Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

In honor of my son, who's dressed as a ghost captain, here's the Hoodoo Gurus:

Letters of recommendation and letters of reference

I was thinking about posting on this subject already, and now Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy has done so, so I'll repost my comment there and say a bit more about it. Matt writes:
It's common knowledge that letters of recommendation for academic positions are generally inflated. This gives rise to some concern about how the letters are to be interpreted, as one must "discount" the praise for a candidate in some way in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. There is less concern, however, about the morality of this practice in general.
In the comments I respond:
Deception is certainly bad, I agree, but I don't know how much actual deception there is in academic letters of reference. I've read a lot of such letters recently and they appear to divide into two types. One, which I'll call letters of reference, describes the person in what seems to be an objective way, noting both good points and bad. The other, which I'll call letters of recommendation, only mentions good things. I don't see this as being dishonest, but it is very hard to compare two candidates when they have different types of letters being written about them. At the initial screening stage I think many search committees are looking for reasons to exclude a candidate from further consideration, so any negative comment might do real harm. When so many people are writing letters of recommendation, I think it's arguably immoral for someone to choose to write a letter of reference instead.
I guess I'm not really convinced that Matt's premise is right (although it might be). Or at least I wouldn't put things as he does. His analogy with grade inflation is useful, as is the implicit analogy with inflation generally. When prices go up this might be bad, but it isn't (necessarily) dishonest. There is a sense in which (some) goods just are worth their market price. A price is low if it is lower than the normal price and high if it is higher than the normal price, but there is no non-relative "true" price that somehow ought to be charged for something like a tomato or a can of beans. The monetary value of a can of beans just is what you can expect to get for it on the open market. (Compare "meaning is use.") And much the same goes for grades, I think. There just is no such thing as a true C that, because of grade inflation, would generally be given a B. If it's the kind of thing that would generally get a B, then it is a B. It is neither more honest nor helpfully trust-inspiring to give Cs to work that others would grade as B. The most helpful thing is if everyone applies the same standards. Or so I think.

I'm not bothered at all by letters that are liberal with words of praise. I expect that. If there is no specificity to go with it then it's pretty meaningless anyway. I can't quote examples, but a letter that just said, "This candidate is great. Really, really great," would do the candidate no good. One that gives examples of the candidate's greatness, though, or specifies some kind of ranking (e.g. the best graduate student I have worked with in the last x years at y university) might well help. If the writer is just lying then that's obviously bad, but otherwise this all seems well and good.

What I think is bad is the refusal to write a letter of recommendation (as opposed to one of reference). Why bring up bad points if they are not relevant? Sometimes there is a reason, of course. Perhaps the candidate has something odd about their CV that needs to be explained. But otherwise I think letters should contain nothing but praise. Then the least praised candidates will (on the whole) be the weakest. In my opinion, given that so many letters are purely letters of why the candidate is recommended (rather than what the candidate is like, good and bad), letter-writers ought to leave out irrelevant concerns (e.g. "the candidate's disability, which is otherwise not mentioned at all in the application, is barely noticeable and does affect her performance at all"), out-of-date concerns ("when I first saw her teach she did a terrible job, but she's much better now"), and outright criticism ("one thing he does badly is z"). Admittedly this last category is one I have mixed feelings about, but so few letters mention such things that I think it's unfair to the candidate to include them.     

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My perfect cousin

Hacker objects to certain combinations of words on the grounds that they haven't been given a sense. But what if we give them a sense? His way of doing philosophy is not obviously equipped to deal with this possibility (I'm not saying that he couldn't deal with it). But there are innovations, as Fleischacker describes in his book. For instance, the law can grant people certain rights and then morally justified (but not legally defensible) claims might be called rights in what Adam Smith called "a metaphoricall sense" (Lectures on Justice p. 9, according to Fleischacker p. 27). We can accept this metaphorical use of the word "rights" or we can reject it as nonsense. If accepting it seems to threaten confusion then we can distinguish between, say, perfect and imperfect rights, as Smith, Hutcheson, and Pufendorf did. Dismissing such talk as nonsense is not something we can do without either failure to remember, or to see, that innovation is possible (and allowed) in language, or else to take an evaluative stand (which, of course, is also allowed), as Bentham does.

