Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

245 posts categorized "Philosophy"

August 07, 2008

More fun with confectionary use/mention distinctions

This just in from Cake Wreck:Use_mention_cake_2

May 21, 2008

Real-life liar paradox may lead to criminal charges in Massachusetts

A Cape Cod man may face criminal charges for proclaiming himself to be a liar in an alleged bid to avoid jury duty:

On a questionnaire that all potential jurors fill out, Ellis wrote that he didn’t like homosexuals and blacks. He then echoed those sentiments in an interview with Nickerson.

You say on your form that you’re not a fan of homosexuals,” Nickerson said.

"That I’m a racist,” Ellis interrupted.

“I’m frequently found to be a liar, too. I can’t really help it,” Ellis added.

“I’m sorry?” Nickerson said.

“I said I’m frequently found to be a liar,” Ellis replied.

“So, are you lying to me now?” Nickerson asked.

“Well, I don’t know. I might be,” was the response.

"Ellis then admitted he really didn’t want to serve on a jury.

“I have the distinct impression that you’re intentionally trying to avoid jury service,” Nickerson said.

“That’s true,” Ellis answered.

Nickerson ordered Ellis taken into custody. He was released later Monday morning.

Ellis could face perjury and other charges.[MSNBC]

I don't see how they could make a perjury charge stick. Maybe he was lying about lying, which would make him a liar but not a perjurer. Or he was telling the truth about being a liar and therefore didn't perjure himself. I'd be worried about the prejudices of anyone who would label themselves as a bigot just to get out of jury duty. If the prospect of pretending to be a bigot doesn't mortify you, maybe you really are one.

My verdict: Hey, you, outta the jury pool!

December 10, 2007

Kant attack ad

HT: Chris Bertram.

June 13, 2007

Richard Rorty dead at 75

Philosopher Richard Rorty has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75.

New York times obituary here.

Here's an interesting interview of Rorty by Josh Knobe. Knobe was a philosophy student when he did the interview and he later when on to become a philosophy professor.

March 29, 2007

Back from Gettysburg

Yesterday, I gave the Richardson Lecture at Gettysburg College. My talk was about the merits and limitations of the norms and attitudes that journalists call "objectivity." Journalistic objectivity turns out to have almost nothing in common with any philosophical concept of objectivity.

Gotta go take my computer to the shop--the power supply is broken and I've got about 15 minutes of battery life left!

I'm going to write up the talk as a paper/essay and post it on the blog. Sorry, no audiovisuals. There was a videographer there for Gettysburg closed circuit TV, so I might be able to get some clips from them.

Thanks again to the staff and students of Gettysburg for inviting me. It was a great pleasure to meet SteveG , Aspazia, and their colleagues and students. I was a little nervous, but they made me feel right at home.

March 20, 2007

Lindsay Beyerstein to give Richardson lecture at Gettysburg College

I will be giving one of the Norman E. Richardson lectures at Gettysburg College on March 28:

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Lindsay Beyerstein, blogger and photojournalist, will speak on "Objectivity, Professionalism, and Reporting - Methodological Reflections from an Accidental Journalist" March 28 as part of the Norman E. Richardson Lecture series. The event is scheduled for 4 p.m. in Weidensall Hall, Room 302, and is free and open to the public.

I'm honored that Steve Gimbel and his colleagues have invited me to speak at their university. I hope some of our Pennsylvania readers can join us for the event.

The talk is about how my philosophical training and my blog-based reporting influence my approach to journalism. Most reporters don't think about their professional norms as applied epistemology, but that's by and large what they are. Likewise most of the familiar critiques of journalists by bloggers, and bloggers by journalists are based on assumptions about epistemology.

Like many bloggers, I think that the dispassion and disengagement that mainstream journalists call "objectivity" is neither especially objective nor especially conducive to accurate or informative news. However, when I started doing actual reporting, I noticed that it can be very useful to slip into the socially accepted role of the objective journalist, but not for the reasons they say in the textbooks.

I'm still writing the paper. Maybe I'll be able to post a draft online later this week.

