23 April 2009

Ender's Game

This science fiction novel for children and its sequels, by Orson Scott Card, are some of the most popular science fiction ever written. They focus on a little boy who goes into space and is bullied a lot, and naturally manages to rise above it. They're pretty well-written for children's books. Interestingly, though, they have an appalling ethical lesson. They are a modern treatise in a sort of warped virtue ethics.

Do not read the rest of this post if you haven't read them and mind having the ending spoiled, by the way.

Virtue ethics are the sort espoused by the ancient philosophers; Plato, Aristotle, and so on. They were wildly popular for a long time, and advocated that the path to morality lay in being a good person, rather than doing good deeds. Accordingly, one had to live up to the virtues (which varied depending on the advocate) and one's deeds would have a rather lesser importance in one's moral worth.

This is a rather comforting way to look at ethics, since it is fluid enough to embrace error and tragedy without condemning someone in their own mind. People are predisposed to considering themselves "a good person," regardless of what they are actually doing, and so it is a natural enough line of thought. It was supplanted with such approaches as deontology (following some manner of gifted or created rules) and teleology (examining consequences). Philosophers will please excuse my extraordinary brevity here, as I move on to the main point:

Upon reading a delightful essay, "Creating the Innocent Killer" by John Kessler, I discovered that in the Ender books, espouse that it doesn't really matter at all what one does, as long as you remain a good person. This is an astonishing leap, to entirely discard one's actions, but it nonetheless is strongly argued for by Card in these works. The biggest example is how Ender commits genocide at the end of the novel, but it's okay because he was entirely ignorant of that fact. This is just compounded with a dozen other similar examples throughout the book, detailed by Kessler. He notes:
In relating Ender Wiggin’s childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse. Ender’s parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.

Through this abusive training Ender becomes expert at wielding violence against his enemies, and this ability ultimately makes him the savior of the human race. The novel repeatedly tells us that Ender is morally spotless; though he ultimately takes on guilt for the extermination of the alien buggers, his assuming this guilt is a gratuitous act. He is presented as a scapegoat for the acts of others. We are given to believe that the destruction Ender causes is not a result of his intentions; only the sacrifice he makes for others is. In this Card argues that the morality of an act is based solely on the intentions of the person acting.
I highly recommend you check out this essay for a great examination of this matter; the lessons found in children's books often go surprisingly unscrutinized, except in the most ham-handed way ("There's a gay guy in this book!").

21 April 2009

From "Pharsalia", by Lucan

Unnumbered darts they hurl, with prayers diverse;
Some hope to wound: others, in secret, yearn
For hands still innocent. Chance rules supreme,
And wayward Fortune upon whom she wills
Makes fall the guilt. Yet for the hatred bred
By civil war suffices spear nor lance,
Urged on their flight afar: the hand must grip
The sword and drive it to the foeman's heart.
But while Pompeius' ranks, shield wedged to shield,
Were ranged in dense array, and scarce had spaceTo draw the blade, came rushing at the charge
Full on the central column Caesar's host,
Mad for the battle. Man nor arms could stay
The crash of onset, and the furious sword
Clove through the stubborn panoply to the flesh,
There only stayed. One army struck -- their foes
Struck not in answer; Magnus' swords were cold,
But Caesar's reeked with slaughter and with guilt.
Nor Fortune lingered, but decreed the doom
Which swept the ruins of a world away.
The poem is actually less about the battle (which comprises only a few paragraphs in but one of the seven books) and more about the grand drama behind it, as Caesar fought Pompey and the Senate for the future of Rome. For a description of the battle, this site is excellent if detailed, and the Wikipedia page is a decent summary.

14 April 2009

What Defines a Relationship?

I apologize in advance for the inane musings below.  I suggest not reading it.

What defines a relationship? Need it be mutual, or can you be true friends with someone who hates you?

I have been wearily considering this philosophical question for some time now. When I posed it to Lizzie, she said that it had to be mutual and real; were she secretly a robot, she proposed, then she would never have really been my girlfriend.  I differed, suggesting that while she might never have been my girlfriend in such a case, I would have remained her boyfriend.  The lack of reciprocated feeling wouldn't make the previous relationship any less real to me.

