Archive for January, 2010


technological words

I had a thought while I was working the other day, and it really astounded me for a few seconds, but then I realized that it probably wasn’t that interesting. Nonetheless, here it is.

Languages track technological development. For example, computers, in their first form, were largely developed in the United States and Britain during WWII. Unsurprisingly, this word was then imported to other languages who needed a word to denote what had been up until that point, nonexistent. So, computer in German is “der Computer” even though apparently, German tried to institute its own homegrown word, “die Datenverarbeitungsanlage,” which roughly means “the data working device.” (wonder why that didn’t catch on?). Also, in Japanese, computer is KONPYUTA, spelled in script that indicates that it is a loan word.

So, the provisional thesis is that the group that develops a technology gets to have their discovery immortalized forever in the language that they spoke. A small piece of historical research confirms this. In Europe, aqueducts were introduced by the Romans (and named by them), and so, unsurprisingly, we still use this word today, and it survives in French and German as well.


The death of altruism

Psychological  egoism is a doctrine about the way the world is. The claim is that people are self-interested and never altruistic, but the truth of this claim depends on how it’s interpreted.

One view would claim that an action is egoistic if one’s own advancement is it’s goal. On this interpretation, it seems that psychological egoism is plainly false, because we act for the benefit of other people all the time. People take their  parents to the hospital, play with the neighbor’s kids, and give to charity, for the benefit of helping others. One might say, “but these people gain from such actions; they feel better for being better people.” This may be true but this satisfaction is only a side effect, and oftentimes, to get this satisfaction, one must act for the benefit of the other person. Giving to charity in front of one’s boss to try to help raise one’s chances for a promotion usually doesn’t make us feel good, but giving for the sake of giving does.

The move that psychological egoist partisans often make at this point is something like the following “well, if you did something, then you must have wanted to do it, which means that you did it for some reason that appealed to you and thus your action was egoistic.” The problem with this approach is that it misses the point. Of course we can only intentionally (as opposed to by accident) do things that we want to do, but this is just to say that the action is ours and not someone else’s. The more important point is that the person who wants to help others, though they want to help others, is the very paradigm of an altruistic person: they have a desire to help others.

If an egoistic action is just one that we choose to do, then of course there are no actions that are no egoistic, but that’s a tautological and uninteresting formulation of the theory. The better question to ask is “what is the content of a particular choice?” If the goal of my action is the benefit to someone else, then my action is altruistic even if I cannot help but being pleased by the good that I do.


the worst street in America

I haven’t visited every street in America, but I think Boston is a great place to begin the search for our country’s worst street.

And in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve already found my answer. Dorchester Ave, the main street running through *duh* — Dorchester, is pretty terrible. It’s very similar to Main street in Everett, except worse. The street is just two lanes, and is used by every bus, commuter, and trash collection truck in the city. Of course, there are many, many lights, most of which come on and off, and they aren’t synchronized. I spent about 25 minutes, crawling through about 10 blocks.

Of course everything I’ve said so far is just to say that Dorchester Ave is a street in Boston, but there’s something about Dorchester Ave that makes it particularly ineffective. Maybe its the criss-crossing roads that splice into it at all sorts of angles, or the density of shops, but in any case, maneuvering is almost impossible. Google maps says that my route should have taken about 4 minutes, which was only off by about a factor of 5: the Boston destination multiplier.


Put your name on your paper?

I sat in on the first session of a class that I’m TAing and I was struck by a thought: I should grade papers blind.

Almost every competitive system that has benefits attached to its operation operates on this principle. Judges must abstain if they are personally known to or affiliated with one of the parties, muscians auditioning for a position often play from behind a curtain, and philosophy papers that have been submitted for publication are also read blind. Why are the papers of students not read in this fashion?

The risks are large for not employing this procedure. First of all, TAs have contact with students fairly regularly throughout the semester and so often develop opinions about them that can become deep. Second, TA/student romances are not unheard of, again skewing the possibility of objectivity.

The unfortunate downside is that TAs often need to be able to connect a paper with a student, that way, the TA can connect the student’s writing to their positions in class, and can see if the student followed advice given in office hours. In fact, the personal relationship is what TAs are supposed to be for.

