Thursday, March 31, 2011

Abstraction and Sacred Values (The Preamble)

This is the first of two posts on abstraction and sacred values (as they pertain to political theory/philosophy). This first, shorter, post is actually just the Preamble (titled "Well-Ordered Intellectualism"), which sets the stage for the post to follow. That second post, which will engage directly with the topics of abstraction, sacred values and political theory, will follow (I hope) in a few weeks time.

Preamble: Well-Ordered Intellectualism

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for an academic to do (given the nature of academia) is to step back from the project(s) they are deeply engrossed in and look at things from a new, more critical, perspective. Adopting this critical perspective can help us make explicit (and then critically assess) the basic assumptions of our disciplines.

While this can be a challenging exercise, it is also a very important one. Indeed, I believe it is one of the most important intellectual activities we can engage in. With a near infinite list of questions we could spend our limited time pondering we must be cognisant of the reality that there is a high probability that the basic questions underpinning our projects might be the *wrong* questions to make the basic questions to invest most time and energy pondering.

Determining which questions are the right questions to ask, and thus the correct questions to spend the lion share of our time and energy trying to answer, of course requires us to have a sense of what constitutes what we might call "well-ordered intellectualism". Well-ordered intellectualism instructs us to grapple with the reality that we must prioritize some intellectual questions and interests over others. As such it brings to the fore the neglected but most basic question- why ask any questions? (and why try to answer them?)

To begin to develop an account of well-ordered intellectualism I think it is useful to start by noting that we ponder questions for two general kinds of reasons.

Firstly, we engage in this intellectual exercise for the intrinsic value of doing so. As intellectual animals, humans are curious about the world around them and trying to understand that world can be an enjoyable act (helping to provide some meaning to our lives). Secondly, we ponder different kinds of questions because doing so has instrumental value. Knowledge helps develop our minds, our cultures, our economies, etc. I believe knowledge is the greatest progressive force in human history. [In my next post, which addresses abstraction and sacred values in political theory, the connection between the intrinsic and what I call "developmental" benefits of political theory will be explored]

People who choose a career in academia are obviously attracted to their specific discipline, at least to some extent, by its inherent attraction to their intellect. One could not sustain a research profile, or spend their adult life teaching a discipline like politics, philosophy, history or English, if one did not find (at least some) pleasure in thinking about these subject matters. As a political theorist I find it intrinsically valuable to ponder questions like "what is justice?", and "what constitutes the good life?".

In addition to the intrinsic rewards of doing political theory, I also believe the discipline can confer important instrumental benefits. Now I prefer to call these benefits developmental (rather than instrumental) benefits. And the central developmental benefit of pondering the questions of political theory/philosophy is phronesis (practical wisdom). Pondering the fundamental questions of the discipline can help promote the skill-set needed to live a flourishing life.

Keeping these two kinds of benefits in mind, the intrinsic and developmental value of intellectual activity, we can begin to work towards developing an account of "well-ordered intellectualism".

Many academics in the humanities and social sciences feel threatened when questions about the instrumental (or societal) value of their discipline are raised. When compared to disciplines like medicine or engineering, it is obvious that the case to be made for supporting disciplines like philosophy, history or political science will require more than simple insights like "we need strong bridges and fast computers" or "we need to find a cure for cancer or alzheimer's disease". But a very strong case for supporting these disciplines can be made. However, given the current economic climate (when depts and programs are being cut or face threats of cuts) and the reality that the most common "developmental" benefit invoked in higher education tends to be job prospects I can understand why many object to having a debate about the benefits of their discipline that is framed in terms of only its instrumental benefits. But Nussbaum's Not for Profit provides an excellent response to this concern.

Democracy needs citizens that are critical thinkers, and not just workers. Furthermore, most jobs also require these very same skills (e.g. ability to do some research, effective oral and written communication, adaptability of intellect etc.). So scholars in the humanities cannot, and should not, shy away from the question- what societal benefit do these intellectual activities confer? Some academics respond to such a question with outright hostility, as if it is inappropriate for tax payers to even wonder, let alone ask, what the benefit of some academic subjects are. But I believe academics have a duty to make a compelling case for the importance of their teaching and research given they are funded by the public.

