Monthly Archives: September 2011

Is Graffiti Art?

I made it, its yours. Dumpster with spray pain...

Not art.

While I thought the matter had been settled by better people than I, a friend just asked me about graffiti, thus obligating me to write up a bit about it.

In regards to the question of whether or not graffiti is art, my stock response is to ask “is painting art?” This response is not intended to be flippant, rather it indicates my actual view on the matter which is a serious philosophical position.

Contemporary graffiti is, by its nature, a form of painting. After all, the person creating the graffiti (typically) uses the methods and material of painting (although the paint is typically spray paint). As such, specific examples of graffiti would be assessed as art or not art by the same standards by which a painting would be assessed. For example, a crude tagging involving a person spray painting his/her name on the hood of your car would no more be art than it would be for a person to sign his/her name on a canvas using a brush. As another example, if the ghost of da Vinci manifested and grabbed spray paint to create a work on par with Mona Lisa masterfully on the side of a business, then that would have the same status as the Mona Lisa, at least in terms of being art or not. Thus, given that graffiti is essentially painting it follows that it is as much art as painting is or is not. In fact, given that graffiti involves the very same techniques and mediums as “conventional” painting, the burden of proof would seem to be on those who would deny that graffiti is (or more accurately, can be) art while maintaining that painting is art.

One common objection is that graffiti is not art because it is vandalism and hence a criminal act. While it is true that it can be vandalism and a criminal act, these facts would not seem to have a bearing on its status of being art. The mere fact that something is illegal or classified as vandalism hardly seems sufficient to make something fall outside of the realm of art. After all, imagine a state in which music was a criminal act and labeled as a vandalism of the public sound space. It would hardly follow that music would thus cease to be art. As such, this objection fails.

Another common objection is that graffiti is crude or simplistic and hence cannot be considered art. The obvious reply, to steal from Aristotle, is that not all graffiti is to be condemned, just that which is crude or simplistic. After all, music would not be considered non-art simply because some musicians create crude or simplistic music. The same should hold for graffiti as well.

Thus, graffiti is as much art as painting is or is not.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

Al Gore

Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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Against ‘time-travel’

This is really just an announcement, of a new piece of mine that is coming out that I think many readers of this site may find of interest:
This my piece against-time-travel has been pre-published online in one of my favourite journals… ūüôā
Comments welcome. (The full-length version will be forthcoming in my next book, and will contain more explicit stuff in it about Dr. Who…)

Bribing the Poor

Esther Duflo at Pop!Tech 2009

Image via Wikipedia

Anya Kamenetz recently wrote an article, “Bribing the Poor”,¬† about Esther Duflo’s strategy of giving the poor incentives to be immunized. While the article mainly just reported on the practice, it did get me thinking about the ethics of this approach. But before getting to the moral matter, a little background is in order.

In developed countries, about 90% of children receive immunization. This has had a significant impact on the health of the population. In contrast, less-developed countries tend to have far lower immunization rates. For example, India has an overall rate of 44%, but specific areas have rates that drop to 22% or even 2%. While humans can have natural resistance to diseases, the lack of immunization means that people get sick (and sometimes die) needlessly.

Duflo focused on India, and hence the best information is available for that country. Duflo found that there were various obstacles to immunization. The first is that many clinics in the rural area Duflo studied were closed because the government paid nurses did not show up for work. The second is superstition. Many people still believe in supernatural causes of illness and such people will tend to not put much faith in immunization (unless, perhaps, it was presented as magic-something that Duflo did not propose). The third is that immunizations have an image problem. When they work, there is nothing to see. When they do not work or they cause a harmful effect, the results are visible and tend to stick in people’s minds. People then tend to “reason” that immunizations are harmful in general, thus falling victim to misleading vividness, hasty generalization or the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. This is not, of course, confined to the developing world. In the United States unfounded fears about vaccination causing autism caused people to forgo immunization for their children. Irrationality, like disease, is a global phenomenon. The third is that getting immunization can require effort. The fourth is that a clear and obvious incentive (other than avoiding disease) was not provided.

Duflo’s solution involved two parts. The first was aimed at making immunization easy. This was done by setting up camps in villages. To ensure that the nurses showed up, they were paid only when they did so. This provided the nurses with a financial incentive to actually do their jobs. Making it easier to get the shots boosted the rate of immunization from 2% to 18%.

The second part was aimed at giving people a clear incentive to get immunized. As many thinkers have noted, people tend to place less value on the future and also seem to find a negative (not getting disease) less appealing than a positive (a gain, such as a gift). As such, the incentive to get immunization that will prevent something from happening latter will tend to be relatively low. However, an incentive that involves getting something right now will tend to be more effective. Duflo’s solution was to offer a $1 bag of lentils as an incentive to get one’s child immunized. This tactic increased the immunization rate from 2% to 38%, which is certainly a significant boost. As an added bonus, the overall cost was lower: the nurses are paid by the hour, so more people were immunized in less time.

While this seems like a very sensible approach, people on both the left and the right have attached it as unethical (which might be taken as evidence in its favor).

People on the left tend to advance the argument that bribing the poor to get immunized is patronizing and paternalistic. To use an analogy, it could be compared to giving a child a treat so she will cooperate and get her shots. While this is fine with an actual child (they do not know better), it might well be regarded as condescending paternalism that casts the poor as children who must be bribed to do what a rational person would do without a bribe.This would seem to be wrong.

While this does have some appeal, it can be countered. One reply would be to follow John Stuart Mill’s view: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” Swap out “paternalism” for “despotism” and keep the appeal to consequences, and this would be a possible approach. After all, the good that is done for the children and others would seem to outweigh any harm done by giving people an incentive to get immunized.

A second reply is that this incentive approach need not be paternalistic. After all, offering people an incentive hardly seems to be inherently patronizing. To use an example, students might be offered extra credit to go to an event that would benefit them. This hardly seems paternalistic. Or, to use another example, companies often provide free stuff at expos to get people to look at their goods and services. That hardly seems patronizing. Another point worth considering is that people do not claim that paying the nurses to give the immunizations is patronizing. If paying the nurse to do her duty  is not patronizing, then paying the people to do their social duty is not patronizing either.

On the right, the usual objection is that the poor should be responsible and should not be given a handout. As a moral argument it does have some appeal. After all, bribing someone to do what they should do because it is right does seem to be morally questionable (at least on some grounds). To use an analogy, if a person is given $1 when she tells the truth and tells the truth for the sake of the money, then she is not acting on the basis of morality. The person who bribes her might have good intentions, but s/he can be seen as acting wrongly, at least some views. For example, Kant would regard this in a rather negative light: for him, people are supposed to do good out of a sense of duty rather than a desire for gain.

Despite the appeal, this can be countered in various ways. One obvious way is to argue on utilitarian grounds: handing out free lentils with the free immunizations ends up preventing the harms of illness and death. Put in the financial terms so beloved to the right, it is a good investment in terms of the money saved on later medical care and the worker productivity that would be lost to illness and death. A second way to argue it is that while the parents are being bribed to do the right thing, the folks on the right should be more worried about the children than the adults. While it might be wrong to bribe parents to get their children immunized, it would be worse to allow children to go without immunization. As such, while it might be claimed that the parents have acted wrongly, it would seem that the people doing the bribing have acted rightly. Finally, the folks on the right should appreciate the value of providing financial incentives to get people to do things. After all, that is what capitalism is all about.

In light of the above arguments, bringing the poor in this manner seems to be morally acceptable.

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Happy birthday, _Tractatus_!

As many readers/users of this site, will be aware, it is exactly 90 years since Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published (in German).
It’s also 60 years since Wittgenstein’s death.
And just over a decade since my collection The New Wittgenstein appeared in print.
Yesterday, I received in the mail my publisher’s free copies of my new book, Beyond the Tractatus Wars: The New Wittgenstein debate, in which my own piece argues that we need to take the ‘new’, resolute Wittgenstein very seriously indeed: I suggest that Conant and Diamond themselves have not been ‘severe’/’austere’ enough in their presentation of Wittgenstein’s first book. That it really does not say anything at all…

Enough said?

