Structural Injustice, Procedural Equality, and Diversity in Recruitment

April 1, 2011 at 11:10 (Philosophy, Politics)

A handful of news items and discussions lately have prompted me to think about the issues in the title of this post. I should clarify at the outset that the phrase “diversity in recruitment” here is meant to refer to, e.g., a university or workplace actively endeavouring to make admissions / hiring decisions in a way that increases the representation of visible minorities and other marginalized groups. I sometimes get the sense that, before the partisan debate is even joined, this is an issue that divides liberals, if only in the sense of quiet inner conflict.

Let’s start by considering this post, detailing a scholarship that a Texas non-profit is offering strictly to white men. Go ahead and have a read; skip the comments, as they’re distracting in this case. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. Now, consider your initial gut reaction to the whole thing. It’s possible, I think, that people who are otherwise liberal will bristle at the disdain this scholarship has prompted – people who might say, “wait a sec, I’m not sure we have any grounds to oppose this” and/or “I’m not sure I understand how the people who oppose it aren’t hypocrites.” I would know: not so long ago, I was at least conflicted enough to quasi-count as one of them.

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[Cross-post] Neuroethics Journal Club: Judging Mens Rea

March 14, 2011 at 02:13 (Neuroethics) ()

This personal blog is not the only place on the internet you can find me typing into the void; I also contribute to Neuroethics at the Core, the academic blog for the research group I currently work with. Generally, when I hold forth on neuroethics-flavored topics, I’ll be cross-posting between this space and that one. Here’s the first few paragraphs of my post, followed by a link to the whole thing. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I guess it’s really up to you which version you do so on! Incidentally, while you’re over at the Core blog, I encourage you to check out some of my previous posts there; although there’s only a handful, I’m quite proud of what I’ve contributed.

The National Core for Neuroethics had a lively journal club discussion recently on a paper by Bertram Malle and Sarah Nelson that dealt with “the tension between folk concepts and legal concepts of intentionality.” As I was presenting the paper and facilitating the discussion, I decided to blog about it to share some of the highlights with our readers and crystallize my own thoughts on the matter, stirred up as they were by the proceedings.

The basic gist of the paper is as follows. Malle and Nelson identify “the valid and precise use of the concepts of mental states in reasoning about the defendant’s actions and in assigning responsibility, blame, and punishment” as a central challenge in creating a system of criminal adjudication. (One interesting point to consider going forward is how these same issues might apply to the context of torts, where instead of the epistemic criterion being “beyond a reasonable doubt” one is instead prompted to consider “the balance of evidence.”) In legal contexts, the term used to refer to the mental states in question is mens rea, Latin for “guilty/sinful mind.”

The specific mental state that the paper is concerned with is intention, especially as it relates to intentional action. In the grand tradition of experimental philosophy (though it really wasn’t yet a tradition in 2003!), Malle and Nelson find the by-now familiar faults with how these concepts have been developed in legal theory and philosophy – with theories of intentional action checked primarily against the intuitions of a small, non-representative group of participants in the debate, leading to a confusing mismatch between how the law asks us to use concepts, and how we (generally) are inclined to actually use them.

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Is the Case “Against” Euthanasia Really Just a Case for Better Policy?

February 24, 2011 at 00:20 (Bioethics, Great Quotes, Politics)

Lately, one of the topics I’ve had occasion to think about quite a bit is the culture-war-tinged set of issues swirling around physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. A couple of months ago, a dear family friend of mine succumbed to lymphoma, and while the specific question of assisted suicide didn’t come into the picture there, end-of-life care inevitably forces everyone to consider what might happen along those lines. In particular, that episode prompted me to revisit the powerful Nietzsche quote I keep on my Facebook profile: “One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I happened to sit in on a lecture by one Dr. Margaret Cottle, whose unexpectedly polemical presentation really jarred me into revisiting the euthanasia debate with some of the perspective I have gained from my own area of research. For the sake of background, here is an article that quotes Dr. Cottle quite a bit (though I must apologize that I couldn’t find an article from a less upsetting and nasty website). Interestingly, though, the talk that I heard her give didn’t really focus on what one might take to be the deep, in-principle reasons to oppose physician-assisted suicide. Instead, it was largely a broadside on how permissive euthanasia policies have played out where they have been implemented. In Dr. Cottle’s estimation, the impact of such policies has, in every case, been an unmitigated disaster.

Why did her talk give me such pause? Well, because it highlighted an important feature in the topography of this, and other similar, debates.

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Beer Review: Trappistes Rochefort 10

February 12, 2011 at 18:51 (Beer)

330ml bottle, poured into a chalice glass. The colour is of root beer, right down to the nice brownish-white head, which is just pretty to look at as it settles from half-a-finger’s worth to just a thin layer.

This beer is a joy for the nose. There’s banana, apple, burnt sugar, biscuit, cherry, bready yeast, and an understated hoppiness, and that’s just for starters. It’s so lovely I could be happy sitting here and not even drinking it.

Dear sweet gods of brewing, the taste is unbelievable! The burnt sugar flavours come out much stronger on the tongue, and there’s a pleasant note of something between caramel and cocoa to accompany it. And yet it’s not too sweet – clearly the bottle-conditioning yeasties have seen to that, as there’s a solid bready backbone that rises up right away to balance things out. The fruity ester-y elements are still there, but playing a supporting role, though that lovely banana-going-on-bubblegum taste lingers nicely. There’s a lively, almost spicy phenolic twist as the taste experience resolves. The hoppiness is barely perceptible, which is just fine by me; this beer doesn’t have an aftertaste so much as a warm afterglow. The carbonation keeps the slightly-heavier-than-your-average-beer mouthfeel in check, and the 11.3% (!!!) ABV is never intrusive or even all that noticeable.

