A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
The majority of the country and Congress is saying we have to “flip the switch”. The debate is over the specifics, which are so insignificant it’s ridiculous. Then there is a group of tea party members that don’t want to flip the switch. They want to stop the train, and if that’s not possible, let it run over the five people and learn a valuable lesson from that. This is an admirable position is some very distant abstract universe, but is just not in touch with reality and the consequences of real people’s lives in the short and long term.
To reiterate, the current plans proposed by Republicans and Democrats are virtually the same. The Republicans propose slightly harsher cuts, and make the avoidance of cutting harder, but really, there are two reasons no agreement has been reached:
The Republicans (and to some degree, the Democrats) still think they can come out the political winner in this, while the other side comes out the political loser.
Tea Party members are ideologically immovable (I’m trying to put it as nicely as possible here).
Meanwhile, the train is flying down the tracks…
* Illustration above is by Frank O’Connell (NY Times)
I’m starting to see a trend in the way our government operates:
Step 1: Do nothing for a few months.
Step 2: Recognize a looming problem. Sell it as a crisis that is the biggest threat to our well-being ever.
Step 3: Rush through legislation which has drastic fundamental consquences on the future of our country without much deliberation, public discussion, debate, or any kind of open forum for ideas.
Step 4: Use the successful or failed (both are claimed to be true) resolution of the “crisis” in the next election to raise money.
Wars (like Iraq and Afghanistan) are an especially clear example of this, however, the current debt ceiling crisis is another tragic example. I don’t yet know the outcome of the private meetings between Obama and the key political figures involved, but I do know that the lives of millions of Americans will be affected by the inevitable cuts in treasured programs and the inevitable tax reform.
These are important and difficult public policy questions, and yet the American people are not involved in any real sense, because the span of time over which options are weighed is weeks (even days), not years.
The outrage in response to The News of the World hacking scandal confuses me. Reporters were caught stealing data in cyberspace. They crossed ethical and legal lines. It’s wrong, and they should be punished, but I believe the goal was the same noble goal as is behind the ideal of an objective reporter. They weren’t fabricating the truth, they were after the truth in ways that violated privacy laws, etc.
I have long looked at Murdoch as one of the key people that contributes to our society’s decline into a Brave New World, turning news into entertainment, and thus diluting the value of truth. Opinions are more entertaining than facts. Murdoch is a great businessman because he has mastered the art of mass-producing divisive and controversial opinions.
Hacking is bad, but not evil. What is evil is the overshadowing of the little objective truth there is in our complex world by the bright lights of the latest shiny distractions the media chooses to focus on for the sake of better ratings.
So, to reiterate, I think that Murdoch and his approach to media in print and video is destructive to any hope of well-reasoned and informed debate. However, I just don’t find the latest hacking scandal at all related or comparable to the much more troubling trend of turning news into “infotainment”.
The following cartoon from the Denver Post echoes the point I’m trying to make:
The world is full of distractions. We try to deal with it by designing productivity systems (e.g. Getting Things Done), when for many people (or at least myself) what is missing is not a good system but some quality wall-starin’ time.
By that I mean long continuous blocks of time in which to think. Focus on one problem, and don’t go off on mental tangents, indulge is technology-enabled distractions, etc. Think about the plan for the day, about how to accomplish the most important task in front of you at work, but also think about more general things like where you are in life, what your life-long goals are, and even more broadly the why questions that can be found unanswered in most existential philosophy literature.
That’s what is too often missing for me… time away from the computer, from deadlines, from rushing from point A to point B, or even from brainless relaxation. It’s a time for the mouse to pause it’s long trek through the maze and ponder the cheese.
I’ve been listening to a lot of lectures and debates recently on questions of religion. It’s quite remarkable that scholars representing the theist worldview are willing to engage in debate on scientific grounds. In other words, they argue for the existence and goodness of a supernatural being based on “evidence”, or at least their conception of what makes convincing evidence. To me, this is a losing battle, as religion and rationality just don’t mix. The fundamental concept of religion is faith, and by definition, faith is an irrational acceptance of beliefs as fact.