Check the book out: http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-new-book.html

If you have thoughts or comments about it, it would be interesting to hear them here.

Practical Metaphysics: The Case of God

Why should anyone bother about metaphysical questions? Spending time discussing them may seem speculative and inconsequential. However, while all metaphysical reasoning is speculative, it is far from inconsequential. Taking up a metaphysical stance is both unavoidable and has profound consequences for human life. To take the case of God, there are practical consequences for believers, atheists, agnostics and even those who are indifferent to the whole question of God’s existence. Practical metaphysics brings to our awareness both the nature of metaphysical thinking and the consequences that accompany and flow from it.

The first principle of practical metaphysics is that metaphysical propositions are never conclusively proved. The second is that human beings are obliged to believe at least some metaphysical propositions. The third is that belief in some unavoidable metaphysical propositions bring practical consequences. Metaphysical beliefs come with a price tag, and we do well to be aware of this in adopting one metaphysical stance or another.

A perfect example is the case of God. Does God exist? Can we prove or otherwise know that God exists? Can we know God’s nature? Is God a Supreme Being or Beyond Being? These are weighty questions, and they have been answered at length many times. Different proofs or disproofs have been been offered. Various approaches have arisen in history, been swept away by new arguments, only to resurface later in other forms. For example, Aristotle’s Argument from Design to the operation of an Unmoved Mover has morphed many times over the centuries, with Creationism and Intelligent Design as its latest versions. The ontological argument for God’s existence has also resurfaced since it was laid out by St. Anselm in the 11th Century, particularly by Descartes and Leibniz.

Old metaphysical theories are never totally defeated. Their defenders simply die out. Once people forget that a metaphysical theory has been exploded by argument, it creeps back again, for it is always possible to hold any metaphysical theory, no matter how absurd it may seem to some. For example, I might persist in the belief that I exist in the Matrix, despite the fact that I have no empirical evidence for it, nor does any empirical experience make the hypothesis self-contradictory.

The case of God is perhaps the most urgent issue in practical metaphysics, for the simple reason that religious beliefs have the widest ranging practical implications. Such beliefs involve many aspects of life, including emotional responses and moral judgments. The stance of ‘Righteousness‚ÄĚ, for example, is a metaphysical stance for it is founded on the Rock of the Lord. Living up to Divine Commandments is an exercise in practical metaphysics. The same can be said of Kierkegaard’s formula of faith in God: resting transparently in the power that supports you. This idea of resting in God is a powerful one. Life is difficult, troubles mount, and the end is pathetic, if not tragic. It gets to be too much for an individual to bear. What a relief to give up one’s troubles to God.

There is a kind of psychic economy here. I give up my burdens to God, and God buoys me up. This is a widely reported experience. There are many things that are out of an individual’s control. Misfortune is always a possibility, no matter how well you manage what is within your power. It is a real comfort to think that there is a benign power loving and caring for each of us. You may be cut off from the love of family and friends, because they die, while you continue to live a bit longer, but you cannot be cut off from the love of a Divine Father who cares for you as of a child. God plays the role of provider and sustainer, and this metaphysical belief attracts many people. It does so, I would contend, precisely because of the practical benefits that the belief in things unseen brings to the imagination of the confessed believer.

William James adopts this sort of approach in his ‚ÄúVarieties of Religious Experience.‚ÄĚ He is not so much interested in logically proving God’s existence as in looking at how human beings describe their religious experiences. He distinguishes between ‘healthy souls’ and ‘sick souls’. So far I have been talking about the practical consequences of religious belief for the ‘healthy’ soul. The healthy soul concentrates on God’s goodness, love, forgiveness and care for us. We have faith that all things will be well in the end. The ‘sick’ soul concentrates more on human sinfulness, particularly its own. Here is Jonathan Edwards’ terrible God who holds us like spiders over the gaping pit of Hell. A perfect example of a sick soul is Stylites, the ascetic spiritual gymnast, who lived atop a pillar in the desert for twenty years to do penance for sins of the flesh. The practical consequences for the body are clear. The ascetic shows disdain for the body and welcomes its destruction in the name of a higher reality. Similarly, those for whom heaven and hell loom large in a post-terrestrial existence, will see life, not as a passing dream, but as a drama that is played out for eternal stakes in the life of each individual.

These are the sort of practical consequences that arise from having beliefs about God. Practical metaphysics helps us to explore them. For example, there are also practical consequences in believing that there is no God, that the existence of God is always in doubt, or that the whole question of God’s existence is nothing to us one way or the other. All these positions have their costs and their benefits. With the last three, one must forgo Divine comfort, a supernatural afterlife, and the belief that everything will come right in the end. On the positive side, non-believers are not troubled by thoughts of hell, the last judgment, or being observed by heavenly scribes. From this perspective, life is a dream, and nothing lasts forever. Living one’s life in either of these ways is, or can be revealed to be, a choice or stance in life that has no other foundation than the metaphysical commitments of the individual.

Future people!

I received a pleasing email today: My first paper to appear in THINK has appeared.

This short piece of mine (on overcoming prejudice against future people), is now in print in _Think_, volume 10, issue 29, pp. 43-47.

You can read it at this link (cut and paste the link into your browser):
http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A83AqV93

Let me know what you…think!

Are Used Video Games Theft?

Heavy Rain

Image via Wikipedia

According to the French game developer Quantic Dream, the company has lost¬† between ‚ā¨5m and ‚ā¨10m due to the selling of used copies of its game Heavy Rain. This estimate was calculated by matching the sales figures of new games with the number of players registering Trophies on PSN. The company’s co-founder Guillame de Fondaumiere summed the matter up by saying, ‚Äúon my small level it’s a million people playing my game without giving me one cent.”

While de Fondaumiere is not actually accusing buyers of used games of being involved in an act of thievery, the parallel to piracy seems to be an apt one to draw. After all, one stock argument against the digital  piracy of video games is that the piracy is costing the companies money via lost sales. However, the people who buy (and sell) used copies are clearly not engaging in piracy: the buying and selling of used property is well established and the burden of proof rests on those who would argue that the owner of a piece of physical property (in this sort of case, a game disk) cannot re-sell his used property. To use the obvious analogy, if I buy a house, then I have the right to resell it again. Imagine, if you will, a developer complaining that he is not getting a cut every time the house he sold is re-sold. Obviously, they would like such a cut. But, when it is sold, it is sold and the right to re-sell it goes along with the purchase (unless specified in the contract).  To use another analogy, when I do my job, I do not expect to be endlessly paid for the work I did (even when my students use what I taught in their careers)-I get paid for it and that is the end of it.

The matter become a bit less clear in cases of digital purchases, but Fondaumiere is discussing the re-selling of the actual games disks. As such, there seems to little foundation for his complaint, other than the fact that he is worried he is not getting every cent he thinks he is owed.

One obvious factor worth considering is that the reselling of a used game does not entail that a sale is lost. As a gamer, I can attest that there are games that I have bought used that I would not have bought new. As such, calculating the “loss” from used game sales would be somewhat tricky.

A second factor is that gamers sometimes wait for the price to drop on a game. For example, I bought Borderlands when the Game of the Year edition came out (with all the expansions included). It was much cheaper than the original version, yet it would be odd to say that my delay robbed the company (they did, of course, get some money from me).

A third factor is that when gamers buy games, they often factor in the fact that they can resell the game or pass it on to someone. Laying out $60 for a game is more palatable when you know that you’ll get some of that back or that you can give it to someone. While it is difficult to calculate the positive sales impact of the ability to re-sell or give away games, it would seem to be a factor worth considering. As such, the re-selling of games might not be a losing proposition for game companies. At the very least, this factor would mitigate any harms done by the reselling.

A fourth factor is that gaming stores generate significant income from re-selling used games (often over and over). While this has also been a point of contention, it does help retailers stay in business and thus be available to sell new copies of games.

However, de Fondaumiere  contends that the retailers will ultimately hurt themselves by selling used games. He asserts that game companies will think that they cannot make money via retail and will instead go to direct online distribution (which is already an option for many games), thus eliminating the retail game sellers by removing their access to products. From the perspective of retailers, this would be rather bad-after all, many retailers make their main profits from selling (and re-selling) used games. It is, of course, worth noting that the used record and CD retail industry took a severe hit with the advent of the digital revolution. The same could very well happen to the gaming world. While I have bought games via Amazon, it has been years since I bought a game at an actual physical store and I often buy download versions of PC games.  This trend might solve the problem of used games, at least how he sees it. Of course, this might also lead consumers to be more reluctant to purchase games on release-after all, being unable to sell them back or give them away does reduce their value for some customers.

My considered view is that the selling of used games is acceptable and companies have little grounds on which to complain of such losses.

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What do you think?

TPm is considering a bit of a tweak in time for 2012, and we’d very much like to hear from you, gentle reader.¬† What do you think about the magazine?¬† What don’t we do that you wish we did?

Mostly, we publish news, features, obits, lots of essays, interviews with philosophers and others with something of philosophical interest to say, fora with philosophers writing around the same topic, regular columns, book and film reviews, excerpts from pop philosophy books, short biographies of great philosophers, and letters from philosophers abroad.¬† If you’re not a subscriber, there’s something wrong with you, but you can go here and read some of the content for free (once there, you can move around with the sidebar on the right).

New ideas are particuarly welcome.¬† So, mighty hive mind of the internet, say what you think.¬† I’m entirely ears.¬† (Also I’m hiding behind my chair.)

Rawls rapped

“I know why u homies want to make like John Rawls
You just wish that u were Marxists but u haven’t got the balls”

[Gilbert Ramsay et al, The Philociraptor Rap]

This post is in part a good excuse to cite the epigraph above, which deserves to be much better known. In a somewhat (ahem) direct way, it touches and encapsulates much of my attitude to Rawlsian liberalism.
For a more _academic_ presentation, you might want to read my two papers that, by a bizarre coincidence, came out on the same day last week:
‚ÄúWhy the ecological crisis spells the end of liberalism: The ‚Äėdifference principle‚Äô is ecologically unsustainable, exploitative of persons, or empty‚ÄĚ, in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.
and
‚ÄúThe difference principle is not action-guiding‚ÄĚ, in CRISPP 14:4 (pp.487-503).
(Also, my shortly-forthcoming piece on ‚ÄúBeyond an ungreen-economics-based political philosophy: Three strikes against the difference principle‚ÄĚ, in the International Journal of Green Economics (2011) Vol. 5, No. 2, pp.167‚Äď183. And, of related interest, my ‚ÄúReligion as sedition: On liberalism‚Äôs intolerance of real religion‚ÄĚ, in Ars Disputandi vol.11, just published last month: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf .)
For a more popular, shorter, political ‘bloggish’ presentation of the same ideas, see my “No red without green: why any socialism must be an eco-socialism” in the Compass ebook ‘Good Society/Green Society? The Red-Green Debate’. One place that you can find this is 1 scroll down, at: http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=13232.
Finally, if you want to see how annoyed all this kind of thing makes Rawlsians, then have a read of my http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rupert-read/philosophical-and-political-implications-of-spirit-level-response-to-gerry-ha – and the comments thereto. What I point up there is that the Rawlsian difference principle is willing to allow substantial inequalities, because doing so will allegedly be best for the worst off. But if Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, Michael Marmot, Danny Dorling et al are right, then the more substantial the inequalities, the worse off _everyone_ will be, _especially_ the worst off.
We might call this an empirical refutation of the difference principle…

So, homies, where do we/you go from here?