army, how is your little rational thought going to get any traction whatsoever?

News flash: it's not. In a world of competition for everything, when you feel bad, someone actually benefits. It's not a problem with an individual solution. And it's not something you can think your way out of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Culture of Judgment

Athletes in a gymnasium. Gouache painting. Via Wikimedia Commons

Overall I consider myself a pretty non-judgmental person. Unless you're doing something mean or hurtful to other people I'm usually pretty much like "Whatever; knock yourself out." It's a free country.

But lately I've been catching myself judging. Especially in certain situations, I seem to be judging beyond the judgment necessary for daily life. And for some reason the gym -- and especially the exercise class I go to -- is a place that really brings out the judgmental asshole in me.

I judge people who join the exercise class late. I judge people who bring their phones into the class and check them in between workout tracks. I judge people who choose the more challenging option for a particular movement instead of the less challenging one even though they're physically incapable of doing the more challenging one in anything like a proper style.

You know when people doing a plank refuse to put their knees down even though they're not strong enough to do a plank on their toes, and so their butts go way up in the air, so it becomes a non-exercise for them, like doing downward dog? I am so judging those people. They drive me nuts.

But why? I know it's stupid to have an opinion. I know these people all have their reasons. Besides, what do I care? But unless I'm constantly policing my thoughts, these judgment comes right back.

The other day I went to an hour long exercise class and fifteen minutes into it -- fifteen minutes in to an hour class! -- a woman-of-a-certain-age came in. This happens to be a class where there's a lot of running and jumping, so before class the instructor always asks "Is this anyone's first time at this class?" and then explains how you don't have to do the running and jumping and how you can do other things and make substitutions so you're still getting the same workout etc. etc. etc.

Right away my inner judgment person was on high alert. Fifteen minutes late! But I thought to myself, "OK, maybe she comes to this class all the time and knows the drill; that'd be all right."

But no. She had no idea what was going on. For all the moves she couldn't do, she just kind of made up her own bopping to the music in a way that suited her. Her burpee was a kind of touch-your-toes and mini-hop move. Her plank was a classic downward dog.

And inside -- even as I'm doing the class and panting for breath -- I'm thinking, "If it's your first class you should come on time! And follow the instructions! They're there so you don't hurt yourself! And so that you actually get a work out!" She was right next to me and I just couldn't put her out of my mind.

So, WTF? What the fuck is my mind on about? I can't understand it myself. But since we're all here, let me work through a few hypotheses.

The "What Is The Point Of Exercise Class" Hypothesis: Exercise classes work partly because of the camaraderie of everyone being on the same page. The latecomers and flakes get in the way of that, and so I judge them.

Evaluation: Probably partly true, but doesn't explain the depth of feeling I bring to the whole thing, or the way I judge at the gym generally. Also kind of boring as an explanation.

The "Chaotic Environment Hypothesis": The rest of everything has become so chaotic, with everyone doing whatever the hell they want all the goddamn time, that the few spaces of structured expectation become sacred. Dealing with constant crossing against the light, eating and talking in the library, and throwing the recyclables in the garbage wears me down and turns me into a judgmental lunatic.

Evaluation: There may be something to it. You're in a long line and you deal with ten people in a row who finally get up to the cash register and THEN suddenly start getting out their wallet and you want to scream "Yes, payment! You will be paying! You could have spent the last ten minutes getting out your wallet! It wasn't a surprise" It builds up.

But still, it's pretty incomplete. Why judge at the gym when I could directly judge these actual anti-social behaviors?

The "Culture of Judgment Hypothesis": We live in a culture of relentless and constant judgment. Every third thing out of someone's mouth is passing judgment on someone else. It gets to me. Judgment is normalized, and feeling judged, I judge back.

Evaluation: There might be something to it. Even though on the surface we're all "live and let live," underneath, we're all silently judging one another. The internet these days is like one massive sharing of everyone's grievances with everyone else's behavior.

Not only does this normalize judgment, but maybe it makes me defensive. You judging me? You have opinions about my hairstyle or my devotion to Apple products or my love of Trollope or my  choice to wear high heels?

Well, two can play at that game, sweetheart.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hard Copies And The Coming Apocalypse

Detail from Medieval Book of Hours (1533), via Wikimedia Commons

A little while ago I told a friend that when I buy an e-book, I often buy a hard copy of the book at the same time. Not surprisingly, my friend was a little like, WTF? Is that an "oh look at my library" sort of thing?

No. As I told my friend at the time, one reason I buy and hold on to a lot of hard cover books is that I think you'd have to be crazy to trust the mega-corporations that produce e-books. Surely you remember when Amazon disappeared all those copies of 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009, becoming an early strong entry in the most ironic moment of the new millennium? How creepy was that?

Amazon just has the power to take away or change your book at any time. Once Amazon has that power, what are we supposed to do, trust them not to use it? What will happen when Homeland Security tells Amazon some book or part of a book is pro-terrorism/anti-American/related-in-some-nebulous-way-to-the-vague-possibility-of-child-pornography?

You know what will happen. The book will be synced out of your kindle and out of your life forever.

That's reason number one for having the ink and wood pulp on the shelf. But there's also this other thing, which is that the fact that so few people want to buy and hold on to physical books makes me wonder: is no one else thinking about the coming apocalypse?

I mean, is it really so far fetched to think that part of the coming climate disaster is going to involve having little access to electricity? And that if there's not much electricity, the only texts we're going to have access to is the text that's actually printed on paper?

Everything else would be lost, right? I'm struck at how few people seem to worry about this. Getting rid of library books -- especially if you can have "e-access" -- seems to strike almost everyone as simple common sense. But what's going to happen when the lights go out?

In his recent book Ethics for a Broken World, the philosopher Tim Mulgan deploys the incredibly imaginative technique of presenting his book in the form of lectures that take place after the coming apocalypse, when resources are terribly scarce and there's not enough to keep everyone alive. In the imagined future, they refer to life in our period as the "affluent" world.

In studying the affluent world, the lecturer of the future explains, they use texts "translated from fragments of affluent philosophy recently recovered from the sunken cities of the western Atlantic: the famous Princeton Codex."

You get the picture. A lot of land is under water. There's no internet. There's no JSTOR or iBooks  or Project Gutenberg.Whatever we got is salvaged from some actual books and actual pieces of paper.

In my home, we use the term "Princeton Codex" as shorthand for the collection of ideas around the possibility of a dark future, where tattered damp copies of Portnoy's Complaint and A Theory of Justice and The Autobiography of Malcom X are all there is from which the people of the future might be able to connect with us, to remember us, and to grasp what the hell we were thinking.

Hard copy books were much on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went through my crisis of stuff. I got rid of clothing and kitchen stuff and unwanted gifts and old pieces of paper, but there's one category of thing I didn't touch: the books. They're piling up, but it doesn't bother me.

The possibility that the tiny libraries of readers like me all around the globe might help, or at least momentarily entertain, the people of the future came to mind immediately when I read this week's fiction in The New Yorker, a story called "The Empties" that takes place in the near future, two years after the power goes out.

A small city Vermont is struggling along. Everyone who hasn't died of disease has pretty much learned how to chop wood, how to use fireplaces, how to make "arrangements" for the other things they need, and how to get along without knowing what is happening anywhere else.

And at the center of town, a librarian carries a shotgun. She sleeps in the library, and allows no one to check out anything. You want to read, you sit in the building, because:

"People might share their last finger of motor oil, Matilda says, break a four-inch candle in two, divide a pot of beans to serve eight, but they’ll kill you for a book."

Next time you're tempted to avoid the clutter and go e-book only, think of your 23rd century counterpart. She might be cold and hungry, but she might also be jonesing for a little education or light reading. Don't let the Princeton Codex be all she has.

Monday, October 27, 2014

World Citizenship And Its Discontents


I feel like there's an idea out there that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world and that somehow the internet, by connecting us all up together, is part of making that happen.

Whether a person lives on your block or lives halfway across the world, no matter: with the click of a mouse you can find out what they had for breakfast or whether they're being shafted by their local city council or law enforcement or what their views are on the latest celebrity sex scandal.

It's a nice idea, and when you're looking at one of those pictures taken from space of the whole earth it's easy to get into that "big blue marble" mood. . 

But honestly it's not really working out for me.

For one thing, I can only care about a pretty limited number of people at a given time. I care a lot about the people in my actual life. I'm sad when they're sad and I'm happy when they're happy and I'm worried when they're in trouble. But I can only do that for so many people.

