Path Less Travelled

Some people seem to need to find meaning, yet they arrive from different experiences. These days, many insecure Western males appear to meet in a particular place that leaves them to make a decision. Of course, there is no decision because, in a Freudian-Jungian way, they arrive with issues and baggage. This dictates which path will be chosen—Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson. Why not both?

This is not a commentary on a lack of free will, though that may come into play. It’s more a general lack of degrees of freedom when one arrives from such a place and has these two characters (caricatures?) as options for role models. In each case, overcompensation is evident.

It’s a slow news day and I’ve been otherwise occupied. I don’t have much to add, but I felt sharing this meme would fill space and time.

Onward to more substantial fare.

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.

Retributive Injustice

I’ve already said that justice is a weasel word, but let’s pretend that it’s actually something more substantial and perhaps even real. I’ve spoken on the notion of blame as well. I have been thinking about how untenable retributive justice is and it seems to include restorative justice, too. But let’s focus on the retributive variety for now.

In short, retributive justice is getting the punishment one deserves, and I think desert is the weak link. Without even delving into causa sui territory, I feel there are two possible deserving parties. The agent and society. Let’s regard these in turn.

The Agent

An agent, or more specifically moral agents, are entities that can be deemed responsible for their actions on moral grounds. Typically, moral agency assumes that an agent, an actor, is fully aware of the cultural rules of a given society, whether norms or legislated. Under this rationale, we tend to exclude inanimate objects with no agency, non-human life forms, children, and persons with diminished cognitive faculties. In some cases, this diminution may have been self-imposed as in the case of chemically induced impairment, for example by drugs or alcohol. We might consider these entities as being broken. In any case, they do not qualify as having agency. An otherwise moral agent until duress or coercion may no longer be expected to retain agency.

Unless an informed and unimpaired agent commits an act with intent … there can be no moral desert

Unless an informed and unimpaired agent commits an act with intent, another weasely word in its own right, there can be no moral desert. But let’s hold this thought for a bit and turn our attention to society.

Society

For the purposes of this commentary, society is a group of like-minded persons who have created norms, customs, laws, and regulations. In most cases, people come into societies whose structure is already formed, and they need to acculturate and adapt, as changing the fabric of society generally takes time. Even in the case of warfare where a society is subsumed, cultural norms will persist for at least a time.

Whilst it is incumbent for a person to become aware of the rules of engagement and interaction with a society, this is reciprocally a responsibility of society to impart its norms through signalling and performance as well as through more formal training, such as public fora, schools, and activities. Even media and entertainment can serve to reinforce this function.

So What?

I argue that retributive justice is bullshit (to employ technical language) is because if an informed and unimpaired agent does violate some standard or protocol, the society is at least partially to blame—perhaps fully so. Again, if the person is not unimpaired, a pivotal question might be why is s/he uninformed? If the person has the information but ignores it, to what extent is the person impaired and what responsibility does society have for being unaware?

Special Case?

What if a particularly predacious person from Society A infiltrates Society B? Is the person broken or is Society A responsible to creating a person that would prey on some other unsuspecting society? Again, the person is never entirely responsible unless s/he is broke, in which case, s/he is exempt and not morally responsible.

When Then?

As I’ve said before, a person who commits an act against the interest of a society may be quarantined or perhaps exiled or shunned as some cultures practice, but these are meant to preserve the cohesion of the society and not meant to exact a point of flesh in retribution.

In the end, I just don’t see a use case where retribution would fall upon a single actor. If some transgression is made, how then do we ensure society pays its dues as well? In my mind, society is more apt to fail the individual than the other way around, but maybe that’s just me and my world.

What am I missing here?

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.