Principles for Principles – Part 1

Without empathy and compassion, and devoid of the delusions of conscience, how should one live ones life?

Well, the same way I’d say one should live life with such handicaps to rationality. Man is a creature capable of rational thought, and it would seem a waste to ignore that (yes, this is basically the hand waving part of the argument, although as assumptions go, assuming that we should be second order rational does seem rather plausible, particularly given the alternative is to be second order irrational, which seems indistinguishable from insanity).

Thus, stick with me as I seek to forge some second order principles from which one might derive first order principles (basically, working through how to decide how to decide what to do in any instance).

I shall work by making assumptions and then building upon and justifying them, in a manner largely rational, but by necessity making a ‘leaps of faith’. This will be defended by the requirement that our decision making procedure be consistent. Inconsistency is irrational, and thus to be rejected.

1) There are no objective normative facts which we have access to – no objective fact which says that X is bad/good, or that someone ‘ought’ to do Y (except of the conditional form ‘if X then you should do Y’, but these rely upon first having a normative fact to put into X). The belief that our intuition somehow tells us something about universal truths about the universe of a normative kind is rather mad. (Even if we were to accept such a belief, I would still argue that self-determination of one’s principles calls for ignoring such objective normative facts, but this argument will suffice here I feel.)

2) It is impossible to move from a positive fact to a normative fact (that is, you cannot move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’). For example, just because that child is starving does not mean that we can say that this is in itself bad. That would require the further premise that children starving is bad, or something along those lines.

3) Without any normative facts, we have no reason for doing anything. Just assume that my definition of normative facts entails this (yes, I know, I haven’t given such a definition, but that’s not the point).

4) By 1, 2, and 3, unless there are subjective normative facts, there is no reason to do anything.

5) We are going to do things in our lives, both with intentionality and purpose.

6) By 4, if we are certain we have no access to subjective normative facts, there can be no rational purpose to our actions.

7) By 5 and 6, we are not certain that there are no subjective normative facts. This step is supported by the rationality requirement. Denying it would be to either endorse a non-rational method of second-order decision making, or to reject one of the premises (hint: premise 5 looks a bit dodgy).

8) Under uncertainty about our access to subjective normative facts, weighted net utility from different outcomes should be used as the calculation (with utility understood here in its economic sense, denoting preferences, rather than in a hedonistic sense).

9) From 6, the net utility from different outcomes cannot be estimated under the assumption of no access to subjective normative facts. Therefore, the net benefit for that component of the calculation is zero, and thus does not affect any calculations.

10) From 8 and 9, we should act as if we have access to subjective normative facts.

Thus, I have established that we do have reason to act in certain ways, based on a probability that we may have access to subjective normative facts. Part two will conclude by laying out how one might move from this revelation to some way of working out how to live your life, and will continue the reliance upon internal consistency and rationality, making it applicable to any sentient being (as opposed to only those with emotional empathy and ‘a conscience’).

Published in: on May 28, 2010 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

‘Good’ People

Our society seems to feel that good people should be treated well, and bad people treated badly. Maybe that’d be fine in principle (although the non-instrumental punishing of people is somewhat morally dubious), but what about in practice?

How do you know if someone is good or bad?

All we have to go on is what we observe. And here we run into a slight snag. Well, I say slight. More accurately a giant snag.

Let’s say we have two people, B and G. Both work in the same office, and one of their colleagues had a minor misfortune – say, they have a headache. Person B is sympathetic, while person G appears not to be concerned.

Which of these is really a good person?

Well, leaving aside the obviousness of this being a rhetorical trick question, it would appear to be person B. But now I’m going to add some context.

Person B does not really care about his colleague’s discomfort, but merely seized an opportunity to make himself look good. Person G, on the other hand, is relatively unconcerned, because person G, unbeknown to his colleagues, does voluntary work every day outside of his day job, which frequently involves dealing with people suffering terrible illnesses or contemplating suicide. Having to be sympathetic every day to their far worse plight has left him insensitive to the less plight of having a headache.

