Saturday, September 22, 2012

Majority Rulez

 An interesting thought occurred to me today while reading this philosophy article about election percentages and Romney’s various mis-speaks. The winner of the presidential, or any other election, is the candidate who receives the majority of the votes, obviously. This could easily mean, however, that over 45% of the country doesn’t actually want the winning candidate to be president. Or in W Bush’s case, a slight majority didn’t want him to be president. When Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, almost 2/3 of Minnesotans voted against him.
None of this is new. My question, or thought, is this: What if it took more than just a majority to elect a president? What if it took, say, 75% of Americans to vote her/him into office. Is this even possible? For 75% of Americans to agree on a candidate? Even if it is incredibly unlikely, it almost seems like something we should strive for. I mean, this person is going to be our president. The leader of our country. Would it not be better if more than just half of the country believed in this person?
        Think of how this would change the face of politics. Getting a mere majority of voters to believe in them has not a problem for president’s of America’s past and present, although perhaps trying. The highest margin of victory for the presidency was only 60.3% with President Harding in 1920. But think of the way the game would be changed if candidates had to convince even their sternest opponents to trust them. Perhaps they would have to drop all of their ridiculous rhetoric. Gain more sincerity.
        Again, I’m not saying that this is even possible and it’s hard to imagine how a candidate would do this. I’d like to see it though. It is a goal that could even possibly result in a less divided country in general. I think at least 75% of Americans could agree that that would be a good thing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is Cruise Control A Car Thinking?

I’ve been on two small road trips in the last 2 weeks and on multiple occasions, while giving my right foot a much needed rest, I got to wondering: Is my car thinking when it changes speeds whilst set to cruise control? I’ve had this debate with my wife in the past but it’s been a few years, and I feel the need to resurrect it. I don’t really know the answer to this question. It seems like, obviously, that it isn’t thinking. But it’s not that easy to explain why. When we look at the process that occurs prior to a car changing its speed, and all of the factors involved, it appears very similar to the processes that we go through when making a decision of our own. And when we look at these similarities, it seems more difficult to maintain that there is a difference between my thought processes and my Sebring’s.
There are three factors at work in the most common Cruise Control system. This system is called the Proportional-Integral-Derivative Control, or a PID Control. The proportional control simply detects when the speed the car is travelling is higher, or lower, than the set desired speed. If it is different, the control will either open, or close, the throttle more. The Integral control is there to detect the time error. That is, the difference between the distance your car actually travelled, over a set amount of time, and the distance it would have travelled were it going the set desired speed. If you drive up a hill and your car slows down, the integral control will eventually detect this and open the throttle to increase your speed. This is because the distance error will have increased due to the slower speed. Finally, the derivative control is the control that detects any change in speed, also referred to as “acceleration.” If acceleration is detected, this control will immediately adjust the vehicle’s speed appropriately.
If we remove talk of the complex brain processes that also are occurring while we make a decision, it seems that the PID control is at least as complicated as some of our more basic decision making processes. Take, for an example, that we are walking down the sidewalk on our way to work. As we are walking we come across a blocked off section of concrete which has only recently been replaced and which we are not to be walking on. Seeing that we cannot continue to walk in a straight line along the sidewalk, we make the decision to veer off of the sidewalk and onto the street for a few moments until we have passed the blocked off section. After which, we step back onto the sidewalk and continue on until some other obstacle arises.
This example seem suspiciously similar to the operation of Cruise Control. Complex explanation aside, what is happening when a car is set on cruise control and the vehicle changes its speed? Basically, a car is told to travel at a certain speed, the car arrives at a hill and consequently slows its speed. The vehicle recognising that its speed has changed, makes an adjustment. Seems very plain, the car is supposed to do something, it is being hindered, so it makes an adjustment. Just like while we are walking on the sidewalk and the obstacle hinders us, we then had to make an adjustment.
I’m not suggesting that Cruise Control is comparable to any sort of complex human thought processes, merely that it is an example of a lower sort of process that looks a lot like one we may go through at any given time. The sort of process that we may not even realize we are going through at that time. When it comes down to it, the ability to take in information and make an adjustment to our actions based upon that information, that is thinking. And a car does this. It goes through this process. My wife will likely roll her eyes again if she reads this post and I will most likely write a response to this post based on some of the counterarguments that she, and myself, come can up with. Nevertheless, they will have to be some very serious arguments to contend with this apparent similarity between our thinking and my Sebring’s. And if it turns out that Cruise Control is even remotely equivalent to our most simple thought processes, then we will have to accept that perhaps our cars are smarter than we give them credit for.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Arguing With Bad Arguers