As Fleischacker remarks,
For Hutcheson and especially Smith, these "imperfect rights" did not much resemble their perfect cousins, did not, in particular, lend themselves well to legal formulation.
But they do lend themselves to a musical segue.

What is it like to feel absolutely safe?

So I just read P. M. S. Hacker taking apart the idea that there is something that it is like for a bat to be a bat (etc.) when I came across this on what it is like to be depressed. It seems very odd, partly because I think people are pretty good at latching feelings onto things. For instance, when I was in high school I worried a lot and could always find something to worry about: sometimes tests that were coming up, sometimes the fact that I wasn't worried about a test, which surely indicated that I had forgotten a test, etc. So I would expect a depressed person to be depressed about something, even if the cause of the depressed feeling was not that thing. Allie Brosh makes depression seem not like that. (I don't mean to suggest that she's wrong.)

(Speaking of consciousness, one level of it is sometimes said to be the kind that is involved when driving on autopilot. You're conscious enough to drive, but not actually aware of your actions and decisions. I wonder how anyone knows this isn't just a trick of memory. After all, no one ever knows that they are on autopilot, only that they seemingly have been. Anyway...)

Another thing that struck me about Brosh's essay is the last frame, in which she says that her "depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton." This reminds me of Wittgenstein's talk of the feeling of being absolutely safe in the Lecture on Ethics. He connects it with religion, rather than depression. Others might connect it with the feeling of being in love (perhaps), or other feelings or circumstances. What they have in common is the words used to express the feeling in question. This might not seem like enough, but I think Hacker does a good job of bringing out why it might be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Job market survivor

I hope I'm wrong, but I wonder how similar the academic job market is to the TV game show Survivor. In case I'm the only person who reads this blog who also watches the show, let me explain the idea. In Survivor, two teams compete against each other in various challenges on a desert island or similar exotic location. After each challenge, the losing team has to vote one of its members off, and they leave the game. It makes sense to vote off people who don't do much to help you win the challenges. But then at some point the two teams merge and challenges become individual. The winner of each challenge is immune for that round, but one of the others gets voted off. At this stage in the game, it makes most sense to vote off people who are good at challenges.  When only three people are left, a jury of contestants who didn't make it that far votes for which of the final three gets the million dollar prize. The winner has to be strong enough to survive the first round of cuts, non-threatening enough to survive the second round of cuts, and popular enough to get more votes than any other challenger at the end.  

The comparison with the competition for jobs at teaching-oriented colleges almost makes itself. Candidates must be strong enough in research and teaching to make it through the fist round of cuts. But then (and this is the bit I hope is not really true) they have to avoid being cut on the grounds of looking too strong when it comes to research. If you're too good, after all, you might not stay. You might not even take the job in the first place, in which case a valuable interview slot will have been wasted. And then, if you make it to an on-campus interview, it basically comes down to a popularity contest.

It make a kind of sense, but anyone who's watched the show knows that the best person does not always win.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What has history to do with me?

I think it's in Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad describes a book so clearly, usefully, and unpretentiously written that it shines. I was reminded of this by Samuel Fleischacker's A Short History of Distributive Justice. It's short, elegant, scholarly, fascinating, and moving.

