Philosophical Multicore

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

Archive for May, 2010

Individual Liberty as Means to Collective Gain

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 31, 2010

There is a common political and ethical debate between individual freedom and collective gain. Libertarians, for instance, argue that personal autonomy — the idea of self-ownership — should be valued above all else. The philosophy of collective gain, argued by Utilitarians and reflected in socialist politics, is that overall good is more important than individual gain. These philosophies may seem to be in conflict; in an absolute sense, they are. But it is possible to use individual liberty as a means to collective gain.

People are inherently selfish. People aren’t selfish all the time, of course; we have been known to be generous and helpful. But we are selfish as well. In a perfect world, we would all cooperate perfectly, and be willing to sacrifice our own happiness to any extent if it were for the greater good. But the problem is, people don’t work this way. We cannot be expected to cooperate all of the time. And this is why the concept of individual liberty is a useful one.

By itself, individual liberty makes no sense. By definition, anything other than an attempt to maximize collective happiness will end up with less than optimal happiness overall, which means each individual has a lower expected happiness. If everyone supports individual liberty, then people will be less happy. At least, in theory.

In practice, the situation is quite different. People don’t always work together. The concept of individual rights is a rather ingenious response to selfishness and egoism, spawned for the purpose of protecting society from those who would selfishly take advantage of a perfectly collective culture.

How is this possible? The concept is simple: it is impossible to isolate society from the selfish people because everyone might be selfish. The natural response is for every individual person to be protected from everyone else.

One of the most impactful effects of selfishness is a reduction in the freedoms of others. Theft and murder are extreme examples of this. So the way to prevent this harmful selfishness is to ensure that individual liberty remains intact. People are protected from theft by the concept of property ownership. If goods were owned collectively, there would be very little stopping a greedy person from taking more than his share. But if we introduce the concept of ownership, people are able to definitively claim certain items as their own. Consequences can be enforced for anyone who tries to take those items. This can create hunger and poverty for those who are not able to get enough goods for themselves, so the system is less than perfect. But it is still very useful, and is better overall than allowing a few greedy people to simply take everything.

Similar to this is the concept of rights. In an ideal world, there would be no rights. Everyone would simply do what was best for each other. But in this world, we need protection from the malicious, and this is what rights provide. The right to life protects us from murderers. The right to liberty protects us from slavery and unjust imprisonment. The right to property protects us from theft.

In a perfect world, individual liberty would not be a priority. But our world is imperfect. In order to maximize collective gain, as paradoxical as this may seem, enforcing individual rights and freedoms is a powerful strategy.

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Posted in Ethics, Libertarianism, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

Why Saying Thank You is Narrow-Minded

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 25, 2010

Saying thank-you does seem to be a kind deed; and indeed it is. But giving thanks, at least in the conventional manner, is rather narrow-minded — and even could be considered selfish.

We typically give thanks for a deed that is beneficial to us. Even if it is not very significant, we are nearly always the recipient of the action that prompted the gratitude. In this way, giving thanks can be seen as a self-serving deed.

How? When we give thanks, the person we are thanking feels appreciated. This person is more likely to continue to do good things for us in the future. We are increasing the happiness of the other person, but mostly increasing the future benefit for ourselves.

Giving thanks is by no means a bad thing. It benefits both parties involved. But, at least when used in the conventional manner, it is narrow-minded and even selfish.

What would be an unselfish way of giving thanks? The best way to give thanks — the one that would benefit the most people — would be to give thanks to anyone who did an extraordinary deed. This is the most selfless way of showing gratitude. Plenty of people most certainly do give thanks in this way, but they just as certainly do not do it consistently.

Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Its benefits are exactly why it should be spread — even to those who did not help you personally.

Posted in Philosophy | 1 Comment »

The Unspoken Truth About Big Government

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 21, 2010

Protesting big government is a rather common political theme. The issue seems to be bipartisan: all of us have heard both Democrats and Republicans (not to mention Libertarians!) speak about the evils of big government. No one wants a government that’s too powerful, because that could lead to tyranny.

This may be true in theory, but reality is quite different. I seldom hear people speak of how government needs more power, and yet the talk of how government is too big seems ceaseless. Actual political philosophies, however, tend to differ. In theory we oppose big government, but when it comes down to making actual policy, the Democrats are in support of welfare and social programs while the Republicans support military spending and stricter legislation regarding abortion. Only Libertarians and anarchists truly oppose growth in government.

Why is it, then, that people’s true desires so often go unspoken? A likely reason is the clash of theory and reality. In theory (and in reality as well), a bigger government is harmful. But in reality, a bigger government is often necessary. Some things simply cannot be accomplished — or at least never have been before — without some sort of federal action. It would be wonderful if we could get along without any government, but we can’t. At least, not with the sort of society that we have now. If we lived in tribal communities, as we did twenty thousand years ago, we could get away with near-anarchy.

But do we really want to resort to tribal communities? I don’t think so. In the civilization we live in, it is often necessary to increase the size of the government. But it is never couched that way. Big government is generally understood to be a bad thing; people may want a bigger government, but they never say they do.

This issue seems to come down to simply how you phrase your opinion. People may want a bigger government, and it’s no huge secret, but they never explicitly say it. Instead, they talk about how the government needs to regulate business, or create more economic opportunity, or something like that. This is simply another way of saying that bigger government is a good thing.

Most of us do believe that, at least sometimes, big government is a good thing. All I ask is that we admit it to ourselves.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

Do we have an obligation to truth?

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 19, 2010

One of the policies of science is a complete commitment to the truth, no matter the consequences. I long accepted this policy. Recently, however, I realized that this could be in conflict with Utilitarianism — sometimes the truth will increase suffering.

In fact, after thinking about it a bit more, it seems rather obvious that I have certainly not been committed to the truth. In some realms I have, but not all. I don’t tell everyone everything I hear. I lie sometimes when I think it’s the right thing to do.

The commitment to truth is something quite different; it is more applicable to scientific disciplines. In this case, the obligation to truth can be seen as arising out of Utilitarian philosophy: to make the right decisions, we need to know the scientific truth. Look at Hitler and atheism, for example. It is sometimes claimed that Hitler was an atheist, and so since Hitler committed horrible atrocities, therefore Atheism is factually incorrect — that is, God exists. Despite the numerous fallacies with this argument, there is also the fact that even if these claims were all true, it would still be important to know whether God exists in order to make effective moral decisions.

A commitment to truth is rather idealistic, and Utilitarianism generally does not support any sort of idealism other than itself. However, since we are merely humans and not hyper-efficient utility-generating machines, it sometimes helps to have certain absolute commitments.

Perhaps it is wrong to attempt to blend the scientific and Utilitarian ideologies. Science does not deal with morality; rather, it only serves to assess the truth of claims. From the mindset of a scientist, a commitment to truth is absolutely important. This is not necessarily in conflict with Utilitarianism, because the two realms are separate.

In the interest of science, a commitment to truth is undeniably important. But in a life devoted to maximizing utility, is there room for a scientific mindset?

To go about science, one ought to have a scientific mindset, an obligation to truth. Science, although its commitment to truth may in some ways be in conflict with the Utilitarian virtue, is still a powerful tool for maximizing utility. The scientific developments over the last few hundred years have been beneficial to billions of people; science, even when in direct conflict with Utilitarianism — in conflict with morality — is an incredibly useful process for the benefit of society.

Posted in Ethics, Science, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

Global Priorities

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 15, 2010

Edit: My charity assessments are grossly inaccurate. See Doing the Most Good for more information, and see http://www.givewell.org/ for accurate charity evaluations.

I just watched a TED talk about setting global priorities. The idea was, given $50 billion, how can we spend it such that we will help as many people as possible? The talk is based on the findings of the Copenhagen Consensus. In 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus published a list of global problems in order of priority — those at the top do the most good for the least effort, while those at the bottom do the least good for the most effort. Although the process has been criticized, the concept of prioritizing investments is a very important one.

This reminds me of something I undertook recently. I am often bombarded with charities and causes, and usually never donate to any of them. It’s not that I don’t want to help people; but I have a limited amount of money, and I wanted to make sure that my money was going to do as much good as possible. So one day I sat down and researched various charities to determine which one would be the best investment. I saw the TED talk today, and it reminded me of my list. While the Copenhagen Consensus’ list is more oriented towards government action, mine is more oriented to personal action. How can you as a citizen do as much good as possible?

This list is not by any means comprehensive. I just threw it together during lunch one day. But it still gives a pretty decent idea of how to prioritize.

(There are a few other causes that I left off of this list, either because they are not as important or because they are too difficult to examine.)

The first problem I looked at was global warming. The current biggest human contribution to CO2 emissions is electricity production, so I looked into what it would cost to build solar panels, and what the benefits would be. I found that in the US, per capita emissions is 19 metric tons per year. For you to build enough solar panels to supply your house with all the energy it will ever need costs on average $20,000, and reduces your emissions by 8 metric tons per year. (These figures aren’t necessarily true for you, but they are averages). That’s pretty expensive, and the benefits are relatively small (although very important in the long term).

