Ethics, evolution and drugs

We’re using to taking drugs to combat physical illness, and we’re quite comfortable with the idea of taking them to improve an individual’s mental health. Would it be strange to take drugs to improve your relationships? 

Earp, Sandberg and Savulescu argue that there may even be a moral obligation to take drugs to improve relationships: 

While individual couples should be free to use pharmacological interventions to sustain  and improve their romantic connection, we suggest that they may have an obligation to do so as well, in certain cases

They go on to argue that people that value commitment, and have chosen to have children, may have a moral obligation for the kids’ sake. 

There were a couple of things I liked about the paper. One was that they clearly outline how they’re seeing the evolutionary angle – they very clearly articulate that they’re understanding how it might influence behaviour, but not making an appeal to nature.* I also liked that they carefully caveated their view. Particularly in relation to the idea of preserving a relationship – they outline the cases where it’s not appropriate (abuse, etc.), but argue for a more limited, middle of the road set of circumstances. 

Having said that, I almost felt as though they were tackling two separate questions. One was on the responsibility of parents to preserve a relationship for their childrens’ sake – the same argument made for drugs could apply to counselling and a few other steps. This is probably controversial, but reasonably clearly a moral conversation. 

The other question is about taking drugs to enhance a relationship – whether that’s somehow inappropriate or … false, I suppose? They don’t really address this issue; I felt they could perhaps have more clearly articulated the viewpoint they were inherently disagreeing with (I would guess it’s something like ‘there is value in relationships being genuine, and you can’t fake them with drugs’, in its simplest form). That’s also an interesting one, but perhaps a different conversation. 

Regardless, it’s an interesting read on an interesting question, and it’s a nice cross over between contemporary research and the philosophy of ethics. As a bonus, it’s not behind a paywall (and you can read an interview with the authors on the Atlantic).

* I thought the term for this fallacy was the naturalistic fallacy, but apparently that term describes a different logical error. 



Now that the weather’s warmer, I’ve been walking around a little more with my camera.

Along the streets.


On the sidewalk outside the secret police (former KGB/internal security) building.Image

Past Government house after a light dusting of snow.Image

The next weekend I wandered into the Natural History Museum, where they have a dinosaur hall. You’re not actually allowed to take photos, but there’s a balcony overlooking it from a different floor, so that was okay. I particularly liked the shadows the dinosaur skeletons cast.


I was also struck by this display of two skeletons (not sure if they’re real, or what they’re meant to convey) – I really liked the dim lighting and the way they just grinned back at the museum visitor.


After lunch, a final stop at the гандин monastery


Where I saw the amazing three story statue in the main temple. For a number of reasons these photos aren’t great – I found it hard to capture a sense of how big the thing is. It really is three stories tall, and in this high, dusty building. It’s quite an experience. ImageImage


Bad writing – a review of The Philosophical Practitioner

The Philosophical Practitioner has a great concept – it’s about a thirty-six year old ‘philosophical practitioner’, who gives out advice based on philosophy. It just fails to live up to … well, anything much at all, really.


The concept is one that I really like. Philosophy applied to everyday life, with a wise-cracking smart-ass detective style character, a la Harry Dresden. In fact, apparently there really is a philosophical practitioners association. Just think how cool this could be. People would come in with questions – good questions – and the protagonist could answer them, drawing on different theories. There’d be so much scope – I haven’t read much philosophy, but I think even I could brainstorm a few plots on ethical dilemmas, problems about knowledge, and logic. It feels to me like the kind of plot line that Neal Stephenson would do really well with. 

But so far (and I’m far enough in that I feel happy making a judgement), the book falls down quite badly. It’s telling, I suppose, that it was published by what looks like a ‘pay to publish‘ agency. The first flaw is that – none of the answers his characters give are interesting. The questions aren’t awful ones. They’ve included one about why bother getting up, another about loving one’s spouse, another about whether the self really exists. They’re not bad starting points, and they seem like reasonable ‘real world questions’. But the …. ugh, I hesitate to use the word philosophy … seems to come down to a few smart-ass questions, without any actual contribution. Most of the conversations seem to last a few sentences, if that. Seriously, Larry Abrams – go read some Neal Stephenson. He doesn’t get everything right, but he does this part really well

The other thing that bothers me about the novel is that there’s some consistent objectification in there. Sure, there are what strikes me as a few nods to the importance of gender equality –  he includes a female programmer as a client, and probably says something else about it in one or two places. But almost every description of a female character includes something about the clothes she’s wearing/her haircut/her body/the way she moves. Perhaps it’s some kind of reference to the noir genre, but … well, it’s not carried over to much else in the novel. 

A final comment – perhaps less of a specific critique, and more of a reason why I won’t be recommending it – is that the writing’s poor. There’s a certain authorial voice that I think ends up reflecting more of the writer and their assumptions than it does of the world they’re  observing. Writing is a craft, a thing that takes time and effort, finding a way to put all the detail and beauty and strangeness of the world around us into words (simple, beautiful, complicated, as needs be) that others can understand, and perhaps experience a little of what the writer’s trying to create. But when it’s done poorly, you feel as though you’re in a cardboard box, and not in a real world that’s been created for you. 

