Most Listened to in 2011

Wilco, live in concert
This won't be a top 10 albums list, because my listening habits are too quirky and insufficiently up to date, but here goes: what I've listened to (and listened to, and listened to) in 2011.

1. Wilco - The Whole Love (2011) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002). Biggest obsession: Jesus Etc. Here's the official video and a nice live performance.  Next biggest obsession: The Art of Almost.  Why I love this music (can one really say?):  Songs are both just plain good and full of sonic experimention. I love the casual quality of Jeff Tweedy's singing and the tenderness.  We saw them in November and they were incredible live.  Credit for discovery (because she likes to get credit):  BG.

2. Arcade Fire - Love the Suburbs (2010), and all their earlier albums.  Let's have Ready to Start.  And also In the Backseat, a Regine Chassagne masterpiece that also showcases all the musicianship in the band. Don't complain that she sings out of tune, because that will only show you don't understand how imperfection and emotionality go hand in hand. Why they're great:  powerful rock sound with lots of musical complexity and emotional intensity. Win Butler's anguished voice is to-die-for (as we used to say). We saw Arcade Fire last summer at a small-ish venue in Dallas (not sold out....!!!!), which was a huge thrill. Credit for discovery:  DB. Head of home fanclub and obsessive-in-chief:  BG.

3.  The Decemberists.  And now for something very different.  I was a little slow to catch on, because these guys are so "folk" but they are edgy folk and devastatingly good.  Let's have the Shnkhill Butchers from The Crane Wife (2006).  Credit for discovery: PG.

4.  Kanye West.  The above three groups speak to me personally, and Kanye doesn't very often, but so what?  I don't relate to the crazy dramas depicted in Puccini's operas, but I love Puccini's operas.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) is an amazing album, full of musical complexity and beauty.  Let's have the first song on the album, Dark Fantasy.  I was an R&B and Motown fan way back when, but it took frequent pummeling with Eminem by my son to turn me into a rap fan.  Confession: I like the musical bits on Dark Fantasy most, but I'm working on giving the "flow" my full attention. (I just learned the word "flow" -- the rap part -- from reading Decoded, by Jay-Z.  Good book!)  I also like (but not as much) Watch the Throne (2011), the Kanye West plus Jay-Z album.  We saw the Watch the Throne concert in November, which was visually stunning (but so loud all the subtle stuff got drowned out).  Credit for discovery:  SG.

5.  Fleet Foxes.  The Helplessness Blues is not quite as good as their first album, but still great. Let's have a song from the first album:  Your Protector.   There is a blend of foreboding and hopefulness in this song that intrigues me--what is it that evokes those two feelings? My brother, a music professor, gave me a music theory tutorial on this song earlier in the year.  I'm always struck, though, by the "explanatory gap" that always seem to separate what you can say about music and how it's experienced.  Dear Fleet Foxes, please come to Dallas.  Credit for discovery:  DB.

6.  The Rolling Stones.  One of the great obsessions of my youth was the album Beggar's Banquet.  I can't hear the song Salt of the Earth too many times.  Great things about this song:  the raw, acoustic guitar and piano, the drum beat, the way the voice is Keith Richards at first and then switches to the prettier Mick Jagger (at :35).  The pause and key change at 1:06.  The drumming at 1:20 and on.  And on and on.  My appreciation for the Rolling Stones was deepened a lot this year by reading Keith Richards' book Life (2010)- a great thing on every front (musicology, gossip, brilliant writing). Credit for discovery:  JK.

7.  Bon Iver.  A growing obsession.  Holocene.  Justin Vernon sings like he has a secret, and he's not sure he wants to share it. At first that seemed bad, but very quickly it started to seem good!

8.  Everything else.  Thanks to all the "best of 2011" lists that have come out lately, the musical fare in my house (and car) has been extremely varied and eclectic lately. Wow, I love The Shins: try to listen to Young Pilgrims and not instantly fall in love with it.  While driving across country we listened to PJ Harvey, Let English Shake, many times--first song here.  Don't hate me (if you're a hardcore hipster), but Adele is pretty terrific:  Rolling in the Deep, two thumbs up.  St. Vincent ... Wild Flag ... hmm.  Maybe I have to listen a few more times.

9.  Eveyone else's lists. My colleague Robert Howell has a nice list here, with music videos, and I plan on listening to everything.  Rolling Stone has a very eclectic list (Brittany Spears is in the top 10 along with Wild Flag, Wilco, Fleet Foxes, Kanye/Jay-Z and Adele).  Uncut's top 50 list is weirdly narrow--why no hip-hop?  Same goes for Pitchfork.  Jon Pareles of the NYT is pleasingly eclectic in his tastes

10.  What about women?  I'm appalled by my male-dominated list.  Yes, I love Regine of Arcade Fire, and PJ Harvey's up there in itme #8, but I used to listen to a lot more women:  Joni Mitchell, Buffy St. Marie, Laura Nyro, Robin Holcomb, Grace Slick, The Indigo Girls, The Dixie Chicks, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Billie Holiday.  Resolution:  listen to more women in 2012, but who?