There’s a part of me that wants to quaff this incessantly until I’ve finished the entire bottle, but it’s so good that it’s worth waiting a minute in between sips lest your taste buds just get overwhelmed by the beautiful complexity and start sending extensively abridged reports to your brain. I think that means it scores well for drinkability.

This is one of the most impressive beers I have ever come across. It’s like Chimay Blue on steroids. If you see this for sale anywhere, I urge you to drop what you are doing and purchase it. You will thank me later. Effusively.

Alright, I’ve written enough. Me and my half-a-remaining-bottle of Trappistes Rochefort 10 need some time to bond.

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It’s Not Really So Ba(ra)d

February 10, 2011 at 21:08 (Game Design)

So this is a post about game design. Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s not the right descriptor, but at a minimum it’s a post about how a rule-bound competitive scenario within a video game was designed, and how it could be better. I think that counts.

The basic point I want to advance is that the Tol Barad battleground, recently released in Blizzard’s latest expansion to World of Warcraft, was actually quite close to being a well-designed experience, and has the potential to shed the issues holding it back from that level of quality with a few simple balancing tweaks.

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Beer Review: Tullibardine 1488 Premium Whisky Beer

February 9, 2011 at 22:14 (Beer)

330mL bottle, poured into a Chimay chalice. Light turmeric in colour, with a fine, mellow, pearl-white head that resolves into a delicate thin layer. Impressive carbonation.

Smell is equal parts honey, oak, and … well, beer. There’s a nice sweetness to the scent that’s definitely evocative of a highland or speyside whiskey. You can catch a whiff of the barrel it was aged in, too. The hops are somewhere in the background, being quiet.

The immediate taste, surprisingly, is not sweet; a combination of the breadier malt flavours, the yeastiness, and the carbonation rushes to the fore. After that it unfolds really nicely. The oak shows up quickly, and it’s pleasant, not too strong. Then the honeyed whiskey sweetness blooms out of that, followed immediately by an understated hop bitterness that is reminiscent of your standard lager but also … peaty? Maybe that’s just me free-associating from all the other whiskey cues. The aftertaste is warm, and again equal parts honey, oak, and hops. Though the carbonation looked intimidating, it turns out to be just lively enough on the tongue. The ABV of 7% is hard to detect except for a ghost of boozy warmth in the aftertaste.

This is a pretty drinkable beer, though the oak and pilsener-like flavours do start to wear out their welcome a little bit over time. Can’t really fault it for that, though, that’s just how the style is. Definite bonus points for capturing some of the nice qualities of good scotch in a beer. Even if I likely won’t find myself seeking out Scottish beers any more than I have previously (i.e. hardly ever), I’m glad that I tried this.

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Selection Effects, Homogeneity, and Diversity in Academia

February 9, 2011 at 22:07 (Politics, Psychology)

I had been meaning for a while to suss out this issue in depth for a couple of reasons, but what really crystallized everything was this New York Times article covering Jonathan Haidt’s provocative presentation on political homogeneity in academic psychology at a recent conference in San Antonio. The journalist, John Tierney, nicely covered Haidt’s point, though also chose to focus on some interesting stuff, which I’ll get into momentarily. The comments (I only read the top-rated ones) are similarly enlightening and nicely illustrate the range of opinion on the topic.

The upshot of Haidt’s presentation was that an overwhelmingly vast majority of social psychologists (really, psychologists in general) are situated firmly in the left wing of the American / Canadian political spectrum. Judging from the quick straw poll he took, a small handful of conference-attending social psychologists identify as political moderates, and a vanishingly minuscule percentage were willing to out themselves as avowed conservatives. Haidt suggests some explanations for how such a statistically uncanny state of affairs might have emerged, and, quite importantly, suggests that it has and will continue to “hinder [social psychologists’] research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.”

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Shehecheyanu

February 8, 2011 at 06:48 (Misc)

My paternal grandfather – as wise, thoughtful, and gentle a gentleman as one could wish to look up to – was fond of the proverb “verba volant, scripta manent.” When 16-year-old-me set out on what remains one of the most magical travel experiences of my life, those four words of wisdom prompted me to scribble down as much as I could, and the difference it made stuck with me; words really do have a habit of flying off, and what remains to lend a feeling of continuity to our disjointedly collated experiences is what we’ve written.

In renewed observance of that lesson, I begin this blog in the hopes that I will be able to collect and preserve those measures of my endless daily ruminations that don’t fit into a 140-character box. The ready availability of such boxes also means that – at least, if all goes to plan – I’ll avoid using this space as a means of regurgitating the occurrences and annoyances of my day-to-day existence, or as a platform for sharing interesting material without substantive comment. We’ll see if I can hold myself to a policy of “render unto Zuckerberg what is Zuckerberg’s.” That, I think, is going to be the only content constraint on this little blogging project.

Other than that, this is a blog about my interests. It seemed like a reasonable idea to start it up because I need to practice writing in a (relatively) long-form way about whatever I happen to be mulling over. I suppose it will also be handy to learn the ins and outs of blogging. Maybe some people will even read it – or leave comments! That was largely not the point of my undertaking this venture, but we shall see where it goes. (Hopefully it won’t end up like the other Scripta Manent in the Blogspot-o-verse, abandoned after three pages of posts.)

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of this post, that’s the name of a Jewish prayer generally recited when embarking on a new or unusual experience – a way of saying “here goes a  novel undertaking, so let’s mark it off as such and hope it goes well!”

I like to imagine that my grandfather might have said it over his first blog post, if he had ever had the opportunity to write such a thing.

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