Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I Scattered My Mom's Ashes In The Ocean

I didn't have time to write a TKIN post, because I was too busy traveling to Cape Cod to scatter my mom's ashes.

If you're following along at home, my mom died about a year ago. You can read my post about her here. We had a small memorial for her at the time, but then last weekend a larger group of family members got together in Hyannis and took a small boat with a crew who knew all about the ashes scattering process.

It was an incredibly beautiful day, and here's a picture of me watching the ashes slowly disperse into the ocean:



Au revoir, Audrey!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Things That Annoyed Me Between 6:00 And 7:30 PM On Monday July 9

These aren't big life problems. They're not even my big life problems. I'm going to write about them anyway.

At 6:00 PM I showed up for a yoga class, and I was immediately annoyed to see that the instructor had brought a bunch of those mini plastic fake candles and was putting one of them at each person's mat. I know this is crabby, but all I could think of was how each candle had a battery, and each battery had some small amount of those compounds that make batteries work that are bad for the environment, and how once the batteries wore out the candles would probably be thrown in the trash.

Let me be clear: it's not the idea of candles I'm complaining about. It's the pointless waste of plastic and other crap. All this future landfill -- and for what? And during yoga class? Aren't we supposed to be extra mindful of our relation to the earth when we're doing yoga? Somehow I feel like there's this environmentalism frame of mind, and there's the "other" frame of mind, and when we're doing one we're not doing the other.

Yoga class was fine, but it's supposed to end at 7:00, and as the clock said 6:58, the instructor started winding things down and getting ready for the meditation. The reason I'm fussy about the ending time is that on Mondays I take a bus back from yoga, and here in Waterloo (where I work) the bus goes only every half hour. If I leave yoga class at 7, I almost always make an earlier bus. If I leave at 7:05, I often miss it.

It's a measure of the power of the social environment of yoga, I guess, that I don't pack up my stuff and leave before we're done. This seems disruptive, and wrong. So, instead, I lie there getting mad that it's getting late and I'm going to miss my bus. I know -- it's the opposite of the whole point of the exercise. But what can I do?

This time I caught the bus and stopped by the grocery store. This store always plays some kind of classic rock, which always annoys me, because classic rock might have its time and place but grocery shopping is not it. On Monday, it was The Rolling Stones, Shattered. I have nothing against the Rolling Stones and if I heard this at a party I might have a moment of light nostalgia. But it's a song about sex and NYC. Do I want to think about these things while I'm selecting a red pepper? No.

When I'm in Waterloo it's a ten-minute walk from the grocery store to my place. It's along a wide road with a lot of cars, which always reminds me how a ten-minute walk along a lovely path or an urban street feels like nothing, while a ten minute walk by the side of cars, cars, cars feels like forever. When I lived in Palo Alto, it was a ten-minute walk from my apartment, on the edge of Menlo Park, to this large outdoor mall-type thing with restaurants and cafes. The walk took me along a busy road, with drivers rushing past, car dealerships on the sides, and a narrow sidewalk. The longest ten-minute walk ever.

While I was walking along on Monday, I encountered an automated sprinkler system. I have come to think of these as the bane of pedestrian existence. When I was in graduate school in Irvine, California, the working assumption seemed to be that no one would ever actually use a path or sidewalk -- they were there just to look nice. Walking, I was constantly attacked by these systems. In Irvine, they were set on timers, which meant I'd be quietly ambling to class or back from the pub, and BOOM -- suddenly I'd be drenched with water. On Monday the sprinkler was already on, so I just had to pick my way through the drenched grass on the side of the sidewalk.

On one level this is just complaining, but I think there is something interesting in the fact that the modern world so often feels hostile, aggressive, or just annoying. You might think several of the items above are particular to me as a non-driver, but in my experience the drivers have it even worse. Often, yoga class starts with an acknowledgement that if you battled your way through traffic and fought for a parking space before showing up, you're going to need extra time to decompress.

These are first-world problems. As I said, they're not big problems -- and if I were describing my life, I probably wouldn't even mention them. But I don't think I'm the only one who feels that even just the regular texture of daily life in modern society can be stressful and exhausting. Somehow, we've set things up so that buying a flat-screen TV is easy and fun, while walking on a sidewalk is difficult. And forget about things like feeding kids healthy food or getting a plumbing problem fixed while working a full-time job. How did the treats become the center of things and the ordinary essentials become so strange and difficult?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Irrationality: Why Not Make It Work For You?

Sometimes I read an advice column that advises people to save money by avoiding general or monthly fees in favor of a more pay-as-you-go approach. So, for example, as I understand it a lot of people who sign up for a gym at X dollars per month then use the gym less often than they expected, to the extent that they would have been better off financially paying per visit or something like that.

I think that often this is bad advice. It assumes several things that are certainly or maybe false:  that the number of times you go to the gym doesn't depend on how you pay, that your goal is to get as much gym time for as few dollars as possible, and that you are a rational decision maker.

If you drop all those assumptions, you get a different perspective on the problem. What if you articulate your main goal as working out as much as possible without spending more than X dollars? Suddenly the monthly payment system starts to look pretty good, even if you could have saved money by doing it the other way.

The reason this difference arises, I think, is that having paid a monthly fee incentivizes you to work out, while paying per use incentivizes you not to work out. What's interesting about this is that strictly speaking, there's a sense in which being incentivized to work out by having paid a monthly fee is irrational. And yet, it's such a common and familiar feeling. And you can use it to your advantage.

The reason it's seen as irrational has to do with the "sunk cost" fallacy. According to one strand of decision-making theory, the only factors you should consider when evaluating what to do are factors that actually come into play in your decision. When it's time to decide whether to go to the gym or stay on the sofa, this system says, the only things you should be considering are the options you have and how well those options satisfy your current needs and desires. The fact that you paid a non-recoverable fee for a gym membership is irrelevant, because you can't change it: it's the same no matter what you choose.

But we know from behavioral economics and from life that this isn't how it works. Of course having paid a fixed fee, you feel you should go to the gym -- to "get your money's worth," whatever that means. You pay a fee and you don't use the gym, you feel like an idiot. So you feel you should get to the gym. The pay-per-use is almost the opposite, encouraging you to think, again, on every occasion, are these dollars maximally satisfying my happiness and well-being when I spend them on the gym? Or would ice cream be even better?

Of course, if you pay a flat fee, you may pay more than you would have paid per-use. But you may also work out more than you would have worked out had you paid-per-visit. So it really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to go to the gym more, even though it costs a bit extra per time, then the flat fee makes total sense. You can think of it like a self-nudge: you structure your own environment to exploit your own systematic irrationalities for your own gain. A nudge without the creepier effects of being nudged by the other people, because you're doing the nudging yourself.

I do this all the time -- structuring my own environment to make my impulses draw me toward a more desirable rather than a less desirable conclusion. And I can tell you: there's a lot to be said for seeing the emotive force aspect of your self and the logical structure aspect of yourself as cooperating friends, rather than enemies at war.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Is It Possible That Several-Hundred Dollar Handbags Feel Essential To Adulthood?

For me, one of the most striking things in the aftermath of Kate Spade's suicide was learning how many other people thought of her bags -- and her bags' general price range, of several hundred dollars -- as lying in what was seen as sort of modal zone of "grown-up."

The sentiment runs throughout this piece in The New York Times:

"At midrange prices of several hundred dollars, they were aspirational but within reach of some women who were starting their careers."

"for so many women, buying that first kate spade bag was your first grown-up purchase."

"A Kate Spade handbag was the very first 'nice' 'grownup' thing I ever had."

I realize I am out of step with the nation along several dimensions. But really? You have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag to count as a modern grown-up? 

