A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Last post I took as a starting point the fact that people should want to hold true beliefs. It turns out that W. K. Clifford (yes, of Clifford fame in mathematics) wrote a famous essay in 1876 on the ethical implications of this idea called The Ethics of Belief. In general, the essay argues that it is immoral to hold beliefs which cannot be verified through sufficient evidence. I won’t go into his epistemology because I think we have better foundations such as that presented in the previous post.

The argument essentially boils down to making a case based on an example (or thought-experiment if you will). I’ll give some modern day real examples to point out that his idea seems to be warranted. Let it be said that Clifford presents the example in much more poetic language (well worth reading in my opinion: full copy here). To prevent the post from going on too long, I’m going to just distill out the key points.

John is an immigration ship-owner (in the late 19th century). He knows his ship is old and not well-built. He knows it probably needs repairs from its many journeys. The key point of this setup is that there is enough evidence here to cast some legitimate doubt on its seaworthiness. Still his cognitive biases started flaring when thinking about the time and money it would take to do repairs.

John starts rationalizing away his fears. He knows that the ship had made the journey many times, so why suspect it wouldn’t make it this time? He has faith that God would protect those innocent people on the journey. He knows the repair people were overstating the problems just to scam him for money. And so on. He comes to be sure that the ship is safe for travel.

As presented above it looks like John had control over his biases and intentionally argued himself into a position that was easier and cheaper for himself at the possible cost of other people’s lives. This is not the case at all. We know that cognitive biases as above work without our knowledge (see the previous post). In this thought experiment John really truly believes he has a correct belief that the ship is seaworthy, and he does not know that he came to this belief through faulty means.

Everyone knows how this story ends. The ship sinks in a storm and lots of innocent people die. Now we have a difficult moral dilemma to unpack. Is John morally responsible for their deaths? Clifford argues that he is. He argues that it is a moral responsibility to rigorously examine available evidence to come to a belief that is most likely to be true.

Clifford then alters the scenario and allows the ship to continuously keep making journeys successfully and the faulty belief never causes harm. He argues that it is still immoral for John to hold a belief that would not be supported by rigorous examination of the evidence. This is because we have no idea when our faulty beliefs will cause harm. It is a moral responsibility for us to keep intentionally casting doubt on our held beliefs to seriously undergo a reexamination.

In the case that the ship continues to make safe journeys, it is actually doing good in helping impoverished people immigrate to make a better life (or at least we assume so to make a more striking case). Clifford argues that the act of not examining the belief is still immoral. We cannot judge whether or not an action is moral based on accidental consequences even if those consequences produce good for society. To rephrase yet again, the ethics of whether or not it is moral to hold a belief is not based on the truth or falseness of the belief but on whether or not you have sufficiently good reason to believe it is true. It is always immoral to believe something on faith regardless of the good it does.

This has the interesting consequence that it is more moral to hold a false belief on good evidence than a true belief on bad evidence. Even though the next example will take this relatively neutral post to a bit more inflammatory levels, I think it is important to see that the thought experiment of Clifford is not pure ivory tower speculation. There are real people who are genuinely good people attempting to good in the world but whose false beliefs thwart them into doing some truly terrible things.

In 2008, an 11 year old girl named Madeline Neumann collapsed to the floor. She had a treatable form of diabetes. Her parents had plenty of time to go seek medical help and save her, but instead they prayed. They believed that pray would cure her. They watched their daughter die. This is not some random isolated incident. These types of deaths happen all the time and for good reason. If you truly believe that prayer works, then this is how you should behave. Madeline’s parents truly believed they were helping their daughter.

If you believe prayer works, but you wouldn’t behave in this way, then you need to take a serious look at your belief that it works. Clifford would say that you have just as much moral guilt as the parents of Madeline. The belief may never cause real harm for you, but the random accidental consequences of a belief are not how we judge whether or not holding the belief is moral. If you wouldn’t behave as Madeline’s parents, then you probably don’t truly believe prayer works, but you just haven’t examined it close enough to overcome the societal pressure of whatever community you belong to.

Clifford himself sums up nicely:

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

…”But,” says one, “I am a busy man; I have no time for the long course of study which would be necessary to make me in any degree a competent judge of certain questions, or even able to understand the nature of the arguments.”

Then he should have no time to believe.

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Mathematical ethicists?

