Self-Control: Only All Good for the Privileged

Whether it’s getting an education, improving your dietary habits, getting some exercise or going for improved efficiency, altering your life begins and ends with self-control. But for some, this comes at a steep price.

For life hackers, it’s about making the changes as efficient as possible: reaping maximum benefits for minimum efforts. For members of the quantified self movement, it’s about monitoring yourself in order to create a scheme of self-improvement tailored to your body and your needs. For the average reader of the self-help article in a magazine, it might just be about quitting smoking or getting the laundry done.

Self-help gurus agree that the best way to change one’s life is the one that doesn’t require more self-control than necessary. Indeed, many have grown to view self-control as a finite resource, and the phenomenon of “running out of it” has a term of its own: ego depletion. For this reason, habit formation is encouraged: once you’re accustomed to a certain way of acting, you no longer need to push yourself to do it. It gets easy. One caveat though – for that habit to be formed, it’s that much more important that self-control is maintained during the first three(ish) weeks that it takes to instil a new habit.

But while most address self-control as an internal property of people – one that can be learned and cultivated, but a property of the person, nonetheless – there’s a factor to it that is often overlooked: money.

Continue reading Self-Control: Only All Good for the Privileged


To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!

The first part of this post can be found here.

Here are a few pointers as to how to use trans* examples in philosophy. They draw from Jacob Hale’s Suggested Rules from the 90’s, which remain relevant despite the dated terminology.

Seven Tips for Proving a Point with a Little Help from Trans*people
(without our heads getting bruised from all the headdesking)

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!

To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

This is the second of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

The second part of this post is here.

I recently gave a short introduction to moral bioenhancement at a multidisciplinary Philosophy of Technology reading group. The conversation soon shifted to definitions of enhancement as a whole. When I was explaining how the welfarist account of enhancement avoids the problems in defining disease involved in distinguishing enhancement from the treatment of disease, I got to witness the following contributions to the discussion:
Sociologist: Like those sex changers! They go through the sex change and then their well-being improves.
Engineer: And if their well-being doesn’t improve, they change again. That has happened in Sweden!

As I facepalm in dismay and say something about moving back to the topic of enhancement, the sociologist rushes to stress that this really is relevant for the discussion at hand: what is the purpose of healthcare – should it treat disease or, more broadly, improve well-being? I agree. It is relevant. But there were things that disturbed me.

First, it was apparent that my co-conversants were not aware there was a transgender person in the room, or that they were talking to him. This was not even a possibility. Transgender people were something “out there in the world”, discussed as a curious phenomenon. While I read the sociologist as trying to expand the argument at hand to defend wide accessibility of medical interventions for trans* individuals (and the engineer as discrediting trans*identities as passing phenomena best suited to be the butts of his jokes), “the sex changers” were clearly something other, foreign, peculiar. To be accepted, sure, by any liberal standards; but also, only relevant to those present insofar as they proved a point.

Second, while their wording of choice was not in itself a huge problem – should merely terminology be off, it can simply be corrected – it was a telltale sign of something else, namely that neither had actually familiarised themselves with the phenomenon they were discussing. Nevertheless, they were purporting to claim it as evidence for their views. A marginalised group was used as a narrative to lend evidence to a debate among the privileged social majority – without the privileged having bothered to even google it.

Third, as the binary, mythic verbalisation of transitioning as “the sex change” (that can even be redone!) as if there was a single medical intervention that somehow magically turned the binary on/off switch of gender to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in a change from maleness to femaleness or vice versa, gave away – they were discussing a phenomenon that did not exist (other than in their tabloid-fueled imaginations).

While this was a single case, in the context of informal discussion, it was not an isolated incident. The three problems I outline above are ones that are often present in public discussion about trans* issues, and they also appear in academic debates:

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

Trans* and Queer Bioethics

This is the first of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

I was excited to read Annika Thiem’s piece on Queering Philosophy in The Philosopher’s Eye. Thiem raises questions about the relationship of philosophy and queer theory: what kind of a place does queer theory have within philosophy, and how can it inform and improve philosophy as a whole?

During my BA studies in Comparative Literature, queer theory (and feminist theory in general) was one of the best recognized approaches to the study of literature, which draws heavily from continental philosophy as a whole. By contrast, as I jumped over to another faculty and to the Department of Philosophy, firmly grounded on the analytic school, feminist perspectives were marginal at best. I have since reflected on how the differences in methodology and discourse could be bridged, in order to pursue analytic philosophy in a manner that is mindful of the work done in the context of gender studies. Plenty of this work is relevant to issues in analytic philosophy – and not just in questions pertaining to applied ethics, although this appears to be among the most obvious applications. Relatedly, a recent special issue of the The Hastings Center Report was themed around LGBT* Issues in Bioethics. This is an important field of inquiry given that, firstly, problematic assumptions abound as to to what extent medical sciences are relevant to understanding gender and sexuality; and more urgently, there are widespread deficiencies in trans* health care, just to name two.

Thiem suggests that a starting point for applying a queer theoretical understanding to philosophy needs to be “to reject the rhetorical gesture that renders queerness as something that “is studied only out of personal interest” or something studied “objectively” from a distance”. This rejection of false “objectivity”, of course, is relevant to any topic in applied philosophy: it would be sloppy thinking to treat being a member of any group, whether minority or majority, as disqualifying one from pursuing philosophical inquiry on topics pertinent to that group. This appears evident on some topics: after all, medical ethics ought to be researched by medical doctors and researchers without medical training alike. However, the topics of gender and sexuality are under such polarized discussion that attitudes conflating persons with their arguments (as well as with straw men) abound. A recent article on The Guardian springs to mind, in which Matt Haig, a male feminist writer, upon sharing his intention to write a book about masculinity, received Twitter criticism accusing him of “mansplaining feminism”.

Continue reading Trans* and Queer Bioethics

Equally Smart, part II: Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

This is the second part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In the first post, I outlined how enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification are linked, and applied Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, on the issue at hand. This post introduces five enhancement distribution schemes that are compatible with the difference principle. Some of these schemes are even acceptable by Cohen’s egalitarian standards.

Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

In the previous post, I discussed the question of whether enhancements only available to the elite can constitute an improvement in light of the difference principle. Perhaps intelligence enhancements, even if restricted to the wealthy, would benefit the whole society, for example if the enhanced would find ways to act in order to remove world hunger. On the other hand, could intelligence further alienate the elite from the masses, diminishing the empathy they feel for the underprivileged? I find both equally unlikely: there is no reason to assume that increased intelligence would increase empathy or sense of social duty, but neither is there any reason to assume it would diminish them.

In this post, I will offer five sketches for strategies of accepting intelligence enhancements while staying mindful of social inequalities. Some of them are stronger or more feasible than others, some require very specific circumstances; all of them are compatible with Rawls’ difference principle, and some even respond to Cohen’s concerns. I will start with schemes of adopting enhancements for a limited group of people for a number of reasons: first, any medical enhancement technique should be initially applied only to a limited number of subjects for obvious safety reasons. Secondly, should the enhancement be too costly to reach the whole population, or should it, for example, require a difficult surgery, its availability thereby being limited by the number of competent surgeons, widespread adoption of the enhancement could be beyond our means.

Meanwhile, should the enhancement be easy to administer, eventual universal availability is only a question of distribution. I will discuss widespread enhancement towards the end of this post.

Continue reading Equally Smart, part II: Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

Equally Smart: Intelligence Enhancement, the Difference Principle and Egalitarianism, Part I

This is the first part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In this post, I will introduce the issue at hand: how are enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification linked? What light do Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, shed on the issue? The second post will concern five enhancement distribution schemes, compatible with the difference principle.

Part 1: Smart Technology

Less traffic accidents. Increased GNP. Get rid of cognitive biases. Enjoy better art more profoundly. The alleged benefits of enhancing intelligence have allure, both in the lives of individuals and at a population level. But will intelligence enhancements remain a luxury, too costly for the masses to use? Would enhancement technologies inevitably inevitably lead to further stratification, or could their use improve the welfare of the worst off?

Continue reading Equally Smart: Intelligence Enhancement, the Difference Principle and Egalitarianism, Part I

A Thought of One’s Own: Creative Thinking in the Age of Media Consumerism

In the beginning of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind, John Nash has just started postgraduate studies. Unlike his classmates, he shuns classes and coursework, preferring instead to exercise his academic freedom to spend quality time with pen and paper, trying to come up with an original idea.

We’re not all wired to become Nobel laureates like Nash, but I do suppose no sapient being can content herself with rethinking along paths already walked. Thought karaoke may be prevalent and even necessary for the development of our own ideas, much like the art school student is tasked with copying the great masters in order to learn how their paintings work. However, I believe that coming up with original ideas (even small, sympathetic ones, not necessarily Nobel-worthy ones), the task that was the hardest in the first place, has become increasingly difficult in the past decades.

Continue reading A Thought of One’s Own: Creative Thinking in the Age of Media Consumerism