Hic Sunt Dracones

On the one hand, the maker of this globe in 1504 was woefully ignorant about the world.

It looks like South America was torn off roughly at the equator, and where the North American continent ought to be there are only a few scattered islands. The coasts and boundaries of Europe, Africa and Asia are, at best, crude approximations.

But on the other hand, this may be the oldest globe to depict the Western Hemisphere. While it’s far from perfect, it represents a huge leap forward in human knowledge and understanding.

Whoever made this globe knew things that people a generation earlier did not know. Given when this globe was made, and given the extremely limited resources available to whoever made it, it’s a remarkable achievement.

This is how science and learning and human progress works.* The leading edge of learning one day is bound to appear vague, partial and inadequate 500 years later.

We can make maps today that are clearer, more accurate and more complete than this old globe, but we do so mindful that 500 years from now, our best efforts may appear as sketchy as this beautifully carved artifact from 1504. We go about our learning mindful that our best knowledge may, someday, be improved upon in ways we cannot imagine by people with resources we cannot imagine that will enable them to see further and clearer and deeper than we are able to see now.

That’s both humbling and inspiring. Let’s do our best, like this anonymous globe-maker did, to impress our heirs 500 years from now. They will surely notice whole continents of knowledge missing from our best efforts, but let’s try to dazzle them with our care and craftsmanship and our painstaking effort to put together the best of what we know, pointing the way to something better.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The sentiment in this post is all quite welcome — even if it’s a bit overly sentimental — as long as the subject is cartography, or astronomy, or physics, or medicine or other fields where dramatic progress over the centuries is obvious and celebrated. But it’s mostly unwelcome if the subject is theology.

This little cartographical object lesson contradicts the mythological narrative we tend to construct around the study of theology, which regards the past as a Golden Age of perfect, complete, wholly accurate knowledge that has gradually been lost over the ensuing centuries. It’s a myth of regress just as powerful and potentially misleading as the myth of inevitable progress I flirt with in the first seven paragraphs of this post.

But it has the opposite effects. The ideal of progress is both humbling and inspiring — reminding us that our best knowledge is always incomplete and pushing us toward further inquiry and perpetual curiosity. But the ideal of regress warns against inquiry and curiosity as dangerous activities that threaten the precious remnants of the truths we have inherited. And rather than encouraging humility, it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.

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  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    “it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.”

    Some people want “The Truth” to be permanently settled. something that was perfected either in the golden past or in whatever the norms and level of knowledge of ones own youth happened to be. The desire to have one’s children forever hold the same awe for their towering wisdom that they held as toddlers is a big part of various anti-intellectual attitudes. Everyone says they want a better future for their children, and I’m sure they’re sincere. But many people also have a streak of Pa Finn inside of them, dreading a future that sees them as fools who suffered through primitive hardships for no good reason. It’s an attitude that can take some weirdly petty forms, like a belief in one true holy format for a high school basketball tournament, http://www.news-sentinel.com/article/2012120719817, or the belief that the teaching of cursive is absolutely necessary for moral development because………?

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    “it encourages arrogance — telling us that we may be worse than our ancestors, but we’ll always be better than our descendants.”

    The myth of progress has pretty much the exact same problem though:

    “Learn from the past? Why would we need to do that? People in the past we stupid and bloodthirsty. Whatever problems they had are no longer relevant to our situation because everything is totally different. We are so far beyond them we’ve already learned more than they could teach us.”

    A lot of the praise of our moral progress (I’m thinking specifically of Steven Pinker) is predicated on the assumption that progress is to be measured according to our current ideals (mostly mushy utilitarianism), and whatever ideals people had in the past aren’t worth considering at all.

    For that matter, stagnation theory is also bad because it leads to complacency.

  • connorboone

    And what, pray tell, is mushy and wrong about utilitarianism?

  • Jurgan

    I think he is saying that most people are sort of utilitarian in their morality but unwilling to follow through on its implications. For example, “We should tax the rich because they don’t need their money as much as poor people need food stamps, but I shouldn’t have to give up my flat screen TV because I earned it.” I admit to being guilty of this myself, and I don’t know if that is a character flaw.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    It seems like your example would make more sense if the speaker suggested that they should not be taxed. But I suppose it would be a more transparent fabrication then.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    This is off topic, but if you’re really curious…

    Utilitarianism is appealing because it’s so simple: there’s some good (probably pleasure) and you just maximize it. What could be simpler?

    Except that:

    1. There’s no good reason to believe that pleasure is the good instead of a good.

    2. There’s no good reason to think that pleasure is a scalar value that can be maximized, particularly with regards to multiple individuals or even for one person.

    3. Peter Singer’s brand of utilitarianism further requires the unsupportable premise that more intelligent animals experience more pleasure/happiness/well being than less intelligent ones.

