Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Death, Taxes, and Coronavirus

 “I am inevitable.”

 

Thus spake Thanos, near the end of Avengers: Endgame.

 

“And I am Iron Man,” replied Tony Stark, in a fitting phrase pregnant with many movie meanings.

 

For the record, I’m with Iron Man—both in general, and in confronting Covid-19.

 

That is, I think we should each continue to use the best of our wit, wisdom, innovation, and technology to push back against the virus, with a major goal being the saving of as many lives as we can, even if it means great sacrifices for ourselves as individuals.

 

And yet.

 

And yet, to do what I think we should, we have to reckon with…inevitability.  

 

Or rather, many particular inevitabilities.

 

But which ones? And how?

 

Well, two standard so-called inevitabilities are death and taxes. 

 

And coronavirus has not eliminated them, but it has reminded us how inevitable they are, and how deeply people disagree with one another about how to deal with them.

 

Still, my post here is not a “the sky is falling!” piece, but a “take a deep breath since there is common ground here” piece.

 

Reckoning with inevitabilities typically involves two steps: 

 

Step 1, identify the inevitabilities. 

 

Step 2, deal with them.

 

Easier said than done, of course.  Even Doctor Strange, who eventually reckoned with inevitability when confronting possible futures (“…there was no other way”), began with utter cluelessness (when warned “Thanos is coming!” Strange asked “…who?”).  

 

But I mention the steps because I think them distinct, but inter-related.

 

And  I think we constantly engage in both of these steps with any number of so-called “inevitabilities” at any given moment, whether deliberating individually or with others.

 

And this partly explains some of our tension, and even angst, as individuals and groups: we do not know which step we should be working on at a given moment on a given issue.

 

For example (to take just one example dealing with death): you may know exactly how you want to “deal with” the upcoming death of a beloved relative in a certain way (namely “be sure you try to see them and hug them one last time, or at least talk to them virtually!”) but you may not know whether it’s inevitable that they are going to die this month. Step 2 is in place, but Step 1 is not.

 

For another example (to take just one example dealing with taxes): you may know that it’s inevitable that the tax revenues this year are going to be far less than they were expected to be, but you may not know how you are going to “deal with it”. Step 1 is in place, but Step 2 is not.

 

I suppose each of us can pick plenty of examples with this coronavirus, depending on what month (or day) it is, and depending on what role (or roles) we are focusing on—here is just one picked from a headline I saw back in June:

 

Fauci says second wave is 'not inevitable' as coronavirus cases climb in some states

 

At this point some of you may be asking, why again is this not a “the sky is falling” piece?

 

Here’s why: forget about coronavirus for a second, and assume step 1 identifies the inevitabilities of death and taxes from the title of this post. 

 

Maybe death and taxes are inevitable in simple ways: everyone dies, and everyone pays taxes; or at least death and taxes will always be with us as a species.

 

Still, step 2 asks us to “deal with” these.  How?

 

I think we all can agree that an awful, callous way to deal with these as inevitabilities is the way of King Herod’s tax collectors in the script for The Nativity Story:

[Collector]: Take this man's animal...

and one-third of his land

to be seized...

for the continued good

of Herod's kingdom.

[Villager]: Please, if I don't have enough land, my...

[Collector:] What? What,

you and your family will die?

All of us must die.

Some sooner than others. Move.

 

Here we have a fictional portrayal of an all-too-factual way that we humans have treated each other, and, sadly, are tempted to treat each other still today.

 

As readers of this blog may recall, I’m not a big fan of Herod. But you don’t have to be named Herod to be tempted towards a callous attitude towards others, as 2020 has reminded us once or twice.

 

Fortunately, there are also ways of remaining decent, and even virtuous, towards one another, even in difficult situations--like Joseph and Mary were in the rest of The Nativity Story.  

 

Again, it’s a fictional portrayal, but it reflects a fact that, to echo Stephen Pinker, we are capable of responding to the better angels of our nature.

 

As readers of this blog may remember, I’m a pretty big fan of Mary and Joseph. But you don’t have to be named Mary or Joe in order to (here echoing Bill and Ted) be excellent to each other.

 

So, then: a common ground approach we have here, whether with death, taxes, or Covid-19, is that it remains possible—indeed, inevitable—that individuals still have some degree of choice in whether we will be excellent to each other.

