Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Be a Superhero

Image Credit Eneas De Troya
In a recent episode of This American Life, we get the story of a woman named Zora who wants to be a superhero. For a long time, she set and accomplished goals on a long list, including learning martial arts, how to pilot a helicopter, wilderness survival skills, bodybuilding, and a few dozen other skills that comic book superheros always seem to possess. I recently had a conversation with someone who thought that we really should encourage others to be like superheroes, but in ways that make sense for the world we inhabit.

Lots of people want to be superheroes, I suppose. There's a lot of glamor in it, and fame of course, and it seems like a very exciting life. Most importantly, one would imagine, is that it offers a wonderful chance to help others.

But does it? Surely, the superheroes in comic books help a lot of people. But that's because there are often super villains who need to be stopped by superheroes, or else millions might die. Other than that, though, they do a lot of everyday crime fighting.

Is crime fighting really what we need more of? It seems that if that's what you thought, it would make sense to go into police work, or perhaps lobby for more money for law enforcement. Encouraging vigilantism hardly seems ideal. And because our world lacks the kinds of super villains that are best handled by superheroes, it's hard to see figures like Batman or Wonder Woman as practical role models.

The kinds of evils we face are much more subtle than those in comic books. A lot of evil is just apathy and ignorance. So the first place to start is just to educate yourself about the world, so that you are not, as best as possible, part of the problem. You can then play an important part in educating others, and fighting against the tide of ignorance. You might come to believe, as I have, some of the greatest wrongs committed in this world are towards non-human animals, and you can become part of a movement to educate the world about veganism.

You might also realize that there are billions of humans who live in much worse conditions than those in the most privileged nations. If you're a member of a privileged nation, you can research and contribute to ways that help relieve suffering in those parts of the world. These are both the places in which we can offer the most help and the places in most dire need, so it is doubly important to focus our efforts there. You probably can't solve all the world's problems, but you can do a lot to make the lives of some people much better. And this means all the world to them. You can even (statistically speaking) save lives, by giving significant, but not overly burdensome, amounts of money to charities like those at GiveWell.

It might not seem as grand as piloting a helicopter or fighting of muggers with your bare hands. But practical problems demand practical solutions, and this is where the real work needs to be done.

I'm sure there are those who would think I'm missing the point. Wanting to be a superhero is about wanting to do more than just statistically save lives or shift moral paradigms, it's about wanting to make yourself into a dynamic individual with incredible abilities who can do her part to save the world.

But what I'm trying to show here is that's already who many of us are. We already have the ability to get many important things accomplished, and that includes saving lives. We might have to give up on the idea that being a superhero means going on fantastic adventures and acquiring the wondrous skills. After all, if being a superhero means anything, it means you might have to give something up to do the right thing. Perhaps today's superheros are best advised to leave the super armor at home and put their efforts into the daily grind of trying to make life better for the worst off.

After all, if we imagine Superman or Spiderman staying at home, or just using their power to show off, I think we see something really wrong there. If they have the power to do a lot of good, then they should use it. And so should we.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Blackfish' Reveals More About Us Than About SeaWorld

 Image Credit Brian Gurrola
It should hardly surprise anyone that the killer whales who live in SeaWorld have a less than pleasant existence. But CNN's debut of the documentary Blackfish seems to have shaken many from their complacency on the issue, as many announced in tweets and posts that they plan to boycott SeaWorld over the treatment of their orca entertainment.

This Sundance favorite tells the story of the orca Tilikum, as he was captured as a two-year-old and trained for live performances. We're told of the carelessness of his captors who left him with hostile peers and trapped him for hours a day in cramped, dark enclosures. But despite what viewers might expect, this is a film decisively about workers rights rather than animal rights.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite continually emphasizes that Tilikum was a dangerous animal, and that SeaWorld should have known it. And by the time the death toll reaches three, it's hard to disagree. But what is the message here?

