Archive for September, 2011

Ross Douthat has a strange article in the NYT this weekend. He seems to be arguing that the death penalty is good (or plays a worthwhile function) because it reminds us to be vigilant about who is put in to prison. He argues as follows:

If capital punishment disappears in the United States, it won’t be because voters and politicians no longer want to execute the guilty. It will be because they’re afraid of executing the innocent.

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

This argument interests me, because it is generally raised as a weakness of Utilitarianism. One of the objections that is supposed to show that Utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory is that by Utilitarian reasoning, it would be fine to execute the innocent if this lead to the “greater good” (for example by dissuading crime in general).

In Douthat’s argument Execution is playing a kind of Utilitarian role. It is considered ok to kill some prisoners, because it reminds us to care about the standards of evidence invoked against other prisoners. This seems like terrible reasoning to me.

He then writes:

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received.

OK, I agree that we want a judicial system that we can trust. But I don’t think the costs of that system is that many innocent peple should be put to death.


Read Full Post »

This is amazing:

What I find particularly interesting about this video is the way in which Sir Michael Parkinson cannot seem to get off the topic of Helen Mirren’s body. In fact, though her body is not that voluptuous and she is not dressed in a particularly revealing way.

One of the best/worst parts happens 1:33 when Parkinsons says “You are ‘in quotes’ a serious actress.” Mirren calls him on it. Then he asks if her equipment will hinder her pursuit of becoming a serious actress. She makes him spell out what he is trying to hint at. It is marvelous.

Basically, Parkinson’s argument amounts to the idea that there are no serious actresses because all actresses will have breasts. But Mirren won’t let him get away with it.

Parkinson is just so condescending and Mirren manages to make him look like a fool. It is great. She has such poise and even though he is being rather vulgar she manages to keep her composure.


Read Full Post »

Pen Canada's poster of Dawit Isaac

Pen Canada's poster of Dawit Isaac

I just attended an event put on by Pen Canada to raise awareness about a group of Eritrean journalists imprisoned since September 2001. The journalists were merely reporting on events, such as student protests, which the government did not like. The Eritrean government felt the journalists were only “reporting the bad” which gave power to their enemies. So they were imprisoned and have been held in shipping containers for the last ten years. The shipping containers can get as hot as 50 degrees Celsius in the day. The series of talks made me think about how those who fear the enemy outside their boarders, so often end up with the enemy within.

For more you can read the article in the Toronto Star.

Dawit Isaac, you are remembered.

Read Full Post »

I am often critical of advertisements on this blog because commercials are so often horrible: they reinforce rigid gender roles; they attempt to instill dissatisfaction in the viewer to urge purchases; they use emotional manipulation to get us to buy products that have little to do with the emotion; and they are increasingly turning up in places disguised as part of the show or the video game one is playing.

Act Mouthwash

Act Mouthwash

But, I believe that it is also important to notice when commercials get something right. I saw a commercial for ACT mouthwash for kids last night (Edit: um, I mean on August 28) that I think does a lot of things right. [Edit: I have actually been sitting on this post since August and periodically searching the internet for the commercial. The commercial has never appeared. Rather than just keep waiting, I have decided to now publish this post. Perhaps whomever is in control of marketing at ACT will have an alert set for posts that mention their product and will then realize the importance of putting your shit out there for comment. Sure, some of the comments will be bad. But others will be good. If they ever get around to posting their commercial–free airtime, ahem–then I will update this post with an embedded video, or at least a link. Until then, I hope the description is enough to allow you to get the gist of why the commercial is good. Since they don’t have this ad on the internet, I suppose it is also an example of advertising done wrong]

First, mom is the authority in this commercial even though she does not appear in the commercial. That is not so unusual for commercials about products to be used within the home. But this mom’s authority is based on the fact that she is “the dentist.” Her authority is based on her education and achievement outside of the home rather than on her role as homemaker. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a homemaker, and I do believe that  one gains a great deal of knowledge and expertise through performing that role. But, while some women are homemakers, other women work outside the home. In most commercials you don’t see this. What you see is mom in the home. I am not arguing that there is something “better” about being a dentist than being a homemaker. The argument is about what commercials represent and fail to represent; this commercial is good in my opinion because it represents women in a way that is rare for commercials. I think broadening representations of groups of people is good, and this commercial achieves that.


Read Full Post »



Utilitarianism is basically the moral view that in order to judge whether an action is good one should consider the consequences and then evaluate whether the act provides the most good to the greatest number of people. (It is more complex than that, as you can see from the description at this link, but the nuts and bolts are as above).

This summer I began a new job as an assistant professor at a university. I was thinking about which textbook to order, and I applied a kind of utilitarian reasoning to my selection process. I began by reading the texts and I selected only those that I thought would do good by providing educational benefit to the students. After this process there were three texts that were about tied in terms of educational benefit.

Next, I thought about how I could make the students happy, and decided they would like a low-cost text book. So I went on amazon and looked up the price of the three texts. One was around $90 and the other two were around $40. This narrowed it down to two, and the selection between them really would have resulted in probably a more-or-less equal amount of benefit at lowest cost to students, so I selected the one that had a faster shipping time (1-2 days).

I also support local bookstores and so I ordered the text to a local bookstore so the students could have immediate access to the text without having to wait for the shipping time.

In my reasoning I was trying to maximize the good for everyone involved. The publisher would sell a few hundred copies of the book, the local bookstore would have a few hundred sales, and the students would experience educational benefits and cost savings.

Imagine my surprise when my students informed me that the book cost $75 from the local bookstore! I thought:

“What? How is that possible? Why are the textbooks so expensive?”

So I called around to find out what was going on. How could the actual consequences of my action be so different from the consequences I intended?


Read Full Post »

One area of epistemology, asks whether it is wrong to hold certain beliefs. William Clifford said:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

The “ethics of belief” is often used in intro philosophy classes to begin debates about God’s existence. The following video also provides an example of why one might want to avoid beliefs based on insufficient evidence:

Apparently UFOs, God and whether people go to restroom all have the same evidentiary status according to this guy. I guess he doesn’t know that shit stinks…


Read Full Post »

I am writing this simply to boost the signal on another post “Microsoft Conducts a Home Invasion” over at The MassOrnament. I agree with them about the absolute outrageousness of this commercial:

Note that her computer is only FOUR (4!) years old. Having a four year old computer apparently justifies Microsoft in breaking into your house and harassing you into buying a new computer.

Talk about the high-pressure sales techniques:

“Oh look! we did a B & E in your home while you were out! Don’t call the police, buy a new computer instead! It will cost about $1,000 to $2,000 and it will only last FOUR years! We’re working on lowering the number of years it lasts, by the way! We’ll call it ‘technological advances’ and you’ll want to get yourself another!”

So when a poor person does a B & E and takes your stuff, they get arrested and thrown in jail. But when Microsoft does a B & E, and then coerces you to hand over your computer and a few thousand bucks for a new one, that is somehow caring for their customers?

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: