Saturday, April 28, 2012

What is the problem of letting die?

I'll quote in full this famous moral dilemma from the wiki

Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence ISBN 0-19-510859-0 is a philosophical book by Peter K. Unger, published in 1996. Inspired by Peter Singer's 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Unger argues that for people in the developed world to live morally, they are morally obliged to make sacrifices to help mitigate human suffering and premature death in the third world, and further that it is acceptable (and morally right) to lie, cheat, and steal to mitigate suffering. 
Unger argues that the intuitive moral judgments most people have of several hypothetical moral scenarios, The Shallow Pond, The Vintage Sedan, and The Envelope, are inconsistent.
Unger presents the hypothetical case of The Vintage Sedan
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg. 
Unger reports that most people respond strongly that abandoning the hitchhiker is abominable behavior, and he contrasts this near-universal harsh judgment with the lenient judgments most people give to The Envelope
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. 
Unger argues that the factors that distinguish The Envelope from The Vintage Sedan, in which morality compels us to make a sacrifice, are not morally significant, using thought experiments such as variations on the trolley problem to illustrate his point. Unger contends that psychological factors obscure the moral questions, and that our moral intuitions about problems such as these provide an inconsistent window into our true moral values
Unger conspicuously indicates that the author's royalties from the sales of this book go to UNICEF and to Oxfam America.
I wrote a paper once outlining my objections to the basic argument Unger and Singer gives. Here's my basic argument in a nutshell.
My issue with their argument is that they seemed to me to have used a bad analogy between saving the drowning child and donating. These are not analogous cases and the argument seems to rely on an intuition pump that bridges the two cases. That bridging is what gives the bite it has. 
In the case of donating money to, say UNICEF, to save children, I believe that the reason people aren't as likely to criticize or blame others or themselves for not donating is because they understand, consciously or subconsciously, that donating commits one to far more than the case of saving the child. 
In the case of donating, the case commits one to more, because the argument can iterate itself. Say you donate 10 dollars. The argument can be applied again making an additional $10 donation morally obligatory, and so on until all of one's disposable income is gone such that a person is on the brink of destitution. The demanding obligation does not discharge itself after one donation for most people and may not do so until one is in essential poverty. Both Singer and Unger seems to bite the bullet and see that this unforgiving conclusion must be accepted. 
But now notice that there is no more analogy to be made because in the case of the saving of a drowning child, that was just a one-off, incident. The example only asks the reader to save the drowning child once. There is no stipulated or implied further commitments.  
Now a better analogy would be made between donating all one's disposable income and something like a scenario where you'd have to continuously save drowning children, say, once every hour for the rest of your life. 
I suspect that most people would still say that you are morally required to do so (if you physically can) but that we ought not blame someone for choosing to let all those children die. It is simply too harsh a requirement. It's like asking someone to be a moral saint. We cannot blame someone for their all too human weaknesses especially when we know that we may not have the moral resolve and integrity to choose such a harsh life ourselves. So even though it may be morally required to keep saving children and to donate all our disposable income, people ought not be blamed for not doing so because the demand is too harsh.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Evolution of morality and money

What does money have in common with morality? Think about money. The original purpose of money may have been as a tool. It is used symbolically and as a stand-in or proxy for more useful items, items that people desire and need. Its sole purpose was a fungible item. Its utility was instrumental. It provides ways to do things that otherwise would be difficult or impossible.

But we all know that today, many people view money as an end in itself (such as misers). Many greedy people take pleasure or utility in making money, hording it, etc. Even some regular people may value some of this money-is-a-good-in-itself trait. They have no plans to spend it, to buy things they desire but the money itself gives them pleasure and happiness. Likewise, loss of that money may constitute grief even if some people have already got all the material items and services they could ever want. Most of us, though, still primarily view money as a means to an end, that is, as a means to obtain goods and services which we directly desire.

