Saturday, June 7, 2008

Moral Minds

This isn't really a book review so much as a discussion of issues raised.

The reader has probably heard the story of "the Starfish Flinger". The day after a storm, a man is walking down the beach and sees another man flinging starfish which have been washed ashore back into the ocean. "You are wasting your time," says the walker, "your actions will make no difference". "It will make a difference to them," says the flinger, referring to the starfish he is flinging. "I suppose," says the walker, "and to the clams which they will eat, and to the other potential starfish who will thus not be able to eat those clams. But the starfish will quickly reproduce back to their carrying capacity, the number of starfish will be the same whether you do this or not, they'll just be different ones. And one starfish is much like another."

I added the last part myself. Usually it ends with "it matters to them". The story of the starfish flinger does not appear in Moral Minds, but it easily could have.

The central thesis of Moral Minds is that, in the same manner in which we seem to have evolved brain structures for learning language in general but not for any particular language, we have evolved a general mental capacity to make moral judgments, although what actions are considered moral vary widely between cultures, and will differ between individuals within a culture.

The author spends a fair amount of time discussing whether moral judgments are primarily deontological (rule based) or consequentialist. The arguments rely heavily on survey results of moral dilemmas. Three examples: 1) You see a trolley heading down a track towards five hikers. You can throw a switch sending the trolley off onto a side track, but there is a hiker on the side track also. Should you kill one to save five? 2) You are standing on a platform above the trolley rack, again the trolley is heading towards five hikers, and standing next to you is a lard-assed tub of guts. By heaving him over the side in front of the trolley, you can slow the trolley enough for the hikers to escape. Should you kill one to save five? 3) You are an emergency room doctor. Five hikers have just been admitted, they have been struck by a trolley and have each suffered injuries to a different vital organ. You could save them all by murdering some random bystander and harvesting his organs. Should you kill one to save five?

Most people say "yes" in the first case and "no" in two and three. It seems to me that presenting the problem in this form is biasing towards a consequentialist viewpoint because the consequences are presumed to be known. The author sees the result as evidence of deontological thinking because the consequences are listed as being the same, and I suspect there's some truth to that, but it seems to me likely that at some level respondents are simply rejecting the problem. The first case seems relatively straightforward, but consider the second. Do we know that all five hikers will be killed by the trolley? Do we know that hitting lard-ass will slow the trolley enough for all five to escape? How could we possibly? Trolleys are pretty heavy, what if it just plows through lard ass and kills six instead of five? What if we try to push lard-ass off the platform, but he is able to hold on, and doesn't appreciate our justification for trying to kill him? And in the doctor case, are we sure that all five will survive the transplants? Are we sure that there's no hope of getting some organ some other way, that the patients will all die otherwise? Why can't we pick one of the five who is dying anyway and use his organs to save the other four without involving the innocent bystander?

Any action we choose to take will have infinite consequences, most of which will be unforeseen and unforeseeable. I tend to reject consequentialist moral arguments for this reason. But there is a consequentialist aspect of this problem that the author misses, and there's no way to sugar coat this turd, it must be said with brutal directness: from the point of view of personal utility of the actor, there is no particular reason to believe that it is an improvement for some random stranger to be alive than dead. If one considers not the world of today but the much closer to zero-sum world of hunter gatherers, the death of a distant stranger is actually probably a plus, albeit a small one. The relevant consequences for the actor are not so much the direct dead or saved but the reactions of his community to his actions. This may seem like it just pushes the problem back a level without changing anything, but it matters. Since actions can be seen more or less directly but motivations can only be imperfectly inferred, rules almost have to take a form like "this is what you have to do" rather than "do whatever seems most likely to give the best result".

Near the end, the book suggests that apes and perhaps some other animals should be treated as "moral patients" despite not being "moral agents", that is, that we should treat them according to moral rules that they will not and cannot apply to us or even to each other. Personally I like apes and many other kinds of animals, and would be willing to go to some effort to protect them, but as far as I can tell this is just a personal preference, albeit a widely shared one.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


This is commentary on the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

I was disappointed with this book. It's an interesting topic, and the author writes well, but I think there are sever problems with focus.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is way too long. It's over 500 pages of text, plus 200 pages of notes and index. It covers admissions policies of all three universities over about a century, and goes into more detail about the personalities of admissions deans and infighting and such than I can imagine many people really being interested in.

