Friday, October 31, 2003

Not scary, but happy

While walking to class this afternoon, I came across a three-year-old blonde girl in a kimono. She smiled at me and said "Happy Halloween." Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

On whether it's morally permissible for a boss to fire an employee for performing a morally impermissible action when off-hours

I'm the grader for Felica Nimue Ackerman's introductory undergraduate course on Skepticism and Knowledge. I attend the course regularly, and rather enjoy it. Today we began a unit on knowledge of ethical principles, and we spend a good portion of the class on a lively debate about an ethical question. The point was to demonstrate that our debate was not merely about a difference in language -- we demonstrated that ethical claims are substantive ones. So of course, the specifics of the example were not important at all. That's why my discussion of it is here, not in class this afternoon. My moral intuitions seemed very much at odds with those of most of the class. I'd like to know whether my readers are inclined to agree with me about this case. (I've devoted considerable space in this blog to defense of the particular ethical theory I believe to be true. As much as is possible, I'd like to set that aside here; I'm wondering about a pre-theoretic moral intuition.) Here is (more or less, thanks to incomplete memory) the story we were told in class: Devon is Allan's employer. Allan's position in the company is one in which he rarely interacts with other people, and never interacts with customers. Devon witnesses the following, some evening or weekend at which neither is at work: Allan parks his car in a handicapped space, even though he isn't handicapped. An elderly woman in a wheelchair confronts him about this, and Allan yells very rude things to the woman and refuses to move his car. Devon approaches Allan, and tells him, "I don't want mean people at my company. You're fired." The question: was the firing of Allan moral/permissible/admirable/justified/etc. or not? Students took both sides of the argument. Some said things like "Devon was right to fire Allan, because its a legitimate company interest to have moral employees." Others were more inclined to argue things like "what Allan does in his off-hours time is none of Devon's business, so long as it doesn't affect the company." The two factions eventually seemed to identify the crucial tension as being between (1) the plausibility that an employee's off-hours moral life will affect the company, and (2) the employee's right to privacy when off-hours. I don't believe that this is the key question at all. No one (including me) offered anything close to approximating my position in class, so I'll suggest it here and you can all tell me whether it sounds plausible. I believe that Devon could be morally justified in firing Allan for being a mean person, and here's why: I think that all of us have moral reason to discourage immoral behavior in others. If I witness someone doing something wrong, unless I have a stronger reason not to, I should confront him about it. And the way that I ought to confront him depends on my relationship with him. For example, if it is a close friend, it might be best if I engage the issue very directly. "I see that you're Xing. Xing is morally wrong... why are you doing X?" In the case of a friend, I might even attempt to prevent him from continuing to X, even against his will. This would be less appropriate for a stranger, especially if X is only moderately wrong. (Even if eating meat is morally wrong, it's probably not morally permissible for me to grab hamburgers out of the hands of random restaurant patrons.) If I'm observing immoral behavior in my child, it's not only permissible, but probably obligatory to forbid such actions, and to punish the child, maybe by sending him to his room. Being someone's boss provides another possible way to respond to immoral actions. The point I'm trying to make is that the moral status of the firing of Allan does not depend on whether that firing will benefit the company -- "the firing of Allan" uses the passive voice to disguise the fact that it's an action by a moral agent -- Devon. We evaluate Devon's action. We wouldn't say that Devon is doing something wrong by considering something other than the good of the company if Devon merely chastised Allan and did not fire him. What's so special about firing that requires that it only be done for the good of a company? (A very, very important point I should make clear: I'm arguing that Devon might be permitted to fire Allan for acting immorally. I do not mean that Devon ought to go around firing homosexuals if he believes homosexuality to be morally wrong. It would be very arrogant for him to take such a drastic step based on such a controversial moral claim. I do not believe that "it is morally wrong for non-handicapped people to park in handicapped spaces, then yell rude things at elderly women" is a controversial moral claim.) Summary: two points. (1) (The weaker claim that I'm more sure about and find more important) The question does not depend solely, or even principally, on whether the firing would be good for the company. (2) (The stronger claim that I'm less sure about and find less important) It might be moral for a boss to fire an employee for acting (obviously) immorally. Am I crazy?

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Kicker's not important, huh?

