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Join the Mansplainers

February 19, 2018 Leave a comment

If you can be classified as a white, middle-aged male, then you are in the unfortunate position of being in one of the least advantaged groups in society today. I say this because of the numerous examples of affirmative action and political correctness which support every group in society except that one. And these forces are not always premeditated because they are often a manifestation of a zeitgeist which has little basis in reality but has evolved through various ill-defined social and political processes.

The supporters of these phenomena will claim they are based on a real reaction against the existing power structure and that any attempt at alternative explanations is simply “mansplaining”. This is very convenient for the followers of these PC modes of thought because they can reject any criticism by labelling it as mansplaining, and at that point it requires no further comment. In fact, the refusal to enter into any meaningful dialog, or to look at alternative views, is a common characteristic of modern political correctness.

And this has extended into exactly the areas where it shouldn’t exist. In many US universities some subjects just cannot be discussed without a violent and unreasoned backlash from the politically correct extreme left. And many speeches, discussions, and debates have had to be closed down, just because a subject is deemed too sensitive to even contemplate hearing any view which deviates from what is considered “appropriate” by the self-appointed arbiters of what is congruous with social norms.

The most ironic point of all this is that the students causing the trouble are generally hugely privileged themselves, and likely to become more so in the future. Plus their experience of life and their knowledge of the world in general is usually pathetically insubstantial. But it really does take a genuinely ignorant person to have such total confidence in their beliefs, no matter how extreme they might be.

People like Ben Shapiro, Anita Alvarez, Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Bret Weinstein, and Jordan Peterson, as well as many others, have been shut down at American colleges recently. I admit that some (especially Yiannopoulos and Coulter) have deliberately controversial messages, but many are models of reason and fairness. And what is the problem with controversial opinions anyway? In most cases the person is never even allowed to speak and the points made by protestors against the speakers are generally laughably naive and inaccurate.

It should be noted that many of the obstructed speakers are “old, white guys” – although there are also women involved, and even one openly gay person – so this isn’t just a reaction to “mansplaining” in the most simple sense, but I think that is the most important component.

Of course, there are many occasions I have been accused of indulging in this myself. But it has got to the point now where I don’t see it as a criticism much any more, because I am starting to view mansplaining as a good thing. If no one else is going to be sensible, open-minded, rational, and fact-based then I guess us old (or middle-aged) white guys are going to have to do it, just like we have done the vast majority of anything worthwhile in the past!

Because it is exactly that group (old white guys, AKA OWGs) who have done the most for society. Sure, I agree, most of the really evil people in history were OWGs, but both aspects should be acknowledged. Just because some people who are currently out of favour (you know who the prime example is here) belong to that category don’t assume there is nothing good about OWGs. And never reject their opinions by applying silly tags like “mansplaining”.

As I said, if mansplaining is just a way the politically correct members of society label the opinions of the most influential and brilliant group in society I say bring it on. I’m happy to mansplain as much as possible.

And I would like to say at this point that I welcome any other groups into join me as a “mansplainer”. Women are very welcome, people of any age and race are also welcome, and your cultural, sexual, religious, or ethnic background is irrelevant. I would ask you to join the mansplainers, because the truth doesn’t belong to any one group.

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Utopia or a Dystopia?

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

I have been interested in artificial intelligence for years, without being too deeply involved in it, and it seemed that until recently there was just one disappointment after another from this potentially revolutionary area of technology. But now it seems that almost every day there is some fascinating, exciting, and often worrying news about the latest developments in the area.

One recent item which might be more significant than it seems initially is the latest iteration of AlphaGo, Google’s Go playing AI. I wrote about AlphaGo in a post “Sadness and Beauty” from 2016-03-16 after it beat the world champion in the game Go which many people thought a computer could never master.

Now AlphaGo Zero has beaten AlphaGo by 100 games to zero. But the significant thing here is not about an incremental improvement, it is about a change in the way the “Zero” version works. The zero in the name stands for zero human input, because the system learned how to win at Go entirely by itself. The only original input was the rules of the game.