In the epilogue, Fleischacker asks what the point has been of his journey through the history of an idea. His answer, roughly speaking, is this:

  1. history is interesting
  2. studying the history of the idea of distributive justice reveals its complexity (so history is an analytical tool)
  3. the burden of argument in current debates is more easily seen against the historical background (the belief that property rights are absolute is relatively recent, and so needs more justification than it might if it were a timeless truth universally acknowledged)
  4. greater sympathy for the poor came from imaginative work by people such as Adam Smith and writers of literature. "The importance of imaginative literature here, and the priority of changes in sensibility to changes in belief, suggest an intriguing model for how progress in ethical matters comes about. And that model might lead us to think twice about how helpful the sort of thing that today passes for "applied ethics" really is to the solution of ethical problems." (p. 126)
  5. moral intuitions are both necessary for moral thinking and largely inherited. We cannot do without them, but they can be harmful, and so we should pay attention to their origins.      
I agree with this, at least broadly. It doesn't seem obviously Wittgensteinian, but the origin of our ideas is certainly made prominent in Philosophical Investigations section 1. Stephen Mulhall has discussed the question of inheritance, too, of course.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shamanism quasi-bleg

I have reason to believe that the group International Authors would not be wholly averse to receiving an essay on the subject of Wittgenstein and shamanism for publication in a future issue of the journal Emanations. If you think you might have something interesting to say on the subject please let me know, and I'll see about putting you in touch with them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Better and smarter

In the first paragraph of chapter one of Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice Sen quotes Wittgenstein writing to Paul Engelmann that being a better person is really the same thing as being a smarter person. Sen questions this idea.

What Wittgenstein actually wrote is: "Ich arbeite ziemlich fleißig und wollte, ich wäre besser und gescheidter. Und diese beiden sind ein und dasselbe." This is translated as, "I am working reasonably hard and wish I were a better man and had a better mind. These two things are really one and the same." If we translate gescheidter as "wiser" then it might sound better. If we translate it as "cleverer" then it sounds wrong. Wittgenstein might sound closest to the truth if we take being 'smarter' to include both being wiser and being more prudent, i.e. good at knowing what our goals should be and at knowing how to achieve these goals. But, as Anscombe points out, there seems to be more to ethics, to being a good person, than this:

It will have become clear that the practical syllogism as such is not an ethical topic. It will be of interest to an ethicist, perhaps, if he takes the rather unconvincing line that a good man is by definition just one who aims wisely at good ends. I call this unconvincing because human goodness suggests virtues among other things, and one does not think of choosing means to ends as obviously the whole of courage, temperance, honesty, and so on. [Intention p. 78]

What more is there to courage, temperance, honesty, and so on? I don't think it's very easy to say, but something like dispositions seem to be at least part of it. A courageous person is likely to be disgusted by cowardice, to admire the brave deeds of others, and to behave courageously. This behavioral part of courage might seem to be a matter of "aiming wisely at good ends" (although this is controversial), but the disgust and admiration parts certainly don't seem to be. Could Wittgenstein have thought that becoming smarter would affect his affect?

It seems possible. After all, he did think that one could understand a musical theme, and that this can involve learning to have certain feelings. At least, I take this to be implied by Investigations 531-537:

531. We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other.  (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
In the one case, the thought in the sentence is what is common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions.  (Understanding a poem.)
532. Then has "understanding" two different meanings here? -- I would rather say that these kinds of use of "understanding" make up its meaning, make up my concept of understanding. 
For I want to apply the word "understanding" to all this. 
533. But in the second case, how can one explain the expression, communicate what one understands? Ask yourself: How does one lead someone to understand a poem or a theme? The answer to this tells us how one explains the sense here. 
535. What happens when we learn to feel the ending of a church mode as an ending? 

The next two sections talk about seeing courage in a face, of being able to read such things in a face, but not in the sense of reading them into a place where they don't belong. Rather, it "is there, alive, in the features." Learning to read a face takes smarts. Learning to read a situation no doubt does too.

Wittgenstein recognizes that the same face might be seen as being timid or as courageous, but he doesn't say that everything might be seen as anything. The fear or courage has to be, in some sense, there to be seen. And, of course, the viewer has to have the concept of fear or courage, too, in order to be able to see it. Mastering such concepts might well involve coming to feel in certain ways, or at least being able to feel in those ways. It takes a certain kind of sensitivity.

And in this way, I think, becoming a more understanding person, a person who understands more and better, is very likely the same thing as becoming a better person. A properly sensitized person should be aware not only of what is there but also of what it calls for, as an artist knows, or feels, what is needed to complete a painting, say. At least that's what I want to think.

[By the way, I was reminded of PI 531 by reading Kelly Dean Jolley's The Concept 'Horse' Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations. I would recommend this book except for the fear that someone might ask me a question about it that I couldn't answer. It is short but dense, and reminds me of some tea that a friend of mine brought from China. The tea comes in a kind of cake or puck, from which I would carve a wedge or lump to put in the pot. After the tea is made the leaves in the pot expand and come almost to life incredibly, looking a bit like seaweed. My sense is that Jolley's book is one with which it would be good to be infused.]    

Advice to job candidates

This is almost certainly too late, repeats what has already been said elsewhere, contradicts what has been said elsewhere, and reflects only my own peculiar views. But for what it's worth, here are some reflections on what can make a job application better or worse, and what strikes me as a search committee member reading applications. I have read close to 40 applications for our job so far and the general quality is amazingly high.

  1. Unfortunately, our ad in Jobs for Philosophers is an abbreviated version of the ad on the VMI website. The full version asks for evidence of teaching excellence. Not everyone includes such evidence, and some provide much more than others. More is generally better than less (see below for exceptions to this rule).
  2. Including a statement of your teaching philosophy seems to be obligatory, but most don't really provide much useful information. A really good one might help, but a generic one won't hurt you. 
  3. If your student evaluations are really good you should include them. If they used to be poor but they have got much better, maybe only include the recent ones. Make sure you say what scale is used for numerical evaluations (especially if your school has a maximum score of 4 when most others have a maximum of 5). I wish every school used a 5-point scale, but they don't. 
  4. Beware of including negative comments from students. Ideally comments will be provided and will be unedited, but they will also be uniformly glowing. If yours aren't, then think about not including them at all. Of course, a couple of bad ones among hundreds of great ones is OK.
  5. You should have at least one teaching letter, and this should go into detail on what you do well. It should be more than half a page long. 
  6. Other material can be impressive too, for instance details of efforts you have made (seminars attended, etc.) to improve your teaching.
  7. Someone should check your letters to make sure they are detailed enough to be useful and don't contain bad typos (e.g. misstating the likely date of your dissertation defense, thereby suggesting that you don't meet the criteria stated in the ad).
  8. A very minor point thrown out for what it might be worth: I find that I like to know who someone is when I read their letters, so cover letters that include the applicant's name on the first page (perhaps because they are no more than one page long) seem best to me.
  9. It looks as though you pretty much need to have some publications to be competitive, but, against my better judgment, I find myself worrying that an applicant with lots of publications in more selective journals than I usually publish in will not want to stay here. Caveat: "pretty much need" does not mean need in our case, if other aspects of the application are strong enough. But we do want reason to believe that you will have published enough for that not to be a problem by the time you come up for tenure (and we expect our job to become tenure-track, even though it isn't advertised that way).
  10. Although it shouldn't, I think it helps if you have something search committee members can connect with, such as letters from people they know, similar research interests, etc. This can probably be faked finessed to some extent by looking up the school and presenting yourself as working on, or wanting to teach, the stuff that people there work on or teach. 
OK, ten points is probably enough. I hope this helps someone. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I haven't reviewed any films for a while, so let me just mention three that I liked:

1. My Night at Maud's -- a classic, black and white French film from the 1960s, which manages to have a real story while still revolving around rather philosophical conversation about Pascal, Marx, and so on. Something of a must see for people who like that sort of thing.

2. Machete -- very different. Massive amounts of comic-book-style violence, and nothing remotely deep to say, but well done and fun if you like juvenile nonsense.

3. The Trip -- Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon largely improvise the dialogue as comically unpleasant and annoying, respecitvely, versions of themselves while driving across the north of England on an all-expenses-paid eating trip.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Make the madness stop

We have informal discussions among the faculty at VMI every Friday at lunchtime, and last week we talked about student writing (among other things). I was asked what I look for in student writing and, without having really thought about it much, I mentioned a list of things, including accuracy in spelling and grammar, and an absence of bull. This article puts verbiage and cliché in the same category (although surely the only thing to do with cliché is to mock it, since complaining about it is itself unoriginal and overdone). Avoiding verbiage should lead one to ordinary language, but then that is likely to be populated by clichés. It can also be hard to understand, as we see in the discussions at New APPS of the sign "Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit." 

For what it's worth, my reading of the sign is much the same as Mark Lance's (see below). To my mind, this is the language of The Wire, and it translates as The situation [or: system] is a dysfunctional sham, "shit" meaning this, "fucked up" meaning broken, and "bullshit" meaning fraudulent. This is a pretty accurate expression of what the protesters believe, but it isn't really effective communication if others struggle to make sense of it. 

Here's what Lance writes about it in response to John Protevi's implication that the sign's syntax is mangled:

I've been trying to decide for a while, and I guess I don't think the syntax is mangled. The subject 'shit' is colloquial for 'stuff' - implied salient and important stuff. And he is saying both that it is fucked up and that it is bullshit. If we take the relevant stuff to be policies of wall street, can't those policies be both fucked up and bullshit?
Clearly I'm avoiding reading grad student papers here, but the other interesting thing is how essential it is to the message - the content, not just the affect of the message - that it employ obscenities. One just can't say that without those sorts of words.
Also really funny.   
He doesn't say why it's funny. I think it's funny because most of the characters in The Wire, the only people I know of who talk this way, are both African-American (the sign-holder is not) and unlikely to be politically engaged enough to join in this kind of protest. It is not the language of political signs or banners, in other words. But it is the language of very direct speech, with no verbiage or bullshit about it. Part of the comedy value comes from the contrast between the language used and the occasion of its use. Part of it comes from its truth, openly acknowledging something that generally goes unsaid. And the something in question is not that the system is in need of reform (although I think it is), or that the theory that wealth at the top of society will trickle down to everyone else is open to question. The something in question is that that 'theory' is a lie and that the system is obscene. Part of the obscenity has to do with the world that The Wire shows, or the contrast between this world and the world of Wall Street. The wealth of the top 1% is supposed to be justified by their superior hard work and intelligence, and by its inevitably trickling down to everyone else. A realistic look at the world shows this to be a myth. We don't all have the same opportunities and we don't live in a meritocracy. What to do about this is a tricky question, of course. (Although see here for some ideas.) The least we can do, though, is to notice myth and fantasy, and see them for what they are. We need, as they say, to call bullshit.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I'm not sure about the red fedora, but otherwise Raymond Tallis sounds like fun.

There's another review of his most recent book here. Part of it reads thus:
One of Tallis's central points is the discussion of "information". This word plays a central role in the Dawkins/Dennett world view, much more important and less obvious than the nonsense about "memes". Brains, computers, and even life itself, are all said to be processing information. DNA itself is pure digital information. But the word here needs scare quotes throughout, for it has two quite different and separate senses. The older usage of the term is inextricably bound up with meaning: information is something you know that carries a meaning. It is, in engineer's jargon, signal, rather than noise. Information, in this sense, is always information to someone or some system.
But there is a second sense of "information", arising from electrical engineering, and the beginnings of computer science, in which it is entirely measurable, and can be broken into discrete chunks. This has been an important and productive understanding – I couldn't be typing and you couldn't be reading without that kind of information science – but it came at the price of breaking "information" entirely away from meaning. Tallis quotes one of the pioneers in the field: "Information, in this theory is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning. In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning, and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information."
This seems to be a good point well made.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Secondary literature on Wittgenstein

