Philosophy

Mr. Econotarian wrote:

Actual science is that your brain can be gendered during development in a different fashion than your sex chromosomes. And that gender is not something that hormones alone can “fix”.

For example, the forceps minor (part of the corpus callosum, a mass of fibers that connect the brain’s two hemispheres) – among nontranssexuals, the forceps minor of males contains parallel nerve fibers of higher density than in females. But the density in female-to-male transsexuals is equivalent to that in typical males.

As another example, the hypothalamus, a hormone-producing part of the brain, is activated in nontranssexual men by the scent of estrogen, but in women—and male-to-female transsexuals—by the scent of androgens, male-associated hormones.

I would stress a social point.  If it turns out you are born “different” in these ways (I’m not even sure what are the right words to use to cover all the relevant cases), what is the chance that your social structure will be supportive?  Or will you feel tortured, mocked, and out of place?  Might you even face forced institutionalization, as McCloskey was threatened with?  Most likely things will not go so well for you, even in an America of 2014 which is far more tolerant overall than in times past, including on gay issues.  Current attitudes toward transsexuals and other related groups remain a great shame.  A simple question is how many teenagers have been miserable or even committed suicide or have had parts of their lives ruined because they were born different in these ways and did not find the right support structures early on or perhaps ever.  And if you are mocking individuals for their differences in this regard, as some of you did in the comments thread, I will agree with Barkley Rosser’s response: “Some of you people really need to rethink who you are.  Seriously.”

Some of you people really need to rethink who you are. Seriously. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/06/what-do-i-think-of-david-brat.html#comments

It’s not just the libertarian argument that you have — to put it bluntly — the “right to cut off your dick” (though you do).  It’s that there are some very particular circles of humanity, revolving around transsexuality, cross-gender, and related notions, which deserve a culture of respect, above and beyond mere legal tolerance.

India is not the paradise for cross- and multiple-gender individuals that it is sometimes made out to be, but still we could learn a good deal from them on these issues.  If nothing else, the argument from ignorance ought to weigh heavily here: there is plenty about these categories which we as a scientific community do not understand, and which you and I as individuals probably understand even less.  So in the meantime should we not extend maximum tolerance for individuals whose lives are in some manner different?

No, I do not know what are the appropriate set of public policies for when children should receive treatment, if they consistently express a desire to change, and what are the relative limits of family and state in these matters.  But if we start with tolerance and acceptance, and encourage a culture of respect for transsexualism, we are more likely to come up with the right policy answers, and also to minimize the damage if in the meantime we cannot quite figure out when to do what.

One good answer is from Tim O’Neill:

People were generally very familiar with the Bible pre-1900, so the figures usually cited as the epitome of evil tended to be Judas Iscariot, Herod the Great or, most commonly, the Pharaoh of the story of Moses in Exodus. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen Pharaoh of England forever.”  The Confederates referred to Abraham Lincoln as “the northern Pharaoh” and abolitionists in turn called slaveowners “modern Pharaohs”.  Americans also referred to all tyrants by comparing them to King George III and Napoleon was often cited as the ultimate bogeyman in Britain.  But generally it was Pharaoh who was used the way we use Hitler.

Did they have something akin to Godwin’s Law back then: “if you have to mention the Pharaoh, you’ve lost the argument!”  Somehow I don’t think so.  A link to the Quora forum is here.

Update: It seems Brian Palmer deserves credit for the information behind that answer.

Growth mindsets

by on June 12, 2014 at 11:31 am in Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Scott Young writes:

In logarithmic domains, two mindsets are important. In the beginning, high-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on maintaining long-term habits. Since growth is fast initially, care needs to be taken so that it won’t slide back down once effort is removed.

In the later, low-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on habit breaking. Since low-growth is often caused by calcifying routines, deliberate effort needs to be taken to break out of that comfort zone.