If you have a friend, and that person secretly loathes or loves you in terms incompatible with friendship on their part, then does that mean you really do not have a friend?  It seems to me that this would be allowing any side of a relationship to unilaterally redefine it as real or not.  But in no other instance would this make sense.  If Creepy Leonard from Nebraska writes Scarlett Johannson to tell her they are friends, that doesn't mean Scarlett has to call him up the next day and go admire his Limited Edition Wookie doll.  She gets to tell him that she doesn't consider him a friend.  He can think as he wishes and set up a lawn chair outside of her house, but he doesn't get to define their relationship in its entirety at will.

Further, the feelings and experiences one shares with a friend are not eliminated just because you discover that the other person didn't think themselves your friend.  The bond a friend provides were real to you, and revelations in the now can't alter the way you felt in the past.

If I go to Disney World with a pal and have a marvelous time, I might be saddened to learn later that they actually hate Disney and had a miserable trip.  I might wonder why they agreed to go, or why they didn't say something.  But that doesn't mean that I also had a terrible time.  A shared experience has meaning to you, be it friendship or Disney, and because it's shared, each person gets their own take on it.

11 April 2009


Just a quick note: if you hear conservatives blame the Community Reinvestment Act for the housing crisis, it's bullshit.  I am hearing a lot of this sort of rhetoric: "If lenders weren't forced to make risky loans for the sake of political correctness, they wouldn't have been in this mess."  The statistics don't bear this out, of course, since 75% of subprime loans in trouble were not subject to the CRA.


A recent Rasmussen poll showed support for capitalism over socialism at 53%, while support for socialism over capitalism was at 20% (with the remainder undecided). Unsurprisingly, there was a marked trend by age and income, with twentysomethings and the poor almost evenly divided between the two economic philosophies and older or wealthier Americans much more supportive of capitalism. And also unsurprisingly, this poll has been getting a lot of attention.

It's important to note that the poll did not define either doctrine at all. Respondents were talking about the words "capitalism" and "socialism" without any context or explanation. And as Rasmussen themselves noted, an earlier poll has support for "free-market economy" at 70%.

Nate Silver at 538 cautions that little stock should be put into the poll, but also concludes that this means the poor are starting to lose faith in the American Dream notion of capitalism. Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker blog, on the other hand, seems to think that 53% support for capitalism means that America is almost evenly divided about economic philosophies, and decides that what the poll means is that more and more Americans are simply more educated about the forms of modern socialism.  Ultimately, I think Chris Good at the Atlantic has the right idea:
[A]fter all, who is sure of anything these days? When it comes to the economy, certainty isn't exactly the spirit of the age.
After learning that we're on the brink of "nationalization" anyway, perhaps the respondents to this poll, when they got automated calls from Rasmussen, just felt more inclined to say "Well, my 401k is worthless, so who the hell knows?"
There have also been some amusing reactions. The Libertarian Party sent out an email saying, in part:
Somewhere, Barack Obama is smiling – and your freedoms are in greater danger now than perhaps at any other point in our nation’s history. 

When barely a majority of all Americans support capitalism – and two-thirds of younger voters either back socialism or can’t see the difference – your property, your prosperity and your liberty are now on a death watch.

Politicians are now going to go after your paycheck, your property and your fragile freedoms with no fear of retribution.

I say we strike that fear right back into them.

Can I count on you to help Libertarians win elections with your most generous gift of $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, $1000, $2500 or whatever you can afford right now?

And of course a Republican congressman has declared that there are seventeen socialists in Congress right now. He has a list in mind, and he doesn't like it. Although apparently he co-sponsored a bill with the only openly socialist congressperson in 2003, so how upset can he really be?

08 April 2009

Rep. Michelle Bachman is the best Republican

Recently, from the Minnesota Independent:
I believe that there is a very strong chance that we will see that young people will be put into mandatory service. And the real concerns is that there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums.
Past goodness from this amazing woman:
Don't misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgender. We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders.
And the truly classic one that made her a name:
The news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would, I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they are pro-America or anti-America.


I took my scooter into the shop to have the guy look at it. I was a bit miffed since I just bought it a couple of days ago, but found that after fifteen minutes it just died. Here is the conversation. He spoke only rapid-fire Korean, so I provide what I assume must be an accurate translation based on body language.

Me: "I bought this yesterday. It doesn't work. It goes like this: Vrrrooooommmmmmmmmm put put put ssssssssssss."
Mechanic: "[Foolish person, what did you do to it? It works fine. It's probably the] battery [and you probably did it, which is why I am pointing at you, making driving motions, and scowling.]"
Me: "Okay, but I didn't do anything. Please look at it."
Mechanic: "[Okay I put some jumper cables on it and it starts fine. Here, I'll just drive off and show you. I'll be back in three minutes.]"

A half hour later, he returns, pushing the scooter along.

Mechanic: "[Well, I guess I'm a jackass. Let me get to work.]"
Me: "Isn't that the spark plug? Wait, and the breakers? You're pulling off many things, there."
Mechanic: "[I just like to pull off engine parts and throw them in this pile on the floor. Hey, want to see what it looks like when someone empties oil into a bucket and then dumps it in the sewer? It looks just like this.]"
Me: "Oh. Oh my."
Mechanic: "[I can never show this or give any indication, but I yearn for you. We meet only in passing at this instant, but it will leave an indelible touch on my soul. Many times in the years to come, I will look into the rainbow spread of oil on water outside of my shop and think of you. You see my wife, over there? The one meticulously copying sentences from her Bible into a text message on her cell phone? Just end her. Oh, and I am going to perform an] oil changee. [Crush her, and then we can be together. Then... then we can be free.]"
Me: "We can never be. But thank you. Kansamnida."

02 April 2009

Newsmagazine Roundup

Some stories I have been reading, both good and bad, and where they took my thoughts.

Frank Smecker's The Nuclear Goliath at Z Magazine argues that none of the methods of power production currently known will ever be viable. He makes an excellent if hyperbolic case against nuclear power, but then dismisses solar by claiming that production of necessary works is too energy-intensive and polluting. This is not the case, and it is entirely reasonable to expect that if large batteries were in widespread use, then disposal routes would develop (a mechanic is just as unlikely to throw used batteries in the dumpster in the future as now). Smecker's arguments against wind and biofuel are pretty ham-handed as well, even though I don't think those are viable alternatives. In the end, he argues in as many words that we need to tailor our energy consumption to what's available rather than what we want. Yeah, that's how resources work. When global demand for steel ran high during the Industrial Revolution, the solution was surely to just use less steel, right? Certainly not to start using efficient coke instead of charcoal and innovate.

Marc Armbinder in a brief bit at The Atlantic talks about the so called "executive assassination ring," which is really just a new label for an elite military wing called the Joint Special Operations Command. He touches on one aspect of the issue that is very intriguing: is there anything actually illegal about this?  International law is about as binding on the U.S. as tissue.

If one accepts that the President can designate people as "terrorists" at will (something many people seem to believe) and we are at war with "terrorists" (whatever that may mean), then doesn't it entirely follow that it is legal for the President to execute anyone he pleases, as long as that person is not an American? It seems to me that we are then choosing a new global ancien régime -style rule: the Second (developed nations) can kill anyone in the Third (developing nations), as long as they are sufficiently suspicious to the mob. And it hardly seems a good thing to make widespread bigotry useful to the rulers.

Kevin Drum's piece "The Republican 'Budget'" at Mother Jones discusses the latest alternate budget plan released by the minority party recently. I eagerly devoured the hilarious and brief incarnation "The Republican Road to Recovery" last week, and this more fleshed-out version from a different section of the GOP is just more of the same. Drum hits the Republican plan for Social Security, but really you can just pick any section of it and be aghast at the mind-boggling amount of lies or stupidity.  As an example: the section on energy calls for domestic drilling, "clean coal," and nuclear almost exclusively, arguing for their environmental benefits. Few numbers are given.

The tax reform section, my favorite, calls for lowering corporate income tax and proposes an aggressively regressive (haha!) version of the flat tax... while still leaving the old system in place. So while simultaneously claiming they're simplifying matters ("the tax form for this system could fit on a postcard") they're actually proposing two entirely different tax systems that people would have to understand and choose. My favorite quote from the plan: "Individuals are allowed one additional changeover between the two tax systems over the course of their lifetimes."

That's it for now.  But read Ralph Waldo Emerson's American Scholar speech, because it's awesome.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated" by Mark Twain

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.