Tag Archives: values

Is valuing life undervaluing it?

People often object to human life having a value placed on it, explicitly or implicitly. (I’m told there are good reasons, apparently to do with dignity, compassion, holism, souls and me being sick and inhuman, but I must admit they seem incoherent to me – if anyone would like to explain in writing I would be grateful). The pressing question then:

What alternatives are there to placing a finite value on human life?

One could not value human life at all. Ironically, this is what those who try to put a value on it, or assume it has one, are generally suspected of. Any value they give a life can be equated to the value of, say, a really vast number of rolls of toilet paper. Or heaps of SUVs full of McDonalds’ hamburgers and books by Ann Coulter. Thus it’s not enough; if you can put a value on human life you don’t value human life.

The other alternative looks better: value human life infinitely. There’s probably still conflict with your intuitive morality however. If any amount of human life is infinitely valuable, as long as someone is alive the universe can’t get any better. Why preserve extra lives?

Infinitely valuable human lives should also be protected from anything that might shorten them for lesser aims, such as life. We barter slight risks constantly for the quality of our experience, among other things. Unless you’d like to argue that nachos and car trips are also of infinite value, so can be traded with smidgens of human life, what are you doing out of your protective bubble?

Another alternative is just to not think about it. Hold that lives have a high but finite value, but don’t use this in naughty calculative attempts to maximise welfare! Maintain that it is abhorrent to do so. Uphold lots of arbitrary rules, like respecting people’s dignity and beginning charity at home and having honour and being respectable and doing what your heart tells you. Interestingly, this effectively does make human life worthless; not even worth including in the calculation next to the whims of your personal emotions and the culture at hand.

The only way to value human life is to place value on human life.

For more on how to feel about this, see Philip Tetlock.

Don’t change your mind, just change your brain

The best way to dull hearts and win minds is with a scalpel.

Give up your outdated faith in the pen over the sword! With medical training and a sufficiently sharp but manoeuvrable object of your choice, you can change anyone’s mind on the most contentious of moral questions. All you need to make someone utilitarian is a nick to the Ventromedial Pre­frontal Cortex (VMPC), a part of the brain related to emotion.

When pondering whether you should kill an innocent child to save twenty strangers, eat your pets when they die, or approve of infertile siblings making love in private if they like, utilitar­ians are the people who say “do whatever, so long as the outcome maximises overall happiness.” Others think outcomes aren’t everything; some actions are just wrong. According to research, people with VMPC damage are far more likely to make utilitar­ian choices.

It turns out most people have conflicting urges: to act for the greater good or to obey rules they feel strongly about. This is the result of our brains being composed of interacting parts with different functions. The VMPC processes emotion, so in normal people it’s thought to compete with the parts of the brain that engage in moral rea­soning and see the greatest good for the greatest number as ideal. If the VMPC is damaged, the ra­tional, calculating sections are left unimpeded to dispassionate­ly assess the most compassionate course of action.

This presents practical oppor­tunities. We can never bring the world in line with our moral ide­als while we all have conflicting ones. The best way to get us all on the same moral page is to make everyone utilitarian. It is surely easier to sever the touchy feely moral centres of people’s brains than to teach them the value of utilitarianism. Also it will be for the common good; once we are all utilitarian we will act with everyone’s net benefit more in mind. Partial lo­botomies for the moralistic are probably much cheaper than policing all the behaviours such people tend to disapprove of.

You may think this still doesn’t make it a good thing. The real beauty is that after the procedure you would be fine with it. If we went the other way, everyone would end up saying ‘you shouldn’t alter other people’s brains, even if it does solve the world’s problems. It’s naughty and unnatural. Hmph.’

Unfortunately, VMPC dam­age also seems to dampen social emotions such as guilt and com­passion. The surgery makes utili­tarian reasoning easier, but so too complete immorality, mean­ing it might not be the answer for everyone just yet.

Some think the most impor­tant implications of the research are actually those for moral phi­losophy. The researchers suggest it shows humans are unfit to make utilitarian judgements. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure that out though. Count the number of dollars you spend on unnecessary amusements each year in full knowledge peo­ple starving due to poverty.

