The Power of Speaking Out

 Posted by on 10 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Bullying, Culture, Ethics, Racism
Jan 102014

Paul sent me this video, knowing that I’d like it. He was right!

Update: I just fixed the video, so that it works now!

I love to see people speaking out against such racist bullying, even when remaining silent would be the easier course. Bullies are cowards at heart. They’ll almost always back down in face of firm opposition, which is part of why it’s so important to say that they’re wrong, clearly and openly. Also, speaking out against a bully helps the victims: they don’t feel alone and under attack from all sides. That’s why I liked the first woman most of all: her immediate focus was to protect the victim from these vicious comments by letting her know that she rejected the bully’s racism.

Videos like this one give me hope for the future of American culture. Americans are concerned about justice — and many will not stand idly by while another person is unjustly victimized. We just need to figure out how to reach them with rational principles in ways that make sense to them.

Norms of Beauty Versus Eating

 Posted by on 13 November 2013 at 10:00 am  Culture, Food, Gender
Nov 132013

Oh ye defenders of the sex-based norms of beauty and behavior of the culture in which you happened to be born, think of this example next time you’re inclined to think that some norm of your culture is “only natural.”

This example is hardly wild and crazy, but you’ll probably find it odd for the simple reason that you didn’t grow up with it.

Via Upworthy. Oh, and a good discussion of the ad campaign on Quora is here.

Oct 102013

This excellent blog post on Kant’s various crazy views by UC Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel details some of the crazy views that I covered in my recent broadcast on Kant’s views on sex. It’s worth reading though for its tidbits on including on organ donation, women in politics, and more.

At the end of the post, Schwitzgebel draws two lessons, both worthy of consideration:

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant’s arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact “so many formulations of precisely the same law” (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then effusing a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. We should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

I added the bold, because I think that’s so damn true. Kant does not merely handwave on occasion. So many of Kant’s arguments are rationalistic, pie-in-the-sky handwaving, where mere associations between words are supposed to give the force of argument.

My only point of disagreement is that I strongly suspect that the various horrifying ethical claims surveyed in the blog post were significant worse than the prejudices of his culture. For example, children born out of wedlock might have been stigmatized, but I doubt that more than a few crazies thought they could be killed with impunity. Then again, maybe I’m overestimating the moral culture of Königsberg.

Aug 262013

This is horrifying… and fascinating: Third of teens in Amman, Jordan, condone honor killings, study says. Here’s the horrifying part:

Almost half of boys and one in five girls in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, believe that killing a woman who has “dishonored,” or shamed, her family is justifiable, a study of teenagers’ attitudes published Thursday revealed. A third of all teenagers involved in the study by researchers at Britain’s Cambridge University advocated so-called honor murders.

Here’s the fascinating part:

A key finding was that support for honor crimes was not connected to religious beliefs, but is far more likely in adolescent boys with low education backgrounds from traditional families.

It’s easy to blame Islam for honor killings and other atrocities… but it’s not clear to me that such is true or fair. Alas, the case cannot be made by pointing to the violence in the founding of Islam or in its texts. The history and texts of Christianity or Judaism bear little resemblance to the ways that these religions are practiced today.

That’s not to say that I regard Islam in any kind of positive way. My point is simply that I don’t regard it as inherently or inexorably worse than any other religion. Like all religions, it’s influence will run from mildly bad to horrifically awful, depending on the ways in which people choose to attend to, interpret, alter, and apply its ideas.

People have free will, and they exercise it in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways… even with regard to their fundamental religious and philosophical beliefs.

Embarrassed by Hollie McNish

 Posted by on 22 August 2013 at 10:00 am  Children, Culture, Parenting
Aug 222013

This is an amazingly powerful poem about the social shame imposed on women for public breastfeeding:

For what it’s worth, I answered a question about public breastfeeding on the 8 April 2012 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I answered questions on cultivating good luck, public breastfeeding, national identification card, mulling over memories, and more – is available as a podcast too.

