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The Free Will Series – 1. Introduction — April 20, 2014

The Free Will Series – 1. Introduction

The Free Will Series will be a small exploration of fictional, philosophical and scientific insights on this topic as well as on related topics such as consciousness and the self. Topics are divided in up to three posts: the scientific exploration, the philosophical exploration and the fictional exploration. A brief overview is provided below:

– Visual Perception in Science

– Visual Perception in Fiction

– Timed Experiences in Science Part 1 ( Neurons and Brains)

– Timed Experiences in Philosophy Part 2 (Streams and Drivers)

– Timed Experiences in Fiction

– Science and Perception: the art of constructing reality

– Fiction and Perception: the art of constructing reality

– Science, Philosophy and Conscious Acts

– Fiction and Conscious Acts

– Simulation in Fiction

– The self: Recognition in Science

– The self: Recognition in Fiction

Fuzzy sets — February 22, 2014

Fuzzy sets

A set is a collection of things that have a common characteristic. The things are called members of a set.

So all humans have the common characteristic of belonging to the human species. Humans are called members of the set of human species.

In order to know whether or not something is a member of a given set, we use a decision procedure which is a series of steps to verify the membership to something.

Decision procedure to verify membership to the set of even numbers.

Step 1. Take object and check whether the object when divided by 2 gives an integer.

Step 2. If the object gives an integer, then it is a member of the set of even numbers. If the object does not give an integer, then it is not a member of the set of even numbers.

All even numbers have the common characteristic that when divided by 2, they give an integer.

What is the decision procedure for membership to a set of electronic objects?

Step 1. Check whether the object uses electricity to manipulate information.

Step 2. If the object gives uses electricity to manipulate information, then it is a member of the set of electronic objects. If the object does not use electricity to manipulate information, then it is not a member of the set of electronic objects.

Let us try again. What is the decision procedure for membership to the set letter “A”?

The decision procedure would check whether the object “consists of two more or less vertical lines, joined at the top, and crossed in their middle by a horizontal bar”.

Decision procedure for character “A”?

All the characters above belong to the members of the uppercase “a” but for some of the characters it takes a while to check whether or not they belong the set of members of the uppercase “a”.

Next one.

What is the decision procedure for membership to the set red color?

“It is the color of the wavelength of light from approximately 620–740 nm on the electromagnetic spectrum.”

The decision procedure would be to check whether the object has a wavelength of light approximately inside the range 620-740.

You can use this JavaScript program to check the object’s wavelength. It is clear that anything inside the 620-740 range is red, but what about the edges? Is 615 red? Is 610 red?

Next one.

What is the decision procedure for membership to the set heap of sand?

This is trickier. Do 2 grains of sand count as a heap of sand? Do 200 grains of sand count as a heap of sand?

Next one.

What is the decision procedure for membership to the set the jazz genre?

Next one.

What is the decision procedure for membership to the set art?

The above sets have one thing in common: they are notoriously difficult to define and as a consequence it is notoriously difficult to devise decision procedure for membership to them. The concept of decision procedure and the concept of definition are similar.

The word “definition” comes from a variant of Latin definire, from de- (expressing completion) + finire ‘finish’ (from finis ‘end’).

Defining something means marking the boundaries of something.

And that’s what a decision procedure does. It literally helps us to compare the boundaries of the object and the set. If they have the same boundaries (i.e. the same trait) we say that the object is a member of the set.

If there is a trait that is shared by set A and object B, we say that object B is member of set A. In the picture we see that A and B share trait C, so if A is a set and B is an object, we could say that B is a member of A. When the boundaries of both the object and the set are clear, a decision procedure for membership to the set can be built and viceversa.


However, there are many cases in the real world where the boundaries of a set are ambiguous. We will call them “fuzzy sets” (btw, it has no direct relation to the mathematical objects with the same name). Music genres, art, colours, heap of sand are fuzzy sets. How do we tackle them? We stay away from the borders.

  • Heap of sand

If the collection of grains has a triangular shape, then it is a heap. If it does not, then it is not a heap. Of course, this decision procedure is not perfect but it is still useful.