While learning winning strategies AlphaGo Zero “re-created” many of the classic moves humans had already discovered over the last few thousand years, but it went further than this and created new moves which had never been seen before. As I said in my previous post on this subject, the original AlphaGo was already probably better than any human, but the new version seems to be completely superior to even that.

And the truly scary thing is that AlphaGo Zero did all this in such a short period of time. I haven’t heard what the time period actually was, but judging by the dates of news releases, etc, it was probably just days or weeks. So in this time a single AI has learned far more about a game than millions of humans have in thousands of years. That’s scary.

Remember that AlphaGo Zero was created by programmers at Alphabet’s Google DeepMind in London. But in no way did the programmers write a Go playing program. They wrote a program that could learn how to play Go. You could say they had no more input into the program’s success than a parent does into the success of a child whom they abandon at birth. It is sort of like supplying the genetics but not the training.

You might wonder why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has spent so much time and money creating a system which plays an obscure game. Well the point, of course, is to create techniques which can be used in more general and practical situations. There is some debate amongst experts at the moment about how easily these techniques could be used to create a general intelligence (one which can teach itself anything, instead of just a specific skill) but even if it only works for specific skills it is still very significant.

There are many other areas where specialised intelligence by AIs has exceeded humans. For example, at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation) they are using AI to detect particles, labs are developing AIs which are better than humans at finding the early signs of cancer, and AIs are now good at detecting bombs at airports.

So even if a human level general intelligence is still a significant time away, these specialised systems are very good already, even at this relatively early time in their development. It’s difficult to predict how quickly this technology might advance, because there is one development which would make a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change: that is an AI capable of designing AIs – you might call this a meta-AI.

If that happens then all bets are off.

Remember that an AI isn’t anything physical, because it is just a program. In every meaningful way creating an AI program is just like playing a game of Go. It is about making decisions and creating new “moves” in an abstract world. It’s true that the program requires computer hardware to run on, but once the hardware reaches a reasonable standard of power that is no more important than the Go board is to how games proceed. It limits what can be done in some ways, but the most interesting stuff is happening at a higher level.

If AlphaGo Zero can learn more in a week than every human who ever played Go could learn in thousands of years, then imagine how much progress a programming AI could make compared with every computer scientist and programmer who ever existed. There could be new systems which are orders of magnitude better developed in weeks. Then they could create the next generation which is also orders of magnitude better. The process would literally be out of control. It would be like artificial evolution running a trillion times faster than the natural version, because the generation time is so short and the “mutations” are planned rather than being random.

When I discussed the speed that AlphaGo Zero had shown when it created the new moves, I used the word “scary”, because it literally is. If that same ability existed for creating new AIs then we should be scared, because it will be almost impossible to control. And once super-human intelligence exists it will be very difficult to reverse. You might think something like, “just turn off the computer”, but how many backups of itself will exist by then? Simple computer viruses are really difficult to eliminate from a network, so imagine how much more difficult a super-intelligent “virus” would be to remove.

Where that leaves humans, I don’t know for sure. I have said in the previous post that humans will be redundant, but now I’m not totally sure that is true. Maybe there will be a niche for us, at least temporarily, or maybe humans and machines will merge in some way. Experts disagree on how much a threat AI really is. Some predict a “doomsday” where human existence is fundamentally threatened while others predict a bright future for us, free from the tedious tasks which machines can do better, and where we can pursue the activities we *want* to do rather than what we *have* to do.

Will it be a utopia or a dystopia? No one knows. All we know is that the world will never be the same again.

Trust Experts

January 8, 2018 5 comments

I recently listened to a podcast which discussed the trust (or lack of trust) we have in experts, and how that might have become a more significant issue in recent years. Many people interpret the election of Trump as a rejection of the “elite experts” in society, for example. Trump represents the average person – he was not a politician – but Clinton represented an experienced politician who had spent most of her life as part of the “political machine”, and she was rejected.

Experts which are usually trusted include doctors, scientists, and (dare I mention) computer professionals. In most cases people will trust what these people say. For example, the majority of people go to a doctor and trust the treatment they are recommended. But there are a significant number who don’t have such a high level of trust and prefer to be diagnosed by “Doctor Google” or be treated by a local practitioner of some form of alternative medicine which often has limited credibility (homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, etc).

