Understanding a Science of Morality

In the following post I will attempt to organize some of my thoughts on what constitutes a “science of morality.” I believe there are two main projects for science as it relates to morality:

  1. Explain human behavior through the evolutionary process
  2. Rationalize patterns of behavior we ought to follow or avoid via utility or “well being”

These projects should be considered distinct from one another and we should be careful not to conflate them. Conflating projects 1 and 2 would make the mistake of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural does not make it good. Likewise, just because something is unnatural does not make it bad. Social Darwinism is in no way a moral ideal- but understanding the implications of natural selection is of great importance for developing a science of morality.

Let’s look at project 1 more in depth. Evolution not only provides the basis for the physical structures of organisms, but the foundations for behavior of organisms as well. This of course includes humans. Evolution can thus provide powerful explanations for our ancient and intuitive ideas about our actions. Vividly so in contrast and comparison with other animals.

Before diving into evolutionary explanations for human behavior, it’s essential to understand the material basis of reality and how human brains perceive reality. It is true that a material reality exists external to the mind. However, we do not perceive this reality directly. Rather, what we experience is a model of reality that is constructed in our minds via the filters of our senses.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this famous philosophical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well to be frank- the answer is no, there’s no such thing as sound if there is no one to perceive it. Likewise, color, smell, taste, and other sensations are not “real” in the same way. What actually exists are compression waves that travel via the laws of nature, but sound itself is a product of brains.

This is important to understand because what this means is that different organisms and even different people experience and model these waves in completely different modes. Knowing this fact, we can deduce and study how and why evolution gave rise to these different models and experiences of reality. Take for example the smell of human feces. Why does it smell bad to us?

R.G. Price explains it succinctly in one of his essays on evolution:

“It’s not because feces inherently stinks, it’s because our brains have evolved to perceive certain chemicals in feces negatively.

Volatile chemicals emanate from feces and become airborne, where those chemicals are detected by our nose. Feces, especially human feces, is a very common carrier of diseases that can affect humans. Coming into contact with feces dramatically increases an individual’s chance of contracting diseases and therefore dying. A negative perception of the chemicals commonly found in feces results in affecting an individual’s behavior so that they shun feces. The process of evolution selects for individuals who have a negative perception of feces because these individuals have a higher rate of survival as compared to individuals who do not have a negative perception of feces.

Individuals who either don’t smell the chemicals in feces, or who find those chemicals to be attractive, would be more likely to come in contact with feces, and thus they would be more likely to contract a disease and die.

Now, if we compare the human perception of the chemicals in feces to the perception of these same chemicals by flies, then we can conclude that feces probably smells good to flies. When a fly detect the chemicals in feces it most likely creates a pleasurable perception to the fly. This is because feces is a source of food for flies. Flies, since they are insects, are not generally vulnerable to mammalian diseases, so mammalian feces poses no health risk to them. Instead, the organic molecules in feces are a source of nutrition for flies.”

Perception drives behavior. Thus we can explain, at least in part through evolution, how and why our intuitive ideas relating to morality gave rise. From this knowledge we can help distinguish project 1’s “natural” morality from that of an objective morality being established in project 2.

Project 2 deals with the development of a morality of science. While the merits of project 1 is hardly debatable (because it is simply telling us what is influencing human behavior), project 2 seems to be a bit more controversial because it attempts for science to tell us what we ought to do. This criticism, while legitimate, seems to miss the point. Let me explain why.

Values are a specific type of fact. They are empirical statements about the flourishing of conscious creatures in society. Values are by definition what we mean by the word “good.” However, there exists a spectrum of competing values. People and societies make claims that some values are greater than others. This takes the proposition:

X value creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than Y value.

We can therefore use the scientific method to test these claims to see whether or not they are in fact true. For example:

Honesty creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying.

