Tag Archives: obvious


Dignity is apparently big in parts of ethics, particularly as a reason to stop others doing anything ‘unnatural’ regarding their bodies, such as selling their organs, modifying themselves or reproducing in unusual ways. Dignity apparently belongs to you except that you aren’t allowed to sell it or renounce it. Nobody who finds it important seems keen to give it a precise meaning. So I wondered if there was some definition floating around that would sensibly warrant the claims that dignity is important and is imperiled by futuristic behaviours.

These are the ones I came across variations on often:

The state or quality of being worthy of respect

An innate moral worthiness, often considered specific to homo sapiens.

Being respected by other people is sure handy, but so are all the other things we trade off against one another at our own whims. Money is great too for instance, but it’s no sin to diminish your wealth. Plus plenty of things people already do make other people respect them less, without anyone thinking there’s some ethical case for banning them. Where are the papers condemning being employed as a cleaner, making jokes that aren’t very funny, or drunkenly revealing your embarrassing desires? The mere act of failing to become well read and stylishly dressed is an affront to your personal dignity.

This may seem silly; surely when people argue about dignity in ethics they are talking about the other, higher definition – the innate worthiness that humans have, not some concrete fact about how others treat you. Apparently not though. When people discuss organ donation for instance, there is no increased likelihood of ceasing to be human and losing whatever dollop of inherent worth that comes with it during the operation just because cash was exchanged. Just plain old risk that people will think ill of you if you sell yourself.

The second definition, if it innately applies to humans without consideration for their characteristics, is presumably harder to lose. It’s also impossible to use. How you are treated by people is determined by what those people think of you.  You can have as much immeasurable innate worthiness as you like; you will still be spat on if people disagree with reality, which they probably will with no faculties for perceiving innate moral values. Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy either. So why care if you have this kind of dignity, even if you think such a thing exists?

‘Clearly’ covers murky thought

Why do we point out that statements we are making are obvious? If a statement is actually obvious, there should rarely reason to point the statement out, let alone that it is obvious. It’s obviousness should be obvious. It seems that a person often emphasizes that a statement is obvious when they would prefer not be required to defend it. Sometimes this is just because it is obvious once you know their field but a lot of effort to explain to someone who doesn’t, but often it’s just that the explanation is not obvious to them.

But saying ‘obviously’ is too obvious. A better word is ‘clearly’. ‘Clearly’ sounds transparent and innocent. In reality it is a more subtle version of ‘obviously’.

I have noticed this technique used well in published philosophy from time to time. If getting to your conclusion is going to require assuming your conclusion is true, ‘clearly’ suggests to the reader that they not think over that step too closely.

For instance Michael Huemer in Ethical Intuitionism, while arguing that moral subjectivism is wrong, for the purpose of demonstrating that ethical intuitionism is right:

Traditionally, cultural relativists have been charged with endorsing such statements as,

If society were to approve of eating children, then eating children would be good.

which is clearly false.

Notice that ‘false’ seemingly means that it is false according to his intuition; the thing which he is trying to argue for the reliability of. If he just said ‘which is false’, the reader may wonder where, in a book on establishing a basis for ethical truth, this source of falsity may have popped from. ‘Clearly’ says that they needn’t worry about it.

Obviousness is not what it seems

Things can be obvious if they are simple. If something complicated is obvious, such as anything that anybody seriously studies, then for it to be simple you must be abstracting it a lot. When people find such things obvious, what they often mean is that the abstraction is so clear and simple its implications are unarguable. This is answering the wrong question. Most of the reasons such conclusions might be false are hidden in what you abstracted away. The question is whether you have the right abstraction for reality, not whether the abstraction has the implications it seems to.

e.g.1 I have heard that this is obvious: reality is made of optimizers, so when the optimizers optimize themselves there will be a recursive optimization explosion so something will become extremely optimized and take over the world. But to doubt this is not to doubt positive feedback works. The question is whether this captures the main dynamic taking place in the world.

e.g.2 I have thought before that it is obvious that a minimum wage would increase unemployment usually. This is probably because it’s so clear in an economic model, not because I had checked that that model fits reality well. I think it does, but it’s not obvious. It requires carefully looking at the world and at other possible abstractions.