Benevolence of a Culture

 Posted by on 2 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, China, Culture, Ethics
Jul 022013

A while back, Robert Garmong posted the following story on Facebook:

Walking home from work, through the hard-packed ice left over from yesterday’s snow, past the construction zones, I saw a row of cars stopped, waiting impatiently while a very miserable-looking minivan spun its wheels on the ice.

(Incidentally, a Chinese minivan is truly mini. It comes up to my eye-level, at most, and it looks as though I could fit it into my backpack, yet somehow, like a clown car, you can get 8 people into it. They’re very crummy, and mostly used for low-end delivery businesses and the like.)

The driver clearly didn’t know what to do about his situation. He obviously didn’t get his driver’s license at age 16 in a small, snowy town in Illinois. After spinning his wheels a few times, churning up ice and spewing oily exhaust into the air, he got out of the car to come back and scratch his head, staring down at his rear wheels. He didn’t do any of the things I would have done: he didn’t put a rock or a piece of cardboard under his tire, didn’t throw dirt down, didn’t try to push his van past the glossy spot he’d worn by spinning his wheels. He just looked for a few seconds, then when the cars behind him started honking he got back into the van and started spinning his wheels again. The unofficial motto of China might as well be: Work harder, not smarter.

If this were Texas, there would have been five people lined up behind his little clown van to push him along (not that you’d need that many). The guy in the car behind him would’ve jumped out of the car to give him a shove, without even thinking about it. Passers-by would’ve joined in. Street vendors selling fruit alongside the road would have paused their haggling for a minute to come pitch in. (Well, I guess in Texas there wouldn’t be street vendors selling fruit alongside the road, but IF there were, they’d be helping.)

Here, all the guy got was a glance or two from the pedestrians, and a bunch of blaring horns from the cars piled up behind him. A larger bus going the opposite way rolled down its window so the driver could offer him some fairly useless advice, then drove off.

The clown-van driver was getting nowhere, so I jogged out into the road and gave a little tiny shove — I mean REALLY tiny — no stronger than would be required to open a stuck backyard gate. The van shish-shish-shished forward a foot or so, then got traction and chugged slowly up the road. The driver of the car behind him tooted a little honk of thanks, then the whole lot of them tailed the van-driver slowly, carefully up the hill.

For the most part, Americans are steeped in benevolence. We are willing to help others — including strangers — in a thousand small ways at the drop of a hat. That’s a huge value — and not one that we should take for granted. Such makes life so much better in a thousand small ways.

As it happens, I mentioned that culture-wide benevolence in my end-of-year Philosophy in Action Radio of 30 December 2012, where I talked about all the good in American culture. (That was the whole episode!) So if you’ve not heard it, take a listen:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Also, if you’ve not yet heard my two interviews with Robert Garmong on life in China… don’t delay! They’re chock-full of great stories and insights.

First, I interviewed Robert about “Teaching in China” on 19 September 2012. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Second, I interviewed Robert about “Should We Fear or Embrace China?” on 27 March 2013. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

May 082013

NPR recently ran a fascinating story on the origins of social prejudice: What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like? The article discusses a new book — Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (kindle) by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald — on how people tend to render assistance to strangers based on some kind of value-connection, thus inadvertently entrenching social boundaries and biases.

Here’s a story from the article that illustrates the power of such value-connections with strangers:

In the book, Banaji writes that Kaplan once had a terrible kitchen accident. “She was washing a big crystal bowl in her kitchen,” Banaji says. “It slipped and it cut her hand quite severely.” The gash went from Kaplan’s palm to her wrist. She raced over to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter. She was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her and started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job, she says.

But at this moment someone spotted Kaplan. It was a student, who was a volunteer at the hospital. “The student saw her, recognized her, and said, ‘Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here?’ ” Banaji says. The ER doctor froze. He looked at Kaplan. He asked the bleeding young woman if she was a Yale faculty member. Kaplan told him she was. Everything changed in an instant. The hospital tracked down the best-known hand specialist in New England. They brought in a whole team of doctors. They operated for hours and tried to save practically every last nerve.

