From the monthly archives:

November 2013

Laugh if you like, but death on the tracks is funny

by John Holbo on November 30, 2013

Every year or so we make jokes about trolleys. As an accomplished cartoonist of the subject, and a professional philosopher, I should probably weigh in to set you all straight. How not?

I really said it all (and more!) in this old post about Occam’s Phaser. Do not multiply zap-guns beyond necessity!

Philosophers aren’t bloodthirsty autists, you silly people. They are mildly whimsical. But that’s important. The genre of the analytic philosophy (Anglo-American, call it what you like) thought-experiment is a mildly humoristic one, in that it tends to Rube Goldbergism. Of course the point is always to solve for variables! You never tie another victim to the tracks, or fatten one up, for any other reason than that he/she is strictly needed in that place or shape. Nevertheless, the more outlandish the set-up gets, the funnier it gets. And I think it’s fair to say that philosophers quietly award themselves style points for (plausibly deniable!) whimsy, above and beyond conceptual substance.

The problem with that, I should think, is that mirth is an emotion that may affect our moral thinking. Specifically, it makes us more utilitarian. See this more recent article as well [sorry, Elsevier paywall]. The trolley scenarios are, or may be, used as intuition pumps for utilitarian purposes. (They may be used for other things, of course.) But it is an underdiscussed fact that they may inherently do so, in part, because trolley tragedies can’t help being a bit funny.

UPDATE: for those who can’t read the experiments, basically watching comedy clips makes you more utilitarian. But the experimenters don’t seem to have considered that the trolley cases themselves are short comedy clips, of a mild sort. I should publish this important finding of mine. Seriously. It’s actually important to think about.

Alleged Former Exalted

by John Holbo on November 30, 2013

You wouldn’t normally see those three adjectives in a line like that. And the noun they modify is an unusual one as well.

I suppose it’s fair to object that ‘exalted’ isn’t functioning as an adjective in this context. Fair enough.

Tiger, Tea, Political Economy

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2013


The “BBC”: has a short article on the background to Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It quotes another children’s author, who suggests that some of the imagery stems from Kerr’s experience as a little girl whose family fled from the Nazis (tigers, like Nazis, are dangerous). This seems to me improbable – the tiger is hungry, but genial, and little Sophie embraces him. But what I’ve always liked about the book when reading it to my children is the ordinary world into which the tiger irrupts. You can tell a lot about the political economy of 1950s or 1960s middle class life in a London flat from reading it. It’s a world where the milkman still comes around every day, and the grocer has a delivery boy. But it’s also a world where a moderately hungry tiger can quickly consume all the food in the flat (the pictures suggest that the cupboard shelves are rather bare) – the grocery’s delivery boy can carry everything that he needs to in the basket mounted on the front of his bicycle, because there isn’t much to carry. Perhaps most strange from the perspective of a modern American child, there’s a limited supply of water – the tiger has drunk so much from the tap that Sophie cannot have a bath.

This isn’t nearly as strange to me, or Irish people of my generation, as I suspect it is to most middle class Americans. I grew up in a professional family, but many of the things that Americans take for granted (and, as best as I can tell from TV, novels etc, took for granted back then too) would have seemed like the most sybaritic of luxuries. Britain was somewhat better off, obviously, but not by much. David Lodge’s comic novel, Changing Places plays up some of the differences between the material standards of living in the US and Britain for comic effect, but he really doesn’t have to exaggerate much (when I was a child, we lived for a year in a flat in Darlington – much of what he describes is familiar). The life I have today would have been unimaginable to me as a child, or even a teenager. Which is all a roundabout way of getting towards saying that ordinary life in the US today, for people who are middle class or higher is a life of extraordinary material abundance, even from the perspective of other Western nations in recent memory. If you’re one of the people enjoying this life, you likely have a great deal to be grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving.

Against (most) aggression in philosophy

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2013

Yesterday, Jo Wolff tackled the question of women in philosophy in his column at the Guardian, writing:

At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence.

Brian Leiter thinks Jo Wolff is making a mistake:

At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro’s approach [see the Wolff column] on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!

I disagree, unless there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach. (Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?) Sometimes combat might be the right stance, but seeing that as the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. I think a relatively common occurrence is that people on the receiving end of an aggressive battering lose confidence (in themselves, or in a good idea). Sometimes people should defer to criticism, of course, and sometimes people should make criticism in forthright terms and Brian is right to value that. But frankly, a lot of the stuff that goes on in philosophy seminars is just damaging.

What I’ve said so far is independent of the gender issue. I realize that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and philosophical style and there’s certainly no reason to think that merely being robust and forthright in argument is specially male. But a lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish, and there may be a selection effect in favour of women in the profession who are able (though not willing) to endure that. A lot of people in the academy – both men and women – suffer from “imposter syndrome”. But it turns out that women are more likely than men to suffer from this and there is no correlation with actual ability. An atmosphere where there is systematic reinforcement of such a widespread anxiety is not a good one, and it might be, because of its uneven distribution by gender, just one of the several mechanisms that exclude women.

