Everybody Worships

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

From David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech, “This is Water”.

Everybody worships.

The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.

It’s the truth.

Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

Listen to the full audio, it’s only ~20mins. Worth it.

Truth on tap

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Some people have put together an alternative to Wikipedia called Conservapedia. But, I won’t grace it with a link. I’d rather not let the Internet become more dangerous as a form of mind control.

The site is meant to provide explanations of world-wide phenomena in conservative terms. This brings full circle the blurring notion of truth in the Internet Era, as was described quite well by Clay Shirky in his essay, “Truth without scarcity, ethics without force.”

For example, the many-thousand word article on “Public Schools” includes a section entitled “Gender Disparity”. It explains that “Public schools as of late have seen girls’ scores soar above boys’ because schools have been geared toward the needs of girls”. It goes on:

Schools seek to emasculate boys by preventing healthy roughhousing and having psychologists put boys on drugs such as Ritalin. Then boys often come to hate school because radical feminists seek to prevent men from being men and forcing males to go through counseling to “discuss their feelings” and other liberal hogwash treating all students as if they were female. Colleges, because of this trend, see a trend of 60/40 female to male ratio because of feminist drivel such as romance novels in literature and ineffective therapy and attempts to push feminine traits on boys and young men making them frustrated and fed up with the system unless they agree to the school’s desire to become effeminate.

Now, certainly, there are valid conservative arguments against public schools. You don’t have to look far to find them. You might feel that a public school is a poor use of taxpayer dollars, is a violation of parental child-rearing rights, or is a form of mass indoctrination.

But, a feminist conspiracy?

Read the rest of this entry »

The End of Philosophy?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

David Brooks has written a column for the NYTimes entitled, “The End of Philosophy”. The basic thrust of the article is that moral reasoning is less about reasoning and more about intuition. In other words, morality is more like aesthetics than logic.

A representative section:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

The major hole I see in Brooks’ article — and argument — is what he himself recognizes here:

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

It’s true that moral intuitions may have evolutionary (or other) roots distinct from reason, but that’s why they’re called “intuitions.” Brooks recognizes that at the “most important moments in our lives”, we cast those intuitions aside. Well, doesn’t that suggest that there exists a moral “right answer” outside our intuitions? Perhaps people should use reason to override impulse at more mundane moments of their lives, too. For example, when deciding whether one deserves those alligator skin shoes, or whether the dying children in Africa might be better candidates for that money.

There have been many attempts in recent years to justify the less rational sloppy moral thinking of individuals by pointing to evolution and saying that an individuals’ beliefs are just derived from their primordial roots. I simply disagree with this line of reasoning. The fact that you can override your moral impulses means that at times you must! I much prefer to frame my decisions in terms of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “radical” or “unlimited” freedom. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

Brooks quotes Haidt,

The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.

My analogy is that moral intuitions are more like the inmates in a psychotic ward. In people who don’t think their moral choices through, “the inmates are running the asylum.”

Unanswered questions

Monday, August 13th, 2007

I passed by a church on the way to work today, and read the following:

Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers.

This may just be the most succinct quote I’ve seen that summarizes my view on the distinction between honest religious beliefs and religious fanaticism.

If one uses religion as a way to cope with unanswered questions, that is fine. However, the moment you say this is true because my scripture says so — in other words, the second you stop questioning an answer which lacks evidence — you become a fanatic, and lose all credibility in my book.

Religion gives you an answer, not the answer. For certain questions (for example, “How did the universe begin?”), religion may give you just as good an answer as modern science.

This may be due to a current lack of convincing evidence that could provide answers to this question, as is true with many of the larger questions about existence and our “place” in the universe. Looking back in history, science failed to provide answers to questions like, “Why do diseases randomly afflict human beings?”, and religion was looked to for an answer, as when many believed that the Black Death was an earthly manifestation of divine justice from God, or the beginning of Armageddon.

It may also be due to epistemological constraints — in other words, it may be something that may never be known through empirical methods. An example of the unknowable would be the answer to “Is there an afterlife?”, since supposedly, there would be no way for those of the afterlife to communicate its existence to the presently living.