(picture from here)


Young Pilgrims

I'm gearing up for a post about the music I've been listening to lately, but I'm too zonked from being in the car all day.  For the time being, how about a song?  I just recently discovered The Shins and love this--

This too (but they should fire their videographer)--

Both from Chutes Too Narrow.


The Elf on the Shelf

One of the topics for my procreation and parenthood class this past semester was lying to children: is it less bad than lying to adults?  One of my students told of a currently popular type of lie, illustrated by the picture above.  Actually, there are two lies here, one addressed to adults, and one to children.  The lie to children involves the elf figurine, who is supposed to be set on a shelf, and, according to the storybook, spies on the kids and reports their misbehavior to Santa.  The lie to the buyer is that "The Elf on the Shelf" is a Christmas tradition. It can't be all that traditional, considering that the book was written in 2005!

I like to indulge in just a touch of curmudgeonly over-thinking on Christmas Day, so -- hmm -- is there anything wrong with the elf on the shelf?  My class read a very interesting and well-written article on lying to kids by philosopher Amy Kind in which she says it's not as bad because (in so many words) a lie to an adult short-circuits the adult's decision-making powers, whereas a child may not have had any decision-making powers to short-circuit.  You could use this line of thought to defend "The Elf on the Shelf":   a child (you might say)  loses nothing from her parents putting the elf on the shelf, assuming she'd just go ahead and do naughty things in the absence of the elf, not decide whether or not to do them.

I admit that I don't mind other Christmasy deceptions.  For example, I've always quite enjoyed my in-laws' tradition of setting out mince pies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, not to mention carrots for the reindeer.  Many a time, a letter from Santa has even shown up in the morning, with profuse thanks for the goodies, and I may (MAY) have had something to do with that.  All that's OK, imho, because it's done with a twinkle in everyone's eye.  This is all obviously make-believe-ish, and if the kids don't see that, it's because they choose not to.

By contrast, if you're really serious about elvish surveillance of your children, then you'll have to get that twinkle out of your eye. Your child will be unable to avoid the deception.  Which seems bad, but if there's no loss of decision-making power, how so?  Why is it worse, for example to put the all-seeing elf on the shelf, to prevent candy cane theievery, as opposed to simply putting the candy canes higher up on the tree, so you're child can't reach them?

The article by Kind surveys lots of possible views on what's so bad about lying, and whether lying to children is more benign.  I'm still scratching my head...while sipping sherry and looking forward to Christmas dinner.  Hope your holiday, whatever you celebrate, is going nicely.


The Escalator of Reason

When I wrote some scattered comments about Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature last week, truth be told I had not quite finished the book -- I had about 70 pages to go.  That wasn't the best time to make a final assessment of such a thick book, like the way you should never evaluate a backpacking trip while the pack is still on your back.  It so happens it was especially unwise in this case, because (mirabile dictu) the last 70 pages are the best in the book.  Pinker has a very interesting story to tell about moral psychology, and how reason, more than empathy, transports people from self-involvement to morality, from violence to pacificism.  The last two chapters of the book are a must read, and maybe even a must re-read and study carefully.

Pinker embraces Peter Singer's vision of "the expanding circle" and "the escalator of reason."  You start out with self-interest and use empathy to expand your concern just a little, but it's reason that makes you see the problems of a stranger as analogous to your own.  In the next to last chapter of the book, there's some fascinating stuff about how people seem to be getting better at reasoning by analogy, thinking in terms of proportionality, and other cognitive tasks that help them ascend to concern for others and make reasonable choices. Even in these chapters there's too much richness to quickly summarize--I would just say "do read", even if to get to those chapters in this lifetime, you must skip some of the previous chapters.

Interestingly, while I was reading these chapters I had a moral problem to deal with, and found Pinker's description of moral ascent via reason quite apt--though I'm still thinking about the details.  Last week I got an email from my temple (yes, dear reader, I belong to one) about a seven year old boy, the child of a temple member, who has leukemia.  Members were invited to get tested as possible bone marrow donors.  A tricky thing about this is that to find a match, a huge pool of volunteers is needed.  So one is recruited to help a specific person, but the truth is that volunteers are matched to any stranger in a large system, within the five year period after testing.  So the ascent that's needed is from self-concern, to concern for a person you may know or at least can picture, to concern for invisible strangers.

Being risk averse, I got stuck at the first stage--self-concern.  I looked up bone marrow donation, and learned that 20% of the time it's done under general anesthesia.  The rest of the time, the donor takes a drug that stimulates stem cell production--and there are side-effects and risks.  I found myself contemplating these things and wanting very much to forget about the email.  However, there were pictures of the child in the hospital--ouch.  So I got from self-concern to empathy, both for the child and his parents.  As Pinker points out, empathy flickers, and it's much stronger for people you know very well. Call me cold, but sheer empathy alone probably wasn't going to turn me into a donor.