No doubt my life in academia helps explain how off-trend I am. The most expensive bag I ever bought was one of those collapsible Longchamps nylon bags, at 70 dollars. The nicest bag I own is a Coach bag I got at a thrift store for 25 dollars. I've looked at Kate Spade, and I've thought to myself, "Hm, kind of pricey." I'm so off-trend I don't even carry a bag most of the time. I'm just throwing everything into my backpack.

In many ways, my ability to use a backpack and carry a cheap bag are manifestations of my privileged position in society. Back in 2013, Tressie MC wrote a great piece about how poor people have to buy, and wear, expensive accessories in order to gain respect from the fellow citizens, and thus to be employable. Many people need nice accessories, because they're literally a job requirement.

I would also like to emphasize that I am not saying there is something wrong with buying nice bags because you like them. I buy and love other expensive things, and I am not criticizing the purchasing of expensive bags for fun.

However, what I am saying is just that in a society where $15/hr is an aspirational minimum wage for most places, the idea that a few hundred dollars is considered an entry-level adulthood bag is strange and fucked up.

Of course, it's significant that this sentiment was appearing in The New York Times, and so you might think "Well, what did you expect"?

It's true that when I started reading the New York Times I was an easily bored college student sitting with some eggs-over-medium with friends. The fact that the homes were millions of dollars and "cheap" wines were my weekly paycheck didn't bother me, because I just thought of that part of the paper as written for aliens. I could just read the news, and ignore all that.

But newspapers have changed. The fact that Kate Spade's bags were accessibly aspirational is now intertwined with everything else. Newspapers want to be relevant, they want to reach us in different ways, and they want to reflect our concerns.

Like so many people, I have been prompted by this to obsess over the question of who the news thinks it is for. The answers are frequently disturbing. The New York Times is obviously for people with the kind of financial background in which spending hundreds of dollars on a bag is part of the baseline of what's just normal in life.

The creepiest aspect of the whole thing is the use of that word "grown-up." So: you can't be an adult if you're poor? Minimum wage earners are condemned to eternal childhood? WTF? If that's the way expectations are set up, it's not surprising that young people are stressed out of their minds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Does Buying Something Feel Like Such A Thing?

I've had a kind of self-imposed moratorium on buying stuff, because 1) I already have most the stuff I need and 2) there are other things I can use that money for and 3) the environment. I'm not boasting or treat-deprived: I still spend a lot of money on things like coffee and wine and having people make food for me -- because preparing food in advancing and bringing it with me some place is somehow an activity I've never been able to manage.

Since I'm not treat-deprived, I've been surprised at the urge to buy stuff and by the texture of the anticipated pleasure of buying stuff. I kind of gave myself an exception-clause for buying clothes for exercise or dance class, because 1) I actually did need more exercise clothes and 2) who doesn't want to look good while they're dancing?

As a woman of a certain age, it's not every day I find exercise clothes that I think make me look good, so when I found a cool Nike mesh top that fit me perfectly, with cool sleeves between short-sleeves and three-quarter length sleeves, I was pretty excited and I bought it on the spot. Yes, I waffled about supporting Nike, yes, I did the merry-go-round of weighing the options of trying to buy a shirt from some other company and whether they would treat their workers better, and yes, I went briefly down the rabbit hole of what it meant to support a giant corporation. Those thoughts didn't get me anywhere. In the end, I was like, "If it's good enough for Serena Williams, it's good enough for me."

I wore it, and I liked it so much, I thought I might buy another one in another color, or at least swing by the Nike store to check that out as a possibility. I thought about what times I'd be over by the mall or whatever and how I could squeeze that in, and it felt like such a prospect of a treat. Like really something to look forward to at the end of a day.

The more I thought about the idea of another shirt, though, the more it seemed like a bad idea. I was trying to buy less -- did I really need two mesh shirts? Plus, if I bought a shirt now, it'd be less reasonable to buy some other slightly different shirt later, since I'd already have enough. And wouldn't it be more fun to have a potential future shirt, with all the open-ended and unseen magic that could entail, than a repeat of a shirt I already have, already fading from being washed, hanging in my closet?


I decided not to buy the shirt. But, bizarrely, the idea that I had something to buy stuck around in the back of my mind. I continued to think about when I'd be near the mall, so I could go to the Nike store. I kept fitting it into my imaginary future days, and when I pictured it, I felt such a ping of pleasure at imagining the process. 

And that is what was so surprising to me. I'd already decided against buying the shirt, and yet the prospect of having something to buy --the sheer prospect of a purchase -- felt like something to look forward to. As I thought about it, I realized this is a common thing for me, to feel like buying something is somehow a thing, it's something to look forward to in itself, the buying being some kind of additional pleasure to the object itself -- an object that may well, for various reasons, ultimately be a bit disappointing.

It's surely not news that buying stuff can be a pleasure in itself, adding to or even transcending the feeling of the thing purchased. Why else would we live in a world where people's houses are full of stuff? But, still, I found myself weirded out by it. Why? Why should paying money and getting a thing feel like a thing? What kind of thing is it? Does it feel like a treat, like a cupcake? Or is it more like the pleasure of an accomplishment -- oh, I'm taking steps to feather my nest?

In a previous post I wrote about how the frictionlessness of payment systems makes people experience more pleasure in buying, and so they spend more and feel less invested in the purchases they end up with. But I pay with cash a lot. And honestly, even though I find it much harder to part with cash than to pay by card (as do we all, I guess), even the buying with cash experience feels like a pleasure, or at least a thing -- a thing to be registered on the positive side, something to be planned for and something to look forward to.

In any case, given that there are so few things I need and want to buy, I've been surprised at how often my mind goes to "buy something" as a pick-me-up for a low mood and how weak the rationality part of my mind works in response.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Mystery Of The Omnipresent Starbucks Disposable Coffee Cup

Regular readers know that I recently upped my game with respect to carrying my own coffee cup. In my perfect world, every coffee place has reusable ceramic mugs that can be washed. In my actual world, it's often a paper cup or carry your own mug around.

Regular readers may remember my previous reflection on these matters, which focused on the way that, having upped my game on this one tiny thing, I then became ultra notice-y, and dare I say even a bit judgey, about other people and their coffee cup choices. Which is a bit ridiculous, since I regularly forget or misplace my coffee cup and use the paper ones myself. But I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who is committing a transgression one day and moralizing about it the next.

Still, once I started being notice-y about coffee cups, I started to notice the really stunning number of disposable coffee cups out there. Virtually everyone who goes to Starbucks gets their coffee in a disposable cup.

For a while, I really thought of this as a mystery. I mean, I expect a lot of the people getting coffee at Starbucks consider themselves environmentalists, or at least people who recycle and do basic things to cut down on their garbage production. The Venn diagram overlap of Starbucks type customer, climate-sensitive vegetarian, and careful recycler seems pretty large to me. And coffee cups are hard to recycle and usually end up in the trash.

Yes, carrying a mug around is a bit of a pain. But the crazy thing is that even people who are sitting at Starbucks are usually drinking out of a paper cup. All you have to do is ask to have your coffee "for here" and get it in a ceramic cup and you're good. So, WTF?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to think that Starbucks isn't only selling coffee. They are selling that coffee-paper-cup experience. There is something about that cup -- and, let's be honest, the sophisticated and superior lid system -- that makes the Starbucks coffee drinking experience what it is. The coffee cools at the right rate, the cup is clean and white, the shape is pleasing to drink out of.

Then I thought: there's something about modern life that makes that coffee-paper-cup experience feel like a tiny luxury, in a world where for most of us, luxuries are hard to come by. The crapification of everything means that most of the objects and systems we interact with on a day to day basis are in some way frustrating, or easily broken, or fragile in a dumb way. My god, just using a modern public washroom is insane: the automatic toilet flushes when you don't want it to, and then it doesn't flush when you want it to, and then you can't get the automatic water faucet to go on so you're desperately shaking your hands, and then your ears are assaulted by those new hand driers.

