Monday, February 28, 2011

The Right Kind of Ambition

There are different kinds of ambition, and some are more right than others. We are entitled to have ambition over what we accomplish—the lives we change, the things we bring about, the results of our actions. What we're not entitled to, though, is ambition over the means to achieving those ends. We're not entitled to covet certain posts or positions or prestige in order to effectuate those goals.

What I mean, in short, is that we are entitled to ambition over ends, not means. When we have ambition over the ends, then people come to our aid, and rally to support us. But when we think otherwise, when we treat positions and posts as ends in themselves, then we're thinking purely selfishly, and people will distance themselves from us for it. Being an important person or having an important role should be seen only as a liability to the things that you're yearning to do.

Limiting your ambition to the ends of your action is a freeing feeling. It means you're no longer worried about whether you get a certain position or not, whether you get promoted or not, whether it's even you who's the one that brings about the change that you want to see or not. At any given position, you can contribute what little or lot that you have to advancing the goals that you care about; and if the goal—and not your personal involvement in it—is what you truly care about, then you'll be happy with that.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

100 posts!

I've made it to 100 blog posts!

In light of the Academy Awards tonight, I'd like to take the time to thank all the people who made it possible for me to get here:

First, I'd like to thank all of my English teachers, especially through high school and college, who inculcated in me a love for good writing and writing well. My college ENGL 109H teacher, Jack Skeffington, was especially encouraging. Writing is a skill like anything else, he would say—you only get better with practice. I took that line seriously, and so this blog was born to practice my writing. [Plus, he introduced me to David Foster Wallace, and so of course I'm indebted to him for that.]

I also owe a lot to my friends, with whom I've had many conversations that have inspired blog posts. I always learn something new from all of you (and I realize how much I depend on you for ideas because when we're on school vacations I have a hard time coming up with blog posts).

To the readers and commentators on the blog, a big thank you! It really makes my day when I hear someone mention a blog post of mine they liked, or when I see a new comment on my Blogger dashboard.

And, of course, I'd be amiss if I didn't mention my family's support too. I'm not sure how aware they are of this blog, but it doesn't matter. They're responsible for supporting the person behind the blog.

Dubious Dissertations

I didn't realize it was possible, but apparently you can fake your way even through a Ph.D.

Rodney Glassman, a politician from Tucson, Arizona, liked to boast during his campaign for the senate seat last year that he earned a Ph.D. in Arid Land Studies from the University of Arizona. Then a real U of A Ph.D. scholar tore his dissertation to shreds:
"Rodney Glassman got a Ph.D. in Arid Land Sciences for giving 4th graders a test, leading them through some activities, and then retesting them again to see if they scored better.


While most science papers have figures made up of graphs and plots, his figures are…

Pictures of kids. Pictures of teachers.

There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but keep in mind that this is a Ph.D. we are talking about.

The actual plots that he does use consist of bar plots with two categories.

The categories are “incorrect” and “correct,” which refers to how the students scored on test. Since these have to add up to 100%, one bar plot would have contained enough information… in which case a single number would have been enough, but then you would be left with 42 less pages of fluff.

What is the big result? What did Glassman discover?

Apparently, if you lead kids through some hands on activities, they learn. And sometimes their scores will change, sometimes not."
You can read the full text of the dissertation here (which strikes me as the academic equivalent of watching scenes from The Room, movie so terrible it's funny).

All around really embarrassing for the University of Arizona, yes; but surely this doesn't happen at the big prestigious places?

It turns out not. You just need to be important enough, that's all.

Part of the ongoing comedy of the Qaddafi family now includes the fact that Muamar's son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, plagarized his LSE Ph.D. dissertation. And it seems he was "allowed to commission research from Monitor, a consultancy, to pad out the thesis" (Schumpeter's Notebook)? Get the full details at Schumpeter's Notebook, an Economist blog, here. [And of course, in case there was any doubt, there's donations to LSE involved.]

So what? Well, if you're wise or cynical, then this is probably stale news. But in case you used to think that universities were really strict about conferring degrees, be appraised that they sometimes make "exceptions." Plus, it's pretty humorous too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Updated Reading List - February 23rd

I've updated the reading list today with some articles on education, development economics, and charities—and a really nice novel about Indian Partition. Check it out!

Society from an Indigenous Perspective

Recently a friend of mine, who also happens to be a member of the Aymara community from Bolivia,  introduced me to her culture's way of thinking of life. I think what she said would be very useful to share here.

