News of the Ordinary

A New York Times article a couple of months ago has stuck in my mind. It was about women who spend a couple of thousand dollars a month (or was it a week?) on beauty-enhancements. That covers hair styling, color, cosmetic surgery, skin treatments, and who knows what else. You see this kind of thing in the paper all the time.

Since these articles are in a "news"-paper, you figure they must be about a trend--something that's getting to be the norm. But then, if you simply leave your house and take a walk, you will see lots and lots of people who obviously aren't worrying about their every little flaw. The people I know do a bit of this and that, but for the most part they do their best to look good and move on.

What I would love to see is an article that reports on ordinary women. It would go like this: X does this and that, and it's not that much, but she can't be bothered with doing more, because she's got other things on her mind, and in fact her husband thinks she's wonderful as she is. That's the truth, I think, for a large majority of women.

The failure of newspapers to provide any news of the ordinary has much more serious consequences than causing undo anxiety in women. There's no news of the ordinary about Africa. Every story that comes out of that continent has to do with war, AIDS, poverty, drought, animal poaching...always something awful. Every story about Thailand seems to be about sex tourism and sex slaves. Stories about India are about ethnic violence.

As much as we do need to know about problems in far away places, wouldn't it be nice to know what these places are actually like--in a day to day sense? I think if we did it would help us care about the people there. We wouldn't feel so fatigued by the stories about problems that (of course) need to be told as well.

Oh but wait a minute. That story about the huge beauty budgets of very rich and self-absorbed women stuck in my mind. It was actually pretty amusing. It was fun! News of the ordinary would be ever so revealing and informative, but (sad to say) who would want to read it?


PETA Kills Animals?

A full page ad in the New York Times yesterday said "Who's Killed More Animals?" Under a picture of recently convicted Michael Vick, the score is "8." Under an image that's supposed to represent the animal rights organization PETA, the score is 14,400. Aha, so the infamous pro-animal organization is actually in the business of killing animals?

I would have turned the page quickly if it weren't for the fact that a student in my animal rights class last semester did a presentation comparing different animal rights groups and presented these allegations. I had never heard them before, expressed skepticism, and moved on. The group behind the allegations evidently has a lot of money and really wants to slime the folks at PETA, so yesterday I decided to look into the matter.

I should say, to begin with, that I'm basically in sympathy with the PETA people. I've met the president of the organization, Ingrid Newkirk, and she struck me as extremely decent, compassionate, and reasonable. My own perspective on animal issues is not absolutist and uncompromising, like PETA's is, but their clear, simple message is valuable. I also think they're masters at attracting attention--and Newkirk was completely forthright about that goal. Once people are looking (at naked celebrities, shocking images, or whatever) you can tell them something important. The Humane Society is more my style, but the PETA people are good guys, in my opinion.

So what about all the animal-killing that's allegedly going on at PETA? Apparently the organization doesn't want to help the "PETA kills animals" campaign gain publicity, so they don't respond on their website. But I sent them an e-mail and they sent back a thorough response. You can read it here. Bottom line--people turn to PETA as a last resort with animals that are not adoptible. PETA does euthanize animals.

I don't feel scandalized by this fact. "No kill" animal shelters have a happy image but they aren't really responsible for less killing than the rest. The "no kill" shelters take animals only by reservation. The animals they turn away wind up...of course...at the other animal shelters that do euthanize.

One of the most passionately pro-animal students who ever took my animal rights class worked at the SPCA and actually helped euthanize animals. This was painful for her, but there simply isn't enough room at animal shelters to house all the unwanted cats and dogs.

The people we should feel angry at are not the ones doing the euthanizing. It's folks who don't spay and neuter their pets. And even worse, people who adopt a cat or dog and then for the most trivial reasons decide to return it. An article in the New York Times magazine last year said that some people will actually take a dog to a shelter because he no longer seems like the right accessory. You know, last year I was an Irish Setter person, but now one of those miniature dogs would fit my image so much better.

It's people like this that scare me.


Back to School

There won't be any ten-year olds interrupting me every five minutes today, so I'll actually have to get some work done. But first, a trip to the carnival.


Existential Heaviness?

