Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is everyone equal?

It's a fundamental tenant of modern liberal societies that all humanity is equal in some major sense of the word. Perhaps this means that their lives are of equal worth etc. Obviously people are different when it comes to things like intellectual ability, physical ability, physical morphology, and psychological profile and disposition. These are clearly not up for debate. But the law and traditional morality has always considered one life as equal to another in some set of moral senses.

However, in this post I'd like to question this assumption. What can these qualities be? Some ineffable sense of humanity which everyone has in mere virtue of their humanity? This is not plausible for aliens or artificially created conscious beings may lack humanity yet their lives have all the value of humans lives. So that suggestion of some nebulous "humanity" which all humans have and makes it so that all of us are equal seems dubious. For whatever quality one may have, it may vary between people. With regard to virtues and vices, people are different like anything else. Think about animals. Must liberal egalitarians maintain that animals are not equal to humans in basic worth; that a human's life is worth more, that it is a bigger tragedy for a human to die or to suffer than an animal. I suspect that even most animal rights activists believe this. Given the choice to between an arbitrary human being and an arbitrary cat or lobster to avoid some great harm but not both, most animal rights activist will choose the human to avoid the harm. Human lives are simply worth more they will say which isn't to say that non human animal lives are worth nothing. Now people probably think this because humans have more capabilities more potential or have richer mental lives than other creatures. Thus they reason, human rights are more important. Human lives are more important. Human suffering etc. Of course this is not always the case; some intelligent animals such as great apes and dolphins and elephants probably have more capabilities and richer inner mental lives than severely retarded people.

However, if the value of a life is dependent on these factors (capabilities, richness of mental lives, etc) and not some intangible "humanity" then human beings individually vary in these qualities from one person to the next just as humanity vary from other species though in smaller degrees. So it seems that at least somewhat plausibly that human lives can vary in their basic value with some lives worth more. This seems more plausible to me given certain examples. Surely the lives of moral saints are worth more than Nazis? Gandhi's life, his suffering, his basic well-being is of more concern than Hitlers is it not?

However, though this may be all well and true, it doesn't mean that the law ought to respect it for practical concerns. Because it is too difficult to judge the worth of lives, the law may nbot be the right place to adjudicate and all lives ought by the law to weigh all human lives equally. Things like organ donation, allocation of health, economic and other resources ought to follow the egalitarian basic rule of thumb despite acknowledging that it is morally false.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Online civility, the democratic process and why sometimes calling a moron a "moron" is just the right thing to do

I've always maintained that civility in deliberation is overrated and may even be detrimental to reasoned deliberation and thus the democratic process. There is a recent study which by some accounts purports to show otherwise. I really like studies like this and I think X-phi philosophers ought to be carrying out studies like this. However, the study does not actually show what it explicitly claims to, viz, that the lack of "civility" (i.e., name calling or other rude, boorish behavior in online comments of a science related article) erodes reasoned, democratic deliberation. In fact, I will argue that the spread of this study's message and especially how it has been framed in the mass media might erode such a process.

The study used a sample of 1,183 people. They read an article about nanotechnology. A control group read a version of the article with comments that were uncivil and included insults such as "If you don't believe that nanotechnology is harmful, you're an idiot!" Others read the same article with comments that did not include rude, insulting and otherwise uncivil comments. The study's authors claim that the rude and uncivil comments made readers of the comments more "polarized," that is, made them "double down" in their views.

A quick terminological note: The media has reported this study as about online trolling (see here, here, here and here, e.g.). However, online trolling as it is commonly defined, isn't simply about using such rude and uncivil language. It is about gaining attention through insincere posts purporting to express some viewpoint but in fact, is meant to instigate an emotional reaction. You can use uncivil language without trolling. To the study's author's credit, they did not use the term "trolling." Science journalists, being what they are, reporting on this story are the one's guilty of such sloppy use of language.

