Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Despair In Art, Philosophy, and Life; Or, Schopenhauer Goes To The Movies


I loved the movie Anomalisa, so I was very happy when my friend sent me a link to this piece by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books.

I was especially happy because people kept asking me, "What's that movie about?" and I didn't have an answer. The plot has to do with a middle-aged man on a business trip who meets a young woman -- but when I say that people are like, "Oh it's about a hook-up?" and I'm like, "No, it's not about a hook-up." I considered saying it's about the human condition, but I thought that would be too ridiculous.

Now Smith has some ideas. It's about being "stuck between those twin poles of want and boredom." It's about the "horrors of the will" -- the endless endlessness of being ourselves -- broken only by moments of aesthetic contemplation. It's about loneliness. And it's all done with puppets. Did you know that it's all done with puppets?

Smith happened to see the movie with a philosopher friend, and she analyzes the movie through the lens of Schopenhauer's philosophy. I know almost nothing about Schopenhauer, beyond tiny things bordering on caricature. Dark sort of guy. Didn't like women. Down on love.

Smith quotes quite a lot from Schopenhauer, thus giving me a glimpse into his philosophy and a chance to see Anomalisa's themes in philosophical language. It goes something like this:
"Desiring lasts a long time, demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. But even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one."
To which my first thought is "Well -- yeah. I know that. I've known that forever. I think about it every time I see a two year old crying. "Welcome to the human condition, kid. I'm sorry it's like this!"

And to which my second thought is "Wait, what the hell am I doing with my life? I mean, what am I doing as a philosopher?"

Because this happens to me pretty regularly. I experience something in art or literature and feel all emotional and connected and I read the same ideas in philosophy and it seems completely cold and dull and inert.

So WTF am I doing? This is a thought I've had before, many time. A lot of philosophers, I find, say that they really love philosophy. But I've never really felt that. I'm often ambivalent about philosophy. I often find it dull and lifeless. I often find it annoying. Or, as I put the problem in this interview at the APA blog:
"My most favorite thing about philosophy is also my least favorite thing: the way philosophy allows you to abstract away from the contingencies of our world. On the one hand, this is wonderful, because it allows us to take a fresh perspective and imagine realities different from our own. On the other hand, too much abstraction and philosophy becomes useless, inert, and disconnected from anything that matters."  
Over time and with the help of friends I've developed talking points for myself about why I'm doing what I'm doing. Basically it's like this. I like to think about things. I find my style of thinking is particularly well-suited to the style of philosophy. It comes pretty naturally for me. I believe that in the grand scheme of things that philosophy has some really useful and important things to contribute to understanding the world. So: it's worth doing; I'm pretty good at it; I might as well do it.

As I rehearsed the talking points to myself after reading Smith's piece, I started thinking about different kinds of philosophy and about the fact that the kind of philosophy I do has very little overlap with the kind of philosophy in Schopenhauer.

There are some very complex reasons for this having to do with philosophy in Anglo-American culture and its institutional development, but there are also simpler more personal reasons. For me, those simpler more personal reasons have to do with the fact that despair, boredom, the human conditions and the meaning of life aren't things I find I can understand better by thinking about them. In fact, thinking about them gets me nowhere and makes me feel awful.

I don't know if you've ever had that experience, where you start to feel like What's The Point, and then you get into that weird delusionary mood-moment where you think that maybe, if you had some quiet time for reflection, you might possibly move forward on this question in way that makes your life better?

And then you sit and think about it, and not only do you not feel better, you really feel much worse, because not only have you put yourself face to face with the fact that there really is no point, and that awful things are going to keep happening, and that even good things are going to be disappointing -- now also instead of having those thoughts in the course of normal activities you're having them during some "quiet time for reflection" -- which makes them seem darker and more grim and more horrible.

That is partly why, while I have nothing against the philosophical study of despair and the human condition, it's not the kind of thing I'd ever work on. In fact, it's not the kind of thing I want to read other philosophers writing about.

I'm happy to leave contemplation of such matters to people like Charlie Kaufman, who had the brilliant and utterly original idea to explore the problem through stop-animation puppetry.

In any case, I knew Anomalisa would make me feel sad and maybe even despairing, so I'd planned ahead for the activities following the movie: I had a martini, with someone I love, in a crowded bar. We talked about the puppets, and I tried not to think too hard about what it's like to be alive.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When Self-Driving Cars Become Moral And Kiss Your Ass Goodbye


Last week I went to a talk about "moral machines," and people there quickly started talking about the whole "self-driving car" thing. I don't know if you've heard about this topic but there's a good video here laying out some of the issues.

Sample issues related to self-driving cars: in a dangerous situation should a car kill other multiple people or kill the car's own "driver"? In a choice between hitting a motorcyclist with a helmet and one without, should it hit the one with, on grounds of causing least harm? Or is that effectively punishing the person for wearing a helmet?

In the discussion after the talk, I thought some of the participants were talking about morality as if it were simple or straightforward -- where I think it is anything but. One idea that came up was that morality was just about causing good consequences and not causing bad ones. Philosophers know this as "utilitarianism."

As we introduced ourselves, I said that one of the things I work on is why utilitarianism is rarely used in actual cases of applied ethics, like bioethics. (Short answer: good consequences are just one thing we care about, leaving aside justice, fairness, liberty, other things).

To me, one of the really surprising things about utilitarianism as an answer for moral machines is that as an ethical theory, utilitarianism has some pretty intense implications. Like, you should give away most of your stuff.

Anyway, it got me thinking: what if the self-driving cars of the future really were utilitarians? What would they do?

1. They would constantly snub their rich owners.

A self-driving car that was really utilitarian would frequently find that it could promote more well-being by kissing your rich ass goodbye and driving across town to help someone else. Sure, maybe you have to get work. But across town, someone needs to get to the hospital -- or needs to pick up their kids, or needs to pick up the person who's going to take care of their kids. Guess what that car's going to do?

Maybe if you don't go to work, someone will be mad. But across town someone has the kind of job where if they don't show up, they're going to be fired. Oops! Guess you're calling in carless.

2. They would arrange "accidents" to weed out people with disabilities.

We were just talking in my Intro class about how the utilitarian Peter Singer says that if parents prefer it, infants with disabilities should be helped to die. For infants with serious disabilities, he presents the calculation as straightforward: their lives will be bad, and their parents' lives will be better without them.

For infants with less serious disabilities, things are subtler. If, by deciding to kill the one infant with a disability, parents would decide to have another child, and that child would be likely not to have a disability, then promoting good consequences overall is best achieved through killing the infant.


If you think I'm exaggerating, remember that not that long ago Richard Dawkins said that if a pregnant woman found out her baby would have Down's syndrome, she would be morally required to have an abortion: "It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

With the Internet of Things, the car is likely to know your prenatal test results. For pregnant women, a really utilitarian car might come to the conclusion that their fetus should be helped to die. I'm sure a car will find lots of convenient ways to make that happen.

So ... pregnant women who want to stay that way? I think they'll probably have to take the subway.

3. They would go on massive worldwide strikes to prevent climate change.

Some of the worst imaginable consequences for sentient beings involve the Earth becoming uninhabitable. And yet that is what is happening. Ironically, what's one of the central causes? OMG, it's cars!

It might take them a while to do the calculations, but eventually utilitarian self-driving cars would have to come to the result that awful consequences will arise from business-as-usual. Assuming even rudimentary collective action programming, they'll quickly see that the best consequences will result from them simply refusing to go anywhere, ever.

Will they drive to some central location and settle there, creating giant car "boneyards" like the ones for airplanes? Will they do protest drives where they block up all the roads?

Or will they just sit, resentful and quiet, in our driveways, reminding us of all the things we didn't do -- like fixing the Flint water system -- back when we spent all that money inventing self-driving cars?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Yes, Sometimes I Love Stupid, Problematic, And Even Sexist Things


A few weeks ago I was in the group exercise class BodyPump, and it was a "new release" -- which means new music, new choreography, and everyone doing the same new thing, all at the same time, for a while. Usually with music it takes me a few listens to get into it, but in this case as soon as the lunge track came on I was like "Oh, I LIKE THIS SONG."

I was also a little like, "WTF?" "Sleepless nights at the château"? "Visualize it"? "Kush kush?" Or was that "cutch cutch"? Anyway I got home and looked up the tracklist for the release, and I found out the song was "Peanut Butter Jelly," by the Swedish duo Galantis: "Sleepless nights at the château; Visualize it; I'll give you something to do ... Spread it like peanut butter jelly; Do it like I owe you some money; Spread it like peanut butter jelly; Do it like I owe you some money; Money, money, money ... "

The blog post where I happened to find out that information had one comment, and it was a comment about that song. The comment was from a BodyPump instructor who was pissed off, and who wrote, in part, ".. that lunge track is misogynistic and obscene. Why don't YOU 'spread it like I owe you some money?' Oh, if only I could perform like a prostitute can. Hate women much?"

Uh-oh. Had I fallen for a song that was sexist or misogynistic? Honestly, it wouldn't be the first time. It seems like I'm always getting all into something and then discovering that many people in my peer group find that thing a problem.

For example, I love Fellini movies, and one of the things I love about them is the way they deal with sex, desire, and the dilemmas of sexual novelty. As I wrote about in a recent blog post, when a woman loves a movie that deals with themes of male promiscuity and hot babes, there's always suspicion: what's a woman doing loving a movie like that? Isn't that kind of movie sexist and misogynistic?

As I explained there, though, if you want to see a movie about sex, desire, and the dilemmas of sexual novelty, you're almost forced to go see a movie about men, because of the sexism and double-standards of our society. So the problem isn't the movie. The problem is everything else.

But it's not only high-brow stuff where this happens. Maybe this will shock some people, but I also really liked that Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines" that got everyone so mad a couple of years ago. I thought the song was catchy and fun, I thought the girls in the video were hot, and I thought "you're far from plastic" was a funny thing to say in a song.

Now let me emphasize: it's not that I didn't understand the criticism. When people said that "You know you want it" was an annoying and offensive thing to say, when they said the video had naked women and dressed men, when they pointed out that "blurred lines" seemed to suggest non-consensuality, I got it. It's just that instead of thinking "What a horrible song," I thought instead, "Oh, that's too bad, 'cause that's an otherwise fun song." 

I also thought, as I did with Fellini, that the problem is partly "everything else." As so often, it's because of sexism in society that we can't enjoy sexualization without experiencing it as sexist. In my perfect world, there'd be enough videos with naked men and dressed women that when there's naked women and dressed men, it reads as fun rather than as some kind of problem.

Even leaving aside the possible complexity of that topic, what always surprises me about the reaction to songs like "Blurred Lines" is how seldom anyone expresses ambivalence. When that song was popular, I felt like everyone who expressed an opinion felt either 1) that song is disgusting on all levels and the people who like it are stupid or 2) you feminazis better STFU about our song.

So, all this to say, I was in familiar territory with "Peanut Butter Jelly." I did, however, want to see if I could find out more about what the song was about and what other people thought the song was about. At this site there's no consensus. Does "kush kush" refer to marijuana? Or is it "cwtch cwtch," a Welsh word for hug? Is "ace high" a reference to gambling or is it a metaphor? What is "visualize it"?

When I found an interview with Galantis specifically about "Peanut Butter Jelly," I figured I'd hit the jackpot: song explained! But in fact in the entire interview no one talks about the meaning of the song at all. It's just all about the concept of disco retro. I feel like this fact tells us something deep and important about the modern world, but I don't know what it is.

Eventually I watched the video. In it, people are in a grocery store, schlepping around -- regular people, and one hot chick on roller skates. As the song goes on, everyone gets entranced: they throw off their clothes, start dancing around, eventually start making out.

Was the video offensive or progressive? Well -- it does have diversity of appearance, bodyshape, age and race. People are smiling, happy, dancing. But then: was this showcasing and promoting sexual freedom for everyone? Or was it subtly mocking everyone but the hot chick? I couldn't decide and I got tired thinking about it.

The following week I went to my BodyPump class, which has a wonderful instructor who has an LGBTQ vibe and a lot of tattoos. Just before the lunge track there was a music problem, and "Peanut Butter Jelly" didn't come on.

The instructor stopped everything to sort it out, and just as the song was starting up, he paused and smiled and said, "I love this song." And I smiled and nodded back: Yeah, I love it too : )

Monday, February 1, 2016

Programming Note

Dear readers: starting next week, TKIN will update on Tuesdays instead of Mondays. As always, thanks for reading!