  • Colours

Humans can only perceive colours within particular wavelength ranges (about 390 – 700 nanometres). Different colours have different wavelength ranges. So while the exact value at which red becomes orange cannot be pinpointed, you know that there are certain values inside which you know with certainty whether or not the wavelength belongs to the set of wavelengths that are called red.

  • Music genres/Art

Unlike the previous two, there is no decision procedure to determine whether a given object belongs to a particular music genre or whether it is art. The reason for this is that the definition of art is subjective. Art is whatever one believes is art. If one were to put all jazz musicians inside different rooms and were to ask them to list all the properties of jazz, you would likely end up without a single common trait shared by all the musicians. The same applies to art. The reason for this might be found in the way we conceptualise art. Art is a creative endeavour where one is supposed to push the boundaries. When one pushes the boundaries, one changes the boundaries. So while the early jazz musicians might agree that jazz can only be produced with a set of instruments. The new generations might disagree and consider that you can produce jazz with a computer. This is one of the reasons why the claim that computers are not creative is literally meaningless. Since creativity is what ones considers to be creative, if a computer considers that a pattern of sound is creative, no one can challenge the computer. Of course, there might be a lot of discussions regarding whether it is the computer or the computer programmer the one who considers what is art. But implementing random parameters should solve the problem. Then arbitrary parameters would generate the decision procedure to decide whether a pattern of sound created by a computer is art. People might say that the criteria is arbitrary, but one might say the same of human artists. They don’t seem to use (or if they do, they can’t prove it) a non-arbitrary criteria to decide whether or not a given pattern of sound is art. And this is more obvious in experimental art. An experimental musician called John Cage produced a composition of 4 minutes and 33 seconds without any actual sounds played by instruments. The author gives some sort of rationale for the absence of music. Any computer could also generate one. And there should not be any difference between both rationales. The point is that art is subjective and arbitrary so the decision procedure is also subjective and arbitrary. Let us call fuzzy sets where the decision procedure is subjective and arbitrary SA fuzzy sets.

There are many SA fuzzy sets like art where the decision procedure is not objective or logical. SA fuzzy sets are related to human constructs like religion, nationality and any other thing that is subjective.

I think the idea of SA fuzzy sets is even more interesting in religion and nationality due to its social nature. Let us explore them a bit.

  • Nationality

Here “nationality” does not refer to the notion of having particular documents that assert that a particular individual has a particular nationality. It refers to the notion of “ethnicity” and “culture” that is often associated by the main ethnic group in a particular society. Let us say, French. What is the decision procedure for membership to the group of people that call themselves “French”? Is it birth in the geographical location known as France? Is it upbringing in the geographical location known as France? Is it sharing “French cultural values” (If that is the case, then we would need a corresponding decision procedure to establish what classifies as “French cultural value”)? Is it having descendants from France (If that is the case then we would need a decision procedure to establish the number of descendents needed to classify as “descendants“)? Eventually, as we trace back decision procedures of decision procedures of decision procedures,etc we will reach a point where will be unable to realise that the decision procedure all the derivative decision procedures are dependent on parameters that are arbitrary and subjective.

  • Religion

Everything I said about nationality applies to religion (talking here about religions with large number of members). When trying to decide whether a particular person belongs to a particular religion, we will eventually find that the criteria used to carry out that decision is arbitrary and subjective. This can be quite interesting when a member of a religion R performs an action that damages the reputation of religion R. Members of religion R will quickly want to disassociate themselves and their religion R from this particular individual by stating that the individual is not an actual member of religion R. But we know that the statement can’t be true, because there is no objective decision procedure to decide who belongs to religion R. Thus, all we have is a collective of individuals voicing their opinion on something that is subjective.

Heaven is the Presence of God – 1. In the beginning it was the word — August 17, 2013

Heaven is the Presence of God – 1. In the beginning it was the word

I wrote about Ted Chiang’s Hell is the Absence of God (HAG) here last year. In his short story, the existence of God is a fact. Chiang explored some interesting concepts related to faith, Hell, devotion and the problem of evil but I thought he left untouched some epistemological questions which I think are worth exploring as well such as Heaven and the idea of “meta-faith”.