Nonetheless, I think from my personal perspective, blind grading probably has more benefits than burdens. Just today, someone in my class answered a question, and I didn’t like the answer, and I’m sure, subconsciously, this will affect me when I grade this student’s paper, even if I try to compensate for it. Better to just take the names off of the papers entirely.


an objection to utilitarianism?

Is utility a homogenous good that can be compared in discrete lumps like bricks or ounces of coffee?

Take this case. I could prevent you from having to pass a kidney stone (one of the most painful thing that can happen to someone, second to childbirth according to some) or I could prevent 100,000 people from experiencing a 10 minute long and relatively mild headache (assume there will be more total pain with the 100,000). Utilitarianism says that I should prevent the headaches, but it seems that our sympathies lie with the kidney stone victim.

What I think is interesting about this case is that pain or disutility can be so easily aggregated in the way necessary for utilitarianism. The headaches here contemplated, though they are painful, are just something people should endure, and thus, to reach the equivalent of certain pains requires more than just adding up a bunch of smaller ones.

This is kind of a shallow criticism of utilitarianism, but one that I can’t help thinking has something to it.


a theory of good music

People often wonder what standards apply in art. What makes Led Zeppelin better than Taylor Swift. To many people, Taylor Swift is more enjoyable, but if music quality shouldn’t be a democracy, than what are the standards that govern it?

Here is my theory. When I first listened, to Led Zeppelin, I liked many of their songs. For instance, songs like Black Dog and Rock and Roll are pretty much universally appealing. However, I skipped many other songs because they started too slow, or didn’t stand out. I just wanted to go back to the hits. But then something happened, and from my conversations with other people, this is not a rare occurrence: the more obscure songs would play longer and longer before I would realize that they were playing and the reach to move on to the next hit, and at some magical moment, the song that I thought of as “after Black Dog” became “that great song after Black Dog” that I would then find out the name of.

What this indicates to me  is that great music has the ability to train the ear to appreciate new types of music, and to make sense (not in an explicit intellectual way, but in a more intuitive way). For bands like Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Cars (for me anyway), each song  is a gateway to the rest of the bands corpus. Not so for some pop sensations. A pop hit is a catchy tune that’s good in its own right, but its horizons are limited; it doesn’t aim at anything else. In fact, to extend the point, the best bands can regiment the ear to even move to different genres and bands altogether.

Thus, in a nutshell, my theory as it stands right now, is that good music is educational in a non-cognitive sense. Weight lifting trains muscles to lift more weight, and music, in a much more eloquent fashion, trains the ear to hear more.


moral particularism

I’m taking  a class this semester that investigates a doctrine known as moral particularism. I hadn’t heard of it until now.

According to the standard view of morality, there are different factors, when taken together, yield a conclusion about whether the action (usually its an action, but it could be a person or an institution etc. etc.) is morally right or wrong. For example, a common view is that an increase in total utility is always good. It may not be a decisive, but if there are two exactly similar situations, and one had more total utility than the other, than the one with more utility is the better situation. A summary for this view is that moral factors always function in the same way.

Particularism claims that moral factors operate like words, and can have different effects in different situations. A good example, which isn’t mine, is the word “and.” It doesn’t always function as a conjunction. Take these two sentences:  “two and two make four” and “And just what do you think you’re doing?” In these sentences, and means something different than it usually does, or it means nothing at all. The particularist claims that moral factors works this way too so that inferences like this: “if factor F makes this action wrong, then it must operate in the same way over in this situation over here,” are false.

I’m not sure what to think about particularism except that in one sense, its already well accepted. Of course some moral factors change in the presence of others. For example, hurting someone tends to make actions wrong, but not if they consent. The presence of consent changes the force of hurting someone from wrong making to right making. But again, this would mean that moral factors interact in complex ways, doing one thing in one situation and something else in another, just like the elements. But even the elements have rules, its just that they are complex. In a similar way, why can’t moral rules be complex too, ie self defense is justified, but not against innocent threats, or lying is wrong, except to save a friend. Must the particularist claim that there are no moral principles? It seems that suitably complex, there are such principles, but this debate will be sharpened hopefully in this class I’m taking.