So, I have to move out of my house tomorrow. But I still have some perfectly good stuff that I need to get rid of. It's ALL FREE!!! If you're a DC area denizen, who would be able to drop by my house this evening, and you want something, drop me a line. I have pictures of some of this things, if you're interested. I have:

* A 5' four drawer file cabinet

* A medium/large American Tourister suitcase with wheels and telescoping handle.

* An old but powerful Hoover canister vacuum cleaner, complete with free bags.

* A couple sets of plates. Mix & match!

* Some nice pots.

* Several electric fans.

Dibs goes to Fly Bottle readers. But act soon, before I wave this red meat at the Craigslist scavengers!

Happiness, Adaptation, and Bigger Breasts

One of the reasons extra income has a small effect on happiness is that we rapidly adapt to new luxuries. A fancy new Porsche will cause a spike in my sense of well-being, but I'll get used to it soon enough, and the happy effect will wear off. If we adapted completely to everything, then there would be little we could do to permanently alter our sense of well-being.

One thing you could do is consume more, faster. That is, buy something even nicer just before the positive effect of the last thing wears off. As far as I can tell the happiness investigators simply haven't seriously considered this option. There seems to be a kind of bias against transient pleasure. But if you're ALWAYS experiencing SOME transient pleasure, then you've permanently jacked up your level of SWB, even if EACH pleasure wears off.

One of the huge deficiencies of the happiness literature is that there is almost no data following individuals over time. So the data can tell you that, on average, buying a new car doesn't make people happier over the long run. But it can't tell you that always buying a new car before you get used to the old one doesn't make you happier over the long run. There needs to be more research on this kind of individual hedonic strategy.

Also, it turns out that we don't adapt equally to everything. So if there are things that we can spend our money on that will make us happier, and some of the effect will tend to stick, then more money could get you more happiness as long as the money is spent on the right kind of thing. The evidence shows that if you want to be happier, you should spend more time and money on exercise, meditation, and strengthening your social bonds. And It turns out that we don't adapt much to cosmetic surgery. Looking better makes us happier, and we stay happier. Especially with boob jobs.

So, here's my Benthamite policy proposal of the day: vouchers (and/or tax breaks)for breast implants.

Dennett on ID

Daniel Dennett's NYT essay on intelligent design is spot on from beginning to end. If you're confused about this issue, this is the place to go.

Dennett concludes:

Since there is no content, there is no “controversy” to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?

OK, that's a good high school question. But how about a question for adults? Has the hegemony of secularism in public institutions, such as the schools, generated it's own backlash? Is intelligent design a symptom of a much deeper problem: the failure of our public institutions to embody the ideals of liberal neutrality?

ID, Aliens, and Pointlessness

In an actually useful HuffPo post, Michael Shermer discusses intelligent design, offering an updated version of Philo's objections in Hume's Dialogues. Namely, if the best explanation of various phenomena is design, then we require a theory of the designer. And the best theory may simply be a committee of super-intelligent but fallible aliens. Which, clearly, get us no closer to the God of Abraham than we were before.

Here's Hume:

Now, Cleanthes, said Philo, with an air of alacrity and triumph, mark the consequences. First, By this method of reasoning, you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the Deity. For, as the cause ought only to be proportioned to the effect, and the effect, so far as it falls under our cognizance, is not infinite; what pretensions have we, upon your suppositions, to ascribe that attribute to the Divine Being? . . .

Secondly, You have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the Deity, even in his finite capacity, or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence, in his undertakings. There are many inexplicable difficulties in the works of Nature, which, if we allow a perfect author to be proved a priori, are easily solved, and become only seeming difficulties, from the narrow capacity of man, who cannot trace infinite relations. But according to your method of reasoning, these difficulties become all real; and perhaps will be insisted on, as new instances of likeness to human art and contrivance. . .

And what shadow of an argument, continued Philo, can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the Deity? A great number of men join in building a house or ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth; why may not several deities combine in contriving and framing a world? This is only so much greater similarity to human affairs. By sharing the work among several, we may so much further limit the attributes of each, and get rid of that extensive power and knowledge, which must be supposed in one deity, and which, according to you, can only serve to weaken the proof of his existence. And if such foolish, such vicious creatures as man, can yet often unite in framing and executing one plan, how much more those deities or demons, whom we may suppose several degrees more perfect!

