Monday, November 10, 2008

Good against Evil

Here's a big steaming pile of lies: good against evil, namely in the sense of black and white (the Bible and the ten commandments come to mind.) The mere fact that the philosophy of ethics hasn't been able to come to a solid conclusion of some sort of metaphysical, universal laws of ethics should be a starting point for today's inquiry. What I'm not saying is that good doesn't exist. I most certainly will admit that there is plenty of good in the world and of course some evil, but to say that we can plug in the variables of each moral situation and conclude an actions moral standing seems ridiculous to me.

Black and White
To start, we have divine law. In this case we are specifically speaking of the Bible because it is possible for other religions to preach what I am about to argue for. Many fundamentalists like to claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, so the teachings within it are, of course, inerrant. If something is inerrant, then whatever contradicts it must be errant. And from this, we get the black and white picture of the moral universe. If an action contradicts a teaching, it's immoral.

But this seems ridiculous. Take for example, the commandment to not kill. This sounds good at first and, to be honest, should generally be followed, but there are clearly cases where killing may be necessary. Suppose there is an axe-murderer wreaking havoc amongst your neighbors' homes. When she arrives at your house, you have a choice: kill her or let her continue to murder. The clear choice is to violate the divine command of not killing. The justification is that you acted for the 'greater good' (I hate that term.) If your action may bring about greater good, then obviously this action is better than any other possible action. If that is the case, then you should most definitely choose that action.

Simple, right? This isn't anything groundbreaking. Clearly, divine law has some problems with our very most basic intuitions. We don't have good reason to believe it anymore. There is another view which holds the world in black and white: Kantian ethics!

Specifically, Kant's 'categorical imperative', which was basically a rule which was to be followed at all times. He had three formulations of it and he thought them all to be the same, but it is generally accepted that each formulation is actually quite different. We'll deal with the first two.

"Always act in such a way that you could will your maxim to be universal law."
Let's clear some terms up with the first form. Actually, just one: maxim. A good way to describe maxim would be to call it motive. Maxim is motive for our purposes. Kant said that the only way to truly consider an action moral is if the maxim for a certain action was done from duty. This gets rid of the possibility that an action may be done in accordance with morality (ie, you save your arch enemy from falling off of a cliff, but only from the motivation of reward.) A truly moral action would be one where you save your enemy, but only because you have a duty to save him. With this cleared up, we can elaborate on this formulation.

This formulation says that your actions should reflect how you think the world ought to be. If you think that no one ought to ever lie, then you should never lie because in this way you can will your maxim to be universal law. Kant was a deontologist, so he thought that there was a rule to being moral. However, it's quite obvious that Kant's first formulation has run into some trouble. Who is to decide which wills are moral? Our different intuitions cause a snag. In other words, I may think it's ok to sometimes lie, while you may think no one ever ought to lie. So, we hold different intuitions about who's maxim shoud be willed as universal law... But who is to say which is right? This makes the first formulation subjective.

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end."
A very simplistic way to restate this is to say that you should never use someone as a mere means to an end. So, never lie to someone in order to better yourself for example. However, the emphasis here is on 'mere means'.

Here's the classic thought experiment: you are standing over a railroad track. There are five people tied on the tracks and a train is coming! You have the option to save them by pushing the fat man next to you off the track, stopping the train right in its tracks (literally!) People tend to be divided on the issue. A consequentialist would say push the fat man and save five lives. A Kantian scholar would say pushing him would be using him as a mere means.

Here's the problem with the Kantian answer - this isn't using him as a mere means. You can say we're ignoring the fat man's will, but what of the will of the five peope? Are we to ignore theirs instead? How is that any better? Clearly, pushing the man here is using him as more than a mere mean. And this poses a question: Where is the line between mere and important drawn? Is this left to the intuition? If so, whose? And we run into the same problem, it becomes subjective.

So, black and white, just don't seem right.

All Good Things are Grey
I mentioned this before in the post - acting for the greater good, the basic idea of utilitarianism. This theory says an action is moral if the consequences are favorable. And of course, an action which promotes the greatest amount of good (such as furthest away from pain as possible and the greatest amount of happiness,) such an action would be best.