The day after receiving the email, I opened it again and thought some more. Empathy was still percolating, but also an analogy.  Yes, of course, these parents are to their child as I am to mine. I could imagine my own child having leukemia and desperately wanting as many people as possible to step forward as possible donors.  The analogy started making it really hard to justify not showing up.  And that's really what got me closer to a decision.  It takes self-interest and empathy to hop on the escalator of reason, but reason is what seems to carry you up.

Only--yes, I'm risk averse.  Or is that just plain cowardice?  The morning of the bone marrow drive, I learned that Christopher Hitchens had died.  Death from cancer at 62 is bad enough. Death from cancer at the age of 7 is just completely uncontemplatable.  So: more empathy. But I think ultimately I made myself go because of an analogy. I can't coherently hope people would help me if I were ever in this situation, if I won't help someone actually in this situation. Over a thousand people showed up to help this child--I would love to know what the thought process was for those (like me) who had never met him.

Looking at my thought process a little more closely--because I am a philosopher, so think too much; and because this connected so directly with Pinker's last chapters...

I can see several ways the escalator of reason might work. (1) Perhaps it's sheer Golden Rule--I got swabbed to help someone else's child because I would want others to help my child.  (2) Maybe it's some sort of magical causal thinking:  if I help that will ultimately cause others to help if I'm ever in that situation.  (3) Then again, there's this possibility:  I helped to give myself evidence that if I'm ever in that situation, others will help me.   (Reminds me of Calvinist theories about why we should work hard--to created evidence of our salvation, not to cause our salvation.)

But really it felt more like a matter of justification:  (4) I couldn't justify inaction in this case, considering I'd want people to help if it were me.  There's a Kantian flavor there, something to do with adopting policies you could want everyone to follow.  Anyhow--escalator of reason, not empathy alone. That's what Pinker argues, and my experience says he's right.

Update:  just had a look at the child's facebook page.  It looks like they found a match!  It's back to sheer empathy--my thoughts are with him and his family.

Philosophy of Food

The University of North Texas, right up the road from me, has produced a really nifty website about the philosophy of food. Lots and lots of topics and links, and nice graphics too.  (via Leiter)


The Believer's Atheist?

There's something just a little bit right about Ross Douthat's description of Christopher Hitchens as "the believer's atheist" in today's NYT.  Douthat says religious believers particularly liked Hitchens because of "his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously."  On a deeper level,
... many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens's case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and "Brideshead Revisited" surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.
In a 2007 roundtable discussion with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett (see hour 2, starting at 10 minutes, transcript here), Hitchens does say he wouldn't want faith to disappear. Maybe on some level he felt that way because religion is such a good friend of the imagination, but Hitchens gives a different explanation--
[CH] So, a question I wanted to ask was this: we should ask ourselves what our real objective is. Do we, in fact, wish to see a world without faith? I think I would have to say that I don’t. I don’t either expect to, or wish to, see that.
[SH] What do you mean by ‘faith’?
[CH] Well I don’t think it’s possible, because it replicates so fast, faith. As often as it’s cut down, or superseded, or discredited, it replicates, it seems to me, extraordinarily fast, I think. For Freudian reasons, principally to do with the fear of extinction, or annihilation
[SH] So you mean faith in supernatural paradigms?
[CH] Yes, the wish. Wish thinking.
[RD] Then why would you not wish it?
[CH] And then, the other thing is, would I want this argument to come to an end, with all having conceded that …
[SH] You wouldn’t like to retire and move on to other stuff?
[CH] ‘Hitchens really won that round, now nobody in the world believes in God’? Now, apart from being unable to picture this, I’m not completely certain that it’s what I want. I think it is rather to be considered as sort of the foundation of all arguments about epistemology, philosophy, biology, and so on. It’s the thing you have to always be arguing against, the other explanation.
[RD] It’s an extraordinary thing. I don’t understand what you’re … I mean, I understand you’re saying that it’ll never work, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t wish it.
[CH] Because, I think, a bit like the argument between, Huxley and Darwin. Sorry, excuse me, Huxley and Wilberforce, or Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, I want it to go on.
[RD] Because it’s interesting.
[CH] I want our side to get more refined, and theirs to be ever more exposed. But I can’t see it with one hand clapping.

If you watch the video, you'll see the other three find Hitchens' stance peculiar.  They want religion to be slayed altogether, whereas Hitchens wants religion to stick around to be slayed and then slayed some more. 


Sadly, Douthat quickly goes off the rails.
At the very least, Hitchens's antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism's less talented apostles--a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic's attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.
Ha! As disconcerting as it may be to Douthat, Hitchens was both: a disbeliever and a rebel. There's no incompatibility there.  He genuinely thought there was no deity and enjoyed the battle over religion. Douthat must know this is a little polemical maneuver on his part. Hitchens' atheism must be nothing but rebellion because--well, because God exists, and we all really know it. 

It gets worse.  Hitchens once asked Douthat at a party what it would prove if Jesus did rise from the dead. This strikes me as a perfectly good question.  Even if you granted a lot of Christian hocus pocus, how would you justify the rest of the hocus pocus--like the idea that everyone else gets to be saved as a result of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection?