The rest of the world? Sorry, no. The truth is, when I read about the sadnesses, thrills, and troubles of strangers I often feel overwhelmed, annoyed, envious or impatient. And then I feel like a cold, surly, heartless son of a bitch. It's not good.

Also, I'm tired of hearing so many opinions. Why is so much of what people have to say to one another their opinions about things? "Cats are mean and destroy wildlife." "No, cats are cute but you must keep them inside." "Person X is a hateful monster." "No, person X is doing the best they could, is so much better than person Y." "X is bad." "No, people who criticize X are bad."

I have nothing against opinions per se. They're often very important. But I can only handle a few at a time. A lot of opinions send my brain into overdrive, because I don't know the backstory, or because I know part of the backstory and have to suddenly decide whether I should be learning more of the backstory which causes me to have to think about the sources of my information, or because I do know the backstory and I don't really agree and I have to think about why that is.

Worse, being a citizen of the world often seems to require having a lot of opinions. Once you've heard a bunch of things about what happened and then you've heard a bunch of opinions, you're often then asked to have an opinion. Again, nothing against opinions. I have lots. But I can only handle a few at a time. For me, forming a bunch of new ones can be a serious drain on my mental energy.


Before I started studying philosophy I studied math. And one of the things I loved about studying math was how few opinions I was called on to form. Mostly I just learned mathematical concepts and struggled to prove some things from some other things. I could go days without hearing or forming opinions.

One of the few things I heard my math professors express opinions about was the relative difficulty and merit of different kinds of math. The topology people thought that category theory was stupid and easy, or the algebra people thought analysis was dry, or someone thought the "best years" of set theory were over. It's a narrow range, and, especially as a student, it was easy to just let it go in one ear and out the other.

Once I started studying philosophy and hanging out with humanities people, I was stunned by the number of opinions I was expected to have right off the bat. "What'd you think about that article?" "What'd you think of the talk?" " What do you think about so-and-so?" "What do you think?" "What's your view on things?" "What's your take?" "We want your opinion!" Phew.

World citizenship means you can have opinions on anything, anywhere, happening in any context. It's exhausting.

But honestly, I think one of the biggest discontents of world citizenship for a lot of people is the way it constantly hammers home at you that you are a tiny speck in a gigantic world.

If you think of yourself as part of a smaller community unit, and you use that unit as a comparison class, it's likely you can achieve something great relative to that group of people. Maybe you're smart or accomplished, or maybe you're just really funny or nice, or maybe you make really great potato salad or something.

When you're a citizen of the world, you see everyone's eyes on someone else, twenty-four seven. You're either super brilliant world famous amazing person, or you've got something viral, or else ... or else you're nobody: just some fruit fly in the banquet of life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things

Here at TKIN we pride ourselves on our highly developed advance planning skills. But even the best planner sometimes can't get it all together -- especially when it's grading season. I didn't have time to write a post -- so I thought I'd post some photos for your week's amusement.

This was the attribution plaque for an LGBT-themed mural near my home. I assume that's a self-portrait by the artist, and every time I walked by it made me happy. I like the way the rainbow theme is worked in, but mostly I like the expression on the artist's face. After a month or so someone put a stupid sticker in the middle of it, advertizing some dumb thing, and the whole sign got taken down and replaced with something drab and informational : (


I go to Buffalo a lot, and this was taken at the public library downtown.  They must have had some Wizard of Oz-themed event. I have no idea what it's about, but I like it.


Wine at the LCBO.


I've always been crazy about color swatches and paint samples. Generally anything where there's a bunch of things that are similar but different knocks me out. So I love this mannequin that I saw at The Bay last summer. I also love how the other mannequin is like "Stick with me, sweety, and I'll show you a good time!"


I think this picture speaks for itself.


I commute on a Greyhound bus, which means I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the Toronto bus terminal, which is where I took this photo. I've been looking at this excess comma for about nine years, yet it still has the power to drive me f*&#ing crazy on a daily basis.



 A few years ago I spent some time in Ann Arbor from January to April and I joined the local Y to work out. They had FIVE different locker rooms: women with children; women, no children; men with children; men, no children; and families. I understand this sign is meant simply to convey "women, no children," but somehow I always found the image of a child with a red slash through it kind of disturbing.