The indigenous people conceive of four communities: (1) the community of humans, (2) the community of the spirits, (3) the community of nature, and (4) the community of the ancestors. These four communities should exist in balance. But when we use any one of them as an object, when we use them as an instrument for our own end, then we produce imbalance, and societal problems.

She gave monoculture as an example of this imbalance. When we don't respect the natural plant diversity found in nature, then we cause problems by exhausting the soil too quickly. Europeans, using over-exploitative farming techniques, rendered their land fallow by the 1800s, so much so that they had to import guano from South America in order to replenish the soil. The Europeans' dependence on guano led to desperation and conflict: both Bolivia and Peru fought and lost wars, orchestrated by European powers, over control of the guano trade.

I see in this four communities idea a powerful framework for synthesizing the contributions of different schools of social thought. Some thinkers have emphasized the objective—that is, the role of economic and the political structures. Others have emphasized the subtle and the subjective, questions of identity, and belonging, and spiritual fulfillment. Others still have emphasized the need to ground social organization in philosophical terms, in terms of justice and the rights of humanity. The four communities framework can embrace all these approaches. It has room for both the overt wrong in slavery (using humans as objects, and disrespecting the first community) and the wrong in appropriating history for selfish gain (which would be, I think, an example of using the community of the ancestors as objects).

This framework also provided me with another takeway. In it I see how dependent we are on the nourishment and sustenance from all the four communities. We rely on our human community to raise us and support us; we rely on the  spirit community to anchor us in a sense of purpose, to give our life meaning; we we rely on nature to provide us with a hospitable habitat, resources for our use, food to eat; and we rely on the ancestors to provide us with wisdom. We like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient, but we're not.

Learning about this perspective has been a salubrious breath of fresh air to my thinking, just because it's so different.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Experimental Political Philosophy

For centuries, political philosophers have been on a quest to figure out the best way of organizing society; and, needing no resources to further their research other than their own brains, they have come up with a plethora of theories.

Most of the time philosophy deals with the "ought to." But in political philosophy we also find some testable hypotheses. Marxist communism is, for example, a testable hypothesis, as well as the idea that property rights will encourage owners to be more productive. From Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, I got the idea that anarchy is inherently unstable, that governments naturally emerge out of it; that too is a testable idea.

Of course, political philosopher don't usually go around testing their theories because they consider it immoral to play with the lives of other people like that.

But I think political philosophers have overlooked an obvious place where experimental political philosophy is already taking place: nation building!

An experiment in democracy in Afghanistan

With the war dragging on, and American support waning, I'm sure the Pentagon is eager and open to suggestions about how to finally make stable, legitimate governments in Afghanistan and Iraq as quick as possible. They've already spent so much time and money—I'm sure they won't mind trying something unconventional if there's a possibility it could work.

Political philosophers, this is your chance! Time to see your theories come to life!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Social Obligations, Or How You Can Back Into Paternalism Without Trying

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues an anti-paternalist position. That is, he says we cannot prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection. But he also says that we have the right to prohibit other people from engaging in activities which impose an undue risk on ourselves. I believe these two positions are inconsistent. [As reviewers have pointed out, I'm not showing there's an inconsistency; and there isn't one. Rather, I'm concerned whether there's an aspect of social life that Nozick didn't seem to consider which could undermine the analysis.]

Nozick's argument assumes that the individual is the basic unit of social life. However, as I have argued elsewhere, I think it's more useful to take the household as the basic unit instead. We are born into families, and we tend to grow up, live, and die in them. Even when we reject our families and all family ties, we still naturally form "households" in our new homes. College roommates, gay couples, touring rock bands—these are all examples of how even when we don't live in traditional family structure, we still have a penchant for community living (the anthropologist is always quick to point out that "the household" is socially defined). It's an essential part of being a social human being.

Whether we like it or not, this communal living creates obligations on us. Parents obviously have duties to their children. We believe roommates should take care of each other. Figuring out the exact nature of these "family/community living" duties is difficult, but we can't deny there are duties.

Now imagine we see a father drinking too much. The anti-paternalist would say we do not have the right to interfere if he is fully aware of the risks of his actions: not drinking may be in the father's own best interest, but we have no right to stop him. However, because the father has a child, and because that child is so dependent on him, the drinking affects the child too. A drunkard father may raise his kids well, but he will probably not. In Nozick's language, that's an "undue risk," which the child has the right to prohibit. The child, not being at the age of reason, has the right to have other family members intervene on his behalf.

