Sunday, August 31, 2008

why unwilling?

Ugh. I need to gain control over my posts, they’re getting too long. I’ve just discarded another overly long post and this one isn't short.

The situation Trevor describes in his last post sounds pretty familiar to me. Throughout our discussion, Trevor has been very keen to focus on assertive animal rights types but in my experience what Trevor describes is far more common. The comments section over at Megan McArdle’s blog is about representative of people who actually care about the subject. There are a few passionate animal rights defenders, but mostly people who are positively irritated by the fact that McArdle blogs about it at all or thinks ethics is involved. They are not much soothed by her repeated assurance that she doesn’t think meat eaters are bad people.

Otherwise, I think it’s very strange that there’s such pressure on people not to stand up for what they honestly believe. I mean it’s not like people are shy about invoking morality when promoting their cause. Imagining that we’re bravely speaking truth to power is also popular. Seen An Inconvenient Truth or Wall-E? Spoken about the Iraq war?

Seriously, don’t we admire people who used moral arguments to battle slavery, apartheid, sexism etc etc? If we abstract away from any particular issue, don’t we think it’s desirable that people think carefully about the issues and then argue for what they think is right? Why should this be different in this case? Why should anybody care if it makes people feel uncomfortable?

Telling our kids that they should stand up for what they think is right isn’t the same as telling them to stand up for this list of things that I think is right. Surely the main reason people object in the case of animal rights is not because of principle but that they happen to disagree.

Trevor says
Effectively you are saying, I believe it is wrong to eat [farm-factory produced] meat and by eating it you are effectively endorsing cruelty to animals
Umm... isn’t this what’s actually happening? Or if not endorsing, saying that it’s okay. Doing business with a company is a sort of endorsement of its practices. We shouldn’t buy stock in "Confederated Slave Holdings" (a favourite of Mr Burns) and we shouldn’t sell arms to the Sudanese government. I don’t know Trevor’s position on this for sure, but I’d guess that he approved when people refused to do business with Apartheid South Africa. Whatever meat we choose to eat we’re essentially saying, “I am willing to tolerate this much [indicating size using hands] suffering for my enjoyment”. We should be explicit about this rather than pretending that meat grows on trees.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thoughts on China and reproduction issues seamlessly woven together

China has been much on many peoples’ minds recently, mine included. Though I don’t have any especially deep thoughts here I do have some shallow ones.

China’s growth over the last 30 years is like the greatest thing ever, or at least since the Collapse of (proper) communism. I instinctively disapprove of a (still) poor country spending so much money on showing off (they also do this with their space program), but I’ve gotta admit that it’s a pointless gripe in the case of the Olympics. China is poor, but it’s so big that it doesn’t matter much, and the average Chinese citizen really cared, so it was a bargain. The forced removals were a bigger problem, but there’s no reason to signal the Olympics out on this score.

All this said, I still think the government is a nasty piece of work and I see lots of blood in my crystal ball. I’ll be bold; I think China will keep growing like it has been for a few more years, until it hits the magic Weingast income per head and then unrest will break out. Thing may work out more or less, but it won’t be pretty.

Without going into their naughtiness too much, and keeping in mind that many (most?) westerners actually approve of the policy, I think the One Child Policy is a terrible, horrible policy. I think the idea is intrinsically wrong, but the kind of human rights violations which were inevitable from the moment it became law are appalling. There seems to be another way of ensuring low fertility rates; developing a liberal, rich society.

Speaking of reproductive rights, I’ve been listening to a few feminist podcasts from blogging heads. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, just how important abortion is to most feminists. I was shocked by the things that these intelligent people will say. Abortion should legal and state funded right up until delivery??! Abortion is okay because it’s an appropriate response to having your body invaded? What. The. Fuck? This has the effect of losing my sympathy and any interest in anything else they may have to say (though I do go for the invasion story in the case of rape and where the mother’s life is in danger and maybe a few other examples).

Unless we’re “pro-choice” on infanticide too, I cannot fathom thinking that aborting a fetus after 9 months is okay. As for the invasion thing, while I get that much sex is had without the intention of getting pregnant, it is one of the things that can result and people know this.

But insisting that other people pay for your abortion I think shows real contempt for people who disagree with you. I don’t really get the hardcore pro-life view that forbids even a morning after pill, but the fact of the gradual development of the fetus necessarily makes drawing a line about when abortion is and isn’t okay a fuzzy difficult and problem. We shouldn’t expect all decent people to agree. Forcing some people to pay for abortions that they believe fall on the wrong side of that line is really, really nasty stuff. It makes me a little queasy.

