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Let’s Provoke Some Ethical Thinking April 6, 2010

Posted by presto21 in Uncategorized.
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I recently got a terrific writing prompt from my professor of my philosophy of ethics class. It really got me thinking…and I bet it will do the same for you, check it out:

Q. You receive the following email from your 30-year-old son:
Dear Mom and Dad — If you’re reading this, then you will probably never hear from me again.  I’ve decided how I want to spend the rest of my life.  I’ve been taking a wonderful new prescription drug intravenously for the past six months.  It’s entirely safe and won’t shorten my life (you can read about it in medical journals if you wish).  It puts me in a state of constant pleasure.  I just lie in bed all day with a nutritional drip and a bedpan.  My live-in nurse empties the bedpan, exercises my muscles, and looks out for me. I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone being happier than I am when this drug is flowing into my bloodstream.  Fortunately, my trust fund will pay for all of this for the rest of my natural life.  Before I started taking the drug, I instructed my nurse to take me off of it briefly after the first six months, just so I could write this final email to you.  But I can’t wait to get back in bed and on the drug again.  By the time you read this, I’ll already be there.  Please don’t try to stop me.  I’m happy.  You love me, so what more could you want for me?  Love, Your Son
What a doozy right?…Below is my response, feel free to respond to it, just share your own thoughts on the prompt, or both…

My initial reaction to my son’s email is to feel shocked and disturbed. I am unsettled by his wish to spend the rest of his life in bed on an intravenous, pleasure inducing drug. But more than anything I am troubled by his simple statement that he is happy. This assertion of his is a dramatic demonstration of the role of personal authority in deciding what constitutes our own happiness. And, as one who accepts as a basic principle that happiness has intrinsic value, I find my son’s declaration exceedingly irritating because it so seriously circumscribes the grounds upon which I could hope to change his mind.

If, for example, my son was justifying his choice by some general disgust with humanity or the world, by a lack of belief in his own capabilities, or some terrible misfortune which had recently befallen him, I would be able to engage him on more widely discernible grounds. I could point to examples of progress and reasons to be hopeful, remind him of times he succeeded at a difficult task, or console him with compassion and assurances that his pain will pass. As it stands I have no such option. While our value theories may seem to be in alignment in the sense that each of us reserves a special place for happiness as a valuable end in itself, the resemblance is superficial. My son has supported his decision with an affirmation of his authority and in the process clarified the chasm between his conceptualization of happiness and mine.

The great 19th century hedonist and utilitarian, John Stuart Mill, would have been exasperated by my son’s reasoning, especially because Mill had to contend with critics of hedonism in his own lifetime who maintained that it was a “doctrine worthy only of swine.” Mill’s retort, quite effective coming from a man as refined and educated as he, was that there is “no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feeling and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation.” (EL, 16) Were hedonism’s critics to seize upon my son as an example of the pathetic or ignoble in hedonism, Mill would simply take him out to the rhetorical woodshed. As he famously said, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a fool satisfied.” (EL, 18) My son, in his drug-induced stupor, would obtain the backing of neither Epicurus nor Mill for his prioritizing of the basest pleasures over those of the mind and spirit. In fact he would likely be called an outright fool.

Yet even in the face of abandonment by two of the greatest hedonists, my son could (assuming he cares at all about such things1) hold fast to hedonism as a justification for his decision if he maintained that this drug is what makes him happiest. He could accuse Mill, Epicurus, and myself of being elitists convinced of the superiority of a set of instrumental means to happiness (which are really just our personal preferences) and wanting to impose them upon him. Mill mused that among other attributes, love of liberty, love of power, love of excitement, pride, and dignity were variously responsible for the fact that man, with his higher faculties, would not permit himself to be satisfied by a lower grade existence. He would be forced to either concede the point or claim that my son possesses none of those mitigating qualities. I could add responsibility, ambition, and love of family (because his decision would prematurely remove him from my life, thus causing me unnecessary pain) to the list of qualities which typically channel our pursuits towards so-called higher pleasures, and which my son lacks. But piling on my son in this manner would be a dead end when he has already shown he is satisfied by bodily bliss alone. It is not likely that I will be able to change his mind if he truly meant what he said in his email.