In general it is best to trust the opinion of experts, and in most cases people do. But everyone has their weaknesses and there might be times when anyone would reject expert opinion or advice. So I started wondering which experts I might have trouble accepting and I think I have thought of a couple.

In fact, anyone who reads this blog should already know the areas of expertise I have the most problems with. The first is management, and the second is economics.

So am I just as bad as the person who ignores the facts presented by experts about global warming? Or am I just like the creationist who ignores the conclusions of experts in biology and evolution? Or am I just another conspiracy theorist who ignores the opinion of experts and thinks the WTC could not have been destroyed by an aircraft collision?

In some ways, yes, but there is one critical difference. Look at the example I gave in paragraph two where some people prefer to trust a homeopath instead of a conventional doctor. Is that person really rejecting expert opinion? Maybe not. Maybe they are accepting the opinion of one expert (the homeopath is presumably an expert in homeopathy) and rejecting that of a different expert (the doctor).

So this isn’t so much a rejection of expertise per se, it is more choosing which expert to accept as better.

And this gets to my three main points regarding trust in experts: first, not all experts are equal; second, not all fields of expertise are equal; and third, even the greatest expert in the most credible field can make mistakes and everyone should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism.

So accepting the expert homeopath’s opinion should be rejected based on point 2, above. That is, while it is true that homeopathy is a field of expertise, it is not one which can be taken seriously because homeopathy has been shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be ineffective.

The other points might also have occasions when they are important. For example, there is a geologist (who is presumably an expert) who thinks the Earth is only 6000 years old even though he knows all the evidence shows it isn’t. His opinion is clearly warped by religious faith so, even though he is an expert, he does not have the same status as experts with no bias. And there have been many occasions where the greatest experts failed to assimilate new evidence and rejected new theories which later turned out to be true, so no expert is infallible.

But the main point of this post is to discuss point 2, the fact that some areas of expertise have less validity than others making rejecting opinions of experts in that area more reasonable.

The big problem is trying to establish which areas are trustworthy and which aren’t How would we know? Should we ask an expert? That sort of just gets back to the same problem we had at the start!

I think there are various, fairly unbiased, ways we can evaluate different areas of expertise. These include their philosophical framework (are they based on empiricism, logic, faith, etc), has scientific research on the subject shown it to be viable, and a general evaluation of its practical contribution to society.

So with homeopathy I would say its background is highly questionable. There has been little positive empirical research, there is almost no logic in it, and the whole proposed mechanism for its action is nonsense. And research on homeopathy shows almost no positive results above placebo level which is exactly what we would expect if it was fake. Finally, using homeopathy has some significant negative consequences, including people wasting their money on remedies which don’t work, and using homeopathic remedies instead of real ones which leads to worse health outcomes.

Because of this, I think it is clear that a homeopath, no matter how expert he or she is on the subject, should not be taken seriously because the subject itself lacks any credibility.

But how does this apply to my two areas of skepticism: management and economics?

Well, I would say neither of those are totally based on a firm philosophical basis. I do have to say that some forms of economics, especially behavioural economics which uses a lot of psychology, do have a quite high degree of credibility, but economics in general not so much. And I’m fairly sure there has been a certain amount of empirical research applied to management practices but in general they seem to be uniformly corrupt, both morally and intellectually.

So I think I have some rationale in being doubtful about the opinions of many economists and managers. Sure, they are experts in their respective fields but those fields have limited credibility. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are always wrong and can safely be ignored, but it does mean that the default position should be neutral or even negative rather than being positive as it would be with other experts.

If a doctor recommends a certain treatment I would normally accept that unless I have good reason not to. I might have already tried it without success, or I might think it is bogus in some way for example (some doctors recommend alternative medicine which has poor scientific support).

But it a manager recommends a particular action I would be very doubtful from the beginning. In fact, I would begin with the assumption that it is a bad idea. Of course, I should also try to look at the idea fairly and accept it if it turns out to be the exception to the rule.