    4. There’s no way of actually practicing utilitarianism absent the ability to make perfect predictions.

    5. Even if perfect predictions were possible, no one has the willpower to practice utilitarianism.

    6. Utilitarianism leads to many obviously absurd conclusions, e.g. Omelas is a great town to live in; it’s better if serial killers are happy about their work than unhappy about it, ceteris paribus; surgeons should secretly assassinate healthy people and harvest their organs for others &c. &c.

    7. Utilitarianism requires the end of human rights (why bind in advance the hands of government if it might in individual cases be more expedient to torture?), the family (why put the interests of a half dozen people in front of others?), promise-keeping (why keep your promise if it turns out you could go and do something else that would create more happiness?) &c. &c.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That’s a pretty nice strawman you’ve beaten up there. You forgot to address the happiness of the nuclear weapons specialist who just wants to see the entire planet glow a nice shade of chartreuse.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl
  • Kenneth Raymond

    +1 for SMBC, but minus about a billion for presenting one of its most blatantly absurdist strips as any kind of rebuttal. Though given previous comments you seem to think it’s a serious critique of utilitarianism, to which I can only suggest you look up the definitions of satire, humor, and exaggeration.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    A lot of people have told me that I am making a strawman argument or that the various criticisms of utilitarianism don’t apply, but no one has explained why the criticisms don’t apply.

    In the specific case of SMBC, yes, it’s a humorous parody, but utility monsters are a serious problem for classical hedonist act utilitarians. Even if you don’t believe it would be possible for one person to have enough utility to act as a utility monster, it would be possible for there to exist a planet full of utility monsters (let’s say there are 100 quadrillion of them on the planet Algebra) who get pleasure when life on Earth goes badly. Obviously, it’s absurd to think we on Earth ought to behave badly to please the planet of Algebran utility monsters. But how can we deny it from a classical hedonist act utilitarian framework?

    For that matter (more down to Earth), in the surgeon variation of the Trolley Problem, why not have secret organ harvesters who distribute organs from one healthy person to many sick people? Why keep a promise if it looks like there’s something else you can do with more utility? Why care for your own children instead of many other people? Etc.

    There are many, many flaws with classical hedonist act utilitarianism, and one very big advantage of it: it is a very simple, intuitively approachable system of ethics. You can fix most of the flaws by switching to non-hedonist, rule-based systems, but as soon as you do, you lose the simplicity that made utilitarianism appealing in the first place.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Because in each of your examples, you present utilitarianism as being blindly in support of making someone happy by increasing the suffering of someone else. That’s not utilitarianism. Furthermore, if you think the appeal to utilitarianism is that it’s simple, you’ve never been in a situation where you had to come up with a solution that appealed to everyone.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    All ethical systems agree that win-win scenarios are best if possible. What makes different systems different is how they handle unavoidable win-lose scenarios. If you don’t believe in the in principle possibility of hedonic calculus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_calculus that’s fine (I don’t), but you’re not a classical utilitarian anymore.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    To approach your repeated example of organ harvesters, let’s presume that someone did pursue the idea of secretly taking organs from people in order to promote the greater good. In the best case scenario, we’ll say that every organ and tissue can be harvested and put to immediate use, saving (or at least substantially enriching) the lives of many people — heart, lungs, two kidneys, digestive tract, gallbladder, skin tissues, etc. Sacrificing one life to promote several others seems like a good deal if you’re not concerned about the cost to that single life.

    Until the secret gets out.

    What happens to society when it discovers that any person who visits a doctor or hospital has a chance of being killed for their organs? Faith in the medical system is going to plummet. People will look upon doctors and medical scientists with deep suspicion. Any vehicle bearing their logo—or merely deemed suspicious—will inspire paranoia of bloodmobiles on the lookout for easily kidnapped victims. People will self-medicate, or even perform their own surgeries. Overall health will drop like a stone as people refuse to go in for vaccinations or treatment of contagious illnesses. Society decays.

    Utilitarianism is not served.

    The problem with deontological ethics is pretty simple. We see it every single day when someone quotes the Bible. Rules tend not to encompass all possible circumstances, interpretation of their meaning varies overmuch and many come across as purely arbitrary if they ever served a purpose at all. Furthermore, it is my suspicion that by the time you finish writing a rule which addresses any possible circumstances and exceptions to its enforcement, you would actually wind up with utilitarianism – a set of rules whose purpose is to increase overall welfare and minimize suffering.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    For the record, I’m also against deontology. The binary between deontology and consequentialism is overblown because it’s just a verbal dispute, and you can easily redescribe the one in terms of the other: “Utilitarianism is the deontological theory that we have a duty to maximize pleasure, and Kantianism is the consequentialist theory that we must maximize the amount of goodwill.”

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Obviously, it’s absurd to think we on Earth ought to behave badly to please the planet of Algebran utility monsters. But how can we deny it from a classical hedonist act utilitarian framework?

