Religion and The Absurd

There are times at which I envy religious people. Their sense of determination, of knowing where all of this is about and what to do with it, can seem very alluring at times. Like it can really put your mind at ease. And why wouldn’t it? After all, religious people always know that, no matter what they are faced with in life, they will always be able to come up with an explanation that is 100 percent bulletproof. An explanation that always points to the one single source of everything. Down to God himself. That truly must be a peaceful mindset, right?

Wrong. Reality contradicts this assumption. For it seems fair to say that religions, or differences in religion, are an important – if not the most important – cause of war in this world of ours. And since war is – by definition – not peaceful, it is fair to say that not all theists experience peaceful consequences through adhering to their religion.

But this article is not an attempt to criticize religion. This article zooms in at the different positions regarding religion, and the reasonableness – or unreasonableness – of each.

Teapot
First of all atheism. I have established that I am not an atheist. For to be an atheist, one must reject to believe in the existence of deities. And I most certainly do not reject believing in deities. At least: not as long as it is someone else who does the believing; not me, for I don’t believe in any deity.

Neither do I consider myself to be an agnostic. An agnostic claims that one will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of deities. Therefore one should postpone judgement (possibly indefinitely) about the existence of any deity. Agnosticism as thus defined doesn’t seem to be unreasonable. However, it leaves one with an unwanted consequence, being: one can reflect only on those entities that definitely do or definitely do not exist.

Let me clarify this. Suppose I say that – somewhere in space – there is a teapot floating around. The existence of this teapot can neither be proved nor disproved. Should we hence be agnostic about its existence? This seems unreasonable, for we might have reasons to suppose that the existence of such a teapot is extremely improbable. But notions such as probability do not make any sense from an agnostic point of view. For how can something be more or less probable, given the fundamental assumption that one cannot make any reasonable judgement about the existence of entities that cannot be proved or disproved? If the latter would be true, one cannot talk about probability; for probability – or at least everything between 0 and 100 percent – is not absolute like a proof or disproof. If one cannot accept this consequence, one should not be an agnostic.

But then the unavoidable question pops up: what then am I? Is there a group of like-minded people I belong to? Is there a religion or a philosophy that suits my particular ideas and intuitions? Or am I forever doomed to wander around lonely on this earth of ours, searching for my very own, not yet formulated, views on life?

Baby Jesus
The answer is no. Because recently something special happened: my very own baby Jesus was born. My lord and saviour. While surfing on the internet, I stumbled upon the philosophical position called ‘absurdism’, and I was hooked right away. What is absurdism? The best way to explain it, is to zoom in at its fundamental notion: the Absurd. The ‘Absurd’ refers to ‘the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any’. Note that absurdism does not consider it to be ‘logically impossible’ to find meaning in life; it just considers it ‘humanly impossible’ to do so. That is a subtle but very important distinction. It is this distinction that implies that, even though there might be an absolute meaning of life floating around somewhere in this universe of ours, we – simple human beings of flesh and blood – will never be able to find it.

And that’s it, right? We simply cannot come to know how things ‘truly’ are, including the ‘true meaning’ of life. We are doomed to live within the boundaries of our own little worlds. We are unable to trade our points of view for any other humanly conceivable point of view. The latter implies that we can never come to an absolute grasp of ‘the truth’; supposing that such a thing would exist. Surely: if everyone would develop the same beliefs about what is true and what is not, about what is right and what is not, seemingly universal ideas tend to emerge. But the question we must then ask ourselves is: were these ideas universal before people considered them to be so? Or did they become universal because everyone believed them?

Meaning
A note of caution is in place. For an absurdist does not always lead a happy life. There is always one major danger hiding in the corner. Absurdism implies the absolute freedom of humanity, the non-existence of any shackles besides the ones we have created ourselves. But sometimes this destined freedom of ours conflicts with what is the human longing for certainty. A longing to know how things truly are; a need to know who or what is behind all this craziness we call life. Absurdism claims that we cannot come to know these certainties. And when this observation strikes, it strikes hard: a feeling of powerlessness tends to take control over our minds and bodies. That’s an inevitable consequence of appreciating the Absurd.

