Archive for March, 2011

Against Singer

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

JDN 2455648 14:17 EDT.


My post “You are a utilitarian” raised a lot of discussion on Facebook, which is great; it’s always good to see Internet discourse about important moral issues instead of the usual frivolities (I’m thinking sports, celebrities, lolcats and the like).


There were three broad classes of objections:

  1. “Your definition makes utilitarianism a tautology”. I had already answered this one in the original post, so I’ll not answer it again.
  2. “You are not really a utilitarian”. This amounts to using the narrow, classical definition; but I’ve already said that I am not a classical utilitarian, so I don’t really see what the argument is about. If you don’t like my definition, I suppose that’s your business; but there is no substantive debate here. I think you may need a course on Dissolving the Question.
  3. “No, actually Singer’s classical utilitarianism is the One True Utilitarianism, and moreover it is absolutely correct. We only fail to give our children’s college funds to UNICEF because we are morally weak in will.”


It is this third line of argument that I would like to now address. It is not only wrong, it is deeply wrong, and indeed morally insidious. Peter Singer is not a moral hero; he is well-intentioned as far as I can tell, but his philosophy is false and dangerous.


You are a utilitarian.

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

JDN 2455645 16:33 EDT.


We all are. If you think you disagree, it is because you have a narrow understanding of “utilitarianism”. Even Kantians and Aristotelians are utilitarians, once they are forced to apply their philosophies to large-scale economic and political systems. Maybe it’s possible to make personal decisions without a utilitarian calculus, but it’s certainly not possible to make national decisions in anything like a rational and just way.


Dear Governor Snyder:

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

[what follows is a draft of an open letter that I plan to submit to Rick Snyder and also publish in local newspapers.]

I am a school nurse in a public elementary.

Actually, that’s not true. It merely feels that way, because budget cuts have forced our actual nurses to be placed at multiple schools simultaneously, so we hardly ever see them. Most of the day-to-day nursing is now done by people like me. I am a teacher clerk; I get paid $9 an hour. I am the one who actually provides the bandages, administers the medication, makes the ice packs. I have no formal medical training. This is good, because if I did, they couldn’t afford me.


How does this happen to human brains?

Monday, March 21st, 2011

JDN 2455642. 14:37 EDT.


Lately I have been reading through The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, which is quite a tome (835 pages not counting notes and citations), and it may not interest many people. It is a collection of essays by scientists, mostly about cosmology and astronomy—how the universe is structured, how it began, and how we have come to know this.

One particular essay leapt out in its relevance to religion and secularism. This is Owen Gingerich’s essay, “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmogony and Biblical Creation”.

It starts out brilliantly, with a history of Big Bang cosmology, and all the, well, physics, astronomy, and mathematics that went into discovering and understanding it. It describes a very Quinean view of the scientific method which I happen to like: science is a tapestry that we are weaving, a unified whole. Attempt to unweave any small part, and the whole tapestry is in jeopardy. I don’t think it does a very good job of articulating the enormous vastness of the cosmos, though other essays have done this.

What it does do is something that I think we need to do much more often; it talks about the consilience of evidence (though not in those terms), how many different lines of reasoning can lead us to the same place. This is the fundamental difference between scientific understanding and other ways of thinking; in science, you can test the conclusions of one theory using the methods of another—and they should fit together, or else something is wrong. Creationists are fond of attacking carbon dating; but did it ever occur to them that carbon dating can be checked against dendrochronology, and geology, and astronomy, and uranium-thorium dating, and many other methods? What are the odds that all of these methods not only give the wrong answer—but indeed give the same wrong answer?

And yet, after so brilliantly explaining this principle, Gingerich collapses into religiosity. He can’t explain the fine-tuning of the universe (in particular the resonance of the helium-carbon reaction impresses him), therefore God.


That… doesn’t… compute…

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

JDN 2455641

Apparently, there are studies showing that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. Most of these studies are based on the work of Arthur Brooks (a conservative behavioral economist, odd as that sounds), but there are a few other studies as well. Speaking from my own personal experience (on which most of the liberals I know give until it hurts and most of the conservatives I know literally would prefer the poor to starve to death in a dramatically Social Darwinist fashion), this is baffling. A similarly baffling finding is the result that people who oppose income redistribution are statistically less racist.

My first inclination is to question the scientific accuracy of the studies; and this can be done. Some of the demographic data doesn’t line up with census data, and there is an obvious issue with social desirability bias. One possible explanation for the result would be to say simply that conservatives are more sensitive to social desirability effects—which would be interesting, but hardly earth-shattering.

But while it is tempting to dismiss the research as invalid, I honestly can’t justify that on scientific grounds. It has some holes in it, no doubt; but these holes are not such gaping scientific flaws that it would be fair to dismiss the research entirely. (Unlike, say, Bem’s experiments on precognition.) The best I can say right now along those lines is that we need future research to plug the holes.

Moreover, one thing that really doesn’t compute is that most of the studies show a strong effect of religiosity—in short, if you think you’ll burn in Hell for not giving to charity, you give to charity. But then, which lending team on Kiva has the highest number of members, highest total lending, highest average lending? The atheist team. Moreover, this data is completely free from bias or statistical anomalies, because it comes directly from Kiva’s financial records. Could Kiva be an exception to the trend? I suppose—but $3.7 million seems a very dramatic exception.