 

Sure, death is inevitable. But each of us can be like Iron Man.


Russell DiSilvestro

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Friday, November 27, 2020

Politics makes us stupid: COVID-19 edition

An essay by Ezra Klein at Vox from 2014 says politics makes us stupid. He’s reporting on a study by Harvard Law Professor Dan Kahan. Kahan and his coauthors first present a mildly tricky problem about whether, based on the data presented, an intervention made a problem better or worse. In this problem, the subject’s facility with math or statistics predicts whether they get the problem right.


But in a politically charged version of the test, using exactly the same numbers, numeracy stopped being a good predictor of who would get the problem right. Instead, the person’s ideology predicted how they would answer the question. Higher-than-average math skills didn’t help participants when the data showed a result out of line with their political tribe (and if you think that numeracy is a trait exclusive to a particular political view, then you might already be too far gone in your tribalism).


Here’s Klein:


Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.


This story might suggest that people have a more or less stable and consistent ideology (gun control: bad) that they take great pains to avoid betraying. Motivated numeracy bias is a way to preserve stable ideological commitments that define their identity. 


But it turns out that even this is too optimistic a view about people.


Most people don’t really even have stable political beliefs. In Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, political scientists Kinder and Kalmoe present studies showing that the number that do is, at most, 17% of Americans (also, “stable” here refers to over the course of only about a year). Rather, most people are political innocents. They don’t support political leaders or parties because their beliefs line up with those leaders’ policies. Instead, their political beliefs line up with those leaders’ and parties’ policies because they support those leaders or parties. 


This is significant because we very quickly saw in 2020 the politicization of COVID-19. Whether or not you support locking down, opening up, wearing masks, shaking hands, etc. is better predicted by your political affiliation than anything else (and probably least of all by how familiar you are with epidemiological models or data).


By now, of course, we know that lockdown is a "liberal" position and back to normal is a "conservative" position. Is there any way we could have confidently predicted this ex ante? Maybe. But imagine a Twin Covid America thought experiment where Trump came out decisively in favor of strong lockdowns. Then, of course, Republicans there would be mustering arguments about negative externalities to justify mask mandates, restrictions on movement and curfews to promote public health, safety and order. And Democrats in Twin Covid America, of course, would be mostly against these policies because, among other things, wealthy Americans have a much easier time staying in place at home than poorer working class people with low levels of savings. Having a high-paying job tends to correlate with being able to work from home and having people with low-paying jobs deliver their Grubhub orders and groceries. Wealthy families are more likely to have a parent who can work fewer or more flexible hours or leave their job to help with their children’s distance education. Meanwhile, children in lower-income households are much more likely to face challenges that make distance education ineffective (indeed, here in the non-twin US we are beginning to see evidence of a widening learning gap). Good progressives in Twin Covid America would want to keep things as open as possible, rather than impose a general lockdown, in the name of social justice, and would write op-eds (like this one) about the likely unintended consequences of mask mandates.


The fact that the opposite happened here, and different considerations featured in the two sides’ positions, is actually pretty arbitrary. It probably doesn’t reflect a genuine, hard-won, intellectually honest working out of how to apply underlying values and principles to a particular social problem. Again, only a small minority of people even have a coherent ideology that determines their political views. And so-called “liberal” or “conservative” values are so generic and indeterminate that someone can always offer a post hoc “rationalization” of why the positions shook out the way they did. 


Kyle Swan

Philosophy Department

Sacramento State

Monday, January 27, 2020

What is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy?

Traditionally, the history of philosophy is argued to have begun with Thales, sometime between 624 and 545 BCE. Of course, the start date of philosophy may differ depending on how one defines “philosophy,” a “philosopher,” and “doing philosophy,” but the majority consensus is that it began with him, a key reason being for having predicted a solar eclipse based on his own reasoning and not what was traditionally used at the time of mythological explanation. This means that philosophy has, at least, a 2,500+years-history. Yet, many faculty departments across the United States concentrate significantly (not entirely, of course) on the philosophy of the last century through today (i.e., analytic philosophy). This division, in fact, began in the world of English-speaking academics of the analytic tradition—this term was created in the 1950s to distinguish this new focus in philosophy (arguably it was primarily a reaction against existentialism and phenomenology).

