Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fly Or Die

The "no girls allowed" sign is becoming rarer and rarer. Economic study can't hang that sign anymore and neither can French presidential elections (read Segolene Royale), and the same goes for computer engineering. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Susan Athey, a Harvard economics professor, won a formerly males only award. Athey is the recipient of the John Bates Clark medal, a highly coveted award for the "most promising economist under the age of 40" according to the Journal. Athey's rise began with her dissertation on people's reaction to rising uncertainty and since then she has worked with the Canadian government on designing timber auctions and also studying how "to deepen and make more elegant the theories and methods economists use to model and measure the real world," the article also said. Athey isn't the only leading woman in her field or world leader.
The appeal of these superstars is not that they wear their womanhood as some kind of badge or identifier so that when they do succeed and surpass a man in a traditionally male dominated field they "can further equality" by noting that they are women. In academia, their respect is earned like any other's.
In politics this is a little different because the appeal of groups of people are at stake so someone different than the usual candidate has to acknowledge the difference but that candidate is, just like in academia, more appealing if the platform is themed on something other than "I'm brave enough to be different than everyone else."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Paranoid Android

A profile in a recent issue of The New Yorker reported that Paul Wolfowitz, President of The World Bank, is a staunch advocate of moral relativism. Such one-sided support seems a bit arrogant. Moral relativism is the belief that ethics are decided by cultures and there is no basic moral code. In ethical philosophy, there is an argument called The Argument from Tolerance:

1. Either moral realism is true or relativism is true.
2. If realism is true, one ought not be tolerant of other culture's moral views.
3. If relativism is true, one ought to be tolerant of others
4. One ought to be tolerant of other culture's moral views
5. Realism is false and relativism is true

The Argument concludes that realism (a basic level of morals applicable to all cultures) is false and that what is ethical is decided by the culture (relativism).
It's funny for a world leader to admit favor of one idea or the other, especially an American. Diversity and acceptance are one of the most basic beliefs of the United States, which could be called relativism, but there are numerous cases of the United States meddling in international affairs in the name of right or wrong which sounds a lot like realism. The Iraq War is apparently happening to free a country from a tyrannical dictator. America's entrance into World War II could also be an act of realism (it was a far more noble one). But the idea of bringing "democracy" to a people is a dangerous one. In the 20th century American leaders felt the spread of communism warranted American intervention in Vietnam with disastrous results. The U.S. involvement in these conflicts had other motivations than bringing democracy to a people and shielding them from communism. Usually when one society attempts to "purify" the ethical foundations of another, there are intricate ulterior motives but that attempt to change a basic moral principle is itself complicated.
Unfortunately countless U.S. politicians don't see it this way. To them the antonym for democracy is terror or anarchy. That's simply not the case. No world leader, especially those representing superpowers, should fly just the banner of realism or relativism. Killing is wrong, unnecessary and pain inflicted by others is wrong (the realist argument) but beyond that societies deserve their own way even if a different ethical code works for a different society -which is kind of what makes those societies different.
It's frightening that the entirety of this superpower's world leader's don't recognize the ethical complexity of realism and relativism.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Life On Mars

Of interest to the editor:

Because this has been one of the worst weeks in quite a while (reminiscent of the end of my junior year of high school) I cannot forge an original entry. Instead I have this. Bill Keller is the editor of The New York Times. Here he is answering a letter that came his way.

Colorful Leads

Q. The colorful lead is the bane (or at least one of the banes) of my time spent with The Times. So often, I have tried quickly to get the gist of a story (this happens in the Sports section more often than in the news sections) only to find that I must read something like "it was a dark and dreary night" before finding the point, or the score, or even a notion of what the article is about.

Whatever happened to the inviolate rule that a lead was 35 words or fewer, telling us where, why, what or who?

-- Peter C. Boulay, Bronx, N.Y.

A. As the sun blazed above the snow-lacquered peaks of the Hindu Kush, the weary editor flipped down his clip-on sunglasses and booted up his laptop.

It had been a long week, a soul-sapping, disorienting and yet strangely satisfying week.

Past the simple campsite where he awaited his digital connection to the modern world flowed all the human mystery of the East: the women shrouded in burqas of azure, or possibly cerulean, he was not too good on blues; the camel-borne warlords draped with belts of bullets; the shoeless boys in filthy "I Heart New York" T-shirts; and all the rest, all separated by semicolons and swaddled in colorful cliches.

The computer flickered to life. The keys clicked like castanets until up came a complaint from the northern part of a far-off metropolis at the eastern end of a troubled superpower. The editor read. He frowned. Then he squinted down at the keyboard and typed:

"Amen, Mr. Boulay. Amen."

There's something about Keller's jovial approach to a rather confrontational letter that you see so rarely today.


Thursday, April 5, 2007

Race for the Prize

Of interest to the editor:

A friend posed this to me the other day. Imagine that there is a runaway trolley, and this trolley is headed down a track toward a group of people, you have the power to flip a switch and divert the trolley down a different track to where one person is having a picnic, killing that one person but saving the others. Which do you choose?
I chose to switch the switch because someone is going to die no matter what so it's better to save the lives that I can rather than save one life and kill the other people.
So then my friend posed the second scenario. You are a doctor and have a number of patients who need transplants, one needs a new heart, another needs skin, another needs blood type O, another needs a bone marrow transplant. In walks a man with all the specific body parts that are totally compatible for the patients. Your fellow hospital doctors say that you have to kill him to get his organs and save the lives of all these others. Do you kill him? There is not much time left so it's either kill this perfectly healthy guy who's a match for all these other people and save their lives or let that guy live and watch the other people die.
I said no, I don't kill him because killing another man is wrong even though that means all the patients will die.
So what's the difference between the first scenario and the second scenario? Basically, you aren't the trolley. For some reason people find it more ethical to switch the trolley's track killing one person than to actively choose to kill one person to save others even though killing one person in both scenario saves more people. If the choices only include either killing one person or killing a few people, we defer to the quantity to choose which is ethical. If there is an option to kill one person to save others or not kill that one person, not killing that one person becomes the most ethical choice. In the doctor scenario you could kill one person to save others but it seems wrong because you are actually doing the killing. Because there is no option to choose to kill like there is in the doctor case, switching the track to kill one person seems ethical even though the death of one person saves others just like the doctor case.