Archive for the ‘Coffee-Tweaked Thought of the Moment’ Category


A Perennial Problem for Me

October 5, 2010



July 6, 2010

It was a joy to watch Uruguay get their asses handed back to them today. Go Orange! I just want to say one more thing about the no-hands rule being constitutive of soccer.

I do think that the operative issue here is that no-hands is constitutive of soccer — meaning that it’s not a simple regulative rule against slide tackling, but instead specifies what soccer is — but I think a case can be made along non-constitutive lines as well.

There is no clear rule against bringing a jet engine onto the field, for instance. It is conceivable, though, that there might be one. Suppose that for odd historical reasons, there are restrictions on any non-codified arbitrary intervention by any player, not just hands — rogue tubas, naked old people, hordes of vampire bats, robots — and suppose also that the penalties for intervening in this way on the field are the same. Red card. Penalty kick.

So if a player brings an army of self-propelled robots on the field to disrupt play, this results in a red card and a penalty kick.

If Saurez had positioned the jet engine just right, and then flipped it on so as to blow the Ghana’s ball out of the goal, thus resulting in his expulsion from the game and also forcing Ghana to take a penalty kick, would this count as cheating?

I think it would.

Or what if Suarez had very quickly slid a giant sheet of plexiglass between the goal and the ball… would that be cheating? I think it also would; and I think a penalty kick would be the wrong penalty for an intervention of this sort.

Now consider something more plausible: what if he had caught the ball instead of batting it away? Seems to me that our intuitions might be stronger that the goal should be given to Uruguay.

It’s over now, of course. But it’s been a fun little discussion.


Ghana Got Screwed

July 3, 2010

Roger, that little devil’s advocate, asked me what I thought of this piece on the Ghana/Uruguay match today, in which there’s a call for an ethicist.

With Uruguay’s advancement through such a weird turn of events confirmed, the debate over whether Suarez was a genius savior or a Thierry Henry-level cheat rages. It’s obvious Suarez used his hands with purpose, but unlike Henry, he was immediately caught and punished and will now miss the semifinal against Holland. However, Ghana is now out of the tournament because of Suarez’s decision to break the rules. Though Ghana did have a golden chance to make Suarez’s efforts irrelevant with that Gyan penalty. Is there a correct moral view of this situation? Or is it just an unbelievable turn of events within a game that should be appreciated for its complexities? Luis Suarez doesn’t care. His team plays on.

This was an amazing bit of football, if I do say. I was watching live and could hardly breathe as events unfolded. Jasper, my four-year-old, seemed worried: “What happened? What happened? What happened?!”

It’s hard to explain these things to a four-year-old when gasping for breath. Since Roger asked, I might as well say what I think. “I don’t know!”

I think Uruguay’s win was total bullshit. Ghana rightly won this game.

Okay, right, rules are rules; but rules that allow cheating of this variety are rules that the game can’t stand. And make no mistake. This was cheating. Let’s trace the logic:

If one subscribes to the rules regulating play, and assumes that rules are mere contingencies, it would appear that Suarez made a very smart and calculated decision. He won the game for Uruguay… or at least, prevented Uruguay’s defeat, thereby creating the conditions that made possible their win.  He did this by using his hands to block the shot from entering the goal. This block is an automatic penalty, resulting in his immediate ejection from this game, as well as his ejection from the next game. Under normal circumstances, this is a stiff penalty. Under these circumstances, it’s clear first that the penalty wasn’t stiff enough, but second, that any response that doesn’t undo what was done — that is to say, that doesn’t grant Uruguay the goal — basically reasserts the contingency of the regulative rules, thereby suggesting that the rules are practically inconsistent.

It would be tempting to see this violation of the no-hands rule as wrong for the reason that it might create hostile play, resulting in a free-for-all in the penalty or the goal box. It introduces the possibility of winning by any means necessary, so long as one is willing to suffer the consequences. One can imagine a state of play where dangerous tackles will be taken strategically. If I were a coach and rules like this were allowed, I’d swell the size of my team by bringing in some decent but not great players — pawns, basically — and having them slide tackle the good players on the other team to take them out. Tonya Harding offers a slightly gruesome parallel. That’s a very bad rule, and so a rule like that ought to be changed.

More importantly, however, is that this is a rule that simply isn’t fair, since its deployment suggests that the no-hands rule isn’t a rule at all. It suggests that the no-hands rule is only contingent, not constitutive, of play. It suggests that it can broken when it suits a person.

What do I mean?

Well, what’s one of the first things you learn about soccer? Here. I’ll answer for you. You learn this:

The game is played on a rectangular grass, or green artificial turffield, with a goal in the centre of each of the short ends. The object of the game is to score by driving the ball into the opposing goal. In general play, the goalkeepers are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms, while the field players typically use their feet to kick the ball into position, occasionally using their torso or head to intercept a ball in midair.