What really disappointed me about the book, however is what it didn't say. It really didn't talk at all about how theses institutions were able to obtain and hold their status as the "elite" universities, while giving strong reasons why this should not have ocurred. Particulary Princeton, particularly in its early "This side of Paradise" days. Princeton appeared less to be an institution of learning than to be a social club, or rather admission to Princeton was a prerequisite to joining its various "eating clubs" that seemed to be what the students were actually interested in. Less academically gifted rich WASPS were preferred as applicants over "unclubbable" Jews, but the author gives no clue as to why Jews, or serious students of any sort, would have wanted to go to Princeton in the first place. I can't exagerate the extent to which the author gives the impression that in the early twentieth century a Princeton degree would mean "your dad is rich and you spent four years goofing off". So why was a degree from such a place worth anything?

The author seems appalled in the early parts of the book that the institutions use anything but strict academic merit as criteria for admission (although he later is delighted by racial preferences and entranced by the possibility of "class based affirmative action"). He is particularly disgusted by subjective evaluations focusing on character (which he always puts on scare quotes), favoritism for legacies and athletes, and favoring those that will actually be able to pay tuition. But he seems to view admission to these institutions as a sort of gift of divine grace. He doesn't really address the question as to if or why some students might benefit from admission more than others, nor what the universities get from the students.

My personal theory is the most boring one imaginable: that the key factor enabling these institutions to maintain their elite status is that they have shitloads of money. Winning football teams, favoring legacies, recruiting heavily from expensive prep schools, these are things that are likely to rake in the alumni contributions. The academically gifted may go on to enhance the prestige of the universities, but if so it will largely be do to their abilities and efforts. Being "chosen" is not some arbitrary blessing. Universities base their admissions policies not on what benefits the students or society as a whole, but what they think will benefit the universities. They are in no sense more altruistic than for-profit corporations.


Rights exist not as entities in their own right but only within minds. But it does not follow from this that right are arbitrarily granted by "society". Society is, after all, an abstraction, and there is no guarantee that members of a society will agree on any particular question. But the fact that there is as much agreement as there is on questions of rights indicates something.

Rights cab exist in the mind in two very different ways: a person may regard himself as having a right, or a person may think some other person has a right.

If a person has a right in his own mind, he will generally feel obligated to enforce that right and punish at cost to himself. For example, a victim of theft may be more concerned with punishing the thief than with retrieving his stolen property. This is particularly true if the violation is public, but a person may seek vengeance for a violation of his rights even if the violation will never become public knowledge, and sometimes even the revenge will take a form that it will never become known.

Concern over the violation of rights of others tends to be much weaker. A person may give some aid to an aggrieved party or at least refuse to deal with an agressor, but generally he will do no more than what the social mores of his community demands of him. The two main exceptions to this are when the realtionship between the victim and some third party is such that injury to the victim becomes an insult to said third party, or when the agression is used as an excuse to inflict damage upon or pillage the resources of the agressor.

The process of aquiring rights in the eyes of society may begin with boldly asserting that one has said rights, but the idea that one has such rights will only be accepted if their nature is in accord with the general idea of one's society's ideas as to what sorts of rights it is possible to have. For example, a person may feel he has an absolute right to ownership of a piece of land (inlcuding the right to exclude all others), whereas someone else might maintain that a general right of easement exists, that is, that no person has the right to prevent some other person from simply crossing his property if the the crosser is doing no damage. This kind of disagreement cannot be resolved with pure reason.

Rights may or may not be transferable. Economic efficiency arguments say that it is generally better if they are, but a right cannot be freely transferable if, for example, the right to perform some function must be tied to a demonstrated capability to competently perform said function, or if the right is accepted by society primarily because of the right holder's demonstrated personal ability to enforce said right.

The difference between a right and a privilege is that a privilege is granted by some authority, and can be arbitrarily revoked by the same authority. Even if a right was originally required by a grant, a right holder will reject a claim that his right has been rescinded.