Category Archives: philosophy

Trolley dilemmas Part 2

A number of variations to the trolley problem exist, but they are all trivially easy.

“What happens if, on one of the trolley tracks, the President of the United States has been tied by terrorists, and on the other trolley tracks, five average citizens are also tied up. As in the original trolley problem, who should you save?”

Depends on if she’s Democrat or Republican.

“What if the trolley is headed towards five average people you’ve never met but on the other tracks is your mother?” “Do you flip the switch and save five or save your mother?”

Same as above.

“What happens if, on the tracks of one trolley, five men guilty of murder are tied, and on the other, one man is innocent. Should you choose to save the one man, simply because he has committed no crime?”

Depends on if the criminals are registered to vote Democrat or Republican.

These aren’t challenging at all, are they? Let’s mix it up a bit.

Michael Moore & the trolley

You are late for the trolley that takes you to work every day when you spot Michael Moore sitting on the edge of the bridge eating a triple-decker sandwich. If you were to push him off the bridge he would delay the trolley, allowing you to make it to work on time, but the sandwich would probably be lost. What should you do?

Dick Cheney & the trolley

You are Dick Cheney and you are out hunting when you catch sight of a runaway trolley hurtling down a track towards five al-Qaeda suspects. The path of the trolley is about to be diverted, however, by a mainstream news journalist who sympathizes with terrorists. When the journalist flips a switch, the lives of the five al-Qaeda suspects will be saved and the trolley will instead run over a poodle. You have a clear shot at the journalist. There is only your hunting companion, a 78-year-old attorney, standing in the line of fire. In order to shoot the journalist you must fire a shot through the attorney as well. What should you do?

Dick Cheney, his lesbian daughter & the trolley

You are Dick Cheney and your daughter is a lesbian. Other than this extra complication, the scenario is the same as the above. What should you do?

Brother Joseph, Brother Brigham & the trolley

Brother Joseph and Brother Brigham are riding in a stagecoach when they spot a runaway trolley hurtling down a track towards five Sisters not married to Brother Joseph or Brother Brigham. Brother Joseph has 30 wives. Brother Brigham has 31. Who marries the five Sisters?

George W & the trolley

You are George W and you are reading The Pet Goat to some schoolchildren when a runaway trolley crashes into three thousand people. How long do you keep reading??

Chuck Norris & the trolley

You are Chuck Norris and you sight a runaway trolley hurtling down a track where it will kill five innocent people. Beside you is a switch which will divert the trolley to another track where it will kill five different innocent people. It is impossible to save everyone. Do you save everyone, or do you beat up all the bad guys first?

Jimmy Carter & the trolley

You are former President Jimmy Carter and a runaway trolley is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You could flip a switch to divert the trolley to a track where it will kill only one person. Who is best qualified to open up negotiations with the trolley, you, former President Jimmy Carter, or someone else who doesn’t understand the peace process as well as you, former President Jimmy Carter?

Trolley dilemmas Part 1

The tendency to rely on feelings rather than reason as a moral guide is a particularly depressing facet of human nature. There is the famous moral dilemma of the trolley:

A runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed unless you, a bystander, flip a switch which will divert it on to another track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?

To which most people answer in the affirmative. There is the fat man variation:

The runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track… Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?

To which most people, including the inventor of the scenario, answer in the negative. The consequences of both proposed actions in the two thought experiments are the same. Either one person dies, or else five do. So repulsive is the feeling of directly causing a death that most people would prefer to let the greater tragedy occur; five preventable deaths passively allowed bother us less than one death actively caused. The element of direct causation, the only thing that distinguishes the latter proposed action from the former, is of course utterly irrelevant to the dead people.

(If you don’t believe most people really do give the wrong answers to these tests, and are often proud of the fact, read some of the reader responses to the BBC News article)

There is a conclusion to be had here.