But shouldn’t we consider more often how this emphasis does not give students of philosophy more options in the classroom to choose their own philosophical persuasions? Would all students that emerge with degrees from departments heavier in analytic philosophy always choose to read more analytic philosophy if given more opportunity to explore other philosophers? Certainly, a student might react to the discipline differently if Nietzsche is their first encounter with philosophy instead of a textbook on introductory logic (I am, of course, not stating it would go in a specific direction, just that they might react differently). Yet, the analytic tradition is sometimes emphasized as the primary way to do philosophy, and in some places the door is only open, at best, ajar to the rest. Shouldn’t there be more of how Bertrand Russell’s visceral reaction to William James’s pragmatism not only makes the dialogue more comprehensive, but also leads to a better understanding of where Russell’s philosophy continued to develop from, in part, as a reaction? It is believed that the only book of philosophy that Russell’s student Wittgenstein always had around was James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Perhaps we need to return to the most fundamental questions in all of this: what is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy? In its etymological roots, philosophy means “love of wisdom,” so doing philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, as a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” Does wisdom come primarily from the last century? The history of philosophy can read at times like a long conversation that I imagine several philosophers, of several persuasions, would agree has not ended. In that dialogue, sometimes we find developments of previous views (or sometimes an extreme case is proposed, like Alfred Whitehead who said that all philosophy since Plato is but a footnote to him). Sometimes we find reactions against other philosophers, but as such, this is still part of the conversation. In fact, it is especially hard to find entirely novel ideas that are not in any way even just slightly touched by a voice(s) of the past, whether as at times a development of (such as the Left Hegelians from Hegel) or as at times a reaction against (such as Aristotle versus Plato). We know that some times it is the questions sparked that make a difference in the history of philosophy, not necessarily the answers proposed. Very flawed arguments can still dramatically change history, so we must still study them for that reason, among others.

Philosophy can serve many different purposes—we need only look at the branches of the discipline; it can be used to study knowledge, to study the difference between right and wrong, etcetera. Academic philosophers tend to choose one branch of preference to specialize in (or not), not so unlike how we have specific philosophers we may gravitate toward (or away from). It is also enriching to mix it all up—my research focuses on extracting the pragmatist elements in the philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that pragmatism was a philosophy for philosophers who are incapable of having a philosophy.

The student of philosophy who is first exploring the discipline should have the opportunity to explore as much of it as possible. What if one never has the chance to discover that it could be Simone de Beauvoir, not A.J. Ayer, that he or she really finds most intriguing? We need to be inclusive, in every way, as in the content of the material covered in philosophy courses.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Good Life for the Sick and Elderly


