A Philosopher's Blog

Considering the Useful and the Useless

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2010
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A stock criticism of philosophy is that it is useless. This, of course, has a certain appeal. After all, philosophy does not seem to do anything obviously useful like baking bread, killing people, selling beer, or curing cancer.

One stock reply to this charge is that while philosophy might not be useful, it is still valuable. Value, one might argue, is not merely a matter of usefulness. While this has a certain appeal to it, it also seems to be a bit of a surrender. As such, I will avoid taking this approach.

Another stock reply is that the definition of “useful” that is limited to such things as baking, building and killing is far too narrow. Under a broader (and superior, a philosopher might say)definition, philosopher would be found to be eminently useful.

While this might strike some as a mere semantic trick of the sort beloved by philosophers, it does seem to be a legitimate approach under certain conditions. Obviously, if a philosopher employs an ad hoc definition to “prove” that philosophy is useful, then this would hardly do. Equally obviously, if the philosopher’s critic simply insisted on excluding philosophy from the realm of the useful by fiat, then this would also hardly do. What is needed, obviously enough, is an account of the useful and the useless that does not beg any questions. Providing such an account would be rather challenging. After all, philosophers will want to slide the definition so that philosophy is useful and those who disagree will wish to narrow the definition so that philosophy is excluded. Any compromise might be regarded as unthinkable-a selling out of one’s position to the enemy. However, a rational discussion over this matter has to begin with a willingness on both sides to at least consider the possibility of yielding some ground in the face of cogent arguments.

Since this is but a brief blog post, I will not endeavor to settle this matter or even make much progress. Instead, I will just engage is some sketching in regards to the useful.

While people often say that something is useful, it seems unlikely that usefulness is a intrinsic property of anything. Rather, when someone says that X is useful, they mean that X is useful (or useless) for Y (where Y is a person or some purpose). For example, running long distances is useful for people training for a marathon. However, it would seem rather useless for people training to design web pages.

On this view, usefulness would seem to be relative to the person or purpose. Thus, usefulness would be (to steal from Kant) hypothetical  rather than categorical.

In this case, philosophy would obviously be useful to many (if not all) professional philosophers. After all, it provides the basis of their employment and gives them something to do. This makes philosophy as useful as a large range of activities and professions that provide employment and activity.  It would also be useful to those who publish, purchase or read philosophy books (and other material). It would also be useful to the students who get credit hours towards graduation. This usefulness could, obviously enough, be extended quite far. For example, comedians who make fun of philosophy and people who enjoy arguing that philosophy is useless would actually find it useful in that it gives them a target.

This view also would entail that things that some see as paradigms of usefulness could also be useless. For example, someone who elected to live “off the grid” could regard a field such as electrical engineering as useless in that it would be useless to him in his chosen way of life.

I suspect, however, that critics of philosophy would not accept this line of thought. This sort of usefulness/uselessness  seems to be far too broad in that almost anything could be useful  or useless simply because someone finds it useful or useless in some manner. To add a few more lines to the sketch, the critic of philosophy no doubt wants the usefulness to be far more robust. Philosophers, I should think, would also want something more robust than this.

This then turns away from considering useful in terms of “useful for who?” and to the other path, namely “useful for what(purpose)?” This would seem to move a bit beyond the subjectivism of “useful for who?” and to a certain relativity, namely usefulness relative to a purpose.

On this sort of view, the usefulness of X would be defined in terms of what sort of purposes X can advance. In the example above, long distance running would be useful for training for longer races (10Ks and up, perhaps).  As another example, running instances as DPS in WoW and observing other players tanking would be useful for learning how to tank. Of course, some might regard playing a video game to learn how to play it better as not being very useful. Likewise, even if philosophy is useful for certain things (like giving philosophers a job) it might be seen as not useful.

Of course, it cannot be taken as being “not useful” in the strict sense. After all, philosophy does have many uses (as noted above). Rather, when the critic says that philosophy is useless, she most likely is making a normative judgment about the value of the uses of philosophy. To say that philosophy is useless thus seems  to say that the uses of philosophy are without value.

Of course, this raises the matter of determining value. As with usefulness, value seems to often be subjective  to the person doing the assessment or relative to the purpose at hand. Then again, perhaps there is some sort of intrinsic value that can be used to ultimately distinguish the truly useful from the truly useless.

This has, obviously enough, been a mere sketch of some of the debate and I do not claim to have settled anything at all. However, I think that progress has been made in that some of the terrain has been mapped out and some vague goals have been set.