Often times we already have intuitions about the truthfulness of certain values. However, a science of morality would allow us to test these intuitions against real world world empirical tests. We can do this by performing simulations and then comparing their outcomes. This could even account for rarities. For instance it may be true that honesty creates more flourishing for conscious creatures in 99% of situations, but it may prove to be false in the context of honesty resulting in death or great suffering.

The point here is that there is a spectrum of competing values always at play in the real world or in other words, a Moral Landscape with peaks and valleys. We can use the scientific method to compare these values and begin the drawings of that moral map.

There is no doubt that a science of morality is in its infancy. Defining the flourishing of conscious creatures is difficult enough- how would we measure this? Wealth? Happiness surveys? Health? Brain Scans? AI Simulations? There are still limits to our tools and understanding. Nevertheless, the foundations of a science of morality are forming and can ultimately shape the morality of our future. The purpose is to expand on it, progress and educate the population like we would with any other science. That is something we certainly ought to do.

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The Ethics of Piracy

I’ve been reading Intellectual Property is Common Property by Andreas Van Gunten over the last couple of weeks and it has seriously challenged many of my intuitions on the topic of piracy and intellectual property. Specifically, its been making me think about the ethics of piracy from my utilitarian and consequentialist perspective and where it fits exactly in my moral framework. I’ll be sharing those thoughts here. First, what is piracy? Let’s look at some modern definitions:

the unauthorized use of anothers production, invention, or conception especially in infringement of a copyright – Merriam Webster

the unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented invention, trademarked product, etc. – Dictionary.com

I think a good place to begin is to question whether or not piracy is identical to theft. Theft is universally perceived as morally wrong for reasons we will soon explore. By comparing the two, we can gather insight into why we may or may not think piracy is morally equivalent. However, even if it is true that piracy is not equivalent to theft in every respect, logically it does not follow that piracy is morally unproblematic. This is important to keep in mind.

Why is it that humans universally perceive theft as morally wrong? From a utilitarian and consequentialist perspective this is because of the harm it causes through an immediate loss of value. If I were to steal a shovel from a shed, the owner of that shovel could no longer use it. The shovel can only be owned and used by one person at a time. Therefore by depriving the owner of their possession and their ability to use the shovel- I’ve clearly harmed them.

In economics, goods that can be used by only one consumer at a time are called rivalrous goods. Rivalrous goods are almost always tangible and will have either durable or non durable characteristics. The shovel in my previous example would be an example of a durable rivalrous good. Likewise an apple would be an example of a non durable rivalrous good because once an apple is eaten it is “used up” and can no longer be eaten by others.  There are also some examples of non-tangible goods that are rivalrous- notably domain names and radio bands. When people refer to theft they almost always mean the theft of rivalrous goods.

However, there are also non-rivalrous goods that exist where the cost of providing the good to an additional individual is zero. For example, Broadcast television is a non rival good because when a consumer turns on a TV set, this does not prevent the TV in another consumer’s house from working. Other examples of non-rival goods include scenic views, cinemas, national defense, clean air, street lights, and most notably intellectual property. When asking whether piracy is identical to theft, there’s another underlying question: Can non-rival goods be stolen?

https://sites.google.com/site/microeconomicsreview/_/rsrc/1296342336865/public-and-private/Chart.jpgImage via wikipedia

As Andreas Van Gunten explains in Chapter 2:

“A text in a book or a painting on a canvas are only rival-goods in the sense that the physical manifestation of the expression cannot be consumed more than once at any given time. The expression itself is non-rival. It can be consumed by many people at the same time as long as sufficient copies of the expression exist. The proponents of the current copyright system argue that the justification of intellectual property shares the same moral grounds as the justification of physical property.13 But only the physical medium has a rivalry character comparable to the physical goods by which control rights may be justified. As soon as the copying of the expression, which is what copyright law protects, does not need a physical medium anymore, which means that it can be done at zero or near zero cost, it loses its rivalry character. In other words, copying is not stealing, as the proponents of intellectual property rights try to convince us.

