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Some thoughts on biocentrism and utilitarianism — January 27, 2014

Some thoughts on biocentrism and utilitarianism

I have written about utilitarianism before. Utilitarianism is a consequentialistic ethical view point that places the moral weight of an action on the utility of that action towards increasing a desirable thing/notion and/or reducing an undesirable thing/notion. However, something I have only mentioned once is a fundamental question that is at the core of utilitarianism. Utility is a term relative to some end. So for example, when we say that computers are useful, we mean that they are useful for us.

Whenever there is utility, there is an end.

Who is the beneficiary of the notion of utility in utilitarian ethics? This brings us back to the equality question and the answer utilitarianism gives. This was covered here. Unlike other ethical systems, classical utilitarianism is species-blind. It does not give humans a special status. The only relevant criteria is whether or not the being in question can feel pain. If you feel pain, you are a beneficiary regardless of your species. This means that, a priori, the end of minimising the pain of a human adult and the end of minimising the pain of a sheep adult are weighed equally. I covered this topic here. But I want to take this a step further. Who is the beneficiary of the notion of utility in utilitarian ethics? Living beings with central nervous systems. As a rule of thumb, CNS-equipped life forms are capable of experiencing pain. We will leave the CNS out of the equation in this post.

The beneficiaries of utility are a particular group of life forms.

This makes utilitarianism a bio-centric ethical system as opposed to most ethical systems that tend to adopt anthropocentric stances.

For now on, we will assume both a utilitarian stance and a bio-centric stance. What are the implications of holding those views? As Daniel Pearce pointed out in the Antispeciesist Revolution, the implications are huge, titanic. Implications the size of which have never been faced by the human species. Imagine the implications that having 3000 children could have for a mother. We are effectively talking about taking care of millions, perhaps even billions, of CNS-equipped life forms as we would if they were humans. From birth to death. Physical and psychological health, happiness, constant monitoring. Any of these alone is complex enough let alone all of them at once. But that is what we would have to do under our assumptions. We will leave aside the financial feasibility of carrying out and ensuring the above to throw around some questions.

Ensuring the “happiness” of CNS-equipped life forms would be have some major consequences. If we decide that to ensure their happiness, they should be protected from predators and we would be affecting the world ecosystems in major ways, not necessarily beneficial for humans or even life forms in general.

There is also the issue of carnivore life forms. The nascent technology of synthesized meat could tackle this. But would producing amounts of meat large enough to feed all the CNS-equipped carnivores be affordable? Another issue is reproduction. It is very likely that in the absence of predators and with enough food available, reproduction at a massive scale is going to happen. How would we control their population? Chemical castration? While technically useful, we run the risk of overuse it and chemically castrating a whole species. It is very likely that a change like isolating all mammals from their predators could transform the world ecosystems in such a way that it becomes detrimental to our survival.

Are these life forms to be protected?

Their protection might spell our end or a period of famine if the changes affect plant population levels. Not protecting them implies leaving them exposed to potential harm and thus pain. It soon becomes a matter of self-interest. Do I expose them to pain or do I expose us to pain? In this simplified world, if we were to decide to protect them, we might have to accept a drastic reduction of our species size as a result of the likely changes in the ecosystem that would follow our isolating of all mammals in species based natural spaces. If were to decide not to protect them, our current state, we would have to face the huge amount of pain we could be avoiding and the huge amount of pleasure we are not providing.

However, you see it, adopting a practical utilitarian bio-centric approach does not automatically calculate the rational path to take. Technology could help us choosing which path to take but, is such technology existent or will it develop in the near future? And even if it does, will it be helpful enough to let us see in clear ways the advantages and disadvantages of the different ways to take care of the biosphere utilitarianism-style?

In the absence of this technology, all we can see from our limited perspective is that both protecting and not protecting CNS-equipped life forms produce pain. The million dollar question is which path produces less pain. A quick idea that would likely be noticed on this landscape of never-ending pain is that reducing the population numbers of a species will reduce the pain in the long term. The combined pain experienced by 30 CNS-equipped life forms is lower than the combined pain of 3,000,000,000,000,000,000 CNS-equipped life forms, other things being equal. Assuming that, on average, all CNS-equipped life forms experience the same amount of pain when exposed to the same painful stimuli, it is easy to conclude that:

The less life forms alive, the lower the amount of pain we have to reduce.

