Tag Archives: aristotle

Cleaning Your Own Toilet

MopbotLike almost everyone else, I do not enjoy cleaning.  Like most people, I find living in filth unacceptable. As such, I need to either clean myself, get someone else to clean for me or change my abode frequently. I have chosen to do my cleaning myself. I was forced to give this matter some thought when, while complaining about cleaning, I was asked why I did not hire someone to do it for me.

There are a variety of reasons for my choice. Some are psychological and thus not particularly interesting. Most of these have to do with the fact that my mother would have made Aristotle proud: she was rather big on making sure that I had plenty of character building opportunities and, as such, I now (as per Aristotle’s theory of moral education) find it less irksome to do such chores.  I am also quite a character. As a kid, of course, I found such tasks less tolerable—but that is what habituation is all about.

Some of these psychological factors are due to the influence of my interpretation of the American ideals of responsibility, egalitarianism, and a classless society: no person should be so full of himself to think that he is above doing his own chores. As far as changing my abode frequently, that would be a bit too pricy for a frugal Yankee like me. But, psychological reasons are not philosophically interesting. So, I now turn to the ethics of cleaning one’s own toilet. Or, more generally, cleaning up after oneself.

Turning back to Aristotle, one excellent reason why a person should clean up after himself is that this is a method of building proper habits. There is the obvious good habit of keeping things clean, but there is also the deeper impact on a person’s character. While I am sure that not everyone has been affected in the same way, doing my own cleaning (and other such work) has had two main impacts on my character. The first, to put it bluntly, is that it is hard to be too full of yourself when you are scrubbing your toilet or toweling up some husky vomit. My detractors can certainly imagine how arrogant I would be if I did not have these regular ego-reducing activities.

To pre-empt a likely criticism, I do not think that cleaning is a “lowly” activity that beats down the ego because it is worthy only of disdain or contempt. Rather, I think that it is doing my own cleaning that helps me not regard cleaning as something disdainful or worthy of contempt. It is usually not a pleasant activity, but it is both necessary and worthy of respect. As such, it is not that the cleaning helps me remember that I am not too good to clean, it is that such work should not be held in contempt. This helps keep the old ego under some degree of control.

The second is that cleaning up my own messes (and those of various pets) has taught me to be more considerate of others. Knowing how much fun it is to clean up a mess, I am certainly not inclined to make messes for others to clean up. As such, I do not litter and I am respectful of public places. After all, normal cleaning is work enough. In contrast, there are folks who are fine with creating awful messes. I have had to clean up a few of those myself—like the time I had to clean up discarded diapers left by trespassers at the homeowners’ association pool. I did not have a problem with people outside of the association using the pool in the hot Florida summer, but did have an issue with cleaning up their mess.

I will freely admit that there are people who do not learn such lessons from cleaning—but that is true for all lessons. You can lead the person to the mop, but you cannot make him learn from mopping up husky vomit.

In addition to the character building value of such tasks, there is also the matter of moral responsibility. When I was an infant, I was not accountable for my actions—I lacked both the knowledge and control to be responsible for the messes I produced. However, once I had both knowledge and control, I became accountable for my actions. This accountability includes the messes I create—be it mud tracked in from a run or screwing up something at work. To not clean up my own messes would be morally irresponsible and thus worthy of moral condemnation.  Despite the fact that I find my view sensible, it does face some reasonable objections. I will focus on moral arguments aimed at showing that it is morally acceptable for a competent adult to have others do her cleaning for her.

While it is just me and my non-cleaning husky living in my house, I have lived with people before and I am familiar with the challenge of sharing the chores. I am fine with sharing chores on the basis of my responsibility argument. However, I am aware of an interesting argument in favor of having one partner doing the cleaning. Consider, if you will, a situation in which one person makes significantly more money than her partner. Her time is thus more valuable than that of her partner, especially if the time she would otherwise spend cleaning is spent earning money. Since the partner’s time is literally worth less, it makes more economic sense for the partner to do the cleaning.

This does have considerable appeal that is grounded on smart use of employee resources. To use a concrete example, if the toilet overflows at a small law firm, it makes more sense for the least valuable employee to deal with the toilet while the more valuable employees keep racking up those billable hours. The loss of revenue is less this way.