Anyway, back to the substantive portion of the study. The study concluded with:
Online communication and discussion of new topics such as emerging technologies has the potential to enrich public deliberation. Nevertheless, this study’s ļ¬ndings show that online incivility may impede this democratic goal.
This is to stretch their findings to an area that is not supported by their own data. What they actually found was that readers of those comments had stronger views than they did before after reading uncivil comments. That "polarization" (in the context of this study, polarization of subjective risk associated with nanotech) in itself does not show that it is bad for deliberation never mind the democratic process. There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions on some topic. In fact, having them, all else being equal, is a sign of a strong democracy. So they reasoned from the fact that readers' opinions were made stronger to the non sequitur that this may "impede" the "democratic goal."

Instead, what does impede the democratic goal is not strong opinions per se but intractability, i.e., stubborn, persistent opinions despite the presentation of overwhelming counter evidence. Now it may be the case that having strong opinions will make one less likely to change one's opinions in light of such counter evidence but that wasn't what was studied in this study. Furthermore, there are decided counter examples. Scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians and some layman for example have very strong opinions yet to do science, philosophy, mathematics and many things competently means changing one's opinion's in accord with the evidence. So there are people out there who though have strong opinions are far more likely than most to update their views in so far as the evidence warrants it. So it's not at least contradictory that you can both have a strong view yet not be resistant to rational updating of belief. This is obviously not to say all scientists, philosophers, etc are this way. Many stubbornly hold on to outdated views but they are in general far better at conforming their views to the evidence than most.

But even assuming that most people will become more obstinate when their opinions are strengthened in just such a way (unlike scientists, et al), it doesn't follow that this is generally detrimental to public deliberation in all incidents. In fact, it may even be harmful in many cases not to be uncivil.

Why is this? Take the example that there is an issue, say, global warming. There are global warming denialists and those who affirm the existence of anthropocentric global warming. If both sides have strong but obstinate opinions, it is far better for both truth and the world than the alternative that only the denialists have strong opinions. This is because the denialists are wrong and furthermore wrong about something that gravely affect our and our children's well-being. Incendiary language may be the motivating factor to strengthen the views of both sides so that there is more balance. When those who do know better don't have as strong as an opinion as those who don't know better, this creates an imbalance that harms deliberation for those who don't know better will be more obstinate (again, assuming that it will make them obstinate to view change) and may dominate a discussion.

Now where the findings are relevant in the ways the authors suggest is when there is no definitive evidence on some controversial topic (such as nanotech perhaps). Notice that the example I used above of global warming is rather black and white when it comes to the evidence. There is overwhelming evidence for not only anthrocentric global warming that this very well will lead to disastrous consequences (in fact, it already has for large parts of the world) and little evidence contrary. But in some cases, we don't know too much either way. For example, in many unsettled scientific, philosophical, political, issues there are tentative evidence for many different but conflicting views. It would be prudent as the study suggest to be civil in discussions about the veracity of these issues so as to prevent intractability of viewpoints. That much is clearly true. But in much of public discourse, one side is clearly right and the other is clearly wrong. Evolution is true. The earth is not 5,000-6,000 years old. Iraq does not have WMD. Vaccines do not cause autism. Smoking is dangerous to your health. Etc, etc. So in cases where a person's view is so strongly at odds with reality, it may be good for others engaged in deliberation to call a spade a spade; polarization may be what is called for especially when the obstinate, irrational side is overconfident while the side of reason is acting like a (to put it in mildly PC terms) wussy but in less definitive matters and among more reasonable people, it may be far more prudent to remain open minded, skeptical etc and to facilitate this kind of atmosphere, it may, as the study suggests, mean refraining from uncivil behavior.

