What Are My Moral Obligations Toward My Barista?

This afternoon, like every other afternoon, I went to Peet’s Coffee on the corner of Telegraph and Blake, ordered my usual–a large coffee with room for cream–from the barista who usually works there at this time of the day: an attractive brunette who is way out of my league.

Maybe that is the reason I keep going there at that time…hmm…

Anyways, after getting my coffee, I sat down and started re-reading Kant’s Groundworks for the Metaphysics of Morals in preparation for my seminar paper. And I came upon Kant’s Formula of Humanity as End In Itself:

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.

And that’s when it struck me that in most of my daily interactions with other people, I have failed to live up to this particular formulation of the categorical imperative. This, of course, led to further thinking about what this formulation actually entails.

First, this formulation of the CI is a positive formulation because it states that a moral agent can never treat other people as merely means, which implies that there is something additional that the moral agent must do in order to satisfy the formula of the humanity as end in itself.

Now, the problem for me is this: what does this “additional” act entail? In other words, what is the substance of treating someone as an end in himself? What must we actually do to satisfy the requirement of the CI?

This is problematic because most of our interactions with other people, at least from my phenomenological observations, do not satisfy this requirement.

Take my interaction with the barista: this is hardly an isolated incident. People like me all across the country deal with their baristas this way: they pay the barista to make them a caffine-based drink, using the barista as a means. The same can be said to almost everyone working in the service industry: bus drivers, dry-cleaners, bus boys, waiters, teachers, masseuses, janitors, cashiers, the list goes on.

In these interactions, it is very unclear how we have treated these people as ends in themselves. On the surface, these interactions are almost purely instrumental: we engage with these people to get something for ourselves, whether it’s a service or a good. Similarly, they engage with us in an instrumental manner: they get financial compensation for the services/goods they provide us.

So in these cases, how do we treat them as ends in themselves?

The easier solution might be simply to bite the bullet and concede that these kind of interactions are immoral because they failed to satisfy the categorical imperative. But I suspect that intuitively, we would not characterize such interactions as immoral.

Now the question becomes: why not? In other words, can we interpret the formulation of humanity as end in itself in a way as to render these interactions moral in the Kantian sense?

I think there is, but this interpretation is entirely abstract. We can think of ourselves as treating our baristas, dry-cleaners, waiters, etc. as ends in themselves by acknowledging, in a conceptual sense, their autonomy as human beings. That is, we conceptually accept that these people have their own interests and ends, that they lead substantial lives outside of this limited context in which we interact with them, that their person is inviolate. I say that this is an abstract interpretation because in reality, we really have no idea what their personal interests and ends are, we have no way of seeing them as fully human because our only interactive context with them is one of service and exchange.

But even this interpretation is inadequate for me, because we have still not cashed out the substantive notion of the formula of humanity as end in itself that the formulation implies. In fact it is not clear to me how a substantive conception is possible. Notice that in my abstract intrepretation of the formulation, we only treat people as ends in themselves in a negative sense: by NOT thinking of them as purely means.

So now, I have no idea what my actual, substantive moral obligations are to the barista at Peet’s Coffee.


Astrology and Congressional Voting Behavior

You learn something everyday: for instance, did you know that you could sort Congressional roll-call votes on the Washington Post by, of all things, astrological sign?

I found this out while working at my internship today. I had to look up how the House voted on H.R. 5351, titled “Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008.” What a mouthful, try saying that quickly three times.

When I found out that I could sort the vote by astrological sign, I was confounded. After all, what is the point of being able to sort by astrological sign? Is the Washington Post suggesting that there could possibly be a correlation between a Congress member’s voting behavior and his/her astrology?

But who knows, this could be an interesting research experiment. I would not be the least bit surprised if some poor, debt-ridden, chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, starving poli sci grad student has already designed this experiment.

If not, then this post will serve as a reminder for me to design my own experiment when I go into grad school.

Who knows, maybe with enough empirical data, we might one day find out what exactly is the connection of being born in a certain time of the year and the tendency to oppose modifying the IRS revenue code to give incentive to companies producing renewable energy.

It’s Funny ‘Cause It’s True

Poll: Bullshit Is Most Important Issue For 2008 Voters

Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

And finally, in case you ever needed to explain to an infant the basic tenets of neoliberalism from a Marxist perspective, I have the video for you, with sock puppets and a abrupt interruption from the Online Porn Monster.

The Abstractification of Iraq

Yes, I know “abstractification” is not a real word, but I made it up to make a point about how public elites and opinion-makers on both the left and the right have treated Iraq: as a pure abstraction unconnected to the concrete, empirical facts on the ground.

This was brought up when I had a conversation today with someone, and in any conversation with me, politics is never far away. Eventually the topic came to Iraq, and this is what my interlocutor had to say: “in the sense that Iraq has been an abstraction and something to argue, belittle, and roll one’s eyes about.”

That comment struck me as especially true, because the war itself has become anything but the war: it has become a concept, a blank slate onto which different people project different things. I realized just how abstract the war has become when it’s being used by both the Berkeley military protestors and Frank Rich when he compared the war to Hillary’s presidential campaign.

In other words, the war has lost pretty much all “real” significance to the opinion-makers and public elites back home; instead, the war has become a concept that can be used in whatever arguments that they wish to make.

This is essentially George Packer’s argument in this World Affairs Journal piece. In that piece, he argues that “In the United States, the war is an abstraction that routinely shades into caricature. For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like.”

That is precisely the case: we are very disconnected from the war, and we hardly know what is going on the ground, which is ironic, considering the fact that if we wanted to, we could watch the war coverage in the media for 24 hours non-stop, because that’s how much “information” there is right now on the war.

The implication of this abstractification of the war is that “Each side picked and chose from its own catalogue of facts, and one’s opinion about everything from body armor to body counts was decided accordingly.”

The most damning argument comes when Packer says that, “In a sense, they believed or refused to believe each story before it was published, even before it occurred. There wasn’t a moment’s pause to digest information, much less to weigh facts dispassionately; objectivity wasn’t even an aspiration. What mattered was whether the facts supported the theory or not. Throughout the opinion classes, the impulse to keep a little part of the brain open to inconvenient facts seemed to have been extinguished. In magazine offices, bloggers’ bedrooms, Hollywood studios, and the White House, a fantasy war was underway, a demonstration of American virtue or a series of crimes against humanity—both of them self-serving fictions.”

That pretty much sums it up as far as I’m concerned. And I’m not saying that I have been innocent either. After all, the tendency to conceptualize and make abstract is indelibly human, but after 5 years, it really does look like the war has been emptied of its empirical character, instead assuming an entirely political/abstract one.

But this is of course only from our perspective, the people who are not affected by the war, who can view the war from a safe distance. For the people actually involved in the war–the soldiers and the civilians–the war is hardly a “concept”; it is fucking real and happening NOW, and will continue to happen for decades to come.

So the next time you hear the incessant, endless debates about whether the surge is working or not, whether we should gradually or quickly withdrawal, blah blah blah, just try to remember that we have no fucking clue what it’s like to be in the middle of it, that perhaps we should exercise a little epistemological scepticism when bombarded by pundits and elites from the left and right.

Frank Rich’s Irresponsible Op-Ed on Hillary

Man, Frank Rich has really reached a new low, even for him: in this op-ed piece in the New York Times, he compares Hillary’s management of her campaign to the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq War.

In the op-ed, Rich says that Hillary has employed “a 2008 campaign strategy that uncannily mimicked the disastrous Bush Iraq war plan.”

Really now Frank Rich? You are REALLY going to compare Hillary’s campaign to a war which cost the country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, and our international image? Really, is Hillary’s campaign THAT bad?

Sure, I acknowledge that a part of a columnist’s job is to provoke, to be polemical, but this is way out of line. It not only insults Hillary, but also the soldiers who gave their lives in the war. How can Frank Rich in good conscience argue that the two are similar?

I mean, this is just unprofessional. I might make this kind of argument just for the sake of provoking people, but that’s because I am not a paid, professional writer with a nationally-syndicated column read by millions of people around the world. I mean, I might write something like this just for something tongue-in-cheek, but Frank Rich looks like he’s actually serious.

Either he’s really sandbagging all his readers, or he is just irresponsible. I lean toward the latter.

Now, for a different point of view, I give you this Tiny Fey segment on last weekend’s SNL, in which she counters some common (and baseless) arguments made against Hillary, much like I did a while ago.

See, this is why I like Tina Fey: not only is she attractive, she’s smart as hell and not afraid to show it. And plus, it is just a bitingly funny sketch.

The Weekly 10 #3

Man, the week of February 18th kinda blew, mostly because of the shitty weather. Just when I thought the rain is over, it comes back with a fucking vengeance. The songs here reflect the rain, in various ways, some literal, some figurative, while others just reminded me of certain feelings which I associate with the rain.

Anyways, to get the songs mentioned here, click this link for the download.

1) The Allman Brothers Band – Stormy Monday
A cover of a T-Bone Walker song from Live At Fillmore East, one of my all time favorite live rock records.

2) Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
From the album of the same title. I have to confess that I am immensely attracted to Neko Case. After all, what is not to like: immensely talented, a smart lyricist, and a red-head, seals the deal as far as I’m concerned.

3) Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood
Again, you can see my semi-obsession with flooding this week; perhaps it reflects an apocalyptic frame of mind. Anyways, I started listening to the blues because of SRV, and this song just rocks. This is also from the album of the same name. It should be familiar if you’ve played Guitar Hero.

4) Nick Drake – Pink Moon
This is for Wednesday night’s full lunar eclipse. Too bad the weather in Berkeley didn’t let me see shit. Oh well. This is a very stark and haunting song: just Nick Drake’s voice, guitar, and piano. From the last official album he released.

5) Prince – Purple Rain
An oldie but a fucking goodie. This song is epic. And Prince does not get enough credit for his guitar skills. From the album of the same title.

6) Ryan Adams – Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)
I like the first line of the song: as a man I ain’t never been much for sunny days. From his first album.

7) The Bad Plus – Smells Like Teen Spirit
It would have been Kurt Cobain’s birthday last week had he lived. So this is in his memory. I can’t really categorize The Bad Plus as jazz-fusion because they don’t really use any electronic instruments. But they are not straight up jazz either. It’s more like a mix of hard-rock, especially the drumming, and jazz. Anyways, it is a pretty good take on the song from this album of theirs.

8) Miles Davis – In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time
This one is in memory of Teo Macero, Miles’ producer for those initial fusion records that revolutionized jazz. He produced both In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and to me, Teo Macero is Miles Davis’ George Martin, because without him, those albums would not sound the way they do. He really used the studio as an instrument in the composition of the music. This is from In A Silent Way, which to me is the electric counter-part to Kind of Blue. I personally like this album better than Bitches Brew, which is not to say that Bitches Brew doesn’t fucking rock, but I like the almost understated playing, especially by John McLaughlin, whose playing is almost soulful, unlike on Bitches Brew when he just seems to shred it for the sake of shredding it.

9) Thom Yorke – And It Rained All Night
From Thom Yorke’s solo album. A very paranoid song for those times when you are up at 3 in the morning while it rains incessantly outside, pounding the windows.

10) Arvo Part – Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Pay attention to the bells, so funeral-like, a dirge in the rain, or a procession of mourners marching in a slight drizzle. This is from a recording of Tabula Rasa.

So as you can see, this was a week characterized by bad weather and death, so these songs reflected some of that mood. But it’s not all doom and gloom, not yet anyways.

Chinese Buffets: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living in the Chinese American community knows exactly what I am talking about when I speak of Chinese buffets.

Typically, Chinese buffets look something like this:

Now, it would in fact be a slight misnomer to call such a place a “Chinese” buffet. The more technically correct term would be pan-Asian, since these buffets usually include things like sushi. It would even be wrong to call it pan-“Asian”, since they also include stuff like french fries and chicken nuggets.

You might say that the existence, and more importantly, the proliferation, of these kind of buffets reflect the Asian American experience: of the developments and evolutions of traditional Asian cuisine that was modified by Asian immigrants in America. You might even say that these places represent the successful fusion of East meets West, and that their success is something that the Asian American community should be proud of.

I call bullshit on that.

First, let us describe the scene at hand. Imagine this: it is Friday night at dinner time, after people have gotten off from work. You see families going into these buffets–the wife, kids, mini-van, everything. Now, picture the food: a mix mash of poorly cooked food, dumped into pans, arranged in a trough-like fashion in aisles, saturated with grease and oil, permeated with too much salt. In other words, mediocrity on a platter. Of course no such buffet can miss out on such “authentic” Chinese dishes as such as orange chicken, spring rolls that are cooked with too much frying oil, brocoli beef, and most importantly, chicken nuggets. Sushi that has been left there for too long, and hot-n-sour soup that is either too hot or too sour.

Second, let us describe the actors of this theatre: middle-class families who are too lazy to cook on a Friday night. Hungry, all of them, of course. Their eyes, ravenous; their feet, quick and nimble, ready to go on the prowl at the slightest hint. They are only too ready to line up around the aisles, like so many pigs waiting for food to come down the trough. Just look at the architectural arrangement of these buffets: the food is arranged in a trough-like manner, with people gathering on both sides, plates in hand, ready to devour whatever comes.

Third, let us describe the action with which we are concerned: feeding behavior. Imagine one of those time-lapsed videos on the Discovery Channel showing a colony of small animals, usually ants, or sea creatures, that devour the carcass of a much larger animal. That is how people at these buffets, except you don’t need time-lapse photography because it happens quickly enough on its own in real time.

And as a biologist/anthropologist, let me point out which food items would most likely excite this behavior, and describe the process. First, a hapless waiter, probably someone who has lost a bet, comes out of the kitchen holding a pan filled with one of the following things: steamed whole fish, crab legs, or lobsters. Now, the waiter is shifting his/her eyes, trying to ward off the throng of ravenous predators gathering around the trough, eyes all looking at the pan with the food. Once the pan is put in place, feeding commences, with great speed, speed which seems almost inconceivable. Within minutes, two at most, the steamed fish/crab legs/lobster is gone, and the predators wander off.

In other words, it looks something a lot like the following video:

That concludes the ceremony.