Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

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.

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

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.

Notes

[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

Introductions
Consequentialism FAQ
Utilitarian FAQ
Common Criticisms of Utilitarianism

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

Collections
Utilitarian Philosophers
Utilitarianism: past, present and future
Recommended Reading

Communities
Felicifia
Less Wrong

Essays and Blogs
Essays on Reducing Suffering
Reflective Disequilibrium
Greatplay
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.

Notes

[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.

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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

http://raikoth.net/consequentialism.html

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 »

Voting to Do the Most Good

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 4, 2012

If you are a United States citizen and you want to do as much good as possible with your vote, then how should you use it? (These principles apply outside the US as well, but my analysis focuses on US elections.)

Expected Value of Voting

For those who care about maximizing the welfare of society, the importance of voting increases as the population increases. Below is the mathematical justification for this claim. These calculations assume that you know the correct person to vote for. If you wish to avoid math, you can skip to the next section.

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Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 1 Comment »

Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Justice

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 30, 2012

Free will is an illusion [1]. What does this say about moral responsibility?

If the purpose of morality is to maximize the happiness of sentient beings, as I often claim, then whether free will exists is irrelevant. In fact, whether free will exists does not matter as long as morality focuses on the consequences of actions, rather than their motives.

The traditional argument goes: if free will is an illusion, then we are not in control of our own actions, which means we cannot be held responsible for them. So it doesn’t matter what actions we take, right? We can run around killing people, right? Well, no. Our actions still matter just as much as they ever did: they affect the outside world whether they are the product of free will or the result of deterministic processes. Others are still affected by our actions. We still feel emotions, even if those emotions arise deterministically.

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Posted in Ethics, Free Will, Utilitarianism | 2 Comments »

Animal Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 18, 2012

Ethical Background

We have an obligation not to cause suffering. Furthermore, we have no reason to limit this obligation to members of the human species—any sort of suffering is morally relevant, and the importance of the suffering derives not from who experiences it but from how severe it is [1]. If animals can suffer then their suffering deserves equal consideration.

Many non-human animals (including most vertebrates) are definitely capable of suffering—physically, and often emotionally. True, most animals cannot know the range of suffering that humans can, but they still feel pain, discomfort, and distress, and they experience such feelings as acutely (or at least approximately as acutely) as humans do. (For those who doubt that mammals and other vertebrates feel pain to the extent that humans do, see Do Animals Feel Pain?.) We owe it to all animals—human and non-human—not to inflict painful experiences upon them. Furthermore, we have an obligation to prevent the suffering of animals in the wild.

Practical Considerations

If we grant that the suffering of all beings holds equal value, then what must we do to remain consistent with our morals?

It has been well-established that factory farms—through which nearly all domesticated animals (excluding pets [2]) are raised—cause animals a great deal of suffering. This essay will not go into details, as facts about such animals’ treatment are readily available (in many books as well as on the web; I recommend Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, an excerpt of which may be found here). All that need be said here is that animals on factory farms experience an enormous, almost incomprehensible amount of suffering for their entire lives.

So-called “free range” or “cage-free” farms, while they often improve conditions, still create considerable suffering. It is difficult to find farms that raise animals humanely, and even certified “humane” farms create conditions that I would not wish for any sentient being to endure (for example, castrating animals without anesthetic). It may be possible to find happily-raised animals in stores, but I warn the reader to be skeptical of any products that claim to be humane. For more information, see “The Truth Behind Labels: Farm Animal Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices.

In light of these considerations, we hold an obligation to avoid animal products, especially food. Of course, reducing the quantity of meat one eats—while not as good as removing it entirely from one’s diet—does a great deal of good. For those who wish to prevent animal suffering but find it difficult to do so, there are a lot of resources out there that can help you. I recommend The 99-Cent Ultimate Vegan Guide by Erik Marcus, which you can purchase online for 99 cents.

Of all the animal products we consume, chicken and fish suffer the greatest total harm. A cow or a pig can feed many more people than a chicken or fish, so not as many have to be raised and killed in cruel conditions. And when industrial fishing boats capture fish, they end up killing many times more fish than they actually intend to harvest, simply by accident (Foer 49). Together, chicken, eggs, and fish probably account for over 95% of the suffering that the food industry creates. For more information on this subject, see “How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?”

One should avoid animal products not only to reduce suffering, but to make a statement. We will make serious progress toward reducing animal suffering when caring seriously about animals becomes a widely-accepted position. As it is, people who concern themselves with the suffering of non-human animals are considered radicals and often looked down upon—many consider it rude to even bring up the fact that you’re vegan. Every person who joins this “radical” position helps push it toward the mainstream; and the more mainstream the position becomes, the easier it will be to reduce animal suffering. Similarly, it is important to behave respectably when it comes to animal welfare issues; if you behave respectably, your position will get more respect. Incendiary organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can hurt the credibility of the animal welfare movement.

Other actions we can take include political action (such as lobbying for stricter legal standards for factory farms) and donating to charities that support animal welfare. Effective Animal Activism continually invests effort into identifying the most effective animal welfare charities, and they publish their recommendations on the front page of their website.

I frequently hear people give reasons why they cannot be vegetarian or vegan. It goes beyond the scope of this essay to address them all, but it is worth saying this: (a) extensive research has shown that a vegan diet can be healthy for humans in every stage of their lives (see this report by the American Dietetic Association); (b) I have never heard someone raise a problem that could not be solved by searching online for five minutes or less. (For example, a common complaint goes, “I can’t get enough protein.” Myriad sources in bookstores and on the Web explain how to eat adequate protein with a plant-based diet.) I recommend Vegan Health as a quick source on how to maintain a healthy diet.

The Importance of Animal Suffering

Given the sheer volume of factory-farmed animals, the meat industry represents one of the most serious problems facing the world today. Most people—including many vegetarians—grossly underestimate the importance of this issue.

Non-human animals clearly have many differences from humans: they cannot vote, they cannot attend school, and they cannot in most ways participate in human society. However, many species can suffer just as we can, and as such deserve moral consideration.

As Jeremy Bentham put it in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Any fair-minded ethical theory must grant that suffering is equally significant no matter who experiences it, and that includes non-human animals.

Humans living in factory farm-like conditions would probably suffer worse than other animals because out higher reasoning capacities would create additional forms of suffering. However, the great majority of human suffering in such a situation would arise in the very same manner in which animal suffering arises: continual physical pain and discomfort, inability to form social connections, and severely limited emotional freedom. Considering the tens of billions of animals raised in such conditions for their entire lives, it should be no surprise when I claim that factory farming represents one of the greatest evils in existence.

Wild-Animal Suffering

That said, the single most important source of suffering that we know of must be wild-animal suffering. Due to the sheer number of wild animals, they experience far more suffering than animals in factory farms.

Unfortunately, it does not look like we can do much about it right now, as we are not very good at predicting the impact of our actions. It is likely that our efforts to help will only make the situation worse. So consider this an open problem. We ought to spend time considering what we can do to alleviate the suffering of wild animals without inadvertently creating more. Perhaps we do not yet know what to do, but we have not spent much time considering the problem.

For now, we should stop using animal products, help promote moral sentiments that give consideration to animal suffering, and consider donating to effective animal-welfare charities.

 

 

Notes

[1] When I spoke to a friend of mine about the subject of this essay, he argued that human well-being is necessarily more important because humans have a greater impact on the global well-being than other species. If this is true, it does not give greater inherent value to human happiness, but rather gives them greater value because they create more significant side effects.

If a single human becomes more happy, his happiness spreads to other people—and hence, increasing a human’s happiness by X amount generally does more good than increasing a non-social animal’s happiness by X amount. But the added impact from a human’s happiness still does not compare to the extraordinary amount of suffering a human can prevent by taking on a few minor inconveniences (as described later in this essay).

[2] Factory farms represent the biggest source of suffering that humans inflict upon animals. This essay does not address the exploitation of animals for clothing, experiments, zoos, etc., because the sheer number of animals in factory farms far exceeds the number of animals in zoos and laboratories. And this essay excludes pets because we treat pets much better than most animals.

References

Foer, Jonathan S. Eating Animals. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2010. Print.

Posted in Applied Ethics, Ethics, Utilitarianism | 7 Comments »

 
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