I'm reluctant to post again so soon, because I really want people to read my last post. So make sure you don't skip it, just because there's a newer one, ok? Today, boys and girls, we consider the question of "in what way would the world be different if the San Francisco 49ers actually had a decent kicker?" Specifically, I'll examine probability distributions for numbers of games won by the 49ers if they had (a) a kicker who was averagely accurate among all NFL kickers this year, and (b) a kicker who was averagely accurate among the top ten NFL kickers this year. For those of you who don't know, the 49ers shamefully lost to the lowly Arizona Cardinals last Sunday, and now sit in third place (of four) in their division, with a record of 3-5. Four of our five losses were determined in the last seconds of the game, and we lost those four games by a total margin of eight points. My methodology: provided a table of every NFL kicker's field goal accuracy rate, broken down by distance of attempt. I imported that table into my generic Excel clone and compiled average accuracy rates for variously-distant field goals for two groups: every kicker in the NFL, and the top ten kickers in the NFL. Here are the results:

NFL Average

Top 10 Average

1-19 yds



20-29 yds



30-39 yds



40-49 yds



50+ yds



I'm considering two hypotheticals -- the case in which the 49ers have an average kicker, and the case in which they have an elite (i.e. average among top ten) kicker. I will assume that the kicking accuracy is the only thing that changes -- I admit this is a source of potential error, but I don't believe it is likely to change the results much -- the games were all close, and I can't imagine the opponents' strategies would have been that much different we'd had three more points. Let's consider each game in turn. Week One. We actually defeated Chicago, and would have done so by even more if we'd had a better kicker. This is a win, regardless of who's kicking. Week Two. We actually lost to St. Louis, in overtime. During the regulation period, we miss on a 43-yard field goal attempt. Consulting the chart above, I conclude that we'd have a 74% of making the field goal, thereby winning the game, with an average kicker, and an 83% of winning with an elite kicker. Week Three. We actually lost to Cleveland. It was a very tight game, but I can't fault the kicking for this one. We'd lose anyway. Week Four. We actually lost to Minnesota, and no amount of kicking would have saved us from that thrashing. Week Five. We actually defeated Detroit, and we clearly get this win in both my hypotheticals too. Week Six. We lose to Seattle by one point. We miss an extra point and a 38-yard field goal. I blame the hold, not the kicker, for the extra point, so I'll ignore it. Assuming that we'd win the game with those three more points from the field goal, we have an 84% chance of winning with an average kicker, and a 94% chance with an elite one. Week Seven. We actually defeat Tampa Bay, despite horrible kicking. We win by even more in my hypotheticals. Week Eight. We actually lose to Arizona in overtime, after missing field goals of 35 and 45 yards (plus another missed XP that I'll ignore again). The average kicker makes 84% of 35-yard kicks and 74% of 45-yard kicks, which means he'll get at least one of them 96% of the time (1-(1-.84)(1-.74)). The elite kicker has a 99% chance of getting at least one of those two. (A better kicker would actually increase our chances of winning this one by a little more -- even if he missed both field goals, he probably would not kickoff out of bounds in OT, making it easier for the Cardinals to score right away. I ignore this factor because it's hard to quantify, and because the case against having a shitty kicker is already pretty damning as it is.) So weeks 2, 6, and 8 could all potentially swing from losses to wins with better kicking. How potentially? This chart shows the odds of winning each game in each case, along with the odds of winning at least four, at least five, and at least six total games out of these first eight (remember, we have two losses that kicking wouldn't help).

NFL Average

Top 10 Average

Win Stl



Win Sea



Win Ari



> 3









Are you following this? I'm saying, with either an average or an elite kicker, the 49ers would be virtually certain to be at least 5-3 and in therefore in the thick of the NFC West race. Note that all three games in contention are in-division, so we'd be removing a win and a loss from at least one of Seattle and St. Louis, putting us at worst a half-game behind first place. Also with either an elite or an average kicker, we'd probably (60% with average, 77% with elite) be 6-2, which would be definitely in first place in the division and in the thick of the race for the NFC's top seed. I still hear people say that it's just not worthwhile to shell out top money for a good kicker. I hope I've demonstrated how wrong they are. If I could start the season over and trade Terrell Owens for Mike Vanderjagt, I'd do it. If you want to see my raw data, check my math, etc., send me an email.

Monday, October 27, 2003

That's not what dignity looks like.