Karl Marx or Pope Francis?

by Kieran Healy on November 26, 2013

Pope Francis’s new Apostolic Exhortation, [Evangelii Gaudium](, has been getting some attention today, mostly thanks to its reiteration of some long-standing Catholic doctrine on social justice and the market. So, here is a quiz to see whether you can distinguish statements by Pope Francis from statements by Karl Marx. I figured someone was likely to do this anyway, so why not be first to the market? It’s fair to say that the Pope and Karl Marx differ significantly on numerous points of theory as well as on what people asking questions at job talks refer to as the policy implications of their views. So I don’t think this quiz is very hard. At the same time, I sort of hope it will be picked up, stripped of this introductory paragraph, and circulated as evidence that the Pope and Marx agree on pretty much everything.

### Questions!

> *1.* In a similar way, by raising dreams of an inexhaustible market and by fostering false speculations, the present treaty may prepare a new crisis at the very moment when the market of the world is but slowly recovering from the recent universal shock.

> *2.* … society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.

> *3.* In this play of forces, poverty senses a beneficent power more humane than human power. The arbitrary action of privileged individuals is replaced … Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claim to alms distributed in the street, so it is also in regard to these alms of nature.

> *4.* Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people … for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.

> *5.* … the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society. This leads to a kind of alienation at every level, for a society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult … to establish solidarity between people.

> *6.* Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

> *7.* In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile … is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.

> *8.* Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. … Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.

> *9.* The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

> *10.* Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property.

[click to continue…]

Word targets and creative procrastination

by John Q on November 26, 2013

I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.

That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.

And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.

Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for CT readers (at least, those of you who don’t just skip over my posts to get to the good stuff). The marvels of creative procrastination have produced hundreds of blog posts, some of which have even turned into books.

I knew folks on the right were going to be upset about the Iran deal, but isn’t this a bit much? The Corner has gone Everyday-is-like-Munich full neocon.

OK, maybe there’s no point in even bothering, but just look at this post, “Munich II”, by James Jay Carafano (vice president of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.) He is banging on about how ‘realism’, presumably in the I-R sense, opposes this deal. But, even as he’s trying to make the case, he can’t help inadvertently making the case that the other side has got the better realist case. [click to continue…]

Rabbi Goldberg, Can I Come Back Into the Tent?

by Corey Robin on November 25, 2013

Four days ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski tweeted this:


Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tweeted this in response:  


Seemed like a crazy read of what Brzezinski said, but it’s the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from Goldberg. I didn’t give it a second thought.

But Logan Bayroff at J Street did. [click to continue…]

Fave Plato Bits

by John Holbo on November 24, 2013

I’m curious – for teaching purposes! What are the Plato bits that you especially like, that aren’t any of those usual bits that always get taught in Intro Philosophy? If you could include one unconventional Plato selection – whole dialogue, or chunk of one – in an intro philo course, what would it be, and why? (In short, this thread is your opportunity to get all indie about Plato. “I only read dialogues that don’t exist.” Please, let your hipster flag fly. You’ll probably sound like a Straussian.)

Bonus exercise: write a commentary on a Plato dialogue in the style of a Pitchfork music review.

I wrote this in late September 2011, to explain to my circle of friends why I thought we were in the state we were in. It’s by way of background to my latest post on secular stagnation, so I’ve disabled comments on this one.
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“When you write down all the good things you should have done, and leave out all the bad things that you did do, that’s memoirs” – Will Rogers

“Secular stagnation” is doing the rounds as a theory of why we’re in the mess we’re in, after this Larry Summers talk, which Paul Krugman is claiming basically summarises ideas that he’d also been talking about for the last few years. I am not sure about the extent to which anyone can claim priority on this though – as Krugman says, Summers is basically giving a clear expression of a set of ideas which have been ubiquitous for a long time, to the extent that I was making jokes along that line, ten years ago. I will follow Krugman in saying that I also had been thinking about a similar explanation of things since 2009, set out in cursory form here and in greater detail here[1].

Basically, the thesis is that since about the mid-1990s, it has been the case that it has only been possible to achieve anything like full employment in America during periods when the private sector has been chronically over-consuming and increasing its debt levels. The “natural rate of interest” consistent with full employment has been consistently negative all that time, and since there are good theoretical reasons[2] to presume that the natural rate of interest has some relationship to the natural rate of economic growth, this might be saying something rather depressing about the underlying growth potential of the developed world’s economy. And so on, and so forth.

Now it’s an interesting question, although not one on which I find myself with anything to say, as to whether we are stagnating secularly[3]. But the thing I do want to address is that, in the way in which the issue is being discussed historically, there is a lot of rewriting of the recent past.