In the world of HAG we know that God exists and that there must exist at least one religion that he favours, so the second step would be to figure out which religion is the right one. All of them can’t be right because they contradict each other and we know that truth is self-consistent. All the epistemological issues that arise from here are very interesting. Ted Chiang focuses on loving God versus not loving God. But even assuming that you are loving God, how do you know that you are loving him in the way he wants? Here religion is a set of instructions on the best way to love God and we assume that any way worse than the best way to love God will not grant you access to Heaven.

So, I thought I would explore all this in a short story. I named the story “Heaven is the Presence of God” to keep the same flavour as Chiang’s story. The way I see it, Ted focused more on the darker side of theism where devotion and faith are the means towards salvation (i.e. not ending up in Hell). While this illustrates the very known concept of paternalistic reward-punishment trend in religion, Ted put religion as merely being made of the idea of salvation which is seen in terms of ending up or not ending up in Hell, but there is an alternative version: salvation in terms of ending up or not ending up in Heaven. Plus the problem of finding the right religion (i.e. the one that will grant you access to Heaven).

There are roughly nine A4 pages. I will be putting one page every week or two. Below is the first bit:

1. In the beginning it was the word

The word was a world. And it was a world filled with shadows and darkness. For where but in the dark can the blinding light of the glory of God be most appreciated? In this world where numerous religions claim to be the right one, confusion exists and so do lies. The depth of man is so vast that in his attempt to find order and peace he created a world of chaos and religious wars of his own. But it was also a world filled with light and brief moments of certainty, such as occasional miracles, which were defined by scientists as “physical phenomena of a supernatural nature that could not be explained by any law or principle known to man”. Some people at the verge of death were supposed to be “enlightened”. Eyewitnesses of the phenomena said that the enlightened person had been “touched” by God and so, was granted access to Heaven. Apparently, only people at the verge of death could receive enlightenment and only at the verge of death could one know whether or not he was granted access to Heaven. And it is the delivery of this enlightenment what the existing religions claimed to be the only one capable of granting by virtue of being the right religion.


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Ethics Series Finale – 7.2 Morality: ideals and reality — April 4, 2013

Ethics Series Finale – 7.2 Morality: ideals and reality

In the Ethics Series 7.1, we loosely defined ethics as

the point of view that involves taking into account interests/desires others than those of my own

Also, in the previous post, several replies to the question “Why should I act morally?” were given. See the summary of the three replies below:

Reply 1. The question is meaningless because morals are those principles which we assume to be over anything else.

The problem with accepting reply 1 is that it leads to accepting a state of moral anarchy. A genuine state of moral anarchy can be likened to a state of chaos and the emergence of the “the strongest will rule” kind of law. Because of these consequences, reply 1 is seen as unacceptable.

Reply 2. The question is circular like ““Why should I use my reason?”, thus, it can’t be answered without assuming the very object under questioning.

Reply 2 addresses the question as long as “Why should I act morally?” is taken to be asking for moral reasons to act morally. But, the question is simply asking for general reasons to be moral and so it avoids the circularity and should in theory, be answerable.

Reply 3. The most reliable tool we have is reason. So, using reason to justify morals seems like a good idea. A logical argument with 2 premises and conclusion was used.

Premise 1: Universalisability is a property of ethics.

Premise 2: Universalisability is a property of reason.

Conclusion: To say that I would accept as valid the assertion I make even if I was in someone else’s position is to say that my assertion is one that can be asserted from a universal point of view. Both ethics and reason require us to go beyond our personal standpoint. So, acting rationally involves adopting an ethical standpoint in the sense that it involves adopting a universal standpoint.

The first premise is neither true or false (its truth value depends on your personal views on moral and not in some objective criteria). The second premise is true.

The conclusion is false. A rational assertion must be universally valid but it does not necessarily means that it is ethical (see previous post for examples).

The third reply is the strongest one of all the three and the fact that it uses reason to justify the adoption of morals makes it even more important. After all, reason is our most reliable tool. If something as reliable and objective as reason can’t tackle this, what could possibly do so? But before we look for alternatives to reason as moral justifications, let us ask:

“Why can’t reason justify morals?”

The philosopher Hume considered that practical reason ( meaning reasoning in and about life contexts) could not justify morals because it was off-limits. Concretely, he argued that reason only applied to means and not to ends. The ends, he said, were given by our desires. Since morality concerns itself with certain desirable states of affairs (namely those that take into account interests other than my own), it seems fit that we establish certain correlation between morality and desires. As Hume put it, reason and desires are independent, or rather, reason (secondary force) is a means to our desires (primary force). His famous quote is an statement of some of the implications of this view:

 `Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. `Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. `Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.

Hume’s view essentially states that desires precede and guide practical reasoning. That is why any attempt to establish an equivalence between reason and ethics in the way done in Reply 3, has to firstly tackle Hume’s view. Three centuries later and there are no successful responses to Hume’s view to be seen. We can wait. In the meantime, let us see alternative ways to rationally justify acting morally.


While we wait, there might still be a way to attempt to to justify “that acting rationally is acting morally” in such a way that it would agree with Hume’s view. What way is that? Self-interest. This approach tries to argue that in acting morally we get something we want.

This approach has an obvious problem. If acting by moral reasons means acting for interests other than your own, then self-interest is by definition amoral since  self-interested actions are performed in the expectation to achieve some personal goal. Self-interested actions and moral actions are by definition, morally exclusive.

Are they? It is worth repeating the definition of self-interested actions:

those actions that are performed in the expectation to achieve some personal goal

The criteria used earlier to reject self-interested actions as being amoral was the motive behind the action (i.e. achievement of a personal goal).  This is the  standpoint of Kant in this matter. Kantian deontology evaluates the moral value an action in terms of the motives behind it. However, we are not tied to this view. Diametrically opposite to kantian deontology, consequentialism evaluates the moral value an action in terms of the consequences behind it. If we just look at the consequences, an action like saving a drowning child because:

a) you would be dumped by your partner if you did not save the child

b) saving the child will increase your social reputation

c) you are being paid for it

d) you care for the child’s well being

has exactly the same moral value because the consequence (the child being saved) is the same. So, those supporting consequentialism would support “self-interest actions that have as result a desired outcome”.  So, for consequentialists the question “Why acting morally?” is answered: because you benefit from it.

However, when we put the question and the consequentialist answer in a real-life context, even for consequentialists that answer is only partial. Self-interest can lead to morally good outcomes, but sometimes (especially in critical times and maybe when it is most needed) it is unlikely to lead to morally good outcomes.


Conscientiousness means acting for the sake of what is right. Acting morally. This is the ideal trait long sought after by moral philosophers and this is the popular ideal of a “good person”, namely, he who does something because it is the “right” thing to do. Unlike self-interest, conscientiousness does not seem to stand on rational grounds, in other words, reason is unlikely to make anyone a conscientious person and conversely, a conscientious person is unlikely to be moved away of his moral standpoint by the use of reason. In this sense, the ideal “good man” is essentially a product of a non-rational choice so to speak. This is relevant to every society (actually, pretty much to all societies in this planet) that wishes their citizens to be “good people” for the sake of it, or because being “good” is the “right” thing to be.

If the assumptions in this post are true, then no amount of reasoning will make the citizens to be “good people” where “good” is synonymous with “conscientious”. Reasoning will definitely make “good citizens” which simply means “law-abiding citizens”. The reason behind being a “good citizen” or a law-abiding citizen is simply a reason of self-interest (committing crimes will lead to me being jailed thus I won’t commit crimes because I don’t want to be jailed), as opposed to the reason behind being a “good person” or a conscientious person which is simply a reason of desirability (I desire to do the right thing, thus I do the right thing for the sake of it).

As we can see in our society, self-interested actions are quite effective and since you can’t “reason someone into being conscientious”, reasoning about the benefits of abiding by the law by appealing to rational egoism or/and self-interest seems to be a very good alternative.

Modern popular ethics and conscientiousness

So far, these are some of the conclusions that can be derived:

– Morality and reason are separate

– Being conscientious is not a rational choice

– Being self-interested is a rational axiom

Despite these conclusions, we can observe the following things that are reflective of the popular ethics:

– Individuals are tried to be “reasoned in” conscientiousness.  Personal benefits of being a conscientious person are offered which defeats the point in being conscientious as was already explained. Conscientiousness can only be encouraged for its own sake.

– An act A with good morally outcome is considered of less moral value if the person did act A with some personal interest in mind. The same act done “because it is the right thing to do” is considered of more moral value.

Modern popular ethics has a mix of kantian-flavoured deontology and moral absolutism as one of its core properties. There is a strong emphasis on motives. On doing “what is right”. Personal motives lower the moral value of the action. This leads back to the earlier point that conscientiousness is a valuable asset for society and thus it makes sense that having this trait is encouraged. However, for our modern rational societies, there is something irrational about encouraging people to adopt a view which is essentially non-rational. After all, as was pointed in the first half of this article and in the previous one, there has not been showed any rational justification of adopting the ethical point of view. Furthermore, Hume’s withstanding view seems to make any such justification very unlikely.

Self-contained systems

A self-contained system is simply an euphemism for “closed system of thought”. It is also an alternative way of referring to a formal system, as well as an alternative way to refer “theistic religious faith”. Henceforth, I will be using “self-contained system” as synonymous with “closed system of thought”, “formal system” and “axiomatic system”. An example of a self-contained system is sentential logic. Self-contained systems are as the name indicates systems that are bounded. These boundaries are called assumptions, axioms or dogmas depending on the system. The difference between self-contained systems such as sentential logic or other kind of mathematical and philosophical systems and self-contained systems such as religious faith is the fact that the mathematical self-contained systems show some internal consistency (absence of contradictions) and they correlate to certain extent with the physical world. And they are open to rational debate. Theistic religious faith is arbitrary but neither accurate, internally or externally consistent. Kantian deontology-flavoured ethics belong to the same category as theistic religions. Modern popular ethics is arbitrary (moral worth for its own sake), sometimes contradictory (reasons given for being conscientious) and is not open to rational debate. It is however as self-justifying as religious faith. That being said religious faith is largely a matter of personal preference so those properties are not relevant to the faith oriented. However, ethics is  a social matter and thus, it can’t afford to be contradictory, arbitrary and being closed to rational debate. We can safely conclude that modern popular ethics would do well in abandoning this Kantian flavoured ethics. Morality, it seems, is a matter of choice rather than pure or practical reason.

So what do we do next?

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Ethics Series – 7.1 Reason and morality — March 30, 2013

Ethics Series – 7.1 Reason and morality

Why should I act morally?

Questions such as “Why should I be nice to everyone?” or “Why should  I treat people equally?”  are questions that assume some moral framework. “Why should I act morally?” asks not within but about that framework. In other words, it asks about reasons for acting morally.

I will list below some of the answers that have been given to this question.

1. The question is meaningless because morals are those principles which we assume to be over anything else

The problem with this answer is that whatever principles a person accepts as being over anything else are that person’s morals. This means that since every person has its own sets of moral principles they are not universal. This means that universal ethical conclusions such as “We should be nice with everybody”, “We should not harm anyone unless it’s a life threatening situation” can’t be made since the requisite for making such conclusions is assuming that morals are universal. On the other hand, non-universal ethical statements such as “I should do what pleases me above anything else but my well being and happiness” become valid.

Accepting this answer implies accepting a moral anarchy where everybody literally does what they think is right for them. A state of moral anarchy would probably resemble  the chaotic ages before the Mesopotamian civilisation. So we go on to the next reply.

2. The circularity response

This answer rejects the question by the same reason it rejects questions like “Why should I act rationally(see reason)?”.  Any answer to the previous question would involve accepting reason (which is being questioned) as an assumption and thus it would be a justification of reason by using reason which defeats the point of the justification. The answer goes like this: “any reasons to be moral would be moral themselves therefore, the question is pointless”.

The above reply assumes that “Why should act morally?” asks for moral reasons to act moral. However, it does not necessarily have to be the case. It makes sense that rather than asking for moral reasons to act morally we would just ask for general reasons to act morally. The next reply considers such situation.