We cannot, then, cleanly separate the father's best interest from the son's interest. The child's best interest is having his father in the best shape as possible, since the child is dependent. This dependency means that our actions no longer concern just ourselves. We are obligated and liable to our family members, and the dangerous actions of one family member (even if they're only directed at themselves in a narrow sense) end up imposing risks on all other members. This means, generally speaking, we may prohibit others from actions against their self-interest because their self-interest is itself vital to our self-interest.

When we embed the individual in a social context, we see that he is trapped in a web of social obligations (at the very least familial obligations) and that these provide the grounds for interference by other family/community members. These social obligations may be unasked for, but they are still binding nonetheless. The only one who can be free from paternalistic pressures of any kind is the lone wolf, who does not live in any mutually supportive/dependent community. But those people are very rare.

Endnote: I see how the risk-prohibition line of reasoning can get out of hand quickly. If we are to stop all people who impose risks on us, then are we to prohibit driving? Nozick's principle of prohibition does not resolve the core issue, which is determining which kinds of risk are acceptable and which are not. Still, I think there's merit to the idea of prohibiting actions that impose undue risk to ourselves. Even if there weren't, Nozick still argues an inconsistent position, for having a family member impose risks on us is just as bad as having indepedent agents impose the risk of unreliable justice procedures.

Update (Feb. 15, 2011): I've made small changes to make sure I more accurately convey my positions.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Limits to Meritocracy

In the wake of the financial crisis, income inequality has become a sexy topic again among economists. Following a host of notable commentators on the subject (including economists like Raghuram Rajan and Daron Acemoglu and a host of politicians), The Economist has chipped into the discussion with its own article.

The Economist article calls into question the perniciousness of income inequality in itself. It argues that policymakers would do better to focus on eliminating barriers that allow the "most pernicious, unfair sorts of income disparity" instead of focusing on redistribution. Their recommendation? Allow for increased competition and social mobility. "Governments need to keep their focus on pushing up the bottom and middle rather than dragging down the top." That means reducing trade barriers, investing in access to good education for everyone, and, at heart, promoting more competition and meritocracy.

I think they have the right idea in mind. There are definitely more fair and unfair types of inequality. But I have reservations about The Economist's embrace of meritocracy. If we follow the principles of meritocracy all the way to their logical conclusion, then we end up with a grim picture.

Pure meritocracy means, for example, that parents have no way of ensuring that their children will be as well off as they are. To properly judge who deserves to get better positions and opportunities, kids grow up constantly being evaluated and competing with each other. Tensions amongst parents and kids rise to a boiling point when success, or getting ahead, becomes a zero-sum game, where the success of my friend only implies one less opportunity for myself.

Competition is not only a benefit, as The Economist sees it, but also a cost. For some people, competition is a healthy motivator for them to develop their natural abilities. But for most people, it is a form of coercion to work harder than they wouldn't want to, for the sake of positions they otherwise wouldn't aspire to.

High social mobility (in itself a desirable thing) has the cost of intense competition. We already see an example of what that kind of intense competition would like in primary schools in New York City, where some parents are spending thousands of dollars on test prep sessions for their 4 year-olds in order to ensure that they make it into the city's gifted kindergarten program. When I saw an article about this in the New York Times, I was prompted to write a post about the paradoxical nature of a middle class that lives amongst plenty, but which acts as it were fighting for its very survival.

There are limits to how much meritocracy we're willing to tolerate. At some point, the burden of competition weighs down on the benefits of increased/equal opportunity. A world where people are heavily advantaged by their intellectual endowments is not really fairer than a world where people are heavily advantaged by their wealth endowments.

In the end, though, my point against The Economist is pretty weak: I agree with their main thrust, that we should remove people that systematically deny people opportunities. I just want to make sure that we're careful not to rush headstrong into meritocracy either.

