You should blog about it

January 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm (Humour) (, , )

I’ve had nothing to say on this blog for a while…

"I have nothing to say" ... "You should blog about it."

Thanks to for that one.


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2010 in review

January 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm (Uncategorized)

An automated review of thinkingdan indicates that people are reading this blog, despite the fact that I am woefully negligent of it.  Perhaps I should write more about vegetarianism and morality, since that is the main thing that people stumble on the blog for…?

I’m very amused by the positive spin on the numbers below.  I like the imagery of forcing 7 planeloads of people to read my blog on transatlantic flights, perhaps handed out on the back of the safety card.

Comments welcome!  The automated part follows….


The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 14 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 47 posts. There were 26 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 7mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was August 21st with 38 views. The most popular post that day was Vegetarianism Argument Map.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for i think therefore i am, vegetarianism, do races exist, morality of vegetarianism, and thinking cartoon.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Vegetarianism Argument Map April 2010
1 comment


Breaking news: do human races exist after all? January 2010


The logical morality of vegetarianism August 2008


I think therefore I am…. July 2008


Vegetarianism around the world July 2008

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Angry Rant #2: Personal Responsibility and the extended phenotype

November 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm (rant) (, , , )

Note: The “I” and “you” below for argument purposes and are not really myself and yourself.  Please don’t take it personally.  Unless I’m describing things you’ve done, in which case do take it personally, and do something about it.

If I were to run at you, screaming and shouting, getting into your face and hurling obscenities, would that be OK?  -probably not.

Perhaps if I were mentally unable to control my actions?  Is it still my fault then? If I had taken incapacitating drugs then it would be, even though I was not in control of my actions, because I could have done something about it when I was in control. I didn’t have to take the drugs.  Even if I’m incapable of harming you, it is still not acceptable behaviour.

But assume instead that I was just like that (sometimes I want to be); it isn’t really my fault.  In that case imagine I have a minder, someone to make sure I don’t hurt myself or others.  Would it be OK for them to stand by, perhaps tut, and explain “Oh it’s not you, he just does that?”  Should you be required to have a civil and polite conversation with my minder whilst I abuse you?

Or would you consider it rude, offensive, marginally criminal and/or negligent?  I somehow think so.  And it isn’t OK when it is an animal is doing it either.  Say, a dog.

Personal responsibility

Dogs clearly have a reduced level of personal responsibility.  Our society has a lot of complex rules that we don’t know how to explain to them; we don’t know that they would be capable of following the rules even if we could.  When a dog poops, it doesn’t have to pick it up – we do.  We have responsibility for them. It is written into law that we must prevent them from being “aggressive, or dangerously out of control”.  In more egalitarian terms which might extend to a combined human/animal morality, we are acting as their representative for situations in which they are not capable of representing themselves.

Extended phenotype

When we define ourselves, we think not just of our own physical body, but the sum of all of the things we do or cause to be.  If a person leaves a trap in a field, and it kills somebody, they killed that person even though they weren’t physically there.  Similarly, a parent may take at least some responsibility for the actions of their children; they have imbibed them with some of their knowledge and being (for good or ill, by chance or design).  The phenotype is our biological self; the extended phenotype is our effect on the world.  We have responsibility for both, when it is within our power to understand how we influence the world.

That means, when your dog is aggressive to me, and you permit this, then you are being aggressive to me.  Certainly this is true in reverse; if I were to kick your dog you would take it as a personal attack on yourself.  Aggression is not acceptable behaviour.  At the best you should expect disdain in return for not raising the dispute beyond aggressive displays.  Yet, when dogs are involved, many (not all or even most) owners are completely oblivious to the disregard they have shown for our societal pacts against aggression.  Indeed, they expect me to be polite, even cheery, as they point out that little fluffy doesn’t bite, he’s just chasing the bike, its nothing personal.

Its personal.  If your dog is aggressive to me, you are aggressive to me. You have both the power, and the responsibility, to prevent the situation, and yet chose not to do it.

A dog has responsibility for itself to the limits of its ability.  They clearly can understand physical and verbal communication, they know that actions have consequences, even if not fully understood.  But where their understanding ends, our responsibility begins.  They are our extended phenotype and for good or bad, we are our dogs are they are us.

In other words, distributed processing sucks.  If you cannot trust your “other” fluffy bodied brain to follow your intentions, then you will need  physical intervention for coordinated action. Or in other, other words, if your dog attacks people, put it on a lead!

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Is the study of society fundamentally unscientific?

October 18, 2010 at 9:14 pm (Articles) (, , , )

The Philosopher’s Stone has recently posted a 12 part series on the study of society (first one here), which includes an exposition of what it means to be a modern Marxist, the history of social studies and a discussion on what modern social scientists measure about societies.  It also makes a fairly damning claim about the study of society as a scientific enterprise: that it is fundamentally impossible to study society impartially, because we perceive society through the eyes of a member of a particular society.

I am going to argue that this is not in fact a hopeless task, although I certainly agree that attempts up to now are capturing only a simple and terribly biased picture.  I will first overview the criticisms, then I will give two reasons to be hopeful that we may eventually come up with a truly scientific (i.e. impartial) view of how our society operates.  These should be understood as future avenues that social scientists will adopt in addition to current methodology that can give a more complete understanding.

What is the problem with current social science of economics?

I should start by pointing out I am not sure quite what the scope of the perceived problem is for social science.  The Philosopher’s Stone criticises “social science” mostly in the context of economics, although notes that “Society is, when all is said and done, nothing more nor less than the totality of the habits, practices, rituals, institutions, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors of a group of people”.  As economics is the most rigorous and mathematical of the social sciences, it makes sense to focus on it.

I will write the arguments as I understand them, borrowing quotes only where I fully get the point.  So if I am mistaken please correct me; its my hope that my later arguments are robust to small misunderstandings at this stage.

The argument has two main points. “The first point is that society, even at the apparently simplest level, is essentially mystified”. Concepts that we use to perceive society are confounded by our pre-existing understanding of what society means.  We define everything in relative terms that are suitable for the society we live in.  So for example, a “driver” may be someone who drives for a living, or simply someone who is driving, or who can drive.  Not all societies will have people who drive for a living (or anything to drive), and so these categories are somewhat arbitrary.  This is true of all categories, including “men” and “women” (which matter for some concepts, such as marriage, but may be counted as either identical or not at all for others, such as employees who may be either male or female, or in e.g. feudal societies females may not even be counted, despite the fact that they also worked the land).  Within that argument is the observation that we learn language constructs as children growing up in a society, so concepts within our society are rooted into our way of thinking by language and learning from other members of society.  (Although it does seem obvious to me that language shapes our thinking, this is still controversial, as discussed at Replicated Typo,)

The second point is that we can’t index (count) anything about societies: “the concepts we use to get a conceptual handle on a huge, complex, multi-faceted social reality cannot possibly be given a value neutral interpretation without reducing them to tautological triviality”.  Any measure that an economist has come up with is fundamentally flawed.  A clear example is that we all have experience of inflation rises, but it is impossible to measure because goods and services change price in different directions: oil fluctuates, food rises, electronic goods drop (at the moment).  On average, it means very little because we each use these products differently.  Even worse, similar things have to be grouped together and these groups are arbitrary: are designer shoes in the same category as practical shoes? Is ice in the same category as a fridge? etc. So indexes don’t even measure the same thing over time, and they do it badly.

Why we can study society scientifically part 1: theory

Firstly, humans are just organisms that interact.  At a very basic level, every individual is fundamentally understandable as an agent that does things and interacts with other agents, in ways that are explained by evolution.  This is not even a theory – it is a truism (unless you are an anti-evolutionist, but then you should go read some other blog).  Therefore if we can understand why people do things, then we can predict what people will do in certain situations.  This becomes a theory of society, and it is fundamentally grounded in biology.

The question therefore becomes “what can we learn about ourselves?”  I agree entirely that we cannot use the consumer price index to predict very much, because it depends on the individuals in a society in too complex a way.  But what we can hope is to be able to predict the behaviour of aggregates of individuals based simply on knowing how they will behave on an individual basis, and in their fundamental interactions.  As we move towards a truly mathematical (i.e. precisely defined and falsifiable) theory of how the brain processes information, we may get close enough to the truth in order to predict on average, what people will do.  We won’t be able to predict what a specific person will always do (because the brain is too complex to be simulated by anything other than itself) but we can hope to predict them well on average (“when buying a snack, Joe will usually pick chocolate, unless he is feeling bad about his weight in which case he’ll pick fruit”).  We should be able to predict what a population of people will do with higher accuracy than we can for an individual.

This approach bypasses the first objection to a large degree: it is no longer necessary in principle to view humanity from the point of view of a society at all.  The theory can operate at the level of individuals: if you put the right set of behaviours of individuals in, you will get the right behaviour of the society out.  It is still not a “theory of everything” – we still cannot understand a society made up of people we don’t understand. But we can understand the most important type of society: one made up of people who behave as we do.  And better than that, we can understand any society where people behave in a way we can conceive.

Of course, we can’t answer all questions in this way.  It may be impossible to tell the difference between two theories of how people behave.  In statistics, this is known as the identifiability problem.  What we can hope scientifically to establish is a range of behaviours that can only be explained by a single sensible theory; an additional range of behaviours that may have multiple explanations; and finally behaviours that are too complex and are unidentifiable.  A theory based on detailed modelling will also have computational constraints that will either make it harder to accurately predict what people will do, or possible to only predict small numbers of people.

But even if the theory remains incomplete because of these problems, we can still predict the behaviour itself – we just don’t know which theory predicting it is correct.  So we can get an awfully long way towards a theory of society.

Why we can study society scientifically part 2: empirical approaches

The idea of viewing the world though the pinhole of simple demographic indexes is over.  In the data-poor world of the 20th century, there we no other options – but with data collection, transfer and processing on a massive scale, we will soon have no choice but to move over to a more empirical worldview, whether we like it or not.

At present, when the government tries to establish if people are better or worse off this year compared to last, they have to rely on the consumer price index, inflation, and other indices of the economy as a whole.  But the need for creating arbitrary categories of products to construct these indices is decreasing and will disappear entirely.

Governments will soon (or already do?) have easy access to databases containing the total amount of all products sold within its country: the data can be stored in full.  Britons bought x iPhone 4s and y iPhone 3gs this year, they spend z on bananas from Africa, and so on.  The specifics of the good is known, and if this data were looked at in the right way we could establish what quality and quantity of everything was being consumed, giving a much better insight into “wealth” (i.e. how financially comfortable we are).

Better (or worse), Amazon, Google and Tesco can all know in great detail what we have individually spent money on.  Combine that data and it will be possible to find out for every person whether they are better, or worse off than they were in the past. That is a scary thought and has implications that might make it difficult to implement in practice.  However, I’m sure some people will be happy to be paid to act as samples, just like some people have their TV habits recorded so we can rate TV viewing. It will certainly be possible to establish the proportion of people who are better or worse off from year to year; and by how much.  That is better than any index, and really does compare like with like.  (The one exception is that expectations change.  Although everyone may have provably more than they did, if people want more things they can’t have, feel more stressed or overworked, etc, then they will feel less well off).

A very interesting point raised by The Philosopher’s Stone was that unemployment has no real definition outside of a particular “capitalist” definition fit only for recordkeeping.  There is an arbitrary choice of who you count as being potentially employable (children? parents? carers?), and who you consider to be employed (part time?  full time?  mothers? students? etc.). This is before you start to think about how productive people are or could be, and how much work they want to do.  The same detailed data approach can be used allowing greater flexibility, but employment is more complex than consumption. More availability of consumer products, healthcare, etc is (all other things equal) a good thing. But different people would be happiest working for a different amount of time, doing different jobs, at different times in their lives.  I guess at some point you simply have to ask people how happy they are, and it isn’t obvious that technology is going to solve the difficulties in doing this.

What we can do is measure everything that can be measured and build a psychological theory based on that, again using a sample of people (the same sample as above?).  We then know how money is distributed throughout society; how that money translates into the feeling of having what you want, and to some degree how happy this makes people.  That is a pretty good basis for measuring a society.

Final comments

I don’t think that society is fundamentally mystified, meaning that science can’t make sense of it.  I agree that current understanding is either obviously inadequate or bestowed a mystical level of belief (the economic crisis epitomised this).  We are pretty much at the “leeches and bloodletting” stage of our understanding.  But that doesn’t mean that more modern approaches can’t make headway in fundamentally changing the way we understand our society and culture.  Society is, in this view, simply an extension of biology and any progress made is real, objective understanding.

None of this changes The Philosopher’s Stone’s fundamental points that a) we can never understand the full range of potential human societies; b) that we can’t reduce society to simple things that we can understand and measure over time.  But I think we can make real, objective progress understanding past and present societies, as well as societies that we might hope for that are similar to our own.  Additionally, we can measure this well enough to tell each individual whether they really are better or worse off, on an objective scale, and we can change our measures to describe things that we think are important.


Whether these ideas will come to fruition or not is another matter. The same things that I describe above as enabling governments to better serve the public are the same tools that could allow those currently in power to convince us to let them stay in power – by manipulating the numbers to tell us we are happy and prosperous and lucky to have them. This is of course the dark shadow that opponents refer to when they say “capitalism”; I wonder whether any organisation of society can really prevent the powerful remaining powerful?  I’m claiming science may eventually have the answer…

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Angry Rant #1: They are wearing underpants on their head

September 21, 2010 at 8:57 pm (rant) (, , , , , )

I recently decided to look into the “cycle to work” scheme.  After spending several hours reading the fine print, I’ve concluded that “they” (the ever-present government ministers, the taxman, the system in general) are wearing their underpants on their head.

The links above are full of things like “Save up to 50%”!  Wow. I’d love to.  But there are quite a few catches, the clincher being this one:

Arrangements at the end of the 12 month loan period

All payments made over the repayment period of 12 months are for the LOAN of the bicycle and accessories. However, at the end of the loan period the University may decide to offer to sell the equipment loaned to you at a fair market rate. Unfortunately this can’t be confirmed until the end of the 12 month period.

This is standard, its not a University of Bristol thing.  So what does that MEAN?   Basically, you have to pay more at the end of the contract, for “your” bike – so how much? Many people say they paid a “nominal fee”, £5, £50, that sort of thing. BUT.  The government decided that the second hand bike was worth 25% of its FULL VALUE.  Now, this is not a bad valuation.  What is bad is that you have to pay this to your employer to get “your” bike from them.  They can’t even waive the fee because the taxman will charge them.

So what is the saving?  I’m paying the higher tax band so it works out that I save 40% on the shop price.  But I have to pay the University 25% back, making it 15 off%.  Not that great, but still something, right?  Again with the BUT.  But you can’t buy just anything from just anywhere; sale items typically get a 10% markup in this scheme due to the costs of being in it. And the final but: you are required to get insurance, because it is not your bike, but the Universities.  That is going to be 5%, right there.

And there we are: I save, all in, nothing.  Better yet, someone on a lower income would save less tax and could be out of pocket!

There are a couple of caveats: potentially, the company doesn’t have to charge you the full 25%, and if they feel nice, they might just “gift” it to you and charge the tax on the value (which might be 10% of the total price).  But they might not.  Are they perhaps making saving cuts at the moment?  Do you trust them?  Really? Really?

So the people who introduced this rule are basically wearing their underpants* on their head.  They know should cycle, so they give us an incentive. They make a law giving us a tax discount. People must be covered up, so they make a law that we have to wear underpants. But the rules say that the bike is the companies property, so they tell them they must account for their assets.  Underpants “must always be worn”. So the incentive is lost, and better yet, lots of money is wasted on the scheme. So they wear the underpants on their head, better yet covering their eyes so they can’t see the other naked people.

If only they said how much it would save in advance, at least we could appreciate the benefits (or otherwise).  As it is anyone sensible sees the worst case scenario and fears it.  Uncertainty is no incentive.

* The analogy permits women to continue wearing bras, provided that they also wear them on their head just like in Weird Science.

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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?

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Dinosaurs in our garden!

February 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm (science) (, , , )

There are dinosaurs in my garden.  They watch me warily with beady eyes as they hunt for food.  Suddenly, a larger dinosaur appears and the smaller ones scatter in a frenzy of activity; it bites some food which dangles helplessly from its mouth.

Luckily for me, these dinosaurs are not about to break through the window and feast on my flesh.  That is because they are about the same size as a crow, because the one I’m looking at is, in fact, crow.

You may have heard that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Well, according to scientific nomenclature, that means that birds actually are dinosaurs.  The following evolutionary tree from The Loom illustrates why:

The only groups that it makes (evolutionary) sense to give a name to are mono-phylectic: all descendents from a particular organism.  For example, all dinosaurs have a common ancestor, which is the far left of the figure.  If you look at the bottom of the figure, you’ll see that birds share this common ancestor, and therefore are dinosaurs.

The confusion arises because dinosaurs were discovered before we understood their evolutionary relationship to living organisms.  So we called all of the extinct creatures we found fossilised in rocks by the one name, dinosaur (“terrible lizard”).  Once we discovered that birds were direct descendents from dinosaurs, we were already using the name to mean only the scary lizard type dinosaurs, rather than the winged feathered friends we feed seed to.  So now, the correct term for a “dinosaur” is “non-avian dinosaur” (i.e. all the dinosaurs except the birds).

Similarly, birds are descended from reptiles, so they technically are reptiles.  Again, in everyday language it is useful to talk about all reptiles except the birds.  However, turtles turn out to be less related to crocodiles than birds are, for example, so they all have to be technically called reptiles. (Birds, crocodiles and the extinct dinosaurs are all called archosauria together).

Of course, birds changed a lot since the time of the dinosaurs, so they are really very different.  All this just goes to show that technical language is always going to be at odds with everyday language, even though the technical words (technically speaking…) hold more real information.

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