Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applied Philosophy: How to Spend Your Free Time Meaningfully

A big trend in the management/self-help guru industrial complex concerns maximizing productivity.  While I think this can be a worthy goal in some respects, I think it misses the big picture.  What I think we ought to be doing is looking for ways to maximize the value or meaningfulness of what we do with our time.  For, what does it matter if you've maximized productivity of activities devoid of value or meaning?

When I was teaching English in Argentina there was a video series I'd use to teach my business students. I'm not sure if these videos were intended for teaching English but the content was at a level that most intermediate students could understand.  Anyhow, the guy who created the series was one of these management guru guys.  There was a surprising amount of good advice in those videos.  One line that always stood out to me was "everything you do in life either brings you closer to what you want or takes you farther from it; nothing is neutral."  There may be exceptions to this but I think by and large it holds up as a good guiding principle for how to prioritize what to do with the limited time in your day and your life. 

If we suppose that this idea is a good heuristic, what happens when we apply it to both our daily decisions and life plans regarding what we do with our free time?  I think this is worth considering since free time is perhaps our most precious resource. One thing I notice immediately is that I waste far too much of my time on social media and doing nothing in particular online.  Even though it's supposed to be relaxing down time, I always come away feeling less relaxed and that now I need to do something to relax from the supposed relaxing activity! Truly, it does not get me the things I want to get out of my free time and it takes me away from them.  I find the contrast particularly strong whenever I read a book instead.  I can never remember a time after having spent 30 minutes to an hour or two reading thinking to myself "well, that was a waste of time!" 

Compare that with time spent going through your social media news feed, debating people online, or just clicking on random articles and videos (not including this article, of course!).  I rarely ever think to myself "well, that was time well spent!".  No, usually I feel as though that is lost time that I'll never get back.  And I rarely feel rejuvenated ready to get back to my regular work. Of course, there are occasions where spending unstructured time online can be fruitful, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.  There have been instances where I've found valuable articles in my newsfeed that I wouldn't have found otherwise and where an online debate yielded worthwhile results.

Here's what I consider to be a big problem.  The type activities that are rewarding require deep immersion and engagement.  The environment of the internet doesn't easily provide this.  To be sure, the internet provides great content, but the way we access it gets in the way of deep meaningful engagement. We may be reading an insightful article, listening to an engaging podcast, watching a great video online but facebook, twitter, email, etc... are open in the background (both on our screen and in our minds) and prevent most of us from the deep immersion that makes an activity feel worthwhile.  In short, the media gets in the way of the value of the content.

So, what can be done to solve the problem? I haven't completely solved the problem but I've found a few things that work and I'm working on other solutions as I try to squeeze out as much value from my precious free moments.  Here are a few that have worked so far.

1. I print the articles I want to read then put my computer (and phone) in the other room while I read.

2. When listening to podcasts or watching (educational) videos, I put my computer on a table half-way across the room so I can't touch it.  Or I'll download the podcast onto my ipod then put my computer and phone in the other room while I listen.

3. (New one) When I go on walks with Otis, I leave my phone at home so I'm not messing with it. This way I get to actually enjoy the walk.

4. When I read books, I put my phone and computer in another room.

These are just a few ideas that have worked for me and have helped me more fully enjoy my free time.  If you have any suggestions that have worked for you, please share! The more meaningful I can make each moment, the better!

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Problem for Libertarianism

The Jargon
Lets get it out the way, shall we?

Negative rights place obligations on others to abstain from doing something.  The most common example of a negative right is freedom of speech. My (negative) right to freedom of speech places an obligation on others (in most cases, the guvamint) to abstain from restricting my speech.

Positive rights place obligations on others to do something.  For example, if I have a positive right to health care and shelter, that places obligations on others to provide it.

Self-Ownership (and Ownership) Thesis:  Our rights are grounded in ownership.  For example, my right to avoid harm without consent is grounded in the fact that I own my body and you're not the boss of me! My right to do with my property as I see fit is grounded in the fact that I own my property.   My (negative) right to not have my property taken away or used without my consent in grounded in the fact that I freakin' own it, man! It's mine! mine! mine!

