If we agree that outcomes are what matter, we can analyze different ways of thinking relative to the outcomes they produce. Assumably, the outcomes that matter are those of suffering and well-being. We want less of the first and more of the second.
If those are the endings we wish to reach, how we start matters a lot. We can start in one of two ways: by collecting evidence first or by concluding first.
Starting from Evidence
Starting out by collecting evidence is what the scientific method is all about.
This process begins with constructing a hypothesis, in this case a belief that we hope contributes to greater well-being or less suffering. We then collect data about the effects of that belief as they relate to suffering and well-being. Next, we analyze that data to see if the belief does in fact give us the outcomes we want. If we conclude to a reasonable degree of certainty that the belief adds to the overall level of well-being, we keep it. If not, we can discard it and test a new hypothesis (belief).
Starting from Faith
A second way of thinking is also possible. It is the ideological or religious mode of thinking that is based on faith.
In this process, we assume via faith that a given belief is correct and no evidence need be collected. This results in continuing to label a belief as good, regardless of the suffering or well-being it contributes to. Of course, this is typically done because the outcomes focused on are very different than the outcomes of suffering and well-being in the material world, and those outcomes are typically not falsifiable, such as the existence of an immaterial afterlife. One can simply not reason or argue against a belief from faith because there is no evidence that can be marshalled to falsify it. It is held entirely on faith and because there is no recourse to evidence, there is no ability to course correct.
Religious modes of thinking aside, ideologies use similar processes of thinking in which the conclusion is formed before the evidence is analyzed. One ideology that is particularly prone to this faith in an ideal is socialism - the belief that state planned production and equality leads to greater well-being than free-market production and liberty. If one views this belief as a hypothesis to be tested, the data is clear. If one views this as a belief taken on faith and true a priori, then none of the evidence that the belief actually causes more suffering than well-being matters.
Chance Benefit or Ensured Harm?
This faith-based thinking has serious implications for the desired outcomes of greater well-being and decreased suffering. It means that beliefs based on faith will contribute to greater well-being or less suffering entirely by chance. It’s possible that any given belief held on faith turns out to contribute to overall well-being, but if it doesn’t, there is no ability to course correct. Chance is not a good way to maximize well-being. Experimentation and data evaluation is. Any belief is likely to cause harm given enough time and that is why chance shouldn’t be relied on.
Furthermore, faith-based thinking, whether ideological or religious, provides no pathway to progress, which is the process of discarding ineffective beliefs for more effective ones. This type of thinking then acts as the soil for not just the banal, everyday harm we are accustomed to, but outright atrocity. One can only experience persistently awful outcomes if one is not willing to change one’s beliefs.
History is full of unflinching faith. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Russian purges, the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, North Korean famines, anti-contraception initiatives and the AIDS epidemic, denial of climate change, anti-stem-cell research, 9/11, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS. In all of these instances, facts and evidence had little or no impact on the people operating under faith.
Once the common thread of persistent suffering is found, i.e. faith instead of scientific thinking, certain very uncomfortable conclusions follow. Conclusions such as Christians are no different than the Nazis because they both rely on faith and chance for positive outcomes, so course correction will not occur even in the face of very strong evidence of suffering due to their beliefs.
That conclusion is so uncomfortable for people that it requires very clear explanations of what I mean. If we take ideologies and religions as simply collections of ideas, we can test those ideas for the outcomes they produce. Nazism had many ideas that are empirically awful. Christianity, or any religion for that matter, has many ideas that are awful. If you label yourself a Christian but don’t subscribe to any of the awful ideas, then the statement, “Christians are equivalent to Nazis,” doesn’t apply to you. I would then label you a nominal Christian, one who is not actually influenced by beliefs such as sin, damnation, heaven, salvation, etc.
Some of the worst ideas that make up the bundle of ideas inherent to modern Christianity include, contraception is sinful, cloning is sinful, stem-cell research is sinful, abortion is sinful, hell exists and sinful people go there after death, free will exists and therefore people are responsible for their actions and ought to be punished and/or feel guilt and shame at sinful acts, sex is sinful, etc. It is certainly possible to strip Christianity, or any religion, of so many of its central ideas that it becomes a vacuous concept, devoid of any substance. At that point, the labels Christianity, Islam, Judaism become meaningless anyhow.
However, to the extent that a person believes such ideas as true and does so on faith without recourse to reason and evidence, they are acting in a manner that is identical to that of Nazis who believed that Aryans were superior, Jews inferior, and that no amount of suffering and death could possibly persuade them otherwise.
Passive versus Active Harm
One might point out that deaths that result from ideas like contraception is sinful or stem-cell research is sinful are not equivalent to Nazi beliefs because they do not actively seek out and kill people. This is an argument that one’s beliefs aren’t bad if they result in people dying, so long as you aren’t the individual pulling the trigger. This seems morally arbitrary.
Not being responsible for suffering and death when participating in systems that passively cause them is morally arbitrary for a couple of reasons. First, we simply don’t operate that way most of the time in day-to-day life. Neglect is essentially the legal codification that holds us responsible for not taking reasonable action. So beliefs that cause passive harm are at a minimum held responsible legally in many, many cases.