Another problem I had mirrors one related to animal rights. There’s nothing intrinsic about feminism or vegetarianism that makes them part of some overarching left wing worldview that encompasses global warming, massive welfare payments, the Iraq war and a mandatory vote for Obama. The more details like this you fold into your views the less compelling it becomes, necessarily.

I think Tracy’s right that we spend too much time pondering the morality of issues most people never encounter, and this does include abortion, but millions of abortions are carried out each year. The fact that decent people disagree and that it’s a horribly difficult question to resolve even minimally satisfactorily makes it a perfectly reasonable issue to get all excited over in an election campaign.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Discover Your Inner Economist

You'd think I'd really love this book, but I only liked it. It's really well written, interesting and did make me think. I do think Cowen does has deep insights on just about everything, but the whole time I just couldn't shake the feeling that he's really out of touch with regular folk like me. It's strange considering that he's traveled widely, avoids touristy spots and likes to hang out with the locals; in other words he knows way more ordinary people than I do.

I don't doubt that his advice on how to choose good restaurants, appreciate art and read intimidating books is very good, but I think I really get the sense that he thinks that either we want to read Remembrance of Things Past and Dante's Inferno or that he feels we should. But I ended up feeling that the advice didn't apply to me much. For example, we are encouraged to ask, "Is this the best possible book we could be reading right now?" if not we should move on. This is better advice for people who can legitimately evaluate books in a way that most people can't. Most of us have read only a small percentage of "the cannon" so finding a book reasonably described as the best book you could be reading is dead easy, but we don't actually want to read the best stuff. We may want to want to, but we don't actually want to.

More useful would be tips on how to "improve" your reading from where you are now. What process can I go through that will teach me to actually want to read those things and have grave doubts that this would involve jumping right to Ulysses. In other words the advice is better suited to people who are actually doing fine on their own.

added: Should make slightly more sense now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

comment splat

Fortunately for readers, I don’t really have the energy for another epic post with any attention paid to minimal coherence. Trevor’s recent posts did inspire some thoughts though. So here’s a rambling comment splat.

“The thing is people don't like feeling like they are being morally judged, which is probably a large reason why vegetarianism gets under the skin of others.”

I think it’s strange that vegetarianism seems to have a bigger effect on people than most of our ethical views. We have moral views on so many things! Judgment is always implicit when people act in ways that conflict with out moral views. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that this does upset people, but generally we expect our friends and family hold at least some different moral views from us and judge us accordingly. What does Trevor think of the people who think he’s immoral for not being a teetotaler? Check out the comments section of vegan posts on Megan McArdle’s blog; where the hell does that kind of stuff come from?

“Is it a problem making people feel uncomfortable about things that you believe to be true?”

I think I could easily misinterpret this, but my understanding is that Trevor wasn’t exactly shy about his views on apartheid (which was good!), so I find the question puzzling.

“As I said, this kind of thing gives me `impending doom' because I find the idea of being very accepting of different points of view very appealing.”

This combined with the comments about how I’m not a liberal and wanting to run naked through the fields makes me want to clear up how I understand liberalism and permissiveness. In terms of what I think it’s morally acceptable to do, I am incredibly permissive. Way beyond the average person. There is an important proviso however, which is that our carefree frolicking shouldn’t harm others!! If we don’t have this constraint, then being tolerant of other points of view quickly becomes tolerance of stuff we normally don’t much approve of.

“Do I think that if I had read enough and thought about it enough, I would still believe what I do. I would like to think not, but that is probably what I think.”

I guess I agree with the sentiment here and call me a quibbler, but I think if we think our beliefs would change if we studied up then either we should simply believe what we think our views would change to, or if we expect our views to change, but don’t know how, we should simply give up our belief without replacing it. If we think our views would change after study, I don’t even know if we can really be said to hold the views we think we do.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Trevor has been doing some fine naval gazing over at his blog in the past few days (this is my idea of a compliment if it isn't clear). Check it out.

I may post some further thoughts on our discussion in a bit. But I think the debate itself has pretty much run its course.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

which one do YOU think is the greater weakness?

Remember my post on the nausea inducing answers that Edwards and Clinton gave to the "what is your biggest weakness" question? Apparently oblivious to the suffering caused by answers like his, Edwards lamented his powerfull emotion response to suffering in others.

Well wouldn't you know it, Edwards has not only been cheating on his wife for years, he had been using money from an anti-poverty charity to take his mistress on the campaign trail with him.

Being a lying, cheating, thieving bastard sounds almost as bad as feeling sorry for people.


I have been doing a terrible job of keeping up with current events recently, during the Olympics too! So here's some now.

