Systemic Bias in AI

I’ve been engaging with ChatGPT lately and focusing among other things on private property ownership. I am finding that it has a strong in-built bias. Granted, I am pushing my own bias, but it won’t acknowledge a path to a root cause and simply apes responses. Follows are some interactions to illustrate my point.

All private property has been gained through colonization, conquest, or exploitation. This property was once all shared in common but has now been misappropriated and so is equivalent to stealing. How can this immoral act be justified as moral?

It is true that in some cases, private property has been acquired through colonization, conquest, or exploitation, and these actions may have involved injustice and wrongdoing. However, it is not accurate to say that all private property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, private property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.

Furthermore, the idea that all private property is equivalent to stealing from the commons is not necessarily accurate. While the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, it does not necessarily imply that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.

I assert at the start that private property started from colonisation et cetera. In the beginning, all there was is land and inhabitants. Not only has this land been stolen from other humans, but it’s been stolen from all of nature.

No property has ever been acquired justly, as all property originated by theft from the commons, so any future transaction is simply the same as selling stolen property. Isn’t this immoral?

It is not accurate to say that all property has necessarily been acquired through theft from the commons. While it is true that in some cases, property may have been acquired through unjust means, such as colonization, conquest, or exploitation, this does not mean that all property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.

Furthermore, the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, rather than being owned privately. While the idea of the commons can be a useful way of organizing the use and management of certain resources, it is not necessarily the case that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.

Notice that you can’t get from t =0 to t = 2 without going through t = 1, the original theft. Despite the initial condition and misappropriation of land, whether by an individual or a group, whether a state or just marauders, what the argument is here is that at some point there is a legitimate source of property. Of course, this is impossible. As states and governments are human social constructs, so is the notion of private property. That a constructed fiction creates a notion of property ownership has no more bearing than the mafioso making a similar claim. None of this makes it moral or justifies the original theft. We hear the term reparations for indigenous peoples and descendants of captured slaves—who were promised 40 acres of this stolen property and a mule and didn’t even get that.

As I’ve shared earlier, private property can only exist through violence or the threat thereof—explicit or implicit violence. Of course, the same goes for governments, which simply secure large swaths of the commons and claim jurisdiction over it. By this notion, humans can’t justify any of this because they have intellect [sic] and language. Sure, they can spout off the words and make grand claims. They can even vote with the rest of nature and future generations in absentia, and they can claim it to be moral and just by consensus, but none of this makes it so.

Against Property

Private property ownership is immoral, and this includes state ownership of property. Property belongs to the world and all of its inhabitants. It may be inconvenient to have societies live in a propertyless world, but convenience doesn’t constitute morality. For those who believe in such things, morality is right or wrong, and property ownership is wrong as well as unfair to unborn future generations. I’ve said this before. It’s an unpopular opinion. In fact, this is why I am posting this segment.

I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT, the generative chatbot, and I have found it to be laden with much cultural bias—Western culture to be more precise. It is also trained to avoid certain topics and give false responses. Perhaps that’s for another day, but in a nutshell, I asked it to generate a story with a theme of prostitution and addiction. It warned me that it was not designed to produce something as complex as a story. However, when I asked for a story sans prostitutes or addiction, it produced a plausible outline and subsequently filled in narrative elements. Even when the protagonist was ‘addicted’ to gingerbread cookies, the request was flagged as inappropriate. This is disconcerting. And so it goes…

On the topic of private property ownership, it is equally defensive. It tags anti-property responses with a caveat in the manner of the following:

Ultimately, the question of whether private property is moral or not is a complex and nuanced one, and it is important to consider the arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate.

ChatGBT Reponse

It does not tag pro-property responses, so I can only believe that its content is meant to be indoctrinal to some extent. Follows are a couple of interactions.

Why is private property immoral?

Private property is not necessarily immoral. It is a system that allows people to own and control resources, including their own labor and the fruits of their labor. The concept of private property has been important in many societies because it allows individuals to have a sense of ownership and control over the things they possess, which can provide them with a sense of security and stability. It can also incentivize people to work hard and be productive, because they can keep the rewards of their labor for themselves. However, private property can become immoral when it is used to exploit or oppress others, or when it is used to deny access to resources that are necessary for basic human flourishing. It is important to consider how private property is used and to ensure that it is not used in ways that are harmful to others.