Now consider the evolutionary purpose of morality. It may have also served an evolutionary end; that is, the propagation of our species (more specifically our genes). But we have come (and by we, I mean those of us especially concerned with morality such as philosophers and other morally conscious people) to see morality as an end in itself. In other words, we have categoricalized morality (in the sense that Kant was using "categorical"). In viewing it as such, we may have even altered the structure of morality itself. So instead of seeing morality as instrumental (whether it may be as a tool to propagate the species or to propagate our own utility or the utility of the whole human society, etc) we see it as a good in itself. But some of our intuitions about the instrumental aspects of morality are still in play which is why I suspect gives some of the appeal of consequentialist ethics. That appeal may have some evolutionary roots.

But I also suspect that the categorical appeal, perhaps newer as an evolutionary development, may also have its roots in the same way that appeal for money has for the miser, that is, it is also culturally instilled. It becomes the end in itself, the good will of Kant or his categorical imperative, is good regardless of the consequences because morality shifts its values the same way that society shifts their values for goods so that some people value money in itself instead of the things it could buy. Morality becomes categorical instead of hypothetical in the same way that money becomes a direct source of good for many people (misers) and not a means to other ends. A tension between these two different ways of looking at morality is most clearly seen when the categorical and the hypothetical comes apart in practical deliberation as infamous philosophers' examples have often focused on such as in trolley problems and other thought experiments pitting our categorical values against our hypothetical values. I wonder how much of the rift in ethics can be explained by this analogy with money?

In this way, we may feel the tug in two directions. On one hand, we feel the appeal of consequentialism because we still see the instrumental value of morality (the hypotheical imperatives) but we also see that at the other end is categorical value that some actions/character traits/motives are good in themselves the consequences not even relevant to their goodness (an extreme example of this is the famous dialogue between Kant and his friend, Benjamin Constant regarding the morality of lying to save an innocent person's life).  

In saying the things I just said, I want to make clear that I believe that both our categorical and hypothetical intuitions are a result of both evolution and culture unlike perhaps with money. The miser's value in having money is likely purely a cultivated value. He wasn't born with the disposition to value money though he probably was born with the disposition to value certain things that money could buy (food, status, power, shelter, attention from the opposite sex ,etc). But those who favor the categorical values in morality likely have their intuitions both as a result of dispositions given by evolution and culture. Evolution perhaps helped instill values that favored a categorical outlook to avoid certain kinds of rationalizations of immoral behavior (see The Myth or Morality for a defense of this evolutionary perspective on the categorical). But cultures also can instill categorical values (reading Kant can enforce one's innate dispositions to value them, e.g.). Whereas reading, say, Bentham, may enforce our hypothetical values even though we may have some of these intuitions given us by our natural dispositions from evolution.  

So in this way, we may have intuitions both natural and cultivated that pull in different directions and perhaps this may explain why meta-ethical debates are so difficult to resolve.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Critique of Brzezinski

I posted this on another blog.

