Monthly Archives: October 2008

Dobson’s 2012

James Dobson recently wrote a piece of science fiction-a letter written from a future America under the domination of Obama. In this Obama Apocalypse, America is a gunless land of gay marriage and other moral horrors calculated to terrify the religious right. Pornographic magazines proliferate and painted whores leer from their pages at children at every news stand. Old ladies get run over because there are no Boy Scouts to walk them across the street. The entire Bush administration is in jail, no doubt being shanked in the exercise yard. America is militarily weak and Christians are an oppressed minority. Sadly, zombies are not mentioned; but perhaps they can be assumed.

Given Dobson’s influence and fame, this letter does require a response. While it is tempting to respond by dismissing it as a mere paranoid rant, the letter does raise points worth considering.

From a critical standpoint, the letter has two major flaws. First, his extreme claims require equally strong supporting evidence and such evidence is lacking. Dobson’s methodology seems to be primarily the use of the slippery slope. He simply asserts that these bad things shall come to pass if Obama is elected and does not provide a logically convincing case for such an outcome.

Second, his vision of the future seems wildly implausible. America is a conservative country and the extreme changes he envisions simply seem all but impossible in so short a time. While the President does have power, he does not have the power to work such radical changes. Nor does the Supreme Court, despite what Dobson claims in his letter. Dobson also indulges in a classic persecution fantasy, namely the delusion that Christians are persecuted in America and that such persecution will be even more extreme under Obama. America, as almost everyone else realizes, is religiously tolerant and (more importantly) is predominantly Christian. As such, the idea of Christians being a persecuted minority by 2012 is absurd.

That said, Dobson’s letter does raise some reasonable concerns. While his fictional future seems to be an impossibility, he is right to warn people to carefully consider their voting choices and to be concerned about what the future might bring. It is always wise to be wary when handing power to people. As history shows, things do not always go as people hope.

Dobson is also correct in considering the possibility that dominance by one party can lead to serious moral and practical problems for America. While the government cannot reshape America into the Dobson’s vision in a mere four years, it (or rather the people that make it up) can do a significant amount of damage. After all, just imagine a letter from 2008 sent back to 2000. Such a letter would tell of an America that had engaged in torture, created secret prisons, and violated basic liberties. It would also tell of the botched handling of natural disasters, an economic meltdown and two wars. Such a letter would certainly be terrifying.

In light of the past eight years, we should heed Dobson’s warning and be on guard against moral decay and disaster. If only such a warning had arrived eight years ago.


When Halloween draws close, I watch my favorite horror films and among these are the classic and new zombie films. Interestingly, philosophers have written quite a bit about zombies. Unfortunately, the zombies that philosophers tend to write about are not as cool as the zombies of the horror genre.

The philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like humans, but lack consciousness. They do not (generally) seek the living so as to devour their brains. Instead, the serve as the victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness. While many philosophers find this interesting, some find this philosophical use of zombies to be disappointing. When one of my friends learned that philosophers wrote about zombies, he was eager to read these works. After toiling through some of them, he said “you philosophers can really suck the life out of anything…even the undead.” As something of an apology to my friend, I’ve elected to write a bit about the cool zombies.

In the horror tradition, zombies have three main attributes. First, they are biologically dead. Second, they are mindless. Third, they are animate (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Since there is no official Bureau of Zombies, some zombies do not have these attributes.

While zombies are supposed to be dead, there are films and stories in which they are alive. For example, the zombies in 28 Days are still alive and the zombies in Resident Evil are alive at the cellular level.

While zombies are supposed to be mindless, they are sometimes presented as retaining some human intelligence such as the talking zombies in Return of the Living Dead. All zombies have enough mental capacity to recognize and attack the living (though they can be fooled, as in Shaun of the Dead).

