Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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The whole idea of a moral basis to capitalism seems inherently broken to me.

The Pope recently made his first “apostolic exhortation”, which is totally what I’m going to start calling my tweets in future in a further attempt at self-hype and aggrandisement. (“Apostles, I exhort you. Look at this picture of my cat making a derpy face. LOL. Please RT.”)

In this exhortation, he talked about poverty, and wealth inequality, and all the stuff that’s increasingly been interesting me lately. Pontiff Frankie Prime seems to genuinely give a crap about the whole poverty deal, at least by Papal standards. I get the impression he genuinely sees people suffering because of economic injustices and wants to prioritise improving this situation, even if he is only doing a minuscule fraction of what’s within his power from that massive palace of his.

Anyway, his description of the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” got a lot of people agitated, and often with good reason. I’m not sure that his proposed improvements to the global economy are cogent, or that his statement of the problem is even internally consistent; part of what defines capitalism is the fetters, in the form of property rights and so forth.

I don’t have any especial interest in analysing the Pope’s proposed economic policies, not least because by his own admission he’s not really trying to speak in economic, academic terms. But I just listened to a Freakonomics podcast which discussed the Pope’s ideas with a number of economists, and a few things bugged me about the defenses of market systems that ensued.

Joseph Kaboski, an Economics Professor and a Catholic, argues that ethics comprise an important part of a market economy. He provides a simple example in which they come into play, of someone getting over-charged at a car dealership because they didn’t speak great English, and so weren’t in a position to fully inform themselves of the details which would have helped in their negotiations. The point he’s trying to demonstrate is that “ethics are important in markets”.

But being “important” is a vague concept – what role do ethics actually play here? It’s clear that unethical behaviour would be an option for some unscrupulous person in this situation, and that it harms some innocent bystander as a result (and arguably damages market efficiency) – but none of that needs to matter to the unethical actor. He’s just made a tidy profit off of some hapless loser, beyond what was merited by the quality of the product – and he’s strongly incentivised by the system in place to do so whenever he can get away with it. Unethical behaviour makes those doing it better off.

There’s no solution proposed to this. It’s not even recognised as a problem. Another contributor to the episode, Jeffrey Sachs, says that “our indifference, our brazenness, our hard-heartedness, is no favour to ourselves or to the functioning of our societies”. But sometimes brazen, hard-hearted, unethical behaviour is a favour to ourselves, at least in the short-term. It might screw over the functioning of society if we all act that way, but why should I care? I got mine, Jack.

Obviously I think I should care. There is a moral obligation, I’m not going full relativist here. But when people who flout that obligation flourish as a direct result, and do better than those who act more ethically, the system is inherently broken. There’s no point arguing that your system will work fine if people would just behave more ethically, when the system is designed to reward those who don’t. There needs to be something built-in to the system so that socially harmful and undesirable behaviour isn’t massively appealing to anyone with flexible morals.

On a briefer note, here’s another quote from Kaboski, amid some more detailed statistics of how much things have been improving lately:

More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history.

There are aspects of this whole debate to take heart in. Things do get better. But I call bullshit on this limited success as a vindication of any given application of capitalist market economics in recent years. There are still billionaires collectively hiding trillions of dollars offshore, for whom sums of money equivalent to whole countries’ GDPs act like a meaningless high-score, and there are still thousands of children starving to death every day.

It might be better than it’s ever been. It’s still not fucking good enough.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Do we have any obligation to care what the Pope says about anything, given the global extent of the child abuse network he oversees?

2. What would “unfettered capitalism” actually look like? What, if any, role would the government play in such a system?

3. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to sort out all the money without being dicks about it, by this point in our civilisation?

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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Here’s something I got told this week:

I fear your embrace of compassion is fleeting and ungrounded.

This was a pertinent comment in the context of a discussion about morality and religion, not just a weird, out-of-the-blue attack. The surrounding discussion was about God’s involvement in questions of moral behaviour, and what constitutes “good”.

In particular, it was being questioned how atheists can have any motivation to do good things, and proposed that, even if I seem to hold compassion for other people as a value for now, it’s a shaky and unreliable kind of morality if it’s not grounded in something.

Like belief in God, somehow.

No, I’m as confused as you are.

If you’re after a cast-iron, completely unmalleable, 100% guarantee that I am absolutely never going to have a change of heart that sends me on a rampage of cruelty and violence, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. But what bizarre inhuman logic makes you think religion allows anyone to make such a claim?

The idea that people who believe in a god, and believe that this god wants them to behave in a particular way, are people who can be unerringly relied upon to follow this god’s edicts to the letter, never letting let this semblance of moral behaviour waver for a moment, is simply not borne out by even a cursory glance at the history of the planet.

People who read the Bible and take it seriously also kill, steal, lie, covet, and adulter…ise? Adulterate? They do some adultery, whatever the word is for that. They know they shouldn’t, and they know it’s not what God wants, but it happens all the time. Otherwise asking forgiveness wouldn’t ever be necessary within Christianity, let alone one of its central foundations.

Sometimes religious people do these bad things because they’re twisting the teachings of their holy book to suit their own ends. Sometimes they’re just human, and fallible, and not always completely frightened into compliance by any given set of divine instructions.

And other times, people do adhere perfectly to their understanding of how God wants them to behave – but this behaviour is harmful and damaging and cruel to their fellow humans, and completely detached from anything a reasonable person with a shred of basic humanism or decency would recognise as “moral”.

My morality might not be absolute, but it’s based on compassion and a desire to do good for other people; a genuine consideration for conscious creatures and their well-being. Looking at the comparative rates at which religious and non-religious people do bad things, I don’t see any reason to suppose that “grounding” your morality in obedience to God is in any way superior to letting compassion and love themselves be the fundamental, grounding factors.

I’d be much more comfortable around someone who feels compelled to do good for its own sake, than someone whose entire concept of right and wrong is dictated to them by some external force – particularly an external force which they themselves proudly assert is beyond human understanding.

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I think religion can help people to be moral.

This may seem to directly contradict what I’ve said before, and which has been repeated at length many times, in many religious debates, for the benefit of religious people who seem to need it repeated many times. But I stand by the familiar secular humanist trope: God is entirely superfluous for morality to exist, and no worthwhile system of ethics can be defined simply in terms of obedience to some more powerfully coercive force.

Religion does not equate to morality. One does not remotely depend on the other. But there can be a positive causal link there.

Ask a humanist about the source of their morals, and they’ll probably mention compassion for other humans as an end in itself – being good for goodness’ sake, and all that. This, for many, is where true morality lies: we don’t need to be told not to murder and rape each other by God to figure out that we just shouldn’t do it. And, conversely, if we are told that, say, homosexuality is somehow inherently evil, then we can look at the plain facts and figure out for ourselves that there’s no moral basis whatever for such an assertion.

But while this is all ethically sound reasoning, it does many religious people a disservice to assume that the motives for their behaviour go no further than the whim of their god. Many of them aren’t so monomaniacally fixated on their divine delusion; they live most of their lives in the real world, and engage with it in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as I do.

I know religious people whose love for their children has nothing to do with their belief that God placed us all on this earth with some deliberate purpose in mind. The humanistic idea of loving people because they deserve it, because it brings about greater happiness and comfort and joy and well-being which are all good things in and of themselves, are precisely what motivate a lot of devout believers in the good they do.

Everyone who understands the inherently good purpose of being a good person, learned it somehow. The experiences in their lives brought them to that point. For some, this journey is kick-started simply by loving parents, and other similar positive influences, who nurture a positive approach to the world. For others, what gets them there is the idea that God wants them to be good to people, and that belief inspires them to find a sincere, innately good compassion for others. They’re not just behaving themselves because they think it’s what God wants; but the idea that God wants this has shaped how they truly feel, prompted them to think about loving their neighbour and realise on their own what a good idea it is.

It doesn’t always work, of course. For some, the divine edict really is the be-all and end-all of moral meaning, and actual care or love for humanity doesn’t enter into their picture of how anyone should behave. Then it’s all about using God’s will to enforce and justify their own prejudices and bigotry, and it all gets rather ugly. It’s largely because of these people that the “Good without God” slogan is still worth repeating; an alarming number of people still don’t get it.

But many roads can lead to love and kindness, and it’s not the most terrible thing in the world if some of those roads aren’t too rational. Good with God deserves a chance, too.

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There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)

Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.

One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.

Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.

Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:



For the graphically impaired, it reads:

Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.

Study two religions,

Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.

The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.

And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.

So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.

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