All hail Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt!! (the links are very random if you were tempted by them, there are rather a lot of articles about these guys out there) I only saw one race live :( but even reading the race reports has been exciting, and I don't even care about swimming and had pretty much lost interest in athletics.

Breaking the 200m world record is surely the most amazing of all, I was shocked (and a little) sad to see the record go. It's probably the most impressive record set since Bob Beamon's long jump, and long jump seems to be much more about luck than the 200m, so I'd say it was more significant. I think Johnson's run counts as the more amazing feat, the record that he tore to shreds was the longest standing record at the time, and Bolt just pipped it.

Of course I enjoy pondering the relative merits of the two athletes. I think it's too close to call, though personally I go for the highest peaks over things like consistency or competing in many events and Bolt surely has this. Can't fault Phelps for much though can you? I'd also guess Bolt is more likely to be doping.

I suppose we should all hail Rafel Nadal too... Fine, go ahead, do it, hail him. Federer's lame performance since Wimbledon notwithstanding he lost the no. 1 spot in the best way possible. Till now, Nadal has been by far the best player never to have been no 1. And it's not like Federer succumbed tamely in the Wimbledon final.

There was something else. Shit. What sport related story would I have meant to blog?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Green-Clad Olympic Archer Steals Gold Medals From Rich, Gives Them To Poor

Yesterday, while I was watching some archery "highlights" I got to thinking about how stupid it is that Robin Hood could hit the back of his other arrows. Olympians don't come close even with fancy equipment.

The Onion seems to have had similar, but funny thoughts
In almost every case, archery-related schemes were used to secure the medals, although some were more difficult for him to obtain than others.

An epic four-way fencing match broke out during the Women's Saber medal ceremony, with the archer taking on the three American women in a clash of blades that spilled out onto the balcony and across the Beijing rooftops. Germany's Ole Bischoff, winner in the Men's 81kg judo event, threw the archer through a nearby table and down a flight of stairs before his feet were nailed to the ground by arrows. And the Chinese women's gymnastics team was almost impossible for the archer to catch.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Many of us are not suicide bombers"

I think Trevor dealt with the exasperated tone of my last post very well. I’ve also been impressed by the fact that Trevor is actually willing to change his views which is pretty unusual.

Having said that, I don’t want to let Trevor off the hook so easily. I’ve been a “vegetarian” for three and a half years and I’ve been having conversations with Trevor about this right from the start. I’ve also been blogging my views on animal rights for about two and a half years and my fundamental position has been the same this whole time! Trevor often comments on these posts. Over this time I’ve read books and articles on animal rights, ethics, evolution, philosophy and politics and considered how the content should impact on my views. This inspired blog posts and is reflected in other posts I have written.

In other words, few laymen in the history of the world (I mean this in relative terms) have taken as much time and effort to make his views on animal ethics consistent and open to public scrutiny. I cannot fathom how Trevor could have failed to be more aware of what they were. In fact I actually began to worry that the views I had blogged were completely different so I trawled through the archives to check. Not only are they more or less the same, Trevor had read them, hence my pointing this out in my last post. Aware that I might be babbling incoherently, I've linked to books and articles (especially this essay) where the case is made better than I could ever make it. Since Trevor recently said on his blog, “be your own biggest critic” I thought this was fair game.

Given the narrow focus nature of this debate I tried to put the vast majority of what can be said on the subject to one side in favour of explaining what I thought was the simplest and best way of making a decision not to eat meat understandable. Not philosophically compelling in a way that could be published in journals of moral philosophy. Not how this decision could be grounded in a consequentialist, deontological or virtue ethical moral philosophy and with no reference to meta-ethics. All of these things can be done mind you, but I thought that wouldn’t help Trevor gain an intuitive understanding of a decision not to eat meat so I consciously didn’t bring them up. Not that I could make these arguments well anyway, that's what professional philosophers are for.

So what I chose was to take something that Trevor already believed and add one empirical fact, and tada! We’re done! These are of course
  • Animal suffering is morally relevant. Less is better than more. As Trevor said “I am opposed to cruelty which leads to unnecessary suffering.”
  • Most commercially available meat depends on practices that cause considerable suffering.

It follows that

  • To the extent that eating this meat supports these practices, its better not to eat it.

Trevor seems excited by the fact that this doesn’t logically rule out eating meat that didn’t involve suffering (which is true and not denied by me). So it seems to me that Trevor has shifted to not understanding these viewpoints.

