Are we ethically obliged to help North Korea? – Dee

I personally think we do have an obligation to help in cases where we have the knowledge and the power to help. I don’t believe those conditions are met in this case. Helping another sovereign country, particularly a hostile one, with a contrasting ideology, is a tricky proposition. If you send aid, are you propping up a government that is arguably harmful to its own people? If you agitate for social change, are you making things worse? Outside of providing immediate humanitarian aid in the event of a natural disaster, there’s little that can be done without becoming ensnared in politics and controversy. It is entirely unclear to me what “help” means in this situation.

Generally, I find that there are always people close to home who need help. Even in First World countries, there are people who are homeless and hungry. Even in Western Democracies there are people oppressed, unfairly imprisoned, etcetera. There’s a certain arrogance and hypocrisy in us being so quick to assume we can solve other people’s problems when we’ve done so little to solve our own.

The Cake is a Lie

Tenth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

After reading last week’s post you may be thinking that War is such a wonderful thing that we should just forget about peace and just promote nonstop full-time worldwide warfare –and then no one need ever be out of a job ever again.  While this is a strategy that governments have flirted with throughout time, the cold hard fact is that War has reached the very end of its usefulness in human life.  Always possessed of a hideous side beneath the mask of glory,War has become so dysfunctional and destructive that we are fast approaching the point where one of us has to go –either humanity or War.

But what went wrong?  How could such a longstanding relationship have turned so sour?  And what about all the things we just last week claimed make war such an ideal employer?

  1. It creates jobs:  True, but by crippling bodies and destroying infrastructure, it can ruin productivity at the same time.  And War also “cooks the books” so to speak when it comes to lowering unemployment.  Sometimes it does that by creating more jobs –and sometimes it does that by killing off the potentially unemployed.
  2. It matches people with jobs:  True, but the vast majority of wartime jobs are generic “cannon-fodder” positions, base-level soldiers with no particular prior skills, qualifications or future prospects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It is true that War can bring out the finest and highest in human nature, bravery, honor, ingenuity, courage and so forth.  But War also notoriously brings out the worst and the most base in human nature, including rape, torture, murder, and genocide.  And in terms of helping us discover which ideology is better than which other ideology, war is actually a terrible method..  Figuring out which ideology is better by fighting a war is like figuring out which computer is better by using each one to bust open boulders.  The characteristics that lead it to win such a contest have nothing to do with the important aspects of the computer, and even the computer that emerges victorious is likely to be damaged beyond repair by the exercise.

Even with all these nasty characteristics, War presents itself well enough and performs well enough as an economic engine that it has remained a perennial part of the human experience for untold generations.  Yet there has been a fundamental shift in recent times that has made War unsustainable.

NEXT WEEK:  Why War must be stopped.

what is human nature

This ranks among the most important questions human beings must strive to answer. It’s also one of the most difficult.

There are three contrasting approaches typically used in answering this question. The first is pragmatic: Human nature is what humans do. The second is aspirational: Human nature is an ideal towards which we should strive. The third is constructivist: Human nature is what we say it is.

The first approach might be described as an anthropological research project. To pursue it, we simply look for patterns and commonalities in the behaviors of human beings around the world; and from there generalize to a description of human nature that reads as a list of typical traits and pursuits. Thus, for example, we might describe human beings as tool-making, building-constructing, art-loving, deity-worshiping, word-forming and/or war-mongering beings.

As sensible as the first approach may seem, it has substantial flaws. For one, there is tremendous variability among the cultures of the world. Is there any activity that is is so genuinely universal that every single human being (or even every single human society) practices it? And if so, is it truly unique to human beings, or is it something –such as eating or sleeping –that we share with all the other animals of the world?

A second major flaw in this approach is that it is purely descriptive. It tells us only what is, but gives us no basis for gaining understanding or making judgments. For instance, the sample list above claims that religion is a part of human nature, but doesn’t explain why, or whether that might be a good thing or a bad thing.

A third, and related flaw is that this approach seemingly locks us into the behaviors of the past. If warmongering is a part of human nature (as claimed above) does that mean that war is something we can never ever escape? Or is it possible that human nature might change in the future?

The second approach has a long and distinguished history in philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pursuit of virtues and ideals (such as Wisdom, Love, Truth and Beauty) as the correct aim of human nature, while his student Aristotle focused on a more earthbound set of “excellences” (such as skill in debate, skill in governance, skill in warfare, and so forth) as the true “measure of a man.” On the other side of the world the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius also advocated a similar approach.