Well-ordered intellectualism combines a healthy mix of concern for the intrinsic as well developmental benefits of intellectual activity. Academics are teachers, as well as scholars. Roughly 99%+ of the students we teach go on to have careers outside of academia. And 100% of them have lives to live. And thus we need to seriously reflect upon the skill-set we seek to develop through our scholarship and teaching.

This brief discussion of well-ordered intellectualism, while incomplete and provisional, sets the stage for a longer post on abstraction and sacred values in political theory. In that post I will address the intrinsic and developmental value of political theory. I hope to have this post up in the next few weeks (though end of term is pretty hectic, so it might not be up until May).


Friday, March 25, 2011

Globe Article on Importance of Philosophy

Today's Globe has this article on the importance of philosophy.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happiness and Mood Enhancement

This week in one of my courses ("Science and Justice") we discussed chapter 5 of the President's Council of Bioethics Report on Beyond Therapy, which is the chapter titled "Happy Souls". We had a very fruitful and interesting discussion concerning the issues that arise with mood enhancements and I wanted to note some of these points here.

To think rationally and clearly about the regulation of new potential technologies (especially biotechnologies), I think it is most helpful to start by considering our attitudes towards existing interventions. This can help us better appreciate the complexity of issues and diverse stakes that might arise with new, currently speculative, interventions.

So let us begin with some reflections on existing mood enhancers. Take for example, caffeine. Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant in the world. It is estimated that caffeine is consumed daily by 90% of all adults in the US. Why do so many people consume caffeine? Caffeine can alter our mood- it can make you feel more awake, calm and attentive. Of course it really depends on the dosage of caffeine you consume. Two cups of coffee a day is fine. But if you are drinking more than 4 cups of coffee a day there are some potential adverse consequences. Too much caffeine can cause nervousness, anxiety and sleeplessness. Furthermore, people can suffer withdrawal if they don't get their daily caffeine fix, and this could to headaches, etc.

So the case of caffeine is interesting because it is a stimulant that we not only permit, but most consume daily even though there are some health risks and it is addictive. We can then move on to other drugs that can modulate mood (reducing stress, increasing sociability, etc.), such as alcohol and smoking. These interventions can have very serious health risks (e.g. drinking and driving, lung cancer, etc.). Both are legal, though they are regulated (e.g. drinking and smoking have age requirements, there are regulations about where they can be sold, etc.).

Every day people drink coffee, tea, pop, and alcohol for their mood enhancing benefits. But we can push the example even further, as there are many different types of interventions that enhance mood. Listening to music, for example, can relax you, help motivate you to exercise, or create a romantic setting. Fine food and chocolate can trigger the reward centres of the brain. So can sex, exercise, sleep and gossip. Meditation, yoga and religion can all help reduce stress and anxiety and they alter the biochemistry of one's brain.

When we reflect on the vast array of mood enhancing interventions we could, and do, pursue on a daily basis we ought to realize that there is a strong presumption in favour of things that promote subjective wellbeing. There are of course provisos and caveats to be added. Drinking a glass of wine after work can be good for both mind and body, but drinking a bottle of wine every night would be harmful. So one must get the dosage correct, which can be tricky if the substance is addictive. The same concerns apply for caffeine and even sex and exercise. These interventions can be addictive, and if consumed or pursued too much they can compromise our opportunity to flourish.

But these provisos and conditions are often discarded when people start to think about the development of a new intervention like a happiness pill. Suppose a drug was developed that could make "normal people" (i.e. those not suffering any mental illness, such as depression) more happy. Would this be a good thing? Would you take such a drug?

Of course our first reaction would be a concern about side effects: could this drug be, in the long run, harmful (e.g. by increasing our risk of cancer or mental illness)? Could this drug be addictive? These are very legitimate concerns.

