Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

A Brief Amateur Guide to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a universalistic consequentialist ethical theory that judges the moral worth of an action based on its results. An ethical theory is any system of thought that provides a process for developing moral rules and guidelines and that establishes criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Like every ethical theory, utilitarianism emerged in a particular context which influenced its foundation and development; specifically, 19th century Industrial England. In this era, economic, commercial, and technological innovations were allowing a growing number of people unprecedented access to goods, services, and wealth. At the same time, however, there was widespread inequality, labor exploitation, and social stratification. The potential for achieving individual and societal prosperity was higher than ever, but people remained disenfranchised and abused in order to perpetuate the early industrial and capitalist system. Society was being radically restructured.

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Learn Self-Help From a 2nd-Century Roman Emperor

One of my favorite and most personally influential philosophers — who I’ve written about before – has just become the subject of an article at HuffPo, where his timeless wisdom is being shared for its relevance two thousand years later.

In 167 AD, [Marcus] Aurelius wrote The Meditations, a 12-book compendium of personal writings, originally written in Greek, that reflect his extensive study of Stoic philosophy. Aurelius is now regarded as one of the most famous proponents and philosophers of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman school of thought originating in the Hellenic period concerned with how to cultivate a mindset to deal effectively with any events or emotions.

Meditations is based around a single, simple precept: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius ruled over Rome for 20 years until the time of his death in 180 AD. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history.

“Marcus Aurelius was a true paradox — an emperor with almost unlimited power to control his world and circumstances, who nevertheless had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world,” Arianna Huffington writes in her forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder.

Meditations is “undoubtedly one of history’s most effective formulas for overcoming every negative situation we may encounter in life,” Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is The Way.

If you haven’t read The Meditations, which I strongly recommend, the article shares five key tidbits to keep in mind:

1. Your own happiness is up to you.

Life’s happiness, Aurelius said, “depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

The crux of his philosophy is the notion that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control our reactions to the events of our lives — and this gives us immense strength and freedom.

It’s easier said than done, yes, but Aurelius’s own life is proof positive of this maxim. The emperor faced great struggles throughout his life, and his reign was marred b ynear-constant warfare and disease. His brother and parents also died at a young age.

Aurelius learned how to live within his soul — or “inner citadel,” as he put it — a place of peace and equanimity. Living from this space, he believed, gave him the freedom to shape his own life by controlling his thoughts.

2. Life may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.

Aurelius accepted that trials and challenges were an unavoidable part of life, but his belief that life and the universe were fundamentally good helped him to accept the tough stuff. The argument goes like this: Because life as a whole is as good as it can be, the parts of life are as good as they can be, so we should love, or at least accept, every part of life.

But Aurelius took it even one step further, arguing that obstacles are actually our greatest opportunities for growth and advancement. They force us to re-examine our path, find a new way, and ultimately empower ourselves by practicing virtues like patience, generosity and courage.

“The impediment to action advances action,” he wrote. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

3. There is good in everyone.

Aurelius isn’t expressing blind optimism when he advises his readers to find common ground with others and seek the good in every person they encounter. In politics and life, Aurelius had experienced how people could be selfish and hurtful to others — he lived through wars and uprisings – and yet, he chose not to let the actions of others get to him. Instead, he always remembered that there is some of the “divine” in each of us:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.

 Aurelius believed that all men are made to cooperate with one another, like the “rows of the upper and lower teeth.”

4. True peace comes from within.

Many of us live frantic, high-octane lives — and we may fantasize about getting away from it all by going on a meditation retreat or taking time off from work to travel. But, as Aurelius strongly believed, you don’t need to escape your environment to find a sense of calm. We can access serenity any time in our own minds.

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills,” Aurelius wrote. “There is nowhere that a man can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind … So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”

Taking a “mental retreat” through a meditation practice — or simply by bringing more mindfulness into your day – has been linked to mental health benefits. Meditation has been shown to improve memory and attentionlower stress levels, enhance emotional well-being and sleep quality and boost creativity and productivity.

5. Treat life as an “old and faithful friend”. 

Perhaps the most memorable passage of Meditations encourages us to view life as being, in the words of the poet Rumi, “rigged in [our] favor.” It’s a powerful way of reframing any obstacle we encounter. Aurelius wrote:

True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art — and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?

As you can see, these prescriptions remain as applicable and necessary now as they were in Aurelius’ time, which says a lot about the human condition and our inherent struggle to improve it. As many of you may have noticed, there are many similarities between the philosophy of the Stoics and those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern faiths (for that matter, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each have schools of thought that overlap with Stoicism, especially with regards to mindfulness).

I think that the universal nature of these ideas further underlines their accuracy and importance to everyone; in any case, many of you may find such approaches to be intuitive or even already present in your lives without realizing it. Regardless, they’re vital, and while there’s obviously more to improving ourselves — as individuals and as a species — than just practicing meditation or creating an inner citadel of the soul, it’s a great and valuable step that should nonetheless be studied and implemented.

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions.

Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?

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Have Young Americans Lost Their Moral Compass?

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

The article is a pretty engaging read, and I recommend reading it and deciding for yourselves. 

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Why Even the Smartest People Fail at Reason

 

Being reasonable isn’t easy. Heck, for all our intelligence, it doesn’t even come natural, as more and more studies are demonstrating:

One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

I think this ultimately (and obviously) validates the importance of engaging in dialogue with others and leaving yourself open to criticism.

But then again, our own biases make it hard to accept criticism of our deeply held beliefs, which is where science, reason, and other methodologies come into play. Yet even these can be misused or misunderstood.

So basically, trying to figure out the world and what is true is very, very hard and constant vigilance…go figure.

Eleven Relevant Lessons From Machiavelli

Contrary to popular belief, Nicolo Machiavelli — most famous for his seminal work, The Prince — wasn’t necessarily immoral so much as amoral. In other words, he was arguably a consequentialist and utilitarian who believed that the ends justified the means, and that people in power — if not in general — must choose between evils, based on which produces the most the net gain. Even then, he didn’t encourage ruthlessness for its own sake, but only if it was a last resort or if resulted in the most good.

All that aside, his lessons consisted of far more than brutal approaches towards maintaining and expanding political power. There’s quite a lot of practical advice to be gleaned for one’s everyday life, as shared by The Week: 

1. Be present
“… if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them.”

2. Be careful who you trust
“… he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.”

3. Learn from the best
“A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

4. Be picky about who works for you
“The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined the usual way.”

5. Read
“… to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.”

6. Prepare for the worst
“A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.”

7. Don’t be cruel
“… every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.”

8. Don’t steal
“… above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. … he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse.”

9. Appearances matter
“… men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.”

10. Sometimes your enemies are your friends
“I must not fail to warn a prince, who by means of secret favours has acquired a new state, that he must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them. And weighing well the reasons for this in those examples which can be taken from ancient and modern affairs, we shall find that it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.”

11. Avoid flatterers
“It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt. Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.”

It seems like pretty reasonable stuff to me. Thoughts?

Eleven Types of Scientism

Eupraxsophy:

I’m surprised by the seemingly growing conflict between philosophy and science (at least among some factions — I doubt it’s widespread). Not only was science historically under the purview of philosophy, but the two seem largely complementary. Philosophical insights can inform scientific findings, and visa versa; at least that’s how I’ve always seen it.

Originally posted on Ethical Realism:

A lot of people accuse those who are dismissive of non-scientific fields of study of having scientistic views. This raises important questions—Is science always the only legitimate source of knowledge? Could philosophy ever be a source of knowledge?

The main issue concerning scientism that I’m interested in is the scientistic view that philosophy has little to nothing it can contribute. For example, in 2011 Stephen Hawking said, “[P]hilosophy is dead… philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”1 And in 2012 Lawrence Krauss said, “[S]cience progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”2

Even so, anti-philosophical views are not the only types of scientism, and I believe that some types of scientism can be explicitly favorable to philosophy. What exactly is scientism? I will define and categorize various types of scientism.

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Breaking Laws Makes You a Good Entrepreneur?

That’s the conclusion of a recent study the National Bureau of Economic Research, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Some of you, particularly those on the left of the political spectrum, might not be surprised — the business world has long been associated with greed, exploitation, and dodgy behavior (although the study is concerned with those who have started their own companies, not businesspeople in general).