Now this would be great if we had formulas and such to calculate which actions would promote the most good, but we don't. In fact, it's hard to tell the consequences of many actions beyond a few simple causal events. So are we to say an action is only to be moral if the predictable steps promote the most good, compared to other actions? Well this runs into problems - drilling for oil on the American coast may lower gas prices somewhat, and that's fine. But, in the long run, it may damage our enviroment and exacerbate global warming. So it seems the more moral actions aren't always evident at first. Again, this is leading the theory to become subjective.

In example, what if good is defined differently by people. Even supplying Mill's definition of good as 'the furthest away from pain as possible...' leaves subjectivity.

Also, utilitarianism leaves something out - the truth. What is more important, truth or the good? Religious extremists would have the entire world follow their religion, and this may be a good thing. If such a case were to occur, then clearly the world would be a more peaceful place. But most, if not all, religions laugh in the face of scientific discovery (unless you pull some serious strings.) So we have a situation which places no value on the truth, but has promoted a vast amount of good across all of humanity. I don't know about you, but my bullshit meter just went off the charts.

Perhaps, utilitarianism should place value on truth next to pleasure and happiness, but as for now, that is not the case.

Clearly though, the world of ethics is far from black and white, and it seems almost anything may be justified in some way. Of course, some actions still remain vile and evil. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many feel as if good is on their side (the citizen who feels God protects their country, for example.) And this view may be dangerous. If someone believes good is on their side, then they are less likely to question their own position. This may lead to grudges, fights, hatred, and wars (ie, the clash of religions throughout history.) A world in which every person displayed greater humbleness with their views, and were more open to consider new ideas, would certainly be a safer world indeed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The bar is on the ground.

If there's anything this election season has very clearly demonstrated, it's that American has really low standards when it comes to everything. Well, I should start by saying this became obvious when Bush was elected a second time, but it's getting bad now.

Presidential Debates. We all know they aren't really debates; it's just a chance for each candidate to spew our their party's platform once again on TV while making some accusations. Most of the time though, it seems like pretty simple rhetoric decides who is deemed the winner of each debate. Next to people siding with their party, if the candidate comes off as civil, or maybe aggressive, or whatever the audience wants, they win. So in other words, it's not even a question of which political ideology is best, because people will just side with their party - it's all about their damn body language. Conservatives think Palin's winks are folksy and shows that she's just like the real America. Liberal's... eh, not so much. Democrats like Obama's ability to stay cool; McCain fans, I'm sure, say it shows some sort of weakness (what it is I'm not sure.)

Joe the Plumber: This guy does a fantastic job representing middle America and what they stand for: stupidity, the inability to provide answers, lying, and country music. I couldn't think of a better way to describe America, the stupid part especially. If it weren't for Palin, this would really take the cake for low standards. First, he lies about himself: he isn't called Joe and he's not even a plumber. It's so easy to imagine people acting just as stupid as Joe does when he can't quite answer a question. Not only does he have no good reason to claim 'a vote for Obama = death for Israel' when speaking with Fox News... But he doesn't even have a good reason when speaking to who asked him first! I'm not able to psychoanalyze anything, but I'll take a stab at Joe's thought process here: "This guy just put Obama and 'Death to Israel' in the same sentence... That's a negative thing... Uh, Obama shouldn't win... I KNOW! I'LL AGREE!" And millions of people actually identify with the man who can't explain his own positions.

Palin: Enough has been said already. But the mere fact that she inquired or attempted to ban books at a library should be enough to set anyone off. The retention of knowledge, theories, claims, or any text, in my view, is the most unethical act any person could possibly take. Obviously, I'm not a fan of Plato's Republic in this case. Not to mention, conservative's are for smaller government. I'm sure this would mean more freedom to read whatever. To sum it up though, we have millions of deluded citizens [see video below] who believe Palin, the inexperienced, creationist, folksy, VP candidate - who doesn't know what the VP does - is going to bring 'reform' to the White House. Maybe, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good. I would also like to say, if having executive power over a state is good experience, then why not my cities mayor, Bob Walkup? He's Republican, check; has executive experience, check; and is smart, oh shit! The point here is that the Tucson area has a greater population than the entire state of Alaska (roughly 1,000,000 vs 600,000.)

