MA Dissertation Abstract

I thought now would be a good time to post the abstract of my MA dissertation. In the end, I didn't get as high of a score as I wanted, but I'm still very happy with what I wrote.
Many of those who are convinced of the capability approach naturally incorporate counterfactual assumptions into assessments of well-being. Specifically, we assume that under conditions of freedom, there should be a roughly proportional distribution of life pursuits, meaning the demographic makeup of most professions should roughly reflect the demographic makeup of the greater population. Accordingly, we take a diverging distribution to be a possible sign of a lack of capability. But why do we have this intuition? The capability approach cannot account for it since it only tells us what to look at when assessing the quality of life. The goal of this paper is to account for this intuition. I argue that our expectation of a proportional distribution is based on an element of universality, which, in turn, consists of the natural diversity of talent and the natural diversity of experience. The interaction of those two factors create a chaotic situation from which a proportional distribution is simply the most probable result. Furthermore, the interaction of the two also dictate that under conditions of freedom, we should see a distribution of life pursuits characterized by diversity and evenness. Since the current CA literature seems to lack this element, my paper suggests that perhaps a new discussion needs to take place and that perhaps a new well-being index needs to be created.

Black Friday

To be willing to place oneself unnecessarily in a chaotic situation in which one may have no choice but to trample over someone else is a symptom of one of the moral plagues of our time – that is materialism. Black Friday reminds us of the effort that people are willing to exert just to buy luxuries at a discounted price. In those 24 hours or so, the spirit of competition heightens while the spirit of compassion weakens. This de facto holiday, which comes right after the day when we give thanks for all those who have contributed to our lives, is not about God or about honoring a great person or even about love, it is a holiday for the worship of unnecessary material objects.

It is not difficult to find news headlines describing violent and degenerate behavior among shoppers during Black Friday. Many seem to be prepared for a coming apocalyptic scenario in which they must defend their property with pepper spray, knives and guns. Although I find arming oneself for a shopping spree to be outrageous and unacceptable, those who do actually have a somewhat realistic picture of what happens during the chaos. In a sense, Black Friday is a free-for-all filled with confusion, quarrel and desperation. It is not absurd to say that this holiday provides us with a glimpse of what a true apocalypse would look like and how human beings would act if their lives were truly threatened.

The tragedy of Black Friday is that it is entirely mainstream and that there is nothing like it for the forces of good. It is impossible to imagine millions of people throughout the country waiting in line for 48 hours to help dig wells in sub-Saharan Africa. It is even impossible to imagine such behavior for our own fellow citizens. After hurricane Sandy did we see as many people willing to put so much energy into helping the victims? Absolutely not. True, millions of people did donate money and there were courageous people in the Northeast who helped with the aftermath, but the amount of voluntary effort exerted for the victims of hurricane Sandy is nothing compared to the amount that is exerted by the lust for unnecessary objects. Selfishness and materialism prevail. And what is more is that we have given them a holiday.

Trying to Make New Friends

Recently, I've been trying to meet new people by joining different groups on meetup.com. I've been to some events so far (a couple of which were quite interesting), but I still haven't made any new friends. The main thing that I've realized the past month and a half since I've been back is that not very many young people attend the same events as I do, which makes me think that other people my age are just interested in different topics. Most of the groups that I've joined on meetup have to do with either science, atheism or philosophy. I know that these subjects are more academic in nature, but I still would have expected more young people. I have to say it's quite disappointing and discouraging to be welcomed by a sea of gray and white hair; it makes me not want to come back.

I've been trying to figure out why only old people attend the same events as I do and I've come up with three possible explanations: (1) young people are not interested in the things I'm interested in because they're young; (2) young people are not interested in the same things due to a general shift in people's interests; and (3) young people in Los Angeles are not interested in academia because of the local culture. Of all three explanations, I sincerely hope that it's not (2) because that would imply it won't change with age. Unfortunately, seeing the kind of filth that is now on TV and on the internet, which I think encourages materialism and superficiality, I believe it is equally plausible with (1). Explanation (3) I find to be the least plausible since there are so many inhabitants of Los Angeles. I'm not denying that certain cities have their own cultures that will attract certain kinds of people, but I don't think it's significant enough.

Now that I've gone over the analysis of my recent experiences, I would like to describe a few of the events that I've attended. The first event that I went to was actually a lecture given by an evolutionary anthropologist. He recently published a book about how he thinks certain morals are the products of evolution. On the whole, it was an interesting lecture. He wasn't the best speaker, but he made his point. He argued that morality was the result of evolution because those people who didn't possess those traits, such as bullies, would have been “weeded out” of the group eventually and therefore, would not have been able to pass down their genes. I asked him why he thought it was necessarily an evolutionary phenomenon since it seemed that everything he was saying could be explained through social conditioning. In response, he pointed to the fact that babies have a sense of morality, which points to genetics and hence, evolution.

The next event that I attended was also a lecture and it was about the separation of church and state. The speaker in the second event was a constitutional lawyer who made the point that if Obama lost the next election, it would give Romney the chance to appoint a conservative Supreme Court Justice and thereby overturn the majority that the Court currently holds that supports a separation of church and state. This, he argued, should not happen. Contrary to what I previously thought, I didn't think this was such an important issue; I assumed that this part of the neutral state was already engrained in the basic law of the land, but this is not the case. It's true that the state cannot adopt an official religion, but the question is not one religion vs. another religion, rather the question is whether or not the state can favor religion over non-religion.

After the above mentioned lecture, I went to another one hosted by the same organization the next week. The speaker in the third lecture argued that religion is generally opposed to gender equality because it sets the stage for hierarchy. Although some religious people argue that all human beings are created equal, the fact that there is a God and that certain people are closer to him, such as priests, creates the conditions from which inequality can easily arise. In the end, I wasn't too convinced of the speaker's argument because the problem really is human (mis)interpretation of religion.

On a completely different note, I've also joined an improv class. I've been to 3 classes so far and they've all been extremely fun. Acting has always been one of my interests, but I've never really pursued it because I always had other things to do. (The last time I acted was over 10 years ago in high school.) Now that I have a bit more free time, I think improv provides a nice balance in my life. It's too bad that I'm not very good at it though; to be funny so quickly is extremely hard, much harder than it looks like on TV. For example, one game that we play is called the Gauntlet, which is an exercise to train your ability to take bad lines and turn them into something funny. The way this game works is that 4 people stand around you and give you horrible opening lines, usually about an external object. Then, you have to change the conversation so that you create some sort of relationship between the two people and the object (if there is one). So for example, the other day, one guy gave me the line: “Eating hair gives me really bad heart burn.” I responded by saying: “You're taking this role in Cats way too seriously.” Not the best example, I know, but I think you get the point. The last thing I want to mention is that almost everyone else taking the improv class is around my age. We only meet once a week so I haven't established a relationship with any one of them yet, but I think I'm going to make new friends soon.