Sunday, September 16, 2012

Argumentation Ethics: An Exploration

First, let us define what argumenatation ethics is. Pioneered in 1988 by the German libertarian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it derives from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Argumentation ethics argues the following: that whoever engages in argument by definition must affirm life and self-ownership, as these are necessary for engaging in it, thus causing a performative contradiction if one argues against them. However, several criticisms immediately arise. People can and do act without attempting to justify themselves in argument or indeed any way at all. One person can kill another, for instance, without arguing over the rightness of their action-they simply do it. A slave and his master could engage in argument, but that would hardly shows us his master in fact respects the slave's right to his life and person. Further, we can take the case of artificial entities, for instance robots, with an ability to speak and engage in argument but that simply follow their programming.

How to address these criticisms? First, while people certainly do act without attempting to justify or explain themselves, if one retaliates or punishes them for their action, how can they object except by protesting how this is somehow "different." If one initiates coercion, how can they protest that retaliation in kind is wrong, if they committed it? What makes the retaliation wrong, if their aggression was right? This all relies on argument. With the master and slave, although the master may not overtly respect it, he does that by engaging in argument with the slave. Of course that leaves us masters who do not engage in argumentation at all, which is no doubt most. Yet again though, if the slave retaliates against what the master does, he may seek to explain what is "wrong" about this if confronted. Of course, that does not mean argumentation on the matter is going to be forthcoming. In the case of a robot that strictly follows programming, with no independent thought, it would be ludicrous to say that argumentation affirms their own existence and self-ownership; they are drones following commands, nothing more.

Another problem arises simply from what qualifies as "argumenation." Some great apes, for instance, have the capability, however limited, to use sign language. If questioned, they would no doubt object to being, say, experimented upon painfully. This does not apply to most animals, of course, for although the bovine cry of protest while being branded or shot is clear, it seems doubtful this would qualify as argumentation. Like with most libertarian ethical theories, animal rights are given no recognition, although perhaps great apes which can sign might be granted an exception, though here as well the ethic is human-centered, with them being our closest relatives, and their communication ability is a result of that. Great apes may thus fall under this criteria. The issue should, I think, be further explored through study of their behavior and communications. Provisionally, it seems that argumentation ethics has some merit, at least in the context of debate where contrary arguments can be revealed as self-refuting. 

Necessary Illusions?

Free will, objective morality, religion...These are unproven to me. I understand the human need for them, how necessary they are for most people to feel good, and indeed function with others. Yet because it may be necessary for them to believe in these things, it makes them no less an illusion, when not based, as I see it, on evidence and logic. So far I have not seen any convincing proof of these. If anyone who reads this disagrees with me, I would be glad to hear their argument out. What is the purpose of existence? To exist, continue existing and perpetuate it sometimes. The last is an evolutionary drive, but does not have to be fulfilled. Hopefully we can also enjoy what existence we have, although it may not be possible to. So if one feels that existence is not enjoyable, indeed painful, they may end it.

We identify axioms of action, existence, reason, self-ownership, and the senses. One must act to argue against action (by speaking, writing, etc.) one must exist to argue they do not, one must use reasoning to argue against reason, one must have self-ownership to argue one does not own themselves, and one must use their senses to critique sense experience. However, I do not think free will can be assumed a priori in this way.

An objective morality has been sought by philosophers from the foundation of philosophy itself. Natural law theory is a common justification, one that Scottish philosopher David Hume dissected in his A Treatise of Human Nature using the famous "is/ought" problem. Simply put, to say that something is does not mean it ought to be. For instance, the Christian natural law theorists argue that homosexuality is "unnatural" as the purpose of the sex organs is for reproduction, and non-reproductive sexual activity in general also falls afoul of this. However, the fact that our sex organs purpose is to reproduce does not mean they ought to be used only for reproduction. This divide, also called fact/value or descriptive/prescriptive, is termed Hume's Law or more amusingly Hume's Guillotine, as it severs attempts to broach the chasm of the is/ought problem.

These natural law theorists do not take such reasoning to its logical conclusion. Our feet have a purpose, by the logic of natural law, that does not include pushing car pedals, nor riding horseback, or even wearing shoes. This could also be said of clothing, and virtually everything. One could even argue that going against nature in this way is "natural" for us. In any case to call it "natural law" is a misnomer. Gravity is a natural law, which no one can defy. The "natural law" against homosexuality can be defied, and denied. If engaging in homosexual acts were literally impossible, as defying gravity is, that could be called a natural law. Since this is often a theistic idea generally, natural law theorists could argue that free will granted by God precludes making "sin" impossible. Gravity is never held to deny us free will, however. So why did God not create other natural laws which preclude what they view to be sins, along with behavior virtually everyone agrees is undesirable, such as murder and theft? Of course, this assumes free will itself exists, and their answer is most likely that we can only submit to what God has enacted, not go against it.

Even if there were a moral law binding as gravity, however, that does not mean it would have any more of an objective validity. To understand why, let us suppose there were a totalitarian society which had perfected mind control to such a degree that it was impossible to disobey its wishes, on a level with defying gravity. It would thus be true to say their laws were objectively binding in a sense ones are not at present, but no more valid necessarily. If a God created moral laws that its creations were incapable of breaching, for instance every attempt to commit sin thwarted with a mental block, it would no more say God's will ought to be followed, only that it is followed, and cannot be otherwise. Indeed, Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell posits Newspeak, the attempt to make "thought crime" impossible to even conceive.