It’s always hard to write – one of the hardest things is transporting the enormity of human experience, or the cool idea that you’ve just had, into a good piece of writing. One of my favourite quotes is from Flaubert

human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. 

So the idea is excellent, but the execution hasn’t lived up to it. But if anyone else writes another novel on philosophical practitioners, I look forward to reading it.

Sunrise in the new year

It’s the new year here in Mongolia. Or it was, on Monday morning. 

Which was why at the literal crack of dawn I was on top of a mountain, shivering and trying to wiggle my toes in the hope that I wouldn’t loose feeling. 


Smog and the crack of dawn over UB.

The morning started at about three am. I arrived home tired after a long walk, and didn’t sleep well. But my alarm went off faithfully at three fifteen, so I stumbled into the bathroom and screamed curses at the shower when it sprayed cold water on me. Ten minutes before the expected pickup, I had a text message. Then a phone call. The short of it was that my coworker had accumulated a DUI the night before, so he couldn’t drive us. Feeling that guilty relief of “Oh, well, the decision’s out of my hands now – guess I’ll just have to go back to bed”, I tumbled back under the covers. 

But there was a phone call a half hour later.”Please be ready.” I was, albeit still grumpy. I’d contemplated putting on two layers of thermals, under my thick down jacket and ski pants, but decided against it. After all, I was warm enough on my ten kilometre walk yesterday, wasn’t I? To be safe, I threw them in the backpack. 

In imagining this walk up the mountain, I’d pictured a path. Perhaps group of people, travelling up the path. This was wrong, because there was no path. Just a steep hill, its side made up of loose dirt and rocks that seemed eager to slide down the quite steep slope. So we scrambled up, sweat beading on my forehead (and some of it freezing in my hair minutes later), flashlight flailing all over the place. In the dark I almost stumbled on one or two people, other groups that had taken the same approach of trying to walk up this apparently almost vertical slope of gravel. 

We reached the ridge of the hill, and looked down over Ulaanbaatar. If you’ve wondered if the smog is visible from a distance, it is. The lights were there, visible, a network of them – but poking through this grey green cloud that hung over the city, like some kind of twenty-first century plague. 

Eventually we wandered on, stumbling through the rocks in the dark, finding our way along the ridge. We reached an ovoo at what had to be the highest point in the mountain and stood there, the sweat and body heat gradually dripping away. A short scramble down a slope later and we were out of the wind, but still extremely cold. I shivered for a minute, and then another, and then braved it – took off jacket, jumper, and pulled another layer of thermals on. I wasn’t brave enough to take off my ski pants. 

After my foot stamping had lasted for another minute or two, and persisted even when they have me hot суутай цай, my fellow sunrise watchers were concerned about me. So at my colleague’s suggestion we wandered back along the ridge, the movement generating some delightful body warmth. 

By this point the first light is breaking in the distance – you can see a tiny shimmer of red light along the top of the mountain ridge opposite us. As we walk around it gradually gets a little brighter, and now the sky is a deep, rich shade of blue, rather than pitch black. We stand near a group of men who seem to have some experience with this ‘first sunrise of the year’ business – they’re busy building a fire, and a few of them have come well prepared with flags. We have no flags. I do have, in my backpack, a bottle of vodka (as far as I can understand, vodka is appropriate in every situation in Mongolia. Every situation), some rice and a coffee jar filled with milk. But I do not have a lighter, or anything else to make fire with. 

After a little while we wander back to our spot. By now the light is much stronger, and I can see where I’m walking. We stand at the ovoo, and after a few minutes wander down a little to crevass in the rocks, where we try to light some incense. This is comically unsuccessful in the face of a stiff breeze, and after the matches run out we leave several incense sticks and a pile of loose leaf incense – hopefully it really is the thought that counts. 

Back up on the peak, we stand next to an ovoo, and I try to take photos. My camera’s shutting down, unhappy at operating at these temperatures, so I only get a few blurred snaps. Someone near us is depositing flags (or perhaps waving them?) – I’m unclear on the process that’s involved. We drink a glass of vodka, and then another – then it’s time to share things with the mountain spirits. We throw vodka westwards; because not all mountain spirits like vodka, and the one that does is westwards. The mountain spirit here, I understand, is an old man, but not so much into the vodka. Everyone, apparently, likes rice and milk – so we scatter these in four directions. The milk is clotting and comes out slightly lumpy – it hangs in the air for an instant before spattering back down on my jacket. An important thing in throwing offerings to the mountain spirits is to make sure you know which way the wind is blowing (nope, not a metaphor). 

And then suddenly it’s here – the actual sunrise. We stand together in front of the ovoo, and watch as the first rays from the golden sphere slip over the horizon. My coworker is yelling something, and then we all are. 




It’s a remarkably freeing experience – yelling, all together, on the top of this mountain, as the sun slips up into the sky. It is freedom and the crisp clean air and the voices of other supplicants at other points on the slope, their voices echoing in and around ours. 


I’ve enjoyed this morning, at least the latter parts of it – the throwing, the yelling, the clean air all around us up here. It was cold and dark and horrible when I got up, and when I go home I end up sleeping for a good five hours – but I’m glad I came.