Sunday, February 27, 2005

X-Men

Published at somewhat recently at idkfa, now republished here:

There is a fundamental divide between Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-men comic books that perfectly illustrates the meaning of existentialism. Philosophers forever, essentially, have been trying to prove first what is real and secondly whether we should accept it and thirdly how to find what is real, factual, and the truth. Wolverine, chooses, in a way, not to accept the reality that others say is around him, whereas Cyclops takes the responsibility that he thinks he has.

While at first the choice to be a Scott Summers in life seems almost inevitable, we must look much deeper into the analogy to really understand what it is that we're saying with our choice. The Logan-Scott dichotomy is essentially reflective of the existential nature of man. Cyclops ascribes to the values and morals set for him a priori, that is, by the Professor, his wife, and the nature he thinks he has, or by a "God"-figure (in a non-religious sense). Wolverine on the other hand has no a priori essence; he has only his existence, a blank memory, and frickin' awesome claws in his knuckles.

Wolverine is the token existentialist; he takes his life and gives it the meaning he chooses. He chose to join the X-Men, he leaves frequently to return whenever he wishes. He has no answers besides those he creates for himself, and he has no responsibility save that responsibility he creates for himself.

Cyclops, on the other hand, is locked into a life he didn't create for himself. Like a religion, he is bound to the X-Men by a sort of duty to the professor and the connection and place that he thinks he has. He "knows" the answers, although they are outside of him, and he has plenty of responsibilities, even though he didn't take them on himself.

What Scott doesn't know is that, as Nietzsche said, God is dead. There is no a priori structure of values one which to hang his hat, or visor in this case. His perceived responsibility is just that, perceived. He has locked himself into a structure that doesn't actually exist for the sake of a nature and a "God" that were social constructs in the first place.

Logan is the Camusian absurd hero. He is left alone and abandoned by nature, society, and "God." While he is of course faced with a Sartrian existential anguish and despair, he is also granted a reprieve from the shackles of life and given a new hope. Life without a priori structures, life without a priori values is a life where, as Dostoevsky's Underground Man says, "anything is possible."

In looking for our answers in some extraphyiscal construct, we subject ourselves to the torture of an eternity of a life beyond us. Adam looked for the answers in a tree and was condemned to leave paradise. Prometheus looked for the answers among the gods and was subject to torture. Cyclops looks for the answers in his group, in the professor, in the world apart from him and in so doing subjects himself to the slow self-sacrifice that is the path to a living death, a life trapped in somebody else's box.

Wolverine, on the other hand, can only look to himself for the answers. He has no gods, no nature, simply his own existence. From this Wolverine must create his meaning, his responsibility, and his answers for himself and by himself.

I, for one, am a Wolverine. I live for myself.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Publication III

A new article from yours truly published here.

I think you'll find that it is essentially the point I made in this post, simmered down to 500 words.

Also notable is this editorial from the op/ed editor, who is essential trying to encourage letter writing to the editor from everyone EXCEPT me, who seems to be the only person around here who takes advantage of the letters to the editor page.

Hey, as long as they keep publishing everything I send to them, I might as well keep sending stuff in...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Speciesism

I'm not really an animal rights activist. The only reason necessary to forswear meat from one's diet, in my opinion, is the argument from health. When researching the health ramifications of meat, though, on inevitably comes upon the multitude of other reasons why one might become a vegetarian, ranging from ecological and environmental reasons to the far more esoteric animal rights arguments.

First of all, suffering, by its very definition, is undesirable and bad. In any instances where suffering is not bad (for instances, masochistic sexual tendencies), then it is not suffering, by definition.

There are a variety of premises held at large about suffering. For instance, it would be safe to say that most people would agree that if one is able to prevent suffering with no or very little cost to their own wellbeing then they should make the effort to stop that suffering. Additionally, if there is a choice between causing suffering or non-suffering that could be inflicted on another being, most people would agree, I'm sure, that the choice involving the non-suffering would be the better choice, all other things being equal. In fact, suffering, being inherently bad, should be avoided at all costs (not, of course, if the avoidance of suffering were to cause undue suffering on ourselves, but assuming instead that the avoidance of suffering caused us little to no effort or personal suffering).

If you believe any of the premises listed above, then you must accept vegetarianism as the best possible choice of diet. Eating an animal obviously causes it harm, yet humans have no biological need to eat meat. By abstaining from meat consumption we inflict little to no pain on ourselves (in fact we are doing better for ourselves given the health problems associated with meat consumption), and we save the animal in question a world of hurt.

You don't even have to be a utilitarian to come to this conclusion. Deontologicalists who accept non-violence as a tenant of their beliefs must accept vegetarianism, as to do otherwise would be to perpetrate violence. Consequentialists must accept vegetarianism, as between the two consequences of eating meat (a dead animal and an unhealthy, satiated human) there is little good to be had.

In all circumstances, though, the argument can simply be circumnavigated by saying that either animals don't suffer, or that their suffering is irrelevant. To say either would be to commit the speciesism that Peter Singer wrote so passionately about. In short, there is little to separate animals from humans outside of our genetic structure, and genetics alone does not invalidate the suffering and animal feels. While I do not generally agree with Singer on most topics, I believe that here, at least, he is on to something.

In short, most ethical theories I know necessarily prohibit meat eating. Egoism precludes meat eating on the grounds that meat eating is detrimental to your health where there are perfectly acceptable alternatives. Christianity prohibits meat eating, as the scriptures don't read "and thou shalt torture and kill God's creation," but rather "and you will have dominion over the animals of the land and sea," and dominion never implied the power of killing. Utilitarians must reject meat for the Singer argument, while Kantians and deontologicalists must reject meat because they have to kill to get it. Perhaps an ethical relativist would advocate meat eating, but then, who listens to the ethical relativists, anyway?

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the perfect vegetarian. I eat fish occasionally, and while I generally abstain from dairy products I find that some slip into my diet every once in a while anyway, probably because I'm not myself totally convinced of these moral arguments. The reason I'm not convinced of these moral arguments, though, stems from the fact that meat eating is so widespread. Why is animal consumption such a cultural staple? Why do people eat meat?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Publication II

I was recently published in the Gonzaga Bulletin. See the opinion piece here.

A little over the top, especially at the end, I admit, but I think I made my point.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Free-Market Sliding-Scale

The University I attend has a massive shortage of on-campus housing, particularly for upper division students. While all lower division students are guaranteed housing (even if it is in a hotel down the street) upper division students are not. In past years, the method by which students get on-campus housing has been a lottery randomly assigning numbers to students, with lower numbered students getting first choice in housing. Furthermore, students living in upper division housing in their 3rd year may choose to stay where they are for subsequent years without the possibility of being pushed out, regardless of their lottery number. For obvious reasons, the student body is not particularly fond of the situation. Even those lucky ones who do get the on-campus housing they desire are unhappy, as their friends are left out in the cold.

The lottery system is not the worst option to solve the problem, but it obviously isn't ideal. People who want on-campus housing desperately do not get it while people who could go either way end up in classy apartments on-campus, simply by the luck of the draw.

Like with most problems of demand exceeding supply, the simplest solution would be to remove fixed prices and let the market dictate who is in and who is out. Currently, on-campus apartments are comparable to surrounding off-campus housing, but they carry some significant bonuses, such as furnishings, proximity to classes, a 9 month instead of 12 month lease, and a community of other students. These features make the value of the apartments far greater than they are currently valued at, which is why so many people desire to live there. Keeping the price artificially low is no different than rent control in New York. If the price is meant to skyrocket, then skyrocket it must.

This is not the total solution it seems. Certain students, particularly star athletes, have their entire tuition, room, and board paid for by the University. These students, whose on-campus housing costs would be covered regardless of cost, could afford these on-campus apartments regardless of the price, as they aren't actually paying for it themselves. This fact alone is sure to raise dissent. Furthermore, other students are all paying different rates of tuition dependent on the scholarships they have managed to achieve, so theoretically the students paying less for tuition have more to spend on housing.

By removing the fixed price of the on-campus apartments, we've created a sort of caste system whereby the star athletes with full scholarships and the academically advanced with academic scholarships are placed at a better position than the campus at large for this high demand housing. While at first I am not totally opposed to this system, as each individual who received a scholarship deserved it in some reason, it does not seem conducive to equality.