It was a cold winter that winter, and I had kind of a boring lonely walk from my apartment to the Y. But that walk always took me past this window, where someone had placed this Gumby-like figure. It always made me smile:


Happy autumn everyone and I'll see you next week!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stuff

Thilafushi: garbage island

Like everyone here in the pre-apocalypse, I have a fraught relationship with stuff. It's not that I have too much stuff. On the contrary. I live in a small one-bedroom condo and if you walked in you'd probably start rolling your eyes and muttering that I seem like one of those annoying people who keeps their stuff under control, doesn't abide clutter, and alphabetizes their books (after sorting them into appropriate categories, natch). And yes -- I am that person.

One reason I don't have too much stuff is that I have issues with stuff. This weekend I was cleaning out a few things, and at first I found some things I hadn't used and wanted to get rid of. Wordpress for Dummies. A skirt that I hadn't worn since Bush administration. A jacket that is now older than my students. Unwanted gifts that had passed their statue of limitations for how long I felt obligated to keep them around. It felt good. Constructive. Sensible.

But things quickly began to get a little out of control. I started to wonder why I wasn't getting rid of more stuff. I started to freak out about all the stuff I do have and why it's here haunting me. Why won't it leave me alone and free? What if I had to go somewhere in a hurry? What do you think, stuff, you can just anchor me here just by existing? I'll show you.

As I pondered throwing a way a perfectly good pack of envelopes and some printer paper, I suddenly remembered my father, a man whose issues with stuff were legendary and whose manic purges of stuff surely played a role in my current relations with stuff. My father hated stuff so much that back in the day, when I was a kid, he would throw away the pages of the TV Guide that were no longer relevant: since the midpoint staples came on the schedule for Monday, every night after that my father would remove the pages for that day, 'til come Friday, there were just a few pieces of paper flittering around.

Caught up in his anti-stuff mania, my father would throw away half-used pads of paper, as he vocalized his mantra over and over -- "If in doubt, throw it out!" -- and silenced his critics by pointing out that "we can always buy another one." As a kid I was half scandalized and half-thrilled at this craziness. I understood that throwing away useful things was in some sense wrong. But I loved the feeling of it -- the freedom, the independence from the weight of the stuff, the sense that life could be lived on a whim: if you need paper at 4:00, you can get some at the store at 3:00!

As an adult I've experienced this drive to get rid of the stuff again and again. I've thrown away all  the paper notes from every phase of my academic life. I've thrown away all the diplomas I've ever earned. I've thrown away all my old letters -- letters on paper! written by a friend! to me!

As I was talking myself down this weekend and forcing myself not to throw away things I knew I'd want and need later, I reflected on why ordinary stuff feels to me like the end of the world.

One: stuff is about the inherent neediness and limitations of the human condition. You need bedding, and clothes, and pots and pans, and dishes, because you need to dress yourself and cook food to stay alive, and in the modern world you need stuff to do those things. If I threw away all my tights today, I'd have to go buy more tights tomorrow. Stuff is a reminder that if you want to wear crazy pink boots on Thursday, you have to procure and save those boots. They're not just conjurable out of thin air. In a very real sense, you are dependent on your stuff. That may not depress you, but it depresses me.

Two: stuff reminds us of the modern disappointingness of things. As consumers in a market society, it's our destiny to be disappointed, because it's the drive of the whole enterprise to make us want things we don't have. Mostly, stuff sucks. And in our particular consumer society, you can either be a normal person whose sucky stuff will last a few years at best, or you can be the kind of rich asshole who buys things intending that his great-grandchildren will use them. Either way, it's no good.

Three: stuff is death. I don't know what this means, exactly, but I think it's true. I don't know if you've read that book White Noise, by Don Delillo, but it's a book about death, and it takes place in a house full of stuff. After the Hitler scholar Jack Gladney has a conversation with his doctor about his impending death, he comes home and starts throwing things away:

"I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, highchairs and cribs, collapsible TV trays, beanbag chairs, broken turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationary, manuscripts of articles I'd written, galley proofs of the same articles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-out toasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took me well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn't want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me."

