A Philosopher's Blog

Mexico & Drug Violence

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2009

While America’s economic woes have been dominating the news, Mexico has been wracked with terrible drug violence.

One thing that really struck me about the coverage of the violence in the US media is the emphasis on how the drug violence might affect Americans. For example, one commentator remarked, at length, about how US college students should be careful about going to Mexico. Naturally, a clip prominently featuring hot American college girls dancing around in their bathing suits was played. While I took this as an ironic contrast to the seriousness of the violence, no doubt its intended purpose was quite different.

While warning college students is certainly a good thing, the emphasis on how the drug violence might impact Americans does seem to show us as being rather selfish and self-focused. After all, while other people are being murdered, it hardly seems decent to be worried primarily about whether college kids will be able to party wildly in Mexico in safety. In another bit of irony, some college students no doubt help fund drug operations in Mexico by purchasing drugs.

While exact figures regarding criminal activity can be hard to determine, it seems likely that a major consumer of Mexican drugs are Americans. Americans have (or perhaps had) the money to buy drugs in abundance and also the appetite for them. Of course, we also like to preach against drugs and take self-righteous stands as well.

As a nation that consumes a significant amount of these illegal drugs, we would certainly seem to bear some moral responsibility for the drug violence in Mexico and elsewhere. As long as the drugs are in demand and are illegal, then we can certainly expect drug violence to be a relatively common occurrence-not only in Mexico, but elsewhere (including the United States).

People have long called for the legalization of drugs and have contended that doing so would significantly reduce drug violence. After all, the argument usually goes, we do not see beer dealers shooting it out in the streets (unlike during prohibition) nor do we see tobacco companies engaged in violence. The standard counters against this argument tend to be moral in nature.

One moral argument is that drugs are simply immoral and hence must not be tolerated. Of course, the strength of this argument depends on whether drugs are immoral or not (or rather, whether the currently illegal drugs are more immoral than the currently legal drugs).

Another moral argument is based on an appeal to the moral harms of drugs. The contention is that legalizing drugs would create significant harms and harms that presumably exceed the harms caused by keeping drugs illegal.

For example, it might be argued that the damage done by drug using people to themselves and others would exceed the damage done by the problems stemming from drugs being illegal. After all, it could be argued, alcohol is legal and is still involved in many deaths (often automobile related) and health problems. Just imagine the damage that would arise if marijuana, heroin, and such were made legal.

Of course, it would have to argued that drug use would spike dramatically if such drugs were legalized. After all, people already use drugs and those harms are already occurring while drugs are illegal. Perhaps use would spike-if so, this argument might be reasonable.

Another way to cut down on the drug violence would be to significantly reduce demand. If little money could be made from illegal drugs, then there would be far less incentive to engage in such violence. Of course, this would require that drug users give up drugs-or at least cut way back on their consumption. This, however, seems rather unlikely. While most people do not like the violence, it is difficult to imagine people giving up their drug use.

The most likely thing is that people will keep using drugs, they will remain illegal and drug violence will continue in up and down cycles.

Blogging for Bucks?

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 26, 2009

A recent article by Daniel Lyons presents a common shattered blogger dream: striking it rich through blogging.

No doubt many bloggers entered the blogosphere with similar dreams of making a name and a living by pouring out witty words. No doubt most of these dreams crashed and sank against the brutal iceberg of reality. The sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of bloggers will make very little money. True, a few bloggers have struck it rich through book deals, great advertising revenue and even getting paid a salary to write blogs. But these happy few are just that-few.

When I started blogging I had no illusions about making money. This is because I had years of experience as a free lance writer before blogging was even in existence. I inferred, correctly it turned out, that while blogging was being touted as an entirely new thing it was really  just a new medium for free lance writing.

Free lance writing, in my experience, has generally been a way to make a little extra money for a lot of effort. True, some writers get a lucky break (perhaps Oprah raises them up on high or they manage to hit a rising fad right at the peak moment) and they manage to become overnight stars. Others grind away at writing for years and finally gain success. However, the vast majority of writers make just a modest sum for their efforts. The same has proven true of blogging.