Recently as I was caring for an elderly relative, I started to wonder what a good life would look like for her…and other elderly Americans. The number of Americans aged 65 or older has increased steadily over the last century with declining fertility and mortality rates and is projected to rise rapidly in the future. In 1994, one in eight Americans were 65 or older and, by 2050, as many as one in five Americans could be elderly. Diseases that affect the elderly such as dementia or Alzheimer’s also are projected to rise. 
It may be convenient for those of us who are younger and healthier now to assume there is an inverse relationship between our happiness and our health. The healthier we are the happier we are; the less healthy we are the less happy we are. We may fatalistically assume with age and illness will come less happiness.
Of course, our outlook depends on our conception of the good life. Consistent with some normative theories, happiness consists of a life lived well and a proper balance of the things that comprise our lives such as health, knowledge, life projects (e.g., careers), and the arts and entertainment (i.e., our hobbies). Maybe it is reasonable to believe that we will be—and even that we ought to be—less happy as we have less of the things that currently comprise our happiness. We may even argue for some version of ageism or ableism.
Ageism: we ought to prefer those who are younger.
Ableism: we ought to prefer those who able-bodied.
The problem with ageism and ableism is that certain features of our lives such as age and health generally are amoral or morally arbitrary. If we are committed to the view that a person should only be responsible for features over which she has some significant measure of control, then adopting a theory of the good life based on features over which a person has little or no control is morally problematic. In such cases, you may have a theory of life—a way of looking at life, but not a theory of a good life. A good life is evaluative of how a person lived given her circumstances, not simply an evaluation of the circumstances. We generally do not have any significant measure of control over our age at any given moment or whether we are able-bodied (although one may intentionally bring about an illness or disability, but such cases I assume are uncommon).
Moreover, the view that happiness depends on youth and health does not seem morally preferable. Barring unfortunate circumstances, we’ll all grow old and die. As part of our universal human condition, it would be preferable to have a more holistic and healthier approach. A more holistic and healthier outlook of our aging selves and the elderly in our lives may involve (1) recognizing that the balance of things that comprise our lives changes over time and (2) focusing more on life in its entirety rather than at any given moment.
First, the things that comprise a good life may include our careers and our hobbies, but as we grow older our priorities and the balance of these things changes. Rather than focusing on our careers, we may have more time for the arts and entertainment.
Second, and because for those who are approaching the end of their lives or those who suffer with disease or disability for whom even the pursuit of the arts and entertainment may be difficult, it may not be enough simply to reorganize one’s priorities. What I want to suggest is that greater happiness awaits us in our old age (or, for those of us who believe in life after physical death, even after death).
This is consistent with Aristotle’s conception of happiness. Aristotle wrote: “For this cause also children cannot be happy, for they are not old enough to be capable of noble acts; when children are spoken of as happy, it is in compliment to their promise for the future. Happiness, as we said, requires both complete goodness and a complete lifetime.” (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 1, ch. 9, see also bk. 1, ch. 7). It is only at the end of a person’s life that we can know whether a person has lived well and thereby achieved happiness.1 Happiness is not a feeling at a given moment but a completed life that has been lived well.
An elderly person in a nursing home who has lived to the fullest and who has lived for others is happy. The person may appreciate and enjoy this fact by reminiscing about the past, but subjective mental states (memories or a feeling of pleasure) are not necessary for happiness.2 Even if a person suffers severe intellectual or physical disabilities and can no longer add to her happiness by actively exercising virtue, it is still true of the person who has lived well that she is happy. The person may be happy despite the “reverses and vicissitudes” of fortune.
For persons with severe intellectual and physical disabilities, the balance mentioned in (1) may look very differently but may still allow for a life lived well. The holistic approach in (2) requires, as it does in everyone’s case, a consideration of the person’s circumstances and social context. A life lived well has less to do with accomplishing great things as measured in absolute terms and more to do with doing your best with what you’ve been given. Some people with disabilities—such as Helen Keller—have lived far better lives by choosing to live well and to live for others than many fully abled persons.
Please don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that happiness is unaffected by age or illness. I am saying that we need to have a healthier outlook toward our aging selves and those who are elderly among us. One way3 to do this is to see (and respect) the elderly for the complete life that they’ve lived rather than the sick or aging person before us at a given moment.  

Chong Un Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

________________________________
1. See Paul Farwell, “Aristotle and the Complete Life,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 12(3): 247-263 (1995).
2. Kurt Pritzl, “Aristotle and Happiness After Death: Nicomachean Ethics 1.10-11,” Classical Philology 78(2): 101-111 (1983).
3. Another way is to live by this Christian imperative: “love your aging neighbor, as you love your aging self.” Frits de Lange, “Loving Later Life: Aging and the Love Imperative” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 33(2): 169-184 (2013).

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Puzzle About Future People

We ought to do something about climate change. One reason for thinking this is that if we continue the way we’re going, we will make future generations much worse off, and so we owe it to them to e.g. enact policies that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But such policies would have all sorts of other effects. Factories would be moved, rebuilt, or shut down. People would find jobs as regulators, inspectors, and lobbyists that they wouldn’t have otherwise. People would drive different cars, get different degrees, and buy different products. And all of these things would affect decisions about when, where, and with whom to procreate.
This generates a puzzle (the Nonidentity Problem). To see why, let’s zoom in a bit. Suppose that, if we do not implement new emissions policies, Baby X will be born to a couple in Sacramento a year from now. However, if we do adopt new policies, the couple will instead move to Washington, D.C. for new jobs with the EPA. They’ll agree to wait a few years to settle into these new jobs before having children, and they will have a different child, Baby Y, in 2023.
If we do not adopt the new emissions policies, who will be made worse off? Baby Y will not be made worse off, since Baby Y will never exist. The couple will raise Baby X as an only child in Sacramento, and Baby Y will never be around to suffer whatever consequences result from continued emissions at current levels. Nor will Baby X be made worse off by not adopting emissions restrictions, since, if we did adopt them, Baby X would never exist. On the (perhaps optimistic) assumption that Baby X’s life will not be so bad as to be worse than never existing at all, Baby X will be no worse off under our current policies than under the new ones.
The point generalizes. There are the people, the Xs, who will exist if we do not clean up our act, and the people, the Ys, who will exist if we do. Given the fragility of the circumstances under which a particular person is conceived, they are mostly not the same people. So, whom do we make worse off if we refuse to change our current policies? Not the Xs, since they will only exist if we maintain the status quo. And not the Ys, since they will never exist to suffer the consequences of our refusal to change.
We ought to do something about climate change. Maybe we even owe it to future generations to do something. But not because they will be worse off if we don’t. So, why?