1. All other factors the same, the deaths of 5 human beings is a greater evil than the death of 1 human being.
2. The above moral dilemma demonstrates that most people if put in such a situation would choose the greater evil.
3. Therefore, most people are evil.

I’m not joking. Not even 50% joking. Maybe 25% joking. The willful irrationality of man truly is depressing. When will we learn to properly distrust our fweewings when our highly developed faculties of reason are up to the task?

The even more depressing thought — faculties of reason in most of us probably are NOT up to the task.

Too depressing, too depressing. I’ll continue this another day. What would make me fweel better now would be the sense of moral accomplishment I could get from pushing a fat man in front of a trolley in order to save some lives (in a way that flipping a switch to save some lives would not). Failing that, chocolate.

Be like Socrates

The Kyrios Dialogue is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Socratic dialogue in existence that applies the Socratic Method to a modern issue with a dialectical style and effectiveness comparable to the early dialogues of Plato.

Like every Socratic dialogue that has ever been recorded, The Kyrios Dialogue is fiction (who on earth could stand to be around a Socrates-type for longer than a quarter of a minute?) , but the author explains that it was drawn from actual conversation, so it has that going for it.

I enjoyed reading through the whole dialogue. It makes me want to go out and hone my gadfly skills. However, I can’t afford to lose any more friends.

The Matchmaking Manifesto

Face it, most people are ugly. The result of an uneven distribution of good looks, or good personality for that matter, across the social landscape is that most people end up frustrated, lonely, miserable. They end up alienated.

Think of all the people you know who can never find their true love because all the hot dates are going to either Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. (in the year 2005, dates between either one of those two with another member of the sexually attractive elite accounted for 25% of all dates nationwide) And among those who do manage to settle down with someone, disappointment will claim the better part of these relationships; it is statistically manifest that most relationships do not last.

The free market of romantic attraction does a *horrible* job of making people happy in relationships — this is an indisputable fact. All of this will change when the revolution begins.

It was necessary for an unregulated economy of social hooking-up to precede this next phase in history which we will soon see. A centrally-planned system of matchmaking will put an end to the suffering that inevitably results from an uncontrolled market of sexual attraction. All romance will be regulated by the dating proletariat themselves, and each person assigned a romantic partner according to his needs. This may require that some of the more attractive people be assigned as partners to people they would otherwise not choose, but everyone will be happier in the end, you will see.

With the means of attraction removed from the control of the reigning bourgeoisie of good-looking gals and dudes, the class society we now live under, in which some people have an easier time finding love than others, will be abolished, and we will have entered the final phase in history. No longer will Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie be allowed to exploit the rest of us!

Oh, there is one more thing.

In order to facilitate the coming of this revolution, it may be necessary to break a few eggs. Yes, I mean that all persons now involved in a romantic relationship will have to be separated. All existing couples will have to be split. All existing marriages will have to be broken up. This will all be for the best, you will see.

edit: changed the title


My agnosticism is not pure in the sense that I would be less surprised than not to find out when I die that after all there has been a distant and aloof God floating out there all along. It sure would do a lot to explain the plethora of riddles and conundrums mankind has not been able to solve, not the least of which anthropic reasoning attempts to answer (unsatisfactorily, in my judgment)…

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Deontology vs. Consequentialism Part 2

Yesterday I summarized the main criticisms with both of these two ethical systems. The problems with deontology as outlined, when I began to realize them, are the reasons I rejected that system. It is now incumbent on me to explain how I answer the criticisms of consequentialism.


As I wrote, consequentialists tend not to be concerned with motivations and intentions. Certainly we do not put the same emphasis on intentions that deontologists do, but that does not mean we ignore them completely. Intentions are, after all, an indicator of what a person is likely to do in the future, or for that matter, has likely done in the past. The bad that will result from the future actions of a person who always has bad intentions may very often outweigh any good that occasionally results from them, and therefore from a consequentialist point of view it may make quite a lot of sense to condemn or put a halt to these actions at an early stage.