We could choose to keep the CNS-equipped population numbers low and all our ethical conflicts would also be reduced. The reason for this is that ethics has always been confined to living beings, in some cases only life forms belonging to the human species, in others, only CNS-equipped life forms, and in some, all life forms. While some religion-based system of ethics could make a case for an ethical system of some inanimate object like a rock, it seems very unlikely to be accepted outside that particular religion. So, ethics is for those are alive.What are the implications of reducing a species numbers to reduce the amount of pain it experiences as a whole? The most immediate one is that if you do it for one species, you are bound to do the same with the rest. So we would be bound to keep our own population numbers under some number. What are the implications of this? Just like our decision reduced or deprived animals of their reproductive capability:

Our decision will limit our reproductive freedoms

Some legal mechanism like the Chinese one-child policy would be enacted but without discriminating on the sex of the baby. Laws are made to be broken. A very popular aphorism that could apply to the attitude of some parents towards this hypothetical policy. Ideally, all humans would be aware of the full chain of reasoning leading to the child policy and would all adopt a bio-centric and utilitarian stance. But it is not likely to be the case. It is very likely that for some parents, their own interests will have a higher priority than those of the rest of CNS-equipped life forms. For them, the chain of reasoning would be completely meaningless because they rejected the initial premise:

A priori, the interests of all CNS-equipped life forms are weighed equally.

They would argue that they only care about their fetus and could not give a “chocolate bun” about the rest of life forms. It would be really difficult to argue with someone with whom you have no shared premises. And one could predict that there would be plenty of these self-interested parents who would try to break the law and do anything and everything to give birth to as many humans as they want.

I did not write this with a solution in a mind but only to expose the entangled nature of the implications of adopting a practical utilitarian bio-centrism.

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Alien Collection: World of Doctors – Diagnostic – 1 — January 12, 2014

Alien Collection: World of Doctors – Diagnostic – 1

After hundreds of years seeking for extra-terrestrial life forms, humankind encounters an alien species in a planet outside of the Solar System. The aliens turn out to be of similar level of intelligence as humans. However, the aliens ignore any attempts at communication by the humans. Soon after, spacecrafts appear over the world’s major metropolitan areas. Any attempts at communication by the humans are ignored. The world’s major military forces deploy their most advanced weaponry and attack the spacecrafts which remain undamaged by the most powerful attack humans are capable of. Humans attempt to communicate with the aliens once more but they are ignored. Gradually, the spacecrafts become almost invisible but remain over the world’s major cities, silently watching.

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Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 3 — January 2, 2014

Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 3

Rational egoistic agents are a minority in most societies. They are popularly depicted as cold-blooded assassins and sadists. Despite their bad reputation, the criminality rate of rational egoistic agents is ten times lower than the criminality rate of ordinary individuals. And more interestingly, the most successful charity organisations are run by individuals who came out as rational egoistic agents.

They might lack remorse and be liars and manipulators but they are less likely than ordinary individuals to commit murders and other crimes. Evidence suggests that self-interested altruists emerge from rational egoistic agents. A self-interested altruist is he who has as a personal goal to fulfil the goals of others. Unfortunately, this type of altruism is not inherently biased towards fulfilling goals that will not bring harm to others.

Anyway, the fact remains that rational egoism and lack of remorse are pushing the goal of reducing pain and bringing harmony further than prosocial behaviour based on irrational agency ever did. Even now, with most of the world hating them, rational egoistic agents are still carrying out activities which, overall, are producing a breeding ground for worldwide happiness. And despite the intense hate they are objects of, they are still helping us and somewhere, somehow, we are also helping them. This is the reason why they live among us.

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Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 2 — December 22, 2013

Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 2

We know about their existence thanks to younger rational egoistic agents whose behaviour overlap with that of those diagnosed with psychopathy. However, when these young ones mature, they seem to take their rationality to a new level.