Instead, it is my suggestion that the University adopt a program where housing is priced at a percentage inversely related to the amount that each student pays in tuition. For instance, a student who pays $10,000 a semester would pay twice as much for the same on-campus apartment as the student who pays $20,000 in tuition. Students paying the average price of tuition would pay the market average price for the housing.

While I am normally opposed to such sliding scales in the realm of economics, I believe that here it is justified. When students look at the price of a university they are attending, they don't look specifically at the price itself, they look at the price they will be paying, that is, the price after scholarships and grants. For each student, the price of the same education is different, and no other commodity can boast this important element. Additionally, most students when first attending a university include in their calculations the cost of room and board (particularly in a university where on-campus living is a requirement for at least the first two years, such as my university), and this part of the cost can also be paid by scholarship. In short, one's housing is simply a part of total university cost.

By placing housing on the same sliding scale that tuition is placed on, we create a more balanced equality in the housing market. This way, housing is similar in value to the value of tuition. Of course the whole issue could be avoided by simply moving off-campus in the first place...

Monday, February 14, 2005

Love

It is impossible, around this time of the year, to escape the inevitable pink and red barrage of heart shaped paraphanelia. Instead of rejecting the most commercial of modern holidays, I've decided instead to write on love (although it is clear that Valentine's Day and love have very little to do with each other). Put simply, what is love? Baby, don't hurt me no more.

Robert Wright wrote that "emotions are evolution's executioner," that is, that those traits which evolution cultivates within us are motivated by the emotions we feel related to them. In the case of guilt, for instance, those organisms which felt guilty about not following through on their potential non-zero-sum interactions with others were less likely to fail to follow through, and thus more likely to benefit from these interactions. Thus, guilt was bred into the population, slowly but surely, as those organisms which felt guilt at failed contracts started to succeed over those who did not.

Love, I'm sure Wright would tell us, is similar, and I can agree. Love is, at is base, a feeling that keeps us engaged with the people who will bear or take care of our children, passing on our genes. Non-romantic love is nature's assurance that we have some connection to each other that will stop us from betraying our partners in life's business. Love, then, is just nature's way of keeping our non-zero-sum interactions somewhat safe and assured.

But emotions are, in many ways, both a priori and a posteriori. They do exist, as Wright posits, as the executioners of our evolutionary adaptions, but they also happen as a response to value judgments about the world around us. Besides being evolutionary designed motivators, emotions are simply the feeling connected with those things which are important (or unimportant) to us. In this way, love also becomes the ultimate expression of our highest values. Those things which I say I love are simply those things which I value the most, for whatever reason.

Love, by either reckoning, has become, at heart, self serving. The reason why we value anything is because it leads to our own self preservation and amelioration, and the a priori feeling of love only exists in order to assure we continue to engage in non-zero-sum interactions with others, all for the sake of, again, self preservation and self amelioration.

Is this a negative representation of love? Does this somehow make love less romantic? This view is probably more cynical than most would like to believe, but if we value self preservation, and if love contributes to that, then there isn't any way in which this representation of love is somehow bad. If anything, explaining love as an inherently selfish emotion only validates its use to the egoist, as an emotion that is altruistic must necessarily be bad.

Does all of this change the silly commercialism of Valentine's day? Sadly, no. I guess we'll just have to deal with another day filled with silly fat flying kids with arrows and fuzzy pink hearts. Sigh.

Evolution

As a scientific theory, evolution has gained more than just a foot hold, it has become the accepted explanation of creation and existence. The only reason why people still reject evolution is out of a confused understanding of the terms "fact" and "theory" as well as a reliance on a media that continually tells them that there is an ideological battle between the two. First of all, evolution does not destroy God, and furthermore has no relevance in the spiritual realm. Evolution is a strictly scientific theory, and belongs, as Stephen Jay Gould has said, to the magesteria of science, not the magesteria of religion.

Evolutionary science has revealed much about the human condition in recent years. Richard Dawkins was the first to start the new Darwinism with his book The Selfish Gene. The book is, among other things, a shining example of the metaphysical backing to egoism and selfism. His conclusion, in a nut shell, was that in the evolutionary process the unit of selection is the gene, not the organism itself. This explains some things like kin selection, and answers most objections against Darwinism to date.