But no, the question can't be taken as a legitimate challenge to Christian doctrine.  The question is no challenge to Christianity, Douthat thinks, but rather a sign that atheism is actually a religious dogma.
It's a line whose sheer cussedness cuts to the heart of Hitchens's charm. But it also hints at the way that atheism--especially a public and famous atheism--can become as self-defended as any religious dogma, impervious to any new fact or unexpected revelation.
So--Christian doctrine all really makes obvious sense, if Jesus rose from the dead.   Only (um) it doesn't.

When push comes to shove, I guess Douthat's got to insulate himself from the proddings of a Christopher Hitchens, since he thinks
rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philop Larkin's poem "Aubade'--that "death is no different whined at than withstood."
What a bleak picture!  But it's surely just nonsense.  All the meaning in life is not bound up with catching a train to eternity (I must make my case briefly here--see my first book for a longer argument!). In fact, nobody really thinks "no meaning without eternity" except when they're engaging in religious apologetics.  So nobody should take seriously Douthat's ludicrous suggestion that Hitchens was an implicit believer--
Officially, Hitchens's creed was one with Larkin's. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.
The argument seems to be this--

(1)  Atheists must despair.
(2) Hitchens wasn't full of despair.
(C) Hitchens wasn't a true atheist.

I'll leave it for the reader to identify the problematic premise.


Goodbye to Hitchens

Ian McEwan's column in the NYT is so perfect.  I'll miss Hitchens because he was one of the four horsemen, but more than that, because he was the consummate lover of books, ideas, writing, talking, and debate.  What a great writer and talker.  I'm enjoying all the encomiums here and here.


Atheists Untrustworthy, Study Says

art by Tracy Emin
See here.  The strange thing is that not only do religious people trust atheists less, according to this study, but atheists trust each other less too.  Is there any way to make peace with this?  Maybe we can, by focusing on the word "trust".  To trust someone you have to have a pretty confident idea about what they'll think and do in various situations.  Both religious and unreligious people tend to know far fewer atheists, so know less about what they'll think and do.  Furthermore, I think religious people are more conventional and conformist.  An atheist is more likely to take a novel or even alarming position on some matter of ethical debate.  That's a little scary--just the opposite of trust-inducing.  Moral of the story--if you're a sober, morally middle-of-the-road atheist, it's especially important for you to wear the atheist label openly.  I'll go first--"I am an atheist, and I believe in helping people, keeping promises, being nice, voting in elections, etc."  My moral outlook is about the same as that of my liberal religious friends--in fact, I see no obvious difference.  Go ahead and trust me!


God Talk

In honor of the Plantinga article in the NYT today, I'm republishing a post I wrote when he visited SMU last year (2/4/10).  I think the talk covered some of the same ground as his new book.


No, God didn't talk at SMU yesterday, but Alvin Plantinga did.  He gave a talk called "Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies."   

Getting Better All the Time

Brian Rea (NYT)
I wish I could gush more about Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of our Nature.  (Here's Peter Singer's extremely enthusiastic review.) The book has a provocative thesis--that violence has declined over the course of human history.  It offers a rich variety of explanations, many with implications for how we can reduce violence even more.  Its sentences (all 50 billion of them) are beautifully written.  So what's to complain about?

Answer (for me):  this book is too (er) syllabular.  What? There are two ways to write a book (besides all the other ways!).  A book can be thesis-driven, with every chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence playing some role in advancing the thesis.  And then a book can simply cover a topic, with the outline being much like the syllabus for a course.  Academics are in the habit of creating syllabi, so it's very natural for them to write books that are ... syllabular. 

Better Angels is about 50% thesis-driven, and 50% syllabular. In just one of Pinker's hundred-page chapters (ouch), there are dozens of pages that are (it seems to me) pedagogically motivated.  I'm not against learning (!), but prefer thesis-driven writing.  The perfect example:  Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel.   Diamond does not set hmself up as "the professor" educating his reader on all things "geography", but as answering a question (and a great question too).  The reader is thus carried along by a desire to find out the answer, whereas (for me anyway), Angels doesn't have that sort of momentum.  You keep going because the course isn't over yet, not because the thesis is still being developed or hasn't been fully supported.  At times no thesis is directly in view--we're just being very exhaustively taught the subject of violence through the ages and its causes.


On to substance.  Having spent so much time with Pinker in the last two months (I'm a slow reader), I have a pretty good feel for what's on his mind (I think).  Pinker doesn't like political correctness and fashionable nonsense.  One thing he doesn't like is the tendency of liberals to think the sky is falling--"Everything's getting so much worse, what is the world coming to?"  Not only is this an annoyingly fashionable view of the world, it's flat out false.  So he argues, drawing on vast amounts of history, data, etc.  I found this part of the book mostly persuasive, but perhaps sooner than I was meant to.  A more skeptical reader might be more engrossed by all the evidence and take more pleasure in being slowly won over to Pinker's view. 