I count seven fluffy entries in a row. How about some meat? I've been thinking about Terri Schiavo lately. If you don't know, Terri Schiavo is a 39-year-old woman in Florida who has been in a coma for the past nineteen years (timeline). Her body continues to function, sustained by a feeding tube, but doctors say she has no hope of regaining consciousness. Her husband has been trying since 1998 to have the feeding tube removed -- one may assume that he wants some closure, to become a legal widower, and resume his life. After five years of working through the Florida courts, he succeeded in obtaining an order to remove the tube on October 15. The tube was removed, and Terri was to be allowed to die. In the meantime, however, the Florida House of Representatives decided that they knew better than the courts, and gave Governor Jeb Bush the authority to overturn the court's decision, which he promptly did. Last, week, they put the tube back, six days after removing it. There's a lot of craziness floating around this story. A few the issues I've noticed: Delusional parents.
Although Terri's husband wants to let her die, her parents do not. They apparently hold the delusional belief that Terri is going to be just fine.
At a press conference, Bob and Mary Schindler repeated previous statements that they believe their daughter can respond to them when they visit. They dispute statements by doctors who say she is in a "persistent vegetative state," and they criticized media organizations for what they see as bias.
It's really very sad. The parents also have a web site, with heartbreaking and pathetic captions to photographs like "Terri responds happily to her mother's affection."
Rule of law out the window.
Read the editorial I linked about the Florida House. Here it is again. The point of it is that the courts know best, and ought to be making the tough calls, and the legislature just strong-armed its way in because it didn't like what the courts were doing.
Really bad arguments.
The following quotations are from an editorial by Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. The nonblockquoted observations, rebuttals, and sarcastic comments are from a blog entry by Jonathan Ichikawa, graduate student at Brown University.
In a court of law, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. They must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused actually did commit a crime. In the case of a severely disabled woman whose starvation death was ordered by a Florida judge, the court of law has not determined her guilt or innocence, because she committed no crime. The court has preferred to arrogantly deem it compassionate to put her out of her alleged misery by sanctioning an act of murder.
Congratulations, Ms. Brown, you've managed to correctly understand that this is not a criminal trial. I don't even have to explain why this wouldn't be murder.
But in the case of Terri Schiavo, who is not terminally ill, and was not near death until the starvation process began, it has been ruled that her life is not worthy to be lived. Thus others were willing to impose on her a slow, agonizing death by starvation.
On this one I have to admit that I haven't heard all the details, but my understanding is that in cases like this, suffering is not an issue. There will be no agonizing on Terri's part, either because she has no brain activity and therefore no conscious experience at all, or because they'll be treating her with pain kills. I'm disappointed in the media for not making it easier to find out what her exact physical status is -- anyone know more than I do?
That is murder according to the natural law; but according to the Florida judicial system, it is an exercise in compassion. So much for human justice!
One man's so much for human justice is another man's so much for "the natural law"!
The sad reality is ... that Florida's Catholic bishops have been virtually silent. [They] said the Church could not make a decision regarding whether Terri Schiavo should be starved to death. These bishops urged that more time be given prior to Terri's imposed death by starvation so that "greater certainty as to her true condition" could be reached. How much more certainty does one need that a living, breathing human being will die if he or she is denied access to food and water?
The bishops, one can only assume, have apparently made the genuinely enlighted realization that quality of life is a determining factor in a life's worth. Unlike you, Ms. Brown, the bishops recognize the possibility of subtle and complicated issues that go far beyond "life good, death bad".
As the moments continued to pass, and the very life ebbed out of this lovely young woman at the center of this storm of controversy, one could only wonder what it really means to be innocent until proven guilty.
Ok, maybe I was wrong. I might have exaggerated a little when I suggested that you understood that this was not a criminal trial.
This story makes me sad, and the reactions to it I've discussed make me frustrated.

Because we need the NFL in the spring too

Dave and I were talking yesterday about NFL players with big egos, and we came up with what we decided was a really cool idea for a new reality TV show. Imagine this... several ragtag youth football teams, each coached by a carefully-mismatched pair of clashing NFL personalities. We could go through a mini-football season, and the winning team would win a million dollars. And the kids will know from the beginning, but we won't tell the NFL players until a few weeks in, that the winning team will vote at the end of the season for their favorite coach, and only that one will be paid. I just love the idea of Randy Moss and Warren Sapp backstabbing one another and competing for their kids' affections. I'd watch it. It'd be the first reality show I'd ever watch. There's a lot of offseason.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

I love it when football players talk

Keyshawn Johnson (who was held to one catch for four yards by Mike Rumph last week) had the following to say on ESPN's NFL Countdown this morning in an interview with Michael Irvin:
I am willing to do whatever it takes to be successful and for my team to win.
This quotation, out of context, sounds like just the right thing to say -- the "team player" line, just wanting his Bucs to win, etc. It's funny, however, given the context: Michael Irving had just asked him whether he'd consider leaving Tampa Bay for another team where he would be used more effectively. So "my team" in Johnson's quotation apparently referenced not the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, but whatever team Keyshawn Johnson happens to be on. I'm not criticizing Johnson or his attitude -- I'm merely remarking that it was an amusing use of a relative article.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Smite! Smite! Smite!

This is possibly the most ironic true piece of news I've ever read. (It's been brought to my attention recently that I, and much of the English-speaking population, use "ironic" to describe situations that are not technically ironic, because we don't understand what that word really means. If this is an instance of that phenomenon, forgive me, and suggest a better word.) From the BBC:
Jesus actor struck by lightning Actor Jim Caviezel has been struck by lightning while playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion Of Christ. The lightning bolt hit Caviezel and the film's assistant director Jan Michelini while they were filming in a remote location a few hours from Rome. It was the second time Michelini had been hit by lightning during the shoot.
The Onion couldn't have done better.