  • Given how much meat is as a result of suffering a good general rule to adopt is to not eat meat. In support of this view is the evidence (now sited several times) that a resolution to eat humanely raised meat tends to result in tolerance of eating non-humanely raised meat. Trevor may think well, we should just be stricter on ourselves. Fine, but he should also accept that it could be easier, practically to just not eat meat

    We endorse moral rules like “don’t lie” and “keep promises” even though we know that there are plenty of cases were we’ll justifiably break these rules.
  • Even humanly raised meat is likely to involve suffering because of the incentives and humans involved. We’re often appalled to hear of abuse of prisoners, the elderly and the mentally ill. There are famous stories of students abusing other students put under their power. Given how easily we abuse other humans (Trevor laments this often) I find it bizarre that Trevor thinks this wont happen on many farms promising humanely raised meat.

    I also wish that Trevor showed such enthusiasm for free markets in other contexts. I agree that it could provide humanely raised meat, but I also think that the only way this would happen in practice is if there was a very broad base of consumers who were active in punishing companies for being mean to their animals. This doesn't sound much like Trevor, who sounds like he'd be happy with a pretty sticker, or not. A free market doesn’t guarantee great food in places where consumers can’t tell the difference between good and average food. This is easy to check empirically by comparing the food in Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg.
  • The belief that telling a host “I’m sorry, but I’m a vegetarian” is more tactful than, “I’ll only eat meat you provide if it meets these stringent criteria”.
  • Choosing vegetarianism as one of the best ways of reducing your carbon footprint, which many people regard as a moral issue.

Again, it’s not just that Trevor is not won over by these points, but that he doesn’t understand how people can hold them in good faith.

I’m not clear on this, but I think Trevor is retreating to his understanding the views of “most vegetarians” as what he was talking about. Most vegetarians are probably vegetarian for economic or religious reasons. The kind Trevor finds so objectionable are much more visible than other vegetarians because they’re loud and obnoxious, so we need to correct for this overrepresentation in our mental view of the category. The same is true of feminists, atheist and as is very often noted, Muslims! Have you heard? They’re not all suicide bombers!

It’s pretty common for lefties to practically define a libertarian as someone who is opposed to any kind of social safety net. These same people enjoy hating “ultra-libertarians” like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek who, err, supported social safety nets! This is exactly what Jeremy Strangroom (who I really like) did in this book. But these lefties don’t suddenly claim that these guys are not libertarians, Friedman is the most famous libertarian of the 20th century. The answer is just to expand your understanding of libertarian to include Friedman and half the people who self identify as libertarian! What Trevor seems to be doing is the equivalent of saying, “but Friedman wasn’t a libertarian!” and this is true for particular definitions of libertarian, including the definition that they oppose safety nets. Some libertarians do prefer “classical liberal”, but in the real world, we just need to deal with the fact that people think of us as libertarians.

I used to not call myself a vegetarian because of the fish thing. Trevor simply must accept that the reason I changed is because of social pressure to do so (of course I could resist this and continue to annoy people with my pompous explanation of what a Pescatarians is). I do this even though I know in advance that people in the future will get a kick out of pointing out that fish are animals.

But in the end, the views of the average vegetarian are irrelevant if we’re trying to understand why a person might not eat meat. For this it’s only necessary to understand the best reasons. Same goes for feminism, patriotism (maybe I should relentlessly explain that my understanding of patriotism involves hating people from other nations), and atheism, whatever.

Trevor seems to be trying to catch me out by apparently believing I’ll eat humanely raised meat once presented with it. I said that I don’t even have a moral issue with eating human flesh. But I will almost certainly never do it. In an earlier discussion Trevor mentioned something about not liking the idea of eating chimps and dolphins even though he realised that this distinction isn’t especially principled. I have never said “I don’t understand why Trevor doesn’t eat chimp” or, ”I’ll provide Trevor with a delicious chimp bicep.”

It seems I’m being punished for keeping the discussion so narrow. I do have a (relatively small) problem with raising animals with the sole goal of eating them. But this is different from having a problem with eating meat. Stopping on the side of the road for a yummy bit or road kill is different from raising a pig for food.

I think the view that painlessly killing animals is OK is defensible even though I don’t hold it myself. There is a substantial literature arguing both sides of this issue (and note that the anti-death side does not depend on animal suffering!!). There is not a big literature defending factory farming. This is why I didn’t pursue it, I consider it a distraction, it’s complicated and I’d say indeterminate. Just look at the problems we have with other moral problems. Even with my anti-death stance, I just don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s also worth pointing out that even if I thought that the “pro painless death” side was more likely to be correct say 60%. I believe that a 40% chance of the other side being right would be a good enough reason to be concerned over the view. I’ve said before that these issues are involved. I’d guess the anti-death view is one that Trevor doesn’t understand, but then he should study up rather than treating people who hold this view as weird. It would be really bizarre for Trevor to declare, “I have a very poor understanding of people who hold the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” even if he didn’t understand it.

