Fun Facts About Me

I've been passed this meme like a bad case of the clap. I'm seriously logorrheic, and I have a good sense of the line between information that ought to remain public and ought to remain private, but I get too much of a kick sharing “too much information,” as they say. So I have nothing that will be surprising to all my acquaintances. Here's the best I can do.

(1) I was a “historic interpreter” at the Joseph Smith Historic site in Nauvoo, IL, and the Kirtland Temple Historic Center in Kirtland, OH, and gave tours to thousands upon thousands of Mormon pilgrims. Was I raised Mormon? Depends on what you mean by “Mormon”! I grew up in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the anti-polygamist Mormon sect that stayed in the Midwest while Brigham Young and Co. trekked west, and which then “reorganized” when the son of the slain prophet, Joseph Smith III, was old enough to take on the mantle of leadership. The RLDS church turned out to be something like the Episcopalians of Mormonism (my mother was in the first cohort of women in the priesthood in the mid-Eighties), and recently changed its name to The Community of Christ. I never wore funny underwear, never had a Temple recommend, never was baptized as a proxy for a dead person, never believed in Kolob, and paid tithing on ten percent of my increase (what you've got left after necessary expenses), not my income. That said, I did grow up believing that the people depicted in Apocalypto were Jews who came over the ocean in hollow wooden boats with a plug in the top, lit by glowing stones, and that Christ would return to the town of my birth, Independence, MO. I filled up a lot of quarter cards with my paper route money to help build the temple.

(2) At Lenihan Junior High in Marshalltown, Iowa I spent a year on the exhibition jump rope team, the Skippers. I used to be able to do push-ups inside the double dutch, was able to do a few “triples” (pass the rope under three times in one jump), and can probably still do more “doubles” than you, despite my relative corpulence and bad knees.

(3) I was a bit of a Max Fischer in High School, where, despite being a decidely mediocre student, was senior Student Senate president (based on my campaign speech promising a non-lame homecoming theme and dolphin-safe tuna in the cafeteria–both abject failures), Thespian Club president (and winner of the hotly contested Jean SebergMary Beth Hurt drama award), and French Club co-president (despite having almost zero fluency in French — Joyeux Noel!), and a leading National Forensics League point winner, and other stuff I forget. Who had time for homework?! I was also awarded the Left Foot Award (an old left sneaker) for being the worst dancer in South Side Transit, the MHS swing choir. The highlight of my theatrical career was playing Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat at the Marshalltown Community Theater in the summer of 1991. I remember being pretty awesome. Really, it's been all downhill since high school for me. Actually, it's all been downhill since I was twelve. I was amazing at twelve. And very, very short.

(4) I went by “Bill” until college. I pretentiously tried to switch to the full “William,” but my high school friends in my dorm called me “Wilk” and everybody assumed that it was “Will.” So my comically repetitive name is not really my fault.

(5) I received an “F” the first semester of my freshman year in the University of Northern Iowa Varsity Men's Glee Club, due to missing rehearsals. I had been in a head-on car collision (my fault!), breaking my collarbone, sending my bottom teeth through my face under my lip, and cracking several ribs. Bob Byrnes, the former Glee Club conductor and UNI carilloneur, was the most sternly drill-sergeant-like yet also sentimentally Liberace-esque dude I ever met. He would yell gruffly at how bad we sucked, and then cry when we really nailed the stirring “Climb Every Mountain” climax to the Sound of Music Medley. He did not take missing rehearsals lightly. (And I just see that he died in 2004. RIP, Bob.)

Enough of my ridiculous midwestern wholesomeness. Merry Christmas everybody!

Herbert Spencer Clues Explosion

Toot toot! Hop on the Herbert Spencer cluetrain!