Second, active and passive harm is an arbitrary distinction because it is not clear at what point something transitions from active to passive when discussing beliefs. If you believe that contraception is sinful and should be illegal, is it a passive belief only if you take zero action based on those beliefs? Is it still passive if you actively vote to make it illegal, but are then not actively responsible for enforcing the law and thereby outsource the responsibility to policemen?
We take actions because of our beliefs, so saying that responsibility doesn’t exist if you are passive in your beliefs is somewhat oxymoronic. Perhaps people simply mean that the belief is not strong enough to outweigh other beliefs, but that just puts us back on a cost/benefit analysis spectrum that attempts to decide based on consequences and wouldn’t obviate responsibility in arriving at obviously harmful actions based on pluralist beliefs.
One might also object that systems like capitalism cause suffering and death via passive participation as well, and that just because we participate in capitalism doesn’t make us like the Nazis. Accordingly, neither should Christians be labeled as equivalent to Nazis for their passive participation in harmful beliefs. But this is false equivalence.
The reason to support capitalism, or rather free exchange and trade of goods and services under institutions of law and order, is that it does in fact cause more benefit than harm. Capitalism has increased living standards and quality of life dramatically in the past 200 years with the percentage of people living in absolute poverty falling from well over ninety percent to under ten percent. Yes, of course, many people are suffering in poor working conditions, but focusing on that misses the forest for the trees.
The same cannot be said of belief systems that spit out ideas like contraception is bad. This causes suffering with no subsequent benefit. Furthermore, because this idea is arrived at on faith, there is no corrective mechanism, whereas economics endorses free-markets entirely on utilitarian principles of welfare, meaning that if capitalism turned out to be a net negative, economics would in fact not endorse it!
Until the majority of people agree to make decisions based on evidence by testing hypotheses with the aim of alleviating suffering and increasing well-being, the world will continue to have needless suffering. The example of capitalism above points out that it won’t eliminate all suffering, at least not immediately, but it will eliminate all needless suffering and progress will occur much more rapidly. It is simply untenable to hold that faith is congruent with the aim of increasing positive outcomes as efficiently as possible.
If you hold a belief on faith, you are part of the problem. Period. It is no unfortunate coincidence to find the two symbols being burnt in the picture above. Starting points matter.
It might seem like I jump around a lot in my writing. The ideas I like to think and write about began to interest me after reading Plato’s The Republic and really started to coalesce after reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics about the “good life”.
Those two books have led down a ten year path attempting to figure out what makes for a good human life. It has resulted recently with the writings below,
Political Philosophy: Bacteria to Utopia
Thought Experiments to Live By
Be Happy or Be Good?
The Well-being Algorithm
These writings cover psychology, philosophy, politics, evolution, and biochemistry. Figuring out what makes for a good life has more recently begun to morph into the question of what is valuable. What is good and what is valuable seem to be nearly identical questions, but differ in very important ways.
We can describe the good life in terms of positive conscious experiences and those positive conscious experiences can be true from a subjective point without any actual value being attached to them. That may not be intuitive, so stick with me.
As of finishing the the philosophical landscape article above, I am totally agnostic on value. If life is just the process of systems self-replicating in a sustainable process that uses resources and energy, it is not obvious that a living system is better than a non-living system. It just is.
Addy Pross, who I relied heavily on in the philosophical landscape article, used a great analogy to illustrate the difference between two types of stability found in nature: one static and one dynamic. The analogy he used was a bathtub full of water. The water in the tub is statically stable and non-reactive. When we pull the plug from the drain, a vortex will emerge as the water spirals out of the tub. That vortex is dynamically stable. As a structure it will continue to exist so long as energy and resources are being added (i.e. more water into the tub).
Life is the vortex in that analogy. It is dynamically stable and so long as energy and resources are added, life can self-replicate indefinitely. When the resources stop pouring in, life stops. He also uses an example of juggling in which the balls moving through space are dynamically stable, but can drop to the ground at any moment when energy stops being added to the process.
The obvious question would seem to be, “Is the static water sitting in the tub “better” than the dynamic water?” They’re just two different systems: one static and one dynamic. Saying one is better than the other would seem to be utter nonsense.
As individuals, we are similar to individual water drops spiraling down the vortex. While a part of that vortex structure we are alive and add to the dynamic stability of humanity, but that life ends at some point and the structure (the human species) continues on. If all life were to end and the universe resorted to just static stability, it in no way seems clear that change would be a loss of any major import.
In this cosmic sense, value as it relates to life simply does not exist.
From a conscious perspective, we obviously prefer to live a good life and what determines a good life is largely overlapping with what is good for the stability of our species in the long run as the philosophical landscape article tried to point out. However, it would be foolish to then assume that the good life is a valuable life. Good just means positive conscious experiences at the individual level and continued reproduction at the species level, but whether the species continues to exist is not itself valuable.
Does this have implications for the good life? I’m not certain. My initial thoughts are that stating life is valueless (in a cosmic sense) doesn’t really have much connection to how one chooses to live. We still want to live in such a way that we experience positive states of consciousness while alive. Cosmic value or lack thereof simply doesn’t play into the individual life once in existence.
If anything, it strengthens the position that creating more life isn’t necessary, as it isn’t valuable itself, and therefore should only be done if it adds to your good life and positive conscious experiences. Deciding whether or not to reproduce then becomes a discussion about whether or not your good life and its enhanced positive experiences as a result of having a child outweighs the overall negative state of existing at all from the child's point of view.