Then there are all Pinker's explanations.  This would have been a more exciting book if he had been able to point to 2-3 causes of the decline of violence, but he points to dozens.  The development of Enlightenment ideas about human rights and equality.  The spread of literacy, so people became better at entering the point of view of others.  Hygiene, believe it or nor.  Disgustingly smelly people with bad breath are not as hard to torture and kill.  Confidence about the future, so that there's something worth avoiding violence for.  The "expanding circle," in Peter Singer's sense, so more and more people (and even animals) started to count.  A shift away from moralities centering on honor, community, the sacred, and incommensurable values--this stuff generates violence; a shift toward moralities centering on harm and fairness.  And a lot of other stuff. This is the kitchen sink theory about declining violence--sadly the truth is not always satisfyingly simple.


I have just a few substantive objections. One concerns the decline of violence toward animals--just one of the many trajectories Pinker traces.  I think Pinker massages the data a bit, to make it tell a "getting better all the time" story. And it could be that he does the same thing elsewhere in the book--I'd love to see responses to his history-telling and criminology from experts on the many topics he covers. 

So--things seem horrendous for animals now, right? There's factory farming on a massive scale, and millions of animals are also used in medical research.  How is it that things are getting better?  Pinker makes his case partly by showing they used to be worse than we thought.  There are some fascinating passages here about tenderization of meat in the 17th century.  It turns out they tenderized live animals by whipping them with knotted ropes.  Nice. Amazingly enough, confinement farming was known to these people as well.  The Elizabethans fattened pigs by confining them to small spaces and birds were fattened by being nailed to the floor or having their legs cut off.  Considering where we were centuries ago, it's no longer obvious that things have gotten worse.

Yet its important to know how often animals were treated in these horrifying ways in the 17th century. If these were just the excesses of the rich, the scope of modern violence toward animals is much more vast. Not only are there way more of us, so more animals are suffering, but per capita meat consumption has risen.  Each human is no more savage, and probably less savage, but the total amount of "bad" is much greater.  This matters, surely (more on that below).


Pinker says as far as biomedical research on animals goes, things are not just no worse, but actually better.  Here we have not just scant attention to questions of scale, but some outright errors.  Or at least, statements that will mislead many readers.  For example, Pinker writes,
Not only are live animals now protected from being hurt, stressed, or killed in the conduct of science, but in high school biology labs the venerable custom of dissecting pickled frogs has gone the way of inkwells and slide rules." (p. 465)

What does it mean to say "live animals are now protected from being hurt, stressed, or killed in the conduct of science"?  I would think it means they are no longer being hurt, stressed, or killed in the conduct of science. But that's obviously untrue.  Here are some estimates of the number of animals used in animal labs from lab vet Larry Carbone's excellent book What Animals Want - and of course they're all stressed, most are killed, many are hurt.

Perhaps what Pinker meant by "protected from" is that someone's minding the lab. There are regulations that cover exactly how much animals are stressed and hurt and how many are killed. Yes there are, and that's evidence for a decline of violence.  But Pinker exaggerates how much protection the regulations afford animals.  He says the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) that review research protocols do things like regulating "the size of cages, the amount and quality of food and veterinary care, and the opportunities for exercise and social contact..." (p. 456)  Yes, all that's spelled out in the Animal Welfare Act.  But then he says "Any experiment that would subject an animal to discomfort or distress is placed in a category governed by special regulations and must be justified by its likelihood of providing 'a greater benefit to science and human welfare.'"

Unfortunately, there's no reference associated with the quote within the quote. That passage is not part of the Animal Welfare Act. I can only guess that he may have been thinking of the "The Sundowner Principles" a standard that does involve cost-benefit balancing.  This is a standard that's not part of the AWA mandate; the committees do not have to think in these terms.  Of course, if they do anyway, it's fair for Pinker to say so.  But they don't. At least, this is what Larry Carbone argues in his book, based on nearly 20 years of serving on these committees, and based on research on how they operate.

Carbone is emphatic that IACUCs are not ethics committees, precisely. They take it for granted that most research will be authorized, whatever the balance between costs to animals and benefit to humans.  Animals can be "asked" to suffer a lot, for the sake of relatively trivial gains to people, like the gains involved in developing new cosmetic procedures.  The committees merely make sure that research that's done--possibly with a troubling cost-benefit balance--is done using no more animals than necessary, and no more stress and suffering than necessary.  The committees do important work on behalf of animals, but they don't entertain the possibility that some research is unacceptable no matter how it's done, because the gains to humans aren't worth the losses endured by animals.  Gains to humans are always (or at least almost always) worth pursuing, though the idea is that we should select less painful routes to these gains, other things being equal.

I think Pinker is right that today open cruelty to animals is not tolerated. There are expectations that we will not be wantonly cruel or blood thirsty, and labs are supposed to be clean places with at least minimally decent shelter, food, and veterinary care.  Blatant violence and negligence are no longer tolerated.  For all that we have more humane intentions, though, and we're required by law to have humane intentions, there are now more suffering animals in the world than ever before, and not just because there are more of us.  There are also more animals per capita--more are being used to support the diet, health, clothing, etc., of each individual human being.


