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Congratulations, You Know Where You Live

Mark Liberman reassures us that, contrary to the premises of a question recently asked of a beauty pageant contestant, only 6% of young Americans -- not 20% -- are unable to locate the United States on a map.

But Liberman then goes on to dismiss the problem of geographical ignorance as "periodic hand-wringing." He says "Needless to say, the 94% number was not featured [in the press release about the poll]." Well, duh -- that's basic knowledge you expect people to have. Whether an American can find the US on a map is only interesting if they fail, just like you don't see headlines about all the people who drove to work and didn't cause a 4-car pileup on the freeway. And it's not like the remaining questions produced similarly rosy results -- for example, well over half of the respondents couldn't find Iraq or Afganistan (who would have thought Ambrose Bierce was not cynical enough?). Unless Liberman has some evidence he's not mentioning that would show that the questions were asked, or the results reported, misleadingly, the poll shows exactly what it's billed as showing: Americans don't know where stuff is (and the level of performance is low enough that "Americans are ignorant" is a more important story than "Americans not quite as ignorant as beauty pageant judges think").

It would be one thing if Liberman thought that geographical knowledge was unimportant, or if he thought that the kind of formal trivia-quiz knowledge tested in the poll is a poor measure of people's real geographical competence. But I have a very hard time being impressed with someone's knowledge just because they can locate their own (very large) country on a world map.

Liberman also points out that poll-sponsor National Geographic obviously has something to gain if people take the issue of geographical ignorance seriously. This is true. But in the absence of any evidence that National Geographic is misleading us about the state of geographical knowledge or failing to deliver on their promise of aid, I don't see why this is so horrible. In fact, it seems like a good thing that for some problem, there's an entity with a vested interest in drawing attention to it and promoting a solution.


Mad Scientists

The concept of the mad scientist captures two fears in our culture about science. The obvious one is the fact that science is powerful yet amoral, and hence susceptible to being used for evil. The second is the singleminded pursuit of knowledge at all costs. The mad scientist is someone who steams ahead with his research without giving any thought to the ethical implications of his methods.

I'm dubious that there's any scientific knowledge that it's intrinsically unethical to have* -- things we're "not meant to know." But it is clear that there are some things that it's unethical to find out, because ethics bars us from using some methodologies. Pretty much everyone recognizes this -- you'd have a hard time finding anyone who thought the Tuskegee syphillis study was justified, or who is disappointed that B.F. Skinner didn't really raise his daughter in a box to see what would happen. If there were some piece of knowledge that we could only get from a study like one of those, I think we'd all agree that the world will just have to do without that knowledge.

It's frustrating, then, to see the way many defenders of science seem to fall into the mad scientist storyline when discussing other proposed ethical restrictions on scientific research, such as repatriation of Native American remains, bans on animal research, or bans on stem cell research.

The issue is not whether you agree with the claims -- I happen to think the above-mentioned proposals are justified, sometimes justified, and unjustified, respectively. The issue is whether you recognize them as ethical concerns and respond to them on their own terms. It's fine to argue either that the claimed ethical concern is groundless (e.g. because being a morally considerable being depends on X criteria, which embryos or animals don't have), or that it's outweighed by the intrinsic and/or instrumental value of the resulting knowledge (e.g. all of the examples I've used have been claimed to produce knowledge useful for curing deadly diseases, so an argument could be made that a certain level of killing or stealing is a justified -- or even obligatory -- cost). What raises the specter of the mad scientist is to respond with outrage that someone would dare question science, and to present the advance of scientific knowledge as a self-evident moral imperative that trumps everything else. "There's no other way to find out X" is only a complete justification for research to a mad scientist -- sane scientists have to go on to argue that the ethical pros and cons of the research are of certain magnitudes and the former outweighs the latter. (And sane opponents must do likewise, or at least make an argument that the harms in question trump any other concerns**.)

On the other hand, it doesn't help when those proposing the restrictions oversell the possibility of having your cake and eating it too. Native American traditional knowledge, tissue cultures and computer simulations, and adult stem cells are all worthy avenues of research to have available if we decide that the associated restriction on other methodologies is justified. But none is a complete replacement, and so the critics would do well to face up to the fact that their ethical concerns will result in the world foregoing some knowledge.

