Monday, August 31, 2009

When Is A Choice "Yours"?

In my philosophy work I've been doing some reading and thinking about the notion of autonomy, which it turns out is a really hard concept to understand. Intuitively, the idea is supposed to be that if a choice is yours its autonomous, and if you're forced into it, it's not.

But it turns out to be harder than you think to make this idea precise. Consider the question of whether facts about your social environment can ever make your choice not fully your own. For example, maybe you're a teen girl who wants to dress as a tomboy but who goes to a school where no one does that and no one will date you if you do. Or maybe you're a student who doesn't want to take (non-prescribed) Ritalin but how knows that since half the other kids are taking it, your relative test score will seem lower if you don't.

Are these kinds of choices autonomous ones? Suppose we say "yes," on grounds that you're not being *forced* to do what others do, it's just pressure, and you still have choices. The tomboy can choose whether to dress femininely, or whether to dress as she wants and be more of a loner. The student can choose whether to take the Ritalin, or whether to refuse and take the consequences. In support of this view, we might say, Well, all choices in life are among a range of alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives are good; sometimes they all suck. But the mere fact that you're choosing among particular alternatives cannot itself render a choice non-autonomous. All choices are like that: the fact that a person has to choose whether to major in Engineering to make more money or major in English because they love it doesn't render their choice non-autonomous, no matter what they end up choosing.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are autonomous. Because really, what happens when someone holds a gun to your head? They're giving you a new range of alternative to choose among, right? You can still choose: give him the money, or die. But to say this this choice is autonomous is nuts: the fact that you can choose among alternatives means nothing. The "gun to your head" is like a paradigm example of a non-autonomous choice.

Now, suppose we say "no," on grounds that the tomboy and Ritalin choices, like the one where you have a gun to your head, seem to have its origins not from inside you but from forces external to you. In both cases, someone or something is structuring your world for you, in ways you don't like.

But if this is right, it starts to look like all choices are non-autonomous. After all, every choice every one ever makes is made in an environment of some kind, an environment that structures their choices. Many of the choices you make in life you make because someone you love needs or wants something from you. Your love makes you do things you wouldn't do otherwise: save money, or quit smoking. Or lie to your friends, or to the cops, to protect them. These choices are all highly influenced by social forces external to you, but that doesn't make them non-autonomous. Sometimes they feel like the ultimate expression of self-hood: I do this for you because I love you.

So, I don't know what to say; it's very puzzling. Reading enough of the theories of autonomy and how different they are and how inconsistent they are with each other, I started to think maybe there is no such thing as autonomy, really, and no real distinction between autonomous and non-autonomous choices. But then I was talking with my friend about that weird parasite that makes ants climb to the top of grass so it'll get ingested by sheep, and I thought WOW, if there was a parasite like that for humans, OF COURSE their choices would be non-autonomous. That's like being made into a ZOMBIE for heaven's sake.

So, again, one of those moments where real life just comes outta nowhere, right at you. Real life 1; Philosophy 0.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mid-Year Resolutions

So I made some mid-year resolutions a while ago and I sort of kept them. The results are in and there are a few surprises.

1. Resolved: not to look at the internet before noon.

Status: Successful.

OK, let me qualify that. I don't meant I don't check my email in the morning. I do. I also allow myself to download the Times Reader and look at that. Since that is just an electronic version of the Times downloaded onto the computer, in my view it doesn't count.

What I mean is: I'm not allowed to look at fun or newsy websites. No; no No browsing around. Zero, nada, zip. Not 'til noon, anyway. This way at least the morning is productive and isn't eaten up on things I would enjoy just as much at 6pm or 9pm if I just had the goddamn patience to wait.

Results: Excellent and surprising. Less fussing over the state of the world; less moping over the comparisons between my life and other people's lives; less moaning over consumer goods I can't afford. More accomplishments. I get five stars.

2. Resolved: no more using the credit cards.

Status: Successful.

You always read how anyone who has a problem with overusing their credit cards should use a debit card instead. It's a fine idea, but it has some drawbacks. One of the main reasons to use a credit card is that you're shopping on the internet. Do you really want to put the number of your bank card into a website form? I mean, I understand that those cards have legal protections, but that's going to be cold comfort during the first few weeks after someone empties your checking account.

What I got instead was a prepaid card - it's like a credit card, only you prepay. Now, you'd think banks would be falling all over themselves to market these cards to consumers -- after all, they get the money sitting in the account before you spend it, and they get the fees, and it's a pretty good deal for them. Strangely, I found the prepaid cards were marketed in peculiar "can't get credit yourself?" kind of way -- with pictures of families wearing "we're in debt, boo hoo" expressions. Why not market these cards to people like me, who just want a convenient way to budget their discretionary spending?

Results: Astonishing. I'm amazed at how differently I use my prepaid card from how I used my credit card. It sounds ridiculous, but I actually treat it as money instead of some kind of possible fantasy thing I might possibly pay of in some imaginary future time. I'm a little weirded out by this failure to understand the abstract concept of money in such a way that credit card debt is real money, but who knows? there it is.

Resolved: to exercise more.

Status: Failed.