The key advantage to this approach is that it celebrates the best in human nature, and in doing so offers a promise that we can become better as a species; even offering putative guidance towards transcending our weaknesses and eliminating our faults. As good as this may sound, however, this approach also has weaknesses. First, it is vulnerable to the charge of being an unfounded fantasy, divorced from reality –what evidence is there that Plato’s ideals have anything to do with “human nature” at all? Second, it raises the question of who sets the standards, and how can we ensure that they are universal and not ethnocentric –as in the case of many of the “excellences” of Confucius and Aristotle, which can seem strange and alien to a modern day observer in the West. Third, while it offers the possibility of progress towards an ideal of human nature, it does not simultaneously offer the possibility that human nature itself might progress. Thus, it runs the risk of being made obsolete by the changes in the human experience; most notably the increasing importance of technology of various kinds, and the effects on human societies of the worldwide crises of global warming and overpopulation.

The third approach, to claim that human nature is what we make of it, has a degree of freedom and openness, and a sense of personal agency and impact missing from the other two approaches. Yet by itself, it is far the weakest, possessing neither the direct connection to the real world of the first approach, nor the guidance and inspiration of the second approach. It thus threatens to reduce the entire concept of human nature to meaninglessness.

Rather than wholly adopting any one of these approaches, I would instead advocate a “reconstructivist” approach that draws from all three.

First, I think we need the anthropological background of the first approach in order to place human nature within a context; to let us know where we have come from, and what are the social, biological, spiritual and evolutionary pressures that have shaped us as a species. But from that point forward, I think we need to combine the second and third approaches in order to reconstruct a new vision of human nature that is responsive to the realities of the modern era, but that emphasizes the best potentials of human beings in order to create a brighter future.

In broad general outline, this is the way I would envision a reconstructed human nature:

First, I would reemphasize a range of traditional human practices, such as homemade meals enjoyed slowly and communally, face-to-face conversations, getting from place to place by foot (and living in places and ways that make that possible), community gardening and social dancing. These types of things have long histories in nearly all human cultures and therefore evoke a strong visceral response from most people.

Second, I would also reemphasize the arts and humanities, and practices such as music, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and so forth –these are practices that developed over the course of millennia towards the purpose of showcasing the unique aptitudes of human beings.

As far as attitudes towards age, I would reinstate an attitude of respect towards elders, as representatives of tradition and repositories of wisdom, but not to the innovation-stifling extent practiced by most traditional societies. At the same time I would reinforce the modern era’s attitude of respect towards the young, as representatives of innovation and sources of creativity, but not to the tradition-trampling extent practiced by most modern societies.

Some long-established facets of human nature would need to be discarded. Chief among these is the old equation of fecundity = happiness. Children are unquestionably our most precious resource, but our way of expressing that can and must change. I am an opponent of abortion, but I strongly support voluntary preventative birth control. We must embrace the fact that sexual activity is no longer synonymous with procreation. At the same time, we need to promote adoption as an alternative and as a supplement to biological family creation.

Something else that must be eliminated is the human tendency to go to war. The urge to compete is a necessary and positive element of human nature, but competition through violence has outlived whatever utility it once possessed. The new machines of war are so deadly, powerful and horrific, that we must unequivocally ensure they can never be deployed.

In addition, we must all take on a conservationist mindset with respect to natural resources. The past record of humanity on this is mixed. There have been societies, generally in resource rich environments, that have been successful despite their consumerist leanings, while other societies have thrived in resource poor environments through conservation. As the planet transitions from a resource rich to a resource poor environment, however, the human species as a whole must make the shift from a consumerist nature to a conservationist nature.

A modern student of humanity must also consider the place of technology in questions of human identity. On one hand, the invention and utilization of technology is one of the most characteristic of all human activities and traits. But on the other hand, the increasing pervasiveness of technological devices has had what can only be described as a dehumanizing effect on many people and societies.

I would argue for the following: first that we moderate our use of technology, instituting technological sabbaths similar to those practiced by Orthodox Jews, and scaling back our reliance on devices such as cell phones and PDAs. Second, that we change our technological focus away from dehumanizing instantiations of technology such as weapon development, cosmetic surgery and mass productive machinery, and towards more positive aims such as desert reclamation, clean energy production and preventative medicine. Finally, that we should less on physical/material technologies and more on the creation of a new set of social and cultural technologies that will help us better deal with one another as human beings.

Is morality objective?

This is a terrific question. Historically, the dominant picture of morality was once one of absolutes. Things were considered either right or wrong, generally by divine decree, with little or no ambiguity. The main thing that changed this conception was a growing awareness that different societies –or the same society in different eras– have had very different moral standards. As an example, I am a Christian, and thus part of a moral tradition that extends back to the ancient Israelites. Yet some of my moral convictions (such as my affirmation of pacifism) are diametrically opposed to some of theirs (i.e. their warlike tendencies).