McCain: He's an ok guy and can tell a good joke, but he has no intellectual vigor whatsoever. He graduated next to the bottom of his class at the Academy. Ok, maybe everyone else was just a better student. Well, there's no denying this guy has no idea what he's talking about when he claims that funding for scientific reasearch/projects are wasteful. Like I said before, what would he have said about the Keeling curve? Or research into the brain of a fly? He doesn't understand how important pure research is to our society. He doesn't realize that most major breakthroughs in technology find their starts in pure research, which in turn effects our economy and place in the world. Sure, his site says "Research for alt. energy!" or "Let's send men to Mars!" and this is fine, but it's practical science. Real science has only one purpose, and that is the pursuit of truth.

I shouldn't be so harsh though - his base for the campaign is the anti-science crowd after all. Maybe he's just presenting a value to them (the disregard of science and reason) as good reason for them to vote for him. McCain, after all, did admit that he accepts evolution in the third debate of the primaries, and he was one of the first 'big' Republicans to accept global warming also. So, he's not the worst when it comes to litaracy in science, but he could definitely use some brushing up.

Millions of Americans are going to vote for a campaign composed run off of McCain and two idiots who don't understand much. They don't understand science, they can't justify their claims, and yet they're apparently more qualified than the opposing ticket.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Am I militant?

I try to lead an ethical life. I often find myself with great empathy for others; though admittedly, not all of the time. I most certainly believe that the retention of knowledge and the supression of an open forum for debate are the most unethical things possible (burning books comes to mind.) Nonviolence ought to always be the answer, even though there are times where it doesn't seem to work (Hitler, anyone?) But, I am an outspoken atheist. I'm a member of a student group in which a majority of the members are atheists. I identify with a very specific group of people who are all outspoken against theism, irrationalism, and blind faith in all of its forms.

Of course, this makes me a militant atheist. The term was apparently coined by Lenin, but I've seen the phrase thrown around a few times recently; by pundits, religious nuts, and to my surprise, even the author of a popular science book.

If, by this accusation, they mean that certain atheists are outspoken with their beliefs, then they're damn right. Of course, the word militant itself doesn't seem to fit here. For example:

That's who they're talking about. Guys on YouTube who are angry and bitch a lot! Nevermind the countless deaths caused by the Islamic extremists, the bombings of abortion clinics and murdered doctors caused by the religious right, and the countless atrocities justified by the holy books throughout history... Any highschool history textbook will show you the atrocities religion has caused (public highschool I should say.)

Given these facts, it seems like the phrase militant atheist is, go figure, a scare tactic.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On Bullshit.

Recently, I was introduced to an episode of "Penn and Teller's Bullshit"; this one about recycling. Of course, recycling is supposed to be a great thing, but is it? According to the show, recycling isn't as good as we make it out to be, which is understandable. But is it really so bad that the public requires an entire show dedicated to it, or are Penn and Teller just running out of material? After all, there's only so many religions in the world.

The Argument against Recycling

First claim: Recycling doesn't save energy.

After some superfluous bit about how far people will go to recycle, Penn and Teller get to their first point. The argument against recycling, they say, is that it doesn't actually save energy. And this should be a very good point, since that is exactly the reason most people cite when asked why recycle. The reasoning? According to Penn, recycling items increases energy use (gathering, sorting, cleaning.) Of course, this wasn't really backed with numbers, charts, pictures, or any sort of evidence. In fact, Penn didn't even elaborate on the point. Apparently, we're just to take his word for it.

However, Penn is right in saying that the processes included with recycling a product definitely use energy, but he is wrong to say that it isn't beneficial. Recycling aluminum may reduce energy use by 90%; steel by 50%; paper by 25%; and glass by 4-32%. Air pollution is also reduced (95%, 85%, 74%, 20%.) [Middleton]

Admittedly, the numbers seem a bit off. To claim that recycling aluminum may eradicate air pollution nearly completely is pretty extraordinary. But a look at the chart of the processes to make aluminum brings plausibility to the claim:

1. Mining > 2. Bauxite > 3. Bayer Process > 4. Alumina > 5. Electrolysis > 6. Aluminium > 7. Rolling, drawing, casting, etc. > 8. Consumer products > 9. Waste. [Middleton]

Normally, the process ends there, and the waste is sent to landfills, etc. However, recycling the waste leads to a flow chart which leads back to step number 7. So we find a chart like so:

7. Rolling, drawing, casting, etc. > 8. Consumer products > 9. Waste > 10. Remelting > 7. Rolling... [Middleton]
And, of course, the benefits become explicit. By recycling we cut six steps out of the process and replace them with two (gathering and processing/remelting.) Even more so, some of the steps known to exacerbate enviromental issues the most are cut out; most notably mining. However, something different may be said for plastics. Due to their heavier chemical compositions, recycling plastics may not be as useful as other items.

