Sunday, November 01, 2009

Pop Culture and Academia Panel

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King, Harry Potter, & the Wizard of Oz: I can really talk about this stuff at College?”

Grace Roper Lounge in the Burpee Center, Nov 2, 4-5pm

Join Professors Michael Perry, Shawn Klein and Matthew Flamm for a discussion on the use of pop culture within academia and higher education.

All who are interested are welcome to attend. Snacks will be provided, courtesy of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Misplaced Outrage and Civil Debate

Many are outraged by the raucous and angry protests at these so-called health care town meetings. The main culprit seems to be the ‘shouting down’ of the speakers and loud heckling at the meetings. As far as I’m aware there has been no actual violence or assault. Nevertheless, these are not laudable practices for public (or personal) debate.

I am not, however, all that outraged by the tactics at these protests. I am outraged, as are these protesters, at the imminent threat of further expansion of government control over health care (and the costs associated with that). Still, I am uncomfortable with these tactics. They do not tend to encourage civil, rational debate. They encroach on (though don’t violate) individual’s right of free speech.

The rub is that civil and rational discourse is a two-way street. Both sides have to be civil and rational for such engagement to occur. But what we see is a persistent attempt to shut down debate on the part of Obama and his supporters.

Criticisms of Obama and his policies are often quickly dismissed with ad hominem instead of rational debate. Critics are called ‘extreme’, ‘far-right’, or ‘fringe’. They are accused of being lackeys of ‘industrial operatives’ or merely hired guns spreading, quoting Obama, “outrageous lies”. They are attacked as racists and lumped in with bizarre conspiracy folks. It’s hard, even impossible, to be a part of a civil debate in such an environment.

Moreover, consider the President’s infomercial on ABC not so long ago. Opponents and critics where purposely excluded. Recently, the President is quoted as saying “I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking” – referring I guess to Republicans (so much for bipartisanship). The administration and the Democratic Congress were trying to push through Congress the health care bill before anyone could reasonably have read and digested what was in this bill (as they did with the equally disastrous energy bill). I don’t think one is interested in discourse of any kind when is trying to pass a bill in this manner.

How can the American public engage in honest and civil debate over central issues of government when the side in power won’t allow the opposition a voice at the debate? How can we have rational discourse when the White House’s response to criticism is not to clearly articulate the economic and moral arguments for their plan but to create an informant database of the opposition?

This is why many feel that their only recourse is to disrupt these ‘town hall’ meetings. This seems like the only way to get the media to pay attention to voices of opposition. And, reluctantly, it appears to be working. While for the most part, the media focuses on the protesters themselves and continues the canards and ad hominem put out by the Democratic leadership, it has brought attention to the fact that many people outside of the Beltway are strongly opposed to the plans and policies of the administration. The anger and fear over the further expansion of an already bloated and too-powerful government and the limiting of liberty even further is real—and not just talking points from some ‘far-right conspiracy’.

In the end, however, the principled, pro-liberty opponents to more government control in health care and other areas of our economy need now to communicate the moral, political, and economic case for liberty and freedom and against government-control. These protests have got the attention. Now, let’s use this to make the case for real health care reform.

P.S. I do find it somewhat laughable that those on the Left are so enraged by the tactics at these protests, when, after all, these tactics have long been standard practice for Leftist protests.

Update: After posting this, I came across a similar blog post by Lester Hunt, check it out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sotomayor: Early thoughts

(I’m supposed to be working on something more productive, but to get back into my writing flow, I thought I’d do a blog.)

I am reserving judgment on the Sotomayor nomination until I know more, but here are two things that trouble me so far:

1. The appearance, at least, that her pick had little to do with jurisprudential qualifications and more to do with identity politics.

This is one of the pernicious effects of affirmative action. In our PC/affirmative action culture, we tend to see the achievements and promotions of minorities as a consequence of affirmative action policies instead of individual diligence and talent. This undermines these very achievements. Justice Sotomayor might be supremely qualified, but her pick will likely always be seen as one based on group identity. If, however, she becomes an exceptional justice, showing great legal prudence and wisdom, then we’ll forget the identify politics (as, I think, we have done with Justices Marshall and O’Conner).

Part of this is the fault of the Obama administration. They made it fairly clear that they wanted to nominate a Hispanic woman from the start. I have no issue at all with a person of any gender or ethnicity serving on the court; I do have an issue when that becomes the very thing that makes them qualified.

2. From what I’ve read so far about Sotomayor, she’s not the kind of justice that I’d like to see on the court.

I should note, of course, I’d be surprised if the Obama administration (or a GOP administration) picked a justice that would be even close to my ideal. What is my ideal? A justice who starts his or her legal reasoning from the premise that the US Constitution is a document whose sole purpose is to protect individual rights by setting out what limited powers the government can exercise. Sotomayor does not seem to have that idea in the least bit (but, to be fair, nor do most of the current serving justices either).

