Monthly Archives: July 2008

My Ethical Garden

Michael Pollan\'s Vegetable Garden

Michael Pollan's Vegetable Garden

A couple of months ago I decided to plant a vegetable garden with my 11-year-old daughter. The Sunday we were to get started, I got a nice motivational boost from “the green issue” of the New York Times Magazine. Michael Pollan was asking an awfully good question about making an effort to reduce your CO2 emissions:

What would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Pollan goes on to explain why planting a vegetable garden is a very good solution to this problem, for all sorts of reasons you can read about in the article. By the final paragraph, he’s swelled to an extremely inspiring conclusion:

At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen…. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

Cool. Off we went to the garden center to buy all the stuff needed to plant a 10’ by 10’ vegetable garden.

After my daughter did the hard work of getting 12 bags of compost to the back of the house in a wheelbarrow that kept tipping over, we started pulling weeds and digging … and soon we were headed back to the garden center. According to my husband, you don’t need a motorized rototiller to prepare a 10′ by 10′ bed, but I beg to differ. A couple of hours later, we had a garden bed ready for planting. We buried eight kinds of seeds with trepidation, watered, and crossed our fingers. And then of course drove back to the garden center to return the rototiller.

Now, some months later, I have come to see that it is actually necessary to pay attention to a garden, or it becomes a wild, overgrown mess. And yet…the four cucumbers that have emerged from the mess were actually very tasty. The 10 green beans weren’t bad, and I do see one or two tomatoes as a distinct possibility. But considering the ratio of inputs to outputs, my Chinese doppelganger is probably doing better than me where CO2 is concerned.

Sadly, I don’t think this enterprise has done much to “heal the split between what I think and what I do.” In fact, it’s reminded me that some of us like to think, and some of us like to do. Still, I swear on a stack of Michael Pollan’s books that next time I will not under or over water, and I will thin and weed. Maybe I will even skip the rototiller. I want to have an ethical garden, I really do.

Auditory Escher

A deeply annoying friend just sent this link to an allegedly amusing auditory illusion.  I asked for an explanation, and he offered the monolithically unhelpful, ‘It’s a Shepard Tone’.  If anyone wants to explain it to me in the comments, I’m all ears. 

Is the fear of death the fear of nothing?

In a poem, John Donne tells Death not to be proud. While appearing mighty and dreadful, Death is in reality powerless. Of course, Donne is writing as a Christian, and for him death is a gateway to a new life. We do not have to think of death as an end, but rather as a new beginning. Death is a kind of sleep that will end with an awakening to a continuing consciousness of oneself. Even without this expectation, some people take comfort in the idea that one’s energy, at least, will remain part of the universe. Aristotle and Spinoza hold a similar view. They believe that something about our minds is divine and immortal, the part that thinks timeless universal truths. Of course, that part of our mind never dies, but neither do we recognize ourselves in it. It is as if one were comforted by the thought of leaving a bequest to the universe. This is the comfort parents have when they are able to leave something to their children, through whom they feel they live on, and this thought gives them comfort now while they are still alive to think about it.

Epicurus famously tells us that where death is, I am not; and where I am, death is not. So death is not to be feared, since it is nothing, and we will never experience death. As Wittgenstein tells us, being dead is not an experience within life. We will never know death. This is fair enough, but Epicurus is wrong to think that we cannot be afraid of nothing. This is precisely what we are afraid of, that the world will go on, but we will not be there to witness it. We do not and never will understand death except in an abstract way, and it is often where we are least able to understand something that we are most afraid.

This state of not knowing and being unable to know non-being gives us a blank slate on which to speculate about the nature of death and the possibility of an afterlife. As there is no knowing, the human imagination attempts to color-in the un-colorable. All we can do with death is to speculate about it, since it is our own death that we contemplate, not the deaths of others. Objectively, death is a simple and common occurrence. Subjectively, however, the question is more intimate and private, since only you can live through your dying, and have the thoughts and feelings that you have about it.

Obviously, we have a problem here. All the writings on death, the afterlife, reincarnation, annihilation, and so on, are like so many imaginative projections of our living fears and hopes. Ask what someone thinks about death and you will really be finding out what they think about life, and even, perhaps, their idea of the good life.

So my quest is to see how we might think of death without all the imaginative trappings. I want to see if we can think of death as a simple ending, and ask whether there is anything truly fearful in that end. This is not the same as the fear of getting old and dying which is easier to understand. Dying is something we all go through, but it is something we do while still living. Let us explore the nature of our fear of death and see whether that will help us to understand all the wishful thinking that surrounds it, and the almost universal desire for immortality or reincarnation. By uncovering all that death can mean for the living, perhaps we may find a better understanding of the possibilities of human life.

Umbrage & The Web

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek recently wrote a column on umbrage and the web. While I agree with some of his claims, the article does require a response. As such, I will reply to his main points and offer both commentary and criticism.

Alter begins with a common theme: the umbrage that is present on the web. As Alter notes, the web provides an anonymous vehicle for lies, crudeness and degradation. Of course, the use of the written (or typed) word as a vehicle of umbrage is nothing new. While I am not a professional historian, as a philosophy professor I research the times and backgrounds of many philosophers.  Based on what I have learned over the years, I can assure you that umbrage has been with humanity since we started writing things down. Interestingly, after I read Alter’s article this morning, I saw a show on the History Channel about two rival Chinese gangs who wrote slurs against each other in the American newspapers. This was during the 1800s. I later read an article in the June 2008 Smithsonian about Darwin (Richard Conniff, “On the Origin of a Theory”, 86-93). The article noted some of the written sniping between various people regarding the concept of evolution.  Before Darwin published his work, Robert Chambers wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845. One geologist replied to the work by expressing his desire to stamp “with an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put and end to its crawlings.” (page 90). That is eloquent bit of umbrage every bit as venomous as the comments inflicted on the web today. Of course, it does not quite match the concise with of “boitch u r teh suckz.”

If one turns to politics, examples of venom throughout history are far too numerous to list. For those who wish to search for examples, I suggest beginning with political cartoons from the 1700s and 1800s. You will find that the poison pens of old crafted many venomous cartoons.  Other excellent sources the are various anonymous political tracts from the same time period. As such, umbrage and venom in print are nothing new.

Like Alter, I believe that the umbrage and venom are negative and undesirable. Such venom adds nothing to the quality of discussions and simply serves to inflame emotions to no good end. It also encourages intellectual sloppiness because people feel that they have made an adequate reply when they have merely vented their spleens (to use the old phrase).

Alter next turns to a matter of significant concern: while bloggers offer a great deal of commentary, they rarely provide people with news in the true sense. While some blogs do post the news, it is (as Alter points out) generally taken from some traditional media source. Newspapers and other traditional media sources are, as he notes, are currently laying off reporters due to financial problems. This means that there will be less original investigation and reporting. Fortunately, some bloggers are stepping in and doing their own investigations. I suspect that this might lead to the more substantial blogging sites gradually stepping into the openings created by the decline of traditional  print media. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether a web based organization can afford to do robust investigation and reporting. In principle, however, there seems to be no reason why they cannot partially replace traditional print media.

A third point made by Alter is that print media is moving towards the web’s style of writing. To be specific, there is a push towards short articles like those in blogs. Presumably this is to match the alleged shorter attention span of the modern audience. I do agree with Alter that there can be a negative side to taking this approach. While a short piece can be fine, there is still a clear need for depth and details and this requires more than a blog entry sized block of text. As you can see from most of my own blogs, I tend to go on at considerable length. Hence, it is hardly shocking that I would support him in this matter.

A fourth point that Alter makes is the very common criticism that people exploit the anonymity of the web to launch attacks and spew venom. This is, of course, a concern. However, this is nothing new. History is full of examples of anonymous writings that are quite critical and venom filled. The web merely makes it easier to make such works public and to avoid being identified. After all, if I have to print and distribute an anonymous tract, there will be a fairly clear trail leading back to me. But, on the web I can easily make use of a free service that ensures my identity will remain unknown by making my posting effectively untraceable.

As Alter points out, the “web culture” tolerates anonymity. However, many writers do identify themselves and people are often quite critical of those who hide behind anonymity when they spew forth venom. While there can be good reasons to hide one’s identity (such as fear of reprisals from oppressive governments), most people lack a legitimate reason to remain hidden. My view is that if someone believes what she is typing, then she should have enough courage to actually claim her own words. There is also the matter of courtesy. Anonymous posting is like talking to people while wearing a mask. That is a bit rude. Unless, of course, you happen to be a superhero.