I should make it a vow of the new year to not get into ethical debates with mathematicians. I’m not going to lie. Mathematicians seem to be much harder to argue with than philosophers. They seem to be much more rigorous, they accept much fewer axioms, and are willing to admit to craziness just to not present a contradiction with their side.

Where is this all coming from? Well, on Friday I got into a few debates with a certain person. The most interesting of which was on whether or not agnosticism is a defensible position. This ended up continuing today with a different person. Amazingly enough, the characterizations given above apply equally well to both of these people, yet they both argued different points (I stayed on my one).

It went a little bit like the following. I claim that agnosticism is not a defensible position. In my brief encounters with the subject, it seems as if mathematicians tend to believe that it is the only position that you can defend from a rational standpoint. We can never know whether there is a God or not, and hence we cannot make a definitive statement one way or the other.

I claim this is nonsense. An agnostic formulates definitive beliefs about the world all the time instead of claiming to “not know.” Most contradictorily being that they are not agnostic with respect to most gods created in human history. Most agnostic are actually atheists with respect to Greek or Norse gods. Less contradictorily, but even more absurd is that an agnostic that actually practices what they preach should say that we cannot know whether or not an invisible pink unicorn follows them around everywhere they go. We have no evidence for or against it, thus the truth of its existence cannot be known for sure. (You may as well consider this line of reasoning to be a variant on Okham’s Razor).

Alright, well that is just one of my arguments, but it turns out that one of the two people were actually willing to agree to not knowing things like the pink unicorn. So on further pressing, like whether or not my eyes were deceiving me and instead of solid ground three feet in front of me there was actually a cliff, he admitted we could not know that for sure as well.

At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with ethics. And here it is. I decided to shift to an ethical argument. I say that an agnostic must ethically make the shift to atheism, because to not do so is to endorse unethical behavior. A person goes and kills someone and says that God told them to do it. The agnostic has to accept that this is possible. In fact, we could use the old standard of the categorical imperative and think about a world of all agnostics. Someone is on trial for a murder. Their case is that God told them to do it. They must be let off free. What if they are telling the truth? Who are we humans to condemn someone carrying out God’s command? Thus I claim that agnosticism tacitly supports an ideological system that allows for immoral behavior to be confused with moral behavior.

The person on Friday bought this argument, but then decided that the same case could be made against atheism. I don’t wish to go into detail, since it completely changes the topic, but essentially the tangent topic dealt with moral relativism vs absolutism and whether or not a case could objectively be made against nihilism (as you may be able to piece together, the argument was that a purely absolute ethics cannot exist, so an atheist system of ethics tacitly supports a nihilistic ethics which devalues human life unless there is a sound argument against it). I’m still thinking about it, but it is a harder case to make.

As I’ve probably stated in the past. My general view is that an absolute ethics does exist, and we can know parts of it, but in general we will probably never know all of it.


On “Being Political”

I really do want to get back to some actual math that I’ve found interesting recently, but there is one last thing that has been turning in my head recently. It is on the ethics of a certain attitude that has developed in our culture. It is the apathetic attitude toward things labeled as “political.”

My family is a largely non-political family. In fact, they are so anti-political that certain members aren’t familiar enough with politics that they probably would have to take a 50/50 guess at what party Obama belongs to (or Bush, to emphasize that it isn’t a confusion of being close to center).

Don’t get me wrong. I hate “politics” as much as the next person. I hate the lies for political gain. I hate talking around issues instead of about them. Heck. I hate the idea of endlessly talking to stall doing things. I hate that you have to satisfy a constituency instead of thinking what the best option would be. I hate that religion has incredible amounts of influence on decisions that should be rational. And so on….

So here is my claim. It doesn’t matter if you hate or love politics, in any case it is unethical to use this as an excuse. What do you think about the fact that gay marriages could be repealed? Oh, that’s just a political thing. I don’t really follow that. What about the genocides in Darfur? Well, there isn’t really anything we can do about that. Oh, you went to that protest? That was pointless. It is political and the politicians aren’t affected by protests. The examples are endless.

This idea that because something can be linked to politics (or that it is something that politicians will have to vote on) is hopeless to change and hence a waste of time and money to try to change is unethical. It has become an excuse to stand by and watch inhuman things happen without feeling guilty. The main problem is that people that do this are completely unaware that this is what they are doing. It isn’t really their fault. This idea has been culturally accepted, and culturally reinforced when we see all the scandals and lying going on.