A puzzling issue about the book has to do with the way Pinker assesses amounts of violence.  We are not to think violence has increased just because of the huge death toll of 20th century conflicts.  Numbers have to be seen relative to the size of the world's population.
... while the 20th century certainly had more violent deaths than earlier ones, it also have more people. The population of the world in 1950 was 2.5 billion, which is about two and a half times the population in 1800, four and a half times that in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times that of 1 CE.  So the death count of a war in 1600, for instance, would have to be multiplied by 4.5 for us to compare its destructiveness to those in the middle of the 20th century.
Suppose, as Pinker observes, Cain wiped out 25% of the world's population when he killed Abel. There were just Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel, when he committed fratricide.  Now suppose that today history (sort of) repeats itself, and 25% of the world's population suddenly gets wiped out by fratricidal lunatics.  That's 1.75 billion people.  Is it the same?

Well, in a way it is.  Human nature hasn't gotten any more fratricidal since Cain's time, if 25% of people are wiped out on both occasions. And the risk to any person of being a fratricide victim is the same.  From a moral perspective, though, all is not the same.  The 2011 Great Fratricide generates a vastly larger quantity of bad.  If God is a utilitarian, and wants to intervene just once, he'll prevent the Great Fratricide.  Likewise, those who let the Great Fratricide transpire have more to answer for than those who let Cain's fratricide transpire.  We who are now too passive in the face of huge slaughters are morally worse than people in earlier times who watched the same percentage of humanity be wiped out.  If the total amount of "bad" is greater, there is more reason to stop a slaughter, and more reason to condemn those who fail to do so.

So we can agree with Pinker that violence is not increasing, but also think there's a basis for growing concern.  The bloodbaths we're failing to prevent involving larger and larger total amounts of death and suffering. It shouldn't soothe the conscience that deaths are not increasing, relative to the total human population.


So much for some scattered thoughts. If you've read the book, tell me what you think.



In my last post about reproduction, I tried to explain why we may reproduce, even in a crowded world, in terms of the right of self preservation.  Having a child (and I don't mean 10 children) is a means of survival. Not literally, of course.  We don't lengthen our own lifespans by having children.  But children feel to their parents a bit like second selves, so mortality is easier to face, knowing they'll be around when you're not.  This has a lot to do with the genetic connection between parent and child.  A child feels like a second self because a child comes from my genes and (for the mother, especially) from my body.

It occurs to me that this picture of parenthood raises some uncomfortable questions.  If the "meaning" of biological parenthood involves survival and genes in this way, then what about adoptive parenthood?  Here are some things one could say about it:

(1)  Adoptive parenthood is experienced in the same way as biological parenthood, so has all the same meanings, but without the biological basis.  Analogy:  for Thanksgiving dinner, we don't have a turkey, but we make something to which we voluntarily give the same significance.  We don't eliminate the turkey-role, we just fill it with something different.  Along the same lines, it could be the case that adoptive parents don't eliminate the biological child role, but rather fill it with an unrelated child.  If this is right, biological parenthood is primary in some sense, and adoptive parenthood imitates it.

(2)  Alternatively, you might see parenthood as an umbrella term, with biological and adoptive parenthood simply two forms--not related as primary to secondary, or original to imitation.  Marriage might be like that, with love-marriage and arranged-marriage two forms, one no more primary than the other.  The "in law" relation is clearly like that.  I have the in-law relationship both to my brother's wife and to my husband's sister--two different relationships falling under the same heading, one no more primary than the other.   On this view there are differences between adoptive and biological parenthood, but one isn't "the Platonic form" of parenthood.  For example, adoptive parents may have a "meant to be" feeling about connecting with their child (or so it appears, from the adoption narratives I've read), while biological parents focus on biological connections (my husband was delighted to see his crooked little finger on our children's hands when they were born).  It's all parenthood, just in two different forms.  Survival "meanings" might be more a part of biological parenthood, but other equally profound meanings are part of adoptive parenthood.

(3)  Another view is that adoptive and biological forms of parenthood are not importantly different.  It would be silly to talk about black and white parenthood as if those were deeply different types of parenthood. Likewise, on this view, it's silly to distinguish types of parenthood based on how parents link up with children.  It just doesn't matter where the kid comes from--parents are custodians of dependent children in either case.   The irrelevance of origin doesn't completely exclude the possibility that children make mortality easier to face.  If people can feel better about their mortality because they've left behind books or paintings or businesses they invested themselves in, why not because they invested themselves in children simply by caring for them?  This view says biological and adoptive parenthood are not "separate but equal"--as in (2); they're trivially different "realizations" of the same relationship.

I've been thinking about adoption with the help of the book Adoption Matters (edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt).  Some authors in the anthology (e.g. Janet Farrell Smith) take it as axiomatic that biological parenthood is in no way primary.  So (1) is out of the question.  Some authors also see nothing special about genetic ties.  For example, Jacqueline Stevens calls sperm "largely useless" and proposes we recognize mothers (who give birth) and parents (the person or persons, of whatever gender, to whom a mother grants custody--possibly herself), but not fathers.  Genes, she think, do nothing but establish species characteristics (a million twin studies notwithstanding).  So (2) is out, since it countenances significant differences between experiencing a child as "mine" by genetic connection and "mine" in some other way.

