Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Morality Explained

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 | Public Speaking, Video

My Toastmasters speech for Speaking to Inform project #5 “The Abstract Concept”. In this talk I discuss how morality and altruism can work within the context of natural selection.

The Moral Arc

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 | Books

In his 2015 book The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer sets out to explain how science and reason have guided moral values throughout history and continue to do so to this day.

The arc represents the expanding moral sphere. Historically, on an evolutionary timescale, we would have mostly been concerned with ourselves and our offspring. As time goes on, this expands to our family, to the wider community, to all humanity, and now to all conscious beings.

As Shermer correctly points out, it is going in the right direction. We live in the safest time to be alive – even if it doesn’t always feel that way! There are less wars, we are wiping out slavery, homicide rates are at an all time low, rape is outlawed in the west and torture is illegal. Violent crime goes down year on year. Traditionally many of these things were common, and even legal!

One of the reasons for this is a better understanding of the world. If you think one of the women in your village is a witch, and that she is causing your crops to fail, the rational thing to do is to burn her. It’s horrible, but it is a mistaken fact about the world, rather than people being moral. Of course the causes of the witch trials were numerous and complex, but Shermer argues that this contributing role, which can be seen throughout history has a large impact, and explains why we become more moral as we gain a better scientific understanding of how the world works.

Slavery is a good example of this. Much of the slave trade was supported by the claim that black people were not humans. Now, with out understanding of evolution and generics, this view cannot be supported by evidence, so the moral argument for slavery (and a moral argument did used to be made in favour of it!) collapses.

Another reason is increased intelligence. Shermer claims that our IQ raises approximately 3 points every decade (though IQ tests are normalised so the actual number remains consistent). This and better education allows us to conceptualise other people’s feelings more and more, and thus expand our moral sphere to today where we can consider how a factory-farmed chicken might feel.

Interestingly, some studies show that reading fiction can improve your ability to empathise. Maybe all that time is not wasted after all.

Morality is a survival technique. It allow us to act altruistically while punishing freeloaders. As humans, we survive better when we work together for common good. However, to stop people taking advantage of this, morality evolves to stop people taking advantage of this.

The book discusses expensive signalling. For example, pirates. Why would a pirate ship fly a pirate flag, telling everyone they are pirates? Surely that increases the chance of the navy spotting them and gives ships a warning when they approach? Shermer suggests the answer is that they wanted people to be scared.

Pirates are not the drunken disorganised ramble you imagine. They were very well organised, had strict rules, a chain o’ command and even constitutions! Why? It was the only way they could run a ship and turn a profit. However, by creating this false impression and being so bold as to fly a pirate flag they convinced many ships to surrender without violence. This was good for everyone as the pirates did not really want to fight – that cost lives!

Another example discussed is the nuclear bombs deployed in the Second World War. Often viewed as morality questionable decisions. However, when considered in the cool light of rationalism, probably made sense. When the Allied Forces took the first Japanese island all but 200 of the 21,000 soldiers and civilians fought to the death! Invading mainland Japan would have seen massive casualties on both sides. In fact the conventional bombing of Tokyo that would have proceeded a land invasion would have taken more lives than the nuclear bombs. Deploying the nukes waa a demonstration of our ability to choose between the lesser of two evils then.

As another interesting aside, Shermer notes that almost all businesses suffer during the war, and therefore it is not often in the oligarchy’s interest to go to war. Whether that stretches as far as Halliburton though, remains to be seen.

Increasingly today we are seeing non-violent campaigns come into play. These work even better as they are more representative of society (violent uprisings tends to be primarily composed of young males). Non-violence has a higher success rate, especially if it reaches a 3.5% share of the population, which Shermer argues is the critical mass.

The idea that we used to live more ethical, greener lives is also challenged. It is not that traditional societies felt a moral duty not to damage the environment – they just did not have the power to do it! The reason Native Americans used every part of the buffalo is that they had to to survive.

Political ideas are also challenged. Shermer quotes data showing conservatives give the most to charity even when controlled for income. Liberals on the other house treat tax as a proxy for giving. Of any social group it is the working poor that give the most.

He suggests that men are always trying to control women’s reproductive rights because they have the most to lose from it. Some studies suggest infidelity rates could be 10-20%, or even as high as 30-50%. Women can know with 100% certainly that the child they give birth is their own, whereas men have less certainty, so it is of evolutionary advantage to ensure their partners are being faithful.

The idea of teaching abstinence is also challenged – not that anyone could really think it was a good idea anyway. However, according to the Chapel Hill Study (I think that’s what the name was) showed 1/200 pregnant women reported virgin conception. Gay rights are also discussed in the politics section. Apparently New York law used to require people to weather at least three items of clothing “befitting their gender” whatever that means.

Shermer also talks about the improving moral attitude towards lab animals. In a very honest section of the book he discusses his uncomfortableness with having to gas the lab animals they were using after being told it was illegal for him to take them up to the woods and let them free. Thankfully they are no longer disposed of in this way.

He also discusses the Holocaust which has a lot of crossover with his book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Were the soldiers just following orders? Group pressure is certainly an issue. Studies show that if two people try to convince you of a deliberately wrong answer in a test, you will probably fight your ground. However, when four people do it, you are more likely to agree with an answer you know is clearly wrong. Non-conformity is traumatic experience. However, research suggests that you have to actively go along with, thus anyone just following orders is complicit.

The book finishes with a look into the future. There is speculation as to whether nation states would be superseded by a world government (unlikely and undesirable according to those quoted) or city states. How capitalism should be reformed and how an advanced civilisation could take place with cheaper energy.

Overall, this book is a great read. It is pretty random at times. It’s trips through politics, speculation of the future and the organisation do loosely fit into the idea of describing a moral arc, but make for a very winding path. The core message is an important one: morality is a survival trait that is evolved into us and will continue to do so as we pursue a rational, naturalistic, empathetic (Humanist) view of the world.

The Moral Arc

Picking a philosophy of life

Saturday, February 8th, 2014 | Thoughts, Video

What do the greats have to say on the subject? Adam Rutherford reminded me of this inspirational message:

For me however, the entire message of life is much better encapsulated in these two lines:

Who gets to care about equality

Sunday, September 16th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

Recently, the following tweet appeared on my timeline.

I’m not ensure sure what so called men’s rights activities are. People who the author feels are not actually interested in men’s rights but have some other kind of agenda? How would you tell the difference between these people and people genuinely interested in men’s issues?

This recurring theme is very interesting though, as it suggests, as many comments have done recently, that someone can be disqualified from having an opinion or interest in equality, because of their gender.

This seems very strange to me. The idea that you could improve gender equality by banning one gender from having an opinion.

To me, having a fair and equal society is everyone’s business. Some people may consider it advantageous to their specific demographic to be privileged, but I believe that it is everyone’s interest to work towards equality.

Indeed, it may be considered more admirable for such individuals to fight for equality. Fighting for your rights if you are at a disadvantage is a welcome attitude, but ultimately, you are only acting in your own self interest. But those who are in the privileged group, and still fight for equality, are the epitome of morally conscientious citizens.

Halal KFC

Monday, August 13th, 2012 | Religion & Politics

The continued spread of unethical meat throughout the UK is of particular concern to those of us who try and avoid it for such reasons. Over time, this is likely to place increasing restrictions on what we can and cannot eat.

KFC are currently running a “Halal” trial but I was pleased to read on their website that they have adopted a version of Halal, which is less Halal and more ethical. Here is what their website says…

9. Is KFC’s halal chicken stunned before slaughter?

Yes, due to our strict animal welfare standards, we insist that all our poultry is stunned before slaughter. Our halal chicken has been accredited by the Halal Food Authority, one of the most widely recognised bodies in the UK and overseas. It allows the use of a technique called ‘stun-to-stun’ – a pain-free process that makes the animal insensible to pain and suffering.

That’s probably a tune that we can all dance to.

Would you like me to change my gloves?

Friday, June 22nd, 2012 | Thoughts

I popped into Subway for lunch today and noticed they had a staff notice up in their baking area that asks “what as your position’s today?” I’m fairly sure there shouldn’t be an apostrophe in that.

Anyway, one of the people in front of me in the queue asked for a vegetarian sandwich and the artist asked her if she would like her to change her gloves. The customer said yes. But what is the point of all this?

For me, even as a vegetarian, I just don’t see the point in offering to change your gloves for vegetarian sandwiches. But maybe I’m missing the reason entirely, as I can only think of two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a principle issue. You don’t want gloves which have touched meat to touch your sandwich. But this is just stupid. You’re not advocating the slaughter of animals just because someone uses the same gloves to prepare your sandwich as they did to prepare someone else’s. Besides, where does it end? Why just change your gloves, why is it OK for the same person to prepare a vegetarian sandwich if they have previously been in contact with meat?

Secondly, it’s in case the sandwich then tastes of meat because the gloves have some kind of meat smell on them. This doesn’t make sense either though, because why would you just do it for vegetarian sandwiches? Someone ordering a chicken sandwich doesn’t want their sandwich to smell of meatballs for example.

Why then, does it matter if someone changes their gloves at Subway?

Lazy bottom feeders

Saturday, June 16th, 2012 | Tech

For those of you who attended last year’s Secular Ball, you may remember that we did all the registrations though the website, SecularBall.org.

At the time we also registered SecularBall.com but those having come up for renewal, we decided only to renew the .org domain as barely anyone visits that, so having the .com isn’t even worth the $8 it would cost to renew it.

Anyway, someone recently sent me this email.

Hello,

I believe you’re the owner of secularball.org. I’ve got a proposition
concerning your website. Would you be interested in acquiring
secularball.com?

I understand that you may be concerned about the legitimacy of this.
If you’re a bit skeptical, I can upload an HTML page to verify
ownership beforehand. We can also use a third party escrow (who will
essentially ensure your money is safe until you retain complete
control over the domain name) for optimal security.

PS: I’m only emailing you because I believe you can benefit from this.
I do not intend to email you again unless you respond to this inquiry.

Regards,
Faheem.

It’s bad enough these lowly bottom feeders gouge out a living based on registering other people’s trademarks, but you would think that if you were in such a business you would have at least the basic common sense to do just a bit of research and see that we already were the owner of said domain until recently and obviously had no interest in it (or at least make reference to the idea of selling it back to us).

Lying

Monday, November 14th, 2011 | Books, Thoughts

While browsing the Sam Harris website for some information to add to my recent post on The Moral Landscape, I came across a new essay that Sam had published, entitled Lying, which was available exclusively via Kindle.

At 26 pages long I was able to get through it before going to bed yesterday and it makes for an interesting read.

In the essay, Sam puts forward the case that you should almost never lie. It’s qualified with almost as there are times when normally immoral actions can be moral – for example, if you’re willing to kill in self defence, it seems silly to rule out lying as well. But for the majority of our life, lying is best to be avoided.

This is something most of us would follow anyway, but Sam concentrates his efforts in persuading the reader that white lies are equally an enemy to be avoided – something that most of us probably are guilty of (I’ll be honest, I certainly am).

Examples are things like telling a friend your busy when you actually don’t want to go to an event, pretending your friend doesn’t look fat in that dress, or not being honest about how you think the book they have just written is rubbish, or even as far as being honest when someone gives you a present that you actually don’t like.

A good example is this – you overhear a friend leaving a voicemail for someone else (that you don’t know) saying that she has had to cancel plans at the last minute because something has come up. You know this isn’t true, but you don’t call the person on it at the time. Still, every time they cancel you on because something came up in future, you are disinclined to believe them.

This is something that I can really relate to. Many friends I just won’t believe when they cancel me because they claim to be ill. Carl is a good example of this. Sometimes he probably is ill, but most of the time I just don’t believe him. Given that trust is a very valuable commodity, that really isn’t a position you want to be in.

Of course, sometimes white lies can actually just be code for something else, and we all know it. “I have no money” for example. It’s amazing how many people say this and then suddenly have money when we’re doing something they really want to do. But then, we all really know that saying that actually means “I only have limited funds in my budget so it has to be really good to make it worth it, and your event isn’t worth it.”

Another example of this is “I’m busy.” As Gijsbert says, we’re all busy people, what we mean when we say we are busy is “I have other priorities.”

Harris argues that it’s best to avoid these white lies, though. If your friend genuinely is fat, be honest, maybe it will inspire them to lose some way and be happier with their own body image. If your friend’s film script is genuinely awful, tell them, don’t let your friend waste more of their time on a project that isn’t going anywhere. It’s better to face short-term discomfort for the overall benefit of your friends.

It’s a good read. Not as great as the reviews claim, but interesting none the less. If you’re interested, you can find it in the Kindle Store.

EDIT: The essay is now also available in a PDF edition, for those that don’t want to download the Kindle software. Thanks to Aaron for the heads up.

The Moral Landscape

Saturday, November 12th, 2011 | Books, Reviews, Science

Last month, myself and Elina attended a One Life session on Ethics, to tell the young people why they are wrong.

Specifically, about why I believe morality is objective, rather than subjective.

For many years previous to this I had argued that morality must be subjective – after all, without a god, what universal source is there to say what is right or wrong? This is the position that most non-believers take and ultimately forms quite a coherent world view – but does mean that you have to admit that in some ways, you can’t say what Hitler did was wrong because that’s only your subjective point of view and from his point of view, he was doing the morality right thing.

Of course, they should automatically lose the argument by resorting to Godwin’s Law, but it is something that has never sat particularly well with me.

However, after reading The Moral Landscape, the new book from Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith – the book which really got me passionate about atheism, it presented to me for the first time a worldview which makes coherent sense with objective morality without a god.

I didn’t entirely buy into it at first, but after a few months mulling the topic over, I have to hold my hands up and say that I believe Harris puts together the best argument and so I will hold my hands up and say I now beleive I was previously wrong about the nature of morality.

To give you an overview, Harris’ argument is this:

Morality is a human construct, but it’s actually about an observable fact.

When it comes down to it, the field or morality is about welfare. If you do something which is good for the welfare of others, it is a moral act. If you do something which is bad for the welfare of others, it is an immoral act. And if you do something which has no impact on the welfare of others it is an amoral act. Of course others actually includes yourself, and isn’t limited to humans, but it seemed like a more poetic term to use.

So, if we work on this basis, every act can be measured by it’s impact on welfare and then judged to be moral or immoral accordingly. How you define welfare is of course very complicated – but although it’s a hard concept to define, we all really know what we are talking about when we use the term.

Based on this then, we have an objective way to measure an action as moral or immoral. If it does more harm than good overall, it is a immoral action and if we did more good than harm then it is a moral action. Objectively.

This is great because you can now say “Hitler’s actions were objectively immortal” rather than just “I believe Hitler’s actions were immoral, in my subjective opinion.”

In fact, it’s clearest to see at the edges. Take an action, for example throwing acid in a woman’s face without cause – that is clearly wrong, not wrong in our Western society but OK in the correct cultural settings – it’s just wrong! Indeed, another advantage of objective morality is you can tell the cultural relativists to go fuck themselves when they say it’s OK for certain cultures to practice beating wives, stoning homosexuals and the horrific practice of genital mutilation because that’s their tradition.

Of course, the next question is, “well how do you know what is right and wrong? Surely there are too many variables to take into account – it’s never that simple.” You’re right, it never is as simple as my example above, but that is beside the point. Just because it’s very tricky to work out what whether an action causes more harm than good, doesn’t mean it’s inherently subjective – it just means it’s very difficult to work out!

A lot of physics is also extremely difficult to work out, but it’s definitely objective (and I will be so bold to insist that that does include quantum mechanics). Similarly, just because we don’t have all the information just yet, it doesn’t mean that eventually we won’t be able to find the objective answers to the question or morality, and until then, we can give it our best educated guess.

And if we’re wrong, then we’re wrong. It’s not that it was moral to keep slaves when the slave trade was thriving – it was immoral back then as well, but people were just wrong about it. We still don’t have to blame them, because they didn’t know, just like we don’t blame people for being wrong about the world not being flat, but never the less, the world wasn’t ever flat, even when everyone knew it was.

Another common criticism is that if morality is objective, it can never change. This seems inherently wrong because morality has to change depending on circumstances – killing is wrong in cold blood, but acceptable in self defence. Another example would be that killing animals for food was acceptable thousands of years ago when you had to to survive, but now that you don’t have to, it’s not acceptable.

But this is a misunderstanding of the kind of objective morality Harris puts forward in his book. Objective facts can change. For example, my age is 25. That is an objective fact. But next year, my age will be 26 and that will be the same objective fact about my age – it’s just that time has moved on and things change. My age still remains objective.

Finally, another potential criticism of this somewhat utilitarian view is that it supports ideas that we would not agree with – as the old joke goes, nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape. That is to say, of course, the nine rapists enjoy it, and the one victim does not – the greatest good for the greatest many and all that.

This doesn’t hold up to any kind of examination of course – none of us actually want to live in a world where we could get gang raped at any time, even if nine of out ten times we would be the rapist and enjoy it (not that any of us actually would enjoy it of course, but hypothetically), we would spend our lives living in fear and so overall welfare would in fact decrease. Therefore such nonsense is not by any stretch of the imagine, tolerated under a utilitarian system.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. Please give The Moral Landscape a read, it’s £12 on Amazon and I’ll happy lend you my copy if you’re too cheap to buy it. It really offers some fantastic food for thought and challenges an area of debate which I think many of us considered closed – of course nothing is closed given we claim to be the freethinkers and all.

One Life: Ethics

Sunday, October 30th, 2011 | Humanism

Last week, myself and Elina headed down to One Life for their session on Ethics, to explain to all the young people why they are wrong. As expected, most people there argued that morals were subjective, so I put forward the case from Sam Harris’ excellent book, The Moral Landscape, which I will be blogging about shortly.