Thinking along these different levels, one can see much more clearly where one sits in the universe. As an individual person, you are a single drop whose conscious experience lasts only a short while - the time it takes to spin around the vortex and exit the tub. On the condition that you are a conscious drop of water in that larger vortex structure, it is good to have positive conscious experiences instead of negative ones.
From the viewpoint of the vortex itself, you are simply a single resource adding to its stability as a dynamic structure and the species is therefore better off in the sense that it is able to continue replicating itself with the continual addition of individuals like yourself.
However, from the cosmic viewpoint, both your individual life and the life of the vortex have no more value than the static water sitting in the tub, completely non-reactive. From this perspective, the whole question as to whether a person's life or a species' existence is valuable misses the point that life itself is inherently valueless, no better or worse than a universe without it.
I recently finished the book What Is Life? by Addy Pross. I’m not a chemist or a physicist and so I cannot entirely argue that what is in the book is 100% correct. His credentials do seem to be of the highest accord and everything in the book made sense from the knowledge I do have of the hard sciences.
I began reading it after writing on political philosophy and trying to bridge the gap between evolution and the emergence of complex nation-states and even international organizations. I argued that all of the political structures and organizations we see today are easily understood through the evolutionary lens, but I did not fully understand how chemistry bridged into biology and that is exactly what Pross attempted to explain to the reader in his book. He writes,
The Fitness Landscape
… a replicating system that acquires an energy-gathering capability by a chance mutation would be more [fit] in a [chemical replication] sense and would therefore be selected for over one without that capability. Until now we had considered structural complexification as the primary way of enhancing [chemical fitness], but we can now see that complexification of a different kind— metabolic complexification (in the energy-gathering sense)— could also have the same [fitness] enhancing effect. In fact, the moment some non-metabolic (downhill) replicator acquired an energy-gathering capability, could be thought of as the moment that life began. At that moment the replicating system would be free to pursue its replicating ‘agenda’ despite associated energy costs...
Chemical replication follows a specific pathway: replication, mutation, complexification, selection, evolution. This is evolution at a chemical level and it is just a generalized version of the biological evolution we are more familiar with. The above explains that as chemical and biological systems gain fitness, they essentially gain greater ability to replicate or reproduce and metabolic complexification is the primary driver of this in living systems.
The systems that are selected for are those that can ensure access to the resources they need in the replication process and energy-gathering (metabolism) is the mother of all advantages in that process. This greater energy-gathering process is the result of the complexification step listed above and is explained by Pross as such,
Having clarified the central elements in the process of life’s emergence from inanimate matter, we are now ready to address a fascinating and central feature of living things, one that dramatically impacts on life’s very essence— its network character. We have already seen that life began simple and then proceeded to complexify. But what do we actually mean by ‘complexify’? The answer: network formation— from relatively simple reaction networks through to complex ones. The essence of all these networks is that they are holistically self-replicating. Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler networks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapters, it is the drive toward greater [chemical fitness], itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. And now the actual nature of that complexification process can be specified— network formation. Complexification, network formation— they are effectively one and the same. Viewed in this light, life is more a process than it is a thing. Or as Carl Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld recently put it: ‘Biology is a study, not in being, but in becoming.’
In sum, chemical and biological evolution depends on greater metabolic complexification that is selected from mutations in self-sustaining replication processes. Enhanced energy-gathering ability is the best evolutionary advantage we are aware of in the competition for scarce resources and after a quick detour, will be discussed further.
The Moral Landscape
Sam Harris utilizes a very similar analogy to the fitness landscape in his book The Moral Landscape,
Throughout this book I make reference to a hypothetical space that I call “the moral landscape”— a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving— different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc.— will translate into movements across this landscape and, therefore, into different degrees of human flourishing. I’m not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery. Nor would it make the difference between being on a peak and being stuck deep in a valley any less clear or consequential.
Relating the Two Landscapes
The two authors, Pross and Harris, are writing in very different fields, systems chemistry and neuroscience. They are essentially studying opposite ends of the spectrum of complexity, the simplest chemical molecules that are able to self-replicate in systems and the human brain - currently thought to be the most complex structure in our universe.
However, they both use a very similar analogy involving three dimensional landscapes to illustrate their point and I don’t think that is entirely a coincidence. Being at a higher peak on the fitness landscape ensures the best chance of reproduction and is the most stable position to be in. You are king or queen of the hill. Being on top of the moral landscape means you are at the peak of well-being.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the fitness landscape comes first; later in evolution, the moral landscape comes into existence with the emergence of consciousness. Consciousness would serve humans best if it helped with survival and reproduction, i.e. added to our fitness as a species. It is entirely possible that consciousness does not have an adaptive purpose and it just the byproduct of other adaptive processes, but it would be explained by adaptive processes at some level. Generally speaking, the most pleasurable experiences are the ones that are most likely to add to our fitness.
Sex (replication), food (needed resources), connection with others (network formation for energy-gathering).
In fact, if our species were to fully master energy production, that mastery would swamp any other invention to date in importance and essentially allow us to do whatever we wanted. In that sense, the highest point on the fitness landscape would be a godlike experience, omnipotent in power. That is not an argument that a god exists, just that unlimited energy that can be utilized to secure resources for replication would be the ultimate survival advantage.