3. Attempting a neutral stance on morality

An ethical action is just one of many reasons for an action. So we ask person X for reasons to do an action. Person X would say:

– Doing A is what you would do if you chose the ethical standpoint.

– Doing B is what you would do if you chose the self-interest standpoint

– Doing C is what you would do if you chose the etiquette standpoint

It is still not enough since Person X just listed the choices. What we want is actual advice on which standpoint we should adopt. Is it possible to ask about the ethical standpoint without assuming some ethical standpoint? The question can be rephrased in the following way: is it possible to ask for reasons to adopt the ethical standpoint outside ethics?

The quest for linking reason and ethics

Since the most reliable tool we have is reason, some philosophers have attempted to prove that “acting ethically is the same as acting rationally”.

The argument goes like this:


Premise(1). Universalisability* is a property of ethics.


Premise(2). Universalisability is a property of reason. Reason is objectively valid/true. If we assume that A is true, then ‘If A, then B.  A, then B.’  is valid/true in all cases. It is a universal truth (i.e. it’s valid regardless of who utters the sentence).


Conclusion. Only something that satisfies Premise(1) will be an objectively rational assertion in accordance with Premise(2). For I can’t expect other purely rational agents to accept as valid for them an assertion that I would not accept as valid if I were in their place. If two purely rational agents can’t accept as valid each other’s assertions then they can’t be said to rational for the reasons given in Premise(2). To say that I would accept as valid the assertion I make even if I was in someone else’s position is to say that my assertion is one that can be asserted from a universal point of view. Ethics and reason require us to go beyond our personal point of view and adopt an impersonal standpoint. So, acting rationally involves adopting an ethical standpoint in the sense that it involves adopting an universal standpoint.

The first premise can’t be said to be true or false since the definition of ethics is flexible enough to provide notions of ethics that can be made universal and notions of ethics that can’t be made universal. The second premise is true. The conclusion “acting rationally involves adopting a universal standpoint which equals to the ethical standpoint” is not totally true. A rational assertion must be universally valid but it does not necessarily means that it is ethical (if we assume that **ethics involves going beyond one’s interests). Let us see an example of a statement that is universal and rational but is not ethical**.

Non-universal assertion: “Everyone should do what is best for me.” This is neither universal, neither rational, neither ethical.

Universal assertion: “Everyone should do what is best for them.” This is universal and rational but not ethical **.

Summary: the conclusion of the argument given above does not really follow from the premises.  Pure egoism as seen in the universal assertion is rational (in the sense that can be applied to any rational agent)  and thus any purely rational agent could accept it. The problem for ethics is that ethics** is incompatible with pure egoism because pure egoism does not go beyond one’s interests. The previous argument had an idea in mind, namely, that ethics is rational. Now let us turn that idea around and ask: is egoism rational?

The rational basis of egoism

It has been said in the earlier argument that “if two purely rational agents can’t accept as valid each other’s assertions then they can’t be said to rational”. That is not true. Two purely rational agents can disagree on matters and still be rational.

Let us think about two egoistic rational agents called Jill and Jack. They disagree about what to do. Jill wants her and Jack to do A but Jack wants him and Jill not to do A. But both Jill and Jack are rational.

This disagreement is likely to be commonplace in rational agents either (capable of )or (capable of and accepting) pure egoism. Both Jack and Jill accept pure egoism but since they start from different points (Jack from Jack’s standpoint and Jill from Jill’s standpoint) and they head to different points. Jack aims to further his interests and Jill aims to further her interests. If we assume that:

– Jill and Jack need each other’s help ( a collective action) to get closer to their goals.

– A collective action towards Jill’s goal is not necessarily a collective action towards Jack’s goal and vice versa.

– They can only carry out collective actions.

then it follows a disagreement about what to do.

However, here it comes the rational aspect of pure egoism. If we asked Jill what would be rational for Jack to do, assuming Jill is truthful, she would reply that it would be rational for Jack to do what is in Jack’s best interests rather than doing what is in her best interests.

