What does it say that people have no idea how to argue for caring about other people?

Certain debates prompt a certain article from the Huffington Post to make the rounds again. Sometimes it’s gun control; sometimes it’s health care. At this point people have mostly given up on linking to the article, preferring to state the headline and move on:

See the source image

Usually this comes from liberal spheres. On the occasion a leftist voice can be heard, sometimes a leftist will deal with the bad taste of Huffington Post long enough to repeat the line. That both of these types tend to respect expertise (or at least pay lip service to it) makes their lack of turning to the relevant experts rather odd. There are, after all, plenty of people who do know how to explain why you should care about other people. (Or, at least they claim to. I don’t think they succeed. But I’d certainly turn to at least a few moral philosophers before declaring the project impossible.)

Perhaps there’s really two problems one of these people might be having. The first is a lack of understanding why they should care about other people themselves. They find it basically aesthetically pleasing when people show care for other people, but their taste is fundamental. They cannot explain it to someone else because they have no explanation besides claiming it as a brute fact.

The second is a pedagogical problem. Even if Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals does successfully explain why you should care about other people, whipping a copy of it at a nearby person who doesn’t care about other people is unlikely to persuade them. If any moral philosophy is right, it’s probably right in a way that’s difficult to understand. Most people are not well-equipped to impart the arguments to others. But then, that’s usually the result of not having much of an argument for it for themselves. So the problem is probably the first in most cases.

But if there’s no reason to care, then demanding anyone else abide by your arbitrary maxim is absurd. “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about the rights of grass” sounds silly. Vegans often do know how to explain to you that you should care about animals. Perhaps this is just an accident of their coming to veganism from a position of non-veganism. The arguments don’t always persuade, but they are at least better than throwing their arms up and saying “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about animals.”

 

In good news: Philadelphia’s top prosecutor is going against the trend of ruining as much life as possible

He’s suggesting “wild” ideas like offering very low sentences instead of caging people for extended periods of time. And recourse for people being wrongly punished.

 

The successes of the walking out protests

Some students walked out of school today in response to the latest shooting. Some people, primarily non-students, are very upset about this. A run-down of the bad arguments I’ve seen levied against the walkout, and why each one is ridiculous. Put together, they reveal the opposition is people digging their heels into the ground for entirely selfish reasons.

Bad argument #1: The kids are just walking out because they want to ditch class.

Why it’s ridiculous: Pretty much anyone who wants to ditch class already ditches class. Nothing about a protest magically creates the ability to leave the room. Any day of the year all one has to do is stand up and leave. Or just not even go.

Also, the walkout lasted seventeen minutes. That’s not even a full class period. I’d be surprised to see anywhere it’s even half a class period. If the goal was getting out of class, some other length of time would have made more sense. As would doing something more fun than protesting.

Bad argument #2: Teenage texting and driving is a much bigger problem than school shooters.

Why it’s ridiculous: The most obvious reason is that we can care about multiple things. There are more car crashes than homicides, yet pretty much everyone is on board with taking measures to prevent homicide. Being kidnapped off the street and tortured is worse than having your place burgled at night, but you still bother locking the door.

This bad argument reveals a truer motive, though. The people making this argument are largely not involved in schools anymore. But they are on the roads sometimes. So to them teenage texting and driving is a bigger problem than school shootings. I don’t have any argument against such grotesque selfishness, but they will have no principled objection to being robbed, so I advise anyone to take advantage of their moral permission to have their stuff.

(A subordinate problem: This argument usually relies on death toll alone. It ignores the other effects of each. For the most part, people still drive just fine despite people texting on the roads. However, education is itself thwarted when the students are too afraid of a possible attack to focus on learning. You may as well send the kids home.)

Bad argument #3: Walk UP not OUT.

Why it’s ridiculous: There are several ways this is ridiculous. The first is that it’s just a continuation of the selfishness from before. A societal problem exists, and the people making this argument want to push all of the work of fixing the problem onto the students. Nevermind whether the solution actually makes sense. But let us consider why it doesn’t make sense.

Many of the people shooting up schools are terrible people. Possibly all of them. You have bunches of people who are exemplars of pernicious sociopathy and the incel subreddit. People who demand a right to abusive relationships lest they start killing people are not the people to spend much time with. Asking someone to enter an abusive relationship with someone else for your own benefit is another level of ridiculous.

On the other side, this argument itself is harmful. There are a lot of quiet kids out there who are quite peaceful. In fact, most kids who are content to sit in the corner and read a book alone have no desire to shoot anyone. Yet the propagators of this argument are scare-mongering about them, making their lives worse. Stop it.

Bad argument #4: Those are seventeen minutes they should have spent learning.

Why it’s ridiculous: See the subordinate problem to #2. Learning requires a healthy state of mind. Nobody worrying if they’re about to die is paying attention to fractions and chlorophyll. If you care about learning, you care about having an environment in which learning can be done. This argument is just another expression of wanting to not have to deal with even the slightest discomfort over a problem that does not directly affect oneself.

A success or two: At the very least, the protests have kicked up a lot of dust. These four bad arguments, and others, have been forced into the light where they can be seen as the ridiculous selfishness that they are.

Many schools have issued punishments for the students who took part in the protests. For the most part, I see people lamenting this (or continuing to spew vitriol toward anyone who dares question any element of the status quo not directly harming themselves, but I will ignore them here), but the opposition reveals the success of the protest. If the protest had no opposition, it would be pointless as a protest. Either everyone would already be in agreement and so no protest would be needed, or the protest would fail to attract enough attention to do anything.

