Archive for the ‘morality’ Category

Where Did You Say We’re Going?

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

Earthrise (150)This may seem off-topic, but it’s not. I heard a talk last night by Bill Rees, who originated the concept of the ecological footprint. He presented many slides showing that we are on an unsustainable path. Of course, that isn’t news. We’ve known for a long time that we’re on that path. Bill’s slides were just a progress update—a few more data points representing a few more years since Al Gore showed us we were on that path. We have stayed right on track.

One striking slide showed the path as it was foreseen by the Club of Rome in its Limits to Growth report. The authors created a computer model showing trends on several measures including world population growth, industrial output, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. Trends were plotted assuming several scenarios reflecting different levels of intervention. The scenarios ranged from business-as-usual to sustainable. The business-as-usual trends, based on available historical data, showed a remarkably consistent pattern. The trend lines passed the planet’s carrying capacity in the 1980’s, moving into what is called “overshoot.” Overshoot is growth beyond carrying capacity—a condition which, if not corrected, leads to collapse. (more…)

Uploading Ray Kurzweil

Monday, January 7th, 2013

In The Singularity is Near, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that the rate of technological progress, which is exponential, will reach a critical point about 2045 when its impact will be “so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  Before then, he predicts, human beings will have uploaded themselves to vastly more intelligent and robust machines. Kurzweil—who was born in 1948, as I was—expects to make that journey personally. (more…)

The Dark Doctrine of the Political Right

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?

To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can  it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist

In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.

If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.

Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]

But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.

I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.

The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all. (more…)

Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

Thursday, July 19th, 2012


The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” (more…)

Being Protean – Johnston’s Narratives of Survival

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

This is the second part of a two part review of Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death. Part 1 is here.

Narratives of Personhood

In the third Surviving Death lecture, Johnston asks why the boundaries of the intentional self ‘roughly’ coincide with those of the living human organism, and answers:

It is because we have been brought up inside the narrative of the human being, a narrative which…tells us roughly how long we can expect to last…. This narrative, which forms a frame around our collective life, makes what could otherwise strike us as tendentious identifications of a consciousness or an arena across periods of deep sleep or unconsciousness seem utterly natural. In making such identifications we make them true or at least immune to refutation. [Johnston, 2010, p 247]

The boundary of the person, that circumscribes our self-concern, is a product of culture. To bring the point to life, Johnston imagines three populations in which different boundaries of personhood are accepted: the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and the Human Beings.

The Hibernators are intelligent, culturally modern human beings with a genetic quirk that keeps them constantly awake for most of the year, but puts them soundly to sleep during the coldest months. Although the Hibernators are well acquainted with the facts that their organisms normally survive the winter slumber, they do not regard the lives to be lived next year as their own. They do not anticipate having the experiences of those who will wake in the spring, and therefore do not fear such of those experiences as are expected to be painful, or look forward with expectant delight to experiences that will be delightful. Despite the fact that next year’s Hibernators will have veridical memory-like experiences of the lives of this year’s Hibernators, they will not regard those remembered lives as their own. A Hibernator does not take personal pride in his predecessor’s achievements, or feel guilty about his transgressions.

The Teletransporters are a technologically advanced human culture who rely on teleportation for transportation over long distances. When planning trips, they unproblematically extend their self-concern to their reconstructed successors. The successors pay their predecessors’ debts, and bask in their glories.

And the third group, we, the Human Beings

…regard Teletransportation as a form of human Xeroxing that has the unfortunate feature of destroying the original. At first, it seems to us that the Teletransporters…are prepared to commit suicide and even kill their own children by putting them into the machine. [Johnston, 2010, p 262]

The Teletransporters know the machine destroys their original bodies. They just don’t care. (more…)

Anatta to Agape – Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death

Friday, April 27th, 2012

In a remarkable book, Surviving Death, Mark Johnston reaches several surprising conclusions about persons and personal identity. One of them, as the title implies, is that persons can survive their biological deaths. This claim does not depend on the existence of anything resembling an immaterial, substantial soul; Johnston’s account of post-death survival is entirely naturalistic.

Johnston has packed a lot into five long chapters, originally presented as a Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton. I am impressed by the stamina of the audience, who attended to what must have been a full week of close and often counterintuitive argument and stayed to ask penetrating questions. I doubt I could have followed it all—and so, am grateful to have the lectures in printed (actually e-book) form, for they are rich with insight.

