Monthly Archives: July 2013

Splitting Marriage: Love Union

Author: Bagande

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I argued in favor of splitting marriage by proposing theological unions (for the religious folks) and civil unions (to cover the legal contract aspect of marriage). However, there does seem to be one aspect of marriage left out, namely the matter of love.

On the one hand, it is sensible to not include the notion of love in marriage. After all, a couple that is getting married does not have to prove that they are in love. People who do not love each other can get married and people who do love each other (in the romantic sense) need not get married.

On the other hand, the notion of marriage for love does have a certain romantic appeal—fueled by literature and movies (if not reality). As such, it seems worthwhile to include a third type of marriage, namely the love union. While the romantic image is appealing, there is also a more substantive basis for the love union.

As noted in another essay, the theological union was proposed to allow people to exercise both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As was noted in the essay after that, the civil union was proposed to handle the legal aspects of marriage. In the case of the love union, the purpose is to allow couples to create their own relationship bond (and rules) apart from that of religion and the state. That is, this is a relationship defined entirely by the couple. While the couple might involve others and have a ceremony, a love union would not be a theological union and would have no legal status.  That is, the rules are only enforced (or not) by the couple. Naturally, a love union can be combined with the other types. A couple could, for example, get a theological union at their mosque, get a civil union from the state, and then have an event with friends to announce their love union.

Given that the love union has no theological status or legal status, it might be wondered what it would actually do. The answer is, of course, that this would vary from union to union. However, the general idea is that the couple would define the aspects of their relationship that are not covered by theology (which might be all of it) and do not fall under the dominion of the state. This sort of definition might be something as simple as a declaration of eternal love to a fairly complex discussion of the nature of the relationship in terms of rights, expectations and responsibilities. While not every couple will want to establish a love union, this does seem like a good idea.

Love is, apparently, the least important aspect of marriage when it comes to the political debates over the matter. This might be a reflection of the reality of marriage (that it is about religion and legal rights) or a sign of misplaced values. Because of this, I thought I would at least give love a chance.

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How about a bit of murder?

This is one of my occasional Who Said This? quizzes.

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

So who said it? No Googling, because that would be immoral, especially if you’re a moral error theorist.

Carlos Danger & Badness

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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Splitting Marriage: Civil Unions

English: A woman makes her support of her marr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier essay I argued in favor of splitting marriage and focused on the creation of theological unions. Each religious institution could define its own theological union in accord with its doctrines, thus allowing people to exercise their religious freedom. However, the theological union would have no legal status—thus allowing people to exercise their right to freedom from other peoples’ religions. Marriage as currently practiced does have numerous legal aspects that range from tax status to hospital visitation rights. On the assumption that these legal aspects are worth preserving, I propose a second type of marriage. At the risk of some confusion, it could be called a “civil union”—but I am not wed to this name. I am also open to the idea that some or even all of the legal aspects of marriage are not worth preserving and would certainly consider arguments to that effect.

A civil union of the sort I am proposing would actually cover a variety of legal relationships and would allow people various options. I base this on the idea that people should, in general, have the freedom to define their legal relationships in this context.

Those who prefer a more traditional approach could select the full traditional marriage civil union with all the legal obligations and rights that compose current marriage. In terms of who should be allowed to engage in such unions, the answer would seem to be that it is open to all adults who are legally capable of giving consent. Thus, this would exclude civil unions with turtles, corpses or goats.  The basis for this is the right of legally competent adults to enter into legal contracts. As I see it, the legal aspects of marriage (such as joint property, insurance coverage, and so on) are merely legal agreements that hold between adults and the sex of the individuals seems to be irrelevant. As such, same-sex civil unions would be just as legitimate as different-sex civil unions. People engage in business contracts with people who are of their same sex all the time and the legal aspects of marriage are rather similar to a business contract—most especially in matters of divorce.

In addition to the “standard package” based on traditional marriage, people could also create more personalized contracts of union. This would involve specifying the legal obligations and rights that define the union. In terms of why this should be allowed, it is absurd that the marriage merger is a one size fits all deal when any other contract can be custom made. As such, I propose that people can create contracts of union that would allow couples to specify the legal aspects of their civil union. While many of these would be drawn from the “standard package”, these could also include tailored specifications. For example, a contract of union might specify the division of property that will occur in the case of divorce. In fact, given the high divorce rate, such contracts would be rather sensible and would save considerable problems later on.

