Archive for September, 2007

September 30, 2007

experimental ethics

What could experimental ethics be? A quick google search ensures that the concept is not new. The top two hits pointed to a chapter of Walter Fritz’s free ebook Intelligent Systems and Their Societies titled “Ethics as a Science” (with a sub part called “Experimental Ethics”). In this chapter he explains how Intelligent Systems and namely human beings can develop a science of ethics that would produce ethical knowledge independent of religious or other presuppositions. This scientific ethics is a calculus based on a basic ethical principal that you should only do those things that will achieve your goal while not harming anyone else. (We are here very close to Rawl’s minimax rule or Kants categorical imperative.)  The idea is not new (indeed these Intelligent Systems sound quite a bit like Kantian reasonable beings) and also not objectionable.

However, this ethical science falls short of being very useful. The main problem is that it remains theoretical, in the sense that it is a form of knowledge about ethics and not an actual being good. The science is too formal and abstract to really be able to answer such questions as “Should i get an abortion?” or “How should i deal with my messy roommate?”

The sub section on “Experimental Ethics” is very short and suggests that the experiments in question be carried out on computers in artificial simulations. Again, the problem with such an approach is that it would only produce (highly abstract) information about how one should be ethical and would not even supply a “How To” guide for getting the ethics from the printout into real-world institutions.

If ethics is going to be experimental and thus scientific, it is going to have to adapt science to itself and squeeze into the current mould of “science”. Ethics is about doing good and an experimental ethics should not produce theories about how to be good but should produce actual good actions.

The natural and social sciences have the goal of producing knowledge. Any application (ipods and central banks) are of secondary importance and not essential to the pursuit of the science. Physics and Economics produce Textbooks and Theories. Though Ethics has indeed also been traditionally considered a theoretical discipline, this position can no longer be held because (1) biologists, among others, have shown us that our ethical intuitions are evolutionarily contingent and (2) because ethics is a fundamentally different type of investigation as other sciences: ethics deals with the good and not the true. Ethics therefore should not produce textbooks but good deeds. Ethical textbooks, of course, exist, but they should only be seen as a means to an end.

An ethical science should not therefore produce knowledge, but action. And an experimental ethics should therefore experiment not on computers but on us people. What would that look like? It would look like people (a) describing a situation, (b) proposing a solution they suppose good, (c) implementing the idea and (d) evaluating the result, which might lead to (e) proposing a modified solution, etc. Such an experimental ethics would have the great advantage that it would produce good during the experimental process.

To return to Walter Fritz’s science of ethics, what he proposes does not do justice to the particular nature of that branch of human inquiry called ethics. What we often forget, and what philosophers and university rectors have for centuries now forgotten, is that ethics cannot be known (or taught) without being at the same time implemented. A good ethics teacher is a good ethics teacher. And a good ethical scientist can therefore be none other than a scientist who is becoming good.

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September 22, 2007

i don’t believe in freedom of the will

The concept of freedom is not relevant in ethics and should be only used to refer to political freedom. Let me explain: Political freedom is the freedom not to be physically coerced by someone else(s) to do something you do not want to do. This is a robust idea of freedom and one that is fundamental to the societies in which we live.  The moral idea of freedom, especially in its guise as freedom of the will, is a weak concept that has been borrowed from politics and should be returned intact.

There are two main ‘things’ to which ‘freedom’ refers when used in moral contexts. The first is ‘freedom of the will’. This is the supposed freedom we have to decide between A and B: Do i kill him or do i not? This is a weak version of freedom if only because it also applies to number of non-humans. The dog also asks itself: Do i pee on the carpet or do i not? This is no kind of freedom to get excited about.

In the end, this freedom is no more than society (or your master) teaching you (more or less forcefully) what it wants you to do. Your decisions will usually be more or less random, in the sense that you will decide for A or B depending of tiny, unrelated happenings in your far or recent past (what side of the bed you woke up on). There is no fundamental indeterminacy here, only low-level, bodily urges conflicting with more educated urges. Your decision is much more a complex calculation of What Would Happen Ifs than it is an act of unimpeded freedom.