The flaw in the second criticism I mentioned yesterday lies in the fact that consequentialism is not in itself a complete ethical system any more than deontology without its specific rules is. In programming terms, both are “base classes”. The complete ethical system most consequentialists favor is utilitarianism, that philosophy that has as its prime directive the objective of maximizing total pleasure/happiness/value/preferences (different varieties of utilitarians prefer different words here).

To we utilitarians, this moral rule is the only one that matters; the morally correct decision in any situation is the one that best maximizes utility. While we don’t believe in natural law, divine justice, or any other kind of etheric transcendentalism, that does not necessarily mean we throw out some constructs that have proven themselves to be useful to a utilitarian end. Given that human beings often cannot make the complex calculations called for, it is reasonable, when in doubt, for us to follow imperatives such as “Do not tell a lie”. They are handy rules of thumb to the extent that they maximize utility. Whenever it is apparent that they do not, they should be readily discarded. This is in short, the rules of deontology in the discriminating service of utilitarianism.

Deontology vs. Consequentialism Part 1

Which of these two main ethical systems do you favor?

Deontology — The morality of an action is determined by duty; adherence to given rules.

Consequentialism — The morality of an action is determined by the specific results of that action.

A deontologist will condemn a thief on the basis that he has broken the moral imperative that commands one not to steal. A consequentialist will condemn the thief on the basis that his actions, the forceful removal of another’s property, have caused real harm.

It may seem that both ethical systems follow their own method to arrive at the same conclusions, and most of the time this is probably so, but the difference is important.

You can easily imagine a scenario in which following a moral imperative brings about negative consequences. The classic example is strict adherence to the rule “Do not tell a lie” when a Nazi is knocking on your door to ask if there are any Jews hiding in your basement, and one happens to be. A deontological system must either insist that the right moral action in this context is the one that ends up bringing about a horrific result or else provide for a means of resolving conflicts between different imperatives. That they generally lack a clear means of doing the latter is a common criticism of these ethical systems. In fact, it is asserted by some, you discover when you peel the layers that these systems are actually resolving conflicts on a consequential basis, and are as such nothing more than consequentialism in disguise.

A major criticism of consequentialism, on the other hand, is that it is not concerned with motivations or intentions. An action performed with the best of intentions is deemed morally wrong by the consequentialist when the results are sour. Conversely, an action performed with sinister intentions is deemed morally right when it brings about positive results. That the actions of the person who seeks to do evil should be applauded while the actions of the person who seeks to do good should be condemned rubs most of us the wrong way.

Another criticism that has been leveled at consequentialism is that it appear only to be useful when judging actions after they have already been performed and the results are in, rather than as a means of dictating what the right action is that a person ought to perform.

Now can you guess which of the two philosophies I prefer? You’ll find out tomorrow when I defend that system.

Three types of disagreements

This is the way I see it.

Disagreements can occur because one or both parties has their facts wrong. Provided that those facts are objectively demonstrable and both parties are rational, the disagreement ought to be resolvable. But if you are dealing with someone who will not acknowledge an established fact then you may as well end the discussion right there.

Disagreements can occur because one or both parties has their logic wrong. This type of disagreement, too, ought to be resolvable, but in practice is often not. We may not like to admit when our facts are off, but we hate to admit when our logic is off. If you are dealing with someone who will not acknowledge a logical error then you may as well end the discussion right there.

If both parties agree on the facts, and neither is making a logical error, then the basis for disagreement is probably due to evaluations inferred not only from knowledge but from subjective perceptions. When all the variables of a situation are not known, we fill in the blanks with guesses based on personal wisdom, experiences, impressions, prejudices.

This is the type of disagreement by which the teenager rejects the parent’s decree of not being allowed out alone past curfew. The parent cannot tell the future, cannot say for certain that were the teenager to go out late anything would happen that would justify prohibiting him or her from having this little fun, but instead makes an evaluation that draws from personal wisdom and experience. The teenager, having a different set of wisdom and experience, makes a different evaluation.