Given that the legal aspect of marriage are based on a contract, it seems reasonable that many of the rights and privileges should be open to people who are not in a union. For example, people should be able to designate the people who get to visit them in the hospital.

It might be contended that this approach to marriage fails to consider the role of religion in marriage. My obvious reply is that this is exactly right. The religious aspects of marriage should be made distinct from the legal aspects, which is why I proposed the religious union as well.

It might be objected that this contract view of marriage would sully the sacredness of marriage. This proposal would seem to reduce marriage to a legal contract and, of course, people might enter into such unions for impure reasons such as financial gain or to get a green card.

The easy and obvious reply to the sully objection is that marriage has already been well and thoroughly sullied. Hence, replacing traditional marriage with a civil union would hardly sully it. To use an analogy, adding a bit more dirt to a mud puddle is not going to sully its purity, for it has none.

In regards to the impure reasons, it is obviously the case that people engage in traditional marriage for such impure reasons. Thus, this would make civil unions no worse than traditional marriage.

As a final point, it can be argued that marriage is defined by the state to encourage a certain type of marriage and in accord with traditional rights. The easy reply to this is that the state can still encourage marriage types by specifying the contracts and that an appeal to tradition is a mere fallacy.

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Fred Dretske 1932 – 2013

Fred_DretskeI’m very sorry to say that Fred Dretske has died.

Here’s Brian Leiter with a short obituary.

Another at New APPS.

Why you are, categorically, racist (or sexist)

Given the discussion surrounding the Zimmerman verdict, and the recent controversy over Colin McGinn’s resignation due to sexual harassment charges, I thought I would make a brief comment on the larger issue these cases exemplify. In both of these cases, there are arguments to be made on specific incidents and those who defend the men involved do not think they are being racist or sexist—they’re just concerned about details. The problem is that people generally tend to be less concerned about those details when the incidents affect white men, or male students.

If you’re not sure that’s true, watch this ABC experiment which shows a white male, a black male, and a white female all performing the same action of stealing a bike in broad daylight. The results are both not all that surprising and a very solid reminder that small prejudices add up and have enormous impact. The white man is more or less left alone to his business. Some people are curious about what he is doing, but no one really actively interferes. The black man is immediately questioned and people call authorities very quickly. The white woman is approached by men, and they go out of their way to help, even with full knowledge that she is trying to steal the bike.

Obviously it sounds worst for the black man, and it is easy to shrug off the reaction for the woman as really more of a benefit – even when trying to do something illegal, she can get help from strangers. But does she want help? And do these sudden assistants expect anything in return? Even if it is no more than a friendly smile and flirtatious banter, the key to these stories is always how single interactions can add up. If a black man deals with just slightly more suspicion, but deals with it constantly, his life is radically different from the white man’s. Likewise, if a woman faces prurient interest, even if it is meant in fun, and not intended to lead to a sexual relationship, if she faces it from every direction it changes the world she lives in.

These effects are due to a common way that human beings think. It is a claim often made by philosophers that people think in categories — in fact according to some philosophers it is what makes the human mind human. I would argue that things are more complex, and that our ability to conceptualize is a skill and a habit that we develop. It makes it easier for us to hold multiple thoughts together at one time, but at the cost of detail and fine distinction. However, that fine-tuned capacity is still available; it just has to be brought into focus.

But categorical thinking is not the only way that humans parse the world, nor is it unique to human beings. Animals understand categories, just to less complex degrees, when they respond to “fetch” and “trot” and “cracker.” Dogs learn tricks, horses understand a series of different movements, birds and chimps can even communicate with people to a limited extent using words that people invented. More importantly, concepts are not stagnant—they can be altered through imagination, and are not absolutes but, to be meta about it, simply another concept we have come up with to explain the way we organize our reactions and ideas.

And the human mind responds to the world in non-categorical ways as well. For example, when responding to music, people generally do not think in categories, and yet they can make extremely complicated patterns and connections. It is a form of thought probably more complex in humanity than in animals although not unique to our species. Many other examples could be suggested but I’ll save that for another time.

More key here is the idea of recognition of individuals. Though we may at times reduce people to a concept of themselves, we still recognize something unique by a personal name. Such referencing applies to buildings, places, monuments, dates, royal babies and countless other aspects of life as well. The claim of certain schools of thought, like the language philosophers associated with post-Hegelian, Sellarsian, or Wittgensteinian thinkers, is that it is impossible for a human being to think without thinking in concepts: any time a word is used, it refers to a group or type of thing, as well as the unique referent. This is what it means to make a concept, and from Plato through Kant has been touted as monumental in human achievement.

While it is an important aspect of how we organize and stack our thinking, it is central to remember the unique component as much as the categorical. If we think in terms of the individual, it becomes clear that the conceptual aspects are choices we make to significant degrees. Levinas speaks of the importance of the recognition of “the face of the other” in an ethical interaction, and I think it is possible to apply this to our broader interaction with the world. Everything experienced is unique. It may be comparable to other substances or moments, but it is only in laziness, and, after industrialization a strong habituation, that we equate distinct things. We still experience the individual.

Our conceptualizing tendencies overall should be recognized as tools that can both help and harm our understanding. This is undeniable when applied to human beings. The fact that we can make faster decisions by applying broad categories, but that it can result in gross misunderstandings is true of smaller parts of life as well. Being more patient, more nuanced and more observant of the individual case allows a kind of knowledge with fewer assumptions, even if it may allow for less immediate utility.

Some will push for the division between people and other cases (Sartre would argue a free consciousness changes everything, for instance) but even if we were to grant this the problem of thinking in categories remains. The very idea that individuals of any kind can be “exact expressions of one soul” paves the way for a certain habit of thinking. Because we use the same word, we assume the same essence, and come to understand an equivalence as soon as something has been identified. A black man in a hoodie, or a young blonde woman, can face certain presumptions just by belonging to a category, and in time these attitudes can affect the way they understand themselves and behave as well, encouraging the stereotypes.

But if we are able to understand categories as just tentative judgments that help us clarify the world, though sometimes at the cost of complexity, our thought can be more developed. A reflective interplay of incomplete categorization and non-categorical consideration can allow for creativity, originality, and a better chance at reaching something like truth. On the other hand, if we think categories simply reveal essential natures, and we understand races and genders as categories that define people, it becomes a social norm to call the cops on certain bike thieves, leave some alone, and try to flirt with others.

Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating between Monbiot and Poole

 

Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating Monbiot and Poole…

 

There has recently been a public spat between two public intellectuals in this country, a spat with considerable philosophical interest and underpinnings. Since both of the two concerned are friends of mine who I believe to each have an important contribution to make to thinking and action in Britain (and beyond) today, I am going to seek here to some degree to mediate their dispute.

Here is Steven Poole’s article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/06/nature-writing-revival

And here is George Monbiot’s response: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/08/philistinism-nature-scientific-ignorance-money

I think they both have good points. And that there are problems with what each of them has said.

Here is the main problem with George’s approach/remarks, in my view. George relies much too much, in his riposte to Steven, on rhetorical appeals to ‘science’.

Basically, as Phil Hutchinson has put the matter in correspondence with me recently: “George Monbiot’s Goldacre-Colquhoun-style ad hominem rhetoric against non scientists is problematic. The point is that the question as to “what “nature” is” is central to this debate and to George’s thesis and one can only claim that to be a scientific and not a philosophical question if one is dogmatically committed to some form of ‘cog sci’, whereby even conceptual questions become scientific questions (because we have (pseudo-)science of concepts). I’m not so committed. George may be, but he does not argue for this and it certainly cannot be assumed without argument. How we take “nature” is what frames the whole argument. George seems oblivious to the way in which he has assumed a specific conception of nature. I subscribe to his project, but it is a political project, not a scientific project. Claiming one’s political project, however worthy and emancipatory that project is, to be scientific (and not political) has unfortunate connotations.  It is to be authoritarian. Put another way, we might ask: is “nature” a natural kind term? I would argue not. George seems to assume it is.”

Agreed. Furthermore, as Phil Hutchinson implies in this recent piece of his, which could be read as a background-primer on the problem with George M.’s approach http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/what-have-philosophers-ever-done-for-us.html, there is a place here too for explicitly calling for a role for PHILOSOPHY, as against science-worship. (See my previous TP salient blogs on this: Especially http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6884 ; Also http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5837 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 .)

