A Problem Of Lighting

In trying to properly document my beliefs concerning human morality, existentialism and justice I’ve had to write mostly about things that people don’t really enjoy experiencing – let alone reading. Things like suffering, loneliness, abandonment and mourning; important experiences to me but a little heavy on the negative.

I got in a bit of a tiff with my father the other night. I asked him what hearing the news of my spine disorder made him feel; I just want to get inside his head to understand why he chooses to dismiss the problems I bring to him, rather than comfort me and help me figure things out. He responded by telling me that I’m too negative; these events and problems in my life stress him out too much. And that got me thinking: am I too negative.

If the only picture of my life you had was this blog then you would probably think I’m a fairly negative person. Today I went to apply for a provincial benefit so that I could get a new bed. This past Saturday, on a whim, my younger brother and I decided to check out some beds in Sleep Country Canada. One of the sales-reps asked me if she could help with anything. Pushy sales-reps usually really get under my skin, but she was nice and pretty and most importantly not pushy at all. She helped me look at a few beds, and when I described the nature of my back problems she seemed to be genuinely concerned. All in all, it was a good experience. When she asked how long I was planning on keeping this new bed for (whether it’s a five ten or fifteen year investment makes a huge difference when it comes to price), I let her know that I had just purchased a bed from this store not three years ago; the bed I bought then was now broken – the sides collapsed, huge indentations from my body and uncomfortable springs poking through the mattress. Long story short, she spent a solid twenty minutes making phone calls to various distributors, and I ended up getting a full refund for my current mattress; a ticket to go towards the purchase of a new mattress.

So today I went down to start the application process; in two weeks I should have about 850$. To put that into perspective, my current bed costs somewhere around 600 dollars. That means I’ll have $1450 dollars to put towards a new bed. Awesome news, but not exactly the point of this story. The place I went is called the ‘Housing Stability Center’. People from all across Hamilton, Ontario come here when they’re down on their luck. The people you’ll find applying at any given time paint a scary picture of a future most of us fear having. And that got me thinking.

When I first applied seven months ago or so, the other people applying scared the absolute shit out of me. They made my fears real. They were homeless, disabled, forgotten and abandoned. They lived hard, hard lives. And even though I had a moral philosophy at that time built from the idea that the weakest and most at-risk are the most valuable and need the most help, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at them for too long. I’m not quite homeless yet. I’m still young, fairly attractive, and I still have my wits about me; I haven’t suffered for too long. But perhaps to someone like my father, or my brother, or even my old friends, I bring out their fears and make them real.

How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?

I realized something as I was walking my dog tonight. I’d be having a fairly good day; I was thinking positively. But I heard something and for whatever reason that triggered this anxiety-response. And that too got me thinking. Chronic anxiety is so difficult to just ‘will away’ because it’s very compelling. Anxiety is like an alarm. Your body senses a problem and an alarm goes off in your head alerting you of that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you’re anxious. When you have problems, like I do, which persist, it’s hard to shut that alarm off. Right when you think you’ve accepted your fate, that alarm will start ringing and you find yourself again piercingly aware of what’s wrong with you.

Maybe I can be a trigger for others without even knowing it. The solution to that is obvious: don’t be a trigger. If you don’t paint a more positive picture, no one is going to help you. The problem with that solution is that it’s not very just to ask the person suffering to suffer more quietly because their pain makes others uncomfortable. But maybe that’s what I have to do. So I’d like to briefly acknowledge some things that I’m incredibly grateful for.

I’m grateful to be born to the family I was born to. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and although there are many, many things that make my life very difficult (unsupportive parents and siblings, disease, pain, disability etc…), I know that things could have been so much worse. I’m grateful to be Canadian, and to have live in a Country that meets my basic needs for me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to live, and to grow, and to help others.

I’ve always been grateful for these things, but I’ve never shown that I’ve always been grateful for anything. Even though it seems slightly unjust that I have to work even harder for attention, help and normalcy, It’s the only way I’ll ever accomplish the things I wish to accomplish.

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Personhood and Applied Ethics

An application of mathematical principles requires a basic understanding of the purpose of mathematics, and the function of mathematics. But more than that,across-the-universe it requires knowledge of when and where to apply mathematics – to what problems, and to what end. It also requires an almost intuitive understanding that it’s most basic principles correspond to the natural world.

Math is written into the universe; it is a natural law. The system of principles and axioms we call the Science of Mathematics, is in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy (for most people, it’s a way to solve problems). When we engage in mathematics, we realize that we are a part of the systems we’re studying – in likeness, and more often than not, in function. Within our awareness is an innate capacity to observe and understand these mathematical truths. This capacity transcends awareness of the science of mathematics: we are able to ‘do math’ without having ever opened a text-book.

The same I believe is true of morality. I believe morality to be a natural law. Unfortunately for the sake of that statement, I cannot reliable draw parallels between morality as a natural law and math as a natural law. Math doesn’t go wrong; the constants of the universe, as we are told repeatedly by theists, are fine-tuned. Certainly there are probably theoretical cases of math going wrong, but my ignorance leads me to believe that if they exist, they are far from common – and probably the result of our own misunderstanding of the antecedent problems from which they apparently arise. Math doesn’t betray us, but morality does.

Morality isn’t written into the universe in the same way that math is; and so it might seem odd that I’m calling it a natural law. Christians believe that morality is written into the fabric of our universe, but the fall of man broke the world and everything in it; man still retains the capacity for libertarian free-will and moral reasoning, but the world doesn’t follow those moral constants in the same way that it follows mathematical ones.

But even with that admission fresh in my memory, I still have no problem saying that morality is a natural law. Morality is, in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy. The problem morality solves for is a universal constant: the problem of suffering. We are guaranteed two things in this life: personhood, and suffering. We are aware of our own suffering, and unlike mathematics, which exists without our awareness, morality doesn’t. It may appear that I’ve contradicted myself, but give me a chance to defend my thesis – I have thought about this a great deal.

The moral precept isn’t well-being – it can’t be. Because well-being depends upon something else (functionally, and theoretically). Well-being can be evaluated biologically as flourishing (and in all the other ways, as maximizing potential within a system). Our assessment of well-being, though, requires us to match well-being with suffering. That is to say, it requires us to take an individual, posit the maximal good (flourishing) it could be likely to achieve, and compare that with where it is in the present moment. Or, (and more often than not) it requires us to look at where an individual is, and posit the maximal suffering it could experience. In either case, well-being requires suffering. Going forward then, it makes sense to use suffering as our moral precept. Not only does flourishing require an individual not to suffer, but suffering is a universal constant; the natural constants in our universe predict suffering, always.

Morality functions as a way to get us towards well-being and away from suffering. The big question has never been why, it’s been how. Well, it’s not practically functional to use well-being as the standard qualifier of moral action (that an action is moral if it increases well-being, and ammoral if it does nothing). This is because definitions of well-being can vary wildly between organisms, people, groups – you name it. Secondly, there are different areas to measure well-being. So which area do we give primacy? Is it existential well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being. Or is it all? Thirdly, who decides when well-being is being negatively affected, and when it has been achieved? It can’t be universal, because people have many different expectations of what well-being means. It can’t be left to the individual, because often people may be objectively unaware of what is ‘best for them’. Then you run into the problem of ego (telling someone you know what’s good for them), civil rights, and the potential for abuse. So what, if any, is the alternative?

Well, what if we could still utilize the moral truths given to us by brilliant men like Nietzsche, Kant and Sarte, even though the moral theories they have proposed have fallen out of fashion and haven’t proven to be practically effective – all you have to do is walk outside and talk to a few peole, or even observe, to find out that their hard-work hasn’t been applied very consistently in the lives of most people. I think we can.

So morality is born of a need to combat chance and suffering (the degree of a persons suffering as dependant on who they were born to, where they were born, how most importantly, how other people around them treat this individual person, and what type of environment they create). We combat suffering for ourselves, but the only way to do that, is to combat suffering for everyone (present and future generations; people born, and people not yet born). Suffering is a universal constant. In order to combat suffering, we have to combat all of suffering, for people. Given that you could be born to any person, in any place, you have to be guaranteed that the morality (as a method of combating suffering and chance) will apply to you equally. Luckily, the other natural constants of the universe (the ‘sciences’) work in our favour. We know that every new person can only be born in the future, or in the present. No new person can be born in the past. If they could then it’s possible our morality would fail them (and morality as defined by different means, our morality could theoretically thus be immoral). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, given that this idea just popped into my head, but if we agree that a new person can only be born in the present or the future, than it remains a very meta problem.

So, the moral theory has to apply to persons, not just to ourselves. The moral philosophy applies to person-hood, then; rather than to any individual person. Consequentialism defines moral action based upon the consequences of an action. For example, utilitarians like Mills believe that if the consequence of an action increases the general good (well-being) and provides the most amount of happiness, it is moral. But this theory doesn’t address the underlying issue of chance, because it still views individuals as separate unique entities. We feel justified in eating animals, killing bugs, and generally decreasing the well-being of the earth, because we are so separate and unique from the earth. Similarly, people believe that they are separate and unique from each-other. We are unique and separate, but in ways not determined by chance. Utilitarianism doesn’t address this huge gulf that exists between most conscious people. People think of themselves as entirely separate from other people. That’s not the case – and most rational people, given enough time and enough examples, would agree to this. But that we’re not so different doesn’t disable this thing inside most people telling them that they are. And it’s that belief in some almost metaphysical difference, that ‘I am different than you’, that causes a lot of suffering – and a lot of unethical choices. Furthermore, there’s nothing ultimately protecting you against the existential suffering you feel at the hands of meaningless suffering – the type of suffering utilitarianism allows.

An action is good if it increases well-being, and bad if it doesn’t. But if it’s bad, that really sucks for you – we’ll try and do better next time. For some people, there is no next time. The very fact that some people are born into suffering, and suffer for the duration of their lives, is unjust and re-introduces this need for a more comprehensive moral system – an applied ethics that addresses the very idea of existence, not just bad things that happen after you already exist.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m proposing that we use person-hood as the unit of measurement. That what is moral is moral for all persons, and that what is moral combats against suffering and chance. That chance thing is important. Because we can decide what is moral for a specific action, and a specific situation (like stealing from someone), but doing so without also helping people who have suffering by chance, is immoral and impractical. It’s immoral because we are leaving people to suffer. And it’s impractical, because you could be anyone – you could have been anyone. Our moral theories not only apply to us, they apply to those to come. A moral system has to be consistently effective for everyone.

We are very tied in to our own existence, so it may seem counter intuitive to say something like ‘you could have been anyone’. Strictly, that’s not true, but if you view yourself as having person-hood (being a person, not just being a person), then it does.

Looking from the point of person-hood allows us to apply our moral reasoning to lives other than our own – it allows us to see other types of experiences, and introduces us to many huge problems many people face. As those problems become more familiar, and we start to reflect on what is right and wrong and just, we start to realize that those problems are our problems, and are everyone’s problems. Because if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have been born in a poor country, to incredibly horrible and abusive parents, with a disability, for example, common sense justice and ethics make sense to you. And trying to just ‘put yourself in another persons shoes’ is too difficult and ultimately ineffective – it requires you to find someone specific, talk to them, sift through their suffering with your own bias, and the number of times you can do that is limited, and whatever information you glean is limited to yourself (how can you disseminate it if the method of obtaining it is as important to the new understanding, as the understanding?).

When you separate yourself from your ego, and your well-being, or your suffering, you can see yourself as just one of a type of consciousness. You can see yourself as a person and make moral decisions that apply to person-hood, rather than a (individual, unique) person.

That’s where I stand. That’s something I see as very important to moral understanding. Other moral theories don’t work universally because they don’t take person-hood into account – or that they don’t give it primacy. They apply to groups of people, or individual people, not to the idea of people. We’re guaranteed suffering, and the degree of suffering is largely dependent on chance. You (as acting for someone, or) as someone who could be born in the future, or is being born now, have a very basic need for a way to combat this suffering, and this chance. In order to meet that need, you have to meet that need for every possible person. In order to meet that massive need, you simply have to meet the needs of the idea of a person. From there, you can make rational moral decisions for others, you can act morally in your life, and you can have a way to solve moral problems that arise in the world (whether at random by chance, or by individual people acting in ‘evil’ ways).

Genetically enhancing our genome won’t do. Guaranteeing food supplies and a safe environment for individual people won’t do. We can’t just make a world where everyone who may come into it, has an equal chance, without acting for person-hood, rather than meeting the needs of every single possible person as they come and as those needs arise.

I’m afraid I may be doing a poor job explaining, so I will come back to this again. If it doesn’t make sense, just think about it. We’ve all had intuitions, thoughts like ‘why did I have to be born to you. I don’t think that we have a soul. I just think that humans are very similar. We don’t have the gap between us that we have between other animals – not really. That gap that we see exists in our minds (as a product of religious teaching, ignorance, social and cultural factors etc…). We are capable of putting ourselves in others shoes, because we are capable of putting ourselves in all ‘shoes’. Given the right circumstances, you could find yourself in many, many unpleasant situations. And you could find yourself developing into someone you would never picture yourself as – given the right conditions. An ethical theory that serves the fortunate first, and the consequences of our actions second, ultimately serves nobody.

We see this in the world – you just have to walk outside, talk with someone, or observe. The world is broken, but we have a contingency to generally safeguard against massively immoral actions. We don’t have a contingency to safeguard against chance – or at least, to guard against meaningless suffering. The hardest part about seeing suffering isn’t  the fact that due to our biology (mirror neurons, memories etc…) we can experience others’ suffering, it’s an unconscious recognition that ‘this is how it’s always going to be’. That recognition, braids meaninglessness into life. It’s that meaninglessness, that unncessary yet somehow unavoidable suffering that produces what I believe to be the worst feeling we could possibly feel. People sometimes say that emotions are relative – citing some post-singularity sci-fi A.I. conscious logic machines as reference to living within a world of suffering unnaffected. But I don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s possible not to feel something when confronted with that thought that some suffering is meaningless. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel that way. It’s a tragedy that people have died so unjustly – not just people, but animals, and species, and things we never could have imagined. Because there is an answer. That answer is rational, and applies always. We don’t need a God to have absolute Justice, or to defend us against the fortunate, strong, hard-evil Chance and suffering occasionally create. We just need the idea of person-hood, and people. So long as there are people, there will be morality and justice.

I was just watching the second season of House of Cards. In a moment of sincerity Francis Underwood turns to the Camera – a personification of his psychotic ego-self – and says ‘… for those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’. The message is alarmingly clear, and it’s one we hear all of the time. The fortunate elite who resist any ethic of compassion or empathy, betray themselves. The need to hunt is a product of being hunted. You hunt, because you fear being hunted. Others hunt, because they recognize you’re hunting, and fear being hunted. Which in turn, affirms the belief. What they take as sophistication and superiority, is just impractical and ineffective weakness – and immoral. They all have their emotions, their own suffering. Sustaining a sadistic self-centered ethic is impossible; what they end up effecting, is a broken shadow of the theme they marry with their story. Anything that is ‘immoral’, that hurts others, can be broken down and demonstrated as false. Replacing what is broken is the hard part – and knowledge of a replacement almost always needed before most people will even consider taking on these power structures (eat or be eating ethics and their real-life benefactors).

These power structures exist as ideas too; they are ideals and the people who follow them always fall short. It’s the ideal that keeps them afloat; the idea.

Morality is a natural law not because it’s as obvious and consistently observable as physical constants, but because it fits perfectly with the physical constants that shape our universe.

How Can an Atheist Know Morality (This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress).

Much like probably everyone else last night I was watching the big Bill Nye debate. I found it very compelling, and very entertaining. I have gone to Christian schools my whole life, so I’m quite familiar with the creation worldview and quite familiar with the frustration Bill was probably feeling many times during what oddly seemed like a short few hours.

I applaud Mr. Nye for keeping his cool the whole time. He remained incredibly respectful, incredibly generous, courteous, and empathetic the entire time – even with Ken Ham frustratingly admitting (indirectly) that his beliefs are tautological (that is, that he can never be proven wrong, and that everything can be evidence that he’s right). What perplexes me is this fear that without religion you lose morality – that you lose a moral authority. Ironically, it was the Atheist  who was the most kind, compassionate, courteous and respectful – never poking jabs at his opponent, just respectfully at his theory (carefully choosing words like ‘remarkable’ rather than many other adjectives)

I have had a very complicated life. The evidence of that is all over this blog; I have a rare genetic disease, I spend almost all of my time alone (having been forgotten by most people, and abandoned by others). I am in constant pain, and my own survival is always at stake. My worth as a human is questioned on a daily basis. It frightens and worries me that a huge portion of society (almost half, according to many polls) believes that there comes a point where a human loses all value, and it is permissible to leave them to suffer alone – if not to directly terminate their existence. So I agree with Mr. Ham and his colleagues that his world does need morality. I just also agree with Mr. Nye that the Christian narrative just doesn’t seem to be true – at all. And thus that Religion cant be the source of our Moral Authority (even if that means quite uncomfortably temporarily losing sight of objective moral Universalism).

As you can imagine, my life as been spent preoccupied with this question of morality. I have spent the better part of two years studying moral philosophy and thinking about these moral problems. This idea that you cannot have morality without a God is just not true – it is based on a very incomplete understanding of moral philosophy. But where does that leave us?

Well… my worldview is based on the idea that you and I are so equal that we are as individuals fundamentally indistinguishable. It is from that understanding (that intuition we all have at one point, that ‘I could have been you and you could have been me’) of equality that we can reconcile our drive for selfishness and self-preservation with a complex (and ever growing) moral philosophy. We are always going to give primacy to our own self interest, but when you breakdown what that means philosophically, and what it means to exist, and how we differ in existence, you’ll see (I hope) that our best interest is always everyone’s best interest (and in that way, our best interest is always taken care of). There are many problems I’m going to work through below, but for those of you who don’t want to read a four and a half thousand word essay, that’s the long and short of it (It’s like a moral game-theory).

Regarding morality and ethics the prime unit of measurement has to be the individual. That’s a claim I’ve been mentally upholding for a long time – and all of the experiences I’ve had in-between have further confirmed that proposition.

What do I mean by ‘individual’? That’s an important question and an even more important distinction. Most people have some intuitions concerning what certain things are right and certain things are wrong. The standard way we generally evaluate the ethical weight of some action (or inaction) is by the effects it has on an individual or a group of individuals. For example, we know that punching a person in the face is wrong if the individual is innocent, and undeserving of vigilante justice. But the fundamental problem with viewing the individual as something other than oneself is that when you apply more complicated problems to the theory you find massive inconsistencies. For example, treating your children better than a stranger. Another example is the problem of disability and dependence.

Concerning the latter most people generally agree that if a person is absolutely dependant than they should not be left to suffer. And while that may seem logically appealing, for me the statement is lost in the nuance. What happens if your child happens to be disabled. Are you acting specifically with their best interest in mind, as an ‘individual’, or are you concerned more with your best interest as an individual? What if you have a hospital of disabled persons, wouldn’t it make more sense for the larger population if this small group were ‘put out of their misery’ (the greater good). What about problems like laziness and self-induced obesity (not caused directly by a medical condition)? Do those fall in the same category as well?

I’m not suggesting that those in charge of domestic and foreign policy will fall down that slippery slope, because many of those problems are superficial and easily remedied with many conventional ethical theories and commonsense morality. But the public, the ‘mass’, make judgements about people very day, and that public has a greater impact on the moral consciousness of a society than the few educated individuals who have spent the better part of their lives struggling to find answers to some of lifes most complicated questions.

If you come across a sign posted beside a rail system (GO transit, for example) which says ‘do not cross the tracks’, do you follow it always. You know that crossing the tracks is dangerous, not only mortally for yourself, but mentally for the engineer, and for the bystanders, and for the lawyers and the owners of the land and the station. A morally autonomous person would likely conclude that the reasons for following the ‘law’ are greater than the reasons for not following it. The reasons you wouldn’t follow being there are no visible trains in sight, you’re the only person on the platform, you’re not likely to cause anyone harm or yourself any harm. This is a difficult problem most of us are faced with on a daily basis, and a difficult decision we are also all faced with probably at one time or another (J-walking, for example).

So other than the harm you’d cause why shouldn’t you cross the tracks where a sign telling you not to do so is posted and clearly visible? Most people, in my experience, don’t really have an adequate answer to this problem. They might say that crossing isn’t really a big deal then, if no one is watching (like the ‘if you’re in the middle of the Country, do you run a red?).

There are situational requirements for violating a ‘law’ and there are direct consequences for violating a law. But these laws don’t say ‘if the go is clear, cross; otherwise, don’t). The laws appear Universal.

One of the reasons for that is that the person making the rule can’t successfully predict every possible situation in which the rule would have to apply. So the rule has to be general enough to accomplish its goal (the safety of people etc…) and be clear and easily followable. So perhaps it appears Universal because that’s the only safe way to generally ensure everyone’s safety.