The obvious counter to this, at least in the case of people who are in a relationship, is that the value of each partner’s time as a person is not a function of her work salary. While it is something of an ideal, a person should value his partner’s time on par with his own—or someone should re-consider that relationship. There is also the matter of respect—to regard a person as being worth less simply because she makes less money is to fail to respect that person as a person. As such, chores should be divided fairly. This can include dividing the chores based on each person’s cleaning skills, preferences and level of mess creation. For example, if one person has a habit of creating muddy messes on the floor, then that should be his responsibility to clean. But, to the degree that each person contributes to the mess, each should contribute to the cleaning. There can, of course, be some “exchange” of chores—but the responsibilities should be shared based on the principle of fairness.

As mentioned above, what caused me to reflect on this was being asked why I did not hire someone to clean for me. Obviously enough, hiring a person to do the cleaning is morally different from having one’s partner do the work. The easy and obvious moral justification for this is one of utility. If a person values avoiding cleaning more than what it would cost to hire someone to clean, then it would be reasonable and morally fine for him to do so. This is no more morally problematic than hiring someone to perform a root canal or argue a legal case. This assumes that the person is not coerced and is being paid a fair wage—if this is not the case, then another moral concern arises.

I must admit that this is a sensible view. I certainly hire people to do work for me, such making and installing the dental crown I recently had to get. I have also hired people to take care of my pets when I am out of town, thus paying someone else to take care of my responsibilities. However, in these cases I am hiring people to perform tasks that I cannot perform (or cannot perform as well). I am not paying someone to avoid something I am responsible for, namely my messes. As such, I think part of the cost of hiring someone else to clean up after me would be moral costs: failing in my responsibility when I could fulfil my obligation and engaging in behavior that is not good for my character. Put another way, I think that the lesson that you can make whatever messes you want as long as you have enough money to pay others to clean it up is the wrong sort of lesson.

A sensible reply to this is that any alleged moral harm done to the person doing the hiring is offset by the good done at creating a job for someone. After all, there are people who make their living cleaning up other peoples’ messes and if everyone had my view, these people would need to find new work or be unemployed. This, I admit, is certainly an appealing argument. At some point, probably when I finally get sick of scrubbing toilets and mopping up pet puke, I might let it convince me. But until then, I will keep making my mother proud and build character by cleaning my own toilet. Until mopbot arrives, most likely followed quickly by the killbots. Who will no doubt make the poor mopbot clean up my remains.


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Introduction to Philosophy

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

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If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.



I never make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of mistakes. So, I keep making new ones. Fortunately, philosophy is rather helpful in minimizing the impact of mistakes and learning that crucial aspect of wisdom: not committing the same error over and over.

One key aspect to avoiding the repetition of errors is skill in critical thinking. While critical thinking has become something of a buzz-word bloated fad, the core of it remains as important as ever. The core is, of course, the methods of rationally deciding whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected as false or if judgment regarding that claim should be suspended. Learning the basic mechanisms of critical thinking (which include argument assessment, fallacy recognition, credibility evaluation, and causal reasoning) is relatively easy—reading through the readily available quality texts on such matters will provide the basic tools. But, as with carpentry or plumbing, merely having a well-stocked tool kit is not enough. A person must also have the knowledge of when to use a tool and the skill with which to use it properly. Gaining knowledge and skill is usually difficult and, at the very least, takes time and practice. This is why people who merely grind through a class on critical thinking or flip through a book on fallacies do not suddenly become good at thinking. After all, no one would expect a person to become a skilled carpenter merely by reading a DIY book or watching a few hours of videos on YouTube.

Another key factor in avoiding the repetition of mistakes is the ability to admit that one has made a mistake. There are many “pragmatic” reasons to avoid admitting mistakes. Public admission to a mistake can result in liability, criticism, damage to one’s reputation and other such harms. While we have sayings that promise praise for those who admit error, the usual practice is to punish such admissions—and people are often quick to learn from such punishments. While admitting the error only to yourself will avoid the public consequences, people are often reluctant to do this. After all, such an admission can damage a person’s pride and self-image. Denying error and blaming others is usually easier on the ego.