Some people simply do not like the discomfort of possible change if the change isn’t directly benefiting them. We see it here. We saw it when people kneeled during the national anthem at football games. We see white people denying racism because they haven’t experienced it themselves. But now they are uncomfortable with the status quo. And of course their first move is to whine. Then they lash out against anyone daring to demand a better world. But, somewhere along the line, movement happens. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And hopefully the kids sitting in detention recognize that their punishment means their protest is working.

Watching the development of protest strategies has also been, in a way, pleasant. Posts have been circulating with directions on how to present the protest. Because some stubborn asses are prone to attacking the character of the protesters, they’ve designed the right way to appear in such a way that the asses have no ammunition to use. (Mostly ammunition for BA#1.)

Perhaps the biggest actual problem—and I don’t think it’s that big right now—is a lack of concrete demands. Right now the demand is to do something about gun violence in schools.  That’s great for getting the ball rolling. But if nothing concrete is figured out, it may fizzle like OWS. (Of course, concretization will also lead to new arguments. For example, if they go for gun control, all the the arguments against gun control will come out against them. Right now any time someone tries to dive into gun control, one can point out that the protests are not calling for gun control, but for something to be done. That move will stop being available.)

Name five women from history

There’s something on social media going around about naming five women from history. I didn’t watch the video because I don’t like watching videos, but I thought of some women from history. The first five that came to mind were Mary Wollstonecraft, Princess Elisabeth, Hypatia, Mary Shelley, and Mary Magdalene.

I noticed three of the five are named Mary. The sixth that came to mind was Mary, mother of Christ, who is probably part of the reason for the popularity. SSA data indicates in the US Mary was the most popular woman’s name from 1880-1946, then wavered into the #2 position for a couple years, rose back to #1 for awhile, then started its decline in the 1960s. In 2009 it dropped out of the top 100.

(I had some trouble thinking of a fifth Mary. I came up with “whoever Maryland is named after”. I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that wasn’t a duplicate since I had two rather prominent religious figures on the list. But, Maryland is in fact named after a queen of France, who was named Maria, but the English liked to call her Mary, anyway.)

 

Whether to accelerate is not so much a question of values

To oversimplify, but catch the essence of, the case for acceleration versus putting a band aid on the status quo, the agreed seems to be that:
Right now x=h people are dying/being substantially harmed/bad thing per year.
Accelerating would increase that to an average of h=x+a for y years, but then decreasing it to h=x-b for z years.
The band aid Bernie would decrease it to h=x-c for w years.

If you think b*z-a*y>c*w, you accelerate. If not, you put a band aid on things. But of course since the latter option is closer to the status quo, we conveniently ignore the magnitude of x in the first place. People endorsing such an option point to the damage done to a and c while sweeping under the rug the damage done to b.

I think b is massive. The group b also includes at least intensively defined pretty much the entire sets of a and c. So the question is less of values (unless an extreme focus on short terms gains is a value in play) and more an empirical difference.

A new answer to the trolley problem, plus follow-up on likely outcomes

The problem: A train is going down some tracks, as trains do. I am standing many yards away. I can see the train, but I cannot get any nearer to it. The track the train is on will soon have it run over and kill five people, because they are tied to the tracks. But! I have a lever that will make the train go down a different track. However, that track has one person tied to it. What am I, a moral agent, to do?

The solution: I close my eyes and rapidly pull the lever back and forth. This takes my agency out of the question and leaves it to God. Since God is perfectly good, they will make the morally best decision.

The follow-up: My friend who knows a bit more about track-based transportation than I do pointed out to me that this answer leads to multi-track drifting. The front of the train will go down one set of tracks. The rear will go down another. Thus, this solution kills all six people.

If the tracks are too far apart, then the train will derail. Then the surrounding environment will determine what happens. If the tracks are in a secluded area, then nothing of further note will happen. If there are things on the train’s new, freer path, then the train will hit them.

Regardless, the train is unlikely to be usable again, thereby solving the problem once and for all.

An inverted values argument for the importance of whether skeptical hypotheses matter

Skeptical hypothesis are nice philosophical quandries. Do we have reason to believe the world we perceive is real? Maybe we’re brains in vats or under the spell of an evil demon.  (What is this “we”, anyway? How do I know there’s any experiences besides my own?) I spend a fair bit of my thinking time on these problems. Berkeley wrote a substantial amount on why skeptics are wrong, and I also spend a fair bit of time thinking about Berkeley.

But someone might think that these questions don’t really matter. They might say the quandries are fun little puzzles, but don’t ultimately matter. I think that’s entirely wrong, and here’s one argument against it:

Let’s assume there is some value. If there isn’t, then this whole point is rather moot. Moreover, value happens at the level of reality. If anything at an imaginary or virtual level is of value, it’s only in virtue of impact on the real. For example, nothing in a video game matters in itself. But, what happens in a video game can matter for the real players.

For the sake of argument, let’s say petting kittens is good, and kicking kittens is bad. But of course we’re concerned with real kittens. Enter the skeptic. She suggests that there is a demon that inverts our perceptions of these two things. Whenever you appear to pet a kitten, in reality a kitten is kicked. But whenever you appear to kick a kitten, in reality a kitten is petted. If that were the case, then you should act to appear as though you are kicking kittens. When you see someone pet a kitten, you should condemn them.

This could be generalized to nearly any pair of values. You could also remove the pairing and just have a neutral thing correspond with a good or bad thing. Perhaps tapping your fingers on a table in appearance causes a real kitten to be kicked. Then you better not tap your fingers on a table in appearance.

(Of course, I think that hypothesis is wrong, but my point is that its being wrong is important.)