Saturday, 7 April 2007

Twenty Years Ago

4-7-87 . . . I had an interesting discussion with Julia Annas about surrogate motherhood this afternoon. I was talking to Lois Day and Rosalie Burkart in the office when Julia came in. To my surprise, she listened for a few minutes and jumped in. We discussed the recent New Jersey case in which a surrogate mother was deprived of her child, and Julia told us about an even stranger case from South Africa. Apparently, a young couple there donated an egg and sperm for in vitro fertilization and had the embryo implanted in the womb of the woman’s mother. That is, a woman would be bearing her own grandchild! Isn’t that bizarre? Julia found it a bit disgusting, but I see nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It just shows that with advances in technology, new social arrangements are possible. All in all, I enjoyed the discussion. I got to know Julia a bit better and will probably be less nervous during my oral preliminary exam as a result.

Tonight’s philosophy of law seminar concerned moral conservatism, and specifically the claim that when the values of autonomy and community conflict, that of autonomy ought to prevail. This is [Joel] Feinberg’s claim, although I haven’t read his manuscript [Harmless Wrongdoing]. The discussion was lively. Afterward, I corralled Jonathan Kandell to discuss the issue of surrogacy. Jonathan, like me, is a political and social radical, and it turns out that we share a concern with exploitation in surrogate relationships. The discussion moved naturally to feminism. I told Jonathan that, while I hold an ideal of an androgynous society, one in which there are no social differences between males and females, I realize that, practically speaking, this is unrealizable. So I work for other changes, such as the abolition of occupational and educational inequality and the elimination of certain types of thinking. Since language shapes and limits thought, I said, we should perhaps start with language. Now, Jonathan has read more feminist literature than I have, so he filled me in on certain disagreements within the ranks. It turns out that my androgynous ideal is at one end of the spectrum: the extreme end. [Aren’t both ends of a spectrum extreme?]

Richard A. Posner on Age and Pessimism

I want to come back to the pessimism of the old.  Since the old were once young, their pessimism entails disillusionment, including disillusionment about schemes for human betterment, for such schemes are usually founded on hope rather than on experience. The young may have read about the failure of such schemes but the old have lived the failure; and in many areas of human activity book learning is not an adequate substitute for lived experience. . . . Being pessimistic, disillusioned, and cynical, the old, however “wise,” become preoccupied with their own survival and happiness, these being the only goods of certain goodness to them. From that obsession can spring avarice and shamelessness.

A puzzle in Aristotle’s account is why people become more and more pessimistic with age, rather than remaining on a plateau of realism reached when they are in their prime. There is a possible economic explanation for at least one component of the pessimistic outlook of elderly people, the belief that things are getting worse—that they were better in the old days—that the country is “going to Hell in a handbasket.” Over a period of decades, some aspects of the social environment get worse while others get better. It is rational that older people should be more conscious of the things that are getting worse than of the things that are getting better, and vice versa for young people. Many though not all improvements consist of novelties, as distinct from incremental improvements in cost or performance. The elderly, because of the age-related decline in fluid intelligence, have difficulty—incur large costs—in taking advantage of novelties. Thus, innovations in art, fashion, or styles of living are likely to be accepted much more readily by young than by old people; the latter may even think the “innovations” retrograde. At the same time, young people have a less acute sense of what has been lost on the march to progress than old people do. The old actually experienced the good things that are no more. The young can only read about them—and may not bother to do so, having other calls on their time. In sum, the costs of information about the costs of progress will be lower to the old than to the young, but the costs of information about the benefits of progress will be higher, though I admit an exception for cases in which the young take for granted improvements of which the old are acutely aware, such as air conditioning and the polio vaccine.

(Richard A. Posner, Aging and Old Age [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995], 107-8 [footnote omitted])

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me” (Op-Ed, April 4):

Richard Conniff reports that researchers theorize that “getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards” that they “become oblivious to the people around them.”

But there may be a quite different explanation for the foolish, insensitive or rude behavior of the rich or powerful. Much research has shown that people derive satisfaction not so much from high income as such, but rather from income differential, that is, the mere knowledge that they earn more than someone else.

In a similar vein, the person “in charge” may take the extra cookie not so much because he wants it, but rather to show the rest of the team that he is their superior, is “entitled” to the extra cookie and can safely ignore another team member’s craving the cookie.

This may be equally or even more true of rude behavior, like belching or picking one’s ear wax in public. It’s not so much that the offender is oblivious or can’t control himself, but rather he wants to demonstrate (subconsciously) that his rank or power is such that he can break normal social rules that bind “ordinary” people, and no one can or will object.

Thomas Hill
Chicago, April 4, 2007
The writer is a visiting professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Note from KBJ: Human beings are status-seeking animals. Is that news?

Blogs of Note

Here are some of my favorite bloggers (in no particular order):

Dr John J. Ray (Dissecting Leftism)
Steve Rugg (JusTalkin)
Peg Kaplan (what if?)
Jeff Percifield (Beautiful Atrocities)
Ally Eskin (Who Moved My Truth?)
Dr Bill Keezer (Bill’s Comments)
Dr Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher)
Michelle Malkin (Michelle Malkin)
Donald L. Luskin (The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid)
Norm Weatherby (Quantum Thought)
Kim du Toit (The Other Side)
Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit)
Darby Shaw (The Kaos Theory)

If you think I’m missing a good blogger, let me know.

Ten Years Ago

7 April 1997, 11:32 A.M. Nathan: Thanks for the birthday greet­ings. I’m not at all depressed about turning for­ty. I feel fortunate to have made it this far, partly because I lost two friends at the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four. Un­like those who believe in an afterlife, I value each and every day. Each day is different and special. When I lie down to sleep, I re­flect on the course of the day, examining its con­tours, and tell the girls good night. Every morning, conversely, is full of promise, a veritable gift to be opened and enjoyed. And when the sun is out, as it is today, my spirits soar. I can’t say enough about the lifestyle I have made for myself. My dream is to be independent—not separate, not disconnected, but free of con­straint and not beholden to anyone for the things I need. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do, how to do it, or when it must be done. I need to be my own boss. I know that’s childish, but that’s how I am. I do not understand how people can go to work every day doing tasks they dislike for peo­ple they hate or disrespect. It’s sad. But I believe anyone—even the most dis­advantaged—can make a life for him- or herself. It may require short-term sacrifice, and you may have to dis­tance yourself from capitalist culture with its lure of consumption for its own sake, but it’s possible. How many people decide to have kids, or go into debt, or expect various luxu­ries and comforts, then complain because they have no free time? I have no sympathy for such peo­ple. I’d rather sleep on the floor and hang clothes on the line, as I do, than lose my autonomy.

I’ve lived four decades. The first ranged from 7 April 1957 to 7 April 1967. These were the childhood years. The first five were idyllic, the second five disruptive and trau­matic. My par­ents divorced in the mid-sixties, after which Mom and the four boys moved several times. We “landed” in Vassar, on twenty acres of land, in the fall of 1967, when I was in fifth grade. My mother and stepfather are still there. The second decade ranged from 7 April 1967 to 7 April 1977. These were the adolescent years: years of baseball and learning. I bought a car (several, actually), got a job, experimented with alcohol, and began col­lege. The third decade ranged from 7 April 1977 to 7 April 1987. These were the college years. I moved out of the family home in August 1979, went to law and grad­uate school, and fell in love with Tucson and bicycling. The fourth decade ranged from 7 April 1987 to 7 April 1997. These were the employment years. I got my first real job in August 1988 at Texas A&M University, and since then I’ve been a professor at UTA. I’m only now crawling out from under the massive debt I accumulated during the previous decade, but I do not complain. If all goes well, I’ll have one, two, perhaps three or four additional decades to enjoy the auton­omy I purchased. It’s been a great run, my friend. Let no one mourn for me should I die today. Celebrate! kbj

A Year Ago



It ain’t right; it ain’t proper; it ain’t possible. I’m 50 years old today—which means that my life is almost half over. I was born in Lapeer (Michigan) General Hospital on 7 April 1957, the second of four boys. I had a wonderful childhood in rural Michigan. I was the first in my family to go to college, and of course I had to overdo it by earning not one, but five college degrees. Like David Hume (1711-1776) long before me, I set out on the road to the bar, but ended up on the path to philosophy. I have never, for one second, regretted my decision to trade a legal career for a career as a philosopher. I was born to be a philosopher. Philosophy was made for me. Although I’ve traveled much, done much, and met many people from many walks of life, I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier than precisely what I’m doing. I spend my days reading, thinking, and writing. I have as much contact with people as I need, but no more than I can tolerate. All of my material needs are provided for, and then some. I’m healthy (knock on wood) and happy. Has anyone seen Molly Shannon’s Saturday Night Live character Sally O’Malley? I wish I could find a video of one of her skits. This will have to do.  I’m 50!  Fifty years old! I can kick, stretch, and kick.

Addendum: In Michigan, where I grew up, it was rare to have snow after my birthday. Guess what? It snowed this morning in Fort Worth! I’m glad I didn’t have a bike rally this week. Most of the nation, including South Texas, is being frozen by an arctic cold front. So much for global warming.

Addendum 2: One nice thing about turning 50 is that I’ve moved into the 50-54 age group in footraces. Until today, I was competing against men who are 45, 46, 47, 48, and 49. For the next five years, I’ll be competing against men who are 50, 51, 52, 53, and 54. The first couple of years after you enter an age group are fun. The final couple of years are not fun—at least if you’re interested in awards.

Addendum 3: Am I now officially a senior citizen? Will I start receiving solicitations from the American Association of Retired Persons? I have no interest in joining AARP, even if it were to save me money. I’m not the joining type.

Addendum 4: I’m grateful for the many birthday greetings I’ve received. Thank you. I might add that Mark Spahn, one of my longtime readers, is also celebrating a birthday today. Happy birthday, Mark!