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.

Liberty vs Coercion is a Fight Over Property Rights

So recently i have been binging on Econtalk Podcast so I have been hearing a lot of libertarian perspective recently (I highly recommend econ talk, the host leans towards libertarianism but is very open minded and balanced relative to the average commentator from any political ideology). So the next few posts will probably be about that. Libertarians often use the phrases liberty and coercion. Liberty is the freedom to make your own choices, both social and economic whereas coercion is when someone (the government) forces you to do something against you will, likely pay taxes, which is theft (according to libertarians).

My first problem with this is that most peoples values (definitely mine , could be typical mind fallacy) value other things besides liberty in the way libertarians use the. Libertarian Liberty is negative freedom (the freedom from interference by an outside force i.e the government) rather then positive freedom (the right to have access to something, like clean water, giving others an obligation to provide that thing to you). Now as a consequentialist I don’t look at the situation in terms of rights, but its seem intuitively obvious to be that there is no difference between taking food away from a person and refusing to give them food, either way the affect is a person who is hungry doesn’t have food.

On the other hand it seems that libertarians/free market advocates see taking food from a hungry person to be coercive and wrong but to refuse giving food that you legitimately own to a hungry person is completely within your right. Of course libertarianism can be argued for on consequentialist grounds, that free markets will likely lead to hungry people have food so redistribution will be unnecessary. But Many libertarians (possibly the majority) seem to advocate on deontological right theories rather than consequentialism.

The other problem is that the meaning of words like “coercion” and “force” as used by libertarians and particularly Anarcho-capitalists is completely dependent on what system of property rights is being used. If a hungry person is about to eat an apple from a tree and you use force to prevent them from doing so, this is seem as wrong if they own the tree (stealing from them/not letting them use their property as the choose) but it is fine if you own the tree (preventing them from stealing your property). So when an Anarcho-capitalist and and Ancarho-communist debate, they will mostly likely talk past to each other because they have different ideas of what property rights there should be (the Anarcho-communists doesn’t recognize private ownership of the means of production)and therefore different definitions of force and coercion.

I once heard an exchange that went like this:

Anarcho-capitalist: In my preferred society you would be able to form a communist commune within that society, would i be able to form a capitalist commune with private property and trade under Anarcho-communism?

Anarcho-communist: Of course, as long as you don’t use force to prevent me from using the means of production.

Now form my Trying Really Hard To Be Non-ideological But Still Somehow Far Left perspective, property rights are subjective and we should choose the set of property rights that are best for the particular society we are in, which will depend both on the technologically level of that society and the psychological stat of it s inhabitants (including there preference of one system n over another). So I don’t think there is an inherently true and correct set of property rights that one side has correctly identified, it seems like both sides have different sets of property rights and therefore different definitions of words like force and coercion

Reductio ad Absurdum is Absurd

Reductio ad Absurdum is a form of argument that looks like “But if we accept X, then we also have to accept Y, which is clearly wrong/crazy/absurd/ so therefore X can;t be true.” Now there are possible times when this argument is perfectly valid, both for deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoing it is called modus tollens and looks like:

If A then B
Not B
Therefore, not A

The inductive form is also valid (although of course induction can only be used to give probabilistic arguments):

“If A then B, but observations X Y and Z all make B seem very unlikely, therefore probably not A”

But there is a third type of Reductio ad Absurdum where the conclusion is not ruled out by logical rules or by observational evidence, but my seeming absurd. “If A then B, but B is crazy/absurd, so obviously not A” This clearly seems like invalid reasoning to me. Absurdity is in the Map not the Territory. No where in reality will you find absurdity particles floating around, it is only a part of our model of reality where we label come things absurd and others regular.

It seems like absurdity is just what something disagreeing with your fundamental beliefs feel like from the inside? To someone who believes in god, the idea that when people die they just stop existing, and that this has happened to every person who has ever died would probably seem really absurd. To someone who is is not a consequentalist/utilitarian, the idea that every single action that a person makes is morally required to be the best possible action they could make at the time probably seems absurd (one of the main objections to utilitarianism is that it “requires too much” unlike deontology which says “don’t do a bunch off obviously bad things like murder and rape” and virtue ethics which says “try to be a nice person”).

To illustrate this further imagine how many scientific discoveries must have seemed absurd at the time they were a being debated. “If your theory is true, then the sun would have to be a million times larger than earth, that is absurd, so you must be wrong.”