Furthermore, the study did not study if "uncivil" behavior made the interlocutors more likely to change/update their views in light of new evidence. That would have been far more interesting because it is directly related to reasoned deliberation, the kind of deliberation necessary for a healthy democracy. Instead, the study focused on non participants of the discussion (3rd party "lurkers"). Being called out a fool may or may not make one more tractable to rational debate. Here's what I suspect. I think being insulted online will not make one more or less likely to change one's viewpoint if only one person does the name calling but if there are more than two people doing the name calling at the interlocutor, he or she will be far more likely than not to change their viewpoints. Sometimes it takes a little community effort to get ignorant and intractable people to be more reasonable. Just listening or being more open minded often requires a little peer push which may involve a little incivility to be truly effective. This suspicion is subject of course to empirical evidence and I hope it will be tested someday (maybe it already has but I don't know where the study(ies) is to be found).

I worry that the spread of this message may even have a net detrimental effect on reasoned deliberation. Here's my reasoning. Who likely reads articles about this study? It is more likely that those who are interested in this study are the more educated and a little more reasonable than the average person who tend to have opinions that tend to be stronger than the available evidence warrants. But if those who are more reasonable are made to think that this kind of behavior is detrimental, they are the ones that will curb their future behavior by being more "civil" online while those who are not so reasonable (likely less educated and those not likely to read these kinds of articles) will remain their obstinate and uncivil selves. This creates in imbalance that doesn't seem very beneficial to reasoned deliberation. Sadly, it seems that some the study has already influenced some actions detrimental to public discourse. For example on the respected Popular Science online magazine's comments section, the comment function has been shut off (looks like permanently) and the moderator's reasoning is partly based on the results of this study. It is sad to see that you'd throw the baby out with the bath water. Despite the fact that many comments are low quality, there are sometimes informative posts and they are worth having despite the bad apples. Bad apples often do not spoil the whole bunch. You deal with poor quality comments by doing your job as a moderator, not by complete censorship.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Syrian intervention? (Hell no)