    Well what if you get hit by a car when you leave your home in the morning? In that case your personal suffering increases dramatically, not to mention the psychological suffering of the person who hits you (plus any damage to their car), so obviously you need to hide in your home for the rest of your life to maximize your happiness and that of drivers everywhere!

    That’s literally the quality of argument you’re making. Sam addressed the “organ harvesting” issue quite capably as well, so I don’t need to add on to that. Your hypothetical scenarios are either so blatantly absurd they’re Not Even Wrong, or show a complete inability to follow through because the actual conclusions (endemic panic, distrust, and social decay) aren’t conducive to your point. Your understanding of utilitarianism is so painfully, nakedly shallow that it is on its face a ridiculous strawman that barely merits further engagement.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    Hypotheticals aren’t meant to be realistic; they’re meant to tease out where a theory breaks down. There’s no doubt that someone using utilitarianism as a life philosophy would be fine. The question is if classical utilitarianism is the right theory overall. The existence of these breakdowns in extreme situations suggests that it is not.

    I’m done with this thread because I keep being told that I don’t “get” utilitarianism without actually getting replies to my objections, just explanations for why those situations empirically won’t happen. In addition, I find the tone in your last comment rather insulting, and I don’t want to engage with you anymore.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Everything breaks down with enough hypothetical scenarios, though. I think what we’ve determined here is that pure, ‘naive’ utilitarianism is flawed, but that doesn’t mean partial utilitarianism is worthless as a moral metric.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    Agreed. Everyone should learn utilitarianism as their first moral framework, but I don’t think it’s the final, metaphysically correct one.

  • Carstonio

    What does “metaphysically correct” mean?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Well, if it helps, in a philosophy class we started with aristotelian concepts, which basically prescribe what men and women are/should do. We spent probably a month on utilitarianism (act- and rule-) and then went on to social contract theory and finished with “meta-” theories such as Marxian and Nietzschean critiques of then-extant moral structures.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I’m done with this thread because I keep being told that I don’t “get” utilitarianism without actually getting replies to my objections, just explanations for why those situations empirically won’t happen.

    Thank you for letting me know that I wasted my time replying to you. I’ll be sure not to make that mistake in the future.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Sam answered your objection about why compulsory secret organ harvesting is a losing game in the utilitarian framework, and your response there was to toss off something about a side point about deontology without actually acknowledging his point. And then complain that nobody else is answering your objections.

    Frankly, the idea of insulting someone who argues in such simple bad faith makes me kind of happy. And given you disregard the production of suffering in your view of utilitarian ethical calculus, I guess my happiness is justified and thus utility is served.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Okay. Here’s a more serious take on it, then. I doubt it’ll be worth the time I’m putting into it but frankly I’m probably a little too conscious of people’s opinions of me and I prefer the community overall to get the impression I actually think through my positions and am not just objecting to your objections because “simple” or whatever.

    I am a sociologist by inclination and education. Hypotheticals are all well and good but, truly, they aren’t meant to be realistic and I am concerned with actual use and application of ideas. And in actual use, while hypotheticals are useful for finding the breaking point of an idea, they’re also frequently used to dismiss something that could be “better” because it isn’t “perfect.”

    The “welfare queen,” for example. The hypothetical dishonest individual cheating the system – issued as an excuse not to improve the system at all. It is itself a dishonest engagement with the problem (people suffering from poverty) by using the isolated edge cases (life devotion to gaming the system) as a rhetorical device to devalue the actual benefits gained.

    In other words, I don’t consider hypotheticals as a substantial argument in and of themselves because they’re used extensively against the pursuit of real solutions. Your hard insistence on hypotheticals carries this flavor to me. Is it a failing of my personal worldview? Maybe, but damn if US political rhetoric doesn’t prop up my confirmation bias pretty strongly.

    So. This brings me to the “utility monster,” the foundation of several of your hypotheticals. Be it Felix in the SMBC comic, or the aliens who get off on human suffering, I disagree that those hypotheticals really do provide a test case for the extreme of utilitarianism because I think they involve: 1) a short-sighted inability to think their own premises through; 2) devotion to false limitations of choice by the actors involved; and 3) a failure to understand that not all happiness is of equal utility.

    Regarding point 1: carry the hypothetical further. Felix dies. Overpopulation sends the alien race into an ecological crash and extinction – or their sun goes nova, or the systems they use to observe human suffering break down. Whatever. In any case, something happens to remove the utility monster from the equation – because it will. Nothing is eternal, especially not your hypothetical utility monster (unless it’s God, but now we’re getting into the L&J version of God and that’s been discussed nigh unto death elsewhere on this site). What then? Felix dies and the entire world devoted to his happiness is completely without any happiness. The aliens are somehow removed from the equation and human suffering is going unenjoyed. The only ways a utility monster retains utility in the absolute extreme are if they render humanity extinct with them and are deliriously happy as they go, or if they were made so happy by others’ suffering that all human suffering in perpetuity is somehow retroactively contributing to their happiness even once they’re removed.