What exactly should one do when they find themselves debating some topic with someone who is not actually interested in participating in a “debate?” I recently reread A Rulebook for Arguments the 4th edition, and since then, in day-to-day conversations, watching TV and reading blogs at Talking philosophy, I have been painfully aware of many examples of bad arguing. How does one handle such things? This is not a rhetorical question and I do not have an answer, it simply baffles me. The professional Philosophers who blog on their website seem to take it seriously, but they differ in approach as well.
Some respond directly in an intellectually respectful way. That is to say, if someone writes a comment which is horribly fallacious and doesn’t really have any intellectual merit, the blogger will sometimes respond directly to the claim as if it did have merit and then easily disputes it. They will also ignore the fact that it is an example of a fallacy. The issue here can be that the commenter will not understand that they have erred, or perhaps don’t care, and continue to push their poorly phrased and thought out argument even after the response. So how far do you take polite refutations?
Another situation which will happen on their blog is that they will get commenters who will simply make a statement that is jam filled with rhetoric and insults. How much respect do you give this person? Some philosophers on the site will politely respond to their point intelligently and give them a warning. If they persist with that type of “debate,” then they get booted from the site. Some, don’t issue warnings, some issue many.
Is ignoring them the answer? Because even if the person is proposing their case in such a way that is unhelpful, offensive,etc. they may have a legitimate point buried beneath the rhetoric. So it seems we should probably give them the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt. Say we do give them that, and they respond again in a similar way. How many benefits do we give them before it is appropriate to stop responding?
There are also folks out there who simply are not interested in having an intelligent, two-way debate about something. They have a stance on a particular topic and they are not going to budge. They don’t care how poorly they make their case or how you make yours. How are you supposed to react to that? You can ignore them or you can keep responding in well thought out ways and perhaps they will get the point. But perhaps not. If you address their fallacy they continue to make them, if you ignore it, they continue to make them. It seems like a no win situation.
As an armchair/desk chair philosopher, I enjoy philosophical debate and think that it’s the  path to insight and self reflection. But what do you do with people who aren’t willing to participate, only to angrily make their points and ignore yours? Perhaps it’s to educate them. Treat them as if they were participating properly in hopes that they will. That doesn’t always work though. For me, I simply avoid those people, and discussing philosophical topics with them because they’re not interested in progress. Only in telling me how it is according to them. There’s no such thing as a one-way debate.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Three Laws Of Robotics

I recently finished reading Isaac Asimov’s futuristic mystery novel The Naked Sun. The book features the partnership of Plainclothesman Elijah Baley of Earth and a Robotic Detective, R. Daneel Olivaw, of the planet Aurora. While working together on a murder case, Baley finds himself having issues with his robotic partner. Baley has a crippling fear of open space of any kind, but, finding himself on a new planet and needing to overcome his fears, he attempts to do just that. However, Olivaw, following the 3 laws built into his positronic brain, will not allow Baley to face his fears because of the discomfort it will certainly cause him. It appears as though robots are incapable of looking to the future. I want to look at exactly what could result from this line of reasoning and see what unfortunate consequences could follow.