In exponential domains, the mindset of resilience and endurance are critical. Since feedback is sparse and generally negative during the initial part of the curve, it takes dedication to persist. Part of the reason, entrepreneurs are often consumed by their own vision is that it helps block out the negative feedback until they can reach the exponential part of their growth.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank R.

In a delightful, short article on Economics and Morality, Timothy Taylor asks why economics has a reputation for leading to corruption:

Political science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature are often concerned with aggression, obsessiveness, selfishness, and cruelty, not to mention lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. But no one seems to fear that students in these other disciplines are on the fast track to becoming sociopaths. Why is economics supposed to be so uniquely corrupting?

Arnold Kling gives one answer:

I think that economics is singled out for opprobrium because of the way that it challenges the intention heuristic. The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an act are selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good.

I would put the point more directly. Economics is detested because it doesn’t just study vice it shows that some vices have good consequences. The moral inversion of economic thinking begins early, in Mandeville’s scandalous and wicked book the Fable of the Bees, which aimed to show how private vices can lead to public benefits. Later, of course, Adam Smith would make a similar point in The Wealth of Nations with his metaphor of the invisible hand and his famous admonition that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

The private vice, public virtue theme is not limited to self-interest and microeconomics. Keynes was an admirer of Mandeville as an early discover of the paradox of thrift. Namely, that in some situations the virtuous behavior of saving can lead to public ruin and the vice of consumption can lead to riches. Paul Krugman continues to make this point today with his admonition that economics is not a morality play. Krugman offends traditional morality when he writes:

As I’ve said repeatedly, this is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise.

Economists understand composition fallacies: a sum of light feathers is not necessarily light, a sum of bad actions isn’t necessarily bad and a sum of good actions isn’t necessarily good.

It’s no surprise that Hayek was another fan of Mandeville and also an opponent of traditional morality (also here) because Hayek recognized that nominally bad actions and beliefs can lead to good outcomes (“spontaneous order”) and that nominally good actions and beliefs can lead to bad outcomes (“the atavism of social justice”).

Even more recently we see Tim Geithner making the argument against morality:

“…in a panic, to rescue people from the risk of mass unemployment, you’re going to be doing things that look like you’re helping the arsonists…”

Standard morality, as Kling argues, often stops at intentions while economists are interested in consequences. Consequentialist philosophers also look at consequences but economists have the tools to trace interactions as they sort themselves into an equilibrium. Equilibrium outcomes may be very far from intentions. As a result, we find that economists often places themselves and their discipline in opposition to standard morality.

Arrived in my cyberpile

by on June 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm in Books, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

Due out September 3, 2014, self-recommending.

Very good sentences

by on June 2, 2014 at 3:12 pm in Current Affairs, Philosophy | Permalink

From Ross Douthat:

…the feminist prescription doesn’t supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men.

And also:

…our society has lost sight of a basic human truth: A culture that too tightly binds sex and self-respect is likely, in the long run, to end up with less and less of both.

*Becoming Freud*

by on June 1, 2014 at 3:52 pm in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new and excellent book by Adam Phillips, in the US available on Kindle only.  Here is one bit:

…Freud was discovering that we obscure ourselves from ourselves in our life stories; that that is their function.  So we will often find that the most dogmatic thing about Freud as a writer is his skepticism.  He is always pointing out his ignorance, without ever needing to boast about it.  He is always showing us what our knowing keeps coming up against; what our desire to know might be a desire for.

And later:

Psychoanalysis would one day be Freud’s proof that biography is the worst kind of fiction, that biography is what we suffer from; that we need to cure ourselves of the wish for biography, and our belief in it.  We should not be substituting the truths of our desire with trumped-up life stories, stories that we publicize.

Recommended.

Mesa wrote:

I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate.