A printed book for example can only be read by one person at a time.14 If someone takes the book away from its owner, he can now read it and the original owner cannot. What we have here are the typical characteristics of a rival-good where the postulation of control rights may make some sense. But this changes completely as soon as a digital representation of the expression is available. In this case this would be an E-Book file or a website with the same text on it. If I possess an E-Book or have access to text on the World Wide Web, I am not limited in my enjoyment of the expression when someone else makes a copy and reads the text as well. As soon as the expression is no longer bound to a physical medium, and its manifestation is realised in a digital representation, the marginal costs for the second and subsequent copies are nearly zero and therefore it loses its rivalry character and its scarcity.”

So to answer the question: Can non-rival goods be stolen? The answer is no. However, non-rival transactions still seem to have the possibility of being unjust and morally problematic. Interestingly enough, this seems to be particularly true if the systems in place are unable to efficiently regulate and organize non-rival good distribution. In the same way, piracy is not identical to theft, but it can still cause harm to the producers of non-rival information goods because of the free rider problem.

If we were to accept these conclusions, it would seem to me that there would be multiple levels to piracy with different ethical implications. Consider the following four scenarios:

  1. Consume copyrighted movie without permission for private use
  2. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and edit the content for private use
  3. Consume copyrighted movie without permission, edit the content and share for public use
  4. Consume copyrighted movie without permission and share for public use

In each of these scenarios we are consuming copyrighted content without permission. The variables at play here are private vs public and edited vs original. Interesting to note is that scenarios 2 and 3 are actually legal in many cases under fair use in the United States, while the others are not. The mere act of editing copyrighted content makes it “fair.” Nevertheless, from an ethical standpoint scenarios 2 and 3 are ethically equivalent to scenario 1. Scenario 4 in contrast could be argued to be ethically worse for encouraging more piracy because it is sharing the original content with the public. Thus leading to a greater free rider problem.

At a deeper level, what we are really talking about when discussing the ethics of piracy is whether or not “intellectual property” is legitimate. If it is not legitimate- as Andreas Van Gunten asserts in his book- then it can be argued that piracy is simply a way of spreading creative works and increasing human innovation. Indeed, piracy could very well be a a neutral or ethical act.

My aim is not to try to solve these fundamental problems but to show that a society where intellectual property is common property has a better chance to prosper, independently of the question whether its basic values are more libertarian or more egalitarian. The premise is that the more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows. This is the classical liberal argument for freedom of speech.Intellectual Property is Common Property, Andreas Van Gunten

If one accepts Guntens premise that in a society where intellectual property is common property and “more cultural artefacts and the more scientific ideas are developed and produced, and the more freely human communication can happen, the more sustainable a society grows,” then this is a society we ought to strive for from a utilitarian perspective.

Nevertheless, I can sympathize with those that are skeptical of Guntens views. They appear counter intuitive to many given the ingrained cultural status quo on copyright, patents, and other property laws. Furthermore, it may very well be the case that “possessing” intellectual property individually leads to a more prosperous society than one unable to do this. I remain agnostic.

Whatever your beliefs, I highly recommend checking out Guntens work. Piracy will continue to remain an interesting ethical question- one that is volatile to a technological environment and the laws we set in motion. Let’s see where it goes.

Overpopulation: A Road To Dystopia

Ever since the Black Death in the 14th century, caused by the Bubonic plague, the growth in human population has been on a constant rise. And within the last century, these numbers have risen exponentially. Indeed, in 1927 the population on earth was estimated to be 2 billion. Less than 90 years later in 2016, we have a population of 7.4 billion and it’s continuing to grow.

There are several contributing factors that have led to this population explosion. The most significant being attributed to declining death rates. Thanks to modern medicine and technology, we’ve been able to overcome problems of widespread hunger and poverty. Fertility treatments and better medical facilities have led otherwise fatal diseases and defects to be recoverable. And today, we reap the benefits and comfort that these advances have provided us.

