Does Anything Matter?

Sa1336_thumb3 Peter Singer on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters:

Last month, however, saw a major philosophical event: the publication of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited book On What Matters. Until now, Parfit, who is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had written only one book, Reasons and Persons, which appeared in 1984, to great acclaim. Parfit’s entirely secular arguments, and the comprehensive way in which he tackles alternative positions, have, for the first time in decades, put those who reject objectivism in ethics on the defensive.

On What Matters is a book of daunting length: two large volumes, totaling more than 1,400 pages, of densely argued text. But the core of the argument comes in the first 400 pages, which is not an insurmountable challenge for the intellectually curious – particularly given that Parfit, in the best tradition of English-language philosophy, always strives for lucidity, never using obscure words where simple ones will do. Each sentence is straightforward, the argument is clear, and Parfit often uses vivid examples to make his points. Thus, the book is an intellectual treat for anyone who wants to understand not so much “what matters” as whether anything really can matter, in an objective sense.

Many people assume that rationality is always instrumental: reason can tell us only how to get what we want, but our basic wants and desires are beyond the scope of reasoning. Not so, Parfit argues. Just as we can grasp the truth that 1 + 1 = 2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time. We can also have reasons (though not always conclusive reasons) to prevent others from suffering agony. Such self-evident normative truths provide the basis for Parfit’s defense of objectivity in ethics.

A Modest Proposal

Experimental-philosophy-joshua-knobe-paperback-cover-art Antti Kauppinen over at the Experimental Philosophy blog:

I was catching up on this blog just now, and noticed that the old question about the identity of X-Phi came up in several posts and comments. Perhaps this is enough of an excuse for me to made a modest proposal. There is, of course, plenty written about the relationship between X-Phi and more traditional philosophy. I think the simplest way to approach it is to ask whether it is psychology, and if not, why not? (After all, the disciplinary identity of psychology is a lot clearer than that of philosophy.) To lay my cards on the table, I think it is: both the methods it uses and the questions it addresses are those of empirical psychology. This is not, of course, to say that X-Phi studies are necessarily philosophically uninteresting – I agree with Tamler (sort of) that such issues of relevance must be settled in piecemeal fashion. But since the two disciplines have distinct questions and methods, it is important to avoid the sort of confusion that easily arises (and has indeed arisen) from using the same or similar terms for different types of inquiry. So I will advocate that people begin to describe themselves as doing psychology of philosophy or of intuitive judgments when that’s what they do. The label ‘experimental philosophy’ and talk of ‘philosophical experiments’ has generated a lot of heat and no light. The admirable modesty of many smart X-Phiers is incompatible with the alleged continuity with the philosophical tradition.

First of all, I hope it’s not controversial to define psychology as the science that studies how the mind actually works. I don’t know what else psychology could be. (Perhaps it also has some limited otherworldly ambitions.) To answer questions about how the mind actually works scientifically, what is needed is systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, studies of the brain, and so on. Now, according to Josh Knobe, X-Phi studies how the mind actually works. It does so by way of systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, and studies of the brain, among others. Ergo, X-Phi is a branch of psychology that specializes in how the mind actually works when we make judgments about philosophically interesting topics.

At this point Josh would likely say, as he has recently often done, that philosophers, especially prior to the 20th century, did make claims about how the mind actually works, so this is actually just a return to the classical tradition. (There may also be an underlying narrative of progress: put in my terms, the suggestion is that philosophy has always been psychology, but only now it is done properly and scientifically.) Behind this response, there may be a causal hypothesis: certain misguided developments within philosophy (maybe Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Husserl) led to an aberration that has now finally run its course.

Gutted

9781848931824 Steven Shapin reviews Ian Miller's A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950, in LRB:

Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for. Beaumont was pessimistic, but he cleaned the wound as best he could and was amazed the next day to find his patient still alive. It was touch and go for almost a year: St Martin survived, though with a gastric fistula about two and a half inches in circumference. It was now possible for Beaumont to peer into St Martin’s stomach, to insert his forefinger into it, to introduce muslin bags containing bits of food and to retrieve them whenever he wanted. Human digestion had become visible.