The obvious problem with refusing to admit to errors is that this will tend to keep a person from learning from her mistakes. If a person recognizes an error, she can try to figure out why she made that mistake and consider ways to avoid making the same sort of error in the future. While new errors are inevitable, repeating the same errors over and over due to a willful ignorance is either stupidity or madness. There is also the ethical aspect of the matter—being accountable for one’s actions is a key part of being a moral agent. Saying “mistakes were made” is a denial of agency—to cast oneself as an object swept along by the river of fare rather than an agent rowing upon the river of life.

In many cases, a person cannot avoid the consequences of his mistakes. Those that strike, perhaps literally, like a pile of bricks, are difficult to ignore. Feeling the impact of these errors, a person might be forced to learn—or be brought to ruin. The classic example is the hot stove—a person learns from one touch because the lesson is so clear and painful. However, more complicated matters, such as a failed relationship, allow a person room to deny his errors.

If the negative consequences of his mistakes fall entirely on others and he is never called to task for these mistakes, a person can keep on making the same mistakes over and over. After all, he does not even get the teaching sting of pain trying to drive the lesson home. One good example of this is the political pundit—pundits can be endlessly wrong and still keep on expressing their “expert” opinions in the media. Another good example of this is in politics. Some of the people who brought us the Iraq war are part of Jeb Bush’s presidential team. Jeb, infamously, recently said that he would have gone to war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. While he endeavored to awkwardly walk that back, it might be suspected that his initial answer was the honest one. Political parties can also embrace “solutions” that have never worked and relentless apply them whenever they get into power—other people suffer the consequences while the politicians generally do not directly reap consequences from bad policies. They do, however, routinely get in trouble for mistakes in their personal lives (such as affairs) that have no real consequences outside of this private sphere.

While admitting to an error is an important first step, it is not the end of the process. After all, merely admitting I made a mistake will not do much to help me avoid that mistake in the future. What is needed is an honest examination of the mistake—why and how it occurred. This needs to be followed by an honest consideration of what can be changed to avoid that mistake in the future. For example, a person might realize that his relationships ended badly because he made the mistake of rushing into a relationship too quickly—getting seriously involved without actually developing a real friendship.

To steal from Aristotle, merely knowing the cause of the error and how to avoid it in the future is not enough. A person must have the will and ability to act on that knowledge and this requires the development of character. Fortunately, Aristotle presented a clear guide to developing such character in his Nicomachean Ethics. Put rather simply, a person must do what it is she wishes to be and stick with this until it becomes a matter of habit (and thus character). That is, a person must, as Aristotle argued, become a philosopher. Or be ruled by another who can compel correct behavior, such as the state.


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Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the notion of punishing machines for misdeeds has received some attention in science fiction, it seems worthwhile to take a brief philosophical look at this matter. This is because the future, or so some rather smart people claim, will see the rise of intelligent machines—machines that might take actions that would be considered misdeeds or crimes if committed by a human (such as the oft-predicted genocide).

In general, punishment is aimed at one of more of the following goals: retribution, rehabilitation, or deterrence. Each of these goals will be considered in turn in the context of machines.

Roughly put, punishment for the purpose of retribution is aimed at paying an agent back for wrongdoing. This can be seen as a form of balancing the books: the punishment inflicted on the agent is supposed to pay the debt it has incurred by its misdeed. Reparation can, to be a bit sloppy, be included under retaliation—at least in the sense of the repayment of a debt incurred by the commission of a misdeed.

While a machine can be damaged or destroyed, there is clearly the question about whether it can be the target of retribution. After all, while a human might kick her car for breaking down on her or smash his can opener for cutting his finger, it would be odd to consider this retributive punishment. This is because retribution would seem to require that a wrong has been done by an agent, which is different from the mere infliction of harm. Intuitively, a piece of glass can cut my foot, but it cannot wrong me.

If a machine can be an agent, which was discussed in an earlier essay, then it would seem to be able to do wrongful deeds and thus be a potential candidate for retribution. However, even if a machine had agency, there is still the question of whether or not retribution would really apply. After all, retribution requires more than just agency on the part of the target. It also seems to require that the target can suffer from the payback. On the face of it, a machine that could not suffer would not be subject to retribution—since retribution seems to be based on doing a “righteous wrong” to the target. To illustrate, suppose that an android injured a human, costing him his left eye. In retribution, the android’s left eye is removed. But, the android does not suffer—it does not feel any pain and is not bothered by the removal of its eye. As such, the retribution would be pointless—the books would not be balanced.

