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.