Overview of Libertarianism
Just like many broad categories it's tough to pick out exactly what defines libertarianism.  Here are a couple of things that would describe most (but not all) libertarian positions:

(a) Individual rights are more important than community rights (some say there aren't any community rights) or social good. In short, appeals to social good cannot override individual rights.

(b) Strong emphasis on negative rights rather than positive rights.

(c) Strong commitment to (individual) property rights.

(d) Self-ownership as the genesis of rights; that is, your property rights (including over what happens to your own body) arise out of the fact that you own your property (including your own body).

(e) Commitment to state neutrality on conceptions of the good.  That is, the state should be neutral on what sort of life people should pursue.  People should be free to pursue whatever kind of life they want.

(f)  People should be able to do with their property whatever they please so long as they don't harm others (without consent).  Harming others is impermissible because it's a violation of their negative rights that arise from self-ownership.  That is, since you don't own other people, you can't cause them any harm without their consent.  It's important to add that harm is subjectively defined.  Other people don't get to tell me what counts as harm to me.  Only I decide if and how much something is harming me.

(g) Since rights are grounded in self-ownership they are not contingent upon considerations of social utility.  In short, even though it might bring about some overall social good to harm an individual or a small group of individual, you can't do this.  You can't because rights don't come and go based on utility.  They are grounded in ownership and so long as you own youself or your property, you have those rights. (More on this later).

(h) There is a conspicuous absence of positive rights and positive moral duties toward others.

The Problem for Libertarianism
The problem I'm going to discuss comes from "Backing Away from Libertarian Self-Ownership" by Sobel.  I've added some of my own thoughts near the end.

Often libertarian reasoning is invoked by the wealthy to provide arguments against redistributive taxation policies.  "This is my money, I earned it with my body and/or mind so it's a violation of my (negative) rights for the guvamint to take it and give it to other people.  Mine! Mine! Mine!"

The core principle grounding who gets to decide how property is used, recall, is the self-ownership thesis.  You cannot take, use, or harm the person (i.e., body) or property of another. Ownership confers negative rights.  Libertarians always be like "you can't violate harm me cuz you don't own me! I own me! Even if you cause me a mild amount of discomfort, you've violated my rights.  Don't violate my rights!"

This is all fine and dandy until we look at the other side of what libertarians want to claim: unrestricted power to do with one's property as one wishes.  "It's mine! mine! mine! so you can't tell me what to do with it!"  This sounds fairly reasonable in many contexts.  Many of us would agree that in many cases it's undesirable for the guvamint or others to legislate how we can use our property and how we can live.

The problem is when you try to combine both desires.  To illustrate the problem consider the following situation.  You own a widget factory.  It's yours.  Ain't no guvamint gonna tell you what to do with it.  Being the kind-hearted libertarian that you are, you decide to produce widgets. Unfortunately, your factory emits a pollutant that will cause 1/1 000 000 000 people to get a minor skin rash.

By libertarianism's own logic, you may not produce your widgets because you are violating someone's negative rights.  You don't own their body so you can't impose the harm from the rash on the 1/1 000 000.  You don't have their consent to give them a rash, and so, you can't make widgets.

This is the libertarian problem:  They want near absolute freedom to do whatever they want to do with their own property and life but they also want absolute prohibitions on unconsented harm. In a highly interconnected world it's pretty much impossible to do anything that isn't going to minimally harm someone in some way.  So it looks like either the libertarian has to propose some sort of minimum allowable rights infractions or they're going to have to accept that their freedom to do wudever dafuk dey want is a lot more constrained than they might have thought.

There's an obvious solution.  Suppose it turns out that the widgets make a significant number of people better off.  Lets say, 10 000 people have their lives improved because of the new widgets.  Well, there's our solution: If enough people end up better off, then surely we can allow trivial unconsented harms.

