Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Regulating Our Sugar Habit

Ronda Storms is a state senator in Florida. She recently introduced a bill to prevent people in her state from using food stamps to buy unhealthy food like candy and soda. Here's a link to a piece in the NY Times about the bill. I wonder what folks reading this blog think about her proposal, especially those of you in my Philosophy and Public Issues class.

A tension that comes up often in ethical debates is between paternalism and autonomy. We want to protect other people from harm; but, at the same time, we want to let people have the freedom to do what they want to do. Obviously these goals can come into conflict. Consider laws having to do with wearing seat belts or laws requiring children to attend school. Such infringements on our freedom are often deemed justified--these seem like good laws to have. And this is true even if it means that people then don't have the freedom to refrain from using seat belts or going to school. But paternalism surely has its limits. Is this bill a case of paternalism running amok?

There may be rather strong philosophical arguments for extending things beyond food stamp reform. Foods that are very high in sugar and fat have severe negative health impacts and have very high costs to society (e.g., medical care costs, lower productivity at work, lower life expectancy, environmental deterioration, fewer people are able to serve effectively in the military, etc.)*. It might appear, then, that we ought to ban such products altogether. Surely many people would object to this sort of policy. But if we take paternalism seriously and we really care for members of society, then we've got fairly good reasons for banning such food or, at least, seriously rethinking our policies related to the food we eat.

Comments related to these issues are most welcome...

*These are all things that I've heard in debates about our food policy. You might be surprised to hear about worries regarding our ability to field an effective military, but this is something that's receiving a good deal of attention from the folks in Armed Forces recruiting in the U.S. This is a testament to how far-reaching the negative effects of our diet can be.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Undergraduate Conference in San Diego

The San Diego State University's Philosophy Department is pleased to
announce the very first San Diego State Undergraduate Conference in
Philosophy located right here in San Diego. The focus of this year's
conference will be on Philosophy in Contemporary Life.

Possible questions addressed:
What is the purpose of philosophy in contemporary life?
How is philosophy informed by contemporary culture?
How can philosophy affect contemporary life?
What are some philosophical issues present in the contemporary world?

Keynote Speaker:
Dr. Noël Carroll,
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
CUNY Graduate Center

Paper submissions:
Please prepare your abstract of no more than 150 words for blind
review and submit electronically, along with a cover letter including
name, title and institutional affiliation to sdsuphilconfug@gmail.com
by March 23rd. Applicants will be notified of decisions in early-

Conference Contacts: mark.wheeler@sdsu.edu and paras.nikolas@gmail.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Statues and Lumps of Clay

We’re going to soon be getting into a really fascinating discussion in my Metaphysics and Epistemology course having to do with material object metaphysics. One fascinating case raises a host of philosophical issues. The “statue and clay” example has been discussed for centuries. Here’s how Carroll and Markosian spell it out in their book An Introduction to Metaphysics.

“Suppose that on Monday you bring home a lump of clay and place it on your workbench. Then on Tuesday morning you carefully fashion the clay into a beautiful statue of a snowy owl, which remains in your workshop for all your friends to admire... But suppose that on Wednesday you wake up in a bad mood and decide that you don’t like the snowy owl after all. So that morning you squash it back into an amorphous lump of clay”

How many objects are there on your workbench on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday? Does the number change over these days? In other words, are the clay and the owl the same thing or are they, alternatively, two distinct objects?

Ted Sider puts one of the problems raised by this case as follows. (This might as well be this week’s paradox. Please suggest a solution to this.)

(1) Before the sculptor's action, a lump of clay exists and after the sculptor's action a statue exists.

(2) The lump of clay continues to exist after the sculptor's actions.

(3) The statue comes into existence when the sculptor makes it.

(4) The lump of clay and the sculpture have different properties after the sculptor's actions: one existed before the sculptor's action, and one did not. (This follows from (1), (2), and (3).)

(5) If x and y have different properties at the same time, then x ≠ y. (This is called Leibniz’s Law - see here for a robust discussion of this principle.)

(6) The statue ≠ the lump of clay. (This follows from (4) and (5).)

(7) The statue and the lump of clay occupy the same location at the same time.

(8) Two distinct objects never occupy the same location at the same time.

(9) The statue = the clay. (This follows from (7) and (8).)

(10) Therefore, The statue = the clay and the statue ≠ the lump of clay. (This follows from (6) and (9).)

Of course, the statue can't be identical to the clay and also not identical to the clay. So what went wrong? Which premise(s) of the argument should we reject?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor

Peter Singer is gaining a near monopoly on posts thus far. I'll be sure to spread my attention around more fully. But... I've been thinking lately about some of the comments my students have made about our moral obligations to help those that are close to us--both in terms of proximity and in terms relationship (i.e., family, friends, etc.). Singer famously argued that proximity is not something that is morally significant. As he puts it, "It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away." It seems to me that he is right about proximity. My moral obligations to help those in need are not modified by distance. It's not as if the closer a person is to me, the more moral obligation I have to help them. But what about those that are close to me in the sense that I love them? Do I have a grater obligation to save loved ones than I do strangers? Some clarification is in order. I suppose the issue that my students worry about is one of comparative moral worth. The person starving in a far-off land, whom I do not know, is seen as somehow less deserving of my aid than is my friend Kent, whose friendship I cherish. But what's the argument for this view? Why think that Kent is more deserving of my help than someone else?

Further, things are much more complicated than I'm making them out here. We have to also consider the relative needs of individuals. Suppose Kent loses his job and he needs some money to cover his rent; and suppose that a stranger in some other country lives in a village that has an inadequate supply of potable water. Does the fact that the villager is in more dire need than Kent matter? It seems clear to me that it does. This is part of Singer's point. We have an obligation to help those in dire need--wherever they are--and giving aid to someone that needs our help less is to spend resources in a way that's not morally ideal. According to Singer, it would be good, of course, to help Kent; but it would be better to help the villager.

I know that some of you do not agree with Singer on this point and I wonder why exactly? Why do you think our loved ones are more deserving of help than strangers?

One thing that I have to stress is that there's a difference between what you would do and what you ought to do. This is something that students often get confused by. I'm not asking something about my psychology--whether I would help Kent and not the villager. I'm asking about morality. It's a question about what one ought to do in this kind of situation. I might be overcome by sympathy for my friend and thus help Kent. Of course, this doesn't mean that I am doing the right thing.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Extended Mind

David Chalmers gave a TED talk in May of last year. It's on a really fascinating topic: the extended mind thesis. (Chalmers co-authored an article on the topic that you might also find interesting.)

His example of a smart-phone is an interesting one. He notes that my phone stores memories (e.g., phone numbers) and serves as an "executive decision-maker" (e.g., helping me find a good restaurant). Chalmers thinks that my phone is actually part of my mind and not merely a tool that I use to form my beliefs, desires, etc. Indeed, his view is that a great many objects in one's environment are part of one's mind. Consider things like address books, Google, Facebook, GPS devices, and the various lists we make like "to do" lists and grocery lists. The upshot of Chalmers' view is that the mind "ain't all in the head."

I wonder what you think about his talk, his arguments for the extended mind thesis, etc.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Answering Singer's Call

After some discussion of Peter Singer's work, students in my Philosophy and Public Issues class have expressed a desire to donate money to a charity. I mentioned two charities that I think are fairly effective/are engaging in admirable work: Heifer International and OXFAM. I'm sure readers of this blog have other suggestions for deserving charities. I'm hoping to get a list of charities over the next week or two. I'll then post a poll to see which gets the most votes. The winner will receive the funds that we're able to collect this semester. I'm hoping to cast a fairly wide net. We might consider setting up a table in the University Center to get donations from students not enrolled in the class, faculty/staff, etc. But first things first. Where should we send the money?

