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There's a saying about absolute power ...

Shepard Fairey-style Obama icon reading 'Plus Ca Change'Let's play a round of "guess which administration did this."

1. Refused to release Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay despite the fact that they have not committed any offense against the United States.

2. Declared that people detained by the U.S. in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detention.

3. Wants to make sure the White House can conveniently lose e-mails that would otherwise be public records.

1. Both the Bush and Obama administrations
2. Both the Bush and Obama administrations
3. Both the Bush and Obama administrations


Fire and climate

I haven't written anything yet about the recent devastating bushfires in Victoria. But I did want to flag this post by a prominent Australian climate researcher that gives a nuanced view of what role climate change may have played.


Fred Phelps, inadmissible

I'm generally leery of immigration laws that seek to exclude bad people. Often, they just seem like they shuffle the badness around. For example, if a Mexican has committed assault in the U.S., it's reasonable to think they pose a higher risk of future assaults. But to deport them for it is protective only from a narrow nation-centric view -- it's saying "don't assault any more Americans -- go assault your fellow Mexicans instead!" I don't think it's right to put that kind of differential value on American versus Mexican lives.

The exception would be if there's a good reason to think that the offense in question is more likely to occur in one country than another. Thus, if a Yemeni al-Qaida sympathizer is arrested for planning a terrorist attack in the U.S., it would make sense to deport them, since al-Qaida's ideology does not hold that Yemen is the Great Satan and ought to be attacked, so the deportation will lead to a net decrease in terrorism.

So I was given pause by the news that Britain has banned Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper -- of "God hates fags" fame -- from entering the country.

Melissa McEwan says the decision "recognizes the fundamental difference between speech and incitement to hatred." That's part of it -- if there were no incitement to hatred, there would be no grounds for exclusion*. But while incitement is a necessary condition, it's not a sufficient one. If the exclusion were simply on the basis of the Phelps' general propensity to incite hatred, then excluding them just shifts it around. If, say, the Phelps were just coming for a vacation to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, then barring them from entering Britain protects British LGBT folks at the expense of those in the Phelps' alternative vacation destination -- say New York City, which doesn't have the power to ban American visitors.

But the Phelps aren't coming to Britain for a vacation incidental to their hate mission. They're coming in order to organize protests against The Laramie Project, a pro-gay play at Queen Mary's College. Presumably nobody in the U.S. is putting on The Laramie Project or any other play comparably offensive to the Phelps -- otherwise they wouldn't have tried to travel to Britain to do their protesting. So in this case, excluding them will result in a net decrease in hatred incited, and thus is justified.

*I generally take a more expansive view of what things should be counted as free speech than most people who otherwise share my political opinions, but I agree that the Phelps frequently cross that line.


Is veganism an act or an omission?

In my previous post I referenced the act-omission distinction. At least in the modern West, this is a powerful moral intuition that holds that it's more significant to do something than to merely let it happen by failing to do something else. So killing someone is worse than standing by while they die, and saving someone is better than declining to take an opportunity to kill them.

One of the more troublesome aspects of this distinction is how you can decide which things are acts and which are omissions. Discussions tend to center on cases where there's consensus about how to describe things -- e.g. pushing a boulder down a hill onto someone is an act, but failing to move a second boulder to block the path of a naturally falling boulder is an omisison. The great variety of explanations that philosophers have come up with to justify the act-omission distinction only complicate the process of boundary-drawing.

One example that occured to me today is veganism. Let's assume for the remainder of the argument that we have some good reason to see not eating animals as better than eating them, and that we're talking about people who are medically and socio-economically able to be vegan without extreme hardship, and that "veganism" in this argument is referring to a dietary choice, not any additional activism for the cause. Is veganism then a praiseworthy act, or merely an omission of animal cruelty? Conversely, is omnivory merely an omission of a higher moral calling, or is it an active violation against animals?