But for other questions (for example, “How did humans develop on Earth?”), science can provide evidence, and answers. These answers have been questioned, have been tested empirically, have been peer-reviewed. Accepting the religious argument in this case — saying, “science is just wrong because my scripture says so” — is fanaticism. And it should not be tolerated by intelligent people.

I Choose the State

Monday, May 28th, 2007

On Robert Reich’s blog, aly k wrote:

“And without a normative justification for the State, whether it be in the form of democratic government or a horrific tyrant, taxes can’t be justified (philosophically).”

I responded with the below message:

The most moving argument from the state can be stated in economists’ terms. It is sometimes called “the public goods” justification. Goes something like this (paraphrased from Wikipedia):

A market may allow individuals to create and allocate many goods optimally. But there are some goods — “public goods” — that are not produced adequately in a market system. These collective goods are ones that all individuals want (hypothetically — this is often a normative judgment, but comes from very basic things we consider to be “human rights”) but for whose production it is often not individually rational for people to secure a collectively rational outcome. The state can step in and force us all to contribute toward the production of these goods, and we can all thereby be made better off.

For example, it is true that if we had only private schools, people with a lot of money could ensure the best education for their children without having to pay for both the private school and the taxes necessary to fund the public school. But poor parents will have no choice but to send their children to less well-maintained and more poorly-staffed schools.

Supposedly, for society to progress we would prefer if all members of society had access to good schooling, regardless of the social class into which they were born. (That is, whether my parent is a millionaire investor or a plumber, I should have access to a good education.) Therefore, it makes some sense for us to pay a tax to the state, and for the state to provide good (and equal) schooling for everyone. What’s more, because the state needn’t turn a profit on schools, their overall cost through taxation can be lower than private schools would be.

Schools are one of those things you would prefer not be left to the market, because supposedly it’s good for everyone that everyone else is educated above a certain level. These people, after all, will become your neighbors, employers, employees, clients, etc. They also will be voting in elections.

In other words, if you value a high level of education as a universal right which should be secured for all citizens regardless of the socioeconomic class they are born into, then you are essentially already arguing for the state, because the market, per se, will not secure a high quality education for every individual.

Similar arguments can be made about health care, large pieces of infrastructure (like highways, roads, traffic lights), and certain components of institutional security (like firefighters, police officers, etc.). The state shouldn’t do everything — it should only make the level of quality equal across a market for certain goods, due to moral concerns we have. People shouldn’t have access to worse roads, or worse health care, or less firefighter or police protection, just because they live in a town of poor people.

We are okay with poorer people having less access to shiny new BMWs, bottled water, and Starbucks coffee, because these are frivolous private expenditures anyway. The poor person who drinks less Starbucks coffee than me won’t grow up to be an ignorant, sick, armed and desperate person ready to murder me on the street for the $40 in my pocket. But the uneducated person, without access to healthcare and who lives in a violent neighborhood with no police officers will certainly slay me for the $40 in my pocket.

To bring out the goodness in Man, I choose the state.

(That said, some states are better than others!)

Falwell Never Apologized

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Jerry Falwell died today. He was a great preacher, a wonderful father, a … oh, who the fuck am I kidding? The guy was an evil, intolerant man, who called the Civil Rights Movement the “Civil Wrongs Movement,” hated blacks and supported segregation, and then went on to hate gays, lesbians, the ACLU, and women who choose to abort their fetuses. For a supposedly Christian man, he led a life of complete hatred, and contributed to the growing divide in this country between people who believe in rational thought and science, and those who prefer to live under the protection of “God’s” blanket.

I’m going to toast to his death tonight. Hope Michelle Malkin finds my blog and lists it on her left-wing vitriol page.

Salon rightly ran an article called “The Stone is Cast“, exonerating left-wing bloggers for verbally pissing on his dead skull.  It begins with Falwell’s most famous quote:

Falwell will always be remembered for his “700 Club” comment in the wake of Sept. 11: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” Even though Falwell later apologized, the damage had been done: A sacred moment had been used for profane purpose.

I pointed out that Falwell never really apologized, so even Salon is being too polite here. Click here to read my letter. Wasn’t gonna let him get away with that just cuz he’s dead.

