Aristotle goes 3G

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Christopher Shea
May 30, 2010

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If you’ve just broken your diet by downing a Starbucks pastry, is that morally the same thing as breaking a promise to someone else? If humans were egg-layers, would that alter the moral stakes of abortion? There’s no telling when or where a deep question will strike you, but now there’s an app that gets you answers — or, at least, an opinion from a professional philosopher.

AskPhilosophers, a project and website based at Amherst College, expanded to the mobile Web this month with the application “AskPhil,” which is available from the iPhone app store and the Android market. Alexander George, the professor who founded five years ago, laments that philosophy has come to seem like a remote, academic discipline, even though “philosophical” questions arise for ordinary people all the time.

The queries on the site vary widely. A recent “question of the day,” for example, asked whether it is a mere “psychological evasion” when someone “says they have faith in something but don’t know that something to be true.” (Jennifer Church, a philosopher at Vassar, replied that such faith can sometimes be reasonable, “because our unreflective inclinations are usually based on some information.”) On the more pragmatic end of the spectrum, the philosophers Jean Kazez (Southern Methodist University) and Oliver Leaman (University of Kentucky) sparred over the grounds for concluding that it was wrong to kill ants “for fun,” although both agreed it was indeed wrong.

The freedom to not get paid
It’s been a rough few weeks for libertarians. Rand Paul recently learned that views that are routinely accepted at Ayn Rand Society meetings — for example, that private businesses and clubs should have the right to discriminate by sex and race — don’t go over so well with the American public, circa 2010. Another go-to libertarian notion, that tough safety regulation on businesses isn’t necessary because the free market will provide the necessary correctives, isn’t polling too well either in the wake of the BP oil spill and those runaway Toyotas.

John Stossel, the famously mustachioed libertarian anchor who not long ago left ABC for Fox News, recently encountered a rough truth about the mores of our post-New Deal society. The Justice Department has started to take seriously claims that unpaid internships violate minimum-wage laws. Demanding that someone work for no salary, for some period of time, in order to get a shot at a paying job has long been illegal. So why, government lawyers have begun to ask, should that cease to be the case if you call the unpaid job an “internship”?

A New York magazine reporter recently interviewed Stossel at his workplace.

He’s introduced to a shy new intern named Jackie. “Now the government says you can’t have unpaid interns, that it’s exploitation. Can you believe that? I built my career on unpaid interns! My staff is almost all former interns. What ever happened to two adults entering an agreement together?” There’s an answer to his question: The Supreme Court granted Congress the power to forbid such voluntary (if slightly coercive) contracts in the late 1930s, when it upheld minimum wage laws.

A bold, even audacious use of xenon
“Study the science of art, and the art of science.” That quote, from Leonardo da Vinci, serves as inspiration for Princeton University’s annual “Art of Science” competition, open to all members of the university’s community. The theme in 2010, the fourth year of the contest, was “energy,” broadly defined. All of the works captured, or arose from, research in progress.

The winner was Jerry Ross, a researcher at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, for “Xenon Plasma Accelerator.” (Explanation: “The Hall thruster is an electric propulsion technology that uses magnetic and electric fields to ionize and accelerate propellant. In this image the plasma accelerator is operating on xenon propellant.”)

David Nagib, a graduate student in chemistry, earned second prize with “Therapeutic Illumination,” an image of a photosynthesis-mimicking strategy in which his lab tries to achieve certain chemical reactions through the use of an energy-saving compact fluorescent bulb. The third prize went to an undergraduate, Tim Kirby, of the physics department, for “Neutron Star Scattering off a Super Massive Black Hole,” which is...sort of self-explanatory.

Christopher Shea is a weekly columnist for Ideas. E-mail