A Philosopher's Blog

July 4th

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2015

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Is Libertarianism Viable

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2015

The United States has had a libertarian and anarchist thread since the beginning, which is certainly appropriate for a nation that espouses individual liberty and expresses distrust of the state. While there are many versions of libertarianism and these range across the political spectrum, I will focus on one key aspect of libertarianism. To be specific, I will focus on the idea that the government should impose minimal limits on individual liberty and that there should be little, if any, state regulation of business. These principles were laid out fairly clearly by the American anarchist Henry David Thoreau in his claims that the best government governs least (or not at all) and that government only advances business by getting out of its way.

I must admit that I find the libertarian-anarchist approach very appealing. Like many politically minded young folks, I experimented with a variety of political theories in college. I found Marxism unappealing—as a metaphysical dualist, I must reject materialism. Also, I was well aware of the brutally oppressive and murderous nature of the Marxists states and they were in direct opposition to both my ethics and my view of liberty. Fascism was certainly right out—the idea of the total state ran against my views of liberty. Since, like many young folks, I thought I knew everything and did not want anyone to tell me what to do, I picked anarchism as my theory of choice. Since I am morally opposed to murdering people, even for a cause, I sided with the non-murderous anarchists, such as Thoreau. I eventually outgrew anarchism, but I still have many fond memories of my halcyon days of naïve political views. As such, I do really like libertarian-anarchism and really want it to be viable. But, I know that liking something does not entail that it is viable (or a good idea).

Put in extremely general terms, a libertarian system would have a minimal state with extremely limited government impositions on personal liberty. The same minimalism would also extend to the realm of business—they would operate with little or no state control. Since such a system seems to maximize liberty and freedom, it seems to be initially very appealing. After all, freedom and liberty are good and more of a good thing is better than less. Except when it is not.

It might be wondered how more liberty and freedom is not always better than less. I find two of the stock answers both appealing and plausible. One was laid out by Thomas Hobbes. In discussing the state of nature (which is a form of anarchism—there is no state) he notes that total liberty (the right to everything) amounts to no right at all. This is because everyone is free to do anything and everyone has the right to claim (and take) anything. This leads to his infamous war of all against all, making life “nasty, brutish and short.” Like too much oxygen, too much liberty can be fatal. Hobbes solution is the social contract and the sovereign: the state.

A second one was present by J.S. Mill. In his discussion of liberty he argued that liberty requires limitations on liberty. While this might seem like a paradox or a slogan from Big Brother, Mill is actually quite right in a straightforward way. For example, your right to free expression requires that my right to silence you be limited. As another example, your right to life requires limits on my right to kill. As such, liberty does require restrictions on liberty. Mill does not limit the limiting of liberty to the state—society can impose such limits as well.

Given the plausibility of the arguments of Hobbes and Mill, it seems reasonable to accept that there must be limits on liberty in order for there to be liberty. Libertarians, who usually fall short of being true anarchists, do accept this. However, they do want the broadest possible liberties and the least possible restrictions on business.

In theory, this would appear to show that the theory provides the basis for a viable political system. After all, if libertarianism is the view that the state should impose the minimal restrictions needed to have a viable society, then it would be (by definition) a viable system. However, there is the matter of libertarianism in practice and also the question of what counts as a viable political system.

Looked at in a minimal sense, a viable political system would seem to be one that can maintain its borders and internal order. Meeting this two minimal objectives would seem to be possible for a libertarian state, at least for a while. That said, the standards for a viable state might be taken to be somewhat higher, such as the state being able to (as per Locke) protect rights and provide for the good of the people. It can (and has) been argued that such a state would need to be more robust than the libertarian state. It can also be argued that a true libertarian state would either devolve into chaos or be forced into abandoning libertarianism.

In any case, the viability of libertarian state would seem to depend on two main factors. The first is the ethics of the individuals composing the state. The second is the relative power of the individuals. This is because the state is supposed to be minimal, so that limits on behavior must be set largely by other factors.

