Dagens ord


Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

29 maj 2021

Trollkarlar och profeter

Jag lät mina elever lyssna till Will MacAskills presentation av longtermism, What we owe the future, och slogs av ett argument (vid 13'12''):

... Even a difference between the economy growing at a rate of 2 per cent per person per year, and 1.8 per cent per person per year, as a result of climate change. After a couple of centuries, that becomes the equivalent of a catastrophe that wipes out half of the world's wealth.

Först och främst funderade jag på hur detta påstående kunde omsättas till en ekvation. Jag formulerade fyra möjliga varianter:



Jag löste den första ekvationen (grafiskt) och fick svaret t ≈ 25 år.

Efter 25 år med 2% tillväxt skulle vi då ha 1,63 gånger så mycket som nu. Under denna tid skulle vi ha genererat totalt 31,7 gånger så mycket värde som vi har nu. Om vi istället hade haft 1,8% tillväxt hade vi under dessa år genererat totalt 30,9 gånger så mycket värde som vi har nu. Skillnaden motsvarar 0,8 gånger det värde vi har nu, dvs hälften av det värde vi skulle ha om 25 år med 2% tillväxt. Alltså innebär en lägre tillväxttakt i 25 år samma värdebortfall som en katastrof om 25 år som förstör hälften av allt värde vi då skulle ha haft med 2% tillväxt. 

Eller?


När jag nu läser citatet ovan, så verkar den andra ekvationen stämma bättre med vad MacAskill säger. Den ekvationen torde ge en lösning på t < 25 år.

Kanske är den tredje eller fjärde ekvationen som MacAskill avser. Dessa torde ge lösningar på t > 25 år. Kanske 100 < t < 200.


Jag skrev i alla fall upp den första ekvationen på tavlan och ritade en bild:




Eller så är det helt enkelt den här ekvationen som avses:

...vilken ger en lösning på t ≈ 350 år. Ja, jag tror det. Motsvarande bild blir då:





Vad nu detta egentligen säger om valet av tillväxttakt. En högre tillväxttakt innebär ju samtidigt en större risk för katastrof. 

Vad nu tillväxt innebär; hur det nu mäts; och vilken relevans detta har för mänsklig välfärd.


Efteråt pratade vi om trollkarlar och profeter - och om dem som menar att båda har fel (som t.ex. Lynn Margulis och Thomas Malthus).



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Johan Wästlund kommenterar klokt:

Det behövs väl inget integrerande? Det handlar väl bara om den relativa skillnaden mellan det slutliga resultatet av en årlig ökning på 2% och en årlig ökning på 1.8%, men den skillnaden är ju (med den approximation som det är meningen att procent ska användas till) 0.2%. Som alla vet som har läst min bloggpost, svarar en fördubbling mot ungefär 70 logocent. 0.2 logocent om året är 1 logocent på 5 år, så det tar ungefär 5*70=350 år innan det skiljer en faktor 2. Men samma resonemang visar ju att 2 logocent om året blir en fördubbling på 35 år, så vi jämför alltså en 1000-faldig ökning med en 500-faldig.

Nu har jag inte lyssnat, men är det någon som på riktigt resonerar som i citatet, eller ska det bara exemplifiera hur tramsigt det blir? Om en 500-faldig ökning är ekvivalent med ett katastrofscenario om 350 år, hur resonerar man då om den situation som ändå skulle ha inträffat 35 år tidigare, med en 500-faldig ökning på 315 år med 2% årlig tillväxt? För att inte tala om dagens värld.

Det är väl en sak om "tillväxt" bara definieras i termer av pengar och priser, men då finns ju inget stöd för att utebliven tillväxt skulle vara ekvivalent med någon katastrof.

Om det å andra sidan handlar om fortsatt exponentiell tillväxt av befolkning, produktion av prylar mm ytterligare flera hundra år, är det väl bara idéer i stil med "Eternity in six hours" som är intressanta. Men många verkar tycka att redan sådant som att skicka självreproducerande robotar till Merkurius och ta isär hela planeten på 40 år verkar orealistiskt.


Allt är Aschbergs fel!

Allt är Aschbergs fel!

Jag har precis lyssnat till Gustav Fridolins förslag för en vital demokrati: Fler bibliotek.

Jag ler och tänker att när TV:n kom på 50-talet så befarade både väljare och politiker att den skulle leda till passivisering och mindre läsande. Detta kunde man säga under de kommande tjugo åren utan att behöva skämmas. Men hur tävla mot minsta motståndets lag? Tanken var att TV åtminstone skulle vara uppbygglig, reklamfri och statligt kontrollerad. På 70-talet försökte man göra nödvändigheten till en dygd och ”Fem myror” utgjorde något slags zenit.

I början på 80-talet körde Aschberg ut en färja i Nordsjön och piratsände reklamfinansierat SM i lavemang. Och sen ba’: Fuck all!

Fler bibliotek? Ha, folk kollar inte ens på TV längre. Även om Agenda skulle stöpas om i ett konstruktivt format så skulle det inte ha någon effekt. Nyhetsredaktionens alltför senkomna satsning på miljöbevakning - vem påverkar den?

Fler bibliotek. Som besöks av vilka? Bildningstörstande ungdomar? Jo, tjena!

P.S. På min fråga om hur vi motverkar högskolornas omvandling till yrkesskolor och universitetens omvandling till underleverantörer för näringslivet svarade Fridolin: Genom demokratisk opinionsbildning för en förändring av incitamentsstrukturerna. Mmm... Minsta motståndets lag.

Homeros skrev för snart 3 000 år sedan att vi måste surra oss vid masten för att styra rätt. Ju längre vi styr fel desto svårare blir det att hitta rätt. Och nu har vi styrt fel så länge att vi inte ens reagerar över det absurda i att mitt ute på havet, på väg över jordens kant utan proviant, käckt ropa: ”Hej vad det går! Är det någon som vill bli surrad vid masten?”

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Läs också Yudkowskys text om Wuhan.


9 maj 2021

Ställ inga frågor!


"Evolutionsteorin leder unga bort från tron", skriver Ingvar Nilsson i Dagen Debatt (30 april 2021).

Allt i texten, förutom en sak (se nedan), är helt korrekt - och självklart positivt. Därför blir det så tragikomiskt när man som läsare ändå förstår att skribenten beklagar vad han uppenbarligen anser vara ett jättelikt och mycket olyckligt misstag, och varnar för en negativ utveckling som måste stoppas.

Ja, di relischösa har alltid haft svårt att skilja på vad de önskar (oklart varför) och vad som är rimligt, troligt eller korrekt (”sant”).

Skribenten har troligtvis rätt i att undervisning i evolutionslära (utifrån ett naturalistisk ramverk) har bidragit till att fler lämnar (eller aldrig deltar) i kyrkan och religionen. Han menar att det är ett ödesdigert misstag att försöka anpassa kyrkans budskap till verkligheten: I stället för att bli mer trovärdig och populär visar man på detta sätt sin egen irrelevans. Hur skulle det låta om ett företag marknadsförde sina produkter genom att säga: ”Ja, det finns ju andra märken som en del gillar. Vi har försökt kopiera en del av deras finesser, men det är klart att de kan sina grejor bättre än vi. Du kanske borde överväga att köpa originalet i stället?” Eller om en magiker under sin föreställning hela tiden visade hur han utförde sina trick? Det blir liksom inte så spännande då.

Skribenten har också rätt i att ateism är ett metafysiskt val.

Men felet som skribenten gör är att likställa detta val med ”vetenskaplig sanning”.

Jag ska bespara mina till övervägande delen väl insatta vänner en filosofisk och vetenskapsteoretisk diskussion. Låt oss bara konstatera att vare sig religion eller vetenskap producerar någon sanning. Jag tror att ”teisters” inskränkta och dogmatiska hållning till sin egen tro som ”sanning” gör att de inte kan se vetenskap och naturalism som något annat än en konkurrerande idé - vilket i deras öron låter som en ”konkurrerande sanning”.

Man kan inte välja sanning. Men man kan välja vilka verktyg man vill använda sig av för att närma sig en så användbar och pålitlig modell som möjligt av den verklighet vi lever i.

Eftersom vetenskapens verktyg är så överlägsna för detta så blir den på sikt varje ärlig och tänkande människas val av verktyg.

Utöver detta val kan man i princip välja att tro på förkomsten av andra, parallella verkligheter. Men eftersom den eventuella förekomsten av dessa inte har någon inverkan på den enda verklighet vi faktiskt lever i, så ter sig det valet inte särskilt lockande.

Och ja, skribenten har också rätt i att ju bättre vi blir på att beskriva vår verklighet, desto mindre troligt verkar det att det skulle kunna finnas någon annan. Så den oro skribenten uttrycker är befogad, trots att begreppen blandas ihop.

Sorry, ni relischösa! Ni fattar alltså själva att det ni vill tro på är både långsökt och oattraktivt som idé. Ni önskar att det inte vore så. För att... Ja, varför, egentligen?

Jag tror att ni först och främst vill pracka på andra (nya generationer) de idéer ni själva blivit indoktrinerade med i ett fåfängt försök att övertyga er själva om att ni inte (trots att den plågsamma misstanken hotar att bryta fram) levt i en vanföreställning hela livet.

Ja, sen finns ju en massa annat, ännu värre. Som att ni inbillar er att verkligheten och livet vore bättre om alla trodde på era idéer. Även om så vore, så går det inte att vidmakthålla en oförnuftig tro utan övergrepp, vilket leder till en omöjlighet: För att vi ska må bra måste vi tvinga människor (inklusive oss själva) att tro på saker som de förr eller senare kommer att tvivla på, vilket gör att de inte kan må bra, på grund av både tvivel och tvång. För att inte tala om det faktum att vi genom att lura oss själva förhindrar faktisk utveckling av möjligheter till ett allt bättre liv för allt fler.

När du hör dig själv säga: ”Tänk inte så mycket, och ställ inga besvärliga frågor”, ja, då vet du att du hamnat på fel sida av historien. Hade detta tänkande fått råda så hade vi inte haft vare sig demokrati eller antibiotika. Om du inte ens fattar det, så är du bara farlig. Och om du fattar det, men säger så ändå, ja, då är du både farlig och ond.

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Kommentarer och diskussion


"Jag inte delar skribentens 'optimism'. Tänk om det vore så lätt att få folk att överge sina religiösa dogmer. Skämt åsido tycker jag det låter ofantligt osannolikt att skolungdomar i USA skulle få så mycket undervisning i evolutionsteori att det skulle påverka någon mätbar andel av dem. Här i sekulära Sverige nämner man väl teorin i förbigående någon gång, men inte är det väl något fokus precis?"

I Sverige har vi turen att de flesta (?) har en förförståelse redan när de kommer till skolan. Jag har själv sett motsatsen och just det du påpekar i USA, där även kvalificerade lärare och ambitiösa skolor kämpar förgäves.

Skolan funkar inte

Skolan funkar inte längre.

Gör så här:

1) Inför antagningskrav till gymnasiets studieförberedande program: Snittbetyg minst C och minst C i Svenska, Engelska och Matematik.

2) Inför antagningskrav till gymnasiets yrkesförberedande program: Snittbetyg minst D.


Dessa är akutåtgärder och bör genomföras genast. Därefter, snabbt, innan betygsinflationen upphäver respiten:

3) Organisera flera olika alternativa aktiviteter för dem som inte uppnår kraven, däribland flexibla gymnasieförberedande kompletteringsutbildningar.

4) Utveckla vuxenutbildningen och håll den separerad från ungdomsgymnasiet.

5) Utveckla extern, anonym och standardiserad bedömning och betygsättning av samtliga ämnen och kurser på både grundskola och gymnasieskola, i statlig regi.

6) Organisera om grundskola och gymnasium så att de elever som inte uppnår godkänt i olika ämnen och kurser inom ordinarie tid tas om hand på ett standardiserat sätt utanför ordinarie undervisning.

7) Låt ämneslärare i grundskola och gymnasium koncentrera sig på ge god undervisning till relativt homogena grupper, med tillräckliga förkunskaper. Inget annat.

8/ Flytta ansvar och social omsorg om elever från ämneslärare till särskild personal och organisation.

9) Avveckla alla mått, krav och mål om genomströmning eller önskad andel elever med en viss utbildning eller kunskapsnivå.

10) Avveckla friskolorna.

11) Förstatliga skolan.

12) Skapa sysselsättning för människor utan gymnasieexamen.

13) Utveckla en standardiserad, högkvalitativ proaktiv studie-, yrkes- och livsvägledning redan från grundskolans första år, av och med en bred kompetens.

Kommentarer och diskussion:


”Men måste inte punkt 12 åtgärdas först?”

Den kommer på köpet; den tvingas fram. Visst är den en förutsättning, men ingen har någonsin viljat göra (säga) detta. Om vi börjar med punkt 1 skapas ofrånkomliga incitament; en reality check. Den där drömmen om att fler (alla) ska bli akademiker eller högkvalificerade för nya teknikjobb, den måste tvingas ur alla önsketänkare (och cyniker). Det faktum att ”enkla” jobb är de vi egentligen har behövt hela tiden är så uppenbart att endast förnekelse kan ligga bakom den kontraproduktiva utvecklingen de senaste fyrtio åren.

Dessutom kommer ingen att vilja ha de enkla jobben så länge (de tror att) möjligheten finns att få (!) en fin examen och ett snofsigt jobb (utan fallenhet eller motprestation). Det är först när det senare alternativet inte längre står till buds som efterfrågan kan mötas av utbud av jobb som bättre matchar både individernas kvalifikationer och samhällets behov.

Själv gick jag ut grundskolan i mitten av 80-talet med 4,6 i snitt. Jag vågade ändå inte välja Naturvetenskaplig linje, och de signaler jag fick från alla håll var: ’Om du inte är säker på att du klarar den så ska du inte välja den’. Jag valde Teknisk linje i stället och fick kämpa ordentligt hela tiden för att slutligen nå snittet 4,1. Min examen var en öppen fråga in till slutet eftersom jag knappt klarade de svåraste kurserna på utsatt tid. Aldrig upplevde jag mig orättvist behandlad och jag hade inget att klaga eller skylla på.

Efter fyra år var jag gymnasieingenjör, eller ”25-öresingenjör”, som det kallades. Som sådan fick jag jobb som maskinoperatör vid ett löpande band, tillsammans med människor som inte hade gått gymnasiet. Tanken var väl att jag skulle kunna arbeta mig upp. (Så småningom kom jag in på universitetet och tio år senare hade jag också genomgått en doktorandutbildning i datavetenskap och kognitionsvetenskap.)

Idag innehåller klasserna på de studieförberedande programmen många elever som inte hade klarat ett tvåårigt yrkesförberedande gymnasieprogram på 80-talet (av många olika orsaker, varav många är artefakter av årtionden av dumsnällhet, inte minst inlärd hjälplöshet) Men om en enda av dessa riskerar att inte få examen efter tre år, trots massiva insatser som aldrig ens skulle ha övervägts för fyrtio år sedan, så blir det en jätteapparat och allt och alla - förutom eleverna själva och deras vårdnadshavare - ifrågasätts: Det måste vara något fel på skolan, lärarna, insatserna, kraven... Det får inte hända; ”gör om, gör rätt!” (skolan, alltså). Dessutom kostar det mer (pengar) att inte dela ut examen än att hålla på examenskraven. Ingen lärare eller rektor orkar hålla emot. Dessutom straffas man för att man ens försöker genom att bli obekväm och dra på sig oändligt merarbete. Och eleverna och vårdnadshavarna vet om det; de räknar med det. Det blir ett chicken race där skolan har förlorat på förhand. Auktoritet har ersatts av förödmjukelse. Ödmjukhet har ersatts av arrogans.

Ska de inte bli läkare så ska de bli företagare, entreprenörer, jurister, ekonomer, diplomater, mäklare, kändisar, marknadsförare, projektledare... Jag vet inte vad som är mest realistiskt, eller värst: Att de aldrig blir det, eller att de faktiskt gör det.

Och det värsta av allt: Allt detta merarbete är kvadrupelt kontraproduktivt: Det hjälper inte; det skickar fel signaler till alla; det förvärrar stadigt problemen; och - viktigast - det försämrar drastiskt möjligheten till god utbildning för de som kan och vill genomgå en sådan.


”Kravlösheten ställer till det så grymt både för eleverna, lärarna, skolorna, universitet och högskolan, samhället. Våga ställa krav för att få gå vidare till nästa steg är A och O för kvalitet.”

Vi har ju skapat en s.k. ”incitamentsstruktur” där det ligger i allas intresse att inte göra detta, och den har troligtvis skapats delvis medvetet i just detta syfte. Vi kommer inte att kunna ställa några krav så länge skolan och samhället befinner sig i allmänningens dilemma.


”Ja, hur ska läraren kunna ställa krav när hen inte har något ’annars’ att komma med. ’Annars’ kunde en gång i tiden innebära ett mer eller mindre underförstått ’ingen framtida försörjning’ men nu tycks det inte fungera längre. Kanske beroende på att människor som syns i media och som varit ekonomiskt framgångsrika sällan visar upp någon boklig lärdom. Den kompetens som upplevs framgångsrik tycks mest vara ’social’, dvs. en kompetens som lärs in utanför klassrummen. Vilka ’annars’ kan man introducera för att komma tillrätta med problemet?”

Ingen examen. Det kan fortfarande tyda på samhällsproblem att ”framgång” inte kräver någon examen. Men det får vi ta tag i sen.


”Jag vill ha en åtgärd till: En återgång till tvååriga yrkesprogram igen, och ett fristående påbyggnadspaket för att uppnå högskolebehörighet som går att läsa direkt som ett tredje år eller senare på Komvux.”

14 mars 2021

Progressivism vs. konservatism

Den senaste tiden har jag läst Henrichs "The Weirdest People in the World", Kimmo Erikssons och Pontus Strimlings m.fl. "Perceptions of the appropriate response to norm violation" och Scott Alexanders "The Consequences of Radical Reform" samt sett Adam Curtis filmserie "Can't Get You Out of My Head" och upplevt en drastisk förändring i mitt sätt att se på evolution av normer och på kampen mellan upplysning och motupplysning.

Hur tillämpbar är egentligen evolutionär spelteori (duvor och hökar, tit-for-tat, o.s.v. )? Om alla människor historiskt har levt i små klansamhällen - hur och när har i så fall de UPPREPADE interaktionerna med OLIKA, OKÄNDA och EXTERNA potentiella samarbetspartners uppstått och på sikt gett upphov till ett selektionstryck för ökad tillit och samarbete?

Är det kanske som Kimmo och Pontus har sagt till mig hela tiden, att det är en återvändsgränd att försöka visa hur utökat samarbete kan motiveras matematiskt?

Henrich verkar säga att endast med mycket osannolika, starka och långvariga sociala normstrukturer kan vi psykologiskt förmås att (relativt kortsiktigt) anta en samarbetsvillig inställning - snarare än tvärtom. Den enda gång som detta har inträffat var när den katolska kyrkan och karolingerna slog sina påsar ihop för att tvinga sönder släktskapsbaserade lojaliteter i Centraleuropa under medeltiden - och detta endast för att de råkade gynna deras egna syften, och för att det gav upphov till en självförstärkande cirkel av ökad (centraliserad) makt och ökade möjligheter till fortsatt (egennyttigt) normgenomdrivande.

Oavsett hur ekonomiskt rationellt ökat samarbete ter sig - även på relativt kort sikt - så verkar ”naturliga” klanbaserade normer vara mycket starkare och därför förhindra att utökat samarbete kan utvecklas.

När jag tänker lite mer på det där med normutveckling så slår det mig att den progressiva sidan här har ett mycket starkt och avgörande argument i den eviga diskussionen om konservatism kontra progressivism.

Konservatismen har, å ena sidan, den kulturella evolutionen i allmänhet på sin sida - motupplysningens starkaste argument är att vi inte ska peta i organiska förlopp för att vi inte vet vad vi gör och därför riskerar att göra allting värre.

Dessutom försvagas de progressiva argumenten för att vi åtminstone delvis är (potentiellt) altruistiska och egalitära ”i grunden”.

Å andra sidan visar Henrich att önskvärda tillstånd inte uppnås utan särdeles kraftiga och långvariga interventioner - oavsett om de är medvetet designade för ett visst syfte eller inte. Utan sådana  är den kulturella evolutionen starkt begränsad och avsnörd från gynnsamma utvecklingsvägar av historiska omständigheter och krafter.

För att få önskad utveckling till stånd krävs kraftfulla interventioner.

Detta innebär inte att frågan är avgjord. Problemet med att komma överens om, överblicka och kontrollera social ingenjörskonst återstår. Det gör också frågan om huruvida det överhuvudtaget finns några (bättre, bästa) lösningar eller om det bara finns kompromisser och ett fåtal balanspunkter (så att det perfekta blir det godas fiende).

Däremot verkar frågan om huruvida människan är ond eller god försvinna ur kalkylen, liksom konservatismens outtalade förhoppning om att vi genom passivitet obönhörligt rör oss mot den bästa av alla praktiskt möjliga världar.


30 jan. 2021

Tänkande maskiner

Jag har haft nöjet att på förhand läsa och kommentera Olle Häggströms nya bok, Tänkande maskiner, som kommer ut nu i april på förlaget Fri Tanke. I samband med detta bjöd jag nyligen in Olle att föreläsa för mina elever. Hans föredrag om existentiella risker och vad vi som individer och samhälle kan göra för att minska dem blev, som vanligt, mycket uppskattat.

Tänkande maskiner är ännu ett prov på Olle Häggströms unika förmåga att omsätta bred bildning, djup expertis, stort patos och brinnande samhällsengagemang till folkbildning av högsta klass.

Det här är pedagogik för vår tid. Olle visar stor respekt för sina läsare. Han kräver inga särskilda förkunskaper men förutsätter en villighet och en förmåga att följa långa resonemang, att överblicka stora sammanhang och att uppfatta nyanserade distinktioner och begrepp.

Det är uppfordrande men framförallt bemyndigande och inbjudande. Alla är välkomna på en resa hela vägen till de mest brännande frågorna vid forskningens spets. I sann demokratisk anda visar Olle just den öppenhet och det förtroende som samtidigt krävs av oss alla för att tillsammans och med insikt fatta kloka beslut om vår gemensamma framtid.

Och pedagogiken är väl beprövad. Olle har skrivit mängder av texter och gett otaliga föredrag för både ungdomar och vuxna, i såväl bygdegårdar och föreningslokaler som i skolor och universitet. Han lämnar alltid sin publik med en känsla av förtroende, nyfikenhet och entusiasm.

Som gymnasielärare kan jag intyga detta efter att flera gånger ha haft förmånen att låta mina elever läsa och lyssna till Olle. Klyftan mellan akademins höjder, geopolitikens vidder, teknikhistoriens djup och en tonårings vardag krymper framför mina ögon. Efter blott någon timmes seminarium har en stor del av läroplanens mest ambitiösa intentioner infriats, och jag har med Olles hjälp kunnat leverera bästa tänkbara undervisning till en hel årskull.

Och det är inte bara mina kollegor och jag som uppskattar Olles gärning. En elev sammanfattar det allmänna omdömet: ”Jag önskar att vi kunde få lyssna till Olle hela dagen!”

Olles texter och ord frammanar just den framväxande generation av bildade, kompetenta och engagerade människor som han så starkt pläderar för, och som vi så väl behöver nu.

8 nov. 2020

The claim of social psychology


A while ago, Paul Bloom wrote on Twitter:

The main claim of pre-2012 social psychology is that small changes in the environment can have big effects on thought and behavior. If true, this has important theoretical and practical implications. It's probably not true.

I am trying to write an introduction to social psychology (and more) for high-school students, and I really need to address this statement. My immediate response is: "Of course it's true". Replication crisis, methodological and even metaphysical doubts notwithstanding, is it really controversial to claim that, of course, we humans are affected by environmental stimuli, often subconsciously, all the time?

(I also need to deal with the ideological overtones of this debate, while keeping things fair and balanced.)

What to do? Why not reach out on Twitter?

As expected, Professor Bloom graciously responded almost immediately:
Sure. But just so I can be clear about what we're disagreeing about, can you give an example of where you think I'm wrong - of a social psych finding showing that "small changes in the environment can have big effects on thought and behavior"?
Here are my spontaneous reactions to that challenge. Let me start by setting the scene. Below is a snippet I wrote some years ago:

I don't think it is at all obvious to discuss the climate crisis as a (solely or largely) ethical or moral dilemma. And it's not clear to me that it should be considered an especially hard problem, either. There are many practical problems, to be sure; but they are just that: practicalities. 

"The perfect moral storm" is a grievous misnomer. It seems to imply that there are major obstacles to agreeing (in principle) on what should be done when, in fact, it refers to a confluence of  aggravating circumstances when it comes to acting accordingly.

The tragedy of the commons isn't an ethical problem, but rather a practical one. Sure, there are ethical considerations regarding how we, as a society, should calculate and weigh different interests and risks. But, again, "moral competence" appears to denote only the ability or desire to act consistent with any reasonable calculus. 

I believe that a failure to distinguish between what should (or could) be done, and what people seem willing (or eager) to do, is highly counter-productive. It leads to "moral hazard"; in effect providing people with a perfect alibi for doing nothing; for not acting constructively, and in accordance with everything they actually know - or are told - to be right (and absolutely necessary).

Perhaps this seems circuitous, but one of the messages I wish to bring across to my students is that we humans have a strong tendency - for better or worse - to adapt to our (social) circumstances. That adaption often follows a simple (subconscious) rule: "I'd rather be wrong than alone". We pick up cues in our environment and - courtesy of both evolutionary heuristics and neural plasticity - build chains of inferences according to something like the following sequence:

Occurrence -> Frequency -> Normalcy -> Permissibility -> Correctness -> Morality

We need to fit in, above else. This means being no more far-sighted, logical, consistent, balanced, fair, neutral, or broad-minded than necessary - and not at all if that would mean stigma or exclusion. Our shame-avoidance and status-seeking behavior overrides any cognitive dissonance and dampens any incentive - however weak - to question the status-quo. What is virtuous and who or what is authoritative is highly contingent.

(Then, of course, there are also reasons at the individual level for being less than a saint.)

More to the point, a more general formulation of the overall finding (and claim) of social psychology - as I have understood it - is that people act and think differently depending on where they are - not who they are. If the claim of cognitive science is that, basically, people are people, then (in the words of Depeche Mode) why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?

There are countless examples of local and regional variations in habits, customs, norms, regulations, laws, etc. that generate and perpetuate drastic differences in how individuals perceive the (social) world. Just to take one example: In one relatively small province of Sweden, the percentage of people who support an ultra-nationalistic party is much higher than anywhere else in the country. There is no reason to think that regional differences could explain this (as there are hardly any in Sweden) other than the fact that a prominent party member happens to live there. These kinds of contingencies crop up everywhere.

On a much broader scale, the World Values Survey shows just how much practical and ideological differences actually hinge on contingencies.

The Overton window changes from place to place and from time to time, and with it, how individuals talk, think and feel.

Marketing, both in the long and short term, drastically influences peoples' ideas of what is valuable.

In the short term, anchoring effects can have huge impacts

The whole concept of nudging is based on changing the "choice architecture" and so changing individual choices (without limiting or forcing them)

Social facilitation affects individual performances in group settings versus in isolation.

Social movements change individuals' attention and values.

The Hawthorne effect is ever present, and keeps bolstering many spurious claims about the effectiveness of various interventions (keeping e.g. educational consultants busy).

Group-attribution creates and increases polarization, even on essentially meaningless issues. There are Robber's caves and Minimal groups everywhere, with diverging world-views as a result.

Social media corrodes what cohesion and societal osmosis we have managed thus far. Neal Stephenson depicts this magnificently in his book "Fall, or: Dodge in Hell" where a part of Utah is still cordoned off, even decades after a hoax about a nuclear explosion that "truthers" still (wish to) believe actually happened. 

Behavioral genetics seems to show that, apart from genes, one's peer-group seems to be the strongest influence on how one's personality traits develop and which trajectory one's life takes.

School rules massively influence what students perceive as "normal", right or wrong etc.

Despite intense critique leveled at Asch's and Millgram's conformity experiments and other classics of social psychology, there is clearly much folk-wisdom contained in them.

In the same vein, priming is clearly a thing - regardless of how many botched and over-hyped experiments are exposed. How could it not be? Our minds are associative networks and most, if not all, of the activity of mind takes place without conscious awareness or control.


Ramblings, to be sure, and not a very succinct answer to Professor Bloom's question. Much hinges on what we mean with "a small change" and "a big effect", and any single experiment might not be able to able to demonstrate this with a sufficient degree of scientific credibility or to allay all ideological wishes and misgivings.

What I want, most of all, is guidance on how to talk about these topics with young people - students for which I am partly responsible - in a way that is bold and progressive while at the same time scientifically and philosophically "kosher". It's a fine balance: As soon as I take liberties with the extremely cautious school curriculum I risk civil disobedience. On the other hand, as soon as I lecture on a new experiment or theory it doesn't take long before that same experiment is dissected, rejected and frowned upon by parts of the scientific and intellectual community.

I suspect that there is sometimes an overblown fear of association with social psychology in general, and with ideologically fraught findings specifically - so much so that even level-headed academics jump on the bandwagon of suspicion or acquiescence just to steer clear of any controversy. (Which, in itself, is a powerful demonstration of social psychology at work.)


19 aug. 2020

Guest post by Hannes Bengtsson: Four philosophical questions

My sixteen year-old son, Hannes, has taken his first course in philosophy during the summer holidays. During this time he has written four short essays on classic philosophical questions. I am very happy to follow his progress and I am proud to present his essays below.


1. Hedonism and the experience machine

The experience machine

The experience machine argument is a thought experiment that serves as an argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being. In the experiment you are faced with a decision: to plug yourself into the so - called “experience machine” or to continue with your daily life.

The experience machine is a machine that, once you’re plugged in to it, will make you experience nothing but uninterrupted high-quality [1] pleasures during your whole life. The pleasures will be suited to your preferences and might be e.g : proving mathematical theorems, saving the world and having wonderful relationships. All your biological needs will always be satisfied and you will be completely solo with no means of interacting with the outside world.

According to the hedonistic theory of well-being the only thing that one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure (contributing positively to one’s well-being) over pain (contributing negatively to one’s well-being) in your life. Pleasure makes one’s life go better, pain worse. So, the best thing according to this theory would be to plug yourself into the machine. But most likely you wouldn’t want to do it. Why is that? There’s something else than pleasure and pain that matters in one’s life. We want to have authentic experiences, not artificial.

The argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being, formalized (P = premise, C = conclusion)

(P1)

If the only thing one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure over pain in one’s life, and we want our lives to go better for us rather than worse, then, if an experience is more pleasurable than another, we should choose the more pleasurable experience.

(P2)

One will experience more pleasure if one is plugged into the machine compared to not being plugged in.

(C1)

If the hedonistic theory of well-being is true we should plug ourselves into the machine.

(P3) [2]

People don’t want to plug themselves into the machine.

( P4)

There are other things people value than just experiencing as much pleasure as possible.

(C2)

Hedonism about well-being is wrong.

This is a valid argument, the conclusions follow the premises and the premises can’t be true and the conclusion false. In this essay I will try to show that the argument isn’t a sound argument by showing that (P4) can’t be taken for granted.

Does it work?

Below I will be presenting two arguments against the experience machine thought experiment. I will call these argument “the authenticity argument” and, ”the simulation argument”. Following my presentation of these arguments I will try to defend them by responding to arguments one may have against them.

The authenticity argument

The experience machine thought experiment rebuts the hedonistic theory of well-being by arguing that a person wants to have authentic [3] experiences we don’t want to be loved and love others artificially. A person faced with the decision of entering the experience machine wouldn’t want to enter because they want to have authentic experiences not artificial. This argument, I think, doesn’t quite hold. How are we to know what is authentic and what is not? Isn’t in the end everything we do, from listening to music to tasting food to feeling the sun warm our skin, just experienced by us? Every sensory input and internal stimuli generated by our brain and body will always just be experienced by us. They are all also processed and filtered by our body, so we can therefore never be certain about what’s authentic and what’s not.

The simulation argument

This argument is an upgraded version of the authenticity argument. We can’t be certain that our universe isn’t part of a bigger, more complex simulation nor can we be certain that we aren’t all already plugged into a machine similar to the experience machine, without us knowing of it. Maybe we were all faced with a similar decision in another universe, time and space, and we all made the decision to plug ourselves into that machine and we ended up where we are now. That simulation in turn could be part of another simulation that is part of another simulation etc., like an onion with infinitely many layers. So, what difference would it make making a jump between one simulation and another, or plugging ourselves into yet another machine? My answer is none, it wouldn’t make any difference because we can never know what’s a simulation and what’s real (if we can even consider some things more real than others). I therefore think that the argument that we don’t want artificial experiences doesn’t hold.

Here people might say that this way of arguing against the experience machine will lead to some radical conclusions. They might say something like this: If we can never be certain of what’s authentic and what is not, then we’ll not be able to distinguish reality from fiction. And this in turn could lead to unwanted consequences like the justification of murder by people arguing that they didn’t know if the person they killed was authentic or not.

To this I would respond that that’s a fair point. But, my argument need not be viewed as a prescriptive argument (how things should be) but rather as a descriptive argument (how things are). We humans may need to believe in something as authentic, or genuinely real, in order to experience living a good life, but that still doesn’t mean that it is authentic. What I wanted to bring forth in my argument is that we should be careful of falling into the belief that we think everything is fixed and that our perspective as humans is the only one possible.

Would you get in the Experience Machine?

I would, after having considered the arguments above, enter the experience machine. In my opinion the arguments for plugging oneself into the machine weighs heavier than the arguments against. But, I must say that I’m acting contrary to my instincts. It’s hard to think outside of my comfort zone and see things through another, maybe more objective, perspective. I guess this feeling has to do with the fact that I’m afraid of, essentially, losing my sense of consciousness and being. Even though I find it hard to not accept or take into account the arguments above I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my being. But I would, as stated above, get into the machine.

What does this tell us about Hedonism?

The experience machine thought experiment conclude that the hedonistic theory of well-being is wrong. Above I have argued that this experiment doesn’t hold to fully rebut this theory of well-being but I have not argued that hedonism is right nor that you can’t prove it wrong. This essay just argue against the experience machine thought experiment and it doesn’t tell us much about hedonism.


---

[1] High-quality pleasures, as described by John Stuart Mill, are pleasures that only humans have the capacity of attaining, via as an example rational-thought and self-awareness. Having sex and enjoying food are pleasures we share with other animals.

[2] This premise just tells us that some people aren’t hedonists, and says not that hedonism is wrong. We could also ask whether this is based on empirical studies or on armchair intuitions (where you, based on your feelings and thoughts, assume everyone else must feel the same way)

[3] In this essay I will exclusively use the words “authentic” and “authenticity” to represent what we consider reality or what’s real, as opposed to represent meaningfulness.

***


2. Philosophical Relativism

Question

Can Philosophical Relativism be successfully defended? Explain why this theory is found plausible by some and address the objection to it you find most compelling. Is this objection decisive? If not, how can the Relativist reply to it?

Introduction

I will in this essay try to argue that philosophical relativism can’t be successfully defended. I’m putting emphasis on “try” since I haven’t taken into account every argument a relativist might have in favor of philosophical relativism and I can therefore not decisively argue that it can’t be successfully defended.

I will first describe what philosophical relativism is. I will then present two reasons why some people might find this theory plausible. Following this I will present my main criticism of philosophical relativism and then respond to three arguments a relativist might have against it. I will call these arguments “Bite the Bullet”, “Contextual relativism” and the “Preference argument”. Following this I will present another respons a relativist might have to counter the criticism. I will call this argument “cultural relativism”.

Philosophical relativism

Philosophical relativism is a theory that argues that every view and belief is equally legitimate - that they are on a par with each other and that you can’t prove that one belief is better or worse than the other. This theory is one of several ways you can go if you think that there are no objective moral truths, because you needn’t be a relativist to think that there are no moral objective truths. A philosophical relativist acknowledges, in an individual or a cultural ethical disagreement, that the other party’s view is on a par with his or hers and that they both have equally legitimate views. Even in a case of fundamental ethical disagreement the relativist would say that both views are equally legitimate.

Why some people find the theory plausible

First and foremost I would like to clarify that there is a difference between what is plausible and what is attractive. If someone finds a theory plausible they needn’t be attracted by it and vice versa. Furthermore, some people might find the theory plausible because they are attracted by it and vice versa.

Some people find the theory of philosophical relativism plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any moral objective truths.

Some people might also find the theory plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any decisive solutions to moral problems.

Criticism of philosophical relativism

One salient counterargument to the theory of philosophical relativism is that it can’t refute views that are morally wrong. If all views are to be seen as equally legitimate it would also allow for the justification of morally wrong actions. A philosophical relativist would have to say that the Nazi’s view on jews is equally legitimate as someone who holds a different view, since everyone is justified to hold their own views as long as it accords with their fundamental values. Below are three responses a relativist may have to counter the argument above:

Bite the bullet

Yes, the Nazi’s view on jews is a view that is as legitimate as any other to hold and all moralities are equal. There are no moral objective truths.

Contextual relativism

The meaning of legitimate, or of right and wrong, or of true or false is dependent on the context. The meaning of these terms are subject to change and the usage of them different from one culture to another, so I can therefore not argue that their view, back then, is morally right or wrong.

Preference argument

Even if someone is a relativist they can favor some views over others and have a strong inner feeling of what is right and wrong, only they are not entitled to interfere with other people’s views. They can’t prove that their view is somehow better than another view but they might still prefer one. So, they can say that they are strongly against how the Nazi’s viewed the jews but that they can’t prove that that view is better or worse than the Nazi’s.

The “Bite the bullet” argument above in defence of philosophical and semantic relativism seems to be a rather extreme argument that could allow for the justification of murder. The consequences of “Contextual relativism” is that the terms lose their meaning. If we can’t be certain that the term “true” means the same thing independent of context then we won’t be able to communicate with each other. The “Preference argument” does not really solve the problem with having to accept the justification of morally wrong actions because it still allows for them. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for moral progress.

Cultural relativism

A philosophical relativist might also object that one culture should not interfere with another culture and that we should let each and every culture decide what is best for themselves. Why should we think that a culture who fosters a certain set of moral values, different from another culture’s values, are justified to judge or force their values upon the other? Maybe that other culture, by their measurements and standards of what is good and bad, are equally or more satisfied, or justified, to hold their beliefs than the first.

To this argument a person who rejects relativism may object that a person can be part of several different groups and cultures. These groups may also have totally different views and there may be difficulties in identifying which truths are relative to which groups. This means that the person who is part of several different groups may not know which norms or moral values they should adhere to.

I would all in all say that this counterargument to philosophical relativism is decisive but I can still imagine how a relativist might be able to respond to them (see above). We have also seen that the relativist's replies just lead to other problems.


***


3. Bentham's Arguments for Utilitarianism

Question

In Chapters 1 and 2 of his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham offers three arguments for the claim that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. Describe each argument briefly, and then pick out the one that you believe is strongest. Explain that argument in the most persuasive way you can. Then assess the argument from a critical perspective. Raise at least one objection to it. Then consider how Bentham might reply. In the end, are you persuaded by that argument? Why or why not?

Introduction

In this essay I will first describe shortly what the utilitarian theory of morality consists of. Following this I will describe three arguments of Bentham’s that purport to show that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. These arguments will be called 1. “The semantic argument”, 2. “The argument from human nature” and 3. “The incoherence of rival views”. Then I will explain the third argument as persuasively as I can, since I find this argument to be the strongest of the three, and raise one objection to it. I will call this objection the “every moral theory” objection. Following this I will consider how Bentham may reply to my objection, and then explain why I find the “incoherence of rival views” argument persuasive.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism which assesses actions as right or wrong based on their results. The utilitarian theory of morality says that, when we are faced with a choice of actions, we should choose the action that promotes the most net good (e.g happiness and pleasure), i.e: the action that maximizes utility when we have subtracted pain from pleasure. That action is said to be the only morally right action to take and all the others morally wrong.

The three arguments

Here are three of the arguments Bentham brings forth to support Utilitarianism.

1. The semantic argument

This argument is based around the notion of what the terms “right” and “wrong” mean. Bentham thought that the terms “right” and “wrong” couldn’t possibly have any other meaning than “productive of benefit” and “productive of harm”. Bentham doesn’t give us any argument in favor of this claim, rather he is asking us if we can argue for the meaning of these terms to be different, and if so, how? The argument also says that Utilitarianism is the only moral theory that uses these terms in that way.

2. The argument from human nature

A second argument Bentham brings forth appeals to the nature of humans. He states that the utilitarian theory of morality is the only theory that is in conformity with human nature. Bentham supports this claim by saying that we humans are all already applying the utilitarian principle in our daily lives (perhaps unconsciously and inconsistently); we tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He also points out that we humans naturally approve of actions that increase pleasure and that we disapprove of actions that increase pain.

3. The incoherence of rival views

The third argument says that all other ethical systems are tacitly relying on, or are covert applications of, utilitarianism or that they are just unsystematic collections of our likes and dislikes.

Of these three arguments I find the third argument to be the strongest and I will below explain it as persuasively as I can.

The incoherence of rival views

My view is this [1]: If morality is to have worthwhile meaning for us humans, then, it has to be connected to human well-being. Furthermore, I think morality needs to function as a tool for us humans to determine which actions to take and which actions to avoid; that is, have real world applications. Even though there might be other [2] moral theories, such as hedonism, based on this notion of morality, I would argue that these views are applications of Utilitarianism, and that Utilitarianism is the basis on which these other views rely on. I cannot prove my claim since I cannot take into account every possible moral theory, but Utilitarianism is in my opinion the most neutral and grounded moral theory based on this notion: take the action that promotes the most net good, nothing else.

If we look at hedonism or virtue ethics or deontology, and ask ourselves and their subscribers how they would argue in favor their moral theory, and how they would go about convincing others that their moral theory is the best, I think that their arguments would have to appeal to human well-being in some way or another. If they don’t, I don’t think that a lot of people would be interested in the theory. They have to say something along the lines of: “My moral theory is the best since it tells me to do this because this results in that…, and that thing is desirable, or good.... This I think, is the reason why Bentham makes his assertion that all other moral theories are just covert applications of Utilitarianism.

Below I will describe the “every moral theory” counter-argument.

The “every moral theory” counter-argument

A person who disagrees with the “incoherence with rival views” argument might say that the argument doesn't hold since we can never be certain that there are no other moral theories that don’t rely on utilitarian principles; and the “incoherence with rival views” argument says that all other theories are just applications of Utilitarianism.

How Bentham might reply

Bentham would perhaps say that yes, we can never be certain that we have exhausted every moral theory, but we can never be 100% certain of anything. So this counter-argument, even if it works as a counter-argument to refute the “incoherence of rival views” argument, doesn’t carry that much weight because it could be a counter-argument to every argument ever made. Rather, if we look at every moral theory that has been presented so far we can see that they all rely on utilitarian principles [3].

Am I persuaded by the argument in the end? Why, why not?

I am persuaded by the original “incoherence of rival views” argument even though I can see how people can argue both in favor of Bentham’s argument or in favor of the “every moral theory” counter-argument. The counter-argument speaks to me since I am a person who appreciates precision, but still, the “incoherence of rival views” argument is in my opinion the stronger of the two. This is because I have an innate feeling that we humans have to be able to apply our knowledge, our thoughts and our wisdom to the the world, and that morality has to be connected with human well-being if morality is to have any worthwhile meaning for us. I also think that we have to accept that we can’t (at least at the moment), be 100% certain of everything, because if we don’t, we won’t make any progress as individuals or as a society; we will constantly be stuck in theoretical outcomes and never be able to take action.


---

[1] In this essay I am solely focusing on moral theories that, in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being, in my eyes: hedonism, virtue ethics and deontology I am fully aware that one could reject my whole argument and my claims just by saying that there is no connection between them, but, as I said I am only focused on this specific area in this essay.

[2] Henceforth when I write “other moral theories” I am only focusing, as stated above, on moral theories, that in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being.

[3] Let’s take deontology and virtue ethics. Bentham may have replied that “to be a virtuous person is good, or desirable, only because it leads to either an inner feeling of well-being, or to your being viewed by others as a good person, or to you letting others have an opportunity to experience well-being. So, it’s not the virtues themselves that are good, but the good they result in.

Bentham would probably have argued in the same way when it comes to deontology. He may have replied “Well, the rules set for us to follow, will lead to us acting in the right way are relying on utilitarian principles”. I think he would have supported his claim by saying, as has been previously mentioned, that if you ask a deontologist why you should subscribe to deontology he would probably have to (perhaps unconsciously) appeal to human well-being.


***


4. Killing one to save five

Question

When is it morally okay to kill one person so as to prevent five people from being killed?

- How would an act consequentialist think about this question?

What would an act consequentialist say about the cases we considered in Lecture 13?

- Does the act consequentialist get these cases right?

- If not, what is the right general account of when it is morally okay to kill one person so as to save five?

Introduction

In this essay I will look at how an act consequentialist (henceforward called “AC”) would think about questions and thought experiments that involve killing one so as to save five other people from being killed. I will also argue that it may be possible to come up with a general principle for when it would be morally okay to kill one so as to save five so long as we don’t mix in our intuitions in the discussion.

When is it morally okay to kill one person to save five people from being killed?

Depending on which moral theory one is subscribed to and which moral intuitions one might have one could respond differently to this question. Some people say that you should never kill one to save five, while others say that you should always do it. Some people are not sure and for some it varies.

Below I will shortly describe act consequentialism and then see how an act consequentialist (“AC”) may reply to this question.

Act consequentialism

Act consequentialism is a form of consequentialism which says that the only morally right action to take is the one that produces the most the net-good (the total bad of everyone subtracted from the total good of everyone), when compared with the net-good of other actions the agent can take.

An “AC”’s response to the question “When is it morally okay to kill one to save five from being killed?”

Given the following presuppositions: Each life in this situation counts for an equal amount of, let’s call them utility-points. The situation takes place in a closed universe, that is, we neglect everything else that has not been explicitly said to be part of the situation, e.g, people that might judge your acting. Given these presuppositions an “AC” would always say that you should kill the one person to save the five from being killed, since it’s the action that results in the most net-good compared with the action of not doing anything and letting five people die.

Below I will explain 3 thought experiments which all are based on, and are modified versions of, the question given above. I will first describe each of them and then see how an “AC” may reply (still given the presuppositions above). These thought experiments combined with the solutions an “AC” gives to them aim to evoke doubts about act consequentialism.

Different cases to test act consequentialism

Blood

You are a doctor and you have an anesthetized patient on a table. Five of your other patients need one liter blood each to survive and the anesthetized patient could provide it, but he’d die in the process of donating the blood. Should you suck the blood out of the anesthetized patient (thereby killing him) and save the five others that would otherwise die?

Trolley Problems

Footbridge

A trolley is heading toward five persons on a track and the driver has lost control over it. You and a large fellow are standing on a footbridge that goes over the track. By knocking the large fellow off the bridge and causing him to fall onto the track and die when the trolley hits him, you could save the five persons that would otherwise have died by the trolley (the large fellow slows it down). Should you knock him over?

Switch

A trolley is heading toward five people and the driver has lost control. You are now instead standing next to a switch and you can pull the switch causing the trolley to change tracks. On the other track there’s another person. Should you pull the switch and save five persons that would otherwise have been killed but kill the one on the other track or don’t and let the five persons die?

Does the act consequentialist get the cases right?

Given the same presuppositions as above an “AC” would always kill one so as to save five others from being killed. I take it your immediate reaction to this is that the “AC” acts wrongly by killing the large fellow, but you may feel that it seems okay (or at least not wrong) to pull the switch. Personally I’m not entirely sure, but I still feel as though the act consequentialist’s way of acting is a bit radical.

Is it possible to come up with a general principle for when it’s okay to kill one to save five? A general principle that sorts the cases above in the “right” way; not pushing the large fellow off the bridge (Footbridge), but still maybe allowing for one to pull the switch (Switch)?

General moral principle for when it’s ok to kill one so as to save five?

My view is that we can come up with a general principle for the cases above. Maybe that principle encompasses all of our intuitions and gut feelings, maybe not, and my point is that it doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Why should our intuitions set the standard for plausibility or for morally justifiable actions?

We humans have evolved to act in certain ways in certain situations. Why rule out a general principle such as “take the action that promotes the most net-good; in the cases above, kill one to save five.” based on our intuitions? Our intuitions are not only unreliable but they are also inconsistent. Our intuitions of what’s morally right or wrong might change over time and acting on them doesn’t always lead to the “best” outcome.

The reason as to why we humans won’t push the large fellow off the bridge is due to evolution. When we are standing on the footbridge we are unconsciously thinking about how our acting will be viewed upon by others, even if we can’t see anyone there. Maybe there’s someone there, only you can’t see him. If, on the off-chance there is someone there judging your acting, you would be worse off pushing the large fellow than not pushing him since the watcher may then view you as untrustworthy. In the past you’d not want to risk getting alienated from your group.

To say that it is impossible to come up with a general principle for the cases above, or to rule out theories or principles, based on our intuitions, I find short-sighted.

20 juli 2020

Skepticism about growth and clean energy is not anti-humanistic

Jacobin recently published a kind of meta-review of Michael Moore's latest film "Planet of the Humans", portraying it as anti-growth, anti-progressive, anti-working class, Malthusian, anti-humanistic and even anti-human.

The author - with his own agenda - actually agrees with much of the film's content but distorts its underlying message and puts his own ideological spin on the facts.

My main objections to the text are the following.

First of all, there is no connection between the terms: skepticism about the economic growth paradigm or about the feasibility of truly clean energy production does not mean or imply anti-progressiveness, anti-humanism or worse. That's just hyperbole.

Second, there are good reasons to be skeptical about growth (as currently defined) and about de-coupling. There are as yet no convincing case for the possibility of de-coupling, let alone for it actually materializing. Even if it were theoretically possible, the sensible thing to do at the moment is to act on the presumption that it cannot be counted on.

Third, there are no convincing life-cycle analyses that show that truly clean energy can be self-sustaining. (This includes nuclear power.) Until it is, arguing for increasing energy consumption is irresponsible. That is not to say that nuclear power should not be a part of current efforts to reduce climate change.

Fourth, the fact that more people using more energy equals higher energy demand is axiomatic. As long as energy production and consumption entails even the slightest bit of environmental degradation, acknowledging that this is a problem is not in itself an anti-human sentiment.

Fifth, there is no reason to equate the terms "progressive" and "techno-optimist". We should be socially progressive, first and foremost. That may or may not include deployment of technology. Laissez-faire in the hopes of finding a Philosopher's Stone powerful enough to save us is irresponsible.

Sixth, there is a lot more to humanism than the utilitarian goal of populating the universe, or even the Earth, with infinitely many infinitely blissful centers of consciousness.

Seventh, there is no necessary connection between consumption and well-being (beyond a certain baseline).

So, to rewrite the text, I would say that yes, we should certainly make sure that efforts to reduce our environmental impact does not disproportionately impact poor people. Especially since they are not the problem. On the contrary, we should prioritize increasing their well-being, and whatever carbon-budget we decide on should be used primarily for this purpose even if that means tighter budgets for everyone else. Development and deployment of technology should focus on raising standards of living for the least well-off with little or no increase in environmental degradation.

At the same time, people who are reasonably well-off already - and rich people and corporations in particular - must decrease their energy-and-material use drastically and rapidly.

As much as possible, connections between well-being and material-and-energy use must be dissolved. This is where social (and sometimes technological) progress should operate.

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See also: Planet of the Humans (in Swedish) and Ekofascism?

The pneumatic theory of atheism

Someone wrote on Twitter:

If we don't consciously and constructively work with the religious impulse that co-evolved with and was indispensable to cultural evolution, it will continue to manifest itself unconsciously and perniciously in ostensibly secular institutions.

I recognize the sentiment. I've heard it many times before. On both sides of the aisle. Even prominent "new atheists" like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have deemed it necessary to address and adapt to it.

I don’t find it convincing.

I guess many people who are brought up in a religious environment take for granted that everyone, inevitably, has a ’religious impulse’ and that atheists are posers or ascetics or exceptions. But I don’t think that’s true.

As a Swede I have lived my whole life with almost no contact with religion at all: personally, socially or in society as a whole. Most people I have ever come in contact with have never shown any ’unconscious’ or ’pernicious’ urges or emotional voids sublimated into anything remotely obsessive or dysfunctional. It just isn’t such a big deal.

Religion, or even ’spirituality’, is certainly not necessary, neither psychologically nor sociologically. It just seems that way to people who are surrounded by it. The zealousness of some ’new atheists’, ’rationalists’ etc. isn’t a symptom of unfulfilled existential needs. It’s just a consequence of the fact that religion is so obviously destructive.

Without religion it would be so much easier to actually get on with building ’secular institutions’ that are the exact opposite of ’pernicious’ to social progress. To someone outside any religious framework, finding meaning by engaging productively with community and society comes as easy, or even easier, starting from neutral ground rather than from within a religious framework, or in opposition to one, or even as an alternative to one.