Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wrapping up my final week of living in Hawaii

My time as the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at UH Manoa is quickly coming to an end. I have had a great experience this term enjoying the beauty of this Island and the riches of this campus.

Professionally, having so much time to dedicate to reading and writing has been a unique opportunity. I have tried to make the most of it, writing some new papers related to genetics and ethics, and reading many of the foundational books for my next new project on play and the good life.

Personally, living away from family and friends has been both a challenge and an opportunity for personal growth. I will have many fond memories of my time here in Hawaii. I put together a random list of the top things I will miss most about leaving:

The weather and beauty of this island (Oahu).

New friends I made while here (especially the members of the “Shut up and Write! Honolulu” meetup group).

The comfort of hearing “Aloha!” and “Mahalo” on a daily basis.

The luxury of having so much time to dedicate to reading and writing.

The incredible gym facility on campus, a 5 minute walk from where I was living on campus.

The sound of one of the campus roosters crowing at 5am.

Walking so much (with no car I walked everywhere, an average of 12km a day).

My fav local restaurant which I would frequent at least once a week.

I have been very fortunate to have had this opportunity. And I cannot wait to get back home to family and friends who I have missed dearly!


Friday, November 16, 2018

Why do I write about genetics?

Over the course of nearly two decades I have published on many different topics: free speech, judicial review, ideal theory, a citizens' basic income, patriarchy, toleration, etc. But one topic has dominated most of my thoughts and publications- advances in genetics and the ethical and social consequences of this so-called "genetic revolution".

Among my colleagues in the field of political theory I am, admittedly, an oddity. "Why genetics?", one might reasonably ask. Why genetics especially when there are so many pressing issues like global justice, the legacy of colonialism, race, patriarchy, democracy in the era of Trump, etc.? It is a valid question to pose. And the fact that the issue of genetics doesn't have obvious, intuitive "pull" on our moral sensibilities as a pressing societal issue in need of normative theorizing is a large part of the reason why I am attracted to the topic.

Here is a summary of the 3 main reasons I have invested so much into a research project that is much more risky to pursue (given the career rewards of inward specialization vs the costs and risks of interdisciplinarity):

1. My intellectual curiosity: I find the kind of interdisciplinary research I engage in on these topics simply fascinating. I have learned about evolutionary biology, medicine, demography, aging, psychology, etc. I am never bored! And I think that is absolutely crucial to keeping the passion for research burning over the long hall. There is always something new and interesting to learn and write about. Some academics flourish looking inward on problems, writing for specialists on highly technical issues within a sub-field. But my interest has always been with pitching things at a more general level, linking key insights from diverse perspectives and sources- tying to adopt a provisional and humble "bird's eye view" of the moral landscape to help us re-assess how successful we are with tackling the pressing societal issues of today and tomorrow.

2. The societal importance of the issues: I chose to write on the ethical and social implications of the genetic revolution because I think it is one of the most significant developments of this century. From helping us prevent and treat disease to enhancing our capabilities (e.g. longevity, happiness, intelligence, etc.), gaining new insights into our biology opens the door to many new possible innovations and developments. There is a wealth of topics to be addressed, but so few scholars seriously devoted to tackling them in detail. Which leads me to (3)....

3. It is currently neglected: Science policy is one of the most important areas of good governance, and yet it is almost completely ignored by political theorists. A voluminous amount of ink has been spilt by theorists debating the political economy- capitalism, socialism, the welfare state, a basic income, etc. But good governance involves so much more than determining how wealth and income should be distributed. Technology and innovation are equally, if not more, important (for they drive the creation of wealth in the first place!). And yet our undergraduates are not provided with the analytical tools to think critically and cogently about such issues. This is a real shame in my view. So I try to redress this by at least engaging my own students with some of these topics in my undergraduate and graduate level courses.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

My Father (RIP 1935-2018)

It brings me great sadness to note the death of the most devoted reader of this blog- my father Patrick Farrelly passed away last week surrounded by family and love.

My father has been the single most influential person in my life. A nurse and Olympic athlete (at the tender age of 41), my father pushed me to excel in my career aspirations. Outside of myself, he is the only other person to have read everything I ever published.

