I love finding Trolley Problem takes. If I had spare time, I’d set up trolleyproblem.com to archive the content. This graphic contextualises the problem. In university, I recall discussing different nuances, including the medical doctor problem of saving a Nobel Prize laureate at the expense of 5 indigent people, whether health compromised or not, so this perspective of privilege is not new. The twist here is that this flips the neutral decision with you in control of the path of the trolley but without knowing anything about the people on the track to the capitalist deciding between another capitalist versus workaday proletariats. It’s almost always frame in from a consequentialist perspective.
Foucault wrote about épistémès, where knowledge and perspective are contextualised in time and place. The bottom picture sums up how the mortgage crisis was resolved in 2008. Too Big to Fail (TBTF) financial institutions were salvaged at the expense of ordinary citizens. Main Street was sacrificed for Wall Street. Considering Derrida, Wall Street had the privileged position over Main Street or High Street.
In the midst of COVID, you can see the argument playing out in the UK and US, as the top route is to close businesses to reduce social contact and the bottom route is to open business because it inconveniences a few shop owners. Note that even people on the bottom path are shouting for the switchman to send the trolley careening down their path.
I was writing a post about cop and crime shows and fittingly commenting on cops and crime, when my girlfriend turned on Manhunt: Unabomber, a series about serial bomber Ted Kaczynski. I remember when the FBI finally caught Ted and publicised this story, but I don’t know how much of the series was dramatised versus the facts, so my comments will be on the series and not the underlying events.
I title this post after his published ‘manifesto’, Industrial Society and Its Future, but it otherwise has nothing to do with this topic or his manifesto. To me, Ted Kaczynski seems to be a contemporary Thoreau or Rousseau, a primitivist born into the wrong century.
From a philosophical position, the series depicted the perils of taking a deontological approach. Process prevailed over consequences, which resulted taking 18 years to identify and capture Kaczynski. Time and again, process and pushing paper were promoted over new methods.
As people familiar with me know, I find the discipline of psychology to be pseudoscience (or perhaps simply a parascience), and so-called criminal profiling is the astrology of forensics, which are already a bit sketchy from the start.
Television promotes the logical rationalism underlying forensic science, connecting the dots to a forgone conclusion, if only the right dots are found. As with most law enforcement and court dramas, the focus is on the good guys overcoming the bad guys. Sometimes, it’s the good cop rooting out the bad cops or the perils of a cop who crosses the line to the dark side. These shows want to show how procedural criminology is in order to dissuade people from taking this path.
Knowingly or otherwise, this is propaganda. The fact is that most crime goes unsolved. Most criminals don’t get caught. Many who get caught are not convicted. Some convicted didn’t commit the crime they have been charged with. From an economic perspective, the vast monetary value is taken by white collar professionals with MBAs not burglars and bank robbers.
Systems need people to have confidence in systems. It’s self-serving. The propaganda is important to shore up confidence in the system of law & order, but it’s analogous to slot machines in Vegas or Atlantic City or wherever. When a person wins, there are bells and lights to increase the excitement in the room. But this misses the losers. If the sound was for losers and not winners, the cacophony might be deafening.
This propaganda overplays winners and concentrates focus. This is classic cognitive survivorship bias. But don’t ask about the losers. This framing isn’t limited to law enforcement. It is also employed in the prevailing Capitalist narrative, but it under advertises the fact that most entrepreneurs fail. Counter arguments are presented in the likes of Henry Ford failed at 7 business before succeeding. If you fail, just try again. It has to work out for you eventually—unless, of course, you aren’t working hard enough—not working as hard as the winners, not paying your dues.
Whilst watching, I found myself scoffing time and again. I am not a Romantic and not a Primative, so I didn’t exactly side with Kaczynski, but I definitely didn’t side with the system, even if that’s not what he was railing against.
Of interest to me was the forensic linguistics. Humourous to me was his choice of spelling. Like me, he wrote in international English. The series represented his spelling as accepted variants, but this is a US-centric position. In fact, most the the world that speaks English employes the British flavour, which is closer to international English than so-called American English, which is only spoken in the US and Central and northern South America. The rest of the world doesn’t use American English. I chose to use international English after high school. Occasionally I get comments and criticisms, but my grammatical footing is stronger than the vast majority of these. The biggest factor is that I don’t identify as an American. Rather, I am a citizen of the world. Perhaps Esperanto?
I happened upon a video where three philosophers engage in friendly debate over the nature of absolute goodness. The three each in turn give their positions, and then they debate three themes. This post captures their positions—until about 12.5 minutes—, and I’ll reserve the themes for future posts.
The swapping an evaluative good over a moral goodness is a slight of hand or a head fake. As Naomi Goulder states, citing Nietzsche,
I won’t call Nietzsche on his facile belief in ‘self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men‘.
The problem is as much one of mathematics as well as of language. Good is a weasel word, so it is easy to equivocate over its meaning. I’ve commented on this before, so I’ll leave it here at the moment and focus on the maths. No matter what bogey we are attempting to maximise, we are left optimising across to dimensions: individual versus some group, such as society; and present verses future.
I’ll start there. Without regard to which normative function to optimise, we should recognise that what provides the most what I’d deem benefit now not also be optimised in the future.
If I have enough money for either an ice cream cone or bus fare home on a hot day—so even on a relatively short time scale—,and I choose an ice cream, my near-term satisfaction quickly fades when I realise I now have to find alternative means to get home.
In fact, I am not simply optimising across now and a few minutes from now. I am optimising across all possible future times across my lifespan. Plus, taking some choices are necessarily going to eliminate the possibility of others. Rational choice theory be damned.
Beyond the time dimension, we’ve got the individual versus group dimension. This is just as silly. Not only is the group undefined, we are likely to constrain it to our perceived in-group. As a citizen of the UK, I may not consider the effects of my choice on, say, Germany or Myanmar.
In effect, this becomes a system boundary definition problem. Just because I adopt a nationalistic boundary does not mean that I’ve chosen this correctly. The Germans who made this calculaus circa World War II learnt that being on the losing side of a conflict yields outcoems divergent from original expectations. Had Germany and the Axis prevailed, who knows how this might have changed?
My point is that, even divorced from the language problem, the bulk of this topic is mental masturbation. It is unresolvable because it’s not much more than academic sophistry.
Paul Boghossian conveys three possible interpretations.
In the first he posits a strawman statement, ‘It is morally good to educate girls and young women’, a topic sure to get an emotional reaction from Western-indoctrinated people, assuming a moral high ground over fundamentalist Muslim beliefs. Proponents of this view claim that this can be assessed as simply true or false.
More fundamentally, he defends this approach in proxy by asserting that, ‘ultimately, there will be some normative claim at the bottom of that chain of reasoning which will either be true or false‘. It hinges on the expected role of the human, in particular the female of the species. Again, this is only true or false within some context, a context which is neither objective nor universal.
In the second, which he labels as relativistic, acknowledges the social contextual interpretation.
His last interpretation is nihilistic, wherein, ‘normative vocabulary is fundamentally confused; there is nothing in the world it answers to; if you really want to do things ‘right’, you just have to drop this vocabulary and find some other vocabulary—not itself normative; not itself evaluative—in which to describe these things that we call moral convictions or moral beliefs‘.
I subscribe to this last school, though I do not feel that language is fundamentally capable of this level of precision and even more fundamentally is not truth-apt.
He adds a fourth category, where preferences rule, which is weaker still, as preferences are not only normative but emotional and, I might argue, are somewhat arbitrary and capricious and subject to all of the weaknesses inherhent in preference theory.
Michael Ruse begins by downplaying the absolute notion of the good but then backtracks and defending something close to absolute by ‘taking it very seriously’.
He defends the believers in the quasi-absolute morality of good gods, ignoring the relative nature of that belief (and not to mention how to validate the objectivity). He goes on the defend Platonism but comes up short trying to assert the positive analytic notion of maths and a normative vantage where morality is objective.
I was pleasantly amused with his case where he highlights the inherent problem with a sexual morality formulated around a binary sex world if we imagine intergalactically a world with a ternary sex arrangement. We can observe this locally, as not all species are restricted by human sexual dimorphism.
For reference, the three themes discussed are as follows:
Theme One: Is there an absolute good?
Theme Two: Does morality apply to the act or the consequences
My girlfriend’s mother with whom we live was raised a Catholic. She asked me what my religious beliefs are, and I responded that I don’t believe in gods, angels, divine anything, a higher intelligence or power in the manner people ascribe to gods. She conveyed that she had been upset with her husband but got the last laugh after he died.
As she related it to me, the night after he dies, he came to her in a vision and told her that he was wrong and she was right, so now she knows that there is life after death. I’m not entirely sure if he was heaven-bound in this scenario.
So, as she finds comfort in this belief (and of the other spectres she’s seen, heard, and felt, I just nod and smile and say ‘that’s nice’). I try my best not to sprain anything as I roll my eyes on the inside.
At least Descartes admitted that his senses might be deceived. No such thing here. One of the issues I have with so-called religious tolerance is that it is not politically correct to call BS on nonsense like this. Of course, I am not about to jeopardise my relationship with my girlfriend by mocking her mother.
My girlfriend is a different story still. she was raised in a Catholic household but was not subjected to the church or parochial school like her mother, but she was still fed a diet of religious nonsense growing up. To her, hell is real. The fear of a hell actually influences some moral decisions. To the righteous, this is a fine consequentialist approach, the ends (of normalised behaviour) justify the means (of believing a lie).
To me, the lie is immoral, but to some, they actually believe it (or believe it enough) that they don’t see it as a fabrication. I suppose it’s easier for people like me who consider morality to be fabricated from whole cloth.
A particularly overworked trope is that of greater good. ‘Greater good‘ is a Utilitarian concept wrought with the same problems as other specious Enlightenment ideas. I’ve written about this from several perspectives. As with many foundation concepts springing from the Enlightenment, ‘greater good’ is founded more on platitudes and some specious ideal than reality. It’s more wishful thinking for a gullible population.
Philosophy students learn in early ethics classes of the paradox of the Trolley Problem. But there is no paradox; it’s just the result of accepting a faulty framework, and so we left with a host of concepts from politics to economics.
The problem is that there is no consistent definition of good—or at least the value judgment is subjective; there is no accounting for taste—, and there is no measurement of it, a problem with Utility Theory in general.
Episode 8 of The Moral Foundations of Politics with Ian Shapiro was another difficult lesson to watch—rather to listen to—the student responses. Evident is the degree of indoctrination or brainwashing these students have been through. I want to document some pieces I feel are relevant to my position.
The fact that morality is perniciously imposed and infused on the unsuspecting
The fact that property rights change over time
The fact that legal interpretation changes over time
The responses were primarily knee-jerk responses anchored on institutional indoctrination. Whilst it makes sense to indoctrinate a group, I am opposed to imposing an obvious relative morality but passing it off as absolute.
Asking how prostitution could be illegal when sex and commerce are both legal, the responses—to be fair, only a couple people responded—were about how it might somehow ‘harms’ women or society as a sort of negative externality, be violent, have been coercive or a form of slavery, have involved a married or otherwise committed spouse, or have involved an under-aged person. These were poor man’s strawman arguments at best, each potentially with merit, but each a separate issue from the question.
In fact, we can likely find evidence of each of these in a ‘typical’ employment situation: coercion, under-age, a threat of violence, implied or expressed; the spousal issue doesn’t fit these situations, but even if we want to legislate keeping people safe from their own actions, it is as illegal for unmarried persons, so the rationale is insufficient.
The point I hold is that prostitution in and of itself is no more exploitative than any other source of employment, a source income. Given that Western society imposes income as the primary means to support one’s self, the wrong here is that artificial barrier. Were income not a veritable necessity, prostitution to earn money (or use as a barter) would also be unnecessary. This is not to say that the other aforementioned objections would be resolved; this because, as I mentioned, they are different issues.
Next, we are told that marital rape originally not considered a crime because a woman was considered to be chattel property transferred patriarchally from her father to her husband. As I’ve written previously, I do not subscribe to the notion of property in the first place, but taken that as given, it is obvious that property is determined through whimsy. Property rights change over time, whether receding as just noted or expanding to include intellectual property and the expanse of patentable ideas. It’s disconcerting that application of the law can be so arbitrary and, though perhaps not capricious, frivolous. And given it is all open to interpretation, the pendulum can swing in the other direction, as the women of Iran and other fundamentalist theocracies has experienced.
Apparently, I’m done ranting. Basic income has been mentioned as a solution to some prostitution, as some women participate out of desperation. Though I feel that this might kerb some prostitution, some women would still seek to supplement this base income, if only to advance their personal standard of living.