If the message were that Tilikum's interests in freedom, knowing his own family, and living out a life in his natural environment were being ignored, this would have been clear without any reference to his violent outbursts. Instead, we're delivered the message that the nature of his captivity is driving him crazy and making him act out in dangerous ways, putting at risk those who work closest with him.

Perhaps. But it seems just as likely that orca are complex individuals whose behavioral patterns might at times be erratic and unpredictable to members of other species. We don't need to posit marine psychosis to explain the fact that killer whales sometimes act in surprising and predatory ways.

What Cowperthwaite wants us to see is a repressed force of nature, beautiful in its own right, struggling against the hubris of its captors. Its captors, of course, being the corporate owners of SeaWorld, not the trainers who risk their lives. In this story, the trainers are like miners working in a faulty shaft, asked to take unnecessary risks for the sake of the bottom line. They are the victims.

It's not that the orca in Blackfish are supposed to be of no moral value. Several times the audience is assured that it's wrong to keep these animals imprisoned. But much more often we're told that it is the trainers who are in danger, and that SeaWorld is needlessly imperilling its staff.

If we're to take animals seriously as a moral matter, we've got to be clear that these issues are about them. The orca in SeaWorld are suffering because we chose to take them from the wild, trained them in captivity, and watched them perform tricks for food. We have wronged them and it is our fault.
Image Credit David Nestor
But given that the vast majority of our society consumes animal products at every meal, it is no surprise that we can't help but see them as resources for our use. The fact that we think we can use sentient beings for almost any purposes, regardless of the suffering and death we inevitably inflict on them, means cases like SeaWorld are hardly unique. The only proper response is to join the moral boycott of all animal use, and go vegan.

But this animal rights message is a bit too personal to make it to the big leagues in Sundance, or on to a special CNN broadcast. Its much better to talk about the beautiful, larger-than-life creatures who are beaten down by corporate monsters of SeaWorld. That way, we don't have to consider the ways in which we routinely and needlessly use and abuse animals daily.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Inside the Republican Mind

Via Matt Yglesias, we get the news that some Republicans are trying a new argument in the "negotiations" over the debt ceiling and funding of the government. Some now argue that breaching debt ceiling is not really that big a deal at all. I'm no expert on these matters, but I'm convinced by the confluence of expert opinion on the matter that this likely is a very big deal. But even if we disregard that, the Republican position on this front is nonsensical. If it weren't a big deal to breach the debt ceiling, then it wouldn't make sense that they are demanding so much in order to avoid a breach.

So why say such things? Well, for sure, one can never discount cynical political posturing. And in fact, as a negotiating tactic, it can be wise to appear as though one is irrational and willing to do the unthinkable in order to extract concessions. One doesn't negotiate with an irrational force, after all. You don't hold your ground with a mudslide and hope for public opinion to swing your way. The only option is to mitigate as much damage as possible.

But I think there's likely something else going on. I think many of the people saying these things may actually believe it. It's a classic resolution to the well-known problem of cognitive dissonance. The thought process might go as follows: "I'm negotiating over the debt ceiling. This implies that I must be willing to breach the debt ceiling. If I'm willing to do it, it can't be that bad."

We think this way all the time. I've come to think this is where a large part of the motivation for warfare comes from. We think (something like) that we wouldn't have an army unless military force were often necessary, and we do have a military, so military force must often be necessary.

These thought processes follow valid arguments, but the premises are not always true. We might have an army because we are excessively fearful, not because we truly need one. We might have negotiated over the debt ceiling because we wrongly believed the president would easily cave, rather than because we were actually willing to breach the debt ceiling.

We all know this. We are not perfect reasoners, and our past actions are often flawed. But when we deliberate, for a variety of reasons we are predisposed to thinking that we have always been behaving rationally. It's incumbent upon us to remember that we are not always rational, and that we cannot assume we haven't already made mistakes.