His fifth point is that people often prefer rumors to facts. As he points out, some people believe the emails about Obama being a Muslim and similar such things. What is new here is not that people often prefer rumors, but the delivery mechanism of the rumors. In the past, people had to rely on newspapers, gossip, and public broadsheets in order to learn of rumors. Today, rumors can be sent via email. As such, we have the same sort of rumors using a different medium.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that people prefer a rumor that matches their biases over truth that goes against them. I am also well aware that people generally prefer something dirty, juicy, or titillating over dull facts. Hence, the appeal of rumors is hardly surprising. Obviously, people should have better rumor filters so as to avoid believing false things (or even true things on the basis of inadequate evidence). The internet has just changed the medium and not the basic problem: most people are poor critical thinkers. Fixing this requires what philosophers have been arguing for since before Socrates: people need to learn to think in a critical manner.

Alter’s sixth point is about a commonly remarked upon phenomena: the internet (email and web comments) seems to be especially awash in venom. As noted above, this is nothing new. However, as Alter points out, the web and email lead to disinhibition. While he does not explore the reasons for this, there are three plausible causes. First, email and web comments are effectively instant. With a written letter, you have time to think about it as you put it in the envelope and go to mail it. During this time you might think better of what you said. With an email or web comment, you just push a button and it is done. Second, email and web comments are generally not edited. Professional newspapers and magazines are edited and hence venomous comments generally do not get into print. Hence, the web seems like a more venomous place. Since people know that what they type will appear, they are less inclined to be restrained. Naturally, this feeds the beast-when people see the first venomous remark, they are (like someone who sees trash already on the ground) more inclined to follow suit. Third, the web allows for anonymous posting and emailing so people can (as noted above) spew from behind a mask. This, naturally enough, encourages people to be less nice.

Some web sites deal with this problem by reviewing comments before publishing them. On the plus side, this does help filter out some of the venom. On the minus side, such editing does tend to interfere with the freedom of expression. It is, obviously enough, very tempting for an editor to delete comments because she disagrees with the contents. Of course, this approach does not deal with the main causes of the problem: poor impulse control, poor ethics and poor reasoning skills.

Philosophers have been trying to deal with those two problems for centuries. Aristotle provided some of the best advice on how to deal with poor impulse control  and poor ethics in his Nicomachean Ethics. Of course, most people do not seem very inclined to follow that advice. Almost all philosophers have tried to encourage people to work on their reasoning skills. However, this has not met with great success. Until more people have better impulse control, better ethics and better reasoning skills, the deluge of venom can expect to continue.

Alter’s seventh point is the usual lamentation about how the web was supposed to bring us breadth in coverage but did not live up to the dream. As he notes, bloggers tend to mainly follow right along with the cable networks. For example, as the American financial system was taking serious hits,  most bloggers and the cable news focused mainly on the “satirical” Obama cover on the New Yorker.

Obviously, this behavior is hardly shocking. Bloggers do the same thing the traditional media does: they focus on the stories they think people will want to hear about. While they can be criticized for pandering to the masses, the masses should also be criticized for wanting such things. When my students ask me why the media focuses on the sensational over the substantive, I provide the easy and obvious answer: the media gives people what they want. Thus, in order to have more substantial coverage, people would need to switch their desire from what is sensational to what is substantive. Good luck with that.

That said, there is actually significant breadth in the realm of blogs. If you leave the mainstream blogs and search around a bit, you will easily find blogs on vast array of topics. For example, there are many blogs devoted to philosophical issues (such as this one). As another example, there are blogs devoted to science. These bloggers do not blindly follow the main media. This, obviously, means that they do not get as much attention as the bloggers who stick with the mainstream. As such, much of the perceived lack of breadth is merely a lack of looking.

French Secularism

I’ve been scratching my head about French secularism, which is several shades more secular than American secularism. A woman in France was recently denied citizenship because she was veiled from head to toe during her application interview, and for no other reason. She lives in France, speaks French fluently, and is married to a French citizen, with whom she has four little citoyens. France takes this sort of approach not just to outsiders, but to citizens as well. A 2004 law banned the wearing of religious symbols, including Islamic veils, Jewish yarmulkes, and large Christian crosses, in government-funded schools.

