Thursday, 28 June 2007

moral stunts

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and graduate student Jesse Graham have expanded on previous theory to come up with a list of five domains for ethical “intuitions” that seem to be common across humankind: concern for harm to people, fairness, loyalty to members of the in-group, respect for authority, and “spiritual” purity.
I make a distinction between ethics and morals that may not be universal. Ethics are rules of action, while morals are the values underlying them (I can get away with loose talk like this because I'm neither a moral philosopher nor an ethicist). It's not clear yet whether Haidt and Graham are following a similar distinction, but you should take a moment to judge for your self based on the five categories they've picked out.
Haidt and Graham then asked 1,613 people who identified themselves as liberals or conservatives to answer questions aimed at identifying which of the five domains elicited strong reactions from them (including cognitive disgust at certain possible moral scenarios). The results were stunning, if not entirely surprising with hindsight: while conservatives where sensitive to all five moral “domains,” liberals were concerned only with the first two (harm to others and fairness).
I think Haidt and Graham are conflating ethics and morals. That might be an unfair accusation, given that it's my distinction and not theirs, but I make it for a reason, and it's precisely to draw a line between such principles as fairness and loyalty. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part, but it's hard for me to imagine a situation in which actions guided by "fairness" would be wrong, but I can easily think of situations in which loyalty would be. Fairness is universal, loyalty conditional. It never occurred to me that anyone else could think otherwise. Taking the results on board
may go a long way toward explaining why certain people simply cannot see the point of starting a moral crusade in response to, say, homosexuality (which falls under “spiritual purity,” whatever that is), or do not understand how someone can follow a leader regardless of how stupid or criminal his actions may be (“my country right or wrong,” which falls under both respect for authority and loyalty to the in-group).
From here.

I have questions: Where does the difference come from? Is it innate? Genetic? Learned? How strong are these "intuitions"? Are there degrees? Can these intuitions be overcome? Reasoned for or against? How does one decide between the five in cases of conflict? Does everyone have a set order?

I have trouble deciding between avoiding harm to people and fairness. But both are clearly more important than the other three. Loyalty is a clear winner over there remaining pair. I tend to respect authority because it is easy and convenient. There are some activities I'm uncomfortable witnessing and others I refuse to take part in. I assume that's what's meant by spiritual purity, but I'm really not certain.

I suppose that makes me a godless liberal.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007


Yesterday, I said our built environment
usually fades into the background. Or, better, it seeps into our subconscious.
That's not entirely true. This happened today, just down the street from my house:Yikes.

From Torontoist.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

the built environment

The built environment--the buildings and streets and parks that form the background of our daily activities--usually fades into the background. Or, better, it seeps into our subconscious. It nevertheless shapes our movements, alters our mood, and becomes a part of our identity. This is my beautiful building.
It's just down the street from this monstrosity, the Royal Ontario Museum.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not against modern architecture. I rather like this bit of Wright-inspired tastefulness, the Gardiner Museum, also just down the street.
I'm not against glass, either, as I'm quite fond of Apple's Fifth Avenue retail store:I like the idea of preserving our heritage (top) and building the new and exciting (bottom). But mixing the two can be very dangerous (the ROM). A progressive alien crystalline form engulfing our very heritage may not have been quite the effect the architects intended.

Progress is a funny thing.

In Maine, we pay dairy farmers money to keep them in business. We do it so that we continue to have a dairy industry in Maine. It's a part of our heritage we want to hold on to, even if it isn't self-sustaining. At the same time, we want to be a part of the global economy. So we give tax breaks to high-tech companies in the hopes that the old can live alongside the new. It would be easy to say that every time we change our built environment, we're giving up a piece of our culture. Every time we cut down a 200 year old oak to widen a street, we're selling our very soul. Would greening Trafalgar have the same effect? More to the point, there was a day Old Vic was new--a great mass of stone thrust up out of farm lands, a manifestation of the siren call of progress ushering in a new economy of opportunity--and inequality. To avoid change is to stagnate, to become irrelevant. The challenge is to make each change our own, to incorporate it into our environment so that it, too, can seep beneath our consciousness and become a part of us. Toronto has a long history of architectural creativity, as much evidenced by what it has chosen not to do as by its current distinctive skyline.

I am by no means settled on this question. Perhaps knowing something about architecture might help. Likely not. Although knowing something would surely accelerate my ruminations and perhaps allow me fuller expression of them, I suspect that the question of heritage and progress will remain forever a very personal and troubled one.

architectural warfare

I've been planning this post for a while, but a friend of mine beat me to it.

Blowing up buildings as a form of psychological warfare has a long and ignoble history. Sometimes, it takes the form of an
architectural ritual, played out over centuries between rival governments and religions. This is the "repeated demolition or adaptation of each other's buildings," and retaliation can sometimes take generations. For instance, Bevan writes about the site of the cathedral, in Córdoba, Spain, which "started out as a Roman temple" before being destroyed by Christian Visigoths: "A subsequent church on the site was replaced by a mosque following the Arab conquest of the early eighth century. Some seventy years later this was itself demolished to create the first stage of a massive new mosque. The Christian recaptured Córdoba in 1236 and consecrated the building as a cathedral."
I wonder if the tradition will continue?

traveling at the speed of science

UPDATE: Some sort-of mainstream coverage of the odd theory that nerves might conduct via sound, not electricity. See my March post.

the gay index

I've had a middling interest in Florida's ("Richard," not "State of") work ever since I noticed the chronic bumbling efforts of Maine's recent governors to legislate economic improvement. While I was an undergrad, Florida's work was becoming the vogue in Maine, the newest incarnation of slick slogan politics designed to excite and elect.