Beaumont took over St Martin’s care when charity support ran out, and over the next ten years the patient lived intermittently with the doctor, as both his domestic servant and a contractually paid experimental object. St Martin’s fistula was soon to become one of the modern world’s most celebrated peepshows. The experiments were conducted at intervals over the eight years from 1825 and a remarkable contract survives which established a legal basis for scientific access to St Martin’s stomach:

Alexis will at all times … submit to assist and promote by all means in his power such philosophical or medical experiments as the said William shall direct or cause to be made on or in the stomach of him, the said Alexis, either through and by means of the aperture or opening thereto in the side of him, the said Alexis, or otherwise, and will obey, suffer and comply with all reasonable and proper orders of or experiments of the said William in relation thereto, and in relation to the exhibiting and showing of his said stomach and the powers and properties thereof and of the appurtenances, and powers, properties, situation and state of the contents thereof.

In return for letting Beaumont in and out of his stomach, St Martin was to get board, lodging and about $150 a year. But by 1833 he’d had enough: he went back to his old life as a voyageur, and, amazingly, lived well into his seventies.

pass the borax, please

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The following menu for a 1902 Christmas dinner party stands—as far as I know—as one of the most unusual ever printed. And also one of the least appetizing. Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax Unless, of course, one happens to enjoy meals spiced up by the taste of borax—a little metallic, sweet and unpleasant, or so they say—a preservative used to keep meat from rotting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This particular menu grew from a series of federal experiments that ran from 1902 to 1907 and were designed to test the toxicity of food additives. In these tests, groups of volunteers—popularly known as “Poison Squads”—agreed to dine dangerously in the interests of science, working their way through a laundry list of suspect compounds.

more from Deborah Blum at Lapham’s Quarterly here.

being reviewed does beat being executed

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Yesterday, with great pleasure, I read the epigraph to Elizabeth Gumport’s short essay on book reviews in the already venerable n+1, the literary magazine out of Brooklyn. The epigraph is from an 1807 editorial in the long gone, but once venerable Monthly Anthology and Boston Review: The office of a reviewer is, in a republic of letters, as beneficial and necessary, though as odious and unpleasant, as that of an executioner in a civil state. This is fun, of course, as long as we don’t have to think too seriously about the death penalty or about book reviewing. There is, I’ll admit, something unpleasant enough about the business — all of us who have received bad notices know it, and we at the Los Angeles Review of Books are aware of it every day, now that we’re editing a bunch of reviews, worrying about our multiple responsibilities to writers, critics, readers, the record. But one thing I’ll wager: being reviewed does beat being executed.

more from Tom Lutz at the LA Review of Books here.

spam is bad

Hormel_425x320_0

On the cut-and-kill floor of Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minnesota, the wind always blows. From the open doors at the docks where drivers unload massive trailers of screeching pigs, through to the “warm room” where the hogs are butchered, to the plastic-draped breezeway where the parts are handed over to Hormel for packaging, the air gusts and swirls, whistling through the plant like the current in a canyon. In the first week of December 2006, Matthew Garcia felt feverish and chilled on the blustery production floor. He fought stabbing back pains and nausea, but he figured it was just the flu—and he was determined to tough it out. Garcia had gotten on at QPP only 12 weeks before and had been stuck with one of the worst spots on the line: running a device known simply as the “brain machine”—the last stop on a conveyor line snaking down the middle of a J-shaped bench [DC] called the “head table.” Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. caption TK Matthew GarciaThey scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible (“everything but the squeal,” wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman next to Garcia would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.

more from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones here.

Offense Taken

Bruce Fleming in the Berlin Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_03 Jun. 30 17.12 Proposing anal sex to someone, for example, is not the same as using the words “anal sex” in a classroom discussion as one topic of publicly unacceptable jokes—such as I did in my classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I’ve taught for more than two decades. I was “counseled” by our Division Director Marine Colonel for uttering these words and warned to avoid a “hostile working environment” Later I was told I could not explain the medical details of a sex-change operation in response to a student question as this had the same effect. (I had proposed that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who is clearly unhappy being a woman, might have fewer problems if she were a man: discuss.)

How do words relate to the world? What’s characterized the political left in recent decades is a general acceptance of the stance of linguistic idealism: at its extreme, this view— formed by analogy with the philosophical position of idealism that holds our minds make the world rather than existing in it—means that words are the world. This in turn has led to the insistence on what we call “political correctness,” associated with the political left, with its emphasis on what is said rather than what is thought or done. If words are the world, it’s of utmost importance to police them.