The younger ones, who are often referred to as “emotional egoistic agents”, employ either a short-term rationality or a faulty rationality to move towards their interests. This is especially important given the fact that emotional egoistic agents lack rational and emotional empathy. This leads these youngsters to commit murders and other types of physical and psychological harm with worrying frequency. These youngsters are radical hedonists, determined to reach their interests regardless of the cost. It can be said that these youngsters are responsible for the bad reputation of rational egoistic agents. Nevertheless, by the time they mature, these agents have achieved a purely rational attitude in regards to their interests and can give different priorities to different interests on the basis of factors such as the amount of pain that results from carrying out an interest and the state of their relationship with other individuals.

Above of all, what differentiates immature and mature rational egoistic agents is their ability to manage and evaluate their short-term and long-term interests. Using this skill and the golden rule of reciprocity, rational egoistic agents can engage in behaviours such as working with others and helping other individuals in such a way that, even though most of their short-term interests are neglected, a wider array of long-term interests can be reached with less effort.

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Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 1 — December 12, 2013

Remorse Collection: Among Us – Enlightened Self-interest – 1

They live among us. They look like us, behave like us and sound like us. Somehow, they evade psychiatric classification as well as identification. They might be your boss, your colleague. Your friend, your sister. Your mother, father. They might be your partner. Watch out.

There are hints. You have to watch for them because they are subtle. Do they have a permanent grip on their emotions? Do they display unbreakable ambition? Are they extremely polite? Do they often display prosocial behaviour? If so, then you might be in danger.

These individuals will not hesitate to lie and manipulate and maybe even harm others, to further their own interests. They are similar to psychopaths but they are not impulsive, unnecessarily violent, non-empathic or pathological liars. They are what it’s known as “rational egoistic agents”. Despite what would be expected of those described as rational egoistic agents, they are highly cooperative and their behaviour sometimes can be described as altruistic. But they are rational and self-interested at the core. If they consider it safe to be honest to you, they might confess it. We are surrounded by cunning liars.

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Remorse Collection: Game Theory – Rational Egoism – 3 — December 7, 2013

Remorse Collection: Game Theory – Rational Egoism – 3

There is a minority of citizens who are called “irrational egoistic agents” because they do not seem to act in a purely rational manner. This minority criticises rational egoistic agents for their lack of remorse. The minority argues, in a highly emotional language, that their lack of remorse is “disgusting” and “wrong”. However, lack of remorse does not always translate into disregard for, or violation of, the interests of others. Mature rational egoistic agents are rational enough to conclude that, in occasions, rational empathy and reciprocity are beneficial for them.

Rational empathy has as conclusion the notion of reciprocity which roughly translates into regard for and non-violation of the interests of others in certain occasions. The minority argues that regard for and non-violation of the interests of others should be always the case. When asked to explain why it should be always the case, the minority argues in a highly emotional language that there exist these things called rights which we all have and should never be violated. However, all rational egoistic agents agree that “rights” are simply conventions or agreements between parties. Rational egoistic agents argue that there is no reason why a convention that is not agreed upon should be followed. They finalise by saying that while conventions are needed whenever two agents work together, there is no reason why these conventions should be of a dogmatic nature, unbreakable and closed to reason.

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Remorse Collection: Game Theory – Rational Egoism – 2 — December 2, 2013

Remorse Collection: Game Theory – Rational Egoism – 2

There is also a variant of inequality where both individuals are in a non-desirable state and have to work together to achieve their aims. Instances of this type of inequality can be found across numerous areas of human life and societal, national and international activity. When this state of inequality requires continuous collaboration, it is referred to as “peace”. Peace is responsible for the birth of civilisation and it is thought to be the only major force sustaining it.

How is it that these self-interested citizens work together and form stable inter-dependent social organisations?

Rational empathy. The concept of rational empathy is about seeing others as others see you: as rational agents with interests. Once rational empathy becomes another axiom, the ground is fertile for the golden rule of conventions to appear: reciprocity, the ultimate causal factor of peace and any other affair involving rational egoistic agents working together. However, rational empathy and reciprocity do not necessarily lead to harmony and peace. Rational empathy and reciprocity are mere tools towards the goal of furthering one’s interests. The conclusion of this is that societies and other collectives of individuals are bound to happen because they are beneficial for everybody. On the other hand, lying, manipulating and hurting others are rational actions to follow as long as they maximise one’s own interests. Therefore, these actions are also bound to happen.

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