Tuesday, September 30, 2003

I'm worth twelve of you, Malfoy, even if Harry's not watching!

I don't know the first thing about novel-writing theory. I don't even know what the correct term for it is. I haven't written a piece of prose fiction since third grade. Heck, I don't even do all that much reading. But still, I think I can notice when something's funny. J.K. Rowling has now written five Harry Potter books. They vary in seriousness and length (and quality), but for the most part, the narrative style is consistent throughout. Our narrator follows Harry, and never leaves him -- the reader never knows more than Harry does, unless he remembers something Harry forgot, or focuses on something Harry deems unimportant. We never "see" a scene in which Harry is not present or observing. Almost never. There is a prologue at the beginning of book one, which deals with Harry's arrival at the Dursley's as a very young child. This isn't an exception, it's just a prologue. I think I found an actual exception, though, right in the middle of a chapter. It's very odd. It's in Chapter 13 of book one, during the second Quidditch match. Harry has gone to the locker room to prepare for the match, and the narrator follows him there. Fred delivers some good news to Harry... and then the following transition occurs:
Harry could have laughed out loud with relief. He was safe. There was simply no way that Snape would dare to try to hurt him if Dumbledore was watching. Perhaps that was why Snape was looking so angry as the teams marched onto the field, something that Ron noticed, too. "I've never seen Snape look so mean," he told Hermione. "Look -- they're off. Ouch!"
And for the next several pages, the narrator ignores Harry -- who is flying around above them -- and tells us about Ron and Neville's fight with Draco Malfoy. Eventually, Rowling non-transitions us back to Harry's point of view:
"Ron! Ron! Where are you? The game's over! Harry's won! We've won! Gryffindor is in the lead!" shrieked Hermione, dancing up and down on her seat and hugging Parvati Patil in the row in front. Harry jumped off his broom, a foot from the ground. He couldn't believe it.
Now I don't really feel like getting into an argument on the literary merits of Harry Potter just now. I'm not positive that this is a horrible inconsistency... after all, I read it a number of times before noticing it. (I won't tell you how many times I've read the book, (1) because I'm embarrassed to, and (2) because I've lost count. Ok, so mostly just (2).) Do authors do this kind of thing frequently? Would I get marked down in novel-writing class if I had a sudden point-of-view shift like that? It's just so weird, because otherwise, the whole cannon is from Harry's point of view.

Monday, September 29, 2003

I'd like to state for the record...

...that Terrell Owens needs to shut his mouth. I've been, and I am, a T.O. supporter -- obviously, he's a great wide receiver, and I generally find him to be a lot of fun. And I can understand that he's frustrated, and I stood by him last week, when he correctly blamed the pass protection for Jeff Garcia. But at this point, he's not helping. This is not how a team rebounds. I guess there's a bright side... if he keeps this up, it'll be emotionally easier to watch him leave the team next year. (This post should not be read as a defense of Jeff Garcia, whom I'm also pissed of at for sucking on the field lately. But at least he's making the right moves for the media.) Get it together, Niners.

Not even if they were really bad headaches?