All zombies are, as far as I know, animate. After all, non-moving zombies would make for a rather dull movie (Night of the Living Dead Couch Potatoes, perhaps). Of course, their methods of animation vary. The zombies in 28 Days are still alive and are simply humans under the effects of a biochemical agent that makes them mindlessly violent (presumably the substance contains alcohol and something distilled from certain football/soccer fans). Some zombies are dead (or mostly dead) and animated by technology, such as those in Resident Evil and my own Nightsider and “Dust.” Some zombies are dead and animated by supernatural means, such as those in role-playing games like D&D and the classic zombies. A few zombies are animated by natural means, such as strange fungi or plants. There are also zombies whose animation is not explained, such as in the classic Dead series.

Obviously, all of the various zombie types can be philosophically interesting. However, the limits of blogging compel me to limit the discussion to the “stock” zombie: biologically dead, mindless and animated. While such zombies do not really exist (or so we think), they are philosophically interesting because of the combination of these features.

It is easy enough to imagine something that is dead and mindless. A normal corpse meets both of these conditions. If the philosophers who deny the existence of minds are right, then the main difference between a corpse and a living person would be life. Both are mindless, but only one is alive.

Of course, the philosophers who accept the existence of minds also disagree madly about what is meant by the term “mind”, so defining what a mindless entity is lacking can be rather problematic.

For the classic substance dualists, a mindless entity would have a body (made of material substance) but lack the immaterial substance that is the mind. The machine is present, but the ghost is absent.

For the property dualist, a mindless entity would still have the physical properties of the body, but lack the mental properties that compose the mind.

For the functionalist, the mindless entity would have a body but it would not be instantiating the functions that make up the mind. To use a rough analogy, the computer hardware is there, but it doesn’t work.

For other theories of mind, the mindless entity would be (obviously enough) missing what the theory takes to be the mind.

Of course, sometimes people take “mindless” to just mean “really stupid” rather than literally lacking a mind, so perhaps zombies could have minds. They would just be very limited minds on par with those of the lower animals. After all, zombies do have to move around and seek the flesh and brains of the living and that implies some cognitive abilities. Then again, philosophers such as Descartes have argued that animals can function quite effectively without minds so perhaps zombies can as well. Obviously, much depends on what is meant by “mind” here. This would lead to a discussion as messy as a zombie snack, so I will leave it at that.

Getting a dead, mindless body is easy. As any necromancer or mad scientist will tell you, the tough part is getting it to walk around on its own.

One way that corpse could be animated is by technological means. In fiction, it is usually a strange chemical, tailored viruses, or some other plot device. There seems to be no physical impossibility in getting dead organisms to move (after all, electrical shocks will move dead limbs). Getting them to move in ways similar to how they moved in life does seem to pose a serious challenge, but seems to be a challenge in engineering and such rather than a philosophical problem.

Another means for animating corpses is via supernatural means. In D&D, zombies are created by magic and are infused with negative energy (the opposite of the positive energy of living creatures). Perhaps negative energy is a cousin of Dark Energy. Or not. In any case, the notion of negative energy (and magic) does not seem to have much philosophical merit, but is handy as a game mechanism. Another type of supernatural zombie is the sort that is animated by another spirit that drive the corpse it inhabits. These spirits are typically taken to be mindless entities (that is, really stupid). Obviously, philosophy no longer deals in spirits (aside from the bottled variety).

Interestingly, the notion of unintelligent animating forces was once accepted by some scientists and philosophers. For example, Aristotle seems to have taken the soul (or part of it) to be an animating force. Given this, it would be easy enough to imagine an “anti-soul” that moved dead bodies (as opposed to bringing life).

In some ways, the notion of mindless forces is still accepted-provided that the forces are taken as natural rather than supernatural. The possibility that forces could effectively drive a dead body is certainly interesting (and creepy). However, there seems to be no indication that this is actually possible.

Obviously, I do not intend this blog to be taken as a serious philosophical work-I’m just having some Halloween fun.