I'm still at the point where it thrills me to think that people actually walk into bookstores and buy my new book, people who are not actually close relatives of mine, such as my mother. And to think these people actually take it home and read it! How extremely nice of them. But if somebody buys it, and reads it, and then reviews it positively....That's a huge treat.

I got a happy-making e-mail from William Irwin last night saying he'd posted a review on his myspace blog. In fact, he's not actually a relative of mine, but the editor of Blackwell's Philosophy and PopCulture Series. His newest book is Metallica and Philosophy. I love the subtitle--"A Crash Course in Brain Surgery."Being metallica-challenged, I haven't read it, but I do have The Simpsons and Philosophy, which Irwin edited when he was affiliated with Open Court. The book's got a great article called "Thus Spake Bart: On Nietzsche and the Virtues of Being Bad"(by Mark Conrad), from which I learned a significant amount of what I know about Nietzsche. A friend of mine uses the book as the basis for a philosophy course.

Irwin calls my book "a wonderfully accessible work of philosophy." No, really, he's not related. He makes an observation about the title that amused me. He says it suggests "existential heaviness," when in fact it "indicates the balancing that needs to be done." Exactly. When I chose the title, I was thinking about the way we attach different weights to different things. But I'm beginning to think it really does convey (to some people) something like "the unbearable heaviness of being."

A google search of "the weight of things" turns up an amazing number of entries involving the gnashing of teeth and spilling of tears. For example, from a song by Maroon5:
The weight of things that remain unspoken.
Built up so much it crushed us everyday....
Every night you cry yourself to sleep
Thinking "Why does this happen to me?
Why does every moment have to be so hard?
Thinking up the title of my book was the only painful part of writing it. It started off with a very peppy title: "Heading for the Good Life: A Route through Philosophy." After a while it started seeming absurd to hint that I actually possess the route to the good life, so I changed it to "Necessary Aims: The Puzzle of the Good Life." The good people at Blackwell thought this was not good in roughly 15 different ways. Approximately 1001 titles later, we arrived at the current title.

Oh well...enough of that. I really appreciate the review.


Really good people

I've been reading and enjoying the book Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, by the actor Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. I can imagine someone finding the book annoying because of the way these two celebrity activists try to draw the reader in with their own personal stories. Of course much more noteworthy things are going on in Darfur than in the lives of these guys. But I don't find it annoying at all. One of the things they're trying to do is to let the reader see how a person starts off apathetic and uninvolved and then can be transformed into a passionate activist. The message is "you can do it too."

I find the message inspiring, because I've gotten myself involved in a Darfur project, but I also have a more long-term interest in the psychology of really, really good people. It's not a totally theoretical interest, because I've always admired the likes of these people. In short, why do some people devote a huge amount of their time and energy to very big problems...while at best I only devote a little?

I'm only a few chapters into it, but something Prendergast says intrigued me. He reports being asked by a reporter, "Why do you do it?" He says "Anger. I can't accept that we just stand idly by while entire peoples are being extinguished because of the actions and advantage of a few people."

He does it because of an emotion, which is interesting. Also interesting is which emotion. Martha Nussbaum is a champion of the role emotions play in making us do good things. It's strange though how much she fixates on one particular emotion: compassion (in Upheavals of Thought). Prendergast must feel compassion for the victims in Darfur, but his predominant feeling is anger. "It flames me up..." to think of western apathy, he says.

I think the main battle Nussbaum is fighting in her book is with people who think ethics is purely rational and emotion plays no role. So she's less concerned with which emotions count. But, speaking for myself, it's often true that I finally stand up and do something when I'm "mad as hell and can't take it anymore"!

Maybe anger is more problematic than compassion. Even in elementary school, children are taught to feel compassion. It's much trickier teaching them anger, because anger is as often an ethical as an unethical emotion. Still, it has a role to play in the kinds of things people like Prendergast do.

Another interesting passage--Prendergast says he was an agnostic for the first 20 years of his career as a human rights activist. More recently, he's felt a resurgence of Christian faith. It's always good to find another example that proves what really should be obvious: there are many things that inspire good works. Religion, yes. Other things, also yes.


Eights Facts

I’ve been tagged by Ophelia Benson, and I’m supposed to list 8 random facts about myself. If you think this is a silly waste of time, ignore the fact that I tag Caroline, Carolyn Ann, enigman. the barefoot bum, richard, Clayton, pj, bitch. Also, ignore the fact that you’re supposed to (1) put 8 facts about yourself on your blog, (2) and tag 8 more people, and (3) and directly contact those folks.