Now who seems to be the good person?

People who do good because they choose to, rather than for the reward, do not necessarily go and shout it from the roof tops, or even tell people. Why would they? They aren’t in it for the reward. Manipulative people, on the other hand, will tell people, and will talk up their ‘good’ work, so as to increase their pay-off.

Judging people in your every day life on such factors, therefore, is highly likely to be misleading, unless you know the person in question very well. Even then, you cannot be sure. It would be a very bad friend who, being a trusted confidante of someone suffering a terrible illness or some other such calamity, were then to go telling others. Hence, loyal and supportive friends who are weighed down by such burdens will, in proportion to their loyalty, appear to be doing nothing of such a kind.

Appearances can be deceiving. Trust them, and you will be deceived. Naively rely on them, and you’ll likely do harm to the good, while rewarding the bad.

Published in: on May 28, 2010 at 10:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Insanity of Conscience

How do you tell if something is right or wrong? Some point to holy books, or leaders, or some other such store of all knowledge great and small. Delegating away such a core part of how they live their lives, they might as well be slaves, so let’s not waste our time considering them. You might object that they are free as their bodies are free, but I would reply that the mind can be free even if the body is not, but if the mind is enslaved or enthralled, then the body’s freedom is irrelevant – it matters only as a vessel for the mind.

So I shall move on to what is, I suspect, the vast majority – those who rely upon that fickle thing they call a ‘conscience’. That thing that makes them feel bad when they do ‘wrong’, and makes it far harder to do it in the first place. They get these emotional responses, and then, for some strange reason, decide that they should live their lives according to it.

Doesn’t this seem a bit odd?

No? Consider people who do strange and clearly crazy things like cutting people up because they felt it was the right thing to do. Many people like to call them ‘mad’, or ‘crazy’, because clearly that’s wrong, and I know that because I can feel it.

Wait – hang on a second. Didn’t you just call them crazy for listening to feelings about what was right or wrong?

Oh, right, they had the wrong sort of feelings. Because they aren’t the same as ours, and ours are right, innit?

Good thing our conscience doesn’t tend towards whatever society tells us to think then. Damned good thing, too, that our emotional responses to people’s plights are unaffected by whether we have to watch their suffering or if we can sit at a nice and cosy distance from it. Good thing, I say, because if it wasn’t the case, then we’d look mighty silly basing our actions upon such a clearly irrational and inconsistent set of feelings, wouldn’t we?

Consider this. What’s your feelings about children starving in Africa? Now, go look at pictures of starving children. What are your feelings while you did that? (Or, perhaps more accurately, what would your feelings have been if you’d done it, you lazy bastard!) Now imagine how you’d feel if you were out there, watching them die, right before your eyes. Now consider this is happening to millions of children.

Unless you are really ignorant (or you came across some info while searching for the- ah, who am I kidding, you didn’t look), your knowledge about the situation hasn’t been changed at all in the last paragraph. Therefore, your moral position upon it should not have changed, it would seem. Yet most of you (well, depending upon the proportion of psychopaths reading this) probably had pangs of conscience about the fact that they are all starving, even though you could be helping them. So should we really be basing our morality upon such feelings?

On a more individual level, many people go through their lives being very strongly guided by such feelings of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, never stopping to consider whether they actually stack up or are consistent. They are driven by sentimentality rather than logic, with absolutely absurd results.

For example, framing can be hugely significant when framing a question. Giving exactly the same question phrased differently elicits very different responses.

Yet not only do people use their feelings and emotional responses as a guiding force, but they expect everyone else to. Being without an emotional conscience is called ‘moral insanity’. I challenge anyone to look at it objectively and say that someone is less rational, and less sane, for not having a conscience.

Indeed, I challenge anyone to objectively justify one’s emotional conscience as a guide.