Recently, a new voice for evolutionary science has happened on the scene, and while most of the public at large has not necessarily noticed him, his work is none the less vitally important. Robert Wright has opened evolutionary psychology up again and brought it to a new level.

In The Moral Animal, Wright argues that essentially every human trait or characteristic ranging from male promiscuity and female selectivity to gossip and guilt are all a product of our evolution. He provides a variety of evidence from both the animal kingdom and scientific experimentation, and his thesis makes sense; that which exists tangibly exists as it does due to evolution, it makes sense that those intangible behaviors should be as well.

His newest book, Non-Zero, argues that non-zero-sum interactions between humans is the destiny of human existence. His conclusion is somewhat inevitable given his research in The Moral Animal, where he showed that these non-zero-sum interactions are cultivated by the process of evolution and are, of course, mutually beneficial to the parties involved.

I cannot help but see the worth of his argument, as social contract theory and free market capitalism are essentially based on the same idea. In trading value for value and setting some social rules for how those interactions are to take place everyone wins, and those organisms which win are more likely to survive than those who do not. In applying game theory to the realm of evolutionary science, Wright created an empirical sort of metaphysical support for the idea of these interactions.

More importantly, though, Wright gave scientific credence to the selfism which I support. No organism is able to pass on its genes when it sacrifices itself needlessly, and while those genes that are similar in siblings might live on, the unique combination of genes found in the altruistic organism is gone. The greatest good of human existence is not, as some altruists might have you believe, in the giving of oneself for others, but rather engaging in mutually beneficial relations. The logic of Wright's non-zero-sum thesis will perhaps, if widely accepted, save our world from the slow self-sacrifice it is suffering.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Vegetarianism

I used to ridicule non-meat eaters mercilessly in my younger days. Why, I thought, would one want to sacrifice something as great as meat simply for the sake of some non-rational animal? In retrospect, my ignorance is somewhat appalling.

While there are an abundance of arguments for vegetarianism based on animal rights (and these argument shall be discussed later), the clearest reason that one might change one's diet is simply for the radical health benefits associated with alternative diets. Meat eating has been linked to stroke, type II diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers, gallstones, hypertension, constipation, coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, and obesity (obviously). Sure, the evidence ranges from conclusive to only partial suggestive depending on the accusations being made of meat, but the evidence exists. Furthermore, meat is perhaps the greatest carrier of food bourne illness.

The cholesterol and saturated fat (the bad type of fat) is something that even the rather corrupt Food and Drug Administration has been warning against for years. There is nothing in meat, besides perhaps the abundance of protein and iron, of which the FDA would praise meat for being a good source.

Heart patients who switch to vegetarian diets find a drastic reduction in heart problems and attacks. In fact, the only successful doctors in reversing heart disease relied heavily on a meat free diet in their patients.

Simply given the evidence that meat eating is so likely to cause health problems, though, is not enough to prove that one should stop eating it. Meat, as believed by most people, is absolutely necessary to a healthy, balanced diet. This, quite frankly, is wrong. Animal flesh is no more necessary to ones health than is Coke (both the drug and the drink, for that matter). There is no nutrient that we are unable to get from a plant source, and the plant source is usually more bio-available.

Personally, the choice to not eat meat is a simple one, as meat was never too appealing in the first place. It only takes a few minutes of contemplation and reflection on your hamburger's former life as a living, breathing, walking, and mooing cow before you start to become uneasy wit the situation. And for me, at least, there are few things less appealing than bleeding slabs of flesh, like the ones hanging in butcher's shops.

