Monthly Archives: August 2009

Gordon Brown: Wiring a Web for Global Good

In case you have not seen it, here’s Gordon Brown’s TED talk, currently doing the rounds amongst philosophers.  He’s talking about our our new interconnectedness and a shared global ethic.  Worth watching.

Blog competition

The website 3quarksdaily is running a competition to find the best philosophy blog post of the year. The final judging will be done by Dan Dennett. If you’d like to nominate a post from Talking Philosophy (or anywhere else for that matter) please take a look at the rules and procedures here. Bloggers can also nominate themselves.

The Running Gender Mystery

Since I am a runner (well, returning to running as my tendon heals), I pay some attention to news about the sport. One thing I like about the coverage is that it tends to involve less controversy and bad news than other sports. Of course, running is not free of such controversy as a recent incident attests.

Semenya, a South African runner, is currently the world’s champion in the women’s 800 meter race. The controversy is that it has apparently been claimed that she is not a woman. The basis of this is that her testosterone levels were tested at three times the normal level. She has also been under observation since her racing ability has made incredible advances in a relatively short time. Since natural improvements are generally gradual in nature, this raised suspicions.

One reply that has been given to the charge that “she is actually a he” is that Semenya certainly seems to be a female.

This sports controversy also raises a controversy over the nature of gender. Presumably Semenya appears to be a female (it has been implied that sort of check has been done). However, there are cases in which a person looks like a female yet is genetically male. This is complete androgen insensitivity syndrome and is more common than one might expect. Such people have higher testosterone levels than “normal” women because they have testes (albeit not descended). I must emphasize that I am not making any claims about Semenya, I am merely bringing this up for the sake of the discussion.

Since human societies are generally built around an obsession about gender identity and divisions, this syndrome does create some difficulties. If the syndrome is discovered when the child is young, there is the option of assigning a gender through the use of medical means (including surgery). In some cases, the procedure is delayed until the child can make his/her own decision.

Sports are, of course, not free from the gender obsession. Of course,  the concern over gender can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, males have a general physical advantage over females and for sports to be fair, males should be distinguished from females. This seems to be morally on par with divisions based on age (like age groups in road races) and weight (like in boxing). However, if someone looks like a women yet has male genes (and the higher testosterone) then that person might be seen as having an unfair advantage over “normal” women. Of course, such a person might be at a disadvantage relative to “normal” male athletes.

One way to deal with this sort of concern would be to determine the degree to which a person with this syndrome has an advantage over “normal” woman in regards to athletic competition. If such an advantage exists and places the person into the male range, then it would seem to be unfair to allow the person to compete against “normal” women. Of course, if people are to be tested to determine how they fall on the competitive spectrum, then fairness would seem to require that all athletes be tested and grouped based on their capabilities rather than on gender. Of course, practical concerns (costs, for example) would make this sort of testing and sorting very unlikely. As such, the sorting of folks by gender is likely to remain the standard in sports.  Of course, this approach is the cause of the difficulty in the matter at hand.

Because sorting is and will remain gender based, it seems most reasonable to allow a person with the syndrome to compete as the gender they have chosen (or been assigned). It is not a perfect solution, but seems to be the fairest approach. Naturally, the person would have to be “established” in the gender rather than simply deciding to be, for example, a woman for the purposes of competition after having lived as a male.

Of course, some “normal” women have naturally high levels of testosterone. This can presumably provide some women with an advantage over other women, but this would not be cheating. After all, some people are born with better lung capacity or more efficient muscles and this is not cheating.

It must be said, of course, that a person might also have unusual high levels of testosterone due to the use of synthetic testosterone as a steroid to increase athletic performance. If this is the case, then the ethics of the situation are quite clear-such cheating is morally unacceptable in sports.

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Epistemology Unplugged

The lift shafts where I work are being dismantled and rebuilt, and in the dusty process something very bad has happened to my internet connection and phone lines.  They are, as the contractor explained to me last week, ‘Faaked, mate.’  It’s remarkable what I now can and what I now cannot do.  I’m unplugged for most of my day.  My newsfeeds don’t feed me, and I get news from papers again.  I sit in a different chair.  I do different things.  I have different thoughts.  When I write I have to depend on my memory banks, not Google. 

In Autonomous Technology (no fix on the publication date, but I know it’s the late 70s) Langdon Winner identifies several senses in which technology is out of control.  Large scale technological systems seem to operate and grow through processes beyond us, beyond our intervention.  We’re dwarfed by our technology, swept up in it, maybe alienated by it.  Certainly I don’t understand how most of the stuff around me works or even how it was made.  Throw a mental sphere around yourself, say 10 feet in diameter, and consider the objects in it.  Can you say that you know, really know, how any of it was made?  Could you repair it if it were broken?  Think of how different our situation in the West is compared to the people alive at any time before us.  75 years ago, if you didn’t know how to fix the stuff around you, you’d be faaked too.

Winner argues that the technological world we inhabit does something to us, something more than just alienation, but what?  It’s hard to tell while you are in it.  Certainly people moved around in offices differently before phones, before computers.  Now we hover around our screens.  It’s as though we are bound by technological fields, orbiting our stuff according to laws which are beyond us.  It’s not just our physical movements, but our mental ones too.  That thought can spook you.  Our stuff channels our thoughts in ways we don’t understand, much less notice.

Winner thinks that before we decide what to do about it, we need to work out what technology is doing to us.  We could deactivate parts of it, maybe leave it for a bit when it breaks, and study the effects on our lives.  We could practice Luddism as epistemology.  It’s sometimes forced on us when things break.  You might use such moments and see what happens.  Maybe leave some things unplugged deliberately.  If the right stuff is off, you can have clear thoughts about it, and maybe take back a little control of your life.

ThinkB4YouSpeak.com, Halo & Aristotle

The goal of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com is to attempt to counter the homophobic remarks (such as “that’s so gay”) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers face. The main motivation for this campaign is that the casual use of such phrases, it is claimed, can lead to more overt hostility against LGBT.

As a college professor, I do deal with some teenagers (mainly 18-19 year old students). However, students tend to feel some small degree of reluctance to throw slurs around in front of professors (but less so than in the past). My main dealings with teenagers “in the wild” has been in the context of online gaming, mainly Halo 3 and other such shooters.

I  used to play Halo 3 online on Xbox live quite often. While I enjoy the actual game, the post game banter can be rather horrific. If my team wins, the vanquished all too often throw out a chorus of vulgarities and insults. In the rare event that my team loses, we are regularly treated to shouted obscenities. If I am playing a “pickup game” with random people, woe to the player who has a bad game-his performance is critiqued with such phrases as “fag” , “that was so gay”, and “you c**k sucking, a** f***ing fag!” While this does not happen all the time, I am always surprised when I hear a calm voice saying “good game” or “wow, that was close…you guys played well.” So, if my own experience is any indication of how teens (and adults) behave, the folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have their work cut out for them.

One question that arises is the matter of whether the use of such phrases and terms should be a matter of concern. On the one hand, kids just use whatever words happen to be in vogue as insults at the time. As such, I suspect that most kids who use “gay” or “fag” as an insult do not really harbor deep hatred of homosexuals and the use of such terms does not cause them to act against LGBT. They use such phrases reflexively and without much thought. In fact, the terms are most often applied to straight people in response to things that have no connection to sexual orientation at all. For example, if someone says “that was gay how that guy sniped me like that” in a Halo game, he is just expressing his displeasure at being sniped and not expressing any hostility towards LGBTs. Of course, LGBTs will feel upset if they here such terms being used, but we all have to face things that upset and annoy us.

On the other hand, some people who use the phrases and terms do harbor hostility towards LGBTs and the repeated use of such terms no doubt adds to their views. After all, as Aristotle argued, we are what we do. Someone who regularly uses such phrases and terms will be affected by them and it will shape his character. In the Republic Plato also argues about how what we observe can corrupt us. While he was discussing poetry and the arts, his arguments would seem to apply here as well. If someone hears such phrases being used as insults, they can be corrupted into using those terms and also corrupted into the mindset behind such views. While it is a long distance between saying “that is so gay” and attacking homosexuals with a baseball bat, the first step towards that swing begins with the language.

Further, there is the harm done to the LGBTs. While I am straight, I can imagine what it would be like for a LGBT to hear those things. After all, I was called “nerd” and “track hack”(an insult against people who run track)  in school and did not like that. Even if it never escalated into more overt hostility, it would still be needlessly unpleasant.

Granting that it is harmful for such phrases to be used, the next matter is what is to be done about it.

The folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have launched a campaign to attempt to curb the use of such phrases. Their current campaign works like this: they have various advertisements that replace the “gay” in the phrase “that’s so gay” with the target of the ad (that is, the type of folks who tend to use the “that’s so gay” phrase). One example is “that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence” and another is “that’s so gamer guy who has more video games than friends.” They even have on targeted at cheerleaders that says “that’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff.”

Like the fine folks at Penny Arcade I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach.

First, there is the point made by Aristotle in his writings on moral education. Aristotle argues that most people cannot be made good (or at least less bad) by mere words. As he argues, most people are ruled by fear rather than shame and are only deterred by punishments. The main reason he gives as to why mere words will not work is that “dislodging by arguments long embedded habit is difficult if not impossible.”

Having faced off against the target audience for these advertisements online, I am quite confident that they will not work. I will admit that there are some people who use “that’s so gay” in a state of naive ignorance and can be corrected by being made aware of the serious implication of their usage. However, the sort of folks who scream “fag” and “that is gay” as they play Halo 3 are most likely not amenable to reason. They are folks of this sort and are largely immune to attempts to get them to reflect. The folks that are most likely to be more overtly hostile towards LGBTs are of this sort or even worse and clearly will not be lead into the light so easily.

Second, the specific approach taken is a poor one. The ads seem to be an attempt to get the target into a “reversing the situation” mode. That is, the target is supposed to feel the cruel sting of the insult and thus be made the feel the pain the LGBTs feel when they hear “that’s so gay.” There are numerous problems with this.

The main problem is, as noted above, the target audience most in need of enlightenment is the most resistant to such an approach. A secondary problem is that trying to be a jerk (even in a weak and lame way) to counter jerks is not an effective strategy. This is like trying to counter stupidity by acting stupid or hatred by hating. Another problem is that the ads lack sting. While the “that’s so gay” probably really hurts some LGBT folks, I suspect that almost no one will feel the cruel sting of oppression from these lame attacks. To use a game analogy, the ThinkB4 folks have entered the battleground wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and cut-off jeans. They are armed with bouquets of flowers. Their opposition is wearing battle armor and armed with big guns. Did I mention that the guns have chain saws on them? They are, as was pointed out at Penny Arcade, woefully under armed for the opposition.

Thus, while the campaign has noble motives and goals, their methodology is lacking.

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Why do what we say we ought to do?

‘The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives.’ — Montaigne

Whether or not we really believe our lofty moral talk is revealed in what we actually do.  It’s an old and no doubt good thought.  If you really want to see past the smoke and mirrors, watch the hands.  If you say that we ought to help each other, that suffering is bad, that we ought to get people out of bad lives, then, if your words are to stand, you’ve got to take all rational steps to secure the relevant ends.  Your words commit you to doing something:  write some cheques, volunteer some time, stop on the street and lever an unfortunate out of the gutter.  You have some beliefs and you have to act on them, but what is the real connection between principle and action?  Why do what we say we ought to do?

There might be a lot of space between what most of us say and what we do.   Singer makes the point rapidly in  ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’.  He offers this principle:  ‘if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it’.  He goes on:  ‘if [this principle] were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.’  Probably the principle is accepted by a lot of people.  Probably few act on it.  Leave the psychology of it for a moment.  Does anyone have an argument which connects principle to action, which pushes the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?

Tall order.  I realize that’s close to asking why one ought to be moral, but who said philosophy is easy?

Dead Man Selling

Billy Mays Dies 1958-2009

For the past month,  I have seen a dead man pitching products on TV.  No, I am not having a Sixth Sense moment. Everyone can see the dead man, not just me.

The dead man is, of course, the famous American pitchman Billy Mays. He is the guy that has sold Americans all sorts of products, such as Oxiclean and Orange Glo. He died recently of heart problems, but his advertisements are still being aired.

Shortly after hearing about his death, I saw one of these ads. Oddly enough, rather than inspiring me to go into a consumer frenzy, the ad gave me a creepy feeling. After all, I knew the man trying to sell me some cell phone attachment was quite dead.

Interestingly, seeing movies that have dead actors in them has never given me that feeling. For example, if I watch an old Bogart film I do not get that creepy feeling. I don’t even get it when the actor died in the course of filming, such as what happened to Brandon Lee during the filming of the Crow.

Obviously, my particular psychological responses are hardly the stuff of philosophical interest. However, I think that the difference in how I feel does point to something that is worthy of philosophical consideration.

In the case of the commercials, while Mays might be playing his pitch man role, it is him selling the product. That is, he is there as himself, an enthusiastic and cheerful fellow who would really like you to buy all the stuff he is pitching.

In the case of the movies, the dead actor was playing a role of a meaningfully different order and this seems to create sort of a psychological buffer. To be a bit more specific, the character the dead actor played has a virtual life of its own (and perhaps even virtual death) and continues to exist as a fictional being.

In contrast, it is just Billy Mays, the dead man, whose recorded image is still pitching products. There is no buffer, no fictional being. Just someone I know is dead. Hence, the creepy feeling.

From a moral standpoint, there seems to be nothing really wrong with the ads remaining on television. After all, he no doubt contracted for a certain run and the fact that he is now dead would not seem to change that contract. Of course, there might seem something vaguely wrong about keeping a man working after his death. Certainly, it is just his recorded image, a digital ghost, that is doing the pitching. But perhaps even digital ghosts deserve to be laid to rest.

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Philosopher Babies

There’s an ancient debate about the right age to study philosophy.  Plato thought that you could only make a start at the age of 30 (after studying almost everything else first, in preparation).  You need to have lived a life and racked up some experience before you could have a claim to wisdom.  However, being Plato, he does consider another view.  This from Callicles to Socrates in Gorgias:  ‘It is a good thing to engage in philosophy just so far as it is an aid to education, and no disgrace for a youth to study it, but when a man who is now growing older studies it he becomes ridiculous…when I see an older man studying philosophy and not deserting it, that man, Socrates, is actually asking for a whipping….’

Think what you like about that, but the waters have been recently muddied by the newish thought that babies are philosophical in some sense.  Here’s an article by Alison Gopnik:  ‘From butterfly to caterpillar:  How children grow up.’ The thought is that human children have adults to do the protecting and feeding and heavy-lifting while they do a lifetime’s worth of mental R & D.  They think and explore and wonder and play — they have the mental freedom, the open minds for original, even genuinely philosophical reflection on what exists, what’s true and good and beautiful.  Their minds, unlike ours, are not made up.  When they grow up, though, the window closes forever, their brains settle down, neural connections solidify, ruts sink in, and the little philosophers become crusty, dogmatic sentinels like the rest of us.  I can’t help thinking it’s not a happy ending, but it does explain why adult philosophers can almost never talk each other into anything.