Assuming it to be in other respects satisfactory, a rule, principle, or axiom, is valuable only in so far as the words in which it is expressed have a definite meaning. The terms used must be universally accepted in the same sense, otherwise the proposition will be liable to such various constructions, as to lose all claim to the title—a rule. We must therefore take it for granted that when he announced “the greatest happiness to the greatest number” as the canon of social morality, its originator supposed mankind to be unanimous in their definition of “greatest happiness.”

This was a most unfortunate assumption, for no fact is more palpable than that the standard of happiness is infinitely variable. In all ages—amongst every people—by each class—do we find different notions of it entertained. …

Generalizing such facts, we see that the standard of “greatest happiness” possesses as little fixity as the other exponents of human nature. Between nations the differences of opinion are conspicuous enough. On contrasting the Hebrew patriarchs with their existing descendants, we observe that even in the same race the beau ideal of existence changes. The members of each community disagree upon the question. Neither, if we compare the wishes of the gluttonous school-boy with those of the earth-scorning transcendentalist into whom he may afterwards grow, do we find any constancy in the individual. So we may say, not only that every epoch and every people has its peculiar conceptions of happiness, but that no two men have like conceptions; and further, that in each man the conception is not the same at any two periods of life.

The rationale of this is simple enough. Happiness signifies a gratified state of all the faculties. The gratification of a faculty is produced by its exercise. To be agreeable that exercise must be proportionate to the power of the faculty; if it is insufficient discontent arises, and its excess produces weariness. Hence, to have complete felicity is to have all the faculties exerted in the ratio of their several developments; and an ideal arrangement of circumstances calculated to secure this constitutes the standard of “greatest happiness;” but the minds of no two individuals contain the same combination of elements. Duplicate men are not to be found. There is in each a different balance of desires. Therefore the conditions adapted for the highest enjoyment of one, would not perfectly compass the same end for any other. And consequently the notion of happiness must vary with the disposition and character; that is, must vary indefinitely.

Whereby we are also led to the inevitable conclusion that a true conception of what human life should be, is possible only to the ideal man. We may make approximate estimates, but he only in whom the component feelings exist in their normal proportions is capable of a perfect aspiration. And as the world yet contains none such, it follows that a specific idea of “greatest happiness” is for the present unattainable. It is not then to be wondered at, if Paleys and Benthams make vain attempts at a definition. The question involves one of those mysteries which men are ever trying to penetrate and ever failing. It is the insoluble riddle which Care, Sphinx-like, puts to each new comer, and in default of answer devours him. And as yet there is no Œdipus, nor any sign of one.

It's worth emphasizing that this is not for Spencer an anti-utilitarian argument. Spencer is a utilitarian. But, fascinatingly, Spencer is a pluralist about both the composition of happiness, and about conceptions of the composition of happiness. His own thick conception of happiness—that it is the gratification produced by the maximal exercise of the several faculties enabled by their degrees of development—accomodates variability across persons in the capacity of faculties and their development. In a separate argument, Spencer notes that there may be tradeoffs in the development in faculties (developing one more may require developing another less), and maintains that there is no adequate general principle for determining the relative value of the (evidently qualitatively different) gratification of different faculties. Spencer also notes that even were the nature of happiness unitary, epistemically transparent, and uncontested, individual variation would in any case pose an intractable knowledge problem for a benevolent utilitarian policy czar. The upshot of Spencer's pluralism about happiness is the same as the upshot of pluralism about value in general. The best bet politically is a general, neutral framework of rights that enable harmonious social cooperation in pursuit of one's good, however one conceives it. As far as I can tell from my amateur Spencer scholarship is that this argument is pivotal for Spencer's general view about the congruence of rights and utility.

Happiness Quote of the Day

[The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number] is no rule at all … but rather an enunciation of the problem to be solved. It is your 'greatest happiness' of which we have been so long and so fruitlessly in search; albeit we never gave it a name. You tell us nothing new; you merely give words to our want. What you call an answer, is simply our own question turned the right side up. If this is your philosophy it is surely empty, for it merely echoes the interrogation.

Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: Or, the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed, 1861.