The best argument I’ve heard to defend French secularism (“laïcité,” as they call it) is that the government is saving women from being coerced by brothers, fathers, and clerics who think they know what’s best for them. But that argument makes me nervous. When someone wants to speak out in an unorthodox way, or live in an unusual way, it’s very often possible to question how free they really are. You can often wonder whether there’s coercion coming from family and friends, whether their choices are really free.

Then there’s the argument that Muslim veiling is divisive and the ban in schools is necessary to avoid violence, but this just doesn’t really compute. Granted, I don’t live in France, and don’t have an insider’s feel for the issues, but if I were a Muslim living in a society where I was told what to wear, it would make me furious. If I were the husband, or brother, or friend of the woman denied citizenship just because of her veil, my feelings for French society and its aggressive secularism would not be warm.

In the US we don’t seem to have the same tensions between Muslims and others, which certainly is surprising, given the way US policy has stirred up anti-American sentiment among Muslims around the world. But we don’t, and I imagine that does have to do with our First Amendment-driven live-and-let-live approach. Once in a while I see a woman in Dallas wearing a head-to-toe “niqab” (first picture–this is what the woman wore during her citizenship interview), and I certainly do wonder why this woman wants to erase herself, imprison herself, not to mention get very, very hot. To my eyes, the image of a completely veiled woman is creepy. (My reaction to the simple head-covering called “hijab”–to the left–is quite a bit different.)

But I also tell myself to get a grip and recognize that this is her choice. Yes, yes, it may not be a pure expression of “free will” but it’s very hard to say which choices are and which aren’t. It may even be at the most iffy end of the spectrum. I’d be happy to see people persuade her out of it (Muslim women especially—because they are bound to have much more “cred” with her) but I have a lot of respect for the American civil liberties tradition.

Clever Hands

There have been a few posts on animal consciousness and animal rights at the TPM Blog in recent months.  Those with an interest might find this link interesting too.

It’s about Nim Chimpsky, a chimp at the centre of a dubious experiment begun in the 70s.  It was a confused but enthusiastic effort to find empirical grounds to reject the Chomskyan thought that only human beings have innate knowledge of the grammatical structure of language.  Language is entirely learned, they thought, and set out to prove the further claim that non-human animals could learn it too.  They put Nim in the middle of a human family and tried to teach him sign language.  He also smoked a not inconsequential amount of pot, apparently, which can only have helped all invovled.

It’s possible that he learned language.  It’s possible that he mimicked it.  (I’ve always thought that mimicking language was about as impressive as using language, when it comes to determining whether or not an animal has a theory of mind, but I’ll leave that for the moment.)  It’s possible that the answer is somewhere in the middle.  Some of Nim’s best lines, maybe most of Nim’s best lines, have a lot to do with bananas.  (There are some critical details here and a list of quotations at Wikipedia.)  Dr. Dolittle’s views to the contrary, if we could talk to the animals we might find ourselves drooling with boredom almost instantly.

It’s also possible that working out whether or not animals can use language does not matter much when it comes to the treatment of primates.  You’ll note that there is some quasi-philosophical discussion in the link above (they at least mention Kant) about whether or not this or that chimp is a person.  Wasn’t Bentham right to ask, all those years ago, ‘The the question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but, “Can they suffer?”‘

Patent Trolls

Patent Trolls

From a somewhat ideal standpoint, patents are intended to further both individual and collective good. In regards to the individual good, a patent is supposed to protect the inventor’s rights and enable her to enjoy the fruits of her inventiveness. In regards to the collective good, the protection provided by patents is supposed to motivate people to invent and thus contribute to the general good of humanity.

Not surprisingly, the reality of the patent system tends to deviate from the ideal. One example of this is the rise of “patent trolls.” These trolls are, of course, named after the trolls in the classic story Billy Goat Gruff. Rather than lurking under a bridge demanding payment from those who wish to cross, they acquire patents in the hopes of making money by catching someone infringing on them.

Such lawsuits can be quite profitable because the current American laws award damages based on the sales of the entire product rather than based on the contribution made by the specific patented component. So, for example, if a troll held a patent to some minor component in the iPhone, the troll could receive a settlement based on the value of the entire iPhone rather than based on the component.

Because patent trolls do not actually make any products and “earn” their money via lawsuits, they tend to be somewhat unpopular. Many also believe that the patent trolls are creating considerable harm.

First, they are regarding as having a negative impact on innovation because companies have begun to fear their lawsuits. Second, the settlements they receive are based on the whole product rather than the patented component. As such, the damage settlements they receive tend to be disproportional to the damage the trolls allegedly suffer from having their patents violated. Third, by holding onto patents for use in lawsuits rather than producing products based on them, they are stifling innovation.

All three of these problems seem well worth countering. However, they need to be dealt with in a way that is consistent with the intent of patents and also consistent with moral fairness.

In regards to the first harm, one way to help reduce the possibility of such lawsuits is to improve the patent system. To be specific, patents should be clearer and it should be much easier to research patents and patent holders. If this can be done, a company (or individual) will have a better chance of determining if a product component violates a patent. If it is found that a component is patented, then the company can contact the patent holder or change the component to avoid violating a patent. To use an analogy, this change would make the bridge transparent so that the goats can see the lurking troll before it is too late.

Since companies could see possible trouble well in advance, they would be more inclined to innovate because of the reduced risk in doing so. Further, the fact that trolls will have less of a chance of ambushing victims will reduce the incentive for people to be trolls, thus reducing their numbers. This can be done without violating any rights (unless trolls have a right to ambush), making it both practically and morally appealing.

Changing the laws so that damages are awarded in a way that is properly proportional could reduce the second harm. This approach certainly seems to make both moral and practical sense. To use an analogy, if I contribute to building a house, then I am entitled to compensation based on my contribution. It would be unfair and unreasonable of me to expect compensation based on the work of everyone else as well as my own. To use another analogy, if a thief stole from me and several other people, then I would be entitled to what she stole from me. I would obviously not be entitled to a cut of what she stole from others (or what she herself honestly owned).

By reducing the money that trolls can acquire, the incentive for people to be trolls is reduced. Since the trolls would be receiving settlements based on the degree to which the infringement of their patents profited the violator, they would have no moral grounds for complaint. They would, after all, be getting exactly what they were entitled to receive.

The third harm is the most problematic to deal with. The obvious solution would be to require that a patent holder produce an actual product or license their patent to a company that manufactures products. This would ensure that innovation is not stifled due to patents being locked away for possible use in future lawsuits.

Of course, the obvious solution is obviously flawed. First, it would obviously be harmful to non-troll inventors who lacked the means or desire to be manufacturers and thus it could, ironically, stifle innovation. Second, the initial ownership of a patent is based on the creation of an idea and not the capacity to make and sell the product. To use an analogy, imposing this condition on patent holders would be like requiring a person who writes a book to start a publishing company or sell it to a commercial publisher in order to keep her copyright. Part of the purpose of patent and copyright law is to protect the rights of the individual creator and these rights seem to include a right to decide not manufacture or commercially publish a work. Third, this sort of requirement would create a new sort of monster. This is because companies would have an incentive to seek out patents that are held by people who are not manufacturing. A company could simply steal the idea and start manufacturing. Obviously, this would not do.

Fortunately, there is a better approach. This is to allow the solutions to the first two problems solve the third one as well. When it becomes harder for the trolls to ambush their victims and less profitable when they succeed, there will be far less incentive for people to be patent trolls. As such, the practice would decline and this would reduce the extent of this problem.

Women and Philosophy

For several days now I’ve been chewing on a remark in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Rivka Galchen had her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (about a man who suspects his wife has been replaced by a doppelganger), favorably reviewed on the cover. A philosophical first novel by a woman is “extremely rare,” says Liesl Schillinger.

When women do certain things it can be a surprise worth noting. Recently there’s been a flurry of articles about the increase in female terrorism lately. Yes, that’s odd. But is it odd for women to be thinking about philosophical questions? It can’t be that odd, when something like a third of philosophy PhDs are awarded to women, and some of the leading philosophers in the world are or have been female (Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Philippa Foot… to name a few).

