Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Philosophical Multicore Has Moved to

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 31, 2013

As of today, I will no longer maintain this site. My blog has moved to This site will remain as an archive and you may still post comments, but I will not write any new essays here.

If you want to subscribe, the new site supports an RSS feed.

Also, take a look at the first post on my new blog: Haskell Is Actually Practical.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Smart Books Make You Feel Stupid

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 17, 2013

Reading “smart” books—challenging books that actually teach you something—doesn’t make you feel smart. It makes you feel stupid.

Books that make you feel smart are not smart books. To take a popular example, Malcolm Gladwell is often criticized for writing books about elaborate theses and then essentially failing to support them. He offers dozens of anecdotes to support his ideas, but nothing that would pass for rigorous evidence. This definitely seemed to be the case when I read his book The Tipping Point, although I can’t speak for his other books.

Here’s a common experience when reading books that make you feel smart, such as The Tipping Point: “Wow, these ideas are so clever! I feel so smart for reading them!”

Now let’s take an example of a book that’s actually smart. I’m currently reading Henry Sidgwick‘s The Methods of Ethics. This is how I feel when I read it: “Wow, I’m so confused right now. I’d better read that paragraph for a third time. I must be an idiot.”

This is a common experience any time you read something that takes serious effort. And only rarely is a smart book—a book that teaches important, difficult concepts—easy to understand. Difficult concepts require you to work to comprehend them. As a rule of thumb, if it’s easy to understand, it’s not as valuable as it could be.

Posted in Psychology | 3 Comments »

Useless Thought Experiments

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 12, 2013

Philosophers often use thought experiments in an attempt to refute some theory. In the particular case of ethical thought experiments, philosophers’ arguments tend to take this form:

1. Consider some unlikely situation.

2. In this situation, moral philosophy X says you should do Y.

3. Y is clearly immoral.

4. Therefore, X cannot be true.

In response, people who believe X often try to refute (2)—the idea that Y follows from X. In many cases, this is a mistake. Typically, the weakest point here is (3)—the assumption that Y is immoral. Even if we intuitively feel that Y must be immoral, our intuitions often misguide us; if we want to think clearly, we must apply rationality to our judgments whenever possible. We cannot reject a moral philosophy because of a thought experiment.

Intuitional and Rational Judgments

When making ethical judgments, people tend to rely heavily on intuition. An ethical system must contain some sort of intuition as the basis for a first principle; but it is important to select the right intuition. Most people who have not studied ethics (and even many who have) tend to act on whatever intuition they happen to feel in the moment, even if it contradicts some previous feeling.

When establishing an ethical theory, one should choose a few basic intuitions and then use rational principles to develop a consistent philosophy.

Once one selects some ethical framework, one can no longer make statements such as “Y is clearly immoral.” It must be proven immoral within the framework, not by our limited and often-inconsistent [1] instincts.

Below, I discuss three thought experiments that have been used to reject utilitarianism, and why they fail at this purpose.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

RE: “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 17, 2013

According to this article, quinoa is harmful and vegans are making the world worse for eating it. (Lots of non-vegans eat quinoa, but whatever.)

[T]here is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

The article asserts that increased demand in quinoa is responsible for perpetuating the impoverishment of people in Bolivia and Peru, but it fails to show to what extent the rising prices of quinoa is due to increased demand in the United States, and to what extent this harms the poorer people. It just takes it for granted that it must be Americans’ fault and it must be bad.

I’m not saying that Americans are not harming poor Bolivians, but that the leap of inference is dubious. Here are some possible reasons why it might fail:

  •  Prices increased due to some factor other than increased demand in America.
  •   The increased prices help provide income for poor quinoa farmers.
  •   Bolivians and Peruvians have access to a variety of foods other than quinoa.

Again, these things are not necessarily true, but they could be and the article does not address them.

Then the author goes on a bit of a tangent about soybeans:

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray [soy] as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America[.]

Embarrassingly, meat-eaters are responsible for much more soybean consumption than vegans. Farmed animals eat a lot of soybeans; a pound of beef requires about five pounds of soybeans to produce. You’d have a much smaller impact (by a factor of five) if you just ate the soybeans.

The best part about this, though, is that the author admits it:

This footnote was appended on 17 January 2013. To clarify: while soya is found in a variety of health products, the majority of production – 97% according to the UN report of 2006 – is used for animal feed.

So this footnote essentially says, “Well, actually that entire paragraph was incorrect, but I’m going to go ahead and leave it there anyway.”