My father was the most physically active person I have ever known. He would walk or bike for hours a day, every day. Missing a workout was very rare and when it happened it was a very big deal to him.

Because of my father's training as a nurse and elite athlete, he and I would have lengthy debates about the role of lifestyle vs genetics in longevity and disease. He was a big believer in living a healthy lifestyle. He never smoked and never drank alcohol (only once did I see him drink half a glass of red wine after I did some arm twisting about its potential health benefits!). He was still very active till the end. But sadly the progression of cancer eventually won the day.

My father received his diagnosis just over a year ago. And as I processed this development I was inspired to write yet another paper on combating aging. Watching the cancer progress and weaken the person I had known my whole life as physically active and cognitively engaged was very hard. My father and I talked briefly about the argument I was developing in this new paper. And he was thrilled, as always, when I shared the news with him this past summer that it was accepted for publication. Sadly, and ironically, he wasn't able to read the paper in which I argue that senescence is one of the greatest threats to our liberty this century. It is the first paper of mine he won't have the opportunity to read, and yet it is a paper about the plight of him and billions more this century.

The paper will be forthcoming shortly here. This is the abstract:

In this article, I argue that senescence (biological aging) is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. The two most prominent conceptions of freedom are “negative” and “positive” liberty. The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference, whereas the positive conception equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. By critically examining both the negative and positive conceptions of liberty, I make the case that senescence does violate our liberty, on both accounts of freedom. Also, if this is correct, then the development of an applied gerontological intervention ought to be considered an integral commitment of a society dedicated to freedom. An aging intervention holds great emancipatory potential for the world's aging populations.

I moved away from home over 22 years ago. And for over 20 years my father and I would talk on the phone at precisely 8:30pm on Tuesdays and Fridays. I already dearly miss those conversations, and his presence in my life. I would not be who I am today without the example he set for me as a human being and father.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Theorizing the "Non-Ideal" (Part 2)

As promised in my previous post (Part 1), I will now write a somewhat substantive post about Marx and non-ideal theory. I am writing this post overlooking the beautiful Manoa valley at night from the 9th floor of my residence building. I won't write as much as I initially planned, but I want to get some ideas down as to why I think Marx is a very different theorist than Plato in terms of the skills they exercise (e.g. detailing ideal aspirations vs diagnosing societal problems and detailing how we might effectively confront those problems).

In my last post I argued that Plato was the paradigmatic example of an "ideal" theorist. Plato's Republic is primarily concerned with detailing the epistemic ideal society, where philosopher kings and queens rule over the ignorant masses. And this hierarchy of reason over courage and the appetites also matches Plato's account of justice at the level of the individual. Non-ideal considerations (e.g. how to ensure the philosophers actually rule in the interests of the common good and do not suffer the epistemic vices the rest of us suffer) play only a secondary role in Plato's theory and are not very compelling. Detailing the ideal is Plato's primary concern, how to realistically achieve that ideal is almost an afterthought.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, is the non-ideal theorist who theorizes the non-ideal. Marx observed the exploitation and alienation that most people living in 19th century Europe experienced and he sought to (1) diagnosis why this was the case and then (2) detail how to emancipate the workers from this fate. Unlike Plato, Marx does not jump immediately to detailing what he thinks the ideal society entails.

Marx develops an ambitious theory of human history, "historical materialism", that posits the following theses about humans and our social and productive lives (these are taken from my article on historical materialism):

T1—Thesis of basic materialism: Humans have basic needs, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for any other form of life (e.g., social, political or intellectual life).

T2—Thesis of human collectivity: Humans have a distinctive history of acting to produce the means for meeting their material needs and they do
so in classes.

T3—Scarcity thesis: The historical condition of humans is one of scarcity of goods.

T4—Superstructure stabilizing thesis: The superstructure stabilizes the economic structure.

T5—Thesis of human rationality: Humans are rational beings who know how to satisfy the compelling wants they have and will be disposed to
seize and employ the means of satisfaction of those wants.

T6—Ideology thesis: The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.

T7—Development thesis: Productive forces tend to develop.

T8—Selection and transformation thesis: Productive forces select structures according to their capacity to promote development and persist as long as it is optimal for further development of productive power.

T9—Intelligence thesis: People possess intelligence of a kind and degree that enables them to improve their situation.

Like Plato, Marx identified hierarchies that exist in human societies. But he didn't take these hierarchies to be "natural" with some destined to rule over others. Instead Marx conjectured that these class hierarchies played a key instrumental role in permitting certain productive forces to develop (e.g. agricultural technologies, then industrial technologies). And these "relations of production" no longer served to facilitate the development of the productive forces they were cast asunder and replaced with new relations of production that could do this, which brought in new class dynamics.

As is clearly evident, Marx's diagnosis of the problems with the "status quo" are much more profound and sophisticated than Plato's complaint that democracy has poor epistemic merits. Marx details a conception of human nature, how societies have transformed from slave, feudal and capitalist systems to an eventual post-capitalist future. Marx has at least 3 conceptions of exploitation- a theory of exploitation in the labour process of capitalism, a transhistorical conception and a general account of exploitation. One could write books about Marx's account of why things are the way they are (his theorizing of the "non-ideal"), before coming to his predictions about what will occur in the post-capitalist society. And the details here, compared to his extensive diagnostic lens, are pretty sparse. We know the motto of the communist society will be "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". We know he thinks it will be a situation where the means of production fall into the hands of the masses, so they can partake in productive activity that is fulfilling and meaningful. Marx also describes the transition from the "lower phase" of communism to a "higher phase".

While I am not a Marxist, I can admire the depth and sophistication of Marx's social theory. I do not think (With the exception of Aristotle, the greatest theorist of all time in my books!) any theorist comes close to the impact and depth of insight of Marx. Period. My admiration of Marx stems from his unfailing commitment to "theorize the non-ideal". To understand how we got into the predicament we are in. And only then, with a clear picture of that historical story, can we integrate a story of how to move forward in a way that could realize the aspirations we think are defensible and realisable.

The skill-set required of the Marxist theorist is very different from that of the Plantonist. And I think theorists today could profit immensely from aspiring to emulate the non-ideal theorizing of Marx vs the ideal theorizing of Plato. I am not saying we must be Marxists (far from it), only that we ought to take the "bird's eye view" of the problems we address, like Marx does, rather than be overly preoccupied with precisely defining some distributive ideal or concept in the abstract.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 4)

I made my way through Play= Learning, which concentrates on education and children. From the Introduction:

In sum, treating children like empty vessels whose heads can be filled with knowledge because we select what they will learn and teach it directly leads to problems in two domains. First, studies show that children in these programs often learn less academically than their peers who are not being taught concepts directly but in a more playful manner. Second, these programs have the unintended social consequences of creating students who are less likely to experience empathy with their peers, more likely to show evidence of stress-induced hyperactivity, and more likely to engage in delinquent acts. (10).

I am now making my way through two older books on play- Huizinga's Homo Ludens (which means "Man the Player"). H. focuses on understanding play not as a biological phenomenon, but rather as a cultural phenomenon. His definition of play emphasizes its voluntary nature, that it is not "ordinary" or "real life", its secludedness (contains its own course and meaning) and tension (uncertainty, chanciness). All play has rules, argues H. His formal definition of play is:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious", but at the same time absorbing the player intensively and utterly. It is activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (13)

H. then dedicates chapters to play and law, war, philosophy, art, etc. The central idea I want to appropriate from H. is the notion of making Homo Ludens (and contrasting that with homo economicus) central to my political theory. I want to detail a realistic utopia for the playful species that we are.

In Man, Play and Games, Caillois argues that H's definition is at the same time too broad and too narrow (4). Games of chance played for money, for example, don't fit H's definition. C. defines play as follows:
1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;

2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;

3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player's initiative.

4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game.

5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;

6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality, as against real life. (10)

C. then divides play into four main rubrics depending on which elements of play is most dominant- competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo. He calls these agón, alea, mimicry, and ilinex, respectively (12).

Some examples of the groups would be: agón (football, chess); alea (roulette, lotteries); mimicry (pirate, or Hamlet); and ilinex (falling movement, state of dizziness and disorder).

C. places all games on a continuum between two opposite poles of what he calls "paidia" and "ludus". The former refers to a state where free improvisation and carefree gaiety is dominant, and with the latter our impulsive exuberance is absorbed or disciplined by imperative, tedious conventions.

