Sunday, July 31, 2011

Come On Avril

Avril Lavigne - Girlfriend Avril Lavigne - Gir...Image by Asthma Helper via FlickrWhen Avril Lavigne first came out, as adorable as she was, she always seemed a little too young looking for me, even though I was a couple of years younger than her at the time. Still, it was hard not to like her blend of punk rock and girlyness. It wasn't until her song "Girlfriend" and the accompanying video came out that I started to really like her. These days, of course, she's a mother and a divorcee. Wow, they do grow up fast!

She apparently has a new album that came out a couple of months ago, and the first single off of it is called What the Hell. If you haven't seen it, I definitely recommend you take a second to watch. The way that she carries herself is so adorably sexy in that video, kind of makes a man want to tear her apart She Wants Revenge style. I came across this song by accident today, and thought it made a perfect opportunity to start a new theme that will be at the heart of the purpose of this blog.

The hook of the song is, "All my life I've been good, but now, I'm thinking what, the hell? All I want to do is mess, around. And I don't really care about, if you love me, if you hate me, you can't save me, baby, baby. All my life I've been good, but now, Whoa, what the hell?"

So how does this relate to ethics? Well, looking at the chorus again, what is the implied standard of value? It states that she used to be good, but now, she's in the mood to sleep around, flirt, have fun, i.e. be bad. So she is choosing to act immorally as she defines it, because she doesn't like being moral, at least not for the moment. Of course, as I define good, the only immoral thing that she is doing in this scenario is being apologetic about acting in her own self interest when it doesn't violate anyone else's right to life.

This song is a perfect illustration of the false moral code that runs through our society; a system of morality that takes altruism and self sacrifice as its standard of value. This system of ethics is at the root of much of what is wrong with the world today. The sad thing about this ethical code is that it causes people to do extremely immoral things that are in direct conflict with their ability to achieve happiness. Further, by convincing people that self sacrifice is a good thing, immoral actors use this system of morality to sell their immoral actions to the public, and we buy, oh do we buy. They say that killing animals is bad, so you go vegan, never mind whether such a lifestyle will be good or bad for you. They say that women who sleep with too many men are bad, that chastity is in some way something of value.

Here's the thing: altruism doesn't exist. Selflessness doesn't exist. Everything we do is selfish because all of our drives have been hard coded by evolution into a template of morality that has served as a survival and replicatory advantage. When we do things for others, we do them because we want to do them, it feels good to do them. Or because we think other people will like us more if we do them. Either way, these actions are still in our self interest. So all of our actions are selfish. If that statement makes you mad enough to go out and donate a kidney to a random person in order to prove me wrong, the fact that you are trying to prove me wrong means that the action is selfish.

On the other side of the coin, the problem with defining selfishness as a virtue, of course, is that "selfish actions" can be virtuous or nefarious. If you rob a bank because you think you can get away with it, this is definitely selfish, but it is not moral. However, if you go on a million dates, like Avril says she does in the song, this is also selfish, but this is not immoral. The selfishness of the action is not the relevant variable. The relevant variable is whether you are infringing on the rights of others or not. In the former, you were, in the latter, you're not, so there you have it. Those are the correct ethical judgments.

So Avril, stop apologizing for doing what you want to do. You have been judged for your actions your whole life. Now that you're 27, you're starting to hit your sexual peak, and you're starting to mature as a human being. As a result, you're starting to care less what other people think. It's time to take your new found maturity to its natural conclusion and reject their false sense of morality. Ethical egoism for the win.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 1 - The Genetic Lottery

Now that we have defined good and government, it would seem that it's time to start getting to the heart of the issue. What is a moral government?

Let's talk about the concept of the "genetic lottery," which we will define as the idea that when you are born, it is completely random to whom you will be born. This premise is instrumental in designing a moral government. The fact that there exists a genetic lottery of which we are all a product means that in designing a government, we have to assume that it is possible to be born to parents of any income level, in any profession, with any disposition. As such, one would never design a government in which one person is king and everyone else is a slave, because the probability of you being born to a king is extremely low. Likewise, we would never design a communist society in which everyone has exactly the same rations independent of the value they contribute, because we value achievement as a means of achieving happiness.

Thinking about this question from the perspective of an optimization problem, the task at hand is to define the constraints and pick a variable to maximize. The variable to maximize is pretty obvious; the role of government is to create market efficiency, so we want to maximize value creation, which correlates pretty well with the concept of gross domestic product.