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The Wedding of the Year

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2010
Derivative and cropped work of Chelsea Clinton

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Watching CNN this morning, I saw the rather obsessive coverage of the rumors of Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding. While I certainly hope that Ms. Clinton and her husband to be have a wonderful marriage and a happy life, I was a bit dismayed by the excessive coverage. After all, while her parents are important political figures, the wedding is not what I would consider a matter for serious news coverage. Now, if it had been a diplomatic wedding intended to end a war, then some coverage would have been in order.

While I paid little attention to the coverage, I did note that the event is supposed to cost $3 million and that the airspace over it will be closed off by the FAA.

While the Clintons are free to spend whatever they wish on a wedding, such extravagance seems to be a matter of concern. In the case of normal folks, the current advice is to rein in wedding spending and instead use the money for more practical and lasting things. However, since Chelsea will almost never have to worry about money, this sort of concern is hardly a factor.

After mentally wishing the couple luck, I thought about the stark contrast between the $3 million wedding and the economic plight of so many Americans. As Chelsea says her vows, many Americans will be looking for work. As she eats her cake, many Americans will receive foreclosure notices.  Such extravagance in these times seems a bit questionable.

Then again, perhaps this is an excellent example of trickle down economics: the fabulously wealthy Clintons  spend $3 million on a wedding and this trickles down money to those involved, such as the waiters who will be working there and the folks making the cake. Also, people who are out of work and poor can enjoy watching news of the event on the TV in the local coffee shop, thus lifting their spirits.

Naturally, I feel like something of a jerk to offer any criticisms of someone’s wedding. After all, that is supposed to be a special and magical day. One might wonder what sort of parents Bill and Hilary would be if they held a modest $500,000 wedding and gave $2.5 million to help people who have lost their jobs or there homes.

That said, I do sincerely wish the couple the best.

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Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2010

I’ve been grading tests and papers while chairing a search committee, so my blogging time is rather restricted. However, the recent coverage of Rangel, Kerry, and Brooks got me thinking about corruption.

My main thought is that these people did not do something different in kind from most others of their type. After all, many politicians grow wealthy in office while enjoying various perks. Likewise, folks in the top corporate ranks do very well. Heck, even when they screw up amazingly and damage the company, they generally drift safely to the ground under their golden parachutes. For example, BP’s Hayward will get $1.6 million in pay, a $17 million pension and a new job in Russia. That this has been called “paltry” says a lot about how corporate culture works. For most of the rest of us, if we screw up (and even when we do not) we get fired and then have to turn to employment benefits to stay alive.

This is not to say that the practice is good because it is common. Rather, my point is that they stand out not because they did something others did not do, but because they either did too much of it or did it in a way that does, in fact, really draw attention.

What these folks did seems to be a difference in quantity. That is, they did too much and crossed that informal line between what counts as perks and compensation and entered into the realm of what most would consider the land of corruption. In the case of Kerry, his transgression seems fairly minor. By keeping his boat in another state he did nothing illegal-just something that the folks in Massachusetts might frown on.

So, the lesson here seems to be that one must stay within certain limits (very, very broad limits) or risk getting in trouble. Of course, it remains to be seen if Rangel or Brooks will actually get in trouble. I suspect Brooks will and Rangel might well slip away again.

Search Committee Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2010
giant stack of resumes
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No time for a proper post today-I got assigned the chair of a search committee on Monday and have to complete the process right away.

However, based on my experience so far I have some advice for people applying for academic jobs:

  • Include a brief cover letter. Be clear, concise and focus on how you match the position.
  • If you are not qualified at all for the position, it might be best not to apply. Your call, though-sometimes luck can be a marvelous thing.
  • When asked for a brief writing sample, select what you take to be your best work and include a brief sample. No committee member wants to read through a 100 page “sample”, let alone a hundred of them.
  • Do not go overboard in what you send. The odds are that the committee does not need to see your high school transcripts nor a scanned copy of all your diplomas. As a general test, ask yourself how much you would enjoy going through what you are sending in twenty or two hundred times. Sometimes less really is more.
  • It is generally a good idea to print only on one side of printed documents. The odds are that some poor fellow (like me) will have to photocopy or scan your application material. Having to deal with two sides is annoying (unless the right equipment is on hand, which it was not).
  • It is generally a good idea to not staple every single document. Again, some poor fellow will probably have to scan or copy the material. Pulling 20 staples out of an application package so it can fed through a scanner is not much fun.
  • Be sure to send everything that is asked for in the job description. While there are some exceptions, an incomplete application will generally not do very well. In fact, some are simply rejected outright.
  • Be patient.
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Leaks, Pakistan and the Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2010
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...
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WikiLeaks recently published (formerly) secret information about the war in Afghanistan.  As is to be expected, this leak has been attacked as being a threat to “national security.” Of course, that line is used so often  that its edge has been blunted.