Finished reading Capitalism 3.0, missed speakers, drank dark beer

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I finished reading Capitalism 3.0 a couple of days ago, and it was quite good. I promised a review, so that will be coming shortly. I also noticed that Joseph Stiglitz (ex-Chief Economist for the World Bank) wrote a new book as a follow-up to Globalization and its Discontents which is titled, Making Globalization Work, probably a nice follow-up to Capitalism 3.0.

Today after work I headed to NYU to hear Jimmy Wales give a talk on Wikipedia, but was dismayed to discover that the auditorium was packed and I couldn’t get in.

Then, I noticed that Ralph Nader was at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue presenting the new documentary made about him called “An Unreasonable Man,” and I was about to go to the 4:55pm showing of that, but tickets sold out for that! Man, what bad luck!

At the end of the day, I ended up meeting Max for drinks at McSorley’s, so that’s not so bad. We talked a bit about Richard Dawkin’s book “The God Delusion,” and whether it’s a good thing that there is a zealous atheist roaming the streets of intellectual-dom.

The Capitalist Pyramid

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Obviously a dramatic commentary from the past, but, I think, particularly poignant. See where you stand.

Corporate obligation to shareholders

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Here are some interesting viewpoints on corporate obligation to shareholders. One comes from Jeff Darcy and the other two from Mark R. Kleiman.

Before reading this, you should introduce yourself to the nice debate going on in the blogosphere right now on corporate responsibility, sparked by this post.

Here is Jeff’s response.

His [Mark's] approach is reductio ad absurdum, but I think there’s an even more important flaw in Friedman’s reasoning. This flaw is the all too common assumption that “money is everything” and therefore any value not represented in monetary form is irrelevant. In this case, this leads to believing that people invest only based on (direct, short-term) monetary return, but that’s simply not true. When people buy stock, they do so based on a certain assumptions. They assume that certain legal and moral restrictions are applicable to what the company does, and they invest based on that assumption. This is particularly true of “green” or socially-conscious investors, who might be making decisions based as much on a company’s image or reputation for ethical behavior as on their purely financial performance. In a sense one might say that such investors have monetized their morals by making such investments, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up those morals forever in return for profit. Presenting such an image and then acting in a wholly different manner is a form of fraud, and unconscionable. The same principle applies to every company and investor, though usually to a lesser degree. If the moral justification for what companies do is fulfillment of shareholder expectations, then expectations other than profit must be considered.

There’s an even more fundamental problem that shareholders do not adequately represent the interests of all who are affected by a company’s actions, and that those others deserve consideration too, but that’s probably best left for a future article.

I think what Jeff has to realize, however, is that the issue here is the morality of proximity. People feel moral obligations to things that are close to them, either physically or sentimentally. I feel moral obligations to homeless people I see on the street in front of me, but don’t feel as much of an obligation toward, say, sweatshop workers in Malaysia who are abused by their managers. Despite any of my moral principles, despite what I think and know to be right, I still end up buying clothes and things made by those sweatshop laborers, or I continue to buy products whose production destroys the environment.

Even if I had all the information in the world, say I knew Gap abuses its workers, and so I knew if I bought a Gap shirt I would be supporting a business that abuses workers. But then things get complicated. The shirt is already made. The abuse was already done. My buying the shirt doesn’t actually abuse workers. I am just buying a shirt. I need a shirt, its price is right, I’m buying it.

We can’t expect ethical principles to just come to us by people boycotting industries that subvert them. Imagine if the abolitionists, rather than forming a political party and trying to get slavery outlawed, simply said, “We will convince everyone not to invest in these companies, and to not buy these goods.” Do you think this kind of boycott would have really succeeded? Do you think without the understanding of basic human moral principles that went along with the abolitionist movement, we would have advanced past that dark part of our history?

Slavery exists today. People are indentured servants in other countries, working for outposts of American companies. I agree with both posters that laws cannot be made for every moral principle. But no one has mentioned that we aren’t asking for laws for every moral principle. We’re asking for laws for all the most basic ones that relate to labor, the environment, etc., such as not being abused in the workplace, and not polluting our precious ecosystems.

As a shareholder, I continue to invest in companies who may be doing morally bad things far away from me. Shareholders didn’t cash in their morality, they just don’t know the bad things companies are doing, or, if they do know, they are being done so far away that they simply don’t care.

