Philosophical Multicore

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

Archive for April, 2010

Growing Certainty

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 30, 2010

It has been claimed by Creationists that young students are taught about how certain we are of evolution, even though we are not certain at all. (This post is not about Creationism; just bear with me.) When I heard this claim, I quickly realized how ridiculous it was. I remember what I was told in school, and it was nothing like what they say I was told.

In truth, I was never told that evolution was a certainty. Until I researched it for myself, I had been under the impression that it was the best theory we had, but that there were serious gaps in the evidence. I thought that the fossil record was full of holes. And my education certainly did nothing to ameliorate this problem.

As I kept thinking, I noticed that this issue also arose with regard to other scientific theories. For instance, I remember learning about hypothesized particles known as “quarks” that are even smaller than protons and neutrons; it was not until years later that I learned that quarks have actually been observed.

Despite what some Creationists may say, science education often leaves an impression of growing certainty. When you’re younger, they tell you that scientists aren’t really sure about this thing or that. But as you get older, you learn that there is actually a lot more evidence than your school was letting on.

Why does education instill this sense of growing certainty? One hypothesis is that they don’t want to tell young children about complicated theories such as quarks. But in that case, why even bring them up? Why not simply pretend that they don’t exist?

Perhaps there is a good reason for that. When I learned that quarks were real, I was not unfamiliar with them. Although I didn’t know much about them, I had heard of quarks before. So when I heard about their reality, I immediately recognized them as something that I had learned about.

It is useful for educators to instill in students this sense of recognition. But sometimes it is not worth it to explain the concept. Sometimes you really don’t think that a ten-year old needs to know what a quark really is. When students re-discover them later, though, that memory will still be there.

Posted in Science | 2 Comments »

RE: Sum-of-Squares Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 28, 2010

This is a response to a comment on my post about Median Utilitarianism. I am posting this as a blog post rather than a comment because (a) it’s rather long, (b) it is interesting, and (c) I haven’t been posting enough lately.

The entire comment is reproduced below:

I’m working on a separate problem, but it ties so closely into this post of yours that it immediately reminded me of it, and I wanted to run the idea by you.

Okay, the basic idea is, intuitively (at least, to me), we want to maximize total utility in the system, but we also want maximize the balance of utility in the system. I think this may be what you were getting at with the “median utility” idea.

Well, I think there’s an easy mathematical way of looking at it. I may be off on this. The idea just popped into mind, so I may be overlooking a huge flaw. It may be totally stupid. But, here goes.

Say your system includes only two people, A and B. Higher utility ratings are better. Say that A has 100 utility and B has 0 utility. The sum utility there is 100. Same as if A and 0 utility and B has 100 utility. Well, what about when A has 50 utility and B has 50 utility? That’s still a sum utility of 100. In other words, total utility alone does not differentiate between one person getting completely shafted and both people having an equal share. My hunch is, our genetic wiring tells most of us that the situation in which A has 50 and B has 50 is preferable to the other two situations. (At least, that’s how I feel.) However, maximizing for sum of utility isn’t a total loss–it at least ensures that the system has the highest possible utility, even as it doesn’t ensure an even distribution of utility.

Say that we instead take the sum of squares of utilities. In this case, we actually want the lowest sum. So, if A has 100 and B has 0, that’s a sum-of-squares of 10,000. Likewise if A has 0 and B has 100. If A has 50 and B has 50, that’s a sum-of-squares of 5,000. We want the lowest sum of squares, so we prefer the perfect balance over one of the two people getting perfectly shafted. However, since we are aiming for the lowest sum, the obvious way of optimizing the system is to remove all utility. Clearly, we don’t want that.

How about combining the two? We seek to maximize the sum of utility (so we have the most utility in our system) while at the same time minimizing the sum-of-squares of utility (so we have the best balance of utility in our system).

(What’s the gain? Well, mean utility is just scaled sum of utility, and thus, has the same problems as sum of utility. Median utility is a partial solution, but still allows for the “it’s okay for the majority to totally shaft the minority” problem, since it’ll be a member of the majority that determines the median. Maybe there’s still a way of gaming the system I proposed, but I think it would be a lot harder.)

I’m not sure how to turn the system I proposed into something useful in day-to-day decision-making. It’s just something that flashed into mind while working on something else. However, I thought you might find it interesting.

(Geeky aside: Minimizing the sum-of-squares of utility could be thought of as “minimizing the ‘error’ in the distribution of utility.”)

I think that that’s a clever idea. My idea about Median Utilitarianism was more of a conceptual idea than a position that I actually support; I am a proponent of Sum Utilitarianism.

The traditional idea of 50 + 50 being better than 0 + 100 is incorrect, but is based on an interesting relationship. If there is some thing X which makes you happy, then having twice as much X does not make you twice as happy. So if we are talking about how much of X we should have, then utility is increased if we do 50 + 50 instead of 0 + 100. I think this is where the intuitive idea comes from. But if we are talking about actual utility, then 50 + 50 is exactly the same as 0 + 100.

If we use something like the Veil of Ignorance (which places a veil over people so that they know nothing about their own selves, allowing them to make objective decisions), then everyone should agree that 50 + 50 is equivalent to 0 + 100 because your expected return is the same.

Another thing to take into account is the possibility of propagating utility. If one person has very low utility and the other has very high utility, it is possible that the person with low utility will find it more difficult to increase his utility. At the same time, the person with high utility will find it difficult to increase her utility, because it is already relatively high. To put this to a real-life example: the extremely poor have extreme difficulty in lifting themselves out of poverty, because they can’t afford an education or something like that; also, the extremely rich (although wealth does not necessarily imply happiness, let’s admit it, we all want to be rich) cannot increase their utility much further — even if wealth directly led to happiness, would someone like Bill Gates be all that much happier than your average millionaire? Both of them can afford virtually anything they could want, so the difference is not all that significant.

But along the same vein, people with a moderate level of utility are the most able to increase their happiness. Economically, the middle class are the most able to increase their own utility.

This is not to imply that wealth equals happiness; rather, I am using it to illustrate a point. Actual happiness is not nearly as concrete as wealth.

Another interesting possibility (that I do not endorse) is the idea of Product Utilitarianism. Instead of taking the sum of everyone’s utility, you take the product. 50 * 50 is a lot more than 1 * 100 (and definitely more than 0 * 100), so this would encourage everyone having a high utility while at the same time keeping utility rather balanced. The first problem I thought of is that the addition of one person with even a relatively low utility will increase the overall utility substantially, which means that overpopulation will continue for far longer than it ought to.

The second problem is that the product, unlike the sum, is heavily dependent on what units you’re using. If “utility points” are always between 0 and 1, then Product Utilitarianism states that there should only be one person alive at any given time. If “utility points” are always negative, then to maximize utility there always needs to be an even number of people. What units you’re using makes a big difference.

There are a lot of different methods with which to measure utility. It’s a lot of fun to speculate about different methods; however, I don’t think that that’s a good way to actually find a good basis for utility calculations. Not to say that we shouldn’t do it, but I just don’t think it’s the best way to decide what to do — how do we know which type of calculation is the right one? The best way to do it, I think, would be to start with some moral foundation and try to work from there. Actually finding this foundation is a whole different story.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

A Question of Burden

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 16, 2010

Burden of proof is an issue that is often muddled or misunderstood. I will not be addressing burden of proof in general; rather, I am going to focus on a particular situation.

There are many cases in which one side is arguing to allow a particular behavior, and the other side is arguing against it. The opponent asks, Why should this behavior be allowed?

There are myriad examples. Three rather prominent ones are, Why should gays be allowed to marry? Why should people under 18 be allowed to vote? Why should people be allowed to carry guns?

In some cases, the opponent will take this argument a little further. People don’t need to carry guns, so there is no reason to allow people to legally carry guns. Or, minors don’t need to vote. Most teenagers just care about Britney Spears’ latest song. They’re not interested in politics.

These questions misconstrue the concept of burden of proof. They do so because of a certain well-established human right: liberty.

It is widely agreed that, all else being equal, liberty is a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. The likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson argued for the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property. (And if you think about it, these three rights can be compressed into the single supreme right of liberty.) Libertarianism (the philosophy, not just the political party) is founded on the concept of self-ownership, a synonym for liberty. Kantian Deontology dictates that we treat other people as ends rather than as means — that is, that we do not restrict their liberty. Even Utilitarianism strongly supports the idea of liberty, although not quite so severely: in most cases, liberty is conducive to maximizing utility.