For that reason, I don’t find these debates very interesting, outside the fact that they inspire me to think about (at times unanswerable) questions of existence, meaning, morality, etc.
And that’s what I wanted to say in this note, as highlighted in the below video of a debate about the role of religion in fine-tuning our moral compass. The question is whether there is such a thing as objective morality, and how it comes about (creationism vs evolution). How do we know (and feel) that it’s wrong to kill? How do we account for the fact that in some cultures it is considered just to abuse women and in other cultures such abuse is fundamentally immoral?
Like many scientists, I don’t believe in the possibility objective morality: a set of absolute rules about what is good and what is evil. I’m referring to a relatively well-defined set of moral laws of the kind that most major religions provide in their holy texts. I believe our conception of what is good comes from social norms, from a kind of a democracy of ideas. We evolve slowly, together, generally in the direction of greater respect for individual rights, freedoms, etc.
I’ve had a complex relationship with punctuality over the years. The United States is a tolerant culture when it comes to people that arrive late, but nevertheless, for many people (especially in the business world) tardiness is a cardinal sin or at least an event that puts a stain on the perception of the person’s character.
The advice given to me recently that I like, and intend to follow, is to:
Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to everything.
Bring something short to read in case you actually do arrive early.
Of course, this requires careful planning, and never pressing the “snooze” button in all its manifestations.
I finally got around to finishing Keith Richard’s autobiography Life, whose title joins the likes of Bill Clinton’s “My Life” and Ricky Martin’s “Me” to be the most unimaginative and egotistical titles for an autobiography.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, at least the first half (the part that talked about Keith’s childhood, his love of music, and the obsessive pursuit of the creative process).
I usually read much heavier books, but given that I’ve just gone through a chain of books about war, it was time to read something less taxing on my ability to fall asleep.
Despite what you might imagine, this is not a book about a life of sex and drugs. It’s a book about a blues musician who loves, or rather is obsessed with, making music. In a way, it serves as an entertaining example of what it takes to be great at what you do and to be happy while doing it.
The concept of humanistic judaism, or religious humanism in general, has always highlighted to me of what is good about religion: culture, history, tradition.
What does it mean to be a secular Jew? It’s when you keep the tradition and practices of your Jewish upbringing, but ditch the belief in a supernatural being.
I believe that a lessening of emphasis on a supernatural authority is a positive change, especially for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where rational compromise appears to be the only path to peace.
Here are some statistics on religiosity of Jews in Israel:
44% are secular
27% are “traditional”
12% are “traditionally observant”
9% are “orthodox”
8% are “ultra-orthodox”
All the quotes around these labels are there to remind of the subjectivity of such labels. A less promising statistic is that only 18% of Arabs in Israel are not religious.
This is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, so I won’t say much more, except that I wish more people emphasized the positive aspects of culture and tradition of a religion as opposed to using its holy text to justify questionable acts.
If you’re running as a tea party candidate, you’re most likely selling yourself as someone who values the constitution and by extension the historical foundation of our government. The problem with doing that is you actually have to learn some history. Here are some basic facts (off the top of my head) about the key documents that defined the founding of our great nation:
Declaration of Independence (1776) – Jefferson wrote it. It’s short and full of zingers like the “all men are created equal”. Of course, Jefferson owned over 100 slaves. He probably should have added “but some are more equal than others” to that opening line.
Federalist Papers (1787) – These are brilliant essays by three brilliant dudes: Madison ($5000 bill), Hamilton ($10), and someone else who doesn’t have his face on any currency and thus doesn’t matter. These 85 articles form a basis on which the Constitution can be interpreted. They also had a value at the time of convincing folks to ratify.
Constitution (1787-89) – A Twitter version of the Federalist papers that serves as the “supreme law” of the land. It starts with “We the People” and was used recently to remind us that corporations are people too. In other words, it’s a supremely powerful document that can be supremely misinterpreted to arrive at any conclusion whatsoever.
Bill of Rights (1791) – First ten amendments to the constitution. Many of these are taken for granted today as obvious and necessary truths of a just society, but are remarkably radical examples of moral soundness and idealism for the time.