In the past we could tell moral questions were prompting action in emotional parts of the brain, but it wasn’t clear whether the activity was influencing the deci­sion or just the result of it. If the latter, VMPC damage shouldn’t have changed actions. It does – so while non-utilitarianism is a fine theoretical position, it is seemingly practiced for egoistic reasons.

Can this insight into cognition settle the centuries of philosophical debate and show utilitarianism is a bad position? No. Why base your actions on what you feel like doing, dis­counting all other outcomes? All it says about utilitarianism is that it doesn’t come easily to the hu­man mind.

This research is just another bit of evidence that moral reasoning is guided by evolution and brain design, not some transcendental truth in the sky. It may still be useful of course, like other skills our mind provides us with, like a capacity to value things, a prefer­ence for being alive, and the abil­ity to tell pleasure from pain.

Next time you are in a mor­ally fraught argument, consider what Ghandi said: “Victory at­tained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary’” He’s right; genetic modification would be more long-lasting. Un­til this is available though, why not try something persuasive like a scalpel to the forehead?

Originally published in Woroni

Some half-serious, half-formed thoughts on existing and so on

So I’ve been banging my head against a wall (metaphorically, almost not) for about a week and a half (or years on and off) about the apparent meaninglessness of anything and the difficulty of finding anything to do that is mildly satisfying next to the absurdity of existing. This is what I’ve come to:

On lack of inherant meaning in anything:

– Whether there is value inherent in the universe or not (by the way there’s not) doesn’t matter (nothing does! lol. But that’s not my point). Value that you choose to place on something is as legitimate as that which ‘God’ or anything else does. It would be impossible for a God or anything else to allocate value to things in any more legitimate a way. If they did, and you disagreed with them, why would their values have precedence? To give them precedence would be a value judgement. There is no better possibility than what we’ve got (similar to how there is no better version of free will than determinism).

– Really it’s not that bad. You have the freedom (yay) to value what you think should be valued. If there were some fundamental ones one had to stick by, I’d probably whinge heaps more about that (and anyway, if not comfy with it you can probably find some place to live where some government will be willing to choose values for you – such as Australia it seems)

– It is objectively better to value things, and to value things that other people’s values aren’t mutually exclusive with. ‘Better’ is defined in terms of the value placed on stuff (yours and others’) – if you value things more, there will be more value. So it will be better. If you value killing people etc. you will impinge on their (probably less messed up) experience of value quite considerably, so it will very likely not be better. In the end the goodness of anything is a practical question of whether the values of the individuals involved are fulfilled. Potential for this depends on them having values, and them not being contradictory.

Note: there is a difference between indifference and not valuing things. You can just indifferently value whatever comes along, without caring what it is (though there are still other people’s fixed values to watch out for). This can kind of work.

– You probably get on alright having your own values – knowingly chosen/based on biological and environmental effects – for things like wallpaper and lunch. Just do it for everything else (I don’t like AIDS because it doesn’t go with my sofa).

On how to behave when the absurdity of existing at all is just so crazy that anything else seems incredibly unsatisfying in comparison:

– Violence? Tried it this arvo for a bit. Distracting, yes. Fun, hell yes. Incredibly satisfying? Not really. A viable source of income? Possibly, but would have to find richer people to mug :)

– If you really feel like hurting yourself just to feel something, physical violence is probably not the best bet. Before it hurts enough you will damage yourself, which isn’t useful. Try psychological torment ;D Some good bits of emotion can be had from just thinking about this kind of thing…satisfaction from the horror of dissatisfaction…mmm it’s even pleasingly recursive (I like recursion and I don’t care if God does). I had some other ideas, but I edited them out, as I feel bad about depressing people, ironically enough.

-Seek satisfaction from the absurdity of existing, without doing anything about it? Just think about it and see how amazed you can be. I suspect not enough to seem appropriate, but what’s appropriate?

– Try to be nice and save the world and stuff? As mentioned earlier, I think this is the inevitable conclusion I must come to, regardless of the source of it’s preferability. However I’m slightly inclined not to. On further introspection, I think this is merely because I just don’t want to follow all the people who are lefties or righties or whatever because they haven’t thought about any of this and are just engaging in smugness about their smugness about what they blindly assume is right. It’s just kind of lonely – I feel like a hipocrite and an outsider to their sentiments, which makes me angry, which makes me more right wing. This is a bad reason, and anything is going to be lonely, with or without other people to misunderstand me. So this one isn’t written off – in fact I think it is still going to be the inevitable conclusion.

– Something that hasn’t been done before? Hard to find and once you’ve done it, it’s been done. Also, it is unlikely to be terribly satisfying. Things that are particularly satisfying have probably been done. The best candidate for ‘something that hasn’t been done and might be satisfying’ is something horrendously idealistic and difficult, like saving the world (from whatever, it’s irrelevant here). Which solves the problem in the last point, because when smug people with the same end goal as me talk to me I can at least say I want to save the world because it would be ‘kind of post-modern’. This will at least make it clear to them if we probably can’t relate to each other, and they will go away.

– Hang around and think more about it? I am probably stupid enough to be wrong about how I’m even looking at these problems. Almost cerainly in fact – to my knowledge, nobody exists who isn’t impressively stupid. This is one of the more interesting things to read/think about anyway.

– Wait until one day I give up caring about whether things matter inherently or not, and be back to square one…until I stop caring about that…fuck…

– Be relieved that as a the kind of complicated biological and social thing you are, you have a good few pre-programmed preferences for things. You could chuck them all out the window, on the basis that they are arbitrary upshots of evolution. However so are you, and they are the arbitrary upshots you like, and you probably won’t find much satisfaction in not having them particularly. Also it’s hard to do properly and you probably can’t keep it up for that long (‘…it is inevitable to be drawn back into human drama…’).

So there. I think I’ll go for a combination while I look for other things to think.

Is outdoing monkeys while imagining free will the only way you can feel like a man?

Why does it bother people that we might be pretty similar to other monkeys (i.e. with better vocabularies, worse feet etc but no glorious fundamental difference)? Similarly what’s so scary about everything being mechanistic, free will not existing, and everything being meaningless apart from the values that we make up?

If we are fundamentally similar to other animals it has no effect whatsoever on the experience of humanity that we cherish. It has always been that way, and works fine. We know what being human is like, so if monkeys are similar that should only change our ideas of what being a monkey is like. What being a monkey is like is not usually considered a pressing issue in society, so why care? Why does our societal self-worth rest on being heaps better than monkeys?

Similarly with the other possibilities listed above, if they are true, obviously they always have been and everything we enjoy is possible in their presence. It isn’t like as soon as you stop believing in free will you will turn into a robot. If it’s the case, you already are one, and everything you’ve ever loved and dreamed of has arisen from that. It’s not some strange new reality.

Perhaps practically these things seem to hold different probabilities for the future to other beliefs? e.g. the universe being purely mechanistic might make Heaven seem unlikely. But you could still have a mechanistic God and Heaven and soul (it’s not nearly as impossible as non-mechanistic ones). It’s not the end of the world.

Or is it actually hard to hold one’s own values, for instance, without the delusion that they are somehow fundamentally valuable?

Who needs democracy, free speech and all that rubbish when you can prescribe the values of your citizens?

The Australian Government has released a list of ten values it considers essential to being an Australian citizen.

While these principles are relatively inoffensive, letting the government prescribe what values citizens should hold is a frightening road to be going down! The point of democracy is for citizens to decide what the government’s values should be. This means nothing if the government chooses citizens’ values.

Incidentally I don’t value any of those listed per se. Only as general principles that are usually upshots of what I do value. There are times I would act against most of them for values not on this list. I also don’t know what our national flower is (though I’ve never found that a barrier to integrating with Australian culture). I hope I get deported to somewhere where policy is less of a joke.