Blogging, like almost all writing gigs, has a very uneven income distribution. The vast majority of bloggers make little or nothing from their efforts. A very few make a lot. In many ways, this can be seen as analogous to acting or sports. Just think of how many people play sports in high school and college relative to each professional athlete. Think of how many actors act at little theatres in their towns relative to the big name stars in Hollywood. Blogging is just about the same. For each blog star there are the thousands of folks like me just typing away for nothing.

Of course, people write for reasons other than money. Since I entered blogging with no illusions about making money (I don’t even post ads) my motivations are obviously not financial. Mainly, I just like to write and know that it is important to “train”at writing. As with running, another favorite of mine, if you don’t practice then you lose ability. Blogging is decent practice for real writing. Of course, I don’t make much money at that either-but I do enjoy it.

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More Thoughts onThe Five Love Languages

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2009

I recently finished reading The Five Love Languages and decided to share my thoughts on the work.

The intent of the author, Chapman, is to provide couples with they advice they need to make their relationships work. To over simplify things, his main thesis is that each person has a love tank (as opposed to a hate tank). When this love tank is filled by your spouse, you are happy and content. When it runs empty, you are unhappy and most likely considering divorce. The way to keep this tank topped off is to figure out your spouse’s love language and act accordingly.

According to Chapman, there are five love languages. Technically, these are not languages. However, if you consider any means of expression to be a language, then they would be languages. The five are quality time, affirmations, touch, service, and gifts.  According to Chapman, each person has a main love language (though some rare people might have two). Put another way, for each person there is a main way of acting that will most clearly express love.

For example, if Sally’s love language is service, then they way her husband can best fill her love tank is by servicing her. He could, as specific services, wash her car, do the laundry for her, and fix her computer for her. For Sally, these acts say “I love you.”  If Bill, Sally’s husband, has as his primary love language gifts, then the clearest way that Sally can say “I love you” is to give him gifts. These need not be store bought or fancy gifts; but they need to be expressions of her love.

The basic thesis is plausible: the best way to express your love is to find what sends that message clearest to the person you love and take the relevant actions needed to send that message. To use an analogy to teaching, the way to succeed is to present the information in the way that the students are most likely to pay attention and learn.

It also seems obvious that people like, in varying degrees,  being affirmed, receiving service, receiving gifts, being touched, and spending quality time. Of course, these might be seen as rather vague (a common criticism of self help and relationship books) and hence sorting out the specific needs of your partner might require more than just reading through this book.

Chapman freely admits that his work is not an academic work and it does not approach the standards that such a work would have to meet. This is not a criticism of his book. After all, his goal is not to present an academic study or text but to sell a book to help people. Being a philosopher, I still could not help but read his work with a critical eye.

One method he employs is the anecdote. When he discusses each love language, he includes a story about a couple mired in a dire domestic disaster (or, in his terms, empty love tanks). Naturally, each seemingly doomed marriage is saved by the method he suggests. Obviously, one anecdote does not prove that his method works (in fact, basing a general conclusion on one example would be the fallacy of hasty generalization). However, his goal is not to prove his method works (presumably) but to illustrate his approach and draw the reader into the book (because people love “gossip” about failing relations).

Interestingly, his book contains no tale of failure. Why this is so should be obvious: the work is intended to be positive (even feel good) in tone and it is, to be a bit unfair, a “happy fluffy book”. Failures would not be positive nor would they be “happy fluffy” stuff. Also, the target audience is most likely people with problems  and hence tales of success would be more appealing and effective than tales of failure. After all, when you are trying to help someone, you do not want to tell them how others failed in their circumstances. You want to boost their morale by telling them tales of success.

I did think, however, that the work would be more realistic and more poignant if it had included a tale of failure. Also, such an example might be very instructive as well. But, to be a bit cynical, the realism of failure seems to have no place in such works. Of course, people can supply their own tales of failure.