*As opposed to particular facts, such as information about someone else's personal life, which there can be ethical problems with knowing.

**It's far more plausible (especially if you hold a strong version of the act-omission distinction) to think that killing always trumps the advance of knowledge than the other way around.



Chris at Mixing Memory describes a study of laypeople's metaethics -- that is, what they think about the status of ethical rules (e.g. are they objective) and how they're justified. What I found interesting was this bit (bulleting added):

Finally, at the end of the study, participants were asked to indicate how they justify their moral beliefs. They could choose from the following justifications:
* "ordained by a supreme god,"
* "every good person on earth, regardless of culture, holds these beleifs,"
* "a society could not survive without its citizens holding these beliefs,"
* "their truth is self-evident."
Each participant could pick as many of the different justifications as he or she wanted.

This list seems curiously incomplete. My own view (which is that thinkers like Habermas and Hare are in the right neighborhood in terms of basing ethics on the inevitable presuppositions of acting and explaining one's actions to others) isn't in there, but I wouldn't expect many non-philosophers to volunteer that idea. More surprising is the absence of any of the following:
* "That's the way I was raised" -- to academics, citing upbringing sounds like just the way you'd dismiss someone else's beliefs as socially constructed. But many laypeople cite their own upbringing as authoritative. An action is wrong or right precisely because my mom or dad taught me so. (Though it at times becomes circular, when the moral authority of mom and dad is justified on the basis that they do, and teach, morally right conduct).
* Some version of the harm/consent principle. I'd speculate that in a modern Western society, this would be the most popular justification, even if only for reasons of social desirability, because in a liberal society harm/consent is considered the least controversial basis for making a claim against others. Of course, you now get into questions of overlap among the rationales, since most of the other metaethical foundations have the harm/consent principle as a derivative rule. But I think there are many people whose metaethical reasoning stops with harm/consent as the bedrock axiom.
* "Wrong actions are disgusting/shameful" -- this represents a sort of affective (emotion-based) intuition, in contrast to the more cognitive (thinking/logic-based) type of intuition implied in "their truth is self-evident." Here actions are wrong if they feel bad (for a normal person) to do or think about.
* Conscience -- The idea of conscience may overlap somewhat with the two forms of intuition, or with religion (since consciences are often described as god-given), but I think it's plausible that many people would see it as a separate possibility. For them, the conscience is conceived of as a quasi-independent homonculus supplying expert ethical advice.
* Enlightened self-interest -- in contrast to the statement about the stability of society (which may be maintained by moral rules that sacrifice some individual's benefit), one may believe that morally right conduct is that which benefits the actor in the long run. My impression is that this is one of the most common views among young, educated people in the West.
* "I don't know, it just is" -- this option is important because many studies have shown how people cling to their moral evaluations even when the scenario they're evaluating is constructed so as to undercut all of their claimed rationales. This claim expresses a confidence that there is a deeper justification (in contrast to explicit intuitionism), but without being able to specify what that justification is.


RIP Rusty

Rusty Jacobs, founder of the folk group Wood's Tea Company, died Wednesday at his home in South Burlington. This has been a rough year for Woods Tea, because back in October band member Chip Chase also passed away unexpectedly. I hope Mike and Howard (the remaining members) keep touring, although the feel of a show without Rusty will be very different. I saw them nine times while I was at Colgate, and I'd like to be able to see them again. Rusty was always really great about talking to people during intermission, including telling me the story of how an anti-gay group somewhere in the Midwest tried to shut down one of their shows because they heard the band was from Vermont.

This video is kind of crappy, because it's a promo, not a full song, but it's all that they had on YouTube. Rusty is the guy on the far left:


When People Don't Want a Cleanup

The usual storyline with respect to contaminated sites pits concerned residents against risk-minimizing corporations and government. While officials solemnly declare that there's no problem and that their assumption-laden studies have proved objectively that there's no health risk, local people point to their own experiences through years of living near the site, sometimes compiled through a "folk epidemiology" like Lois Gibbs's famous cancer survey in Love Canal. When sociologists write about the importance of respecting local knowledge and listening to the community's preferences, what they almost always mean is that governments need to be more precautionary and clean up more risks. Both technocrats and democrats can at least agree that by and large the public is afraid of more risks than officials are.

