More On Morality And Ethics

My post on morality and ethics from the other day isn’t as clear as I would have liked it to be, so I wanted to say a little more to clarify some of my arguments.

Many years ago I wrote a post arguing a consequentialist position entitled The Negative Sides of Altruism.   I basically argued that love without knowledge is empty and troublesome.  At the time, I felt that whether altruism is a good or bad thing depends on the person practicing it.  I still largely agree with that old post, but I would now add some much needed corrections.

In my latest post, I talked a lot about love and caring, adding an emotional element to my views on morality and ethics.  The key point I was making is that in real-word situations, understanding people and where they’re coming from is everything.  Human beings are very emotional creatures and you’ll never understand them well if you can’t get a grip on their “angle”.  Their perspective.  How they see things.

We begin in a state of ignorance toward the world and its problems.  We don’t understand ourselves.  We understand others even less.  Our attention and time is limited, so the core question is to ask yourself is — what do I care about?  Who do I care about?  Why do I care about these things over other things?  Why do these other people care about the things they care about?

To take the time to study different issues and positions, reading books, listening to lectures, attending events, it’s a lot of work and is a large sacrifice on the part of the individual.  History books are really thick and take years to read.  Most of us have a lot going on in our lives.  We have families, work, community events.  We don’t have time to be fully informed on every single issue.

This is where purpose, passion and love come in.  I mentioned that people have three main responses to the world:

1) Living happy and content with the way things are.  Or,
2) They try to change it into what they want it to be.  If they can’t do that, they,
3) Insulate themselves from things they don’t like.  And if they don’t have the resources to achieve that, they,
4) Flee into fantasy and their imagination.

Morality is about how we live together, trying to be as happy as we can, sharing what we do like, and dealing with all the things we often don’t like, together.  That’s insanely complex.  I really could care less about technical definitions of philosophers labeling things “right” and “wrong”.

How people go about trying to change the world is a big issue.  Some try to create companies and change the world through innovation.  Some try to alleviate suffering by helping the sick and poor.  Others fight for reforms in issues which carry personal significance to them and their life.

People are always trying to gain control of society’s resources.  Some need these resources to make important changes, but others are only hoping they can insulate themselves from life’s struggle as much as possible.   They hope to build themselves a private paradise and ignore the suffering and misery of the world.  That’s important to understand because the people who do that cause the most misery in the world.

The worst forms of evil are rooted in a delusional rejection of reality.  Tyrants, terrorists and cult leaders all dream of overthrowing the social order to build their pet utopia, rarely caring who dies in the process.  Greed is rooted in a rejection of reality.  It’s fear of an unpredictable future combined with unfulfilled desires.  The more fear in their heart, the more greed.  They come to feel if they just have enough money, they can buy their way out of every problem that may come their way.

Unfulfilled desires very often leads to neurotic personalities.

We suffer as human beings.  We’re pitiful, stupid, weak creatures.  We find it all demeaning, and it is.  Being a human is demeaning.  The randomness of it all.  At any time we can come down with an incurable disease and die.  It takes forever to get from point A to point B.  We’re so often separated from the people we love.  Our lives are dictated to us by Kafkaesque forces far beyond our control.  Finding love is difficult and doesn’t always work out.  Having to take care of our bodies is a pain in the rear, whether it be exercising, eating right, brushing our teeth, showering, and all that.  Most jobs are so boring and unfulfilling, and it takes a bazillion years of work and schooling to get into the jobs worth having.  Even when we do painstakingly learn things, we forget it all so quickly.  Just on and on.

Human existence is strange.  We live in a world of conditional happiness and conditional love.  We have all these choices of who we could be and what we could do with our life.  What we want is to be loved and happy, but only some doors lead to that and we have no strategy guide.  If we choose the wrong doors, we may end up in misery, poverty, and loneliness.  It doesn’t take very many mistakes before it can all cave in on us.  We don’t want to be free.  As Jean-Paul Satre said, we’re condemned to be free.

Consciousness seems almost divine, yet we live in these meat-bags which are fragile.  Sometimes I entertain the idea that the goal of a good society should be to make happiness and love as unconditional and widespread as possible, but I’m undecided.  The Brave New World scenario Alexey and I have been discussing is basically doing that through social and technological changes.

I often mention spirituality on my blog, but I don’t mean religion.  I’m talking about people who don’t run from this suffering of life.  Somehow they find peace within the storm and they don’t become neurotic and immoral.  They remain kind in an unkind world.  They are loving in an unloving world.  They give in a world which tries to hoard.  They build when everyone else is tearing down.  They’re different.

Some sort of transformation process happens in the deeply spiritual person, where building and contributing to a beautiful world means more to them than even their own life, as crazy as that sounds.  But what should be more important than your own life?  What if this is your only life you’ll ever live?

The tyrant raises armies to go quell a social protest and these odd-balls come out of the wood-works and stand in front of the incoming tanks.


They light themselves on fire in peaceful protest to the mistreatment of their fellow brothers and sisters.  They refuse to move even when armies aim guns at them.

monk in protest

What is it about these people?  They’re the total opposite of the lone gun-mans who go shooting innocent people in schools or public squares.  They’re the total opposite of cult leaders or tyrants.  They’re not running from or insulating themselves from the world and all its suffering.  They jump in to help and do whatever they can, even if it costs them dearly.  They’re normal, everyday people who will give their lives for others.  They always stand for love, connection, and a deeper sense of community and brotherhood.

They seem to realize some deeper aspect of reality and do not fear death in the same way as a normal person.   Their faith is not a rationalization to avoid fearing death.  It’s much more profound.

Albert Einstein once said that science without religion is lame, but religion without science is blind.  That sums all of this up succinctly.   Spirituality without knowledge is empty.  Just like in my post on altruism, it has no substance.  But when you can combine spirituality and knowledge through science, then you can build a beautiful world.   They need each other.  Science without spirituality leads to things like atomic bombs, manipulation in advertising and politics, and mass surveillance spread throughout the society.

Morality and Ethics

Alexey emailed me a few days ago asking me some questions, one them being, “Are you deontologist, consequentialist, of some other morality, or unsettled?”

First I’ll explain what these terms mean to anyone who may be unfamiliar to them.

In deontological ethics, moral actions are judged on whether they conform to strict rules.  It’s concerned with duty and what that entails.  It also heavily focuses on a person’s intentions, not necessarily on the outcome.

Consequentialist ethics judges moral actions by the result.  Duty is viewed as a social construct and consequentialists could care less about what you intended to happen.  They don’t care about your motives.  What matters is the effects your actions bring about in the world.

This is not an easy question.  In short, in my early twenties, I would say I was a consequentialist.  Now I’m some mixture of the two.  I don’t even know where to begin with a topic this complex.

In crude forms, deontological ethics is well suited to people with simple minds.  I’m not saying moral philosophers like Kant are crude or simple.  More on that in a bit.  What I’m saying is that very few people in this world think deeply about their lives and how everything comes together.  The world is really complex.  It’s better for the wisest members of society to lay down a set of social rules and constructs for the masses, which they should be taught in school, not religiously, but held in high regard.

Take Aristotle for instance.  He argued that children should be told romanticized stories about their civilization so that they value all that’s been built and laid out for them by previous generations.  In the U.S., the founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin are idolized and we have all these cute little stories about how heroic and wise they were.  It makes people proud to be an American when they otherwise wouldn’t be.

I’ve seen people reformed by converting to a religion.  It totally transforms their lives.  They’re told to obey the commandments in their holy book, such as providing for their children, loving their wife or husband, to contribute to the community, to stay sober,  and all sorts of good family values.  A lot of that stuff is really good, and people would be wise to listen to the wise advice in ancient texts.

There’s all kinds of lessons.  The Bible for example is filled with all kinds of stories and proverbs telling people not to expect results over-night.  There will be parables about a farmer who plants his seed (his or dream), to carefully watch over it, to pull weeds, to water it, and if they’re faithful, they will one day reap the harvest.  That’s a beautiful life lesson and it’s all put so simply.  Or how about lessons of forgiveness?  To love enemies?  To take care of the sick and widows?  All sorts of good stuff is in there.

Take the head guy from Duck Dynasty for example.  There’s been all this news lately about him, so he’s worth talking about.  He was a drunkard who had all kinds of problems.  He was the kind of guy who couldn’t hold down a job.  He’d come home drunk and cause problems for everyone.  Then he found Jesus and it changed his life.  I have no doubt he’s a better man than he once was.  And now that he’s found what he feels to be the truth and the light, he’s passionate about spreading the Gospel, because after all, look what it did for him.

Speaking pragmatically, I can’t picture a simple redneck being much of a consequentialist.  You lay out all the different moral philosophies, look at their effects throughout history, and by careful study and analysis, try to figure out the cause and effect relationships between different ways of thinking.  It’s not realistic to expect that of average people.  They don’t have the time, energy, or motivation.  Those kinds of people inauthentically absorb their culture, rarely thinking about it all.

A clever young man like you will think about the world around him, carefully analyze it all, and find what’s good and bad around him.  The average man needs culture.  Culture is like the default software running in people’s minds.  If it’s filled with viruses and malware, society disintegrates.  Common culture is not created for the best and brightest.

Things like religion are powerful social tools.  They have their good and bad points.  Religion can take simple people and make them believe that rather wise principles are actually the word of God, and that they’re a part of an eternal kingdom, and if they’ll do their best, God will reward them with infinite bliss in eternity.  Their lives are given meaning.  It’s amazing how it does all of that.

And what are the bad points?  You get stuck with old outdated ideas that need reformed.  People cling to that old holy book, which was never the word of a deity, and they won’t let you change it.  Different religions disagree and have no way to reconcile themselves, so they end up warring and killing each other.   Things like that.  In modern times, we fight to get gay rights because so many people believe God thinks being gay is a sin.

I long ago concluded that we have two problems:  stupidity and the human condition.  Stupid people will do stupid things, and left to their own devices, they will cause so much trouble.  They have to have some decent culture which gives them good role models to look up to, values, beliefs, and all of that, to keep them productive and from killing themselves and others in stupid conflicts.  On the other side we have the human condition.  The wiser you become, you look out onto the world and see what we are:  an ape creature which evolved through a cruel, violent process of natural selection.   What’s the point of it all?  There’s so much suffering, and is there a reason for why we’re even alive?  Is there any purpose?  Any meaning?

I’ve seen you’ve already stepped out of the common mold, like the people who left to the islands in Brave New World.  People like us are in a much more difficult boat.  Our biggest problem is one of finding and creating meaning in a cruel and dare I say pointless world.  We know we’re going to die.  Our loved ones are going to die.  And even if we didn’t die, the entire universe is going to fizzle away eventually.  What’s all this about?  How you approach that question is everything.

We have no deities.  No crutches to lean on.  Just ourselves.  Just this world.  Just this life.  Is there more to all of this?  Maybe, but we don’t claim to know.  We look for evidence and we seek the truth as best as a human can understand it.  The world doesn’t easily lend itself to human understanding, but what else do we have?

Let’s say you sit and think about society and the world, and you think of much better ways for everyone to live.  Alexey’s way.  If we just reformed our culture, we’d be way better off.  Ok.  You have all your rules and wonderful ways of doing things.  How are you planning to get everyone else to do any of it?

Even the simplest reforms take generations to implement.  It’s a slow grind.  We’ve been fighting for gay rights for ages.  It wasn’t until just recently that women were even treated as human beings.  And let’s not even get started with racism.

Knowing what to do is only half of it.  Even if you know what needs to happen, what needs to be reformed, what needs to be changed, why should you care?  What if this is your only life?  All you have.  Why spend it fighting for gay rights, or the fair treatment of blacks, or equal rights for women in the middle east?  Why fight for government programs to help the poor?  In my case, I’m not gay, I’m not black, and I’m not a woman.  My career prospects are fine.  Why should I care?

That question is everything.  Why should you care?  Personally, I don’t think you’ll ever find some intellectual reason to care.  I have some important points to make about intellectual reasoning.

The ultimate determinant of behavior is love.  That sounds cheesy, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about this.  Let me give you a simple example to begin with.

Say the child of a loving mother is caught doing something bad.  What happens?  At first the mother refuses to believe it.  My son, do that?  Never.  And if the evidence is presented and it’s undeniable that her little angel did something wrong, even then the mother presses that the child be forgiven, that things will be different next time, and so on.  That’s what happens when love is around.  There’s forgiveness, patience, and a tendency to outstretch your arm to protect and help the person in trouble.

Kant was a man full of love. Take his categorical imperative.  It’s all about empathy and consideration for the other person.  He treats everyone as divine, an end in and of themselves.  We’re to take our actions so seriously, we should act in a way which we would always want others to follow as well.  The golden rule.  I love Kant.

But reasoning isn’t the root of morality.  Love is.  If you don’t love people, you don’t care what happens to them.  Without love, people quickly look for reasons why helping their fellow man is a waste of time.  Even harmful.  They’ll see a problem in society and almost immediately throw up their hands and say, “Nothing can be done.”  In reality, they don’t care.  Instead of just admitting this, we more often than not engage in these intellectual “shows”, where people search for reasons to justify what is really just an emotion of love or indifference toward the suffering or joys of their fellow men.

These shows are elaborate, but most of the time we’re just blowing hot air.  There’s a group who cares and a group who doesn’t, and we battle to win the minds of those somewhere in the middle.  Am I painting things a little too black and white?   Maybe, but I think I’m getting at the general issue at hand.

I’ve met really selfish people and they’re always full of excuses why helping others is the wrong thing to do.  When they pose arguments to me, I don’t even bother arguing with them anymore.  I know they don’t care, and there’s nothing I can say or do to make them care.

That’s not to say I won’t argue with a conservative.  Fiscally conservative economics and free markets have powerful arguments to back them up.  I totally respect that.  I mostly believe in them myself, though capitalism has a lot of problems.  But when I talk to a person and learn that deep down, they don’t actually care about the poor, the helpless, the less fortunate, and so on.  That they don’t care about finding a way to improve the human condition.  I know I’m wasting time.

Just listen to the types of things people say.  One time I was with a man who had recently found some extreme libertarian literature and he told me, “I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.”  And what was he looking for, exactly?  Is that the sort of thing a person says when they’re impartially searching for the truth?  No.  In the search for truth, you let it reveal itself to you as it is.  You don’t have preconceived notions of what the truth is before you go into something.  So what was going on?  What’d he found was a complex set of philosophical arguments to justify why it’s ok that he shouldn’t care for anyone other than himself.  I didn’t bother arguing with him.  It would’ve been a waste of time.

To have any sense of duty there has to be some reason why you care about those laws.  Kant’s categorical imperative is rooted in love.  He loved people.  He sat and thought all day long how to alleviate suffering and help the people around him.  He thought about war and peace.  He wondered what knowledge was and how it could be taught and communicated to others.  He thought about beauty, God, and the meaning of our lives.  He was an incredible man.

The first step in changing the world is caring about something.  You may care about others, rooted in a sense of empathy.  It may be rooted in your own desires and ambitions.  I think moral philosophy is secondary.  The real key is understanding what people are after.  Their angle.  Where are they coming from?

There’s all sorts of reasons why people care about the things they fight for.  Maybe they were raped and it was so traumatizing, just the thought of it happening to someone else makes them so mad that that anger spills over into an impetus to fight for that issue.  They’ll stand on the streets with a sign, fighting for strict punishments to those who rape women, and so on.

The economist Robert Reich was picked on as a small child and just hates bullying.  He sees the rich and powerful bullying others and fights for the small guy, because he was the small guy in school.

So how does this all work out in practice?  With the Duck Dynasty guy, he’ll stand with the Bible because of what it did for him and his life.  That’s the underlying root of his passion for it.  He thinks of his family and how much it helped him.  He thinks of how ashamed he is of his past life.  He feels the love and connection with his family that he didn’t have before, and that love is what leads him to hold that Bible in the air and say, “This is the truth.”

Someone like Dr. Reich will actively search for arguments which support and protect the weak.  His real motivation is to help those people.   He’ll jump out in front of a bus if it’ll save the weak and the poor from harm.

What is “truth” in the moral sphere?  It’s about what you love and care about.  That’s what you fight for.  What you stand for.

There is an intimate connection between deontological and consequentialist ethics.  They’re not separate things.  Some inner passion drives people to view different rules and laws as essential.  That’s the underlying foundation.  And people search for arguments which justify whatever that passion is.  It’s all highly emotional.  They want to convince other people that their passion is important.

This is all really complicated, but hopefully this helps shed some light on my views on the matter.   What we ultimately get into is the psychology of how logic and emotion are related in the brain.  There’s three reactions to dealing with the world — you try to change it, you try to isolate yourself from it, or you flee it in imagination and fantasy.

All the arguments I’ve been discussing so far are dealing with changing the world.  Two things happen when you don’t care about the world.  If you have the resources, you try to isolate yourself from it and build your own private world.  If you don’t have the resources, you flee into fantasy and imagination.

A rich man like Bill Gates uses his resources to try to improve the world.  He gives it all away.  Other rich people would just isolate themselves and not care what happens to the rest of the world.  That’s how many petty dictators and tyrants have lived.  This is all rooted in how you view the world and what you care about.  If you know someone’s passion, you can know exactly what they’d do if they were given wealth and resources.  Without knowing them intimately though, that underlying motivation and passion is hidden from us.

Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!

I didn’t even get you guys a gift.  Now I feel bad.  You know what?  I’ll give you the best gift of all — free physics lectures from Stanford!

Dr. Leonard Susskind is one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he wants to share that passion with the world.  In order to do so, he’s been working for years on a course set which he’s calling The Theoretical Minimum.  It’s a series of filmed lectures which are posted online, for free, along with books which you can get off of  The first book is already out, called The Theoretical Minimum: What You need To Start Doing Physics.  The next book:  Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum comes out in February 2014.   I’m assuming more books are one the way, eventually leading to a nice self-study course from basic physics up to the leading edges of human knowledge.

In the books’ self description, the authors focus around the difficult philosophical ideas which most textbooks shy away from.  That’s right up my alley!

You can find all the courses in iTunes U (under Stanford), on Stanford’s Youtube page, or from this website link.

The courses are as follows:  Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Advanced Quantum Mechanics, Special Relativity, General Relativity, Cosmology, Statistical Mechanics, Quantum Entanglement [3 courses], Basic Particle Physics, and The Standard Model.

I shouldn’t leave you all with the impression that this series covers all of physics.  There’s not much classical E&M there, no thermodynamics, or no plasma physics, to name a few.  No optics.  No computational physics.  He only really covers a small subset of mechanics, but eh.  It’s a welcome set of courses to add online.

There are many other courses which have been coming online in recent years.  Dr. Lewin of MIT offers a wonderful E&M course on MIT Opencourseware, so I’d recommend that.  They also offer a basic mechanics course, if I remember right.  The Khan Academy offers a basic physics course, but if you ask me, it’s way too basic.  They need to put a lot more work into it.  Khan Academy excels in mathematics, up to maybe an undergraduate engineer level.  They cover basic math up to calculus, differential qquations, and linear algebra.  Beyond that, I don’t know of any good online courses.  At my university for example, we have courses like Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics, which keep going, teaching us more advanced mathematics, like partial differential equations, tensors, complex variable analysis, among other things.  I don’t know of any website which has that online yet.  To my knowledge there isn’t any particle physics or quantum field theory lectures online either.  I see little scattered videos here and there on Youtube, but nothing that goes very deep.

I love the internet.   Finally, lectures on advanced physics and quantum field theory are making their way online!  My university doesn’t offer many courses on cosmology, general relativity, or particle physics.  We mainly focus around solid state physics, so having access to these materials means a lot to me.  It’s nice having someone to ease you into all of it.

The courses themselves are self-contained (he tried to make them that way at least), but if you’re going to study the material, you’re best watching the lectures in the order I listed them.  Enjoy!

I’ve been watching them myself, and I really enjoy how knowledgeable Dr. Susskind is.  He’s not caught up in the detailed mathematics, just chugging along.  He focuses on the central ideas, starting really simple and working his way to more complex examples.  Then he expects you to pursue the subject further on your own if you’re deeply interested in it all.  As he said, the purpose of the course is to give you the theoretical minimum.   They are Do-It-Yourself physics courses.  Learn at your own pace.  It’s awesome stuff.

The Robots Are Coming

A new age is quickly approaching us.  I think it’s the central problem of my generation — what are we to think of these robots and computer AI systems which are increasingly able to do tasks which only people could do just a short while ago?

They’re driving cars, climbing ladders, removing debris, opening doors, automating entire warehouses, running check out counters, delivering packages on helicopter drones, and the list goes on.  What’s next?  This is a video from SCHAFT Robotics, which was recently bought out by Google.

AI is only going to get better.  Computers are going to get faster.  Robots are going to get smarter.   They will eventually become smarter and more skilled than humans, the only question is when.

When I’m old, I expect that it will be commonplace to be driving down the road and see a construction site with robots like these building homes, apartment buildings, and shopping malls.  You’ll visit factories and there won’t be anyone inside — just robots.  Restaurants will no longer have waiters or cooks.  Robots will run the entire establishment.

Will it happen in thirty years?  Fifty years?  A hundred years?  Hard to say, but in the large picture, it’s flying toward us at high speed and we need to rethink everything.

We can finally enter an age where our machines free us from all drudgery and boring labor, leaving us for creative, fun endeavors, but it will require us to rethink the economy, money, and work.