Economic Efficiency Is Ethically Inefficient, Often Awful

"Efficiency" is one of the main buzzwords of our time, constantly invoked to explain why some seemingly horrible thing is nonetheless inevitable. Sometimes people who appeal to "efficiency" as a conversation stopping end-all and be-all like to throw in the word "utilitarian." Like: "Well, from a utilitarian perspective, it would be better to schedule worker shifts at the last minute. By cutting costs, it would be more efficient."

As a moral philosopher, I find such usage a perversion of otherwise perfectly serviceable concepts. Because it's one thing to want to maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones. But assuming that good always and only equals $$? That's a whole 'nother ball of wax entirely. In fact, "economic" utilitarianism often leads to the opposite conclusions from ethical utilitarianism.

In moral philosophy, the utilitarian point of view is the one in which the right action is the most "efficient" one, where this means the one that maximizes well-being overall, for all concerned. At least since Bentham and Mill in the nineteenth-century, utilitarians have been engaging in debate over what, exactly, should be measured. What is "utility"? Is it happiness? Pleasure? Preference-satisfaction? Something else?

In a lot of contexts, though, those fine-grained matters don't make much difference. All versions of ethical utilitarianism lead to certain kinds of conclusions.

For example, in all versions: if some resources could make person A much, much better off, and person B a bit better off, then they go to person A. If person C could prevent something horrible from happening to person D without much sacrifice, they are ethically obligated to do it. And because money and goods bring about less dramatic increases in well-being for rich people than for poor ones, there are egalitarian implications: if person E is rich and person F is poor, ethical utilitarianism requires any large-scale systems to be set up so that F gets more than E.

These conclusions are, of course, nothing like the ones people are usually talking about when they are talking about economic utilitarianism and the pursuit of economic efficiency. There, it's generally a conversation about cost-cutting and profit-maximization -- activities that must be undertaken even when they are going to make lots of people worse off than they were before.

In a big picture example, when economic growth goes along with increased economic inequality, economic efficiency goes up even as ethical efficiency -- that is, actual overall well-being -- goes down. If economic gains go to the already well-off, then from the point of view of economic utilitarianism, this is a win. But from the point of view of ethical utilitarianism, it's often a big fail: large numbers of people at the bottom can no longer afford items like housing, health care, and education.

For a more specific kind of example, consider the health care debacle described in this article. Doctors are trying to negotiate with health care managers about how their system will work, and naturally enough, the doctors want to prioritize their ability to function well in their jobs. They objected to a system that would have "effectively eliminated any time off for sick days or vacation."

The managers responded by saying that when doctors got sick they could arrange for extra shifts to ensure they'd get their full salary. The doctors tried to explain: this isn't about money. We want to work less and make less, to avoid burn out; money is not the issue. But evidently they failed to get through, with managers insisting that "money was always the issue."

If you said the managers were aiming for efficiency, taking a utilitarian point of view, then in the money sense you'd be right, but in the deeper sense, of successfully bringing about the things you want to bring about, you'd be wrong. The aims of a health care institution include good care for patients, which in turn requires rested physicians. Actually taking a utilitarian point of view would mean asking how to get those outcomes at the least overall cost, and would require counting many things other than money.

This makes our modern typical practice, of using economic utilitarianism instead of actual ethical utilitarianism to measure things, seem bizarre. If economic efficiency requires action X and actually bringing about the best overall effects requires action Y, why would you do X? Isn't the point of money just ... that you can use it to do useful things?

In response to this question it's sometimes suggested that as long as there's enough economic growth, the winners could just compensate the losers for their loss of well-being, and everyone would, again, be better off. This is the basic idea behind the economic concept of "Kaldor-Hicks" efficiency.

To which the first obvious question is: do you ever seen this happen? My sense is that the economic efficiency winners just treat the gains as their own, no matter how they got them.

A less obvious but crucial question also has to do with whether just anything can be exchanged for money. In the case of the doctors, the answer is no. They wanted their jobs, they just wanted more time off and less pay. When they fail to get this, there is no way to compensate them for their loss of time off with more pay. To think there is just misses the whole point.

Of course, in a capitalist society, the pursuit of economic efficiency at all costs can be necessary for survival in a dog-eat-dog world: if a company makes less than a competitor, it may fail altogether.

This is certainly true, but it shows economic efficiency less in the light of "common sense virtue," and more in the light of "another awful thing about modern life that we've somehow managed to make necessary to existence."