Category Archives: Philosophy

A Theory of Moral Diffusion

Does the morality of society, on the whole, improve? It would be extremely naïve to answer with a straightforward “yes”: the 20th and 21st centuries have seen atrocities that more than match the most reprehensible of history’s offerings. But if we adjust the timescale to one far larger than that of centuries, and imagine instead the whole of human history, present, and future, then does the situation change? Or is humanity doomed, by its very nature, to stay at roughly the same moral level?

Consider, if you will, the following thought experiment. There are two tribes, living close to each other, but oblivious of the other’s existence. The first tribe is close to modern society in ethical terms, in that they consider it immoral to kill, rape, or steal. The second tribe is the complete opposite: they consider cannibalism good, subjugation of women acceptable, and murder an understandable method of solving disputes.

Now suppose that both of these tribes begin to run low on resources, and each think that it would be desirable to expand their territory. The populations of the two tribes, as well as their military powers, are exactly equal. They slowly begin to expand their villages closer and closer to one another. This culminates in a standoff. There is a giant tree stood exactly on the newly drawn border, with an ample supply of apples for their delectation. Exactly one half of the tree hovers over each tribe’s land. Naturally, there is disagreement about who should own the tree, and for a time there is tension between the two tribes. They hold off any military action, however, mainly out of caution. As each tribe learns of the cultures and practices of the other, the tension between them mounts. The first tribe considers it despicable that the other tribe commit murder and cannibalism so readily, while their neighbours consider the fact that they don’t eat each other a sign of immense disrespect to the gods.

Assuming that they never resort to violence, and that the war between them is strictly cold, who wins the standoff?

Well, there is a probable consequence that should be considered first. While each tribe learns of the supposedly bad features of the other’s culture, it will also learn of the good. This means, first, that moral considerations that they may have previously taken for granted will become subject to questioning. Secondly it means that some members of the cannibal tribe who may have had misgivings about cannibalism will become even more uncertain about it; conversely, any equal-and-opposites in the other tribe will also experience the same phenomenon, reversed. Assuming that all people who have misgivings eventually abandon their tribe for the other one, which tribe will end up with the most people?

Clearly, the “good” tribe will. And as the population of the “bad” tribe decreases, more people within it will gradually judge that it is safe to leave, and will do so. Eventually, the tribe will be reduced to a small collective of die-hard tribesmen who, at least in terms of size, carry very little influence. Soon enough, they will die away, and the “good” tribe will have triumphed, along with their moral system. However, this conclusion is only true on the important condition that the freedoms of both thought and expression are allowed in both tribes.

Different moral systems will inevitably come into contact with one another: the only things that can stop this are pure contingencies. These aside, when they do meet, they will have to resolve any tension that arises between them. Either the stronger society (though not moral system) will win if it comes to a war, or they adjust to one another’s presence and a compromise between the two systems, if necessary, is found. The compromise, of course, is hardly ever instantaneous: it can take hundreds of years or more, and essentially involves an osmosis of peoples (the good from the bad tribe go to the good tribe, and vice versa). When the newly formed moral system meets another one, the process will repeat. Eventually, all moral systems within a “world” will have mixed and settled into that world’s moral system. This morality will be better, on average, than the vast majority of moralities that have been in the past. It won’t of necessity be the best morality possible. If that world meets another world, another compromise may be necessary, and so on. Of course, there is no necessity to the amount of worlds. This means that it is unlikely ever to reach perfection, but will merely converge towards it.

When two or more societies are in conflict, all that is needed is that most people of both societies reach a high enough level of thought-freedom, and the people in the morally inferior society will, slowly but surely, change their views to that of the superior. Eventually the inferior system, despite some possibly violent death throes, will wither away. The question arises: do people choose the moral system which is objectively better, or is it merely a choice of convenience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive?

Note that the theory ignores contingencies. It’s just the natural progression of morality; it doesn’t take into account the possibility of an alien race conquering us militarily, or a Sarah Palin accidentally nuking the world.

P.S. The existence of terrorism may actually be a sign that world morality is improving. How? Terrorists must confine themselves to small, radicalised groups, constantly hiding for their lives, cowering hypocritically under the protections of good nations-because it has become difficult to hold their views in an “official”, or state capacity. Under my theory, eventually the majority of the terrorist “tribe” will begin to appreciate this protection, and convert accordingly to the ways of their host countries.

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A Note on Beauty

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can we even speak of beauty? It must be, at least in part, an objective phenomenon: that is to say, we need an objective understanding of subjectivity. If I find a sunset beautiful, but my friend doesn’t, how can she actually know what I’m talking about if I say “that sunset is beautiful”? She clearly does not have the same qualitative appreciation of it, so that sentence is essentially gibberish to her. The only reason she understands it is that she was at some point taught what the word means. But how is that possible if it is in the eye of the beholder?

On Strangeness

The expression “truth is stranger than fiction”, or at least the overuse of it, is a prime example of lazy thinking. The truth is, truth is only stranger than fiction by virtue of its being true. Reality has an unfair advantage over fiction in this regard. If an outlandish piece of fiction, whose strangeness does not otherwise particularly strike any reader, were to occur in real life, people would still say that truth is stranger than fiction. But if it followed the fiction to the letter, how can it be stranger?

When an extremely strange series of events takes place in reality, a quite natural reaction is to comment that “you couldn’t make it up”. If it is truly strange, it is unlikely that someone would have made it up (simply statistically speaking), but it is certain that someone could have made it up. After all, most strange occurrences are the results of human thought and action, and fiction is no less (in fact even more) the product of these things.

Perhaps, then, we should ask: “what do we mean by strangeness?” It seems certain that this is different for reality than for fiction. Perhaps strangeness is simply the feeling that arises when we perceive that something has gone beyond its “natural bounds”. Reality is bounded by many laws—of physics, of psychology—and so if something appears to go beyond these bounds it will give the feeling of strangeness. But the bounds of fiction are much harder to gauge. Ostensibly they are at the whim of the author, and so can be absolutely anything. There are of course the rules that come from narrative convention, but most readers will be aware of a wide enough variety that nothing in this regard will be surprising, at least not surprising enough to engender the feeling of strangeness.

I would submit that the overriding boundary of fiction is that, for the most part, we just don’t believe it. If fiction can make us believe (however different the nature of this belief is to that of real things), then it creates the feeling of strangeness. Reality is the opposite: if it makes us doubt, if it makes us think that it’s a fiction, then it has become strange.

The Infinite Regress of Illusions

I wrote in a previous post (Does Truth Exist?) that we assume that truth exists in all our speech and thoughts, and that it would be impossible to truly speak or think otherwise: if I think, “truth does not exist,” I really mean, “truly, truth does not exist”—a logical contradiction. No functioning human—or sentient being for that matter—can reasonably live on the opposite assumption.

There is also this: it is impossible to believe that everything is an illusion.  “Everything” here means all that you think you know. In that case, the thought “everything is an illusion” is an illusion, and that thought is an illusion, and so on ad infinitum. An infinite regress of illusions is impossible. A similar problem arises with truth. If everything is true, then the thought “everything is an illusion” is also true. And, as Democritus says of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things”, if everything is true, then among truths is the thought that not everything is true. So neither “everything is true” nor “everything is an illusion” are correct.

But it may be objected that saying “everything is an illusion” is not quite the same as saying “nothing is true”. However, presumably the thought “nothing is true” is meant to be true, therefore negating itself. Maybe it depends on what exactly is meant by “nothing is true”. If it is taken to mean that “nothing that I know, apart from this thought, is true” then that seems to be perfectly acceptable; but it is logically impossible to make a generalisation out of it, because that would mean that “it is true that nothing can be known which is true”—again a logical contradiction.

The only weakness I can see in the above is that a distinction needs to be drawn between two kinds of thought: that is, thoughts about the nature and truth of things, and thoughts about the nature and truth of truth. The former might be said to be an epistemic judgement, and the latter a metaepistemic judgement. But is a metaepistemic judgement internal or external? That is, does it concern doubt, or does it concern truth as a thing utterly independent of any observers? If this is a useful distinction to make, it would certainly merit further exploration.

What’s So Good About Optimism?

Why is it good to be an optimist and bad to be a pessimist? An incurable optimist, as has been observed, really is just insecure about his pessimism. A pessimist, on the other hand, might be said to be a true optimist, since she at least doesn’t cower from the truth, and, accepting it as it is, endeavours to go on strongly despite it. These, no doubt, are sweeping statements, but the point that underlies them is that it is very difficult to tell objectively just how optimistic or pessimistic someone truly is; we have to take them at their word—but the very definitions of the words are so slippery that any self-professing of one’s stance is prone more to self-sophistry than anything approaching truth. To give an example: what makes a suicidal person pessimistic? Are they not in fact optimistic, given that they think suicide is a solution—that is, they actually seek a solution? Surely, if we define the optimist as someone who strives for and expects the best, then the suicidal person must be the most irrational optimist of all. More pessimistic is the one who considers suicide, but decides that it is worthless.

All this implies that the suicidal person gives a certain amount of reasonably logical thought to their decision. This is not always true, but if the act itself occurs in a moment of utter despair, or pure irrationality, then surely we can have neither optimism nor pessimism. In that case, even though we can say that the action itself is not one or the other, the person overall is more likely to be an optimist, since an optimist is more likely to be an idealist, and an idealist is less likely to be able to handle eventualities turning out far from ideal.

On another note, it has occurred to me that if to be an optimist is to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, then a theist, assuming that he believes in heaven and that heaven is a possible world, must be a pessimist, despite his apparent optimism about going to heaven.

Is it Possible to Improve Democracy?

Surely nobody would say that democracy is the best system imaginable. Assuming a utopian system impossible, quite a few would suppose that it is the best possible system in practice. However, there is hardly a consensus on what constitutes democracy; it lists representative and liberal, Islamic and Christian, constitutional, grassroots, and even totalitarian democracies among its congregation. So newer, better kinds of democracy are certainly imaginable, if not necessarily practicable.

Most adherents and propagators of democracy would surely agree that a fundamental principle on which it always must be based is that the people are to be trusted to choose the best candidate, and thus make the best decision for the country. We know that this is rarely guaranteed, partly because there is no sure way to make everyone make the right decision. This is an innate, and unavoidable, aspect of democracy. But if the system could lean towards replicating the free market economy—that is, grow an Invisible Hand that caused people, even when voting selfishly, to unintentionally benefit the country—then we may have a better form of democracy. There may be an innate difficulty in the idea: in economics, there is at least one principle universally agreed upon, which is that more money is better than less money. If each person succeeds in making more money for himself, everyone succeeds in improving the economy as a whole. However, there is no such universally accepted principle in politics, and perhaps then the analogy must fail.

Capitalism naturally provides incentive for people and businesses to perform well, but democracy provides no such incentive with regard to voting. For every voter who marks his ballot paper with the best of intentions for the country, there will be another who votes for purely personal reasons. That whole category should not be vilified (it consists of the majority of people), but among their ranks are likely to be those who vote for racist reasons, for reasons of misplaced party loyalty, or generally with unsavoury or ignorant intentions. And of those who vote for the country’s well-being with sincerity, there is no guarantee that they are truly able to judge that correctly. No one can reasonably expect that all voters should or could be gifted political and economic analysts, but it surely is within reason to expect them to have a good understanding of the subject, generally speaking and regarding current events, otherwise they are not even able to make a merely honest decision.

To achieve a genuine Invisible Hand democracy, a sort of cosmic process of a system that by its nature produces the best results, may be an ideal, and it may be an impossible one. Therefore the following idea is not a blueprint for the thing itself, but rather a possible stepping stone towards it.

Meritocratic Democracy

The idea behind this system is simply that some votes have more value than others. The value of your vote can be judged in one of these ways:

1. You have to take a test to show how much you know about the political climate. Obviously you don’t have to be an expert, but you have to know enough to justify giving you such a responsibility.

2. You have to justify your vote. Justification doesn’t have to be in-depth, it simply has to be a proper reason. So, if someone votes for the BNP and justifies it by saying “I hate immigrants”, their vote would have less value because it’s not a real reason. Voters will also have to show some knowledge of the policies of the parties they’re not voting for, as otherwise there would be no reason to suspect that their chosen party is any better than the others.

Now of course, there are likely to be many who will rebel against the idea of a test, and it goes without saying that the logistics of such an enterprise are difficult at the very least. However, the benefits might outweigh the costs as follows: there will be some who won’t be averse to taking the test when told that it is a short and painless thing, and that the value of their vote will increase; though there will be less voters, each vote will be worth more for the country, since it is more likely to be well-considered. The seemingly simpler idea of asking for justification for one’s vote has the advantage that it becomes less likely that people will be able to justify voting for plainly bad parties, such as the BNP. But a complication arises in the question of how justifications can be objectively judged. This would seem to entail the creation (or amendment) of a constitution, with legislation designed specifically with the system in mind, and this is not a simple, short term solution.

The value of the vote in this system can be thought of as the political equivalent of capital in the free market. People should, if the system is to work, desire a higher value vote for its own ends. Presently, many people think voting is useless because their vote doesn’t make a difference. And despite the protestations of the well-intentioned that that is true only if everyone thought like that, their individual vote actually is negligible (which is part of the point of democracy). If they could change the value of their vote, it is more likely to make a difference. This may have the effect of weeding out the indifferent and apathetic, and encouraging the truly enthusiastic to make better decisions.

One difficulty with the economic-political analogy here is that, if we are to take it to its logical extreme within the context of the Invisible Hand idea, it should then be possible for someone resourceful enough to accrue vastly more vote-power than the majority of others. Only then would the idea of voting-power be a true incentive in the sense analogous to capital in capitalism. But this would be absurd, not to mention impossible within the system, because the only way someone could become “vote-rich” would be to take thousands of tests. Given that that obviously wouldn’t be allowed, and that there must be imposed a reasonable limit on the value of each vote, the Hand is not quite invisible yet, though it is gradually becoming a little more translucent.

Does Truth Exist?

As far as I am able to see, there are only two positions one can adopt in answer to this. They are: “truth exists” and “truth does not exist”. One cannot say “truth sometimes exists”, because that means that it does. Nor can one say “truth is subjective”, because there are otherwise no true standards by which we can measure its validity. Saying “maybe truth exists” is neither here nor there.

The problem with the question “does truth exist?” is that it can only be answered within a framework that assumes the existence of truth. If one says “truth exists”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth exists”, and when someone says “truth does not exist”, what they are really saying is “truly, truth does not exist”, or “truth has a truth-value of zero”, a contradiction not just of terms but of logic. If this point is answered by saying, “how do I know that logic is true?”, we can see that the disbeliever of truth has it all ahead of them: if one does not believe in truth, one does not believe in logic, and, of necessity, nothing can be believed. We must concede that truth exists if we are to do or think anything. The exact nature of this truth is another matter, but truth undoubtedly exists.