The simplest case for the "act" side is that veganism seems to involve a great deal of conscious effort. People who never put any thought into the idea that there might be some moral issue about eating animals slide easily into omnivory. To be a vegan requires looking up recipes and nutritional information, reading food labels, dealing with temptation, dealing with unsympathetic friends and family, etc. But this effortfulness is not intrinsic to veganism -- rather, it's a product of the social situation that is set up on the assumption that everyone eats meat. In a vegan society, it would be effortless to remain vegan but would require effort to eat meat. Following this line to its logical conclusion, "acts" end up defined as "things that go against prevailing custom" and "omissions" as "conformity." It seems odd that a distinction so allegedly significant to moral action would be so deeply culturally relativistic and conservative.

The most obvious case for the "omission side" notes that veganism is most commonly defined by a negative fact -- vegans are people who don't eat animals, that is, people who decline to commit a wrong. After all, the slogan is "meat is murder," not "meat is manslaughter." However, it would be easily enough to reframe the definition of veganism in positive terms -- "vegans eat only plants and minerals." This suggests that negative facts, which often play such an important role in the act-omission distinction, may often be a matter of framing and linguistic convenience rather than a metaphysical truth about the event being described.


Trolley logic

Neil Sinhababu offers a new variant on the classic trolley problems -- in this one, you're near the five potential victims on the track but have a button you can push to collapse a distant scaffolding, on which one person (BMI not specified) is standing, to stop a runaway train. My first suspicion, posted there in the comment section, was that he was trying to debunk the whole intuitionist enterprise by showing how few people are willing to give straight answers to this kind of unrealistic hypothetical, calling into question statements like "obviously our intuition is that you should do X" or "Y% of people agree that you should do X."

(Philosophers are generally not keen on this sort of resistance, seeing it as uncooperativeness or an attempt to dodge having to make a tough decision. That's certainly one element, but I think another important feature is that intuitive moral judgment is a learned skill, not an innate faculty. So it makes some sense to think that intuitions about unrealistic hypotheticals -- ones far removed from the types of situations people have practice in navigating -- don't tell us much. This is not to say, however, that intuitions about common situations are necessarily better. If I may reference Jane Addams again, intuitions become reliable when we reflectively engage in a diversity of morally significant situations.)

My second theory -- which I tried to post but was foiled by clogged internets tubes -- was somewhat confirmed by Sinhababu's later post. The classic trolley problem dilemma is that people are unwilling to push a fat man onto the track to stop a runaway train that would otherwise kill five innocent people, but are willing to throw a switch to send the train onto a side track where only one potential victim is sitting. I had a suspicion he might be trying to separate the "immediateness" explanation of the former intuition (you don't want to do it because you're so physically close to the fat man and his death) from the other possibilities (doctrine of double effect, etc).

Sinhababu takes his theory as confirmed -- people seemed more open to pushing the scaffold-collapsing button than are usually willing to push the fat man. What I found interesting was the reasoning offered by commenters on that post. As I read it, most people offered reasons that weren't particularly sensitive to the details of the case -- either that it's always OK to sacrifice one person to save five, because more lives is better, or it's never OK, because you're actively killing the one person. If we were to hold commenters to their stated logics here, we should theoretically get the same results if we present them with either the fat man version (where typically hardly anyone will sacrifice one to save five) or the side track version (which most people are willing to do).

It would be interesting to test -- perhaps someone has already done this -- the contrast between how sensitive people actually are to details of scenarios versus the breadth of the reasons they assert to explain and justify their choice. I know there has been a substantial body of research showing that most moral reasoning is post-hoc rationalization of intuitive processes rather than reporting the actual process by which the person came to their conclusions.

(To reveal my own biases, I have a generally consequentialist viewpoint, and in particular I have yet to come upon a very convincing justification for the act-omission distinction that anti-consequentialist responses to trolley problems and related one-versus-many dilemmas (involving lifeguards, vaccines, evil executioners, etc) seem to turn on. So I always say I would be willing to sacrifice the one for the many if I were to truly be in the scenario as described. But I am extremely uncomfortable with that choice in some scenarios (albeit less than many other people), and would probably not be able to go through with it in real life.)


Small instances of sexism

I just went to John McCain's senate contact page to give him a piece of my mind about being the only member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to vote against giving the District of Columbia a voting representative in the House. His website requires that you select a prefix. Among the options is "Dr. and Mrs." -- but no "Dr. and Mr." (John Kerry's site, on the other hand, does include both versions -- though despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in his state, he does not offer "Mr. and Mr." or "Ms. and Ms.")

McCain's list of issues you may be contacting him about is also incoherent. He has separate listings for "Border Control," "Illegal Immigration," "Immigration/Border Issues," and "Border Control" (again); and separate entries for "Wildlife" and "Fish and Wildlife."


They're not even trying

So today the Obama administration announced that it's going to review the Bush administration's use of the "state secrets" privilege to cover up its crimes. What we're meant to take away from this, of course, is that Bush's people abused this power and the new administration is going to bring some integrity to the process. So what, do you think, did Obama's lawyers do today in a high profile court case? If you guessed "invoke state secrets in a blatantly Bushian way," congratulations!

I'm happy to take a "wait and see" approach to campaign promises like economic stimulus, withdrawal from Iraq, or health care reform, where it takes more than a few weeks to get the a new policy up and running. But if you're promising a new direction, you don't keep pushing harder in the old direction.


In vitro meat and human diversity

If in vitro meat is developed to the point where it's commercially viable and doesn't require the ongoing exploitation of actual sentient creatures to produce, I see no moral problem in eating it. I would count it no different from soy burgers, margarine, Oreos, or any other industrially-produced food item. By the time such a product is on the market I imagine I will have been meatless for long enough that I'd find eating it merely personally unpleasant, though I'd make an exception to try in vitro human*.

I find it interesting, though, that the debate over in vitro meat is always framed as making concessions. In vitro meat is presented as a sort of sop to incorrigible carnivores, a way to accommodate the people who say "I see all your points about the horrible suffering and exploitation that meat production involves, but on the other hand bacon is tasty." It's understandable that vegans would feel reluctant to let these people "win," to effectively admit that they can't, and don't have to be, won over to see that they can be perfectly happy and healthy eating plants. Offering them in vitro meat seems to concede that they had a point about the imperative tastiness of meat.

But when I think of in vitro meat, I don't think primarily of incorrigible carnivores (many of whom, I imagine, would be reluctant to let vegans "win" by admitting that animal suffering or rights should factor into their eating decisions even if they get to keep eating meat). Nor do I think of vegans who stick with it but still sometimes crave animal flesh. The first thing that comes to my mind is people whose bodies don't cooperate with a purely plant diet. Both vegans and omnivores have an unfortunate tendency to universalize the human body, with blanket declarations that people either can or can't be healthy without animal products. In reality, our needs vary. The vegan universalizing position is closer to true than the omnivorous universalizing assumptions prevalent in modern Western culture. However, some people, because of the way their bodies handle (or can't handle) certain forms of protein or vitamins, find it extremely difficult -- or even impossible -- to maintain a reasonable standard of well-being without consuming animal products, even under optimal socio-economic conditions. (And some people's bodies go the opposite way, finding it hard to subsist on animal products.) In vitro meat solves the mismatch between these folks' bodily demands and the interests of the potential foodstuffs available in their environment.

*Perhaps some enterprising company could get the readers of "odd news" columns all a-twitter by offering to grow you an in vitro steak made out of your own cells.


You can see it from space!

Massive bushfires are burning in Australia. In order to describe their magnitude, the AP reports that:

The fires were so massive they were visible from space Saturday. NASA released satellite photographs showing a white cloud of smoke across southeastern Australia.

But "you can see it from space!" is a silly way to indicate how big something is -- because we have satellites with very high-resolution cameras that can see some pretty small things. NASA's photo of the smoke plume from the current Victorian fires is impressive, and certainly gives you a sense of their scale. But there's nothing remarkable about the fact that the fires are simply visible at all. The photo the AP got was from MODIS, which has a resolution of up to 250 meters -- fine enough to catch plenty of small fires, some too small to even make the news (perhaps we should say "this fire is so big global news agencies are covering it!"). Here's a global map of fires updated constantly from MODIS data. Some of NASA's other sensors, those aboard Landsat, collect images with a 15 meter resolution. Europe's SPOT satellite can do 2.5 meters. Things don't have to be very big to be visible from space these days.