What is actually special about this kind of freedom in human beings is that we are more conscious of making the decision than other animals are. We can watch ourselves as we calculate. This is not, however, a special feature of freedom, but of self-consciousness, which is a whole other matter.

The second type of freedom that appears in moral discussions is the higher level freedom to decide: Henceforth i only want to decide to do good things. That is, you decide not each and every time to do A or B, but you decide once and for all to only do B-type things and never do the A-type ones, no matter what the situation. This freedom is somewhat more like the robust political freedom in that it is some kind of fight between different inclinations within yourself. Nevertheless, even this meta-decision can be simply explained as society teaching you not only that you should do the good but also that you should want to do the good (this was, among others, Christianity’s big novelty).

In the end both types of moral freedom come up wanting. The first is no more than rules bumping up against one another in your brain; the second is a higher-order rules bumping up against all other rules in your brain. There is no good reason to call either of these situations free because they are no more than more or less successful socializations: you are not fighting against foreign powers in order to be able to do what you want to do, you are fighting against yourself, and at someone else’s behest at that.

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September 21, 2007

approximate moral laws

Kantian and utilitarian ethics have accustomed us to the idea that real ethics is based on strict rules, actually laws that should always be kept and are always valid. Besides the utter impracticality of such theories, it should be noted that there is no good reason why such stubborn rules should define our morality.

I think there are at least two alternatives that are much better suited to the Real World in which we live.

The first is to downgrade moral laws to rules of thumb. In this case these rules would apply most of the time in most cases, but certainly not all the time in all cases. This has the advantage of fitting in much better with current evolutionary research on the origins of morality that points to various rather contingent sources of our ethical intuitions and ideas. Another advantage is that such rules of thumb can very easily exist alongside one another without producing any ethical contradictions. Of course, two rules of thumb might point in very different directions, but, precisely because they are no more than rules of thumb, that does not call the very structure of our ethics into questions as does happen when rigorous versions of deontological or utilitarian ethics collide.

The second option for moving beyond inflexible scientific-like ethical laws is to reformulate them to include references to the finite nature of human beings, thereby mellowing their intransigence by taking our weaknesses into account. In this case the laws maintain their strict nature but simply don’t always apply when the rubber hits the road.

I rather favor the first option, though perhaps more for esthetic than any other reasons. Whichever route is taken though, it will be better than trying to be people who we are not and living up to standards that we cannot even imagine how to meet. We need to keep it simple and stupid as the computer people say.

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September 19, 2007

morality in our genes

There’s a piece at the NYT on the genetic/evolutionary origins of morality.

Don’t be fooled by the illustration at the top, the articles does not at all talk about the silly “throw the fat man in front of the train” argument that is so much in vogue of late (for those of you unaware of this “staple of ethics classes” here’s a bit at answers).

ht: Ed

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September 19, 2007

the uses of morality

Morality has long been considered to be a theory, by philosophers at least. Grand systems of knowledge have been produced to delineate exactly what should and should not be done. And most such theorists have been convinced, if not of the absolute validity of their own system, at least of the validity of their attempts. We humans tend to think – perhaps for ingrained biological or evolutionary reasons – that there is one big truth about ethics out there, only we need to hit upon it. This, i suggest, is the wrong way of going about the matter.

There is no single system of ethics lying at the foundation of the world. The very idea that such might be the case is at best a contingent evolutionary development of our species: getting people to believe in that ethics is absolutely valid was a good means of keeping them in line and, long long ago, ensuring the survival of our little groups. We still often cannot help but think that killing is either right or wrong and that it has always been so. But it has not always been so, and claiming otherwise is nothing but historical imperialism. Morality has always changed and will continue to do so, not because it is approaching the One True Morality, but because it is adapting to new environments.

If any moral idea should make sense to our current, tech-savvy and result-oriented world it is that morality, like everything else, is a tool and not an absolute truth. Morality should be no more than a set of rules, habits, etc. that help us achieve what we want. We use morality to make ourselves happy. And by ‘we’ i mean all of us taken together.

We must give up the idea that morality and happiness are two separate and not always intersecting roads. We must not be moral and hope we will then be happy. We must instead shape our morality so that it makes us, all of us, happy. Morality is not the end, but only a means – a means to achieving what we want.

Admittedly ‘we’ and ‘what we want’ are impossibly vague concepts; but morality has never been cut and dry. ‘We’ is an ever-expanding idea that needn’t restrict itself to people. ‘What we want’ is at times quite clear, at times hopelessly muddled, but that is not the fault of morality – it is simply due to our diversity and fickleness. These two concepts cannot be done away with, rather we must work with them, make them work. Morality is, by nature, messy.

We must learn to use morality and not let old-fashioned ideas about it use us. Well, that’s what i say…

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September 19, 2007

on stress, again

stress seems to depend on mood and perspective, which are in effect perhaps about the same thing (a mood being an emotional perspective). Whereas the former are not easy to directly influence, the latter certainly can be quickly changed. A given event can look horrible from one side and quite fun and enjoyable from another. Of course, both aspects are part of “what that event is”, but one can be better to focus upon than the other. You must just try to catch yourself when stressed out by an event and try to find the “right” perspective – the one that will keep you happy and going.

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September 19, 2007

that thing called autonomy

Kant, the old and dead german philosopher claimed that we should only follow those rules that we have given ourselves through reason and never (unreflectedly) follow rules that come from others. This is what he called auto-nomy. As it turns out, this works at best for adult, knowledgeable and sane people. And even they usually follow traditions, their moral intuition, or just do what they are told to do; doing any otherwise would be pointless.

Autonomy is actually much better suited to humanity as a whole. It is all of us who should only act according to rules we have intentionally set for ourselves. Together we can be autonomous, on our own we don’t get very far.

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September 17, 2007

on ethics, religion and science

Ethics and religion must join forces if they are to stand up to science. What is more, they must, so to speak, beat science at its own game; that is, they must become scientific. Only then will they speak intelligibly and perhaps be able to steer that mighty but mostly blind colossus that science has become. Science has advanced so far that it is now explaining the very origins of both ethics and religion to us. This can either be construed as a mean rear-guard attack or as a moment of true freedom. Either ethics and religion accept their humble and sometimes base origins in order to emancipate themselves from them; or they will retrench themselves behind mysterious non-scientific truths and die a violent death. The truth that science has offered to ethics and religion must be received, but this needn’t signify dependence. Rather, this is an opportunity to understand what ethics and religion have been, and thus what they might become.

Our world is changing rapidly and we find ourselves hard pressed to keep up with it. The incredible social, cultural, technological and ecological changes overtaking the planet have caused profound moral and religious trauma. We no longer know what to do. The only solution to this very serious predicament that i can think of is to reshape both ethics and religion so that they too can begin to continuously change and keep pace with our world.

We had long thought that both religion and ethics were immutable realities that we needed only properly understand. They have turned out to be but contingent aspects of who we are. Indeed, they seem to have developed long ago as unashamedly practical solutions to banal down-to-earth problems. They are thus no more than rough and ready tools that we have been tweaking, most of the time unwittingly, over millions of years. The time has now come to begin using these tools with full knowledge of what we are doing.

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September 17, 2007

dealing with stress

thoughts for myself:

  1. identify the situations that tend to stress you
  2. if possible, minimize these situations
  3. do not overreact to these situations. control your emotions and tell yourself to calm down and not get carried away
  4. take a deep breath and take another if the first one didn’t work
  5. don’t stress about situations before they arise, i.e. let tomorrow worry about itself

points 1-4 are a brief summary of this.

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