This could be countered by arguing that the target of the retribution need not suffer—what is required is merely the right sort of balancing of the books, so to speak. So, in the android case, removal of the android’s eye would suffice, even if the android did not suffer. This does have some appeal since retribution against humans does not always require that the human suffer. For example, a human might break another human’s iPad and have her iPad broken in turn, but not care at all. The requirements of retribution would seem to have been met, despite the lack of suffering.

Punishment for rehabilitation is intended to transform wrongdoers so that they will no longer be inclined to engage in the wrongful behavior that incurred the punishment. This differs from punishment aimed at deterrence—this aims at providing the target with a reason to not engage in the misdeed in the future. Rehabilitation is also aimed at the agent who did the misdeed, whereas punishment for the sake of deterrence often aims at affects others as well.

Obviously enough, a machine that lacks agency cannot be subject to rehabilitative punishment—it cannot “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and, presumably, cannot have its behavioral inclinations corrected by such punishment.

To use an obvious example, if a computer crashes and destroys a file that a person had been working on for hours, punishing the computer in an attempt to rehabilitate it would be pointless. Not being an agent, it did not “earn” the punishment and punishment will not incline it to crash less in the future.

A machine that possesses agency could “earn” punishment by its misdeeds. It also seems possible to imagine a machine that could be rehabilitated by punishment. For example, one could imagine a robot dog that could be trained in the same way as a real dog—after leaking oil in the house or biting the robo-cat and being scolded, it would learn not to do those misdeeds again.

It could be argued that it would be better, both morally and practically, to build machines that would learn without punishment or to teach them without punishing them. After all, though organic beings seems to be wired in a way that requires that we be trained with pleasure and pain (as Aristotle would argue), there might be no reason that our machine creations would need to be the same way. But, perhaps, it is not just a matter of the organic—perhaps intelligence and agency require the capacity for pleasure and pain. Or perhaps not. Or it might simply be the only way that we know how to teach—we will be, by our nature, cruel teachers of our machine children.

Then again, we might be inclined to regard a machine that does misdeeds as being defective and in need of repair rather than punishment. If so, such machines would be “refurbished” or reprogrammed rather than rehabilitated by punishment. There are those who think the same of human beings—and this would raise the same sort of issues about how agents should be treated.

The purpose of deterrence is to motivate the agent who did the misdeed and/or other agents not to commit that deed. In the case of humans, people argue in favor of capital punishment because of its alleged deterrence value: if the state kills people for certain crimes, people are less likely to commit those crimes.

As with other forms of punishment, deterrence requires agency: the punished target must merit the punishment and the other targets must be capable of changing their actions in response to that punishment.

Deterrence, obviously enough, does not work in regards to non-agents. For example, if a computer crashes and wipes out a file a person has been laboring on for house, punishing it will not deter it. Smashing it in front of other computers will not deter them.

A machine that had agency could “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and could, in theory, be deterred. The punishment could also deter other machines. For example, imagine a combat robot that performed poorly in its mission (or showed robo-cowardice). Punishing it could deter it from doing that again it could serve as a warning, and thus a deterrence, to other combat robots.

Punishment for the sake of deterrence raises the same sort of issues as punishment aimed at rehabilitation, such as the notion that it might be preferable to repair machines that engage in misdeeds rather than punishing them. The main differences are, of course, that deterrence is not aimed at making the target inclined to behave well, just to disincline it from behaving badly and that deterrence is also aimed at those who have not committed the misdeed.


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A Teleological World

Creation of Adam ( )

One classic dispute in philosophy can be crudely summed up by two competing bumper-sticker slogans. One is “everything happens for a reason.” The other is “stuff happens.” The first slogan expresses a version of the teleological view—the idea that the world is driven by purpose. The second expresses the non-teleological view—the world is not driven by purpose. It might be a deterministic world or a random world, but what occurs just happens.

Not surprisingly, there are many different theories that fall under the teleological banner. The sort most people tend to think of involves a theological aspect—a divine being creates and perhaps directs the world. Creationism presents a “pop” version of teleology while Aquinas presents a rather more sophisticated account. However, there are versions that are non-theological. For example, Thales wrote of the world being “full of gods”, but did not seem to be speaking of divine entities. As another example, Aristotle believed in a teleological world in which everything has a purpose.

The rise of what is regarded as modern science during the renaissance and enlightenment saw a corresponding fall in teleological accounts, although thinkers such as Newton and Descartes fully embraced and defended theological teleology. In the sciences, the dominance of Darwinism seemed to spell the doom of teleology. Interestingly, though, certain forms of teleology seem to be sneaking back in.

One area of the world that seems clearly teleological is that occupied by living creatures. While some thinkers have the goal of denying such teleology, creatures like us seem to be theological. That is, we act from purposes in order to achieve goals. Even the least of living creatures, such as bacteria, are presented as having purposes—though this might be more metaphor than reality.

Rather interestingly, even plants seem to operate in purposeful ways and engage in what some scientists characterize as communication. Even more interesting, entire forests seem to be interlocked into communication networks and this seems to indicate something that would count as teleological. This sort of communication can, of course, be dismissed as mere mechanical and chemical processes. The same can also be said of us—and some have argued just that.

It is quite reasonable to be skeptical of claims that link the behavior of plants to claims about teleology. After all, the idea of forests in linked communication and plants acting with purpose seems like something out of fantasy, hippie dreams, or science fiction. That said, there is some solid research that supports the claim that plants communicate and engage in what seems to be purposeful behavior.

Even if it is conceded that living things are purpose driven and thus there is some teleology in the universe, there is still the matter of whether or not teleology is broader. While theists embrace the idea of a God created and directed world, those who are not believers reject this and contend that the appearance of design is just that—appearance and not reality.

One reason that teleology often gets rejected (sometimes with a disdainful sneer) is that it is usually presented in crude theological terms, such as young earth creationism. It is easy enough to laugh off a teleological view when those making it claim that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Also, there is a strong anti-religious tendency among some thinkers that causes an automatic dismissal of anything theological. Given that supernatural explanations do tend to be rather suspicious, this is hardly surprising. However, bashing such easy prey does not defeat the sophisticated forms of non-supernatural teleology.

The stock argument for teleology is, of course, that the best explanation for the consistent operation of the world and the apparent design of its components is in terms of purposes or ends. The main counter is, of course, that the consistency and apparent design can be explained entirely without reference to ends or purposes. To use the standard example, there is no need to postulate that living creatures are the result of a purpose or end because they are what they are because of chance and natural selection. When someone has the temerity to suggest that natural selection seems to smuggle in teleology, the usual reply is to deny that and to assure the critic that there is no teleology in it at all. Those who buy natural selection as being devoid of teleology accept this and often consider the critics to be misguided fools who are, no doubt, just trying to smuggle God back in. Those who think that natural selection still smuggles in teleology tend to think their opponents are in the grips of an ideology and unwilling to consider the matter properly.

Natural selection is also extended, in a way, beyond living creatures. When those who accept teleology point to the way the non-living universe works as evidence of purpose, the critics contend that the apparent purpose is an illusion. The planets and galaxies are as they are by chance (or determinism) and not from purpose. If they were not as they are, we would not be here to be considering the matter—so what seems like a purposeful universe is just a matter of luck (that is, chance).

It is, of course, tempting to extend the teleology of living creatures to the non-living parts of the universe. If it is accepted that we act with purpose and that even plants do so, then it becomes somewhat easier to consider that complicated non-living systems might also operate with a purpose, goal or end. Interestingly enough, being a materialist makes this transition even easier. After all, if humans, animals and plants are purely mechanical systems that operate with a purpose, then the idea that other purely mechanical systems operate with a purpose would make sense. This is not so say that stars are intelligent or that the universe is a being, of course.

There are those who deny that humans and animals operate with purpose and assert that we simply operate in accord with the laws of nature (whatever that means). Hobbes, for example, took this view. On this sort of view humans and the physical world are basically the same: purposeless mechanical systems. On this view, there is no teleology anywhere. Stuff just happens.


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The Speed of Rage

English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.


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Why is the Universe the Way it is?

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

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One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.


