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.

Fear, ‘The Unknown’, and Disability: why I think militant atheism sucks.

I’ll admit I used to be a staunch supporter of Richard Dawkins’ particular style of militant atheism. Like many people, I read the God Delusion, and the Selfish Gene, and if I’m being totally transparent, I bought every bigoted, elite word offered. After chewing on the gristle of Dawkins doctrine,  I upgraded to Sam Harris, and found the same whitewashed arguments presented with less elegance.

I would watch hours of debates featuring Hitchens or Krauss, Dawkins or Harris. But eventually (thankfully) the spell wore off and I became aware of a new troubling set of questions .

I’m not religious. I am probably an atheist (I don’t like the term, but it best describes my worldview, in respect to the divine). But I don’t think it’s justified, or logical, or defensible to say that religion is useless and everyone who believes its many forms is denying their rational mind and ultimately hurting the species (“in certain situations it’s tolerable”, but even still the subtext reads “here lies an idiot”.)

It took losing everything for me to lose that arrogance. It took losing a family that was never there for me, losing my mobility, my health, my friends, my entire world. It took extreme suffering for me to see how absolutely childish and absurd these Atheists are. They have a philosophy by the elite for the elite. They’ve never known the kind of pain that strips you down and leaves you in existential terror. I’m not trying to subtly reduce theology to ‘fear-driven fantasy-creation’. In fact, those simple, incomplete arguments are precisely what I’m trying to say is wrong.

Being disabled has afforded me some fantastic opportunities to look behind all the smoke and mirrors. But those are insights that are not rightfully guaranteed to all who suffer disability. I’ve had a unique life, and thus some unique insights presented themselves to me. What we are all (the disabled) guaranteed to experience/ learn is humility. Being disabled is a humbling experience. Imagine everyday being told by society that you’re pitiful –  if not actually outright, then through social isolation, exclusion, and non-verbal gestures and cues (which show more pity and disdain than someone screaming ‘you’re worthless’ ever could). The corollary of this is that we feel no real authority to tell you that you should believe the ideology and doctrines that we believe.

As I see it, ( as broken as I am) telling someone they can’t believe in God because doing so makes them intellectually weak and shameful is probably one of the most common and morally reprehensible things these great Atheists -‘on the vanguard of humanism‘- do. And unfortunately, their  attitude has seeded and created a culture around shaming anyone who doesn’t only accept hard science (it’s like we’ve gone back in time three hundred or so years).

Religion doesn’t shun the disabled or the sick. Fundamentally, liberation theology affirms the lives of the disadvantaged. Religion gives people hope and safety and lets them feel self-worth. These people often live the hardest lives. And it frustrates me almost as much as it saddens me that these great Atheists not only get away with hurting (in their own words, far from mine) ‘the disadvantaged’, but they feel such fundamental moral authority from start to finish – no matter how many casualties.

These Atheists, who deny the authority of art and music and philosophy because ‘hard science’ knows all. I’m a science major, as well as a philosophy major. My great-uncle revolutionized film and founded Kodak. I get the practical value and the historical legacy of science, but these Atheist scientists have created a new religion. One that tells you how to think, shames you for being different, and says anything which isn’t science is a unique curiosity at best, and a useless waste of time at worst. It isn’t the class of belief that makes them religious, it is the approach: that substantiating their method means everything else is wrong ( even things which they know little about but deny because of personal bias (like the creationist denying evolution who thinks not being able to sexually reproduce with monkeys disproves evolution). Most importantly though, they brazenly trivialize the only thing powerful enough to imbue hope and meaning in the lives of people truly suffering (often the disabled – specifically the chronically ill).

As a chronically ill, disabled person, I do not feel like the culture of science is serving my needs. I am more grateful than I can express to medicine, medical advances, and the scientists who are working to cure my disease, and many others like it. But if this new movement towards a science centered society is for the betterment of society, you would think that it should first help those people who feel most left behind. Being really sick, and suffering to an extreme degree, for a long period of time, allows you to deconstruct what you thought were ‘the truths of life’. When you lose everything that usually brings you joy, and when you are separated from culture and society long enough to lose those conventions too, you quickly learn what matters most by what fundamentally helps you the most. Religion in itself doesn’t help me personally, but the freedom to be religious, without persecution (from other religious people who may have a different take, or from atheists) does; valuing human dignity more than thought tokens and belief systems. Relationships, love, and moral duty make me feel more safe and more happy than the joys of getting drunk, partying, eating junk food or even the rigors of scientific research ever, ever could. Those things don’t help me: getting drunk, partying, eating junk food, researching and experimentation, don’t make me feel better. Knowing that everyone is equal, by virtue of our shared existence, knowing that to be smart means to be humble does make me feel better.

I have a very Nietzschean view of suffering, so I personally don’t think that being in pain is inherently bad. What I do think is intolerable wrong, if not ‘the opposite of good’ as well, is telling people what to think and why. Lawrence Krauss never studied philosophy, and yet he claims to know that Philosophy doesn’t really help anyone and isn’t all that necessary. How can someone not know something, yet know that it’s not helpful or important? How can someone so inherently ignorant, as all humans (past and present) are, with omniscience tell us that although the seas ahead are unknown, this is the direction we obviously have travel. And how can he, a man who knows relatively little about the raw experience of substantial persistent suffering, know what’s best for me without consulting people like me?

The rhetorical overtones are obvious: he can’t. But this is the way these men operate. The claim often lauded by atheists is that theism is a belief system requiring faith in place of actual evidence. Of all the unknowns, knowing what a person thinks and knows is the atomic clock to unknown. The empirical evidence, the facts science produces, are only part of what informs  what a person thinks and knows. The sweeping evidence-objection generally appears to them as though it is consistently accurate – it produces predictive results. The inaccuracies, however, are created when that data is interpreted; which is often on the fly, with limited attention, and rarely in an emotionless atmosphere. Religion is more than fear-driven fantasy-creation; the fear-driven part is only a part of its origin. Without sparking a new divergent conversation about the history of theology, it’s enough to say that the value of religion, as I see it (as an atheist), is in the expression of the values we all should stand for – and which most do. Respecting someone’s beliefs not because you agree with the evidence or theory, but because you respect a persons rights and freedoms, and you recognize the complexity of their experience as an unknown variable.

Neo-Atheists like Dawkins and Krauss are as ignorant as we all are. Yet unlike most of us, they have this overwhelming sense of power, given to them by a culture which defies science and anyone who studies it. That subjective experience of power deludes them into thinking they’re wholly qualified for leadership, and they shape the public consciousness to match their ideologies all the way to the top.

Sorry if this rant was a little disconnected. I’ve just been really struggling with making sense of these feelings for a while. And I thought perhaps my disabled compatriots would get what I’m trying to say most.

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.

The Increasing Importance of Philosophy

Philosophy is important because it forces the atheist to think about the most important qualities of existence in the way religion does for Christians – although, quite poorly. The philosopher asks why something is right or wrong, why and how something is true, and what is the meaning of life. Science and philosophy don’t have to work separate, but it’s important to understand they have differences in quantification.

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.

Being a zero: and how you become a plus-one

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist...

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist Canadian Space Agency (CSA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

Partway through the book Chris tells a story about a fellow astronaut, Jerry Ross. Trying to learn how to strike a balance between confident and overly ambitious, Chris watched Jerry to “see how he did things”. He noticed that Jerry was regularly going into the office early to answer emails and take care of all the administrative details so that the mission commander could focus on more important matters. He wasn’t asked to do this, and other than Chris, no one else probably knew what he was doing; he wasn’t doing it for recognition. In Chris’ words, “it was classic expeditionary behavior, putting the needs of the group first”. He acted like he considered himself a zero, but everyone on the team knew that he was a plus-one.

A zero is someone who believes they are reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else.  As seen with Chris and Jerry, there appears to be little difference between a zero and a plus one: they both believe they’re reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else. The only difference is, they actively add value to the group. In order to be a plus one, it seems you must also consider yourself a zero. A plus one isn’t constantly doing glorifying things. Being a plus one, subjectively, is the same as being a zero; often sitting back, listening, doing your best and contributing whenever and wherever you can. A plus one doesn’t treat or view herself differently, others do. Being a plus one is having most people agree that you’re doing a whole lot more than they are. People make you a plus one, because it takes sincerity, and respect and admiration; something that comes out of acting like a zero, not drilling into people’s minds the idea that you’re greater.

I think this is an important distinction to make. Too often I try to value myself in terms of how other people see me, and too often I confuse adding value with gaining glory. As a result, I end up taking something away from the group, rather than add something to it – the definition of a plus-one. I take away attention (a valuable resource), and as it’s reasonable to expect that because most people think along similar lines, and want to be ‘plus-ones’, constantly seeking affirmation that I’m ‘better’ and ‘more valuable’ takes away something else from people: it takes away self-confidence. Actively making sure people know that you’re better than they are doesn’t inspire them to be like you, it quite often just makes them view themselves in a more negative light – and you along with them.

The way we view ourselves has a profound impact on the way we interact with, and treat others. If your motive for doing good things, for trying to help (whether that’s in school, at home or at work), is to solidify a ‘plus-one’ beside your name, you’re always going to miss your mark.

Unlike Chris and Jerry, I’m not anything so prestigious as an astronaut. Most of us aren’t.  The stakes in my choices aren’t anywhere near as high as theirs, but that doesn’t make my actions any less valuable to me. Most people aren’t ever going to know the pressure of being an astronaut, but most of us know what it takes to be a good brother, or sister, or mother. The minutiae of everyday relationships (work, social, family) lend themselves to the idea that ‘slip-ups’ don’t matter (we’re not planning an outer-space voyage, so being a bit of a dick, or a slightly selfish, doesn’t really matter all that much). We all want better lives, but the only way to get the best out of the lives we have is by believing that our actions and decisions are as valuable to us, as going into work early to answer emails was for Jerry. Thinking you’re better or greater isn’t just self-defeating, it’s impractical. People have a knack for picking up insincerity. If you want a good relationship, or a happy life, be a zero – because trying to be a plus one won’t ever get you there. You get there by believing your competent, but no more competent than everyone else, and delivering your best effort with as least friction as possible.

Chris talks about being in a simulation with a few senior astronauts (one a commander). He knew they were more experienced, so went into ‘student mode’. He was paying such close attention that when the commander went to reach for a button, Chris stopped him and said it was the wrong one. The commander readjusted, and nothing was spoken about it afterwards. A few months later at a debrief with that same commander and the head of JSC, the commander began ‘extolling his powers of observation’. Shortly after, he was assigned to his first mission. “There may not be a connection, but one thing is certain: aiming to be a zero didn’t hurt my chances.”

I think we should all strive to be zeros, not plus-ones. Because I think we can all agree, thinking you’re better than everyone else actually doesn’t make people think you’re better than everyone else.

Language:

I’m an Atheist, but I go to a Christian University (for reasons I won’t go into here). In a few intro Psych courses my professors, believing language to be unique to humans, used language as a vehicle to explain the existence of God – and thus the denial of Atheism, and ‘macro’ evolution.

Language isn’t just spoken or written words. Language in its most basic form is simply communication of some information across a medium (of intention and necessity). Christianity must change its definition of language.

A gesture is a good example of language across a non-traditional medium. When we think about language we think about spoken language (words, syllables, phonemes etc.), and we translate that association into our loose definitions of communication. In theory, many define communication by spoken or written language. Yet in practice almost everyone behaves in ways that directly contradict that proposition.

When a friend dies, we send their family flowers. Sending someone flowers is an example of a gesture. That gesture involves the physical action of moving the flowers, as well as the meaning in the language of flowers. Upon receiving the flowers the bereaved widow will reflect what a nice gesture that was.

This is important because central to understanding language is understanding its origins; how it evolved. Christians believe that language was a gift from God, (generally) that evolution is not true, and that everything that is was intended to be. As such, Christians often cite language as evidence for the existence of a creative force in their apology. Yet their very actions betray them and they are none the wiser.

Dogs communicate, they just do so in ways foreign to sentient beings such as ourselves. We are capable of thinking about thinking, and thus we are able to encrypt meaning into anything if everyone involved understands the protocols and conventions. We give someone flowers when they’re ill, or mourning, or happy, or to show love and affection (romantic, familial, pious or platonic); and everyone who is familiar with the norms for each situation can easily translate the meaning. The flowers and flower arrangements given to someone mourning the loss of a loved one versus the birth of a child differ wildly – and are readily apparent. But if you were to give a mourning widow or an elated mother a stick of butter, they’d think you’re crazy – and rightly so. Because they are unfamiliar with the protocols and conventions and so it appears like nonsense. The world is full of situations like these; communication is happening all around us; the valence electrons in the water molecules within the cup on my desk are constantly forming bonds; communication is happening. The mid-night symphony outside my window right now is composed of layers and layers of different organisms communicating, and objects communicating – and yet that cacophony which I cannot even hope to translate, is familiar and tells me that outside it is indeed night-time.

When I look at the mystery of language in the world about me I realize that I’m just a third party unable to immediately understand the hidden messages nature has written (like the elated mother looking confusedly at the stick of butter she was just given).