Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Moral Dilemma Dilemma

The following quote by Peter Singer presents a moral thought experiment:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance

So Singer presents two situations, saving a drowning child and donating to a charity to save the life of a child in a developing country, and then argues that we should take our moral intuitions in the first case and apply them to the second case because the differences, such as physical location, are not morally relevant.

This is the basic strategy I have been using for as long as  can remember when thinking about moral questions. If two intuitions contradict, I think of hypothetical situations and use them to analyses what it is I value. Another example of this is the trolly problem.

Unfortunately I am feeling less confident in this method than I used to. My problem is that there is no good way of knowing which direction you should universalize your moral intuitions/values in. What if a student responded to Peter Singer with:

Well clearly there is a contradiction between my intuitions that I should save the child and my intuition that I am not obligated to give to charity. So I will universalism my intuitions and because there is no morally relevant difference between the child in the pond and the children in developing countries I clearly shouldn’t care about the former, just like I don’t seem to care about latter.

Another way of stating this problem comes from a less wrong comment that I read a while ago but can’t find anymore. The user was saying how he cares a lot when he hears about one person dying or being injured but doesn’t seem to care as much when he here about a million people dying (definitely not a million times as much). The commenter was wondering whether they should “Shut Up and Multiply” meaning that they should take the intuitive value that they assigns to the individual and multiply that by a million to find the actual value of the million or whether they should “Shut up and Divide” meaning they should take the value of the million and divide it by a million to reach the actual value of the individual.

One way I can think of solving this is by letting the stronger intuitions win. But often intuitions are very close to being equal (otherwise the contradiction would have been solved by now) and I am worried that initial conditions in my reflection (the react details of the hypothetical, how it would affect my other beliefs and life decisions, even how I am feeling that day) may have large affects on the conclusions I reach.

Another way is to go with the “Near” intuitions, the intuitions that are generated by using smaller numbers, more real world/practical examples etc over the “Far” intuitions, the opposite of near intuitions based on the justification that we are better suited to reason about things Near us due to evolution . This is a good approximation of what i have already been doing so has the emotional upside of agreeing with most of my  intuitive reasoning I have so far done. But my moral intuitions that suffering is bad was also produced by evolution, and I don’t believe that the source of someone’s values alone should affect whether or not they endorse them.

Finally, I can just accept that just in the same way that values are subjective, so if one person values happiness and another disvalues happiness neither is wrong but just have different subjective preferences, strategies for reflecting on on values are also neither right and wrong but are determined by subjective preferences. I rejected objective morality to long ago to remember if I felt any emotional loss at no longer being able to tell people who want to torture  and kill babies that they are wrong, but I think I feel a similar feeling in not being able to tell someone who chooses to not ignore the child in the pond/the “Shut Up and Divide” side that they are wrong.

But I want my beliefs to match reality, not what I wish reality was like.

One Step Closer to Understanding Gender

So after reading the Slate Star Codex essay The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories I think I actually understand gender now. Well, I understand it a bit better than before.

I don’t know why it didn’t click with me before. I have read the Less Wrong sequence on words that Scott builds on and I even remember telling myself I should apply it to something that I’m more interested in then AI, like gender. To summaries in my own words:

We can visualise a Gender Space (check out the Wikipedia page on Vector Space to help understand what I mean by Gender Space) where every possible thing we associate with a gender (chromosomes, physical genitalia, appearance, identification, gender roles etc) on an axis (gender space has dozens of dimensions) and then place people at points in that space. We will observe clusters in this space, for example the cluster [XX chromosomes + Feminine gender presentation + Identifies as a woman] will be populated by people more than [XX chromosomes + Masculine Gender presentation + Identifies as non binary]. This doesn’t mean the later is wrong or bad, there are just empirically more members of the first cluster currently on earth than the second cluster.

This is the same with everything. For example planets have many characteristics (round, big, have moons, clears a path in space) and some [things in space] have some of these properties and not others. We then decide where we want to draw an imaginary line around a cluster in Gender Space and label these clusters things like “men” and “women” and “non binary.” But where we choose to draw this boundary is completely subjective so if someone draws the boundary somewhere differently to you they are not wrong.

Gender is more confusing than planets because  there is an axis in gender space called “Gender Identification” which is what people say when they ask themselves what their gender is. There is also another axis which we could call “external gender identification” which would be what they tell people their gender is, which for some people would be different from their internal gender identification and would be different depending on the person.

This is even more confusing when you are trying to put yourself in gender space (find where you are in gender space?) because it causes a recursion. If I self identity as a woman that means on the axis of self identification I am at the point labeled woman, which makes me a member of the cluster that I have drawn the label around called woman, which means I am a woman, which means I identify as a woman, which means on the axis of gender identification etc.