But suppose the empirical evidence suggested that these concerns were not very pressing with this new drug. That is, the evidence suggested that, if taken in the proper stipulated doses- just like caffeine, alcohol, sex and exercise- this drug would be reasonably safe, just as safe as these other drugs and activities. Bear in mind that (unprotected) sex has potentially harmful consequences (the transmission of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, etc.). And even exercise has risks of injury and death: every single day there are people who sprain ankles, pull a muscle, crash their bikes (resulting in very serious injury, even death) while exercising. So none of these "mood enhancing" interventions are 100% safe.

So the first bias we must overcome, when contemplating new mood enhancing technologies, is one that imposes a much higher safety threshold for such technologies. We can overcome this bias by rationally reflecting on the harms of existing mood enhancements.

Here is a useful thought experiment to help us overcome our bias in thinking about both safety and equal access to mood enhancers. Imagine music had never been invented (I know this is a real strength to imagine, but it is just an imaginary thought experiment). Some innovative scientists experimenting with sound created the first musical instrument- a drum. They found that playing the drum had a mood enhancing benefit. It was enjoyable to play the drum, but there was also a calming and "spirit-lifting" effect on those that heard the drum.

So the scientists were very excited about their discovery. However, there were some problems. Firstly, they discovered that, if played too loudly, the drum could cause hearing problems. Indeed, after 10 continuous days of enthusiasticly playing the drum the lead scientist suffered some temporary hearing loss. And there are concerns that permanent hearing damage could occur if the drum was played excessively.

Secondly, the scientists worry about how unfair it might be if only a few people would likely enjoy the benefits of this music. Only 3 drums had been created to date, and as they are expensive (few people have the expertise to design these new instruments) it was unlikely that everyone in society would be able to enjoy equal access to this new mood enhancer.

In light of these health concerns and concerns of unequal access, these pioneering music scientists decide to abandon their research. And so humanity never realizes the joys of music.

Such an outcome would of course be a tragedy. Music is one of life's most enjoyable things. Yes it can be harmful. Yes there is some inequality in the opportunities to enjoy it (some don't have as much time as others to listen to music, some don't have the income to regularly attend concerts, buy new CDs, MP3 players, etc.). But to forfeit the benefits of music because of these concerns would be an unwise decision. The proper course of action would be to (a) safely regulate music consumption (education about the possibility of hearing damage, limits on how loud concerts and MP3 players can go, etc.) and (b) pursue measures which fairly disperse the benefits of the intervention (exposure children to music in school, public radio, etc.). The mood enhancing benefits of music are just too great to forfeit because of concerns about safely and inequality. Might the same be true of a new mood enhancing drug? It's certainly possible. I say let the evidence, rather than our intuitions, decide the matter. Why should we presume that the most effective mood enhancements have already been discovered? Perhaps something as big as music, or even bigger, will be discovered. We should be open to that possibility, just as we should be open to the possibility that love, play, friendship, exercise, a nice dinner, wine and music can enhance our mood.

Now, back to the Beyond Therapy report. The report highlights the dangers inherent in memory dulling drugs (how do we know in advance which memories to dull, the risks of falsifying our understanding of the world, etc.) A key theme emphasized early on in the chapter is the importance of memory for our happiness. At this stage it is appropriate to insert the video below, which is a great lecture on the role of memory in human happiness:

Ok, back to the Report's chapter. A recurring theme is the concern that our pursuit of happiness by "authentic". In many ways this parallels Nozick's objection (p. 42) to Bentham's hedonism. Nozick argued that it is not simply the pleasurable experiences that we desire. We do not want to just "feel" like we are in love, or are reading great poetry, etc., we want to actually do these things. A machine that simulated these experiences would be a false existence that would miss many of the things that actually constitute human welfare.

I do feel the pull of Nozick's example, however I think this kind of objection is problematic when raised as an objection to the development of mood-brightening agents. Why? I can think of two reasons.