The question remains: Should we be concerned about overpopulation? Within the scientific community there is diverse opinion on both when and what amount the population will peak at before stabilization or decline. Scientific studies have ranges of time as early as 2050 to 2300 and beyond. Estimates for the peak of population hover between the 9-12 billion range. (1, 2)

However, many of these scientific studies don’t take into consideration the potential scientific breakthroughs that may occur over the next two centuries. What if, for instance, it becomes normal to live to be 150 or even 200 years old? Considering the existence of super-centenarians, we should remain open and optimistic to the idea of increased human longevity. This would push the figures well beyond what many of these studies conclude.

Likewise, it is also possible that science could revolutionize the resources we need to survive and flourish. We have a limitless supply of energy in the sun and it’s only a matter of time before we begin to harvest this energy efficiently. In addition, the continuous evolution of technology like 3d printers may have enormous effects in the way we manage our resources. These kinds of innovations could nearly negate overpopulation as a problem altogether.

Of course we should remain skeptical of such ideas. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how our population growth plays out over the next several decades and whether this growth becomes a major problem. If it does become a problem, what are the philosophical consequences? Will we need to enable policies that discourage people from having children? Would that be ethical? My libertarian leanings may certainly begin having doubts.

Imagine a world with extremely scarce resources. People are starving and poverty is rampant. Every new child being born into this world would suffer this same miserable existence. In such a world, it may be morally reprehensible to not get an abortion. Can you picture such a thing?

The consequences of overpopulation are definitely reminiscent of those in dystopian fiction in many ways. And while this may be new territory for humans, overpopulation is nothing new for many animal species. When it does occurs to a species, it isn’t pretty. Nature has it’s own way of restoring order. One of two things tends to happen under these circumstances:

  1. There becomes an increase in their predators which naturally reduces the species.
  2. There becomes massive conflict over the remaining resources and there’s a major population crash.

Number one is common among several animals including snowshoe hares, deer and lemmings. If predators are not increased to keep the population low, number two becomes the inevitable result. Starvation and thirst becomes common, and eventually violent competition between their own species arises. However, some animals have learned to refrain from mating under such conditions thanks to their evolutionary pheromones. (1) Thus preventing conflict.

So how does this apply to us? Humans are apex predators, meaning we reside at the top of the food chain in which no other creatures prey. Therefore we would skip number one and go straight to number two. If humans weren’t to refrain from reproduction, we may escalate far beyond the violent skirmishes present in many animal species. In a worst case scenario, we could enter another world war led by fascist leaders. Just how far do you think some people would be willing to go under such dire circumstances? It’s a scary thing to consider.

It’s important to note that many of these violent outcomes are only possible if we let overpopulation get out of hand in the first place. Nevertheless, overpopulation may still present problems to a lesser degree including: major unemployment, increased global warming and a reduced quality of life for most people.

Whether or not overpopulation comes to fruition is yet to be seen, but the conversation needs to begin sooner rather than later. Someday, we may have to rethink our moral intuitions. For better or for worse.

Morality and Head Transplants

Valery Spiridonov, a computer scientist from Russia, will become the world’s first head transplant patient in December of 2017. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffmann disease at an early age which has left him immobile his entire life. Now at age 30, Spiridonov wants a chance at a new body before he dies.

“I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease,” Spiridonov said in an interview.

The procedure will involve over 100 surgeons and is expected to last up to 36 hours. The procedure will be led by surgeon Dr. Canavero who will attach Spiridonov’s head to a donors body through spinal cord fusion. Many skeptics have branded Dr Canavero as “nuts” arguing that reconnecting a severed spinal cord and stopping the immune system from rejecting the head is impossible.