Comfort food

I've decided that my life would be substantially better if I had access to Chipotle burritos. People in Houston used to make fun of me for eating them so often. But they made me happy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Self-plugging Jonathan

If you've been wondering why I haven't been blogging much, it's because I've been busy. If you're wondering why I've been busy, there are really two excellent reasons. One is that Elsie was visiting this past weekend. The other is the subject of this post. I'll be appearing as Sir Despard in the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' production of Ruddigore next month. Come see me if you want and are able. Friday November 7, 8pm Saturday November 8, 8pm Sunday November 9, 2pm Thursday November 13, 8pm Friday November 14, 8pm Saturday November 15, 2pm Despard suits me well, I think. It's a good role. It also increases my appreciation of Ken Sandford, who really mastered some very diverse roles in his time.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Why, yes, I am wrong.

I observed in my last post with some surprise that my blog is the first google hit for "Alistair Norcross". There was surprise involved because "Alistair Norcross" was intended by me to denote the full name of one of my philosophy professors at Rice -- a person who has things like a personal web site and a job in a philosophy department. However, Juan, in a comment to my last post, correctly suggested that "Alistair Norcross" is not the name of anyone at Rice -- or, as far as I can tell, of anyone at all. The person I'd attempted to reference is actually named "Alastair Norcross," and unsurprisingly, as of this moment, my blog is neither first nor anywhere on the google hit list for that term. Perhaps this fact will change in the near future, now that I've posted an instance of the correct spelling of Alastair Norcross's name. My apologies to Professor Norcross. (In my defense, the only other person I know whose first name is homophonous with "Alastair" spells his name "Alistair Donkin.")

Friday, October 17, 2003

As long as they find me

The following are some google searches which yield links that people -- other than me -- have used to reach my blog.Whee.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Let's get smiting

The following is quoted from a CNN story:
Defense Secretary Donald H . Rumsfeld and the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly defended a new deputy undersecretary of defense of intelligence with a reported penchant for publicly casting the war on terrorism in religious terms. Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, whose promotion and appointment was confirmed by the Senate in June, has said publicly that he sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. Appearing in dress uniform before a religious group in Oregon in June, Boykin said Islamic extremists hate the United States "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christians. ... And the enemy is a guy named Satan."
Right now, I don't have time to go into this in detail. Or the stomach. I'm disgusted.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Oonga Boonga?

I think I'm deciding that the Brown Daily Herald is an odd publication. I don't quite understand it. Today isn't the first time I've read a BDH story that made a very surprising claim that it didn't treat as surprising. Today's story is about politics in one of my home states, Michigan. So back in Michigan, there's a conservative state representative from Kalamazoo named Jack Hoogendyk who found out that Michigan has some liberal public universities. He's taken a look at the titles of courses that those schools offer, and he's decided that some of them are inappropriate uses of public funds. The University of Michigan's ENGL317 Section 002, "How to be Gay", seems to be the worst offender to Hoogendyk, but he's put together a much more impressive -- and indeed, surprising -- list. A story from the Central Michigan University paper indicates that among allegedly objectionable classes there are HUM 430: Self and Identity in American Life, and SOC 411: The Family. But that's a digression. I'm here to talk about arguments against "How to be Gay". Of course there's the usual anti-gay rhetoric. "We're indoctrinating deviant lifestyles," "homosexuality erodes traditional family values," "a majority of Michiganders (god do I hate that word) think homosexuality is wrong," etc. But the BDH story also includes some much less usual anti-gay rhetoric. Here, it quotes Gary Glenn, director of the American Family Association of Michigan:
['How to be Gay'] "legitimizes behavior that literally puts the lives of young people at risk," Glenn continued, adding that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, as opposed to race, which was unchangeable. "There are no former African Americans," he said.
Emphasis and clarificatory block-quote by me. Avoid the temptation to argue with the second claim, and focus on the first one. I've helped you by italicizing it. What's Glenn talking about? Is he worried that gay men might become the victims of hate crimes? And why would the BDH print a statement like that without giving it a little bit of background, or context, or justification, or refutation, or anything? Like the Patriot Act story, linked above, I haven't found any other news source reporting this feature of the story. This time, of course, the surprising statement is a quotation, and so I have to conclude it actually occurred. But seriously, folks: huh????