Paradox #1: Fortunate Misfortune

This is the first in a series of posts about the book 10 Moral Paradoxes, by Saul Smilansky. I’ll wait a couple of weeks before continuing the series so anyone who wants to can get hold of the book. Here’s a nice review from Jeff McMahan of Rutgers–

This is a delightful and engaging little book. With its bite-size chapters, lively exposition, and important subject matter, this is the kind of book that can spark an interest in philosophy among those unfamiliar with it. But its appeal is not limited to neophytes; it poses significant new challenges to moral theory that even hardened professional philosophers will find stimulating and provocative.

The book is available here (US), here (UK), and here (CA)

Smilanksy explains in the introduction that a paradox is not just any very odd fact or assertion. A very strict definition has it that a paradox is a contradiction supported by a seemingly sound argument. Smilanksy goes for something in between: a paradox is “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises.”

It’s all those “apparently”s that make paradoxes stimulating and fun. Faced with a paradox, the mind says “that can’t be right” and starts trying to fix things. There must be a sleight of hand somewhere.

The first paradox of the book is the paradox of fortunate misfortune. Happily, this is not an arcane, made-up puzzle, but something we all probably ponder from time to time. Dave Eggers’ book What is the What? made me think of it. The book tells the real-life story of Valentino Achak Deng, who grew up in the middle of heartbreaking violence and neglect in Southern Sudan and then a refugee camp in Kenya. Yet because of that, he winds up in the US, a celebrated speaker and advocate for southern Sudan. Was his wretched childhood fortunate or unfortunate?

I’m not sure what Deng would say, but 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong says his bout with testicular cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him, better even than all those wins!. Primo Levi thinks of his deportation to Auschwitz as “all things considered” positive.

Smilanksy resolves the paradox of fortunate misfortune by accepting self-assessments like Armstrong’s and Levi’s. It would be paradoxical in the strict sense to think their ordeals were both fortunate and not fortunate. Smilansky says: just fortunate.

But that leaves things on a more peculiar note than seems necessary. There’s nothing particularly precise about the word “fortunate.” In one sense, a fortunate occurrence is one that is “worth it” for the later benefits. If Armstrong and Levi believe their ordeals were “worth it,” then maybe so. (Or could their judgment just be a result of “adaptive preference”—reframing what can’t be changed? Or maybe the result of fading memory?)

In another sense, a fortunate occurrence is one that is good at the time of its occurrence, and lucky. In other words, its welcome both for what it is at the time, and for its strong chance of leading to a desirable outcome. It was not fortunate, in that sense of the word, for the Sudanese boy to endure over ten years of violence and neglect, or for Armstrong to endure testicular cancer, or for Primo Levi to spend time in Auschwitz.

So—the three men were unfortunate in one clear sense, but fortunate in another. The air of paradox is thus dispelled. It seems as if Smilanksy would rather leave things on a more surprising note by stressing the fortunate aspect of fortunate misfortune. But why? Perhaps I’m missing something.

Next (in about 2 weeks)–the paradox of retirement.  If you’re in the bottom half of your profession, should you do everyone a favor and retire?

The Faith Based Economy

While some complain about a lack of faith in the world today, they ignore the largest faith based system of them all: the economy. While this might seem to be an odd claim, the case for it is absurdly easy to make.

First, consider money. While money was once either made from valued metals or grounded in something like gold, today it is entirely based on faith. A dollar or pound has worth because people have faith in them (or, rather, what is believed to lie behind them) and, as this faith diminishes, their value declines. Naturally enough, if all faith was lost in a currency, it would be valueless and have use only in terms of what someone could do with bits of paper or metal (or numbers on a computer screen). Interestingly, this is the same thing that is said to happen to the gods (at least in old movies based on Greek mythology) when mortals lose faith in them-they fade away.

Second, consider the stock markets. As the recent financial crisis showed, the perceived worth of stocks goes up and down based on how people feel about the stocks and the economy. When faith is strong, the market goes up. When faith is weak and people are afraid, the market declines. Not surprisingly, the stock market is very much like currency in this regard.