If it were a company that abused American sweatshop labor, and polluted rivers in small-town USA, then [most] people probably wouldn’t want to support that company with their wallet. But when the labor is in Malaysia and the polluted rivers are in China, we do it because we simply don’t care about those other places as much.

An interesting piece of philosophy was written on this topic by Peter Unger. It’s entitled, “Living High and Letting Die.” Try to find it at your local library.

Mark also posted a response to the debate.

What the Friedman argument is missing, it seems to me, is a realistic idea of what shareholders want with regard to how their companies do their own business, and all sorts of good behavioral evidence shows that to be a lot more complicated than maximal money returns. Friedman is right that corporate leadership is obligated to advance the interests of shareholders, but it is also obligated to discern these interests and discover–I expect–that shareholders want to trade some possible returns for a clear conscience about environmental responsibility, decent treatment of workers, honesty in trade, and the like.

Yes, they would probably trade some of their returns for a clear conscious. But how about we get to the heart of the matter: shouldn’t American companies be held responsible for immoral actions they do outside of the United States? Don’t we need to come to a global understanding of the rights of workers to healthful working conditions, to a work/life balance, to less abuse? Don’t we have to come to a global understanding that harm done to the ecosystem in China does affect all of us, and shouldn’t we try to do something to stop these companies from ruining our Earth?

Shareholders are just in to make a buck off their investment. They’d prefer it be done in a way that leaves their conscious clear, sure. But we can’t expect shareholders to save the day when it comes to enforcing our society’s (that is, this one, global society’s) minimal moral standards. We need to use our power as a democracy to control these authoritarian structures, even as they hop around the globe trying to avoid any confrontation by going to places with the least restrictive set of laws.

Slashdot becomes Philosophy forum

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Before reading this post, make sure to read yesterday’s. So, my post on Slashdot turned it into a little Philosophy forum. Some really great comments came back, I want to try to summarize them here.

My favorite rebuttal was Jim Callahan’s post, which I’ll reproduce below:

Actually, its just the potential moral value = actual moral value argument that’s invalid. The “all organisms with complete human genomes have souls (usually, one soul per genome, thus excluding dead skin cells, etc, separated from the largest mass posessing the unique genome)” + “things with souls have moral value” => “Embryos have moral value” is entirely valid, since embryos are organisms with a complete human genome. It’s perfectly rational.

The simple “embryos have no inherent moral value” is not itself a rational statement, but an assertion devoid of logic. To demonstrate rationality, you have to demonstrate a chain of causality from base assertions to a nontrivial solution. In this case the extent of the logic is “non-conscious things have no moral value” + “embryos aren’t conscious” => “embryos have no moral value”. The rest of the grandparent is a series of strawmen, which are fine for making points but don’t actually support the main point in any way.

When it all comes down to it, the two assertions in question are equally valid. They are both one step removed from the base assertions, and the base assertions both consist of an arbitrary statement of an ill-defined term (consciousness and soul) and an arbitrary, unsupportable assertion as to the moral value of said term (soul = good, consciousness = good). Careful definition can swing science into the favor of the consciousness decision, but careful definition can do the same for the soul argument. Even then, science cannot by its nature make moral commands, so wether the people involved are scientific or not is irrelevant.

So, in conclusion, your point on the ‘scientificness’ of the debaters involved is irrelevant, and both of your examples exhibit roughly equivalent rationality. Rebuttal complete.

Although I think Jim was very careful to point out the logic behind my argument and the logic behind the “other side’s,” I think he stops short when he says that both are essentially logically equivalent. The thing about the souls argument is that the proponents refuse to provide any reason why an embryo should have more or less of a soul than, say, a chair or a rock. He says the fact that embryos have a complete human genome is the contributing factor. But I can only imagine a chair which has the “entire human genome” injected into it (i.e., with DNA for human beings “bonded” into the chair) to be a pretty easy refutation of this.