The Three Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

It sounds incredibly intuitive. After all, Robots are here to serve and protect humans. But dangers do inevitably arise, at least in The Naked Sun. Shortly after arriving on the outer world of Solaria, Baley wishes to attempt to face his upsetting fear of open spaces by sticking his head out of the window of his car. Daneel suggests that he should not do this because it will cause Baley a large amount of discomfort and pain. Baley ignores this and tries anyway only to be physically thwarted by Daneel. Through this revelation, and a few others throughout the book, we begin to see the shortsightedness of The Three Laws, literally. Robots cannot see into the future, obviously, but they also appear to lack the ability to make intuitive predictive leaps i.e. that some things may cause immediate unpleasantness, but will eventually result in a greater, more positive, consequence. Such things as facing a fear. Although it is unpleasant to face our fears, it will result in a better existence for us later if we do.
Daneel, and other robots governed by the three laws cannot see this though. They can only understand the first step of facing our fears, that it will be uncomfortable and likely painful. As a result, a robot will physically restrain you in order to protect you from yourself. But what other sorts of things would a robot be unable to understand and allow? Gruelling exercise routines would have to be prevented. Quitting smoking would not be allowed for the same reasons. Even if you had an aversion to, say, flossing your teeth, a robot would then have to stop you from flossing simply because it would cause unpleasantness for you. This line of reasoning seems to suggest that even surgery would not be permitted. After all, if a robot is only capable of concerning itself with the here and now, the positive eventual results of surgery would be lost in the cloud of extreme pain, fear, etc. that surgery would cause a person.
Now I am not a fictional Roboticist, but it doesn’t seem like an enormously difficult task to write an outcome based understanding into the positronic brain. Robots can do many complicated tasks, why not this one? Perhaps it is difficult. Simply rewriting the law to say something like “...some harm is necessary because it will result in less pain later on” is not sufficient. “Some” is a term that will mean nothing to a robot as it is incalculable. You cannot program intuition, and that is exactly what this sort of reasoning would require. The ability to distinguish between situations which will lead to less pain in the future and ones that will not. Surgery will lead to less pain later, but a stabbing will not (although it will if you die, but that’s another point entirely). There’s a difference there and that difference would have to be programmed into the robot along with the new adapted rule. Indeed every instance would have to be programmed in. The consequence of not doing this, would be that a robot could misread a situation that resulted in pain being permanently caused to a human. e.g. thinking that stabbing is surgery.
In The Naked Sun, multiple robots inadvertently cause harm, or even death, to a human. As a result, the robots became irreparably damaged because they had just broken the First Law of Robotics. The positronic brain cannot handle going against it’s programming and so unless every possible instance of these “bad now, good later” situations are programmed into the robot’s brain, there is a risk that they could get it wrong. And if they do, they risk themselves and the human.
So if it proves to be too difficult to perform this sort of programming, then we are right back where we started. With shortsighted robots who will prevent any and all immediate discomforts regardless of the potential gains. Robots who won't let us face our fears even if we want to or have a tumor removed. Like mentioned above, there are unfortunate consequences to this type of reasoning. Common struggles or activities could become extinct by robotic intervention. Such as exams, which sometimes cause students an extraordinary amount of stress. Through this interpretation of the First Law, robots would be required to prevent a student from taking an exam. Even something as innocuous as football would be stopped as a robot would not understand the “good” arrived at by the pain. Similarly, tattoos would not be allowed.
It’s not difficult to predict where this path would take us: a world where no amount of pain would be allowed, even for positive purposes and the robots would be forced into the role of overbearing restrictors. And, of course, robots would not allow an overthrow of their power because that could lead to eventual pain for humans. Perhaps I’m sliding down the slippery slope here, but I do believe that that was the plot of the film based upon the book with the same title, I, Robot. In The Naked Sun, Asimov himself opened the floodgates for the possible consequences of his laws. Perhaps intentionally. Either way, if a robot cannot allow a human to face a crippling fear, then they also could not allow a human to undergo surgery or quit smoking for the same reasons. And if that’s the case, our freedoms end up restricted and if that happens, then it all falls apart. Of course, this is one of the many reasons why robots are still only existent in the world of Science-Fiction. At least for now anyway....

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why I Don’t Eat Meat Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Tofu

Since Thanksgiving of 2008, I have been a Vegetarian. Not a Vegan, mind you (I have a difficult time letting go of cheese and mayonnaise) but I have abstained from eating red meat, white meat, poultry and fish since then. When asked why I stopped eating meat, I usually answer something to the effect of: “The minimal relative pleasure I receive from eating meat does not outweigh the death of the animal of which I am eating.” This sentence is not necessarily self-explanatory on its own, however. So I plan to carefully lay out my reasoning philosophically for both myself and others.
Let me begin by explaining what I mean when I say the phrase “minimal relative pleasure.” Different things in life give a person simple pleasures, e.g. eating Mac ‘n Cheese, playing BSG with friends, watching a good TV show, etc. Other sorts of things give a larger amount of pleasure, e.g. falling in love, having a child, achieving a great goal, etc. The difference between these two types of pleasures are clear; simple pleasures are fleeting, they don’t stay with you for a long amount of time. They leave no significant mark on your life. The bigger pleasures, by contrast, will stay with you. They are things you will remember and feel for a great deal longer, if not indefinitely, and will leave a strong mark on your life.
It seems clear, then, that eating meat falls under the category of “simple” pleasures, i.e. that the pleasure I receive will fleet and does not make any significant mark on my life. After all, I cannot, right now, say that my life has been significantly impacted by the fact that I likely ate some sort of meat 5 years ago today. It left no mark and the pleasure I received from that meal fled a long time ago. I can say that getting married almost 3 years ago did leave a mark on my life and I still feel pleasure at the thought of it.
It is important to note as well that displeasure can also be categorized in the same two ways. A simple displeasure would be something to the effect of: stubbing your toe, losing a game of chess, having a crappy job, etc. And the bigger displeasures: getting divorced, being convicted of a crime, losing a loved one, etc. The same can be said as before, the bigger displeasures will stick with you, likely until you die, and the simple ones will fade with time, some sooner than others.
Whether non-human animals experience the same capacity and complexity of pleasure and displeasure is a question scientists, psychologists and philosophers have been unable to completely answer thus far, but progress is being made. Chair Philosopher Beth Dixon of Plattsburg University specializes in Ethics and Animals had this to say in her 2001 paper “Animal Emotion. Ethics and the Environment:

“Recent work in the area of ethics and animals suggests that it is philosophically legitimate to ascribe emotions to nonhuman animals. Furthermore, it is sometimes argued that emotionality is a morally relevant psychological state shared by humans and nonhumans.”