From this, we can infer that liberty should be maximized whenever possible. Our justice system reflects this. Even laws that restrict liberty are ultimately intended to increase liberty overall. For example, our freedom is restricted in the case of murder because if we murder someone, that completely robs them of their liberty.

I expect it is widely agreed upon that, all else being equal, liberty is preferential to restriction. This can be seen anecdotally. Many of what are considered to be the most horrible of situations are based primarily upon a restriction of freedom: slavery, imprisonment, and even death are all excellent examples. The more restrictive it is, the more suffering it will entail.

Now that we have examined the topic of liberty, we are equipped to answer the first three questions. Why should gays be allowed to marry? Why should people under 18 be allowed to vote? Why should people be allowed to carry guns?

The response is, why not? Liberty is preferential to restriction. All else being equal, we ought to allow gays to marry. We ought to allow anyone to vote. We ought to allow people to carry guns. In fact, all else being equal, we ought to allow people to marry animals and carry nuclear weapons. So why don’t we?

We don’t allow people to marry animals or carry nuclear weapons because, in those cases, all else is not equal. Animals cannot offer consent to marriage, so the contract would be meaningless and to enforce it would be to restrict the freedom of the animal. Furthermore, this would nearly always be used as an excuse to reap the legal benefits of marriage without the difficulty of marrying an actual person — in very few cases would someone actually be in love with an animal. In the case of carrying a nuclear weapon, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Even as obvious as those arguments were, it is still my side’s responsibility to make those arguments. I was arguing for the restriction of liberty. If those arguments had never been made, then we would be morally obligated to allow inter-species marriage and the carrying of WMDs. However, since those arguments were made, we have legitimate reason to restrict freedom in those cases.

Am I saying that no one has ever made an argument for why gay marriage should be illegal, or for why minors should not be able to vote, or for why guns should be banned? Not at all. Rather, I am addressing the specific argument that attempts to shift the burden of proof. The question is not why we should allow these things. The question is why we should NOT allow these things. By default, we are allowed to do anything. Liberty cannot be restricted without a good reason, and this is why the question of why we should allow something is not a legitimate one.

Posted in Debate, Rationality | Leave a Comment »

The Ethics of Slavery: Just a Cultural Thing?

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 14, 2010

It has been said that so many people were okay with slavery in the United States because it was simply their culture. Everyone just accepted that slaves were the norm. Is this really so?

It seems obvious enough that most African Americans would object to slavery. Unfortunately, they weren’t the ones in power so they didn’t get to write history. But also, I argue that there are many people — who, perhaps because of social pressures or because of the bad documentation (e.g. lack of radio and television) of the era — who supported emancipation, but no one knows that they did.

The situation in the mid-19th century can be compared to our situation today, regarding gay rights. A majority of Americans believe that gay marriage should be illegal. But there’s still a good 30-40% (depending on what poll you’re looking at) who support gay rights. There may be similar statistics for the pre-Civil War era.

Opposition to gay rights is something of a cultural thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the statistics regarding support of gay marriage were completely flipped in 30 years. It’s only a matter of time before people realize the error of their ways.

If you are opposed to gay rights, and you object to my previous statement, then I’m sorry, but you are objectively wrong. There is no legitimate reason to hold a prejudice against homosexuals.

So the point is, even though the majority of people believe that gays should not be allowed to marry and that nearly all states do not allow gay marriage, there are still those who take the other perspective. Many of these people might be culturally influenced, but many others may have simply realized that prejudice against gays is morally wrong. I believe that a similar situation may have occurred in early America. But in that case, the Southern economy heavily relied upon the institution of slavery, so there was far more pressure to believe that slavery was acceptable.

If a majority of people truly believed that slavery was okay, then what does that say about morality? Who is to say that today’s message of equality is not morally wrong, and the racists are the correct ones? This is where Utilitarianism comes in.