The constraints follow from the genetic lottery framework. Since we accept life as our standard of value, we certainly want to minimize the likelihood of our birth parents disposition making it impossible for us to survive into adulthood. We also want to create a system under which upward mobility is possible, since there will always be a much higher chance of being born to a middle to lower class family than there is to be born to an upper class family. As rationalists, we deny the existence of life after death, so upward mobility must be possible during one lifetime; caste systems definitely do not cut it. We also trust our mind above all else, since it is our primary means for survival in the world, so moral governments must minimize situations in which there is a lack of choice.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Premises, Part 3 - Free Will

As I type this blog post, I feel completely in control of my actions. I can start and stop as I please, take a break and do something entirely different and come back to it later. Best I can tell, I have free will. And yet, I also believe in a deterministic universe. I believe that everything in the universe can be explained by some set of equations of the interaction of matter/energy on the most basic level, that there's no such thing as randomness. A deterministic universe does not allow for deviation from a predetermined path.

In the most specific sense, we do not have free will. Free will is what is known as an error of agenticity, where we look for patterns in the universe and assign the idea of free will to the agents creating said patterns. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has labeled the section of the brain that interprets the signals and creates a story for us about our "will" the left hemisphere interpreter. He came up with this name based on a series of experiments with a split-brain patient, where feeding a command like "walk" into the right brain (presumably by only showing the flash card to one eye?) caused the patient to make up a story as to why she wanted to go right, such as "I wanted to go get a Coke."

Like our discussion about objective reality, the fact that we perceive free will in ourselves is sufficient to accept it as a premise. We evolved the perception of free will as a survival advantage, and there is no rational reason to think that overriding this feeling would be advantageous to survival, so this premise must be accepted if you accept life as a standard of value. Since everyone in the world perceives that they possess free will, and choose to exercise their individual wills according to the standards set forth by the template of morality, we assume it is within their control to change their actions, and thus we can punish them for their actions, and in particular for the intent of their actions.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Premises, Part 2 - Objective Morality

In part one of this series, we discussed why it is essential that we take it as a premise that there exists an objective reality in which we are living.  Saying that reality is relative posits that it cannot be measured and interpreted. That it is impossible to achieve knowledge in the world because my knowledge can be different from your knowledge, and yet they can both be equally valid. In such a world, there is no value in science, the scientific method, or even reason for that matter. Rejecting the premise of an objective morality has similar consequences. The alternative to accepting an objective morality is to take some kind of moral relativist perspective that not only has no scientific plausibility, but also makes it impossible to prescribe actions, pass judgment, and deter "bad" behavior.

Humans are not a very genetically diverse species. We have an effective population size of about 10,000, which means that the entirety of the genetic diversity of our species can be captured in about 10,000 individuals. Despite the population boom that we have experienced over the last 12,000 years from a few million to well over 6 billion, the amount of genetic diversity has remained the same, though previous iterations of our species have been significantly more diverse. As a side note, genetics are by no means the only relevant element when it comes to heredity. Still, the small effective population size is at least suggestive of the idea that not only are we very similar to each other, but we are very similar to our ancestors going back at least 1.2 million years. There has undoubtedly been selection pressure during this time period, but I suspect that most of this has been as a result of pathogens, leading to selection for immune function (including the passing of antibodies and gut flora from other to child) rather than genetic mutation.

As we've discussed before, our drives, our desires, our needs are all shaped by evolution to keep us alive and pass on our genetic material. So unless you reject life as a standard of value, it follows that those drives that keep us alive are good. If we are all very similar; as the above discussion suggests; and our moral compass is largely shaped by our evolutionary experience, it follows logically that we all have a nearly identical sense of morality, at least on the genetic level. So there is a template of morality that is hard coded into our brains that is very similar, if not identical, in all of us, with the exception of the very rare genetic mutation. This template is the objective morality.

There is no question that culture plays a huge role in morality. The objective morality is a template, and various symbols in culture will always come to represent different aspects of that template. There was a time when being overweight represented value because the foods that made people fat (and still make us fat today), were too expensive for poorer individuals to procure in large enough quantities. There was even a market for foods that fatten people, though for most of the rest of modernity weight loss has been a much larger market. Anyway, the point is this: yes, culture can influence how our minds interpret the virtue of a particular action, but this interpretation can change as new information comes to light and the rational brain refocuses its attention, causing the emotional brain to respond differently to the same action. When people say that "ignorance is bliss," this is a product of the rational brain not having certain information; i.e. being ignorant;  and as a result making different value judgments from what it would have made did it have more complete information.

So when you have moral disagreement with someone, there are two primary areas in which the disagreement can occur. The first is the moral premises, which is why it's important to think about these things, tease out the disagreement, and come to some sort of conclusion or at least agree to disagree on a certain point. The other place that two people can disagree is on the information or the relative weight of the information. These differences are much more easily resolved, as they are not steeped in beliefs, which are obviously very hard to change. The goal of this blog is to start from the ground up and build a rational and scientific morality based on the best evidence available today. So if you disagree with any points on this blog, which I welcome, and would like to argue the point, please make it clear what type of disagreement you are putting forth. If it is one of information, we can discuss the specifics, if it is one on moral grounds, figure out where we break off, i.e. where you agree with my premise but disagree with my conclusion from that premise.

In saying that there is an objective morality, I am saying that there is only one right course of action in any dilemma given perfect information and a perfect understanding of morality, and that is the course of action that is the one that is most likely to keep us and our genetic material alive. There is a similar idea to this in poker, which is known as the fundamental theorem of poker. Any deviation from this course of action is as a result of either:
A) false premises e.g. religion and all the immoral behavior that it prescribes
B) bad or incomplete information (regarding the facts of the particular situation as opposed to morality in general)
C) overtly immoral choices e.g. robbing a bank because you want to live a certain lifestyle, knowing that it is immoral and should be immoral, but doing it anyway because you want to. This drive to have the money is a moral drive, but the action that you are taking violates the rights of others.

The purpose of the study of ethics is to prevent these "Type A" disagreements. Type B disagreements are just about getting the person the right information, and Type C actions can only be prevented by the threat of force from a governing body. We need to define the template of the objective morality, independent of societal influences, in order to design a moral government. Any level of restriction that goes beyond that prescribed by the hard coded morality will inevitably result in someone's freedom of choice being infringed upon.

To be clear, morality is emotional first. It's a backwards rationalization. An attempt at mapping rationally that which we feel intuitively. Because the emotional template does not evolve quickly enough to keep up with our changing environment, we evolved a rational element to our brain that is capable of teasing out how environmental changes influence our survival ability. So if we define rationally the parameters of the emotional template, we can use that template as a framework within which we can make decisions about overruling our emotions. Since the rational framework can influence the emotional response in this way, morality can also be looked at as emergent system.
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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Premises, Part 1 - Objective Reality

This series was probably supposed to come before the post on defining good for the sake of addressing our operating premises. The premises represent the foundation on which morality is built. The first stage in any attempt to sway opinion must be to achieve agreement on the premises. From there, it's a matter of following the logical thread until you determine the primary point of contention, and building your case on that leverage point.

First, a definition:
Premise - A previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.

In creating the rationalist philosophy, there are three basic premises that we are going to need to accept:
1. The world around us represents an objective reality. It exists independent of our consciousness, and independent of our life. Alterations to our brain chemistry can modify our subjective perception of this reality, but this has no impact on the facts of the world, only in the way we perceive them.
2. We are all hardwired by evolution to each have the same drives, urges and emotions with the purpose of perpetuating our individual survival and reproduction, and to a smaller extent the survival of our species as a whole. The totality of these evolutionary drives represent an objective morality.
3. We have to assume that free will exists. We have to assume that humans have the capacity to make good or bad decisions in order to punish them for their decisions.

In part one of this series, let's take a look at the first of these.

Objective Reality
Major hat tip to Richard Nikoley from Free the Animal for including the Hitchens video in this post. The video is one of seven, and in the second video, there is an extremely interesting discussion of a philosopher at Oxford, Nick Bostrom. Bostrom has a theory called the Simulation Hypothesis, which has been featured to various capacities in movies.

The simulation hypothesis posits that it is very likely that we will achieve singularity at some point in the future. This means a number of things, one of which is that we will be able to take a human brain, break it down to its most basic elements, and simulate it in a computer program. Once we can do that, it is not far off to create a virtual universe in which all of the simulated humans perceive themselves as having free will. Once we can create a simulated universe, we can and presumably will create a large number of these simulated universes on computers. As technology advances, the number of simulated universes will approach infinity, and the likelihood that any individual is in the objective reality as opposed to a simulated universe will approach zero. The question then becomes, are we in a simulated universe? Can we know for sure either way? Does it matter?

It is impossible for a person who is scientific minded to reject the possibility of the above scenario. However, it is also irrelevant. If you ever watch the show House, M.D., you will see that occasionally House comes up with a diagnosis that fits better than anything else, but he refuses to accept it, not because it is illogical, but because that diagnosis is untreatable and it would mean giving up on the patient and letting him die. By the same logic, worrying about whether we are in an objective reality or a simulated one is irrelevant, because unless someone is going to come and unplug you Morpheus style, it leaves no course of action other than to continue to try to achieve your own happiness. So here at Armchair, we accept that the world around us represents an objective reality. However, our experience of the world is entirely subjective, as it is filtered through our senses. Still, as the breadth and depth of our experience of the world increases, our concept of the world asymptotically approaches that of the objective reality.
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