My argument does arbitrarily say that “consciousness is good”, but consciousness isn’t just some cooked up concept like souls (it isn’t as metaphysical as my opponents make it out to be, in other words). Consciousness is a concept that encompasses the ability to “lead a life” in the sense we understand it. That is, to have hopes and aspirations, to establish relationships, to create art and adapt flexibly to our environment, all those wonderful qualities of human beings. And neuroscientists, more and more, are finding out that consciousness has a real basis in the physicality of the brain–nowadays they describe consciousness as a series of information “loops” with “feedforward” information in the brain as well as “feedback,” that ultimately results in “awareness” and “perception,” and finally in “sentience” or “consciousness.” And consciousness makes sense as a moral requirement because it essentially says, “all those things which lead lives should not be harmed.” This nicely excludes inanimate objects from having moral value when deciding whether they can be harmed, and this nicely includes animals, to a great degree, who do lead lives (albeit less complex ones than we do), and can be deprived of leading that life.

I also don’t think my arguments were just straw men. ;-)

Some other arguments. One interesting one on AI:

Ever worry about that “gray period” sometime in the (probably far) future which we will experience when AI systems start to approach the point where almost everyone will consider them as having consciousness? By your argument, after that point, we will have to start treating them as people (something which I generally agree with).

and, on consciousness of people who are sleeping…

“The crux of the matter is, the rock or chair isn’t conscious, and that’s why they have no moral value.”

So a human who is sleeping, and thus not conscious would have no moral value?

To respond to both of these, I’ll post my actual Slashdot response.

“So a human who is sleeping, and thus not conscious would have no moral value?”

Sorry, again, here I was assuming some background reading about what “consciousness ” is. Unfortunately, in Philosophy (this is a flaw of the subject), terms are often quite vague to start off with, and Philosophers make a habit of trying to really define a term. When debating with people who haven’t studied it, I forget that consciousness takes on a different meaning in regular discussion. “Consciousness” as I’m using it has nothing to do with “being awake” or “being asleep.” Whether you are awake or asleep, you are conscious. You are not “unconscious” when asleep, merely with a potential to awake–your brain doesn’t “shut off” when you’re asleep. It simply doesn’t provide you with the constant stream of sense-input you associate with a waking state.

Comas are definitely a gray area. I really don’t know enough about the brain states of humans in comas to make any judgement about whether they are still “conscious,” but I’d say they probably aren’t, especially if it’s a coma from which that person will never recover. If it is a coma which one can recover from (and, after which, be conscious) I can only assume that the brain was either a) in a conscious state the whole time or b) “broken” into an unconscious state (i.e., it no longer functioned) but then “healed” and went into a conscious state again. Again, this (b) possibility makes comas very much a gray area. However, as I like to say to friends: gray areas don’t mean you have the wrong principle, as long as your principle works when we have clear-cut cases. For example, the moral principle that “killing is wrong” has lots of grey areas: what if the person you are killing killed your entire family? What if you fire a gun at a target on a wall and slip and shoot your friend instead? But that’s not to say the moral principle–”killing is wrong”–is bad, just because one can find “grey area cases” in which killing may not be wrong. It just means that things like time and causation can be confused, and things like intent or potential to avoid an accident or negligent action are hard to measure.

Even some concepts we have that seem very clear-cut have gray areas. Take your concept of a “table”. What is a table? Think of modern artists in furniture design who fused the concept of “table” and “chair” to produce something that seems to be a hybrid between the two. Okay, so maybe you define table functionally: something onto which one can place objects. But now imagine a “table” whose surface spins around at high speed, so that nothing can be placed on it. Is it still a table? Okay, so maybe you define it physically, like a surface atop any number of “legs”. But now imagine a table that hangs from the ceiling by steel wire. Etc. etc. I know this seems rather nit-picky, but that’s really what gray areas are, and that’s why I think they’re fun to think about, but ultimately one should evaluate a moral principle by its general-case performance, and then make sure it doesn’t do “insane” things in rational gray areas.

What my argument above tried to do is show that a) since embryos are clearly not conscious beings (nor were they ever conscious beings), they don’t demand a special moral protection and b) moral protection has only been granted to them because embryos have the potential to become conscious beings, the so-called potentiality principle, which has other unacceptable implications.

I really think some great points were raised, however.

For example, one problem with my consciousness argument is what another poster raised: that “strong AI”, should it ever come about (and thinkers like Jeff Hawkins in “On Intelligence” make me believe it just may some day) would give us responsibility to give these new robots moral value. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with that, it just may seem unnatural because AI machines are so different from us, but then again so is the example I gave of an alien life form.

What I think is funny is that we are all thinking about this way more than the people who really have the burden of thinking about it: anti-abortion activists.