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Education & Negativity Bias

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In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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Homosexuality, Choice & Engineering

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In my previous essay I rambled a bit about homosexuality and choice. The main point of this was to set up this essay, which focuses on the ethics of engineering people to be straight.

In general terms, sexual orientation is either a choice or it is not (though choice can be a matter of degree). Currently, many of the people who are against homosexuality take the view that it is a matter of choice. This allows them to condemn homosexuality and to push for methods aimed at motivating people to choose to be straight. Many of those who are at least tolerant of homosexuality contend that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. They are, of course, careful to take the view that being homosexual is more like being left-handed than having an inherited disease. This view is taken as justification for at least tolerating homosexuality and as a reason to not allow attempts to push homosexuals in an impossible effort to get them to choose to be straight.

For the sake of this essay, let it be assumed that homosexuality is not a matter of choice—a person is either born with her orientation or it develops in a way that is beyond her choice. To blame or condemn the person would be on par with blaming a person for being born with blue eyes or to condemn a person for being left-handed. As such, if homosexuality is not a choice, then it would be unjust to condemn or blame a person for her sexual orientation. This seems reasonable.

Ironically, this line of reasoning might make it morally permissible to change a person’s orientation from gay to straight. The argument for this is as follows.

As has been supposed, a person’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice: she is either born that way or becomes that way without being able to effect the result. The person is thus a “victim” of whatever forces made her that way. If these forces had been different in certain ways, then she would have had a different sexual orientation—either by chance or by the inexorable machinery of determinism. Given that the person is not making a choice either way, it would seem to be morally acceptable for these factors to be altered to ensure a specific orientation. To use an analogy, I did not choose my eye color and it would not matter, it would seem, whether this was due to a natural process or due to an intentional intervention on the part of others (by modifying me genetically). After all, the choice is not mine either way.

It could be replied that other people would not have the right to make the choice—that it should be left to blind chance (or blind determinism). This does have some merit—whatever they do to change a person, they would be morally accountable for. However, from the standpoint of the person, there would seem to be no difference: they do not get a choice either way. I ended up with blue eyes by chance, but if I was engineered to have green eyes, then the result would be the same: my eye color would not be my choice. I ended a heterosexual, but if I had been engineered to be a homosexual, I would have had no more or less choice.

Thus, robbing a person of choice would not be a moral concern here: if a person does not get a choice, she cannot be robbed of that choice. What is, however, of moral concern is the ethics of the choice being made to change (or not change) the person. If the change is beneficial, such as changing a person so that her heart develops properly rather than failing before she is born, then it would seem to be the right thing to do. If the change is harmful, such as altering the person’s brain so that he suffers from paranoia and psychosis, then it would seem to be the wrong thing to do.

In the matter at hand, the key concern would be whether making a person a heterosexual or a homosexual would be good or bad. As noted above, since it is assumed that sexual orientation is not a choice, engineering a person to be straight or gay would not be robbing them of a choice. Also, the change of orientation can be assumed to be thorough so that a person would be equally happy either way. In this case, the right choice would seem to be a matter of consequences: would a person be more or less likely to be happy straight or not? Given the hostility that still exists towards homosexuals, it would seem that engineering people to be straight would be the right choice.

This might strike some as horrifying and a form of orientation genocide (oriocide?) in which homosexuals are eliminated. Or, more accurately, homosexuality is eliminated. After all, the people who would have been homosexual (by change or by the mechanisms of determinism) would instead be straight, but they would still presumably be the same people they would be if they were gay (unless sexual orientation is an essential quality in Aristotle’s sense of the term). If orientation is not a choice, it would seem that this would not matter: no one is robbed of a choice because one cannot be robbed of what one never possessed.

A rather interesting question remains: if sexual orientation is not a choice, what harm would be done if everyone where engineered to be straight? Or gay?


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Charity & Ethics

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Charity (1878) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier essay I looked at the matter of the ethics of overhead in regards to charities. In that essay, I focused on Dan Pallotta’s discussion of the matter and in this essay I will discuss the matter more generally.

While people do vary in their opinions of the matter, there does seem to be a general moral intuition that a charitable non-profit should have minimal overhead. The idea is, presumably, that the money should go to the charitable cause rather than to the cost of overhead. Thus, the idea is that the lower the overhead, the greater the virtue. In this context it is assumed that the overhead is generally legitimate (that is, the money for overhead is not simply wasted or misused).

