A birthday

June 25, 2008

Willard Van Orman Quine. Main road philosopher. Empiricist post-modernist. Was born a hundred years ago.


Puzzle for an economist

April 12, 2008

How do these two pieces of information go together?

The difference

March 2, 2008

True, it is not REALLY a problem. Or not a big one, in any case. But it is hard not to find it somewhat inconsistent, when a major (read: MAJOR) outdoors and sporting goods retailer has “women’s clothing” and “men’s clothing” as equal but separate items on the navigation bar, but then under “camping & hiking”/sleeping bags/ lists: down, synthetic, women’s down, women’s synthetic …

Again, it’s not a huge issue. But think about how odd it would be to list: clothing: pants, women’s pants; shoes, women’s shoes. We naturally accept that men’s clothing and shoes will be different from women’s clothing and shoes, and that neither has any priority over the other. They are different, but equal. But this is clearly not the assumption that informs the category distinctions for sleeping bags. We don’t find: Men’s sleeping bags, women’s sleeping bags.

This is especially annoying since the differences between sleeping bags for men and sleeping bags for women are not that different from the differences between men and women that justify the distinction between men’s and women’s clothing: body shape, metabolism rate, height… They are differences that nobody would (or should, at any rate) deny. Men are, on average, taller than women, their metabolisms are faster etc. This is especially true for outdoor clothing and gear, since typical social clothing norms aren’t in play: both men and women tend to hike in pants/shorts and boots, not high heels and skirts.

It is of course not really surprising or hard to explain why the category distinctions are what they are. The distinction between men’s clothing and women’s clothing is socially well entrenched, not something introduced recently on the basis of biological discoveries. The differences in metabolism rate on the other hand, have only recently begun to inform the design of sleeping bags (although even sleeping bag designers must have known about the differences in body shape). More importantly, you might think, it is only recently that women have become interested in sleeping bags. But that applies only to some sporting goods.

Even so, it seems that the honest thing to do would be this: if, through costumer surveys, studies or other research you come to the conclusion that the differences between men and women are such as to make it advisable to have separate products for each gender, then you should consequently assume that so far you’ve designed not sleeping bags, but men’s sleeping bags (for example), while now you are designing men’s sleeping bags and women’s sleeping bags. Don’t suggest, through labeling, that so far you’ve been designing sleeping bags, while now you are also designing women’s sleeping bags. The latter suggests that women’s needs are special, non-mainstream needs. But calling women’s needs special is effectively to define men’s needs as normal. And since we are talking about roughly 50% of the population in each case, this assignment is just arbitrary.

Here we go again…

February 23, 2008

… yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have been unable to make any progress on has finally been addressed (successfully, naturally) by SCIENCE, and hence there is hope for an answer, at last.

While the question “Whence morality?” has been addressed by many thinkers, it is not the question “which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented.” The question that underlies most philosophical reflection about morality (or ethics, rather!) is: what should we do? how should we live? The question is not primarily about why we engage in moral judgment, but rather which moral or ethical judgments to make. Such questions have prompted further questions about the meaning and epistemic standing of moral claims, and many interesting philosophical answers have been developed. Naturally, we do not see any of them mentioned in the article.

But note the rhetoric: philosophers are TROUBLED by questions – they don’t investigate questions, or give answers to them, no it is questions who trouble them. They are similarly passive with respect to their entire subject: it was invented. By whom, one might ask. Nor has their been any development in the subject – which presumably makes it permissible to ignore contemporary philosophers.

Aside from some serious questions about the science in this particular case, the most annoying fact about the article is not just that it fails to mention any of contemporary philosophical normative theory or meta-ethics, but that the author can be certain to get away with it. Why is that?

Tax invasion

February 23, 2008

It is mostly small countries, many of them in Europe. Their most important good: privacy. Laws that hide bank accounts and protect data. What they fear most: attention. Naturally then, Liechtenstein was not pleased when German officials began far-reaching investigations, tracking down a large number of German citizens with secret accounts in Liechtenstein. The claim: tax evasion, on a very large scale.

There are some legal issues about how the crucial data was obtained (apparently the BND (the German secret service) bought the information from an undisclosed source). But mostly reactions in the news have ranged from outrage at the systematic way in which monetary elites have manipulated the system to sheer schadenfreude about them being caught.

But it actually seems difficult to agree with either sentiment. Not just because most people engage in some form of instinctive tax evasion – the difference in absolute numbers and income level is too significant for that. It is more the nasty suspicion that this is not a victory for the man on the street at all. In fact, neither side seems particularly worthy of empathy. The moral standing of the monetary elites in question has suffered a number of severe blows in the past few years due to numerous other scandals. But can we really rejoice in the triumph of a state that is essentially a success in eliminating privacy?

Beyond the legal issues, moral questions are lurking. Questions about the legitimacy of taxes and the duties one might have to society, questions about privacy and respect thereof in light of the opportunity of obtaining data.

Science & Soccer

February 8, 2008

You play it in a team. The rules are fairly clear and roughly the same everywhere in the world. Competition and prestige are high. Billions of dollars are being spend on finding the greatest talents and putting together the best teams. You have to make your career when you’re young. The older you get, the more likely you are going to be stuck with management work.

It’s hard to be really good. If you are, however, you can work almost anywhere in the world.