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and expertise to research all the knowledge we needed for ourselves, but that is totally impractical, so we do need to trust experts to some extent. And that trust should be moderated by some doubt. And that doubt should be apportioned according to the validity of the field of knowledge under consideration.

Everyone’s estimation of this validity will vary but there should be certain areas which are always out in front and some lagging far behind. Here’s an example of some fields of knowledge rated from highest to lowest: maths, physics, chemistry, biology, climate science, medicine, psychology, general social science, philosophy, economics, business, management, politics, marketing, alternative medicine, mysticism, religion.

Note that I’m not saying the stuff near the end of my list is less valuable or less interesting, just that it is less trustworthy.

In summary: you can trust experts, but trust some a lot more than others!

Management of Change

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

My friend Fred (not his real name), who works in a similar organisation and role to me, recently regaled me with a tale of woe regarding the “restructuring” his organisation is going through (I use the word “organisation” here because I would prefer not to say what it is and whether it is a private company or a public institution, but it really doesn’t make any difference to the core message of this post).

One of the farcical aspects of this process is something called “management of change” which basically involves a propaganda campaign which attempts to persuade the participants what a good idea it all is, and to dispose of those who cannot be persuaded as quickly and quietly as possible.

A common complaint made by the perpetrators of these misdeeds against their unwilling victims is that they are resistant to change. That is, they just don’t like new ideas or new ways of doing things, and if they would just be a bit more open-minded and accepting they woud see that the new ideas are good and everything would be OK.

Of course, if the victims really were resistant to change in general then this would be a good point, but Fred always mentions one very pertinent point: that is that it is not change in general that he is resistant to, it is just the type of change which usually occurs.

The managers might say something like “But you don’t like any of the changes we want to make.” and Fred would respond “Exactly. You seem to be incapable of making fair and reasonable decisions, and everything you do is grossly flawed. If you started implementing changes that we actually wanted then we would be fully supportive. Until then, we will resist and sabotage your efforts as much as possible. You are grossly incompetent and we have no confidence in your decisions.”

I can see his point exactly, although he could be said to have a slight tendency towards ranting. I sometimes wonder about Fred’s ranting because it often tends towards the extreme, and having that degree of cynicism and distrust seems a bit unhealthy in some ways.

But here are sorts of changes Fred almost always sees and doesn’t like: more bureaucracy, paperwork, timesheets, accounting records, and other mindless time wasting; more control by management and less self-sufficiency for the actual professionals doing the work; budgets cuts making it harder to get the equipment necessary to work efficiently, to attent conferences, and to get training, at the same time as the organisation wastes huge amounts on pointless projects; and more extreme control and micro-management by managers even though they have no idea what is really required.

And here are the sorts of changes he would fully support: reducing paper-work so that the professionals could actually do the work they are both good at and are ultimately paid to do; letting the workers make decisions based on their expertise and experience instead of following dysfunctional policies devised by people entirely ignorant of the real requirements of the job; diverting some of the funds going to wasteful management projects and using it for basic equipment and training for the people actually carrying out the organisation’s core tasks; and giving the staff the freedom to work the way that works best for them and their clients.

If more (or any) changes came from the second list and not the first then Fred assures me he would be fully supportive of them.

But the saddest thing about these “management mongrels” (Fred’s words) is their total ignorance of how much their staff actually despise them. I mean, Fred often speaks with an air of genuine hatred towards these “worthless scum” (his words again) and he’s not the sort of person to be so negative in general.

He recounts an incident where he was treated with total disdain by the HR department of his organisation, including threats to possibly involve the police, and it was only the intervention of his lawyer which made them back off (and pay him a moderate sum for the stress they caused, because they were obviously wrong). Yet a week after that a senior HR staff member who had been responsible for his persecution casually greeted him on the street as if they were the best of friends.

It’s as if these people are sub-human monsters (his words) and cannot connect with real people. They like to think they are all part of the same team, all working towards the same greater goal, and all good friends, but the complete opposite is true. In fact, they are the enemy and must always be treated as such.

Thomas Paine said that “the duty of a patriot is to protect his country from his government.” Fred would say that it is the duty of every worker to protect his company, institution, etc from its management.