The obvious way to discuss this matter in the context of ethics is to consider it within established approaches to ethics, specifically those of virtue theory, Kant and utilitarianism.

Borrowing from Aristotle and Aquinas, when assessing charity one needs to consider such factors as the object of the action, the circumstances of the action, and the end of the action.  Aristotle, in defining what it is to act virtuously, puts considerable emphasis on the idea that a person must do the virtuous act for its own sake. Using the example of giving to charity, exercising the virtue of charity (or generosity) requires that the giving be done for the sake of giving. If, for example, I give for the sake of getting a tax break, then I am not exercising the virtue of charity. This would seem to provide some foundation for the intuition that charities should have low overhead. After all, for those engaged in the charitable function (be it a road race, a bake sale or something else) to be acting from the virtue of charity they would need to engage in the activity for its own sake. If, for example, I work for a charity to get a salary, then it would seem that I am not acting virtuously. As such, to be acting virtuously it would seem that those involved in a charity would need to be engaged in the charity for its owns sake, which would certainly seem to involve the expectation that they make sacrifices for the charity since they are supposed to be acting for its sake and not for some other sake, such as making a large salary.

Not surprisingly, people are praised for making sacrifices for charity—be it a person who volunteers for free or a person who could be a CEO of a major corporation but instead works for a charity for a mere fraction of what she could make in the for-profit sector.

Kant claimed that what matters morally is the good will and not what the good will accomplishes. Roughly put, if a person wills the moral law, then that is what matters. Whether the person accomplishes anything practical or not is not relevant to the ethics of the matter. In the case of a charity, what would presumably matter is that a person will in the appropriately good way and the consequences would not matter morally. This would certainly match the idea that what matters in a charity is that this will be shown by focusing on minimizing overhead and maximizing what goes to the charitable cause. Naturally, a person can will the good and also have success in terms of the consequences. However, people are praised for their intent. So, as Pallotta noted, those running a bake sale with a low overhead that raises a tiny amount of money are regarded as morally superior to those running a high-overhead event that raises a great deal of money. It is presumably assumed that those with the low overhead are focused on (willing) charity while those who are involved in the high overhead operation are really concerned with their own income.

In the case of utilitarianism, the focus is not on the intentions of those involved nor on what they will or do not will. Rather, what matters is the consequences. On this moral view, it would certainly seem that a high overhead charity could be superior to a low overhead charity in terms of the consequences. In fact, Pallotta seems to be giving what amounts to a utilitarian argument: what matters is the overall consequences. On this view, a charity is assessed based rather like any business: costs and benefits. So, for example, if a charity has large expenses in terms of salaries and promotions, yet successfully raises millions for charity, then it is better than a charity with tiny expenses that raises a tiny amount of money.

While it is tempting to claim that those operating from the utilitarian perspective would be doing so in a way that rejects the idea of the true virtue of charity, this need not be the case. Acting in a virtuous manner presumably does not require that a person act less effectively. As such, if a person accepts a large salary to work at a charity for the sake of the charity, then the person can still be regarded as virtuous, albeit well compensated for her virtue.

The obvious counter is that a person who was truly motivated by a sense of charity would accept a much lower salary so that more would go to charity. This is certainly a legitimate concern and raises the question of how much a person should sacrifice in order to be virtuous. In this case, a person who could make a huge salary effectively selling bottle water to the masses instead elects to make a large salary effectively combating malaria could be regarded as being virtuous—provided that she chose the one over the other for the sake of helping others. While a person who accepted a lower salary for doing the job could (and perhaps should) be regarded as more virtuous, it does seem misguided to automatically regard someone who is doing good as lacking virtue merely because they receive such compensation. If only from a practical sense, it seems like a good idea to reward people for doing what is good.

If, however, a person picks the charitable job for other reasons (such as location or to boost his image for planned political run), then the person would not be acting virtuously even if he happened to do good. We do not, of course, always know what is motivating a person. This probably explains why people tend to praise charities with lower overhead—since those involved are obviously not getting anything for themselves (in terms of money), then they surely must be motivated by charity’s sake. Or so it is assumed.

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