Again remember I’m only talking about the feeling of absurdity not the apparent logical contradiction of incompatibility with other observations. But based on the fact that a false belief that contradicts your true belief and a true belief that contradicts your false belief, will both produce the feeling of absurdity, that sense of absurdity can not be used as evidence for the truth of either of those beliefs.
Another separate form of argument is Appeal to Hypocrisy, and is in the form of:

“Group A says X, but based on there reasoning for X, they should also believe in Y, but they don’t; believe in Y so they are hypocritical/are not following  there assumptions to their logical conclusions. therefore they are wre wrong about X”

Put in this form it seems like an obvious mistake, so to make sure no readers think they would not do this im going to use an example of when i used this line of reasoning a few years ago, it still seems very wrong to present!Nick but hopefully it will be a tad more subtle

“Vegetarians/Vegans are against animals suffering in factory farms. But if that is a bad thing then all animal suffering must be a bad thing, any moral framework that says its ok when other animals hurt each other but not when humans hurt each other would be even more removed from my own then a vegan moral framework. So vegans should also care about suffering of animals in the wild. predation stands out as a horrible animal death, I would have to do some math but it’s probably worse than factory farming. But vegans don’t focus on that at all (none that I’ve met anyway) and many I’ve talked to actively justify it. This is absurd. Vegans don’t even have a consistent morality. Therefore eating meat is morally okay”

Now that I am a a Veg*n (still consume some dairy products but in the process of cutting back) and as someone who care s about wild animals suffering this argument seems obviously wrong to me. Carin about animals welfare does imply caring about wild animal suffering, so what? There is no logical contradiction or observational evidence that contradicts caring about animals suffering. So the fact that at the time it seemed absurd that there could be this giant problem that even people who should care about it don’t wasn’t evidence it wasn’t a problem. And now that i have accepted both the disvalue of animals suffering in factory farms and the animal suffering in the wild, the fact that the majority of other Veg*ns doesn’t matter, they just happen to be wrong about this area. Unfortunately, getting one question right doesn’t mean you are able to get them all right. This argument from hypocrisy is also a subclass of trying to Reverse Stupidity to get Intelligence.

So based on my experience using Reductio ad Absurdum and argument from hypocrisy before and being wrong, it makes me more skeptical of these types of arguments in the future. So i tried to think about arguments that i currently reject for reasons that could be the same as the above:

  • Simulation argument
  • Doomsday Argument
  • Theories of consciousness that imply that all things including steam engines and rocks are in some way conscious
  • Modal Realism

All of the above I think still have problems (except the simulation argument which i will talk about more in a future post) but i think part of the reason i don’t believe them is a incorrect use of Reductio ad Absurdum, so while writing this i attempted to increase my subjective probability of these being true (but like I said, I still don’t believe them.)

Consent Is Compilcated

Recently listened to a conversation between a Feminist and an MRA talk about consent. The feminist was advocating enthusiastic consent while the MRA was arguing that the current model of consent was sufficient. Here are some vague thoughts I had from my perspective as a Gender Egalitarian.

Consent is really complicated. I sided closer to the Feminist but bot sides acted like if they just solved this one question then the matter of consent would be settled.

Lets break this down into external and internal consent. Internal consent is how a person feels about the sex on the inside, whether or not they want to have sex. External consent is outwards signs that they give the other person (or people but lets assume its just two people for now) they they want to have sex, like saying “I want to have sex” or making sounds that signal enjoyment. Both internal and external consent are on a scale and while they are correlated one does not guarantee the other. The Feminist and MRA were arguing over where the line society draws on the spectrum of external consent should be. I have heard people use different definitions of enthusiastic consent, some that include nonverbal consent like touching or signs of enjoyment and others that require verbal consent.

Clearly all we care about is internal consent, and external consent just increases the likelihood of internal consent. If internal consent is very certain (like in a long term relationship, doing sexually activities both have verbally talked about and agreed to before hand and using safety words) then apparent lack of external consent (like in non con play) is usually fine.

But this distinction means that someone can give enthusiastic external consent, say “i want you to do X” at every step, and still not give internal consent. Maybe they feel like i they don’t give external consent their partner will be upset. Or they are just to nervous to say no.Enthusiastic consent doesn’t guarantee internal consent. But it is still a good idea because it does make internal consent more likely. Although I’m not sure if enthusiastic verbal consent makes internal consent a lot more likely than enthusiastic non verbal external consent

Another problem is that internal consent is also a spectrum. Someone one can not know whether  they want to have sex, or have a small preference for not wanting sex but not enough to express external non consent.

Another related issues is how alcohol affects consent. Most people agree that people who have had one standard drink can consent to sex and that people who have passed out cannot. But there is no way to objectively decide where on the alcohol spectrum to draw the line, both legally and morally. In a Alcohol affects other internal consent and a its relations to external consent.

I also think that while consent remains a very good deontological heuristic, there are still possible situation where there are consequentialist reasons for not having sex with someone even if they consent. For example if someone really wants to have sex but you are fairly sure they will regret it afterwards,because for example they have a religious belief that will make them feel shame.

Consent is really complicated and the solution that i personally use (“try REALLY hard to not accidentally do something that someone doesn’t consent too”) is to vague to give directly to other people.

Thoughts on National Security Part 1

This semester I am taking a class on National Security and each week we are given a set of questions to discuss in the tutorials. I am going to take the more interesting of these questions and use them as a stimulus for a series of blog posts with the goal of crystallizing my thoughts on National Security related issues.

  • What forces are challenging the ability of states to provide for the welfare and security of their population?

I disagree with the framing of this question (which will become a common theme in my answers) because it seems to view the state as a unified agent with the goal of providing welfare and security to their population. In reality the state is a group of people that have a set of beliefs, information, desirers and biases that are influence by other people with their own sets of beliefs, information, desirers and biases. These people do things that cause other people to do things. from a higher level of resolution (just like a plane is what a collection of atoms looks like from a higher resolution) this looks like states and business and political parties interacting, but I think this level of resolution may lead to incorrect beliefs, like applying agency incorrectly and making incorrect predictions.

To go more directly to the question I feel like the answer that the question writer desires is something like terrorism, increased competing on over resources etc. but I think “people who most people would consider members of the group of people that collectively form the state having incorrect beliefs or desirers that are different to ensuring the welfare of the population is an equally legitimate answer.”

(Note: I’m still working out and formalising this reductionist way of viewing national security and international relations, hopefully there is already a school of thoughts that thinks this way that i can build from rather than starting from scratch.)

  • What is the “natural condition” for states, peace or war?

First I think that the phrasing of the question is unproductive. What does “Natural Condition” mean? and even if we have a coherent definition why should we care about the “Natural Condition” of states unless this is the natural conditions are a common conditions for the states to be in? A similar questions that are in closer to a form that can actually be answered is “statistically are states more likely to be at war or at peace?” There is also not a sufficient definition of peace, war and the many possible situations between (“military conflicts,” cold wars, economic terrorism, proxy wars, states in conflicts with their own citizens) so answering the second half of the question is also problematic.

So my answer would be that it is a non optimally formed question and the answer would change based on different definitions and implicit assumptions. Deconstructing all these assumptions and moving the question to the point where it can be answered and the answering it would be an essay length reply

  • What impact has globalisation had on the viability of the modern state?

Not really sure. The modern state doesn’t seem that much less viable than it did 60 years ago. The UN and other global organizations decrease the powers of certain states in certain areas, but it could be argued that they in effect redistribute power from some states to others. Increase in global trade means theoretically war is even more of a zero sum game than it used to be for states, but the argument “states wont go to war because they trade so much it would be economically disastrous” was used before world one and generated the wrong prediction so I’m sceptical of it being used now. The internet has probably lead to people indentifying less wit there nation relative to other identities so peoples subjective feeling that they are united with the people in the same geographical area as them and should be governed together could be lessening.

  • Can the military be a force for good?

I think this question is quite biased. The phrasing means that to answer in the negative we would have to argue that the military can never be good, which seems very unlikely. SO the only reasonable answer to this question is yes, but accepting the phrase “the military can be a force for good” would make people more likely to accept the statement “the military is a force of good” without actually realising it.

A better question would be “is the Australian military overall a force for good or [bad? not good? evil?]” Again my answer would be that I don’t know, and considering that it is unliekly that the whole Australian military would be disbanded it may be more useful to look at the value of each individual action and component of the Australian military and decide on a case by case basic

  • Are the laws of war appropriate for today?

I think that the implication of this question is that due to new threats (i.e. terrorism) the laws of war may no longer be appropriate. This seems like a step away from arguing that things like torture are ok in the “War on Terrorism.” Or that civilians casualties from drone strike are not that bad, or outweighed by the benefits of drone strikes. Overall I think this argument is wrong and that the laws of war serve an instrumentally useful role as a form of ethical injunction against acts that could seem like a good thing at the time but are more likely to not be.