Update (March 14, 2011):
John Rawls gives a much stronger argument against meritocracy in A Theory of Justice:
"[In meritocracy] there exists a marked disparity between the upper and lower classes in both means of life and the rights and privileges of organizational authority. The culture of the poorer strata is impoverished while that of the governing technocratic elite is securely based on the service of the national ends of power and wealth. Equality of opportunity means an equal chance to leave the less fortunate behind in the personal quest for influence and social position." (106-107, my emphasis)
So the complaint is not so much that meritocracy makes people work too hard, but that it punishes people for not being bright. This is why the competition that I stressed in the post is a problem: given the severe disparities in life chances that a pure meritocracy produces, one can't afford not to make it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Religion and Rhetoric, part 2

My last post, Religion and Rhetoric, generated a number of comments, and I'd like to follow up on them. I'm glad to get some discussion going on this blog! I won't be able to get to everything that was brought up in the comments, but I'll try to address the main points.

Before I do so, though, I need to clarify some things I think about religion. First, I don't think it's just like science. The main difference I see is that science concerns "objective" reality—the world as we see it—whereas religion concerns "subjective" reality—the glasses we wear to see the world. Given the same facts of reality, people can interpret the situation differently. You can face the same challenges of life either grudingly and despairingly, or with equipoise and confidence. I think the purpose of religion is to move us from the first category to the second.

Second, I see religion in purely instrumental terms. Like the pole valuter who uses the pole to cross the high bar, we use religion as a prop to help us over this mental "bar" that we can't surpass without. But once the pole valuter crosses the bar (i.e. come to realize God, become completely purified, etc.) then he has to let go of the pole, otherwise he'll come crashing down. Likewise, at that point, when religion has no more practical use, then we should not rigidly hold on to the habits that religion inculcates. I think we should think of religion (defined as the rituals, practices, commandments associated with spirituality) as an instrument to realize the truths that spirituality (aka religious theory) talks of.

Third, I think we have to separate the wheat from the chaff in religious doctrine. You don't have to believe all parts of a religious doctrine to subscribe to that religion. Because religions are meant to cater to a mass audience, they contain within them various levels of explanations, which vary in logical rigor depending on the mental capacity of the devotee. More simple-minded people won't be interested in deep, rigorous philsophical debates; they find supernatural explanations/appeal to a personal god/etc. more appealling, and it's for those people that these reasons are crafted. [This is why religions offer what I called "child" answers in my original post.] But if you want logical rigor, then you can find that too—in Hinduism we have the Upanishads, which are incredibly difficult to parse but read just like philosophical treatises, and base their explanations on pure logic and natural laws.

Think of the distinction between "high" and "low" explantations in terms of math. Only few mathematicians dedicate themselves to rigorously proving mathematics; the rest of us take their results for granted and just use it. Example: engineers use calculus all the time without having to learn the measure theory and real analysis that supports the validity of their results. We even use shortcuts that aren't perfectly rigorous. Example: we treat (dy/dx) as a fraction sometimes even though there's handwaving there.

Now, an example for religion. I'll talk about Hinduism since that's what I know best. In Hinduism have elaborate rituals, called yagnas. People are told growing up that if they do these yagnas then they will get good merits that will allow them to go to heaven (or get a favorable next birth). This supernatural explanation is, of course, not logically satisfying. For people who press, swamis will explain that the whole affair is 1) practice in self-less activity and 2) a visual symbol and reminder of the process of purification. First, to put a yagna together requires the coordination and cooperation of a lot of people. People are supposed to contribute what they have to the effort (labor, resources, energy) in order to pull it off, and they're supposed to give selflessly and willingly so that the yagna is a success. When we a do a yagna, then, we get a reminder to work in this "yagna-spirit" in all aspects of our life. Second, the yagna itself is an elaborate symbol. I'm not knowledgeable enough to go into the full details, but basically the idea is that we are burning our ignorance in the fire of knowledge.

So, in answer to Derek's question, yes, I do think you can choose to disbelieve certain (supernatural) aspects of the religion and still proclaim yourself a believer. The reason is that those explanations were not meant for you. And I don't think this damages the credibility of the religion itself because the supernatural parts of religion are secondary and periphery, and the core tenets don't (shouldn't) rely on these explanations anyway. I realize this isn't the way religion often presents itself. Christians, for example, will say believing in the resurrection is an essential component of Christianity—that it's what validates their beliefs. But I think if religion wants to serve the needs of a modern, scientific society, then it should adapt itself in this direction.

What then makes a believer? I don't think of belief as a static, binary state (either you believe or you don't), but rather as a grey-scale continuum. Religion is a prescribed path of study, and though you can start out a skeptic, or a disbeliever of the whole thing, your beliefs can change over time as you come (maybe) to embrace it. What matters whether you're a believer or not is, I think, whether you're applying yourself to that study.

