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Work More, Blog Less
When it's almost 6:00 and someone asks you to go into the lab to help them with something for "just a minute" — don't go.
Two hours later, I realized I was hopelessly immersed because that thing supposed to take "just a minute" is actually a critical super-duper emergency and will surely have me working overtime all week. (Today I came home at 11:00.)
Expect no more blogging until the weekend. Unless some sort of miracle occurs. But miracles only seem to happen to the sort of people who don't keep good records, and I'm not one of them. I predict lots of hours instead.
Riots at Veishea (again)
I graduated from Iowa State University. There's an annual student-run celebration there called Veishea that used to be — decades ago — an exhibition of good things about the university.
My evaluation of Veishea was set when a drunk passed out in the hallway near my dorm room. After that, I was happy to be out of town for Veishea weekend.
Several times in recent years, Veishea has ben marred by riots. People have tipped cars over, placed a couch in the street and set it on fire, that sort of thing. One year there was a homicide, and since then it has been a "dry" event. That didn't prevent riots from happening this year, though.
It's time for Veishea to end. When a tradition is better known for property damage than as a university showcase, it is a liability. The students don't care anymore. (I certainly didn't, when I was there — but I may be an unusual case, because I didn't enjoy much of my college experience anyway.)
Another weekend with beautiful weather, another reason to frolic in the park instead of blogging. It's nice to relax.
Except that I was relaxing with Erik and his bocce ball set, and as a couple of engineers we can't leave well enough alone. We experimented with some variations, and I'm proud to introduce a new game — polyball!
Equipment for two players:
The object of the game is to earn points by throwing balls to form triangles that contain the palino. Players may choose the game-ending score. The playing field may be of any surface and size (a park is nice) and the balls of any size and weight and surface (bocce balls are nice).
I recommend bringing a tape measure or long piece of string or laser pointer or something of that nature, to make the sides of triangles easy to visualize.
Of course we may tinker with these rules. An earlier variant included points for having the palino along the line between only two balls, and we briefly considered special scoring for containing the palino within a convex quadrilateral.
I Hate Earth Day
On this Earth Day it's important to read Dr. George Reisman's essay The Toxicity of Environmentalism (now 14 years old; not all the science therein turned out to be accurate, but the philosophy is spot on):
Happily, many environmentalists are suffering from political infighting these days, which affords them less time spent protecting the environment from people:
They've got it backwards. Environmentalism is the greatest threat to the growing U.S. population and its consumption of natural resources.
Capitalism and Workplace Safety
This year's Pulitzer Prize in Public Service went to a pair of journalists who wrote about Evil Businesses™ who exploit their workers by not providing for their safety.
Last year, Dr. George Reisman responded to the Pulitzer-winning articles by writing about the actual connection between capitalism and workplace safety.
In richly ironic fashion, a recent AIDS scare in the adult film industry provides a unintentional underscoring of Reisman's points. An industry widely attacked for "exploiting" its workers and treating them with little or no regard is voluntarily stopping production en masse:
The number of producers halting production is impressive (probably not safe for work).
Funny, OSHA doesn't seem to be involved. It's as if the producers and the workers have been able to evaluate the risks and reach an acceptable arrangement all by themselves.
Rantisi Fallout at the U.N.
Another great statement from Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman before the UNSC today:
The statements of other nations are available online also — this summary is useful.
Prediction: A one-sided resolution condemning Israel will come to a vote, and the United States will veto it. Just like last time, and the twenty-seven times prior to that.
Several weeks (okay, months) ago I had a very interesting e-mail exchange with a retired philosophy professor, Jim, about rights and obligations. Concerned that we weren't talking about the same thing, I asked him to describe the difference between moral obligations and moral rights.
Our conversation was a long time ago and we talked about a many more things than this, but I made what I think is an important point during that conversation and so I'd like to repeat and expand upon it here.
There is a difference between moral obligations and moral rights under some ethical systems. Speaking about obligations specifically, it is true that a person's positive right to X means that others are obligated to provide X, but the converse is not true — there may be obligations to provide X even in the absence of a right to X. (Of course I reject positive rights, but that's not germane right now.)
Under a virtue ethics approach, the source of a moral obligation is one's own commitment to virtue, or personal integrity. Not the condition or need of any other person. For example, a virtue ethicist may recognize a moral obligation to aid an injured child on the grounds that doing so helps create the kind of society they want to live in, or for the psychological value in fighting against human suffering, or as a long-shot investment ("Maybe as an adult he'll cure cancer!"), or even on the abstract value of human life. Notice that these motivations are not based on the child's need. They originate in the helper, not in the helped. They in no way establish a right of the child to receive help, but those values coupled with strong integrity could create a moral obligation.