A couple days ago, when I posted on contractualism, I half-seriously made the following remark:
I find it very surprising that a moral theory would even try to deny aggregation of moral worth. I guess it's because they want to avoid consequences like, "for some number x, it would be morally justified to kill an innocent person in order to prevent x headaches." But that's just obviously true, isn't it?
I was half-serious in the sense that while I do believe that the quoted claim is true, I do not genuinely believe it to be obviously true. Neither, apparently, do many of you. Some interesting comments on that post: Joshua said: Look at it this way: 1) It's wrong to kill 1 person to prevent 1 headache 2) If it is wrong to kill 1 person to prevent X headaches, it's wrong to kill 1 person to prevent X+1 headaches. How then do you get to "There exists an X such that it is right to kill 1 person to prevent X headaches" in a reasonable, principled fashion? Well, the best response to most instances of the Sorites paradox is to deny the generalizing step (2). I'm fully willing to embrace the moral fact that it's wrong to kill one innocent person in order to prevent one headache (indeed, if it were otherwise, suicide pills would replace aspirin). But where's the justification for the second claim? I admit that (2) sounds plausible -- but I say it's false. A consequentialist ought to recognize that while one headache is bad, two headaches is worse. And death is even worse. Furthermore, the difference between death and two headaches is smaller than the difference between death and one headache. Dave said: I wonder if the solution might involve dividing suffering into classes - different levels across which it is not meaningful to compare. There cannot be some number x where x headaches override one murder, because murder is in a more intense class of suffering. We recognize that one murder is so bad that we're willing to accept *any number* of headaches in order to prevent it. This is what people in philosophy refer to as a lexical ordering (think in terms of a dictionary, where all the A-words come before all the B-words, etc.). And yes, people do try to hold this position in terms of consequentialist ethics. This idea intuitively sounds right -- it allows us to hold on to our intuition that murder is worse than any number of headaches -- but I suggest it loses all intuitive force once it's recognized that there are levels of harm between headaches and murders. It's pretty clear to me that it's possible, in principle, to come up with a near-continuum of wrongs, from the infliction of a headache up to murder, with a very long series of slightly-worse things you could do to a person. It just doesn't seem reasonable to point, in any principled way, to one of the tiny gaps and say "that's the one where it's worse to have a gazillion of the slightly less bad harm than one of the slightly more bad one." Here's A Second Way of Thinking About Things That Demonstrates That I'm Right. Catchy title, huh? (This example is from Alistair Norcross, see below.) Suppose I have a headache, and no pain-killers in my house. I'm considering going out and driving to the drug store to buy the means to cure my headache. Suppose further that I know as an empirical fact that going on a 5-minute drive increases my chances of dying in a car accident by some non-zero percentage -- maybe it increases my chances of dying by one in a billion. Surely I'm not being irrational to risk my life, just for a headache! This is meant to demonstrate that while the harm of death and the harm of headache differ severely in degree, they do not differ in principle, and it is reasonable to trade one for an appropriate amount of the other. Follow-Up: Alistair Norcross, one of my undergraduate professors at Rice University and a major influence on my ethical theorizing, has written a fair amount about these issues. Check out "Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death can be Outweighed by Headaches" and "Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives". Both are short and easy to read. Remember, I'm heavily-influenced by him, so don't be surprised when he says the things I did. (As an interesting side-note, I've learned something interesting over the years about debate in general. I'd always thought that when intelligent people disagreed about something, they argued about it until one of them was clearly right, then the walked away in agreement. Since then, I've realized that arguments are often won long after they're over -- for much of Alistair's Consequentialism class last fall, I took myself to be successfully refuting Consequentialism. And now I'm sitting here, giving you the arguments he gave me.)

Well, that was surprising.

My blog readership demographics changed significantly, somewhat literally overnight. Before today, I was getting an average of 23 hits per day... so far, I've had 95 today. Previously, the people who visited my blog were people who knew me, whom I'd invited. Suddenly, I was getting informed comments on moral philosophy from complete strangers! I was confused until I discovered I'd been linked by Brian Weatherson, one of my philosophy professors here at Brown, on his blog and Crooked Timber. (Both well worth your time -- Brian's blog centers mostly on philosophy of language and logic issues, and Crooked Timber is a liberal academic team blog.) So, thanks, Brian, and hi everybody. (By way of teaser, expect a post on death and headaches later this evening. But first, a shower! And dinner! Then maybe blogging.)

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Philosophical Buzzwords

I think that many of the questions that philosophers at the highest levels deal with are questions that really can resonate with the average intelligent person, if he understands the framework. Furthermore, I believe that much of the time, the framework is not *that* hard to understand. Of course I recognize that there are many examples of important philosophical questions that are not very accessible to people without substantial experience in philosophy. Those aren't the ones I'm talking about. To that end, I think I've decided it might be worthwhile to write a series of philosophy buzzword posts. My aim is threefold:
  1. To equip intelligent non-philosophers to understand the philosophical debate;
  2. To lay the groundwork for some of my own beliefs and arguments that I may eventually throw around here; and
  3. To practice my exposition skills.
I don't intend to make any controversial claims in my buzzword posts, although I've learned that I've unwittingly picked up some idiosyncratic views. So if there are philosophers who read, I'd appreciate hearing about anything I say that just sounds wrong, or even just contentious. I guess the main point is that I'm going to be trying to explain important philosophical ideas to a general audience, in order to be able to allow some substantive arguments to resonate with them. So if you have very little exposure to philosophy, I'm writing for you. Those of you who fit this description, I'd appreciate feedback in the form of "yes, I'm interested in learning about philosophical ideas in your blog, Jonathan" if it's true. It feels good to know one's actually writing to people who want to hear it. Oh yeah, also: all of this post also carries the disclaimer, if I ever feel like writing these explanations.