Firstly, we do not take this view to current interventions. No one argues that people should deprive themselves of caffeine, love, play or a nice meal so they can "live truly". That is an odd thing to say because part of real life is that there exists possible interventions that can modulate our mood. How do we determine which of these interventions compromise an "authentic" life? I agree Nozick's experience machine is such a case, but I don't think a "happiness" pill necessarily is. And if it is such a case then we ought to say the same about people who are in love, for they are not "living truly"- the person they are in love with really isn't "1 in a million" or a "soul mate". Perhaps the best example is religious belief. Suppose, as is plausible, belief in a personal loving god helps a person cope with the death of a child. They believe that the child's death was part of "god's plan", and that one day they will be reunited with the child in heaven. In such a case this religious belief is a "mood enhancer" for this person. It helps them get out of bed and continue on with life. But it need not be such a dramatic case. What if someone believes in heaven and an afterlife and this improves their mood. When they pray they are more relaxed, less anxious, and feel more happy. Should we take the view that this person is really "living falsely" and that someone ought to sit them down and tell them, for their own good, the truth of the matter (there is no god or afterlife)?

It's an interesting case to consider. If our imagined "happiness" pill simply does to the human brain what religious belief already does in terms of brigthening one's mood, is it a problem to take it? Would one be living any less of an authentic life than the billions of religious people in the world today? [I found it ironic that this chapter of the report was titled "Happy Souls" and yet it placed such a premium on the concern to live truly]

The second problem I have with raising the "living falsely" objection to "mood-brightening agents" is that it assumes the brain we have inherited from our Darwinian legacy, with its particular reward system, is the ideal or the appropriate baseline to invoke when thinking about human happiness. It is not clear to me that this ought to be the case. We constantly try to suppress or curb our brain's natural design. If our brain had its way we would eat all the Halloween chocolate in one sitting. The very concept of "will power" implies that we recognise that our inbuilt instincts and reward systems ought not to be deferred to carte blanche. Our culture (music, art, computer technologies, etc.) modulates our biology. Why select just one potential way of modulating this biology (through mood-enhancing drugs) out for special treatment?

Few things in life are as important as our happiness. So we ought not to dismiss interventions that could increase our wellbeing. Mood-brigthening agents could lead to interventions that dramatically improve the quality of life for humans on this planet.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Life History of Men

I just finished reading this fascinating and informative book on the evolutionary and life history of men. I wanted to note a couple of key insights from the book here as they relate to themes I have been thinking about lately (and plan to return to later).

Why, one might ask, should we have an interest in the evolutionary and life history of men? Good question. Let's start by travelling over to this site, which has the list of mortality rates for young adults in the US.

If you look over the mortality rates for young adults there is one striking and alarming statistic the jumps out- the increased risk of death for males. Males ages 15-24, for example, die at nearly 3 times the rate of females in the same age cohort. For the 3 leading causes of death of young adults in this age category- accidents, homicides and suicides- men are 3 times more likely to die in an accident than women, 6 times more likely to be killed by homicide, and 5 times more likely to commit suicide. "Being male is now the single largest demographic risk factor for early mortality in developed countries" (source). Why is this so? [long aside: another important question is: why do societies seem much more content to tolerate much higher mortality rates for young men than they would for, say, women or children? No doubt part of the explanation is our socialization (as captured by the maxim "women and children first!" that applies to saving people from a sinking ship), but I also suspect a lot has to do with the evolution of our moral sensibilities. Sensibilities that evolved in environments were young men were viewed (due to necessity) as expendable. Still longer aside: bringing to the fore the disadvantages of being a young male will also offend many who prefer to perceive reality through the simplistic lens of the dichotomy of "the oppressors" vs "the oppressed". Men as a group tend to be lumped into the former, which thus makes it difficult for anyone to even raise the kinds of points I do here. I have faced this problem before, in my work on tackling aging. So I am well aware that I am starting from a counterintuitive position, but I ask for my dear reader's patience in hearing the case in full before dismissing it.]

Why are young men so vulnerable to accidents, homicide and suicide? Enter the "nature vs nurture" debate. No doubt nurture is important. But it is very unlikely that nurture alone could come close to explaining the higher mortality rates of young men. What kind of socialization are males exposed to that explains why they are 6 times more likely to die in homicide than are young females? Or 5 times more likely to take their own lives?