A few more excellent descriptions of the categories of play:

agón "A whole group of games would seem to be competition, that is to say, like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that the adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner's triumph. It is therefore always a question of a rivalry which hinges on a single quality (speed, endurance, strength, memory, skill, ingenuity, etc.), exercised within defined limits and without outside assistance, in such a way that the winner appears to be better than the loser in a certain category of exploits" (14).

"The point of the game is for each player to have his superiority in a given area recognized. That is why the practice of agón presupposes sustained attention, appropriate training, assiduous application, and the desire to win. It implies discipline and perseverance." (15)

alea [latin for game of dice]

""destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser.... player is entirely passive. ... "In contrast to agón, aleanegates work, patience, experience, and qualifications. Professionalization, application, and training are eliminated." (17)

"agón is a vindication of personal responsibility; alea is a negation of will, a surrender to destiny." (18)

And this is one of my favorite quotes, with profound insight from Caillois:

agón and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes; but they both obey the same law- the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life. For nothing in life is clear, since everything is confused from the very beginning, luck and merit too. Play, whether agón or alea, is thus an attempt to substitute perfect situations for the normal confusion of contemporary life. In games, the role of merit or chance is clear and indisputable. It is also implied that all must play with exactly the same possibility of proving their superiority or, on another scale, exactly the same chances of winning. In one way or another, one escapes the real world and creates another. One can also escape himself and become another. This is mimicry." (19)

With respect to play that is a form of mimicry, C. describes it as play where one "forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another" (19). Mimicry possesses all the characteristics of play (liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time) except that the submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed. C. claims that the rule of the game in mimicry is unique: "it consists in the actor's fascinating the spectator, while avoiding an error that might lead the spectator to break the spell" (231).

The fourth type of play Ilinx temporarily destroy our perception of reality. C. gives the example of voladores as an example of this type of play. Watching the linked video of this activity I will admit this would not an enjoyable type of play for me!!


Gene Patents Commentary (forthcoming)

My 2000 word commentary entitled "Gene Patents and the Social Justice Lens" has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics. This piece is a response to a target article that addresses my argument that there is there is a conditional moral presumption in favour of gene patents that satisfy a stringent utility requirement in Biologically Modified Justice.

I look forward to seeing the different commentaries on the target article as this is a timely issue which warrants serious attention and input from different perspectives.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

JAMA Viewpoint Piece on Geroscience

One of my favorite longevity experts has a compelling new viewpoint article out in the JAMA calling for a shift from lifespan to healthspan research. A sample:

When public health emerged in the late 19th century, including developments such as sanitation and clean water, early mortality swiftly declined. A rapid shift in the distribution of death from younger to older people occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and since then declining death rates at middle and older ages have led to survival into increasingly older ages. As a result, about 96% of infants born in developed nations today will live to age 50 years or older, more than 84% will survive to age 65 years or older, and 75% to 77% of all deaths will predictably occur between age 65 and 95 years.2

....There is a dilemma. Modern medicine continues its relentless pursuit of life extension without considering either the consequences of success or the best way to pursue it. The current focus of most of modern medicine is on chronic fatal age-related diseases, in much the same way infectious diseases were confronted more than a century ago (ie, one at a time as if independent of each other). Even though there have been some successes, further life extension in an aging world will expose the saved population to an elevated risk for all other aging-related diseases.

Olshansky's life table (attached here) of deaths for women in the US over the past century vividly illustrates the challenges moving forward. Be sure to check out the full article (linked above), a must read for those interested in global aging.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 3)

Unlike the lengthy and dense academic book of The Genesis of Animal Play, Elkind's (E.) The Power of Play is shorter book written for a general audience. I was able to get through it in a day and thought I would highlight a few points that can be helpful to me in writing something on this topic.

I really like the Preface where E. warns of the dangers of hurrying children to grow and become consumers, this risks their physical and mental health, creativity, etc. E. posits a developmental theory of play. I could hear Burghardt's voice in the back on my mind as a I read this saying there is there is no one thing play evolved to develop, but E. develops an integrated theory that links love, work and play so perhaps the two theorists are not that far apart (?).