The leaked information seems to support the obvious-Pakistan has probably been providing support for the Taliban. As the experts have long pointed out, Pakistan’s main concern is with its traditional rival, India and it makes sense that they would cultivate groups that they believed could be used to counter India. In this regard, they were taking a page out of our play book-we have been willing to bolster comparable groups to use against our enemies. In fact, we did so in Afghanistan itself, back when the Soviets were the occupying force.

As happened to us, the Pakistanis found that the groups they supported were not eternally grateful. After all, Pakistan has found itself in danger from some of the people it had previously supported.

While the revelations of the alleged connection between Pakistan and the Taliban will create some political trouble (after all, we have been pouring vast sums of money into Pakistan and it seems likely that some of this has been funneled to the very Taliban that has been killing Americans), I suspect that the United States will continue to work with Pakistan. In fact, some experts have argued that we should be willing to work with the Taliban, provided that they agree to not attack us and agree to not work with groups that might attack the United States. Since we already seem to have been funding the Taliban, perhaps we already have the basis for a working relationship.

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Why “No”?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2010
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The Republicans have been branded as the party of “no.” This is because, obviously enough, their main strategy has been to oppose and block the Democrats. The Democrats, despite their overwhelming majority, have been reluctant to do what the Republicans did when they were in power. Of course, this is what we have come to expect from Democrats.

Those who are concerned about the good of the people might worry that the Republicans seem inclined to block even legislation that seems clearly for this general good. For example, I suspect that some folks were a bit surprised that the Republicans would try to block an extension of unemployment benefits during these trying times.

While the Republicans’ actions often make them seem cruel and mere obstructionists, it is likely they are pursuing a proven strategy.

To make sense of this strategy, it is important to be aware that people tend to vote in accord with how their disposable income is doing at the the time. If people see an upswing in their disposable income, they will tend to vote for the party in power and incumbents. If their disposable income is declining, the inclination is to vote against the party in power and incumbents.

If the connection between disposable income and voting behavior is real (or is at least believed to be real), then it would make sense for the Republicans to do everything they can to reduce the disposable income of voters (or, if possible, key segments of voters). This would tend to increase the likelihood that the Democrats, as the party in power, would lose in the elections.

Obviously, the Republicans could not come out and say that they are, for example, voting against an extension of the unemployment benefits so as to reduce the disposable income of voters and increase their odds of regaining power. If the voters actually believed this, then they might be inclined to support the Democrats (or at least vote against the Republicans).

What the Republicans would need to do is cloak their (possibly) true motives under a more attractive guise. For example, they could claim to be opposing the extension of unemployment benefits on the grounds of reducing the deficit.  This is not to say that all Republicans are engaged in such cynical political moves at the expense of the people. After all, there are no doubt Republicans who act from sincere devotion to conservative principles and for the good of the people (as they see it).

To counter this, the Democrats need to take steps to ensure that the disposable incomes of voters increase. Of course, to do this solely to get votes would be a rather cynical move. However, I think that most Americans would benefit more from this approach than the strategy that involves trying to reduce this income.

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Tastes of Greatness

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2010

My first experience with moments of greatness was when I heard people talking about an amazing game of basketball my father had played. It was essentially a pickup game played with the other people working at the summer camp, but my dad had done some amazing shots, apparently making baskets by shooting with his back to the hoop. Later, I heard another such story: when my dad was playing baseball in high school his speed was questioned. So, he entered a track meet and set the school record for the mile wearing baseball shoes and without any training. That record stood for quite some time.

I didn’t think much about such moments of greatness until years later and in a somewhat silly context. I was playing Halo 3 and for a few seconds I had a taste of nerdtastic greatness: my fingers flew like lighting, working the controller like a maestro playing her violin. Everything else faded into shadows and I had complete concentration. My opponents moved in slow motion and were effortlessly cut down by my terrible, swift, gun.