Even assuming one admits all of these are necessary for social order, and indeed an existence with meaning, again that does not, of course, make them correct by itself. A necessary illusion remains illusory. However, they may not only be incorrect, but also dangerous. To hold that people have free will, despite all contrary evidence, may hinder progress in addressing social ills such as crime or mental illness. Understanding that behavior results from prior causes, environmental and genetic, may in fact lead to crime being identified with mental illness. Regardless, greater insight on the causes would likely better our ability to address them. So, the illusion may not be a necessary one, but rather something best overcome. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Idle Society

Sometimes what seems a paradise would in fact be hell. Would it not be wonderful for your basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, entertainment) to be taken care of? Yes, many think. Various proposals are made: a basic income, from either a citizen's dividend (a payment to all citizens for the loss of property that is claimed to be theirs by right, such as land in general) or negative income tax, where people below certain income levels receive money to supplement this from the government rather than paying income tax.

 Funding this has been proposed through any number of ways, largely taxes, most obviously on income, but also sales, capital gains, inheritance, land, natural resources, luxury, pollution, sin or excise, and so on. Also fees derived from state monopolies such as the broadcast spectrum, roads, or utilities, a state lottery, tariffs, trust fund, repayment at death or retirement, and simply wholly collective or state ownership have all been proposed. Of course there is also the simple expedient of government printing money to pay them with.

All of it rests on the implicit assumption, that, if guaranteed this income, people will be happier and better cared for with this bit of wealth. Yet at the same time we know many of the richest people, who really do have all this assured them, are not especially happy. The "idle rich" and their problems, those derived from inheritance particularly, are well known to us. Often this is pointed out by people who at the same time advocate something like a basic income guarantee. Let us all be rich.

The culmination of this was shown in the Federation of Star Trek, where, although the details were understandably, and conveniently, never shown, everyone has their material needs taken care of. Given the replicator, it might in fact be possible. However, this leaves us the question: since the replicator can produce most products, what jobs do people have left? Already we are seeing the rise of a service economy replacing industry. Could it be service jobs are the only employment left then in the Federation economy for most people, absent perhaps a very few that cannot be done with replicators (say coming up with new ideas of products to make)?

As it was put once: You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money. The real outcome is likely to be mass unemployment, with attendant social unrest. In Brave New World, the dystopia Aldous Huxley wrote in which people are born into genetically engineered castes, lulled by constant use of the drug soma, an ideology of mindless consumerism, casual sex and pornographic films whose sensations the viewer can then fully experience, called "feelies", World Controller (an ominous title) Mustapha Mond tells John the Savage the government has purposefully retarded the rate of technological progress so automation does not cause that very problem.

Innovators who refuse to toe the line are exiled to isolated areas. Mond even says the world government experimented by lowering work hours in Ireland, to give people more leisure time. Rather than making them happier, it led to increased soma use with overall disorder. However, it seems that in order to provide everyone with their material needs, the replicator would be needed, which at the same time would render most industrial work obsolete.

The Federation of Star Trek differs almost wholly from the global state of Brave New World, but there may be one thing in common for them. Holodecks, in the Star Trek universe, are the virtual reality chambers which can simulate practically any experience. If citizens were provided with this for entertainment, it might prevent social unrest. Star Trek only hints at it, being on prime time TV, but an obvious use of this VR would of course be sexual. One must wonder if the holodecks will be monitored to make sure pathological behavior, sexual and otherwise, is not vented, or this may be allowed when strictly virtual.

It seems that a large majority of people would be permanently idle, living on the guaranteed necessities provided. A small number, at least, would have to decide what replicators will produce, unless all this is done with artificial intelligence. Government officials, civilian or military, scientists and replicator managers likely would make up this number, along with perhaps those coming up with patterns for goods that are replicated. One imagines a tiny elite might emerge, which, if human nature is unchanged, provides its membership with superior replicated products, looking down on the idle masses in contempt, giving them an equivalent of bread and circuses.

The question whether a replicator economy as in the Federation would be state-owned arises. If the central planning of replicator production occurs, no matter how advanced the computer, how does this overcome the economic calculation problem? It seems unlikely, given the information constraints of providing for everyone, but even assuming this could, the social problems remain (perhaps lowering world population would help, but that brings up other issues). Naturally, all of this assumes humans in their present form would exist at that point.

For my own view, I think beings such as Data and the Borg, among others, would be very common, perhaps even having replaced humans entirely (hopefully not by forcibly assimilating them, as the latter are shown to). Now, as with the global state in Brave New World, the pace of technology could be suppressed (for instance genetic augmentation is banned in the Federation) but I'm skeptical that such bans would hold up forever. All of this is not to say we should cease attempting to alleviate poverty, or fight technological progress. Only that we must evaluate it critically, even, or perhaps especially, things which promise what so many desire. The outcome may not be that. It may even be the opposite.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Behold the Machine

We, as human beings, and indeed all living organisms, are biological machines. No doubt this is surprising, even off-putting at first hearing it. A machine is defined as "an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work." This definition is wholly applicable to us. Our bodies are made up of many delicate interrelated parts, the organs: brain, heart, lungs, liver, esophagus, stomach, etc. that have separate functions, all of which allow us to perform the work of living when they function correctly.

We are very intricate machines, fragile and more complex than any others, containing parts that are yet to be fully understood. If even the slightest part malfunctions, the consequences are grave, upsetting the body as a whole in many cases. Remarkable indeed, observing the bottom-up development this machine took with evolution by natural selection, in contrast to our top-down development of inorganic machines.

Our relationship to machines, especially those which resemble us in some way that once were fictional but increasingly can be seen developing, has occupied great expanses of literature, film and other culture. While they are certainly a fascinating thing and have the potential to change our very existence, we should remember, looking in the mirror: the machines are here already. We are them, simply composed of flesh, blood, bone and genes rather than metals or artificial materials. And we are the most wondrous yet to arise.