Dixon is not alone in her thinking and her opinion is surely not without its critics, but it merely reflects a shift in attitude.
So from Dixon’s claims alone we cannot ascribe such a complexity of emotion to a non-human animal. We can, however, posit whether certain pleasures and displeasures are of the more significant varieties. Eating, for example, is likely not a significant pleasure for non-human animals much like it is not for humans. Death, though, would seem to be the paradigm case of a negative marker being left on any sort of animal’s life, human or otherwise.
Therefore, if the pleasure I would receive from eating an animal’s flesh is of the simple variety, and the animal’s death is of the larger dis-pleasure variety, then the animal’s death far outweighs the minimal pleasure I would receive from eating her. So if the pleasure I would receive from eating meat does not outweigh the animal’s death, I am not justified in eating her at all.
One possible response to this is that eating isn’t really a simple pleasure at all. What’s That perhaps it has to be thought of in terms of the accumulated amount of meat eaten, and that that is a larger pleasure. The problem with this line of reasoning is that any small pleasure would then be turned into a greater pleasure if it accumulated over your life. If eating a certain type of meal over your lifetime is what determines whether it had a significant effect on us, then other single events would have to be thought of in the same way. An event like winning a card game. Perhaps I won a lot of card games in my life. It would be foolish to think that the effect of winning card games throughout my life placed any significant mark on me. If small pleasures are only valued in terms of their accumulated lifetime effect, then we would have to suggest that winning card games is a greater pleasure like falling in love or having a child. Surely no one would suggest this though, so the criticism falls short.
The second criticism is that perhaps animal’s feelings, good or bad, are irrelevant to our, humans, purposes. Animal Rights Philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that it is “speciesist” to think this way. And that non-human animals deserve the same regard and rights as disabled adults or infants. Immanuel Kant even argued, although he did not believe there was anything ethically wrong with treating animals as means to any human’s ends, that we indirectly are morally obligated to treat animals well. He held that we would be damaging ourselves if we were to treat animals poorly. Therefore we must treat them well or risk losing a part of our humanity.
It is possible eating a dead animal could be justified, but only if my pleasure was of the greater variety and the animal’s displeasure was of the simple variety. Alas, this is not the case and I must accept the results. A possible way to test whether or not eating meat is actually a greater pleasure as opposed to a simple one which I suggest it is, would be to determine whether not eating meat has left any significant negative mark on my life. It has left no such mark.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Choosing The Matrix

In the book The Matrix and Philosophy (2002), Professor David Weberman wrote a chapter in which he concluded that given the choice between living in the the inauthentic Matrix world and the authentic real world, the more rational choice is to live in the Matrix. He arrived at this conclusion for a few different reasons, but his most weighty argument is: given that the  Machine’s goal is to insure that humans remain plugged into the Matrix and that they remain alive, it would be in the Machine’s best interest to make the world void of as much suffering and death as they realistically could. Therefore, quality of life for everyone would be greater in the ignorant bliss that is the dream world of the Matrix.

“...The virtual world gives us the opportunity to visit museums and concerts, read Shakespeare and Stephen King, fall in love, make love, and raise children, form deep friendships, and so on. The whole world lies at our feet except that it’s probably better than our world since the machines have every motivation to create and sustain a world without human misery, accidents, disease, and war so as to increase the available energy supply. The real world, on the other hand, is a wasteland. The libraries and the theaters have been destroyed and the skies are always gray.”

Weberman considers the criticism of free will and truth. He responds that the Machines likely would not care what we do while in the Matrix. We would be free to paint, make music, support, or fight against, the government, etc. The only things we could not do would be unplug ourselves or others. So we are almost every bit as autonomously free as if we are in the real world.
Even if choosing the Matrix is more rational, though, there seems to be something at least partly counterintuitive about this choice. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Tank, Mouse and Dozer certainly agree. They believe there is something more important to life. Authenticity is intrinsically valuable to them. But can they make this choice for everyone else? If Cypher disagreed with them then others likely will as well. Morpheus even admitted that they do not unplug adults because they have grown attached the fake world and reject the real.
Weberman’s argument can be taken further, though. If his argument above can be taken as a reason to choose the Matrix over the real world as it exists in the film, the same argument can be used to say that it would be more rational to choose the Matrix over the real world as it exists today as well. Given the lessened amount of suffering and death, war and so on. After all, who would not like to live in a world with less of these things? Is this not the goal of most doctors, scientists, politicians and the like?
So if we were presented with an opportunity to live in a virtual world designed to contain no “human misery” of any sort, a world in which we are still free to choose any profession or activity, and we could be ensured that our physical bodies were being preserved in the real world, I would expect to see this virtual world heavily populated. The question is, for how long?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Naming Names

I am currently a part-time Retail Cashier at Target Field in Minneapolis, MN. The company I work for manages stadiums and parks across the globe and has been doing so for several decades. In their time doing so, they have developed certain “protocols” for how the retail trans/inter-action is to occur. At this time, I wish to focus on one particular rule: “The cashier must say the guest’s name three times throughout the transaction.” They do, however, accept that not all transactions give rise to the opportunity to learn the guest’s name. i.e. cash transactions. Also, that cashiers are not, then, required to outright ask a guest for their name. Personally, I find the “three name” rule abhorrent and will spend the rest of this entry trying to figure out why.
It is not difficult to imagine the company’s thought process. It was most probably something like: Customers will most likely leave a store happy if a positive, personal, experience is had. If a customer leaves a store happy, they will most likely return to that store again looking for another positive, personal experience. Therefore, the best way to ensure repeat patronage is to create that experience. We can call this the “Cheers” argument. Words taken from the theme song:

"Sometimes you want to go,
Where everybody knows your name,

and they're always glad you came."

And it’s true. That is what we want, as a customer; that feeling of inclusion, of welcome. It’s an experience we will go back for. Therefore, if the “three name” rule creates this feeling for a customer, and the “Cheers” argument is true, then the “three name” rule is justified. On the face of it, the “Cheers” argument sounds like a solid one for the existence of the “three name” rule. I would argue, though, that that is not the case. That it is a non-sequitur and that the name rule does not follow from the “Cheers” argument at all.
I think that the “Cheers” argument is correct, and most probably the best way to ensure that your customers will return to your store in the future. The point I disagree with is the assertion that the “three name” rule is the way to accomplish that goal. The company will reason that saying “Here is your Discover Card back, Mr. Plato” will somehow, instantaneously, make  him feel that Cheers-like feeling. Personally, I do not find this to be the case. The only people who seem to react positively to this sort of exchange are the secret shoppers who are there to see if you’re following the rule in the first place. The majority of the time, the guest hears their name and they sort of clam up like someone’s just infringed upon their personal bubble.
From personal experience, both as a cashier and as a patron, I have felt similarly when my name is read off of my badge or debit card. It’s a feeling not too dissimilar from getting a phone call from someone whom you did not give your phone number to. Perhaps neither are the most offensive things in the world but both are cases where the information is such that you would prefer to have given it out voluntarily. In either case, we end up feeling slightly put-off. So not only is the “three name” rule not the best way to accomplish the “Cheers” result, it is often counterproductive and can, at best, be neutral.
So is there an alternative to the name rule, perhaps a successful way to achieve the result of the “Cheers” argument? Well, in conjunction with general politeness and attentiveness, having a genuine conversation with the guest is going to provide a good deal more success than simply saying their name one to three times. It is far less awkward and more successful to, say, strike up a conversation about where the guest is from, or about an intriguing tattoo or a piece of clothing they have on. This is a genuine attempt at connection and even if it is a complete failure, the guest will appreciate that more than simply saying their name as you give them their credit card back. One of the reasons is that anyone can say your name, but not everyone can carry out a real conversation successfully. It takes observation, intelligence and skill and it will make a greater impact on the guest.
So perhaps abhorrent is the wrong word. I don’t actually think that it can be argued that the “three name” rule is unethical, but is more likely simply the result of a poor understanding of human interaction. It is not this reason alone, though, for which I flatly refuse to abide by this rule, although it is certainly a factor. There is just something that feels so repugnant and distasteful about it. Perhaps it is simply that I would not wish a cashier to steal my name from my debit card and toss it back at me like they were my friend. So then, following the logic of the Golden Rule, I am turned away from doing so to others. Whatever the reason may be, I will continue with the best way I know how to be a good cashier, and will continue to only say the guest’s name when my supervisor is standing directly behind me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Weight Of Intent

How relevant to the consequences of our actions are our intentions behind them? Does meaning well make up for erring or is the result of our actions the only significant factor? The old idiom goes: “It’s the thought that counts.” Which seems to imply that regardless of the outcome, if we intended well, all should be forgiven. Conversely, we say that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Implying that our intentions are irrelevant if the consequences of our actions are unsatisfactory. We make both moral and legal judgments with a large amount of weight placed on our intentions, so it certainly seems like a concept that it important to us. But how important and in what way?
In everyday life we say things like “yeah, but he meant well” when we talk about someone who makes frequent mistakes. Or we say “it’s the thought that counts,” when someone gives us a gift or makes a gesture that falls a bit short. We cannot forget the famous question that has striken fear into many a teenage male’s heart when meeting a date’s father for the first time: “What are your intentions with my daughter?” You can be quite sure that there is a correct answer to this inquiry. So it would seem that even if they are what the road to hell is paved with, good intentions appear to negate most undesirable consequences.
The Law is extremely concerned with our intentions. It even uses the phrase “...with intent to sell/distribute” in regards to a person being found in possession of a large enough amount of drugs. “Attempted Murder,” although certainly less severe than successful murder, is still considered a very serious crime. Attempted suicide will land you a psychological evaluation or more. The law even recognizes accidental homicide. Meaning, that if your intent was not to kill that person, your punishment will be lessened.
On a grand ethical scale, intentions seem to weigh rather heftily as well. After all, we will likely place more blame on a serial killer who murders 8 people intentionally than the man who accidentally killed 8 people in a car crash. Likewise, we will praise the women who discovered an plane’s engine malfunction and consequently saved everyone on board, versus the one at the ticket booth who simply made a booking error which resulted in the plane not taking off but, also saving everyone on board. Our judgments, good or bad, are extremely intent-centered.
The problem with putting this much emphasis on intent is that it can be difficult to accurately determine what others’ intents are. Someone may say “well I didn’t intend for him to get hurt,” but how can we know whether he actually didn’t? The best we can do is look at other factors. Occasionally, we lose patience for others’ “good intentions” if we find that they fall short too routinely. In Baseball, “Three strikes and you’re out!” Enough mistakes at work and we will surely be finding ourselves unemployed regardless of what we were trying to do. So it does appear that there is a limit on how far simply having good intentions will take us and with enough failures, we’ll find ourselves in a place we don’t much want to be.
Generally speaking, if we intend well, we will be forgiven. According to Gandhi: “Before the throne of the Almighty, man will be judged not by his acts but by his intentions....” However, if we intend to harm, we will be prosecuted. British Poet, Lord Byron’s ambiguous phrase: “This is the patent age of new inventions for killing bodies, and for saving souls. All propagated with the best intentions.” Our intentions’ efficacy has a limit, much like using a debit card. If you use the card too much, you’ll run out of money in your account. If this happens, but you continue using the card, you’ll run into a world of trouble. Used properly, and not too liberally, our good intentions will keep us happily in the black.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Assisting The Stupid

Most people would agree that if you refrain from acting in a way that would prevent something bad from happening, that you are as, or at least close to as, blameworthy as if you had actively caused it to happen. As the old maxim goes, “Withholding the truth is the same as lying.” I once came across a thought experiment: It proposed that you were a worker in a factory. It asked if you, as the worker, sabotaged a piece of machinery in such a way that the next person that used it was injured, are you morally responsible for that person’s injury? It followed-up with a similar but slightly different question. It asked if you, again as the worker, were simply aware of a malfunction in the machinery that would result in the next person who used it being injured, are you responsible for that person’s injury? Again, I think that most people would say that in both cases, you are morally responsible for your co worker's injuries.
What if the situation, again one we could prevent, involved something that a person with common sense would avoid? For example: Imagine again that you are a worker in a factory. A giant piece of machinery has a sign on it that says “Warning, do not use! This machine is out of order and may cause bodily harm if operated!” This sign is large and directly next to the operating controls. You are working at a nearby machine and witness a co worker approach the broken one with what appears to be the intent to operate. You say nothing to this person because you believe the sign says it effectively and anyone with common sense would know better than to turn it on. But your co worker turns the machine on anyway. Consequently, your co worker injures himself. Are you morally responsible for your co worker’s injury?
The answer to this question is a bit less clear cut. After all, they could have avoided the injury completely. However, we also easily could have prevented their injury. How does one person’s stupidity affect our responsibility to prevent their ill advised actions? Is it our responsibility to stop someone from making a mistake, one any rational person would avoid, that could result in them being harmed? There are a couple ways to answer this question. We could say that no, it isn’t our responsibility to prevent every idiot from doing something idiotic. Or we could say, that given the position we are in to prevent their injury, that we are obligated to at least make it abundantly clear how detrimental their action could be. Needless to say, there are people who will overbearingly warn others of potential risks and hazards. This person would surely be considered supererogatory, meaning that not warning everyone about everything is not morally blameworthy. So the question is, where does the moral responsibility lie for an isolated incident?
One argument for why we may say that it isn’t our responsibility is “sometimes, people simply need to make a mistake in order to learn from it. Hopefully, then, it won't happen again.” This is a common debate amongst parents, teachers and mentors. Whether the best way to teach someone is to let them make the mistake so that they learn from it. Perhaps this is sound if the person is in a formative time of their life and it doesn’t involve potentially fatal injury. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to apply. If this person is truly an idiot, perhaps they make mistakes everyday. Maybe someone lets him make the mistakes thinking he will learn from them. He evidently has not, therefore, letting him hurt himself today will likely not teach him any lessons he’ll take into tomorrow.
A similar argument is that “it is simply their mistake to make. If someone is dumb enough to make this mistake, then they deserve the consequence.” I think where this argument fails is if we flip the positions, we would almost certainly want our co worker to warn us if we were about to harm ourselves. Particularly, if they were perfectly aware I would likely hurt myself and they could've prevented it but still did nothing. Perhaps we are tired, or distracted by a loss in the family, or any other of the numerous circumstances which could lead to our poor judgment. “The Golden Rule” seems to have some merit here.
Maybe we think we just aren’t required to help others in general, let alone if someone is about to injury themselves in an avoidable way. Survival of the Fittest and all that. The problem with this sort of line of reasoning is that it seems to be at odds with how our society functions. We help others when in need. We have government funded and nonprofit organizations with policies in place to do just this. We assist classmates when they are having difficulty with a particularly tricky equation. When someone trips on the sidewalk, we extend a hand to help them to their feet. We are not a species with self-centered outlook. Some Evolutionists suggest that the theory is community based. Meaning, it is more beneficial to succeed as a society than as an individual.

What Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism Says

If we are to develop a circumstantial rule for this situation, it would look something like this: ~My co worker is about to make an easily avoidable mistake which will likely result in his being severely injured. I have the ability to prevent his error and injury. Could I will that everyone in this specific circumstance refrain from preventing this mistake?~ What are the consequences of this rule? The co worker making the mistake in this rule could easily be someone who is tired, grieving, distracted or someone we love who we would not want to be injured. It’s possible the the person could be ourselves for that matter. There seem to be a good deal more people in these types of situations than someone who is simply “too stupid” to avoid making a mistake. Therefore, this rule becomes self-defeating. The conclusion we must arrive at, according to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism, is that we are morally responsible for our co worker’s injury if we do not prevent the “accident.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism

To act in a way which produces the most happiness, or “good,” for the greatest number of people has often been considered tricky business. For one, the definition of “good” is often questioned and debated. We can comprise a list of possible definitions, but we seem to not be able to agree on one. Second, it can be difficult to calculate exactly, or even remotely, how much good and happiness can be properly predicted given the uncertainty of the future. We simply cannot know whether the drowning child we saved will turn out to be a mass murderer. Finally, given the utilitarian goal of producing the most good and happiness in a given situation, the action determined to best accommodate this can sometimes violate laws, or human rights. To use an example from a Philosophy Experiments and Interactions website, throwing the innocent fatman in front of a speeding train loaded with more innocent people, would stop the train and save the most lives. Act Utilitarianism would require that we do this. However, this action certainly constitutes murder and most would agree that The Fatman’s basic human right to life had been violated.
Utilitarianism is often split into two categories: Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Of the two forms, Act Utilitarianism is frequently considered to be the more dubious of them. It holds the we individually evaluate every action and each action is, in itself, morally judged based upon whether it will produce the most good. Again, this is the version of Utility that would require that we kill the fat man to save the trainload of people. Rule Utilitarianism takes a more Kantian approach. It holds that in determining an action’s morality, we must determine whether, as a rule, this action, generally, produces more good and happiness than not performing this action or vice versa. By this, murder is considered morally wrong because, generally speaking, murdering someone produces more unhappiness than happiness.
I have always felt that there is some merit to the work of Immanuel Kant and his Categorical Imperative. Intuitively, acting only in such a way that you could “universalize” feels like the bases for, at least partially, fairly sound moral reasoning. Kant has not been without his critics. Many find it difficult to follow his rigid description of ethics. The complaint, perhaps the biggest, is that Kant allows no room to maneuver. If I approach a situation where my options for action are to, either, tell a lie or not tell a lie, and I must only act in such a way that I could will it to be a universal law of action, then I must choose to not lie.  If I were to lie, I would then have to will that everyone must always lie (universalizing the action). As that would be a self defeating law, I could not, ever, then, be acting morally if I lied. Since most folks would be willing to say that there are some situations where lying would, in fact, be a permissible thing to do, they have to, then, dismiss the Categorical Imperative.
Fortunately, I am not married to the Categorical Imperative, although I do find it a stimulating partner. I would like to take this time to suggest my own version of Utilitarianism which espouses traditional Kantian Ethics: Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism. The theory is stated as thus: Given a specific circumstance, act only in such a way that you would will that action to become a universal law of action for that specific circumstance. To elucidate, say I approach a situation where if I tell a lie, it may save a life or prevent an amount of suffering. I could ethically tell the lie, since I would will, in this specific circumstance of having the ability to save a life, that it become a universal law of action. According to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism, I would not have to broadly allow that any and all lying is bad. Because of the theory’s nature, no such broad statements are made.


1. When I first proposed a version of this theory in 2009, a fellow classmate had a question/concern that was something to the effect of: There would seem to be a near infinite number of possible specific situations which require moral action. Consequently, that would imply that a near infinite number of moral rules also existed. Is the existence of that many different rules in any way detrimental to Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism as a theory?
The answer is no, it is not destructive in any way. This is for a couple of reasons. First, unless one rule directly affects or contradicts another, its existence, in and of itself, is insignificant to another rule. This would be true if there were five total rules or five hundred thousand. In Baseball, the fact that it is “three strikes and you’re out” does not affect whether “a ball is considered fair if it hits the foul line.” However, it’s not necessarily “three strikes you’re out” if “the third strike is dropped by the catcher and you reach first base safely.” However, even in the second case where one rule does affect another, that is simply an example of a specific circumstance,in effect, the theory at work.
Second, the theory does not require that we have all of the rules on hand, ready to pull out at the drop of a morally significant dime. There is nothing to memorize, it is not like a football playbook. We may develop a rule and never use it again. A more appropriate analogue is that it is like solving a math problem. The results may vary depending on the numbers and the functions used. There are an infinite number of math problems to solve but none of the results have any effect on math as a system or any other solution in particular. So the existence of the rules do not supersaturate the theory, they are the result of the theory and therefore do nothing to diminish it.
2. Another concern is how this theory interacts with, contradicts or upholds the law. It would appear prima facie that this theory is at odds with the law. After all, if your circumstantial rule violates a law, you will still be punished for violating this law even if you were ethically correct for breaking it. I would argue that the law already takes this theory into account. Although it is against the law to murder someone, there are varying degrees to which we are punished for committing this crime. For instance, you will go to prison longer if you kill 3 people instead of 1. If you premeditated the murder, your sentence will be harsher than if it was a spontaneous lapse in judgment. If we do it in self defense, we can get off very lightly even completely in some cases. Similarly, the punishment for Marijuana possession is much less severe if you are found with an 1/8 ounce on your person verses 10 ounces.
3. Along a similar vein, I argue my theory with the basis of hyper-specifizing situations in order to deduce the proper moral action. Moreover, that it eliminates broadly stroked rules. Such rules as “lying is bad.” However, the laws from which we live by, are very often, broad. They have to be. For example, very broadly, murder is against the law. This is at odds with my theory which suggests that there should not, and cannot, be such broad rules for behavior. What is important to note, is the difference between moral rules and federal or state laws. Moral rules guide our day to day actions and give us a foundation for evaluating our lives. Laws, however, are necessary for the function of society. In fact, their existence is dependent on society. They are collectively derived as a consensus between citizens and an ideologue which provides the groundwork for the citizens of a society to live by. They are, at their core, basic and it is essential that they are. What I’m suggesting is that because they are two different sorts of things entirely, they are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist and be successful while doing so. As I mentioned in the previous section, the law already recognizes this distinction and works within the system accordingly.
4. The most powerful argument against Utilitarianism is the argument that abiding by this theory can sometimes result in someone’s rights being violated. i.e. the fatman. Arguably, this is still the case for Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism. But if we apply the theory to this situation, we end up with a rule something to the effect of: “Given the circumstance of my ability to save X+1 amount of innocent lives by pushing 1 innocent man in front of a train, could I universalize that everyone must push an innocent man in front of this train in the same circumstance?” A rule of this nature would, however, be self-defeating. If this action were to be universalized, then we would have to allow that someone else, in this same situation, would be forced to kill an innocent man as well. Given all of the possibilities of innocent men to consider, this man could easily end up being our brother, our father or ourselves for that matter. So even though the man we may intend to push in front of a train is a stranger to us, we must also essentially be willing to sacrifice our brother or ourselves just as readily. As a result, no one would ever develop such a rule. It likewise applies to right violations in general because, again, we would have to be willing to sacrifice our own rights as well in the situation. This is a consequence of universalizing the rule. Therefore, no such rules would exist.

Final Thoughts

Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism is not only a practical tool for action, it is also intuitive by nature. Most of us already act according to it in some fashion or another. We base our judgments of others according to it. When our neighbors are gossiping about how wrong it was for us to kick our significant other out of the house, the second one may respond “well he was cheating on her.” Much like it is represented in our legal system, in everyday society there is a hierarchical groundwork that drives our judgments and rulings of others that is completely based upon the circumstances. So much so that we will even forgive murdering someone if the right circumstances surrounded it. i.e. if it was in self defense or protection.
So what’s the point of this theory if it simply reflects how we already live our lives? The purpose of a theory is to discover how something works or why certain effects are linked to certain causes. However, the goal of a theory is not always to revolutionize our lives or our world, it is sometimes simply to explain. For instance, the Theory of Relativity didn’t change how relativity worked, it simply showed us how it worked. Circumstantial Rule Utilitarianism doesn’t need to transform the moral community and it certainly won't change how ethics work. But it is a tool to help us understand why we do the things we do and provide a way to guide, and to understand, our actions in the future.