(PS: That should be distinguished from justifying following it, which could be done I feel on consequentialist grounds, but which would not, in fact, require one’s conscience to be anything better than a delusion. But actually holding such views in support of following one’s conscience would, without severe doublethink, then preclude on from in fact doing so, which tends to be a problem for consequentially derived deontological rules, but that’s rather off-topic.)

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 9:51 pm  Comments (4)  

Moral Cowardice and Inhumanity

“It is easier to produce ten volumes of philosophical writing than to put one principle into practice.”

– Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, Russian novelist and philosopher

How very true this seems, although I can’t help suspecting we’re just trying to excuse our cowardice and inhumanity.

Who here would assert that it is acceptable to knowingly let children starve to death when each one of has it without our power, at negligible cost to ourselves, to stop it? Obviously I would, but that could be related to my complete lack of compassion, and denial of all morality. Anyone who cares about their fellow man, however, has very strong reasons to help those who are in need through no fault of their own, and very weak reasons against it. Thus, it would seem, the vast majority should be doing more to help others.

Are you? Of course not.

Why not? Well, if you’re honest with yourself, I guess you’ll have to come to one of three conclusions, unless you wish to deny that you have such a responsibility to help others (which is rather easy for a nihilist like myself, but I’m ‘evil’, remember?). Either you:

a) don’t care about what you should do,

b) you’re too selfish to do what you should do, or

c) you lack the will or courage to do what you ought to do.

If you accept either a or b, well, you’re an immoral bastard, which I’d say’s a lot worse than being amoral, except, being a nihilist and all, I deny that anything is morally better or worse than anything else. Neither of those options seem particularly ‘humane’ to me, and nor does denying that we have a responsibility to aid people suffering horribly due to easily preventable circumstances and through no fault of there own. Option c, meanwhile, reeks of a rather pathetic moral cowardice. The effort required to save a child from starvation is minimal, and yet that is too difficult? If this is the state of any man, then what are we to do but despair of him?

Thus, then, the world can be split into four groups – the amoral, the inhumane, the moral cowards, and the practising moralist (ie: those few who actually go out of their way to help others). Since the amoral and the practising moralists seems to be in a relatively small minority, the implications are rather grim for those of you who believe in morality.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Science and You

These days, it seems, everyone thinks themselves a scientist. They look at a few graphs, read a few newspaper articles written by non-scientists, and thus deem themselves capable of actually weighing up the evidence about climate change, or whatever else happens to be under discussion.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a clue what we’re doing.

Yes, I know, it’s heresy in this day and age to suggest that someone, having spent a matter of minutes reading about a subject, is not qualified in a field which requires years of painstaking study to understand. Some might even go so far as to call it ‘elitism’, or use another such silly emotive term. Oh, and, by the way, to any scientists reading this and feeling smug – this applies to you too, whenever you leave your own little sliver of the scientific world. Strangely, a degree in astrophysics doesn’t make you an expert on the biology of arachnids.

Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if that lovely little word ‘obviously’ didn’t show up so often in our ordinary line of thinking. That and ‘clearly’. It’s hard to avoid; we come at the world with preconceptions which, quite often, turn out to be a load of crap. This really shouldn’t surprise us. The universe and all its secrets are, funnily enough, not obvious to Joe Bloggs; the interconnectedness of the world means that it is very, very complicated, particularly in something like climate change. Looking at a graph of CO2 against temperature really isn’t any use unless you account for all of the other variables which affect temperature.

So, when you sit down and read the Daily Telegraph or whatnot, do you spend years studying all of the evidence about those variables, and then, finally, having reviewed all of the evidence, redraw the graph having accounted for them? This would, of course, involve studying half a dozen undergraduate degrees followed by dozens of postgraduate courses, due to the wide number of fields involved.

No? I thought not.

Not only does the obvious have a strong attraction for the layperson, but it retains that attraction even when scientists try and explain it. Science often doesn’t have a simple, obvious answer to questions – but that is what people want, and so that is what people give them. And then people listen to these simple, obvious explanations, and they fit nicely into their view of the world, so they believe them, particularly when it fits in nicely for other reasons (such as not having to stop taking their private jet to the Bahamas and back twice a week).

What hope does the long, complicated, and often rather incomprehensible explanation of cold, hard science have against the lovely and warm ‘science’ peddled by the unscrupulous, the ignorant, and the delusional (yes, I’m looking at you, American south)?

So yes, actually, as imperfect as peer review is, there is a reason it’s not layman review, and that is that we just don’t have a clue.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 6:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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Environment and Politics

Today, the summit in Copenhagen on the environment has been pretty much stumped because the developing nations want to build/focus more upon Kyoto’s agreement. Ah yes, the developed world has caused the problem, so therefore the developed world should be the one to make the cuts. Sounds fair, and that it probably is.

Except Kyoto doesn’t require us to make any cuts.

It calls upon developed nations to reduce their own carbon emissions from production, rather than consumption. The predictable way to get around that while not actually making any life style cuts is to outsource all production to the developing world, and then import what we need. As an added bonus, we get to exploit low wages in developing nations too! We get cheaper stuff, get to push our ugly factories and manual labour work out to China, and the more industrial parts of the developing world gets lot of demand for their exports. Sounds like a win-win all round.

Well, yes, in the short term, it’s an economic and political master-stroke. Doubly so on the political side, because the world leaders get to claim they’re being green, when in reality Kyoto is probably a huge environmental disaster. Moving production from the relatively clean developed nations to countries like China, which is churning out coal power stations by the dozen, results in a huge increase in the levels of emissions, not just of CO2 but also of a wide variety of other nasty chemicals. And then there’s the costs of transporting all of the production from the developing nations to the developed ones.

Who’s to blame in all this? Politicians surely must be aware of this, but they’re doing what’s in their best interests. It makes them look good (except in America – oh, look, they’re not in it, what a surprise),  and that’s why they do it. Blaming them might feel good, and they might indeed be blameworthy, but it’s not going to get us anywhere. Instead, the public needs to learn to think things through. Sometimes counter-intuitive results hold, such as reducing part of a problem increasing it as a whole. It’s not always obvious what the impact of something will be.

For example, you know those price matching schemes shops have? Think they’re for your good? No, they’re to mobilise you to check up on other firms’ prices, and to lock themselves in to match prices. Since the other firms know this, they then have no, or very little, incentive to cut prices, as they won’t gain market share but will lose profitability. Yup, as lovely and consumer friendly such schemes are, they’re only there to help maintain implicit collusion, but as a double bonus they get you to think it’s cut-throat competition!

I fear that the solution to problems like the environment (and implicit collusion, actually) requires that the public actually think, rather than blindly accepting any sentence that starts with ‘obviously…’ or, normally worse, ‘surely…’.

Consequences are not obvious, and we most certainly should be unsure.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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True Evil?

I am a psychopath. As far as most of the world understands the terms, I have no conscience, no guilt, no compassion, no (emotional) empathy – no real other-regarding emotions at all really. And, because of this, a large proportion of the world would call me evil, regardless of what choices I make or actions I carry out. My mere existence as a person is sufficient for me to be evil.

I am morally blameworthy for something which I have no control over, could not change if I wanted, and regardless of the effect this has on other people.

(Psychopathy here should be understood as the lack of other-regarding emotions, and an absence of what’s commonly called guilt/conscience.)

Anyone seeing the problem here?

Right. I’m going to assume that you don’t find such a knee-jerk moral condemnation appealing when it’s explained like that. It’s okay if you feel that, you’re not to blame for feeling that way (if you feel you are, enjoy that infinite regress, because you’re to blame for blaming yourself, ad infinitum), but just because you feel something, doesn’t mean you should act on it. Many people, I’m willing to bet, feel repulsion towards gays, blacks, Muslims, Christians, whatever, even in our ‘enlightened society’, but – here’s the thing – they don’t act on it. And that’s the important thing. We cannot help what we feel – we are human, after all – but we can help (normally to a large extent) how we act.