Or, try this. ID, even if true, puts us in an explanatory spiral, an unclosed regressive loop.

Assume ID is the best explanation for ordered complexity. That means, our best theory of ordered complexity posits the existence of an intelligent designer, meaning that we posited intelligence as an explanatory fundamental. However, intelligence as we know it is a property of biological beings, and a form of the kind of ordered complexity we initially sought to explain.

If it is suggested that “higher” intelligence is not a form of ordered complexity analogous to our own intelligence, then there is no ground for calling it intelligence after all. If it is itself a form of ordered complexity, then we have made no explanatory advance, for we will be left positing an even higher order intelligent designer for each higher order intelligent designer.

If it proposed that we stop the explanatory spiral by positing an undesigned designer then a new question arises: What explains the emergence of the undesigned designer? Whatever the explanation for the ordered complexity of the undesigned designer may be, then it seems that that explanation could be applied to first order ordered complexity, and Occam demands we excise the useless proliferation of higher order designers.

If it is replied that there is no mechanism that gave rise to the undesigned designer, then first order ordered complexity is still unexplained, only it is now more elaborately unexplained.

Even if it's the best explanation, ID would get us nowhere, which means its probably not.

My take on ID is that if there were any evidence for it, then the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life would be non-zero. We would then have a proximate explanation for ordered complexity as it appears on Earth. But we'd be no closer to an account of ordered complexity as such.

Moving Sale!

I'm having a moving sale tomorrow. You should come an take my stuff away and possibly give me money. Here's the Craigslist notice:

HEY STUDENTS! YOUNG PROFESSIONALS! Lots of good stuff at bargain basement prices! No non-crazy offer refused! Everything must go. Come early for the good stuff. Come late for the free stuff.

934 Westminster St NW (off 9th or 10th Streets, between S & T Streets NW)
Saturday, Aug. 27
10:00 am – 3:00 pm

Fabulous items include:

* Mini fridge
* Full size file cabinet
* Complete set of patio furniture
* Nice-looking wood/metal futon
* Two TVs
* Two VCRs
* An adaptor box for hooking a DVD player/Xbox sort of thing to an old TV (worth more than the old TVs)
* Nice pots and pans
* Miscellaneous kitchen utensils
* Quirky antique wooden folding chairs
* Free books – literature and philosophy, mostly
* Arbitrary stuffed animals
* Portable wheeled clothes rack with breathable hanging storage bag (perfect for hanging stuff in a basement)
* Computer scanner
* ink jet printer
* Two computer monitors (15″ & 17″)
* Two defunct but surely geek fixable Windows machines
* Much much more!!!

Research Bleg

I'm looking for the correpsondence between James Madison and Jeremy Bentham. Bentham wrote to Madison on Oct. 30, 1811, offering generously to codify the laws of the US and extricate us from the unwieldy organic thicket of the common law. Madison replied, declining, I take it, on May 8, 1816. I've tracked down Bentham's reply to Madison. And a note from John Quincy Adams to Madison about Bentham. And some back and forth between Bentham & JQA. But I can't find the first letter to Madison and the reply online. Can anyone out there do better? I think Bentham's complete correspondence is accessible through Past Masters, but I don't have institutional access.

[UPDATE: I've determined that the letters I'm looking for are in: The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham: Volume 8: January 1809 to December 1816. The maddening thing is that I have access to 7 and 9 through Questia, but not 8! Argh. I suppose there are always actual libraries… Here's the National Archives scan of the orignal Bentham letter to Madison, but pretty hard to read.]

Does Cindy Sheehan Have Moral Authority?

No. What she may have is moral standing, analogous to legal standing. Legal standing is, roughly, the right to initiate a law suit. Here are the conditions for legal standing from some random legal web site:

There are three requirements for Article III standing: (1) injury in fact, which means an invasion of a legally protected interest that is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) a causal relationship between the injury and the challenged conduct, which means that the injury fairly can be traced to the challenged action of the defendant, and has not resulted from the independent action of some third party not before the court; and (3) a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision, which means that the prospect of obtaining relief from the injury as a result of a favorable ruling is not too speculative.