In terms of Phil’s point that what nature is is central to the debate, framing it at a conceptual level: that is what I now wish to dwell on. Neither Steven nor George considers what I take to be the central argument which, if made, would in my view be an effective (rather than a scientistic) rejoinder from George against Steven (for it brings out the main problem with Steven’s remarks/approach): namely, that the point about rewilding is or should be that it is (or should be) a self-eliminating managerialism. (We philosophers might think here of the philosophical method of Sextus Empiricus, or of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, as analogous…) When one rewilds intelligently and completely enough, one (re)creates (eventually) something like a ‘climax’ ecosystem that then doesn’t need further (human) management.

Now, of course, we must all acknowledge that the human race is having such a vast impact on our planet that my environmental science colleagues at the University of East Anglia, where I teach, tell me that we have officially moved from the Holocene into a new era in our planet’s history: the ‘Anthropocene’. Whither nature, in the age of humans? Can one intelligibly now think our planet beyond managerialism? Is it intelligible – Steven P. suggests it probably isn’t – to think nature and rewilding without contradicting oneself?

In my view, there is still a strong role for the concept of nature in such dangerous times as we are living in (and this is the basis of my sympathy with what George is seeking to say, my political/philosophical subscription to his project, as Phil puts it). This is partly because the concept of nature is not one simple univocal concept.

As J. L. Austin would urge, the key question when the concept of ‘nature’ is invoked is: Nature, as opposed to what?

One opposed term is ‘the supernatural’. If one thinks that there actually isn’t any such thing as the supernatural (a stance that I find convincing), then everything is natural. There is an important sense then in which whatever we do is natural. Whatever changes we humans make to our world, we are simply changing nature ‘from within’. In this sense, ‘even’ Wittgenstein is probably a ‘naturalist’.

And it is useful to be clear of course that human beings are in this sense part of nature: this opposes crazy ideas (whether from traditional religion or from anthropocentric speciesism) of our alleged superiority to or separateness from the rest of nature. As John Gray has stressed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0rIqAYq5js ), a key inheritance of Darwinism is an understanding of the radical sense in which we are animals, part of nature, not separate at all.

But the term ‘nature’ can also be usefully opposed to other things: such as ‘culture’, or (similarly) ‘nurture’. Now, there is a sense in which culture is simply natural for humans (A sense indeed that I explicate in the first chapter of my PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-Life-Applying-Politics-Culture/dp/0826495605 ). But there is also such a thing as what happens when one lets nature take its course: think for instance of simply letting a wound heal, as opposed to bandaging it up and applying medicines to it, etc.

In this sense, there are plenty of things which (unlike the supernatural) exist but which are not natural, or at least not only or fully natural. In relation to ecosystems, one can distinguish for instance between those which human beings attempt to manage, and those in which nature takes its course. (Nature in this latter sense is sometimes called ‘wild nature’. That, roughly, is what rewilding aims to restore.)

I think it is important that we don’t lose sight of this meaning of the word ‘nature’. I think it is important that we don’t get overawed by the scale of our intrusion into the planet’s ecosystems. For, while it is true that there are increasingly few ‘natural disasters’ in which humanity doesn’t have a hand (it is becoming harder and harder to call hurricanes ‘acts of God’, for example, as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity’s hand is, sadly, present in strengthening and worsening hurricanes: see for instance http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/hurricanes-climate.html ), it would be a mistake to derive from that the conclusion that the dawning of the Anthropocene makes it impossible to talk about nature at all any more, except as opposed to the supernatural. In fact, arguably it makes it more important than ever. For, if we to row back from our calamitous and hubristic interference with our planet’s climatic system, we are going to need some sense of the direction to row back in. And part of that direction, crucially, is toward restoring rich biodiverse largely-natural ecosystems (See on this for instance the final chapter of http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/climate_geoengineering_web221208.pdf ). Genuine precaution, rather than the senseless multiplication of potential harms, recommends that we reduce our impact as a species, and engage less in ‘Promethean’ hubristic activities or ambitions which seek, hopelessly, to manage the entire Earth ecosystem.