Unfortunately, the libertarian can't take this route for a few reasons.  First, he is an absolutist.  You cannot cause harm without consent--no matter how small. Amongst other things, that would imply that you are deciding for someone else what constitutes a trivial harm. And even if you could cause unconsented harm it couldn't be justified by an appeal to social utility.  Attaching rights to social utility is exactly what libertarianism seeks to avoid.  You cannot "purchase" rights violations with social utility.  Rights don't depend on contingent social circumstances.  Rights are grounded in ownership.  So long as your ownership claim is secure, so are your rights.

It looks like the libertarian has to make one of three concessions if she wants to avoid pollution-type case like the one above: She can (a) bite the bullet and accept that trivial harms are strong constraints on freedom to do whatever one wants with one's property, (b) accept some minimum allowable threshold for rights violations, or (c) deny that rights are entirely grounded in self-ownership. Perhaps the approach most aligned with common sense is (b): the libertarian should stipulate a minimum level of harm below which property rights may be violated. This could be done one of two ways. The first way would be to appeal to a ratio between social utility and harm. Once the ratio reaches a certain amplitude, rights violations are permissible. The second way would be to stipulate a minimum level of harm below which rights violations are permissible—regardless of circumstances.

Justifying a Minimum Threshold
Sobel offers a version of the first solution. For the reasons I've mentioned above, this strategy fails right out of the gate (for libertarians) because rights become contingent upon considerations of social utility, exactly what the libertarian seeks to avoid. The degree of harm that's permitted is proportionate to the amount of social good created.

Prima facia, the second method seems less problematic until we consider that wherever the minimum threshold is set, it will have to be justified on some grounds. An arbitrary threshold will lack a principled justification. Unfortunately for the libertarian, it seems like any reasonable attempt to justify a minimum will probably refer to social utility1. But, as we have seen, this is exactly what the libertarian seeks to avoid. Rights, argues the libertarian, are not contingent upon social utility. Doh! 

1A libertarian could argue that it's not considerations of social utility that justify the minimum but of a preference for positive freedom over negative rights. This fails for similar reasons: (1) a preference for positive freedom (i.e., if positive freedom can trump negative rights in some cases) will be self-defeating. If you can violate someone else's property rights to exercise your own, then they (and others) can do the same to you thereby minimizing the control you have over your own property which in turn diminishes your ability to use it. (2) It seems as though most arguments for why positive freedom should supersede a negative right will make an appeal to social utility. E.g., I polluted because I just feel like it vs I polluted because the product of my factory will save/improve thousands of lives. We are unlikely to be compelled by the former.   

A Proposal Libertarians Will Hate
I've been thinking about  a way out for the libertarian that is consistent with their commitments, except they probably won't like it.  Too bad.  I'm the boss of me!  I'm working on developing a view that allows shared ownership rights.  If the community is a partial owner in all things, including the individuals who make it up then libertarian reasoning allows appeals to community interests (because rights are grounded in ownership).  If community interests can be involved then we can return to something like the ratio view above but this time it will be consistent with libertarian logic.  

Very briefly, here's how I think it might be accomplished: the libertarian obsession with focus on individuals as the fundamental unit of analysis is empirically dubious.  We are not just individuals.  Our identity is also as a part of a group.  Biologically, psychologically, historically, and socially we are a part of a larger whole.  

There's an obvious objection here.  Yes, we are parts of groups and groups might even be "real" things but ownership requires agency and only individuals have agency.  Perhaps, but most of us already accept that groups can own things.  This idea isn't crazy.  For example, families, couples, and shareholders can all have shared ownership in property.   The proponent of the agency view would have to show why families can't own things.  Maybe they're right.  I'm not sure.

Anyhow, for my theory to work, I need to develop a concept of identity that is dualistic: we are individuals but we are also parts of a whole.  Both individuals and groups have ownership claims to the bodies that make them up. If the community ownership claim can be established via a dual identity theory, then libertarians can appeal to social good to resolve pollution-type cases because communities have rights in what happens to individuals (and their property) via their shared ownership claims.