But then, a little later, when you get yourself together, and taste again of the juices of total meaninglessness, of total freedom, you realize that you have found true love after all. You will realize that it is the only path leading to something that at times comes close to meaning. For even though the absurdist knows that he will not find any absolute meaning of life, it is in the very act of trying to find it, that he finds fulfilment. The fulfilment he is longing for. The fulfilment he proudly calls life.

Have you ever thought about what your most fundamental beliefs are? Upon what beliefs you have built your life? And have you ever asked yourself why those are the beliefs that have the authority to determine the remainder of your framework of beliefs?

But what do you think?

Why You Should Always Respect the Dustman

I have been a dustman for a while. And even though my stay in the ‘dustman-community”’ was short, I was long enough to become overwhelmed by the disrespect these people receive from their fellow species members. People are yelling things at them. People are telling them how shitty their job is. People treat them like the true pieces of garbage. I was wondering what the dustmen themselves were thinking about their profession. Were they also disgusted about what they were doing? I decided to ask them.

And this is what they told me: they absolutely loved what they were doing. They were proud of being the dustman of district x or district y. They took care of the streets that fell under their supervision. These were after all their streets, and their streets should not be dirty. One of the dustmen told me very proudly about his dustmen-crew. He said that, within the dustmen-community, his crew could be compared to FC Barcelona; that’s how well they anticipated each other’s actions. Dustman A knew exactly that, when Dustman B grabbed on to a new dustbin, he should be in the process of taking away his bin.

So it seems that people differ, to say the least, in what they like and what they don’t like to do for a living. And that’s a good thing, right? Of course it is. Because the fact that each one of us wants to do something different for a living makes that all the jobs that are required to keep our society functioning are filled. If everyone wanted to become a big time actor, no-one would be cleaning the streets of Hollywood. At least, not for a while. Because the demand for dustmen, and therefore the wages, would increase sooner or later thanks to the ‘beautiful’ mechanisms of the free market.

Also, the fact that people appreciate different ways to make their money provides you and me with the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this world of ours. And – I believe – it is only if you do what you like to do that you are likely to put the most effort in doing it. And, subsequently, it is only when you put serious effort into doing something that you are likely to make a difference. And it the ambition to ‘make a difference’, whether it is by cleaning the streets or by writing an article, that gives that feeling of happiness and fulfilment we are all so desperately longing for.

The moral of this story should be clear: never disrespect anyone or feel pity for anyone because of what they do for a living. Remember that (hopefully) most of us are doing something that we like to do. Be thankful for whatever their contribution to society might be, since it is because of their contribution that you and I can do the job that we like to do. Whatever that might be.

But what do you think?

How to Justify Consequentialism Without Pointing at the Consequences?

What makes an action good or bad? People adhering to deontological ethics judge the morality of their actions based on whether their actions follow certain rules. ‘You should not kill’, ‘You should not steal’ and ‘You should not lie’ are examples of such rules. On the other end there are people who say that ‘ the ends justify the means’, and that the rightness or wrongness of an action is ultimately based on the outcomes of the action. ‘You may lie if the damage caused to the person you lie to is negligible in comparison to the utility you gain/the dis-utility you prevent from happening’ could be an example. The latter position is an instance of a the broader position of consequentialism

So: what position to choose? Should you base your conduct on absolute rules, or should you weigh the expected outcomes of actions in order to decide what action is the right one to take? One could say that it is reasonable to judge each case on its own merits. That it does not make sense to hold on to the rule ‘You should not lie’, because in some cases lying might be ‘better’ – in whatever sense defined – for both you and the person you lie too. For example: suppose your father is lying on his deathbed. You have just heard that your sister – the apple of your dad’s eye – got cancer. Given that you know that your dad cares an awful lot about your sister, and that telling about your sister’s situation is likely to worsen his health, it might in fact be bad – in terms outcomes – to tell him about your sister’s situation. Furthermore, given your own happiness, it might be better not to say anything (saving you the painful outcome of seeing your dad suffer from the news). Hence one could reasonably say that there are instances, such as this example, that falsify an absolute rule of conduct – ‘You should not lie,’ in this case. That implies that deontological ethics is not necessarily – or not always – the best stance to adopt.