Another reason is that if it weren’t Universal, who would get to interpret and choose who is allowed to break the law and who is not. IN road law, police officers have some say in determining how sever a ticket should be (in regards to speeding). Regarding a platform and a train, things are more dangerous and much more complex. For instance, say there is no train in sight on your track, but that you accidentally took the wrong set of stairs, and your train is coming on another track. The space between the two platforms is separated only by your visibly empty track, which is no more than seven feet wide. It would only take a few seconds to cross, should you cross? Well there is no immediate danger to crossing the track for you, or for the conductor or the people in the train-station-environment. What if there were two of you? What if you were a father with his two kids, or with his wife and a small child? What if you were a larger group of ten? Do those greater numbers change the complexity of the situation enough so that what would once appear to be an innocuous jump seems like it’s the wrong decision? It appears, for most, that they do.

Part of the reason these rules need to be Universal is because they must set a precedent for large groups. If one person crosses, then that means others can cross. Eventually it’s possible that crossing the tracks seems incredibly innocuous and it becomes commonplace. What if you’re feeling extra bold, and there is a rain in sight and yet you still cross. What if you twist your ankle? What if you have a heart attack? What if you drop a wallet, your keys, and your phone. You can’t predict every possible situation before you make an action so it’s generally safer to just take the time to walk around and follow the rules.

What does any of this have to do with individuals in the context of morality? Imagine you are a soldier preparing for battle. You’re young, your brothers in arms are young, you’re inexperienced and afraid. You’re forced into a life-threatening situation. IN order for you to succeed, as an individual, it seems plausible that the best chance you have is to run, or to hide and shy away from the fighting. Surely not fighting will ensure you’re chances of survival with a high degree of predictable success. But your cowardice depends open others sacrificing their lives for you, or on others courage. You’re an individual, and you don’t want to die. What if you’re a leader of a group of soldiers in the same battle. You know what’s at stake (lets say the enemy is particularly vile and must be defeated). How do you win when your soldiers are so afraid. Is there a high degree of predictability?

There’s this great scene in this old war movie where this group of soldiers is resting against an embankment waiting to attack and ambush the enemy. Every soldier has accepted the ‘life is better than death’ approach to warfare, and they all think it’s a waste of energy to try to be heroic. They are pressured by social norm not to run away (most of them), but they are none to happy about the risk. One soldier is incredibly heroic. He talks about how important it is to fight until the last breath. One of his friends looks at him and says ‘what is one man against an army’? It’s true; what can one man possibly do to an army of man-collective? It’s possible he’s some incredibly dynamic super soldier, and he may be capable of winning the battle. But in a greater sense, his critics seem to be right; eventually he will die, his life won’t mean anything. In the context of the battle, he is a hero among regular mortals.

I used to struggle with this question all of the time. IN the film, that hero doesn’t really end up doing a whole lot (I think he actually dies). I was waiting the whole time for him to transform into some herculean hero. I wanted him, as an individual, to do something great.

It was until recently that I’ve understood what the answer may be.

Instead of viewing that hero-soldier as one rare individual, why not view him as representative of the idea of a soldier; and in that way, of every soldier. Such that, if every soldier was heroic, than the burden of heroism would depreciate into almost non-existence. Sure, that heroism comes at an increased risk, but only marginally. Because unlike choosing to be a hero because you’re an individual who happens to be unique, or choosing to hide from conflict because you value your particular life, or choosing to kill off or leave behind a disabled person or someone of burden (convicts), the choice to see your own uniqueness in the light of this idea of person-hood permeates into every area of your life, and adds predictive success to every ethical decision and problem.

If you consider everyone else as different from you only on the basis of the idea of person-hood then most of these problems are solvable.

Our moral theories, among other things, solve for an uncertainty. We have a problem, we have intuitions about a viable solution, and we act in an uncertain environment. When the parameters of change increase and decrease in relation to the change in environment, for the public, our ethical theories come up short; there is always a degree of risk, and there is always a degree of chance, and most people haven’t worked through the problems enough to develop a cohesive moral philosophy.

If you choose to torture someone to save many, would you do it? Most would say yes. But why is the majority important? Simply because more lives are important? Well that’s not really a case of right and wrong, that’s a case of what will help us survive. To go back to the hero-soldier, each person is unique according just to themselves, then is the majority really any better? Does an individuals value reside in chance and luck (to be born in X time with X skills according to X genes)? Do we torture that person for children to come? (As perhaps happened to get each individual here in the first place?). If you look at the group of people as sharing this thing we call ‘humanity’ and judge their worth according to the idea of a human, rather than luck, than each individual matters as much as the other one – and in that case, the human you’re going to torture is as inherently valuable as the one’s you’re aiming to save. If you don’t see it that way, and you choose to torture him, than no one is safe (it’s logical to assume that your goal is safety, but it’s also logical to assume that if certain conditions were met you could potentially be the person-tortured. And in that way, everyone can be the person tortured and our worth hangs loosely according to chance – along with our morality.

Lets just take a moment to consider the value of a person according to the individual-model.

In this model it’s suggested that a person’s value is unique to them; and as such, everyone’s value is different. The moral weight of an action is individual to each person. This doesn’t determine morality to be totally subjectively relativistic, but rather it lends itself to a certain degree of relativism (it is possible to hold conflicting ethical theories that are still both true in particular contexts – that is, that they both effect some positive (moral) outcome with relative predictive success). But many who accepted this model of morality also belief that a person is capable of carving out their own worth according to their will and their unique control of their actions. It is in the everyday actions that moral relativism seems to reign supreme (you might say something rude to someone, which to an objective universalist would be immoral, and yet you still may be qualified in one circumstance to say that rude thing, or that you may be hurting so much that the intention to harm was never present, such that you’re less autonomous etc…). So a person’s value is dependent upon luck, and also upon their capacity for self-growth and will.

The aim of most moral theories is to establish what is right and wrong. In a less complex system, most moral theories work. But when you add complexity, that complexity requires your moral theories to be increasingly complex (such that the predictive success of your moral theory remains constant). Moral theories have to apply equally and consistently to each individual. If they don’t, then they don’t apply to anyone – they apply to the environment. (Because it’s logical to assume that it’s probable a person could by chance become one of the persons for whom the moral theory doesn’t help). Also, a moral theory can’t produce moral inconsistencies. That is, a moral theory based upon utilitarian ideals can’t be true and yet allow for a circumstance in which it’s permissible morally to harm innocent persons – to the point of severe suffering, disability, or especially death. (It’s important to note that the moral theories we have are always up for augmentation and change; and new problems which require change, force us to change the moral theory. This is another reason why people are so important – because people determine morality; and our morality has to serve all people, or else it serves only a few (or a majority) and is thus immoral (for explanation see: the ‘idea of a person’ above)

Lets take for instance the case of traumatic brain injury. This person isn’t capable of changing themselves in such a way so to give them worth; they aren’t capable of writing some grand play, volunteering and saving lives, or serving anyone by direct consequence of their will. Likewise, chance, the arbiter of value (worth), seems to be working against their favour. Is this person worth less to us? To most people, the answers appear to be an almost even split.

Under this model, lets take an incredibly attractive man, who is healthy and capable of doing great things. He works hard, earns a tremendous income (pays high taxes), starts some great company creating a product everyone needs. The consequences of his life are beneficial and consistent.

Lets say we are posed with the choice of killing the first man to save a group of people (large enough to be persuasive (a nation, perhaps). Imagine that there is no other choice. Do we kill the first person (man with the TBI), or the second person. Many would say we should kill the first person. They would probably reach this conclusion by reasoning the following ways: the first man is broken and suffering; he is largely unaware of his own existence. He is dependent, he is draining our resources, and the consequences of his life are less beneficial. The other man has done great things, he has given the world so much, and he is capable of experiencing and enjoying life – he has earned his life.

What if the second man, the man we choose, reached his position of power immorally. What if he pushed people around, he bullied others who were less fortunate than him (violation of utilitarianism and consequential, as well as deontology), he cheated, lied, underpaid his workers, and repeatedly violated human rights. He wasn’t a man concerned with the welfare of humanity, it just so happened that the welfare of humanity served him well.

Most people would reconsider. So it’s less about the direct consequences of a person’s life (the amoral aspects) than it is the moral disposition of the individual. Yet even then, the moral disposition of the first man is relatively unknown. But we assume that he is moral because he is not a threat (in-fact, he is quite vulnerable), and he has the markings of innocence. Upon first glance it appears this person has to agree with the popular moral disposition to have value, rather than the moral philosophy determine the value of a person, and ethically solve for uncertainty with a relatively high and consistent predictive success.

Lets take another example. What if we have an individual who is in all ways of a morally sound disposition; they are kind, they are loving, they give of themselves. They have proved their worth as a person. But what if we discovered that the circumstances leading up to their birth were tremendously immoral. What if say her grandparents slaughtered hundreds to steal resources to feed his family and ensure their unique survival. Her parents didn’t have to be as aggressive, but were nonetheless equally as savage in their own way. She was raised largely by teachers, tutors, friends and maids. She managed to maintain her moral outlook because she joined some religious order and became a nun.

Is she worth more to us before we learned of her origins, or less? Let’s consider an individual who does the wrong things their whole life, and is largely immoral, and yet due to some circumstances, wills them-self towards the moral life – climaxing in them sacrificing their life for the betterment of others. Is that person worthy?
You might wonder why I’m focusing in so much on the worth of a person. I’m choosing to focus on worth to highlight one of the major problems with the individual-model of morality: that it allows for a situation in which it is morally permissible to choose between sacrificing one person versus another (or sacrificing one person, for a large group of people). The choice for the public (most normal people) usually is based upon that persons worth. Often that worth is how moral they are, and (more)often it’s what they’ve achieved.

The first choice (based upon their morality) is very discursive; whether we agree if they live or die depends upon us agreeing on a moral philosophy – which we don’t. It also depends upon the person being capable of moral autonomy – which often many are not. When it’s a child under consideration, we generally don’t find it moral to kill the child. But even then, you could imagine a scenario in which it would be preferable for a child to die (say, the child versus ever general, or president, or doctor, or scientist; or the child versus destroying all reserves of cancer drugs, or pain medications). When it’s a disabled adult, we are less sympathetic and more inclined to sacrifice them. The problem here is that under this moral model no person is safe. If the aim of morality is to determine what is right and wrong, each person has to be safe, in almost all situations (obviously, it’s impossible for me as one person to think of every possible iteration and problem; which is why it’s good that morality adapts according to need).

A morality based upon an individual-model ultimately serves chance, rather than people. It’s people who determine morality, and it’s for people that we are moral. We are moral because morality ensures safety. Ensuring safety isn’t itself immoral – instead, it’s almost precisely immoral (it’s inherently selfish). Morality ensures safety for the idea of a person, rather than for an individual person – because as I’ve shown, individual persons are often the product of luck, and often the product of immorality. And because there very possible problems (That often happy every day) in which each person’s safety is determined by luck (if they are autonomous, haven’t suffered some accident, were born with the right skills etc…).

When you’re faced with choosing between killing someone and saving hundreds of thousands, or letting them live, and dooming hundreds of thousands, your mind convinces you that the greater number is somehow greater. It may be greater for survival, and it may be greater in that life is precious (a proposition overthrown by the very act of murder). Under that individual-model of morality it’s the idea of a greater number that hardens your sword-hand, but each individual is unsafe, has very little moral guidance, has a worth dependant on chance. They have the harsh reality of ‘life’ painted as protective morality to hide the few who are lucky enough to benefit.

We develop moral theories for safety because life is hard and unforgiving. Our experience as persons is what matters most to us. That experience, that consciousness and that life, is precious. It’s not precious because it’s inherently great or better than any other form of life. And it’s not precious according to each individual. It’s precious because our moral reasoning demands that we view it as precious. Not as an individual thing, but as an abstraction of individual things; as the ‘idea’ of a person.

My understanding of morality is that every single person is equally valuable. Not because of the products of their life, but because we are driven to form moral philosophies and principles by the harsh reality of chance and fate. If we allow chance and ‘fate’ to guide our moral decisions and thoughts then we will never be safe. Not only will we never be safe, but we will cause others to suffer. That’s important because that person could be us; it’s logical, that the person suffering could be you given the right conditions. We are separated from one another by the world our minds tells us exists, not by some gooey, metaphysical substance (i.e. a soul). In that sense, uniqueness and individuality is determined ultimately by chance (we have a say once our lives have begun, and we have consciousness and moral autonomy, but getting there is the product of chance (and often very immoral actions). Our individuality is an expression of that chance; but that’s where it stops and ends: chance. If we desire a respite from the harshness of life, and a complex moral theory that demonstrates consistent predictive success, we are ultimately no different from one another. One persons desire for life has to match in importance every other persons desire for life. In that way, if each persons desire for life and safety is as important as everyone’s, you solve the problems of the individual model of morality (where one persons need is more important (or one group).

Like the rule ‘do not cross the tracks’ we can’t abandon this model which takes the individual as the prime unit of measurement for morality – where the individual is any person (the idea of person-hood in the abstract, rather than a particular iteration(i.e. one person vs another). If we allow one person to cross the tracks, who is to determine who that one person is. Is it one person once. Even if it’s one person once ever four hours, that’s over a thousand persons a year. We trick ourselves into thinking that the bigger number is better (bigger number of persons saved) and that the smaller numbers are insignificant (one individual sacrificed, or one individual crossing (at a variable rate). We can overcome this mental bias by taking an honest, hard look at morality, and what I’ve written here. Humans determine morality. Life is complex, and we should embrace that complexity – but not at the expense of our morality. Because our morality is our safety, and because if morality benefits one, it must benefit everyone.

Its the idea of a person which matters – and which provides a unit of measurement for morality.

(This is a rough first edition – an active work in progress). IN a few days I hope to expand on what I mean and flesh out my examples and counter-examples more thoroughly (including gettier problems). But this is the best I can do right now given my health.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

Words Of The Day:

Bereft (adj.): deprived of or lacking in something.

Words have a power all their own

Words have a power all their own (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)

Balky (adj.): hesitant; reluctant.

Bane (noun): a cause of great distress; nuisance… esp. in relation to Bat-man…

Bemoan (verb): lament; express sorrow over.

Belfry (noun): bell tower esp. in a church.

Baleful (adj.): hostile, belligerent; threatening harm.

Bequest (verb): will; a legacy.

Bandy (verb/adj./noun): exchange/ pass on in a casual manner; a game akin to field hockey; ‘wide or bandy in the knees’.

Beguile (verb): trick/ charm; esp. in a deceptive manner.

Bravado (adj.): feigned bravery esp. to impress/ intimidate.

 

 

Intellectual Growth: a problem with our modern health-care system.

“Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire.”

– The Odyssey of Homer

Today I had an appointment in Toronto with my primary care physician. Over the past two months or so, I have, in our meetings, expressely stated in no uncertain terms that I was afraid; I made it known that I have anxieties. I also established that I believe in many intricate ways that several of my pathologies are influenced by my own cognition.

I am a psychology major first and foremost. To me, psychology is both a passion and a promise. I have a gift. I am a very adept problem solver and listener. I have a high degree of integrative complexity, so when I match that up with my eclectic bank of knowledge, and my natural ADD tendencies, I can often find more than half a dozen novel solutions to any given problem. Although this talent extends to all areas, for whatever reason I find it works particularly well when applied directly to humans, and to human psychology. (Let the record show that for every virtue I claim to have there is a matching vice of equal tempo).

Now, the reason I say this is becuase in my meeting today I noticed that my doctor has developed an availability heuristic which he comes primed with when I make the long trip to come meet him at his office. He sits down and evaluates my complaints. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; he projects a scepticism towards my claims of illness and feelings of foreboding pathology, and I pick up on that and as a result respond in a timid, side-ways type of way.

Basically he thinks I’m kind of a hypochondriac. I pick up on that, and act like a hypochondriac would, thus confirming his suspicion.

I see this time and time again in the healthcare system especially. I wrote a paper for my intro to social psychology class last year (one of the most influential and benifitial courses I have ever had the pleasure of taking) on problem solving in the health-care system. I shared stories and integrated like four social phenomena. I got an A, but most importantly, I learned a lot about myself and doctors and the doctor patient relationship.

I explained to my doc. that I wasn’t returning to school this semester because I have an oustanding balance and its not their policy to allow students with an oustanding balance to continue with their education – at least not until their is proof of payment, or of funding, or if the balance is cleared in full. I don’t mean to make my school look badly; they quite graciously went against this very policy and allowed me to return to my studies in the fall semester with an oustanding balance on my account.

Anyways, my doctor told me that I was going to go crazy (faceteously, of course) with nothing do all day – which I fervently affirmed. He mentioned that I should try and set up some sort of project to keep my mind busy. I agreed; but in sort of the hollow ‘I’m only agreeing becuase I don’t really want to talk about it’ sort of way.

But the appointment got me thinking. And tonight as I popped open my Kobo Desktop software and started to read the Odyssey I started thinking. The line ‘to be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction’ caught my eye. My doctor, as most doctors do, abstracted a general principle in regards to my character, and without question, applies that heuristic every time he evaluates my health.

The strongest force working against knowledge is the illusion of knowledge. My doctor is going to miss out on enhancing his diagnostic skills. He’s going to miss out on helping me the best he could. He’s basically going to miss out on opportunities that would have led him straight in the direction towards self-actualization.

I get the feeling that this situation isn’t unique to my relationship with my doctor. I get the feeling that its a widespread infection. An infection with no cure. Becuase when the patient revolts against the affronts he perceives directed towards him from his apathetic doctor, he meets a brick wall. Not to be too banal with this analogy, but our healthcare system, specifically ‘best care practice guidelines’ and ‘patient-doctor relationships’ require a fix.

I’m not so arrogant that I believe I am that glue that can hold everything together. But I have the resources, a certain degree of skill, and most importantly, the time and determination to really put a dent in this problem. I’m going to spend the next eight months really getting to the root of this problem, and finding a way to help solve it – for the good of both the patient and the doctor.

And this difficulty attaches itself more closely to an age in which progress has gained a strong ascendency over prejudice, and in which persons and things are, day by day, finding their real level, in lieu of their conventional value”. 

Ocular Migraines

In the past I have had the odd encounter with premonitory ‘aura‘ before a long, agonizing migraine. First of all, let’s get something straight, the term ‘migraine’ gets thrown around a lot in society; It’s become this bastardized, catch-all category encompassing the mild temporal discomfort that comes from listenting to a long, drawn-out argument to the full-blown, hysterically pain-full migraine. Any person who actually suffers from a real, full-fledged migraine disorder will tell you that even the word migraine itself carries such foreboding that it’s use is severely limited in every day speak. Migraines themselves last anywhere from 2-72 hours. They are felt uni-laterally (one ‘side’ of the head) as a sort of dread ‘pulse’. There are many accompanying antecedent and peripheral symptoms I won’t get into great detail describing here (I think I may have actually written another blog on this… if I find it, I will link it here).

As the title suggets, I’d like to talk about ocular migraines. First, I’d like to share a few personal anecdotes on the topic of ‘weird eye vison-ey stuff’.

This year has been a great year for me, relatively speaking. Although looking from the outside in, you’d think such a statement indicative of severe cognitive decline, from the inside looking out I can tell you that the positive definitely outweighs the negative – especially when matched up against the previous year.

I have gotten my pain under control… relatively. I am back in school and, I’d like to think, I’m doing fairly well. I have a new focus and determination about me that I can only say has come about directly from the varied aversive experiences I’ve had, and had to endure getting to where I am today… cleansed by fire and all that. As a result of all this, though, I have fallen into some less than ideal patterns. One, which bears direct relavence to this blog, is staring at a computer screen in a poorly lit room for hours on end… a sure-fire way to induce an ocular migraine in the ‘ocular-migraine-prone’.

To make a long-story short, I have experienced three mind-bogglingly, eye-crushingly confusing events in a matter of just two months; two of them resulted in almost full blindness… I literally couldn’t do anything but lie down on my back, close my eyes and wait for it to run its course.

From what I can remember, it started in one eye, than progressively took over both eyes… at least I think. After a drawn out night staring for hours on end at my computer screen, I would start to see sort of peripheral flashes of light just outside my field of vision. The flashing, lightning zig-zags eventually took over until my entire field of vision was affected; however, quite anti-climatically, within thirty minutes everything was ‘back to normal’.

The term ‘Ocular Migraine‘ can refer to one of two conditions. migraine with ocular aura, and ‘retinal migraines’. As you may have already guessed, migraines with ocular aura is the more benign of the two. The easiest way to differentiate between the two similar pathologies is to remember that retinal migraines effect only one eye, whereas migraines with accompanying ocular ‘aura’ can affect two.

The link provided below gives a concise and accurate account of all things ‘ocular migraine’. My own personal experience with visual ‘aura’ and retinal migraines has provided a subjectively truthful yet somewhat adulterate representation of this odd medical phenomenon. If any of you find yourself pulling the proverbial short stick, have no fear, you probably won’t permanently lose vision in your eye(s).

Here is a useful link http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/ocular-migraine-basics …