Friday, September 26, 2003

1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + ... + 1 = 1

Friday afternoon's seminar is "Moral Theory" with Jamie Dreier. Today we were discussing Scanlon's contractualism. For those of you with backgrounds not in moral philosophy, contractualism, as Scanlon understands it, is supposed to be a theory that explains what duties people owe to one another. I don't know enough about contractualism beyond Scanlon to know whether it's fair to criticize some of the things I intend to criticize as characteristics of contractualism, or just of Scanlon's version of it. For safety's sake, let "contractualism" in this post mean "Scanlon's contractualism." Contractualism is supposed to be an alternative to utilitarianism. I am a utilitarian. One of the most implausible things about Scanlon's position is his idea that we can't aggregate people's preferences. (Uncoincidentally, this is also one of the most anti-utilitarian things about Scanlon's position.) To oversimplify, Scanlon's view is that an action is wrong if it could be objected to by a reasonable person seeking a consensus among reasonable people. Scanlon gives (more or less) this example: suppose Bob is working in a broadcast station, overseeing the live television broadcast of a major sporting event. Millions of people are enjoying. There is a malfunction, and Bob ends up being electrocuted by the broadcast equipment. It's very painful. Jack can save Bob, but to do it, he has to unplug the antennae, which will cause millions of people to miss out on the pleasure of the rest of the game. But our moral intuition, says Scanlon, is to save him anyway, and the following argument demonstrates that contractualism predicts this result: Suppose Jack asks Bob, "Bob, do you want me to leave you to be electrocuted until the game is over?" "No!" says Bob, "I have a reasonable grounds for objection! That would cause me to suffer intensely!" On the other hand, the best reason any of the viewers could give to object to Jack's saving of Bob is, "No, if you turn off the game, I'll miss the end!" Bob's concern clearly outweighs each of the millions of other concerns, and we're not allowed to add them up. But what an absurd idea it is to not be allowed to add them up! Consider being offered the choice between April suffering two hours of intense torture and a billion other people suffering one hour of intense torture. I think my moral intuition that we should prefer April's suffering is sufficiently mainstream as to be taken for granted. But without aggregating, how could we justify this on contractualist grounds? "Well, April, is it ok with you if we torture you instead of the billion other people?" "No! I'd have to suffer for two hours!" "Well, other person #1, is it ok with you if we torture the billion of you instead of April?" "No, then I'd suffer an hour!" "Sorry, other person #1, April's concern outweighs yours." "Well, other person #2, is it ok with you if we torture the billion of you instead of April?" "No, then I'd suffer an hour!" "Sorry, other person #2, April's concern outweighs yours." etc. I find it very surprising that a moral theory would even try to deny aggregation of moral worth. I guess it's because they want to avoid consequences like, "for some number x, it would be morally justified to kill an innocent person in order to prevent x headaches." But that's just obviously true, isn't it? *grin* I wonder how thoroughly I've alienated my non-philosophy readership (which is, as of now, I believe, 100% of my readership). I generally pride myself on explaining fairly complicated things pretty clearly... of course, it's easier with vocal inflection, hand motions, and response to listeners' facial expression.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

It's legendary.

Last summer, while driving, Elsie and I saw the Hershey Kiss Truck on I-610 in Houston. We got a picture. UPDATE: Made the picture actually work

Eye on the bottom line

A conservative student group at Southern Methodist University engaged in some innovative political expression yesterday, CNN reports.
Southern Methodist University shut down a bake sale Wednesday in which cookies were offered for sale at different prices, depending on the buyer's race or gender. ... A sign said white males had to pay $1 for a cookie. The price was 75 cents for white women, 50 cents for Hispanics and 25 cents for blacks. Members of the conservative group said they meant no offense and were only trying to protest the use of race or gender as a factor in college admissions.
Unsurprisingly, some people found it offensive, and the University shut down the sale on safety grounds. I'll go on the record as opining that the group wasn't guilty of anything more than moderately bad taste, but that's not why I'm posting. I wanted to draw attention to the important detail CNN included in their coverage:
The group sold three cookies during its protest, raising $1.50.
But I wonder whether it was:
  • Three hispanics;
  • A white woman, a hispanic, and a black; or
  • A white man and two blacks.
These are the details that sloppy reporting omits.