Brandon Carey
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Hans Rosling’s Magic Washing Machine

This is another of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

Take about 8 minutes and watch this Ted Talk from Hans Rosling, the public health and statistics guru who tragically died from pancreatic cancer in 2017:.

There are a number of important lessons to take from his presentation (and you can watch the longer version HERE). I’ll focus on just two:

First, world population will increase. Predictions are controversial. Rosling has argued that it will go to about 11 billion by 2100 and then level off. At the time “The Magic Washing Machine” was recorded in 2010, world population was a hair under 7 billion; it’s now about 7.7 billion.

Some of this growth will occur in the poorest areas of the world. But this is because conditions for people in the poorest areas of the world are improving (as you can see HERE). When fewer of the children they have tragically die, population in these areas will increase a bit. Also, some of the growth will occur because people will continue to live a little longer. But most of the growth is explained by the fact that there are more people now who are below age 30 than above, and they will have children.

Second, more people will mean more energy consumption -- especially when there are more people who will be wealthier and have better lives (ones that will include magic washing machines). 

These inevitabilities inevitably raise climate worries, which have led to some pretty hard-nosed proposals to curb energy production and use. Is there a way to implement these proposals in a way that will allow everyone eventually to enjoy the magic of washing machines?

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Monday, October 28, 2019

Overpopulation from the perspective of an airplane


This 500-word post is one of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

In the 1995 comedy Father of the Bride Part II, George Banks (Steve Martin) and his wife Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) get news that they will be first-time grandparents, and then, soon afterwards, get news that they will be parents again themselves—because Nina is unexpectedly pregnant.  George and Nina leave the doctor’s office looking out different windows of their car while thinking about what this second bit of news means to them.  I could not quickly find the delightful scene online, but Wikepediaconfirms it: “As they are driving home, Nina and George have differing perspectives on the prospect of becoming new parents again.”  Indeed: since it’s comedy, Nina looks out her window and actually sees things representing the joys of parenthood, like a young daughter skipping blissfully with her mother, but George looks out his window and sees things representing the difficulties of parenthood, like a young son angrily throwing a fit at his father.

I mention this because I have a theory of why people’s opinions on overpopulation may start differently before they really study it.  I say this because I actually have such opinions right now; I have not really studied it.  My theory is that two common ways of experiencing an airplane flight may partly explain different initial armchair opinions on overpopulation.

Sometimes when you ride an airplane, especially in a window seat, during the daylight hours when you can look down and see the ground below, and you stare at mile after green mile of uninhabited grassland, or mile after brown mile of uninhabited desert, you might catch yourself thinking, “the earth is overpopulated with humans in about the same way that the sky is overpopulated with birds.”  The claim does not just seem false, but obviously, comically, ridiculously false.

Other times when you ride an airplane, especially in an aisle seat, during a crowded flight towards the back of the plane, you focus on what is inside the airplane: the seats packed six or more to a row, the isles made enough to thin for walking without bumping people, the smells of other passengers, the screaming of an infant, and the sight of a family boarding with many young children that you realize in horror are about to fill up all the seats around yours, you might catch yourself thinking, “you know, maybe if there were not so many people on the planet…”

These two types of experiences can happen on the same day, or the same flight, even simultaneously, to the same person.  But they may partly explain where the burden of proof seems to be for the thought, as you begin your descent into Los Angeles, and look out the window at mile upon grey mile of highways and homes: “even if some cities may be in some sense overcrowded, that is different than the planet being overpopulated.”

Russell DiSilvestro
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State