I plan on explaining some other viable arguments against meat eating in the future, but it seems that the point is made well enough in recognizing that in our own best interest we should stop eating animals.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Empiricism

I've been rather swamped with an extended out of town trip this week and an overabundance of work, but I give to you this essay I recently penned for a class in place of some writing originally intended for this blog:

The scientific community and even the world at large depends on empirically verifiable scientific theories to explain the world around us. These theories use the available facts of the world around us to create theories on how those facts interact. Likewise, the logical positivist movement has sought to apply the same scientific methods in order to find our ethical theory. Unfortunately, it is impossible to attempt to create an ethical theory using a psudo-scientific method, as an ethical theory cannot satisfy the requirements of a sound scientific theory. Furthermore, our ethics must be empirically verifiable, and while we might assume this there is no hope left for creating ethical theory, there is still some hope for formulating a cogent ethical structure.
The scientific method is the standardized process by which individuals can glean information and formulate theories about the physical world around them. When taught in grade schools it has a variety of separate steps, but for the sake of simplicity it is easy enough to condense them into three separate areas. First, a scientist observes an unexplained phenomenon and creates a hypothesis on why it occurs in the way it does. Next, the scientist constructs a method by which to test his theory, and then implements this test. Finally the scientist analyzes his data and determines whether his initial hypothesis was correct or incorrect, and if the latter, he formulates a new conclusion. The hypothesis on how the elements of the experiment interact becomes theory, while the individual pieces of information, the empirical, perceptual elements that the theory pieces together, are called facts.
Theories stand until they are disproved by contradictory evidence or until a better theory comes along. One of the defining qualities of the scientific method is that it is repeatable by any scientist, and that, hypothetically, those other scientists would discover the same results. Vice versa, a valid scientific theory must have the potential to be disproven; that is, it is conceptually possible for an experiment to be conducted that would yield disproving information, however unlikely it might be.
Additionally, some theories are clearly better than others. Those theories that the scientific community calls better have both the power to explain varieties of behaviors of phenomenon with a single principle as well as being simplistic in their formulation. This is to say that a theory that uses one, simple, idea to explain a variety of effects is far superior to a convoluted theory of complicated causes that only explains one isolated incident.
Furthermore, a theory is useless to us unless we are able to use it to predict future outcomes. A good scientific theory must be able to analyze a set of data and suggest the most possible outcome, otherwise we have no use for the theory. We can easily imagine a theory which tells us nothing or predicts nothing; it isn’t much of a theory at all, but simply a descriptive account of the facts.
These four things then, falsifiability, simplicity, explanatory power, and predictory power, are what constitute a good scientific theory. A theory that lacks any of these four can either not be called a valid theory, or it cannot be called a good theory. Furthermore, at least two of these, that is, predictory power and falsifiability, are determined by the proper application of the scientific method. This is well and good for science, but suppose we apply this system to ethics. It does not seem too far fetched; Louis Pojman’s collection of essays on ethics is even called Ethical Theory.
First, it is simple enough to agree that ethical theories are capable of both explaining a variety of phenomena and are able to explain them with a single principle. One simple guiding principle can explain an entire system of morality. In the case of love, for instance, with a guiding mandate to “love everybody,” we can see that this simple phrase will explain why people donate large sums of money to bums, work for charitable organizations, and act non-violently. At least two of the four requirements for a sound theory apply here.
Can a theory like this, though, also predict outcomes? Presumably if we believe we ought to do something, we will, in fact, do it. This, though, is not always the case. Many people claim to hold something as immoral and the precede to do it. People claim all the time what they ought not to do, and then end up doing exactly the opposite. While these people might simply be expressing these ethical propositions without actually believing what they say, it still stands that the ethical theories that people appear to have do no always show a clear prediction of what they will do. Ethical theories do not necessarily predict outcomes.
Another problem arises when we attempt to show an ethical theory’s falsifiability. The problem arises in the very application of the scientific method in the first place. In the instance of gravity, for instance, we could imagine an experiment being conducted whereby a dropped object doesn’t fall to the ground under normal circumstances. The fact that this experiment has not happened is proof of the theory of gravity’s factuality, but it is also proof that it is potentially possible to prove gravity to be a false theory; the theory of gravity is falsifiable. Our ethical theories, though, do not have the luxury of something so definite and physical as a dropped object; we have no Geiger counter of goodness or a Richter scale of rightness, measuring the rise of evil is not so simple as measuring the rise of tide water. Because there are no sensually perceptible empirical moral facts to disprove -or prove- an ethical theory, ethical theory is non-falsifiabile, which means that, at least in terms of science, ethical theory is not a theory at all.
If an otherwise reputable scientist were to put forth a theory that we could not verify and that did not make any predictions, that scientist would not have their theory taken as truth. The whole reason why our medical journals are peer-reviewed is in order to verify the existence of all four criteria for a sound scientific theory. If we are to peer-review essays on ethics in the same way we peer-review medical or scientific journals, then every ethical theory would certainly fail review.
Certainly, ethical theory is not scientific in its use of the term ‘theory.’ We might conclude, therefore, that ethics should not determined by the methods we normally apply to science. This conclusion, though, would be faulty, if for no other reason than the question that it begs. If we cannot use science to determine ethics, what should we use? Is there any way to determine information outside of science?
Questions of metaphysics aside, it is clear that the things we observe in our universe have effects, and vice versa that unobservable effects have no observable causes. Even less tangible phenomena like psychological trends have observable causes and effects. For this reason all things must be rooted in some sort of science, because those things that are unobservable have no effects on us. Only those things which we can observe have bearing on our lives.
Our ethics must be based on some sort of empirical foundation if they are to have bearing on our lives. This is exceedingly hard to do, given the lack of empirical evidence for any sort of ethical claim. Despite the difficulties, though, I believe there are some irreducible primaries on which to found our ethics; in particular, the existence of the self is one very good place on which to found an ethical “theory.”
All in all, ethical theory really cannot be called theory at all, as it fails two of the four criteria of a good scientific theory. Additionally, our morals must be founded in some sort of empirically verifiable evidence, as only those things that are observable have effect on our lives. These might seem like insurmountable barriers in formulating a system of ethics, but I have hope that there are still some very viable options.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Rand-day!

