Archive for June, 2017

What’s the big deal about Trolley Problems? 

Friday, June 30th, 2017

The shallowness of much of modern academic philosophy is demonstrated by the level of attention devoted to the “puzzle” of why most people (other than Buddhist monks, economists, and other psychopaths)  resist pushing the fat man in person but are much more willing to kill him remotely in order to save the five children on the track. To me it seems obvious that there are two main factors at play here. Firstly, on a purely utilitarian level, the suffering of a victim of a surprise accident might reasonably be judged to be less than that of a victim of personal assault (because of the emotional content and sense of rejection induced by the latter);  and secondly, at the level of the person who has to perform the act (or not), the emotional cost of facing the shock and implicit judgement of the victim is a significant deterrent which might cause the person facing the challenge to adjust his moral judgement so as to avoid an unpleasant obligation (and of course it probably also matters whether the experimenter’s question is “what should you do?” vs “what would you do?”) .  These may be interesting questions for psychology as a scientific study of how humans actually behave, but  the “philosophical” content is (as usual) vacuous.

The interesting question of why Buddhist monks align with economists and other psychopaths is, I suspect, answered by the fact that they share with those categories the property of being somehow “outside” normal society. A monk is seen, and thinks of himself as being seen, as not a normal person but more as an agent of nature or natural “law”. So the pain suffered by his victim is more like that of an accident victim, and the monk is probably both aware of that and less open to the fear of judgement from his victim.Source: What Do Buddhist Monks Think of the Trolley Problem? – The Atlantic

P.S. Speaking of economists, I also find it bizarre how many of the behaviours identified by people such as Steven Levitt as  “irrational” are generally accepted as such when to my mind they are often perfectly rational optimizations of an objective function that is just not the mind numbingly trivial linear one that seems to be all that economists are capable of understanding.

What is a “Scientific” category?

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

Dalton Conley Speaks Out on Race in an interview at Nautilus (which I saw via 3QD). He says a lot that is sensible but his denial that “race” can be a “scientific category” is based more on wishful thinking than on reason. Most scientists think of science as “whatever works” and so would entertain any category that can be used to make consistently better than chance predictions as “scientific”. And even the crudest out-dated concepts of “race” do have some predictive power. Much of what was claimed as such was probably false but some is undoubtedly real.

Conley’s reference to “the chopstick problem” is a case in point.

If I desperately needed to quickly find ten people who were highly dextrous with chopsticks, and whom I was prepared to reward highly for that, and had a room of a thousand eager applicants to consider, then it might make sense to test just those with epithelial folds in their eyelids and ignore the rest. Yes, I might miss the best one in the room, but depending on the skill level needed and the urgency of that need speed might be more important than optimization. Many employers, educators and law enforcers *think* they are in an analogous situation. Often they are wrong but sometimes they may be right. The question of how to either avoid or somehow compensate for such unfair exclusions is not resolved by declaring that there is no “scientific” connection between epithelial folds and chopstick skill.

It may be morally wrong to make use of (or even talk about) some of these things, but that moral position is not advanced by misidentifying moral error as scientific error. Indeed such misidentification both undermines public scientific literacy and discredits the moral position that it was intended to advance.

Should we outsource our moral beliefs?

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

In this article at 3quarksdaily, Grace Boey almost changes my mind. I have long felt that the delegation of moral authority that religion almost always leads to is harmful, but the way Boey puts things makes me feel I need to be clearer about what I mean by that.