I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/gini-coefficient-for-u-s-universities.html#comments

I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/gini-coefficient-for-u-s-universities.html#comments
I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/gini-coefficient-for-u-s-universities.html#comments

I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/gini-coefficient-for-u-s-universities.html#comments
I would suspect that successful research institutions don’t feel obliged to redistribute their funding to less fortunate institutions. I think the point that is interesting here is that successful academic institutions are probably deemed to have earned their support, while successful business people are not, they having generally thought to have earned their success through luck or inheritance. From the endowment and research funding data it seems universities have both high income inequality and wealth inequality, to use terminology from the current debate. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/gini-coefficient-for-u-s-universities.html#comments

Currently health care is very expensive in the United States, especially if you have to buy hospital care without formal insurance.  Under ideal institutions, it would be much cheaper, maybe a third of the current price or lower yet (not for everything, though).  For instance in Singapore health care expenditures are about four percent of gdp.  A libertarian may think that laissez-faire or near laissez-faire is the way to go, while others might favor single payer with price controls, and so on.  In any case, in the meantime we are stuck with expensive health care, and for reasons related to bad and coercive government policy.

Now, would a libertarian think that we should cut health care services in prisons, simply because tax dollars are in play?  No, the prisoners — many of whom are morally innocent — have nowhere else to go for treatment.  When it comes to health care, many potential Medicaid recipients are in essence prisoners, locked into a policy-deficient environment and so they cannot buy quality care at affordable prices.  So if we favor health care expenditures for prisoners we might also favor Medicaid expansions.

That said, expanding the current version of Medicaid is unlikely to be a first-best solution, no matter what your broader political stance.

Addendum: Jacob Levy offers comment.

That is the new and truly excellent book by George Prochnik, think of it as a selective biography focused on themes of exile, perversion, Brazil, and suicide.  Excerpt:

Martin Gumpert shared Zweig’s sense of depletion amid New York’s incessant activity, likening the exhaustion that befell almost every newcomer to a “magic spell.”  When Bruno Walter first arrived in New York, the heat of his hotel room drove him out onto the street though it was still before dawn.  On his initial promenade down Manhattan’s avenues, he imagined “wit a shudder of horror” that he was “walking at the bottom of immensely deep rocky canyons.”  As the sun rose, his eyes caught sight of an enormous billboard on top of a building displaying the words “U.S. Tires.”  In a daze he thought to himself, “Yes, it does — true enough — but why is this fact being advertised to me from the rooftops?”

And:

Even New York rain, Camus observed after his own first encounter with the city in the mid-1940s, was “a rain of exile.  Abundant, viscous, and dense; it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well…I am out of my depth when I think of New York,” he acknowledged.  Camus wrote of wrestling with “the excessive luxury and bad taste” of New York, but also with “the subway that reminds you of Sing Sing prison” and “ads filled with clouds of smiles proclaiming from every wall that life is not tragic.”

This is one of my favorite books of the year so far.  (You will find here an interesting review.)  And Zweig’s own The World of Yesterday is one of my favorite books period.

It is The Society of Equals, by Pierre Rosanvallon, and it is a transatlantic look at how the notion of inequality has changed over the last three centuries.  It strikes me as the sort of book Crooked Timber would have a symposium on.  Here is one good bit:

Thus there is a global rejection of society as it presently exists together with acceptance of the mechanisms that produce that society.  De facto inequalities are rejected, but the mechanisms that generate inequality in general are implicitly recognized.  I propose to call this situation, in which people deplore in general what they consent to in particular, the Bossuet paradox.  This paradox is the source of our contemporary schizophrenia.  It is not simply the result of a guilty error but has an epistemological dimension.  When we condemn global situations, we look at objective social facts, but we tend to relate particular situations to individual behaviors and choices.  The paradox is also related to the fact that moral and social judgments are based on the most visible and extreme situation (such as the gap between rich and poor), into which individuals project themselves abstract, whereas their personal behavior is concretely determined by narrower forms of justification.

Roger Berkowitz has a very good review here, excerpt:

As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. And Rosanvallon, again like Piketty, worries about the return of inequality. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.

And:

…inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income.

Recommended.

