Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Meta-Ethical Question

I was thinking earlier about some conversations I had while I was TAing a class in grad school on the Philosophy of Technology. We were talking about ethics of genetic engineering and whether or not it was ethical to, for instance, predispose your unborn child to heightened athleticism or intelligence. So I’m interested in the spectrum of possible uses for genetic engineering and which ones people feel are permissible under their ethical intuition.

So, assume that you’re an expectant parent and the doctor tells you that he can cheaply, safely, and with a 100% success rate tweak your child’s genetics. He explains the benefits to you and asks you to decide which genetic alterations (if any) you feel comfortable having performed on your child.

1.) The doctor can detect and fix a host of life-threatening or debilitating genetic diseases and disorders, guaranteeing that your child will not suffer from e. g., Coeliac disease or Haemophilia.

2.) The doctor can detect and fix non-debilitating genetic defects, guaranteeing that your child won’t, e.g., be color blind.

3.) The doctor can guarantee that your child will be right-handed or left-handed.

4.) The doctor can give your child some modest, but naturally unusual advantage like ambidexterity or tetrachromacy.

5.) The doctor can give your child enhanced athletic predisposition, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in athletic potential.

6.) The doctor can give your child enhanced cognitive ability, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in intellectual abilities.

7.) The doctor can activate some genes that are associated with good looks in their gender, predisposing them to being more attractive.

8.) The doctor can predispose your child to using certain moral foundations, improving the chances that their political and ethical models will be similar to yours.

Which of these (if any) would you be willing to have the doctor perform on your unborn child? Let’s assume perfect safety and efficacy for the sake of this thought experiment.

The Sin of a Good Education

David Thompson points out the staggering response to a Guardian columnist’s choice to enroll her child in private school. I really can’t extract a quote from Thompson’s post, you really should go read the whole thing.

Apparently one of the greatest sins a right-thinking person can commit against their child and society is to send the child to a school run by any body other than the State. Heaven forbid parents should want the best for their kids and heaven forefend they try to act on such sinful thoughts by sending their children to a private school. The act of sending one’s child to a private school is lambasted as being beyond justification and “utterly immoral”.

The ratiocination behind these attacks is entirely opaque to me. I honestly can’t imagine a world view so sick, small, and petty that it would begrudge people their efforts to improve the lives of their children. Providing the best possible life for one’s offspring is one of the most natural and noble of human impulses. Any moral model that would willfully emiserate children and strip them of advantage for some abstract notion of “fairness” is completely alien to me.

And yet there it is on proud display. What’s next, a campaign against advanced placement courses? My parents put me into a series of very good programs for advanced students and I have no doubt that my International Baccalaureate classes in high school helped me get a great start in life, and while they were taught at a public (i.e. state-run) school, they certainly weren’t available to all children. Does that make them inherently immoral?

For my part, good on Janet Murray for working to give her child the best possible start in life. And I hope the jackals who are deriding her some day develop the good sense to be ashamed of themselves.

The Tragedy of William James Sidis

I am fortunate that I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world. In my time at Amazon, I’ve yet to meet a salaried employee that was anything other than above-average in general intelligence and far above average in mathematical/logical reasoning. It’s no secret that such intelligence has costs for many of the people who possess it. I recently came across an excellent overview of those costs by Grady M Towers, written for the journal of the Prometheus Society. The essay, called “The Outsiders” begins with the story of William James Sidis:

His name was William James Sidis, and his IQ was estimated at between 250 and 300 [8, p. 283]. At eighteen months he could read The New York Times, at two he taught himself Latin, at three he learned Greek. By the time he was an adult he could speak more than forty languages and dialects. He gained entrance to Harvard at eleven, and gave a lecture on four-dimensional bodies to the Harvard Mathematical Club his first year. He graduated cum laude at sixteen, and became the youngest professor in history. He deduced the possibility of black holes more than twenty years before Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar published An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure. His life held possibilities for achievement that few people can imagine. Of all the prodigies for which there are records, his was probably the most powerful intellect of all. And yet it all came to nothing. He soon gave up his position as a professor, and for the rest of his life wandered from one menial job to another. His experiences as a child prodigy had proven so painful that he decided for the rest of his life to shun public exposure at all costs. Henceforth, he denied his gifts, refused to think about mathematics, and above all refused to perform as he had been made to do as a child. Instead, he devoted his intellect almost exclusively to the collection of streetcar transfers, and to the study of the history of his native Boston. He worked hard at becoming a normal human being, but never entirely succeeded. He found the concept of beauty, for example, to be completely incomprehensible, and the idea of sex repelled him. At fifteen he took a vow of celibacy, which he apparently kept for the remainder of his life, dying a virgin at the age of 46. He wore a vest summer and winter, and never learned to bathe regularly. A comment that Aldous Huxley once made about Sir Isaac Newton might equally have been said of Sidis.

For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.

If you believe, as I do, that the ultimate resource, the one from which all other resources and all benefits of life and civilization flow, is human energy, then Sidis’ story is a social tragedy. But more than that it is a personal one. Sidis was perhaps the brightest mind mankind had ever produced, but being that bright in modern society was so painful for him that he ended up disavowing his own gifts.

The kind of psychic scars that would cause a person to walk away from their own minds and talents must be exceptionally painful, but “The Outsiders” makes the point that those same kinds of scars are present in many talented human beings, they’re just somewhat shallower. I see this occasionally in the tech industry. I don’t know many bright programmers who had happy, socially-fulfilled childhoods. Many of them have trouble connecting with people to this day. For some, working at Amazon is the first time they’ve had intellectual peers, much less encountered people smarter than themselves. That must be welcome for many, but it definitely has its own challenges. It’s never easy learning the lesson that you’re not the best at what you do, least of all when you learn the lesson for the first time in your early- or mid-twenties.

As far as Amazon programmers go, I suspect I’m at the lower end of the general intelligence scale. But I’m still above-average as far as the general population goes. Attending public schools in modestly-sized community meant that I was the smartest kid in most of my classes for most of my young life. I got respectable (though not stellar) grades without investing much effort in high school. I breezed through, applied to a few colleges, and picked the best that I could afford to attend. I applied for and was accepted to the Gonzaga Honors Program.

In my Freshman year, I ran hard up against the fact that I was no longer the smartest kid in class. Hell, I’m not even sure I was average in that group. And I have to confess, it sparked in me something of an existential crisis. If I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, then what was I?

Fortunately, I weathered that personal storm well. I formed strong friendships, grew as a thinker and as a human being, and I owe a great deal of my identity and my current happiness to the Honors Program. In the end, the reward of finding peers (and intellectual superiors) was well worth the pain of first contact.

And so I wonder about the people who never have that experience. Who never experience the painful, powerful enlightenment that comes from people meeting you on your own level and showing you how much further you have to go. It saddens me that William James Sidis lived his life mostly trapped in his own world, far beyond any that we could understand.

Of course, there are counterpoints to the lone(ly) genius archetype. The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős is widely regarded as a strong contender for the title of the brightest mind in mathematical history. He is the most prolifically published mathematician in history and collaborated widely. Every part of his mathematical life involved one or more collaborators, and by all accounts he was gregarious, well-liked, and had many close friends.

And yet, as with Newton, there was something of the superb monster about Erdős. He never married, never had children, and showed very little interest in many human pursuits. (In his unique vocabulary music was called “noise” and alcohol was “poison”. In counterpoint, though, he was apparently enthusiastic about his amphetamines.)

His life was devoted to his work in a way that William James Sidis himself rejected.

This seems to be the key divergence for many geniuses throughout history. Either they renounce their talents and “die” (as Erdős would say of mathematicians who retired), or they devote themselves whole-heartedly to their work.

But I wonder if that might be changing. One of the fundamental problems faced by genius-level intellects (as highlighted by Towers’ essay) is a lack of peers. Sidis had no peers and so renounced his own mind. Erdős found them and so prospered in his field. Sidis was personally miserable and socially ignored. Erdős lead a happy life and revolutionized mathematics many times over.

The era of truly universal communication (which we’re only a few decades into) stands to help those with genius level IQs find peers and compatriots far more easily and so help them onto the happy path of Erdős, rather than Sidis’ road of pain and personal disavowal.

The ultimate thrust of Towers’ essay is that the real need for high-IQ societies (like the Prometheus Society for which it was written) is not as a self-congratulatory boy’s club, but as a social support group. They serve as a peer group for those whose minds are so far beyond the peak of the bell curve, that they risk isolation and severe mental trauma. In years past, these societies were either non-existent or almost invisible, and finding them would have been a matter of luck, rather than searching. But in the modern age of the Internet and ubiquitous computing, finding peers is only a Google search away.

So here’s hoping that the Internet era brings us many more Paul Erdős and many fewer William James Sidis’.

Deirdre McCloskey Against Hedonomics

One of the most interesting classes I took in grad school was a class on the Philosophy of Happiness. It was taught by a brilliant professor, Dr. Erik Schmidt. In it, we covered both the history of happiness and surveyed much of the modern work being done to quantify happiness. This latter analysis of happiness is referred to as “Hedonics” for the psychological variant and “Hedonomics” if they attach numbers to their theories have their offices in the Economics building.

The results of modern examinations of happiness may yield some pretty interesting results in time, but for the moment, the majority of the work being done in the field is deeply flawed. From the arbitrary and insufficient modes of measurement to the often-biased sampling, there are a huge number of structural impediments that prevent hedonomics from being a rigorous or intellectually useful field.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people like Cass Sunstein from proposing that it should guide regulatory and legislative decisions.

In addition to methodological critiques, there are very compelling criticisms of some of the assumptions and findings of these new hedonic sciences. One of the critiques is hinted at in the structure of the class I mentioned; happiness hasn’t always meant what we understand it to mean today. And so if you study people’s self-assessed “happiness” through a variety of experiences and across demographics, you’re not really learning about Happiness-as-objective-phenomenon, rather you’re learning about what people understand the word “happiness” to mean. You’re learning “what we talk about when we talk about happiness”.

Which is an important thing to know, but it’s definitely not what the hedonomicists claim they’re measuring.

Another, more abstract, but equally damning family of objections are the philosophical and humanistic objections. Measuring and studying “happiness” as such assumes a lot of things about human nature, many of which are profoundly reductionist. If you assert that “happiness”, however defined, is the summum bonum of human existence, then the results of hedonomics studies tell you nothing less than the statistically significant path to the One True Good Life. This is perhaps best seen in the implicit value judgments made by people like Sunstein et. al. when they argue that people should be “nudged” or even forced to undertake certain actions that will make them “happier”.

In other words, many hedonomicists make the staggeringly vain assumption that the thing they are studying is the pure stuff of desirable outcomes. That the “happiness” they are getting people to self report is the marker of the best way to live and the only such marker.

I find this notion equal parts absurd and terrifying.

Another way to see these assumed value judgments is when researchers take as obvious the actionable implications of their findings. The “hedonic treadmill” is a fantastic example. One of the best established results of hedonomics is that beyond a certain level, increased wealth doesn’t cause people to self-report higher levels of “happiness”. Hedonomics responds to this by saying something like: “well clearly, people should stop trying to make more money once they reach that threshold.” What they don’t take into account is that increased income may very well improve people’s lives in other ways not accounted for by self-reported “happiness”. People who have more money can, for instance, devote themselves to higher intellectual and artistic pursuits. They can better secure themselves against personal, social, or economic disaster. They can invest to further or change their careers in order to succeed in personally satisfying ways that may not be appreciably evident in a self-reported assessment of “how happy I feel today.”

By asserting that there’s no reason to increase one’s income above a certain threshold just because it doesn’t increase arbitrary self-reported values is to smuggle the researcher’s value judgments in by the back door.

Hedonomics may some day give us valuable insights into the pursuit of human achievement, satisfaction, and personal accomplishment, but for now it is, with few notable exceptions, mostly bogged down in developing an elaborate, self-reported definition of the term “happiness”.

For a much better and more thorough argument in favor of a philosophic and humanist understanding of human satisfaction, I strongly encourage you to read this National Review essay, by the historian and economist Deirdre McCloskey. It is one of the most cohesive and damning humanist critiques of hedonomics I’ve seen yet and I think you’ll find it well worth your time and attention.

An excerpt:

“Before Bentham and Immanuel Kant, it was taken as obvious that the good life was multiple: involving the Principal Seven Virtues, for example, the primary colors of a virtuous and therefore happy life—prudence, temperance, courage, justice, faith, hope, and love. Humans do after all experience the tragedy of choice, which is the conflict of such virtues. Love for your father conflicts with your hope to go to Smith College, as Jane Addams found in her own life. Antigone’s faithfulness to her king conflicts with her love for her brother. Happinesses are not fungible. Happinesses are multiple, dappled things, and couple-colored. W.C. Fields was asked, off the record, for his views on sex. “On or off the record,” said he, “there may be some things better than sex, and some things worse. But there’s nothing exactly like it.”

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.”

I again strong encourage you to read the whole essay. I also strongly recommend McCloskey’s writings on the bourgeois, especially her books Bourgeois Virtue and Bourgeois Dignity.

Slavoj Zizek on Ecology and the Temptation of Meaning

This is a great ten-minute video of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek critiquing modern ecology. It’s taken from a documentary that’s supposed to be interviews with some the “great thinkers of our day”, but I’ve watched some of the other segments of the documentary, and they’re mostly just sophistic claptrap. Zizek, however, is in top form in this segment.

I quite like his point about the nature/artifice divide being wrong not because there is no artifice, but because nature, as we understand it as a harmonious and balanced system, doesn’t actually exist. So in that sense, “nature” just a world full of messy processes and giant catastrophes that we try to make sense of as best we can using analogy, metaphor, and reduction. We also insulate ourselves from that work of catastrophe with our clever machines and our “artificial” systems.

I also really like his conclusion that the great enemy of progress today (and despite his Marxist tendencies, Zizek is a Hegelian at heart and so probably a big fan of progress) is not the old liberal windmills of religion, corporate interests, etc. but rather of “ecology” broadly understood. We see this regularly these days with Green groups demanding sharp curtailing of economic growth, an end to the modern energy economy (which would result in economic stagnation, widespread suffering, and death), and the closing off of many branches of science that could be a huge benefit for human kind (e.g. GM foods, which have the potential to same billions of lives and bring down food prices all over the globe.) And they oppose this progress all in the name of a “natural world” which doesn’t actually exist, in the sense that nature isn’t a harmonious system the way greens want it to be.

But ultimately, I think it’s his conclusion that’s really killer. I think he goes off the rails a little bit towards the end, but I take his comments about the true ecologist loving trash as well to mean that any attempt at human ecology must first accept the byproducts of human existence. Per his opening comments, when we throw something away, it doesn’t just disappear. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop throwing things away. So a true human ecologist needs to love the human processes that create trash as much as he or she loves the messy, catastrophic world of so-called “nature”.

For my money, Zizek is one of the most interesting philosophers alive today, and I think that much of what he says is true and insightful. I definitely don’t agree with his philosophical or political conclusions (his views of ontology and the Real can be almost unspeakably goofy at times and his love for Marx completely baffles me), but some of his work on human beings in society and the ontology of modern society are pretty good.

I truly cannot tell at times whether Slavoj Zizek is serious or joking, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. He’s a fantastic gadfly who provokes good philosophy, either by his own critiques or by the creativity people employ to refute him. So whether he’s serious or not, I think he’s a good philosopher arguing in good faith, and there are precious few of those around these days.

H. L. Mencken on Morality and Honor

Two Quotes:

“It is a commonplace of moral science that absolute morality is impossible — in other words, that all men sin. What is often overlooked is that the same fallibility shows itself upon the higher level of what is called honor, which is simply the morality of superior men. A man who views himself as honorable usually labors under the delusion that his honor is unsullied, but this is never literally true. Every man, however honorable, occasionally sacrifices honor to mere morality behind the door, just as every man of morals sacrifices morality to self-interest.”


“Don’t tell me what delusion he entertains regarding God, or what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply tell me how he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known Tests. A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an ignominious way is inevitably an ignominious man.”

Both are from A Mencken Chrestomathy, (Vintage Books, 1982) pp. 111 and 20, respectively.

Thomas Sowell on Sophistry and Empiricism

The greatest triumph of human thought will be the triumph of logic and philosophy over sophistry and mysticism.

The greatest achievement of the Enlightenment will be the triumph of Empiricism over Pure Reason.

But neither of these battles are won. And to be honest, they might never be. The former has already been going for almost 2500 years. The latter for about a tenth as long.

In this video, Thomas Sowell lays out his critique of the role of intellectuals in public life. To my mind, two of the key points of Sowell’s argument are that intellectuals are often wrong (and dangerous when in the public sphere) because a.) they follow theory rather than evidence and b.) they are emotionally and egotistically invested in their theories.

In other words, intellectuals in modern society fail because they are fighting against the two greatest achievements of mankind. They are fighting against a genuine quest for knowledge and they are fighting in favor of Pure Reason rather than empirical understanding.

Even if you disagree with my assessment or with Dr. Sowell’s thesis, the interview above is well worth your time. It’s a great primer on the content of an important book and an often entertaining conversation between two brilliant thinkers.

Malthusianism: Not Just Wrong, but Dangerous

I’ve written before about my views on Malthusianism. But lately I’ve encountered some particularly good arguments to the effect that Malthusianism isn’t just wrong, but actively dangerous. Bryan Caplan, writing at EconLog, raises some good points about the role that Malthusianism played in the rise of Nazism. In short, Malthusianism, and more particularly the belief that there wasn’t enough room and resources on the planet for everyone, was one of the driving forces behind Hitler’s crimes. As Caplan put it, “[Malthusianism] told them that millions had to die; [eugenics] told them who the victims ought to be.”

This, to me, highlights one of the reasons why it’s so important to speak out against gloom and doom and to be a voice of anti-Malthusian optimism. The idea that scarcity of land and resources demands the restriction of human populations isn’t just flawed, but it can and has caused real suffering. At the bare minimum, it can lead to unnecessary worry. It can also lead to prolonged misery through retarding economic growth and the advancement of prosperity. And at its worst it can, and has, lead to forced sterilizations and mass exterminations.1

The wonderful writer Robert Zubrin has a new book out about the dangers of doomsayers. I haven’t had a chance to read it, yet, but it’s high on my list. Zubrin recently did an interview about the book with Reason TV, and I think he makes his case well:

I like the way Zubrin frames his argument by saying that the dangers from “Merchants of Despair” (his words) actually far outstrips the dangers we face from the evils they’re “warning” us about.

One counter-argument is that Caplan’s article and Zubrin’s interview make Malthusians out to be almost cartoonishly villainous in their plans for the human species. As such, I understand skepticism about whether or not anyone actually believes in the brand of anti-humanist Malthusianism that Caplan and Zubrin describe. One proof of the existence of real-life Malthusians comes by way of the Azizonomics blog which posts excerpts from Finnish writer Pentti Linkola who says, among other things, that:

“Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent a dictator that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. The best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and where government would prevent any economical growth.”

If this were the ravings of a lunatic or a Bell Street trustfund hipster they’d be easy to ignore. But this man is an influential writer and a key figure in the Deep Ecology movement. His views aren’t just considered, but embraced by a segment of the population that would rather see the human race eradicated than see it flourish and who unapologetically embrace dictatorial governance in pursuit of that end.

I think anyone who desires a dictatorship with the explicit goal of murdering people and completely curtailing economic growth is, at best, a moral cripple. And yet we live in a world where people like Linkola are given a serious hearing. Indeed, Bryan Caplan’s essay that I linked to above would be easy to dismiss as its own brand of fear mongering, if it weren’t for the fact that there are people out there today who are actually calling for Nazi-style dictatorial governments for the express purposes of satisfying their anti-humanist urges. And those pro-dictatorial types are using explicitly Malthusian arguments, just as the Nazis did almost 80 years ago.

Meanwhile, thankfully, the human species continues to flourish. Global poverty is declining; global health is improving. Our understanding of the world continues to advance and, with it, the power of the tools we use to shape it. Life is good and getting better. And it is doing so in spite of the Merchants of Despair and their despicable anti-humanism.

Disclosure Notice

1And lest you think that things like forced sterilization are a thing of the past, UN economic aid is often contingent on a country having some method of population control in place. This means that taxpayers in the US and Europe are helping to fund and encourage the forced sterilization of Indian women.

The Copernican Principle and the Era of Humanity in Space

The ever-interesting Paul Gilster over at Centauri Dreams writes about the argument that we’re as likely to be at the end of human spaceflight as the beginning. In brief, Gilster gives serious consideration to Richard Gott’s view that, due to the Copernican Principle, we have no reason to believe that our time in the universe is special, just as our location in the universe certainly isn’t. Therefore, we have no reason to prefer the idea that we’re at the beginning of a glorious era of spaceflight over the notion that humanities days in space are all but over.

As I see it, Gott makes two fatal errors in his skepticism of human space flight. The first is in his application of cosmic-scale principles to social-scale phenomena, and the second is in embracing ungrounded Rationalism over Empiricism.

The Copernican Principle makes a great deal of sense in cosmic scale systems and on cosmic scales of time. The universe is unspeakably vast and we are adrift somewhere within it. The age of the cosmos is mind-bogglingly long and, in comparison, our species has only been around for a very brief moment.

There’s no reason to think our place in this vastness is unusual. Nor any reason to believe that our few hundred thousand years is better or more preferable to the next few hundred thousand.

But we, as a species, don’t act or live on cosmic scales. We are, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, “medium-sized objects moving at medium-sized speeds through a medium-sized world”. To apply cosmic-sized principles to us is to commit a Fallacy of Composition. Roughly: “Our place in the cosmos seems to obey principle X, therefore our place in human history must obey principle X.” Human history is a vanishingly small part of cosmic history and just because a principle applies to the whole doesn’t mean it applies to every fragment of it.1

On the second score, Gott embraces the sort of mystical Rationalism that Hume and Kant should have put in the ground hundreds of years ago. Hume is my homeboy, so I’ll focus on his critiques.

Hume accurately pointed out that pure Rationalism has little to no explanatory power. It is essentially the quest for internally-consistent worlds unmoored from the real one. Reason alone cannot accurately predict, for instance, how two billiard balls will behave when they collide. Instead, one needs to have seen billiard balls collide before and used reason to understand the principles involved. Reason, in other words, must serve empirical observation. This was one of the greatest results of the Enlightenment.

Gott commits the sin of pure reason by discarding his observation and saying, well, there’s no purely logical reason why space flight has to move forward. It’s logically self-consistent that we might scrap all our rockets, turn our noses back to Earth, and never seek space again.

Yes. That’s true. But it’s completely unhelpful and as likely to be wrong as it is to be right. That’s because it throws out everything we know about human ingenuity, curiosity, desire, and acquisitiveness. I mean, hell, as we speak there are people seriously trying to solve the problem of mining asteroids. But sure, it’s possible that we’re at the end of the era of human space flight. Just as it’s logically possible that when two billiard balls strike each other at whatever speeds and from whatever angles that they should stop entirely. We only know that’s not true because of our observations of how billiard balls behave in the real world.

In essence, Gott is asking the wrong question. He’s asking: “What reason do I have for believing that we are at the start, rather than the end, of human space flight, and is that reason consistently defensible?” In a post-Enlightenment world, the correct question to be asking is: “Where’s the evidence that we’re at the end of human space flight?” Personally, I see tons of evidence that we’re at the beginning, but none at all that we’re at the end. Therefore the only reasonable conclusion that I can make is that we as a species still have a bright future in space.

UPDATE: I strongly encourage you to read the Centauri Dreams post linked above. My post focuses only on a very narrow part of it, and there is much more to Gott’s argument and Gilster’s commentary than I address here.

1 This argument is isomorphic to the one presented in response to anti-evolution types who falsely invoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy must increase on a cosmic scale and in any closed system, true. But our planet is not the cosmos, nor is it a closed system. It’s just a part of the whole. The system obeys the law and so we, at least for a little while, can get a pass and the law still holds.

Jonathan Haidt and Moral Foundation Theory

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I feel I can offer that statement without qualifying adjectives because he was, so far as I know, the first person to appropriately combine two of the most powerful ideas of the Enlightenment: rigorous Empiricism and the Theory of Moral Sentiment.

Haidt’s creation, Moral Foundations Theory, asks an extremely important meta-ethical question: what rubrics or heuristics do we use to resolve moral questions or to make moral judgments? That, in itself, isn’t a new question. For me, the best pre-Haidt account of the sources of Ethics is Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self in which the Catholic philosopher makes a compelling case for moral frameworks based around sources of value or “hypergoods”. In other words, each of us has some set of abstract Forms in comparison to which we form all value judgments. If “Health” is a hypergood for a particular individual, then they will value highly things like exercise and clean living.1

This bears interesting resemblance to Haidt’s much more rigorous, much less philosophical work, in which he actually tries to determine empirically what our sources of value are and what mental heuristics we use to form our moral sentiments. It’s an interesting and important project, but even more interesting are the results. Haidt’s experiments (which you can learn more about and participate in at the Moral Foundations Theory Homepage) have found six primary sources for human moral values. They are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

This is an interesting result in and of itself, but what’s even more striking are the differences in which various groups emphasize which moral foundations. In the political sphere, Haidt &co. found that Liberals a strong propensity to understand moral questions in terms of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, while conservatives showed a more balanced orientation towards all of the various moral foundations. As one might imagine, Libertarians were extremely skewed towards Liberty/Oppression. (For more on these interesting political differences, see Haidt’s excellent summary of his findings in this essay on the Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street.)

This, to me, is perhaps one of the most important concrete conclusion’s of Haidt’s work. Which is the main reason why I’m very excited that it is the focal point for Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The large political divides in every Western democracy are, at least in part, differences in values. Actually, they’re much more fundamental than that, because they’re differences in moral axioms. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, statists, anarchists, etc. often differ not only in their ideas, but in the sources of their value. Whether you call them “hypergoods” or “moral foundations”, the fact remains that one of the reasons we disagree is because when presented with the same moral question, we break out entirely different tool kits to help us resolve it.

Personally, I’m very excited about Haidt’s new book, and I look forward to hearing more of the results of his research. He’s already done an incredible service to the cause of human understanding and self-reflection, and I hope his contributions continue for many years to come.

Disclosure Notice

1 I have a theory that many modern discontents are caused by a profusion of hypergoods. Our globally connected world means that we get exposed to the extolations and value judgments of so many people that we begin to try and adopt too many hypergoods. And so we end up feeling like we have to be Healthy and Green and Wise and Civil and Religious/Areligious and Thrifty and Wealthy and Relaxed and Hard-Working and and and… This leads to huge conflicts in our judgments of value meaning that we can’t do anything without feeling at least a little bit guilty about it. Because no matter what we do, we’ll be in violation of one of the many hypergoods we’ve acquired. Interestingly enough, this ends up in practice turning into the same kind of neo-Puritans that H. L. Mencken mocked in American society a century ago.

Return top

Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.