My post on another blog about the ethical considerations of possible Syrian military intervention below.
It looks like the US might go to war or at least militarily intervene with Syria (also see here). I am usually against military interventions and I believe that the situation in Syria does not so far warrant justification for intervention. I will talk both about wars and other kinds of mass state sponsored killings (aerial bombings, drone strikes, etc) as military intervention (for the sake of brevity) but I think the same principles apply in both cases. Most military interventions of humanitarian a nature has been unjust in hindsight and from this history alone we ought to be cautious of any proposal for future wars. I usually tend to think in terms of the five criteria I will lay down below for justification in foreign military intervention on behalf of humanitarian reasons. I think the principles are common sense and conjunctive (meaning that all five must be satisfied to justify foreign military intervention). I also believe that there might be additional principles that warrant inclusion as further conjuncts or disjuncts and will modify my 5 accordingly if they are presented to me convincingly. I might simply have not thought about this issue as hard as I could have or haven’t been exposed to the issue to know of alternative thinking. Here are my five 1. Consent. What I mean by consent is that some degree of agreement or endorsement ought to be secured from the population in which we are going to war on behalf for the intervention (in this case, the Syrian population) and that a majority of the population ought to consent to reasonably fair and neutrally worded opinion surveys. Some reservations and qualifications: First several surveys might have to be taken (with different wording or across different times and sample places) to insure more stable results. But consent on behalf of those we claim to fight for seems like a no-brainer. Two: what a “majority” means ought to be left for debate in some public space but I think it’s reasonable that it should be a “large” majority, perhaps more than 80%. This ought to be stable over all samples so as to reduce the chance of regional and temporal volatility. A military intervention probably impacts the whole country in profound ways so care and rigor in the ways I have just outlines seems reasonable to me in surveying public opinion. Granted it is often hard to ascertain public opinion through polls due to the political situation in many countries (the Assad regime might not want foreigners meddling with polls) but secret polls are often effective and have been used by international community such as the UN. Finally, this should be informed consent. Meaning that the questions on the surveys ought to reflect reality and the grim possibilities of war. Just because a population may want to overthrow their regime doesn’t mean that they will accept just anyone and anyway to do it. Syrians may agree, for example, that Assad must forcibly go by overwhelming majority but they may not agree that the US or its allies should be the ones doing the over-throwing. They may also fear and reject allowing foreign military or non military help of rebels to overthrow their government for (reasonable) fear that the rebels are Islamic militants, for example. The survey must also make it know that wars of intervention often turn out really bad (especially for the civilians due to collateral damage or the subsequent military occupation to insure stability during the post-war rebuilding process). The common people often become worse off as a result (take a look at Iraq as just one example of a case where the population almost universally agree in poll after poll that after the US led invasion that they are substantially worse than they were under Saddam Hussein). We don’t know what the Syrian people think at this moment. Worse still, no attempt has even been seriously made to ascertain their opinions as far as I know about foreign US led military intervention. 2. Proportionality. This along with 1 is commonly used by just war theorists to evaluate the justness of any humanitarian war proposal. This is the cure-not-being-worse-than-the-disease criteria. There must be reasonable guarantees that the war will not result in even worse humanitarian crisis than it aims to solve. Wars rarely solve humanitarian problems. We know this from history. The ones that do solve humanitarian problems are of massive proportions (such as Nazi extermination camps and Japanese imperial aggression in Asia). Is the Syrian crisis approaching this level of humanitarian crisis? I’m not aware of any studies that accurately show that it is. 100,000 people have died in Syria from the crisis according to UN’s numbers but we don’t know who is primarily responsible (Assad’s regime, his supporters, or the rebels). I suspect that all have roughly equal roles in the crisis but I’m not sure and I don’t know of any accurate and certain information that currently exists that decisively shows that the Assad regime is mostly responsible. Keep in mind that according to some of the most reliable data we have on the Iraq casualties, about 1.5 million people (mostly civilians) have died because of the latest Iraq war and countless survivors are injured. The infrastructure destroyed and the whole country in deep fear of fundamentalist and fractional terror. There are now far more birth defects in Iraq from the radioactive munitions used by the US than Hiroshima after the nuke. As we see from this and many other examples, war can snowball out of control into internecine violence even when they are waged on behalf of humanitarian reasons (or at least ostensible ones). What guarantees have been offered by military powers that Syria will not become another Iraq? What proof is there that the many rebel factions will be better safeguards for human rights and democracy than the Assad regime? How reasonable are these claims? 3. Legitimacy. With this and the two further criteria below, I suspect that they are a bit more controversial than the first two. But I think international law is important and its thus important that wars conducted must surpass some kind of legitimizing hurdle such as UN agreement. The international committee and its opinion matters in international affairs such as foreign wars. Unilateral declarations of wars are problematic partially because they don’t seek the consultation of the rest of the world in a democratizing and process and respects the rule of law. 4. Exhaustion. Diplomacy and other overtly non violent means must be exhausted before violent military actions taken. Sanctions may also be an option on this list. 5. Accuracy. The reasons given by the invading/attacking power must be accurate. Why have this criterion? The reason is basically the same as why you’d want the Constitution to protect you from unlawful searches. If the police thinks you have child porn on your computer but it doesn’t have any evidence, they don’t have the right to search your house even if the search yields, say, some drug paraphernalia. Ex post facto justifications are illegitimate for a reason: to discourage the authorities from indiscriminate searches by the authorities. In the case of Syria, the prevailing narrative by those wanting to attack is that Assad is the primary perpetrator of the human rights abuses in his country. If it is shown that this is not true (even if other factors may justify an attack is subsequently found). Those are the five criteria I think are reasonable. Furthermore, because killing is a serious business and modern military interventions which often involves killing on a massive scale and with significant civilian casualty are thus a fortiori serious and standards of proof must also reflect that seriousness. A relatively high standard of proof for each of these criteria ought to be satisfied; mild and merely plausible evidence ought not suffice. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps such a standard or higher ought to be considered for military intervention. There will be some who think that the five criteria I have set out are too stringent making the chances of just wars of humanitarian nature unnecessarily restrained/conservative and increasing the chances of gross humanitarian crisis. They may have more lax criteria or standards of proof for example. But the onus is on them to show what their criteria are. If they have none they are basically holding that war ought to be subject to the whims of those in power. There will be some who accept some but not all of the criteria I have set out but still believe that intervention is advisable. In that case, the onus is on them to show that the criteria they accept have been met. I believe that not only has all of the criteria I set out above not been met (satisfying conjunctivity requirement) but that none have been met to even a minimally sufficient degree of proof and thus even if you only accept some but not all, the justification for military intervention will be unjust. Many of the western media claims are incredibly suspect such as the claims that Assad used chemical weapons on civilians. Not only is there little evidence of this but the evidence presented seems to implicate the rebels as the culprits who use them. For example, Assad refused entry to UN inspectors for months and only three days after granting them unlimited access to inspect weapons (what appears to be) a chemical attack occurred only 15 minutes drives outside of the UN inspection team. The US seems adamant not to investigate further stating that further investigation would be useless (one senior White House official stating that the evidence would be “corrupted” by Assad’s shelling of the sites) that and making clear that they have already reached a decisive conclusion (Cameron’s UK government also seemed to be just as headstrong about intervention, irrespective of pending UN findings). See the quote at the end in this article from Cameron).