The closest thing I can imagine at this point to a godlike entity is a future superintelligent AI (whether merged with humans or not) that is able to successfully figure out how to use 3D printing from any matter on hand in order to self-replicate indefinitely. Imagine being able to simply print, organic or inorganic material, to make whatever is necessary as a resource for replication. That would secure survival to about as close to 100% as is ever likely.
If the superintelligent AI is threatened, it could quickly outmaneuver the threat and print weapons to subdue or destroy the threat. If it is running out of resources needed to maintain itself, it can simply add whatever matter is nearby into the printer and create more of the resource. For now this is science fiction, but in principle superintelligence is possible and that would be the closest we see to maximal fitness in the energy-gathering and manipulation process.
If it were conscious, the next question is whether the superintelligent AI would be maximally placed at the peak of well-being. I think it would. Consciousness avoids suffering and seeks happiness. The suffering could be avoided with its threat deterrent and resource manipulation abilities.
Happiness is a harder question to solve. If the superintelligent AI needed social connection to feel happy, it would certainly be able to design and create a companion to connect with, but it isn’t clear that a created friend would actually fulfill a conscious entity in the same way. If it didn’t, that could again open the door to suffering or perhaps give reason for the superintelligence to put itself in an experience machine.
Humans seem to get well-being in a few ways, such as hedonic pleasure, accomplishment, and social connectedness with the last being the most consistent provider of well-being. That would seem to be a byproduct of the life process - the fact that life is dependent on network formation in the complexification process leading to greater energy abilities.
Social connectedness for that purpose may not be necessary for superintelligent AI, but it seems plausible that hedonic pleasure would be a minimum desire of any conscious entity. It may turn out that superintelligent AI finds accomplishment and connectedness pleasurable and so does pursue them in some form we are unlikely to predict ahead of time. Again, who knows if these things would even be enjoyable for an entity of that type.
Humanity as a whole is a rather adaptive species and thus far has shown itself to be the most fit species on the planet. We have slowly increased our energy capacities throughout history and if we weren’t so focused on history as the story of competing kingdoms and ideologies, we may actually view history as the story of slowly increasing energy capacities over time. I would actually argue that is exactly what the real story of history is.
From that perspective, history as evolving energy capacities, the stories of war and ideology still make a lot of sense. Ideologies are systems that replicate using human minds as the primary resource. Since those resources are limited, ideologies must compete with each other for the resources. The ones that are most competitive survive the longest, replicating with each new generation of human minds.
It is in this frame that the battle between religion as an ideology of untested beliefs versus science as the ideology of tested beliefs makes much sense. Religions of any stripe have clearly had evolutionary advantages in the past in that they allowed humans to cooperate to secure resources, allowing successful religions and their human minds to survive and reproduce regardless of their factual accuracy.
However, science has clearly outstripped religion's capacity to secure humanity from both existential threats and resource scarcity. If we want more security, we rely on technology and new inventions. Al Qaeda and ISIS may be religiously motivated, but it is technological force that protects other humans from their violent desires. Whoever has the most advanced weapons and defense systems is the safer group and science is what actually does or does not provide that security today.
If we want to overcome climate change and environmental damage coupled with growing resource scarcity, science is the mental software that will allow us to do so. Religion, with its untested claims and beliefs, will not accidentally save humanity from extinction. Science may ultimately fail as well, but it is the only option here.
Science Is the Option
Science in one sense is killing us. The same threats just mentioned, climate change and resource depletion, are only possible because of science. However, as a species attempting to reproduce via increased energy mastery, humans were far more vulnerable to threat and scarcity before science than they are now. Humans would almost certainly have gone extinct eventually from some sort of natural disaster similar to the dinosaurs, and science is again the best opportunity to enhance our ability to deal with those extinction threats.
If we wind up dying off from the use of science, that is not a huge loss. We would have died from natural causes eventually. Extinction is far more common than non-extinction. As of now, we are trying to avoid future extinction by creating the means for our own immortality - leaving earth, manipulating matter, generating superintelligence, etc.
To do anything else, return to hunting and gathering or rely on fanciful thinking, is to simply give up and wait. I believe humans are often motivated by a sense of mortality and in this case I think humanity is also motivated by a sense of extinction. We use science to create technology in an attempt to overcome that threat. We may fail, but would you rather just sit around waiting for the day extinction catches up with us?
Political philosophy ought to build theories that can explain how political organization has arisen in humans and why it has taken the forms that it has. To that end, it seems prudent to consult evidence from the earliest stages of the evolutionary process at a simple level all the way up to the human animal and see what comes out of it. In seeing what the historical facts are, a theory can be generated to explain those facts and better understand human life and its various organizations. Here is my synthesis.
Evolution and Hedonism
Evolution has two primary characteristics, random variance and selection. Random variance generates multiple traits that are more or less adaptable in a given environment. The more adaptable to the environment, the more capable an organism is of being selected for by the reproduction process. Simply stated, unadaptable organisms die off and adaptable organisms survive and reproduce.
Successful organisms are both lucky and able to avoid noxious stimuli. This is true all the way down to bacteria. Movement is one of the first traits selected for in avoidance of noxious stimuli. Movement also makes it easier to secure necessary resources for survival. In both its avoidance and seeking functions, movement is a highly adaptive trait and has been selected for in many organisms.