Jason Brennan reports:

Commodification is a hot topic in recent philosophy. There’s a limitless market for books about the limits of markets. The question: Are there some things which you permissibly may possess, use, and give away, but which are wrong to buy and sell? Most authors who write about this say yes. Peter Jaworski and I say no. There are no inherent limits to markets. Everything you may give away you may sell, and everything you may take for free you may buy. We defend that thesis in our book Markets without Limits, which will be published by Routledge Press, most likely in late 2015 or early 2016. As of now, we have a completed first draft.

We plan to commodify the book itself. We will sell acknowledgements in the preface of the book.

There is more information here.  I thank Michael Wiebe for a relevant pointer.

Angela Meng reports:

Researchers have found that people from rice-growing southern China are more interdependent and holistic thinkers, while those from the wheat-growing north are more independent and analytical.

The researchers call it “rice theory”, and they believe the psychological differences of southern and northern Chinese stem from their ancestors’ subsistence techniques – rice farming needs co-operation and planning; wheat farming requires less co-operation between neighbours.

…The last experiment assessed the nepotism, or group loyalty, of the participants. Students were given hypothetical scenarios and asked how they would treat friends and strangers in reaction to helpful or harmful actions. A defining characteristic of holistic culture is that people draw sharp contrasts between friend and stranger.

“The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people,” Thomas Talhelm, of the University of Virginia and lead author of the research, said. “It has resulted in two distinct cultural psychologies that mirror the differences between East Asia and the West.”

Talhelm and his team concluded that the co-operative nature of rice-growing has cultivated a culture of interdependence, while wheat-growing has cultivated independence.

“I think the rice theory provides some insight to why the rice-growing regions of East Asia are less individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth and modernisation,” Talhelm said.

Here is Talhelm’s home page.  Research summaries are here (interesting).  Links to his research are here, and the wheat paper is here.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

*A Nation in Pain*

by on May 12, 2014 at 3:40 am in Medicine, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

The author is Judy Foreman and the subtitle of this excellent book is Healing our Biggest Health Problem.  Here is one excerpt:

In those not-so-old days when Jeffrey was born, as a preemie, many doctors mistakenly believed that babies’ nervous systems were too immature to process pain and that, therefore, babies didn’t feel pain at all.  Or, doctors rationalized, if babies did somehow feel pain, it was no big deal because they probably wouldn’t remember it.  Besides, since nobody knew for sure how dangerous anesthesia drugs might be in tiny babies, doctors figured that if surgery was necessary to save a child’s life, they’d better operate anyway — and comfort themselves with the hope that the child wouldn’t feel pain.  As one scientific paper from those days intoned, “Pediatric patients seldom need medication for relief of pain.  They tolerate discomfort well,”

That’s preposterous, obviously.  But doctors had to have these self-protective beliefs for their own emotional survival, says Neil Schechter, a pediatric pain physician at Children’s Hospital in Boston. “Doctors were not sure how to do anesthesia in babies.  In response, they had to believe  that the babies couldn’t feel pain.  They were too scared of the anesthetics.”

Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Out of 238 million American adults, 100 million live in chronic pain. And yet the press has paid more attention to the abuses of pain medications than the astoundingly widespread condition they are intended to treat. Ethically, the failure to manage pain better is tantamount to torture. When chronic pain is inadequately treated, it undermines the body and mind. Indeed, the risk of suicide for people in chronic pain is twice that of other people. Far more than just a symptom, writes author Judy Foreman, chronic pain can be a disease in its own right — the biggest health problem facing America today.

This book will make my best of the year list.

*Think Like a Freak*

by on May 10, 2014 at 6:58 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

The authors are Levitt and Dubner and the subtitle is The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain.

This is a beautifully written book, as good as the original Freakonomics.

My favorite parts were the discussion of the Japanese hot dog eater Kobayashi and his training/learning regime, why van Halen had the “no brown M&Ms” clause in its contract, and why Nigeriam spam scammers tell you they are from Nigeria.

You also can get the real story (or at least part of the real story) of how the authors helped the British authorities identify terrorist money laundering.

Addendum: Here is an excerpt from the book.