[A] rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places[.]

I suppose the implication here is that veg*nism is not environmentally friendly, which is completely bogus. Eating meat accounts for a majority of most people’s greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for a disproportionately large amount of land and water use (see here for more information). Similarly, the article sets up quinoa as a replacement for meat, but misses the fact that meat has a much more strongly negative political and environmental impact than quinoa.

This article smells distinctly of “I love meat so I’m going to try to make up reasons why being vegan is worse than being an omnivore.”

I frequently see articles about how some particular food or product is harmful in some way. Lots of such products exist, and lots more don’t even have articles written about them. But how can we know which products are the most important to avoid? I would like to see some sort of scientific review that rigorously examines the impacts of hundreds of the most popular products and compares them along a number of dimensions (effect on local economies, labor conditions for the workers, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.). But it the absence of any such review, it does not make sense to avoid every product that some article says is bad. Instead, we have to focus on the most important choices. The choice to eat or not to eat animal products is by far the most important choice we can make as consumers. For more on why this is so important, please read “Animal Suffering”.

Edit: This article addresses some of the points raised here. In particular, it offers some anecdotal evidence that poor Bolivians have no difficulty affording food (although the evidence is difficult to verify).

This article specifically responds to the Guardian piece.

Posted in Rant | Leave a Comment »

The Google-Trolley Problem

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 30, 2012

Before reading this essay, read about the Google-Trolley problem here.

As a utilitarian, I’d say you should of course run into the fat man. That’s not very interesting. But what other reasons might one give to make one choice or the other?

As far as I can see, only two factors distinguish the trolley case from the fat man case. The first is that you are killing the fat man with your own hands, whereas you only indirectly kill the man on the track. [1] If one believes that this is the relevant distinction, it would be acceptable to program a computer to kill the fat man since you are not killing him yourself.

The second factor is that you use the fat man as a means stop the train—it would not stop without pushing him—whereas the man on the track only just happens to be in the way. In Kantian terms, you treat the fat man as a means to an end and not as an end in himself. Kant would say that you should program the machine not to kill the fat man.

But the real answer is that you should kill the fat man because doing so increases utility.


[1] I think this is the reason why most people switch sides between the trolley problem and the fat man problem—an aversion to direct killing, not actual moral reasoning.

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 4 Comments »

Utilitarianism Resources

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 17, 2012

This is a collection of some of my favorite resources on utilitarianism.

Light Books
Practical Ethics, Peter Singer
Animal Liberation, Peter Singer
The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer

Heavy Books
The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick
Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill
The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Jeremy Bentham

Consequentialism FAQ
Utilitarian FAQ
Common Criticisms of Utilitarianism

80,000 Hours
Effective Animal Activism
The High Impact Network
Giving What We Can

Utilitarian Philosophers
Utilitarianism: past, present and future
Recommended Reading

Less Wrong

Essays and Blogs
Essays on Reducing Suffering
Reflective Disequilibrium
Measuring Shadows
Philosophy, et cetera
Reducing Suffering

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Three Kinds of People

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 20, 2012

Note: Today’s post is shorter than usual and formatted more roughly. If you particularly like or dislike this format, let me know in the comments.

When it comes to charity, there are three kinds of people:

  • People who think every charity is good and give to whatever charity they want.
  • People who think a lot of charities are bad, and therefore don’t give money to charity.
  • People who think a lot of charities are bad, and therefore put some effort into finding the good ones.

Unfortunately, not too many people seem to fall into the third category. If only more people cared about being effective.

Category one is forgivable, because it often seems intuitively true that charity must do good, and it is considered taboo to criticize charities. But I don’t get category two.

Okay, that’s not true. I do get category two. It’s a fake justification. People do not arrive at this position by thinking, “I want to do as much good as possible, but I don’t know which charities are effective. I suppose I should just not give any money to charity and not look into it any further.” Instead, they usually think, “I don’t want to give to charity. And, you know, they’re probably not that effective anyway.”

While we are right to be skeptical of charities’ claims, I think it’s unfortunate that most skeptics are driven not by the desire to find the truth (i.e. which organizations are most effective) but by the need to justify their actions [1]. To put it another way, most people who are thinking in the right direction are doing so for the wrong reasons, and therefore will never reach the proper conclusion of their skepticism—i.e., that we should put care into finding which charities do the most good instead of simply picking our personal favorite cause.