Halo 3

I had that experience a few more times while playing Halo 3, but it was never something I could do consistently. As such, it was but a small taste of the nerdy greatness that some people must dine on regularly. I have also experience this from time to time in other games, such as World of Warcraft-I will play my character to near perfection, cutting down my opponents in PvP or handling a raid boss with ease.

Of course greatness in video games is a rather lame sort of greatness. However, I have had tastes of greatness in more significant matters.

Those who have followed this blog probably know I am a long time runner. I was good in college (All Conference) but never great-except for those few times when I truly ran at the top of my ability. In those moments I felt pure, eternal and complete. I and the run were all that truly existed, the other runners and the spectators were just dim shadows. That feeling is, to say the least, amazing. While I have never achieved true and consistent greatness in sports, I have been up the mountain high enough to see the peak and thus I can really appreciate what the true greats experience. I must admit that I have felt a small twinge of jealousy and some regret-like a minor hero gazing up to Mount Olympus and seeing the gods dwelling in unreachable greatness.

I have also felt this in my other endeavors, such as teaching and writing. I have cranked out many publications, including books, but none have been great. Good, yes. Truly great…alas, no. However, I have felt that bit of greatness that one can experience while writing-the words simply flow smoothly and flawlessly, saying what I wish to say. No, not just what I wish to say-but what I should say. Great writers, can, of course, do that fairly consistently. That is what it is to actually be great-to be able to maintain that level. To be able to stay at the peak and not slide back down the mountain.

It would be, I think, easy to be a bit bitter about being merely good. After all, knowing all too well how much better other people are and really understanding that they have regularly what I can only have in very limited moments can be a bit depressing. To use an analogy, it is like having a few bites from a gourmet meal and knowing that people get such a feast regularly.

However, perspective really helps here. I think I have done the best I could do in most of my endeavors and there is no shame in that. While it sounds like a trite thing, what does matter is to go out there and do your very best, to know that you could not have done any better. Not in the sense that you fell short, but in the sense that you rose to such a height. There is great honor in doing this, more than merely doing well but falling short of what could be done.

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Williams & Satire

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2010
Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol
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Satire can be a rather sharp sword and can easily cut the hand that forged it. Mark Williams has been wounded by his own satirical blade: he  decided to leave the Tea Party Express due to the fallout generated by his blog.

Satire, being a form of comedy, falls within the realm of the ugly. As Aristotle argued, it involves presenting “some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” That, then, is the challenge of satire-being ugly, but not crossing into the realm of pain and destruction.  Crossing that line transforms the satire into the merely mean. As one might expect, discerning where the line lies does involve considering the purpose of the satire being examined.

I will, of course, admit the obvious: the line between the satirical and the merely mean is not an exact one. However, when someone crosses deep into the realm of the merely mean, that can often be readily seen.

Williams, I think, crossed that line.

Perhaps his failure at satire was due merely to a lack of skill rather than, as some have argued, racism. I will not render a judgment on this, but will merely consider the content of his post.

His post was supposed to be a fictional letter to Lincoln from the “Coloreds” and it begins as follows:

“Dear Mr. Lincoln, we Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”

While it is tempting to claim that any use of “Coloreds” must be racism, that would be an error.  While it is a rather sharp term, satire deals in sharp terms and hence almost no term can be excluded as unfit for use. However, the sharper the term being employed, he more deftly the satirist must handle his tools lest he be cut to the bone.

Williams does not seem to have handled the term particularly well, at least in terms of his avowed purpose of lampooning those who had raised concerns about racism and the tea party. After all, trying to satirize charges of racism by merely presenting racial stereotypes is hardly a demonstration of skilled handling. Using the term “cotton” is also rather questionable. After all, in the United States linking “coloreds” and “cotton” is a stock tool of racism.

As another example, consider the following:

“Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bailouts directly to us coloreds!”

I can see, somewhat, what Williams might have been attempting here. Perhaps he was trying to make the point that to see the Tea Party’s opposition to bailout’s as racism would itself be racist, presumably because it would be based on racist stereotypes about “Coloreds.” However, it seems to come across in a different way, namely that it asserts that “Coloreds” love welfare and hence oppose the Tea Party’s opposition to bailouts (which are seen as welfare). Thus, far from refuting the charge of racism via a clever satire, it rather seems to provide evidence for said racism.

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Secret America

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2010
NSA Eagle
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After 9/11 there was a huge spike in the “top secret sector.”This situation is ably covered by a recent Washington Post investigation.While there is a need for top secrecy, this spike does raise some important concerns. I will focus mainly on the privatization of secrecy.