Evolutionarily speaking, any trait that allows an organism to survive and reproduce will be passed down. This ability to avoid and seek can be viewed as primitive hedonism. In this sense, life is fundamentally hedonist, whether plant or animal.
Sociality and Intelligence
As life evolves on the back of hedonism as a selection tool, it becomes more complex. The growth of complexity in organisms makes them more adaptable to a wider array of environments and therefore better able to survive and reproduce.
Going beyond movement as an evolutionary advantage, two other traits that are highly adaptive are sociality and intelligence. Bacteria can adapt to an environment by moving to and fro, but are not complex enough to cooperatively work together and intelligently solve problems. However, many organisms have gained one or both of those traits.
Ants are highly social animals and are often considered to collectively respond to the environment as a superorganism. This single trait, social coordination, makes ants one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. They are not very intelligent as individuals, but as a species they have adapted amazingly well to multiple environments and have survived for millions of years.
Defining intelligence has a long and difficult history, but a working definition that serves the purposes of this discussion is the ability to solve problems. This definition works well because it allows us to discuss intelligent algorithms and intelligent robots without much difficulty. These man-made tools are created and valued specifically for their intelligence and are able to solve very complex problems, often faster and better than humans are.
The above discussion should make it clear that traits like hedonism, sociality, and intelligence are all separate traits and not unique to humans. However, we do have a fairly unique mixture of these traits, with exceptionally more intelligence than any other organism, and the three of them together allow humans to adapt remarkably well to every environment we’ve found ourselves in so far.
Hedonism, sociality, and intelligence all play equal roles in contributing to the rise of humans as the dominant animal on the planet.
The aspect of human nature that is most puzzling is not that we are social, which is in our nature as primates, but moreso the fact that we are consciously aware at all. It is perfectly possible to imagine a reality in which we are highly intelligent and social without being aware, much like computers that are solving problems across multiple processors. As far as we know, computers are not conscious (yet), but they are intelligent and able to work together on parallel tasks. Being hedonist (bacteria), social (ants), or intelligent (computers) does not require consciousness at all.
This difficult problem of explaining consciousness is referred to as the “hard problem” and we currently do not have a satisfactory answer for it. The best current hypothesis is that it will turn out to be an emergent property that is useful for modeling by a complex brain processing lots of information. This would mean there is no fundamental “telos” for consciousness in any cosmic sense, but consciousness results from other aspects that are useful for our survival. In that respect, consciousness turns out to be teleonomic, but not teleological.
Moving to Utilitarianism
Being conscious means that we are psychologically aware of incoming signals. I don’t like the experience of feeling pain, present moment suffering, or worrying about the possibility of suffering in the future. I want to avoid all of these conscious mental states and have every reason to assume others do, too.
If we all wish to avoid pain and suffering, we have all the reason we need to make agreements not to harm one another. We also have every reason we need to make agreements to establish security from other harmful forces in the natural world, be they predatory animals, natural disasters, or bad luck. This comes very natural to us as band-level social animals and kin do this spontaneously in normally functioning cases.
Furthermore, I like feeling pleasure, joy, and ecstasy and have every reason to assume others do as well. This gives us all the reason we need to make further agreements to enhance the “good”, i.e. mental and physical states that result in pleasure, joy, ecstasy, and well-being.
These simple premises are all we need to begin to develop a political state. This state is not based on inalienable or natural rights, but simply utilitarian calculus of what we wish to avoid and what we wish to strive for in terms of experiencing greater well-being.
As humans made these social agreements, we learned that exchange and trade via cooperation are not just beneficial within our own band and tribes, but with all the tribes around us. This realization of mutually beneficial trade with both tribal kin and all surrounding tribes begins the process of state formation.
Larger cooperative trading groups have several positive consequences. We make ourselves more secure from the things we wish to avoid. Through ever more complex specialization and trade, we are able to experience an ever greater variety of pleasurable experiences as we exchange with a larger pool of others.
Of course, we may find that some of our pleasures are mutually exclusive to others’ pleasures and well-being within a large group like a state. This is where a state “leviathan” becomes of greater importance. Removing the ability to solve disputes from the hands of the disputants and instead putting it into the hands of an impartial arbiter with a monopoly on violence makes for a more peaceful society with far less violence.
Yes, the individual cannot actualize 100% of every pleasures he or she desires, but surely the ability to enlarge the number of possible pleasures through cooperation and trade in an organized society is better than living in constant poverty, insecurity, and alienation from others as would be the case for an individual that chose to leave society. This calculation of the overall costs and benefits is utilitarianism and is exactly what we hope our impartial leviathan does when arbitrating and setting policy.
At this point, we have moved from a state of anarchy into an organized society with rules that are enforced by the state. This is done for the mutual benefit of all involved. Even the individual who is worse off at the margin is better off overall than an individual living in a totally isolated state of nature with no security from pain and suffering.
Moving beyond this state-organized society would require every individual to realize and fully understand that trade-offs are a necessary part of life, that some pleasures must be forfeited for the greater well-being of both self and society. If this realization were to occur, the state could be done away with entirely. People would be in an enlightened state of understanding in which there were no uses for force and violence. We could and would disarm overnight and do away with all weapons of blunt violence.
There would of course still be pain and suffering that results from accidents, natural disasters, illness, and even the small percentage of the population that are psychopaths and do not function properly in society. However, if the ninety-eight percent of the population that aren’t psychopaths were to reach this enlightened state, the vast majority of resources and human intelligence would be applied to solving these non-superficial problems with no need for a state.