March 16, 2007

More on "treating" sexual orientation in utero

Julian Sanchez has an interesting response my earlier post on Southern Baptist pastor Albert Mohler's declaration parents should "treat" their fetuses for homosexuality if there were pre-natal tests for sexual orientation.

Julian agrees that the nature/nurture question is morally irrelevant when it comes to homosexuality. If we agree that sexual choice is a human right and that all sexual orientations are equally compatible with the Good Life, then it doesn't really matter how much of our sexual orientation is influenced by our genes. Sexual orientation might be a free choice that everyone has the right to make. Or it might be more more aspect of the healthy inborn variability that makes our species interesting. If you're someone who thinks that homosexuality is wrong or bad, the nature/nuture argument doesn't matter all that much either. All Christians believe that God has given us certain appetites that predispose us towards sin--like lust, greed, sloth, etc. Nobody supposes that God gave everyone the same vices in the same degrees. Some people are naturally hungrier or hornier or more wrathful than others. The bottom line, supposedly, is that we all have free will and are therefore responsible for not giving in to whatever animal urges we happened to inherit.

Getting back to Julian's post, he says he's not sure exactly how he feels about the ethics of pre-natal testing for sexual orientation:

Though on the question of taking measures in utero to determine the orientation of a child, I'm a bit fuzzier: Certainly, to the extent these are risky, it seems grotesque to chance leaving your child with some kind of serious physical defect just to ensure it comes out straight. But if it were safe? Certainly I'm out of sympathy with the sorts of motives we readily imagine as the source of such a choice—though it's also not hard to think of some less repugnant ones—but it's hard to argue it constitutes a wrong to the child, as such.

As I said in the comments at Julian's place, I think testing and in-utero "treatment" are interestingly different.

I don't think it's a wrong to the fetus, or the future person, to test for sexual orientation, per se. I'm even reluctantly prepared to accept parents' right to terminate pregnancies for reasons that I find frivolous or abhorrent. However, I'm vehemently opposed to the idea of "treating" homosexuality at any point in the life-cyle. Sexual orientations are not diseases, or disabilities.

Continue reading "More on "treating" sexual orientation in utero" »

March 13, 2007


Jeffery Rosen has an interesting piece about neurolaw in the New York Times. He walks us through various research projects that, he thinks, might eventually force lawyers and to reconsider some of the deeply-held assumptions about the law.

Like aeroman, I think some of the neurolaw boosters Rosen profiles many be overselling the near-term legal applications of their research. However, the author hears out both knowledgeable skeptics and serious enthusiasts.

Rosen participates in one series of experiments in which subjects are asked to do moral reasoning inside an MRI. Scientists record their brain activity as they decide what punishment would fit each hypothetical crime. The researchers are trying to figure out what goes on in our brains as we reason about justice and punishment. They're trying to learn what's different about the brain of a calculating, rational decision-maker compared vs. someone who follows their gut. This research could be useful for developing methods of persuasion geared towards specific types of decision-makers. Advertisers and market researchers are already exploring the possibilities of targeted persuasion. I'm sure the neurolaw people aren't far behind.

[The two scientists] talked excitedly about the implications of their experiments for the legal system. If they discovered a significant gap between people’s hard-wired sense of how severely certain crimes should be punished and the actual punishments assigned by law, federal sentencing guidelines might be revised, on the principle that the law shouldn’t diverge too far from deeply shared beliefs. [NYT]

A) I'm not sure the world would be a better place if we let the lizard brain dictate our criminal sentencing guidelines. B) On a practical level, why do we need brain scans to ascertain how people feel about crime and punishment. Why not just skip the MRI and go straight to the public opinion polling?

Rosen also worries about whether a more sophisticated understanding of the brain will force us to abandon our traditional conception of free will. I don't see why understanding the brain would be any more or less threatening to the concept of free will or personal responsibility than our prior understanding of determinism and indeterminism. We understood the underlying logical problems a long time ago, now we're just working more of the details of the causal chain inside the head.