Third, there is the fact that many economists take a patently false model of human behavior on their faith in such classic models. The standard economic models are, in general, based on the assumption that people act in rational ways when engaged in economic activity. This is true of some people some of the time. However, even a casual examination of how people behave shows that they behave in the economic arena the same way they do elsewhere: mostly in ways that are not very rational. The current economic situation makes that abundantly clear. Even without empirical investigation, reason should indicate the obvious: there is little reason to believe that people would miraculously become rational agents when it comes to economic matters. Since belief in the classic models cannot be based on reason, they seem to be an article of faith among the priests…I mean, economists.

Fourth, there is the general faith in seemingly metaphysical forces such as market forces and the ever popular invisible hand. Crudely put, much of Western economic practice has been based on the belief that such forces will make things work out fine and hence there is little (or no) need for actual human supervision (such as government regulation). The parallels to faith in a divine being making the world run right are far too obvious to even need discussion.

Interestingly, many of the same people who believe in laissez faire economics tend to endorse fairly rigorous social control in other aspects of life. For example, American Republicans are well known for being against the regulation of business but very much for strong law and order. They are also inclined to push for the imposition of their moral views via laws (such as outlawing same sex marriage). In the case of business, they claim that the market forces will ensure that everything works out for the best without regulation and that the power of the market forces will make it all right. However, they harbor no such delusions of faith when it comes to life outside of business: people need to be subject to harsh laws and penalties (including the death penalty) or they will act badly. Perhaps the best explanation for this inconsistent view is pure faith. As Hume might say, reason cannot reconcile their two views of human behavior so they must owe their belief to the power of faith.

Hobbes podcast

This is a 10-minute podcast about the first Thomas Hobbes Festival of Ideas. It includes contributions from John Cottingham, Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Ree, Finn Spicer and Mary Warnock. It’s a bit of an experiment and I’d like to know what you think.
Hobbes Festival Podcast
(This is Julian, logging in as guest only because I can’t find or remember my username)

Starbucks and me

As promised a few posts ago, I’ve been in touch with Starbucks to ask questions about a claim I saw in one of their stores in London:  ‘100% ethically traded coffee’.  I’ve put the whole of our conversation in the comments section (once it clears the spam filter).  You’ll see that I’ve just given up.  I now get my coffee from a local cafe which sells Fair Trade or I just brew it at home for a small fraction of of the cost of buying it from something like Starbucks.  It tastes much better without all the ridiculous foams and sugary things getting in the way of the beans — it tastes like real coffee.  Buying from Starbucks doesn’t seem worth the risk of helping to fund something which might be morally awful, and, anyway, it’s easily avoided. 

The Longing for Immortality

Why is the wish for immortality so strong in human beings? As far back as we can see, there are images of a life beyond the grave or funeral pyre. Some are pleasant images; others not so pleasant. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that, with the proper rituals, the soul of the dead person would attain the Western Paradise after overcoming many obstacles and dangers with the aid of magical charms and incantations.

In ancient Greece, on the other hand, the idea of going to Hades was not a prospect to be eagerly awaited. The souls there are merely shades who glide around gibbering to each other, having lost the power of rational speech. Achilles, the great hero, says he would rather be a slave on earth than a king in Hades. The best place in Hades is Elysium, but only the few best souls go there. The worst are thrown into Tartarus, an unpleasant place impossible to escape.

With the Christian view, matters are even starker. If we live a righteous life, or are chosen by God, we shall go to Heaven and join the Heavenly Choir. If we do not live rightly, or are not chosen by God, then we are doomed to perdition. Our souls will rush to eternal torment.

Others imagine that the afterlife is really ‘another’ life, set in the future, starring you again, through the transmigration of your soul from one body to another according to the law of Karma. According to this law, the life one lives now affects the quality of the next life. Your punishment or reward will catch up with you in an embodied life like the one you are living now.