    Have we gone far enough into absurdity yet that the hypothetical breaks down and we can declare it irrelevant to the actual concept of utility? Yes? No?

    Okay. Point 2: false limitation of choices. The only choices aren’t restricted to “suffer for the utility monster” or “cause negative utility by refusing to suffer.” How are the aliens getting news of our suffering? Our transmissions via TV and radio? Ships hiding in orbit watching us and transmitting home (probably not this – shipboard duty is less fun for those handful of monsters than staying home and letting an automatic system handle it for them)? Doesn’t it generate greater utility, then, if we find a way to fake the signal output and let the aliens think we’re undergoing abject suffering while we’re actually making things work better every day here on Earth? They’re happy, we’re happy, so hey! Greater utility. Better choice all around. Turns out it wasn’t a silly binary after all!

    Actually, in the case of a single-person utility monster like Felix, wouldn’t it also be of greater utility to stick a wire in his brain and constantly stimulate his pleasure centers so he thinks he’s caught up in a world of infinite rapture, and let the rest of the world seek happiness without suffering for the monster? It’s a much more efficient way of dealing with an individual utility monster, it seems. And it’s not like his suffering from being strapped down, intravenously fed, and perpetually electro-shocked into joy is so great that it mandates everyone else suffer in his place instead.

    So that concludes Point 2, or, “Why the Utility Monster Doesn’t Deserve Truth.”

    And finally, point 3: not all happiness is of equal utility. There have been some studies in the news in the past few years that indicate that happiness has diminishing returns relative to the devotion of resources to its maintenance and improvement. It may not be perfectly asymptotic but it’s a useful analogy to understand – when your happiness is low (say at 10 units), it may take only an extra $2 per hour to increase your happiness by 5 units, but when your happiness is high (at 50 units) it’ll take, well, a lot more than $2 per hour extra to nudge it up to 55 units.

    Assuming we can assign “happiness units” a direct dollar value, anyway. Y’know. Hypothetically speaking.

    In other words, there’s far greater utility gained by improving a lot of people’s conditions a little than by improving a few people’s conditions a lot. You get more happiness value per dollar spent on the poor than the rich. Conversely, causing a little suffering to a lot of people who are already suffering decreases utility a lot more than is increased by making a happy person happier.

    Not even your hypothetical vastly-more-populous alien race can game this calculus sufficiently. As the numbers become larger, the differences become more granular on the upper end of the scale. Their happiness – even their collective happiness – increases in smaller and smaller amounts even as human happiness decreases in larger and larger amounts. That suggests there’s still a high minimum threshold of human suffering where the aliens still get their utility’s worth out of our suffering… but I already pointed out that we can just lie to them about it anyway without meaningfully decreasing their happiness, so screw them.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    1. Concerning hypotheticals. I’m not arguing against utilitarianism from a practical point of view, but from a theoretical point of view. Is it the correct theory of morality? Accordingly, theoretical problems count. A good theory of gravity should be able to handle the possibility of black holes, whether or not there are any black holes out there. Similarly a moral theory should, if the objectively correct theory, handle all cases.

    2. Your response to the utility monster problem is practical and good enough for use in everyday life but doesn’t address the underlying theoretical concern. It’s basically the Captain Kirk response to the Kobayashi Maru training simulation — you deny that there are no win scenarios and change the rules of the game to reflect that. I don’t think you can do that in this case. The crux of the dilemma isn’t that this situation will ever come to pass, it won’t, it’s that if it did, if there really were a no win scenario, then from an objective point of view the correct thing to do would be something that appears monstrous. Is that appearance false? It could be that are instincts are misleading us and the moral choice would be to please the monsters, just like our instincts mislead us about gravity or quantum physics, but I find it unlikely.

    3. Even if the monster doesn’t wreck utilitarianism, there are many other theoretical problems and gaps. Go back to my earlier post and all the other points I listed there. Even if utilitarianism can be defended as non-absurd, I don’t see any positive evidence for it apart from its simplicity.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    EDIT: Never mind.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Any scientific model needs to take into account what’s actually present. It should be able to make predictions about what should follow from existing explanations for what’s known, and be testable from there… and predicting things that we can’t find evidence for (especially the evidence that should be there) is not really a good sign for the theory. If black holes didn’t actually exist (“whether or not there are any out there”), then it doesn’t automatically follow that a good theory of gravity would account for them.

    Basically, that particular analogy isn’t far off from saying, “a good theory of evolution should be able to handle the possibility of fire-breathing dragons.” Er… not really.

    Your whole point is predicated on morality being objective anyway, which is rather highly up for debate. As a premise, it’s kind of a non-starter unless you accept other supporting axioms about the source of an objective standard. I don’t accept any particular axioms that support the existence of an “objectively correct theory” of morality.