E.'s theory is based on Freud's motivational orientation and Jean Piaget, who has a great quote: "Play is the answer to the question, How does anything new ever come about?". E. emphasizes the intellectual, social and emotional development play helps facilitate. He claims we have 3 inborn drives- for love, for work and for play. These develop over 4 major periods of the human lifespan. This summarizes E.'s argument:

Stage 1: infancy and early children: play is most central, how we learn during infancy.

Stage 2: Elementary years (starts around age 6/7): the disposition to work (meaning adapt to the external world) becomes a child's primary dynamic. They are learning to adapt to the demands of the social world.

Stage 3: Adolescence: love becomes the dominant predisposition, teens have less interest in work or play. By ages 16-19 they reach an equilibrium on love, play and work.

Stage 4: Adulthood: the 3 things are fully separated- work, play, and love. Play is seen as more recreational, and it can lose some of the creative function it performed for us as kids. But he notes it can still be creative with things like cooking, pottery, etc.

On p. 12 there is a very helpful discussion of "flow", which I note to ensure I come back to it and use that in my book.

As a parent I read with interest the chapters on how toys have changed (now almost all plastic), and the prevalence of screen play (which E. says has dramatically contributed to changing the world of children's play). I was very touched by the chapter on "Light-hearted Parenting", which I would like to think captures the parental ideals I try to live up to. Such a parent makes an ongoing effort to integrate play, love and work into their child-rearing practices (171). We should use humour to socialize and discipline our children, share our passions with them, and establish patterns of family play and game and experience sharing. The light-hearted parent avoids what E. calls the EGOCENTRIC TRAP, which involves looking at situations entirely from our own perspective and failing to take the child's point of view. The best defence against the EGOCENTRIC TRAP is having the ability to laugh at ourselves and at life's wry twists.

This book contains looks of good insights and the themes for me to keep in mind are the dangers of raising children as consumers vs as children, how play is integrated with love and work, and the lifespan perspective- that how and why we play changes over the course of the human lifespan.

Next on my reading list, which follows nicely from E's book, is Play=Learning. This is the academic book I suspect will provide me with the most empirical insights to build some plausible developmental story about the importance of play for individual and collective wellbeing.

But after spending this week working through 3 different books on play already, I intend to spend this weekend enjoying the unique play opportunities offered by this beautiful island of Oahu! As Burghardt notes in the final sentence of his book- "The ultimate paradox may be that play can only be understood through itself". So I'm off to play for a few days! :)


Getting into the Literature on Play (Part 2)

This morning I was able to get through the remainder of The Genesis of Animal Play. Some of the important take-home insights for me from Burghardt's extensive study of play in animals:

#1 What is play?

B. argues that play is recognized by 5 criteria:

1. Limited immediate function
2. endogenous component
3. structural or temporal difference
4. repeated performance
5. relaxed field.

"Play is repeated, incompletely functional behavior differing from serious versions structurally, contextually, or ontogenetically, and initiated voluntarily when the animal is in a relaxed or low-stress setting" (82)

#2. Play is a heterogeneous category and different types of play have their own phlogenetic and developmental trajectories. This means, if I want to run a functional explanation about the developmental purpose of play there isn't one single thing that can be identified as THE primary developmental objective.

#3. B defends what he calls the SURPLUS RESOURCE THEORY (SRT) of play, which incorporates physiology, life history, behavior repertoire and psychological factors into the story of why species engage in the different types of play then do. The SRT emphasizes 4 important processes which underlie play, which B says some may be necessary but not sufficient for play to occur:

A. sufficient metabolic energy (store energy)
B. buffered from serious stress and food shortages
C. need for stimulation to elicit species-typical behavioral systems (e.g. susceptibility to boredom)
D. life-style that involves complex sequences of behavior in varying conditions, including diverse and unpredictable environmental and/or social resources.

B also links play with "flow" (p. 398), and notes that play can be cruel (chapter 2 contains the story of a magpie that stoned a toad! B also notes that when animals kills more than can be eaten or stored elements of play might be involved), play can be risky and dangerous (sky diving), and addictive (gambling). These are all significant insights I need to address if I plan to utilize play as the foundation for a realistic (vs overly idealized) utopia.

The next book on my reading list for today... The Power of Play.