Here goes—(1) I like cold places. (2) I like books about cold places, like the novels of Halldor Laxness. (3) I love my cappuccino machine. (4) I don’t think Michael Moore is “too much”. (5) I like elephants. (6) My middle name is Rahel. (7) I like debate but not all-out combat. (8) I am extremely allergic to poison ivy.

I've had a look to see who went along and y'all are good sports (as we say in Texas). It turns out to be fun to come up with 8 facts about yourself. I've learned some interesting things about you folks (most of whom I only know from blogs or comments on blogs).


The Puzzle of Existence

Why, may I ask, is there poison ivy? I write this with teeth clenched, using all the self-control I have not to turn on myself in an itching, scratching frenzy. My little friend is paying it's yearly visit this week--the oozing, spreading rash caused by that mysterious three-leafed plant. Yes, yes, they say the rash can't spread, but it does. I don't know how, but it does.

(And by the way...I know, I know, "leaves of three, let them be." But I'm so sensitive to this stuff I get it without touching it. I believe one of my children must have been the "carrier" and threats and warnings have already been issued.)

In an attempt to turn a bad situation into an occasion for deep philosophical thought...and I'm not promising this is going to be successful, because I'm having trouble keeping the aforementioned frenzy at bay...let us ponder the existence of poison ivy. Since my kids sometimes read my blog, I will not ask this question with quite the force it deserves. So, let us leave out all extraneous anglo-saxon words, and simply ask: why?

It makes no sense. Let's get off on an erudite foot, and start with Aristotle, who sometimes talks like the whole world fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Don't think for a second I'm going to get up and go to my bookshelf right now to get the exact quote, but he says something like--Nature makes nothing in vain, so plants exist for the sake of animals, and animals exist for the sake of people. In short, the cow shouldn't feel bad about eating the grass, and you shouldn't feel bad about eating the cow.

Not to take Aristotle too literally, this implies that poison ivy must do people some good. But it doesn't. It really, really doesn't.

With the next flare up just around the corner, let's not belabor the point. Moving right along, there's the biblical creation story. Apart from the fact that I'm just a little skeptical about the deity in question, I really like that story. No, this is not a moment for restraint. I'm going to go for broke and say I love it. I love it because it says God created this and that and the other because they were all simply good. Not good for this or good for that, but just good.

What a beautiful, inspiring story, if people would just extract the moral message in it, instead of regarding this (by an amazing stretch of the imagination) as a serious theory about the origins of the universe. The creation story might then motivate care for the planet, instead of conflict with the best current science. But never mind. The point is--sure, I love the idea that the trees, the land animals, the winged birds, etc., are all good. But what about poison ivy? It isn't.

As all the best current science tells us, posion ivy evolved, and it's got to produce urushiol, the nasty stuff that produces the rash, because of natural selection. In other words, the wimpy ancestors of poison ivy mutated so as to produce urushiol, and the mutants thrived, and mutants among the descendants produced more, until today we've got rampant urushiol-producing poison ivy.

Here's the thing that I just don't understand (she said with gritted teeth). The whole thing has just gone too far. Urushiol supposedly wards off "predators" so that the plant thrives and spreads. But I've read that it doesn't affect animals. If that's true, it's human beings that are the potential predators. But the thing is, urushiol doesn't keep us at bay, it makes us really, really mad.

We have poison ivy in the field and on the banks of the creek by our house. We finally decided to Do Something About It, so we dumped a large volume of poison all over it. Urushiol elicits this kind of all out nuclear attack, so how can it really be life-enhancing for the plants?

In short, by all standards I can think of, poison ivy shouldn't exist. I mean maybe if it were just mildly poisonous, but this is ridiculous.

Well, I managed to distract myself. The itching frenzy has subsided for now. Cased closed, but puzzle not solved.


How to Help

There's an interesting editorial by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times today. Bono was heckled at a conference in Africa recently for demanding more foreign aid. What's the problem? Well, there's a lot of controversy about whether more money is what Africa really needs. Kristof cites the skeptical new book The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier) glowlingly, but then argues that aid really is needed.

