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What is Ethics good for?

A classic question in ethics is ‘why be moral?’. My usual answer has been ‘because you want to’. A correct understanding of the nature of morality makes ‘why be moral?’ sound like ‘why like ice-cream?’. Morality is not some alien creation that we need an independent reason to accept. It is a system that subsists within our desires.

‘X is good’ is pretty much short hand for ‘I desire X to obtain’. Moral language is a projection of our attitudes on to the world, allowing us to reason about them as if they were properties of the world.  Moral reasoning is simply us figuring out how to best achieve what we want. It says for example, if you don’t like little girls dying, then don’t like setting orphanages on fire because that causes little girls to die.  Morality gets more abstract the more you think about it. You might go on to decide that it’s not little girls dying per se that you don’t like; it’s the loss of a distinct mind. Realising this, you will want to start disliking things that you that you never considered before, such as the death penalty.

Our desires have logical consequences that we can (in theory) discover. Morality is  the sum of all our values and their logical consequences.  There are objective moral truths of which we are ignorant in  the same sense as there are objective winning games in chess that no one has played. They exist out there in logic land. At its best, Ethics allows us to work out this logic and get more of what we want (such as fewer dead girls).

Ethics is not about dutifully submitting to something outside you, its about rationally maximizing what you want. In fact it i think morality is just a special subset of practical rationality that deals with concerns like helping others rather than concerns like getting to work on time.

However there are complications with the above account. There are two ways something can be good. Firstly there is simple projection; Ice cream makes me feel warm and fuzzy so, as well as being cold and organic, ice-cream is ‘good’. Secondly there are the various extrapolations we make off such simple intuitions. For example I might examine why ice cream is good and conclude that the reason ice cream is good is because pleasure is  good.

Note that ‘reason’, as used in the last sentence, does not mean ’cause’. When we says things like ‘the reason why ice cream is good is because pleasure is good’ we are providing a justificatory normative reason, explaining what is is we value about ice cream. However ‘pleasure being good’ is not what really makes you value ice cream ie the causal reason. That is some long story involving stimulation of the olfactory system and evolution.

What causes ice creams goodness (causal reason) ie our projected liking, is thus a different type of thing from the explanation we give for its goodness (normative reason). Ethical theory trades in the normative. A consequence of this is that we can get normative ‘goods’ via reasoning that we don’t actually desire because they fail to pull the correct levers in our psychology.This messes with my orignal story about ethics being a way to get what you want. We can end up with a break between what we feel is good and what we reason is good.

I basically accept preference utilitarianism as the correct normative account of morality, yet I don’t feel much motivation to follow its prescriptions. I put this down to the badness of human(or at least my) psychology.  Another response would be to say im wrong about utilitarianism and just strip my normative theory down to match my feelings, as do moral particularists. Either way Ethical reasoning doesn’t look that good. With the first approach Ethics is inconsequential, with the 2nd it is redundant.

This is probably too strong though. I don’t think I have shown ethics is completely useless, rather that Plato was wrong  that to know the good is to will the good. We  in fact end up with two systems of morality, the set of our intuitive moral judgments and the more formal ethical system that arises from it. This second system may have its uses but it will work quite differently from the first. My wanting to alleviate pain of the little girl on fire in front of me is quite different from my wanting to alleviate pain in the future-persons by donating 10% of my income to tech research. The first is brute desire which demands little explanation.While with the second it makes sense to ask ‘why be moral’  where you are using ‘why’ in the practical deliberative sense.

So what can formal ethics do? Although I doubt it can generate or suppress natural moral passions it may come in to play where our desire is ‘to do the right thing’ where the right thing is not specified. In other words when we simply want to ‘be moral’ rather than act on any particular moral impulse like pity. For example, accepting utilitarianism won’t make me wince with guilt whenever I spend a dollar on ice-cream, but if i feel like giving to charity so i can feel virtuous, ethics may lead me to choose to feed starving humans rather than re-home kittens. I will say more about this in the next post.


On Retards and Niggers

I had been preparing another ethics post but today I’m gonna play at being a real blogger and riff off a topical story; Attention seeking  broadcaster calls singer ‘retarded’, causes kerfuffle.