The vast majority of people would, I think (hope?) sign up to this as a general principle. Just like they’d sign up to the requirement of fair trials. Yet humanity has this strange urge, when faced with certain things, to take its strongly felt convictions, and chuck them out of the window. And they do this with a frightening frequency. Yes, everyone deserves a free trial, and torture is abhorrent in all cases – except when dealing with terrorists/paedophiles/communists/Nazis or whatever the current boogie man of the day is.

And this is what happens when it comes to psychopaths. Yes, no one should be condemned as evil because of the way they were born and something which they cannot help – except those psychopaths! Obviously because they have no conscience, they must be inherently evil, regardless of how they act! Oh, really? Because most people’s ‘conscience’ is horribly horribly broken. Right now, you could be sending money to save a starving child. The cost to you would be minimal, and it would literally mean the world to that child. Are you? No. Do you really, when it gets down to it, care about that child? Of course not – and if you claim you do, I hope you’re sending that money (please pick the charity well), rather than spending it on a tenth of a pint down the pub.

So what’s so special about psychopaths? Society would love to be able to point at crime statistics, and the damage caused by those of us without empathy, and say, “Here, this proves you’re dangerous and evil!”. First, one could quite easily do exactly the same about young, black males. Collective punishment by demographic is, I would hope, something we had come to realise was completely unjustified. Second, psychopathy itself isn’t considered a mental disorder – anti-social personality disorder is instead, which is categorised by anti-social behaviour, rather than any underlying psychological basis (clear selection bias). Thirdly, studies on psychopathy are severely undermined by an inability to find them outside of the criminal population. This third one is related to a reason why, even if psychopaths do tend to treat the rest of humanity badly, this can’t solely be laid on their shoulders.

Imagine you are a psychopath. You can either: a) be honest about yourself, or b) deceive others and feign emotions. If you choose the first, then you will end up hurting other people (“I don’t care” as a response to someone’s relative dying goes down badly), and will be hated by everyone. If you choose the latter, then you will never be able to trust people, never be able to let down your guard, and you’ll always know you’re living a sham. The closer you get to anyone, the more they’ll be able to tell something’s not quite right, until they work it out or you tell them, and then, if they take the advice the rest of society gives in such situations, they run far, far away (if you’re lucky, without ‘warning’ everyone else into isolating you).

Notice that these issues come about not due to any fault on the psychopath’s part, but because society refuses to accept them as they are. It pushes them into a lose-lose situation. Psychopaths have feelings, and can have the desire to be have meaningful interpersonal relationships. Many, and probably most, are, I suspect, capable of such relationships, although in a different fashion to most people. And here is what most of humanity cannot accept. Something different. A quick glance at history tells you that – treatment of blacks, Muslims, Jews, and so on and so forth through the ages is a huge and wide ranging display of mankind’s inability to accept anything different.

Psychopaths are very rational people. If humanity will always do its best to isolate psychopaths, and if it will despise them for no reason other than what they are, then what can it expect? If you make a psychopath your sworn enemy, in defiance of everything you claim to believe, why the hell would you respect you, or to treat you well?

Alas, we find ourselves in a rather tricky repeated prisoners’ dilemma. Given the large number of participants, and the very high costs to both sides of ‘co-operating’ when the other ‘defects’, I would even go so far as to say that it the rational response for an egotistical hedonist would be to deceive and manipulate for a psychopath, and to avoid and isolate for a non-psychopath.

I like to think I’m better than that. I refuse to take the path of manipulation and selfishness  – my principles are more important to me than my happiness.

Are yours?

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 12:36 am  Comments (4)  
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