I agree that a maximally healthy diet will probably involve meat. But nobody eats a maximally healthy diet. There are several Olympic gold medallist vegan athletes. The empirical issue I was pushing is that an average person is much more likely to be eating too much meat than too little and yes, this probably applies to Trevor too.

A few posts back Trevor expressed some anxiety over giving up some of his favourite foods. I think it’s a mistake to view our current preferences as significant and static. Kids rocking out to Britney don’t want to enjoy the Beatles or Bach right now, but most kids do move on and are glad for it. I still miss meat sometimes, but not nearly as much as I did in the beginning.

Trevor gives the impression of wanting to argue for a conclusion he already holds. This is the biggest mistake of all. I’ve blogged about that a lot and so has Trevor. It shouldn’t count as surprising that we can find ways not to be convinced by an alternative view, but this is possible for every single question, even questions of physics. There are no universally compelling arguments. None. Not ever. Really weird views persist because people want them too.

Finally, it’s true that some people as just vegetarian because they like feeling all moral and superior. They’re annoying and stuff, but equally some people choose to go vegetarian because on reflection, they really, truly, honestly, in good faith believe it’s the right thing to do and there are some real costs to doing so. Some of us liked meat, it’s inconvenient sometimes, we don’t like putting hosts out and it really is true that we have to deal with people who get annoyed with us for daring to say that ethics had anything to do with our decisions. These people really do like us less because of this and we know it! I’ve met far more vegetarians who even after discovering my position comically emphasise how they don’t go round trying to convert people. Why the hell is this? People are constantly trying to persuade others of their ethical views without apologising for saying something that others disagree with. Why should this case be any different?

Added: A link!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Rightly or wrongly I've tried to keep a very tight focus on the topic under discussion. I spelled it out at the beginning and emphasised it throughout our (now quite long) exchange; Trevor not understanding why some people don't eat meat. In his most recent post Trevor said

I accept that factory farming has some excessive cruel practices. I would rather not associate with these, and given the easy choice wouldn't. I would even pay a premium over cruelty derived foods.


Does it leave me feeling uneasy... yes.

He also hasn't contested my claim that most animals killed for meat have not been humanely raised. So does he understand why some people don't meat as rule of thumb? Does he understand why some people would rather tell a dinner host that they're vegetarian rather than saying they'll only eat meat if the host can certify as humanely raised?

If he does, I wish he'd just say so. And if he doesn't, then considering what he has said, I give up.

If Trevor demands that vegetarians are committed to the view that it is always and everywhere wrong to eat meat. Then fine, but again I wish I had known before spending so much time on these posts because it has nothing to with what I thought we were discussing and I did make a big deal about this in my last post. But please make it clear that you understand that I am not a vegetarian in that sense and neither do the vast majority of animal rights philosophers including the founder of the animal rights movement. Peter Singer's most recent book has a focus on what kinds of meat to eat if you're gonna eat meat. I heartily recommend it to meat eaters like Trevor who worry about animal suffering.

If Trevor does understand all this but wants to continue with other animal rights related stuff then that's also cool, but I want to preemptively emphasise

  • I have incredibly little interest in convincing Trevor never to eat meat.

I am only interested in establishing that animal suffering in animal farming is morally relevant. That less is morally preferable to more. I'll also add that I'm sceptical about how much we currently know about how much suffering is involved in producing free range meat that currently makes it into the shops. I do not rule out the fact that meat may be available (now or in the future) that we can be confident beyond reasonable doubt involved acceptably minimal suffering.

Phew! Now onto Trevor's post point by point

  1. What has any of this got to do with starving or giving lots to charity? We've been discussing how much suffering we can inflict on animals, not how much effort or other resources into doing active good.
  2. Sigh. This is a response to me saying, "The logical conclusion is basically not to eat any meat that's commercially available." As I'd said earlier, I chose not to post a longer response, I was very aware of how long and boring my posts were. But at least some charitable reading is required here. There word "basically" is very carefully chose. I specifically did not say, "The logical conclusion is never to eat any meat that's commercially available." I had also expressed my view that the vast majority of commercially available meat involves significant suffering.
  3. Seriously? Didn't I say that I eat fish? In fact, in the comments to a post that Trevor commented on I say, "I also don't think it's wrong to eat flesh, even human flesh" in response, which I had assumed Trevor read.

Trevor then goes on to point out that going veggie isn't likely to have much impact. That's true! I have terribly little impact on animal suffering with my vegetarianism, I've had a little more in influencing some people on their meaty decisions. And they may have an impact on other people. Maybe Greg will have an impact on someone in discussing the subject with somebody I don't know. Maybe Oprah will go veggie after reading my blog and cause millions of people to change their habits. Maybe when vegetarians get to a certain % of the population there will be a general shift in public consciousness. How do I know?