From time to time someone writes to me to suggest changes to the recommended reading section of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Wittgenstein. I haven't made any changes yet, but I think it's high time I did. Here's what it says currently:
A good rule of thumb for picking secondary material on Wittgenstein is to trust Wittgenstein’s own judgement. He chose G.E.M. Anscombe, Rush Rhees and G.H. von Wright to understand and deal with his unpublished writings after his death. Anything by one of these people should be fairly reliable. More contentiously, I would say that the best people writing on Wittgenstein today are James Conant and Cora Diamond. Other books referred to in the text above or of special note are these:
  • O.K. Bouwsma Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949-1951, edited by J.L. Craft and Ronald E. Hustwit (Hackett, Indianapolis 1986).
    • A seemingly little read slim volume that includes records of Wittgenstein’s comments on such diverse and interesting topics as Descartes, utilitarianism and the word ‘cheeseburger’.
  • Stanley Cavell The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1979).
    • A long, rich, challenging classic.
  • Cora Diamond The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1991).
    • A collection of essays of varying degrees of accessibility on Frege, Wittgenstein and ethics, united by their Wittgensteinian spirit.
  • M.O’C. Drury The Danger of Words (Thoemmes Press, Bristol, U.K. and Washington, D.C. 1996).
    • A classic, including discussions of issues in psychiatry and religion by a friend of Wittgenstein’s.
  • Paul Engelmann Letters from Wittgenstein with a memoir (Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1967).
    • Includes discussions by Wittgenstein and his friend Engelmann on the Tractatus, religion, literature and culture.
  • Saul A. Kripke Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1982).
    • See the section on rules and private language above.
  • Norman Malcolm Wittgenstein: Nothing is Hidden (Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1986).
    • One of the best accounts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy from the disreputable point of view that theTractatus advanced theses which are then attacked in the later work.
  • Norman Malcolm Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View?, edited with a response by Peter Winch (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1994).
    • Malcolm basically summarizes Wittgenstein’s philosophy, as he understands it, with a special emphasis on religion. Winch then responds, correcting Malcolm’s account where necessary. The result is a highly accessible composite overview of Wittgenstein’s work from the religious point of view, which is how Wittgenstein himself said that he saw every problem.
I think I need to add Mounce on the Tractatus, some Hacker, probably some Baker and Hacker, and more generally some more recent material. I might cut down on the Norman Malcolm material too. Any other suggestions? 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wodaabe

Wittgenstein's Tractatus makes me think of a universe of possibilities, pictured as innumerable Cartesian axes, one for all possible colors, one for all possible notes, one for all possible degrees of hardness or softness, and so on. Our own world, the actual or real world, is just some combination of coordinates on these axes. It could be otherwise. Wittgenstein is suspicious of the idea that we can in any way map or chart the possibilities though. Kant wanted to investigate what computes and what does not compute in order to discover the workings of the mind, conceived as a sort of data processor. Wittgenstein suggests that to think you can see the limits of thought is to imagine that you can see beyond them. I suppose we might think of this as applying Kantian humility to Kantianism itself.

It isn't clear what can be imagined, or conceived, or understood, or found to make sense. Nor is it clear whether these are all different things. The uncanny, the strange, is not easy to see clearly and distinctly. But the wealth of possibility is beautiful, and the thought of contingency can be exciting as well as frightening. Things don't have to be this way. It ain't necessarily so. Which can be scary (I always think of Sartre's nausea) and amazing (I think of Chesterton's view of nature as a miracle). Roughly speaking, it's cool.

The relevance of possibility to philosophy makes literature relevant, but also anthropology. Anything that can teach us differences. And this is one reason why I recommend Michael Palin's series Sahara, especially the episode (I think it's number 3) in which he encounters the Wodaabe:
Despite hard lives and harsh conditions, the Wodaabe are by no means grey or ground down. Celebration, dance and the pursuit of beauty are important parts of their everyday life and all three come together in the Gerewol, an extraordinary Fulani ritual that will be part of their Cure Salée celebrations. The young, unmarried men spend hours making themselves look beautiful, painting their faces red, highlighting their eyes with white lines and their lips with black powder. The effect is to make them look feminine and prematurely aged at the same time. The display is combined with a formal dance, at which these richly adorned men vie with each other for the favours of the young girls. The girls make the choice. It's free and open, and whilst it does not have to end in marriage, it does have to end in a night together.
It's one of the strangest things I've ever seen. Perhaps it won't seem so strange if you think of the phenomenon as that of young men making themselves beautiful. Don't transvestites try to do that? But these are not transvestites. They are making themselves look both feminine and prematurely aged in order to make themselves more attractive to women. The idea is strange, and the sight of it is uncanny too.