It seems that the attempt to give a rational (see reason) justification of ethics has failed. The next and final article on the Ethics Series will review the implications of this failure for ethics and will look beyond to alternative universalisable justifications for ethics.

Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.

Ethics Series – 6.2 The drowning children — March 9, 2013

Ethics Series – 6.2 The drowning children

Assume that you are heading to some important appointment and your path takes you near a pond. You notice that a child has fallen in and since there is no one around (apart from you) he will drown if you do not help him. Saving the child means missing the important appointment and getting your clothes soaked. Would you save the child? Most people would consider a necessary and desirable action to save the child.

(Necessity) Question 1: Is it necessary to save the child? Since he will drown if we don’t help him (I assume we don’t want him to drown), then yes, it is necessary.

(Desirability) Question 2: Is it desirable to save the child? Since he will drown if we don’t help him (I assume we don’t want him to drown), then yes, it is desirable.

The moral argument that supports this helpful action goes like this: if I can prevent something undesirable and unnecessary without sacrificing anything of similar ‘moral value’, then preventing something undesirable and unnecessary is the desirable and necessary thing to do. By ‘moral value’ I meant in that context someone who is experiencing similar amounts of pain/danger as the drowning child and it’s within your power to save. More concretely, I implied the suffering person to be someone dear to you.

Now, let us look at something else.

Relative poverty refers to that state which is considered poor in relation to other state. So we could say that some Australian citizens might be poor relative to the standards of New Zealand and NZ citizens might be poor relative to the standards of some other country.

Absolute poverty refers to that state which is considered as poverty by any standard of life. The literal definition is ‘a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy below any reasonable standards of human decency.’ An alternative definition is ‘the lack of sufficient income in cash or kind to meet the most basic biological needs for food, clothing and shelter.’ Absolute poverty is probably the leading cause of human suffering in the world. Most citizens in third world countries are in a state of absolute poverty.

Along with the idea of absolute poverty, there is ‘absolute affluence’ which is defined as ‘a state of affluence by any reasonable standards of human needs’. People in a state of absolute affluence have more income than what they need to cover all basic needs of life. Most citizens in western world countries and eastern countries such as Japan and South Korea are in a state of absolute affluence.

The idea is that those in state of absolute affluence do not transfer enough of their wealth to those in a state of absolute poverty even though it is within their power to do so.

The general argument that concludes that we ought to deal with individuals in state of absolute poverty as we would deal with a child at risk of drowning  has been set up by Singer in a more formal way. I will write down my own version:

(1)Premise: If I can prevent something undesirable and unnecessary without sacrificing anything of similar ‘moral value’, then preventing something undesirable and unnecessary is the desirable and necessary thing to do.

(2)Premise: Absolute poverty is something undesirable and unnecessary.

(3)Premise: We can prevent absolute poverty without sacrificing anything of similar ‘moral value’.

Conclusion: Preventing absolute poverty is the desirable and necessary thing to do.

The argument above is a version of the one made by Singer. Needless to say, the argument is a very powerful one and can’t be easily beaten. Only premise 3 might be argued but since the argument is aimed at those in a state of absolute affluence and they are the only ones who can do nothing more than accept the validity of the argument, then even premise 3 remains unchallenged.

To finalise, two quotes by Singer:

Grain that is used to feed animals that end up on our tables as turkeys and hams could have gone to feed starving people.

Well the real concept of basic needs if you cut it right down are simply the physical needs that are unavoidable for all of us. So to have enough calories to keep our bodies going. Have shelter from extreme elements. To have water that is safe to drink. So I think that’s the core of it.

Ethics Series – 4. Equality, Sentience and Utilitarianism — February 5, 2013

Ethics Series – 4. Equality, Sentience and Utilitarianism

Are human beings equal (irrespective of race/ethnic background and sex)?



  • 1 [mass noun] the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.



  •  person or thing that is the same as another in status or quality.


  • identical; not different.

Equal consideration of interests

Are all humans equal(irrespective of race/ethnic background and sex)?

  • Yes, all humans are equal because all humans are beings capable of reasoning and abstract thought, in other words, all humans are intelligent. The basis of human equality is intelligence.