The only alternative to the afterlife or ‘another’ life is no future life at all, and yet this has hardly been explored. Socrates does mention the possibility, only to say that we ought not worry about death if it is simple extinction, but that, if there is an afterlife, it would be better to have lived a good life than an evil one, for perhaps there are torments awaiting evil doers who manage to escape punishment in this life.

These examples show that most humans do want to live forever in some form or other, even if that means they have to suffer eternally in order to achieve it. They also show the uses of afterlife stories to frighten us into behaving well and becoming good (moral) persons. No matter, there is this deep longing for immortality in some form or other, and I am still puzzled as to why. Does no one think that carrying on through all eternity might pall a bit and that boredom or pain may become our dominant existential categories? Have we thoroughly explored what this longing really means, or have we simply assumed the positive value of immortality without critically examining its nature and desirability?

The question of the existence or non-existence of an immortal soul is a practical metaphysical question. We cannot know the answer, but we have to take a stand. How we answer it says something about our ultimate values, our conception of the good life for human beings, the art of living well and the meaning of death.

Aspirations and Insinuations (updated with pictures)

By now probably everyone has heard of Joe the Plumber (OK–let’s not exaggerate.  Everyone in the US?  Everyone with an obsession with the upcoming election, like me?) He’s the guy who challenged Barack Obama on the campaign trail, protesting that Obama’s tax increases for the rich would hamper his plans to buy a $250,000 plumbing business. Obama spent five videotaped minutes trying to talk to him about tax fairness. The video wound up on You Tube, and the McCain campaign started drooling over Obama’s talk of “spreading the wealth.” During the presidential debate Wednesday night, McCain couldn’t stop talking about the guy.

After the debate, journalists found out Joe the Plumber wasn’t quite what he seemed. He wasn’t on the verge of buying a plumbing business. In fact, he only earns about $40,000 a year. He works for a plumber, but doesn’t have the license he’s supposed to. Plus, he owes back taxes. Anyhow. What interests me is the way people who intend to vote their self-interests really vote their aspirations—and wind up voting against their self-interests. Joe Plumber would actually benefit from Obama’s tax cuts. It wouldn’t be surprising if he doesn’t have health insurance (being his boss’s sole employee) and that he and his son would benefit from Obama’s health plan. But he’d like to be someone else—he’d like to be in the top 5% income bracket that Obama does plan to hit with higher taxes. I’d rather see people vote their highest ideals, but if they’re going to vote based on self-interest, shouldn’t they at least realistically gauge their self-interest?

Swift segue to insinuations. (Honestly, this is a medley of unrelated election observations.) Flooding swing states right now is a robocall that starts by saying voters

need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge’s home, and killed Americans

Obama served on non-profit boards with Ayers, now a University of Illinois education professor, as did many prominent education leaders, Democrat and Republican. The “friend” bit seems to turn on the fact that Obama once went to a meet-and-greet at Ayers’s house, when he was running for a seat in the Illinois legislature.

The McCainians evidently want the robocall to make people think that Barack Obama is a terrorist, or supports terrorism, or isn’t against terrorism, or hearts Osama Bin Laden, or eats children for lunch. What keeps bothering me about this is that I don’t think they actually believe any of this stuff themselves.  They just want voters to.  

Now, now, let’s be fair. Does the Obama campaign insinuate falsehoods too? Many of Obama’s ads are designed to stimulate the belief that McCain will continue the policies of George Bush and that he’s intemperate and erratic. I admit that’s a simplification, and Obama and Co. surely know it. So there are no angels here. The difference is the distance from the truth.  In a sober moment, I think McCain would actually repudiate the thought his calls are supposed to cultivate.  Obama would have to qualify the message he’s spreading, but not withdraw it.

“If you don’t believe it yourself, don’t try to get voters to believe it.” How’s that for a campaign principle? Or is all fair in politics?


Some pictures, for your enjoyment.  Billboard and Obama rally, both in Missouri.  (All I can say is “wow”–to both.)




The Leadership Lid?