Why Star Trek needlepoints, old shelf paper, and umbrella stands say "death" to Jack Gladney I'm not really sure. But I'm with him 100 percent.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ganging Up On The Concept Of Justice

Justice. I don't know what this is or where it's from but I like it.
Wasn't it just recently that justice was considered one of the fundamental pillars of modern western society? Wasn't it justice that was supposed to be the foundation for that whole human rights business? Wasn't justice what we were honoring with all those statues with the blindfolds and scales and all that? Wasn't "fighting injustice" how people described their activities when they were trying to make the world a better place?

So isn't it weird to hear so many enemies of justice lately dismissing justice as a phantom value, something that doesn't really exist?

One of the enemies of the concept of justice is found in the forces of efficiency. The forces of efficiency are those who think that what's valuable can be measured in terms of overall effects. The more ambitious front of the efficiency forces (like some philosophical utilitarians) might aim for maximizing well-being, which you can at least see how it might make sense as an overall value.

But more economically minded efficiency forces have known all along that going down that road means that poorer people should get more stuff. So they redirected toward "Pareto efficiency" which just means you can't make one person better off without making another worse off -- which let's face it is about the lowest bar you could possibly set for a measurement of how things should be. It's like you're deciding how to share some food and you say "well, don't throw any away.' Yeah -- thanks for that insight!

The economically minded efficiency forces are the ones you always hear talking about "growth" whenever some inconvenient issue arises. Why are workers being mistreated? Uh, "growth." Why are government services being dismantled? "We're growing the economy." Why can't everyone have health care? "This is better for growth." I feel like with growth people there's always this idea of "oh, once we grow the economy we can use the money any way we like and we could just give it to the people who got shafted by the policy." Sure -- and then we can all go celebrate in Valhalla and eat magic apples and live forever.

For a few hundred years the efficiency forces have been telling us that justice is a kind of false value, that there's no such thing really, that what seems like "justice" is just people having some feelings.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you -- especially the doctrine's economic form. It's more efficient to let you keep your stuff and do what you want to do, so poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

Another enemy of the concept of justice can be found in the forces of liberty. The forces of liberty are those who say the only real value is respect for individuals' rights to do as they please. Other rights -- and other values -- well, you might have thought they sounded good, but really they're kind of a fake-out. The forces of liberty sometimes say they're all for justice, it's just that they know with their moral insight that true justice is about people getting to keep their property, as long as they got it justly-- leaving aside, I guess, the fact that everything any western hemisphere person has acquired was gotten through a chain  of events that includes land-stealing, slavery, etc. etc.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you. You get to keep what you have and do what you like. You don't even need the efficiency loop-around. Poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

When it comes to trying to say why, exactly, justice is a phantom value, the enemies of justice have various strategies.

Some utilitarian efficiency theorists, like Peter Singer, say that beliefs about what's just are a kind of evolutionary left-over, like it might have helped us survive to think that people ought to be treated fairly, but now that we can do "rational thinking" we know better.

I could go on and on about this -- and in fact I do go on and on, since this is the topic of a some scholarly work I'm doing. But basically, as I see it the problem is that you can't justify utilitarian obligations except by appeal to the same kind of intuitive moral thinking that would work just as well to justify justice-based obligations. There's nothing specially rational about maximizing preference satisfaction -- that's a moral idea just like justice ideas are. Even the idea that interests are things to be satisfied is a product of evolution. So I don't agree that maximizing preference satisfaction is specially rational in a way that justice isn't.

Some economic efficiency theorists say that attempts to be "fair" are really examples of "bounded-self-interest" -- and so are just another way that humans fail to be fully rational. You thought caring about fairness might be a good thing, but from this point of view it seems more like an unfounded prejudice which, in addition to being irrational, also probably hampers growth.

But as I see it, here too there's nothing morally neutral about measuring in terms of efficiency. Sure, "efficiency" might sound precise and scientific where justice sounds vague and ambiguous. But really, efficiency is vague and ambiguous as well. What are we measuring? Well-being? Preference-satisfaction? What if those aren't the same? How do you measure? Should you maximize or just meet the Pareto "low bar" of not throwing the food away?

From the liberty front, we also hear that justice is vague and intuitive. With all the disagreements about justice, who can really say? But again, liberty is vague and intuitive as well, and its nature is a topic of frequent debate.