This disparity in mortality rates for males and females does not just occur in late adolescence/young adulthood. Males have a higher mortality rate at young ages (e.g. ages 1-4 the death rate for males is 12% higher than it is for females the same age) and older ages (e.g. ages 65-74 the death rate is 33% higher than it is for females that age). Considering the inequality in mortality rates between the genders across the lifespan makes it clear that it is not "nurture" alone that explains why males are more likely to die in every single age category, from the first year of life to age 85+.

This disparity between male and female mortality is likely to be missed if one just starts with the overall mortality rates for males and females in the US. In the year 2005 2,426,264 people died in the US (a death rate of 810.4 per 100 000). Of that number 1,201,942 were males, for a death rate of 814.8. This is only slightly higher than the death rate for females, which was 806.1. The total number of female deaths in that year was 1,224,322. This figure would suggest there is no significant mortality disparity between males and females. But once one considers the average age of death for the different genders the disparity becomes evident. 37.7% of female deaths were among those age 85 or older, whereas for the male deaths only 20% where in that age category. 65% of the deaths among females occurred in persons aged 75 or older. For men, only 46% of the deaths that year were males age 75 or older. The majority of male deaths occurred before age 75. This is a very significant disparity. And yet you will not likely hear any news report about this disparity, nor likely come across an academic paper in ethics or political philosophy addressing this inequality (this paper does, but the goal there is to refute egalitarianism rather than proposing to seriously tackle this inequality), nor find a politician championing the redressing of this inequality. Why? Food for thought for another day.

Understanding the physiological and evolutionary causes of the physical and behavioural differences of men and women could help us better address a whole host of important societal problems. And that is what motivated my interest in reading this book (along with the fact that I am the parent of three young males, so any help I can get in making sense of the brain of young males is much appreciated!). So let me now turn to the book.

I won't summarize the book's contents, but want to simply note a few important points I highlighted as I read through it, primarily for my own reference (and hopefully they will interest you as well).

The book starts with some obvious differences between men and women. On average, men are taller and physically stronger than women, we can't have babies, and we are involved in more than half of destructive and violent behaviour. We also age differently than women, and die sooner and faster (which explains the differences in mortality in late life between the sexes).

The focus of the book is on the evolutionary and life history of men. Evolutionary theory "explains the origins and development of species through time, while life history theory provides an explanation of the evolution of important life events such as growth and reproduction in a species" (2).

In the introduction there is a picture of a Aché (from Paraguay) male wearing a baseball cap that reads: "There are three stages to a man's life: Stud, Dud, and Thud". This nicely summarizes the life history of males (for a variety of species).

Males first emerged, along with sexual reproduction, about 2.5 billion years ago. Thus the male sex had been long established before our primate ancestors came into existence. And the male human body and brain we have today was influenced by the origins and evolution of the male sex.

Natural selection favours the development of a body and brain that maximizes lifetime reproductive success. Males face distinct challenges in this respect. Females must invest a lot more time and energy, relative to males, into reproduction in order to pass on their genes. After she becomes pregnant, an expecting mother's body undergoes drastic changes, as her body diverts food and nutrients to her potential offspring. But the energy needs, and strategies for managing energy, for men are different. Men do not menstruate, breast feed, etc. Investing more energy into body size and muscle development can increase reproductive success for males given the competition they face for mates (e.g. fending off rival competitors and also attracting mates). "...unlike mothers, fathers are not required by their biology to provide child support. Every calorie ingested by a human male is his to keep- and to invest, if he sees fit, in pursuits other than protecting and provisioning the younger generation" (221).

An important theme stressed throughout the book is the importance of "sex selection". "While natural selection is often the result of competition between individuals, sexual selection involves competition within each sex, competition to attract or get access to mates" (21). An important component of the life history of males is the trade-off between the energy needed to survive and the energy needed to secure opportunities to mate. My own thoughts: The reckless behaviour of young adult males today (which leads to the high mortality rates noted above) perhaps reflects (to a large extent) the tradeoff the male brain has undertaken in its development when circumstances were such that the males that invested more in reproductive effort were more successful at passing on their genes than those (more risk adverse) males that invested more in survivorship.

Testosterone emerges in the book as the main factor that explains the shorter life span, and more risky behaviour, of males. "Testosterone levels do change with age, with physical ramifications such as declines in muscle mass, greater fat deposition, especially around the midsection, possible changes in sexual function and motivation, as well as potential changes in psychological wellbeing" (168).

