Tuesday, January 29, 2008


so i have these red mittens, and i've had them for something like five years, which is the longest that i've ever kept any mittens, ever (i think that the second runner up would probably come out at something like six weeks), and the reason is that they're on a long string that goes all the way through one coat sleeve across my back and through the other coat sleeve. i can leave them in my coat all winter long. it blows my mind that all mittens don't have this feature. it easily makes my top ten favorite things in the technology category.

in this my fifth long winter with mittens on a string it occurred to me that when my hands aren't in my mittens, i can put other things in them. my phone. money. small food items. i realized this one day when i absent-mindedly put my hand in my mitten with my phone in my hand, and then left it there (the phone, in the mitten, in my lap, on the bus, while i was staring out the window) when i absent-mindedly removed my hand. then i had to jump off of the bus in a hurry. and rather than my phone (or my mitten) (or them both) being left on the bus-- a fate that has befallen many of my mittens, one phone, and two wallets-- they both came swingingly with me off the bus, across the street, and to work (without a minute to spare, p.s.).

these little miracle mittens are a gift from my friend liza. liza is getting married, and i have to get her a gift, back. it has be something really wonderful. i can't imagine how it'll even begin to compare, but i have to try. she gave me the gift that keeps on getting better, keeps on saving me from myself, year after year. and also, i'll probably wear something stupid to her wedding and ruin all the pictures. i have past debts and future indiscretions to repay. please send me your best idea.

[thank to steve, for taking a picture of my mitten and sending it to me.]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

[of] note.

i'm trying to figure out the relationship, conceptually and etymologically, between 'space' and 'capacity' (spacious. capacious. spacacity? capace?) and it's slow slow slow going as always, but i just found this: "space isn't remote at all. it's only an hours drive away if your car could go straight upwards." it reminded me about something else i'd read-- about how (sort of obviously, i guess) the oxygen is richer just around leaves, so there's this little sliver of biota that makes its whole life in these thin bands of superoxygenated air, little flat earths with their own atmosphere. all roads lead to fractals.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


here's my attempt at recounting a little argument by j.d. velleman that i think is very beautiful:

love doesn't essentially consist in desiring someone, but in valuing them. love is not itself the desire to be near a person, or to make them happy, or to be requited, although these desires are the common biproduct of most kinds of love. we may, in fact, love someone very much (a troubled relative, say) who we don't wish to be near. but what all sorts of love consist in is the awareness of value in another. we might think of a friend or a mentor without experiencing a burning desire to go to them, or to spend our time aiding them in their various projects, but what we will experience, what the experience of love amounts to, is something like wonderment. we stand in a sort of awe at that person's incomparable value.

velleman's moral veiws are largely deontological, or kantian, meaning that he believes the moral worth of a decision is not determined by its consequences, but by its adherence to certain principles-- by the integrity of the process that produced it. on this moral model, we must never use another human being as a means to an end (as perhaps we must if we want to ensure the best consequences). velleman says, along with kant, that human beings have an autonomous will (the power to examine our own thoughts and desires and then to endorse or reject them) and that we should (and do) contemplate that will, in ourselves and others, with reverence-- we value it for its own sake. the special force of this act-- the act of reverence, or valuing, inspired by the autonomous will-- is that it arrests self-love, freeing us up, making a little space for us to act morally, as opposed to acting always under the hypnotic influence of our own self-interest.

by a deontological moral standard like kant's, love has moral worth, because it just is a special case of that most morally necessary of practices-- the appreciation of intrinsic value in another human being. and in the case of love, specifically, the special force of this appreciation is that it arrests our impulse to self-protect. when we love someone, velleman says, we value them, and in that act of valuing we are disarmed, making for ourselves a little space in which we can let someone know us. "all that is essential to love," velleman says, "is that it disarms our emotional defenses toward an object in response to its incomparable value as a self-existent end."

now, listen, i'm no kantian. i just can't buy a moral theory that doesn't draw a direct connection between the effects of an action and the morality of an action. i want my moral theories rooted firmly in some account of human flourishing or the greater good. but there's something to it.

[velleman, j.d. "love as a moral emotion". ethics. volume 109, number 2. (january, 1999), pp. 338-374]

[all of the words that i italicized in the body of this post are jdv's words, which i particularly liked.]

