Broken Britain

April 25, 2010 at 10:23 am (politics) ()

For everyone who didn’t already know, the British political voting system is heavily broken.  Using the BBC’s vote calculator you can see how many seats each party gets given the votes.  So if for example all the 3 main parties are equal:

Then the political may would look like this:

And the final distribution of votes would be:

So with an equal amount of votes,  the Lib Dems get under one third of labours seats and under half of the Tories.  In what world does that make sense?  The Lib Dems and Tories combined in this scenario are still behind Labour, despite having 60% of the vote between them!

This is an absurd situation and strongly justifies proportional representation system, which is advocated by the Lib Dem.  I think this is worth having a hung parliament over.  In fact I think that a hung parliament would be a good thing, but that is a different point…

Permalink Leave a Comment

Food for thought

April 14, 2010 at 10:46 pm (science) (, , , )

Ingenious Monkey has linked to two excellent talks on morality that are definitely worth a read.  These are my thoughts leading from them.

The first is Jonathan Foer speaking on the morality of what we eat.  He is a vegetarian, and provides a very compelling discussion on it, but takes a very inclusive point of view that I admire.  His basic point is that most people care.  They might make different decisions about how to change the world, but that every person who makes a conscious decision to do something good is on the same side.  In this sense, people who eat free range meat are essentially the same as vegans: they are both making moral choices about how their actions will impact the world.  In this sense, people who care are all on the same side. against people who do not.

His argument is mostly about the impact of choosing what we eat: in America, the food industry is so unrestricted that it’s practices would be abhorrent to everybody if they knew what was going on.  In Europe the situation is somewhat different, with slightly stronger restrictions preventing the most cruel practices.  However the basic point stands: most would know just by visiting a high density farm that its approach was immoral.

I find his faith in humanity somewhat comforting, and it is very reassuring to hear his stories of his grandmother in the war describing why as a homeless starving Jew scavenging for food she would still not eat pork: “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save”.  Most people would say that some thing do matter, caring for others and ourselves matters, and that is why there is a point to living.

However, it is also somewhat naive, and my main thoughts watching this were things don’t matter as much to people as they might claim.  How many people would really stand by their values in the face of death?  How many people will change the way they behave in order to be consistent with what they believe, rather than chaging what they believe to fit with how they live their lives?  These are tough questions, but I wonder, how many of the food company employees, that see the terrible conditions on these awful farms he discusses, how many of them care ?  I bet that its most of them.  However, when faced between choosing whether to care about the conditions that they subject animals to, they teach themselves not to care.  People are good at that.  So is it really enough to appeal to people’s sense of morality, when we all know deep down that we would sacrifice most of our morals if we felt we had to.

Or perhaps I’m being too cynical: watch it and see for yourself.  I guarantee that anyone who cares will find something to like in his arguments.

(As a side point, he claims that the worst thing to eat in terms of its impact on the lives of others is eggs.  Even free range eggs, in America at least, are produced under the most shocking conditions.  This upsets me because as a conscientious vegetarian I rely on eggs for lots of things… I need to look up what “free range” means in the UK.)

The second speaker is Sam Harris speaking at TED on why science can answer moral questions.  This is an extremely important topic: I can’t emphasise enough how important this is.  Essentially, he points out that on questions of moral values, we have learned to consider all societies as equal.  If a country believes that women in their own country should wear a burka, we say that is fine.  If they believe in corporal punishment, we say let them do it.  This is despite strong opposition to these things at home – we can believe that things are wrong for some people and right for others.

Harris argues that actually, if we take a broad definition of what morality is for (to maximise the well being of conscious creatures) then there are provably right answers for what are the best set of moral values.  These facts can be obtained through the application of science to the brain, and to society.  For example, does corporal punishment increase the physical and mental well being of all that grow up and then live in the society, or does it not?  This has a simple, “yes or no” answer that we can obtain through scientific study.

We should stop pretending that all opinions on morality are equal.  Some moralities are better than others, and people who have attempted to find out the right best answers via rational scientific approaches will be better placed to judge than those who haven’t.  In other words, we should stop the pandering to all cultures (including our own) and focus on making changes that are in everyone’s best interest.

Not everything is getting put up for question here.  There are some issues that are genuinely different in different societies: he shows a plot of the “morality landscape” that has several maximum points on.  If such differences exist they should be respected – his point is that there are some universal truths to morality and we should not pretend to be ignorent of them.

I really like his point, and it is a very important and well made one.  There are however some dangers.  What about when we disagree over the best thing to do?  Presumably the correct answer would be to change nothing until the answer could be decided by science – but this could take hundreds of years to resolve in some cases, particularly if there was a dispute that involved claiming that the “best” thing would make life worse in one particular cluture.  But without such an approach, we would be seen as imposing our own moral system onto others, which could cause more problems than it solves.  Diversity is celebrated mostly because its too much trouble to try to prevent people doing what they want.  Additionally, moral codes are used as identifiers: if you tell Muslims they shouldn’t force women to wear burkas, then many women may actually choose to wear them, simply to state to the world, “I am Muslim, and it is important to me”.  This will reinforce the wearing of burkas and make the society less likely to permit non-wearing as acceptable. (I should say that burkas are not legally compulsory in most Muslim states – but the social implications of not wearing them vary to the point that they could be considered as effectively compulsory in some cases.)

But generally, I’m very much for this.  We really do need to stop pretending that all opinions on morality are equal, because they quite simply are not.  And that is not just my opinion: some moral frameworks really do result in higher well being for all than others.

Permalink 3 Comments

Logic and morality

April 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm (Articles) (, , , , )

I’ve written a detailed article, and an argument map, explaining why I think vegetarianism is a logical conclusion for people trying to be moral.  So far, I’ve succeeded in convincing exactly zero people.

Why is it that people are not convinced?

The first explanation is that I’m wrong.  It is certainly possible that there are aspects of my argument that can be mitigated.  Obviously, I’ve started with the concept of vegetarianism and argued from there – perhaps if I had to refute an argument for eating meat written by a meat-eater, I would have a harder time making it seem so incontrovertible.  However, it’s never a logical response that people reject my arguments with.  Somehow, logic is irrelevant in convincing people.

A second explanation is that people don’t really want to be moral.  I’m partially convinced that this is true, to a point: we are certainly willing to compromise our morality.  I often get “But meat tastes so good!”, which is an argument made either in jest, or with the implicit assumption that its OK to be amoral if it pleases us. But most people I know are genuinely good people.  They go out of their way to help others at no personal gain and they believe in animal rights.  I don’t think we can simply disregard morality.

A third explanation is that people haven’t got time or energy to fully take it in.  This makes them sound pretty lazy – after all, who could say that they support killing because they couldn’t be bothered to think about whether it was bad?  But actually, it is a complex problem.  My argument map shows how complicated the arguments get.  I’m asking people to understand this whole map, and figure out exactly how they disagree with it.  Or alternatively, to create an equivalent argument for their own position that I can think about.  This is a huge intellectual undertaking.

But actually, there is a fourth explanation (which to some extent encompasses the second and third): Human logic is an insufficient tool for morality.

What is logic for?

In practical life, logic tells you how to solve a problem.  If you want to cross a river, it can tell you how to do it based on your knowledge of how the materials at hand behave: for example, that wood floats.  If you want to be “be moral” it tells you what actions you can take to bring about things that you think are good.  What logic can’t do is tell you what to want to do; which problems to solve. It can’t tell you that you want to cross the river, or that you want to be moral, unless these are part of some greater “want” that itself cannot be explained by logic.

So far it would appear that logic can tell you how to be moral.  But the problem is that we aren’t inherently logical creatures.  We don’t sit and figure out every nuance of a problem logically before embarking on it – we just figure out what to do next, and do it.  We might make a simple raft to cross a river, and if that is good enough then we cross and don’t think any more about it.  If it’s not good enough, then we think about how to make a better raft, or perhaps a bridge.  So our logic gets repeatedly tested until it works.  As a scientist, I know from long experience that this is exactly how people proceed with complicated problems, even if they know everything they need to get the right answer in advance.  It’s simply too difficult to get the logic right first time. Human logic is an empirical process of testing ideas, rather than a deductive process.

Now think about how we solve the problem of “what is moral behaviour?”.  We think of some things that we want to do achieve with morality: a better world for all, fairness, treating others as we wish to be treated.  Then we think of how to do it, perhaps by charity, vegetarianism, or kindness.  But what test can there be for each individual action?  Everything we might choose to do makes us feel better, because we feel like we are being moral.  Unless we can perceive a clear wrong brought about by our actions, they are affirmed as being moral.  There is no way for us to tell if the world really is a better place, or if we are being truly fair.  There is no way for us to test our morality.

Some evidence for the lack of logic in moral codes

There is plenty of evidence that many systems of morality will lead to happy satisfaction that we are being moral.  Victorian society believed that all implications of sex were amoral: it was apparently amoral to use the word leg when talking to a lady.  In Muslim Dubai kissing in public is amoral, and even being raped can be a crime against morality. Such strict taboos on public behaviour are rare today, but of course all societies have an element of arbitrary morality.  We shouldn’t think that this is restricted to other, unfair societies: an example that western culture embraces the taboo on is public nudity.  Is public nakedness really amoral?  If so, why?  A more difficult issue is criminal punishment.  Is punishment primarily for the benefit of the victim, taking the form of restitution or retribution, for society in the form of incapacitation or deterrence of criminals, or is for the rehabilitation of the criminal?  All of these purposes rub against each other and we must make value judgements, e.g. about when to release criminals, or what a prison should be like.  Essentially, people purposefully obeying a moral code think they are good people for doing so, even though others may consider the same behaviour as immoral.

People believe they are moral if they are personally satisfied that their actions are moral.  Logic doesn’t come into it much, until people have a reason to question an aspect of the moral code.  If an illogical moral restriction impinges on a person they quickly realise that it is wrong, but its hard to think deeply about issues that nobody is actively making noise about.  Why question the public nudity taboo if everybody is happy anyway?  Why question eating meat when animals don’t complain?

So what does this mean for morality?

I’m forming the opinion that true morality, in the sense of encompassing all logical consequences of what we want from morality, is impossible in a real society.  Unless the code was enforced from the top down, even “good” people will not conform to such rules because they will not be able to accept the necessity for all of them.  This is because if a person mentally skips the deeper layers of thinking about the implications of their choices, there will be no consequences for them.  Such a person feels exactly as happy as a person fulfilling all the logical implications, both believing they are truly moral. And any system that is enforced from above is not morality, but just a system of society. (Though some society systems will clearly be better than others).

I make it sound like we need to be lazy and thoughtless to fail to be fully moral, but this is not really true.  We sometimes simply don’t know what is the most moral choice.  For example, I don’t give charity to beggars, because I’m told that its better to give to charities for the homeless instead.  However, I’m pretty sure that the jury is still out on which is truly better.  For example, if nobody gave to beggars then anyone who didn’t fulfil the requirements of the shelters would simply starve or freeze if they don’t turn to crime.  Alternatively, if everyone gave to the shelters directly, then they may have enough money to take everyone in.  So who should we give our money to?  The reality is that such uncertainties exist in all aspects of morality.

Rounding up: vegetarianism

I’m fairly depressed about morality after concluding that logic can’t help change people.  It seems as though we need to enshrine morality in our rules (either social or legal) for them to be fully accepted by all.  Although there is capacity for rapid society change (for example, smoking has gone from being common with a positive image to rare and disapproved of in only one generation), such changes require a concerted effort from all aspects of society.  Additionally there needs to be some motivation to the average person for change.  I hope for a fairer, more moral future, in which people genuinely consider their actions morally.  But the argument above has convinced me that it won’t happen simply by explaining the logic to people.

There is a parallel to the anti-slavery movement here – and I do believe that it is possible that future generations may view eating meat with the same level of repugnance that we view slavery.  Ending slavery required several things: it required a viable alternative (advances in machinery made slave labour less necessary), and a concerted effort by anti-slavery advocates to make slavers realise that it was immoral.  The viable alternatives to meat exist now: there is no need to eat meat any more.  But there is no body of people that find vegetarianism to be a very important subject, worth ruining lives over.  This is partially because it is a less important topic, but partially because there are no humans that it strongly affects.

This leads to a quandary to someone like me, who hopes to encourage vegetarianism.  On the one hand, I think the world would be a better place if more people embraced vegetarianism.  However, to bring that about I can’t just use logic and argument.  This has been done for thousands of years and achieved little.  Instead I have to advocate vegetarianism, to make a real detrimental impact on peoples lives if they don’t accept it, because that is how people will come to realise that the change is necessary.  This can mean anything from an aggressive political movement to strongly stating my point when people eat meat around me.  Such aggression goes against another rule of morality that I think is important: we should live and let live.  We should respect each others opinions, even when we believe them to be wrong.  For example, although I believe vegetarianism is an extremely important part of a truly moral society, others think other things, many of which I don’t want forced on me.

So should I become a more vocal vegetarian?  My argument above leads me to believe that no societal change can come about unless vegetarians are more vocal.  Yet to become vocal will strain friendships, cause tensions and generally make for a less happy life for many.  And unless I convince many other vegetarians to do the same, it would be for nothing anyway. Does morality require that I try to change others, or  is it enough to satisfy my own moral code?  Which is the greater good?

Permalink Leave a Comment

Vegetarianism Argument Map

April 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm (Articles) (, , , , , )

I recently discovered a standard way of formulating logical discussion as an argument map on the blog philosophical disquisitions.  Basically this involves taking a starting point, making arguments that follow from the starting point, then drawing a conclusion.  The clever part is that you show counterarguments (e.g. does this really follow?  Can we conclude that from the preceding points?) back and forth until one side of the debate wins.

I’ve drawn up my essay on vegetarianism in argument map form.  The stages building up the argument are below; you might prefer to look at the high resolution pdf of the full thing, and a pdf slideshow introducing the arguments in the stages below, or a cleaner pdf without a background.

Arguments leading to vegetarianism.

Perhaps “Animals are included in the system” needs justification; but in this system, we can argue why it shouldn’t be true instead.  The same set of arguments come out in the end.

Counter arguments, stage 1.

Here we attack the argument in two places; should we include animals in the system morality, and can we eat them anyway if we do?  Of course, it is possible to attack the assumption of morality being something to aspire to.  The alternative assumptions appear later, and I discuss the issue at length in my essay.  Most of us do aspire to being moral at some level.

Main set of counter-arguments for vegetarianism.

Now I’ve introduced evidence and argument as separate things.  However, in the map they appear quite similarly.  In the “Animals have no souls” I’ve allowed the implicit assumption that there is a real thing called the soul, because anyone citing the religious argument might make this assumption (even though I personally do not).  This is because I don’t think the soul argument permits animals to be mistreated (i.e. excluded from morality) even if it were true.  The evidence for culture and language in animals of course don’t mean they are as complex as in humans; simply that they do exist.  So we can still claim to be superior to animals but only by a matter of scale, which doesn’t exclude animals from the system of morality (though places less emphasis on their needs relative to ours).

Final Counter arguments

Here, the two consistent assumptions that I can see against vegetarianism appear: either we make a religious assumption and take the holy texts as our literal source of moral commandments, or we accept that we don’t think morality is a real thing to aspire to.

Argument map for vegetarianism

Finally, the full argument map is completed.  The “Benefit of the doubt” argument is clearly the most important one here; there are only two ways around it as far as I see.  Firstly, we can do more science and remove the doubt; this is still a very long way away from what science can achieve though as it requires a full understanding of animal and human consciousness.  Secondly, the “duty to give the benefit of the doubt” argument could be attacked, although I don’t personally see how.

I see the argument for vegetarianism as being very well supported here, because we only need doubt to be able to defeat any other counter-argument.  Now its been expressed clearly, can anyone add any red boxes to attack the remaining yellow?

Permalink 3 Comments