(On a related note, it's not true that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from space, or from the moon.)


Pragmatism and instant replay

I'm not much of a sports fan -- now that I have no marching band to play in, this year's Super Bowl was the first sporting event I watched in three to five years (depending on how you count the bits of Rugby League I sat through while trying to bond with my housemate/landlord in Australia). But Hugo Schwyzer's recent expression of dislike for instant replay (or perhaps more exactly, my reaction to it) touched on some of the philosophical hobbyhorses that lie behind much of my thinking recently.

Schwyzer's argument against instant replay is that bad calls are an important part of the sports experience. Instant replay proponents -- of which I would, I suppose, count myself -- want perfect refereeing. The refs are there to make sure the rules are properly applied, so we can watch two teams duke it out within those parameters. So anything that improves the quality of refereeing is a good thing, because it makes sure the game is played properly. Schwyzer, on the other hand, sees dealing with bad calls -- including blown calls that change the outcome of the game -- as a valuable part of sporting.

The question that came to mind for me about Schwyzer's position is: where do you draw the line? It's easy for replay proponents to call for maximizing the accuracy of officiating. But if you value some fallibility, how do you decide how much is enough? It seems suspicious that the optimal quantity of bad calls would be that which is produced by the best human referees acting without external technological aids. Why not shift the balance toward fewer bad calls by allowing instant replay if the cameras are grainy and positioned at bad angles? Why not increase the amount of bad calls by hiring worse refs or impairing them in some way?

A more defensible rationale for drawing the line precisely at banning instant replay would be to see the refs as a third team of athletes. In addition to admiring the skills of the players at moving or stopping the ball, we admire the skills of the refs at getting calls right in the tumult of the game. On this rationale, introducing instant replay is like giving the quarterback a cannon that can hurl the ball with more speed and accuracy than his unaided arm -- it defeats the purpose, since we're watching the game to see people do certain activities, not simply to see those activities get done. This rationale doesn't incorporate Schwyzer's relish of chewing over the feeling of having been wronged by the refs. But perhaps in combination with valuing bad calls as such, it can help justify drawing the line where it's drawn in the "no instant replay" position.

Even this resolution is somewhat unstable, though, because it raises the question of what things count as using the players (and refs') natural capabilities, and what things count as extraneous technological enhancements. Common sense assures us this is an easy line to draw -- but in reality it's highly questionable, especially if you want to try to draw the line without assuming a single model of what a "normal" human capacity is. The line that separates the self from the environment is not a Platonic reality but rather a pragmatic, variable tool. Things get even stickier when you realize that successful operation of a technological enhancement is itself a skill that can be admired -- hence we have both javelin and archery events (and outside of sports, both singers and pianists).

This seems like a good opportunity to apply the pragmatist test -- ask why you want to make the distinction in the first place, and that will tell you what criteria you should use to do it. But at this point we're so deep in the weeds, and so beyond my own passing understanding of sports, for me to know how to begin to answer.


Immigration reform the Max Power way*

A new administration! A new era in America! We're going to take care of all the horrible stuff from the Bush years and put this country back on the right track. So let's get that environmentally and culturally destructive border wall built, and expedite issuing 287(g) agreements that deputize local police agencies like Sheriff Joe** to enforce immigration law.

Wait, what?

Then again, if Obama can't seem to find a Treasury Secretary who pays his taxes or a Commerce Secretary that believes there should be a Department of Commerce, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised.

On a related note, the bumbling performance of the new administration thus far makes me dubious that we can be sure that since the text of Obama's recent executive order bans extraordinary rendition and secret prisons, his administration will never use extraordinary rendition and secret prisons. I mean, they're called secret prisons for a reason, and many of Bush's outrages on this count were pilot-tested by the Clinton administration. I think a lot comes down to how much you trust Obama and his staff as people, as well as how much of a role you think the personal dispositions of our officials matters compared to the instututional/situational features of the offices they occupy. I suspect many liberals have spent the last eight years building up an excessively disposition-based account of the Bush administration's follies.