Good or Bad

November 18, 2017 Leave a comment

While I’m in the middle of a phase of religion bashing I thought it might be a good time to resurrect (an ironic choice of word) the old subject of religion in schools. This has appeared as an issue in the media here a few weeks back, so the subject is topical.

In the past, I have sort of shrugged off the issue saying something like, the young people nowadays are too smart to be taken in by some blatantly transparent myths and are likely to consign religion to the same category of fiction as the Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

This is no doubt true in most cases. Because, there is certainly reason to think that our civilisation’s childhood, where it relied on ancient traditional stories as a basis for cultural identity, is now starting to reach a conclusion, and we are growing up and abandoning the imaginary invisible man in the sky.

Here in New Zealand the “no religion” group is about to reach 50% of the population. Additionally, as I have said in the past, most people who indicate Christian as their religion on the census don’t really have any commitment to that belief and never attend church, read the Bible, or even really know much about it.

But it’s when previously powerful belief systems are threatened that they can become most dangerous. It’s a bit like a wild animal’s attack reflex when it’s cornered. So we should be especially careful now that churches don’t make a last ditch stand before they are consigned to the rubbish heap of bad ideas like all their predecessors. And maybe even more worryingly, we need to be careful that even worse religions, like Islam, don’t fill the void left by Christianity.

As I said above, most kids will not be taken in by the silly stuff they are taught in Bible in schools. But it is not the well-balanced, sensible, practical majority we need to worry about. It is the out of touch, emotionally and intellectually immature minority which are most at risk.

As I write this I realise that perhaps I have “shot myself in the foot” to a certain extent, because you might make a case to say that it is those who are not coping well who might have most to gain from joining a church and getting extra support and friendship.

I’m sure that there are some people who actually are better off joining a religion, and I have never argued for complete eradication of religion – at least I can’t recall an occasion, although I might have done during one of my more extreme rants! On the other hand, there might be more appropriate groups than a church those people could gain even more from, without the need to resort to superstition.

At this stage it is apparent that I am still conflicted on this subject. Don’t misunderstand, I am totally committed to the idea that religions are fake and have little purpose beyond that which can be provided far better by other knowledge systems (science for facts, philosophy for values), but fake stuff can still have value for certain people.

In the final analysis, this subject is just like every other: it is not a matter of black and white, or good and bad, just like I have so often said in past blog posts. I think that if kids were taught positive philosophical beliefs or given instruction in comparative religion in schools that would be of far more value than simple indoctrination in the dominant religion of the time, but maybe traditional Christian instruction – as along as it is controlled and doesn’t turn into aggressive proselytising – is OK.

Unfortunately the temptation to regress to aggressive conversion – with the threats of torture in Hell for unbelievers, etc – is just too likely according to many reports in the media. So maybe it would be be best just to expel religions from schools because of current bad behaviour.

Well, this blog post has certainly turned out to be one of my most indecisive ever! So, in summary, religion in schools. Good or bad? Well, yes… yes, definitely good or bad.

Is This Paradise?

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

It seems that there has been a continuous stream of leaks showing the greed, dishonesty, and utter lack of moral values of the rich elite in society. The latest leak, the so-called “Paradise Papers” is the biggest yet, and although it doesn’t show anything technically illegal (at least not when this post was written), it does show us yet another loathsome exhibition of self-centered and cynical greed.

It’s not the people or organisations who are only just surviving and cannot afford to pay any more tax who make use of these tax havens, it is more those who have so much already that they could afford to pay out far more tax and barely even notice. Yes, too much is never enough for these people. They always want more, no matter what the consequences.

And there are consequences. All around the world people are dying by the thousands every day because health systems are failing. Education standards are dropping because schools are increasingly under-funded. Infrastructure in even the richest countries is failing. And at the same time the Queen of England, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and all the other usual suspects have so much spare cash they barely know what to do with it.

Is this what we signed up for when we gave tacit approval for modern capitalism to control our lives? I don’t think so.