As Nassim Taleb has argued, nature is wiser than us across a large range of cases (See for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSLaWVDyKRU ). To give it up as a lost cause would be catastrophic.

So; George Monbiot relies too much in his arguments against Steven on the alleged authority of ‘science’ – where actually it is politics and philosophy that matter. But; Steven Poole relies too much in his arguments against George on the alleged necessary managerialism that makes appeals to nature doubtful – where actually it is the creative self-destruction of managerialism that ‘going feral’ and restoring functioning ecosystems aims to midwife.

 

Is this – have I now offered — a way to reconcile what is wrong and right with what both have said in their spat? Does the present piece yield more light than heat? I hope so. Let the debate then recommence…

 

 

[Thanks, obviously, to Phil Hutchinson [ http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/ ] for vital input into this piece.]

Superheroes, Robots & Killing

Batman the Animated Series: Volume 4 DVD (from...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even as a kid watching cartoons, I noticed that while the superheroes and heroes never really hurt living opponents, they had no qualms about bashing intelligent machines to bits. While animation of this sort is rather more violent than when I was a kid, the superhero genre still has an interesting distinction between how intelligent living creatures are treated and how even intelligent machines are treated. For example, Batman might give the Joker a solid beat down during an episode of the famous Batman animated series but he certainly does not kill anyone. Anyone organic anyway. Intelligent machines, which are common fare in superhero animation, are routinely destroyed by the same heroes who are sworn to never take a life. As might be guessed, I’ve given this matter some thought.

One rather obvious basis for the difference is psychological (or even biological): while people are generally distressed and even sickened by images of maimed and dead humans (and animals), they generally do not have a similar visceral reaction to damaged or destroyed machines. So, Superman punching Lex Luthor’s head off in a bloody mess would impact viewers rather differently than Superman punching the head off a robot. Interestingly, animators do portray mechanical beings being sliced to pieces and “bleeding” (provided the “blood” is oil or some other non-blood fluid). For example, Samurai Jack featured rather “gory” battles in which slaughtered machines gushed streams of blood. Organic opponents were, of course, never dealt with in that manner.

It is easy enough to dismiss the distinction between the violence against humans (and other living things) and machines as being purely a matter of keeping the action at the appropriate rating for the intended audience. However, there does seem to be more to the matter than this.

In the case of living opponents, the superheroes are generally careful to simply subdue them (even when the villains are mere generic minions and not the valuable comic book properties that are the main villains like Poison Ivy or the Parasite) rather than killing them or even hurting them badly. This is presumably because the heroes regard excessively harming or killing people to be morally unacceptable.

However, even obviously intelligent machines are not given the same treatment—unless the machine is a valuable property (like Braniac) the machine is typically destroyed rather than subdued. Even the main villain machines are also subject to far more violence than the living opponents, even if they do come back in later episodes or issues.

As such, there is a strong indication of organicism—a bias in favor of organic life and an accompanying contempt for non-organic people. This, of course, might seem like an absurd thing to say, however it does seem to be a matter well worth considering since this bias does extend (at least in fiction) beyond the realm of comic book animation and into science-fiction.

The main point of concern is that the treatment of the entity is often based not on whether it is person or not but based on its composition.  As such, intelligent machines are treated as things despite the fact that they show the key attributes of being people. For example, they think and engage in meaningful speech. Since there are presumably no actual intelligent machines today, this matter is still confined to fiction. However, heroes seem rather less heroic when they causally destroy people simply because they happen to be mechanical rather than biological. After all, they are not acting in a consistent way towards all people—they are biased against mechanical people.

It might, of course, be contended that the machines that act like people in the shows are not actually people (in the context of the show, of course). That is, they are cleverly programmed to create the appearance of being intelligent, but are no more a person than is a gun or dump truck.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the heroes know this metaphysical fact about the fictional world. That is, that the heroes know that a human minion is a person while a seemingly intelligent machine minion that talks and fights as well as a human minion merely has the appearance of personhood.