Monday, October 13, 2003

The insertion of a single word will do it

Let it stand that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of TRUE speech..." A couple months ago, I read about Irwin Schiff, a colorful character most notable for the insistent position that the federal income tax is merely voluntary. He's published many books and given many lectures on the subject. He's also gone to jail twice for tax evasion. But early this year, a Nevada district court issued a very limiting restraining order (pdf) against Schiff. The court order forbids Schiff from distributing his latest book, Federal Mafia: How the Government Illegally Imposes and Unlawfully Collects Income Taxes. It also forbids him from speaking publicly about the income tax and from helping anyone prepare a return. (Of those three requirements, only the last, I think, is conceivably constitutional.) Most shockingly of all, the order requires Schiff to turn over the names of all his previous customers to the federal government. Schiff refused to turn over the names and was facing contempt of court and more jail time when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order and is now planning to consider (1) whether Schiff can be required to turn over four years' worth of customers' names, and (2) whether a federal judge can ban the sale of the book. Apparently, in the meantime, the book is available for sale once again. For the curious, check out Schiff's horrible web site, with lots of grandiose rhetoric (as well as the first chapter of the book available for download). I really feel like this is one of those issues where the clearest and most convincing argument for the correct viewpoint is a statement of the facts. Schiff believes, or at least alleges to believe, that the IRS code has no language mandating the payment of U.S. federal income tax. He's written numerous books explaining the reasoning behind his beliefs, and outlining a method to avoid paying them. The government disagrees with Schiff's legal theory. The injunction, linked above, explains the government's rationale for its position that U.S. citizens are legally required to pay income taxes. That's really about all it does. Apparently, Schiff is prohibited from expressing his position because it is false. Which, of course, it surely is -- I'm not trying to argue that the guy isn't a crackpot. But since when does the U.S. government prevent private citizens from expressing false beliefs?

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Friday, October 10, 2003

Appalling, isn't it?

Yes, today is my birthday. Thanks very much for all the happiness in comments on the coffee post. Thanks also to Amanda for the birthday blog-plug. Umm... it feels like I need to have something important to say. Something... controversial. After sitting on that paragraph for ten minutes, I conclude that right now I've nothing. I'll come back with something interesting to say eventually, I promise.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Ah, chemical dependence...

I started drinking coffee in the summer of 2002. I blame/credit Jones McClure Publishing, my then-employer. Mornings were difficult, and coffee helped. I also discovered around that time that coffee tastes good. I usually had two cups throughout the day at work. Around that time, I also acquired my own coffee-maker, which resulted in additional home coffee. Soon thereafter I discovered the joy of Starbucks and other caffeine vendors -- and let's not forget the best non-alcoholic beverage in the history of civilization, ca phe sua da, which is the only bit of Vietnamese I know (iced coffee with condensed milk). One day, for some odd reason, I didn't have any coffee, and developed a terrible headache. I determined with a bit of shame and a bit of excitement that I was addicted to caffeine in the literal, physiological sense. There are worse things that could happen. I just remembered to have coffee a lot, and to reach for a cup if I started getting a headache and hadn't had any in a while. This worked for a long time. This fall, coffee started being a little less nice to me. For the first time, it made me jittery, and also seemed to upset my stomach. I decided it was time for a change. I stopped making coffee, and I stopped going to coffee shops (for which I also had an independent financial reason). I tempered the non-coffee with a couple different kinds of caffeinated tea, and those only when necessary. I went nearly an entire week without coffee, starting last Friday. It really wasn't anywhere near as bad as I'd feared. By yesterday, I'd gotten to the point where I could consume zero caffeine and not suffer a headache. Today I decided to re-introduce some moderation, and I bought myself a grande nonfat no-whip hazelnut mocha before my Thomas Reid seminar. The seminar was fun, and I made both good points and jokes. I'm now in a much better mood than my recent average. It seems I failed to consider the fact that there are other potential effects of caffeine withdrawal than number and severity of headaches. I think I prefer it this way -- if one's going to be slightly depressed, it's best if it's for an easily-remedial chemical reason.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Can I declare speed limits illegal in my car, too?