The right, by contrast, tends to see a distinction between what you say and what you do—words are just words. For the right, the world exists independently of our minds, and we, as individual actors, exist in the world. The greatest interest of Palin’s defense of her gun language is her denial of linguistic idealism—even if she doesn’t put it like that—in favor of an underlying view that professional philosophers would call “naïve realism.” This holds that people are agents that act with each other and an independent world using words. Why criticize words? They’re just words.

More here.

How Pentagon billions are flowing to strongmen in the Middle East

Aram Rosten in Newsweek:

ScreenHunter_02 Jun. 30 16.51 Officially, the U.S. does not pay other governments for rights to military bases. The logic is straightforward: funneling money to the treasuries of foreign dictators cannot form the foundation of genuine strategic alliances. Yet, to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while staring down the mullahs in Iran, over the last decade the Pentagon has come to rely in an unprecedented way on a web of bases across the Middle East. And a NEWSWEEK investigation of Pentagon contracting practices in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Bahrain has uncovered more than $14 billion paid mostly in sole-source contracts to companies controlled by ruling families across the Persian Gulf. The revelation raises a fundamental question: are U.S. taxpayer dollars enriching the ruling potentates of friendly regimes just as the youthful protesters and the Arab Spring have brought a new push for democracy across the region?

More here. [Thanks to Alex Cooley.]

David Foster Wallace’s final book is boring

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Untitled-1 David Foster Wallace's final book is boring. On that, everyone seems to agree. We understand, too, that Wallace intended it to be boring. In the years before he killed himself, David Foster Wallace was writing, after all, a long novel about the IRS. He hadn't finished the book when he died. So, we are left with the incomplete remnants of what he was still in the process of creating. But it is easy to see, in reading The Pale King, published from all the material that DFW was working on before his death, that he fully intended to write a book that would produce long stretches of boredom for the reader. He wanted to produce boredom, he wanted to reflect on boredom, and he wanted, finally, to love boredom.

The most important piece of writing to come out about David Foster Wallace in some time was written by Maria Bustillos for The Awl in early April of this year. Maria is an unabashed fan of David Foster Wallace and wrote a book (Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork) that includes the chapter, “David Foster Wallace: The Dork Lord of American Letters.” Being both a writer and a fan, Bustillos wanted to know. After the suicide, she wanted to know. She wanted what many of us who admired the writer wanted: more of the man. She hoped, as we all hoped, that secrets would be revealed and that the secrets of the interior David Foster Wallace might also shed some light on his terrible, impressive, and depressing final act, the taking of his own life.

Maria Bustillos decided to go to the source. She had the strength to go to his papers and to read them. The papers exist. His books exist, too, the books from DFW's private library, many of which are heavily annotated. There are notes and jottings and lists and letters. It can all be found at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos went there and she started to read, she started to look through all that material. What she found surprised her.

More here.

Worn-out words

From Guardian:

Cardboard-box-007 Last year Ledbury poetry festival asked poets to name their most hated words. For this year's festival – running from 1 to 10 July – they've asked for the expressions that have become such cliches that they have lost all meaning. Here are their responses: please add your own.

Adam Horovitz

Word or phrase: “Thinking outside the box”

Why? This phrase came and bit me whilst I was considering a number of words and phrases. A friend asked if I was unwell. I told them I was thinking about defunct, soiled and spoiled words and phrases and was having trouble settling on the worst one. “Try thinking outside the box!” said my friend with a twinkle in her eye, which I missed because I became so suddenly agitated by her use of this appalling phrase. I believe that I may have wished loudly for everyone who continued to encourage people to “think outside the box” to be sellotaped inside a cardboard box while philosophers ignored their muffled cries and considered whether the prisoners were thinking or not thinking, sealed within their cardboard tombs. “Chill out!” my friend said, laughing, knowing all too well what she was doing and stepping away so she didn't have to listen to the grinding squeak of my teeth.

More here.