Next I looked at microloans. The idea here is that you provide a small loan to a business owner in a third-world country. It stimulates the economy and helps lift people out of poverty. The cost of loans vary, but it is generally around $300. But since it is a loan, it’s not as if your money simply goes away. Unless the borrower defaults, you eventually get your money back. This is very helpful, and could cost you nothing more than the money you lose through inflation.

The third potential source of investment was Charity: Water (they have a colon in their name, don’t ask me why). In addition to having a very well-run campaign, Charity: Water is actually a really good cause. According to their website, $20 towards building a well can give one person clean water for 20 years. That’s only about a dollar per year. For just one dollar per year, about $70 per lifetime, you can provide someone with clean drinking water; this not only makes life much easier, but actually helps prevent millions of diseases per year.

The last investment on my list is the Central Asia Institute, which supports education programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One person’s school supplies costs $20, a teacher’s salary is $30 per year per student, and constructing a school building costs $30 per student. This is a total of $80 per student per year, estimated based on the numbers on the Central Asia Institute’s website. Although this is considerably more expensive than Charity: Water, it is still very cheap.

Given these choices, how should one invest? Global warming is very important, but it is not so immediately pressing. Additionally, I think much of the focus on global warming is due to the fact that it will affect the middle and upper class nearly as much as it will affect the lower class, whereas nearly all other major global problems primarily affect the lower class. Global warming could get really bad, but there are other immediate problems that are nearly as bad. This is why it is not a top priority.

The remaining three choices are all very different. Charity: Water provides the greatest immediate benefit for the smallest cost. Microloans are not quite so short-term, but are also renewable. Your money comes back to you. The benefits of the Central Asia Institute are more difficult to measure; it is more expensive than Charity: Water, and doesn’t save any lives, but education could have benefits of propagation. When people are educated, they see more freedom in their lives. They are now more equipped to help others. Education affects not just the person who is educated, but all the people who that person can now go on to help. This makes the benefits of education harder to measure.

To sum up, it looks like the best investment is Charity: Water, followed by the Central Asia Institute. Microloans, while not as important as the other two, can potentially cost you virtually nothing.

There are many serious problems not dealt with here; the Copenhagen Consensus found that malnutrition was the biggest problem, and none of these investments cover that. This list is far from complete, which is why I encourage that you make your own list. Write down all your favorite charities, do a little research, and figure out which one will end up doing the most good.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics | Leave a Comment »

Ever wonder what Confirmation Bias is? Now you know.

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 9, 2010

This essay, by a vehement Creationist, is about radiometric dating. I just happened to be reading it, and thought it was worth sharing.

According to the Bible, the creation week lasted seven literal days and occurred a few thousand years ago. However, many Christians today accept the teaching of science that life has existed on earth for millions, even billions, of years. . . . I believe that many educated Christians are especially doubting the Bible because of the supposed evidence from radiometric dating that life has existed on earth for very long periods of time. . . . [W]hat exactly is wrong with radiometric dating? How can we explain the fact that these dating methods do, in fact, yield dates in the hundreds of millions of years?

The author assumes that because it contradicts the Bible, there must be something wrong with it. This is a rather extreme case of confirmation bias. The author is so utterly unwilling to accept that the Bible, a thousand-year old religious tome, *might* have some scientific inaccuracies.

It seems that the explanation for why radiometric dating yields such old ages is a rather obvious one. God is screwing with the dates, making them look much older in order to test the faith of the true Christians. Who ever said you couldn’t wave a magic wand and make your problems go away?

Posted in Creationism, Science | 4 Comments »

RE: Why Nerds are Unpopular

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 7, 2010

One of Paul Graham’s greatest essays, and most thought-provoking. The thesis is profound, and the details are fascinating. I don’t have much to say about it, simply because I agree so much with what is said. You should read it, especially if you are in education or are an educator.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 3 Comments »

A Complete Absence of Posts

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 5, 2010

I apologize for the lack of posts this blog has seen recently. I am in the midst of studying for finals, and simply don’t have the time it takes to write a serious blog post. But perhaps more importantly, my single-mindedness has made it difficult for my mind to wander and come across interesting ideas; I am just so utterly focused on studying that I can hardly think of anything else.

If you’re looking for something to read, how about Cognitive Daily? It is a fascinating and thought-provoking blog on cognitive psychology which unfortunately has recently been closed down, but there is still plenty of material in the archives.

I hope to be up and posting again in a week or so. Until then, I bid you all adieu.

Posted in Off-Topic | Leave a Comment »

 
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