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Poem: "Davidsonian Dilemma"

A metaphor is a simile

A simile is like a metaphor

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My reply to a podcast about gun control


The podcats is here and it interviews Jeff McMahan.

Thank you for this excellent discussion and McMahan is probably my favorite contemporary ethicist but even though I do not consider myself a libertarian, I am skeptical of McMahan's anti-gun arguments.

Two considerations. 1. a pragmatic one. It is going to be down right impossible or very difficult to prohibit all guns. Let's keep in mind that the two shootings in the US that set off the debate recently are both due to someone stealing a gun from another person (in Sandyhook, the man stole the weapons from his mother who was the legal owner). Gun control would not have prevented these two mass shootings unless that involved taking guns from legally registered owners. Our constitution and our public and our political system will not allow it. So we are left with the option of limited gun control, not outright prohibition which would involve the taking away of guns from people who have legally bought them. But the overall empirical evidence here so far shows that gun control measures are not effective at reducing violent crime. In fact, when you look at large studies there is not even a correlation never mind a causal relationship between gun ownership and gun crimes. Even if it were show show some effect, it would have to be more than a little as this is a constitutional issue and thus the burden of proof is on the gun control advocates and that burden is set high.

2nd, the issue with many countries with substantially lower gun related crimes but also high gun ownership shows that the problem is likely deeper. I fully accept that US culture is far more violent than those other countries though I am an American and that this is the deeper reason and ought to be the target of violence reduction. It seems more practical (for the 1st consideration above) and more morally relevant to focus on this. It seems defeatist to say that we should focus on gun control as opposed to focusing on the deeper causes of gun violence, namely a violent culture that sees using guns as a way to solve problems.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Another review

Review of Surviving Death by Mark Johnston (here).


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Back with the thought of the day

Been having trouble with blogger and the censors so haven't been posting but still thinking. But a recurring thought has been occurring to me that the type of society one lives in may affect what kind of ethics one chooses in this way and this has implications for meta-ethics. Perhaps living in less violent societies where people are more considerate to each other in daily contact will have people who are more utilitarian in their outlook on life. My reasoning for this prediction is that people will be more utilitarian in their moral reasoning in these types of societies is that they will expect the same from others such that when they sacrifice benefits to their own or their loved ones for the better of the group, they may expect that favors will be returned. There is thus both reasonable expectation and demand for more selfless behavior benefiting the whole but perhaps harming some individual. These considerations seem to favor more utilitarian ethics for that society but not for others.

In less considerate societies, people may be more deontological or virtue centered because the expectation and demand for reciprocity in moral decision making is less pronounced and a moral system that protects the just from being patsies is more preferable. But now we make morality socially relative and real moral dilemmas thus become relativized (think trolley problems or other classics such as involuntary organ donation). How can we decide these cases objectively and do real moral debates today hinge on such contingent factors? It seems that at least sometimes objectivity can be seriously undermined for morality though I still am not buying a complete anti-realist case for morality.