The Beer Archaeologist

From Smithsonian:

Beer-ingredients-631 It’s just after dawn at the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where the ambition for the morning is to resurrect an Egyptian ale whose recipe dates back thousands of years. But will the za’atar—a potent Middle Eastern spice mixture redolent of oregano—clobber the soft, floral flavor of the chamomile? And what about the dried doum-palm fruit, which has been giving off a worrisome fungusy scent ever since it was dropped in a brandy snifter of hot water and sampled as a tea? “I want Dr. Pat to try this,” says Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, frowning into his glass. At last, Patrick McGovern, a 66-year-old archaeologist, wanders into the little pub, an oddity among the hip young brewers in their sweat shirts and flannel. Proper to the point of primness, the University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor sports a crisp polo shirt, pressed khakis and well-tended loafers; his wire spectacles peek out from a blizzard of white hair and beard. But Calagione, grinning broadly, greets the dignified visitor like a treasured drinking buddy. Which, in a sense, he is.

The truest alcohol enthusiasts will try almost anything to conjure the libations of old. They’ll slaughter goats to fashion fresh wineskins, so the vintage takes on an authentically gamey taste. They’ll brew beer in dung-tempered pottery or boil it by dropping in hot rocks. The Anchor Steam Brewery, in San Francisco, once cribbed ingredients from a 4,000-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Flies Buzzing
.
As a child I danced
to the heartful savage
rhythm
of the Native, the
American Indian,
in the Turtle Mountains,
in the Round Hall,
in the greasy light of
kerosene lamps.

As a child I danced
among the long, jangle legs of
the men, down
beside the whispering moccasin women,
in close circles
around the Old Ones,
who sat at the drum,
their heads tossed, backs arched
in ancient prayer.

As a child I danced away from the fist,
I danced toward the rhythms of life,
I danced into dreams, into
the sound of flies buzzing.
A deer advancing but clinging to the forest wall,
the old red woman rocking in her tattered shawl,
the young women bent, breasts
drooping to the mouths of their young, the heat
hanging heavy on the tips of our tongues,
until the Sun
burned the sky black, the moon
made us silvery blue and
all of the night sounds, all of the night sounds
folded together with the buzzing
still in our heads,
becoming a chant of ghosts,
of Crazy Horse and Wovoka
and all the Endless Others,
snaking through the weaving through the trees
like beams of ribbons of light,
singing, we shall live again we shall live,

until the Sun and the Sun and the Sun and I
awaken,
still a child, still dancing
toward the rhythms of life.
.
by Mark Turcotte
from The Feathered Heart,
Michigan State University Press,
© 1998 by Mark Turcotte

The Art of the Deal

MerminarticleLiz Mermin, also in Caravan:

In October 2009, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested David Headley at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Philadelphia. His intention, he later told interrogators, was to go from there to Pakistan and then on to Copenhagen to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. At the time, investigators had no idea Headley had been involved in the Mumbai attacks (a detail he offered up after he was in custody), but he had been fixated on the Denmark plan following the “success” of 26/11, and intended to carry it out on his own, if necessary.

Although he had been trained to use AK-47s and grenades, Headley had never killed anyone with his own hand. His contribution to the 26/11 attack was intelligence from Mumbai: he provided his LeT handlers with hours and hours of video footage and offered strategic suggestions based on his time living in and scouting out the city. He was impatient for more action, and now wanted to attack the West. But LeT was under intense scrutiny after the Mumbai attacks, and his handler—though initially enthusiastic—had told him to back off. So he turned to al Qaeda. And when the men in Europe whom al Qaeda said would carry out the Copenhagen job were unwilling to do so, he offered to do it himself.

The plan was to enter the newspaper’s heavily secured office building with guns and knives, take hostages, shoot them, and then cut off their heads and throw them out the window into King’s New Square. As in Mumbai, the attackers were not supposed to survive. So it seems that the FBI might have saved David Headley’s life by arresting him—a courtesy they would extend again when he agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the US government in exchange for a promise that he would avoid the death penalty and extradition to Denmark, Pakistan or India. The latter was something Headley wanted to avoid at all costs.

I had been following the Headley saga since November 2009, when I happened to see a MiD DAY gossip column headlined “Did Headley Date Starlet?” The piece began: “Lashkar-e-Taiba mastermind David Coleman Headley (49), whose reputation as a strikingly handsome charmer almost matches that of his terror history, may have dated starlet Aarti Chhabria.” My first thought—reading the paper online from London—was “who the hell is David Headley?”

One Fine Evening

220px-Junoon-salmanAmitava Kumar in Caravan (photo from Wikipedia):

I was recently invited to dinner at the home of a Pakistani doctor in New York City. There was desi food. Biryani, qeema, baigan bharta, dal cooked to such perfection that one could taste even its fragrance, and rotis replenished as soon as they were gone from the plate. Nusrat was singing on the stereo. From the large glass windows of the thirtieth-floor apartment, I could see Central Park, a splash of green treetops. Inside, the walls were lined with bookcases filled with titles in Urdu and English.