So many things are like that now. But the Starbucks coffee-paper-cup experience isn't like that. It works and it feels nice. Why else would the Starbucks in the US automatically put a lid on your cup, instead of letting you decide whether you need a lid or not? The only explanation is they're trying to give you the full coffee-paper-cup experience. No decisions required.

Recently I visited a suburban sprawl area of Connecticut. This is where my mom used to live, and it gives you some sense of what it's like that until recently, the closest Starbucks was a 20 minute drive away on a major highway. But now there is a Starbucks right in town, and while I was visiting, I went there to catch up on email and do some work.

And the damnedest thing happened. I found myself drawn to that ridiculous paper cup. I had my travel mug with me, and instead of putting it in my backpack like I always do, I left it in the hotel room. I wish I had a convincing psychological explanation for my absurd behavior, but I really don't. The only thing I can think is I was worn down by the driving and the endless ugly plazas and whatever. My reusable mug seemed old and scratched up and coffee stained, and I wanted that coffee-paper-cup experience.

So my theory is that the coffee-paper-cup experience is a tiny luxury island in an ocean of annoyances, and that's why it's an exception to all the other social norms of life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I Get Tired Of Having Opinions


For me, one of the most exhausting things about being a humanities scholar is the constant having of opinions. As regular readers know, I used to study math, and then I switched to philosophy. One of the first things I noticed when I made this switch was the fantastical number of opinions I was suddenly expected to have. "What did you think about that article"? "What do you think about framing the issue that way?" " What do you think about the curriculum being this rather than that?" And of course, the omnipresent "What do you think of that philosopher? Are they smart or what"?

In case it's not obvious, "I don't know what I think about that" is not an escape from having an opinion. It is, in its own way, an expression of a point of view. If your interlocutor is like "Isn't X completely outrageous"? and you say "I don't know what I think about that," you're not going to be heard as expressing "no opinion."

By comparison, math is a haven of rest for the mind. Most of what you do in advanced theoretical mathematics is find and write out proofs of things. While there are debates at the margins, there is vast agreement about how you do it, and what there is to be done. The difficult part is the doing it, because, as Barbie knows, Math Is Hard. But you don't have to have a million opinions about it. You just have to do it. I remember I would spend hours in mental effort and frustration working on math problems, and I would come away refreshed: my mind would be pleasantly tired and worn out, and would have escaped thinking about things like global injustice or whatever for a few hours.

In my experience, there are a few strong opinions in math, but they tend to focus around a few math-y issues, like "How should we teach math to non-math people" and the all-important "Is that branch of math difficult and important or easy and stupid?"

By contrast, in philosophy, opinions infuse everything, and they're often opinions about huge topics that many people have strong feelings about. Obviously you're having opinions when you draw philosophical conclusions. But it goes way beyond that. There are opinions about what you choose to talk about or not talk about, what you choose to draw on in making your argument, what you think is "persuasive" or "relevant."

I sometimes encounter the idea that there should be fewer opinions in university teaching, and that one problem with the humanities is the way professors rely on or convey their own opinions in teaching. In some ways it is a complicated issue, because I agree that opinions are constantly flying in all directions, and it matters which opinions are where. But I'd say the issue with opinions in humanities teaching is never "if," but always "how."

In choosing to assign some readings rather than others, you're expressing an opinion. In responding to student questions, even if it's just to draw connections between their comment and the readings or other comments, you're expressing opinions -- about what is significant, interesting, similar or different.

I actually go out of my way to de-opinionize, especially with controversial topics, asking students questions like "From the point of view of author X's theory, what conclusion would we draw about this example?" We can explore that question together, regardless of what opinion we have about author X's theory. I also try to assign readings that express a range of views. I am often cagey about my own opinion, not because I am under the delusion that I can be "objective," but just because when the professor says "I think X," that makes it easier or harder for some students to express an opinion of X or not-X or something else like Y. It's a tricky dynamic.

But there are limits to de-opinionization. What is "a range of views"? Over what topics should views range? If we're studying medical aid in dying, and I assign one text saying that it's immoral because of the sacredness of life, and another saying it should not be legalized because of the way its use discriminates against people with disabilities, is that a "range of views"? Any way of framing the issue makes assumptions about what the main question is and what is, and is not, up for debate.

A million choices about how to respond in classroom interactions also convey opinions. In my teaching evaluations not that long ago, a student expressed strong satisfaction that the classroom interaction was one in which they felt comfortable asking or saying whatever they wanted, without fear of being attacked or shut down. In the same batch, another student expressed the feeling that because of the open dialogue, the contributions of the other students verged on being misogynistic or problematic in other ways.

What this shows is partly that what is a good class atmosphere for one person is not necessarily a good class atmosphere for everyone in the same way. What atmosphere you want in class is, like everything else, not a matter of objective matter of fact, but always reflects a set of opinions. You can't get away from opinions. You can only try to use the ones you think best in the most constructive way. Exhaustingly, even that project is often difficult.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Bus Riding Experience And Living In Late Capitalism

Last weekend I went to Vernon, Connecticut to visit some family members. Vernon is kind of near East Hartford, kind of in the middle of Connecticut, which means it's like a suburb in a state that is, itself, almost like a suburb of something else. All of that to say: it's a place where transportation becomes a major issue for me.

As regular readers know, I hate to drive -- and I often take the bus. I find it exhausting to pay close attention to a high-stakes and potentially lethal activity over a sustained period of time, and I find it stressful knowing that a wrong move could cause life-changing injuries or death for other people or myself. As someone who doesn't drive a lot, I'm constantly amazed that this kind of insane activity has become so embedded in everyday life.

Anyway, for complicated reasons, when I visit Vernon I usually fly in and out of Logan Airport in Boston. This is because a bus ride between Toronto and Hartford takes around 15 hours (literally, as we say nowadays -- you can look it up), and because flying between Toronto and Hartford is complicated and expensive. Going between Logan Airport and Vernon, I face a major decision: I can drive, which is around 1 hour and 45 minutes, in some pretty intense traffic, or I can take a sort of long public transit journey involving  the Silver Line bus between Logan and South Station and a bus between South Station and Hartford.

In the past, I've usually settled myself into what seems to be everyone else's denial, that driving is a normal everyday sort of activity, and done the drive between Logan and Vernon. This time, though, I was sick with a bad cold. So on the way back, I decided to do the transit option. And for the bus between Hartford and South Station, my best option was the Megabus (the fancy Acela doesn't stop in Hartford).

I have no complaint about the Megabus itself, which left on time and arrived early. What this post is about is about the Megabus ... um ... pick up spot? Which is 1) not associated with a station 2) not associated with a street address, 3) not marked as a Megabus location, and 4) not near any normal places where you could get some water or use a bathroom.

On the ticket, the "from" location is listed as "Hartford, CT, Columbus Blvd between Morgan & Talcott St." Here is the place viewed from across the street:


And here is the view from the bus stop:




I feel like having a bus that picks you up at an unmarked location between one street and another, surrounded by freeway overpasses, is a symbol of something distinctive about modern capitalism even if I'm not sure exactly what it is. Hartford has a perfectly good bus station, one that is actually linked with the train station, and is right downtown, very convenient. So I'm assuming this arrangement arises because there are fees associating with using the terminal that Megabus wants to avoid. I'm not blaming Megabus -- they want to offer cheap fares and make money. And who knows how those fees are set? Still, the outcome seems bad, and I hate the feeling that the things poor people use get worse and the things rich people use get better.

From a governance point of view, driving is massively subsidized, even though car accidents are a major cause of death and horrible for the environment. You couldn't toss in a few bucks for a bathroom, a water fountain -- or, I'm really dreaming now -- a ticket counter for bus riders? Maybe you could even incentivize companies like Megabus to use your station, rather than charging them for it?