That’s right. You learn that what makes this game soccer (or football) is that it is a game played primarily with the foot. Apart from the goalie, all players must use their feet (and any other appendage not resembling a hand). So the rule is this:
No player, apart from the goalie, may use his hands to field the ball.
That’s soccer. Now imagine this game with Suarez’s rule:
No player, apart from the goalie, may use his hands to field the ball; but some players may use their hands when it suits them.
That rule is weird. And it’s not just weird. It’s contradictory. It suggests that one both can and cannot use one’s hands.
My use of the pawns to slide tackle the powerful players above illustrates the practical implication of this contradiction; and should probably help explain why Uruguay’s win was cheating. The Suarez rule’s deployment may result in a dangerous pitch for players, but that isn’t its main problem. It’s main problem is that it is unfair.

Sex and Obliviousness

June 20, 2010

Neil Levy has this interesting post over at Practical Ethics:

An interesting case is reported in the most recent issue of the Hastings Center Report.  Mrs Z, is a 29 year-old woman who was released into her husband’s care following a traumatic brain injury. She is in a minimally conscious state (MCI), a state of severely impaired consciousness. MCI cases cover a range of cognitive deficits; Mrs Z seems to be at the lower end of cognitive functioning. She is unable to speak and requires 24 hour care, provided by her husband (who is also the guardian of their 4 year-old twins).

Recently she was found to be suffering abdominal pain. An examination revealed that she was pregnant (the pregnancy was terminated for health reasons). Mrs Z’s brothers have now applied for guardianship of her, and have asked police to file rape charges against her husband. Mr Z has replied that she would have wanted to continue a physical relationship with him, and that he is still married to her. He seems to suggest that he will continue to have a sexual relationship with her if she remains in his care.

I really like this case. It’s deeply vexing, but I’m inclined to agree with Levy’s conclusions.

It does seem plausible that as a way of showing genuine love to his wife, Mr Z may well do exactly that by having aconsensual sex with his wife. What it seems to me he is not justified in doing, however, is in having aconsensual procreative sex with his wife. At least, I can imagine a few circumstances where this wouldn’t be nearly as problematic as it first appears.

I do think, however, that it does raise a great many questions about the nature of the sex that Mr. Z is having with his wife, where a determination of its appropriateness will have to boil down to a state of affairs that only he has access too assess. And this privateness may, ultimately, be a problem for Mr. Z. If his reasons are so private that they cannot be made available to the scrutiny of outside parties — at least those acting as proxies on his wife’s behalf — then there is some question as to whether the reasons that he has can or ought to count as reasons.

I’ll have to think a little more about this tonight and try to integrate this example into a future presentation of mine.


Candy II

June 18, 2010

From the Cowpattie

June 6, 2010

Here’s more on Sam Harris and his ridiculous claims about moral philosophy. This time, from Lena Groeger, an apologist for Harris, who tries to position Harris as a well-intentioned gadfly.


Arizona Goes off the Deep End

June 4, 2010

…with some citizens insisting that black and tan faces of children on a school mural be made “more white.” Wonkette has the (this time, quite serious) commentary.

And to think, Prescott is actually a pretty progressive town by Arizona standards.


Consistency Can be Slick Too

June 1, 2010

I’m a fan of logical consistency. It seems to me that it’s a minimum requirement of rationality. Though, on its face, it may seem that Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s surprising defense of BP is one such instance of consistency, I’m not at all sure that it is:

Much of Louisiana’s much-needed revenue comes from off-shore drilling leases. “By the same token, after every plane crash, you and I should both oppose plane travel,” Vitter quipped on Sunday to CNN’s Candy Crowley. “I don’t think that is rational.” Even Vitter’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Charlie Melancon, reiterated his support for expanded drilling in the wake of the disaster.

True, it would be ridiculous to oppose plane travel after every plane crash; but when you’re facing down one of the greatest oil disasters in US history, it’s not clear that this is just any plane crash. It’s more like suddenly discovering that those who have traveled more than 1000 hours at 30,000 feet will be stricken with terminal brain cancer. It’s a big deal associated with high risks, unclear rewards, and affecting a lot of people. It would not be ridiculous to oppose nuclear energy after Chernobyl; nor would it be ridiculous to oppose nuclear weapons after Hiroshima. What will determine whether it is ridiculous is whether it is rational to accept these risks.

Consistency for consistency’s sake is a problem. What we need to have is a serious discussion about what the risks, about the rewards, and about the alternatives. Anything else is just political posturing.



May 28, 2010

Ticks are disgusting. Carry on.


Outstripping Even Itself

May 5, 2010

Boy, the New York Times is outdoing itself today. It has two asinine articles on ethics. Here’s one, by Paul Bloom, on the amazing inclinations toward justice and morality of infant babies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Reflection be damned, even babies are moral!