What this means is that to be a rational agent, we have have to recognize that we are consistently not, in fact, fully rational agents. This is where the ideal and the real must meet. We must always be striving towards being as rational as possible, but acknowledge that part of being rational is realizing that it is not possible (or even likely) for us always to be so.
Image Credit: Eli Christman

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Professors Behaving Badly

Over at Philosophy Bites, we get an interview with Eric Schwitzgebel about the ethical behavior of professors of moral philosophy. Surprising probably no one familiar with the state of academia, he finds that there is no evidence to think that ethicists behavior more ethically, by their own standards, than the general public.

This isn't surprising, but it is certainly disappointing. I often hope that much of the world's problems are just caused by confusion, and that if we could just get clearer on the ideas we're using, perhaps we could allay a lot of what ails us. Unfortunately, this study seems to suggest that even if people are clear on what the right thing to do is, they still might not do it.

One interesting tidbit: 60% of ethical philosophers think it's bad to "regularly eat the meat of mammals." About 45% of non-ethicist philosophers agreed, joined by only 19% of professors surveyed from all other departments. This should be quite shocking to most people, I think, given the ubiquity of animal consumption in our society. It shocks even me, despite the fact that I've repeatedly argued that there are just no good replies to the AMC and that I regard this argument as settled as a philosophical matter.

Of course most philosophers are not vegetarians, let alone vegans (a surprising number of very intelligent people ignore this distinction.) In fact, the study found that they were just as likely to have recently consumed the meat of mammals as the members of the other groups, despite disproportionately asserting that it was bad.

These results were consistent with results looking at other behaviors that ethicists are likelier to think are more important than others professors, such as voting or charitable donations. This indicates that ethicists are no more likely to be good people than other professors, but are more likely to be hypocritical in their espoused ethical opinions.

There are two ways to read this. On one reading, ethicists are worse morally than other professors, because they are more likely to do the acts that they either know, or falsely think, to be wrong. That is, they are more likely to do what is wrong from their own perspective. Alternatively, you could say that they are somewhat morally better than other professors (assuming their moral beliefs are correct) because even though their actions are not in line with moral truth, at least their beliefs are closer, and that counts for something.

In the interview, Eric Schwitzgebel gives a couple arguments in order to try and defend  the behavior of ethicists. First, he says, it might not be fair to expect ethics professors to both be experts in their field and to adhere to their moral beliefs, and he thinks this would be demanding a lot.

This is not persuasive. We expect all professors to follow moral guidelines, and they don't get a pass because they do a lot of work to become experts. It's hard to see how it's unfair to expect ethicists to do what they are morally required to do (from their own perspective). If they thought there was something unfair about being required to do it, how could they consistently think it is required?

A better argument he gives is that requiring ethicists to live by their own moral standards might have a distorting effect on their moral  views. Therefore, it's in the interest of having good moral philosophy to not demand philosophers to adhere to their own views.

While I think this is perhaps a good reason not to, for example, fire a moral philosopher for not living morally, it's hard for me to see how this policy implication has any moral force. Whether or not having such a policy has good or bad effects, this is no vindication for professors who are knowingly doing what they believe is wrong. They still ought to say to themselves "I understand why there's no policy to force me to act this way, but the reasons I have for thinking it's the right thing to do are exactly the same reasons I have for doing it."

In response to all this, Nigel Warbuton suggests that perhaps Neitzche was right when he suggested that moral philosophers simply rationalize justifications for their own behaviors, rather than reaching any moral truth. Schwitzgebel agrees, but this is completely backwards! What these studies show is that philosophers are very comfortable coming to moral conclusions that denounce their own actions as immoral. What better refutation of Nietzche could there be?

I wish there had been questions in the study about what meta-ethical beliefs the philosophers held. I would be very curious to know whether those who take a strongly realist view of morality were more likely to behave according to their own standards. 

There are also other really deep questions here, it seems to me, about what goes on when someone chooses to do what they think is wrong. What does that thought process look like, and how does it work? In fact, I think there's a good argument to be made that it's not possible to do what you think is wrong. More on that to come.
Image provided by Surachair /