    Even utilitarianism is fuzzy and funny. It’s why it’s called an ethical calculus, not ethical arithmetic. Any discrete act’s utility will be variable from person to person, or society to society. It is, in fact, rather irrational – but rationally irrational. If you’ve got a good-enough model of another person in your head, you can predict how they’ll respond to an action even if it’s wildly different from how you would respond to it. You can predict its utility relative to them.

    Each person and society is so idiosyncratic that you can’t make a general universal rule set to maximize utility for them all, but you can study how individuals react and trends within society to predict the results you’ll receive from various actions. This means that to achieve an actual, effective ethical calculus you must study the effects of your actions in society and correct your actions and “equations” when your predictions don’t line up to evidence.

    In other words I like utilitarianism because it can be strongly evidence-based, not because it’s simple. You can even derive the Golden Rule from it if you’d like, as one can see how increasing others’ happiness inclines them to give you the same regard, creating an environment conducive to cooperative increase in utility.

    And to bring it back to hypotheticals again, as BaseDeltaZero pointed out, you can construct a hypothetical to break down any existing philosophy or model. “But what if Smaug existed” breaks a lot of what we know about biology, chemistry, and physics. But it doesn’t mean that biology, chemistry, and physics are in the wrong – it means giant, flying, fire-breathing dragons are a proposition that cannot be meaningfully discussed in terms of these disciplines because dragons are not and cannot be real. The question of Smaug existing is Not Even Wrong, not proof that science is false because it can’t account for him as a hypothetical.

    As I’ve said, I am by inclination and education a sociologist, one who is concerned with the applicability of any hypothesis on how people and our creations work. I find your insistence on a perfect objective morality to be, well, pointless. I don’t think an objective morality can exist, and you haven’t put anything forward about it beyond stating your wish for it to exist… so what’s the point?

    EDIT: to defang some regrettable word choice

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    I got really irritated when teachers asked ethics questions whose entire premise depended on a situation so contrived it was impossible: “You’re in a van racing to the rescue of a village when a child darts into the road and if you take the slightest instant to swerve out of the way, the entire village will die!” It was supposed to Make Us Think About Our Values, but it always made me think, “This is bullshit.”

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Also: bringing up Smaug seems rather apropos, considering the title of this post. :)

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Needed a rather impossible creature and just kind of ran with it.

  • malpollyon

    A lot of people have told me that I am making a strawman argument or that the various criticisms of utilitarianism don’t apply, but no one has explained why the criticisms don’t apply.

    This is not because your criticisms are so incisive that we are unable to respond, but because they are so unrelated to what actual utilitarianism as advocated by actual utilitarians proposes as to be not worth responding to. If you can’t be bothered doing even the most basic work of finding out what your opponents actually believe then they have no obligation to spend several hours educating you.

  • Hexep

    Thank you, Sam. Nobody has ever even raised the question of my needs before.

  • malpollyon

    You seem deeply confused about Utilitarianism. Perhaps you could try reading what actual utilitarians have written about these issues before claiming that Utilitarianism is obviously faulty based on a ludicrous strawman. For a start your claims about Singer are trivially false.

  • The_L1985

    Wow, you need to read some Stuart Mill, stat. That is NOT how utilitarianism works at all.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    As well as the problems other people have pointed out here (most obviously, that you completely leave out the factor of “not causing suffering”), you’re also making the mistake of confusing happiness with pleasure.

    Happiness, I think it’s safe to say, involves a feeling of fulfillment and belonging, of being comfortable in your own skin. It’s a lot more complicated than just pleasure.

    Say a writer is working on a novel. She’s likely to experience a certain amount of frustration and tiredness doing this, but when she’s finished, she’ll have something that gives her a sense of satisfaction.

    And don’t get me started on the notion that a couple who argues must not be truly happy together…

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    There are many, many flavors of utilitarianism. I’m primarily referring to classical hedonic (that is, pleasure based) act utilitarianism. Well-being utilitarianism has certain advantages but also has its own problems. I’ll agree that it’s better than hedonic utilitarianism though.

    In any case, there is no rule in any version of utilitarianism that you “not cause suffering.” Rather, and this is the heart of the theory, the rule is that the utility you cause must outweigh the disutility you cause to as great a degree as possible. You can do this many different ways, for example by saying that a little bit of pain counts ten times more than a seemingly equivalent amount of happiness, but in the end all utilitarianism must posit some sort of exchange between utility and disutility so that they can be put on a unified scale or else it’s not utilitarianism but some other theory.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    In any case, there is no rule in any version of utilitarianism that you “not cause suffering.”

    That’s weird, because every discussion I’ve ever had about applying utilitarian ideas to the real world (previous to this discussion, anyway) focuses not on maximizing pleasure but on minimizing suffering.