In fact, when it comes to ambiguity and uncertainty, it should give the "efficiency" and "liberty" enemies of justice pause that although they agree about justice, they disagree about a ton of other stuff, including the basic values. So it's not like the other values are so obvious and crystal clear that they command universal agreement either.

Personally, I think most people care about efficiency, liberty, justice, and other values, all at the same time. Yes it's hard to prioritize and figure out how to honor all of them. But that is, I believe, our moral task.

One of the things I work on in philosophy is meta-ethics, which basically means the foundations of ethics and ethical reasoning, and I try to figure out what status our intuitive beliefs have, and what this tells us about the importance of various values and how they can be mutually honored.

And sometimes I'm like "WTF am I doing with this obscure topic?" And then I think about the enemies of the concept of justice, and I remember.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Vulnerability, Feminism, and Writing While Female

Recently, I was going to write a post that started with an anecdote that -- well, let's say it was an anecdote that showed me in a personally vulnerable light.

And at first I thought -- well, wtf, why not? Showing vulnerability can be a hallmark of good writing. When an author shows their weaknesses and self-doubt -- their insecurities and uncertainties, their neuroses and pain -- the reader connects with them, is drawn in, feels their own self-doubt and pain assuaged. One of the noblest functions of literature -- making us all feel less alone -- is thus attained.

And yet, in the end, I was like "Nah, I don't think so." Perhaps not surprising. You may have noticed that this blog often foregoes the narrative, introspective, personal, emotional style for one that is more declarative, outward-looking, and opinionated.

As I've said and I'll say again and again, this is not because I don't care for the narrative, introspective kind of writing. In fact I love it. But sometimes I don't do it, sometimes for reasons that I don't do it has to do with the whole problem of "writing while female."

Because I feel like when you're writing while female, things that might otherwise be read as "brave person opens up and lets us see his vulnerable side" instead get read as "weak woman reveals her weaknesses and and lets us see her weak side."

It's like what happens when women try to use self-deprecating humor. Instead of it being like "oh, funny, you were making fun of yourself!" people just take your remarks at face-value. You: deprecated. If a male professor says in a joking tone that Gee, despite having a PhD, they just can't keep their appointments sorted out -- oh ha ha. If a woman says it? People start falling all over themselves with suggestions for tweaks and improvement. So. irritating.

Recently the comedian Jen Kirkman has been brilliantly showcasing this effect by publicizing and responding to the inane and inappropriate responses that she gets to her stories and jokes. If she makes a joke about her romance situation, it's like "Don't worry! You're pretty! You'll find someone!" If she makes jokes about her modest popularity it's like "Don't worry! You'll make it! Fuck the haters!" To both of which she is like "People! They are jokes. I am a comedian. I am not asking for sympathy." As someone who listens obsessively to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast I can tell you: men making self-deprecating jokes do not elicit that kind of reaction.

And same thing too with hedging and uncertainty. A man who qualifies his statements by pointing out that it's not always so and there are exceptions and maybe I don't have the whole story sounds like a man who is confident enough to acknowledge that the truth is complex. But for some reason, when a woman qualifies her statements, it's like "Oh she's uncertain, must not know what she's talking about."

Ever since I encountered this dating advice for women from an expert (blogged previously here) I've been brooding about the way that at some deep level, men just like it if a woman hedges, and doesn't make too many declarative statements, and doesn't check her smartphone.

The way self-doubt and vulnerability, when expressed by women, prop up the attitudes certain people have, of women as self-doubting and vulnerable, and of wanting women to be self-doubting and vulnerable -- well, it makes me grouchy and combative.

It makes me want to put my game face on, and say what I think about things, and leave out the anguish and hurt feelings, and leave out the stories that make the reader picture me, metaphorically unclothed, with my vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see.

So that anecdote? Sorry: you'll never get to hear it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dreaming Of Other Worlds And The Garden-Variety Disappointingness Of Ordinary Life



At the Eaton Centre where I sometimes like to hang out, there's a giant ad set up for the Cirque du Soleil's new "Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities!" show. The theme is that you'll enter a portal to another world, a world of mysteries and surprises and interesting things.