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Ethics, Charity and Overhead

Curing the Charitable Curse

Curing the Charitable Curse (Photo credit: jurvetson)

While heading home after a race, I caught a segment on the radio discussing Dan Pallotta’s view of the moral assessment of charities and the notion that our moral intuitions regarding charities are erroneous. Pallotta’s main criticism is that people err in regarding frugality as being equivalent to being moral. So, for example, a charitable event with 5% overhead is regarded as morally superior to one with 70% overhead. This is an error, as he sees it, because what should be focused on is the accomplishments. If, for example, the event with the 5% overhead only raised $100 for charity and the event with 70% overhead raised a million dollars, then the second event would obviously have accomplished a great deal more. Naturally, it is being assumed that the overhead is for legitimate expenses such as salaries, advertising and such.

While I lack Pallotta’s experience and expertise in regards to running charities, I do think it is well worth while to consider some of the ethical issues that his discussion raised.

One interesting aspect of this matter, as noted by Pallotta, is that there do seem to be two sets of standards in regards to non-profits and for-profits. In the case of for-profit entities, generous compensation for top talent is often regarded as acceptable and even necessary. In the case on non-profits, generous compensation for the top talent is often regarded as wrong—those people should be willing to accept less compensation because they are supposed to be working for charity. In the case of for-profits, it is recognized that running a business involves considerable overhead and hence even relatively small profit margins are regarded as acceptable. In the case of non-profits overhead costs are generally regarded as being automatically bad and are only grudgingly accepted. As such, while a for-profit business is assessed by how well it does in accomplishing goals (how much profit is generated) a non-profit is often assessed in terms of the percentage of overhead.

Following Pallotta, it can be argued that this model is mistaken. If, one might say, charitable non-profits are going to be as successful as the top businesses, then this view must be abandoned. A key part of this, and one that Pallotta stresses, is that non-profits need to switch to the compensation philosophy of the for-profits. That is, they need to generously compensate the top talent. Another part of this is that non-profits and those who support them must change their views of overhead costs—these costs must not be regarded as being automatically bad but rather seen as necessary expenditures in order to accomplish the goals in question.

While this approach does have appeal, the rather large compensation for top talent in the for-profit sector is itself subject to moral criticism.  So, it is worth noting that while the idea of large compensation for the top talent at charitable non-profits is seen as morally wrong, the high compensation of talent in the for-profit sector is regarded by some as merely being less bad.

There is, of course the stock argument that high compensation is needed to actually get the top talent. After all, if charitable non-profits want to get the best people, then they will need to get closer to the compensation offered in the for-profit realm. If, for example, Sally can get $5 million in compensation as a top executive for a corporation and only $80,000 in compensation as an executive for a charity, then it is obvious where Sally should go.

While this does have appeal, there is still the question of whether the compensation is actually just or not. If the top compensation in the for-profit realm is unjustly large, then making the top compensation in the charitable realm comparably unjust would hardly seem to be an ethical thing to do.

That said, a reasonable rejoinder is that is does make sense to offer better pay in order to attract top talent to work on charitable causes. That is, our money should back our professed moral values.  It also does make sense to use the market to address certain problems, but it is obviously not going to help with problems that the market system creates itself—which could be one of the important ironies of this approach to charitable organizations.

An obvious point of concern is that the arguments in favor of accepting high overhead for charitable non-profits could be used as a clever sort of moral cover. That is, they could be sued to allow alleged charities to monetize charitable causes as for-profit companies now monetize natural resources and human labor. The obvious counter to this concern is that this approach could yield more effective results than the existing model. So, one might argue, if the price of a charity finally finding a cure for a disease is that the charity operate like a for-profit business, then it is worth the price.

This is a point well worth considering. As Pallotta has argued, charitable organizations often fail to address the problems they were created to solve. If changing our moral assessment of how charitable non-profits should operate could play a significant role in solving some of these problems, then this approach could be the correct approach. However, if this approach is actually a mere moral cloak to allow profiteering off charitable causes, then this approach would seem to be wrong.

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We have the extraordinary evidence! (Part 2)

TAM talk 1Yesterday I published Part 1 of a reconstructed version of my TAM 2013 talk – presented to the 2013 instalment of The Amazing Meeting, organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The version I’m providing here, though a reconstruction of what I said, should be close to what you’ll hear from me when the talk appears on YouTube. Today, I provide Part 2, which concludes the content of the talk. Having discussed the way our scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively, but had to be built up over hundreds of years, I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:

The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

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Photo by Jerry Coyne.