    I’ll admit that I have very little interest in “pure” philosophy, only a keen interest in how a philosophy can or can’t be applied in the real world. Thus I tend not to read books whose focus is purely on philosophical theory. So I guess whatever version of utilitarianism I’ve previously discussed isn’t “formal” or “classical” or whatever… I kind of don’t care about that, because I figure no philosophy can survive contact with the real world and remain undiluted.

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl


  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    You used the word “mushy” above, which sounds as though what you’re objecting to is a less-pure kind of philosophy, but now you’re agreeing that philosophical purity isn’t a good standard anyway when we’re talking about real-world application?

    I mean, this whole discussion started out discussing real-world progress in the first place, yes?

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

    The real world progress exists if you only care about utilitarianism and ignore the World Wars and assume that abortion is not a big deal (most utilitarians agree, but how to deal with potential humans is an open question in utilitarian ethics). The progress isn’t there, for example, if you think the chivalry is important or etiquette matters or children should be deferential to parents or subsistent farming is more ennobling than office work or sexual promiscuity is harmful or—I want to make it clear first that I personally disagree with this particular idea—if you’re a racial supremacist.

    My only point with this list is that the appearance of progress in the moral realm depends on the assumption that our current standards are better than past standards. We certainly think they are, but past people would surely have their own ideas about it.

    Mushy utilitarianism is a boone to the behavior of the average 21st century person, but I don’t think it’s the best theory of ethics.

  • J_Enigma32

    Well, hold on now. Let’s look at some of the ideals they held in the past. We know this because there are some backwards people who hold them today.

    – Women are not human. Women are property; they are to be owned by their fathers and then their husbands. Their only worth is to carry on the (male) family name.
    – Women exist as a temptation to destroy men and lead them down the path to sin.
    – Africans are not human. They’re savages that require the civilizing influence of Europeans.
    – Africans are not human. They’re property, but for purposes of representation, they’re 3/5ths of a person.
    – Africans are closer to chimpanzees and other savage animals, whereas the noble, graceful European (northern, or British ONLY) is a superior human being
    – War is a sport practiced by aristocrats
    – There can only be one state religion – he who rules, his faith.
    – Secular governments are sinful and dangerous to society
    – Democracy means mob rule
    – If you’re poor, it’s because of moral flaws, not because of some kind of flaw in the system
    – To have sex with a woman is an admission of weakness; it’s better to have sex with young boys than it is women
    – Complete castration is a suitable punishment for betraying the state; not only yourself but of your sons, your grandsons, and your parents, and maybe even your great-grandsons.
    – Great men should be allowed to have as many wives as they want; the opposite is not true.
    – Gay males are sinful and dangerous and need to be stoned for being an abomination
    – Gay women need to be raped in order to realize they’re not gay
    – Kings have a moral right to rule and nobody has any right at all to criticize the king, or the Church, and those who do are asking for abuse by the Inquisition

    These are just the first thoughts to spring into my mind. If you want to hear more of that “past morality”, I suggest listening to Brian Fischer, Tony Perkins, or any number of men on the Religious Right, since the Past is what they push, and they push it like crack dealers to an audience that’s hooked on every word.

    Does this mean we can’t learn anything from the past? No. We’re building knowledge off of what was learned in the past all the time. I’ve heard your quote before. I’ve said your quote before. But it’s not a derision of the past; it’s a derision of the fools who want to bring the past back, who think it’s a golden age or bygone era of perfection that we’ll never have back, who are consistently pining for those forlorn days.

  • The_L1985


    I learn from the curiosity of people in the past. I can believe that Ptolemy’s model of the universe is wrong and still recognize that it was an OK model for the time, when people didn’t have all the astronomical data that we did centuries later.

    I also feel that there are some things we need to start doing again, like practicing proper crop rotation instead of relying on county-sized monocultures of corn and wheat, because in this case the old way was more resource-efficient and would be even more productive with modern tech thrown into the mix.

    I believe there are some good things that have been lost, but that we can always progress. I believe that our moral views are probably limited in ways we don’t even recognize, but that people 200 years from now will find ridiculously narrow-minded. I believe that the past holds its wisdom, and the future its potential, and that we should not forget either while striving to improve the present.

  • The_L1985

    I don’t mind the teaching of cursive. What I do mind is the lack of some form of handwriting-improvement course that encourages students to take pride in what they write, print OR cursive, and make it legible.

    Yes, we can type things all the time, but sometimes you just want to use a pencil and paper, or your phone’s dead and nothing else is available.