Every time I see it I think about the depth of my attraction to the whole other worlds thing -- especially worlds like the ones they're suggesting that involve both flying through the air and cool clothes and how, because I can't cognitively enter in to the actual other worlds idea, I'm unable to see the spectacle for anything but a bunch of people doing acrobatics -- which, let's face it, appealing as it might be, is another kind of mood thing altogether and is actually among the most worldly thing out there.

It reminds me of this time when I was around eight years old and my parents bought me a fantastic Christmas present that came in a huge box. When I tore the box open, I found it was an oversize chess set, with oversize sculpted pieces, to be played on a large carpet with a chess board pattern on it. The pieces were about eight inches tall and weighted with sand, like weeble-wobbles, so they didn't fall over. And were shaped like for real. I mean, the castle was a castle -- or at least a turret-y thing -- with a staircase winding around it and a castle-y roof. The bishop was a man with a funny bishops hat and robes. The queen -- well, you get the idea. So cool.

I thought this was a great gift. But what I remember most vividly about the occasion of receiving it was not actually anything about the gift itself but rather what I felt when I came down and saw the very large box under the tree.

Because when I saw that box I had a set of feelings I had often as a child. These were a mix of something like "Ooooh, maybe that box contains a portal to another world!" and "Oh, Patricia, you know all that 'other world' stuff is all made up."

I was always somehow hoping there was something else.

This was not, let me emphasize, because there was anything wrong with my life or something making me unhappy. As a child I had a wonderful home life with doting parents and the whole nine yards. Sure, the other kids picked on me at school. But that had nothing to do with why I was daydreaming about another world. The reason I was daydreaming about another world was much more elemental. I just felt, "Really? Is this all there is?"

This world of apples and astronomy and TV sets and baseball games? This is it?

When it came to the box, I'm sure I was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, which "tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, decides to drive through it in his toy car."

Milo has all kinds of surreal adventures that involve funny plays on words and his other world is vivid and fascinating and full of interesting characters. I remember thinking how fun it would be to be Milo, and how I hoped I would someday that I too would receive the gift of a tollbooth portal to hilarity, even though I knew it was impossible. I remember also what a fake-out I thought it was when Milo woke up the next day and the tollbooth was gone but instead of being disappointed he was all "Oh, there's so much that's interesting here!" Hmph.

Incidentally, what I did not remember, and just learned from Wikipedia, is that Milo's quest involves rescuing princesses, which I believe speaks to the depth to which I identified with Milo and not with any of the girls or women in the story, something that seems to have been characteristic of me as a young reader and which probably had profound effects on the development of my personality. But that's another post for another day.

Anyway, as I got older and started to became the rational-minded person I can't help but be today, I lost the easy ability to entertain the idea of the other worlds, and I stopped thinking of magic shows and the tooth fairy and large boxes as possible sites for escaping the everyday.

But I never lost the melancholy of being stuck here in this world that seems, relative to my imagination anyway, kind of a drab and dull and a bit of a disappointment.

For a long time I assumed that I was quite unusual in my particular mix of ideas, because it seemed like a lot of people who knowingly experience my kind of alienation go on to do something about it: they get religion, or join a cult, or become a conspiracy theorist, or whatever -- outcomes that have never even remotely tempted me.

But as time goes on, I wonder how many people experience a feeling like mine without realizing it. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of people find staying satisfied with the basic good things in life is not always easy. How many people are successful, with a lovely family, yada yada yada, and find themselves just unable to enjoy themselves?

I feel like when this happens it's almost always chalked up to something very particular. It's modern life -- so stressful. It's modern relationships. It's the new social media FOMO whatever. It's all the fault of someone's parents or something that happened to them as a kid. It's not being able to live out your real dreams.

But maybe those aren't always the reasons. Maybe just being a human in this world is just not so great, and therefore often leaves us feeling disenchanted, dissatisfied, left with the feeling I had at age eight when I encountered my chess set box and had to grapple with the realization that there was no way that box had a phantom tollbooth in it because a phantom tollbooth is not a real thing.

My point being that, contra what you've been told by the twenty-first century entreprenurial positive thinking establishment, you don't need a special explanation for the garden-variety disappointingness of life. It's there because life is garden-variety disappointing.

So, when someone's feeling bad, instead of looking for reasons and causes and explanations etc. etc. etc. maybe we could just be more like "Yeah, I know, huh? Here, have a cookie."