While the book is not explicitly a Christian book, it does contain (especially in the later chapters) religious elements. Given that most Americans are vaguely Christian, this is a smart approach to take. If you are a Christian, then you will probably find these aspects appealing. If not, the Christian aspects are not critical to the five love languages approach as such.

What makes the book important to me is not the content. Rather, the specific book I have is important to me because the person who gave it to me put post-it notes throughout the pages. Each note holds a personal comment or question from her and those notes, more than anything else, make the book truly special.

Whatever a person’s “love language”, I think that communication is critical-it is most often in the shadows of ignorance that love dies and resentment grows.

An Obvious Metaphor

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2009

The fossil record indicates that there have been various mass extinctions in earth’s history. Of course, the most famous general extinction is that of the dinosaurs. There are various theories as to why these extinctions took place, but the basic idea common to all is that conditions changed in ways that made survival impossible-at least for the species that perished. This left space open for other species to fill the newly emptied niche. For example, some have claimed that the death of the dinosaurs opened the way for the rise of humans.

Now, to the obvious metaphor. The companies that are failing are, obviously enough, like the dinosaurs. Once, they were powerful, successful and dominant. But, conditions have changed and they are dying off. Unlike the dinosaurs, they have largely contributed to their own demise.

Trying to save these companies could, if the analogy works, be like trying to save the dinosaurs from extinction. If so, it would make little sense to dump resources on these dying behemoths. Naturally, the analogy can be countered-there might well be some important differences between dinosaurs and such companies (for example, dinosaurs are regarded as cool and people really like dinosaurs-no so for the failing companies).

To push the analogy even further, perhaps it can be a good thing to let these companies fail. Just as the death of the dinosaurs opened the way for the rise of the mammals, the death of these failing companies can open the way for newer (and hopefully better) companies. While it will be ugly for a while with all those rotting carcasses lying around, things will (one might argue) improve.

Citigroup

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2009

As the economy continues to flail about, Americans are rather worried. This is hardly surprising, given that each new day brings more bad news. Of course, some people are getting a bit angry over how things are playing out. I must admit, that I am starting to feel a bit angry as well.

I saw today that Citigroup might get additional federal support. While this concerns me as a taxpayer, it also concerns me because they own my mortgage (a sensible fixed rate loan with a great interest rate) and I have one of their credit cards.

My mortgage started out, as most mortgages do, with another company. It was eventually bought by Citigroup. Since the rate and terms were reasonable and set by the original company, I have no real complaints about it. The transition was not quite as effective handled as one might hope (I got “double billed” at the start). However, since I had gotten a fixed rate mortgage, there was not much damage that Citigroup could do to me.

My feeling about my Citigroup credit card is more negative. Like most credit card owners, I’ve experienced the usual rate increases. My response has been to not use the card anymore and I am considering simply canceling it. But, I feel basically the same about all credit cards.

What generates my specific ire about the Citigroup bailout is that in addition to sending them a check each month for my mortgage, they are also getting some of my tax dollars. I do not mind paying off my mortgage-that is a debt I owe and I get something in return (my house). But, handing them my tax dollars does not seem to help me. I do not get any mortgage credit for that. My card’s interest rate has not dropped. I suspect that many people feel the same way and wonder what we are getting in return for our money.

Naturally, If the folks in Washington want to give the folks at Citigroup our money, my thought is that they should take less of my money in tax dollars and encourage me to use that savings to pay off my mortgage faster. That way Citigroup gets money but I also get something as well. I do not think it is unreasonable to get something in return for my money.

It is also somewhat ironic that a company that deals in credit cards is getting a bailout. After all, such companies often tend to be rather rapacious in regards to their fees and their interest rates. Fairness would seem to demand that if they find selves short and unable to pay, they should be subject to fees and their own brand of retaliatory measures.

But, one might say, would not such fees and retalitory measures be hitting them when they are at their weakest, when they are in most need of compassion and mercy? Yes, yes it would. But, that is the way of business, is it not?