There is evidence to the contrary however. Organ rejection is the main problem with any transplant, but modern drugs have the ability to strongly suppress and weaken the immune system to allow the new organ to thrive. This is how we are currently able to transplant foreign organs such as hearts, lungs, kidneys and pancreases into recipients. Furthermore, there has already been success with animals. I personally remain extremely skeptical, but I’m optimistic of its potential over the next several decades.

What I find most fascinating about this, however, are the ethical implications of the procedure if it works. Are we creating a real life Frankenstein? Should people be able to “buy” new bodies? Should head transplant procedures be performed at all?

Imagine that we wake up tomorrow and discover that head transplants have a 99% rate of success. Finally people with muscle atrophy, cancers and various other issues have a solution to their problem- they can throw away their disease ridden body and get a new one! Well there would be a few problems:

  1. The procedure would be insanely expensive. Not only would the 100+ surgeons and 36 hours needed to perform the procedure send your bill skyrocketing, but you would be paying for the cost of an entire human body. To put this in perspective, in the United States it costs 200k – 1.2 million for a single organ to be transplanted. Organs are already extremely scarce, but a healthy, fit and functional body would be on an entire different level. Canavero has estimated the total cost at $13 million dollars. Only the extremely rich would be able to afford the procedure.
  2. The Rich could buy bodies for aesthetic reasons. If it comes down to who has the most money (which so many times it does) rather than who has the greatest need for a new body, rich folk could literally buy a new body simply because they don’t like the one they’ve got. I can see the TV commercials already, “Don’t like to work out and stay in shape? Don’t like that weird birth mark on your back? Have a lot of money? Ask your doctor if a head transplant is right for you!” Gag.
  3. The poor could easily be exploited. This is already a problematic issue around the world. If a poor person is in need of money, they might sell their kidney to try and feed their family or pay back a debt. The same applies with a full body: If a close relative dies during difficult times, a poor person may be pressured to sell their body.

Despite the issues that may arise, I believe head transplants can be ethical in many cases. If we can decrease the suffering of someone like Valery Spiridonov, I believe we have the obligation to do so. In fact, one could even argue it would be immoral to prevent the option of this treatment to people that just want to live a normal human life.

As medicine and technology continues to evolve, so will morality and the ethics of human well being. Head transplants may still seem like part of a fantasy horror novel concoction to many, but I think we may be looking at the tip of the iceberg of human evolution.

Ethics and Economic Justice

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I have been reading David Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons the past couple of months and I must say, it’s been a wild ride. I recommend it to anyone that subscribes to utilitarian ethics and having their world views pushed to the limit. It may seem farfetched to some, but I suspect Parfit will go down as one of the greats in the history of philosophy.

The book covers a variety of loosely related topics, but I want to focus on the type of utilitarianism he concludes from his arguments: Prioritarianism. Prioritarianism holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well being (Utilitarianism) with extra weight given to worse off individuals. Let’s look at an example to sharpen the distinction between the two.

Imagine a two-person society: its only members are Jim and Pam. Jim has an extremely high level of well-being, is rich, and lives a blissful life. Pam, by contrast, has an extremely low level of well-being, is in extreme poverty, and lives a hellish life.

Now imagine that we have some free resources ($10,000 for example) that we may distribute to the members of this society as we see fit. Under normal utilitarian circumstances, the $10,000 will generate more well-being for Pam than it will for Jim. Thus giving the money to Pam would be the morally correct choice. However, let’s imagine slightly different circumstances.

Jim, for whatever reason, even though he is already filthy rich and very well-off, would gain just as much well-being by receiving the $10,000 as Pam would. Suddenly utilitarians don’t have a preference on who gets the money because both Jim and Pam’s well-being would increase the same. Prioritarianism on the other hand would give the money to Pam, because she is worse off than Jim.

Furthermore, prioritarianism doesn’t act just as a tie breaker for well-being, sometimes it favors priority over a small amount of well-being in order to emphasize compassion. So if Jim were to somehow gain more well-being from the money than Pam, Prioritarianism still wouldn’t necessarily favor him. It is important to note that the amount of well-being traded for priority is arbitrary, but in most cases we can rely on common sense. But why is that?