Results: One thing that always really annoys me is when people act like working out is a matter of rational choice. "Why need a personal trainer? How silly! If I know what to do at the gym I can just go do it myself."

Sounds good in theory, but obviously this is just false for most people.

Anyway two out of three ain't bad.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Years ago I read a few excellent books by a cartoonist named John Callahan. When he was young, Callahan was in a terrible car accident, and he became a quadriplegic. He draws cartoons by gripping the pen between his two hands (I think one arm works sort of OK) and you'd be surprised how well the drawings come out.

Callahan got really depressed after his accident and drank a lot, and as you can imagine, his cartoons involve a lot of "black humor" -- like the one where a guy with two hooks for hands stands on a street corner with a sign saying "Will refrain from shaking hands with you: $5.00." Now he's sober and I just learned on his wikipedia page that he's involved in a million new projects, which I gotta say was pretty cool and nice to find out about someone.

So back then when I was reading a lot of Callahan, one thing I read was his sort of memoir, Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up? (ha ha) and the two things I remember best are his hilarious descriptions of sex education and advice for disabled people (humorless, unsexy, pathetic) and his indignation at being called "wheelchair-bound."

Sure, he uses a wheelchair to get around sometimes, but that doesn't mean he is "wheelchair bound" any more than the fact that you use a car to get around sometimes means you are "carbound." So it's just dumb to say that he's "confined to a wheelchair."

I remember finding that very persuasive, and I tried from then on to avoid using the term "wheelchair-bound," which if you think about it is kind of a stupid term anyway.

But I've been thinking a lot about Callahan lately, because I've started to think "car-bound" is actually a kind of apt description of the way a lot of us live in North America in the early 21st century. Personally, I hate driving and I feel lucky to be able to live in one of the few places in which living without a car is reasonably comfortable. Over the past few weeks I've visited three fairly typical American places in which living without a car is not so easy. And it seems to me that the way the landscape and the driving habits of people are changing, it's becoming not just difficult but actually impossible to get around town on foot any more -- even if the distances are reasonable and the weather is OK.

Sidewalks appear and disappear. Plazas have impossibly long entrance-ways and huge parking lots. When you want to cross the street, drivers don't stop and wait for you anymore -- instead, they just slow down, creeping along as if avoiding actually hitting you is the most effort that can be required of them. And if the drivers are on the phone or in a hurry, forget it: you have to practically wave your arms and shout if you want to cross safely. "Hello! Pedestrian here! I know you don't see pedestrians here very often! But I am here! PLEASE DON'T HIT ME! THX!"

No one should have to be car-bound. It's a terrible condition with awful symptoms. I don't know what the answer is but maybe as they say in my favorite novel Amazons of Jumping Frenchman's disease, "What this disease needs is some good PR."

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Mom Virtues: Not Just For Women Anymore

There was a great Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago captioned "Mothers Without Borders." It showed a range of moms saying things like "Lack of infrastructure is no excuse for such language," and "If so-and-so jumped off a bridge, would you?"

I don't have kids of my own, but I had an immediate feeling of identification with this cartoon. Because really, most grown-up women are moms in some sense. I mean, if you're out and about and you cut your finger, and you need a bandaid, or you get thirsty and you need something to drink, or you get a tear in your pants and need a safety pin, odds are there's a woman around you're going to ask to help you out. It's not a 100 percent sort of thing but it's a thing.

I've been surprised to find myself becoming more and more mom-like as I get older. I've always been conceptually comitted to not nagging people, but as I get older and wiser, it's hard to refrain from trying to nudge the people I love toward more sensible behavior -- or at least, toward behavior I'm pretty sure is going to be better for them in the long run. "Eat your vegetables!" "Have you been going to the gym?" "Don't forget to make your travel plans early!" "Have you considered turning off the TV and reading a good book?"

As I see it, the omnipresence of moms is a basiscally a good thing. If you listen, you benefit, and if you want to ignore, well, at least you can set yourself up as a rebel without having to take anything to extremes.

The mom virtues don't just include worrying, though. They also include comfort and hospitality. There's an incredibly moving scene in one of Trollope's Palliser books describing an intense meeting between a man and a woman. They haven't seen each other in a long time; they used to love one another; at the time of the meeting she is living in desperately unhappy circumstances. The man travels far to reach her, in wintery cold, on a night train, and the first thing she does is tend to his comforts: she makes tea; she gets some food ready; she makes the fire warm. Trollope observes that no matter how complex the relationships are and no matter how important the meeting, a man who has traveled through the cold and is hungry needs to have his comforts seen to. And you know, it's true. Of all of us.

I think of these virtues as the mom virtues, but lots of men have them, and if you know one of them, you know how excellent a thing it is to be looked after in life. Now that more women are busy working and so on, we need more men with the mom virtues. You don't have to call them that -- maybe someone can think up a snappier and less feminine-sounding name. But yeah everyone, take Roz Chast as your model. Mothers without borders. Play nice together! Clean up your toys! Don't eat all the candy! OK?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control . . .

. . . we cannot update The Kramer Is Now today. I am, as Cleo Birdwell would say, in the dark schizzy heart of America, where strangely enough, I can't get a convenient internet connection. So see y'all next week.