But it doesn't always work that way. My hometown, Palmerton PA, is a Superfund site. And while we have a contingent of people who think the EPA is grossly underestimating the risks, there is an even larger segment of the population that thinks the risks are over-hyped. These people are more worried about the fact that the Superfund designation stigmatizes the town.

Another example is the town of Dewey-Humboldt in Arizona, where the EPA wants to list their huge mound of mine tailings as a Superfund site. But many residents oppose that plan. For some, it's about property values (which are often a reason people support cleanups). Others present a contrast between local knowledge and official science that's very similar to what we see in the common cases described above -- except that the conclusions are reversed:

Terry Nolan, a resident since 1971 who owns land that could fall within the Superfund boundaries, disagreed.

"I don't see any health risks. I'm not dead. I'm not dying," Nolan said. "One hundred years this stuff's been blowing back and forth across the city, and there's no one with any health risk."

One interesting common thread in Palmerton and Dewey-Humboldt is the role of the polluting corporation's current manifestation. In Palmerton, the owners of the zinc smelters have been generally very helpful in providing funding for the cleanup. In Dewey-Humboldt, an entrepreneur affiliated with the current mine owners has offered to clean up the mine on his own dime, in the hopes that he can turn around and make a profit selling the cleanup technology. This contrasts with the more usual paradigm of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie and their executive committee.


The Catholic Definition of Fairness

This article, by a bigwig from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, normally wouldn't be worth commenting on. It's the usual list of specious arguments against same-sex marriage, like "only opposite-sex biological parents can properly raise children," the implicit claim that most people are bisexual (so changing society's level of support for various household arrangements will cause large numbers of people to opt for an opposite-sex relationship rather than a same-sex one or vice-versa), and various slippery slopes. But then I came across this supposed benefit of heterosexuality:

and also for ensuring a fairer distribution of the parenting burden.

Considering that gender inequality is the biggest contributor to unfair distribution of parenting (and other household tasks), the only sense I can make out of this is that it's a version of the "but which one of you is the husband, hurr hurr" argument. I presume in Mr. Meney's mind, a "fair distribution" of parenting duties is not equal burden sharing (as you'd expect after looking at what the dictionary says about "fair"), but rather a deeply gender-skewed assignment of tasks. So a two-woman household wouldn't know who is supposed to do all the diaper-changing because they both have vaginas.

The article also claims that opposite-sex marriage ensures "intergenerational connectivity." This is also strange, since last I checked gay people have parents who care about their grandchildren (just ask Lynne Cheney). But perhaps that's not true in Meney's circle of acquaintances, because the parents he knows have disowned their LGBT offspring -- but in that case, he might want to think a little harder about whose fault the resulting lack of "intergenerational connectivity" is.

These arguments are always tough when different sides frame the issue in different ways, because that tends to lead to a lot of talking past each other. So I was pleased to see, in one of his slippery slope warnings, that the Catholic Church and the Beyond Marriage crowd are framing the marriage question the same way (albeit choosing diametrically opposed positions):

There is no need to move down the path of providing unimpeded access to a range of benefits to any two or more people who say they are in a relationship. Simple co-dependency is not enough.

As I see it, dependency (whether co- or one-way) is exactly the basis on which society should recognize and support relationships.


Letting Detainees Die

A number of stories have come out recently about people dying in US immigration detention due to a lack of adequate medical attention. The most heart-wrenching is the case of Victoria Arellano:

The handful of prescription drugs Victor[ia] Arellano* took each morning kept h[er] alive.

But Arellano, in the throes of full-blown AIDS, was denied that medicine when immigration officials locked h[er] up at the San Pedro detention center, other detainees said.

Two months later Arellano, 23, died in custody - too weak to walk to the bathroom alone, but shackled to a hospital bed.

... Arellano's care fell to fellow detainees, who soaked their bath towels in water to cool her fever and used a cardboard box as a makeshift trash can to gather her vomit.