Promoting Marriage with Tax Dollars

Posted in Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 21, 2009

Since 2005 the government has been funding programs to encourage people to marry. The original budget of the program was $750 million dollars. One aspect of this program is an advertising campaign intended to promote the idea of marriage. This operation has a budget of $1.25 million a year and is currently funded for four years. In light of the economic woes, it strikes some people as wasting money. Obviously, the folks who are getting the tax dollars dumped into their bank accounts to promote marriage do not consider it a waste, but they would be a rather biased group.

The two main motivations (aside from financial) for this promotion are that marriage rates are down and that it is alleged that the state has an interest in people getting married.

It is true that marriage rates have declined. In 1986 the marriage rate was 10 marriages per 1,000 people. Currently, the number is put at 7.1 per 1,000 people. This is a slight decline, but is still a decline. Whether this is something the state should do something about is, of course, another matter.

As noted above, spending even a mere $5 million on an advertising campaign for marriage seems wasteful in these tough economic times. While it might seem like a drop in the sea of federal spending, that money would go a long way if properly spent. As such, it can be seen as a bad idea.

There is also the question of whether the state has any business promoting marriage. On one hand, marriage is supposed to have various benefits for people and it can be argued that the state should encourage people to do what is good for them. After all, the state does try to motivate people to be healthy. Of course, that merely raises the question of whether the state should be doing that sort of thing as well. On the other hand, marriage would seem to be a personal choice and one that the state should not be pushing.

Two related concerns are whether there is any need to advertise the benefits of marriage and whether such advertising will work or not. People are, presumably, aware that marriage is an option and most people are probably vaguely aware of the alleged benefits of marriage. As such, it is not clear that the advertising is needed. Further, it is not clear that such advertising will deliver an adequate return. Will people who would otherwise remain single chose to marry because of the advertising? This seems unlikely in most cases. After all, it seems unlikely that people are against marriage because they are simply unaware of the alleged benefits and that they would be more inclined to do so on the basis of a government ad. It would also be instructive to consider other governmental advertising campaigns and their level of success.

It can, however, be countered that advertising does work to sell products and that marriage should be no exception. Also, perhaps there are some people who will chose to marry either after a rational calculation of the benefits they learn about or because they are swayed by the advertising.  However, I suspect that the factors that are (allegedly) pushing down the marriage rate are considerably stronger than the power of government advertising. Ironically, there seems to be a huge demand for marriage among same sex couples. If the state is so concerned about boosting the marriage rate, then there seems to be an obvious solution.

The government can, of course, promote marriage by offering even more benefits to married couples such as tax incentives and perhaps some free stuff. Of course, that would seem to be unfair to people who chose to remain single.

As to why the state has an interest in marriage, the obvious answer is that it does not. This is because the state is a mere fiction. Specific people have an interest in marriage for various reasons and that is what the state’s alleged interest boils down to. Some people push marriage on religious and other normative grounds. Other people push it based on the alleged social and individual goods. Of course, if marriage is so good and valuable, then there would really be little need for tax payer money to be used to promote it.

My own view is that the state should make me an offer. I’ll start the process by asking for a better tax break, a tax refund, a mortgage credit, and a year of World of Warcraft. Naturally, my wife-to-be will have her own expectations.

Reviving the Economy

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2009

Not surprisingly, people are comparing the current economic situation to the Great Depression. While there are some similarities, there are critical differences that make the comparison somewhat inaccurate. The distinction is, of course, the extent of the economic woes. For example, unemployment today is not even close to what it was during the great depression. However, the same basic question that was asked in the Great Depression is still being asked today: how do we get out of this mess?

While a popular view is that FDR’s policies helped America out of the Great Depression. However, that view is countered by the almost equally popular view that WWII was primarily responsible. After all, the war certainly put people to work. There is even a fairly recent view that contends FDR actually prolonged the Great Depression. Naturally, it is useful and important to determine what worked and what did not work during the Great Depression-both as a matter of academic interest and practical necessity.