People often base their decisions off of moral instinct. But if we use an ethical system with a strong logical foundation, we can accurately assess whether political issues such as gay marriage are right or wrong. Religious people may object to this, since Utilitarianism (as well as Deontology) is non-religious and may get different conclusions from what ethics-heavy religions dictate.

Once you bring Utilitarianism into the picture, the answer is obvious. Slavery is pretty good for the slave-owner, but much worse for the slave. It minimizes utility, and is therefore unacceptable. Preventing gays from marrying is preventing them from getting the various benefits of marriage; furthermore, allowing gays to marry in no way harms anyone else. Therefore, the Utilitarian choice is to legalize gay marriage.

Cultural feelings about morality may change, but logic does not. John Stuart Mill would have agreed that slavery is wrong. And, in fact, he did.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

The Ethics of Palm Oil

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 9, 2010

This is a more logical analysis of the subject of Green The Film, which was brought to my attention recently. The movie is about an orangutan named Green who used to live in the rainforest, but her home was destroyed when it was chopped down to harvest palm oil. I presume that it is a true story. Unfortunately, though, there was a distinct lack of information. Sure, you could garner what you needed to, but it was very vague. There were no words at all. The message was not entirely clear. That wasn’t the real problem though; I was able to pretty much figure out what the point was: don’t buy palm oil, because it destroys the habitat of the cute orangutans. The real problem here is the word “cute”, and everything else like it. The entire argument that the film seems to be presenting is that orangutans are cute. Or maybe that orangutans are humanoid, so we should be sympathetic towards them. It’s basically one giant appeal to emotion, and as you may know, that’s a logical fallacy.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a superb film. It does a great job of manipulating people’s emotions. Unfortunately, being good at manipulating people’s emotions is not a morally sound way to getting people to stop using palm oil.

So should we stop using palm oil? Well, palm oil requires the cutting down of rainforests. That part is not in dispute. But what we don’t know is how much it requires the cutting down of rainforests relative to other activities and products — ethanol, lumbering, etc. In addition, we don’t know much about the alternatives. What if alternatives to palm oil have even worse side effects? I don’t think this is likely, since palm oil tends to be in food products — it’s not hard to find food with a low ecological impact, if you’re willing to pay more for it.

Does the cutting down of rainforests even matter? Well, I certainly think it’s bad that the orangutans no longer have a place to live. But that’s not really the only issue. There are other animals in the rainforest as well. I believe that we only have a moral obligation to maximize the welfare of the sentient animals, but that still leaves a lot of species other than orangutans.

It seems that avoiding palm oil is a rather small sacrifice for what is at least a moderately significant investment. Hence, I have decided to stop eating palm oil, or at least try to avoid it. I have noticed how little palm oil I actually eat; a rather significant portion of my diet is raw fruits and vegetables. (That’s my secret to staying thin, kids.)

My own health habits aside, the Utilitarian thing to do is to avoid palm oil.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Article of the Day: The Age of the Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 4, 2010

Another wonderful Paul Graham essay. This one is about high school essays.

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Graham explains that the reason why high schoolers write essays about literature is because, a few hundred years ago, literature and essays got merged into one subject. And the reason that all essays must take a position and defend it is that essays were originally written in law school.

If we step outside of these restraints, what is the ideal essay like? What kinds of essays should teachers assign? First, there’s nothing wrong with assigning essays where one analyzes a piece of literature. Considering how students are frequently already studying literature, it’s a rather convenient topic. But there are certainly other topics out there. In addition, not all essays need to take a side and defend it. (Read Graham’s essay for more about this.) Essays could be explorations of the literature; the student would learn just as much, if not more.

Students should be given the opportunity to write essays about exploration. I have rarely gotten these sorts of chances in school. But if you read some of the longer essays on my blog, you may notice that I propose something, play around with it, maybe reject it and expand on it more. Then I go on to the next idea. This is because I am not planning these essays out in advance. I just write as I go; and I get my thoughts organized in a nice, convenient format. My school essays are completely different: focused, rigorously organized, and, if you ask me, a lot more boring.

Not that there is a problem with persuasive essays. They’re great. But, as Graham pointed out, being right is more important than being able to argue well (at least in school). So why do we learn how to take a strong with-us-or-against-us position and defend it to the death, but we don’t write essays where we explore the answers in a much more open way?