Both of the commenters questioned my equating faith in science with faith in religion. To be honest, I don't think they're exactly the same, but I wanted to make a point that religion doesn't require blind faith in hocus-pocus. That's because I come from the "high"/"low" explanations school of thought, so when I'm dialoging with religion at my own level, then I find that faith in religion is not illogical. I believe that there are deep explanations for why we do the things we do in religion if we know where to look. Plus, not believing in supernatural stuff doesn't mean I don't have faith in my religion.

The difference I see between faith in science and faith in religion is this: because religion deals with a subjective, not objective, reality, its truths are not externally demonstratable. Even if these religious techniques make me fundamentally happy and satisfied, no one will be able to know the full extent of this inner change except for myself. That's the point where religion requires more faith than science.

I'll stop there for now. As a final mark, I'd suggest that people curious in religious philosophy should become well-versed in a non-Semetic religions. I think seeing an entirely new conceptualization of religion gives a better sense of what religion is really about, and what parts about it are important and which ones are not. Plus, there is actually a lot of overlap (in what's important) between Eastern and Semetic traditions—at least that's what Christians have told me when I try to explain what Hinduism is about.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Religion and Rhetoric

[Recently I've been reading a lot of philosophical anarchism, which is all about questioning the authority of the state. Locke, Nozick, and others make sophisticated arguments to defend the legitimacy of the state's authority. No one seems to be doing the same for religion, though. This is my attempt at filling that gap. Comments are very welcome.]

Where does religion's authority come from? All religions proclaim to tell the Truth, but if you are to ask an average religious person why you should believe they'll say, because The Holy Book said so. If you question further they'll say, you just need to have to have faith. The discusion usually stops there. Intelligent people, who need to have good reason before believing in something, have naturally come to have totally written off religion. 

I think people who offer these sorts of explanations do religion a large disservice. It's mispresentation, really. This answer is the child's answer, but for some reason it's still pretty much the only one offered to curious and skeptical people.

The adult answer grounds itself in the idea that religion is rhetoric. Religion is essentially an argument for a way of life, and like all arguments it needs to develop its logos, pathos, and ethos. The first two elements are obvious components of religions. It's the last one, ethos, that seems more elusive.

So where is the appeal to ethos in religion? The answer is that it comes from the same place that ethos always comes from: the identity of the speaker. What religious leaders so often fail to mention—and what holds religion together in the first place—is the credibility, respect, and trustworthiness of both the founder of the religion and the religious leaders who maintain it. If religious figureheads preach a standard that they don't live up to themselves, then thinking people will naturally reject that religion as false.

In Hinduism, there is a saying: When the student asks for guidance, the teacher tells her to go to the Scripture, and the Scripture tells her to go to the teacher. The idea is that the two are mutually reinforcing; the theoretical ideas of moral behavior find a living example in the teacher.

The purpose of religion is to make us better human beings. It's a system for self-improvement and inner development and transformation. Of course, people may become worse in the name of religion, but there are also lots of quiet but inspiring inner self-unfoldments taking place because of it too. Swami Chinmayananda, my own spiritual teacher, made the point that we can't judge religion by how bad religious people are, since after all if they had nothing to improve upon then religion would do them any good. Instead, he said, we should focus on the before-and-after, i.e. how much did they change by sincerely applying religious practices. That's the real test. In that sense, if there is even one person who has achieved significant self-improvement, then that validates the religion: it means that the religion, as a system for self-improvement, actually works.

Faith plays an important role in religion, but it's hardly anything more special than the faith we require to function in everyday life. In religion we need faith because we can't travel back in time to verify the accuracy of scriptures; because we have to trust our religious advisors; and, most importantly, because sometimes religious doctrine contradicts our intuitions. But we also have faith the same kind of faith in the science textbooks we use, in our spouses, and in our doctors and our medicines. It's nothing new.

Thus, choosing to follow a religion can be a very reasonable, considered decision. If I see that in history certain spiritual men and women have led unparalleled moral lives, and that they explain their thought processes, and that many people over the centuries have come to live great, inspired lives by following this system, then these present good reasons to me for trying the religion too. Why not? I can always test it out for a year, sincerely, under the direction of knowledgeable people, and see if it produces any results.

So where does religious authority come from? Consent, of course (the same place political authority comes from). We give religion our consent when we decide that sometimes religion knows what we want from life and how to achieve it more so than our own (faulty) intuitions do.