Brzezinski: Dangerously Wrong

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a well known political scientist and the media often gives him opportunities to voice opinions on foreign policy. How deserving is this accorded credibility? Well, though I have not read much from him, from the looks of this article he wrote in foreignpolicy it would appear that his competence as a expert on international affairs is grossly inadequate and, moreover, because that incompetence is combined with influence, it makes him very dangerous too. 
So I will only criticize that article. It is about the dangers of a declining US and the rise of China. (Anyone who is more familiar with his writing and views, please disabuse me of my ignorance if I am shown to misunderstand him.) 
My criticisms are two fold: First a hermeneutic critique and then a theoretical one. On the one hand, he seems to have made severely deficient errors in interpreting and applying the ideas in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The theoretical critique relies on findings in modern social science. 
In Brzezinski’s article, he argues that the decline of the US and the rise of China posses a great threat to the security of the world. He gives almost no explicit support for this pessimistic view except for a brief reference to an ominous “Hobbessian world,” an allusion to the thoughts of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. 
While a sudden, massive crisis of the American system — for instance, another financial crisis — would produce a fast-moving chain reaction leading to global political and economic disorder, a steady drift by America into increasingly pervasive decay or endlessly widening warfare with Islam would be unlikely to produce, even by 2025, an effective global successor. No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being. Rather than a world where dreams of democracy flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.Perhaps we can reconstruct the argument he has in mind from this suggestion. 
Brzezinski may be construing states as similar to what Hobbes viewed people. Hobbes thought, famously and overly pessimistically, that life was “nasty, brutish and short” in a state of nature for human beings. The only way to establish civil society was for everyone to give up much of the freedoms they have in that state of nature (such as the freedom to kill and rob one another) and to submit to an all powerful sovereign (usually a king) who will use force and coercion to enforce cooperation among all for the benefit of all. This sovereign has many powers including life and death over his subjects. Why would anyone submit to this? Because there are clear benefits to living in a civilized society. One gives up certain freedoms from the state of nature in order to achieve some peace-of-mind and more opportunities for cooperative relationships and hence mutual benefit. This is why Hobbessian political philosophy is often termed a kind of “social contract theory” (if I have misunderstood Hobbes, I hope Allen, who likely has studied him more extensively than I, will correct me). 
In order for Hobbes to get his argument off the ground, he had to rely on several criteria and premises. 1. that everyone in a state of nature is roughly equal in strength, intelligence, cunning, etc. and mostly care about themselves and thus there will be a perpetual state of “war of all against all.” 2. An absolute sovereign needs to be all powerful. 3. He or she has the implicit or explicit consent of all governed and 4. He or she is disinterested between his subjects and applies the rule of law fairly to insure the benefit of all. 
Brzezinski seems to suggest that the US is analogous to such an absolute sovereign and the other states of the world are analogous to people in Hobbes’s world. He also assumes that without an absolute sovereign the world would devolve into something analogous to people in the state of nature, a state of war of all against all. How accurate is this? 
Hobbes’s argument requires that all premises set out above are true (it’s complicated why his argument requires all these premises). Not only do states not satisfy all of Hobbes’ premises for his argument which is aimed at individual people and an absolute sovereign, they seem to satisfy none so there is a glaring disanalogy between states and people. Some non-absolute sovereign states are far more powerful than others and thus is not analogous to Hobbes’s first premise. China, for example, can obliterate the tiny state of San Marino quite literally in seconds by pressing one button. 
The US does not behave in the way an absolute sovereign behaves in a Hobbesian world. It constantly undermines international law and is itself a partisan actor. It is not impartial but unquestioningly biased for its own interests and those of its allies. Its unilateral military actions are not meant to enforce international law but constantly undermines it and it does so for its own interests to the detriment of everyone else. Besides that, other states likely would not consent to absolute rule by the US even if the US does have absolute power over everyone which, of course, is certainly untrue. There are already some world powers that are close in military might to that of the US and under the right circumstances may defeat it in a war (US wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan are just a few examples). 
So there appears to be few similarities between people and states and between an absolute Hobbessian sovereign and the US in the scheme of a Hobbesian framework. Brzezinski’s analogy breaks down on those two fronts. 
But his folly does not end there. He assumes that without an absolute Hobbessian sovereign there cannot or is unlikely to evolve peaceful cooperation in a multipolar world with many roughly equally powerful states without an absolute sovereign. For the sake of argument, assume that Brzezinski is right that the US is currently such an absolute sovereign. Is he then also correct that as China matches the US in power there cannot evolve peaceful cooperation between states and that international affairs will likely devolve into a “state of nature” where all is against all because the optimal strategy would be not cooperating? 
That is pure rubbish. 
First of all, why did Hobbes think that in a state of nature people will devolve into such a state of war of all against all? Some modern philosophers have argued that Hobbes was thinking of a scenario similar to a one-off prisoner’s dilemma game. In this game, it is always rational not to cooperate with another player for defecting is the optimal choice (it strictly dominates in the jargon).