"We all asked the guards for help, to take Victoria to the infirmary but no one did anything," said Oscar Santander, a fellow detainee.

I'm impressed by the other detainees, who saw Arellano as a person and rallied to help her, while the authorities looked the other way until it was too late. The response of the government spokeswoman only makes the moral gulf more clear. The spokeswoman lists off the number of dollars spent on immigrant health care and the number of inmates treated. But those numbers don't tell us anything. What matters is the adequacy of the care recieved. The fact that numerous people are dying easily preventable deaths (both Arellano and Edmar Alves Araujo would have been fine if they had been allowed to stay on their current drugs -- hardly incidents demanding complex and expensive medical attention) demonstrates that the care is not adequate. It's unfortunate that the people who made these decisions can only be sued (probably unsuccessfully) for wrongful death, rather than charged with manslaughter.

*The article does this weird thing where it refers to Arellano as "he" up until the paragraph that mentions she's transgender, and then after that uses "she."


Cereal Sexism

It occurs to me that pretty much every breakfast cereal mascot is male -- Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky the Leprechaun, Count Chocula, Snap, Crackle and Pop, etc (and those that are human or humanoid are white). Even the few that are androgynous on the box, like the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, are IIRC male in commercials. The only exception I can think of is an off-brand shredded wheat I sometimes buy that features a mother kangaroo. Or am I not eating the right cereals?


Not In Defense of Bill Richardson

I was all set to write a post defending Bill Richardson's biggest gaffe of last night's candidates' forum*. It wasn't going to be a full-throated defense, since like the other candidates who imagine they have a shot at winning, he's a coward when it comes to LGBT issues. But I did think the criticism was focusing on the wrong place. But then I realized that I was making the same mistake Richardson was. And so this post became a criticism rather than a defense.

The gaffe in question is his declaration (later backpedaled) that homosexuality is a choice:

MS. ETHERIDGE: Thank you.

Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?

GOV. RICHARDSON: It's a choice. It's --

MS. ETHERIDGE: I don't know if you understand the question. (Soft laughter.) Do you think I -- a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, "Ooh, I want to be gay"?

GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, I -- I'm not a scientist. It's -- you know, I don't see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. You know I don't like to categorize people. I don't like to, like, answer definitions like that that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don't understand.

My initial reading, which inspired my initial intent to defend Richardson, was that he was saying something close to my own position: whether or not it's a choice doesn't matter. LGBT people deserve the same rights regardless of why they're LGBT. So while he may have botched the answer and failed to say the right words that would win over the audience, his underlying view was right.

What stopped me from making that defense of Richardson is that, correct though that position may be in an abstract sense and as a reason not to make efforts to harp on the choice question, it's inappropriate, and somewhat paternalistic, as an answer when an LGBT rights organization directly asks you what you think about homosexuality being a choice.

One of the core principles of a truly progressive politics is what I'll call "listening." Listening means that the struggle for a given group's rights should take the experiences of that group as its guideposts. Knowing how to do right by that group has to arise out of hearing and understanding members of that group**. Declaring that homosexuality is not a choice is an important (albeit somewhat stylized) way of expressing one's commitment to listening with respect to LGBT issues, since they overwhelmingly experience homosexuality as not a choice. Saying that homosexuality is definitely not a choice is a way of telling gays and lesbians that you accept their experience as important and definitive. So Richardson's fumbling reference to the uncertain science about the genetic and/or biochemical causes of homosexuality, rather than explaining his position, made it worse -- because it made clear that he didn't grasp that the question was as much about signaling his willingness to listen as it was about his command of psychological facts.

*Defending Bill Richardson will also be a rare occurrence, though probably not as rare as defending Mitt Romney.

**Emphasis on "hearing and understanding" -- listening is not about automatic and condescending deference, it's about really grasping what people are saying (in all its, and your, inevitable partiality and situatedness).

In Defense of Mitt Romney

Bookmark this one, folks, because it's not likely to happen again. To ensure there are no misunderstandings, I think Mitt Romney is a terrible candidate, and I strongly disagree with all of his current issue positions that I've heard (not that I'd trust him if he flip-flopped back to the issue positions he held when he ran against Ted Kennedy). Particularly relevant to this post, I think his position on the war is completely wrong. I can imagine no reasonably possible circumstance in which I'd vote for him*.

Romney has been roundly mocked for defending his sons' failure to enlist in the military like so:

"My sons are all adults and they've made decisions about their careers and they've chosen not to serve in the military and active duty and I respect their decision in that regard."

He added: "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president."

I think the first paragraph is a fine answer, and Romney should have just stopped there. It's one thing to criticize someone because their own actions don't match their words. But it's weirdly collectivist to criticize them because their children's actions don't match their own words. Politicians' family members are their own people. (This is related to the way I don't give John Edwards much credit when his wife declares her support for same-sex marriage, nor too many demerits when she complains that white men get no attention.)

But I also don't think that the much-derided second paragraph of Romney's response is as bad as it looks at first. Participating in the democratic process is in fact a way of helping your country. It's bizarre to see liberals implying (or caricaturing conservatives as saying) that military service is the only valid way of helping your country, or that the worth of a form of service is measured by the amount of physical danger it entails.

In any event, I find the whole "chickenhawk" thing kind of silly, because military matters are the only ones where people push this idea that if you support a policy, you should make your career on the front lines of it. To use Romney-centric examples, I've yet to see anyone criticizing him (or his family) for not joining the Border Patrol, even though he supports tougher immigration enforcement. Nobody seems to think it's hypocritical that he hasn't founded an ethanol manufacturing company, even though he supports increased use of that fuel. And who would demand that the Romneys consider careers as sanitation engineers, since every day they blatantly produce garbage that needs to be hauled to the landfill?

*I can't decide whether he's better or worse than the other yahoos running for the Republican nomination, though. I'm still hoping Newt Gingrich gets in. He seems to be exercising an unusual (for a prominent Republican) degree of critical thinking with respect to the war and the environment. And the remainder of Gingrich's positions are standard conservative ones -- unlike Ron Paul, whose attractive positions on the war on terror and the war on drugs are balanced out by being extra crazy on all the other issues. (Obviously I'll be voting in the Democratic primary, although I haven't remotely made up my mind who I'll support.)


Justice for the Non-Anglophone Accused

Bint Alshamsa points out that a judge recently dismissed a sex abuse case because it took the government three years to find a interpreter who spoke Vai, the defendant's first language. It looks like the crime will now go unpunished, since Mahamu Kanneh seems to be the only real suspect.

Obviously the best solution would have been to quickly find an interpreter -- and Alshamsa makes a good case that if the government had put some more effort into it, they could have found a Vai interpreter. However, given the fact that they didn't find said interpreter, I think the judge made the right decision. As important as it is to punish sex abusers, there is a fundamental right to a fair trial -- including a right to understand the proceedings, and a right to have the case settled in a timely manner. Having an interpreter is important both so that the defendant will be able to make a fair defense of himself, and so that he understands what is being done to him and why (because justice that is percieved by the defendant as arbitrary will fail to achieve its purpose). A speedy trial is important because the process of being charged and tried is a major burden -- one might even call it a punishment -- being placed on a person who is still presumptively innocent (though Kanneh was lucky enough to be able to get out on bond, so at least he didn't spend his pre-trial period in jail in the same conditions as all the convicts being punished).

Nobody should be convicted unfairly because *we* are certain they're guilty, nor should they have their case unneccessarily drawn out because respecting their rights is inconvenient. Justice (or the perception thereof -- after all, Kanneh may be innocent) for sex abuse victims shouldn't come at the expense of the rights of others, particularly people like immigrants of color with poor English skills who are already marginalized in society. Hopefully this decision will spur the government to be more diligent in the future. And if Kanneh is actually guilty, hopefully his ordeal so far will be enough to deter him from any future wrongdoings.



A couple things that bother me:

1. I find the gloating from the left about evangelicals' unease with Mitt Romney's Mormonism unseemly. Irrational bigotry against people based on their religion is something we should be condemning, not welcoming. (And it is irrational bigotry that's being gloated about -- we're told that unspecified anonymous Republicans* will refuse to vote for Romney because they think his church is a hell-bound cult, not because they think his religion will lead him to take the wrong stance on one or more issues.)