I guess my main point is that this cultural acceptance needs to start to turn around if we really want to see positive changes. The next time you hear someone turn something down or refuse to comment or act on something for this reason point it out. The best way is to head-on point out that there is a moral issue that is not political that they are standing by and letting happen and just using that as an excuse. I mean, what can’t be considered “political”? The statement, “That’s all politics,” is really void of meaning when you think of it that way.


Ethical Voting Habits

Is it ethical to vote based on well-informed opinions? By well-informed opinions I mean an opinion in which an educated rational person could successfully argue both sides. Take abortion for instance. I have an opinion on it, but I can also put that opinion aside and “successfully” argue either side. This is in opposition with something like an ill-informed opinion in which no rational person could successfully argue for slavery, say. If you are an issue voter voting on ill-informed opinions, then without discussion I’ll consider that unethical or at least ignorant and irresponsible.

The idea now is that we should be free to vote based on our (well-informed) opinions. The side with the most number of people wins and policies are created based on the majority. But what happens if fact comes up that doesn’t allow us to vote based on our opinions? This is our current situation. It has become apparent that Palin is not fit for the VP position. These are indisputable facts. She cannot name a single major newspaper of the world. She has no experience on a global scale. She believes things that are not true (e.g. the world is 6000 years old). When asked a question she has not been told the answer to, she becomes completely incoherent or changes the question to one that she has been told the answer to.

We have been put into a moral dilemma. Are we ethically obligated to put our opinions aside and vote for the qualified side? I hate to apply to a utilitarian argument, but it is very overwhelming at this point. We are not some small country that can do what we want (i.e. vote on single issues or on our opinions alone). We must take into consideration the rest of the world. We are voting into office a world leader, yet the rest of the world doesn’t get to vote.

Suppose for the next four years people continue to have abortions (insert issue of choice). The world continues. Suppose McCain is elected and then dies a few months or even years in. I’m not saying the world will end, but it will be drastically changed and not in a good way. How can Palin have reasonable conversations with other world leaders when at this point they probably don’t respect her? She won’t be taken seriously and her presence at these meetings will be purely for show.

Outside of America, abortion (insert any issue) isn’t really even considered an issue. To ignore the rest of the world in this decision and vote for a world leader based on something the rest of the world is not concerned about is to vote unethically. Thus, the ethical decision when fact turns up, is to put aside your opinions and vote in alignment with fact.

Clearly McCain’s choosing Palin was the initial unethical decision, since assuming a rational and ethical population, we no longer have the freedom to vote on our opinions. Now that his unethical decision was made, we must shed our opinions and partisanship and vote against him.


A Refutation of a Refutation of Moral Relativism

First off, I am not a relativist, but there is one refutation of relativism that has always seemed a little fishy to me. Lots of famous people have used this argument including Sam Harris featured several posts ago.

Relativism says that there is no universal moral code, and that all moral standards need to be created within a cultural/social/individual situation. So there are no absolutes in right or wrong, it all needs to be considered in context.

So lets look at the argument against it. It comes from logic. There are no universals. But that statement seems to indicate a universal moral principle: we must always make moral judments based on context. So it is a condtradictory theory in that it proposes a statement that can’t be true or false. “There are no universals” is sort of Godel-esque. If it is true, then it itself cannot exist, and if it is false, then the theory is wrong.

There are a few issues I have with this analysis. First off, I think that we change levels when we talk about that statement. The statement’s truth or false refers to the content of the theory, whereas to talk about the truth or false of the statement is a meta-level higher. For example, you can globally define a variable in programming (not recommended, by the way). You have a universal for your program, but each time it is instantiated it could take on a different or varying meaning. This is like saying relativism can have the universal principle to not harm others, but in different contexts this could be displayed rather differently. Maybe a few people have to be harmed to prevent a lot of others from being harmed. Maybe two people get pleasure out of harming eachother that outweighs the harm. So there is a level distinction, where even if relativists don’t make any of these universal claims, we can see how a universal claim can be implemented relativistically.

Well, I used the term “first” but accidentally did both of my refutations in one. I was going to separate how logically statements involving universals can be done at different levels, and then the second point as how there could be implicit universals in relativism without changing the essence of the theory.

As with any post on ethics, I’m not sure if this has been done before or if this is a good argument, but it has always been something that bothered me since I didn’t think it really had any merit in attacking relativism. (Remember, it is sort of weird that I’m defending it since I don’t subscribe to it for reasons not mentioned here).