Monday, January 21, 2008


[update: i spent most of the last couple of weeks studying (if you can call the nearly aimless reading and wildly wondering note-taking that i do studying) for this ethics comp, which i'm totally certain that i failed. and that's alright. i get three tries, and what i really need to work on are my test-taking strategies (snooze). fine, fine. anyway, the way the test works is that you get a list of twelve questions to study, and only nine will be on the test, and you only have to answer three of those nine, but you don't know which nine, or which three, so you have to make all of these uninteresting/strategic choices about how many you want to study and which, and for how long. i make bad choices, and i know that i'm doing it, but i feel compelled to follow my unstrategic interests. here is the question that i spent the longest time preparing for, which i knew wouldn't be on the test, and wasn't:]

does love for another have moral worth?
now that's a fine fucking question.
and brings me back to philosophy, which (sorry!) i've wondered away from these last few posts.

the problem (as laid out in one particularly nice paper on the subject) is that most moral theories, though wildly different in other respects, demand some sort of impartiality of us. to behave morally may mean acting in a way that maximizes aggregate utility, or some far-seeing enlightened self-interest; it may mean acting in accordance with universalizable principles, or principles that we would endorse if we were to carefully reflect on them. there are an array of theories to choose from, but there is a common sense that an ethical person will be fair and level-headed, fully considerate of the immediate and long-term rights and interests of herself and others.

but love! partiality is love's essence. love enthralls and arrests. love comes all tangled up with our most ethically suspect desires. love is the most notorious skew-er of sound judgment this side of blind rage. was anything ever less responsive to fairness than love? more imprudent? if anything ever was, i can't think of it. anyway, i won't bother cataloging the problems of perception and judgment that are the beginning and end of romantic love-- if you can't think of examples from your own life, please consult any song, poem, book, or piece art created by anyone, ever. the whole of pop music is particularly enlightening on this subject.

but even strong romantic love is not always violent (hume reminds us of the distinction between strong passions and violent ones)*, and we use the word 'love' to describe quite a varied range of emotions and ways of relating to other people, animals, objects, and even ourselves, which aren't romantic at all. there are other ways of getting into love besides falling. often enough we're born into it, or find it generated quietly in the friendly friction of mutual and varied interests, or the camaraderie of shared circumstance. but can any of these kinds of love-- can any love other than an indiscriminant philanthropy-- embody the moral ideal, or even meet the most basic moral standards, of any meaningful and coherent moral picture?

like a whole mess of questions in philosophy, if you define the terms of this question well enough, you've come about as close to answering the question as you're likely to get. does love have moral worth? well, what do you mean by love? and what do you mean by moral? i haven't managed to answer either question, and it's time to stop. but i read a couple of compelling ideas on the this topic, which i'll try to write a little bit about very soon.

*by "passion" hume means something very broad-- not just a subset of our more violent feelings, but all of our feelings-- he means "desires" or "passions" to include all of the bit of human psychology that aren't strictly beliefs on matters of fact. so by this definition a passion may be strong in the sense that it consistently guides my behavior even if it isn't violent (meaning that it doesn't rise and fall suddenly, or that i may not even experience it as an emotion).

[p.s. the photograph is by richard barnes. jared says that my spirit animal is a brown bear, and i say that his is. anyway, i like pictures better than titles, because it's less weird when i change them all the time, which i inevitably do.]

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

hey babies.

it's a new year, and speaking of years, i'm just about to embark on my 26th. oo. it just hit me. right then, just after i typed it. twenty six! but that's not what i want to type about. i'm just typing to say happy new year. and while i won't spend the next hour formulating a perfect tirade against new years resolutions (they get us thinking, after all) i do want to ask you a favor, friends: riot, don't diet, for fucksake. having thought about agency and selfhood from a hundred directions i've found that concepts like restraint and willpower-- concepts about what and why we aren't, we don't, we could have but didn't-- dissipate to incoherence under the microscope of my attention. what holds up and turns out to be interesting is substance, identity-- what actually happens. i don't know. i just mean that if you're determined to be resolved, resolve to be more yourself, not less. or to come see me more often!