From a markets point of view, when I'm reflecting on these matters, I frequently find myself thinking more broadly about the market forces that shape the options I have and don't have as a consumer. I want to take a reasonably comfortable bus ride, and I am willing to pay a bit extra for that, since I am lucky in making a good salary. But that option doesn't exist for me, partly because the other people who make the money I make prefer to spend it on driving. So, to satisfy my consumer preference would require getting enough people to share it that it becomes a profitable option for someone else.

When it comes to driving and busses, I think that project is a lost cause. Nobody likes to take the bus. In enjoying a ride of kicking back, with my podcasts and playlists, daydreaming out the window without a care in the world, I see to be in a tiny minority.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Juuling And The Youth Mood Of Comedic Despair


 I loved Jia Tolentino's recent New Yorker article about teen vaping and the rise of the Juul -- which was not only informative but also avoided the whole "OMG teens are doing a thing, oh no."

In case you don't know, a Juul is an electronic nicotine vaporizer that looks like a flash drive and that you can recharge using your computer. A lot of the article is about adults worrying that Juuling, like other kinds of vaping, is creating nicotine addicts instead of helping them -- but let's just pass over that part. From a cultural perspective, I'd say that the most noteworthy things about the Juul are the aesthetics, the mood, and the price.

Aesthetically, at first I was surprised to hear that teens found smoking "gross" and Juuling cool. I smoked for a long time, and though I quit years ago, I still miss smoking. And of course most of that is nicotine-related, but clearly I am not alone in thinking that smoking is cool. And if you're coming from a point of view in which smoking is cool, how could you prefer this ... piece of plastic with "rounded edges and a gently burnished finish"? It sounds like a generic piece of computer equipment.

But the cool of Juul is explained later: "Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth." This I can understand. If Instagram is your aesthetic reference point, and everything should either be sleekly sexy or humorously ridiculous, the Juul is going to fit your life and a cigarette is going to seem ash-producing and literally filthy. Of course, there's a generational factor: the teens interviewed are very clear that Juuling is for the young: one person describes her older sister as a Juuler -- and how weird that looks, because her sister, at 23, is "older."

The teens that Tolentino interviews have a perspective on Juuling, and on life, that I found not only familiar from my own youth but that actually resonated with my mood right now. One young man said that "Juul represents his generation’s 'tech-savvy ingenuity when it comes to making bad decisions,' but added that "his generation was most flippant when it came to serious things, 'like health, or mortality.'" When asked if Juuling was a destressor for young people or a source of stress, a young woman said, "I don’t know ... People definitely stress-Juul. But everything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.”

In a way, I feel like this is a general feeling in adolescence, which is why teenagers engage in so many risky and unhealthy behaviors. Those behaviors are fun, and who cares? This is not a knock on teenagers, by the way -- they may very well be right about the meaning of life and it's the rest of us who are trapped in the risk-averseness of growing up.

But in another way, I feel like "semi-ironically ready to die" has a particular resonance to being young in modern America. With climate change, police shootings, school shootings, health-car-via-GoFundMe -- for fuck's sake. In this context, "semi-ironic" is kind of a heroic stance.

In any case, price-wise: at least for teens, Juul is expensive. Teens can't shop in the online store, so there's a whole resale-markup-dealer situation going on for them, and Juuling is associated with teens who have cars and money. I don't have much to say about this except that it is ultra coherent with every other trend in which extra money is more and more essential to having any of the things.

Part of me wants to share and partake in the generalized mood of comedic despair that the Juul seems to refer to. But, at my stage of life, I also feel an obligation not to be too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We older people are supposed to have perspective and experience that will enable us to be constructive and helpful, to maybe steer the world toward solutions; even if there aren't any solutions, we have an obligation to care for people and help them feel less alienated and frightened. Ultimately, like Juuling itself, comedic despair is not always good look on a middle-aged person.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TKIN Is Back In Action

After a brief hiatus, this blog is back. The plan is to resume posting every Tuesday, starting today with a reflection on consumer loyalty programs, Canadian frugality, and American profligacy. Thank you, loyal readers, you're the best!

Why Do Canadians Love Consumer Loyalty Programs?


When I moved here in 2004, one thing I did not anticipate about Life In Canada was the ubiquity of consumer loyalty programs. As Canadians well know, these fall into two categories: there is the Mother Of All Loyalty Programs, the so-called "Air Miles" program, and then there are the zillions of smaller ones, like Canadian Tire Dollars, Shoppers' Drug Mart Optimum cards, and endless coffee punch cards. My university eateries even have a punch card loyalty program for soup.

I generally don't participate in consumer loyalty programs. I'd like to say this for high-minded reasons related to surveillance and resistance, and sure, that's part of it, but the real reason is that I'm trying to get on with my fucking life. I don't know how people have the patience and mental energy to carry around all these cards and fish them out of their wallets at the appropriate moment, never mind waiting for every other patron in front of them to do the same. Am I the only person who wants to die when I'm behind seven people in the LCBO line and the cashier says "Air Miles"? and the customer is like 'Oh ... yeah ... uh ... wait ... I can't ... um ... hold on ... can you do it with my phone number?"

I know there are loyalty programs in the US, and people use them at the grocery store, but somehow the whole thing takes on a different texture here. If you're not Canadian, you might not appreciate the way loyalty programs are such a centrality of life here.

The "Air Miles" program sounds like something to do with frequent flyer miles -- and when I first moved here I kept confusing it with "Aeroplan," which is the actual miles program associated with Air Canada. But AirMiles is everything. You get points on different kinds of purchases and then you spend them on all kinds of things. 

News and controversy about loyalty programs regularly feature on the front news page of the CBC webpage, and in recent years the rewards of Air Miles have been big news. It used to be that Air Miles didn't expire, and then in 2016 it was announced that they would, so people would lose miles received before 2012. People were enraged, and the company backed down. Then the federal government stepped in and said that loyalty programs can't have expiration dates. The Air Miles people were also accused of shenanigans, where you could only see the big rewards if you didn't have enough points for them, and later they disappeared. Then last year people started stealing Optimum points. I don't know how this works, but it's like you're racking up points at home in Sastaktoon and someone goes and spends your points in Quebec.

This corner of Canadian culture gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, seeing news stories like "Thieves steal millions of PC Optimum points" as headline news, I often go through a two-step emotional response. First, I feel a wash of gratitude, that I am lucky enough to live in a country so peaceful and prosperous that "Thieves steal loyalty program points" is big-time, national news. But then, there are newsworthy things happening in Canada, and sometimes I learn about Canadian news related to Indigenous people or foreign policy in The Guardian. So I'm like, Wait, why wasn't this covered at home? Why are we reading about loyalty points?

More fundamentally, I'm ambivalent about the kind of sensible Canadian frugality that seems to motivate the careful, ongoing, attentive use of loyalty programs. Canadian frugality is so different from American profligacy. These are, I think, deeply rooted cultural differences. Go to Buffalo and you'll see block after block of huge, beautiful Victorian houses, made of wood, with high ceilings. Cross into Ontario, and you'll see houses made of brick, with small, cozy living rooms, perfect for keeping warm in a cold climate. Even in the late 1800s, Americans were thinking Go Big Or Go Home.

I admire Canadian frugality -- it is probably linked to all kinds of other wonderful Canadian qualities like generosity and good sense -- but I cannot see myself reflected in it. I know that by punching 12 punches in a card I can get a free cup of coffee, but I just don't care. Sure, at this point I'm lucky to make enough money that I can just pay for the extra cup, but honestly I wasn't frugal in this way when I was a waitress and a grad student and trying to help my poor, widowed mother. I'd rather ratchet down my living standard altogether, or go without the extra cup of coffee, than attend to the ways that I can incrementally make things better by paying careful attention over time.