Banaji says she and Kaplan asked themselves later why the doctor had not called in the specialist right away. “Somehow,” Banaji says, “it must be that the doctor was not moved, did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by a two-word phrase, ‘Yale professor.’”

Kaplan told Banaji that she was able to go back to quilting, but that she still occasionally feels a twinge in the hand. And it made her wonder what might have happened if she hadn’t received the best treatment.

Basically, the authors argue that much prejudice in the modern society is not the product of overt hatred, but rather patterns of favoritism. The article explains:

The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way, Banaji says. We feel like a great friend when we give a buddy a foot in the door to a job interview at our workplace. We feel like good parents when we arrange a class trip for our daughter’s class to our place of work. We feel like generous people when we give our neighbors extra tickets to a sports game or a show.

In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?

Now, I don’t think that such forms of benevolence should be regarded as “biased” or “wrong” in any way. People should exercise their benevolence and charity on causes and people that matter to them! However, I’d add that people should think hard about the importance of their values, as some make a better basis for generosity than others.

The fact that someone lives near your childhood home, for example, doesn’t reveal anything special about that person. That the person is a friend of a friend is more instructive, provided that you choose your friends well. Similarly, if you want to be a decent doctor, you don’t ignore the patient when she tells you that her hand function really matters to her, but then pull out all the stops when you learn that she’s a Yale professor.

That being said, for a person to deliberately aim to help worthy but “underserved” people is not altruism. By doing that, your generosity gets more bang for the buck — and that might easily outweigh any tenuous value-connection. Personally, that’s how I tend to direct my non-activist charitable dollars: I don’t give to causes that everyone posts about on Facebook, but rather to the less-popular cases in which help is desperately needed.

Here’s another example: Many dogs are waiting to be adopted, but large black dogs often languish for months or years longer than others. Personally, I don’t care much about the color of my dog, although I’m passionate about rescue. So why not look for that fabulous large black dog that others have overlooked? That seems like a win-win to me!

Back to the NPR article… the book definitely looks interesting to me, as I want to think more deeply about issues of charity and generosity. (I expect that I’ll disagree with aspects of it, of course.) The book is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s available in hardcover or kindle.


What a charming interview with the creator of one of my favorite Facebook pages, I Fucking Love Science!

I love her broad interest in all things science-y — and I can very much relate to that, except that my interests center on normative domains, particularly philosophy, psychology, and literature.

Specialists are hugely valuable: the major work wouldn’t get done without them. But to spread the good work of those specialists beyond their scholarly bubbles requires advocates and champions. Those are the enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who translate awesome ideas into laymen’s terms, to show regular folks just how nifty and useful and exciting and beneficial those ideas are.

That’s what I aim to do with Philosophy in Action… and it’s lovely (and useful) for me to see I Fucking Love Science as such a great exemplar in another domain.

Apr 022013

As I promised when answering the question on doing business with Chinese companies on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, here’s the commentary from Robert Garmong on whether trade with China with help improve China culturally and politically.

By way of context, here’s what I’d written him relevant to that:

Instead, [trade with China] seems like a prime example where trade is a means of exporting better American values, and thereby making China economically and political better than it would be otherwise. That’s a benefit to the Chinese and a benefit to Americans.

He replied:

As for your hope that trade with America encourages better values among the Chinese, that’s very limited. Most Westerners (myself included, ~2009), think that foreign trade will empower a new class of young, liberal-minded people who want reform. Unfortunately, this has proven to be mostly a naive Western bias.

The businesses that benefit from our trade are run by people who — whatever their personal predilections before going into international trade — now are among the most conservative in China. Remember that China is a culture with zero tradition of thinking in principles. So the people who’ve gotten rich on the free market are perfectly happy to continue the system of governmental control. And, since they’re mostly wealthy middle-aged men, they’re perfectly happy to perpetuate the cultural traditions that exalt rich old men. They’ve got their Audis to make them proud, they’ve got their CCP contacts to keep them safe, and they’ve got their mistresses to keep them happy.

