Thinkin’ about thinkin’

I’ve been watching too much TV. For someone of my age and level of education, I shouldn’t spend any time, let alone spend an entire day watching 27 DVR’d episodes of Tosh.0. I shouldn’t derive any pleasure whatsoever watching a little girl play with a dead squirrel, the cinnamon challenge or a kid splitting his taint with his skateboard. I’m a philosopher, I tell myself. I’m better than this. I tell myself I’ve been spending so much time on my back watching television – on my sofa, on my bed, even laying prone on my living room floor; that I’m in danger of becoming one of those people that sits so long in one place that I fuse to a piece of furniture and a rescue crew has to extract me from my house using a chainsaw and a forklift.

I’m a philosopher, I tell myself. I’m better than this.

But every night when I watch TV, I’m even more convinced that thinking philosophically isn’t as FUN as my college professors said it would be. Everybody on TV seems to be much happier once they stop doing all that terrible and emotionally upsetting philosophically-oriented thinking. This isn’t just my opinion. Modern science tells us that thinking is a prime cause of stress, and stress, as we all know leads to disease and early death. I’m no medical doctor but I think it’s safe to assume if thinking in general makes one’s life stressful, then thinking philosophically must be a highway straight to joining the choir invisible. Even if Socrates said that the point of philosophy (i.e. thinking) is to prepare us for death, I can say with confidence that I’m not planning on dying any time soon.

Besides, I’m pretty sure that the double rainbows guy didn’t read Plato, Nietzsche or Sartre to ask “What does this mean?” … All that guy did was look at a couple of rainbows.

After approximately fifteen minutes of contemplation, I decided to give up philosophical thinking. Watching reality television is better than contemplating reality. I concluded if I’m going to think about something other than philosophy, I’d think about the least philosophical things imaginable. This is what I thought about:

I’m pretty sure at one point in my life I’ve eaten dog.

Which is better: bikini or hipsters?

My inexplicable attraction to Rachel Maddow.

Painting my toenails pink.

Memory foam pillows aren’t better.

Kris Kardashian’s haircut

Dotting my “i”s with hearts when I write longhand.

Now, I could tell everyone and insist that a new philosophy-free lifestyle is intellectually and emotionally satisfying, but I’d be lying. Any philosophy professor philosopher will tell you, philosophy isn’t merely something that one does to impress other people or a bad habit that can be started or ended on a whim. Thinking philosophically is an innate part of who we are (Aristotle might call this one’s “telos”). I could avoid thinking philosophically no more than Plato would say a dog can stop participating in dogness or Holbach believed that we can violate the general causal principle (yes, I just dropped a couple of 50¢philosophy terms).

So what do I think about thinking philosophically now? Well… I realized that thinking about not thinking (philosophically) made me think that thinking is not overrated. There’s nothing wrong with watching too much TV or philosophically inappropriate with watching 13 ½ hours of Tosh.0.  I’m certain, despite my brief dalliance with not thinking, that I’ll be up to my usual navel gazing philosophical contemplation in no time. Now that I’m thinking about it, not thinking takes a fair amount of thinking, doesn’t it?

So if you don’t mind, I’m going back to do some “thinking” on my living room sofa.

Do the Dew… as long as your drink is smaller than 16 ounces..

It’s funny the things that can get a person thinking about how precious — or even precarious — we think our freedoms are.

This week, New York (City) Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York City’s proposed plan to ban sugary beverages over 16 ounces (or more than 25 calories per 8 ounces) in fast-food restaurants. This means next year, New York City residents might have to cross city lines to score a Big Gulp at the local 7-11. Mayor Bloomberg said high-sugar, high-calorie beverages need to be banned because, as we all know, Mountain Dew makes people fat.

I think we’d all agree that there is something going on with the waistlines of a not-insignificant number of Americans. Americans are getting fatter. As a portly American I can personally attest to the fact that Americans, as a nationality, are a chubby bunch of folks. But — as much as I agree that America does have weight issues, I’m not too certain that a wholesale ban on sugary soft drinks is the way to win America’s battle of the bulge. Here’s the reason why:

Americans love freedom.  That is, we love the idea that the word “freedom” represents: being unrestricted, self-determination, not being controlled by fate or necessity, liberty. Every American possesses the freedom or liberty do what one pleases — as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The idea that our liberty, the freedom to do what we choose, is infringed upon (especially when the infringing is by the government), is inherently unappealing to many Americans. The notion that the government would restrict the exercise of one’s unalienable liberties is seen by some as downright un-American. Of course, how unAmerican banning sugary drinks is depends on what philosopher you read.

Liberty, defined as the freedom to do as one pleases, is often divided into two types:

  1. freedom from
  2. freedom to

Liberty, as “freedom from” is defined as freedom from restraint or interference by law (e.g. the concept of “natural rights” — As Thomas Hobbes writes, “a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.”). Liberty, as “freedom to” is any right that we have the power to do, (e.g. freedom of speech or religion).

This is not the point I am trying to make.

The point that I am trying to make is that when we define freedom or liberty from a philosophical point to view (although some people argue that there is a distinction between the two, most people use them interchangably), we think that a being that possesses liberty is one that is autonomous, that is, free beings are self-legislating and directed by their (freely chosen) sense of reason or rationality. Philosophers such as the German philospher, Immanuel kant, argue that our rational choices are the result of of rationally-held beliefs. When we think in a clear, rational manner, Kant says, we will make ethically correct decisions. So what we choose to do, including what we choose to eat or drink, not only affects our health, but is also a moral decision as well. A person who chooses to drink a soda pop may be doing a bad thing to do healthwise — but he might also be doing a bad thing, period.

But, here’s the thing: if we see drinking sugary beverages as a moral choice in addition to a health choice, we run into the question concerning the role of government in legislating morality. The English philosopher John Locke wrote that governments are never successful when it comes to legislating morality (Locke famously wrote that forcing non-believers to go to church does no one any good). We might say that the ability to make our own rational choices outweighs any reason to curtail the availability of individuals to purchase high sugar, high calorie beverages. And Kant states any attempt to legislate on behalf of rational individuals is morally impermissible (as this denies said individuals the right to exercise their capacity to use their own rational judgment).

So at this point, we say that Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban is bad because the act of interfering with an individual’s ability to freely purchase a beverage of their choosing interferes with our ability to choose for ourselves. To respect an individual’s ability to choose, we must respect their choices, whether we find (the choices) objectionable or not.

We might be satisfied with a Kantian response to Bloomberg’s ban, but we have a problem: namely, governments have the right to restrict freedom — if the restriction is in the interest of preserving freedom. For example, murder is illegal. The government acknowledges that not allowing murder restricts some individuals, but making murder illegal also preserves the freedom of others (i.e. people who are not murdered). If banning sugary beverages serves the greater good, then a ban on sugary beverages may be justifed. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it… it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. (63-7)

Mill says that when we believe that our actions affect no one but ourselves, we’re mistaken; our actions can reach far beyond ourselves. Proponents of the ban say that the costs of obesity outweigh an individual’s right to engage in behavior that results in higher medical costs for society at large. According to this argument, proponents of the ban aren’t overextending the reach of the Nanny State or vegan meannies who don’t want anyone to have any fun.  They are simply civic-minded citizens who are looking out for the whole and trying to to what is best for everyone.

….although that doesn’t explain why milkshakes and alcoholoc beverages are exempt.