One concern is purely economic. While some folks argue that the private sector is able to do its tasks cheaper than the “bloated” and “wasteful” government, the reality seems to be quite different. To be specific, the spike in the private sector intelligence operations made people with clearance a valuable commodity. These people were often able to leave the public sector and take jobs in the private sector at a significant salary increase. This is, of course, nothing new. Over the years I have heard of numerous cases of the state trying to save money by privatizing and then paying private contractors significantly more than they paid the former state workers.  Naturally, this concern only applies in cases in which privatizing is more expensive than keeping the operation entirely within the government. While some private companies no doubt do exemplary work, it would be rather unusual if some intelligence contractors were not using the situation as a gravy train.

A second concern is that these sort of operations seem to arguable fall under the domain of the state. Privatizing intelligence gathering seems comparable to privatizing the police or the military. Blackwater serves as an excellent example of cautionary tale about this sort of approach. Since the United States is supposed to be a democracy, such private sector secrecy is worrisome. State agencies are at least supposed to be servants of the nation, but the business of private business is just that-business.

A third concern is with the vast size of this shadowy empire of secrecy. While having a robust intelligence community is useful, having such a large number of people with such clearance increases the odds of leaks. Also, as history has shown, people who work in intelligence have sometimes been willing to sell secrets. As such, having a vast system of secrecy increases our vulnerability. The challenge is comparable to the classic problem of having enough cooks, but not so many that the soup is spoiled.

A fourth concern is based on the classic problem of the ivory tower in academics. This problem is the tendency of professors and other academics to become insular and isolated within the confines of the academy. In the case of the intelligence community, the same sort of effect can easily occur. For example, professionals in the filed can easily fall into a closed circle of interaction that nicely replicates the closed circles of the academy. The top secret community also is well hidden from the public eye, thus making it even easier for people to become isolated in the shadowy caves. This can lead to a serious disconnection from the actual world and lead to serious problems.

A fifth concern is that these dwellers in the shadowy caves can become arrogant and develop a sense that they are privileged. As was shown in the Blackwater incidents, this can lead to rather serious problems. History shows, unfortunately, that Socrates was right-those who are able to act without criticism will tend to act badly. There are, obviously enough, few better ways to avoid criticism than being able to hide behind the shield of top secrecy.

This is not to say that there is not a place for private contractors in the intelligence business. However, it seems that there is a need to reign in the ever expanding shadows of secrecy-hopefully before some sort of disaster arises.

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Snookered by Fox

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2010
The current logo of Fox Television
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Shirley Sherrod was condemned by the NAACP and fired by the USDA on the basis of an edited video clip of her speech. This clip, posted by Andrew Breitbart, was selectively edited to show only what appeared to be racist comments. However, the entire clip reveals the truth.

Breitbart seems to have intended the clip as a return shot in response to the NAACP’s accusation that the Tea Party tolerates racism. The point was, of course, to show racism at a NAACP meeting, thus showing that the NAACP was inconsistent. Apparently Breitbart could not find actual evidence of racism, so perhaps he resorted to manufacturing the evidence by posting the edited version of the clip. If so, this is clearly a morally reprehensible act of deceit. If, however, he merely acted in ignorance of the full clip, then he would only be guilty of not engaging in proper research before posting the clip.

Of course, he would not be the only one guilty of a failure to do research. As noted above, the NAACP and the USDA rushed into action on the basis of the edited clip and not the full version. In what seems to be an effort to dodge blame, the NAACP now claims that they were snookered by Fox News. I would have thought that the folks in the NAACP would be aware of  the nature of Fox News. As such, they should have been a bit more critical. In any case, they should not have relied on such a limited number of sources. After all, such a serious condemnation should have been backed up with equally serious research and due diligence. To fail to do so is both a professional and a moral failure. Blaming Fox in no way mitigates their responsibility.

The same applies to the USDA. While it is understandable that they would wish to act quickly, it is clear that they acted far too hastily. The source of the edited clip should have been considered and, of course, the entire clip should have been viewed. Such a review would not have taken very long and both professionalism and ethics demand that such a proper review take place before a person is fired.

While the clip probably did not have exactly the effect that Breitbart expected, the situation might be seen as a win for certain people. After all, the NAACP took a hit as did the Obama administration. On a more positive note, the situation did an excellent job of exposing how poorly charges of racism are handled. I would like to hope that this incident will result in some positive change, but I suspect the lesson will not stick.

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