I read an interesting article in today's Brown Daily Herald. It began like this:
Opposition to the Patriot Act brought together Republicans, concerned residents and students alike last night at a public hearing in city hall. The Civil Liberties Resolution, a motion supported by Ward One Councilman David Segal, proposes to outlaw the Patriot Act within the city of Providence.
I'm no expert on how the various levels of government interact with one another, but I'm pretty sure that somebody once wrote that a local or state government can't override a federal law. So what's going on? I can think of three possibilities:
  1. I'm confused about the Constitution of the United States.
  2. The author of the BDH article is confused about what the Providence City Council is trying to do.
  3. The Providence City Council is deliberately passing an unconstitutional law as a kind of protest.
I don't think that (1) is the explanation, although I hope that if it is, someone will clarify things for me. I do find some evidence for (2). At the end of the article, we're given a very different characterization of the resolution than we are at the beginning:
"This resolution says to the federal government we don't think this is a good law and we think you should change it," Secretary of the Rhode Island Green Party Greg Gerritt told The Herald. "People are not happy with the policy coming out of Washington."
Now this version sounds much more reasonable. I found what I think to be the text of the resolution at There's a lot of whereases and indirect language in there, but at least most of the actual "resolved" text seems not to fall into the category of "making the Patriot Act illegal". But there is one interesting paragraph:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the City Council of Providence urges the city administration and its citizens during the course of their daily life to be guided by the collective responsibility and obligation of safeguarding the constitutional protections afforded all people of our city. The Council recognizes that this is the paramount responsibility of local law enforcement personnel, appointed and elected government offices that are ultimately responsible for upholding the solemn oath they have taken to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the State of Rhode Island...
Does this mean to be read as "we urge government officials and citizens not to obey the Patriot Act because we think it's unconstitutional?" It is certainly interesting language, anyway... it's fun to hear a government encourage me to break the law. But I still don't see the "making the Patriot Act illegal". I'm curious as to how successful a strategy (3) would be likely to be. In case anyone's wondering, I give a "thumbs down" to the Patriot Act because I give a "thumbs up" to civil rights. My other question is, why is the Brown Daily Herald published weekly?

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

I'll give you 9:7 against assassination

Last July, there were two or three days in which the biggest national news story was the Department of Defense's "PAM" program -- the "Policy Analysis Market" was supposed to predict terrorist attacks by allowing people to invest in possible future events. I read about it on Crooked Timber. There was a big uproar about creating a "market in terror", and Congress removed its funding. Then everybody forgot about it. Today, while reading another high-quality academic internet publication, I discovered that it's back in a non-governmental form. I greet this announcement much as I did the original program's explanation. It's not reprehensible, just stupid. Because the people who would be investing don't know anything about terrorist plans. But hmm -- now that I look more closely at it, it's a bit of a sketchy web site that's doing the announcing. "In the two months since, solid reporting has conveyed that PAM was never intended as a 'Market in Terror'. In addition, many individuals have expressed the wish that PAM be reestablished beyond government involvement. PAM will open for trading in March 2004 free of government involvement." Emphasis added. By me. There's also a link to email whomever's in charge there. Anyone know anything about this?

Monday, October 06, 2003

Reflective Equilibrium, Moral Realism

A reader named jdsm made this comment on my post about reflective equilibrium:
I'm curious as to how you defend your utilitarianism given that you seem to accept ethics itself has serious problems. If your starting intuition is that we all seem to want happiness, that's a far cry from saying happiness is \"good\". It is just saying it is desirable.
jdsm is responding to my comment, recognizing that it's not easy to see why intuitions should be given any weight at all when forming (moral and other) theories. There are a few quick responses that I think are important: (1) I've never tried to "prove" utilitarianism using a universal desire for happiness as a first principle. Those arguments have been made throughout the history of ethics, and are correctly regarded by most as more or less garbage. (2) In my defenses of utilitarianism in my blog, I've been defending the theory against arguments that are based in moral intuition. I have not really been trying to argue against the person who doesn't believe in ethics (or in the use of intuitions in ethics). This is because the comments that got me started on utilitarianism in the first place assumed moral realism. (3) A parallel case will demonstrate that it's not absurd of me to continue thinking in terms of utilitarianism, even though I'm not entirely solid on the basis of moral realism. I believe that there are very old general skeptical concerns that have yet to be answered. Two excellent and famous examples will suffice -- Descartes's argument that we can't know anything about the external world, and Hume's argument that there is no justification for belief in the principle of induction. Both arguments, I think, have never been adequately refuted. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do physics anyway. Likewise, I believe it is appropriate to work on a moral theory, even if one hasn't yet justified morality in general. If I eventually discover something about morality that is incompatable with what I've been assuming (such as, for example, that it doesn't exist), then obviously I'll take back everything I've said about utilitarianism being true. But I'm not going to wait around until I'm positive that ethics is justifiable before thinking any further, any more than I'd want science to come to a screeching halt until somebody figures out how to justify induction. If it'll make you feel better, think of all my moral theorizing as a giant conditional. "If moral realism is true and something like reflective equilibrium is an appropriate tool for the discovery of moral truths, then I hold the following beliefs and use the following arguments."

Do you know what that word means?