But more fundamentally, the same reasoning applies to so many moral issues. 200 years ago, releasing a slave in America didn't have an impact on the plight of slaves in general (most would simply be picked up by another slave owner). Your vote has zero importance in an election. Reducing our carbon footprint does nothing to slow global warming. The principle of universalization is a pretty fundamental ethical idea, it even has a fancy name, the Categorical Imperative.

Trevor needs to set me straight on something else. Does he think our decisions about our carbon footprint are important? Is it worth buying a small car even if we'd like a SUV because of global warming? We discussed it recently and I got the impression that he thinks it is? So how bout what I said above? And how about the fact that one of the very best ways to reduce your footprint is to become a vegetarian? Regardless of suffering involved.

Trevor goes on

vegetarianism is also a pretty elite, top of maslow's hierarchy concern. If you are starving... you don't really care what you eat. We are a long long way from being able to feed the world on a meat free diet, let alone a diet at all.

This gets it exactly backwards. Most poor people are involuntarily vegetarian because they can't afford meat. People aspire to meat eating. It's true that it tends to be rich people who then give it up for reasons similar to mine. And remember, vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters.

Finally, Trevor "has a problem" with the inconsistency of people like me drinking cappuccinos and buying leather shoes. There are many ways to respond to this. Firstly I don't buy leather shoes, or furniture or cars with leather seats. But, most important I'm not guilty of inconsistency here. I explicitly did not defend my actions. In my very first post I say

Finally, in keeping with my battle against black and white and the desire to distinguish between different shades of gray, there is no claim about moral perfection here. I honestly believe I should be way stricter about my dairy consumption, I'm not proud of this but I also I haven't gone beyond a vague feeling that I'll try to do better in the future. Also, I'm on record as saying that morality is over rated. Even if my ethical views are correct that doesn't automatically imply a particular response. We consciously act in morally imperfect ways all the time! That's often OK but unless we think about these things, we'll never know when it's OK and when it's really not.

I think I should do better. To the extent that I don't, I believe I'm immoral.

Again this moral absolutism pops up, "If you believe that anything obtained through cruel means is unacceptable." I've tried so hard to distance myself from hard line views, it makes me want to cry to read Trevor saying stuff like this.

But, Jiminy fucking Cricket Trevor gives his own, incredibly obvious, answer to this sticky dilemma

Is it possible to live a consistent cruelty free life? Maybe not now, but maybe it is something we can work towards.

How bout working towards this by preferring less cruelty and suffering now?! How is this inconsistent or hypocritical or whatever. Must we wait until we can make one step to instant moral utopia? I could do better by not drinking properly vetted cappuccinos, but that would be better!!!!!

Monday, August 11, 2008

stupid reporters

The Dark Knight is doing pretty well financially. In America it has zoomed into third place on the all time list. Of course that doesn't really tell us much beyond the fact that it's doing very well, as this article tries to explain.

Ticket prices are higher you see so it doesn't really count. High ticket prices are an unfair advantage in the quest to make money. Batman would need to make $900 million before it sold more tickets than Titanic and $1.2 billion to pass Star Wars. Gone With the Wind is the all time tickets champ though it isn't mentioned for some reason.

Great. What this is groping towards is that inflation overstates the earnings of new movies relative to old ones. But what we need to do is to compare revenue earned in today's money, not tickets sold.

But if we're going down this path what stop there? The competition, even for Titanic, was completely different. Computer games were no where near as big a deal, TV is way better and movies make a huge chunk of their cash on DVD sales which are not included. Oh and millions of people simply download movies illegally.

Of course, nobody should care about this. But if someone is getting paid for writing this crap, it should obviously be me.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Praise and worship, Muttblog style

I've been reading and listening to some good stuff this past week. I've been trying to blog it, but in the meantime.
  • Samuel Brittan is awesome.
  • I just can't get around the fact that Eliezer Yudkowsky is incredibly insightful. I'd like to but I can't.
  • Will Wilkinson has a great blog. His podcasts (especially on ethics) are greater still.

I trust you'll change your plans accordingly.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Good question?

Some philosopher ponders it

What would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who's positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I'm struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Well, partly this points to a very important point about climate change. If westerners give up their hummers, the demand for and price of oil will drop (yay!) and, err, Chinese people will notice and buy more oil! Total consumption will drop but by way less than you hoped with your sacrifice.