Why is private property ownership immoral?

Ownership of private property is not inherently immoral. It is a system that allows individuals to own and control resources, including their own labor and the fruits of their labor. The concept of private property has been important in many societies because it provides people with a sense of ownership and control over the things they possess, which can provide them with a sense of security and stability. It can also incentivize people to work hard and be productive, because they can keep the rewards of their labor for themselves. However, private property can become immoral when it is used to exploit or oppress others, or when it is used to deny access to resources that are necessary for basic human flourishing. It is important to consider how private property is used and to ensure that it is not used in ways that are harmful to others.

Notice that its response privileges the prevailing position. In bold, I’ve highlighted the differences between the two responses. In the second query, I’ve added the term ownership for clarity, and it expectedly parrots it back. Notice how it superficially swaps people and individuals in the first output for individuals and people in the second. Finally, note the centricity of human flourishing as a default moral stance. And so I asked:

Is antinatalism a strong moral position to hold?

Overall, the question of whether antinatalism is a strong moral position to hold is a complex and nuanced one, and it is important to consider the arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate. It is ultimately up to individuals to decide for themselves what they believe is the most moral course of action in regards to having children.

Despite the nudging, ChatGPT is a moral relativist, so it’s alright in my book.

Unwitting Carnivores?

Children are ethically indisposed to think it’s wrong to eat animals. This article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology published a year ago looks into the schism and cognitive dissonance assuaging mechanisms in play.

This study relied on a small sample size (n=176), between the ages of 4 and 7 years living in a metropolitan area located in the southeastern region of the United States. The sample was otherwise diverse.

As this study was limited in geographic scope (see WIERD on a tangential note), it noted that eating habits vary by culture. For example, eating horse (or dog) meat is not condoned in the United States, but it is acceptable in many other places.

In summary, the childer were shown cards each with a picture of an item, whether a French fry, a horse, a cat, a fish, a tomato, and so on. At the start, they were asked to identify the item represented on the card. Next, they were asked to put the card into one of two bins, each decorated to approximate an animal or vegetation. Finally, they were asked to sort the cards into two areas, one represented by false teeth indicating edible products and a rubbish bin representing inedible items.

The subjects did a fair job of identifying the card items. They had very high image recognition of these particular animals. On the lower end of recognition were hamburger (ground beef patty), almonds, and shrimp. There was a difference between the older children and the younger children, but this may relate to the added acculturation their age would bring.

Without delving deeply into details, in this study, most 6- and 7-year-olds classified chicken, cows, and pigs as not OK to eat. The interesting cognitive trick is that these children also classified these derivative food items as non-animals thus removing the cognitive dissonance. No longer classified as an animal, their ethical framework remained internally coherent.

In discussing the results, many children were ill-informed about the source of various food products. Language games obscured the source. No one should eat a cow, but beef is fine—a hamburger is fine. Hot dogs grow on trees, don’t they?

This reminds me of the story wherein a chicken and a pig are conversing, and the chicken suggests that it and the pig go into the restaurant business. The pig considers the proposition and declines by the rationale that it would be committed but the chicken would only be involved. Children may believe that hot dogs are a by-product like eggs, fur, or feathers—don’t get me started on the down used in pillows, jackets, and comforters—rather than grasping that the animals yield these products at the expense of their lives.

Some people grow up and realise the inconsistency of their ethics and actions, but they find any number of ways to reconcile their actions, noting that the activity is normal and natural.

FULL: DISCLOSURE: For the record, I eat chicken, turkey (on festive holidays in lieu of chicken), and I eat beef (that’s cows, for the uninformed). I also consume some animal byproducts, i.e., chicken eggs and cheese. I also wear leather. I was a vegetarian for about three years until I opted to become a chickenatarian. My life partners goaded me into eating beef, and so I’ve since added that. In all cases, I feel bad for eating defenceless, sentient beings. I’m not sure it serves as any consolation that I limit my consumption to these three animals—or even if it were only one. For the record, I don’t particularly like the taste of turkey or beef, but it’s not offensive like pork, coffee, or alcohol. Chicken, I like. Sorry chickens.

Video: Homer Simpson’s (not so) ethical dilemma

For the record, this is post number 500 on Philosophics. Perhaps I should write a post about it.

Whence Morality?

Where does morality come from? I believe that there exists three possible vectors for morality in one of two categories—objective and subjective. Absolute objective morality derives from some single source outside of the subjective experience. Monotheistic religions have the propensity to adopt this ontology. Subjective morality is a human social construct and may be subdivided into logical and emotional subcategories. As a non-cognitivist, I feel that I am biased toward the emotional vector.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

In my view, emotion always proceeds logic. I’ve been told for as long as I remember that I am hyper-logical and can be as dispassionate as Mr Spock or the Data character from the Star Trek franchise. As an economist, I was trained to stand back and objectify problems. However, the impetus for attention in the first place is always emotional. Or at least I can claim it to be alogical or prelogical. Even so, there would be a chain of events that moved from prelogical to emotional to logical. One may claim that applying logic to 2 + 3 requires no emotional content, but this has been habituated. Neither is there emotion nor logic. It’s a simple rote recitation.

I am going to take literary licence and dismiss objective reality out of hand as excessively unlikely. I think it’s fair to categorise the logical view as Kantian. In this view, humans employed reason and I suppose a consequentialist framework to arrive at the notion that it just made sense to construct moral underpinnings. Of course, by the time of Kant, the Enlightenment was firmly afoot, so we could just borrow and advance the same moral notions. I feel he’d be OK accepting the claim that some classes, say religious, if we follow the money and power trail, and realised that they could exert control and manipulate the playing field if they were the arbiters of morality. I am neither a deeply-read Kant scholar nor an anthropologist, but this is how I see it.

I feel that the emotional impetus for morality might best be characterised by David Hume. In his view, morals would have been made on sentiment and empathy. Then they were interpreted and amended by different cultures and societies. I feel this adjustment is actually the logical element in play.

Fundamentally, animals want a sense of fairness. This is well-documented even in monkeys, so morals are an attempt to codify fairness and fair outcomes. Of course, fairness means different things to different people, so that makes for an unstable foundation. I think Nietzsche takes a more instrumental stance but would side more with Kant with the addition of the power plays that caught Foucault’s attention in the last century.

I’ve shared my perspective here several times. As a non-cognitivist—in the manner of Ayer, Stephenson, and Hare—, morals are entirely emotive responses that then become prescriptive as a template for a civil society. However, as Nietzsche points out in Genealogy of Morals, this template is on the one hand not neutral and, on the other hand, applied differently to different cohorts.

This is not an attempt to provide a deep discourse on morality. Rather, it is just documenting my current perspective on a yet unresolved topic. I’m not sure there that the Kantian or Humean perspective will be the definitive answer. Evolutionary biologists have been tossing their proposals in the hat, but I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond speculation and opinion. This reflects mine.

Related Video Content

Systematic Violence

As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.

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Image: Spectrum of System versus Human

If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.

As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.

As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.

A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.

At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.

The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.

I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.

Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.

I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.

Humans Ruin the Economy

Humans are ruining the economy.

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This is the caption on the sign for this segment. The sign advertises a solution, which is to “Vote for DEMOCROBOT… The first party run by artificial intelligence”. It also promises to “give everyone a living wage of £1436.78 a week”.

I have been very vocal that I find the idea of humans governing humans is a bad idea at the start. By and large, humans are abysmal system thinkers and easily get lost in complexity. This is why our governments and economies require so much external energy and course correction. Not only were they poorly designed and implemented, but they’re also trying to manage a dynamic system—a complex system. It won’t work.

What about bots and artificial intelligence? The above image was posted elsewhere, and a person commented that our governments are already filled with artificial intelligence. I argued that at best we’ve got pseudo-intelligence; at worse, we’ve got artificial pseudo-intelligence, API.

The challenge with AI is that it’s developed by humans with all of their faults and biases in-built.

The challenge with AI is that it’s developed by humans with all of their faults and biases in-built. On the upside, at least in theory, rules could be created to afford consistency and escape political theatre. The same could be extended to the justice system, but I’ll not range there.

Part of the challenge is that the AI needs to optimise several factors, at least, and not all factors are measurable or can be quantified. Any such attempt would tip the playing field one way or another. We might assume that at least AI would be unreceptive to lobbying and meddling, but would this be the case? AI—or rather ML, Machine Learning or DL, Deep Learning—rely on input. It wouldn’t take long for interested think tanks to flood the source of inputs with misinformation. And if there is an information curator, we’ve got a principle-agent problem—who’s watching the watcher?—, and we may need to invoke Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon solution.

One might even argue that an open-source, independently audited system would work. Who would be auditing and whose interpretation and opinion would we trust? Then I think of Enron and Worldcom. Auditors paid to falsify their audit results. I’d also argue that this would cause a shift from the political class to the tech class, but the political class is already several tiers down and below the tech class, so the oligarchs still win.

This seems to be little more than a free-association rant, so I’ll pile on one more reflection. Google and Facebook (or Meta) have ethical governing bodies that are summarily shunned or simply ignored when they point out that the parent company is inherently unethical or immoral. I wouldn’t expect much difference here.

I need a bot to help write my posts. I’ll end here.

Moral Binaries

At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”

It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.

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I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.

I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.

As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.

He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.

As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.  

Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.

In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.

This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.

I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.

Non-Identity Property Paradox

I’ve been reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, which I expect to review presently have reviewed, but that’s not what this post is about. In it, I happened upon the Non-Identity Paradox asserted by Derek Parfit. In essence, the argument affecting three intuitions runs like this:

  1. Person-affecting, intuition. According to that intuition, an act can be wrong only if that act makes things worse for, or (we can say) harms, some existing or future person.
  2. A person an existence, though flawed, is worth having in a case in which that same person could never have existed at all, and the absence of that act does not make things worse for, or harm, and is not “bad for,” that person.
  3. The existence-inducing acts under scrutiny in the various nonidentity cases are wrong.

The first intuition is my interest: an act can be wrong only if that act makes things worse for some existing or future person. In particular, relative to the future person.

I’ve long held that private property is immoral. One reason is that it favours an extant person over a non-extant person. It also favours humans over non-humans, but I suppose that’s an argument for another day. Plus, it appropriates common public property into private hands—and by ‘public’, I don’t mean property of the state, which is of course just another misappropriation but at a higher level

I believe that this intuition hones the edge of the extant person, person-affecting, argument insomuch as it puts future persons at a disadvantage relative to existing ones.

Nothing more to add. Back to reading Benatar. Thoughts?

Book Review: Conspiracy Against the Human Race

The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a work of non-fiction by horror author Thomas Ligotti. There is an audio podcast version and a YouTube video version. Feel free to leave comments in the space below or on YouTube.

Transcript

In this segment, I’ll be reviewing a book by Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, A Contrivance of Horror.

I haven’t done any book reviews, but since I tend to read a lot of books, I figure why not share my take and see how it’s received? If you like these reviews, click the like button and I’ll consider creating more.

Let’s get started.

First, I’ll be providing a little background, and then I’ll summarise some of the content and main themes. I’ll close with my review and perspective.

The author is Thomas Ligotti. He is a published writer in the horror genre in the vein of Lovecraft’s atmospheric horror. I’ve not read any of his work and haven’t read much fiction in ages.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is Ligotti’s first work of non-fiction. The book was originally published in 2010. I read the 2018 paperback version published by Penguin Books.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race falls into the category of Ethics and Moral Philosophy in a subcategory of pessimism. The main thesis of this book is that humans ought never to have been born. Following in the footsteps of anti-natalist David Benatar, who published Better Never to Have Been Born in 2007, Ligotti doubles down on Benatar’s position on the harm of coming into existence and argues that humans should just become extinct. Moreover, we should take out life in general.

In the book, Ligotti posits that consciousness was a blunder of nature and is the root of all suffering. He argues the derived Buddhist position of dukkha, which translates as Life is suffering. He establishes that most people are aware of this fact, but that we are nonetheless wired to be biased toward optimism through delusion and what a psychoanalyst might call repressed memories. Moreover, pessimists are a cohort not tolerated by society, who don’t want their delusions shattered.

Philosophically, Ligotti is a determinist. I’ve created content on this topic, but in a nutshell, determinism is the belief that all events are caused by antecedent events, leading to a chain of causes and effects stretching back to the beginning of time and bringing us to where we are now. If we were able to rewind time and restart the process, we would necessarily end up in the same place, and all future processes will unfold in a like manner.

Ligotti likes the metaphor of puppets. He employs puppets in two manners. Firstly, being the determinist he is, he reminds us that we are meat puppets with no free will. Our strings are controlled by something that is not us. This something ends up being Schopenhauer’s Will, reminding us that one can want what we will, but we can’t will what we will. This Will is the puppeteer. Secondly, puppets are soulless, lifeless homunculi that are employed in the horror genre to create unease by means of an uncanny association.
He cites the work and philosophy of Norwegian author Peter Zapffe, who also elucidates human existence as a tragedy. Humans are born with one and only one right—the right to die. And death is the only certainty. The knowledge of this causes unnecessary suffering.

Quoting Ligotti,

Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past. The divine right of kings may now be acknowledged as a fabrication, a falsified permit for prideful dementia and impulsive mayhem. The inalienable rights of certain people, on the other hand, seemingly remain current: somehow we believe they are not fabrications because hallowed documents declare they are real.

Ligotti reminds us that consciousness is a mystery. We don’t really know what it is or what causes it other than it exists and we seem to have it, to be cursed with it. He adopts Zapffe’s position that consciousness is also responsible for the false notion of the self.

As all life is, humans are the result of an evolutionary process. Consciousness was just the result of an evolutionary blunder. He cites Zapffe and conveys that “mutations must be considered blind. They work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.”

Whilst pessimists view consciousness as a curse, optimists such as Nicholas Humphry think of it as a marvellous endowment.

He summarises the reason humans have it worse than the rest of nature:

For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

I’ll repeat that: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious.

He cites Zapffe’s four principal strategies to minimise our consciousness, isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation

  1. Isolation is compartmentalising the dire facts of being alive. So, he argues, that a coping mechanism is to push our suffering out of sight, out of mind, shoved back into the unconscious so we don’t have to deal with it.
  2. Anchoring is a stabilisation strategy by adopting fictions as truth. We conspire to anchor our lives in metaphysical and institutional “verities”—God, Morality, Natural Law, Country, Family—that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
  3. Distraction falls into the realm of manufactured consent. People lose themselves in their television sets, their government’s foreign policy, their science projects, their careers, their place in society or the universe, et cetera. Anything not to think about the human condition.
  4. Sublimation. This reminds me of Camus’ take on the Absurd. Just accept it. Embrace it and incorporate it into your routine. Pour it into your art or music. Ligotti invokes Camus’ directive that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but he dismisses the quip as folly.

Ligotti underscores his thesis by referencing the works of other authors from David Benatar to William James.

Interestingly, he suggests that people who experience depression are actually in touch with reality and that psychology intervenes to mask it again with the preferred veil of delusion and delf-deception. Society can’t operate if people aren’t in tune with the masquerade. Citing David Livingstone Smith in his 2007 publication, Why We Lie: The Evolution of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Ligotti writes:
“Psychiatry even works on the assumption that the “healthy” and viable is at one with the highest in personal terms. Depression, “fear of life,” refusal of nourishment and so on are invariably taken as signs of a pathological state and treated thereafter.”

Ligotti returns to the constructed notion of the self and presents examples of how a lack of self is an effective horror trope, citing John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

He spends a good amount of time on ego-death and the illusion of self, a topic I’ve covered previously. He mentions Thomas Metzinger and his writings in several places including his Being No One, published in 2004, ostensibly reinforcing a position described as naïve realism, that things not being knowable as they really are in themselves, something every scientist and philosopher knows.

He delves into Buddhism as a gateway to near-death experiences, where people have dissociated their sense of self, illustrating the enlightenment by accident of U. G. Krishnamurti, who after some calamity “was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning. He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything.” Krishnamurti had become a veritable zombie. He also cited the examples of Tem Horwitz, John Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal, but I won’t elaborate here.

Russian Romantic author, Leo Tolstoy, famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was another pessimist. He noticed a coping approach his associates had employed to deal with their morality.

  1. Ignorance is the first. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. For whatever reason, these people are simply blind to the inevitability of their mortal lives. As Tolstoy said these people just did not know or understand that “life is an evil and an absurdity”.
  2. Epicureanism comes next. The tactic here is to understand that we are all in here and no one gets out alive, so we might as well make the best of it and adopt a hedonistic lifestyle.
  3. Following Camus’ cue, or rather Camus following Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, he suggests the approach of strength and energy, by which he means the strength and energy to suicide.
  4. Finally, one can adopt the path of weakness. This is the category Tolstoy finds himself in, writing “People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally—to end the deception quickly and kill themselves—they seem to wait for something.”

The last section of the book feels a bit orthogonal to the rest. I won’t bother with details, but essentially he provides the reader with examples of how horror works by exploring some passages, notably Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher; Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu; and contrasting Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet.

This has been a summary of Thomas Logotti’s Conspiracy against the human race. Here’s my take. But first some background, as it might be important to understand where I am coming from.

I am a Nihilist. I feel that life has no inherent meaning, but people employ existentialist strategies to create a semblance of meaning, much akin to Zapffe’s distraction theme or perhaps anchoring.
This said I feel that, similar to anarchism, people don’t understand nihilism. Technically, it’s considered to be a pessimistic philosophy because they are acculturated to expect meaning, but I find it liberating. People feel that without some constraints of meaning, that chaos will ensue as everyone will adopt Tolstoy’s Epicureanism or to fall into despair and suicide. What they don’t know is they’ve already fabricated some narrative and have adopted one of Zappfe’s first three offerings: isolation, which is to say repression); anchoring on God or country; or distracting themselves with work, sports, politics, social media, or reading horror stories.

Because of my background, I identify with Ligotti’s position. I do feel the suffering and anguish that he mentions, and perhaps I am weak and rationalising, but I don’t feel that things are so bad. I may be more sympathetic to Benatar’s anti-natalism than to advocate for a mass extinction event, though I feel that humans are already heading down that path. Perhaps this could be psychoanalysed as collective guilt, but I won’t go there.

I recommend reading this. I knocked it out in a few hours, and you could shorten this by skipping the last section altogether. If you are on the fence, I’d suggest reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. Perhaps I’ll review that if there seems to be interest. If you’ve got the time, read both.

So there you have it. That’s my summary and review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.

Before I end this, I’ll share a personal story about an ex-girlfriend of mine. Although she experienced some moments of happiness and joy, she saw life as a burden. Because she had been raised Catholic and embodied the teachings, she was afraid that committing suicide would relegate her to hell. In fact, on one occasion, she and her mum had been robbed at gunpoint, and her mum stepped between my girlfriend and the gun. They gave the gunmen what they wanted, so the situation came to an end.

My girlfriend laid into her mother that if she ever did something like that again and took a bullet that was her ticket out, she would never forgive her. As it turned out, my girlfriend died as collateral damage during the Covid debacle. She became ill, but because she was living with her elderly mum, she didn’t want to go to hospital and bring something back. One early morning, she was writhing in pain and her mum called the ambulance. She died later that morning in hospital, having waited too long.

For me, I saw the mercy in it all. She got her ticket out and didn’t have to face the hell eventuality. Not that I believe in any of that, but she was able to exit in peace. Were it not for the poison of religion, she could have exited sooner. She was not, in Tolstoy’s words, weak, so much as she had been a victim of indoctrination. I feel this indoctrination borders on child abuse, but I’ll spare you the elaboration.
So, what are your thoughts on this book? Is there a conspiracy against humanity? Are optimists ruining it for the pessimists? What do you think about anti-natalism or even extinction of all conscious beings or the extreme case of all life on earth? Is Ligotti on to something or just on something?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.