Never fear, the authoress (herself an MD, not a philosopher) is not suffering too greatly from gender disturbances. The reviewer notes the “feminine perception” in evidence when Galchen describes a character’s hair as smelling like grass, and such like. Groan. But what about the supposed disconnect between women and philosophy? You do have to wonder why there are fewer women than men in the field.

The reviewer says the novel is brainy, clinical, and objective, and thus not feminine. Now, by itself, this is simply stupid. Half of law school students and half of medical students today are female. To get where they are, these women must have done very well at brainy, clinical, objective things. But there’s a difference. Female lawyers and doctors are brainy in the service of helping people or making a tangible difference in the world. Maybe the extra nurturing urge in women (yes, it’s a reality, why deny it? and isn’t that what makes female terrorism so surprising?) draws them to want a people-connection in their work, some sense of doing good for others. There may be fewer female philosophers not because philosophy is brainy, but because it’s not that easy to see how philosophical braininess helps people or makes a tangible difference.

But maybe there’s hope. Philosophy has the potential to be therapeutic in a very broad sense. Many of the Hellenistic philosophers thought of philosophy as medicine for the soul, as Martha Nussbaum writes in The Therapy of Desire. There may even be a helping element when philosophers teach and write about topics that are not at all practical—as it certainly is worrisome and befuddling to try to understand what we can know, what exists in the world, whether there’s a god, and the like.

The helping element is not immediately obvious, because philosophers spend a lot of their time either in solitary confinement or in bloody combat with each other, but I think it’s a reality. The image of philosophy as helping us sort things out and live our lives might entice women to become closer to half of all philosophers instead of a third. Still, at the moment there are plenty of philosophically-inclined women and it really isn’t a big surprise when one of them writes a philosophical novel.

Hey, the book sounds interesting.

LZR Racer Swimsuits & Sports’ Ethics

As a competitive runner and a philosopher, I’m rather interested in matters relating to ethics and sports. One recent controversy involves Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit.

The LZR Racer suit was designed to improve the performance of competitive swimmers by addressing two primary obstacles: drag and fatigue.

As anyone who swims knows, moving through water is difficult. While the relative density of water (relative to air) is a factor, the major concern for suit designers (and swimmers) is drag. The LZR suit reduces drag via the use of water repellent fabric and polyurethane panels. By allowing a swimmer to cut through the water more efficiently, the swimmer can get more speed out of her effort, thus increasing performance.

As with running (my sport), fatigue is a serious problem. While there is the obvious problem with being fatigued, there is also the less obvious problem: when an athlete is tired, her form suffers and she becomes less efficient. Thus, the fatigue can feed itself: you get tired, your form gets worse and this uses more energy than using good form, so you grow more tired, and so on. The suit counters this by providing support panels which help prevent the swimmer’s form from degrading as she gets tired.

The suit seems to work quite well. Since February, 2008 thirty eight world records have been set by swimmers using the suit. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether the suit was a factor or not. The answer is that it seems to be that it was. Swimmers who use the suit swim faster than when they do not, which indicates that the suit works. Also, the tests regarding drag make it evident that the suit significantly reduces drag. In light of the evidence, the suit seems to be quite effective.

Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of the suit is stirring up considerable controversy. Some of this is legal in nature. For example, a rival swimsuit manufacturer, TYR, filed a lawsuit against Speedo alleging anti-competitive practices. Some of the controversy is more moral in character. For example, the coach of the Italian swim team has been quoted as regarding the suit as “technological doping.” This, obviously enough, raises questions about whether the suit should be regarded as cheating or not.

In a legal sense, the suit is (as of this writing) not cheating. This is because the suit is permitted by the rules of the sport. As such, expect to see them being used at the Summer Olympics this year. Of course, there is still the question of whether their use is morally acceptable.

One way to argue that the suit is acceptable is to draw an analogy to running shoes.

When I (and most runners) train, I wear training shoes. When I race, I switch to lighter shoes that are designed for racing. While these shoes will not make a slow runner into a fast runner, they do make a noticeable difference. Obviously, moving my feet when I am wearing lighter shoes requires less energy than moving my feet while am wearing my heavier trainers. Hence, I can run faster with the lighter shoes. Some people even go a step further and run without shoes. Since I am not fond of puncture and laceration wounds, I forgo that particular advantage in favor of the protection provided by shoes.