Anna Quindlen recently wrote an article about the leadership lid. Her thesis is that America is making an error in not using her greatest natural resources: women leaders. I found much to agree with in her article, but I also found much I wish to contend. Naturally, the purpose of this blog is to assess her case.

Quindlen begins by addressing one obvious reply to the claim that America is not making use of women leaders: women seem to be doing quite well. In fact, Quindlen has her own regular feature in Newsweek and Sarah Palin is the Republican VP candidate. In reply to this view, Quindlen asserts that she and women like Palin are show ponies who are “trotted out” to send the message that women are doing well. She regards this as a deception.

Second, she addresses three apparent signs that women are doing well: most Americans accept the idea of women leading, leadership positions are open to women and many more women are entering professional fields (and hence will rise to the top over the years). She regards these signs as being deceptive as well.

To back up her claim that these alleged signs are mere deceit, she relies on data from the White House Projects Corporate Council. According to this source, there is a leadership lid: on average, women make up 20% of the leaders in America (political, business, military, etc.). Since women are (about) 51% of the population, this is taken to indicate a problem.

It should be noted that the White House Project is dedicated to advancing women’s leadership. While it would be a fallacy to assert that this makes their claims false, it does provide grounds for being skeptical. After all, any group with an agenda should be subject to an extra degree of scrutiny. I am not asserting that their numbers are mistaken-just that they have a strong potential bias when assembling and assessing data.

Despite this concern, let it be granted that women make up only 20% of the leadership in America. While this might seem problematic, this need not be a matter of concern. After all, if women are freely making life choices that do not lead them to be 50% of the leadership, then there would seem to be no problem to be worried about (unless, of course, you think that women should be choosing to be leaders).

To use an analogy, consider my gaming group. The group is, coincidentally enough, 20% female. However, it should not be inferred that there is any sexism or unfairness involved in this. The group is open to all gamers regardless of gender. However, the fact is that most women do not find such games (like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu) very appealing and hence most women do not play them. Since this is a matter of free choice, there is nothing wrong with the fact that my group is only 20% female. Obviously, if I and the other male gamers took steps to limit the involvement of women simply because they are women, then sexism would be in play.

Quindlen, well aware of this fact, turns to considering the factors that keep women out of the leadership roles. She makes use of an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli. According to them, women face a “labyrinth of leadership full of twists and turns.” Of course, getting into leadership positions is not easy. While most women are not in leadership positions, neither are most men. Naturally enough, the question arises as to whether everyone faces roughly the same labyrinth or whether women are confronted with one that is more dire and difficult than the one between men and leadership positions.

In considering this, Quindlen brings up the stock problems that women face: women are supposed to face more burdens at home and in the family. Of course, this would not apply to single women who do not have children and the same challenges would apply to men who are single parents or have to bear the majority of the burdens in the home. Perhaps it is the case that women still, on average, bear a greater burden than men. If this is the case, then women must accept some of the blame: they are allowing men to put this burden on them. As such, I would suggest to single women that they steer clear of men who will burden them in this manner. Women who are already burdened should do what it takes to get a more equitable division of labor. When I was married and my (now ex) wife was finishing her PhD, I did all the cleaning and housework with the exception of her laundry (I can’t be trusted with complex laundry) and grocery shopping (carnivores cannot be trusted shopping for vegetarians). While I might be unusual, most of my married male friends do a large amount of housework and child care. Hence, it seems evident that men can do their share (and more, in some cases). So, women need to show leadership in getting men to do more.

Quindlen next turns to a standard maneuver in the gender dispute: women are actually better than men, but men somehow twist things so they are in charge. She begins by considering the results of a Pew Research Center survey about leadership traits. Naturally, the survey ranked women higher than men in almost all these traits. Oddly enough, the majority of respondents ranked men and women as equally qualified to lead.