Right from the start, you can see that there has been a lot of semantic drift in the word “bubble”. From having once referred to a specific model of how prices could depart from fundamentals in a rational expectations model, to referring to any general inflation of securities valuations, Summers and Krugman appear to be using “a succession of bubbles” to refer to “any period during which personal gross debt increased based on rising asset values”. As an opponent of linguistic inflation, I’m already prejudiced against this way of thinking of the economic history of the last two decades. But in describing the growth in debt as if it was a purely exogenous phenomenon, due to nothing other than animal spirits and irrationality, there’s a really dangerous kind of mistake being made.
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What a F*ing Scandal the Senate Is

by Corey Robin on November 21, 2013

Today, the United States Senate voted to eliminate the filibuster for most presidential nominees. That decision does not apply to legislation or Supreme Court nominees.

Republican John McCain responded to the vote, “Now there are no rules in the United States Senate.” The Reactionary Mind at work. (Incidentally, Patrick Devlin made a similar argument in The Enforcement of Morals, which led H.L.A. Hart to remind him that a change in the rules of an order need not constitute the elimination of that order or of order as such.)

But what does the vote actually mean? As Phil Klinkner explained to me, and as this old Washington Post piece confirms, before this vote, senators representing a mere 11% of the population could block all presidential appointments and all legislation.

From now on, senators representing a mere 17% of the population can block most presidential appointments; senators representing 11% of the population can still block all legislation and all Supreme Court nominees.

The march of democracy.

What a fucking scandal that institution is.

Walzer anticipates Cameron (and Miliband)

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2013

I was re-reading Michael Walzer’s famous (or infamous) chapter on “membership” from Spheres of Justice (1983) when I came across the following striking passage in the section on “guest workers”:

Consider, then, a country like Switzerland or Sweden or West Germany, a capitalist democracy and welfare state, with strong trade unions and a fairly affluent population. The managers of the economy find it increasingly difficult to attract workers to a set of jobs that have come to be regarded as exhausting, dangerous, and degrading. But these jobs are also socially necessary; someone must be found to do them. Domestically, there are only two alternatives, neither of them palatable. The constraints imposed on the labor market by the unions and the welfare state might be broken, and then the most vulnerable segment of the local working class driven to accept jobs hitherto thought undesirable. But this would require a difficult and dangerous political campaign. Or, the wages and working conditions of the undesirable jobs might be dramatically improved so as to attract workers even within the constraints of the local market. But this would raise costs throughout the economy and, what is probably more important, challenge the existing social hierarchy. (56)

With Cameron (and Miliband) having vowed to restrict immigration to the UK, one person’s modus ponens becomes another person’s modus tollens, and so we have the alternatives of immiseration driving the poor to work or the “living wage” laid before us (not that anyone believes that Labour would make good on the latter).


by John Q on November 21, 2013

So far, the Snowden revelations regarding NSA spying, both domestic and international, have produced plenty of outrage, but not much in the way of effective pushback. As we already learned during the Bush years, the US government can do pretty much whatever it likes to just about anyone. Only Angela Merkel has received a promise that her phone won’t be tapped in future.

That’s not true for junior partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” agreement.[^1] It turns out that, under the recently defeated Labor government DSD (the Oz NSA equivalent) tapped the phone of the Indonesian President (generally known by the acronym SBY) and his wife. The new conservative PM, Tony Abbott has refused even the same gesture as Obama made to Merkel, defending Australia’s right to spy on anyone we want to. But Australia isn’t the US, and the Indonesians are furious. The Ambassador has been recalled, and all bilateral co-operation programs have been suspended or placed under review. THat includes co-operation with Australian efforts to stop the flow of asylum seekers, which Chris discussed recently.

I was going to write a more detailed analysis, but I can’t improve on this by Tad Tietze.

[^1]:.The Five Eyes are US, UK, Canada, Oz and NZ. It’s striking that this ethno-linguistic bloc has been maintained even though NZ has long pursued an independent (notably, anti-nuclear) line in foreign policy. It’s also unsurprising that (just out today), even here,

William Weaver has died

by Henry Farrell on November 20, 2013

The Guardian has an “obituary here”: ; good translators so rarely get the attention they deserve. I knew him mostly through his translations of Italo Calvino – my Italian is (or was) just about good enough that I could begin to appreciate what an extraordinary job he did. His translations are not only lovely in themselves, but perfectly capture Calvino’s mixture of gravity and sly humour. I’ve “quoted”: Weaver’s lovely rendition of a couple of key passages from _Citte Invisibili_ before:

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. … Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions; he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn … By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

But Marco Polo, it turns out, understands the chessboard in a very different way.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist. … Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down … This edge was scored by the woodcarver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding …

[viaThe Browser]