Florida was just the latest in a series of revitalization efforts I recall vaguely from my childhood. Allow me to derisively parody them now: First, it was low-income housing (Theory: if you build it, they will come. Practice: if you build it, construction companies will finance your next campaign!). Then we had downtown revitalization (Theory: if you build communities, people will live there! Practice: people sure do appreciate the picturesquely crumbling quaint "shoppes" as they whiz by at 65mph on the freeway) Next came tax incentives and targeted education packages (Theory: people move to where the jobs are. Practice: Umm... it's kinda cold in Maine. Do we have to move there?). Then comes the Florida package: the "Creative Economy." (Theory: if there's culture, engineers will move in. Practice: gee, it's too bad we don't have culture).

The key predictor for the Creative Economy is what Florida calls the Gay Index (it's an appropriate name; it's basically the number of gay people living in the region). The idea is that more gay people there are, the more artists there will be, and the more artists there are, the more culture there is. Ta-da! Number of gays equals amount of culture. 3quarksdaily has a different take. It's well worth a read, but here's the postcard version:

Florida is trying to predict cities that are ready for a high-tech boom. This means he's trying to figure out which cities will seem like safe homes for the educated middle class. Which means finding out which cities aren't already gentrified, but have the potential to become gentrified. And that means finding bohemians--the criminalized, marginalized minority who are nevertheless safely white. In other words, gays.

Obviously, this is the real reason we in the US don't want gays in the military. We need them for urban class warfare within our own borders.

Friday, 8 June 2007

an appetite for philosophy

Everything is relative, I suppose. 3QuarksDaily says Whole Foods is moving into New York City's Bowery District. And that's a bad thing.
I once served some sliced raw albacore tuna doused in soy to a friend. I had bought the fish not far from Whole Foods from Alex, the fisherman who had caught it and brought it the next day to the Greenmarket. I'm lucky to live in a city where this is a humdrum and everyday transaction. My friend, a film producer, remarked, "This is great! But how did it get sterile?"

Not that Whole Foods is responsible for food ignorance or food paranoia, mind you, but it's certainly capitalizing on the trend. And that's not all.
There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers. The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other. Instead, it's purely about the foods themselves: one's interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest.
One of the best lines:
Neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.
And later:
The last decade's avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what's in it, and how it's made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil.... Labels are often a shortcut for thinking.
I must admit, I had always thought of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as A Good Thing. They really are better than most supermarket chains (more expensive, too). But is the solution to the supermarket-of-the-world problem to build a better supermarket? Perhaps not. Most of the youngish, hipster-bohemian-starving-student neoliberals I know (pause: do I know anyone NOT in that category?) buy food in markets when they can. Some even eat local.

Back home in Maine, we have weekly farmer's markets and backyard gardens galore--during growing season. But it takes a lot of effort to eat local. Most folks rely on a supermarket or country store to top up the pantry. I've mentioned my concerns about pat answers to systemic problems before, and movements like Eat Local still make me nervous. I love the sentiment, but inhabitants of Urbania are too unaware of the complexities of food networks to really get what they're asking of folks outside city limits. At first glance, it might seem like agricultural communities would have an easier time eating local. But the fact is, rural areas don't have fish markets and fruit stands within walking distance of homes. They lack the rich diversity of food choices now offered only by a local supermarket or country store.

In farm country there's not much demand for Big Organic. Perhaps it's because people are closer to food there. I've never heard anyone in Maine ask about "sterilizing" fish. Of course, I've never heard anyone ask for raw fish, either, unless for bait. Maybe it's just another facet of the city-country contrast.

Whole Foods represents a trend to reform the supermarket, to make healthy and safe the dangerously industrialized food system. Even some supermarkets in Maine are making an effort to sell local produce (studies have shown that people will pay more for local food. It's a winning business model). Unfortunately, even trendy supermarkets perpetuate homogenization. Now we have a dozen varieties of apples all stamped "Certified Organic." My fear is that trendy Eat Local movements also have a homogenizing effect. The idea that Eating Local is possible, cost-effective, or desirable in all locations at all times just seems a little foolhardy.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

oh, canada

A high school student in Inuvik, NWT was told that she could not perform ["The Only Gay Eskimo"] at a school fundraiser. The reason she was given was that her Inuvialuit elders find the word "Eskimo" offensive....

Our first thought was that "Gay Eskimos to World: Don't Call Us Eskimos" would have to officially be The Most Quintessentially Canadian Story EVER, narrowly beating out "Dispute Between Canada and Denmark Ends Peacefully."
Torontoist fills in the details.

expanding earth

Craziest thing I've seen all day. Forget plate tectonics. Forget subduction. Forget the laws of physics. It's way simpler! The Earth is growing, silly scientists! Just watch the animation!

In case you didn't make it through the video (I only did because I was too flabbergasted to stop the madness), even this guy isn't crazy enough to deny evolution. The "theory" has been debunked by someone with far more patience than I.

how cool is this?

LinkA rocket is casting a shadow onto the moon! Check out the explanation.

drawing targets

Ever notice how writing sometimes turns into drawing targets around where the arrows hit?

Yeah, me neither.


There may be rhetoric about the socially constructed nature of Western science, but whenever it matters, there is no alternative. There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or television. There are no satellites based on feminist alternatives to quantum theory. Even the great public sceptic about the value of science, Prince Charles, never flies a helicopter burning homeopathically diluted petrol, that is, water with only a memory of benzine molecules, maintained by a schedule derived from reading tea leaves, and navigated by a crystal ball.
--From a review of Blackburn's book