2. I'm uncomfortable, albeit somewhat ambivalently, when someone criticizes some person or institution for a political or moral failing, and then people chime in with additional apolitical/amoral criticisms. For example, there was a thread a while back on Pandagon (I don't have time to dig out the link right now) about a restaurant that had kicked out a customer for being a lesbian. In the comment thread, lots of people said that the restaurant's food is bad, too. On the one hand, I can understand the desire to heap abuse on one's enemies (particularly since the diner in question is more likely to be upset about being told their food stinks than that they're homophobic). And it certainly makes it easier to stick to a boycott of them for political reasons if you don't think you're missing much food-wise. But it also seems to miss the point. If you think their food stinks anyway, why should they care whether you agree with their nondiscrimination policy (or lack thereof)? The focus on the bad food (which affects you personally) seems to me to cheapen and dilute the concern with the violation committed against the lesbian who was kicked out because of her sexuality. Denying service to a lesbian is wrong whether you're Marvin's Garden or the Boulevard Diner**.

*I'm also a bit skeptical of the polls cited to show that there's a big anti-Mormon base out there. The question usually asks about whether the respondent would vote for a hypothetical candidate based only on the information that said candidate is a Mormon. I think this kind of question makes it easy to take absolutist stands about whether you'd vote for a certain type of person. But in the real world situation when you have a limited menu of imperfect candidates with a lot more biographical and policy detail, concerns about religion have to be balanced against other things. So a lot of these people who tell a pollster that they'd never vote for Generic Mormon Candidate would be willing to suck it up and vote Romney to keep Giuliani or Clinton out of the White House.

** My least and most favorite diners, respectively (located in Phoenix AZ and Worcester MA).


Intuitions and Violinists

I find intuitionist arguments in philosophy quite frustrating. It seems that the majority of the time an argument rests on a key intuition, I don't share that intuition. (Granted, there may be some selective memory bias at work, as well as the unrepresentativeness of the assumptions that people explicitly point to and say "here I am using an intuition!") But an intuitionist argument gives you no help when you have a differing intuition -- indeed, it seems inherent to the nature of the argument that it ignores the possibility of differing intuitions. It gives even less help to someone who shares the intuition but is uncertain how reliable that intuition really is. The person with the clear counter-intuition can at least say "we'll just have to agree to disagree, at least until such time as one of us finds a way to dig back to a premise that we do share." In any event, an intuition is an empirical fact -- so it seems that philosophers making explicit use of them ought to be able to produce some psychological data beyond their own feelings to support the wide-spread-ness of the intuition in question.

One of the most famous intuitionist arguments is Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist argument. In brief, Thomson asks you to imagine you wake up one day and discover that a group of music lovers have kidnapped you and hooked you up to a famous violinist who is dying of kidney failure. If you unplug yourself, he dies, but if you remain hooked up, he will heal and be ready to live on his own in nine months. Thomson takes it as obvious that there is no moral problem if you decide to unhook yourself, and according to Wikipedia all of her critics share that intuition even if they disagree that this intuition leads to the conclusion that abortion is permissible. Yet my intuition is quite different -- were I in that situation, I would feel a very strong moral compulsion to remain attached for the nine months. This is more than a matter of desiring to do something above and beyond the call of duty -- I would feel guilt for unplugging the violinist similar in kind to what I'd feel if I caused his death more directly. In my mind, the fact of holding such great power over another person's fate entails an obligation to use that power in a way that protects their interests. (Though, if I hadn't blown my cover by writing this post, I wouldn't be above threatening to unplug myself in order to get the music lovers to offer me some compensation for my time, since this is an unusual case in which the person who holds the power does not therefore benefit from the situation.)

Of course, Thomson's larger argument is not directed at me, since I'm quite convinced that a fetus is not morally a person (except perhaps very late in gestation), and therefore already believe abortion is permissible. But it's somewhat disconcerting to find my intuitions at odds with something agreed on by both sides of a major philosophical debate.