Her most famous case had to do with the MLB strike, in which she sided with the players. Two other cases she preceded over, much discussed now, are Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Village of Port Chester. Ricci apparently affirms so-called reverse discrimination. Didden further erodes property rights after Kelo (and almost makes Kelo look reasonable). Quoting legal scholar, Richard Epstein: “The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined” (Forbes).

Neither case fills me with any confidence that Sotomayor understands the constitution as a protector of individual rights and limitation on government power. I hope I am proved wrong.

Two informative pieces on Sotomayor’s nomination:
Sotomayor Pick Not Based on Merit
The Sotomayor Nomination

The Volokh Conspiracy legal blog has a lot of interesting bits as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Samuel Eli

Samuel Eli: born May 12, 2009. 7 lbs 4 oz. Welcome to the world, Sammy!

Needless to say, I'll be busy with diapers and so will be blogging even less this summer.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

IAPS 2009

I'm pleased to announce that my paper proposal for the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport conference has been accepted!

Here's more information:

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Manny suspension

Some initial thoughts on the Manny suspension:

  • I’m a bit disgusted by the perverse pleasure people seem to be taking in Manny’s suspension. I’m also disgusted by the ESPN pundits who get to pretend, self-righteously, to be profound about the sanctity of the sport and damage done to baseball.
  • If there is a contemporary athlete who I’m willing to grant is clueless enough to violate the MLB drug policy in an innocent way, Manny’s the guy. Part of Manny Being Manny is that he’s totally a loon who doesn’t pay attention to anything except hitting. Suddenly it’s not believable that he’d be stupid enough to take a prescribed drug without checking with team doctors or the union? That’s totally in keeping with Manny’s character.
  • I’m ignorant about the legitimate uses of hCG, the drug Manny reportedly took. Apparently, it’s connected to fertility treatments. If this was as innocent as Manny claims it is; then he needs to come totally clean about this “personal medical issue.” If he wants to clear his name, he needs to produce the medical records that show he has a condition that hCG is used to treat. Moreover, medical documentation, if possible, that this condition was not something caused by the use of steroids or some other PED in the first place.
  • Even if Manny’s use of hCG was for performance-enhancing (of the baseball kind), what he did to get out of his contract in Boston was way worse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rand and Thrasymachus

A blogger posted a comparison of Rand and Thrasymachus. The blogger claimed that Rand's defense of the virtue of selfishness was similar to Thrasymachus's, Plato's infamous immoralist, defense of injustice as superior to justice. Below is a comment I posted on this blog. (link to my comment)

You misunderstand Rand in several ways. Her defense of the virtue of selfishness is not at all similar to Thrasymachus’ immoralist challenge to Plato. And her “way” is not “one of no rules.”

Thrasymachus puts forward the idea that it is better to be unjust (to steal, cheat, kill—and not get caught). He claims that it is more advantageous to be unjust than to be just; that freely being able commit conventional acts of injustice is better, for the agent, than being constrained by the rules of justice and morality.

Rand argues that the proper understanding of relationship of valuing and living show that the agent is the proper ultimate beneficiary of his action (though not the sole beneficiary). That is, that in acting well (e.g. justly) one is acting in a manner that will bring about a better overall life for himself. Closely paraphrasing her words, the purpose of morality is one’s own life and happiness, but the standard of morality is what is proper to the life of rational being. This sounds a lot like Aristotle, and not at all like Thrasymachus.

Rand’s virtue of selfishness is not a guide to action; that is, one does not, on her view, act in a certain way merely because it matches one’s desire. One’s happiness is the purpose of action, but the guide to action is a rational evaluation of the situation and what the proper response is for a rational being. (Rarely, one must note, would such an evaluation support injustice: Stealing, cheating, killing.) It’s only, she argues, through this rational evaluation that one is able to achieve one’s own life and happiness.

This should show as well that Rand’s “way” is not “one of no rules.” And in terms of politics, Rand was a harsh critic of so-called anarchism. She vigorously defends rule of law and the protection of individual rights.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Losing and humilitation

Welcome Wired readers!

For everyone else, I was quoted in the April issue of Wired Magazine in Brendan I. Koerner's Mr. Know-It-All column. Thank you to Wired and Mr. Koerner.

I wrote up some more extensive comments on the question Mr. Koerner is answering in his column.
Below is a lightly edited version of these comments.


The Question: "I recently posted a video of one of my son's high school wrestling triumphs on YouTube. The defeated wrestler's father has asked me to take it down, saying it humiliates his boy. Is his request reasonable?"

My thoughts:

One thing that I find troubling in the request to pull the video is the idea that losing itself is humiliating. There are certainly ways of losing that can be humiliating, but the mere fact of losing a match is not itself humiliating. One can lose with grace. This is a large part of what good sportsmanship is about: learning to accept one’s loss in stride and with poise. Moreover, losing, while painful, is a learning opportunity. The athlete can see what he did wrong, and he can study what his opponent did right.

If an athlete gives his best—that is, he has trained hard, worked at developing his ability, and competed to the best of his ability—and yet loses in a fair match, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. There is no shame in losing to a better, more skilled opponent; and much pride can be taken by competing well against such an opponent.

If the athlete did not try his best or had not come prepared, he might well be embarrassed. But the humiliation here is not from the loss. It’s from the recognition of failing short of what is required of an athlete. Even had he won the match in such a case, he should still be embarrassed for not training and competing as one should.

Winning is important, but it is not the only thing that is important in sport. It is, as the cliché goes, also important how one plays the game. But I mean something more than merely the cliché idea of being a good sport and so on. Competing in sport is also about striving towards excellence. Excellence is not the same as winning. Winning is one measure of excellence. Earning a bronze metal at the Olympics is a great achievement and measure of excellence, and yet one did not win. Some of the swimmers who finished behind Michael Phelps still swam faster than the world records. Surely these are excellent athletes worthy of praise and admiration.

One might raise the issue of consent, that there is a difference between losing in front of a small group of spectators at the school gym and losing in front a world audience on Youtube. In one respect, I can understand this point. What might not bother someone in a small group, would be more embarrassing if broadcast the world over. And anyone who has survived high school knows that such a wide public airing could make worse the teasing and ridicule from one’s peers. However, this is a cost of competing. Being an athlete means that one has to take risks. Not just the physical risks of training and competing, but the risk of going out to compete and not winning, of failing to perform to expectations (one’s own or others). By agreeing to compete, one is agreeing to this risk. If one is not willing to risk that one’s loss will be known by others, then one should not compete.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What happened to Firefox?!

I used to love Firefox. I was one of its big boosters. There are still some great features to it, but man, version 3 blows. I can't use it for more than 15-20 minutes without the CPU usage spiking and hanging the browser for about 20-30 seconds. Another problem is that it takes about 2-5 minutes for the browser (depending on my machine) to become usable. That may not sound like much. You're probably thinking I need to have some scotch and relax. Not a bad idea, regardless, it's really annoying when you are typing a blog (for instance) or you want to quickly check what time the Thai place closes and the browser freezes up or takes it's time booting up.

I've tried all the troubleshooting tips at Mozilla and out on the web to no avail. It happens on both machines I am running. So I've concluded that this great browser has been killed by some dumb engineer at Mozilla who probably left out a semi-colon somewhere in the code causing some kind of memory leak. Stupid monkey.

I'm too tied at this point to change. I love my extensions too much: Twitterfox, 1-click weather, grab and drag. Google's chrome is cool looking but, like Opera, it doesn't have the extensions (something I'm sure they will remedy). I don't think I can go back to IE. So, I'm just venting.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Getting caught up

I'm making way through the dozen of so comments left in the last few months (!). After I've gotten caught up that, I'll post a new Problem of Evil post and try to get back into the routine of regular posting.

In the meantime: Happy Purim!

Friday, January 23, 2009

More apologies

I've been a poor blogger lately. I have a backlog of comments to clear and no new posts either. I hope to remedy both soon. (But, I also have a new computer coming today which will take time to set up, plus this is the first week of classes, so don't expect anything immediately.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

NFL overtime rules

It baffles me that any one can defend the NFL’s overtime rules. The typical defense is that whoever wins the coin flip, the offense has to drive down the field and the defense has to stop them.

No doubt, this is true. But this doesn’t justify having sudden death. The game is a contest to determine who, on this day, is better. In a tie situation, the teams are obviously evenly matched. Sudden death does not entangle this and show that one team is better.

So why have sudden death?

One reason might be to prevent injury by playing a full 5th quarter. Another 15 minutes of football after 60 minutes of football means a lot of fatigued guys running around. Likelihood of injury probably is increased. Sudden death ends the game once someone scores, so typically the game will end without another full 15 minutes of playing.

This is reasonable, but points more to scoring the game a tie. If injury is the concern here, why not avoid the possibility all together and not have an overtime? After all, if the game is tied after the overtime period (in the regular season), the game is scored a tie. After 60 minutes of regulation, what’s wrong with having a tie? Nonetheless, for post-season games a resolution is needed. So why have sudden death as the scenario? Other than injury concerns, I haven’t come up with another reason.