My greatest concern going forward is with the repercussions of this drug’s existence. I am inclined to agree with Mill’s insight regarding the judgement of various pleasures. He places it within the rhetorical question, “What means of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those familiar with both?” (EL, 19) I see no other way of even beginning the project of comparing levels of pleasure and pain of experiences without trusting in the reports of those who have actually lived them. Problematically however, if this is true, we are losing leverage over my son because neither of us have tried his miraculous drug.

Since the creation of the atomic bomb humans have worried about its catastrophic potential, a concern I share. In this situation I am also worried about the awesome power of a human invention. If, as my son maintains, this drug induces such incredible levels of pleasure as to make all alternative pleasures pale by comparison while not causing negative side effects, then it is possible it constitutes a sort of “pleasure bomb”. Such a pleasure bomb would radically alter the order of human pleasures in fundamental ways that could be destructive to life was we know it. My literate son may be selfish, but judging by the tone and content of his letter he was not destined to be a degenerate and he is certainly not malevolent. Should he be truly rational and autonomous at the moment he wrote the letter, not merely motivated by a burgeoning addiction, then the drug is a considerable threat. He may be an ethical egoist with a narrow definition of his self-interest, or even a not so narrow definition of self-interest which has nonetheless been overwhelmed by the power of the drug. Regardless, if he is thoroughly convinced of the superiority of this pleasure, then it is an ominous sign that it will attract more than just those on the margins of society.

If I were to try the drug myself and conclude that despite its charms I would not trade away a life of art, friends, chance occurrences, setbacks, and the like, then I would be able to dismiss my son’s case as a sad example of someone whose capacity for the nobler feelings had somehow withered away. More helpfully to me, I could regard him as an unfortunate aberration and the drug as relatively harmless on a grand scale. But I would not try the drug, even though it might give me the opportunity to evaluate my son’s judgement for myself.

I would not try the drug because I would be afraid of my own fallible nature and because of the value I place upon my link to the external world. As Robert Nozick summarized it in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, “we learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it.” (EL, 33) In this case, I consider humanity’s ability to perceive reality through our senses to matter, and on a fundamental level. One might counter by pointing out that this drug is not the same thing as Nozick’s “Experience Machine” whereby the subject is having truly unreal experiences. That is of course true but misses the point. My son in this scenario has lost touch with the reality of what goes on around him, of what it takes to sustain him. Without his live-in nurse to manage his bodily functions and ensure his well-being, he would be helpless. I am not concerned with the content of his subjective experiences and whether they imitate reality or not.

Another might argue that my concept of reality is too generous, too presumptuous, too anthropocentric, because after all, our senses are imperfect. They might ridicule my concept of “reality” as naive. They might remind me not to romanticize any notion of what my son is leaving behind as he retreats into his head. Well those who would object in this manner would be right that our link to reality is tenuous and uncertain in many ways. I cannot dispute the fact that our senses can deceive us. But they are also our only source of information about the physical world. More importantly, that information is actionable, however imperfect. It is the only basis for human action. Without a connection to the world even immediately outside of oneself, autonomy and rationality are made meaningless by dearth of information, which is their only sustenance.

I am deeply perturbed by the possibility that such a drug could exist. If there is no definite limit to the amount of pleasure that could be administered chemically, then I can not write off the power of such a creation to upend the natural arrangement of pleasures. Such a situation, like Nozick’s “Experience Machine”, certainly forces one to consider the sources of pleasure, and whether some are too precious to part with no matter the raw quantity of pleasure they are traded for. Without attempting to assign intrinsic value to things on a universal level (besides happiness) at this juncture, it is clear that the existence of a host of the things most persistently valued by humans would be annihilated in my son by his sensory blackout. Among these are reality as humans perceive it, autonomy, rationality, interaction with other humans (relationships), duty to develop oneself, and capacity to appreciate and produce art. These things are so instrumental to some people’s conception of happiness that they would decline the drug rather than be without them.