Penn's first claim, that recycling doesn't save energy, doesn't hold up. Had he given a more maximal claim, referring only to plastics, he may have held some ground, but he didn't. Next to saving energy, recycling provides myriad of other benefits. These range from lower production costs, less air pollution, less water use, etc. First claim: busted.

Second claim: This can actually be put into standard form rather easily.

  1. In a free market, people pay for what benefits them.
  2. Recycling programs are payed for by taxes, namely, subsidies.
  3. Subsidies support "questionable" or "obsolete" programs.
  4. Such programs aren't in the interest of the people in a free market.
  5. Therefore, recycling is bullshit, and doesn't actually have benefits.
I'm expecting some hard hitting facts, and specifically facts which support premises "3" and "4". Are all subsidies in support of "questionable" programs? Is something being beneficial really sufficient in reality for people to pay for it? Already I'm thinking that it certainly is possible for subsidies to support useful programs. I'm also questioning the validity of a free market, especially its ability to invest in everything beneficial.

To sway my mind, Pen should offer up some evidence here. And he does. The show offers two figures regarding the cost per ton for collection of waste - waste against recycled waste. Waste, according to the EPA official they interview, costs $50-60 for collection and processing (dumping). Recycling on the other hand costs three times that much. Not only this, but another authority on the subject reveals that at the time of filming, New York (state or City isn't specified) was spending $33 million (I assume; only the number was given - it was not stated if it was a net loss, total spent, or anything else.) Hefty amount of money, right? Well, should it be in regards to New York State, then the cost is roughly $1.70 per person ($33 million divied up among 19 million people.) This isn't exactly what I would call a big mark against recycling.

But let's assume that recycling doesn't provide any economic benefit. This still doesn't quite get the job done, we have other benefits to account for also. As we saw before, recycling provides other incentives: reduction in energy use and air pollution, even water usage. It also cuts out several steps, especially when it comes to recycling metals (mining comes to mind.) All of these, it seems safe to say, save money. And if not directly, then at least eventually. The idea behind recycling is to prolong the amount of time we have to use our resources, before they run out. Once nonrenewable resources peak (that is, we use half of the total amount on Earth), the cost associated with processing and using them grows greatly. Take, for example, peak oil. The production of oil, graphed over time, follows a bell curve. At the top, or peak, of this curve is the point at which we have used half of the world's oil supply. Then then production lingers off due to greater difficulty to extract and process it. Price however, is different. Once the peak is reached in the curve, the price to use oil goes up. This is because oil becomes more scarce, more difficult to process, and we are forced to use lower quality oil left over from the 'good ol days.' And this is true of any nonrenewable resource; its not some theory, its simply a phenomenon.

Perhaps an argument, in this case, could be made against paper. Trees are most definitely a renewable resource (whether or not you would be able to tell based on our actions is a story for another time.) So perhaps it would make less sense to recycle paper... But then you need to lay down the costs for planting trees to make up for waste paper and recycling paper. Not to mention the enviromental impacts, which may have economic consequences in the end also. Second claim: not plausible.

Third claim: Not really a claim.

This one is more like retracing steps. The show goes back to elucidate on recycling plastic and paper. Like I just said, there may be a case against paper. And a point the show doesn't make, is that plastic replaces the use of other resources and may last much longer.

So, third claim-thing: valid point!

Fourth claim: Recycling creates "shitty" jobs.

The point here is that recycling includes many steps. Some of these steps require people to do manual labor, such as sorting material. As Penn puts it, these are useless jobs because recycling is useless (the net effect on the world world would be greater if these jobs were on an assembly line instead.) As we've seen, this isn't the case so much. There are benefits for recycling, so these jobs are justified. Of course, this includes the money which is put back into 'the system' from the income of the workers. Fourth claim: bullshit.

Fifth claim: recycling doesn't save space.