I first was confused about gender when I learned that after you separate gender of biological sex, there are two separate things, gender identity and gender presentation. Gender presentation (clothing preferences, mannerisms, gender roles, pronouns)i completely understood and could understand people with any biological sex (which also is obviously not a binary) wanting any combination of those. Andi I understood what it meant to identify as a gender in the sense of saying “I am a [Gender]” But surely there must be something influencing that right? Like some kind of internal experience or set of facts that cause one person to identify as one gender and one person to identify as another.

I asked my friend (a cis woman) what she meant when she says she identifies as a woman (my memory will be inexact when recalling this conversation). She said she “feels like” a girl/woman. I had absolutely no idea what she meant by that. Up until this point i had identified as a man because my biological sex is male and I fit most (though not all) of the male gender presentation criteria. But I had no idea what she meant by “feel like a woman.” I didn’t feel like a man, just like I didn’t feel like a left wing person, i just surveyed my political beliefs and chose the label that fit. Unlike “feeling hungry” or “feeling sad” I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to feel like a gender.

After asking more people and doing research I asked my original friend if by “I feel like a woman” she meant “I have a preference for and/or feel happy when people use feminine pronouns to refer to me, and other forms of feminine presentation” she said yes but there was also a part beyond that where she felt like a woman. While I could understand the former part the latter still made no sense to me. After a while I started identifying as Agender due to fact I didn’t seem to feel what other people felt.

(although what i found interesting is that at least a third of my cis friends that I asked felt the exact same way as me, and didn’t really understand what it meant to “feel like” a specific gender. Later I learned about people who are Cis by Default which is a cis person who doesn’t feel a strong gender identity.)

But I’m still not sure if the gender you feel like is an axis in gender space or if it is how an algorithm feels from the inside, and in the same way that words feel like they have meaning or Pluto still feels like a planet even after we know every characteristic about it.

I think that if I knew everything I know now about gender when I first asked myself what gender I am, I would have said I’m probably a cis by default man. But at the same time now that my self identification is Agender, am I stuck in a recursive loop of being Agender because i identify as Agender and identifying as Agender because I am Agender?

I also don’t know how this affects my gender abolitionist leanings. Like the same arguments that apply to abolishing the category of gender seem to apply to abolishing a lot of other categories, so to be consistent would I have to be an abolitionist about every category? I have more thinking to do.

So to sum it up gender is still confusing, but slightly less than it was before. Progress!

Social Justice and Gold Stars

While i am extremel pro-equality, I disagree with many beliefs that are held by the ideological cluster Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism (obviously not all people who talk about social justice and feminism on Tumblr believe these things). One relatively minor idea that is held by Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism that I disagree with is the concept of Gold Stars. That when a person does something that helps an oppressed group they are not deserving of praise and are merely fulfilling the bare minimum requirement of being a decent human being.

My first problem with this is consequentialist. When someone has told me they did something positive (relative to the alternatives they could have done) my reaction to them will likely affect how they act in the future. If I give a positive reaction like “Good job for doing that Good Thing, High five!” it will likely reinforce the behaviour, making them associate the behaviour with positive emotions and reinforce that a member of their social group approves of the behaviour. If I react with “You did a Good thing? What do you want a gold star? A cookie? Good job meeting the minimum requirements for not being a horrible person” it will likely have the opposite result. So on purely consequentialist grounds if what we actually care about is people doing the positive things than we will want to react to people in a way that encourages that action.

My second problem is that drawing a line at some point on the moral spectrum and declaring that anything above that is merely a decent human being and undeserving of praise is arbitrary and I think makes a moral error. No person in there entire life has made 100% correct moral decisions (given their knowledge at the time) and no one ever will. No one has done all the good they could possible do. Even if someone is completely in compliance with every social justice rule, the still need to give all of their surplus income to the most effective charity possible. So declaring that here is a minimum standard that everyone has an obligation to be higher than seems to make less sense than simply promoting the pursuit of getting as close to perfect as possible. Because of this any step upward should be encouraged.

Steel manned counter arguments:

Firstly giving people praise may not actually encourage them. If they think they have done their one good deed for the day they may do less to be good in the future not more. Secondly while there is no objective way of drawing the line people may respond psychologically better to having a line that he need to be above (that we slowly raise at roughly the same pace as the social average but set higher) rather than a general direction.

These arguments ma be right, I’m not sure, I will need to think more about it. There are also some areas where I definitely endorse a No Gold Star attitude, for example if someone is using the fact they did one Good Thing as an excuse for not doing other Good Things. I have a fairly strong feeling that friendly encouragement is better in general for a social movement than sarcastic mocking (Effective Altruism movement vs Tumblr Social Justice) but I may just have a very large difference in opinion and emotional reaction to those two groups.