*post title source

**I agree that Arpaio's antics are absolutely outrageous and unconscionable, but I think the concentration camp analogy is stretching too far.


Natural selection and nature-culture dualism

Tigtog is quite taken by the idea that humans -- at least in affluent Western societies -- are no longer undergoing natural selection. Instead, to the extent that we're evolving, we're undergoing artificial selection.

The distinction between natural and artificial selection appears to be a matter of the origin of the conditions that do the selection -- if it's something in nature that makes certain individuals unfit, it's natural selection, but if it's an aspect of culture, it's artificial selection.

The problem with making much of this natural/artificial selection distinction is that it breaks down in the real world. As long as humans have had culture, all of the conditions we face -- thus a fortiori all the conditions that could cause differential reproductive success and hence evolution -- are hybrid natural-cultural conditions. There was no time or place where Homo sapiens bopped along in a state of nature, subject only to natural impacts, and then later/elsewhere we were lifted into a cultural realm. The impacts of nature are always culturally mediated. This is why, for example, environmental studies researchers have long said "there's no such thing as a natural disaster."

(One could argue that all selection, even on non-human organisms, is hybrid natural-cultural in this sense, in that what natural conditions impact an organism is always in some degree shaped by the organism's habits. This may be a stretch of the word "culture," but the principle is the same.)

To focus on the specific examples in tigtog's post, why should we consider war and high infant mortality (or more precisely, the diseases like cholera that cause high infant mortality) to be "natural" conditions? War is a thing humans do, and do in different ways and to different degrees in different times and places. If you get killed in a war, your death (and your subsequent inability to pass your genes on to offspring) is a product of culture -- indeed, perhaps the purest type of artificial selection I can imagine. Even if the first Homo sapiens society on the east African plains was a warlike one, that doesn't make war "natural." Cholera etc. are also as much artificial causes of death among humans as they are natural -- while many societies lack the ability to eliminate cholera entirely (at a reasonable or unreasonable cost), social arrangements still shape which people get it and how deadly it is.

I'm tempted to point out here that many of the "natural" ills of the pre-industrial world are actually ills of the interregnum between the adoption of agriculture and the maturation of the industrial revolution, but I don't want to be taken as making the point "no, it's health that's really natural!" I think it's important to get away from the underlying dualism that posits that humanity (and individual people) has a natural state which is then reined in and redirected by culture or consciousness.

None of this is to say that it's not a very interesting question to explore changes in what kind of selective forces people are subject to in different times and places, and hence what type of person is being selected for. But I don't see the distinction between natural and artificial selection as a particularly interesting, helpful, or even necessarily workable theoretical tool for this project.

Of more significance is the distinction between purposive and non-purposive selection. Purposive selection is that selection done deliberately by the selector in order to achieve some change in the creature -- a la horse breeders matching studs and mares to produce the next Kentucky Derby winner. Non-purposive selection is selection caused by some condition that systematically reduces the reproductive success of a certain type of organism, but without any conscious eugenic design. Outside of certain theistic evolution scenarios, all natural selection is non-purposive. But very little artificial selection is purposive -- even in the heyday of eugenics, eugenic manipulation was only a part of the social factors that affected reproductive success. Certainly the examples used in the post of artificial selection are non-purposive -- that is, nobody is creating those conditions with the goal of altering the genetic makeup of the human population. So by this distinction, there is no major qualitative difference between human evolution on the primal savannas and the streets of Sydney today. Unfortunately, the discussion in tigtog's comments tends to conflate the natural/artificial and non-purposive/purposive distinctions.