(Here’s a fun fact for you: according to a survey reported on in People’s Daily, in 2011 the male population of China spent more on holiday gifts for their mistresses than for their wives. I may have mentioned that before, because it’s one of my favorite jaw-droppers in a country jam-packed with jaw-droppers.)

There is a rising “middle class,” though it’s only middle class in very relative terms. They are politically powerless and mostly indifferent. They care about making some money, ensuring their children’s education, buying their son an apartment so he can get married, and someday having grandchildren. (That’s sometimes discussed as “The Chinese Dream.”) They are increasingly frustrated by the corruption, and the fact that they work for $600 a month while their boss drives an Audi, but they aren’t politically active. If anything, they fear any change that might threaten the “Chinese dream.”

Recall, too, the cultural arrogance of the Chinese, which is deeply-rooted in traditional Chinese culture. (As is often noted, the Chinese word for “China” literally means “Middle Country,” in the sense of “the country in the center of the universe.”) And of course it’s reinforced in schools, on Chinese TV, and in the movies they see. For this reason, even as they benefit from their contact with the West, and even as some of them envy the freedom of the United States, the average person here is very skeptical of foreign values. This is why they’re quick to believe the negatives about America, such as that everyone carries a gun and shoots people.

The hope for change in China is not directly from trade with the West. It’s from the net-savvy twenty-somethings who populate Weibo and other microblogs. While in some broad sense their existence is made possible by foreign trade, they are only very indirectly influenced by that trade. They are influenced by *Friends* and *Desperate Housewives*, but I wouldn’t call those international trade because they’re mostly pirated copies. In their online discussions, those guys appeal directly to very basic and obvious human values, such as the aversion to corruption and theft by the government. They seldom advert to any foreign concepts such as rights, freedom, or justice. They often get these ideas from the West, but they don’t use them in their discussions.

I suspect, by the way, that this is the real reason the government is pulling away from English as a part of the curriculum. They’re smart enough to see where the dissent is coming from, and they want to discourage it. The Chinese operate in subtler ways than, say, their Soviet-era counterparts, so rather than openly crack down on the young netizens, they simply reduce their numbers, try to prevent them from reaching a critical mass by reducing English language training in the schools. This is how the government thinks, and it’s why they’ve been so much more successful than other totalitarian governments at negotiating the process of “reform and opening-up” without losing their grip on power. They may be rat-bastards, but they are very clever rat-bastards!

Fascinating, as usual! If you’ve not yet listened to my interview with Robert on Should We Fear or Embrace China?… don’t delay! It was a full hour of such insights! Also, be sure to check out his excellent blog, Professor in Dalian.

Mar 202013

Here’s a fascinating and horrifying story: “A surrogate’s unimaginable dilemma.” I wish that I could share a relevant tidbit, but alas, it’s the kind of story that you just have to read from beginning to end… and it’s very well-told.

(The story raises all kinds of thorny questions about abortion rights in the context of surrogacy, and I hope that someone submits a question on the topic to Philosophy in Action’s queue. Update: WOOT! Emily submitted the question! You can read and vote for it here.)

As a matter of morality, I think that to inflict a life of pain, suffering, and incapacity on a helpless infant is very wrong. The pregnancy could have been terminated when the abnormalities were discovered, and doing so would not have harmed any person or violated the rights of any person. That’s because the fetus is not an independent person with rights or interests until born, as Ari Armstrong and I argued in our policy paper, The “Personhood” Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception.

I value human life, deeply. I’m nothing but delighted by and supportive of people who value their future children while still in the womb. When a culture denies the value of human life — as Nazi Germany did — the results are horrifying.

Yet I cannot relate to people seek to “value life” by prolonging any form of existence by any means possible. Such people seem to value life in some kind of abstract or formalistic way, without regard for the kind of life lived, including the suffering inflicted by the attempts to sustain that life. That’s not the way that a rational and responsible adult values life, in my view. It’s emotional self-indulgence… or religious dogmatism… or duty ethics. Mostly, I’d say, it’s nothing good.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha