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?

Advertisements

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

Sheeple

July 15, 2009 at 10:27 am (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Xkcd does it again…

Hey, what are the odds -- five Ayn Rand fans on the same train!  Must be going to a convention.

Hey, what are the odds -- five Ayn Rand fans on the same train! Must be going to a convention.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Meet the micromort

June 15, 2009 at 11:01 pm (science) (, , , , , , , , )

Don’t drink red wine! You’ll increase your risk of colon cancer!

But wait, it also lowers the risk of lung cancer.  Cheers!  Mine’s a large.

The nutritional science media splits things up into those that will kill you and those that will save you.  Sometimes they are the same thing.  How are we to figure out what we should actually eat?

The first thing is that you need to know the absolute magnitude of the affects.  It doesn’t matter if the chance of death is increased by 500% if there was only a one in a million chance of getting it anyway.  Conversely, a modest increase of 20% could be important if your basic risk is high.

David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University is advocating a new unit of measurement for risk – the micromort. This is a one-in-a-million chance of dying in a day.  We are all exposed in everyday life to a background 50 micromorts of danger – i.e. 50 out of every million people die of normal (but non-natural) causes per day.  Additional activities we do can increase our risk relative to this average.  You need to clock up a further 50 in order to double your chances of dying.

So how can we “spend” our micromorts?  Well, we can travel – 200 miles by car costs 1 micromort, as does 20 miles by bike or a paltry 6 by motorcycle.  However, to measure the real value in doing something you need to allow for all the benefits and dangers.  Its well known that cycling brings health benefits that outweigh the risks when compared to driving, so we must “gain” some morts in fitness benefits. But at least we can compare the risks.

For example, Equasy (addiction to horse riding) is as dangerous as Ecstasy. The risk of dying (in micromorts) for taking a pill of ecstasy is roughly the same (or less) than taking a ride on a horse – both around 1.  Now of course there are other factors – long-term problems associated with addiction to an illegal drug – but the point remains that drug laws cannot be justified on the basis of absolute risks alone.  Some things we think of as dangerous, well, aren’t.  And other things really are.

Returning to the wine, often you don’t get the information needed to calculate risk in a media article.  I couldn’t obviously see the relative risks associated with the wine in the top two articles, for example.  But these numbers are definitely out there, and they can be measured in a simple and clear way.  Why not tell us that, so that we can make an informed decision?

Permalink Leave a Comment

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense…

February 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm (Articles, religion) (, , , , , , , , )

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

These are the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of the quantitative study of evolution. He wrote an essay about why evolution is so important, and also discussed how he reconciled his Christian faith and the scientific theory of evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, if you accept scientific reasoning. There is mathematically no way that evolution could not occur if just three things are true: more creatures are born than get to reproduce; they can vary in new ways; and that these variations are inherited. The first is trivially true as any look in the garden will show, as is the third: for example people take after their parents. The second is more difficult because although all individuals do vary, they mostly do so in an uncreative way by mixing up the traits of their parents. But it does occur: mutations are the source of these creative changes and it has been demonstrated many times that novel abilities (at the microscopic level) can arise.

There is a resurgence recently, particularly in America, to doubt evolution for religious reasons. However, this doesn’t have anything to do with the religion per se, but is a cultural phenomenon. Dobzhansky quite powerfully argues that to deny evolution on religious grounds is verging on blasphemous: it implies that the creator deliberately set out to deceive us. We have the ability to reason about the origins of fossils, or of finches in the Galapogos, and explain why they are there. There is no hole in the theory that has yet been found. To believe that this is some elaborate charade is absurd.

Dobzhansky believed in creation: that god created the world such that we would be here today.  It is a matter of philosophy whether this happened by divine will or by chance.  It is beyond science to answer the question of whether we were “created” in this way, or arose by chance, because there is only one universe from which to draw evidence. But in this Universe, we have surely evolved, and this is not evidencef or or against God in the slightest.

Check out his essay for details of the above discussion.

Permalink 2 Comments

Joseph and the amazing moral lesson

January 18, 2009 at 10:56 pm (religion, thinking) (, , , , , )

We just saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat this evening, and it was pretty good.  The songs are fun and and fit together cleverly.  Its too short with many repeated songs at the end but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.

However, I wonder if there is a worse lesson commonly told from the Bible.  Its very old testament, of course, but still.

The plot: Joseph is the favourite son of Israel, better than all his other brothers.  He tells them all about how his dreams of the future make him better than them and he lords it over them.  He gets his technicolour coat, which he runs in their faces – and they get jealous.  So they sell him to slavers who take him to Egypt.

Joseph has a sucky time for a bit but his knowledge of dreams leads him to power with the pharoah by predicting and preventing a terrible famine.  The brothers come begging for food, so Joseph lords it over them.  He demands his technicolour coat, which he rubs in their faces – and they have to put up with it this time!

So what was learned in this story?

  • Don’t disbelieve people who claim to have God helping them predict the future, because they might be right
  • Its OK to be arrogant if you are in fact favoured by God
  • Things, such as a coat, are very important and should be put first over your family
  • You should forgive others if you can make them eat a really huge slice of humble pie

This is simply bizarre.  Why, for example, did Joseph not realise how meaningless the coat was, and why he shouldn’t consider himself better than his brothers simply for getting Gods help with a few dreams?  How come the brothers learned an important lesson about humility, but Joseph could not?  Why was he rewarded for being an ass and staying an ass?

I really see why Christians are a bit skeptical of the Old Testament.  Are there no better lessons to popularise than this?

May I return to the beginning
The light is dimming, and the dream is too
The world and I, we are still waiting
Still hesitating
Any dream will do.

It is mighty meaningful – although I don’t know what it means.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Lack of brain activity

July 29, 2008 at 9:49 pm (thinking) (, , , )

So the purpose of this blog, in a rough sense, was to give my brain something to think about.  I’ve noticed that compared to my Uni days, I spend a lot more time watching TV than I used to.  I also feel that I spend a lot less time thinking in a meaningful way.  Correlation or causation?

A lot has been written about Too Much TV Making You Stupid.  We KNOW this, from our very souls, anyone who ever read a newspaper or watches the news or just speaks to people knows this.  It is anecdotally evident that having the brain mildy activated seems to prevent it from trying to make its own entertainment, i.e. thinking.  Certainly regular brain activity prevents brain decay.  It seems plausible that I’m not stimulating my brain in the right way any more.

There are plenty of other reasons for feeling slow.  Maybe I get enough stimulation anyway from my research to get any more from this, and it really is an age effect? Or perhaps my youthful thoughts were, in fact, pretty stupid – and now I don’t need to go down those fruitless routes again?  Maybe its a nostalgia effect – I’m the same as I ever was, but I just don’t know it.  My favourite theory is that its the reduction in social interaction since moving to Aberdeen.  I have the feeling that most ideas are built in conversations, not in sitting quietly.  But I’m no expert – though I’ve read very little about this, I’m not convinced science knows much more than I do…

Anybody else managing to think as they get older?  Do you find your imagination limited to the same old thoughts you always have had, jokes that aren’t funny and never were, ideas that relate only very directly and practically to life?

Permalink 1 Comment