There were ten guests. One of them was a tall, goateed man with his long hair held in a ponytail. He was wearing a maroon cap on his head and necklaces with gems around his neck. I recognised him from the photographs I had seen of him. He was Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani Sufi-rock music group, Junoon.

When we were seated for dinner, it was announced that we needed to reflect on the crisis in Pakistan. Just a few days earlier, Pakistani Taliban militants had made a daring attack on Naval Station Mehran, destroying two surveillance aircraft and killing at least 10 security personnel. An older gentleman raised the issue of rampant corruption and asked what was to be done. Our host, the doctor, dressed in a red shalwaar-kameez, her dark hair falling down to her shoulders, said to Salman Ahmad: “Darling, share your ideas. You have a passionate idea.”

Ahmad said he had recently sent out an email saying that Pakistan needed a revolution. Looking around at everyone at the table, he said that Pakistan “requires a massive social change. It requires a non-violent change.” He began talking of his early days as a singer, when he had been a student at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, and what had shifted in Pakistan since then. “There was a frustration we felt… What we experienced in college, I’d now multiply it to the nth level.” When he was a kid, “everyone wore their art as a badge of courage.” But now it was as if the country were on “a different planet”. Pakistan was standing at the brink. “Out of 180 million, a full 100 million are under 20. They can become suicide bombers or we can build on their potential.”

Is Liberal Society a Parasite on Tradition?

SamBowles Sam Bowles in Philosophy and Public Affairs (slightly technical):

The parasitic liberalism thesis, advanced in many variants over the past two centuries, holds that the proper functioning of markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals depends on family-based, religious, and other traditional social norms that are endangered by these very institutions. Liberal society thus is said to fail Rawls’s test of stability: it does not “generate its own supportive moral attitudes.”

Consistent with the thesis, market-like incentives are sometimes counterproductive, apparently because they displace preexisting ethical commitments in favor of a self-interested strategic mode of reasoning, as Richard Titmuss claimed is the case when monetary incentives are deployed to encourage blood donations. Until recently, skeptics of the parasitic liberalism thesis could point to the paucity of hard evidence that market-like incentives compromise ethical motives. However, recent experimental studies show that while the “moral sentiments” underpinning the workings of markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals are common in most human populations,3 the same experiments also indicated that incentives that appeal to material self-interest often undermine interpersonal trust, reciprocity, fairness, and public generosity.

Can an Economy Succeed Without a Big Manufacturing Base?

D82-chang-lg0 Ha-Joon Chang debates Jagdish Bhagwati in the Economist. [H/t: Mona Ali.] Ha-Joon Chang:

There is truth in the argument that above a certain level of development, countries become “post-industrial”, or “deindustrialised”. But that is only in terms of employment—the falling proportion of the workforce in engaged in manufacturing. Even the richest economies have not really become post-industrial in terms of their production and consumption.

From expenditure data in current (rather than constant) prices, it may appear that people in rich countries are consuming ever more services, but that is mainly because services are becoming ever more expensive in relative terms, thanks to structurally faster productivity growth in manufacturing.

By their very nature, many service activities are inherently impervious to productivity increases. In some cases, the very increase in productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a 27-minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled? For some other services, the apparently higher productivity may be due to the debasement of the product. A lot of the increases in retail service productivity in countries like America and Britain have been a result of lowering the quality of the retail service itself—fewer shop assistants, longer drives to the supermarket, lengthier waits for deliveries, etc.

D82-bhagwati-lg0 Bhagwati:

Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, is reputed to have remarked wittily about the “manufactures fetish” that most people think that unless one makes things that can be dropped on one's foot, they are not worth making. He would have been wittier if he had changed it to dropping them on one's foe's foot.

As is often the case, this fetish has the highest pedigree: no less than Adam Smith himself. We know of course that Smith is often misunderstood, as when he is condemned by liberals (in the American, not the Manchester School, sense) as an unqualified proponent of laissez-faire, whereas he qualified his support for the division of labour by arguing that specialisation on the narrowest of tasks and endless repetition of them would turn workers into morons and that good governance supplying education to offset this was necessary.