In regards to ethics, people who are moral can be relied on to self-regulate their behavior to the degree they are moral. To the degree that the population is moral the state does not need to impose limitations on behavior, since the citizens will generally not behave in ways that require the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. As such, liberty would seem to require a degree of morality on the part of the citizens that is inversely proportional to the limitations imposed by the state. Put roughly, good people do not need to be coerced by the state into being good. As such, a libertarian state can be viable to the degree that people are morally good. While some thinkers have faith in the basic decency of people, many (such as Hobbes) regard humans as lacking in what others would call goodness. Hence, the usual arguments about how the moral failings of humans requires the existence of the coercive state.

In regards to the second factor, having liberty without an external coercive force maintaining the liberty would require that the citizens be comparable in political, social and economic power. If some people have greater power they can easily use this power to impose on their fellow citizens. While the freedom to act with few (or no) limits is certainly a great deal for those with greater power, it certainly is not very good for those who have less power. In such a system, the powerful are free to do as they will, while the weaker people are denied their liberties. While such a system might be libertarian in name, freedom and liberty would belong to the powerful and the weaker would be denied. That is, it would be a despotism or tyranny.

If people are comparable in power or can form social, political and economic groups that are comparable in power, then liberty for all would be possible—individuals and groups would be able to resist the encroachments of others. Unions, for example, could be formed to offset the power of corporations. Not surprisingly, stable societies are able to build such balances of power to avoid the slide into despotism and then to chaos. Stable societies also have governments that endeavor to protect the liberties of everyone by placing limits on how much people can inflict their liberties on other people. As noted above, people can also be restrained by their ethics. If people and groups varied in power, yet abided by the limits of ethical behavior, then things could still go well for even the weak.

Interestingly, a balance of power might actually be disastrous. Hobbes argued that it is because people are equal in power that the state of nature is a state of war. This rests on his view that people are hedonistic egoists—that is, people are basically selfish and care not about other people.

Obviously enough, in the actual world people and groups vary greatly in power. Not surprisingly, many of the main advocates of libertarianism enjoy considerable political and economic power—they would presumably do very well in a system that removed many of the limitations upon them since they would be freer to do as they wished and the weaker people and groups would be unable to stop them.

At this point, one might insist on a third factor that is beloved by the Adam Smith crowd: rational self-interest. The usual claim is that people would limit their behavior because of the consequences arising from their actions. For example, a business that served contaminated meat would soon find itself out of business because the survivors would stop buying the meat and spread the word. As another example, an employer who used his power to compel his workers to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay would find that no one would be willing to work for him and would be forced to improve things to retain workers. As a third example, people would not commit misdeeds because they would be condemned or punished by vigilante justice. The invisible hand would sort things out, even if people are not good and there is a great disparity in power.

The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of system generally does not work very well—as shown by history. If there is a disparity in power, that power will be used to prevent negative consequences. For example, those who have economic power can use that power to coerce people into working for low pay and can also use that power to try to keep them from organizing to create a power that can resist this economic power. This is why, obviously enough, people like the Koch brothers oppose unions.

Interestingly, most people get that rational self-interest does not suffice to keep people from acting badly in regards to crimes such as murder, theft, extortion, assault and rape. However, there is the odd view that rational self-interest will somehow work to keep people from acting badly in other areas. This, as Hobbes would say, arises from an insufficient understanding of humans. Or is a deceit on the part of people who have the power to do wrong and get away with it.

While I do like the idea of libertarianism, a viable libertarian society would seem to require people who are predominantly ethical (and thus self-regulating) or a careful balance of power. Or, alternatively, a world in which people are rational and act from self-interest in ways that would maintain social order. This is clearly not our world.



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Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Posted in Ethics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2010
Thomas Aquinas was the most important Western ...

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While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

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The Myth of (In)Competence

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2009
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In the course of the debate over health care reform, many stock political tactics have been employed. One of the classic methods is the use of the myth of incompetence. This method is based on the popular stereotype (or myth) that governments are incapable of competent action. On this view, anything the government does will be , a priori, bloated, wasteful, ineffective, costly and probably oppressive.  Usually associated with this myth is the myth of competence. This is the stereotype (or myth) that non-government actors (like businesses or individual folks) will always do things better than the government (less bloated, less wasteful, more effective, cheaper, and without oppression).

In some cases, the folks using the myths do back them up with examples. For example, the myth of incompetence is supported by pointing to the DMV, the Post Office and Amtrak. Pointing at the military is generally considered bad form, however. The general idea is that these examples show how the government is and must be in regards to competence (or rather the lack thereof).

While these examples (and so many others, such as the handling of Katrina and the sorry state of our public infrastructure) show that there are serious problems with some government programs and actions, to assume that anything run by the state must be done incompetently seems to be a rather hasty generalization.

Of course, it can be argued that the evidence is rather substantial evidence for government incompetence across the board. After all, one can go back through history and pile up example after example of incompetence (or worse, outright corruption).

I will, for the sake of the discussion, grant that the government (or rather the folks that do the actual stuff) is lacking in competence. However, the question arises as to whether or not the government is significantly less competent than the non-government actors (business and individuals). After all, the myth of incompetence (or the reality, if you prefer) is typically used in conjunction with the myth of competence. For example, in the health reform debate the incompetence of the state is matched unfavorably against the competence of the private sector.

In the case of the myth of competence, it is argued that non-government actors (especially business) have to be competent in order to continue to survive. Folks often say “why, if a company did what the government did, it would go out of business” or even “if I worked like the government did, I’d be fired.” But, these claims do not seem to be generally true. To show this, I’ll start small and then work up.

Think of the people you know and work with. Now ask yourself how competent they are.  How often do you think “wow, my friends and co-workers are amazingly competent!”

Next, think of the folks you work for. Do you praise their competence each day? At least once a week? Monthly? Ever?

Now, think of the businesses that you deal with. Do you regard these folks as competent? In my own case, I have doubts. For example, when I go to the doctor or dentist I usually have to wait at least 30 minutes after my appointment time to be seen. Then I spend 15-30 minutes waiting to see the actual doctor or dentist once I have been taken to the appointment area. As other examples, I have been ignored at McDonalds, had my orders horribly screwed up at restaurants, had repair jobs take three times longer than promised, had paperwork lost, been overcharged and so on. I’m sure that you have plenty of examples of your own.

Of course, I can bring out the really huge examples such as the folks involved in the sub-prime mess, AIG, General Motors, Chevy, and so on. Those businesses were clearly not models of competence.

Now, some folks might argue that the government helped ruin some business and such the state must take the blame for leading the sweet and innocent business folks down the path of incompetence.

In reply, the government did have a role in allowing business to do rather stupid things by deregulating and so on. Of course, this was mostly at the behest of business folks and, of course, the business people were not forced to make stupid choices. The government has, I must admit, played a role in keeping incompetent businesses going-but this is (once again) at the behest of those businesses. That is, the allegedly competent companies are lobbying the state to enable their incompetent behavior. The state, so far, has been quite willing to go along (that is, the folks being swayed by lobbyist cash and promises are enabling this).

My point in all this is that incompetence seems to be everywhere. Sure, it is in the government-but only because people seem to generally be low in competence. As such, there seems to be no special reason to fear government incompetence over the incompetence of the private sector.

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Ossification Clarification

Posted in Humor, Medicine/Health, Running by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2009
Wolverine: X-men Origins
Image by Satsukiame via Flickr

On September 3, 2009 I had what I hoped would be my last follow up visit for my quadriceps tendon repair surgery. Unfortunately, I’ll have to go back again. The following dialogue nicely explains the situation:

Friend: “So, I hear you had your last appointment. Ready to start winning races again?”

Me: “Well, it was supposed to be my last. Now I have to go back for another x-ray and follow up. Also, I won’t be winning anything for a while, unless it is for ugliest running style. Or, rather, hobble-jogging style.”

Friend: “But, you seem to be doing so well.”

Me: “I am, but the x-ray I had today shows that I’ve got  heterotopic ossification.”

Friend: “Your surgery made you gay?”

Me: “What? No. heterotopic ossification is when bones form in soft tissue. In my case, I’ve got some tiny bone nodules in the soft tissue above the knee. Anyway, being gay would be ‘homo’ and not ‘hetero.'”

Friend: “Your knee is gay and has a bone?”

Me: “Okay, that is wrong on numerous levels. Let me try again. Neither me nor my knee are gay. I have bits of bone tissue that grew in the soft tissue.”

Friend: “Does that give you powers?”

Me: “Um, what?”

Friend: “You know, can you extend bone knifes out of your knee, like Wolverine did in X-Men Origins?”

Me: “No. They just sit there and do nothing other than being vaguely annoying. Much like you.”

Friend: “Are you sure you can’t do that? It would be so cool. You’d be like Knife Knee, the mutant that knees bad guys with his knife knee. You could be an X-Man.”

Me: “Errrrr!”

Friend: “What are you doing?”

Me: “Trying to get that knee knife to work so I can stab you.”

Friend: “Awesome! I’ll start designing your costume and your catchphrase. How about ‘knife kneeing evil in the groin’?”

Me: “No.”

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Easy Exercise 2: Motivation

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2009
Lance Armstrong finishing 3rd in Sète, taking ...
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When it comes to exercise, two of the big obstacles are time and motivation. I’ve written about finding time and now I’ll turn to motivation.

I have noticed that almost everyone says that they would like to exercise and get fit. This usually happens around the holidays (“damn, I’m packing on the pounds…I better start exercising”) and most especially around the New Year (“time for yet another empty resolution about fitness”). In most cases, these good intentions result in one or two feeble attempts at exercise and then lead the person back to the hell of Cheetos and plenty of couch time. So, how can a normal person get motivated and, more importantly, stay motivated? Naturally, this varies from person to person, but here are some ideas.

Negative Motivations
People often try to self motivate by using negative motivations.  Negative motivation is when you exercise in order to prevent or undo something negative-like being fat or having a heart attack.  For example, after devouring all that Halloween candy, Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies a person might decide that they need to exercise because they are fat. As another example, a person might find they have hypertension and decide they need to exercise to avoid being found dead on the couch, covered in moldy Cheetos.

Negative motivators can work, but they are based primarily on fear and worry. The main downsides to using negative motivation are as follows. First, it is easy to stop exercising when you think that you have solved the problem. Then the problem comes right back. Second, such a negative approach can be psychologically problematic. For example, if someone focuses on being fat, this can lead to issues and problems. Third, it can be difficult to maintain the worry or concern that provided the initial motivation. For example, people often get quite comfortable living with being overweight or having higher blood pressure.

Rewards & Punishments
People are, of course, motivated by rewards and punishments. One way to motivate yourself to exercise is to reward yourself for exercising or punish yourself for slacking. For example, a person might treat herself to a slice of her favorite pie when she sticks to her workout schedule all week. If she does not meet her goal, then no pie for her. The plus side is that  rewards and punishments do tend to work. One problem is, of course, the fact that if you are rewarding yourself, then you will need the willpower to hold back rewards when you do not meet your goals. Also, it can be a bit creepy to hear about a person rewarding and punishing themselves-and such behavior can lead to some psychological problems (like a person cutting way back on her food for being “bad”).

The way I use this method is a very minor way. If I exercise more, then I feel free to eat more of the fattening things I like. If my exercise hasn’t been quite up to par, then I’ll (for example) have a smaller slice of key-lime pie.

Exercising with Others
One effective way to stay motivated is to exercise with other people. This has many motivational benefits. First, a person is less likely to back out of exercising if s/he has planned to exercise with others. This adds a social push to sticking with it. This is especially true if you are involved in a team sport. Second, people can support each other when the exercising becomes challenging. Third, if you like the people you exercise with, you will want to spend time with them and this is motivational. On the downside, being in a group can sometimes make it easier to stop. For example, if you are just one person on a big softball team, it can be easy to say that someone else will cover for you if you miss a game or six. Another problem is that you might become reliant on others so that if they stop, you will stop. And, of course, there is always the risk of personality conflicts. But, in general, exercising with other people can be a big help-just be sure to try to find people you like and who will stick with the activity.

This method can be very effective if you exercise with family members or friends. Spouses often find it motivational to exercise with their spouse-although some do not.

Some people have the money to spend on a personal coach or trainer. Such a person can be quite a motivator in two ways. First, they are supposed to professionals at motivating slackers. Second, if you are paying them, you might be more inclined to actually use their services.