The recognition that moral judgments change with time and vary from place to place led to moral relativism, the idea that all moral judgments are subjective and contextual. At most, so the reasoning ran, one could be evaluated by his or her own moral standards and convictions. This too, however, seems wrong. Infanticide, cannibalism and slavery have been practiced in many times and places, yet we would hesitate to call them right, even for their own contexts. Similarly there are virtues –generosity, compassion, honor –that seem worthy of universal affirmation.

Observations of this nature led to a third approach to morality, often called the “perennial philosophy”, the idea that there are common moral principles affirmed in all great philosophies, regardless of time and place –such as the “Golden Rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), variants of which are found worldwide. The problem with this idea, however, is threefold. First, there is no clear and uncontroversial way of establishing what actually belongs in the perennial philosophy; second, there is a danger of ending up with a washed-out “consensus morality” that offers no real guidance beyond base intuitions; and third, it seems to preclude all possibility of moral progress –the concept that our morals can get better with time.

My own opinion on the matter is that there are both objective and subjective aspects to morality. I think, objectively speaking, that each entity (such as a person or an animal) and each collective (such as a society, a culture, a species) has a “responsibility” to express its own unique existence, yet no less of a responsibility to promote the interests of all other denizens of the universe. From this kind of standpoint, we can even evaluate the morality of creatures very different from ourselves –judging (for example) a mitochondrion, which supports the functioning of almost all earthly life, as morally superior to a virus, which promotes its own interests at the expense of its hosts.

From a subjective point of view, however, it is clear that there is an ample amount of ambiguity and context-dependence inherent in evaluating even these simple criteria. What is the proper balance between self and society, between one’s own interests and the interests of the universe? And how can one know what serves the interests of the universe in the first place?

It is here, I believe, that religion reenters the picture. Religion –with its connection to the infinite –is what gives us the ability to navigate moral issues with confidence. Yet even faith in an unchanging deity does not mean that human societies, which exist in a changing and evolving world, might not experience changing answers to deep moral questions.

ntI believe that epiphenomenalism is true. (Mental causation is unscientific). I also believe that if it is true, then there is no basis for morality. (You cannot blame physical causes… ) How should I explore this and similar questions – not compromising NEITHER intellectual honesty nor sanity?

Let’s clarify our terms here. Epiphenomenalism is the belief that mental experiences of choice and freely willed action are basically illusions. They are the accidental side effects of purely physical events and cannot be the source of any action or event. In other words, I may believe that I am choosing to type these words now appearing on the screen, but in fact, the words are being created by a complex set of physical/chemical reactions –I merely think that I have the freedom to type whatever I wish.

It would be a mistake to call this view scientific in the first place; since it rejects, without adequate explanation, a large pool of data –that being your own subjective experience of mental agency. It may be true that you cannot prove that the people you see around you are not cleverly designed automata that merely appear to have internal mental states. I feel safe in assuming, however, that you do experience yourself as possessing both consciousness and will. Before rejecting that experience, you would need a theory that adequately explains why certain configurations of atoms (people) appear to behave as though they have mental states, and furthermore why you personally experience some phenomena, such as the movement of your arms and legs as under your control, and others, such as the weather or the movements of other human beings, as impervious to your will (in other words: if your sense of agency is an illusion, and you are merely an observer of all things, then why does that feeling of control or perception of agency extend only to some of the many things you observe?).

Epiphenomenalism provides no such explanation, rather, it amounts to a blanket statement of belief (or rather, disbelief) on the subject of mental agency. In fact, the situation is even worse, since if epiphenomenalism were true, it could not be proved in any meaningful sense, give that the demonstration of proof would be (in that case) as empty as any other mental illusion.

Given this, one practical solution to your dilemma would be to adopt a version of Pascal’s wager, as follows: If, on the one hand, epiphenomenalism is true, then your beliefs and actions will be determined by events beyond your control. In that situation, your decision to believe in epiphenomenalism and behave accordingly will be equally as meaningless and predetermined as your decision to reject epiphenomenalism. On the other hand, if epiphenomenalism is untrue, or simply flawed in ways we do not currently understand, then your decisions and actions do have validity, and potentially make a significant difference in the world. Therefore, you are justified in acting and behaving as though epiphenomenalism is false –if you can! –no matter what the true state of affairs.

Although epiphenomenalism is a relatively new philosophical position, it raises issues similar to those faced by anyone who believes that the universe is deterministic in one way or another, whether that be because the physical trajectories of the subatomic particles are held to be predictable and unalterable, or because the story of life is held to have been prewritten in indelible ink in God’s diary. In each scenario, however, my answer would be the same. Whether or not we live in a way that is fated, the only option that makes sense is to live as though our freedoms of choice were momentous and absolute.