I sense, to be honest, a sort of ideological commitment to (3) in the book--driven by the thought that nothing but (3) could possibly allow adoptive parents to be satisfied as biological parents, and adopted children to be satisfied as adopted children.  We must refuse to countenance differences, or someone's going to wind up with a smaller slice of the pie.   This requires all sorts of mental contortions. Somehow you have to buy into a level of "anti-essentialism" (the word is strange--"innate" and "essential" don't actually mean the same thing) I find bizarre and anti-scientific.  Sperm just ain't "largely useless."  Nor can we make it true that the structure of the family is completely culture-driven just by repeating the phrase "socially constructed" over and over again.  Like animals are innately wired to bond and deal with offspring in pre-specified ways, there is an innate component to the way human parents deal with children, and children respond to parents. 

I can't see having views on parenthood that denigrate adoptive parents or adopted children, but I don't see that (1) or (2) do so. We can be egalitarian without refusing to see differences.  (Wait--that's what I said in my animal book!  It's true here too.)  So--all three views seem to be in the running.  Maybe (not to be wishy washy, but...) they can actually be combined in a complex picture of adoptive vs. biological parenthood.


Plan B

Just  a quick post to register revulsion about Kathleen Sibelius's decision to stop "Plan B" from being sold as an over-counter-drug. Here's what President Obama had to say about this (quote lifted from Jerry Coyne, who's been doing a fine job of covering the topic)--

What?  No, I'm a parent, and don't feel the same way. In fact, Obama's reasoning is terrible.  An 11 year old girl can go into a drug store and buy Tylenol alongside bubble gum or batteries.  It's very easy to overdose on Tylenol if you don't read the directions.  (Why would she want to buy her own Tylenol, you may ask?  Maybe she has menstrual cramps. Maybe she doesn't want to discuss that with her dad.  Maybe her parents are at work. Lots of reasons.)  In fact, the directions on many medications say a doctor should supervise use for children under 12.  So the directions on over-the-counter "Plan B" would be unremarkable, if they said the same thing.

No, I'm afraid we can see right through you, President Obama.  We mustn't upset social conservatives who want girls to face maximum humiliation if they didn't learn their lesson in "abstinence only" sex education class.  Girls distraught and trying to take care of themselves might actually be considered worthy of care and respect, but hell no, not in an election year.


Watch the Throne

My kids survived being chaperoned to the big show by Mom - no disguise needed, and they didn't even try to keep a distance.  Hey, they're only 14, and who knows what stupid thing they might have done without me. 

What a FANTASTIC spectacle.  The show started with Kanye West and Jay-Z on separate platforms rising out of the ground, with green lasers shooting down on them from above and thunderous music filling the whole arena.  As the cubes rose, there were images of flying doves on their sides, and then barking dogs, and then the cubes looked like gigantic fish tanks, with sharks (dolphins?) swimming around inside. "Watch the throne" indeed!  Then the show moved to one giant stage, and there were a lot more spectacular effects--fire jets, laser beams shooting around the arena, amazing images on a giant double screen.  All just incredible.

(The images are from the Atlanta show, but the Dallas show looked the same).

[12/9: What? Some of my images disappeared.  They're available here]

I would enthuse some more, but I've got things I need to do.  So let's get on with a little,  um, complaint.  Where, may I ask, was all the complex layering of sound that makes me a Kanye West fan (especially)?  Or, to be more frank, what happened to the pretty parts?  The 14s think this is a stupid question.  If I wanted to listen to pretty music, I should have stayed home and listened to pretty music.  Okay ... I'll hang my head in shame ... I am an idiot ...

But wait (pick me, pick me!) ....  These guys DO make complex and sometimes pretty music. So maybe the question isn't so dumb after all.  Why shouldn't I want to hear the whole sound? Take for example "Made in America," sung against the flag background above. This is a downright lovely and moving song--sorry, kids, but "lovely" is perfectly apt.  Yet as performed last night, the "lovely" was mostly missing.

Nobody seemed to care, but today I'm doing some remedial listening.  Oh wow,  so that's what the song sounds like (listen below).  That sound PLUS the spectacular show would have been more than a few degrees more amazing.

I know. This little rant may cost me the chance to attend future concerts with the 14s, who won't necessarily need an escort forever (we'll see).  Still. I believe I am right about this.

p.s. I forgot to say:  what exactly is the deal with printing "7:30" on the tickets but starting at 9:15?  Just wondering.



Tonight I'm taking my kids and a friend of theirs to "The Throne" -- the big Kanye West and Jay-Z concert.  I'm an unexpected fan of their music, so this is gonna be fun. Only I have one small problem--how to prevent my kids from looking like kids being escorted by their middle-aged mother.  This significantly lowers the cool factor of getting to go (on a school night, even!)  The solution is a disguise, but which one? 

Maybe this? (It's called a wimple.)

 I'd fit in better with this sort of a cover up.