Kristof is a master of the vivid story. He says he was recently in Cambodia, where he visited a family with five children now in the care of their grandmother. The mother had recently died of malaria. The problem is that the grandmother had just one malaria net, and so every night she had to decide which two children should be left out, exposed to the risk of disease.

Kristof gives the grandmother another net--an example that's supposed to show that aid is obviously useful. He then offers the reader the url for a group that distributes nets, so he or she can give people nets as well.

The example is actually much more complex than meets the eye, as William Easterly argues in The White Man's Burden. And there's Kristof's blurb on the cover, calling the book "Tremendously important and provocative...an immensely stimulating book."

Easterly has an eye opening comparison. A group called Population Services International sponsored a program in Malawi in which local nurses made money by selling malaria nets, and people had to pay for them (the rich paid much more than the poor). This increased the use of nets from 8% to 55% over several years. By contrast, nets were handed out for free by a program in Zambia, and 40% of people didn't use them.

The example goes to show that, contrary to common sense, simply giving people something life-saving isn't necessarily effective. You need smart people running aid programs, folks who really understand how people think and behave, not just money. Funny that Kristof uses the malaria net example, which seems as simple as could be, but actually isn't!

August 11
If 10 people are given nets and 10 buy them, what number will use them in each group? Easterly's statistics don't really tell you. I probably found him persuasive not just because of his statistics, which are not "apples to apples," but because it's plausible in the first place that people value things more when they have higher prices.


Go Mia!

I've read some idiotic editorials lately ridiculing celebrities who get involved in good causes. My opinion? Hurray for the celebrities. Mia Farrow has a very good blog about the situation in Darfur. While many human rights websites are a mind boggling maze of too much information, hers is simple, streamlined, and to the point. If you have a look, you'll find out she's trying very hard to make a difference.
August 9 update--today Mia is posting from a refugee camp between Darfur and Chad. Her blog helps you understand what's going on in that remote place today, now.
Having just read Matt Ridley's very good book The Origins of Virtue (I blogged about it a few days ago), I'm more tuned in than usual to questions about why people take an interest in the problems of total strangers. It's in our genes to care about ourselves and our close relatives, and for others when we can expect something in return. Why give up time and money for people we have nothing to do with, and could so easily ignore?

I believe it's possible to do good things simply because we see that it's right. I add 2 + 2 and get 4 for no other reason than because that's the answer. If you think through some moral problems, they seem to have answers that are no less straightforward. It's a fact that children are suffering and dying in Darfur. Those children are no different than my children. It would be a really bad thing if that were happening to my children. So it's a really bad thing what's happening to the children over there. Should I lift a finger to stop a really bad thing? Of course.

To explain why I lift a finger, there doesn't have to be anything that's in it for me. Still, at least a lot of the time we do mainly care about ourselves and our relatives. We do largely give to only those unrelated people who are likely to give back. So when someone seems to be behaving altruistically, it may very well be that there's self-interest involved. Ridley talks a lot about a specific thing we gain in return for sacrificing money and time: a good reputation.

The above mentioned articles about celebrities cynically suppose they are always in it for the image enhancement. This makes me think, because lately I've become involved in a Darfur project here in Dallas myself. Am I doing it to get a reputation for generosity? Am I hoping to get something back in the long run?

This is certainly an interesting question, but it would be a bad idea to worry about it too much. Mia Farrow's very extensive efforts will hopefully mean fewer children who are suffering and dying. As far as they're concerned, it doesn't much matter if she's burnishing her image.

The little bit that I'm doing will hopefully do a little bit of good. I'd like to think I'm one of those people who's simply solving a problem of "moral math" and lifting my finger just because it's right. One thing's for sure--I'm not doing it for my own inner purity, so I don't absolutely need to know the answer.


More about the Brahmin

I really enjoyed Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, but there’s an idea in the last chapter I find amazing, and not in a good way. It’s the idea that ultimate happiness and meaning come from coherence between our senses, our thoughts, and the society we live in.

Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the Ganges, and feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes. That’s an ideal to strive for?

I wrote about this in an article about Haidt’s book and two other recent books on happiness, but my dissatisfaction grew (if possible) when I read Rohinton Mistry’s book A Fine Balance recently. The book tells the excruciating tale of what life is like for two “untouchables” trying to survive and make something of their lives. (I blogged about it here.)