The incident itself is boring but the ensuing debate about the word ‘retarded’ is not. Many people don’t consider it offensive at all, while Special Olympics New Zealand chairman David Rutherford said using ‘retard’ to be as hurtful as racial slurs like ‘nigger’. Rutherford may be right about the offense felt by the respective groups, but I think there is an interesting difference between intellectual disability and race that may explain the disagreement.

First however, we must look at what ‘offense’ talk is about. In the present sense x is offensive to y if x lowers y‘s status. We talk about ‘offensive’ words but thats not exactly accurate. It’s what people do with their words that offend*.However in most contexts If I call someone ‘nigger’ rather than the obvious ‘black’  the audience assumes an intention to communicate disrespect as the best explanation for the choice. The word is relatively archaic, from a time when blacks had less status and I have other options. So someone who believes in racial equality or desires not to make blacks feel bad will not use the word.

The history of disability slurs is a bit different. Neutral terms become derogatory very quickly. ‘Retarded’ was once a respectful term used by scientific authorities.Its rooted in the latin for slow(as in development). Around the 1970’s it started to be seen as derogatory. The same thing had happened before with ‘Imbicile’ and ‘Idiot’ ; both were once neutral terms of science but are now almost exclusively reserved for occasions where the speaker wishes to offend. ‘Handicaped’ is more than half-way to becoming unacceptable. Even the current standard, ‘disabled’, has been challenged by ‘challenged’.  ‘Special’ and ‘gifted’ have quickly become jokes. There are many slurs coined especially to derogate but intellectual disability seems exceptional its ability to turn nice words bad.

I suspect the reason for this high turnover of labels is that unlike blackness, intellectual disability is inherently low status.  Black’s low status in the actual world is  a historical accident and can change with our norms. It’s quite possible, in fact its easy, for a person not to think less of someone based on their race. Such people will use ‘black’ while racists will use ‘nigger’.This situation is relatively stable, providing no special force towards linguistic change

However the low status of the intellectually disabled is not accidental. They are by their nature, less intelligent, less able and less independent than others. We all evolved to be impressed by intelligence, skill and power. Few seriously look up to the intellectually disabled or would want to be disabled themselves. Iintellectual disability is not desirable. No matter what word you use to refer to the intellectually disabled, the stigma will eventually reassert itself  because it is carried by the referent its self. 

The coining of new words is an attempt to pretend we don’t think less of the intellectually disabled and show that we don’t intend to offend**. It employs the same benign hypocrisy as euphemisms. However this ‘euphamistic’ power  collapses as soon as the word achieves wide currency. The demands of everyday use bring down the facade and reconnect the word with its objects real qualities.When everyone starts ‘using the toilet ‘(itself a delicate french euphemism originally ) true ladies must start ‘powdering their noses’. When everyone starts uttering sentences such as’ the intellectually disabled boy is eating his crayon, Miss‘, ‘intellectually disabled’ will pick up the same connotations as ‘retarded’ no matter what our intentions are.

Because of this we need a stream of fresh terms to keep pace with stigmatization of the old terms that refer to intellectual disability. Racial terms do not seem to change so quickly. There is nothing bad about black people that will stigmatize any neutral name attached to them. It is thus normally  clearer as to what counts as a racial slur rather than a put down of the disabled. We should expect some disagreement as to the latter.

So the moral is that if someone uses ‘retarded’ we shouldn’t assume malice. Everyone is pretending a little bit when they use ‘positive’ names for the intellectually disabled. Some people will be genuianly uncertain what words have fallen bellow the threshold of acceptability in such a fast-moving game. However this does not  mean you should talk of ‘morons’ and ‘idiots’ while feeling pride at your plain speaking. You may feel the polite terms try to mask the obvious, but in doing so they do make it clear that you are not positively against the intelectually disabled. The best rule is: adopt the new terms when you learn them while forgiving those who keep the language they grew up with.

*Many still fetishize words, giving us childish constructions such as ‘the N-word’ and ‘Ni***er’.

**  Such linguistic change may be accelerated by an arms race between ‘socially concious’ types trying to best their peers in the sensitivity game.

Nature is Nasty

The last post mentioned in passing that recognising animal suffering as morally relevant usually has consequences greater than people realise. I found a good essay about something that most people don’t think about ; that most animal suffering is not directly caused by humans but is potentially relieved  by them.

Read it here.