The war solution does not seem to be a viable option. After all, we have two of those going now and they do not seem to be sufficient. Of course, these wars are not on the scale of WWII in terms of mobilizing the population and the economy. As such, perhaps a really big war (or a larger number of small wars) would do the trick. Obviously, starting wars just to revitalize the economy might be regarded as morally problematic and there is still the question of whether it would work or not.

One aspect of the current approach is to pour money into troubled companies in the hopes of stabilizing the economy. Of course, the money has to come from somewhere and in this case it comes from the taxpayers. One obvious concern is that this seems to be more of a shuffle of money and not a real infusion of new money. One might suspect that using tax payer money to do this is like trying to repair a hole in your roof by cutting out another section of the roof and nailing it over the hole. This just moves the hole rather than fixing it. In order for the roof to be properly repaired, all the holes have to be patched and this requires material that does not come from the roof.

Another aspect of the current approach is to use tax dollars to hire people to work. While this seems better than dumping money on failing companies (after all, they have a record of failure that tends to indicate future performance), it is still taking tax money to shore up the economy. In short, tax payers are being taxed to pay other tax payers to work. This can work to a certain extent-provided that there is enough tax income to support the workers hired using tax dollars (directly or indirectly). As such, repairing the economy using taxpayer money will require getting at least part of the economy in good enough shape to support the cost of these repairs.

Of course, the government can get money from other sources than taxpayers. For example, the government can continue to take out loans and dump some of that money into the economy. Of course, this will tend to be more wasteful than having those in need take out loans directly (after all, the government is not known for its efficiency). Further, such loans merely move the problem to the near future. After all, those who make the loans will expect to be paid back (and make a profit) and this money will need to ultimately come from the taxpayers. But, perhaps such loans can buy enough time for something to work. Then again, perhaps not.

Monkeys & Politics (Again)

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2009

A while ago Rush Limbaugh’s show created a bit of a stir when a caller compared Obama to Curious George. This was regarded as some as racist because such comparisons have long been part of the vocabulary of racism.

The most recent flap involves a cartoon in the New York Post. This cartoon shows the body of a bullet ridden chimpanzee and two police officers. One officer says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Some people have taken the chimpanzee in the cartoon as being Obama and have concluded that the cartoon is thus racist.

The charge of racism has been countered by the response that Obama did not write the stimulus bill. As such, the argument goes, it cannot be a racist attack on Obama. Rather, one might say, it is a hackneyed use of a monkey comparison to express the view that something is a stupid idea. Of course, the cartoonist might have intended it to be a shot at Obama and merely been unaware that Obama did not write it. Or perhaps he was aware of this and simply wrote the cartoon that way anyway.

Determining whether it is racist or not obviously requires determining whether the chimpanzee in the cartoon is supposed to be Obama or not. Even if the chimpanzee is supposed to be Obama, there is still the question of whether the cartoonist intended to be a racist comparison or not. If the cartoonist used the chimpanzee because Obama is black, then that would seem to indicate racism. If he merely used the chimpanzee as a hackneyed symbol of a bad idea or a foolish mistake, then this need not be racist. Unless, of course, it can be argued that any comparison between a black person and a primate must automatically be racist.

It might be claimed that the author’s intent is not important. Rather, the  fact that the image is perceived as racist makes it racist. On one hand, this has some plausibility. To use an analogy, suppose I, without any intent to insult someone, say something that she takes as an insult. Since she was insulted, one might reason, my remark was insulting.

While it is appealing to believe that an insult is in the eye of the insulted, intent still seems to matter. For example, if I honestly say to someone “you ran well in the race today” and she takes it as an insult because she thinks I am being sarcastic, then she is making an error. Even though she feels insulted, that is her mistake and hence not a wrongful action on my part. Likewise, if the cartoonist had no intention of making a racist statement, then even if people think it is racist, then they are in error.

It might be further argued that certain things (such as monkey comparisons) are intrinsically racist so that intent is irrelevant in regards to whether the thing is racist or not. For example, if someone call me a “honkey” because they are unaware that it is a racist expression, then they might not be a racist but the term is still racist. This does raise interesting questions about whether terms, images and such can have inherent racist properties. The most plausible view is that they can have extremely strong racist associations such that their use is always tainted with racism. In the case of the chimpanzee cartoon, the use of such an image in a way that it might possibly be associated with Obama could be seen as sufficient to make the cartoon racist-even if the cartoonist had no such intent.