There is a fairly obvious explanation for this disparity-most Americans have been trained to say that men and women are equal. However, Quindlen presents an alternative explanation: men are judged by male standards (control and strength) while female leaders are judged by the male standards and the stereotypical standard applied to women (mostly involving social skills).

Her reply does raise an excellent question: how should potential leaders be judged and selected? Men seem to be better at getting into leadership positions-which might be a sign of leadership. After all, a clear mark of leadership is that people accept you as a leader. Laying that aside, if she is right, should women be judged the same as men by removing that third standard? Or should a different set be selected? If so, should it be based on traits that women are supposed to excel in over men? In short, should the standards be switched from an alleged male biased set to a female biased set? My thought is that we should try to find the qualities that would objectively make for a good leader and use those. Obviously enough, the way leader selection really works would almost always ruin that approach-but starting with high standards means that corruption will drag things a bit less low.

Quindlen then turns to to case of Sarah Palin. While people point to Palin as a sign that women are in positions of leadership, Quindlen takes this as just another piece of evidence that there is a lack of women leaders. Palin, she contends, was simply dragged in “to fill a vacuum for the convenience of men.”

Given her view, it is not clear what would count as evidence that women are moving into positions of leadership. After all, if each example can be dismissed as yet another ploy on the part of the patriarchy, then how can we tell if any improvement is being made?

Quindlen then finishes with another standard argument: if women occupied more positions of leadership, things might be better and perhaps we would not be facing the problems we are facing now. She asks: “if women made up half the leadership of that industry, half the members of Congress, half the overseers in government agencies, might it have ended differently? If women led in proportion to their numbers, would things be better?”

Obviously, she most likely thinks the answer to these questions would be “yes.” Fortunately, these questions can be empirically examined. While women are 20% of the leadership, we can examine the current female leaders and see how they have dealt with problems. If they averaged better than comparable men, then there would be a good case for the superiority of female leadership. On the face of it, the female leaders have not seem to have done a better job on average. For example, Nancy Pelosi has been Speaker of the House and the House has done dismally. As another example, Rice has been Secretary of State and does not seem to have done a superior job. I think the evidence is that women can be just as good and just as bad as men when it comes to leadership. As such, I do not endorse merely getting more women into leadership positions out of a hope that their being women will make things better.

I do, however, agree with her point that excluding women from leadership can be a terrible a waste of talent. If less competent men are occupying leadership positions that could be occupied by more competent women, then things are worse than they should be. Assuming that leadership positions should be assigned based on merit, then this situation would also be morally wrong in that regard as well. In general, we would be better off if the best people were able to become leaders. If competent women are being unfairly kept out of such positions, then action should and must be taken, if only out of the selfish desire to get better leaders working on the problems we face. As such, less competent men should be removed to make way for more competent replacements: male or female.

Wash Away Your Sins (no, really)

There is an interesting article in Scientific American about Chen-Bo Zhong’s research into metaphors.  You might want to have a look here.  It turns out that being socially isolated, giving someone the cold shoulder as it were, can make a person feel physically colder.  It’s why we find ways to break the ice.  There’s a connection, too, between unethical behaviour and feeling unclean.  Washing your hands can assuage moral feelings like guilt, shame, and the like.  When you next disgrace yourself, you now have an extra reason to consider a shower.  

Interesting, no doubt, but why on Earth would we be hooked up like that?  Maybe some evolutionary story explains why being physically dirty feels wrong — it might keep us away from disease, etc — but why would we connect something like a lie or theft to dirtiness?  (Why not pain or queasiness or hunger or something?)  Not only is it weird that we feel unclean when we do wrong, but for us being physically dirty feels like something in the first place.  Why spend cognitive resources on that?  What sort of things are we?

Whatever the explanation of these facts about us, the connection between feeling dirty and being a little morally filthy at least makes a kind of sense.  It can make you think of Hume, and his point that nature has not left it in our power to doubt certain things.  Maybe nature had to tie immoral behaviour to something unpleasant, to make doing wrong a little difficult for us.  Being filthy, somehow, fits the bill.