One of the driving forces that has shaped the bodies and minds of males is testosterone. This is a touchy subject, and the science is still incomplete. But here is a long passage that captures the author's nuanced stance on the issue:

The question of what happens when testosterone interacts with the brain during development has been a controversial topic, with its implication that behavioural differences between boys and girls or between men and women are to some extent influenced by biological factors before birth. Differences in behavior between boys and girls have often been attributed to cultural or social influences that mold sex roles. Certainly social factors have a strong influence, but more detailed analyses have shown that societal influences are but one aspect underlying sex-based differences. It would be naive to assume that millions of years of mammalian evolution involving differential selection pressures on males and females would result in a single brain type that is not selected to deal with sex-specific challenges. However, determining the selection pressures involved in male brain evolution and identifying the targets of selection are not easy tasks. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of the male brain has been subject to selection pressures that address the optimal trade-off between neurological aspects related to survivorship and those related to reproductive effort. Would this involve selection for a tendency to exhibit sex-specific behaviours? It probably would. (83)

Important points to note about testosterone and men: there is a wide variation in T levels in men; T levels in American men are twice as high than in other populations around the world; lifestyle can influence T levels; testosterone drives the accelerated (but delayed) growth spurt of boys in adolescence.

On the chapter on "Sex and Fatherhood" the role of parental uncertainty is emphasized. Unlike female fertility, which is limited by the amount of energy involved in having offspring, male fertility is limited by the number of available mates. Furthermore, the evolution of internal fertilization also impacts the evolution of male behavior. Men, unlike women, can't be sure they are the father of the offspring. This leads to the evolution of mate-guarding strategies. The author notes that studies of American men suggest that contemporary American fathers invest more in genetically related children than in stepchildren. "Residence seems to be an important factor in male parental investment. It may be that, in human evolution, shared residence has suggested a greater chance of paternity" (148).

Other intriguing findings I wanted to note from the book:

- The hunting activities of our distant ancestors probably had an important impact on the development of the human brain, as food sources like meat made our larger brain possible.
-importance of Darwinian medicine is emphasized
-impact of CR and aging also addressed
"It is very likely that reproductive effort, extrinsic mortality, and sex-specific challenges to energy allocation strategies have played major roles in the evolution of human senescence" (201)
-interesting discussion of "male menopause"

The book was a fascinating read and has given me plenty to think about. It was reaffirmed my hunch that a better understanding of our evolutionary history is crucial if we hope to create a more fair and humane world. We are more likely to realize a future with less violence, less premature death, and less patriarchy and more love if we understand the role the evolutionary and life history of males has played in shaping our bodies and brains.

When time permits I will start reading this book, and hope to post some thoughts on that as well.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Life History Evolution Video

I just finished this book on the evolutionary and life history of men, and hope to post some thoughts on it within the week. Until then, enjoy this excellent lecture on life history evolution.


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day. I thus thought it appropriate to re-post my piece on patriarchy and historical materialism:


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Don't Worry, Be Happy (and Live Longer!)

The latest issue of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being has this interesting study which reviews the evidence in favour of the conjecture that high subjective wellbeing causes better health and longevity (adds 4-10 years). Here is the abstract:

Seven types of evidence are reviewed that indicate that high subjective well-being (such as life satisfaction, absence of negative emotions, optimism, and positive emotions) causes better health and longevity. For example, prospective longitudinal studies of normal populations provide evidence that various types of subjective well-being such as positive affect predict health and longevity, controlling for health and socioeconomic status at baseline. Combined with experimental human and animal research, as well as naturalistic studies of changes of subjective well-being and physiological processes over time, the case that subjective well-being influences health and longevity in healthy populations is compelling. However, the claim that subjective well-being lengthens the lives of those with certain diseases such as cancer remains controversial. Positive feelings predict longevity and health beyond negative feelings. However, intensely aroused or manic positive affect may be detrimental to health. Issues such as causality, effect size, types of subjective well-being, and statistical controls are discussed.