My sense, however, is that your real question is how to reconcile your belief that we live in a fundamentally physical universe with your sense that mental or metaphysical entities such as values and ideals do make a difference, I would suggest that you look into “Emergentism,”  the idea that irreducibly complex behaviors can arise from simple foundations –as in the mathematical phenomenon of fractal geometry. From that standpoint, it is reasonable to hypothesize that a mental phenomenon such as consciousness might emerge from a purely physical ground, yet not be reducible to something understandable in a purely physical framework; and even that a higher-order pattern (consciousness) could influence a lower-order pattern (physical matter) through the kinds of complex feedback loops that are ubiquitous in chaotic and emergent systems (rather than through “mysterious energy”
or whatever other non-scientific channel of causation you fear embracing mental states would commit you to).

Furthermore, if we take ourselves to be patterns of emergent complexity, there is in fact an underlying foundation for morality that attaches to that conception, to the effect that some choices –the ones that allow us to live in harmony with other complex patterns –are positive in that they increase the amount of complex order in the world, while others –the ones that destroy –are negative.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.

how should you behave on the internet

This is as much a practical question as a philosophical one, and from that perspective, I would say this: Remember that nearly everything you post on the internet is archived and searchable, including email, so try not to put anything out there that you wouldn’t want people to be able to connect to you ten years from now. I think we all forget that rule from time to time, but we do so at our own risk.

Other than that I think people should try to conduct themselves on the internet with some version of the same standards they would apply in person. The internet is an opportunity to create a new persona, but you should try to make it a better persona, not a worse one. Be kind and helpful to those you encounter, even the “newbies,” treat others with graciousness and politeness, strive to accomplish good things and avoid negative ones. No one meets those standards all the time, of course, but that’s an ideal to strive for. When you look back at your old posts a year from now, you’ll be happier to see a compilation of witty and appropriate comments than a record of flame wars, random trolling, and pictures of your butt.

Is there a Philosopher that states about making the world a better place?

Thanks for your question. In many ways, you could say that “making the world a better place” was the explicit or implied aim of a large majority of philosophers throughout history; from Plato to Confucius to Marx to Singer. The big disagreements, of course, come from different ideas of what a “better world” would look like, and how we could get there.

For Plato, the better world is the one that is more in line with the “Ideal of Perfect Goodness”, and where people make rational decisions in accordance with timeless ideals. For Confucius, a better world is one where people act virtuously, according to the traditions of their ancestors. For Marx, the better world is the result of the revolution of the proletariat, while (Peter) Singer believes that we should act in ways that maximize the happiness of all life forms, including humans and animals alike.

From my point of view, the key problem we need to solve as human beings is the tension between living as fully realized individuals, and living in ways that will support best interests of humanity as a whole. If we can solve that problem, I believe we will also be able to resolve problems such as the self-destructive practice of war and the ongoing destruction of our natural environment, both of which are aggravated by our consumerist culture.

Three human acts/choices that are illegal but not immoral

Thanks for your question.

The tricky part about answering this question is that we generally consider there to be a certain morality that automatically attaches to following the law. In general, the argument is that the rule of law is a necessary (or at the least, a beneficial) thing for humanity as a whole, given that we are social creatures and must live with each other. Thus, breaking a law, no matter what it is, carries some sense of immorality, since it weakens that structure we all live within. To be technical, therefore, we should require that our illegal acts be not merely morally neutral, but that they should have enough moral value to outweigh the moral costs of illegality.

The first, and most important answer is civil disobedience –the breaking of a law that is itself immoral and unjust. Paradigmatic examples from the recent past include violations of the laws of segregation in the American South or the laws of apartheid in South Africa. Illegal strikes and protests can also come under this categorization, when they stand in opposition to practices that are cruelly exploitative or harmful.

If we set aside the objection that breaking the law is immoral in itself, there are many practices which are illegal, but are arguably not immoral in of themselves. For example, to drink (any) alcohol at age eighteen is illegal in the United States, yet (unless you believe alcohol drinking to be intrinsically immoral) it is not immoral outside of its illegality. The putative justification for the law is that eighteen-year-olds are not mature enough to drink safely and responsibly –if eighteen-year-olds drank exclusively in moderation, the law would lose its moral justification.

A final category of illegal-but-not-immoral actions is the breaking of laws which are themselves ridiculous or meaningless. For example, the internet tells me that Idaho state law makes it illegal for a man to give his sweetheart a box of candy weighing less than fifty pounds. Laws of this nature are generally ignored by common consent. The argument here is that actually following such laws would be of greater damage to the rule of law than to break them.