A final conflation that crops up in the discussion at tigtog's blog is between the naturalness of selection and the strength of selective pressure. That is, natural selection is seen as harshly weeding out all but the very fittest, while artificial selection is more gentle. This easily leads to the conclusion that if (some groups of) humans are less subject to natural selection, they are not evolving as much. But there's no reason to think that relationship is a necessary one, even if it happens to be empirically true for the modern West -- there are plenty of aspects of the natural world that exercise very little selective pressure, at least in certain times and places, and artificial selection can easily be so harsh as to wipe out whole groups of people (e.g. genocides).


This post will ruin your property values

Slacktivist references an all-too-common outcry, in response to a proposal to build a mobile home park: "It will ruin our property values!" It's a common complaint, whenever some development is planned that the neighbors don't like -- "You can't build a homeless shelter or a halfway house, it would ruin our property values!" "I hope those people don't move in, because it would ruin our property values!" "Don't dry your clothes in the free Arizona sun, or put up a sign supporting a candidate -- it might ruin someone's property values!"*

In the modern industrialized world, our society is a market society. The common way to complain about this is to say people are just too greedy and selfish, too focused on making and spending money to care about the things that really matter in life and the true meaning of Christmas. But I think that's one of the more shallow critiques of the market's functioning in our society. The property values complaint reveals one of the deeper issues.

What the market does in our society -- as any other hegemonic institution, like Church or The Party, would -- is enable us to turn responsibility over to it, to launder our prejudices and anxieties through its objective and inarguable logic. "It's not that I'm against having that in my neighborhood," we say, "but other people aren't so enlightened, and therefore they wouldn't want to buy my house, so my property value will go down. And I have a right to protect my property value." The market becomes an instrument of social control, a powerful reason to oppose improvements beneficial to those lower on the ladder but perhaps only diffusely (if at all) to oneself, an incorporeal IT defending our little piece of Camazotz.

And the thing is, we may be perfectly sincere. Slacktivist is too glib when he chalks up property value talk to the mobile-home-park-opponent's asshattery. If it were just asshattery -- an effect of a consciously antisocial personality disposition -- the cry of property values wouldn't be so common. What we're dealing with is a structural phenomenon. The modern market system makes it perfectly rational for many people, whose lives are dependent on the massive investment they've sunk into their homes, to bow to the prejudices of the masses (or at least assumed prejudices -- there's a serious potential for emperor's new clothes-type collective action problems in basing your valuation of something on how you assume others will value it).

The larger point here is that social dysfunction is not a matter of bad individuals doing bad things -- as easy as it is to slip into this way of thinking**. It's a matter of social structures -- patterns of human interaction -- that make it perfectly rational, even justifiable, for individuals to do things that are bad when taken in a broader perspective. So what's needed is people who can stand up and ask that we (collectively) challenge the way the situation is set up, rather than simply looking for the best way to navigate within it -- to do something irrational for the sake of morality.

*I wish we had a punctuation mark that would be something like a "paraphrase mark" or "ersatz-quotation mark" -- to be used to signal that something represents another's voice without implying that you're using their exact words (or even that they would necessarily approve of the interpretation you're making of their position).

**Many social theorists would blame this kind of thinking on the market or Western liberalism, but I think it's wider and more basic than that (indeed the causality may even run the other way). For that reason, I don't fall in with the camp that says simply getting rid of markets is either possible or a solution.


Dr. PhD

On the issue of honorifics for people with PhDs, I'm generally happy to call people whatever they want to be called. But my own preference is as follows. I lean toward reserving "Dr." for medical doctors, and I find it weird having that title applied to me, since I just have a PhD in a social science. I tend to prefer "Professor" as an honorific for PhD holders, though I realize that gets tricky when you're talking about PhD holders outside of academia, or at institutions where people are picky about academic ranks (recall the controversy over whether Obama lied in saying he was a "professor" of constitutional law since his job title was just "instructor"). I find it especially weird if I'm called "Dr." in a context where my advanced knowledge of Mary Douglas's cultural theory is not relevant. So for example, when I'm in for a checkup, the parties involved are "Dr. Chung" and "Mr. Danielson"/"Stentor." But if my physician were to decide to take a cultural geography class at Pima Community College, we'd be "Mr. Chung"/"Daniel" and "Prof. Danielson" in class.