When we are told that people are dying on waiting lists because there is no money to treat them in hospitals, I say that is a lie. The money exists but it is tied up in dodgy deals in Bermuda. The rich are almost literally murdering people every day because of their grossly offensive need to have more. No matter how much they have it is never enough, and no price is too much to pay for more, as long as it is not them who has to pay it.

It is a truly immoral and disgusting system we have in place. But to add insult to injury, it is even worse when we acknowledge how widely supported this is, even by those who are the most disadvantaged. Because as well as being skilled in the fine art of greed the ruling elite are also masters of propaganda!

So let’s have a look at some of the arguments they use to justify the situation we find ourselves in.

1. The rich earned their money and they deserve to keep it.

It is rare for any rich person to have actually done anything to earn their wealth. Most wealth is generated by investing in profitable deals. This might be currency trading, investing in a new company which has become successful through its creator’s hard work, buying property then gathering rent. Do these sound like worthwhile activities which should be rewarded with millions or even billions of dollars per year? If you think so then you really should reconsider your moral standards.

2. The rich pay taxes according to the rules, just like everyone else.

Everyone, the rich included, must know that the rules are easy to avoid if you can afford to pay for enough expensive but unethical lawyers and accountants. Even if it is possible to bypass tax laws the rich don’t have to do that. They go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying tax and they must know that it is bordering on illegal. If they have so much already what would be the harm in paying a bit more tax and making a fair contribution to society?

3. Big business must be encouraged because it provides a lot of jobs.

But does it? Let’s look at an example. A new branch of McDonalds opens in my street and provides work for 5 to 10 people. Isn’t that good? Well, superficially it is, but what is the overall effect of big companies like McDonalds? How many small food outlets close because they cannot compete with the big multinational? I suspect that over the long term far more people lose work than gain. The same applies to big retailers, and every other form of business.

4. Without big business we would have no innovation.

This is clearly untrue. There are certainly some examples where real innovation has come from private business (Xerox and IBM come to mind) but only in a tiny minority of cases. The real progress on the cutting edge of science and technology is coming mostly from universities. Sure, companies like Apple are very good at taking the new technology and turning it into sometimes quite spectacular products, but this isn’t true innovation. Big companies seem to gain new technology more through acquiring new, small startups than doing anything genuinely new themselves.

5. Anyone can join the rich if they just put in the effort.

Well this obviously isn’t true because there is only a certain amount of wealth to be distributed. And when the top few percent have more than everyone else put together, there will obviously always be an inequitable distribution. There are people in all modern countries working far longer hours than most CEOs yet making barely enough to survive. Effort has very little to do with it.

6. The current situation is the natural result of free markets and we can’t change it.

Well markets aren’t free, they are creations of governments. If you think a system where the vast majority of people who are poor pay for an infrastructure that the rich then exploit is an example fo a free market then I think you need to re-evaluate the meaning of the word “free”. And even if the market was free, so what? If it brings the gross inequity we see today I say we should forget about free.

7. Since the world adopted a market economy the majority of people are better off.

This is a difficult one to evaluate but I would say that many people actually aren’t better off compared with how they were under the less extreme economic system of 50 years ago. Also, most of the improvements in life today – such as longer lifespan, better communications, better treatment for disease, etc – comes from science and technology, not business. Again, it’s not as simple as saying the corporate world has had no positive effects on society, it’s more that the benefits often quoted are deliberately over-stated.

But why am I bothering? There should be no surprises in this latest leak. Most people already know how the world works: how the poor subsidise the rich, how the rich are immune to the rules which control the rest of us, how politicians are “owned” by corporations. We all know this, but still it continues, in fact it gets worse.

Well, changes do happen and often quite unexpectedly. I don’t remember the fall of the Soviet Union (another grossly corrupt, yet powerful entity) being predicted by too many people, yet it happened suddenly and rapidly. The same can happen to the current extreme form of global capitalism.

And even if nothing happens I still need to blog about it. It is sort of a cathartic mechanism for me. The indignation and disgust I feel when I hear about the latest excesses of the ultra-rich must be assuaged in some way, no matter how ineffective it might ultimately be.

As I have said in past blog posts: bring on the revolution!

Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!