Due to individual choices of values, it is even possible for some people to be morally obligated to help while others are not! Clearly this is far removed from the standard thinking that the child's need is the source of a right to assistance.
The case is clearer when we aren't discussing two strangers. Consider a married couple, instead, one of whom is sick and will soon die without an expensive operation. The healthy person may have a moral obligation to pay for the operation because they love their spouse and integrity demands preserving one's highest values over lesser values — e.g., sell the boat to pay for the operation, because the spouse is more important than the boat.
A stranger's moral obligation in this case is obviously smaller, and perhaps zero, depending on their own values. The situation is very different when the moral obligation is assumed to stem from the (positive) rights of the sick spouse: If the obligation exists due to their need, shouldn't it fall evenly on both the spouse and on the stranger, rather than more heavily on the spouse?
Consider your own reaction to the sick spouse case. Do you believe the spouse and the stranger have equal or unequal moral obligations? What is the source of that obligation — values or needs? (Or both?) Do you view moral obligations from a virtue ethics or positive rights perspective?
… for once, I really wish I had a commenting system. Feel free to comment by e-mail, and I may post 'em to this article.
The Authoritarian Personality
Here are excerpts from two stories that both appeared, coincidentally, on the CNN homepage on Tuesday:
Most people would be seething with indignation after reading that. The Red Cross doesn't want blood from people who were recently sick or recently got a tattoo or piercing — it's a safety matter. Christie Key didn't care about safety. She only cared about upholding her sorority's history of blood donation, and she was willing to advocate dishonesty and make direct threats to achieve that goal.
Most people would be much less upset at this. "Oh," they think, "it's a politician trying to protect our privacy. Good for them. Shame on Google."
The minority of people who take individual rights seriously will criticize this politician, explaining to the few willing to listen that Google's e-mail service is completely voluntary and that people should be free to choose for themselves whether they think the privacy intrusion and advertisements are acceptable in exchange for the free e-mail service and storage space. Adults are capable of making decisions and should not be infantalized.
A tiny minority, of which I am a member, feel a greater sense of moral outrage at the politician than at the sorority girl.
Both of these people clearly show an authoritarian personality. They want to impose their values and desires on others. They want to control them and make them conform. Key is blatant: Do it my way or else, by any means necessary, even if it could harm people. Figueroa is more subtle: Trust me, it's bad, you don't want it, and I'll make it illegal because I'm worried you'll make the wrong decision (but I'm sure I haven't.)
Why am I more angry at Figueroa than at Key? Because Key is a piker. She's inexperienced and ineffective. Her advocation of dishonesty, use of intimidation, and callousness toward fellow human beings manifested brightly and caused her strategy to backfire in an embarrassingly public way. She failed. In contrast, Figueroa wears the mantle of benevolence and concern for the public. She's fighting against an Evil Business™ who wants to inflict advertising (the horror!) on people. Due to the way she has framed her action, she is much more likely to succeed, and her success would further restrict the freedom of people to form voluntary associations and contracts. That is a freedom I cherish.
Key's direct intimidation makes her targets immediately suspicious. Figueroa's intimidation is no less real — she intends to make Google's voluntary service illegal, meaning fines or incarceration — but it takes significantly more mental effort to unmask it and to realize that it would affect millions of people and would be effectively permanent. Key's case affects merely hundreds and will cease to matter in time. If Figueroa succeeds, most people affected won't even realize they're victims, because they'll never learn of the choice Google was forbidden to offer them!
Figueroa's authoritarianism is a much more significant danger to freedom and a much more serious undermining of ethics than Key's. Of course, both should be fought — the Keys of today may become the Figueroas of tomorrow — but do not lose sight of which is the greater problem. I hope that thinking about these issues will help to retrain your emotional reactions to identify the more serious danger.
I haven't been writing much lately. I've been pretty busy with other things, including <gasp> frolicking in the beautiful springtime outdoors.
Speaking of which, you've probably heard Frank Robinson's line that "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." He's wrong. Close only counts in horseshoes if you're within six inches of the stake. And I suck at horseshoes, so that almost never happens.
I'm happy to say that close does count in bocce ball, though.