That brings us to consequentialism: might this be a more reasonable position to adopt? In order to reasonably claim so, one should at least come up with a reasonable answer to the following question: how can you base your conduct on the outcomes of your actions if you don’t know what the consequences of your actions will be? We can – after all – not look into the future, hence we cannot know what the consequences of our actions will be. You could – for example – think that your girlfriend would not mind it if you’d post a photo of you and another girl on your social media (‘because she is so reasonable’), but it might turn out that, contrary to your expectation, she does. You can of course have expectations, but are expectations sufficient to ground moral conduct? After all, each case is unique – each case has innumerable factors that influence the outcome of one’s action. Hence even coming up with a reasonable expectation might – a priori – be impossible.

A more fundamental problem with consequentialism might be the premise on which the doctrine is based: something along the lines of ‘An action is good if its outcomes are good’. It seems that this rule – which forms the foundation of the consequentialist position – is, by definition, deontological in nature. But what then justifies this rule? If the reason would be that adopting this rule is good because it leads to the best outcomes, then we are justifying consequentialism with consequentialism, which seems intolerable. On the other hand, if we take this rule to be applied without looking at its expected outcomes, then we are deriving consequentialism – at least in part – from deontological ethics, which could cast doubt on whether one is actually applying consequentialism instead of deontological ethics.

I find this a difficult issue. What do you think?

P.S. For the sake of the length of this article, I left out pragmatic ethics. This seems to be a middle ground between deontological ethics and consequentialism that could be reasonable.

Why Economics is No Less Scientific than Physics

‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.’ Spoken by Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. This is a rather extreme view, but it is not uncommon among (primarily) natural scientists. It grabs on to an intuition many have, even in the academic philosophy of science community, that physics is the science, and that other disciplines – especially social sciences – are not. But let’s ask ourselves the question: is this true? Does physics have any special access to the truth that – let’s say – economics does not?

Let’s try to answer these questions. First of all, one has to separate the theoretical parts of physics and economics, from their empirical counterparts. Just like there is theoretical physics, there is ‘theoretical economics’ – although the latter is usually denoted by the more encompassing (and therefore misleading) term ‘economics’. Both theoretical fields try to construct logical or mathematical frameworks – possibly modelling the external world – and derive logical implications from accepting certain principles (the ‘laws’ of the framework). The prime difference is that economics takes individuals as its domain of analysis, while physics takes nature.

Now, let’s look at the empirical counterparts of physics and economics. Both experimental physicists and behavioural economists (a subset of the set ‘experimental economists’) do one thing and one thing only: set up hypotheses, gather data, compare the implications of the hypotheses with the data, and either confirm or refute the hypotheses based on their accordance with these implications. Hence the method applied in both experimental fields is the same. So now we have that the methods applied in both the theoretical and the experimental parts of physics and economics – and hence the whole of the two disciplines- are the same.

Now, given that the method applied is the same, how then could economics be any less scientific than physics? It might be true that physics has a longer history, and is – in that sense – more ‘mature’ than economics. But being more mature does not imply being more scientific. After all: many religions are more mature than physics: does that imply that many religions are more scientific than religion? Of course not.

It is then because there are laws in physics but not in economics? Well, it is true that physics has laws, such as the Law of Universal Gravitation, stating the acceleration of an object caused by the force of gravitation. But economics has laws too; the most well-known being the Law of Supply and Demand. One could say that the latter is not really a law, because it is only true ceteris paribus; that is, if all other conditions – besides the supply and demand of a particular good – remain constant. But isn’t this true for physics as well? In order for the Law of Universal Gravitation to hold, one should neglect such frictions as air resistance. So it appears that, whether it is in economics or physics, there are certain conditions one puts forward in order for laws to be experimentally accurate: neglecting air resistance in the case of physics, neglecting other factors – changes in cost of production, technological innovation etc. – in the case of economics. So the two fields do not seem to differ in that respect either.