That said this spectacularly misses another point, which is that some Chinese guy gets to drive his new car and the world is slightly better off too! I mean bloody hell! It's not a good thing that he's too poor to buy petrol. There's a big difference between fancy rich people voluntarily forgoing some stuff to heal the planet and getting all excited by the observation that poor people have a small carbon footprint. When he gets as rich as other fancy people he'll also start wringing his hands over his carbon footprint, but right now, pulling his rickshaw he doesn't give a shit. He and his kids are likely to make the transition much quicker than we did too, if only because in twenty years so many more cars will be hybrids regardless of his feelings.

Stupid question dude.

The sequel is always worse than the original

This has been a bit of a pet issue for me, especially since I normally hear the comment in the same breath as a rave review of the relevant sequel. It was a good rule of thumb for a long time, but how many counterexamples are needed before it stops being one. Off the top of my head I can think of ten:

  • Spiderman 2
  • X-men 2
  • Bourne Supremacy (and Ultimatum)
  • Terminator 2 (contested I guess)
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • The dark Knight
  • Batman Returns (I just watched it for the first time since I was 11 and it's really good. I was amazed)
  • Die Hard With a Vengeance
  • Revenge of the Sith (the only decent one of the recent series)
  • Kill Bill part two

Some movies of similar quality to the first one

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Godfather Part 2 (frequently cited as "the only one" better than the original)
  • Men in Black 2 (which I prefer)
  • The Empire Strikes back (I think it's better, but it's definitely less important than the first one)

This seriously is just off the top of my head, so it's not likely to be exhaustive. I'm also aware that people disagree with many particular cases.

So what ya'll think?

Insight blog

I usually just vomit up the incompletely digested writings of superior minds on my blog. I'm far too cowardly to tackle a foe without some fancier person in my corner.

Today though, I'll try all on my lonesome (though I'm really defending Richard Feynman, who coped fairly well without me).

Feynman once wrote something like, "If you really understand something in physics you can prepare a lecture for first year students on it." I remember being pretty influenced by this and apparently Eliezer Yudkowsky was too cos he says "I believed him. I was shocked to discover it wasn't true (his emphasis)."

Now I know as well as anyone that reading high quality popular science does not, in fact, enable you to understand physics (heaven forbid!), but that isn't what Feynman means! He claims that you should be able to explain the subject to a novice, not that the novice will then understand the explanation, he's only ever mentions his own understanding. In other words, he means that some other expert will think the explanation is impressively deep, because she'll know what Feynman is really getting at with this or that analogy, "It's like a spinning top! Genius!"

This is a pretty common observation. I've heard people saying that they only really understood something after they were required to teach it. I guess the substance behind Yudkowsky's gripe stands because what's going on here isn't really an explanation at all, but he misunderstood what Feynman was getting at.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Does Obama have a sense of humour? Some pundits with nothing better to do think this is important. Not really it seems, but this is pretty good.

Obama began by recalling a moment in Tuesday night's debate when he and his rivals were asked to name their biggest weakness. Obama answered first, saying he has a messy desk and needs help managing paperwork - something his opponents have since used to suggest he's not up to managing the country. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his biggest weakness is that he has a powerful response to seeing pain in others, and Clinton said she gets impatient to bring change to America.

"Because I'm an ordinary person, I thought that they meant, 'What's your biggest weakness?'" Obama said to laughter from a packed house at Rancho High School. "If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. And then I could have said, 'Well, ya know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. It's terrible.'"

Good stuff. This reflects well on Obama, but I just can't get over how shocking the other responses were. They're really, truly appalling. Edwards is worst, and I never liked him, but surely this response from Clinton is enough to make her unsuitable for the presidency.

Or maybe the worst of it is that some people (pundits I mean) thought this reflected worst on Obama! Apparently even educated people want to be fed insulting, pathetic, laughable bullshit.

I've gotta say though, I do miss this kind of thing. Hilary was so wonderfully hateable. Things are so much duller now.

Added: Crikey! This is a terribly written post.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Last post!

Two readers (about half my readers in other words) asked if I was giving up blogging because of the way I started the post below. I was talking about the last post in my recent discussion with Trevor. My post was terribly worded and thanks for your concern, but next time, try to sound a little more alarmed! I've written over 650 posts people! Giving up so suddenly would be a Big Deal (for me).

So anyway, I had a first draft of this post but it got overlong. It actually wounds my soul a little to delete so much, but hopefully it'll be good for your soul.

  1. I look forward to Trevor making an equally big deal of this when discussing all other topics.
  2. This may come across as nitpicking, but I've never seen this asserted. Seriously. The logical conclusion is basically not to eat any meat that's commercially available.
  3. I think it's important to note that many vegetarians don't believe this.