Second Marriage

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2009

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I’ve been reading Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. As a professional philosopher, I’m generally very skeptical of all self-help and love advice books. After all, they tend to be vague generalities, wishful thinking and obvious truisms wrapped in a gimmick or two. However, such books can help in that they can serve to get a person thinking about the relevant subject.

Reading the book got me thinking, as I posted yesterday, about my chances of success in a second marriage. Of course, what counts as success is a difficult thing to define. The easiest and most obvious view of success would be that it would not terminate in divorce. Of course, that is like saying that a successful vacation is one that doesn’t end in your horrible death (like being trampled into paste by dirty goats): more is obviously wanted. For now, I’ll lay aside the analysis of success and just consider how to avoid failing. In this case, failing would be having such a defective marriage that divorce is preferable.

The two main reasons that marriages fail are the husband and the wife. As such avoiding failure in a second marriage involves determining three things. First, you need to figure out what it is about you that contributed to the failure. Second, you need to figure out what it is about the other person that contributed to the failure. Third, you need to sort out what it was about your interactions that contributed to the failure. This is so obvious, I should write a self help book based on it. I just need the gimmick.

Obviously, there are many factors that can lead to failure. Personality traits, relative sanity (or insanity), interests, political views, religious views, hobbies, addictions, needs, wants, desires and so on.

Some of these factors might be harmless or even good by themselves, but when combined with factors that the other person possesses, they can lead to failure. For example, one person might be highly motivated in terms of career while the other person is very relaxed about it. This can lead to conflict if the motivated person expects the other person to keep up in his/her earning potential and career success.

It can be very hard to identify these factors. People tend to overlook their own flaws while easily seeing and magnifying the flaws of their former partner. As such, an unusual degree of honesty and objectivity is required in sorting these things out. To simplify things quite a bit, here is what to ask:

What aspects of failure did I contribute to and what did I contribute?

Can I change these things about myself?

What aspects of failure did the other person contribute to and what did s/he contribute?

What should I look for in a potential second spouse?

How did our actions and traits interact in ways that contributed to the failure?

What can I do to avoid this the next time?

These are tough questions to answer honestly.  What can be even tougher is to act on the answers. What is a bit scary is that even if you do both, you can still fail in new and awful ways. But, you can also succeed in new and wonderful ways.

40/60/75

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2009

I received a copy of The Five Love Languages for Valentine’s Day and have been reading it. One interesting fact that the book presented (without any source being cited, my academic side noted) is that the divorce rate for first time marriages is 40%, that of second marriages 60%, and that for third marriages a scary 75%.

Since my first marriage ended in divorce, this got me wondering a bit about my chances of success at a second marriage. Since I teach critical thinking, I know that I cannot infer that my chance of success in a second marriage is a mere 40%. After all, even if the number given in the book is correct, that is a general statistic and it is perilous to reason from statistics to what is or will be the case with a specific individual. After all, there are factors that make a marriage more or less likely to succeed and my chances will depend on such factors.

Of course, one general “factor” that is present in a second marriage is that the first marriage did not succeed (laying aside cases involve a person being a widow/widower) for at least one person. As such, the person in question might very well have qualities and traits that lead to the failure of the first marriage. As such, they are likely to fail once again. In the case of the third marriage, the set includes people who have (probably) failed twice before. Hence, they are even more prone to failure.

So, one reasonable explanation for the increased failure rate in marriages is not that there is failure built in to second or third marriages. Rather, the people who are involved in them will  include people who have already showed a tendency to fail in marriage. And, the set of people in each successive marriage (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) will contain more and more repeat failures.

In my own case, I think I can avoid or prevent what caused my first marriage to fail. Obviously, most people think that-otherwise there wouldn’t be any second or third marriages. :)

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