I think this dual identity/ownership theory can also explain many of our intuitive judgments.  For example, the reason you can just simply use me for your own purposes or steal my things is because they are mine.  But we also think it's OK to use the property of others to produce a certain degree of social good.  It's OK to use your stuff because you are also a part of a whole.  You are part of that whole that benefits.

Anyway, like I said, it's a work in progress.  It may go nowhere and I've already thought of a couple obstacles.  Meh, we'll see. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Challenge to Alt-Med

Alt-med practitioners and proponents luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuve to talk about how no one would ever get sick if they just did x, y, z to boost their immune system.  Here's the thing guys. When push comes to shove, I don't think that you really believe your own hype.  But I could be wrong.  Fortunately I'm going to give you a chance to put your money where your mouth is.  So, here's your big chance to finally show all those naysayers and close-minded skeptics. 

All you have to do is accept (and complete) my challenge:

Step 1: Boost Your Immune System!!!!1!! (Naturally, of course)
Do whatever you have to do to "boost" your immune system.  Crack your back, align your chakras, breathe in a bunch essential oils, get needles stuck in you, eat only organic food, recharge your crystals, drink water (i.e., homeopathy), get a foot massage, buy a bunch of stuff on, Natural News, or Infowars, etc... Do all those things which "boost" your immune system that "they" don't want us to know about.

Step 2:  Fly to West Africa and Find an Ebola Outbreak

Step 3:  Cure People with Your Modality of Choice.
Of course, since your immune system has been boosted, you don't have to worry about catching Obama's ebola. Here's the fun part.  You also don't need to wear any protection when you help ebola patients because, as you say, the only way to get sick is if your immune system isn't "boosted." And yours is fully boosted! Yay!

If by some improbable chance you do catch ebola, just treat yourself with whatever natural cure you advocate or you can just buy something that "they" don't want us to know about from, Natual News, or Infowars.  Don't use big pharma's poisons!!!1!!11!!!

Normally, I would reject any medical evidence based on a single data point.  But if you can complete all three steps and come home alive, I will pay for your flight, recant everything bad I've ever said about your magic remedy, and I will become its biggest proponent.

I'm waiting...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Applied Philosophy and Psychology: How to Stop Texting and Driving

One thing that blows my mind is the frequency with which I see people texting and driving.  It's absolutely mind-bottling.  In fact, because of it, my mind has been put in a bottle several times.  It could be confirmation bias, but I swear 1 in 4 drivers I see are either texting or talking while driving. The other 3/4 are probably between texts or phone calls.

Anywho, I'm not trying to put myself on a moral high horse because I did do my share of texting and driving.  And here's the crazy thing:  Like most people now, I knew it was dangerous!  So why did I persist for so long and why do others continue? And more importantly, how did I get myself to stop?

In this post I want to engage in a little moral persuasion using applied philosophy and psychology to try to help people stop texting and driving.  Basically, I'm going to recount how reframing facts about texting and driving got me to stop doing it.  Therefore, since I am a very large sample size, it will work for you too.  That's science! 

Aside: In psychology there is something called the "framing effect".  Basically, the idea is that the way information is presented to us can have strong effects on how we respond to it--regardless of the fact that the outcome is the same in both cases. Here's one of the most common examples cited in the literature (which I've modified):

Suppose 600 people have ebola (thanks, Obama!).  Treatment A is predicted to save 200 hundred lives.  With Treatment B, 400 people are predicted to die.  Which do you choose?  

72% of people choose Treatment A.  Notice, however, that both treatments yield the same outcome.  Framing them as either negative or positive influences our choices (we avoid negative-sounding outcomes).