Internationally beloved (and despised) philosophical and literary icon Ayn Rand turns 100 today, February 2nd. Of course, Rand has been dead since 1984, but her globally influential writings continue to impact millions daily. Reason magazine has devoted their March issue to Rand, including some interesting looks at her importance and her continual resurfacing in pop culture.

I have a particular affinity for Rand; my foray into her literature (beginning with Atlas Shrugged) was the initial catalyst for my current worldview. The sort of militant objectivism that Rand espoused has contributed in no small way to my evolution as a capitalist, an agnostic, an egoist, and a libertarian.

I don't claim that Rand had it all right, and I recognize her short comings. Obviously, she wasn't the greatest literary genius; at times her novels wax slightly too far towards Harlequin romance for me. Likewise, her formal training in philosophy was decidedly lacking. Her personal life was wrought with hypocrisies, and the philosophy she created, Objectivism, has a few gaps that Rand simply left unfilled.

Despite these problems, Rand contributed more to society than most care to admit. She renewed the importance of reason in a post-modern world sinking into a pit of absurdity. She reaffirmed that empiricism and objective facts existed, were important, and could be known. She reminded us that those things which we can't observe have no effect on our lives. She started the movement towards a more laissez-faire capitalism, one that has since been proved to be the most fair, equitable, and stable economic system ever conceived. She set the ball in motion towards putting government back in its place. She has inspired hundreds, even thousands, of libertarians to explore the path of freedom.

Most of all, though, Rand's work has had a significant impact on my life and thought (and, of course, being a follower of Rand, I realize that it is only my life that is truly important). For all of her shortcomings, Ayn Rand was perhaps one of the most influential people in the 20th century, and for that we honor her on this, her centennial.

Happy birthday, Ayn.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Deserts

It looks like Elizabeth Anderson has done it again. This is a follow up to her attack on natural rights, but now she's taking the tack that we don't deserve the fruits of out labors. I think Will Wilkinson sums up my complaints nicely.

And the answer is easy. The same way I can deserve a silver medal in Olympic tennis, even though I had so little to do with determining the existence of the Olypmics, or the rules of tennis, or the quality of my pool of competitors. My reward is fixed by a combination of my performance, chance, and the rules of the games. The existence of chance or my lack of responsibility for the rules simply does not bear on what I deserve in this context.

That is to say, there is no intrinsic value in any action itself, but rather the value comes from the subjective viewpoint of the person who is rewarding that action. Furthermore, given that I have no control over how my ware might be valued, I have no right to any particular wage or compensation for doing something, but rather only a right to compensation equal to the going rate.