Had Haidt read this novel first, I believe he could not have written the final chapter of his book as he did. Mistry gives us the caste system “up close and personal” leaving us no more able to idealize the Brahmin than we could idealize a slaver-owner in the American south. Haidt would surely not make an exemplar out of the master sipping a cool mint julep on his veranda while watching his slaves pick cotton!

Maybe because India is far away and culturally different from his own country, Haidt perceives its social customs as, well, untouchable. But the more you learn about caste, the more compassion you feel (for the victims of the system) and the less deference.

I sent Haidt my mostly appreciative article, which he kindly read and commented on. At first he didn’t respond to my criticism of what he said about the Brahmin. When I wrote back—ahem, do you really regard the Brahmin as an ideal?—he said he did have mixed feelings about the Brahmin and negative feelings about the caste system in general. Nevertheless, we could learn something from the example because of the way "they feel deeply connected to God, history, and each other."

But gee, what do we really learn? I think we learn that it’s all very well to conform, and feel comfortable, and enjoy the mesh between ourselves and our culture, but only if the culture is worth meshing with. Part of living a better life is figuring out what we should fit in with and what we should try to change.

In the world according to Haidt, there's not much of a reason to fight against injustice. As long as I’m the Brahmin, not the outcast, the master and not the slave, I don’t have a problem. My life can be not only happy but meaningful.

If that’s what happiness and meaning are, surely we should want much more!


Laughing at Academia

The best book I've read all summer is The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. The book is about cooperation in animals, primitive societies, our society...and why it exists at all. I'm reading it for the official reason that I'd like to understand better whether there's anything very much like morality in animals.

Ridley gives the reader a glimpse of disputes in anthropology, economics, and many other fields. He's generally a very entertaining and witty writer (besides being a clear, elegant, and colorful writer--he's my new writing hero). One sentence in the book really made me laugh. Ridley is explaining a certain raging debate between two schools of thought about why it is that, in hunter-gatherer societies, hunters share meat. Ridley says, of this debate--
Like all disagreements in academia, it raged so fiercely at its height...because the stakes were so small--there was only the subtlest of differences between the positions of the two schools.
I often wondered, while sitting in seminar rooms in graduate school: why are people so ferocious during discussions of arcane matters in the philosophy of mind or language or metaphysics? Actually, there's a wide range of quirky and comical things that can be observed in a seminar room. Not only inexplicable rage, but pretentiousness, artificiality, self-importance.

I used to think I'd like to try writing fiction--maybe a comic novel set on the stage of of a philosophy department? It sounds hopeless, but it's already been done, and very well--there's The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein, with (as I recall) the Princeton philosophy department as the stage. Zadie Smith does a great job of capturing the comedy of academia in On Beauty.

A friend married to an academic told me she took offense at On Beauty's cast of ludicrous academic characters, but Zadie Smith is an excellent observer of academic foibles. People have written funny books about the ways of lawyers, lifeguards, mothers, rabbis. Why exempt professors?

As for Ridley's explanation--that academics gnash their teeth because so little is at stake. Hmm. That seems like the puzzle, not the explanation. Why gnash your teeth if very little's at stake? Surely it's a matter of egos in the balance, prestige on the line, the pressure to show you're the clever one, not your opponent. The competition for dominance. Cooperative talk isn't dazzling. So why engage in it?

But maybe Ridley has a point--if people didn't shout and scream, others might think it didn't matter much who's right. Sometimes, when all the dust settles, it really doesn't.

August 5
Now that I've finished Ridley's book I have to add: while it's all to the good that he pokes fun at various types of sentimental nonsense, Ridley isn't immune to sentimental nonsense himself. I love the irreverence about academia, as I said above. There's a great chapter in the book deriding the idea that native peoples are great respecters of nature and animals (he's got some great examples that suggest otherwise). Ridley rains on a lot of sentimental parades, and good for him. But when you get to the end of the book, you find him getting dewy-eyed about all the voluntary mutual support there'd be between citizens, if it weren't for the heavy hand of government. Get rid of the National Health Service in the UK, and everybody would be helping everybody else. Maybe some. But we see what life is like without national heathcare here in the US. It's nothing to get dewy-eyed about.