The economists find that self-employed workers with incorporated businesses were almost three times more likely to engage in illicit and risky activities as youth than were salaried workers. These behaviors include but aren’t limited to shoplifting, marijuana use, playing hooky at school, drug dealing and assault. In addition, the self-employed with incorporated businesses exhibited greater self-esteem, scored higher on learning aptitude tests, were more educated and were more likely to come from high-earning, two-parent families than other employment types. “Of course, you have to be smart,” says Mr. Levine. “But it’s a unique combination of breaking rules and being smart that helps you become an entrepreneur.”

 

These qualities also have a downside. Risk-taking tendencies in combination with high self-esteem make successful entrepreneurs prone to dangerous lapses in judgement, the Wall Street Journal reported in June, finding that many financial advisers have to keep their entrepreneur clients in check.

 

The study also noted how most entrepreneurs tend to come from wealthier families, which would explain the elitism and  insularity that typically pervades the upper echelons of the business class. Does a narrow worldview and living experience, along with a disregard for the law, lead to the systemic abuses that we regularly see in the corporate world?  Does it lead to the sort of self-entitlement and disconnect that leads most of our powerful economic elites to disregard social and environmental responsibility? 

Of course this isn’t to say that all self-made business people are out-of-control crooks or anything. But it’s something to consider in light of what we’ve seen in the business world. It takes a lot of gumption and courage to start your own company — but what if those same qualities lead to intrinsic problems in how companies are run?

What are your thoughts?

The Promises of Synthetic Meat

There was understandably quite a bit of attention directed at the unveiling of the world’s first “synthetic” meat (described above). Also known as in vitro meat, the implications of this tepidly-received development is vast — namely the end to the industrial-scale slaughter of literally billions of animals annually, in addition to the subsequent strain to our environment and resources that such livestock harvesting entails.

Obviously, even if scientists perfect the process to make it more palatable (both commercially and in terms of taste), there will always be purists who prefer the real deal, or folks who simply won’t be comfortable with the idea of artificial meat. I imagine it would take some time to get used to the idea, and even then I don’t see it replacing animal harvesting any time soon, except for desperate circumstances like food scarcity.

Still, any sort of mitigation of widespread animal suffering is welcomed. Australian Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most famous and controversial moral philosophers in the world, characteristically weighed in on the subject (he is best known for his seminal work, Animal Liberation, which is widely considered to have set the foundational framework of the animal rights movement). His statement was first issued in The Guardian, and it pretty much sums up the reasons for my anticipation.

There are important ethical reasons why we should replace animal meat with in vitro meat, if we can do it at reasonable cost. The first is to reduce animal suffering. Just as the cruelty inflicted on working horses, so movingly depicted in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, was eventually eliminated by the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, so the vastly greater quantity of suffering that is inflicted on tens of billions of animals in today’s factory farms could be eliminated by a more efficient way of producing meat.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to applaud such an outcome. But it needn’t be simply an emotional response. Among philosophers who discuss the ethics of our treatment of animals there is a remarkable degree of consensus that factory farming violates basic ethical principles that extend beyond the boundary of our own species. Even a staunch conservative such as Roger Scruton, who vigorously defended hunting foxes with hounds, has written that a true morality of animal welfare ought to begin from the premise that factory farming is wrong.

The second reason for replacing animal meat is environmental. Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees. Much of the emissions from livestock is methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas emitted by ruminant animals as they digest their food. In vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary. With that single change, the world’s production of nitrous oxide, another powerful contributor to climate change, will be slashed by two-thirds.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock exceed those from all forms of transport – cars, trucks, planes and ships – combined. On some calculations, livestock emissions in countries with large populations of cattle and sheep can make up as much as half of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If they are right, replacing coal and other fossil fuels with clean sources of energy is not going to be enough. We have to reduce the number of cattle on the planet.

At the rate things are going, humanity may not have much of a choice but to embrace artificial meat. Although the number of vegetarians in the world seems somewhat stagnant, there is growing concern about the ethical dilemmas posed by industrial farming. And with the environment reaching a boiling point — literally — we can’t spare any more natural resources for very much longer to meet the world’s growing demand for animal flesh. I say this as both a vegetarian and a secular humanist. With that background disclosed, what are your thoughts on this development?