Another common (real world) example is the difference in fines vs discounts. For example, In situation A you have a bill for $100.00 and the company offers you a 10% discount for early payment.  In situation B you have a bill for $90.00 but there is a $10.00 fine for late payment.  In most studies where consumers or subjects are divided into two groups along the lines of the above scenario, people overwhelmingly respond to fines, but not to discounts.  That is, a greater proportion of those in the fine group paid their bills early than those in the discount group. Notice, of course, that the outcome is the same.  Only the way the information was presented changed.

So why am I talking about framing effect?  Because, as you'll see below, one of the ways I got myself to stop texting and driving wasn't through acquiring new information (most people already know it's dangerous) rather it was through reframing the information.

Step 1:  Fact are so fun!
Lets get some facts on the table:  It's 6 times more dangerous to text and drive than it is to drink and drive.  Think about it.  Not "6 times more dangerous than driving under normal conditions" but 6 times more dangerous than driving while drunk.

Fact 2: You are 3x more likely to get into an accident while texting and driving than baseline.

Meditate on those risks for a moment.

Step 2: What Think You? (The Reframing)
Think about how you morally appraise someone who drinks and drives.  What do you think of their character or at least the nature of their action?  They are deliberately putting the lives of others and their own life at risk.  Most people I know think people who drive drunk are doing something morally reprehensible. 

Now, think about someone who deliberately does something that is six times more dangerous to the lives of others (and their own life) than driving drunk.  If we were morally disapproving in the first case, what is our attitude in this case?  

A side consideration is that, although it's a crappy excuse, people who drive drunk can at least claim their judgment was impaired when they decided to get in the car.  When someone texts while driving, the same claim cannot be made. The decision to text and drive is made with fully-functioning rational capacities. 

The upshot here is that, if we find drunk driving morally reprehensible then consistency requires that our moral judgment should be several times more severe toward those who consciously engage in even riskier behavior (even if we are the ones doing it). 

Step 3: Fix It for Me!
I really wish I could find the article I'm going to mention because I cite it often.  Anyway, there's a philosopher of technology that makes an interesting argument about the peculiar nature of cellphone technology.  To illustrate this unique nature, think about our interactions with conventional tools.  Suppose, for example, you are sitting at your desk with a hammer or a stapler next to you. Would you feel compelled to use or glance at either every couple of minutes?  Probably not.  But cellphone (and ipad and laptop) technology is different.  It demands our attention.  You can't just have a laptop or cellphone in front of you without constantly at least shifting your gaze to it and probably also having to check it for messages or surf the web.  We don't do this with hammers (at least I don't).

 I tell my students about this argument on the first day of each semester when I'm going over the syllabus.  They all nod their heads in agreement.  Then, after I've led them down the garden path, I spring upon them the real purpose of my referencing the article. I say: "And that's why in my class you must put your phone in your bag.  You may not have it on your desk or in your pocket because you will look at it. We all agreed that it demands that you do! The policy is for your own good!"  (Gotcha!)

Pro tip: Always get your audience to explicitly agree to the position you will be using against them before you use it against them.

All this to say that if you want to stop texting while driving, when you get in your car you will have to turn your ringer off and put your phone somewhere you can't see it.  I put my phone either in my backpack pocket or under my car seat.  Out of sight, out of mind.  

Step 4: Be a Judgmental Prick
This is the fun part.  In order to avoid relapse, I find it helpful to judge harshly anyone I see texting and driving.  When I see them, in my head I'm like, "what an idiot! they're going to kill someone!  I can't believe anyone could be so stupid as to text and drive!". After being a judgmental pick about something I used to do, I'm much less likely to do it myself!  See! Sometimes being a judgmental asshole can be good! It saves lives, especially children's lives.  Yes, that's right--I said children's lives.  

Pro tip: Whenever making a moral argument, always appeal to the lives and wellbeing of children.  It's a time-tested tactic, without which no politician could ever make an argument.

And with that, I end.  If you are like I was and find yourself texting and driving even though you know better, I hope this article sends on the path to righteousness and saving children's lives while being a judgmental asshole.

Let me know if it works for you! (So we can science).