Some thoughts:

– Conservationists think they are helping the animals whose enviroment they protect from development. They may just be locking them in a torture chamber. Clear the jungle for pasture and all that biomass locked up in variety of vicious predators and terrorized prey, can be converted to safe, happy (and useful) cattle. Would be amusing if slash and burn turned out to have this positive externality; we could subsidise the exploitation of economically unattractive wilderness for the sake of animal welfare!

– By the time we have all the technology to do all the crazy stuff suggested in the essay, I doubt making animals happy will be a moral priority. It will likely be better to just add more people. Wild animals are mostly still around because they occupy marginal land and nature is doomed so The problem of wild suffering will remain but the scale won’t be so shocking.

– The above assumes a simple kind of hedonism; reducing the suffering of animals. This is the correct measure. Utility or rights don’t work very well with animals. Diversity might also be relevent. Im not talking about its ecological or aesthetic qualities but rather the notion that types of experience matter as well as number and quality. It may be that any  zebra may be substituted for a cow save the last one.  Although the Zebra may have no better a life then a cow, the unique zebraesque nature of its experience  add extra value to the world above the pleasure it feels munching grass. I may talk more about this later.

Hedging your Ethical Bets

When trying to do good, people often take actions they expect to be pointless because there is a low possibility of great good.  Taking serious a report of poison in the water supply though it is likely a hoax is an example. Here we  are confident about our moral judgment, that people dying is bad, but are uncertain about the state of the world.

There are also cases where we are confident about the state of the world but not our moral beliefs. So on the face of it we should be more willing to act according to low probability moral principles when the cost of being wrong is high. Take Animal welfare as an example. I don’t feel bad about how we use animals nor am I much convinced by the particular arguments against doing so. On the other hand I don’t have any strong principled reason against  animals as moral patients. If I am wrong, then I may be committing a grave error similar in type to those who disregarded other races in the past. If  animal welfareists are wrong then they are committing a much less important error by forgoing many of the useful goods animals provide.*  There is thus a case for, say, avoiding Halal meat, on moral grounds, without believing  it to be wrong.

 Unfortunately, this is harder to do then the first kind of moral mathematics. Moral ‘belief’ works differently from belief about the world. I can quite comfortably expect rain with 20 % confidence, clouds without rain at 30% etc. However moral thinking is about reconciling our feelings with our talk about morality. Driven on by cognitive dissonance,  it tends to jumps between reflective equilibria rather than assign probabilities. I psychologically can’t ‘10%-care’ about animals on realisation that I haven’t countered all Peter Singer’s arguments. Either im convinced or not. The best I might manage is an intellectual understanding that given my other values I ‘should’ care about animal welfare, even if I can’t represent that emotionally.

Taking our uncertainty more seriously would have some interesting consequences :

-We might adopt less plausible but cheaply enacted principles over more plausible but also more stringent principles.

– Given all the disagreement in ethics, we would likely end up with a very messy pluralism.  In my example i was thinking of a consequentialist factoring in the chance that animal suffering has some value to be considered  deciding what to do; a relatively simple matter. However  Suppose I was also slightly impressed by deontological arguments against using animals as means. Different normative systems are a lot harder to integrate then simply adding in an extra value to your consequential calculations. Certain concerns are incommensurable and will require a leap, perhaps drastic, one way or another.

-While still arguing about which theories are best, ethicists could spend some time developing  meta-procedures to deal with the uncertainty in a principled way in the meantime.

*Im thinking of  a  weak position  in this example, that animal mental states have value >0 . Many pro-animal positions, especially those based on rights, are very costly when logically followed through.

Chasing the dragon in the Mushroom Kingdom?

 I think one of the big reasons why people don’t like drugs is that they disconnect value and reward.   We have at least two forms of motivation. There are desires that certain states of affairs obtain, which press us on untill we achieve our end. Then there is the release of rewarding feeling on completion. We have both hunger and deliciousness, lust and orgasm, ambition and the satisfaction of achievement.

Normally these are tied together. People pursue what they want and get given a high if they succeed. However drugs allow one to enter pleasurable states without doing anything else that they (or others) value. Leaving aside philosophical concerns about naturalness and responsiveness to reality, his can lead users to neglect their other desires.  This happens in two main ways:

1) The user  finds it harder to satisfy his other desires as the rewards associated with them are weaker in comparison to those from drug taking.

2) Drugs can be used immediately during the periods of boredom or restlessness which normally motivate people to work on plans with delayed satisfaction.