MOVED UP FROM 2/9: I've moved this post up in the hopes that I'll get a few more suggestions...

Friday Paradox:

The Surprise Exam Paradox

Imagine that a professor provides the following blurb on her syllabus:

"In addition to the final paper and final exam, we will have one pop quiz (for 99% of your grade) on some class day between now and the end of the semester. (The topic will also be a surprise.) I won't tell you which day I am going to give the exam, but I will tell you this: I will definitely give an exam on one of the remaining class days, and on that day you will have no good reason to believe that it will be on that day, rather than some other. (This is just what it means for it be a surprise exam, of course.)"

You might object that what the professor has described is impossible. Consider how a sharp student might reply to the prof.

"Well, you can't give the exam on the last day of class, since then we would know that, there being no more classes remaining, you had to give the exam that day; and in that case it would not be a surprise. So we can safely eliminate the last day of class from the list of possible days on which you can give the exam. But then you can’t give it the second-to-last day of class either; for on that day we would know that you couldn’t wait until the last day-since then it would not be a surprise-and so we would know that you had to give it that day. But then, of course, it would not be a surprise. So we can also safely eliminate the second-to-last day of the semester as a possible date for the exam. But then you can't give it the third to last day either… (and so on, until all the remaining dates on which the professor could give such an exam are eliminated.) Therefore, you can't actually give a surprise exam!"

So here’s the paradox: Something is wrong with the student's reply. A professor can clearly give a surprise exam. What went wrong?

(Thanks to Jeff Speaks at Notre Dame for providing materials on paradoxes online. I've borrowed very heavily from this document.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

McTaggart on the unreality of time

We discussed a famous paper by John McTaggart called "The Unreality of Time" in my Metaphysics and Epistemology class. It can be a very confusing paper and so I thought I'd post some resources that might help clarify his argument. There are some resources on youtube like this and this. There are a number of class notes posted online. One has to be careful when using these--some are more reliable than others--but you might check out this and this. Probably the best place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (links are provided on the left-toolbar of this blog).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Black History Month Celebration

Alan Hancock--an extraordinary guitar player who works for the UPB bookstore and is one of the photographers for the Bradford Era--and I will be playing a few blues tunes at an event celebrating Black History Month. This is on Thursday, 2/16 at 7:30 in the Wick Chapel at UPB. There will be others performing as well (poets, singers, etc.). We hope to see you there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Coffee Circle

This week is our second "coffee circle" at the Aud in Bradford. We'll meet on Wednesday (tomorrow) at 6:30. Again, students that are enrolled in the scholars program and philosophy students are welcome. As per request, this week's topic is media ethics. Jessie Blackburn suggested an interesting article that we could read in advance of our discussion. You can find it here.

We're looking forward to seeing you at The Aud tomorrow.

The Aud Restaurant and Espresso Bar
30 Boylston Street
Bradford, PA 16701

We're all ears for future topics. Please feel free to comment on this post with your suggestions.

Is happiness hard to calculate?

Last week I graded papers from my Philosophy and Public Issues class. Many students attacked Utilitarianism. This is a moral theory set out by philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. You can check Mill's seminal work, Utilitarianism, here. The theory is that what one ought to do is determined by the amount of happiness or pleasure that one can bring about. More precisely, the right action is the the one that maximizes total aggregate happiness.

The most common objection from my students had to do with a claimed impossibility of measuring happiness. In a similar vein, some students claimed that we cannot predict whether an action will result in pleasure or pain.

This doesn't strike me as a devastating criticism. It seems to me that the Utilitarian could admit that we may sometimes be "in the dark" about whether a given action will result in making people happy/sad. In addition, she could admit that we often don't know the extent to which our actions will make people happy/sad. As I mentioned in class when this objection was raised, the Utilitarian might simply respond by insisting that we should do the best we can when it comes to calculating/predicting overall happiness. In addition, it seems to me that we're really not that bad at anticipating consequences. We often know which actions will result in overall positive consequences and which will result in overall negative consequences; and we're fairly good at predicting how much pleasure or pain a given action is likely to produce.

What would be helpful are examples that shed some light on this supposed problem. Unfortunately, the majority of the papers on this topic that I received didn't contain such examples (or, if they did, the examples weren't exactly convincing). Consider this example:

My wedding anniversary is a few months away and (being the obsessive-planner that I am) I'm thinking of a gift or something nice to do for my wife. I can't predict with absolute certainty what will make her most happy. Further, I can't predict what gift will result in the highest total aggregate happiness. But I have a good sense of what she likes and doesn't like; and what sorts of things are apt to produce greater aggregate happiness. I know that taking her on a trip to Vegas would not make her very happy. She'd prefer that we spend that kind of money on something else... indeed, just about anything else. (And Singer's arguments seem to compel me to avoid this option.) I've thought of at least ten things that she'll probably really appreciate and enjoy; and these things would also produce a great deal of happiness in others.

Now my task is to decide which of these should be my gift. Here's where the objection to Utilitarianism seems to raise its head. I have no way of determining the exact amount of happiness each of these options will produce and so I supposedly have no way of weighing my options. But is this correct? I don't think so. First, I can rule out various possible gifts (e.g., the trip to Vegas). Second, I can predict which of the various options are most likely to result in the most overall happiness. Third, once I have a list of "good options," I can randomly pick from the ones at the top of the list (supposing that they're indistinguishable with respect to likely consequences). This reply strikes me as fairly plausible. It's probably what I'll end up doing. Note that I'm not paralyzed by the various options before me. I do have a clue about what would be best. What I ought to do is do as well as I can in choosing wisely.

You might object that the case of an anniversary gift is not a moral decision, but is rather a practical decision. But this is beside the point of the present post. All I'm saying is that we often CAN predict how much happiness will result from a possible action. In fact, I think we are relatively good at it if we are careful and fair-minded. Of course, this is not to say that we can always predict how much happiness will result from an action. We are ignorant of quite a bit. But what we ought to do is try to do the best we can at making such predictions. Further, in cases where the consequences of various possible actions are indistinguishable, one can simply pick randomly between the ones that are most likely to result in the best consequences for all. Finally, it's worth noting that a Utilitarian could say the same sorts of things about cases that involve more obviously moral decisions.

There are a multitude of other objections to Utilitarianism (some of which I find especially troubling). But, as you can tell, I'm not at all persuaded by this one.

I wonder what readers of this blog make of all of this. Am I missing something? Are there examples that make a stronger case for the impossibility of calculating/comparing happiness?

Undergraduate Conference

Calvin College
Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

Calvin’s undergraduate philosophy conference is a two-day event held each year to promote excellence in philosophy. In addition to keynote lectures from leading contemporary philosophers, the conference provides students an opportunity to present and receive rigorous
feedback on their own work in the form of formal comments from a peer and Q&A.

This year we are very pleased to have Cornell philosophers Jill North and Ted Sider as our keynote speakers. On Friday the 4th, Dr. North will kick off the conference with “The Structure of a Quantum World.” Dr. Sider will conclude the conference with “Against Parthood.”

• Participants: The conference is free of charge and open to the public.

• Papers: Accepting papers on all topics in philosophy.

• Lodging: Calvin students offering to host visiting students.

• Contact: For further questions about the conference, please contact Chad McIntosh: cam39@students.calvin.edu


• Submission deadline is March 15th. Acceptance notification is April 1st. All papers are subject to blind review.

• Include detachable title paper with name, title, and institution affiliation. The paper itself should include only the paper title. Submit papers as attachments in pdf/word.doc format to Chad McIntosh: cam39@students.calvin.edu

• Papers should be prepared to be read within 30-45 minutes.