Cooperate3, 30, 5
Defect5, 01, 1

Thus one can argue that players ought to devolve into a Hobbessian State of Nature in situations that are modeled by this game and when there is no absolute sovereign to coerce or enforce rules to cooperate. 
But one-off prisoner dilemma games often do not model situations in the real world. Rather relevant situations in the real world are more accurately modeled by iterated prisoner dilemma games (with memory). Here many games are repeated one after another with indefinite (or unknown) number of games. That seems far more like reality because we don’t only play only a single “game” with other players (other people or other states for that matter) in the world and just “go home” afterword. Rather we are stuck with each other for good or bad, doomed to either cooperate or defect in many repeated situations. Moreover, we remember how each behaved in previous games and update our future decision accordingly to take into account that information. 
So lets say that in the future, there is relative decline of the US and that is balanced by an ascending China such that there is now a bipolar world with two roughly equally powerful superpowers and thus no one “absolute sovereign” (I’m abstracting from the more likely scenario that it will likely turn into a multipolar world with more than two equally powerful superpowers). Does that mean it is rational for both countries to not cooperate (to defect) such as in one-off prisoner’s dilemma games? No. 
The optimal strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemma games is the famous tit-for-tat strategy. In this game, cooperation can spontaneously evolve and it is completely rational to cooperate. The best strategy is to cooperate at first then play tit-for-tat with random (or actually pseudo-random) forgiveness if the other player keeps defecting. The basic strategy is that one ought to always cooperate unless provoked (this is called a “nice” strategy) and once in a while forgiving non cooperative behavior by cooperating which stops “death spirals” that is, repeated, alternating revenge tactics. Such a strategy is optimal and do not require an absolute sovereign to enforce cooperation. 
The success of the tit for tat strategy, which is largely cooperative despite that its name emphasizes an adversarial nature, took many by surprise. In successive competitions various teams produced complex strategies which attempted to “cheat” in a variety of cunning ways, but tit for tat eventually prevailed in every competition. 
This result may give insight into how groups of animals (and particularly human societies) have come to live in largely (or entirely) cooperative societies, rather than the individualistic “red in tooth and claw” way that might be expected from individuals engaged in a Hobbesian state of nature. 
The more cooperative players are to begin with the quicker and more beneficial the strategy will work to the benefit of all players. However, as many game theorists are also quick to point out, trust is asymmetric: it is far easier to break than to build back up once it is broken. Distrust or broken trust also has multiplier effects and is contagious. Rather than consent to be ruled by an absolute sovereign, in situations modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it is most rational to instead build trust from the beginning. The US has consistently undermined trust in international affairs by its capricious unilateral actions, military, political and economic. But the faster people start building trust and cooperating, the more beneficial this strategy will be for everyone. Even the iterated prisoner’s dilemmas underscores the actual situation in the world for these games assume that all players are only interested in themselves. In the real world, interests often overlap and, moreover, there exists some instances of empathy, altruism, friendship and alliances across nations (some sense of cosmopolitanism and the brotherhood of mankind). 
We can excuse Hobbes’s ignorance for he lived 300 years before the development of modern game theory. Brzezinski cannot rely on such an excuse. His argument seems to be dependent on the assumption that states in the world takes on a Hobbessian structure with the US as absolute sovereign and furthermore the world needs such a structure to maintain peaceful cooperation. Not only is he wrong, and furthermore, wrong, but he is dangerously wrong. He has likely misunderstood and misapplied Hobbes’s ideas which is itself deeply flawed. By arguing that the world needs an absolute sovereign and, hence, presumably promoting international support for continued American hegemony instead of embracing and promoting a multipolar world with rational and trustworthy actors, Brzezinski may be undermining the possibility of peaceful global cooperation.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Is there an obligation to resurrect extinct groups?

I'm raising this question as it pertained to group rights. Some groups have been systematically exterminated such as the Aboriginal Tasmanians through the genocidal policies of the Australians. If groups have rights and one of them is not to be exterminated as many human rights advocates claim, do they also have a right to be resurrected, say, through cloning or some other means? One may obtain enough genetic material from dead people to clone them. I'd imagine that once the technology is made reliable and cost effective, maybe the Australian government and other governments that have engaged in successful genocide of an entire group of people may be obligated to resurrect from extinction some members of the whole group. Groups, unlike individual people, can be resurrected from the dead and perpetrators, institutional or individual of their extinction, (or their ancestors) may be obligated to do so at least prima facie. But there might be significant ethical problems with this. If so what are these problems? One obvious concern is how many individuals must be resurrected? One? A few or the antegenocide population?