  • Jurgan

    “Good,” said the First Speaker. “And tell me, what do you think of all this. A finished work of art, is it not?”
    “Wrong! It is not.” This, with sharpness. “It is the first lesson you must unlearn. The Seldon Plan is neither complete nor correct. Instead, it is merely the best that could be done at the time. Over a dozen generations of men have pored over these equations, worked at them, taken them apart to the last decimal place, and put them together again. They’ve done more than that. They’ve watched nearly four hundred years pass and against the predictions and equations, they’ve checked reality, and they have learned.
    “They have learned more than Seldon ever knew, and if with the accumulated knowledge of the centuries we could repeat Seldon’s work, we could do a better job. Is that perfectly clear to you?”
    The student appeared a little shocked.

    -Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I love that. :D Very a propos. :D (and I wish I could “Like” it a million times.)

    Here’s a related one:

    “So he created his Foundations according to the laws of psychohistory, but who knew better than he that even those laws were relative. He never created a finished product. Finished products are for decadent minds. His was an evolving mechanism and the Second Foundation was the instrument of that evolution. We, First Citizen of your Temporary Union of Worlds, we are the guardians of Seldon’s Plan. Only we!”

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, I was looking for that one, too, but I couldn’t find it.

  • Matthias

    Well this raises the question why the did not in fact repeat Seldon’s work, doesn’t it? And if they did why is his work still revered to such an extent if there are obviously better versions of it?

  • malpollyon

    They don’t need to repeat his work, merely improve upon it, in the same way that Einstein didn’t need to reinvent the calculus when he discovered relativity. Similarly, just because Newton didn’t get everything right doesn’t mean his accomplishments aren’t worthy of respect.

  • Matthias

    But no one would say that Newtons law of gravity is a “finished work of art” everyone would say “Its a useful approximation, but does not contain relativity”.

    And for his improvment of the newtonian model of Gravity Einstein is just as known as Newton. Which is to say if anyone did in fact do a similar improvment to Seldons work as Einstein on Newtons, then he or she would be as famous (or more so) as Seldon himself. But this has evidently not happened in the books.

  • Jurgan

    The problem with that is that Seldon’s Plan was not a purely abstract experiment. It had been tested and applied for four hundred years at that point. If they were starting over, they could do a better job in the abstract, but to apply it would require rewinding civilization back to before it started, which is obviously impossible. So they stay within the framework of what has already been done and make changes to it as necessary. Actually, after The Mule wrecks the galaxy, they pretty much do remake The Plan, allowing the First Foundation to believe the Second Foundation has been destroyed. There’s a lot of improvising to correct for the unpredictable, but they stay fundamentally within his vision.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    For hundreds of years, right up until quantum mechanics exploded on the scene, famous scientists were saying things like “new discoveries will be at the sixth decimal place”, implying science was in a stage of refinement rather than new startling discoveries.

  • Anton_Mates

    Hundreds of physicists and mathematicians improved on Newtonian mechanics before Einstein revolutionized it–some of them almost as famous (Euler, Lagrange), most of them less so. They didn’t change the fundamental form of Newton’s laws, but they refined the values of his constants, derived consequences of his theory that he hadn’t anticipated, and developed new mathematical tools for working with it. As a result, any physicist from 1900 could do a better job of designing an automobile or planning a rocket voyage through space than Newton himself could. But that doesn’t mean they’d get more respect or name recognition than Newton, and they’d still be working in the arena of Netwonian mechanics.

  • Tom Vinson

    From the sermon I heard this morning, quoting Jaroslav Pelikan:
    Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.
    @Jurgan:disqus: nice to be reminded of Hari Seldon.

  • dr ngo

    Were you by any chance in Duke Chapel? Or is Pelikan just the flavor of the week everywhere?

  • Tom Vinson

    I was actually at St. Dunstan’s, Tulsa. The gospel was Luke’s account of healing the deformed woman on the Sabbath, and the synagogue leader’s reaction, which led to the Pelikan quote.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Taking a moment to love the fact that I was able to translate the title…

    Suddenly getting to the point when learning a language starts working is SO COOL…

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Given “Dracones”, I suspected it was “Here There Be Dragons”. Correct?

  • J_Enigma32


    Of course, “HIC SUNT DRACONES” is relatively new. The original used by Romans and Medieval cartographers was “HIC SUNT LEONES” – Here be lions.

  • Hexep

    Hic jacet Arcturus rex quandum rex futuram.

  • J_Enigma32

    Novus sidus oritur


    I think you were aiming for:
    Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus

    Although an interesting fact: Google Translate translates your statement as “Here lies Arthur, King when the future king” (literal translation).

    Arcturus is a rendering of Arthur’s name I’ve never seen before, but it must be an acceptable one. Arcturus is Greek for “Guardian of the Bear.” Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon hero of the epic poem bearing his name, is kenning for Bear. Could there be a connection?

  • The_L1985

    I always saw it as “rexus quondam, rexque futurus.” But then, most of the Latin I know is church Latin…

    Let’s see.

    “Quius custodiet ipsos custodies?”

    “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”

    “Sola lingua bona lingua morta est.” :)

    Also, I’d learned that Beowulf = bee + wolf. Implying he was fierce as a wolf in battle, and industrious/clever/stinging like the bee.