Ethics of Manners

This has bothered me from my earliest years. When I was little, I never understood the seemingly pointless rules people had to follow called “manners.” I was going to do some research before writing this to make sure I’m not way off base. I also wanted it to be well-researched so that it would be taken seriously. Oh well, I’m more of an impromptu type of person.

I’ve had several experiences in the past couple of weeks that has brought this back into my mind. I tried to read Lynn Truss’ Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. I became infuriated at how she was confusing and oversimplifying ethical issues to make it sound like the problem was with people’s lack of manners. In fact, I admit I never finished it due to this frustration. The second was with my whole rant on Sam Harris who basically is claiming that upholding manners is causing lots of unnecessary suffering. Let’s be rude! These two things started allowing me to notice manners in the world more.

In the beginning there was the word and according to dictionary.com the definitions are:

2a. “the prevailing customs, ways of living, and habits of a people, class, period.”

3. “a person’s outward bearing; way of speaking to and treating others”

I think that in 2a we immediately see a clash of interest for me. You should always have good reasons to do things. Doing something because it is the way it has always been done is not a good reason. This is why I hate that culturally imposed behavior is so hard to break. Sometimes it is not good. Slavery was socially acceptable at one time. If people hadn’t been “utter bloody rude,” then the practice would still be going on today. OK. So anyone with philosophical training is going to call a red herring on me right about now. I’m examining the definition of manners and I bring up slavery. All I’m trying to say is that according to 2a, manners are a social norm, and in the past social norms have been seen to be unethical. I’ll build the case later that manners are precisely this.

One semi-irrelevant thing to think about is that if manners are a form of ethical conduct, then we have a case of cultural ethical relativism, since every culture has different sets of manners. In fact, some sets of manners are in direct conflict with each other.

Evidence for manners being unethical: 1. they are a form of lying, 2. they are useless and waste people’s time (and hence are ironically rude), 3. they allow people to practice unethical behavior behind an acceptable name.

1. According to definition 3 (I should probably map this out visually for people who are no good at trying to follow where all these numbers are, but that would be polite and thus evidence against my case), manners are a person’s “outward bearing.” There is very explicit intonation there that this is not what the person is truly thinking. Let’s get real. Manners teach us to lie with dignity and in a socially acceptable way. You hate someone’s hair. Manners tells us to not go up to that person and say, “I hate your hair.” We’ll come back to this in 3 (not definition, but evidence 3).

2. Manners are rude. I may have accidentally constructed a zen koan on this one. I think it is rude to waste people’s time. This is probably the general consensus. Well, picture yourself in this common situation. You are passing someone you know. You have nothing to say to them. Manners says that you should be polite and make at least a little small talk. This accomplishes nothing. In fact, usually there are lies exchanged (see 1) such as, “How are you?” “Fine.” It could be the worst day of your life. You will probably say, “fine.” (see the play Wit by Margaret Edson). A few minutes later, you have exchanged absolutely no useful information, and everyone’s time has been wasted. Hmm…seems rude to have wasted that person’s time. What ever happened to that bit of manners that says, “If you have nothing useful to say, don’t say anything at all.” Erm…that’s not quite right, but a little altering of the truth can be polite we’ve already established.

3. This is a bit more serious, so I’ll drop the lighthearted tone. Now I’m talking about respect and human rights. This is where the slavery example comes back. There is a fine line between respecting a culture’s practices and allowing violations of human rights to occur. An example from all over the news recently (I think last week) was that a (the) gay Anglican bishop was not invited to the national conference. There is only one ordained gay Anglican bishop, because it is still technically against policy. The conference was holding debates about whether to allow gay people to be ordained. Don’t you think the only person with first hand experience should be allowed to state an opinion on the issue? So you might not like this example, but it was recent and it could be any of the hundreds of current examples of inequality being practiced somewhere.

We can always find a “proper manners” or respect argument to hide behind. We say that that is their culture, their belief, their faith, and if someone doesn’t like it then they shouldn’t practice that religion. What people don’t realize is that their manners are not saying what they think. If we allow a group of people to say that one type of person is better or worse than another (at a fundamental level), then this is not confined to the group. This is sending a message to what is now a globalized world that this type of practice is acceptable. The time for politeness is over. We can continue to use our excuse that we are being respectful to someone’s beliefs, but it is unethical to hide behind this cultural norm. Good manners are the cause of a lot of needless suffering and inequality.