My reluctance to participate in loyalty programs is a source of ongoing interpersonal awkwardness for me, especially buying coffee on campus. The efficient and helpful people who work in food services here are always like "Coffee card?" and I'm like "No, thank you," and sometimes they ask "Why not?" and I try to explain "I can't handle keeping track of all those cards" -- and then we look at each other with mutual misunderstanding. It always reminds me of when an American colleague came to visit our Department, and went to buy wine at the LCBO, and the cashier said, "Air Miles"? And she, befuddled by what this could mean, answered "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not even from this country."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Elena Ferrante Novels, Philosophy, Naples, and Me

It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.

Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.

But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.

Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?

I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.

A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.

But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.

I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is This Blog On Hiatus Or What?

After almost ten years of regular posting on this blog, I find myself unable to put the words together on a regular basis. What is up with that?

Is it that I'm busy with extra administrative tasks at my job? I've had over a hundred applications for two short-term academic jobs to read over the last couple of weeks, so maybe.

Is it that I'm worn out putting words together? I am revising a draft of my book manuscript -- tentatively titled "The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction" -- which requires massive amounts of time rewriting, reorganizing, reframing, reeverything, so sure, that could be it.

Is it that writing anything on the internet right now feels either nerve-racking or pointless or both? Sometimes I get into a mood where for everything I might say, I can imagine immediately what the various intellectual and emotional responses are, and I can imagine how I feel about them, and then I move on to how that seems from a wider point of view, and ... Once I start in that direction there's no real destination for me except cocktails. Sometimes with even one tweet, I can through that whole mental process and I'm so over the whole thing before I even start typing. I've been in that mood lately,  I expect that yes, there's some of that.

Is it the disconnect between the hilarious prose that I want to write and the plodding prose I feel I end up writing that's getting me down? The other day I was joking with someone about a topic so dark and awful I am not even going to name it here, and we were laughing hysterically. I felt, as I so often do, the power of black humor to make life feel worth living. But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Plus, black humor on the internet is tricky. Did I mention that writing anything on the internet now feels nerve-racking or pointless or both?

Maybe it's time to shake things up. We'll see. I'd write more now, but I have more job application files to read before tomorrow. See you next week, hopefully! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cost-Benefit Analysis And Informed Consent Both Seem Neutral But They're Totally Different

Because I'm interested in value pluralism, I spend a certain amount of time thinking about two seeming alternative approaches to complex ethical situations, namely efficiency and informed consent.

As I see it, in contexts of value pluralism, making ethically complex decisions often requires making trade offs among values and figuring out what to do in cases of moral conflict. For example, we might value autonomy, benevolence, justice, honesty, and fidelity -- and these might recommend different actions in different circumstances. If you have to lie to keep a secret that you've promised to keep, honesty might entail telling the truth, while fidelity and keeping commitments might entail lying. We might make different judgments about which value matters more in a given case, and those decisions might be highly context-sensitive. Crucially, those judgments require judgment: someone has to make a decision about what they think matters and why.

One of the knocks on this kind of pluralism is that because it relies on ethical judgments, it is arbitrary and subjective. Someone has to make a moral judgment. How? And based on what? If you want to see why I think that these criticisms are misplaced, you can read my book. The point of this post has to do with the potential alternatives. Very broadly speaking, two alternative ways to approach decision-making are through cost-benefit-analysis and informed consent. Those aren't ethical theories, but they are informal descriptions of methods people use. What's interesting to me is that while these are often simultaneously treated as impartial, objective, and commonsensical, they're also really deeply different.

As everyone probably knows, cost-benefit analysis means adding up the costs and benefits and generally choosing the action that maximizes the benefits at the least cost. Costs and benefits can refer to money, or they can refer very generally to well-being and preference satisfaction, or to something else. If you're trying to decide where to build a new road, you might add up the costs and benefits and see which proposal looks best.

Informed consent may be most familiar to us from medical ethics, but it is in play in any system in which rights and voluntary exchange are seen as the relevant ethical components. When we round up people for testing a new medical treatment, we don't use cost-benefit analysis and then choose the best people and make them do it; we recruit people and ask them to give their informed consent. Presumably, that's because we think people have a right to control what happens to an in their bodies.

These two ways of approaching issues are really different. One focuses on what's best for the group, and doesn't pay much attention to individual rights. The other focuses entirely on individual rights, and doesn't pay much attention to what's best for the group.

In regular life, I expect most of us shift smoothly from one to the other as seems appropriate. If you're thinking about the social norms around deciding whether or not to have sex, it would be strange to use cost-benefit analysis. What if person A really really wanted it and person B mostly didn't? Could CBA could yield the conclusion that B had to go along with it? Typically, we use the autonomy-decision-consent framework there. If you're thinking institutionally, though, about questions like where and how a university should build new gym or dorm space, then cost benefit analysis may be just what you want. Would you really want to give each person a veto?

How do we know when to use the one and when to use the other? It's complicated, but roughly something like this: some areas of life concern basic rights and you have to use the autonomy/consent framework; others involve presumed cooperation and you expect to use the CBA framework. When? It's based on institutional structures and also background judgment.

Sometimes, we use a mix of the two approaches. This CBC story describes a situation where a provincial government is deciding to close a small town because it is too expensive to supply the town with resources. The way the system works, communities must volunteer to close and in a vote, at least 90 per cent of residents must be in favour of relocating; then if they do relocate, each resident receives between $250,000 and $270,000 to move to another town.

It's not CBA, since there's a consent requirement. It's not the consent-autonomy framework, because you might be in that 10 percent who doesn't want to move; also, I'm guessing CBA of some kind was used in arriving at the dollar range specified. It's a mix. Where did that "90 percent" come from? I imagine it's a number that seemed about right to someone, based on all the factors involved. It's a judgment.

So: if we use our judgment in deciding when to use the various frameworks, and if sometimes we use a mix of the two approaches that incorporates some group thinking and some individual thinking ... well, doesn't that mean we're always using the same kind of judgment calls that value pluralism makes use of?

These two ways of looking at things might seem objective or neutral, but the fact that they're so different ethically shows they're not really objective or neutral. They're value systems. That is not bad -- it's good! But as long as you're using a value system anyway .. why not use one that reflects the full multiplicity of values and represents accurately the complexity of ethical decisions? It sometimes seems uncomfortable for decision-processes to rely on judgment and values, because then we have to ask, "Whose judgment and values"? But I think any way of making complex choices relies on judgment and values. So that question is, in some sense, always with us, even when we can't see it clearly. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Frankenstein And Feminist Ethics

Mary Shelley
I've always had a thing for Mary Shelley. I love the book Frankenstein, and have always thought it a seriously philosophical work -- nothing like the monster movies that came later. Shelley's life, full of adventure, literature, politics and parenting, was incredible.

So I was excited to read Jill Lepore's New Yorker article contextualizing some of the history of Frankenstein. I already had the opinion that the book is more about motherhood than about science, but it was cool to see everything assembled in a tidy package. As I wrote about before, if you've read the book, you know that what changes the creature from a kindly awkward creature into a violent monster is that his creator despises him. He has no one to love him. He has no mother. This leads to the violence that ruins the lives of everyone in the story. Lepore talks about Shelley's miscarriages and how many infants she gave birth to who died soon after being born -- basically, "eight years of near-constant pregnancy and loss."

I learned two new things about Frankenstein. One is that the story wrapped within a story wrapped within a narration allows the novel to depict different perspectives all at the same time. Lepore says it's like nesting dolls. and because of this, people debated whether the politics of the book are revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.

A second, more interesting, thing is that the creature's account of his eduction closely follows the conventions of the slave narratives of the time and that the creature's experience was understood to implicate the institution of slavery.

You may remember that the creature, on being chased out of the lab and roaming the countryside trying to find warmth, shelter, and companionship, then listens to a family through a hole in the wall and later comes upon books by Milton, Plutarch and Goethe. This is how he learns to read and write and think in language. I learned from Lepore's piece that despite Sir Walter Scott finding this "preposterous," it actually echoes stories like that of Frederick Douglas, who learned to read by trading with white boys for lessons and later from reading books. I had no idea that Shelley and her contemporaries were following debates over abolition, or that the relationship between the creator and his creation was widely seen as a parallel for the United States and slaves who, if freed, were sure to seek vengeance. Now I want to read Elizabeth Young's Black Frankenstein.  

One thing Lepore doesn't discuss, that I've always wondered about, is the relation between the motherhood themes of Frankenstein and the philosophy of Shelley's father, William Godwin. Shelley was the daughter of Godwin and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth, so she was raised by Godwin (and, eventually, a stepmother). Godwin was a utilitarian and a famous impartialist -- meaning that ethically we ought to treat each person as equally deserving of our moral consideration.

I learned from reading Peter Singer that Godwin proposed a thought experiment: you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father, who happens to be the author's valet. The author writes the kind of books that bring moral uplifting and happiness to many people. You have to decide whether to save the author or your father. Godwin said you should save the author, because morality requires impartiality, and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I don't know much about Godwin, but doesn't that sound like the opposite of the themes of Frankenstein? Part of the point of the book is that without that deep and highly partial love that a parent can give you, you cannot develop into a proper human (or, proper creature in this case).

I'm not saying utilitarianism is pro-monster, obviously. It's more a question of how love fits into it, and how caring is essential to ethical life. Shelley's perspective fits with contemporary feminist ethics and ethics of care, but now I'm curious of what she thought of her father's philosophy.

In the end, one of Shelley's children lived, and after a serious of difficulties, Shelley devoted her later life to bringing up her son, educating him, supporting him and her father, while traveling and writing. Along the way, she helped all kinds of people, especially women whom society disapproved of. We love you, Mary Shelley!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How Did I Fail To Read Any Books In January 2018?

I could be wrong, but I think that January 2018 was the first month since I started this blog that I read zero books. I mean, zero of the non-philosophy books that I read for fun and general interest and list here on the right hand side of this blog.

A month with no books disturbs me. Not because I have some weird hifalutin idea about the life of the mind and not because I'm snobby about books as opposed to other forms of entertainment -- but just because I like to read, and I'm like, what the hell have I been doing with my time? Why didn't I read any books in January?

Of course, the "what have I been doing with my time" invites the honest, universal, and prima facie relevant answer that "Well, I've been busy." It is true that my job is time-consuming and I've been extra busy lately. But I don't think that's the crucial issue. In the past, there have actually been times when I've been extra busy and I've read more books, because I'm extra in need of the distraction and decompression that novels provide. And I can read anywhere. I like to eat alone and read. I read when I'm waiting in line or early to something. I read before dinner, when I'm just home from the gym, and I read after dinner.

So it's not a brute time factor. I have two hypotheses, which are equally uncomfortable for me in different ways.

The first is: I've been looking at the internet. Yes, all those times when I'm sitting around or early to something or whatever, instead of looking at a novel, I've been looking at the news on my phone. GAWD -- as my mother would have said. It doesn't even have the interactivity of social media, it's just stupid stories about Brexit, and Donald Trump, and school shootings, and more Brexit. I don't know if I have a soft spot for British news because Britain is truly dysfunctional in a more entertaining way than the US or whether I'm kidding myself about that, but man, do I read a lot about British dysfunction. In any case, as a way of spending time, it's ridiculous.

The second is: I was catching up on my New Yorker reading. OK, I know this sounds like an absurd thing to be concerned about but hear me out. Throughout my life, I've heard always hear people talk about how they were "behind on their New Yorker reading." For me, this was in the same category as something like "I have eight books on my bedside table that I've started and haven't finished." And I felt like they were both absurd in similar ways. Because, when it comes to art, I prided myself on doing the things I liked doing and not doing the other things.

I don't like having "guilty pleasures." When I have pleasures, I like to stand up for them. Like Beavis and Butthead, or the song Blurred Lines (yes. I wrote about it here.) And I don't like having the opposite of guilty pleasures -- which, whatever you'd call them, are like things you feel you ought to do for culture but you don't want to. Artistically, I am invested in doing the things I like doing and not other things. And "catching up on" New Yorker reading always felt to me like the opposite of that. 

And yet here I am. I got like ten issues behind, and I couldn't bear to just let it go and start up again on the new issue. I'm not sure why. So all those moments, when I could have been reading a novel, I was catching up on my New Yorker reading -- I mean, when I wasn't drowning in news about Brexit.

The good news is, I'm all caught up. And before February was over my friend said to me, casually, Oh, have you read An American Marriage? It's really good. Got it, on it, hopefully back on track.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

For Your Consideration: Some Images

Hello loyal readers! I wasn't able to write something for you this week because I am trying to revise a book manuscript and it is taking up all my words. For your entertainment pleasure, however, here are some images of interest.

First, we have the following phone capture, representing a text message I received when a family member had a health procedure in the United States.


The way it works is you give them your phone number and they put you in a system so they can text you with news, updates, and offers. I also received a special welcome card with an offer of $2.50 off any food or beverage purchased in the hospital cafeteria. Maybe it's because I've been in Canada so long, but this all seemed such a perfect representation of the capitalism of the US heath care system. Minus: many people with no health care! Plus: texting and welcome gifts for the well-insured!

Next, we have the following iPhone auto-correct on my phone. I don't know why, but I'm easily amused by auto-correct humor. A site like this can amuse me for -- well, minutes on end, anyway.


In this case, I just couldn't get over that mistyping "Hello" as "Vhello" would lead to the suggestions of "Chelonia" and "Chelicarae." WTF?

Finally, we have this graffito (on the bottom) in the Women's bathroom at Robarts Library in Toronto:


It says "Change the world, idiots, not yourself." This is a useful and philosophically sophisticated statement. I don't know if it is meant to apply to this ad specifically (which is for birth control, though you wouldn't know that from the ad, I guess because the have to be cagey about it?) or whether it's just a general statement.  Either way, I'm always happy to see it and be reminded. It's not me, world -- it's you.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Problems of Love and Autonomy

I was invited to join others in contributing a post about love to the Daily Nous in honor of Valentine's Day. Mine is cross-posted below, but you can check them all out here

It's Valentine's Day, so let's talk about ... death! In the grand tradition of philosophical debate, I'll start with an anecdote:

Kay Sievewright and Ernie Sievewright of British Columbia were married for 55 years, and when their health declined, they hoped to die together. They were each approved for Medical Assistance in Dying, which became legal here in Canada in 2016, but their request to die at the same time was turned down. Instead, they died four days apart, in early 2017.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which provides legal advice to physicians, said they couldn't comment on this case, but they did make a general statement: "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence ... It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they're agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence."

You might think this has little to do with Valentine's Day, but I think this case highlights in an interesting way some deep complexities of love and personal autonomy. It's often thought to be in the nature of love that you come to feel the way you do about things partly because of the influence of the other person. In union theories of love, merger can mean curtailing individual decision-making, and in caring concern theories, the fact that something will increase the well-being of the beloved is a reason to do it. Drawing on accounts of shared agency, Andrea Westlund proposes shared egalitarian deliberation, in which each person should be open to guidance by the perspective of the other.

On the face of it, love is thus in tension with autonomy, where there is an emphasis on the importance of doing things for your own reasons, free, as the statement says, even of "influence" from others.

This tension can be resolved in various ways. Some concern theorists point out that if you act for the other person because you love them, this is acting for your own reasons. And as relational theorists of autonomy like have long emphasized, what enables people to be autonomous is not isolation, but relationships. Westlund says that autonomy is about being "answerable" for your commitments, so love means mutual answerability. 

These ways of resolving the tension aptly show how autonomy and love are compatible, but as is often pointed out, they may not fully resolve deeper questions of undue influence from our intimates. What makes influence inappropriate? When one person prioritizes the interests of another, this can be because of love, but it can also be because of pressure, coercion, or socialized deference. How should this distinction be understood?