Having read Johnston’s 1997 attack on Parfit’s neo-Lockeanism, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” I had pegged him as a ‘conservative’ about personal identity. But Surviving Death reveals a theory of personhood as radical as any. (more…)

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. (more…)

The Unity of Persons

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

A joke that comes down to us from Epicharmas of Kos, a 5th century BC comic playwright, is made topical by Greece’s debt crisis:

Months after lending Yiannis five euros, Giorgos catches Yiannis’ sleeve in the agora and asks for his money back. “Ah,” says Yiannis, and stoops to gather a handful of pebbles. He arranges them in a pile. “See this pile of pebbles?” Giorgos nods. “If I add two more,” Yiannis continues, demonstrating this, “is it the same pile?”

“Of course not,” says Giorgos.

“And if I take a pebble away, is it the same pile, or different?”

“Different,” says Giorgos. “So what?”

“Ah. A man is made of small things, is he not?”

“Yes,” Giorgos agrees (being a thoroughgoing physicalist).

“Well, then!” says Yiannis with a Hellenic shrug. “Many days have passed, during which the man to whom you lent those five euros consumed many small things, and excreted others, and, therefore, no longer exists. I’m not responsible for his debts.”

“I get it,” says Giorgos, and punches Yiannis in the face.

Rubbing his bruised cheek, Yiannis complains,“Why did you do that?”

“Me?” says Giorgos. “That wasn’t me.”

The joke works because we know the criterion of personal identity to which both characters appeal is bogus. A person’s identity is not like that of a collection of pebbles. Being responsible for promises and past actions is part of being the same person over time, despite gains and losses of matter, and other changes. But if we, like Yiannis and Giorgos, deny that being the same person consists in the abiding presence of some sort of immaterial substance, it is incumbent on us to give some account of the sameness of persons over time. What is the unifying principle of personhood which makes it true that, for example, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is the same person as the Barack Obama who was born at the Kapi’olani Maternity Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4th, 1961, and the Barack Obama who directed the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side in 1986—and different from everybody else? (more…)

What Does Matter

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons began, “Many of us want to know what we have most reason to do.” He aimed to establish a foundation for ethics, a project which required addressing the conflicts between morality and self-interest. In asking what the claims of self-interest really are, Parfit came to grips with the question of whether or not there is a rational basis for the special concern that persons feel for themselves. Although Reasons and Persons did not answer that question, Parfit tried to show that the Self-Interest Theory—which claims that each person has the “supremely rational ultimate aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible”—is false.

Parfit went on to write On What Matters, following an honoured tradition of searching for a kind of Unified Field Theory of ethics—one law, from the correct application of which all moral precepts can be derived. Reasons and Persons famously argued that personal identity is not what matters in survival; and it is surely not coincidental that the phrase “what matters” recurred in the title of Parfit’s new book.  Normative ethics consists of giving reasons for action; and reasons for action matter. Because the survival of persons is very important, what matters in survival can be presumed to be a significant part of what matters.

On What Matters says little about personal identity. Parfit’s primary interest is in discovering reasons for action—a rational basis for decision-making. My primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of human nature—of what we are. Parfit’s work is driven by prescriptive aims, mine by descriptive ones. Parfit and I would probably agree that reasons for action are rooted in values. But where he asks what has value, I ask what people actually value, and—a more interesting question—why they value what they do. (more…)

Open Individualism – Being Everyone

Friday, October 14th, 2011

The term “Open Individualism” has a positive ring. If Daniel Kolak hadn’t adopted it, I might have used the word “open” for my own theory of what persons are. I haven’t yet hit upon a term ending in “ism” to represent the idea that persons are informational entities, or (to say the same thing differently) bundles of attributes, as opposed to substances. Like rivers whose constitutive substance (water) is always changing, persons constantly gain and lose attributes. And attributes are easily shared, readily copied from one individual to another. When you learn something from another person, you absorb part of himself. He is a collection of attributes, just as a book (the intellectual work, not the bound volume made of paper) is a sequence of sentences. To learn from another person is like incorporating a quotation from someone else’s book into one’s own composition. In learning from him, we take on part of what he is. The fact that attributes (or information, if you prefer) flow so freely between persons, makes the word “open” appropriate. We are open vessels, not closed ones. (more…)