On the minus side, they cost money and it is easy to get dependent on a trainer. If for some reason you can no longer afford your own trainer, then it can be very easy to quit.

You can, of course, get free or cheap coaching and training. Sports clubs and teams often provide such services freely or at low prices. For example, my running club has running classes for beginners and intermediate runners that provide excellent training. As another example, softball leagues typically provide practices and coaching for little or no cost. People who have been in a sport or activity for a while are often quite willing to help out beginners.

Before the web, the way to find out about such groups was to go to a sports store and look for fliers. These days, the web is the place to look. For example, to find a running club, just Google using “running”, “club”, and your city/town/area.

Schools also often offer low cost classes and activities to members of the community, although some universities limit participation to students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Getting proper coaching and training can really help with motivation. A good trainer/coach can inspire a person, provide reasonable goals and also help a person do the activity right. After all, when people do poorly at something, they are often inclined to give up.

Set Realistic Goals
While all sorts of TV ads promise amazing results in a short time, fitness is a slow process. The body will begin to adapt to exercise quickly, but the results will not be very noticeable for a while. For example, weight lifting usually takes about six weeks before any results (other than soreness) are noticeable. Running also takes time to improve endurance. The martial arts require years of training.

So, how do you know what sort of goals are realistic? The best thing to do is to research this-and not by watching TV ads. Find people who have been in the activity a while, check on credible web sites, talk to trainers and coaches and read a credible book or two. While finding the truth about exercise might be a bit disappointing, having realistic expectations actually helps in sticking with an activity. For example, if a person thinks he’ll be ready to run a marathon a month after he starts running, then he’ll probably give up running when he has a horrific marathon. In contrast, someone who runs her first 5K after three months of training will be more likely to stick with the sport.

You will also need to assess yourself. People vary a great deal in their abilities. For example, it was realistic of Lance Armstrong to plan on hitting the three hour mark in the marathon despite not being a runner. After all, he was a world class cyclist. In contrast, a person who is an ex-smoker, overweight and hasn’t exercise since high school gym class will need to set fairly modest goals initially.

One common mistake that people make is that they overdo their exercise the first time they try it. When a person starts out, they are well rested and will probably feel pretty good running more than they really should, biking too far, or lifting too much. They will then feel really awful, sore and tired the next day or two. This tends to seriously dampen a person’s motivation. As such, it is vitally important to have realistic goals right from the start.

Schedule & Don’t Skip
It is a good idea to have an exercise plan and schedule. A person who exercises “whenever’ will find it much harder to stick with exercising. So, I’d suggest working out a realistic schedule.

Exercise is in some ways like quitting smoking. If a person tries to quit smoking, but decided to just have “one smoke”, then they will most likely not quit. Likewise, if a person who is trying to exercise decides to just “take today off”, then that breaks the exercise pattern and makes it easier to just stop. This is not to say that a person must or even should exercise everyday. In fact, it is best to take a day or more off each week to avoid injury and over-training. However, a planned exercise should not be skipped.

Of course, it is easy to say that you should stick to a schedule. The challenge is making it stick. The way to this is habituation. This, of course, comes right out of Aristotle‘s discussion of moral education. His view is that by habituation people become virtuous. In the case of exercise, the more you exercise, the easier it becomes to stick with it. For many people, the trick is to stick with it until that critical point of habituation is reached. For example, when I first started running I did not enjoy it at all. it hurt, made me feel sick, and was tiring. But, I stuck with it and eventually reached a point where not running was far harder than running.

Habituation requires the obvious: repeat the activity on a regular basis until it becomes a habit. This, of course, generates something of a paradox: to be able to stick with exercise, you must first stick with exercise. But, if you can stick with it, then you would seem to not need to habituate yourself to stick with it. If you can’t stick with it, then you’ll never be able to habituate yourself. So, how do you unravel this paradox?

As noted above, you have to stick with it until you hit that habituation point. This means that you need just enough will to get to that point, then after that it will be easier. To use an analogy, it is like biking a hill: you need enough strength to get to the top and then the rest is easy. Getting to this point requires using the other motivation methods. Once you hit the habituation point, then you’ll find it much easier to stick with it.

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One Week After Surgery

Posted in Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on April 10, 2009

A week ago I underwent surgery to repair the torn quadriceps tendon in my left leg. That was, as you might imagine, not one of the more enjoyable experiences of my life.

At this point, I’m doing better than I expected. While I do have some trouble sleeping (you would not believe the nightmares I had for a while-most involving my knee cap popping out of my leg) and my leg is immobilized, my outlook is still positive and I have not (as of yet) had any psychotic episodes. Since I’m a running fanatic and haven’t been able to run in a couple weeks, I am worried that it is just a matter of time.

Today was the day I was finally allowed to change the dressing on the wound. Fortunately, one of my close friends, Ron,  is married to a nurse and she agreed to help out. As she peeled away the various layers of bandages, I vaguely wondered what horrors I would see. Fortunately, the bleeding had been very minimal and the incisions were already healing nicely. Of course, it was just a bit creepy to see shiny metal staples sticking in my flesh. Naturally Ron took a picture of the knee-he is a sensitive sort of guy.

Seeing that things were healing up nicely helped keep my morale up and being able to reduce the amount of gauze stuffed under the immobilizer has been great. This coming Thursday I am supposed to get the staples removed (I wonder if I can keep them…) and a hinged knee brace. Since I plan on using a stationary bike (thanks Dave!) to keep my cardio health up, it will be nice to have something that will handle sweat better. The immobilizer handles sweat by absorbing it and then getting stinky. Hardly an optimal solution.

I am supposed to be able to go back to work the week after next-I’m looking forward to that. Grinding through student emails, downloading student papers, and setting up two weeks worth of classes online has made me work way too much for someone out with an injury. On the plus, side, it has kept me busy and given me a continued sense of purpose.

“You’re Impossible to Find!”

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 11, 2008

It is now finals week at my university. In addition to the time when I give and grade finals, it is also the time when I hear those magic words: “you’re impossible to find!”.

I usually hear “you’re impossible to find” from students who have some dire problem that involves them, their not attending class, and the letter “F”.

I know I am not impossible to find: I’ve had the same office and email since 1993. My contact information is on the university web site, my syllabus and my own web site. My office hours are listed on the syllabus, my door and my web site. I’m also in the phone book. I also have 6-12 hours of extra office hours in finals week.  Yes, I do check my email, answer the phone, and hold my office hours. Really.  So, I’m very easy to find. Also, since they do find me to tell me I am “impossible to find”, it is obvious that I am not. If I were, they never would. Find me, that is.

Naturally, I wonder why students continue to use that phrase. One possibility is that the mean I am difficult to find if they randomly show up at times when it is not my office hours (“I went to your office on Sunday on you weren’t there!”) or go to someplace that is not my office (“oh, you mean your office is not in the woman’s bathroom in the basement of Jones Hall?”). Another possibility is that they just use the phrase with no meaning behind it-like when people say “how are you doing?” A third possibility is that they are playing it as a bargaining chip-“you’re impossible to find, so I deserve some more grade points or maybe a pony.” A fourth possibility is that they have other professors who really are “impossible to find” and think that it is likely I am the same way. A fifth possibility is that they think I am so old or crazy that I won’t remember whether I can be found or not. Or maybe “you’re impossible to find” means “f@$k you for failing me, you damn philosopher” in some form of slang.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that many students who have told me that “I am impossible to find” do show up to class when they need to see me. They often show up late, storm up to the front of the class clutching a piece of paper, and then reluctantly sit when I don’t suspend class to attend to them. They then spend their time fidgeting as if they were sitting on a small porcupine or hotplate. Then they storm out-only to return a day or seven later to tell me that I am “impossible to find.”

I don’t blame them-after all, how can I expect them to actually stay an entire class if they have something of supreme importance to discuss with me? How can a reasonable person expect them to go to my clearly posted office hours or send me an email or call me on the phone? Truly one cannot. It is a wonder that the Dean has not put a stop to my evil ways; but perhaps she cannot find me.

Wrapping Presents

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2008

With Christmas and the other holidays approaching, I have been forced to engage in that hated activity: wrapping presents. Like all true males, I am not merely bad at wrapping. I am horrific. I can take beautiful wrapping paper, tape, and a great gift (all my gifts are great) l and transform it all into shameful ruin. Naturally, I take pride in possessing this anti-skill.

My female friends (who all seem to be gifted wrappers that can transform a paper sack into a magical wrapping wonder) don’t seem to understand this anti-skill. Here is how it often goes:

Me: “Merry Christmas!”

Friend: “What the hell is that? What the hell?”

Me: “Your present.”

Friend: “What? It looks like a drunken llama chewed up a bunch of festive wrap and then threw up a cud.”

Me: “Nice. I’ll just take that back.”

Friend: “Wait…you usually have something great under all that llama puke. I’ll just close my eyes when I open it.”

Me: “Hey, your boyfriend says he does the same thing when he undresses you.”

Friend: “Hah hah. But, how can you create such horrible things? I’ve seen you work on computers so I know that you actually have manual dexterity.”

Me: “Oh, gift wrapping is not about manual dexterity. Even male brain surgeons wrap badly.”

Friend: “What is it, then?”

Me: “We just don’t care.”

Friend: “About the person you are giving gifts to? I knew it…you men are heartless pigs.”

Me: “Well, yeah. But it is that we don’t care about wrapping stuff. It seems like such a waste of time. You know, like allowing women to walk around clothed when they could just be naked all the time.”

Friend: “What?”

Me: “Nothing. Forget I said that. Anyway, we just don’t care enough to wrap stuff in a festive and magically wonderful holiday fashion.”

Friend: “But my friend Bryce wraps his presents in a fabulous way.”

Me: “Well, yeah. Bryce is a totally fabulous guy.”

Friend: “What are you saying?”

Me: “Nothing. Enjoy your llama cud.”

Nebraska’s Safe Haven Law

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2008

Safe haven laws allow parents to leave their children at hospitals without facing the risk of prosecution for child abandonment. These laws are generally intended to protect unwanted infants from simply being abandoned (perhaps in dangerous situations).

Nebraska recently passed its own safe haven law. Unlike most other such laws, this law does not have a fixed age limit. Currently, thirty five children (including teenagers) have been left at hospitals in Nebraska.

Naturally enough, this law raises various moral concerns.

On one hand, such safe haven laws can be seen as laudable. They no doubt serve to save some children from being abandoned in dangerous ways and, as such, help to save lives. They might even have some role to play in people deciding not to have abortions. Or perhap not. Assuming that protecting children from such harms is good, then these laws are morally commedable to that degree.

On the other hand, such laws can be criticized because they allow for childen to be anonymously left at hospitals with no legal consequences for the parents. As has been shown, this seems to encourage some people to abandon their children. Of course, it could be argued that the children would be better off being away from parents who would abandon them in this manner (the act of abandonment could be seen as a clear sign of being an unfit parent).

While thirty five children have been left at hospitals under Nebraska’s law, it is clear that the impact is not very significant on a large scale. Obviously, the vast majority of parents have not and would not give up their children. As such, while it is worrisome that some parents are leaving their children, it is important to keep in mind that this is a relatively rare phenomenon.

However, some parents might not want to give up their children-they might honestly believe that their children would be much better off if they were given to the state. If this is true, then such an “abandonment” could well be a commendable action. This is because the parents would be doing what is (as they see it) best for the children-and this is what parents should do.

One special concern about the Nebraska law is that it does not set an age limit in regards to the children who can be left. As such, some people have left older children at hospitals. Not surprisingly, this experience has tended to be rather psychologically traumatic for the children. Unlike infants, older children understand that they are being abandoned.

While setting an age limit would solve this specific problem, the fact that some people are leaving older children at hospitals shows that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. This problem is, of course, that there are a very few parents who are willing or need to abandon their older children.

The state (that is, us) have an interest in protecting these children. But, there is also the moral concern that parents need to be responsible for their children. This creates a bit of a moral tension: on one side, the law should require parental responsibility. On the other side, the law must protect the children. While Nebraska’s safe haven law is good intentioned, it does seem to need some adjustments.