Others might simply be non-hedonists or ascribe intrinsic value to things besides happiness, thus making resistance a simple matter of willpower, of following through on their philosophy. Kant, for example, would certainly object to my son’s surrendering of his autonomy and ability to think rationally as a perversion of his intrinsically valuable human attributes. Getting back into bed and inserting the IV will be the last action my son ever takes. However, that action appears to be made knowingly, which raises the question of whether voluntarily laying down your future autonomy represents a breach of autonomy or not. And of course Kant would protest my son’s decision on the grounds that he is wasting his talents, when he has a duty to develop them.

Indeed, my son will be closed off to future developments of any nature. Conditions in the world could change drastically while he is unresponsive, for the better or the worse. World peace might be achieved, and global happiness could subsequently skyrocket as a golden age of humanity is launched – my son would not know about it. His mother or I might develop a painful terminal illness, running through our savings over time, until we are broke and on the verge of losing care. Our son’s trust fund, which he is tapping to pay for his state, might be able to make a difference. It would be his decision, and perhaps he would still decide his trust fund is better used to pay for his drug. But crucially, without the necessary actionable information, he would not even be able to make that choice. Or, in terms that might be more enticing to my son, a drug that generates double the ecstasy of his current one (still without physically damaging side effects) could be invented and he would not be able to make the switch. In any future scenario, and we can assume there will be a future of some sort, circumstances will change and impact the calculation he (hopefully) considered when he made his decision. Because the world is not static, he is not capable of knowing what he is giving up.

Ultimately, such a powerful drug would plumb the depths of human nature and test our desire to remain connected to each other and to the physical world. Escapism is nothing new but with modern technology its potency continues to rise in the form of consumer luxuries, mindless entertainment, virtual reality games, and of course, drugs. Meanwhile, the intuition that there is something less valuable about pleasure derived from these sources than from positive, creative actions is not always given voice in popular culture. The extent to which such a bias is part of our nature is questionable. If there is no limit to the power of the artificial pleasures science can bring to us, then the stakes will continue to rise. Negative bodily side effects have usefully tended to come along with powerful drugs and had a sort of moderating effect on their attractiveness, but in their absence a major disincentive would be lost. Without a value theory that prima facie diminishes the value of this third type of unnatural pleasure from the traditional bodily pleasures and the intellectual pleasures of the past, preventing the diffusion of ever more “perfect” drugs through society could be immensely difficult. That is, assuming we wanted to prevent that at all. It is a question science is not equipped to answer for us, and which demands the attention of our best moral philosophers.

Afghanistan, the Yuan, Cap and Trade April 4, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in Environment, World Affairs.
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This article explains the extent to which both India and Pakistan are vying for influence in Afghanistan, and they’re essentially fighting a proxy war there. The article also makes clear that India’s interests don’t align with ours, and their presence there is increasing instability despite their philanthropy ($1.3 billion invested in irrigation, schools, hospitals).  Though obvious, it’s crucial to keep in mind that regional interests are extremely important. An uncritical reader of US media coverage of Afghanistan could easily lose sight of this fact. Though I do expect to see the US actively engaged in the region for many years, India and Pakistan’s interests will outlast ours.

I also thought Obama’s recent decision to delay this “Chinese currency manipulating Treasury report” was a great move. The way they handled it seems truly creative and I’m becoming optimistic the issue will be resolved diplomatically later this year. The genius of it is that the US will be in a relatively stronger negotiating position vis a vis China in June. They’re also getting fantastic talking points and sound bites into the media.I’m in favor of anything multilateral and diplomatic, AND they whipped the unions and labor leaders into support.

The EU’s cap and trade system seems to have been implemented horribly! A surplus of permits not sold but handed out for free, and a overall emissions cap which was set too high has created serious problems. The silver lining in the article is that businesses were able to reduce emissions for cheaper than everyone expected! What should the EU’s policy be going forward? Lower the overall cap, tell businesses to stop whining, and devalue the permits.