In other news, Josh found my Israel post Shocking! Outrageous! enough to prompt him to start blogging! I'll reply soon. ("Soon" in the bocce sense, not the horseshoe sense. Probably not before Wednesday. I'm working on a speech for Toastmasters…)
It's All Related
Today I read three things that are all related.
First, I read this article by Brad DeLong, (Keynesian) economist at Berkeley, about offshoring. There's a lot wrong with what he states up-front is a "simple model — not a realistic model, an unrealistic model" including omission of the effects of increased specialization and the wide effects of maintaining vs. violating the principle of economic competition. He also takes a totally unsubstantiated swipe against Say's Law, which I found highly irritating. But the reason I'm bringing this up is because his analysis makes use of interpersonal utility comparisons, which Austrian economics rejects as methodologically invalid.
Then, I read this article by Jonathan Wilde that directly discusses the interpersonal utility comparison issue.
That second article was in response to this article by John Kennedy, which I read last — and which was, amusingly, actually a response to Brad's article! Isn't it neat how everything ties together?
I was impressed by the quality of the comments on that third article. It's almost enough to make me wish I had a comment system, too. (Almost, but not enough. Making my own software, I probably wouldn't have a problem with spammers, but trolls are more difficult…)
John's article was addressed to consequentialists, and non-consequentialists were supposed to just be quiet for a bit. While I often sound like a deontologist, my reasoning actually has consequentialist foundations. So I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be quiet for this one or not. :)
This is the sort of thing that makes blog-reading fun.
On Supporting Israel
Josh writes to ask, "Why do you support Israel?"
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
All comedy aside, it's a very important question. At root, it's a matter of shared values. Israel is far from a perfect state (as is the United States) but compared to its neighbors it stands in sharp relief as a bastion of civilization amid a backdrop of dictatorship and human misery.
The Arab nations exhibit many or all of the seven factors of noncompetitive states:
Israel exhibits none of them. Israel is successful and competitive, and in many of its cities Arabs and Jews live and work together peacefully and prosper. For example, the microprocessor in my laptop was designed at an Intel site in Haifa. I interact with several people there (both Arab and Jew, in the same team) on an occasional basis. They're extremely smart people and accomplish very valuable work. They're professionals. Within Israel, people thrive in peace under a decent government.
So I'm perplexed by Josh's next question:
I do not believe that Israel denies the basic human rights of non-radical, law abiding Palestinians. On the contrary, it is the Palestinian leadership that does so. For example, Arafat's Fatah organization attempted to murder Zohair Hamdan, an Arab, for petitioning for signatures of Arabs in Jerusalem who were opposed to Arafat's rule. Arafat is a dictator and a tyrant who tolerates no dissent. That's denying basic human rights.
The Palestinians have no land. The "occupied territories" belong to Israel proper. Israel acquired that land as the result of several wars instigated by its Arab neighbors who intended to destroy the state of Israel. It bears pointing out that while Egypt and Jordan do not allow Palestinian refugees into their countries, Israel welcomes them into its cities and allows them to work. This is a significant security risk, but they do it anyway.
As for Israeli attacks on Palestinian security forces, they only look horrible until you realize that the Palestinian Authority does not negotiate in good faith. Palestinian jails are a revolving door for terrorists, and Arafat's Fatah organization funds their activities. The Palestinian Authority is not serious when it claims to crack down on terrorism. Those words are for journalists only. Arafat is legendary for saying soothing things in English and then inciting violence in Arabic. Peace is not Arafat's goal — he could have had that many times — his goal is maintaining power. If he was interested in peace, the Palestinian media and classrooms (which he controls; there's no freedom of speech) would not be filled with anti-Jewish propaganda.
The Israelis are serious about negotiating a peace. But a negotiated peace isn't possible so long as the Palestinians are unwilling to give up the "right of return" — because it would mean the destruction of the state of Israel. When two groups have fundamentally incompatible demands, negotiation is impossible. Arafat has deliberately prolonged the crisis by corrupting the education of Palestinian children, teaching them to hate Jews and that martyrdom is glorious.
Israel has demonstrated its willingness to coexist with Arabs in places like Haifa, and the success is apparent. It is long past time for the Palestinians to demonstrate their willingness to coexist with Jews, instead of trying to blow them up or push them into the sea.
I grant that Israel is partly responsible for the existence of terrorism against its citizens. They could have killed Arafat a long time ago, and ought to kill him today. He's the constant factor over several decades of conflict. That's not a coincidence.
… and before anyone asks, I am not Jewish, neither ethnically nor religiously.