The central problem with sudden death is that it makes it possible that the contest is determined on the basis of one component of the game. Football is a contest with three distinct components: special teams, defense, and offense. Both sides in sudden death engage in special teams. But if the game is won on the first possession, the teams only play either defense or offense. And this happens, historically, about 30% of the time (Source) A true test of a football match is not just how well a team plays defense, but how well it plays both offense and defense.

The rules should be designed to make sure that each team in each overtime gets to exercise all three components in the determination of the victory. Sudden death fails this, and so makes the game an incomplete contest.

There are several options for such rules:

  • Play a full period.
  • Use the NCAA system of giving each side a possession.
  • Give the scored-on team an opportunity to score, if they fail to, the game ends.

While playing a full period seems unnecessary and raises injury concerns, I don’t see a problem with either the NCAA or similar systems that insure each side has an offensive and defensive possession.

Problem of Evil: Soul-Making

(#4 in the Problem of Evil Series)

The soul-making theodicy rests on the idea that God allows evil to exist because the existence of evil is a necessary condition for individuals to develop or complete their moral souls.

We need to learn what morality is about and we need to develop the proper virtues. We cannot learn these in a vacuum nor do we know morality a priori. The suffering of others is, the theodicy argues, essential for individuals to learn these lessons about morality and virtue. Without the opportunities offered by suffering and evil, individuals would not have the chance to develop or demonstrate moral virtues, like compassion or courage.

The theodicy can be summarized as follows:
  • A world of moral individuals is a good thing.
  • Individuals have to learn how to be moral.
  • Suffering and evil are necessary in order to learn how to be moral.
  • God desires to create a world of moral individuals.
  • God must therefore allow suffering and evil in order to bring about the good of a world of moral individuals.

There are a number of problems with this theodicy.

The main problem comes in the third proposition above: that suffering and evil are necessary in order to learn how to be moral. Surely this is not true of all moral virtues or concepts. The virtue of independence is not developed as a response to suffering: it’s developed out of a need for relying on one’s own judgment and action. One might also consider the amount of non-human suffering that exists and what connection this serves for the development of moral character.

Also, there is plenty of suffering and evil that does not seem to teach us any unique lessons. Showing compassion can be praiseworthy; but surely we can learn this without two-year olds dying from cancer or tornados ripping through towns every summer. And just what did we learn from the Holocaust that we didn’t know already? We didn’t know that mass murder was evil and needed the Nazi’s reign of terror to learn this?

One might argue, well supported by the evidence of post-Holocaust genocides, that mankind has not taken this lesson to heart. But this also undermines the theodicy. God’s goal, ex hypothesis, is to create moral individuals and he allows evil to allow us to learn the moral lessons we are supposed to learn. But if this is not working, then shouldn’t the tactics change? And so wouldn’t God’s failing to change tactics be a kind of moral failure? If a parent decides to beat his children to teach them how to behave properly, and comes to see that this doesn’t work, but continues to beat his children, then we would conclude that the parent is engaging in evil. And, moreover, even if the tactic did work, we still should not tolerate this in the parent. There are more humane ways to teach children how to behave properly.

So, suffering and evil are not necessary conditions for moral development. We can learn morality without being subjected to evil. Moreover, intentionally subjecting one to evil in order to teach them a lesson seems monstrous. There are other ways to teach the lesson and such lessons often don’t work any way.

Another important problem with this theodicy is that it makes a fetish out of suffering. If morality depends on the existence of suffering, then if there was no suffering, we would have to create suffering just to have morality. This strikes me as perverse. Suffering should not be a moral primary; it is secondary to the primary concern of morality: learning how to best live one’s life.

This also leads to a new paradox. The idea here is that morality needs suffering to develop virtues like compassion. But if there was no suffering in the world, would we need the virtue of compassion? It seems like the virtues that are most likely to be pointed to as being developed in response to evils are the virtues that are only needed because there are evils in the world. This undermines the theodicy because if God didn’t allow the evil in the first place, we wouldn’t need those virtues and so we would have no need to learn them by experiencing evil.

One common response to this is that these virtues are needed for the next world, for heaven, or for some deeper relationship with God. A problem with this move is that this is wholly arbitrary speculation. How can anyone know this? One could just as easily argue that one cannot get into heaven without being able to play badminton. And even one could know this, it doesn’t justify the evil. Consider again the parent who beats his children to teach them to behave. The fact that his goal is a good thing doesn’t justify his means. One should wonder about the justice of God if he creates the world in such a way that the only way to get to his kingdom is to have to learn virtues that rely on experiencing evil.