Now, don't to be too literal about the legal analogy. Nobody thinks mothers of dead soldiers have a legal case against the President. What is clear is that Sheehan's son died in a war that is the result of Bush's executive decisions. How does she do, roughly, on the moral analogues to the conditions for legal standing?

(1) Has Sheehan been injured? I don't think we can dispute that a mother has a moral interest in the life and well-being of her children. And we cannot dispute that the loss of a son is injurious. But the fact that she has suffered a moral injury does not establish that someone has morally injured her. Which brings us to

(2) The conduct Sheehan has challenged is Bush's call as Commander and Chief to invade and occupy Iraq. It seems clear that Bush's commands are a causal factor in the death of her son. But one may fairly argue that the action that ultimately put Casey Sheehan in harms way was his decision to enlist in the military. Casey Sheehan volunteered to occupy a role that involves the risk of death. The fact that Bush called a war, one the indirect effects being that Casey Sheehan died, injuring Cindy Sheehan, is not enough to establish her moral standing in the matter.

This pushes us back to an element of (1). Is Sheehan's interest in the welfare of her son “morally protected” in a case where her adult child volunteered to expose himself to the risk of death?

My answer is that a volunteer soldier forfeits his morally protected interest to not be exposed to the risk of death through war when he becomes involved in a just war. He suffers no moral injury or injustice if killed in voluntary service in a morally justified war or conflict.

So the issue of Sheehan's moral standing just is the question of whether the Iraq war is just or unjust. For Bush to recognize that the death of Sheehan's son grants her special moral standing is to concede that the war is unjust. Which is why it would be politically insane to recognize her in particular, rather than simply sympathizing with the pain, and recognizing the sacrifice of the entire class of people who have lost loved ones in the war.

Now, I do think that the Iraq war is unjust. And I think that soldiers, and by extension their families and friends, who die in unjust wars clearly are the victims of injustice. And political and military leaders who are responsible for putting on unjust wars are the perpetrators of this injustice and so bear some moral culpability for these deaths. Because the Iraq war is not just, Cindy Sheehan's moral interest in the life of her son, via his own moral interest in his own life, remained morally protected, and so I conclude she does have moral standing. She is fully within her moral rights to demand a justfication and/or an apology from President Bush. I do think it's important to point out that her injury gives her no special moral authority. It simply gives her justified grounds for demanding some kind of rectification.

South Asian Saturday

Hey! Joanna & I have organized this for AFF Underground. You should come.


Indonesian film The Courtesan at the Freer Gallery; Happy hour at Café Asia

Join AFF Underground on Saturday, August 20 for a taste of Asia with an Indonesian film and pan-Asian happy hour. Come for a free 2:00 pm showing of the acclaimed Indonesian film The Courtesan at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery, check out the museum's collection of exquisite Asian art, and then head up to Café Asia for a 4:30 pm happy hour featuring $1 pieces of Nigiri sushi and $2 on select draft beers. AFF Founder's Club Members (join now!) get two free drinks! Come for drinks and film talk, stay for dinner. RSVP to Joanna Robinson (

A Courtesan
Saturday, August 20, 2005, 2:00 pm, Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery

A hit at several international film festivals, this gorgeous historical epic from director Nia Dinata was tells the story of an Indonesian woman living in Holland who returns to her homeland to discovery the mystery of the parents who gave her up for adoption. Their surprising tale, told in evocative flashbacks, reveals a forbidden romance between her mother, a “ca-kau-ban,” or courtesan, and her lover, a Chinese trader. (2002, 120 min.)

Freer/Sackler Gallery
The gallery houses a world-renowned collection of art from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Near East. Visitor favorites include Chinese paintings, Japanese folding screens, Korean ceramics, Indian and Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture.

The Freer Gallery of Art is located at Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW., steps from the Smithsonian metro stop on the Orange/Blue line.

Café Asia
Café Asia celebrates the rich and varied culinary traditions of the Far East by offering delicious dishes from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, and Vietnam. While preserving these countries’ culinary traditions, Café Asia puts a modern spin on everything from presentation to performance. Boasting two full-service bars and lounges, Café Asia brings people from all different backgrounds into a diverse melting pot of hip and happening fun. Happy hour from 4:30-7:00 pm features $1 Nigiri Sushi and $2 select draft beers.

1720 I St., NW, just off the Farragut West metro stop on the Orange/Blue line, four stops from the Smithsonian station.