Hence it is seems that the only difference between physics and economics, is its domain of study. But can the object of study really determine whether some field is more scientific than another? And if so, why would that be? It cannot be because physics’s object is more natural, because there is nothing unnatural about individuals; individuals are part of the world we live in, just like atomic particles, gravity and radioactivity.

Hence, given all of the above, there is does not seem to be any compelling argument for the claim that economics is less scientific than physics. Sorry mister Rutherford.

But what do you think?

What Are You Besides Your Body?

Let’s ask the question: What am I? Not ‘Who am I?,’ because asking ‘Who am I?’ would already presume the presence of some entity whose nature is being questioned. Just what am I. Am I my body? No, that’s my body…again the presence of an entity is presumed to which my body would be assigned. Because what is this ‘my’ in my body? What makes my body ‘my’ body and your body ‘your’ body? What makes ‘you’ you and ‘me’ me? Are there even such things as ‘you’ and ‘me’? Or all we all part of a bigger whole; a continuum of nature in which no discrete entities exist?

When I’m referring to ‘me’, I’m not referring to what I have. And that includes my body. I think I am referring to my consciousness. But then again: what is this ‘my’ in ‘my consciousness’? What makes my consciousness mine and your consciousness yours? Assuming that you have a consciousness of course…I don’t know. There has to be something ‘my’ consciousness would have to be ascribed to in order to make it different from ‘your’ consciousness. My body maybe…and now we’re back at where we started.

It appears like we are just too stupid to come to understand what the ‘I’ in ‘What am I?’ is. Our tiny little brains just cannot handle the question. But, instead of a big read ‘ERROR’ appearing in the middle of our minds, the mind desperately tries to come up with an answer. Anything. It doesn’t manner how unverifiable or implausible it is. Desperately it tries to find something that makes ‘me’ me and ‘you’ you. But over and over again it returns home disappointed…not even knowing where or what this home is.

How does the ‘who’ in ‘who am I?’ differ from the ‘what’ in ‘what am I?’ Do they even differ? Because if it not, determinism might be unavoidable. If there is nothing in us that contributes at least a little value to the collective of cells making up our bodies, then we have to conclude that we are the collective of cells making up our bodies. But then free will would be nothing more than an illusion. Or it must be something that is formed in some inconceivable manner by the gigantically complex network of cells we call our bodies.

But let me ask you: what if free will would merely be an illusion? Would you care? Would your life become any different from what it is now? You could still do anything you want to do. The only difference is that what you ‘want’ to do would be programmed into your genetic structure. ‘You’ would merely be a witness overlooking the execution of this protocol.

Do you believe in consciousness? And if so, what do you believe it is? And would you mind if your consciousness would be like a fart; nothing but a by-product of your body?

Just like Sexual Assault, Bullying should be Illegal

Bullying can lead to severe negative consequencesResearch shows that the majority of the Dutch want bullying to be punishable; that is, they want bullying to be illegal, so that bullies risk prosecution. And that seems reasonable – to a certain extent at least. Bullying is after all terrible. Besides the fact that those who are bullied experience a terrible time, the consequences of bullying can continue until many years after the bullying took place. Amanda Todd‘s case shows what bullying might cause people to do. But also the documentary ‘Bully‘, which follows a boy who – while causing harm to absolutely no-one – gets bullied, shows the evil world of bullying.

But in case you want to make bullying illegal, you should answer a couple of difficult questions. For instance: where is the boundary between bullying and teasing? If I would say that someone’s backpack is ‘super gay’, would I then be bullying? And if so, who decides that? The person who gets bullied, or someone else? The person who gets bullied is likely to say that he experiences my remark as an act of bullying. Hence, if we would listen to him, I would be a bully. But I could say that I don’t find it an act of bullying; it was merely teasing. And certainly, if we would listen to my plea, I am not a bully anymore. In other words: who decides whether or not something is bullying? This question requires an answer, for otherwise we would get stuck in useless yes-no-discussions.

After settling on this question, we encounter a next problem. For while some cases of bullying are obvious, others are not. For instance: what if the person who gets ‘bullied’ is just extremely annoying? If I look at my time at high school, then – I believe – I have not bullied anyone. But there was a guy who everyone disliked. Why? Not because we wanted to bully him. Just because he was always unkind to everyone else. And well, if someone is unkind to anyone, then anyone is unkind to that person. And then suddenly it seems like he gets bullied.

But even though it might be difficult to decide what is bullying and what is not, I still believe we should make bullying punishable. For if you look at the consequences of bullying, then you’ll see that these are, sometimes, just as severe as for instance the consequences of sexual assault: victims get insecure, lose all faith in the other people, and get isolated. Sexual assault is illegal, so why not bullying? We managed quite well to decide what is sexual assault, and what is not. It might not always have been very clear, but we managed to do so. And that’s ten times better than just leaving the perpetrators unpunished, right?

So it is possible. Therefore it might be worthwhile to make the effort to make bullying legal; even though it might not be easy.

But what do you think?

Read Teaching Anti-Bully Classes at School for another view on attacking bullying.

Interest Cannot be Created: It Can Only be Discovered

‘Are you interested in the stock market?’ I asked a colleague of mine, who works as a economics editor at a newspaper, and hence has to write about stocks, markets etc. ‘I have to’, he said, ‘It is part of my job’. ‘You cannot have to be interested in something. You either are or you are not interested. Period.’ I replied. ‘You can get used to something, but you cannot become interested in something.’ He smiled at me, and walked away; I think he agreed.

Intrinsic
There is a huge difference between interests and skills: while you can develop the latter, you cannot develop the former. Interests are an intrinsic part of your nature; they define, to a large extent, who you are. If you are, for whatever reason, interested in history, you will tend to become ‘better at’ history. Maybe even choose a history related job. But you are good at it, because you find it interesting. It is not because you are good at something, that you are interested in it. That is impossible.

And that brings us to the difficulty of interests. If someone tells you: ‘Just do whatever you find interesting. Find a job you like, and then do just do it,’ it seems like reasonable advice. And if you know what you’re interested in, it might even be helpful advice. But the problem starts if you don’t know what you are interested in. Because, interests being an intrinsic part of your identity, you cannot create an interest in something. You can become better, or worse, at doing something; you can even get used to it. But you cannot become interested in it.

Do something
But what then should you do if don’t know what you are interested in? If it all starts with knowing what you find interesting, and then just doing that, then it seems like you are on a dead end if you don’t know what you find interesting.

Well, if you don’t know your interests, and given that you cannot create interest in something, you have to choose a different approach: you have to find your interests. And the only way to find them, is by engaging in all sorts of activities, so that by doing these activities you can find out what you do (and what you don’t) find interesting. You cannot sit down on a chair, thinking deeply (‘soul-searching’) about what you like to do. This only works if you already know what you find interesting; not if you still have to discover that.

Hence, to those of you that are sitting at home, not knowing what to do with their lives; not knowing what kind of job to pursue, I would say the following: get out there, and find what you are interested in. For interest cannot be created. It can only be discovered.

But what do you think?

Read The Life of a Twenty-Something to see why so many people in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives

The Difference between What You Get and What You Earn

In economic theory, it is claimed that if a market would function perfectly, people would get for their products and services whatever it is they contribute in terms of value. And the same goes the other way: people would pay whatever they find a product or service worthy of. But when you take a look at the real world markets, and all the actors in these real world markets, this principle doesn’t seem to hold. Not at all.

I want to show this by giving one example. That of the banker, and the hacker.

A banker invents all kinds of ingenious derivative constructs, futures and other financial products in order to make money. The more complex the better. For if a product is complex, the layman doesn’t understand it. And if the layman doesn’t understand it, it is easy to lure him into what might seem to be an attractive deal, but which in fact is nothing but a ticking time bomb.

It is generally acknowledged that bankers, and especially the bankers referred to above, are at least partially responsible for the credit crisis we have experienced. It is safe to say that a lot of wealth has been lost during the crisis; people lost their homes, their jobs, and governments had to step in to save the day. In other words: these bankers have, at least over the last couple of years, made a negative contribution to the overall utility of society.

Why then do they get paid so much? Why then do they get a high positive utility for acting in a manner that ultimately decreases society’s utility? Although I am not interested in explaining this phenomenon in this post, one explanation could be that it seems like the bankers contribute a lot of happiness, because they (can) create a lot of money, and – in our capitalist society – money equals happiness. Hence the bankers create a lot of happiness.

Luckily, there are also people who do the exact opposite: they don’t get paid anything while making lots of people happy. They are the modern day equivalent of Robin Hood. An example would be the people contributing content to Wikipedia. But also the people behind Popcorn Time; a digital platform at which you can stream pretty much any movie, and all for free. These people make very many people happy – an exception would be the film distributors of course – but don’t get paid anything. Even though, in contract to the banker, their net contribution to society’s utility is positive.

Although we don’t pay the Wikipedia guys and Popcorn Time geeks in terms of money, we can pay them in terms of a currency that is even more valuable: gratefulness and respect. Something the bankers cannot count on. Because after all: there is a difference between what you get, and what you earn.

But what do you think?

‘Moral Logic’: a Guide for Political Decision Making?

Modal logic is – as far as I am concerned – all about what might possibly be the case (alethic logic) or about what we know (epistemic logic), but not about what we should or should not do. That is: ethics seems not to be grounded in modal logic – or any logic for that matter. And that’s a pity, for I believe that logic can play a valuable role in moral decision making, especially in politics. Let me illustrate this with an example:

Let’s say that a politician proposes a policy A (‘Taxes are increased’). Let’s suppose that it is common knowledge that A leads to B (‘A –> B’), with B being ‘The disposable income of the poor is decreased’. Now, let’s say the politician doesn’t want B, (we write ‘–B’). Then, you could reasonably say that, by letting ‘–’ follow the rules of negation, and by applying modus tollens, we get –A. That is: the politician does not want A.

This last step requires clarification. Suppose that we know that by increasing taxes (A), the disposable income of the poor will be decreased (B). Then knowing that the politician doesn’t want the income of the poor to be decreased, the politician should not increase taxes. Then, assuming that no-one wants to do something he should not do (we are dealing with very rational agents here), it follows that the politician does not want A (‘–A’).

This ‘logic’ is consequentialist in nature. That is, you decide whether to perform a certain action (A), by looking at its consequences (B). In case you want B, you are good. In case you don’t want B (–B), then – by modus tollens – it follows that you should not do A. Hence you don’t want A, giving –A. This logic is of of course very strict; it follows absolute rules, axioms or principles. Hence it might be suited best to model a moral system that is equally strict. Think about Kantian ethics. On the other hand, a system like utilitarian ethics might be better modelled by a different mathematical model.

Workings
Let’s dive a little deeper into the working of this moral logic. One way this logic might work is as follows.

(1) You start with a set of axioms; propositions you absolutely want, or absolutely don’t want to be the case:

A
–B
C

(2) Next you look at the actions available, and the consequences these actions entail:

D –> A
D –> B
E –> C.

(3) Then you choose an action (in this case either D or E), which does not have any consequences you absolutely don’t want. In this case you should not choose D, for D –> B, and you have –B, hence –D. That is, according to the rules laid down, we don’t want D; hence the only option that remains is E.

Extended
Of course, this ‘logic’ does not obey all the regular rules of logic; for instance, it does not obey the rule of modal logic that the two modal operators can be expressed in terms of each other – we don’t even have two modal operators. But still, by applying the very simple rules laid down above, applying this logic can be helpful. I find this logic particularly valuable in analysing arguments used in political decision making, for politics is a prime example of the interplay between actions (the antecedent of our material conditional) and normative consequences (the consequences).