    But I also think it's important to note that this is not what our discussion was about and I explicitly said as much. It's complicated and contested philosophically, but Trevor's failure to understand how anyone could think this is partly just because he hasn't read the relevant stuff. What makes it wrong to painlessly kill a human?

I think Trevor's most baffling bit is where he says, "but then you are not a vegetarian." Apparently we've been talking all this time without even having a common understanding of what it means to be a vegetarian! Does Trevor think I'm a vegetarian? I've kinda been assuming that he thinks I am one. But judging by this post I don't even come close, because he knows I eat some types of seafood. This is especially frustrating because it was people's impatience with any explanation of why I sometimes eat fish that led me to adopt the overly simple label of Vegetarian even though this means I occasionally get people gleefully pointing out that fish are animals. I doubt my experience is that unusual but suddenly a vegetarian is someone who will never eat meat?

Trevor poses overly strict demands on vegetarians; I doubt there are many out there who would starve rather than eat chicken. It should be assumed that we'll eat meat under certain circumstances. There are many types of vegetarian and I think a reasonable definition of one is someone who simply doesn't eat meat as a general rule.

Another factual issue is tripping us up again. How much meat is out there that we can be sure is cruelty free? I'd suggest very little, which is enough to make vegetarianism sensible. A dinner guest who demands cruelty free documentation is more annoying than a vegetarian. If you get used to going without meat you can also start to get a little grossed out by the idea of eating it. I've mentioned that in practice, even those who endorse the whole cruelty free thing tolerate little inconvenience to act on this conviction (I used my example of diary), it's best to get into the habit.

And of course we've simply ignored the arguments claiming that even painless killing is unethical, which, even if without engaging with them we assign a mysteriously low % of being sound, should still give us pause.

Friday, August 01, 2008


I had intended this to be my last post, but I think I'll have one more, if you're lucky!

  1. I have no idea (in the case of humans, our culture can make us comfortable with eating just about anything)
  2. Post below.
  3. A being has moral status if it has interests.
  4. Your particular right doesn't have anything to do with how you upheld your obligation with respect to that right. Failure to respect the rights of others can lead to a curtailment of your rights, but not generally the right you violated. Raping someone may lead to your right to freedom of association being revoked, but not the right not to be raped.

    I'd turn it around and ask, where does your right to mess with other beings come from? What gives you the right to tax/punch/steal from me? Sometimes we can provide a reason, but the default should be just to leave well enough alone. Say I'm out, prancing through the fields and I'm suddenly overwhelmed with curiosity over what it'd be like to smoke that plant and someone pops up to try to stop me. I could say, "my freedom –which includes my right to smoke this- is instrumental to getting the best results in the long run." Or, "I simple value my freedom really highly, even if my stupid choices ruin my life in other ways. Or I could say, "who the fuck are you? And what makes you think you have any say over what I do?"

  5. I'd say that simply looking at the environment we evolved in that there are excellent reasons for expecting horrific immorality to be the norm rather than the rule. We didn't agree not to go there, we simply agreed.

  6. How bout meat eaters.

  7. I meant harm to animals. I don't understand this first bit. Would you support massive population growth for humans if it meant living standards dropped to Somalia's level?

  8. In some kind of trivial sense this is true. But adding ingredients to the "allowed" list necessarily increases possible health. Having cyanide on the menu doesn't reduce my health cos I won't order it. As a practical matter, there is a huge bias towards eating too much meat rather than too little. Vegetarians are healthier and live longer.

    Of course many jobs in the meat industry would be lost this would be a harm. But the guilt issue does nothing for me. It would be bad, but really negligible. People act on all sorts of misguided beliefs and seem to do okay.

  9. History should make us feel very anxious about our own moral views. Of course I hold a (very) different estimate, but I still find it striking how comfortable Trevor is with a 20% chance of being wrong about something that, if it is wrong has an enormous impact. I can't guarantee that bad things won't happen as a result of my actions, but I don't need to wait until something goes wrong before I evaluate my behaviour. A 20% chance of a negative result is plenty to give me pause and wonder if I can go about lowering that %. Drunk driving is wrong because of the impact on the odds of something bad, but the odds are still probably less than 1% even when you're pretty drunk. That's why I'm unmoved by people who tell me how many times they've driven home drunk by way of justifying the practice.

    I'm interested to know what Trevor's response would be to the person who cuts pigs testicles off because he enjoyed it. Even meat eaters condemn kitten killing, but if the kitten killer really enjoys the act, what principled objection could Trevor give (this example is taken pretty much straight from the famous animal rights tome "Anarchy, State and Utopia" by Robert Nozick)?