The odd media quote of the day comes from Mike Fowler on the web site of my second-favorite NFL team, the Detroit Lions, who lost yesterday to my first-favorite NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers.
Harrington's first turnover occurred just two plays into the Lions first possession. Corner Ahmad Plummer stepped in front of Harrington's pass intended for Charles Rogers deep in Detroit territory at the 27-yard line and returned it to the Detroit 23. Six plays later San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia found his nemesis Terrell Owens from 6-yards out to give San Francisco a 7-0 lead.
Nemesis? I know that things between my two favorite 49ers offensive stars have been less than great lately, but I can't help thinking that the media wants to make more out of it than there is. Maybe it's because they're not the same race.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Something there that wasn't there before

My favorite Disney musical is Beauty and the Beast. Last year, I bought myself the DVD, and was amazed and very excited to discover a new song -- "Human Again," which I'd never heard before and didn't know was included. It was one of my favorite movies -- and suddenly there was more of it! Last night, Caitlin leant me her recording of the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast. It has "Human Again," plus like ten more songs I'd never heard before! Gaston has a whole big song! Gaston was always my favorite Disney villain, and I love his music and want to sing it all. And now there's more! And other amazing stuff, too... and Beast actually gets some substantial singing, and everything! I realize that this is probably old news to most of the world, but I find it very exciting. And this is my blog, and not most of the worlds'. So there.

Friday, October 03, 2003

LSAT: well- and ill- wishes, special consideration due friends

I wish:
  • Wonderful fortune to Elsie on the LSAT tomorrow. Elsie, may your pencils be sharp, your erasers true, your mind clear, and your luck good.
  • Very good fortune to any other of my friends who are taking the exam tomorrow. Some of the JMP folks, maybe?
  • Horrible misfortune to those people whom I don't know who are taking the LSAT tomorrow, who will be in competition with Elsie and my other 2004-law-school-applying friends. Nothing personal, but I hope you don't get enough sleep, misread the questions, and accidentally mark outside the bubbles. I hope that you find happiness in life, but are weak law school candidates.
  • Exception: if you are reading my blog entry, I exempt you from my ill-wishes, and declare myself "neutral" on the issue of whether you do well tomorrow.
And they say that utilitarians can't give special treatment to friends.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Philosophy Buzzword: Reflective Equilibrium

A reader named pathos made the following objection to my remarks about utilitarian moral theory:
More generally, the common line of reasoning in ethics is troubling. The arguments tend to be (1) X strikes one's moral intuition as immoral; (2) Let us make a line of reasoning leading to the incontrovertable conclusion that Y strikes one's moral intuition as moral; (3) See how Y is structurally identical to X, therefore (4) X is moral. By deferring to our moral intuitions in their arguments, the utilitarians have essentially conceded the point before the game has started. Yes, I believe Y is moral, but I simultaneously feel that logically indistinguishable X is immoral. And since morality is based on psychology and intuition, not on any great holistic theory, there is nothing wrong with that.
This is a good lead-in to a Philosophy Buzzword post I've been meaning to write for a few days. In fact, reflective equilibrium was the concept I had in mind when I first decided to start a series like this. As a reminder, I mean to be writing generally for a non-philosophy audience, but I also mean to be reporting uncontroversial facts about how philosophy is done. If you know better than I, and I'm wrong, please tell me. In many realms of philosophy, intuition plays a central role. Ethics is a good example -- we construct ethical theories based on the idea that our intuitions are correct. But, as pathos point out, on the surface, that just doesn't look like a productive way to go about constructing a theory. We assume intuitions are right, and use that to prove that some of our intuitions are wrong? Philosophers do (at least claim to) have an answer. Reflective Equilibrium is, I think, the mainstream method for choosing a theory to account for intuitions. It's not unchallenged as a source of justification, but I think I can accurately describe it was a tool that most philosophers who deal with these issues use. I will stick to the ethics example here because ethics is both a good example and interesting, but reflective equilibrium can be used for many different kinds of questions as well. Very roughly speaking, here's the idea: you want to have a theory of ethics, and by the time you're done, you want it to be consistent with all your ethical beliefs. This may involve rejecting some of your intuitions, because some of your intuitions might not get along well together -- either because they directly contradict one another, or because no plausible theory could accommodate both. Here's the method: in order to come up with a theory of morality, you start with some "raw" moral intuitions. Raw moral intuitions are intuitions about actions in specific cases. "Yesterday when my mom said 'good morning', it would have been morally wrong to shoot her," etc. The next step is to come up with a possible theory to explain most or all of these intuitions. The point of a theory, of course, is to generalize beyond the specific intuitions you've already looked at. Maybe you come up with the following as a piece of your theory: "it's always morally wrong to kill people." But you're not done yet -- probably not by a long shot. Your theory covers cases that you haven't consulted your intuitions about yet. So now you want to think of possible problems with your theory -- can you think of any counterexamples? "Well, I think it'd be ok to kill someone if he were trying to kill me." Or maybe, "I think Buffy was morally justified in killing Angel, because that was the only way to stop the universe from being sucked into a hell dimension." Now you have a tension between your theory and your specific intuitions, and you have to decide which will give way to the other. At this point, I think that the odds are good that you'll choose to modify your theory, rather than conclude that it is actually morally wrong to kill in self-defense. So you might add in principled exceptions to your theory, or you might re-frame it altogether. What factors do we consider when weighing theory versus raw intuition? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Strength of intuition (some intuitions are stronger than others, and will therefore weigh more heavily).
  • Simplicity of theory.
  • Perceived reliability of intuition (perhaps we should trust our intuitions less in some cases, such as when we have a particular emotional attachment to an issue).
  • Consistency of intuition (if we have intuitions that contradict one another, that casts doubt on both, and we'd better reject at least one).
  • etc.
We achieve reflective equilibrium when we stop altering our theory -- that is, every intuition is either confirmed by the theory or rejected as wrong. One consequence to recognize is that our theory, once it's been decided upon will give us guidance with regard to situations in which our intuitions are unclear. Maybe you don't have a decisive moral opinion as to whether it's permissible to cheat on your taxes, or eat animals. Once you decide on a theory, grounded in the cases you do have moral intuitions about, that theory can guide you in the less clear cases. I believe that the method of reflective equilibrium, properly understood, does have a strong appeal, at least on the surface. A close parallel can be drawn with the method by which scientists come up with theories to explain experimental data -- observations ground theories, and surprising observations either modify the theories or are discounted as experimental error. The important point behind reflective equilibrium, I think, is the recognition that our intuitions are not the last word -- a solid, attractive theory which accounts for most intuitions may very well justify the rejection of some intuitive beliefs. There are important questions I'm not addressing here. Two of what I think are the most pressing and interesting ones are (1) how large a set of beliefs should we be considering when engaging in reflective equilibrium? and (2) why should we give intuitions any weight in forming theories at all? If you want to read something much more in-depth about reflective equilibrium from a much more competent authority than I, I recommend Norman Daniels's "Reflective Equilibrium" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Terrell Owens: A Second Opinon