There is a prima facie analogy to be made between drugs and computer games. Furthermore, somewhere in the evolution from Pac-man man to full-blown virtual reality, games will reach a level where they will be appealing as the milder of our current recreational drugs. Will they receive similar stigma/regulation?

First some differences; games give their highs by exploiting our natural psychology. playing them is  just like being in a really exciting enviroment. Drugs may introduce something that our brain couldnt produce on its own.Also, unlike popping pills games consist of things we actually do like in themselves, such as making/executing plans, overcoming challenges by exercising skill.

The real problem is that these still serve ends we don’t value. No one really cares about saving a pixel princess like they care about helping real people. Assuming no liberalisation in peoples views on bare pleasure-seeking,  finding some non-hedonic value in gaming will be the most likely alternative to stigma.

This could happen if computer games went the way of sport and became an arena for gaining social approval. Sportsman and artists don’t realise that what they do is in itself as pointless as Pac-Man because they win status by doing it well. There already is competitive gaming, which has  gotten airtime on ESPN, but it’s not very prestigious. Some factors that might determine the path taken:

– Success in gaming must be related to traits that people actually care about. Strength, beauty, charm, health and wealth are currently not well represented. Skill, intelligence, determination are already able to be proven electronically.

– The game must be able to establish a clear hierarchy, visible to all, like football does. It must not allow just anyone to do well, or be susceptible to cheating.

– There must be a few established games thats are played widely and long enough to become a meaningful standard. This seems unlikely giving the pace of technology.

– Pace of technical development and growth of use. If kids plugged themselves into the matrix tomorrow it would cause a shock and be stopped. If it develops gradually from  techs everyone else uses it has a chance. Note how we use alcohol while condemning less powerful, but also less recent and popular drugs.

Im surprised I never thought to mention this earlier:

Merry Halloween

I quite like Halloween. Monsters and chocolate are almost as good as  bunnies and chocolate. However every year here in New Zealand people complain that we shouldn’t be participating in an American custom. Recently I was one of many attending a Diwali festival, yet there was no one complains that we shouldn’t participate in indian customs. Why? Here are some ideas:

 Cultural conservatives, who just don’t like kids doing what they didn’t do as kids, may sincerely dislike both but are not free to criticise Diwali for fear of appearing racist. America is white and mere nationalism draws little of the stigma of racism so Halloween is open to attack.

The other group of halloween-haters are lefty types who usually speak well of multiculturalism and diversity. However they dislike America for independent reasons and use Halloween as an oppotunity to signal this. India is a relative underdog so may be shown support.

It’s also worth noting that Diwali festivities are organised by ethnic indians and only lightly attended by non-Indians. Most new Zealander’s don’t identify with our Indian population. Indians celebrations in New Zealand will be viewed as little different from Indian celebrations on the continent; just ‘foreigners’ doing their thing. You may go along and watch, just as you might travel abroad; sampling something that is clearly different.

However there is less cultural distance between New Zealand and America then between New Zealand and India.  People are most sensitive to status movements between peers. I care most about my standing relative to educated men in their 20’s. I don’t worry about getting less respect then the king of Thailand or being smarter than a little girl.   If New Zealanders adopts an Indian practice it feels like gracious cosmopolitanism. If we adopt an American or Australian practice it feels like an admission of their superiority.


A greeting and a question

Welcome to my first ever blog post.

 Learning new ideas is fun. This fun has different sources. Most of it may just be the satisfaction of a natural desire to gather info. Having a stock of new ideas also lets you demonstrate your cleverness, connectedness and usefulness to others. Occasionally ideas can even be instrumentally useful. However best of all is the possibility that one may cause a ‘view quake’ an exciting event where an insight radically changes your world view.

 Even leaving the value of truth aside, these can be very satisfying. Learning more about what is already in front of you can beat exploring new places and seeing new things in the usual manner.

 Experiencing any view quake may itself cause another view quake; the realization that you can be, have been, and probably still are seriously wrong about where and what you are. Hopefully this leaves you hungry and open for more.

 Due to their nature and maybe our own, quakes occur rarely and less frequently over time. Searching widely rather than deeply seems like a good strategy to increase your chances. The net is excellent for this. I will therefore be looking out for novel ideas to post.

 Please share any view quakes you have experienced in the comments. I would like to see what ideas recur and perhaps find some new ones.