After blaming the entire enviromental movement on the aforementioned EPA official, Penn, and yes, Teller, both make the case that recycling doesn't save space.

And a good case it is. Landfills are ensured to not allow any sort of toxic substance to leak into groundwater. The methane gas which rises up from the decomposing whatever is captured and used as a power supply. When a landfill is full, its prime spot for parks and things of the sort.

After making this good argument however, a clip is shown, making the claim that recycling is just a way of telling people how to live their lives. You know, the whole 'the gov't is trying to control us' bit. Yadda yadda, blah blah, I think that's called scare tactics. Epic phail.

Regarldess though, fifth claim, minus the fear bullshit: excellent point indeed!

Final Thoughts

Well, it seems some sound arguments were definitely made against recycling. Perhaps we should think more skeptically of recycling plastics and paper, though the show didn't convince me that any final word was out. Next to those two materials though, recycling is very much a good thing, despite the arguments thrown at them. Recycling really does save energy, money, and most importantly resources.

The last segment regarding landfills is a very excellent point to bring up; landfills are actually of great use, if used correctly. And this, at least I think, goes against the folk perception of landfills: giant piles of trash which serve no purpose other than to be shitty. And to an extent, that is what they are. Fortunately for us, humans occasionally reveal their capacity to use reason to conjure elegant solutions out of situations in which no one would suspect solutions to be found. However, "Bullshit", at least for this episode, was tainted with bullshit.

Reference: Middleton, N. (2003). The Global Casino (3rd ed.). New York: Hodder.


So it's been over a month. Somehow I let myself slip into a cozy nook amongst my peers: start a blog, and then don't blog.

Admittedly, I have been busy with school now in session, but that's hardly any reason to not blog.
So, in order to mitigate the situation, I'll be holding myself accountable for one blog post a week at the minimum.

You're definitely welcome to read them.

Friday, August 29, 2008

It's Friday

And that means it's Science Friday! Yesssssssssssssssssssssssss! But, as I was on my way home from campus, I heard this.

This is why we need greater scientific literacy in America. Though, I have to say, at least the woman was for independent confirmation of results from studies.

Monday, August 18, 2008

There he... goes... again

In case you missed the Civil Forum featuring John McCain and Barack Obama, here's a transcript.

In this forum, McCain implicitly declared reason #452 as to why he shouldn't get our vote this upcoming Nov. Apparently, he thinks scientific research is bad. Notice that in his response to the question of how McCain defines rich and how that relates to his philosophy on taxes, Mcain eventually came to government spending and this:

And, my friend, it was not taxes that mattered in America in the last several years. It was spending. Spending got completely out of control. We spent money in way that mortgaged our kids' futures.

My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue...

... but the point is, it was $3 million of your money. It was your money. And, you know, we laugh about it, but we cry - and we should cry because the Congress is supposed to be careful stewards of your tax dollars.
From this, and the context it was taken from, we can deduce McCain's argument to be this:
  1. Taxes come from the public.
  2. The government should spend these taxes on useful things.
  3. Scientific research, namely bear DNA, is not useful.
  4. The government spent $3 million on bear DNA research.
  5. Therefore, the government is wasting your money.
Is McCain serious? The government shouldn't fund scientific research? Of course you may say I'm being a bit harsh, bear DNA can't possibly be the most important thing ever... And I will give McCain some credit, he is for funding space research. And he does support research into new technologies.

But to McCain, these are examples of research that have beneficial effects in mind. That is why he believes something such as bear DNA is superfluous research which only wastes tax dollars. Nevermind the fact that bear DNA will most likely have something to add to the enterprise of biology, which could in turn provide us with some potential medical benefits, if not at least add to our knowledge. What would he have said about the Keeling Curve had he the chance? Would he assume that superfluous also ("Why waste money to send balloons over the ocean!!?") Most scientific discoveries don't have some benefit relevant to whichever country in mind, but most benefits from science come from pure research.

Not to mention, $3 million is very little compared to what else the government spends. It's only one penny ($0.01) from each citizen (or less given that we reached the 300,000,000 mark a few years ago.) What about the funds for the Iraq war, which are in the billions?

So here we have a spavined man who doesn't understand science very well, and he wants to be president of the world's scientific leader. Does anyone feel as if this is a prescription for disaster?