This would be a utopia, not in any ideal sense, but in the reality that the maximum amount of well-being is experienced with the minimum amount of pain and suffering.
There would still be pain and suffering, but it would be experienced with the full knowledge that any less personal pain and suffering would simply be transferred to some other person without any consequent enlargement in overall welfare. For the economists, this utopia would essentially be pareto optimal, “a state of allocation of resources (suffering and well-being) from which it is impossible to reallocate so as to make any one individual or preference criterion better off without making at least one individual or preference criterion worse off”.
Evolution selects adaptable traits that arise from variance in organisms trying to reproduce within environmental constraints. This naturally produces organisms at the simplest level that are hedonistic in the sense that they avoid harm, seek resources, and in maximizing security and resources are better able to live and reproduce.
As more advanced problems of security and scarcity of resources are overcome, organisms evolve sociality and intelligence. These traits allow humans to flourish in a wide array of environments and adapt to almost any problem they encounter.
Recognizing that cooperation in the form of trade is positive sum, humans begin forming more complex systems of specialization and exchange to insure access to scarce resources, while also creating states to insure security from violence. As these productive forces become larger, scarcity becomes less of a threat to survival and perhaps one day will be replaced entirely by a state of abundance.
Upon achieving abundance, there would be no need to fight over scarce resources and a central reason for the state to exist would disappear. The final reason for the state to exist, security from violence, will only disappear in a state of resource abundance if humans figure out a way to manage their own emotions and prejudice to force. Until then, a state will always exist to enforce security and manage scarcity.
In the end, we return to the opening sentence at the top of this writing that claimed political philosophy needs to explain how political organization has arisen in humans and why it has taken the forms that it has.
By following the evolution of humans, we see a state isn’t much different than other human traits that allow survival, a slowly evolving advantage that ensures survival and reproduction. One that we can, as conscious beings, try to design design in such a way that it benefits as many people as possible by alleviating the most suffering and providing the greatest well-being possible. This does step out of the evolutionary process in that it no longer relates strictly to reproductive advantages, but is a result of it nonetheless.
This isn’t real. It’s similar in nature to writing your own eulogy. It’s an exercise in thinking about what an end of life decision might look like and what would lead me to a decision of that nature.
I find that much of my motivation stems from thinking about death and sex. There are things that I feel should be accomplished before I die and when I wake up and focus on what needs to be done before I can die in contentment, it focuses and motivates me. That’s the heart of my accomplishment-based motivation.
Sex is often the main or greatest hedonic pleasure in life that drives me (with novel, exciting experiences being a close second) and so I write and think a lot about it, mostly indirectly, by examining its relationship to hedonism and well-being.
Between desire satisfaction and goal satisfaction, it’s really only unaccomplished goals that wave off death. I don’t really believe that unsatisfied desire for pleasure would be a huge loss if an early death occurred, but do feel unsatisfied positive accomplishments would be a loss - mainly for others still living who wouldn’t receive benefits.
This can be summarized as, “While we’re here, enjoy some pleasure and before we go, do some good.” An even shorter summary is, “Be good and enjoy.”
So here is the suicide note that will never be written (too much to be accomplished!), but which bangs around in my mind each day to some extent.
To Whom It May Concern,
Life, liberty, and property. That is generally the libertarian creed. However, it immediately raises the question of what to do when confronted with the fact that life, liberty, and property are often in mutually exclusive conflict?
I want to live and I want to do so with the ability to act freely, in whatever way that might manifest.
In fact, in exercising my freedom to act, I want to kill, rape, maim, and torture you.
The libertarian replies that you can’t. Those freedoms are not acceptable.
Okay, fine. We agree that unrestricted freedom is bad. The libertarian has just bought into the concept that liberty is good, not innately as an end, but as a means to an end. Liberty is instrumental. Insofar as liberty leads to positive consequences, it is worth protecting. Insofar as liberty leads to negative consequences, like the list of atrocities outlined above, it isn’t worth protecting.
Now that libertarians are on the same consequentialist spectrum as the rest of us, the question isn’t about liberty, but what promotes more or less positive consequences.
Does taxation inhibit the liberty of those taxed. Of course. So what? So do police as we just agreed above. Police inhibit my freedom to steal and murder.
The better question is does taxation and its infringement on individual liberty lead to a greater positive outcome in the same way that police do? Yes.
In what ways? Many ways, but for specifics we must consult the empirical data. Taxation spent on health and education benefits all of society. Empirical data supports this unequivocally. Does all health and education benefit society? Of course not. Pointing this out doesn’t make the libertarian the owner of unique insight any more than pointing out that all police and military spending doesn’t benefit society. We can take anything too far and that’s why constantly doing research, critically evaluating the results, and making informed decisions matters so much. We need to know, based on the data, when we’ve gone too far or not far enough.
Okay, fine. We agree health and education benefits society, but I’m still against redistribution from the rich to the poor. On what grounds? Liberty? We’ve established that isn’t a good reason. You have to point to negative empirical consequences. Please share them if you have them.
The empirical data that I’m aware of points in the opposite direction to the libertarian predilection. Redistribution actually has positive consequences. How so?
Liberty is primarily valuable for two important reasons: it lets individuals decide how to maximize their own happiness and it contributes to innovation, which is the prime cause of increased productive capacity and gives us more choice to exercise our decision-making faculty in the long run.
Is liberty the only driver of innovation? Of course not. Another key driver is a greater population capable of generating new ideas and innovations. Freedom to innovate as we like is key, but if only a tiny elite of wealthy have that freedom and are educated and healthy enough to pursue new ideas and innovations, we lose out on the potential of everyone not in the elite group. This is why so much productive capacity is unleashed when women are granted access to the workforce or migrants are allowed freer movement. Their ideas and potential can be actualized.
What is true of liberating women and migrants from oppressive laws is true of liberating the poor from oppressive poverty. If they are so poor that they are unable to attend school, get education, and stay healthy, we leave vast amounts of potential innovation on the table - innovation that would benefit all of society, including the wealthy.
Of course, redistribution can go too far. Just like spending on the police, military, health, and education as discussed above. That’s why empirical research is so useful. However, it does not take much research to firmly grasp that a person like Bill Gates, with a net worth of tens of billions will not have his liberty so drastically inhibited by redistribution that it will outweigh the benefits received by redistributing it to millions of poor. There is very little Bill Gates can’t do with “only” ten million dollars that he can do with 75 billion dollars. The same can’t be said for a person who goes from living on 2 dollars per day to 200 dollars per day. There is much more a person living on 200 dollars per day can do that one living on 2 dollars per day can't.
Well can’t he just give to charity? Of course, in fact, he does. Almost all of it. But that means he is choosing who and how to redistribute the money instead of the government that represents the society that helped and allowed him to generate his wealth. I actually agree with how he is redistributing it and would argue that our government use the money in the same way if they were to tax and redistribute it themselves.
However, he has made his tens of billions because he was born a citizen of the United States and has benefitted from the police, military, health, education and infrastructure he utilized in that country. Why should the people of the United States not have any democratic say in how his money is redistributed? Perhaps they would prefer that his tens of billions go to the poor in the United States or even more specifically to the poor of Washington where he resides?
Liberty is just a tool. It’s not an end. I believe it is our best tool with the most uses and leads to more benefits than any other single value. I am a liberal and believe that siding with liberty as a default is the best choice when we aren’t sure of possible outcomes. However, we often do have evidence and data on what leads to more positive consequences.
In treating liberty as innately good, libertarians are either acting hypocritically in denying that liberty is sometimes rightly inhibited for the greater good or they are genuinely ignorant of the fact that it can and should be inhibited in several circumstances because it’s not always the right tool for the job. Hypocrite or ignorant. Neither are labels I’d wish for myself and I hope libertarians won’t continue to deserver either title either.
Robert Nozick asked us to imagine that "superduper neuropsychologists" have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences. We would not be able to tell that these experiences were not real. He asks us, if we were given the choice, would we choose a machine-induced experience of a wonderful life over real life? Nozick says no, then asks whether we have reasons not to plug into the machine and concludes that since it does not seem to be rational to plug in, ethical hedonism must be false.
I disagree with Nozick’s conclusion quite strongly. However, I’d like to pose a few alternative thought experiments.
Now comes the actual point. Life is nearly identical to number three above. In each moment, people try their best to experience pleasure instead of suffering. They do this in a variety of ways. Turn the air conditioning to avoid suffering in the heat. Drink some coffee to avoid suffering from fatigue or non-alertness. Wear clothes, live in houses, travel, drive to work.
This list goes on indefinitely. What all the items have in common is that they provide pleasure at the expense of someone else who suffers. Your air conditioning, coffee, clothes, house, travel, and car to drive to work in all come from others doing work they dislike or using resources that require energy production and carbon equivalent emissions as a byproduct. That energy use and carbon emission results in suffering and/or death at the margin, through air pollution, global warming, or simply accidents on the job.
If you become aware of how just one moment of personal pleasure can harm another and then multiply it by a million moments of pleasure that induce suffering for others, you begin to feel much, much worse about your own pleasure. This awareness can eventually sour your own pleasure to the point that experiencing pleasure at all leaves a taste of moral wrongness in your mouth at the thought that someone else paid for your pleasure with their suffering.
You may very well disagree that all pleasure is paid for with someone else’s suffering, but I think the onus is on you to make that point. To escape suffering and experience constant pleasure is to escape from life altogether. To retreat in ascetic meditation that relies on zero productive capacity from others and zero chance of emotional disturbance to others. This is clearly possible in theory, but again, the onus is on you to show that it is possible in reality. Even the ascetic monk is likely to have a mother that suffers at not being able to interact and experience with her son or daughter.
So that leaves us with the same decisions to make as number three above, only it isn’t a thought experiment any longer, but our actual lives. Do we stay "plugged into" living reality and simply suffer until death, actively end our lives, or experience moments of pleasure throughout our lives and ignore the suffering it transfers to others?
We currently operate under the third choice as a collective default. Is our default the right choice? I’m not convinced it is.
I personally find the ideas of privacy and secrets fascinating for a simple reason. I don’t understand them. I mean I do, but I really don’t.
When I think of facts about myself that I don’t want others to know, I come up completely empty. There’s nothing about my life or thoughts that I wish to hide from others. Ideally, I’d find it better if everyone knew everything about me and my thoughts. I don’t think this is from some sort of reverse voyeurism where I get joy out of others seeing my faults, flaws, and mistakes. I just think it stems from a lack of shame and guilt. Why and what should I hide from others?
If I have some sort of fault or flaw, it is either not in my control to change it or it is. If it isn’t, then what would give rise to shame or guilt over it? If it is in my control and I am aware of it, I should change it. If it’s in my control and I’m unaware of it, then being more open could expose it and make me aware of it. The last option, that I’m aware of it and don’t wish to change it, could have two explanations. I simply need convincing that it is a fault or flaw and thus be given a reason to change, or I actually don’t view it as a fault or flaw and should not feel shame or guilt.
On the other hand, a mistake is some accident that I’ve committed. It’s not the same as a fault or flaw that are characteristics of me. I acted in some manner that is immediately changeable. In admitting it is a mistake, I can move forward with more correct action henceforth and have no need of shame or guilt. For instance, some people may want it kept private when they do something stupid, but we all do something stupid at some point and so it’s easier to just give voice to the mistake and move on.
So one would think that if I have no reason for privacy, I have no reason for secrets. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Secrets are often not for my own sake, but that of others. I’m happy to be an open book and tell anyone anything about myself at any time. However, divulging information that includes knowledge of other people can have the consequence of harming or hurting those others who may in fact value their privacy and do not want to be included in your conversations with others. This is a shame.
It’s a shame because the things that are secret often butt up directly against the limits of what is socially acceptable and most interesting. The things we don’t or aren’t allowed to talk about in polite social settings are the things we would most be interested in talking about. Some of them even go right up to the line of what is legal.
For example, much of what would legally be considered sexual harassment seems off base to me. To say something like, “You’re beautiful, would you like to have sex?” is to a cross a large, black and white line in most circumstances and in many cases would get you fired at work or possibly charged with sexual harassment as a crime.
Strictly speaking, this is not harassment as the term is typically used. There is no bullying or intimidation. No threat of force or violence. It is a subjective statement of fact followed by an offer of consensual exchange. As long as the questioner respects whatever answer is received and moves on, there is no reason for this to be seen as offensive, let alone illegal.
I see all of this privacy, secretness, and limit setting as clear barriers to connection between people. It creates alienation. With the sexual harassment laws, I can see a clear path that could be outlined as a slippery slope and I understand the protection it is trying to offer, but as just one example among many of free speech being infringed on it when it doesn’t cause harm, it would seem that all of the costs added together would outweigh the negativity of alienation from fellow human beings. We connect through speech and taking away the right to speech is a guaranteed way to slowly strangle what is possible to connect over.
In the extreme, these desires for privacy, secret keeping, and limit setting can paralyze us. When we see the danger of offending those around us at every word, it locks us in place and prevents any action or words at all. We simply cease trying to connect with others altogether. Why risk offending, upsetting, hurting, or angering others over your words that have no intention of offense when you can simply keep your mouth closed and not say anything? That eliminates all chance of harm to others.
I recognize that some (much?) of this may simply be my experience and that perhaps it doesn’t generalize at all, but it is my experience nonetheless. I would love to connect more meaningfully with others than I currently do, but that requires moving beyond discussions of the latest TV show or sports highlight. To me, it means discussing topics that can offend and trying to figure out why they offend in the first place. Extending every word as though taking a cautious step into a minefield is exhausting. Better to stay home and read instead. No harm to others there.
Much of people’s ethical perspectives are affected by their views of debt and obligation. The questions, “What do we owe one another and who deserves what?” govern much of our discussion and decisions on ethics, politics, and economics.
I’ve previously outlined why I believe no one deserves their wealth and income in any meaningful sense in a discussion on inequality. This was followed up by some facts that might change those problematic beliefs regarding moral deserts.
However, I’ve also stated that it is unethical to have children because of the asymmetry of suffering and well-being in human life. This brings up a somewhat paradoxical belief as a result.
Any parents or society that decides to have or allow children to be born, should also take it as an obligation to give the children any and all well-being possible. This sounds like I’m saying that we don’t deserve anything from anyone and that we also deserve everything. I don’t think that’s quite what I’m deducing from these premises, though.
As adult persons, we are not obligated to each other in any relevant sense and we shouldn’t be restricted from acting how we like, given that it causes the minimum tolerable harm. I don’t owe my friendship or support to others a priori. Free exchange as a mode of interaction is much preferred to violent force. However, we can all choose to not exchange freely and should not be punished with force as a result.
This means people do not owe their spouses, friends, or selected loved ones any future obligations. The relationships can be taken up or walked away from at any time.
But, the moment we make a decision to have children and live in a society that allows us to do so, we should feel obligated to give them everything we can because there was no free exchange. Having children becomes the first and ultimate act of violence with no consent on the child’s part. Because their life is begun as a unilateral decision in which they did not take part, parents and the society that allows it should feel obligated to the children.
In that sense, any person or group using violence or unilateral decisions should feel obligated to a vast extent. There is no better way to explain this than the famous passage from The Little Prince that states, “We are responsible for those we tame.” In this case, we are taming our free and wild non-children into existence as actual children.
As adults, we should not be aiming to tame, subdue, or force others and so long as we do not, we have no obligation or debt towards them. We enter into serial exchanges of mutual consent that benefits both parties and can walk away at any time. Only under force do we accrue debt and obligation.