Keyshawn Johnson disagrees with me. The Bucs wide receiver is quoted in the Orlando Sentinal today:
Terrell Owens huffed and he puffed and he threatened to blow his offensive coordinator's house in last Sunday. After watching the tape, Keyshawn Johnson wished his receiving buddy had done one more thing. "He should actually have punched the guy," Johnson said.
Odd things make me laugh lately.

There are some things I am just not prepared to deal with

Half an hour ago I got my first post-ponytail haircut. (The one which was materially involved in my deponytailification does not count as post-ponytail.) The nice older woman asked me questions I just didn't know the answer to. "Is it better to use clippers or scissors on the sides?" "Do you like it more like this?" These are not questions I know how to answer. I don't like it. It's too short, and for some reason it looks thinner. Probably because it's shorter. It makes my face look fat, and I can't make the neat curls that I was able to make this morning. And the sides don't make sense at all. But I guess new haircuts can tend to grow on their owners. Get it, grow? Honestly, I had no idea that normal people had to go through this kind of hair-related trauma on a regular basis. It makes my last nine years feel far simpler than they felt at the time. UPDATE: I put gel in it, and I still don't like it. Alas.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Invoking the Fear of God

My former co-worker Amanda blogged today about a change in Hollywood policy, ending the practice of sending "screener" copies of films to voters for the Oscars and other awards. It looks like an interesting story, and it's interesting to wonder how the policy will affect Acadamy decisions. So check out her post, if you're interested in such things. Personally, I was drawn to a startling moral claim by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America -- the group that banned the use of screeners. From an MSNBC story:
Since the ban is voluntary, the MPAA hasn’t laid down any penalties if any of the studios, or their subsidiaries, break ranks and start sending out screeners later in the season. “We’re counting on people’s integrity to keep their word,” Valenti said. “If they don’t, they have committed a mortal sin.”

One thing that's annoying

I do almost all of my getting around in Providence on foot. And I'm a respectful, responsible pedestrian -- although I do not make a point of waiting for a "walk" sign before crossing a street, I am careful not to step out into or near a car's path. This is partially for self-interested reasons, but it's also out of respect for the driver. The driver doesn't want to devote much time to me -- he just wants to get on with his life. When I'm driving, I hate having to break for pedestrians who think they own the roads. But not all drivers recognize this fact about me. Sometimes, I'll come to the end of a sidewalk, wanting to cross the street. I see a car coming, so I wait for it. The car, seeing me, and apparently thinking I'm about to step out in front of him (even though I've clearly halted forward motion and am standing in an attitude of waiting), slows down and stops, and waves me across. So now I have to feel guilty about being inconsiderate to the driver -- even though if I hadn't waited for him, I would have taken up less of his time. Oh, and lest you think the driver was just being altruistic, he also glares at me as I cross the street at his insistance.