The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Virtual Reality & Its Moral Implications

leave a comment »

There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it.  But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.

While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense.  This raises a number of ethical concerns.  While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one.  Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior.  So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.

One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors.  Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds).  These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.

Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems.  If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world?  Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character?  Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?

On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems?  What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world?  Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings.  While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place.  If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place.  So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses.  Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.

Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth.  But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.

If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement.  If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition?  We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway).  It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated.  On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.

I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life.  Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy.  We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt.  Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

leave a comment »

So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.

Conclusion

In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.

Demonization Damning Democracy

leave a comment »

After the 2016 presidential election, I’ve had some more time to reflect on the various causes of what has been aptly dubbed Trumpism, and also to reflect on some strategies that we as a nation need to implement in order to successfully move forward.  I’ll start by saying that I suspect that most people will not like this post because most people sit at the extremes of the political spectrum, and thus will likely feel uncomfortable facing any criticism that they think lends legitimacy to their opponents position.  Regardless of this likelihood, I’ve decided to write this post anyway because the criticisms that this post points out reflect exactly this problem — the diminished capacity for the politically divided to be charitable and intellectually honest in terms of their treatment and representation of their opponents’ positions.

Many would be hard pressed to name another period in American history that has been defined by as much political polarization and animosity that we’ve seen in the last year.  The Civil War that transpired in the mid 19th century is perhaps the closest runner up to match this “great divide” plaguing our nation.  In the interest of moving forward, we need to find quicker and more pragmatic ways of bridging such a divide.  We’re not going to agree on most issues, but there are some things we can do a hell of a lot better.  For starters, I think that we all need to stop talking past one another and acknowledge that there were legitimate reasons to vote for Donald Trump (keep in mind that I thought Clinton was the only sane choice which was why I knew I had to vote for her).  The majority of people on both sides of this debate have been demonizing the other rather than being intellectually honest (let alone charitable) about one another’s position.  Unfortunately the damage has already been done and Trump is now going to be our president (barring some miracle occurring between now and January 20th).

I’m in no way attempting to underplay the moral travesty that a large number of voters are responsible for, and which happened despite the fact that they were outnumbered by almost 3 million Democrat voters in the popular vote (which actually set a record for the highest margin direct-democratic victory for any candidate voted against by the electoral college).  I am however trying to open up a civil discourse between progressive liberals such as myself and those that voted for this inexperienced plutocrat for at least some legitimate reasons.  We may still disagree on the importance of those reasons when weighed against all others under consideration, and we may disagree on how effective Trump would be in actually addressing any one of them (even if they were the most important issues), but we should acknowledge those reasons nevertheless.

Economy, Immigration & Terrorism

Before looking at some of these specific reasons, I think it’s important to note the three main issues that they seem to revolve around, namely terrorism, immigration, and the economy.  It’s also interesting to note that all three of these issues are themselves intimately connected with one another with respect to the impetus that turned the election on its head.  For example, many immigrants and refugees from nations that are predominantly Muslim are getting unfairly lumped into a category of would-be terrorists — largely resulting from anti-Muslim sentiments that have escalated since 9/11, and perhaps climaxing with the formation of other Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS.  And on the economic front, Mexican or other Hispanic immigrants in particular are getting flack in part because of their being largely indistinguishable from illegal immigrants, and some people think that their jobs have been or will be taken from illegal immigrants (or taken from legal immigrants that many simply assume are illegal) that are willing to work for below minimum wage.

Of course the irony here is that conservatives that embrace true free market capitalistic principles are shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting this “free market” consequence, i.e., letting the markets decide what wages are fair with no government intervention.  It’s one thing to argue against illegal immigrants breaking immigration laws (which everyone agrees is a problem, even if they disagree on the degree of the problem), but one can’t employ an economic argument against illegal immigrants or legal immigrants based on sub-par wages or a lack of jobs without also acknowledging the need for government-imposed market regulations.  These market regulations include having a minimum wage that is enforced let alone raised to provide a living wage (which is now at risk with Trump’s newly elected Secretary of Labor Andy Puzder, given his history of screwing his fast food workers while raking in millions of dollars per year).

It goes without saying that the anti-immigrant (even anti-legal-immigrant) mentality was only exacerbated when Trump filled his campaign with hateful “build the wall” rhetoric, combined with Trump calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, despite the fact that immigrants comprise a lower percentage of criminals and rapists compared to non-immigrants in the U.S.  None of this helped to foster any support for embracing these generally decent people that are crossing the border looking for a better life in America.  Most of them are looking for better opportunities, for the same reasons our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. long ago (both legally and illegally).  Having said that, it’s also true that illegal immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed, but lying about the actual impact of undocumented immigrants on the economy (by either denying the fact that they can suppress wages in some industries, or by denying that there are benefits that these people can produce in other work sectors), is only going to detract from our ability to solve the problem effectively and ethically.  Hate mongering certainly isn’t going to accomplish anything other than pissing off liberals and hindering bipartisan immigration reform.

As for Islam, people on the right are justifiably pissed off that most people on the left don’t even acknowledge the fact that Islam has dangerous doctrines that have been exploited to radicalize Muslims into Jihadists and Islamists that have fueled various forms of terrorism.  Saying that ISIS isn’t fundamentally Islamic is ridiculous once one sees that its adherents are in fact motivated by a literal reading of the texts (i.e. the Koran and Hadiths) including a true belief in eternal paradise and glory for martyrs that die on the front lines or by flying a plane into a building.

As a progressive liberal, I’m disappointed when regressive liberals call anybody that points this out a racist or an Islamophobe.  It’s true that many people that make these points (generally on the political right) are also racist and Islamophobic, but many of them are not (including some liberals such as myself) and it actually pushed a number of people toward Trump that would have otherwise stayed away from a clown like Trump. If only the left had done a better job being honest about these facts, then they wouldn’t have scared away a number of people that were sitting on the fence of the election.  A number of people that ran away once they believed that Clinton was being either dishonest or delusional on this point, and who subsequently saw Clinton (albeit erroneously) as someone who was not as likely to handle this terrorist threat effectively. It’s clear to me that she was the most likely to handle it effectively despite this concern given the facts that she was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, including having valuable and relevant experience in helping to take down Osama Bin Laden as Secretary of State.  This misperception, induced by this bit of dishonesty, gave fuel to a ignorant bigot like Trump who was at least right on this one point, even if for all the wrong reasons, and even if he combined this point with bigotry and bogus xenophobic rhetoric based on his ignorance of Islamic culture and Muslims generally.

So while the Trumpers had some legitimate concern here, they and most others on the right failed to acknowledge that Islamic doctrine isn’t the only motivating factor behind ISIS terrorism as there are a number of geopolitical factors at play here and also some number of radicalizing leaders who simply high-jacked Islamic doctrine to fuel terrorism with the primary goal of meeting those geopolitical goals.   Many Trumpers also failed to realize that most Muslims in the world are peaceful people and are not members of ISIS or any other terrorist group or organization.  Many failed to realize that Trump has absolutely no political experience, let alone specific experience pertaining to national or international security, so he is the last person that should claim to know how to handle such a complicated and multi-faceted international conflict.  Furthermore, Trump’s “I’ll bomb the shit out of them” mentality isn’t going to appease the worries of our Muslim allies nor our non-Muslim allies that are seeking diplomatic resolutions at all costs.

I think one of the biggest oversight of Trumpers is their failing to realize that Trump’s threat to place all Muslims residing in the U.S. into a fascist registry and the effects of his anti-Muslim rhetoric are, if anything, accomplishing exactly what ISIS wants.  ISIS wants all Muslims to reject Western values including democracy, equality, and humanism, and what better way to radicalize more Muslims than having a large number of (mostly) white Americans alienating them through harassment and ostracization.  What better way could there be to lose the trust and cooperation of Muslims already residing within our borders — the very Muslims and Muslim communities that we need to work with to combat radicalization and domestic terrorism?  Trump’s hateful behavior and rudderless tactics are likely to create the ultimate Islamic Trojan horse within our own borders.  So while many on the left need to acknowledge that Islam does in fact have an ideological influence on terrorism, and is thus an influence that needs to be addressed honestly, those on the right also need to appreciate the fact that we need to avoid further alienating and angering Muslims such that they are more compelled to join radical groups, the very radical groups that we all (including most other Muslims) despise.

Multi-culturalism & Assimilation

Another big Trump-voter motivational reason is the ongoing clash between multi-culturalism and traditional American culture or perhaps better described as well-established highly homogeneous cultures in America.  Some people were driven to Trumpism by their feeling culturally threatened by immigrants that fail to assimilate to the already well-established cultures in various communities around the country.  If they’ve lived in a community that is composed of only English speaking, reality-TV-watching, hamburger-eating, football fans (to give an example), and then they start seeing other languages and entirely foreign cultures in schools, on the bus, at their workplace, etc., they feel that their way of life is being encroached upon.  When immigrants fail to assimilate to the predominant culture of an area (including learning the English language), with the natives in these communities pressured to adopt bilingual infrastructure, to suspend cultural norms to make new religious exceptions, etc., people understandably get pissed off because humans have evolved to be highly tribal and most of us fear change.

Some feel like there’s a double-standard at play where natives in a community have to adapt to accommodate the immigrants and their cultures, but without having the immigrants compromise by accommodating the native cultures and norms (or at least not to a large enough degree).  As a result, we often see pockets of foreigners that bud off to form micro-communities and groups that are very much like small versions of their home countries.  Then when there’s an influx of these immigrants in schools and certain workplaces, there is increased animosity toward them because they are that much more likely to be treated as an out-group.  This is no doubt further fueled by racism and xenophobia (with vicious cycles of increasing prejudice against immigrants and subsequent assimilation hurdles), but there needs to be a give-take relationship with better cultural assimilation so that the native communities don’t feel that their own culture is threatened while simultaneously feeling forced to preserve and make way for an entirely foreign one.  Additionally, we need to better educate people to be more accepting of reasonable levels of diversity, even if we place pragmatic limits on how far that diversity can go (while still maintaining solidarity and minimizing tribalism).

If it’s not a two-way street, with effective cultural assimilation, then we can expect a lot of people to run away looking for someone like Trump to throw them a proverbial life preserver with his “I’m the greatest and I can fix it all and make America great again” motto (perhaps disguising the implicit motto “make America WHITE again”) even if it’s really nothing but a bunch of snake oil demagoguery so he can get into power and rob the nation blind with a cabinet full of fellow billionaire plutocrats (including those tied to Big-Oil and Goldman Sachs).  Trump learned fairly quickly how effective demagoguery was, likely aided by his insider knowledge of American TV-junkie culture (including The Apprentice), his knowledge of how bigoted so many people are, how attracted they are to controversy and shock-value (rather than basic common decency) and how he could manipulate so many voters through hatred and fear given such weaknesses.  But none of that would have worked if there weren’t some grains of truth in the seeds Trump was sowing, if Trump wasn’t saying things that many Americans were simply too afraid to say out loud (including that which was largely racist, bigoted, and ignorant).

But rather than most people on the left acknowledging the inherent problems with unlimited multi-culturalism, including it leading us down a path where the population becomes less and less cohesive with less solidarity and common goals, the left largely labeled all people with these legitimate concerns as racists and bigots.  While it’s true that a substantial chunk of Trump supporters are racists and bigots (perhaps half, who really knows), an appreciable chunk of them are not racists or bigots.  Much like those that saw obvious problems with Islamic ideology in the modern age as it pertains to terrorist threats (with race being irrelevant, as can be seen by radicals such as Adam Gadahn), many saw problems with immigration in terms of the pragmatic limitations of multi-culturalism (rather than problems with any particular race).  On the other side however, Trump supporters have to at least acknowledge that even if they themselves are not racist, their support of Trump does in fact validate his racist rhetoric and the racist supporters fueled by that rhetoric (even if Trump himself had no racist intentions, although I think he did).  So they may still think it was worth it to support Trump but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.  They have to own up to what Trump’s rhetoric fuels and take at least some responsibility for it, including any consequences that they do not like or endorse.

Political Correctness, Safe Spaces, & Free Speech

Last but not least there are debates regarding things like political correctness (which play into the multi-culturalism battle), safe spaces, and freedom of speech, that deeply affected this election.  For one, I acknowledge and sympathize with others’ aggravation in terms of political correctness, where sometimes people are just trying to communicate some semantic content and don’t want to be bogged down with ever-changing social conventions on what terms one is and is not allowed to use.  But I also understand that social conventions change as a result of what comprises a society’s “stream of consciousness”, including the ever-changing ethical and moral concerns of the day, issues with social justice, stereotypes, marginalization of one group or another, etc.  People on the right should try not to be completely callous and inconsiderate about social conventions and work harder to understand why others are offended by certain terms, and those on the left need to try harder to understand the intentions of those using possibly offensive terms.  If we each work to give a little leeway to the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and vice versa, we’ll have better chances of getting along and finding common ground rather than being demonized and never getting anywhere in terms of societal progress.  People on the left should work harder to not to be so thin-skinned that everything offends them (in other words, try harder not to be like Trump), and people on the right should try to show a little more empathy and try not to be inconsiderate jerks.

Safe spaces have become another problem.  While it’s true that some events can be and should be exclusive to certain groups (for example keeping Nazi or KKK members out of a Jewish festival or speech), it is crucial that we don’t fall down a slippery slope that abolishes freedom of speech or that establishes constant safe spaces that exacerbate the polarization plaguing our political sphere.  For example, social platforms like Facebook and the like allow people to block the comments of others, feed their wall with news and articles that fulfill their own cognitive confirmation biases and prevent their ideas from being challenged.  The irony is that while many Trumpers raised legitimate concerns and dismay over the concept of safe spaces as espoused by those on the left, they too were guilty of the safe space methodology on their own Facebook pages, etc.  Even my own sister (a Trump supporter after Cruz lost) blocked me after I pointed out a few flaws in her logic and reasoning with regard to a couple Trump apologetic posts she had shared.  After her husband came in to defend her (she never attempts to defend herself for some reason), I refuted his points as well in a civil way and then she blocked me from her wall.  This is a problem because people on both sides are making their own safe spaces not allowing diversity in the opinions and points they are exposed to.  It only increases the in-group/out-group mentality that is ripping this country apart.

Trump is ironically the worst offender using safe spaces that I’ve seen, with his “Sean Hannity” safe space on the radio, his one-dimensional rallies (filled with supporters to boost his ego and who have been encouraged by Trump himself to punch protesters in the face, with him offering to pay their legal fees like some kind of totalitarian mobster), his disdain for the free press, free speech, and journalism in general — not to mention the libel laws he wants to change so that he can sue news organizations that report on facts he doesn’t want made public.  The chronic safe space mentality has got to go, even if we reserve the right to safe spaces for some places and occasions.  There needs to be a careful balance so people are exposed to diverse ideas (not just what they want to hear) and we need to protect free speech (limiting one group opens the doors to limit them all).

Where to go from here?

While there may have been some other legitimate reasons to vote for Trump (I couldn’t think of any others to be honest), these seemed to be the primary ones I noticed at play.  So what do we do now?  Well, people need to stop talking past one another, and better empathize with the opposition and not simply demonize them.  The sooner everyone can acknowledge that the opposition had at least some legitimacy, the sooner we can have more civil discourses and keep moving forward to heal this great divide.

The WikiLeaks Conundrum

leave a comment »

I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like.  I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.

Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate.  And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.  In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).

While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities.  One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC.  One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public?  After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know.  Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.  Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.

To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking.  Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform.  Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.

This point illustrates the following conundrum:  while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing.  That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome.  This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get.  Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true.  But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed.  That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.

So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this?  Should we just scrap WikiLeaks?  I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources).  Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?

Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution.  We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose.  This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas.  Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously.  It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait.  In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns.  Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public.  This won’t be an easy task.

This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there.  If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information?  Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function?  Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security?  Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats?  There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety.  Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

with 72 comments

In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part I

leave a comment »

Human beings seem to share the fundamental goal of wanting to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. We all want to be happy, and the humanist movement is an excellent demonstration of the kinds of strategies that have been most effective at achieving this admirable goal – such as the push for democracy, equality, basic human rights, and the elimination of poverty. Clearly we have a long way to go before human happiness is anywhere near universal, let alone maximized – if these are in fact possible futures within our grasp. We’re certainly not going to get there very easily (if at all) unless we address a number of serious societal problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing us today, because of it’s negative impact on just about every other societal problem, is the problem of overpopulation. The reasons for this are obvious and include the decreasing number of available resources per capita, thus forcing people to stretch their resources thinner and thinner over an ever growing population, and/or inclining some societies to go to war with others in order to obtain more resources. Then there’s also the problematic increase in environmental degradation and waste production as the population grows. Beyond the typical resources we’re depleting such as energy/power, food, clean air and water, and raw materials for making various products, there’s also other limited resources that are often overlooked such as the amount of available (let alone habitable) space where people can live, grow food, store waste, etc. There’s also a relatively small percentage of people employed in professions that not only require very special training but that also form the backbone of our society (such as teachers, doctors, scientists, etc.). As these latter resources get stretched thinner and thinner (i.e. education, healthcare, and scientific expertise and research), we’re effectively diluting the backbone of our society which can eventually cascade into societal collapse.

To be sure, there are several ways to combat many of these problems that are caused or exacerbated by overpopulation, for example, by shifting from a goods-based economy to a service-flow economy that recycles product materials that would otherwise be wasted (in part by leasing many of the products that are currently bought and later thrown into a landfill), by increasing the percentage of less-pollutive or non-pollutive renewable energy sources, and finding other ways of decreasing the demand for and increasing the efficiency and distribution of all the resources we rely on. The problem with these approaches however is that although these technologies and admirable efforts are slowly improving, the population is also increasing at the same time. So even if we are in fact increasing efficiency and decreasing consumption and waste per capita, we are simultaneously increasing that very capita, and so it is difficult to tell if technological progress has been (or will eventually be) fast enough to produce a true increase in overall sustainability per capita. It would be fallacious and unjustified to simply assume that to be the case – that technology will always be able to fix every problem. If anything, to error on the side of caution, we should assume that this isn’t the case until we have enough data and knowledge to prove otherwise.

Population Reduction is the Name of the Game

An obvious solution to this problem is to decrease the population growth rate such that our technological capabilities are more than sufficient enough to deliver a sustainable future for us. This goal may even require a negative growth rate, and at some point we’re going to have to start talking about what kinds of societal changes are necessary in order to achieve that goal. We may need some new incentives and/or some other kind of population control measures and policies, however, I’m hopeful that solving this problem is pragmatically achievable if we can manage to seriously educate the populace about how their reproductive choices affect the lives of everyone else in the world and how it is likely to impact future generations (though I don’t think this will be an easy task by any means). If people knew that certain reproductive choices would likely lead to either themselves, their children, or their children’s children, living in a future society filled with unprecedented amounts of poverty and war, environmental and economic collapse, and numerous other sources of suffering – any rational person would heed that knowledge and try their best to combat that possible future.

So a large part of the solution is simply educating everybody about the facts and probabilities of these undesirable outcomes. There are already many individuals and groups of people working on these types of endeavors, trying to push for renewable energy, pro-environmental advocacy and other sustainable living practices and policies, spreading education about family planning and trying to increase the access to and adoption of birth control methods, etc. Unfortunately, these practices haven’t yet been adopted by anywhere near a national nor global majority – far from it. However, if the movement becomes more globalized and builds up to a critical mass and momentum, eventually we’re likely to see the average person’s physical and psychological well being improve, which will further reinforce the incentives to improve and perpetuate the movement, because people will start to realize the tangible benefits they are gaining as a result.

Systematic & Ideological Barriers to Sustainability & Happiness

Unfortunately there are some serious systematic and ideological barriers that are preventing the sustainability movement from gaining traction and they’re ultimately inhibiting what would otherwise be fairly reasonable rates of progress. I think that the primary systematic barrier against achieving sustainability has been corporate-capitalism and the free-market economic models currently in place. While it may be true that there are certain forms of capitalism along with certain regulated market models that could work in principle if not also in practice, unfortunately these aren’t the brands of capitalism and market models that are currently employed by most industrialized nations (though some nations have more sustainable models than others).

What we currently have now are globalized economic systems and models that are fundamentally based on maximizing profit and consolidating privately owned production means at the expense of not only exploiting and depleting our natural resources and environment but also by exploiting unethical sources of human labor. Furthermore, these models have in turn led to unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Then again, what else should we expect to happen when we employ corporate-capitalist free-market models which inherently lack adequate and universal economic, labor and environmental regulations? Despite the fact that the wealthy corporate elite, and the many politicians and citizens that have bought into their propaganda, have actually been touting this model as “the best in the world” or “the best model possible”, we can see that this isn’t true at all both by the fallacious fundamental principles that the models are based on and the actual results they’ve been delivering thus far. If we’re going to have a sustainable future, let alone one that provides us more satisfaction and happiness throughout our lives, we’re going to have to jump off of this sinking ship, and adopt an entirely new societal model.

We also need to consider the ideological barriers that have been hindering the sustainability movement as well as the humanism movement in general. For example, there are many prominent religions such as Christianity and Islam (which are highly influential as they make up over half the population of the world) that believe that one of the primary goals for human beings (according to their “divinely inspired” scripture) is to “be fruitful and multiply” while also claiming a general dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth. While the latter “dominion” over the earth has been interpreted by some as “responsible stewardship” (which is compatible with sustainability), it has often been interpreted as “ownership” over the environment and as justification to exploit it strictly for the benefit of human beings (not realizing our intimate dependence on all other ecosystems). Worse yet, the former “be fruitful and multiply” adage can only be reasonably interpreted one way, and unfortunately this “advice” is the antithesis of a sustainable model for society (though it has been an incredibly effective meme for the expansion of these religions and their cultural influence and power). Indeed, it is the exact opposite of what we should be doing at this point in human history, and perhaps the greatest irony here is that the current overpopulation problem was largely a result of this adage, and the subsequent viral spread of these Abrahamic religions over the past fifteen hundred years especially.

Two other religious beliefs worth mentioning here, which have also been highly popularized by the Abrahamic religions (notably Christianity), are the beliefs that “the end is near” and that “no matter what happens, everything is in God’s hands”, as these beliefs and the overall mentality they reinforce do nothing to support the long-term responsible planning that is fundamental to a sustainable societal model. The latter belief plays on an unfortunate human cognitive bias known as risk compensation, where we tend to behave less responsibly when we feel that we are adequately protected from any harm. In the case of a fanatical belief in divine protection, their level of risk compensation is biased to the theoretical maximum, thus making them the most likely to behave the most irresponsibly. The former belief (“the end is near”) unavoidably shifts the believer’s priorities to the short term (and in proportion to the strength of the belief), and with the specific intention of preparing for this “end that is to come”, rather than basing their beliefs on reality and evidence and responsibly preparing for a brighter future for all of humanity and the rest of the planet that we depend on.

Certainly, these religious beliefs aren’t the only ideological barriers to sustainability, as there are a number of other irrational political ideologies that are largely though not exclusively based on the rejection of scientific evidence and consensus, and have served to heavily reinforce the fossil-fuel and other natural resource driven corporate-capitalist model. This unsustainable model has been reinforced by denying facts about climate change and many other facts pertaining to human impacts on the environment in general. In some cases, I find it difficult to tell if the people that make these absurd claims actually believe them to be true (e.g. that 99+% of scientists are somehow conspiring or lying to everybody else in the world), or if they are just implicitly pleading ignorance and rationalizing so that they can maintain their profit-driven models for outright insatiable greed. I find it most plausible that politicians are collaborating with certain corporations to deny scientific facts because they want to continue to make billions off of this resource exploitation (at least for as long as they can get away with it), and are doing so in large part by brainwashing the constituent base that elected them into office with mounds of corporate-funded misinformation, fear mongering, and empty political rhetoric.

It should also come as no surprise that the people that believe and/or perpetuate these political ideological barriers to sustainability are most often the very same people that believe and/or perpetuate the aforementioned religious ideological barriers, and it seems quite evident that politicians have taken advantage of this fact. Many of them surely know quite well that if they can persuade religious voters to vote for them by convincing those voters that they share a common ground on some moral issue, then those voters become distracted from critically thinking about the primary political agendas that those politicians are really pushing for behind the curtain. The very agendas that are in fact hindering a sustainable future from ever coming into fruition.

We’ve all seen it – certain politicians claiming that they oppose stem cell research or abortion, or that advocate for abolishing the separation between church and state (though generally not admittedly), and use this tactic to suck in these (often) single issue religious voters, while ironically promoting a number of policies that often violate the morals of those very same voters (unbeknownst to the voters). They enact policies that perpetuate war, capital punishment, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. They enact policies that worsen socioeconomic inequality and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. They enact policies that are destroying the finite supply of natural capital we have left on this planet. They enact policies that ultimately hinder democracy, equality, and universal human rights.

So in the end, most religious voters (and some non-religious voters that are similarly misled), while admirably trying to do what they believe is the most moral thing to do, end up vastly increasing the amount of immoral behavior and suffering in the world, due in large part to the politicians that manipulated them into doing so. Which is why it is crucial that people make their decisions based on reason and evidence and also critically think about the consequences of their decisions and actions as they are sometimes more complicated than we are often led to believe. We need to think more critically of all the policies and legislation that we are choosing based on who we vote for, and we also need to be wary of policies that may initially seem to align with our morals and desires, and yet will actually result in more suffering or other unforeseen problems in the long run.

In the next part of this post, I will elaborate more on the broader human goals we all seem to share, and how a science of morality can help us use those broader goals to alleviate these societal problems and simultaneously help us to achieve a future where we are all collectively happier than we ever thought we could be, with far more fulfilling lives.  Here’s the link to part two.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 3 of 3)

leave a comment »

This is part 3 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 2.

Reactive Devaluation

Studies have shown that if a claim is believed to have come from a friend or ally, the person receiving it will be more likely to think that it has merit and is truthful.  Likewise, if it is believed to have come from an enemy or some member of the opposition, it is significantly devalued.  This bias is known as reactive devaluation.  A few psychologists actually determined that the likeabillity of the source of the message is one of the key factors involved with this effect, and people will actually value information coming from a likeable source more than a source they don’t like, with the same order of magnitude that they would value information coming from an expert versus a non-expert.  This is quite troubling.  We’ve often heard about how political campaigns and certain debates are seen more as popularity contests than anything else, and this bias is likely a primary reason for why this is often the case.

Unfortunately, a large part of society has painted a nasty picture of atheism, skepticism, and the like.  As it turns out, people who do not believe in a god (mainly the Christian god) are the least trusted minority in America, according to a sociological study performed a few years ago (Johanna Olexy and Lee Herring, “Atheists Are Distrusted: Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to Sociological Study,” American Sociological Association News, May 3, 2006).  Regarding the fight against dogmatism, the rational thinker needs to carefully consider how they can improve their likeability to the recipients of their message, if nothing else, by going above and beyond to remain kind, respectful, and maintain a positive and uplifting attitude during their argument presentation.  In any case, the person arguing will always be up against any societal expectations and preferences that may reduce that person’s likeability, so there’s also a need to remind others as well as ourselves about what is most important when discussing an issue — the message rather than the messenger.

The Backfire Effect & Psychological Reactance

There have already been several cognitive biases mentioned that interfere with people’s abilities to accept new evidence that contradicts their beliefs.  To make matters worse, psychologists have discovered that people often react to disconfirming evidence by actually strengthening their beliefs.  This is referred to as the backfire effect.  This can make refutations futile most of the time, but there are some strategies that help to combat this bias.  The bias is largely exacerbated by a person’s emotional involvement and the fact that people don’t want to appear to be unintelligent or incorrect in front of others.  If the debating parties let tempers cool down before resuming the debate, this can be quite helpful regarding the emotional element.  Additionally, if a person can show their opponent how accepting the disconfirming evidence will benefit them, they’ll be more likely to accept it.  There are times when some of the disconfirming evidence mentioned is at least partially absorbed by the person, and they just need some more time in a less tense environment to think things over a bit.  If the situation gets too heated, or if a person risks losing face with peers around them, the ability to persuade that person only decreases.

Another similar cognitive bias is referred to as reactance, which is basically a motivational reaction to instances of perceived infringement of behavioral freedoms.  That is, if a person feels that someone is taking away their choices or limiting the number of them, such as in cases where they are being heavily pressured into accepting a different point of view, they will often respond defensively.  They may feel that freedoms are being taken away from them, and it is only natural for a person to defend whatever freedoms they see themselves having or potentially losing.  Whenever one uses reverse psychology, they are in fact playing on at least an implicit knowledge of this reactance effect.  Does this mean that rational thinkers should use reverse psychology to persuade dogmatists to accept reason and evidence?  I personally don’t think that this is the right approach because this could also backfire and I would prefer to be honest and straightforward, even if this results in less efficacy.  At the very least however, one needs to be aware of this bias and needs to be careful with how they phrase their arguments, how they present the evidence, and to maintain a calm and respectful attitude during these discussions, so that the other person doesn’t feel the need to defend themselves with the cost of ignoring evidence.

Pareidolia & Other Perceptual Illusions

Have you ever seen faces of animals or people while looking at clouds, shadows, or other similar situations?  The brain has many pattern recognition modules and will often respond erroneously to vague or even random stimuli, such that we perceive something familiar, even when it isn’t actually there.  This is called pareidolia, and is a type of apophenia (i.e. seeing patterns in random data).  Not surprisingly, many people have reported instances of seeing various religious imagery and so forth, most notably the faces of prominent religious figures, from ordinary phenomena.  People have also erroneously heard “hidden messages” in records when playing them in reverse, and similar illusory perceptions.  This results from the fact that the brain often fills in gaps and if one expects to see a pattern (even if unconsciously driven by some emotional significance), then the brain’s pattern recognition modules can often “over-detect” or result in false positives by too much sensitivity and by conflating unconscious imagery with one’s actual sensory experiences, leading to a lot of distorted perceptions.  It goes without saying that this cognitive bias is perfect for reinforcing superstitious or supernatural beliefs, because what people tend to see or experience from this effect are those things that are most emotionally significant to them.  After it occurs, people believe that what they saw or heard must have been real and therefore significant.

Most people are aware that hallucinations occur in some people from time to time, under certain neurological conditions (generally caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters).  A bias like pareidolia can effectively produce similar experiences, but without requiring the more specific neurological conditions that a textbook hallucination requires.  That is, the brain doesn’t need to be in any drug-induced state nor does it need to be physically abnormal in any way for this to occur, making it much more common than hallucinations.  Since pareidolia is also compounded with one’s confirmation bias, and since the brain is constantly implementing cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms in the background (as mentioned earlier), this can also result in groups of people having the same illusory experience, specifically if the group shares the same unconscious emotional motivations for “seeing” or experiencing something in particular.  These circumstances along with the power of suggestion from even just one member of the group can lead to what are known as collective hallucinations.  Since collective hallucinations like these inevitably lead to a feeling of corroboration and confirmation between the various people experiencing it (say, seeing a “spirit” or “ghost” of someone significant), they can reinforce one another’s beliefs, despite the fact that the experience was based on a cognitive illusion largely induced by powerful human emotions.  It’s likely no coincidence that this type of group phenomenon seems to only occur with members of a religion or cult, specifically those that are in a highly emotional and synchronized psychological state.  There have been many cases of large groups of people from various religions around the world claiming to see some prominent religious figure or other supernatural being, illustrating just how universal this phenomena is within a highly emotional group context.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

There is a cognitive bias that is somewhat related to the aforementioned perceptual illusion biases which is known as hyperactive agency detection.  This bias refers to our tendency to erroneously assign agency to events that happen without an agent causing them.  Human beings all have a theory of mind that is based in part on detecting agency, where we assume that other people are causal agents in the sense that they have intentions and goals just like we do.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that our ability to recognize that others are intentional agents allows us to better predict another person’s behavior which is extremely beneficial to our survival (notably in cases where we suspect others are intending to harm us).

Unfortunately our brain’s ability to detect agency is hyperactive in that it errs on the side of caution by over-detecting possible agency, as opposed to under-detecting (which could negatively affect our survival prospects).  As a result, people will often ascribe agency to things and events in nature that have no underlying intentional agent.  For example, people often anthropomorphize (or implicitly assume agency to) machines and get angry when they don’t work properly (such as an automobile that breaks down while driving to work), often with the feeling that the machine is “out to get us”, is “evil”, etc.  Most of the time, if we have feelings like this, they are immediately checked and balanced by our rational minds that remind us that “it’s only a car”, or “it’s not conscious”, etc.  Similarly, when natural disasters or other similar events occur, our hyperactive agency detection snaps into gear, trying to find “someone to blame”.  This cognitive bias explains quite well, at least as a contributing factor as to why so many ancient cultures assumed that there were gods that caused earthquakes, lightning, thunder, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.  Quite simply, they needed to ascribe the events as having been caused by someone.

Likewise, if we are walking in a forest and hear some strange sounds in the bushes, we may often assume that some intentional agent is present (whether another person or other animal), even though it may simply be the wind that is causing the noise.  Once again, we can see in this case the evolutionary benefit of this agency detection, even with the occasional “false positive”, the noise in the bushes could very well be a predator or other source of danger, so it is usually better for our brains to assume that the noise is coming from an intentional agent.  It’s also entirely possible that even in cases where the source of sound was determined to be the wind, early cultures may have ascribed an intentional stance to the wind itself (e.g. a “wind” god, etc.).  In all of these cases, we can see how our hyperactive agency detection can lead to irrational, theistic and other supernatural belief systems, and we need to be aware of such a bias when evaluating our intuitions of how the world works.

Risk Compensation

It is only natural that the more a person feels protected from various harms, the less careful they tend to behave, and vice versa.  This apparent tendency, sometimes referred to as risk compensation, is often a harmless approach because generally speaking, if one is well protected from harm, they do have less to worry about than one who is not, and thus they can take greater relative risks as a result of that larger cushion of safety.  Where this tends to cause a problem however, is in cases when the perceived level of protection is far higher than it actually is.  The worst case scenario that comes to mind is if a person that appeals to the supernatural thinks that it doesn’t matter what happens to them or that no harm can come to them because of some belief in a supernatural source of protection, let alone one that they believe provides the most protection possible.  In this scenario, their level of risk compensation is fully biased to a negative extreme, and they will be more likely to behave irresponsibly because they don’t have realistic expectations of the consequences of their actions.  In a post-enlightenment society, we’ve acquired a higher responsibility to heed the knowledge gained from scientific discoveries so that we can behave more rationally as we learn more about the consequences of our actions.

It’s not at all difficult to see how the effects of various religious dogma on one’s level of risk compensation can inhibit that society from making rational, responsible decisions.  We have several serious issues plaguing modern society including those related to environmental sustainability, climate change, pollution, war, etc.  If believers in the supernatural have an attitude that everything is “in God’s hands” or that “everything will be okay” because of their belief in a protective god, they are far less likely to take these kinds of issues seriously because they fail to acknowledge the obvious harm on everyone in society.  What’s worse is that not only are dogmatists reducing their own safety, but they’re also reducing the safety of their children, and of everyone else in society that is trying to behave rationally with realistic expectations.  If we had two planets, one for rational thinkers, and one for dogmatists, this would no longer be a problem for everyone.  The reality is that we share one planet and thus we all suffer the consequences of any one person’s irresponsible actions.  If we want to make more rational decisions, especially those related to the safety of our planet’s environment, society, and posterity, people need to adjust their risk compensation such that it is based on empirical evidence using a rational, proven scientific methodology.  This point clearly illustrates the need to phase out supernatural beliefs since false beliefs that don’t correspond with reality can be quite dangerous to everybody regardless of who carries the beliefs.  In any case, when one is faced with the choice between knowledge versus ignorance, history has demonstrated which choice is best.

Final thoughts

The fact that we are living in an information age with increasing global connectivity, and the fact that we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, will likely help to combat the ill effects of these cognitive biases.  These factors are making it increasingly difficult to hide one’s self from the evidence and the proven efficacy of using the scientific method in order to form accurate beliefs regarding the world around us.  Societal expectations are also changing as a result of these factors, and it is becoming less and less socially acceptable to be irrational, dogmatic, and to not take scientific methodology more seriously.  In all of these cases, having knowledge about these cognitive biases will help people to combat them.  Even if we can’t eliminate the biases, we can safeguard ourselves by preparing for any potential ill effects that those biases may produce.  This is where reason and science come into play, providing us with the means to counter our cognitive biases by applying a rational skepticism to all of our beliefs, and by using a logical and reliable methodology based on empirical evidence to arrive at a belief that we can be justifiably confident (though never certain) in.  As Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”  Science has constantly been ratcheting our way toward a better understanding of the universe we live in, despite the fact that the results we obtain from science are often at odds with our own intuitions about how we think the world is.  Only relatively recently has science started to provide us with information regarding why our intuitions are often at odds with the scientific evidence.

We’ve made huge leaps within neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology, and these discoveries are giving us the antidote that we need in order to reduce or eliminate irrational and dogmatic thinking.  Furthermore, those that study logic have an additional advantage in that they are more likely to spot fallacious arguments that are used to support this or that belief, and thus they are less likely to be tricked or persuaded by arguments that often appear to be sound and strong, but actually aren’t.  People fall prey to fallacious arguments all the time, and it is mostly because they haven’t learned how to spot them (which courses in logic and other reasoning can help to mitigate).  Thus, overall I believe it is imperative that we integrate knowledge concerning our cognitive biases into our children’s educational curriculum, starting at a young age (in a format that is understandable and engaging of course).  My hope is that if we start to integrate cognitive education (and complementary courses in logic and reasoning) as a part of our foundational education curriculum, we will see a cascade effect of positive benefits that will guide our society more safely into the future.