Then again, this hat with sunglasses could do wonders.

Except I don't wear fur.  Diane Keaton does cover-up very well.  (Needless to say, I'm a huge fan.)

A simple baboushka could be easily arranged ...

... but why not go for a little more fashion appeal?

Then again, I'm more of a North Face kind of a gal--

Truth is, probably only this would really do:

But wait a second, who paid for these tickets?

Suck it up, bitches!  (Sorry--getting in the mood for the big show.)


Reproduction and Self-Defense

We live in a crowded world, so someone might think they're obligated to have no children.  Then again, we live in a world that's becoming disproportionately elderly, so someone might think they'd better have children, so there will be enough young people around to support the aged. Then again again,  it would be odd if someone did their family planning entirely in such terms.  But why's it so odd?

Some writers say having children is simply a very intimate and personal affair, so not the sort of thing constrained by morality. But I don't see the logic there--is there really a DMZ (demoralized zone), untouched by ethics? On other accounts, to say someone ought to have a child, or ought not, improperly limits their freedom, even if these are moral and not legal "oughts".  But if moral "oughts" limit freedom (do they?), they all do.  What's so special about "oughts" pertaining to reproduction?

Perhaps we can shed some light here by noting how we think about the ethics of self-preservation, and then connecting the dots between reproduction and self-preservation.  So--first self-preservation, then the dots.

Jane is loafing around in the plaza drinking coffee, as she does most days, but today she has the misfortune of sitting near Dr. Wonderful when he goes berserk.   Dr. Wonderful has his gun aimed at Jane, but she's armed too, and a good shot, so could take him out.  Also in her pocket is a time-suspender.  After pressing the button, Jane begins to gather information and reflect.  Dr. Wonderful has 10 wonderful children and is on the verge of discovering the cure for a terrible illness. He's just off his meds, so if he shoots Jane, he'll be acquitted on grounds of insanity, and he'll go back to his wonderful research and his wonderful kids.  Jane, by contrast, will go on wasting time drinking coffee in plazas.  The world needs Dr. Wonderful much more than it needs Jane.  Jane pushes the button again, returning to the fast pace of real life, and lets herself be shot.

She may not be wrong to make the sacrifice, but it doesn't seem like she has to. In fact, she's failed to appreciate her own right of self-preservation.  She thought about the situation in a neutral, third-person way, but could have thought about it in a biased, first-person way.  When our existence is threatened, we're entitled to that ... aren't we?

Let's not say we're entitled in an absolute sense, though.  Put the whole scene on an airplane.  Dr. Wonderful and Jane have both made it past airport security with their weapons.  I don't think Jane can fire back if it means shooting a hole through the plane and bringing down everyone on board.  But she can kill Dr. Wonderful in the plaza, even if she realizes that letting herself be killed will be better for all, from a third person perspective.

from:  Tomkow.com
More self-preservation.  Take one of the infamous trolley cases.   A fat man's on a bridge over a railroad track.  You (you're Flanders) can hear a train in the distance, and can see that if it continues under the bridge, it will hit five people (and a dog, in the picture above!) on the track up ahead.  If you push the man onto the track, he'll be killed, but the five (or six) will be spared.  Suppose, for the sake of argument, you can, morally, push him over.

Okay ... but now suppose you're the fat man. Do you really have to jump down onto the track and let yourself be hit, to save the five children?  That's going too far!  If you're the fat man, there's a right of self-preservation that allows you to think about this in first person terms, even if (perhaps, perhaps), a bystander ought to look at it third-personally.

Time to connect the dots.  At a genetic level, and on a psychological level, having a child has much in common with self-preservation, even if it's not identical to self-preservation.  Yesterday I heard a Libyan woman interviewed on the radio. Her husband was Libyan broadcaster Mohammed Nabous, who who was killed by a sniper while speaking to his wife on a cell phone last spring -- she was 7 months pregnant at the time.  She had wanted to be out there reporting with him, she tells the interviewer, but knowing their child was on the way made him able to face death.  He wanted her to stay safe.  On some level, having a child is surviving--at least that's how many people feel, and on a genetic level, there's a least a kernel of truth to their feeling.

So?  So when we think about our reproductive choices, we don't have to have strictly third-personal thoughts about over-population or the problems of the elderly, just like Jane doesn't have to focus on total good, and let herself be shot by Dr. Wonderful; and the fat man doesn't have to have strictly third-personal thoughts and jump.  If reproduction is erstatz survival, the right to self-preservation applies (more or less) to reproductive decisions as well.

But like in Jane's case, not absolutely--she shouldn't fire back on the plane. I can imagine situations in which the prima facie right to reproduce must give way to something overwhelmingly important.  It also seems far more coherent to defend having a first or second child, as self-preservation, than to defend having a 10th or a 20th child that way.  After a few kids, you've done your ersatz surviving, and that rationale for having a child must surely lose its force.

Now you might say:  ignotum per ignotius (the unknown through the more unknown).  Why is there a right to self-defense?  Who knows, but any approach to ethics that says otherwise won't have much connection to the way people really live and think about their lives.