The closest science has got to the ambiguous concept of intelligent is ‘IQ’ or Intelligence Quotient. There is an ongoing dispute over whether or not IQ tests measure the ill-defined idea called intelligence. But the important thing for us is that IQ might not measure intelligence but it does measure certain capabilities that are thought to be related to intelligence. The relevant point here is that IQ tests measure some areas of cognition. And some people perform better than others in IQ tests. So even if we assume that performance levels on other aspects of intelligence are the same in all humans, the areas measured by IQ differ among individuals. So it does not seem like all human beings are equally intelligent if we are to look at empirical evidence. Apart from people with lower scores in IQ tests, intellectually disabled humans might not qualify as ‘equal’ under this explanation of equality.

  • Yes, all humans are equal because all humans possess a property called ‘moral responsibility’. This term is used to refer to the person with a sense of justice and to whom (as opposed to an amoral person) moral appeals can be made. The basis of human equality is moral responsibility.

There are several problems with this definition of equality that prevent it from including or/and considering all humans equally. Firstly, morals are more like a spectrum of persons some of whom are more sensitive to moral issues (as in justice and ethics) and thus more moral responsible than others. Secondly, infants and intellectually disabled humans do not qualify as being equal under this definition due to their low levels/lack of intelligence which implies a lack of sense of justice.


The utilitarian stance considers that the characteristic shared by all humans is sentience. Here, ‘sentience’ means simply the capacity to feel pain. Half of the interests of all human beings can be said to be founded on this capacity. Utilitarianism proposes two things:

– Equal Consideration of Interests (ECI)

– Carrying out the actions that will result in the Greatest Reduction of Pain Overall (GRPO)

The principle of equal consideration of interests serves as the grounds of human equality. Let us consider this situation:

Situation: Earthquake. Two victims. Human A with a crushed leg in agony. Human B with a gashed thigh and moderate pain. Two shots of morphine left.

Equal treatment implies giving one shot to each person. However, one shot would not bring as much relief to human A as it would to human B. So the reduction of overall levels of pain is not that significant. Utilitarianism is concerned with being as egalitarian as possible while producing the greatest reduction of overall levels of pain. So ECI leads to what some might argue is an in-egalitarian situation: giving two shots to human A and none to human B.

The important aspect of the modus operandi of this reasoning is that equal consideration sometimes leads to unequal treatment. However, this unequal treatment has invariably the consequence of producing a more egalitarian outcome overall. The heart of this unequal treatment is the DMU.

Declining Marginal Utility

Situation 1

Assume there is an Individual A living on 200 grams of rice per day. Assume there is an Individual B living on 1000 grams of rice per day.

Action 1: Individual A is provided with 50 grams extra of rice every day.


Action 1: Individual B is provided with 0 grams extra of rice every day.


Action 2: Individual B is provided with 50 grams extra of rice every day.


Action 2: Individual A is provided with 0 grams extra of rice every day.


Action 3: Individual A is provided with 25 grams extra of rice every day.


Action 3: Individual B is provided with 25 grams extra of rice every day.

Regarding Action 3, Individual A will benefit greatly but Action 2 won’t make any significant difference to Individual B as he already has a relatively decent amount of rice.

Regarding Action 1, Individual A is going to benefit more from Action 1 than Action 3 since Individual A does not have much rice so any addition however minimal will be significant while Action 3 won’t make any significant difference on Individual B’s situation as he already has relatively decent amount of rice. So, Action 2 and Action 3 don’t have a significant impact on Individual B’s situation but Action 1 has a greater impact on Individual A than Action 3.

Utilitarian choice: give 50 grams to Individual A and 0 grams to individual B.

In the context of the ECI, given a limited amount of resources, Marginal Utility brings about more equal levels of pain (more people suffering less). Note: I said ‘suffering less’ rather than ‘suffering nothing’ because in a realistic scenario the most you can do is reducing the pain rather than erasing it completely, nonetheless, the maximum possible reduction of overall levels of pain is always considered.

A final quote on pain:

People hurt others because they don’t understand their pain.