[1] I don’t know for sure that most skeptics are motivated in this way, but anecdotally, it appears to be true.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Rant | 2 Comments »

In Defense of Moral Investigation

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 31, 2012

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Atheism and Religion, Ethics, Rationality, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Article of the Day: Consequentialism FAQ

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 3, 2012

Today’s article is an excellent piece that explains consequentialism and why it makes sense, and explains some of its implications. It is probably the best introduction to consequentialism that I have ever read.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the deep jungles of Clamzoria across the Freptane Sea is a tall and snow-capped mountain. Within this mountain is a cave which is the lair of the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men. Encased within the chest of Hrogmorph is a massive ruby called the Heartstone, a ruby with legendary magic powers. The stories say that whoever wears the Heartstone is immune from the moral law, and may commit any actions he desires without them being even the mildest of venial sins.

Lured by the legend of the stone, you sail the Freptane Sea and trek through the Clamzorian jungle. You defeat the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men, in single combat, take the Heartstone from his body, and place it around your neck as an amulet. Upon returning home, you decide to test its powers, so you adopt a kitten from the local shelter, then kill it.

You feel absolutely awful. You just want to curl up in a ball and never show your face again. “Well, what did you expect?” asks the ghost of Hrogmorph, who has decided to haunt you. “The power of the Heartstone isn’t to prevent you from feeling guilty. Guilt comes from chemicals in the brain, chemicals that live in the world like everything else – not from the metaphysical essence of morality. Look, if it makes you feel better, you didn’t actually do anything wrong, since you do have the amulet. You just feel like you did.”

Then Animal Control Services knocks on your door. They’ve gotten an anonymous tip – probably that darned ghost of Hrogmorph again – that you’ve drowned a kitten. They bring you to court for animal cruelty. The judge admits, since you’re wearing the Heartstone, that you technically didn’t commit an immoral act – but you did break the law, so he’s going to have to fine you and sentence you to a few months of community service.

While you’re on your community service, you meet a young girl who is looking for her lost kitten. She describes the cat to you, and it sounds exactly like the one you adopted from the shelter. You tell her she should stop looking, because the cat was taken to the animal shelter and then you killed it. She starts crying, telling you that she loved that cat and it was the only bright spot in her otherwise sad life and now she doesn’t know how she can go on. Despite still having the Heartstone on, you feel really bad for her and wish you could make her stop crying.

If morality is just some kind of metaphysical rule, the magic powers of the Heartstone should be sufficient to cancel that rule and make morality irrelevant. But the Heartstone, for all its legendary powers, is utterly worthless and in fact totally indistinguishable, by any possible or conceivable experiment, from a fake. Whatever metaphysical effects it produces have nothing to do with the sort of things that make us consider morality important.

This article was written by Scott Alexander Siskind. He has written a number of excellent pieces and frequently contributes to Less Wrong.

Posted in Article of the Day, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Article of the Day: The Meat Eaters

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 18, 2012

Rutgers professor Jeff McMahan wrote an intriguing essay for the New York Times about the ethics of how we treat animals.

At the start of the essay, he determines that we have a moral obligation not to eat meat: “Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey[.]” I would make a small amendment here: although he is technically correct that most of our meat and eggs come from factory farms, he understates the true proportion, which in fact exceeds 99% (according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture).

Having established this fact, McMahan moves on to discuss the subject of wild-animal suffering. He explains why it is a problem and why we should do something about it, and addresses a number of objections to his argument. His main thesis is that we should work toward the extinction of all carnivorous species once we gain the capacity to do so without serious environmental disruption.

McMahan also wrote a response to critics. It is well worth a read if you find yourself skeptical of his ideas after reading “The Meat Eaters.” McMahan makes a number of excellent points in this essay, but one thing he says is especially worth quoting:

The commentators’ gesture toward the alleged suffering of plants seemed no more than a rhetorical move in their attack on my argument. But if one became convinced, as some of the commentators appear to be, that plants are conscious, feel pain, and experience suffering, that ought to prompt serious reconsideration of the permissibility of countless practices that we have always assumed to be benign. If you really believed that plants suffer, would you continue to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to mow your grass? . . . Shouldn’t that elicit serious moral reflection rather than being deployed as a mere debating point?

This sort of thing happens all the time in arguments over ethics: someone makes an ostensibly-outlandish claim merely for the purpose of refuting an argument, and does not carry it to its logical conclusion. If plants really do suffer, for example, then we ought to consider the moral implications of that fact.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 8 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: