Monday, October 27, 2014

World Citizenship And Its Discontents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things

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

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

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

Wine at the LCBO.

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

I think this picture speaks for itself.

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014


Thilafushi: garbage island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ganging Up On The Concept Of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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