There's lots of interesting stuff in this article, especially the sections about measuring implicit biases. What's lacking in the piece is a sense of why the relatively new neuro side of this research is so important for the law. Psychologists have been pursuing similar research programs by studying outwardly observable behaviors for years.

It's neat that our imaging techniques have evolved to the point where we can watch the fireworks in the brain, but these imaging studies don't seem to be telling the legal profession very much over and above what the law and psychology specialists have been studying for years.

That's not to denigrate these brain imaging research programs. Studying the brain is worthwhile for its own sake. However, some brain imaging scientists seem tempted to oversell the practical applications of their work in order to get grants for the very expensive equipment they need.

March 08, 2007


Simulacrum, originally uploaded by Lynn Morag.

Thanks to all the readers who emailed me about the passing of French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

I wish I had something insightful to say about Baudrillard, but I'm not familiar enough with his work to add much to the discussion.

So, I'm hoping that readers will offer their thoughts below. If you're  Baudrillard-blogging, please post links to your reminiscences and reflections.

March 07, 2007

NYT admits reporter paid source

Here's an interesting ethical dilemma, or two....

The New York Times acknowledged yesterday that former Times staff reporter Kurt Eichenwald paid a source $2000:

NEW YORK - The New York Times acknowledged Tuesday that a reporter who wrote an acclaimed 2005 article about a teenage Internet pornographer helped gain the boy's trust by sending him a $2,000 check.

Former Times staff writer Kurt Eichenwald made the payment in June 2005 to Justin Berry, who at the time was an 18-year-old star in a seedy network of child-porn sites.

Six months later, Berry became the leading figure in Eichenwald's expose on Web sex sites run by teenagers. The Times investigation prompted congressional hearings, led to arrests and fueled reforms in the way Web-hosting companies screen their clients. [Yahoo]

The story is much more complex because Eichenwald developed a personal relationship with Berry months before the expose. The reporter and his wife helped convince the teen to stop making porn, quit drugs, and become a police informant. Eichenwald's editors were aware of the unusual connection between the reporter and his source, and noted it in a sidebar to Eichenwald's article. However, Eichenwald didn't tell his editors that any money had changed hands.

Here's the really weird part. Eichenwald says the check was just a ruse to get the kid's real name and address.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Eichenwald, who left the Times in October, explained that he had sent the teen a check as part of a ploy to learn his true name and address.

At the time, he said, he didn't intend to write about Berry, but had come across his distressing Web identity while researching an unrelated article. Eichenwald said he and his wife decided to try to get help for the young man.

"We were gambling 2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid's life," he said.

Eichenwald said that when he finally decided to write about Berry after meeting him in person, he asked for the money back. Most newspapers, including the Times, prohibit reporters from paying sources. The $2,000 was eventually repaid by Berry's grandmother, he said. [Yahoo]

The most interesting ethical twist is that Eichenwald asked for the money back when he decided to write about the kid. Clearly, he couldn't ethically write about the kid unless he got the money back.

However, it seems equally problematic for a reporter to dangle money in front of a vulnerable subject only to snatch it back again. Promising a drug addicted teen pornographer $2000 and then asking for the money back seems cruel. I'm sure the kid's grandmother wasn't thrilled about having to cough up two grand to cover a debt some reporter created for a story.

Eichenwald said he initially offered the money in order to locate the kid so that he could help him. If this is true, it's an important detail. Setting out to bribe a source is definitely wrong. Deliberately tricking a source with the promise of a bribe is iffy at best. It's certainly unethical for conventional reporting. Maybe a journalist doing cloak-and-dagger undercover reporting on nuclear secrets could justify a bribery ruse if they cleared the whole deal with their editor in advance. That said, what might be within the outer realm of professional ethics as an undercover national security reporter is well out of bounds for a staff writer covering teen pornographers.

It's not clear from the article whether Eichenwald intended to get the money back all along, or whether he intended to let the Berry keep the money, but later changed his mind when he decided to write about him.

It seems clear to me that Eichenwald should have recused himself from the story after his financial dealings with the subject. At the very least, Eichenwald should have disclosed the monetary arrangements to his editor. The more interesting question is what else he did wrong, if anything.