Even when deference is systematic and gendered, a result of feminine socialization, there is debate over how "autonomy" should be conceptualized. On the one hand, a person who is systematically deferential to another in this way seems paradigmatically non-autonomous, since they are not deciding for their own reasons. On the other hand, if a person chooses deference, that's their choice; who are we to say they are not being themselves?

Anita Ho highlights the relevant complexities in bioethical decision-making. Given the vulnerabilities and stresses of illness and treatment, relational perspectives force us to acknowledge that for whose whose family is central to their existence, consideration of family members' "advice, needs, and mutual interests" is part of being autonomous. Still, she says, exploitation, indoctrination and false consciousness are real possibilities. Clinicians should "listen to the family’s concerns and reasoning process, and then explore with them various options that can best respect the interests of all parties." By default, however, Ho says that health care teams should trust the patient's own final expressed wishes -- not because manipulation is impossible, but rather because family relationships are highly complex and typically opaque to clinicians.

This brief investigation highlights some of the limitations of appealing to autonomy to solve complicated ethical problems, especially where love and intimacy are involved. It seems appealingly simple to say that for important decisions, we should prioritize individual autonomy. But autonomy is complicated and contextual, and may not be able to bear all this theoretical weight.

The Sievewrights may have come to their decisions in a context of mutual respect, or one may have felt obliged to go along with the other out of love, or one may have pressured the other. From the outside, we may never know -- and in a deeper sense, there may be no answer to this question, even if we had the transcript of the Sievewrights's intimate thoughts.

The same is true for any difficult and important decision, no matter when or how it takes place. The presence of people we love has a powerful effect on us. Sometimes that shapes us to make us who we are. Sometimes it shapes us in more disturbing ways. We may not ourselves always know how to tell the difference. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I Thought Being Cool Was Going To Be So Much More Important

Even though I was a nerdy and mostly unpopular young person, I had some cool early musical tastes. At least, they were cool in a certain ways. In high school I fell in love with the movie The Hunger, and watching The Hunger I quickly developed an obesssion with the song Funtime, which was co-written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop and performed by Iggy Pop. I knew David Bowie, but I had never heard of Iggy Pop, so I went to the record store (pause here for a Gen-X Nostalgia Moment™) and I bought an Iggy Pop double album.

I was blown away by its awesomeness, but I didn't really understand for a while how cool Iggy Pop is thought to be in certain circles. Now I often listen to the WTF podcast with Marc Maron and a topic that often comes up is how people found out about cool music when they were young. Iggy Pop is a main example of a certain kind of cool, along with bands like MC5. In these discussions, there's frequently a mention of some older person -- a sibling, or cool friend, or even guy-at-the-record-store -- and how you need that person when you're young, to help show you the way. Otherwise, how would you know what's cool?

Sometimes these conversations give me a pang of impotent indignation. "Hey!" I want to explain. "I figured these things out all  by myself! I didn't have a guide or a guru. I heard a song and instantly understood its peculiar genius! Don't I get .. points for that?" In fact, not only did tenth-grade me buy Iggy Pop albums, I also figured out to switch off Dom Imus and switch on WXCI, the local college radio station. WXCI was at 91 on the FM dial. Ha ha, get it? When I was young that allusion knocked me out! Over at WXCI I learned to love a band called "The Art of Noise" and their allusive and fragmented hit song "Close (to the Edit)."

It's ridiculous, but part of teen me always thought that being cool in a way that was different, clever and non-conformist was going to be a Big Deal in life, at least once I got past high school and into the wider world. I thought it would connect me to cool people. I thought others would value and praise me for my coolness. I thought there would be many moments in life where the discussion would turn to some obscure topic and I could say, non-chalantly, how when it came to Art of Noise, oh, I yes, I liked the Close (to the Edit) song. Wasn't the replayed sample of a sound of a car starting just the best? How cool.

Well, it wasn't like that. For one thing, I then went to Wesleyan University, where on the different-clever-non-conformist cool scale I showed up way, way behind. Wesleyan was full of kids who'd been networking in New York City high schools and elite New England boarding schools, taking LSD at age 11, traveling to Thailand in the summers and making art films for fun. The bar was high. Sure, I liked Iggy Pop. But I also liked The Cure. What kind of dopey suburbanite was I? I worked at channeling my inner cool, learned to love the Velvet Underground, and still hoped for for some kind of recognizable line on an invisible resume.

But the sad truth is that as time went on, I found it wasn't that big of a deal. People don't really care. Or if they do, they have their own coolness issues they're trying to sort out. That either makes them annoying and pretentious, or they're too busy with their own coolness issues to pay any attention appreciating yours. On top of everything else, in the age of social media it's hard to share about your cool things without sounding like you're showing off. But mainly, I found that the real stuff of life doesn't have that much to do with showcasing sophisticated tastes and obscure knowledge. 

Sure, I still value trying to be a non-conformist, and sure, it matters to me that I read cool non-conformist books and go to cool non-conformist movies. But I don't care about these things because I think they will make me cool, I just care about them in the normal way.

These days I tend to think of cool in the way Jane Austen described women's fashion and beauty in Northanger Abbey: "Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stupid Sports Slogans Are Relevant To Your Interests



I'm at one of those points in the semester where I've been putting so many words together that the idea of putting more words together makes me feel the lethargic despair people have in mind when they use words like "Sisyphean."

Normally in this situation I would look at my "blog ideas" note, where I put down all potential blog ideas -- even ones that seem dumb, weird, and unpromising. In case you're interested, rejected topics today include "hair" -- in which i was going to say something how the energy of hair-styling in post-Maria Puerto Rico is both life affirming and makes me appreciate how hair-lazy I am, "The sad side of fine-tuned consumer preferences" -- which was going to explore the very distinctive kind of grimness I associate with hearing someone express detailed knowledge about what seem to me manufactured differences in things I'd never be interested in buying anyway, and "stupid capitalist dilemmas," which would have focused on annoying questions like "Is it ethically wrong to opt out of targeted advertising on a site whose existence and profitability you want to continue?"

But today, I'm not up to it. Instead I'll share with you this photograph that I took at the gym. As a philosopher, I'm used to having my mind philosophizing in non-philosophizing contexts. I remember some motivational poster at the gym years ago that said that if you set aside worry about the future and regret about the past, you would be happy in the present. I was like .. that is clearly not true. I can be unhappy about the present just as well as I can about the future or the past. Just watch me.

Here it is:




As you can see, here we have another philosophically rich idea: "Choose progress over perfection."

Because I'm naturally grouchy and argumentative, when I saw this my first thought was to try to think how wrong it was. But then I started thinking about it, and actually "choosing progress over perfection" is something I do all the time. Perfection is paralyzing. Even having high standards can get in your way. I was a little shocked to realize how often I deflate my own anxieties by saying to myself, "Well, whatever. Just keep this moving forward into the next step, and then you can see how it's going."

I would even go so far as to say that it may be the areas where perfection rings your bell can be the areas where it's the most difficult to move forward, because choosing progress over perfection becomes so difficult. When I was a kid I was into music, and I took lessons, first on the flute and later on the piano. I loved the piano, but I loved it in this weird way where my own deficiencies as a learner drove me crazy with frustration. I knew, intellectually, that I would have to practice and improve slowly. But hearing myself produce music that sounded bad? I couldn't handle it emotionally.

Though I'm invested in my intellectual work and writing, I'm not invested in them in that way. I have the same problem of being endlessly unhappy with what I produce, but for some reason it doesn't give me that intense feeling of rage and irritation. So in that domain, I really can choose progress over perfection.

I would go so far as to say that "choose progress over perfection" is useful advice for a lot of intellectual and creative work. These kinds of projects are psychologically demanding along multiple dimensions. The blank page, the critic in your head, yada yada yada.

We need all the tools we can get. If some of them come from stupid sports slogans, so what? Maybe they're actually on to something.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Flattened Context Of The Internet, Implicature, And Political Discourse

Imagine you're having a political conversation with someone and they say these things:

"You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too."

or

"Racism in America? It's not really any worse now than it was before."

Question: What do you think the speaker means in expressing these sentences?

Here's what I think. I think there is no answer about what the speaker means, because to know the answer you'd have to know the context. This is something we've all known forever, and yet something we seem to be constantly forgetting.

For example, first imagine that the conversation is about the nature of racism in the US. Many people, especially people of color, have recently been pointing out that what might look like an explosion of racism in the US in the past year or so is better understood as bringing to the surface, and thus to more people's attention, deep pernicious attitudes and widespread injustices that have always been there.

Expressing a related idea, in this interview in the Guardian, the actor Aldis Hodge talks about his experience of racism in the US and the art he is now creating to expose racism and make people confront it. Toward the end, he talks about how he thinks the past year has exposed problems that have been there all along: 

"When people ask if it’s gotten worse, they ask from the perspective of not having understood the reality," he says. "Harmonia (his co-creator) is an African woman; I’m a black man. This is not different for us ... I was raised with being taught how to speak to cops so I don’t lose my life at a young age. We’ve always dealt with police brutality. I don’t walk around without being aware of my surroundings. It is the people who have not been affected or targeted who are starting to say: ‘Wow, is this what really goes on in this country?’"

In the context of this conversation, one could easily use the second sentence to express what Hodge and others have said, and one could then easily use the sentence about Obama to make the broader claim that US racism is not only domestic but also international.

Now imagine that it's a different conversation, this time about whether the current US administration is any worse than the former. Many people feel that even if racism has always been there, and even if US foreign policy has always been involved in unjust killing, there are still important senses in which current policies and the current president are worse -- perhaps outrageously so -- than what came before. 

It's an emotional and deeply felt topic, for real reasons related to party politics, lesser-of-two-evils thinking, and actual impacts on vulnerable people's lives. If someone makes the argument that things are now bad in some special way, and their interlocutor uses the two sentences above, that interlocutor could plausibly be taken to be denying what the first person said.

Thus, in the context of this conversation, one could easily use the first sentence to mean something like "Meh, don't get all upset about the Dreamers or the people losing health insurance or whatever. It doesn't matter whose in charge. The two parties are basically the same." And one could easily use the second to try to support that claim, by denying that new pernicious racist effects have been created by this administration in particular.

I hope it's obvious that the two meanings, in the two different contexts, are radically different. I bet a lot of people who agree with one of them would not agree with the other.

The fancy name for this is "implicature," but it's also part of everyone's common sense about how people communicate. We all know that if we're reading a letter of recommendation for a job as a prof or lawyer or doctor and the recommender says, "During the year I knew X, they always showed up on time," that would be very peculiar and would suggest that the reviewer didn't have enough good things to say. It would not be a positive. But if we were reading a teacher's report about a teen who was struggling with lateness and had recently gotten things on track, it could be a completely appropriate piece of praise. Context not only affects interpretation, it affects what is said, meant, and heard.

The problem is -- as we all know -- the internet. As we've discussed, the internet flattens all context. Everything is treated like it's your final, context-free opinion on everything. You might think you're having the first conversation, and then someone comes along and doesn't see the context, or ignores it, and treats your comment as if it is part of the second conversation.

In the absence of context, I think we try to fill things in by taking statements to be relevant to whatever we think is the most salient and important overall context. Among other things, one result is that anything you say is taken to indicate that you think the things you're talking about is the most important thing to be talking about. But why? Can't you have an opinion about X without meaning to suggest X is the most important thing going? Then, too, you feel you have to be at-the-ready to respond and clarify what you did and didn't mean. I admire the people on Twitter who express complicated opinions and then go on and do just that, sometimes for hours on end.

Anyway, personally, I think it is important to talk about how racism has always been a problem in the US, and about how bad policies go way back, and sometimes in that connection I sometimes want to say things like "You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too." But because of our political situation, I hesitate -- because I fear I'll be interpreted as having expressed the meaning of the second argument.

Sometimes, a long blog post or actual article can, in fact, help with context and interpretation, so it is disturbing to feel our collective patience for that sort of thing dwindling and narrowing. Of course, from the point of view of the attention merchants, all this chaos is plausibly a feature, and not a bug, so I'm not expecting things to get better any time soon.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decision-Making, Love, And The Limits Of Autonomy

This week in my Moral Issues class we're talking about assisted suicide and euthanasia. I think the issues related to these topics are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, I want to be able to choose to die, and I support other people's right to make that decision for themselves. On the other hand, 1) I think the way we respond to such requests can't help but reflect what lives we think are worth living and 2) once new options are on the table, we ask ourselves different questions.

If you wade a bit into thinking about these issues, you come quickly into the nature of autonomy -- or self-directedness. With big decisions like this, we tend to think autonomy is really important. If you choose it for yourself, that's one thing, but if you're pressured or coerced into it, that's something else.  

In a way, this is completely intuitive. If a person said they were choosing medical aid in dying, and it was because their children had threatened them with harm for not choosing it, obviously that is not OK, and it seems right to say that the reason it's not OK is that the choice is coerced. It's not free, informed consent.

But as we've written about before, the further you go in thinking about the difference between free and coerced choices, the more confusing things can get. On the one hand, social context can influence choices in problematic ways. If girls don't study math, even though they like it, because of social pressure, or if boys act all tough and mean because they feel like masculine gender norms require it, those choices may not seem autonomous, because they are being influenced.

On the other hand, every choice takes place in social context. How would you begin to disentangle the ones that make you "not yourself"? What would that mean, to be yourself in the absence of a social context?

Even relational theories of autonomy -- theories designed to fit the idea that a person's self can be a socially connected self -- have this problem. Imagine a society in which women are socialized to be deferential, or prioritize the concerns of others. Do deferential preferences and judgments reflect full autonomy on their part? Some theorists -- proceduralists -- say that as long as the process of decision-making is properly reflective, then sure. That's who they are. Other theorists -- substantivists -- say no: if you're socialized to be deferential because of sexist social norms, that is a way of not being fully yourself.

All of this was on my mind recently when one of my graduate students shared with me this very interesting news story about a couple deciding to request medical aid in dying. They were married for 55 years, and wanted to die together, but their request was denied, on grounds that acting together created the possibility that one person was influencing the other. And these decisions must be fully autonomous.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association said "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence. … It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they’re agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence. .. Out of an abundance of caution, it is our advice that you can’t be sure that one member of the couple isn’t under influence, even if both members qualify."

Whatever you think about this decision, the case shows how murky things get when you talk about being autonomous and acting in the absence of "influence" when you're talking about relationships. In one way, of course the two people are influencing one another's decisions. As they should. Imagine two people. The first one says, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too." The second one says, "I want medical aid in dying. Even though we are very close, I haven't talked it over with my spouse, so I don't know what they think -- whether they think it's the right decision." Wouldn't you think it's the second person who has a problem with decision-making?

And yet, clearly the people closest to use can influence us in problematic ways. If a person said, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too. After all, they're going to have their hands full taking care of our children and finding a new spouse and all. So we agreed that the sooner we get my death over with, the better it is for them. And making them happy is my main goal in life." Well -- wouldn't you want to at least talk this over further? It does sound like problematic influence.

Love should make autonomy complicated. Love often means interdependence, and it should. It's hardly surprising that interdependence on others and "being yourself" are hard to tease apart.

I think there are no easy answers. But I also think part of the problem is trying to shoehorn every complex ethical decision into the framework of personal freedom. Yes, freedom is important. But trying to treat each process as ethically neutral, grounded in some unattainable ideal of "personal autonomy," isn't really workable or desirable.