I propose that traditional English classes spend one month per semester working on writing essays. Perhaps throughout the year there are essays written about the literature being read, but during these blocks, there is a greater focus on writing quality essays. And to better enrich the minds of the students, these essays should be more about searching for the truth than about arguing a point. Perhaps the teacher can come with a list of widely varied topics, or let the students choose their own topics, or both. Students can write essays in response to other essays. (Which happens to be what I’m doing right now.)

I haven’t been writing essays on my blog for all that long. Before my blog, I practically never wrote essays outside of school. Now, I write them all the time; I’m still relatively new at it, though. Yet I keep doing it. Probably the reason I keep doing it is that writing essays gets thoughts into writing and helps me to thing more thoughts. When I write essays, I think of ideas as I go. Just sitting and thinking does not work quite so well.

Another aspect of writing essays that may seems trivial — but definitely is not — is that when I write essays, I stay focused on the essay. Simply sitting and thinking is not enough for some sorts of things, because I will get too distracted. But when I’m writing an essay I can focus on the topic at hand and actually come up with some pretty good ideas.

I want other students to feel this. School is about learning, right? It’s about the development of ideas? What better way to develop one’s ideas than to write essays? But I fear that the current restrictions placed on essays will leave many students dissatisfied, and they will leave school disliking essays, never realizing how useful and fun they can be.

I never truly appreciated essays until I started reading Paul Graham. This man writes about topics that I actually care about. When I read his essays, I learn something. That may be a lot of the problem with essay-reading: students read essays about topics that they don’t care about, or they read essays that don’t teach them anything. This is not how a good essay should go. A good essay should be informative and fun; also, as Graham pointed out in his own essay about essays, when you read an essay you should be surprised. A good essay is one that teaches you something, or makes you think in a new way.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

I certainly can get behind that advice. The problem with school is that you’re supposed to do what you’re told, pretty much by definition, which makes it hard to write truly good essays. I know that I have never written a truly good essay for any school assignment (by my personal standards); probably the best school essay I’ve ever written is one at the beginning of this year where we had to turn in some sort of writing sample so that the teacher could get to know our writing styles, and I turned in an essay that I had written for my blog. So even that one wasn’t really written for school.

To add on to Graham’s advice: when you write an essay, don’t write it because someone else told you to. Write for yourself. Other people may learn something by reading your essay, but the person who learns the most is you. I find that you can come up with much better ideas by writing essays than simply by thinking, and this is what can really make the art of essay-writing a fruitful one.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 1 Comment »

The Utilitarian Virtue

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 1, 2010

Many people have a whole list of virtues. This is fine with me. But according to Utilitarian morality, there is only one morality: maximizing utility. This is the one true virtue. I rather like the idea of having only one virtue, since it makes things a lot simpler. Other virtues can be seen as derivatives of this one. Compassion, empathy, and not harming others are all virtues that derive from the single supreme virtue of maximizing utility. Any list of virtues seems rather superfluous, as the only reason why they are virtuous is because they lead towards a single virtue.

In this light, the idea that there can be multiple virtues which are based on different principles — i.e. non-Utilitarian ones — seems rather absurd. If a virtue is defined as something that you must live your life by, then having multiple virtues would eventually lead to a self-contradiction. Unless, that is, these virtues have the same root, in which case they can hardly really be considered separate virtues.

If they either lead to self-contradiction or are simply redundant, why bother even having multiple virtues? Probably for the purpose of enlightenment. Having multiple virtues helps us keep straight which things are productive and which things aren’t. For example, not killing is a virtue, because we might forget that killing people does not maximize utility.

Deontology may also have different virtues. If we are talking Kantian Deontology, one of the three formulations is that you should act according to those maxims that you would universalize. By this formulation, a virtue is any maxim that can be universalized. So a list of virtues would be a list of universalized maxims. This may also explain why one might have a list of virtues.

Still, though, by Utilitarianism, a list of virtues in the conventional sense is rather superfluous. Utilitarianism has but a single virtue.

Posted in Ethics, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

This is good.

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 1, 2010

The city of Topeka has renamed itself to Google.

Posted in Humor | 3 Comments »

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