Well there is a good reason: There are diminishing returns on the value of goods and money. Would Jim be able to tell the difference between having 1 billion dollars and 1.00001 billion dollars? No, he wouldn’t have a clue. In fact there have even been studies, including a prominent one by Princeton University Researchers, that money doesn’t buy happiness after one earns $75000 a year.

It is estimated that it is around this point where money is no longer a primary concern in ones life. People can focus on health, relationships and leisure’s without the stress of paying the bills at the end of the month, which is a real fear for millions of Americans.

If you subscribe to prioritarianism ethics, a certain amount of wealth redistribution becomes fundamental to a healthy and moral society. In a society where Walmart’s Walton family (one of many examples) owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined, millions of which are living in poverty and struggling to survive, can a rational person really argue that this disparity in wealth is ethical?

Welfare state capitalism may currently be the best economic model, but its inability to redistribute wealth fairly will continue to raise questions on how it can be improved. Economic justice isn’t about equality. It’s about removing the gross excess at the top to help prevent suffering for those at the bottom.

The Ethics of Torture

I am a utilitarian and a consequentialist. I believe we should try and maximize the well being of conscious creatures and minimize suffering. We can do this by measuring outcomes, which gives us the ability to distinguish between different moral actions and determine what is right and wrong.

I suspect most people would agree with my views at first glance, but many people grow cautious the second they hear any number of thought experiments. The ticking time bomb is a perfect example. For those that are unfamiliar, here it is:

“Suppose that a person with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, that will kill many people, is in the hands of the authorities and that he will disclose the information needed to prevent the attack only if he is tortured. Should he be tortured?”

In 99% of cases torture is wrong and immoral, but within the ticking time bomb scenario torture becomes ethically permissible in a utilitarian and consequentialist worldview.

In this thought experiment we know the outcomes of the scenario: If we torture the man, we will receive information on the bomb and save lives. If we don’t torture the man, the bomb will go off and people will die. The consequences of not torturing the man is worse then torturing the man because it increases suffering for more people.

What many people do not understand, however, is that just because this thought experiment is ethically permissible, doesn’t mean torture is practical in the real world. Why? It’s simple: in the thought experiment we have perfect information and outcomes, but in the real world there is a degree of uncertainty and randomness.

In the real world, the man could lie, not give the information, or give the information too late to be useful. The bomb may not even be real. Because of uncertainty, because we cannot know the outcomes, we don’t have the ability to distinguish whether torturing someone will actually save peoples lives. What we do know, however, is that torture will increase suffering for the individual.

Furthermore, I believe the majority of tortures are employed not as a method of extracting information, but as a method of terrorizing and subjugating a population. This enables state forces to control the establishment of innocence or guilt and the entire legal process altogether. In this context, and in 99% of cases, torture is immoral.

For sake of argument however, let’s say the government is utilitarian and they are considering torturing a man for the sole reason of saving lives and maximizing human well being. This would be just like the ticking time bomb scenario, but within the real world and limited information.

The question then becomes something different: Is the chance of maximizing well being for many people morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual? This is a difficult question because what is right and wrong depends entirely on whether the individual will give up the information in time. Moral luck is at play in this situation.

My intuition tells me the answer is no, but the higher the number of lives that are at risk, the more appealing yes becomes. Where do you draw the line? 10 lives? 100 lives? 1000 lives? An entire city? At some point, not torturing the individual seems to become immoral even if it’s only a chance to save them. And I would argue that it is.

So yes, the chance of maximizing well being for many people (at some arbitrary point) is morally superior to increasing suffering for an individual. This means that torture can be ethical given very specific circumstances. Discussion surrounding torture will continue for a long time, but I don’t think the world is as black and white as it appears.