The little things

The philosophy department at Rice University lives in the Humanities building, which was built in 2000-2001. Many -- perhaps something slightly more than half -- of my philosophy classes at Rice were in HUM 227, a seminar room with a large table and very comfortable office chairs. This semester, at Brown, I'm taking four philosophy classes and sitting in on one more -- all in the same room. 119 here at Brown seems to me to be roughly analogous to 227 at Rice. Biggest difference: the chairs. Horrible plastic, rigid chairs with desk surfaces attached. Sitting in such a chair for more than about half an hour causes me to become severely uncomfortable. This is problematic, as most of my courses are scheduled for two and a half hours per session. Maybe Brian Leiter should consider adding "chair comfort" to his list of criteria for philosophy department rankings. An accurate report of the situation here would not have tipped the balance from Brown for me, but I can imagine that for some, chairs could be a relevant tie-breaker.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

That's what I would be saying if you weren't an inch too good

Yesterday I met a student who is involved in theater here at Brown. She is part of the casting committee for a musical that is currently auditioning here, and she was explaining to me how her show was coordinating the casting process with another musical that was auditioning at the same time. Since one of my interests for many years has been amateur musical theater, and one of my interests since I have been involved with producing shows has been how different shows do and should work together on casting, I was interested in how students at Brown deal with the potential difficulty of good actors being wanted by multiple shows. I was disappointed to learn that the policy here is what I consider to be the worst of all the plausibly reasonable alternatives. They start out with the following good idea, which I tried to promote at Rice without much success: the two musicals' production staffs get together and plan joint auditions. Auditioners come and fill out one form and sing a song once, and go through the rest of the audition process with representatives from both shows watching. This is a good idea because it lets auditioners audition twice as efficiently and gives both shows a better sample to select from. After auditions, at Brown, representatives from show A and show B cast their shows cooperatively, apparently using some measure of "fairness" to decide who gets the actors that both shows want. Because Brown apparently does a good deal more theater than is warranted by the number of actors, there is a substantial number of such actors. I asked this student, why not give the actors who are wanted for both roles the choice? You could just call each one up with two offers, and ask which show/role they'd prefer. She replied, "well, everyone wants to do show A, and people aren't really interested in show B, so that wouldn't be fair." I was shocked -- and more in the confused way than the appalled way, although both attributes were attributable. Her justification would have been selfish but understandable had her show been the less popular one, but I was speaking to a representative of show A! When producing a show at this level, one of the first considerations should be, "how easy will it be for me to get the people I need?" To produce a show that no actors will want to do is extremely irresponsible. But worse, this system is grossly unfair on talented actors. Suppose that Jesse comes along and sees that Show A and Show B are auditioning at the same time. "That's great," says Jesse. "I'd really love to play the Giant Frog in Show A. Or it'd even be fun to be in Show B." Jesse gives a fantastic audition, and walks away confident about his chances of being the Giant Frog. In the meantime, Shows A and B audition more people, and don't find a lot of talent. Show B, in particular, has had very little success finding someone good enough to play the vocally challenging but not very much fun role of Third Gardener. Show A has fared better -- they've happily cast most of their roles, and want Jesse for the Giant Frog, but would feel comfortable casting Andrew if they couldn't have Jesse. Since Show B needs Jesse and not Andrew, Show A lets B cast Jesse as the Third Gardener. Jesse has now been cast in a role less preferable than his first choice. Ordinarily, that by itself wouldn't be anything to charge with injustice -- but consider the plausibly true fact that if Jesse had performed a little bit worse at his audition, he would have gotten a better role. This is not a fair casting system.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

So this is how I make a blog entry.

Fascinating. I don't know whether I'll appreciate this idea venue or not, but since I might, I thought I may as well set it up. By way of introduction to the blog, the following is a non-exhaustive list of topics one might reasonably expect me to write about sometimes, if I decide to use this blog:
  • Epistemology
  • Harry Potter
  • What it is like to be a graduate student
  • Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas
  • Civil liberties
  • The San Francisco 49ers
  • Utilitarianism
  • The American political structure
  • Jokes which I find funny
  • Monopoly
  • Criticism of dumb things in print
  • Buffy: the Vampire Slayer
  • The unfortunate decline of the Disney cartoon musical
  • Having shorter hair than I'm used to having
  • Coffee
  • Other things
Ok, so the list will probably turn out to be exhaustive after all. A word of warning for those who don't know my non-academic writing style: long, awkward, and difficult sentences amuse me, and I rarely go out of my way to avoid them. Furthermore, I expect to tend to write posts in order, starting at the beginning, and continuing to the end. I therefore may occasionally not really address the topic I'd set out to address at the post's beginning, and will almost definitely occasionally engage myself, with a surprising amount of thoroughness, in tangential ideas.