And now I find that Werner Herzog has made a film about these people, which is probably better than Palin's:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Opportunity costs

I haven't posted much lately, mostly because I've been busy doing other things. One of these other things is getting ready to team-teach a course on poverty next semester. My co-teacher is an economist friend of mine, and I'm guessing that his ideas about what to do about poverty might be different from mine. It might be telling that he once mis-remembered the tile of Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom as Development as Choice. 'Choice' sounds very libertarian to me, while what Sen has in mind is capability, something much more positive.

Anyway, reading Jonathan Wolff on the cost of getting an undergraduate degree (thanks to Brian Leiter), this caught my eye:
Thomas Carlyle famously called economics "the dismal science". I saw this in action when on a panel, interviewing health economists. We decided to ask all candidates an amusing "unexpected" question at the end: "Which concept from economics should be better known by the general public?"
Any economist reading this will already know how they all answered: "opportunity cost". In judging whether it is right to spend money in a particular way, you should first think what else you could be doing with it. Could you squeeze out a little more value or enjoyment? Health economics is dominated by considerations of opportunity cost. When the government created a new fund for cancer treatments, for example, economists immediately asked what we would have to give up to pay for it.
Worrying about alternatives foregone is fair enough, but also pretty joyless. Imagine living your life under the shadow of opportunity cost. Any time you want to go to the cinema, you'd have to ask whether there is some other way of getting more out of your time and money. If there is, then you'll make a net loss, even if you'd really enjoy your evening out.
It seems to me that Anscombe's views on numbers go completely against this. Her view, as I recall, is that we should do good and not bad (OK so far), and that as long as we are doing good we should not be criticized. This means that if I choose to save three orphans from a fire instead of fifteen orphans from a sinking ship then I have done nothing wrong. Wolff's economists would presumably say that the cost of my action was twelve orphan lives. This makes me sound like a murderer. (I'm assuming that the two actions were equally possible for me, and that neither was more risky than the other, and so on.)

Now, Anscombe's view is not obviously correct, but it is not irrational or obviously false either. This appears to be a case of the dismal science being dismal but not really a science in the sense to which it aspires. That is, it is not purely positive but in fact takes a debatable normative stance. But perhaps I've misunderstood, or failed to make clear the connection I see between what Wolff says and what Anscombe says. says that the opportunity cost is just what you would have done if you had not done what you did. So if I can choose to have my cake or eat it, but not both, and I eat it, then the cost is having it. This seems just like the case where I could save three or fifteen and choose to save the three. The cost is that I don't save the fifteen, so the fifteen die. 

Anscombe might reject this partly because she rejects consequentialism. But there's also something funny, I think, about the idea that what I would have done instead could be a cost. Costs are real, not hypothetical. If I choose to have the cake instead of eating it, I don't lose the eating of the cake. I just don't eat it. Similarly, if I gamble $100 on a horse race and lose, then I have lost $100. But if I simply don't go to collect a $100-bill from someone who is giving them away then I lose nothing. I am worse off than I would have been otherwise but not worse off than I was. What I would or could have done is not some thing that I can lose. The idea of opportunity costs, in short, seems to me to be metaphysically confused, as well as dubious morally.

Maybe my economist friend will explain to me why I'm wrong.       

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


There is an excellent profile of W. G. Sebald here (hat tip to the wife). The reference to his death as not a surprise seemed odd (he died in a car crash), but is explained in the comments at the end. If you don't know his work you might want to know that he was widely regarded as being a potential Nobel Prize winner and that Wittgenstein crops up from time to time in his novels. For a brief and wonderful time you could buy brand new copies of all his literary works for 99 cents each at I think those days are over though.