And here’s another, by Robert Wright, on the amazing application of justice and morality to invading space aliens. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Normative ethics be damned, if space aliens figure out how to get here, they will have needed to develop a sufficiently self-preservationist ethic to survive, which will ipso facto translate into respect for humans.

All ethics hacks must know, instinctively, that the end of the semester is upon those of us who are actually serious about ethics — at least, those of us who basically read and study ethics all day long. Exam week is like amnesty for the promulgation of stupid ideas. (What is it about these guys that gives them the impression that they don’t need to know anything about ethics to write about it?)


Let’s take these one at a time, shall we? (Quickly. And then, back to grading and writing.) Bloom first, and our tip to his mistake comes in his opening sentence:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands.

No. No, they did not watch that, unless you think of justice as the kind of thing captured in a Charles Bronson movie.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step.

Yes. Yes, it is a perverse and misguided step, because babies are not moral agents, unless you don’t take moral guidance and reflection seriously, in which case they’re moral in the same way that my computer is moral.

A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies.

No. That’s probably not the reason that this view has persisted. The reason that this view has persisted is because ethical action is generally contrasted with instinctive or brute action, and as any parent will tell you, babies are friggin’ brutes.

Look, that babies may be involved in doing “rudimentary math,” or that they may speak in rudimentary grunts and monosyllabic words, or maybe even that they know that some grown-ups have false beliefs, doesn’t at all suggest that somehow they’re engaged in the moral community, or that, god forbid, they’re morally responsible for their actions. They’re just trying to figure it all out. Aristotle said as much several thousand years ago. It’s interesting, but it’s a misapprehension of the highest order to suggest that somehow this is morality. At the very best, it’s a nascent morality, prone to completely fucking things up.

To be fair, Bloom redeems himself partway through his article. It’s pretty interesting research he’s conducting — it’s just that his conclusions are cockamamie. He’s not actually studying the roots of ethics or morality. He’s just watching what babies do, much like I could watch what grown-ups do. I don’t even think it’s right to refer to it as the “moral life of babies.” That’s like talking about the “aesthetic, the literary, or the mathematical life of babies” and suggesting somehow that babies are aesthetically, literarily, or mathematically plugged in. They’re just not.

Now onto Wright. He has this to say:

A slightly less hopeful argument has been made by — well, by me. In my book “Nonzero” I argue that the moral progress Singer rightly celebrates has been driven less by pure reason than by pragmatic self-interest. Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games. In this view, the decline of American prejudice toward Japanese after World War II was driven less by purely rational enlightenment than by the Japanese transition from mortal enemies to trade partners and Cold War allies. (In this TED conference talk, Steven Pinker, who is writing a book on the decline of violence, contrasts my view with Singer’s.)

If I’m right, and we generally grant the moral significance of other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest to do so, then whywouldn’t we, in 100 or 200 years, do what Hawking imagines aliens doing — happen upon a planet, extract its resources through whatever brutality is most efficient and then move on to the next target? Absent cause to be nice, why would we be nice?

Wait, you have a book? Is it for sale? Too bad you don’t have a internationally distributed column in which to mention something about it. You might sell a lot of copies.

Okay, first things first: this “slightly less hopeful argument” is made by — well, not just you, but every fracking undergraduate in my introduction to ethics class, most of whom are sophomores. I’ll leave you to find the appropriate adjective to describe your idea.

If you’re right, you may have just tipped your hand that you, too, do not understand the first thing about normative ethics, because as a matter of empirical fact it may be true that — generalizing here — we maybe do extend moral significance to other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest, but the fundamental ethical question isn’t what do we do, it’s what we ought to do. Since you don’t understand that, you fail.

It gets worse:

I argue in the penultimate chapter that if we don’t radically develop our “moral imagination” — get much better at putting ourselves in the shoes of people very different from ourselves, even the shoes of our enemies — then the planet could be in big trouble.

How original. Are you suggesting that we should think about how things ought to be? Curious… because that’s exactly what ethicists do. And we don’t do it by strengthening our “moral imagination” or by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. That kind of thinking died a violent death in the 1700s, if not before that, once we recognized that our imagination is itself shaped by our animalistic predilections toward our own friggin’ self-interests, which can’t be what ethics is based on, despite the facile and confused scribblings of the world’s most unjustifiably renowned Russian emigrant.

Sorry. I’m cranky. I’ve read too many undergraduate exams in the past 72 hours. It pains me to read similar such drivel in the New York Friggin Times.

To put a cap on this, I was talking about these articles with one of my philosophy colleagues today and he said the following:

Just once, I’d like to see one of these articles go: “Can they really tell right from wrong? No. The end.”

Couldn’t’ve put it better myself.