  • Dorfl

    I thought bee-wolf was a kenning for ‘bear’?

  • themunck

    “Fabricati Diem, Pvnc”

    “Nvnc Id Vides, Nvnc Ne Vides”

  • Jurgan

    I thought the “bee-wolf” thing meant “wolf of the bees,” as in something that destroys bees homes, i.e., bear. The idea being that if you spoke the word “bear,” there was a danger you could summon a bear. And I see below me that Dorfl heard the same thing.

  • Donalbain

    “Quius custodiet ipsos custodies?”

    Nescio. Custodae Orea?

  • J_Enigma32

    It is, sorta.

    Poetic kenning is something like swan rad, or “swan road”, to describe the ocean. It’s a compound phrase that describes something more concretely than a single noun does. “Bee wolf” means bear; bears are associated with honey and so are bees, and “wolf” as a stand in for bear for two reasons: they either resembled wolves or were thought to be related, or an example of the Scottish Play in action (i.e., “bear” being taboo, because if you say the word, a bear will appear).

    “þu áspricest þín gifsceattes Englisc and Læden, ac áspricest þu sóþ Anglic?” ;-)

    Pronunciation guide (it’s easier once you pronounce it):

    þ = that
    sc = Ship
    æ = ladder
    c = kite

    Edit: Or what Jurgan said. That works too.

  • The_L1985

    Ah. I may be a mathematician, but I prefer the English of Chaucer to that of Alcuin of York.

  • alfgifu

    I thought the “bee-wolf” thing meant “wolf of the bees,” as in something that destroys bees homes, i.e., bear.

    “Bee wolf” means bear; bears are associated with honey and so are bees, and “wolf” as a stand in for bear for two reasons: they either resembled wolves or were thought to be related, or an example of the Scottish Play in action (i.e., “bear” being taboo, because if you say the word, a bear will appear).

    Given that we don’t have any contemporary commentary on the name or why it was chosen, it’s all guess work. The idea that ‘bee-wolf’ means ‘bear’ makes sense in the context of our knowledge of kennings and their use in Old English and in Old Norse. It’s the most common interpretation. However, given the poetic significance of names in general, the ‘stings like a bee, growls like a wolf’ point might apply as well – it’s not as though they’re mutually exclusive!

    I would say it is extremely unlikely that Beowulf (an Anglo-Saxon hero) and Arthur (an Old Welsh legendary king) share any direct connection via Arcturus.

    – The Old English name for the constellation Arcturus translates as ‘the wagon’, not ‘the bear’.

    – There’s no mention of any Celtic connection in the text of Beowulf, which is in any case set in Scandiavia, not in the UK.

    – Knowledge of Greek was rather patchy around the British Isles in Anglo-Saxon times.

    – The Arthurian legendarium didn’t really take on its complexity and significance until some time after the Beowulf manuscript was compiled (circa 1000 CE), which was in turn a fair while after the poem was originally composed.

    Wæs sie hal.

  • Hexep

    Well, my favorite book ever written is the Once and Future King, by TH White, and that’s the final line of the book. I was doing it from memory, though, despite having a copy of it in my peripheral vision.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Trivia: There are actually two versions of this, and one of them completely omits one of my favorite chapters; it’s when the snake named T. Natrix tells Arthur about evolution, although not in so many words.

  • Hexep

    According to what I’m researching, different versions have the snake chapter, or the ant chapter, but not both.

  • Madhabmatics

    I blame surveyors for there being no dragons in the forest. Those jerks mapped the entire state!

  • Hexep

    The Age of Heroes truly is finished; in overcoming it, no human wrong truly nourishes the spirit so dearly as do the travails of the very Gods.

    My new apartment is altogether more pleasing to me than was my old one, but I can’t deny the fact that my old one had a better refrigerator. There’s no shame in admitting that some things were better in the old days.

  • Derek

    For what it’s worth, I think John Stuart Mill did a pretty good job balancing between the progressive and regressive views in his On Liberty. In the end he gives perhaps too much credence to the progressive narrative, but he’s aware that progress is always partial and incomplete.

  • The_L1985

    Well, yes. We’re imperfect beings and never will be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to asymptotically approach perfection.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    I have a question about Latin and I’m not sure where to put it in the above discussion of Latin, so I’m going to stick it here and hope that someone can help me.

    My mom always said that the first lines of her Latin book were “Clara hidrium portat. Galba stet et Clarum spectat.” It had been years since she had had that book when she told me this, and it has been years since we last had that conversation (she died in 2006). Additionally, my Latin skills are somewhere between “not that good” and “nonexistent.”

    Aside from the obvious sexism in the sentences, which are supposed to say “Clara carries the pitcher. Galba stands and looks at Clara,” are those sentences grammatically correct?

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    “stat”, “Claram”; other than that, it looks good.