The above logic can be extended to take into account degrees of preferences. You could make a hierarchy of consequences, with consequences higher at the hierarchy being morally superior to those below, so that – in case you have more than one action to choose from – you should choose the one having the consequences highest in the hierarchy. This would also suit Artificial Intelligence very well.

What do you guys think of the moral logic?

Sex Ever More Present in Pop Music: Problematic or Not?

The prevalence of 'sex' in pop music

The word ‘sex’ is ever more present in pop music

Look at the video clip of Miley Cyrus’s song Wrecking Ball. Now tell me: what do you think? Probably something along the lines of: why is she naked pretty much all time?

But even though Cyrus’s clip might be shocking, it seems like we have hit a new peak in the emphasis on sex in pop-music. The peak is called Anaconda and its singer Nicki Minaj.

The facts
It is not only your grandpa or grandma who say that today’s music is all about sex. There are data to back up this claim. Psychology professor Dawn R. Hobbs shows in Evolutionary Psychology (a scientific magazine) that approximately 92 percent (!) of the songs that made it into the Billboard Top 10 in 2009 contained ‘reproductive’ messages, with ‘reproductive’ obviously being synonymous with ‘sex’. In other words: 92 percent of the pop-songs that became a ‘hit’, were at least partially about sex. But even though this research shows that today’s popular music is very much about sex, it doesn’t show that today’s pop-music is more about sex than music in ‘the good old days’.

But different research, by the LA Times, shows that the pop-songs of today are more about sex than ever before. The research shows that ever since the beginning of the 1990s, the word ‘sex’ starts appearing more and more often in singles that make it into the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles (see picture).

Hence we can safely say that today’s pop music is very much, or at least much more than two decades ago, about sex.

Problematic?
This is not to say that this trend towards ‘sex-songs’ is a problem. Maybe it is caused by noble motives, such as liberalizing talk about sex.

But it seems that the occurrence of the word ‘sex’ in today’s pop-songs has one and one reason only: songs about sex are more popular than songs about different topics. This is shown by the facts presented above. And since the music business is – like any other business – commercial, it aims to sell as much of its goods as possible. Hence it makes sense, from the perspective of money-making businesses, to produce songs that are about sex. Hence it appears that it is not nobility, but profit-seeking that is responsible for this trend.


Nicky Minaj with Anaconda

This trend might be a problem for you if you, being a consumer of pop-music, are looking for artists that provide you with an original perspective on society; views on, let’s say, the exploitation of the working class, or an argued for position on liberalizing sex. Views that make you think. So one could say that the sex-trend deprives today’s youth of the supply of original views that are so important for them to be able to develop themselves.

But what do you think?

Why Students from Top Universities might be Worse than ‘Not-top’ Students

One of the top universities

The University of Cambridge: one of the top universities

It is a fact that some universities are more popular among employers than others. See this link for a ranking of the top 10 universities in the world — according to employers in 2013/2014. There are hardly any surprises in this top 10. As always, the University of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard are included.

The question I ask in this post is: based on what criteria does an employer prefer one university to an other? And how reasonable is it for a company to base its preference on these criteria?

Admission standards
It seems fair to say that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have higher admission standards than pretty much any other university in the world. Therefore, being admitted to such a university is by itself an indication that you are ‘better’ (in terms of pre-university academic results etc.) than non-admitted applicants.

Hence one could say that it makes sense for employers, knowing about these strict admission procedures, to be more inclined to pick someone from such a university than from any other university. After all, the ‘top’ universities already have done part of the selecting for them.

Harvard students not necessarily better
But the above reasoning is not valid. Since even though it might be true that the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world pick the students that were the best before they entered university, it doesn’t follow that these students are still the best after they have been through university.

It might very well be so that someone who didn’t do his utmost best in his undergraduate studies (and therefore was not admitted to a top university) decides to change his effort when attending a Master. After all, he knows that there are people from Oxford and Cambridge around, so he has to step up his game in order to get a decent job.

The opposite might be true for a person studying at a top university. He might feel like, now he has been accepted into this prestigious institution, the chance of him finding a good job have increased significantly; so much that ‘just passing’ his Master might be sufficient for him to still obtain a job that suits his criteria.

In other words: getting a degree from a top university doesn’t necessarily make you more educated than someone who has got his degree from a ‘not-top’ university.

Social factors
When we look a little further, we see that social factors play a role too in the hiring process of a company. After all, a company – let’s call it ‘Company A’– wants the best employees. Therefore it might look at the ‘best’ firms in its industry in order to see where they get their employees from. Seeing that they get their employees from the top universities, the company believes that it should do so too; after all: these companies are the best in the industry, hence they should have the best employees, right? And given that these employees come from the top universities, these universities must provide the best employees.  Hence Company A hires someone from a top university.

Now assume another company enters the industry. This company will be even more inclined to hire someone of a top university because of the increase in the university’s reputation due to Company A employing its students. This points to the fact that companies do not look solely at the capabilities of its potential employees; the reputation of the university the candidates have studied at is of importance as well.

Top universities still good
The above is not to say that employing students is all based on the unjustified supposition that top universities provide the best employees. After all, it seems reasonable to suppose that those entering top universities are motivated, disciplined and will enhance their capabilities while attending the top university. Hence it is likely that they will still be ‘best’ after having gone through their top-university education.

Given that being a good student implies being a good employee, the latter implies that these students will be good employees. But it should be kept in mind that social factors such as the reputation of a university are self-perpetuating, hence no watertight indicator of the quality of students.

Why the High Taxation on Cigarettes is Unjustified

According to a survey held by the British Action on Smoking and Health (the ASH, for short), 20 percent of the British adults smoke. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I believe that the act of smoking isn’t intrinsically good or bad; it is something that each person should decide for himself. However, what I do believe is valuable in its own right is human autonomy. By autonomy I mean ‘the right each person has to decide for himself how to live his life without unjustified intervention from external parties‘. And it is this latter point I want to draw attention to.

According to the ASH, in 2012, 77 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes consisted of tax. Multiply that by the number of cigarette packs sold, and you get an amount of £10,5 billion raised through tobacco taxation. This is six times as much as the spending by the the National Health Service (the NHS) on tobacco related diseases; these were ‘merely’ £1,7 billion. So the question that comes to mind is: what justifies the £8,8 billion that remains after subtracting the NHS costs from the money raised through tobacco taxation?

The ASH claims that the inequality between the two numbers is no issue, for ‘tobacco tax is not, and never has been, a down payment on the cost of dealing with ill health caused by smoking’. But what then is the purpose of this tax? The ASH claims that the high level of tobacco tax in Britain serves two purposes: (1) to reduce smoking through the price incentive, and (2) to raise taxes from a source that has little impact on the economy. The latter point has been scrutinized extensively by economists, and I don’t think I can add anything to that discussion. So let’s focus on the first point: the aim of reducing smoking through the price incentive.

By making this claim, the ASH implicitly assumes that it is within the government set of rights to reduce smoking among its citizens. But is it? One can justify tobacco taxation on the grounds of the (health care) costs incurred by the non-smoking part of society. But, as we have seen, this amount by no means adds up to the taxes levied on tobacco. I believe this question (‘But is it?’) directs us towards the fundamental question of where the boundaries lie between justified government intervention and morally objectionable behaviour. One could say that, as I believe, it is one thing (and justified) to prevent non-smokers from being financially hurt by the actions of smokers, but that it is a completely different thing (and not justified) to promote non-smoking values among citizens, merely for the sake of – what appear to be – paternalistic motives.

As with any government intervention, the benefits of the intervention should be weighed against its costs. Presumed that there might be an intrinsic value in having a non-smoking society – a point the ASH doesn’t provide any argument for – the costs of violating what might be an intrinsically valuable human right (autonomy, that is) should be included in the calculation as well. And until this has been done, the question of whether the £10,5 billion in tobacco taxation is justified remains open for debate.

But what do you think?