Conclusion: the practice of good manners is unethical.


The Ethics of Naturalism

After such posts as The Role of Disease, I feel the need to try to outline an ethical theory that incorporates my “extremist” positions. I’ll admit that I am no ethicist. In fact, I sort of despise ethics since I am a non-dualist and don’t even buy the idea of ethical vs. unethical. Hence, I am not up to date on the literature and may just be rehashing something that has already been done. On the last philosopher’s carnival someone mentioned something about dialog philosophy blogs, and so I think I’ll try that.

Disclaimer: This post could be sort of disturbing to those that do not think about this on a daily basis or have biases on the nature of death.

Penguin: If I understand your viewpoint correctly, then in order to solve the overpopulation problem, you want to kill people?

Hilbert: You very much misunderstand. I do not want to kill people. I do believe that death is a natural part of life, though, and to keep people alive beyond their natural death is unnatural.

Penguin: But you’re a scientist. Are you suggesting that we throw away all of our scientific progress in medicine and health care to just let people die?

Hilbert: “Progress” is a relative term. Do you really believe progress is only moving forward? There is a saying that goes something like, “Two steps backward is better than one step forward when standing at the edge of a cliff.” I truly believe that we may be at that edge.

Penguin: In that case, we would probably lose many great works of art and (as may worry you Hilbert) mathematical works. People would probably die before mastering enough math to be able to produce anything new.

Hilbert: That is a risk we already have. You can’t predict accidents. Also, I may not have been as clear as I should have been. I definitely do not advocate throwing all medicine away. It is a more naturalistic approach than nihilistic. I don’t think it is natural to die from accidentally cutting off your finger and then due to randomness it gets infected and spreads, etc. Non-terminal illnesses should be treated. You are not just prolonging the inevitable in that case.

Penguin: You are riding a fine and dangerous line, in my opinion. According to your viewpoint, we are all going to die, so can you clarify what your seemingly arbitrary distinction between terminal and non-terminal really is –

Hilbert: –death is not a disease. I think you are missing the point. Our culture has this obsession with attempting to cure everything. It is built into our language. “We are trying to cure the major problems of the world.” This makes an assumption that these diseases are problems. Suppose we cure all the “major” diseases. More will pop up. It is natural. Something has to keep our population in check. So it seems like a futile battle. In fact, the newer ones that will appear will be worse than our current ones.

Penguin: You really think that this is ethical still? Let’s test it. It seems as if you’ve appealed to some utilitarian ethics there. It is in the interest of the general population to not increase suffering by curing diseases and having worse ones appear. As everyone knows, utilitarianism is flawed. What about Rand’s egoism. How am I to exercise my free will if I am dead?

Hilbert: I think this works extremely well with Rand. I do what I want to do. You do what you want to do. When we die, we die. Then we have natural death and not this culturally forced altruism (which probably doesn’t exist) trying to “save” everyone when we all just die anyway.

Penguin: I think that you missed an important point of Rand. There are people who love helping people or inventing medicine. Your “naturalism” is saying that they shouldn’t meddle with this stuff. But Rand says that if that is what they want to do, they should do it.

Hilbert: I already said that there are places in society for medicine and healing and helping. I didn’t say that people should die in isolation suffering their pain with no one around until they die. If people want to be there to help and comfort, that is fine. In fact, instead of trying to cure the disease, medicine could shift to help the comforting process. Pain killers tend to take away lucidity. Is there a way to comfort and keep the person fully functioning?

Penguin: OK. I don’t subscribe to Rand anyway. Surely you cannot claim that this fits with care ethics.

Hilbert: I feel that I have already shown that naturalism fits perfectly into the ethics of care.

Penguin: What about the families, spouses, and friends of the person dying?

Hilbert: It doesn’t matter when a person dies. That will be an issue at any stage of life. I don’t like this conversation anymore (remember I don’t subscribe to ethics), so I’ll just conclude with some remarks. If my natural death theory happens to not fit into some ethical theory, then I feel that the theory has tacit assumptions about the nature of death somehow being wrong or unethical which invalidates that theory as a good system of ethics.

Well, that was an interesting experiment. Everyone who wants to work out some ideas should try the dialog format. Half the time I couldn’t tell which side I was arguing. Also, I already anticipate some of your responses and couldn’t address them, because I didn’t want to make this too long.


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