This is also the type of disagreement by which most arguments of a political nature occur, as the consequences of any given policy are never truly known before it has been implemented, and even afterwards there are far too many variables for any one person to process thoroughly. Consciously or not, we fill in all sorts of blanks by making subjective inferences. Needless to say, some people go to greater lengths than others to obtain as much objective data as they can so as to avoid having to do this as much as possible.

When the basis of disagreement is this last type, further discussion may or may not bring about a resolution. The manifestation of additional facts at some later date might be enough to settle it, but you can never really count on that. Don’t underestimate people’s resistance to replacing their impressions and prejudices with objective facts.

Legislating Morality

A question of interest to me that arose in the recent debate I had with theobromophile about copyright law was over whether it is valid to say that laws exist to enforce morality.

I have always seen it that way. Laws, to my mind, are at essence moral injunctions that we as a society have chosen to impose on ourselves. Our collective moral sensibilities dictate that murder, rape, theft, and so forth should not be tolerated. Our moral sensibilities dictate that we ought not to allow the poor to suffer when we have the power to alleviate it (yes, through government, if that is what we decide). To a fair extent we have decided that it is immoral to allow suffering to go on in other places in the world when we have the power to alleviate it.

Sometimes the moral basis of a law is not obvious on the surface, but the postulation is that if you trace the reasoning back far enough you will arrive at one. We have then a falsification test for the theory. Find one law that together with its context cannot be derived from a moral sense of ought and you will have proven the theory false. (as political theories go, it may not be possible, however, to prove it true)

The reason I am sure many of us, including myself at times, become weary whenever we hear the phrase “legislate morality” is because it is frequently used to mean legislate personal morality, that is, those actions that don’t affect others directly. We by and large do not legislate personal morality because we place such a high value on individual liberty. This, too, derives from our collective moral sensibilities.

Healthy Limits of Skepticism

I go with Hume a good ways.

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

Of Miracles, pp.115-116, David Hume

This is the stumbling block for all miraculous claims. When a reported phenomenon cannot be reproduced, when the evidence cannot be captured, all that we have to go on is the testimony of the one(s) who claim to have witnessed it. If what is reported in the testimony contradicts known laws of nature, we must choose between them. Hume concludes that it would be a greater miracle for the testimony of a man to be infallible, and therefore the rational mind must reject the testimony.

The approach serves as the basis upon which I consider all miraculous claims, from the mythical tales written of in the Bible to modern-day reports of the paranormal. But as others have argued, the so-called “Hume’s Razor” is not insurmountable.

Parapsychological evidence challenges firmly entrenched assumptions. Those who doubt these assumptions may welcome this evidence, and choose to ignore the power of Hume’s argument that all the experience that has caused us to make them weighs against the testimony on which the evidence rests. I think this is an irresponsible attitude. But those on the other side who are unwilling to entertain the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than our assumptions permit us to believe in, have to stare down the high quality of some of the testimony, and insist it must always be due to error or fraud. I think this looks like foolishness also.

In essence, what Terence Penelhum asserts is that the quality of the testimony, and I would add the quantity, can accumulate to the point where it would be the greater miracle for we fallible men to have gotten the laws of nature 100% right.

I would have to agree. But where does that point lie? Hard to say. I think application of Hume’s Razor can be used to eliminate the bulk of miraculous stories one might hear, while the better established claims deserve attention to the extent that the quality and quantity of accounts given are high. Even so, I would expect the true nature of a phenomenon which may in the future cause us to “rewrite” the laws of nature to seldom be exactly what its observer(s) thought it was.

That’s the approach in theory. Later, perhaps, when I write about ghosts and psychic phenomena I’ll explain the approach I favor in practice. (no, it isn’t the picture below)