While the use of racing shoes provides an advantage, their use is considered acceptable for the following reasons. First, since anyone can wear them, their use does not confer a special advantage. Second, racing shoes do not provide enough of an improvement to make their use an unfair advantage.

If the use of racing shoes is acceptable, then it would seem to follow that the LZR suit is acceptable. After all, the suit does for a swimmer what racing shoes do for runners.

While this argument is appealing, it can be countered.

While swim suits are analogous to running shoes, the following two considerations show that, perhaps, the suit should be considered unacceptable.

First, the technology of the suit is owned by Speedo and cannot be (legally) duplicated by other companies. This means that athletes who are sponsored by other swimwear companies either cannot use the suit or will have to give up their sponsorship (or work out some sort of deal). As such, the suit can confer a special advantage to some that is denied to others. It can be replied that the other people can dump their sponsors, but that seems a bit much to ask. It also could be replied that the other companies should develop different suits with comparable performances so as to level the pool once again. Since the swimsuit companies are competing with each other, it seems unfair to force Speedo to yield its advantage because its competitors have lagged behind. Of course, this situation is somewhat special because it is where athletic and corporate competition meet and fairness in one area could involve unfairness in the other.

Second, the suit seems to yield a very significant advantage that exceeds that provided by racing shoes. Within sports, there is a point where an advantage crosses a line and actually changes the nature of the competition. In some cases, the change can be so dramatic as to effectively create a new event. To use a silly example, consider the difference between bike racing (like the Tour De France) and motorcycle races.

As a better example, consider the discus throw. Obviously, the range a person can throw a discus could be improved by redesigning the discus. A more aerodynamic discus with better lift would fly farther than a standard discus. However, that change would seem to create a new event in which something like a discus (a flycus, perhaps) was being thrown.  If everyone is throwing the flycus, then there is no problem because everyone is doing the same event: the flycus throw. Of course, the flycus records cannot be fairly compared to the old discus records because of the advantage provided by the flycus. Naturally, a mixed flycus and discus competition would be unfair-those throwing the flycus would actually be doing a different event and enjoying an unfair advantage over the discus throwers

The advantage provided by the LZR suit might be enough to warrant considering it an event changing technology. If so, using it in the general competition would provide the user with an unfair advantage, just like the flycus. Further, records set by those using the suits cannot be compared to those set by people not using the suit. To do otherwise would be somewhat like allowing people to use bicycles to set running records.

Ironically, the great success of the LZR Racer suit is what makes it a problem: it might work so well that using it would be cheating.

The Repugnant Conclusion

Thoughts about action on climate change can lead on to thoughts about population ethics.  If you worry about sustainability, it’s not diffiuclt to wonder about the resources people use, as well as the number of people who use them.  The population of our planet is growing and will continue to grow, all the while our resources will shift, diminish, and otherwise change as our climate changes.  The UN estimates that the teeming masses will increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by the year 2050.  There were only about a billion and a half people on a comparatively roomy planet just 100 years ago.  The jump is more than staggering.  You can wonder about the consequences.  The UN, for its part, just called for more family planning.

There’s a solid moral kicker in the UN’s call for action which has to do with the welfare of women.  Usually, the philosophical action with regard to population ethics has a lot more to do with human welfare generally.  What’s better:  a number of very happy people or a larger number of people with just-tolerable lives?  A few people on cushions or a lot of people picking through the dirt?  Parfit argues that the repugnant conclusion is difficult to avoid.  If what matters is human welfare, then you get more of that with lots of barely tolerable lives as opposed to a smaller number of well-off people.  There’s an interesting summary of the problem and replies here.

I’ve got the horrible feeling that the repugnant conclusion is irresistible, so long as we suppose that our thoughts about human welfare as such are on a par with our thoughts about an individual human’s welfare.  I can’t help thinking, too, that these sorts of thoughts aren’t quite on a par — anyway it will take some work to think the whole thing through.  Maybe this is yet another instance of our global worries outstripping our capacity to understand things locally.  We’re not bad at coming to conclusions about what’s best for you or for me or even for quite a few of us.  We are in danger of falling face first when we think too quickly about what’s best for all of us.  We can do better, but maybe it requires hanging looser, conceptually, and that’s not an easy thing for something like the UN to do.