Crossing the ‘T’s and and dotting the ‘i’s: a contract of morality?

I have been compelled recently to thoroughly consider another moral explanation, aside from ‘The Moral Landscape’. It is called Contractarianism. And it resonates strongly with something I have recently been arguing and investigating: that an open rational discussion is a method of understanding morality. This relates to ‘The Moral Landscape’, and I suspect that is an artefact of more than just coincidence. The basic premise is this: given a veil of ignorance and perfect rationality, there are a set of rules and penalties (a contract) society would compose for itself. The veil of ignorance is an important step to this: it is the condition that the rational minds discussing and composing the contract have no idea what role in the society they will play once the contract is composed. It, therefore, benefits no one to write in rules that favour a particular group and no one can exploit an existing privilege.

Despite this language of ‘a contract’, it certainly worth noting that this does not make morality an opt-in situation where people can refuse to sign the contract and suddenly have no moral responsibility and are immune from punishment. The contract is the product of a thought experiment; a hypothetical document on which morality would be described. Everyone’s behaviour could then be said to comport to a greater or lesser extent to the description is this hypothetical document.

Being compelled to consider new moral explanations is a rather rare phenomenon for me. Often moral arguments have a certain glaring hole in them, particularly theistic ones that act on authority without a clear explanation as to why any one should value the authority of a God (other than threats). Vicarious redemption acts as a loophole to any normal moral concerns, undermining the Christian moral explanation rather rapidly. The Christian moral explanation that was offered to me by Oldschoolcontemporary (OSC), although immensely interesting, also failed to compel me to its protracted considerations: the idea that developing a certain relationship with God is what Christianity really is, and that it will lead to certain moral epiphanies. But this doesn’t tell you whether God has saved certain relationships for certain people that have since done things we consider psychotic, or whether God is even necessary for the epiphanies OSC alluded to: meditation and LSD consistently give the same epiphanies. However, this hypothetical contract from perfectly rational and interested beings is curious.

Given that perfect rationality among a group is something humanity hasn’t had, the content of such a document is not yet fully knowable. Certainly, rational and empirical arguments can be made to allude to what the contract would say. The rational argument could look at what rights one would want to afford themselves and, due to the veil of ignorance, would have to afford all groups, with pragmatic limits and thus trade-offs. The empirical argument could look at the moral progress and direction of societies that have embraced the values of the Enlightenment and extrapolate those directions. We could even look at the concepts of fairness and protective nature (even interspecies) among intelligent life. It will heavily reflect the Ancient Greek idea of ‘Natural Law’. But any level of certainty is not yet available to us.

In both cases, I think general rules and values can be gleaned: liberty, not causing harm, helping the needy etc. In fact, the theme of ‘The Moral Landscape’, that of safeguarding the highest possible wellbeing, I suspect, can be derived from imagining what those perfect rational beings with a stake in the society would compose.

This does give me reason for a certain level of optimism, as I recently wrote an article pondering what codes of conduct AI would write for itself. AI doesn’t perfectly fit the criteria for Contractarianism, as even if they were perfectly moral, AI would understand its function in a society: such a situation could still lead to tyrannical rules. However, each individual AI program would not know its place in the community of AI, with new AIs always possibly being right around the corner.

Contractarianism does fail the normal tests composed on it by theistic moral explanations, particularly that of ‘what does it matter to the universe?’ I think this is a biased challenge that doesn’t relate to any understandable definition of morality. I cannot see why cosmic significance, the idea that moral decisions make a difference in 40 billion years, is a necessary hurdle for moral explanations to jump. But the other regular moral challenges levelled at moral explanations are whether they include criteria for accountability. Again, I think this is a mistaken criteria: if one asks whether moral decisions could be said to be better or worse than each other, I cannot see why accountability is a factor. People who believe the Earth is flat are objectively wrong, even no one ever holds them to account for their view. It may be of pragmatic concern, but it is of no philosophical concern. Besides, pragmatic concerns of the accountability held in certain moral explanations also need to be fired inwardly on most theistic morality. Moreover, however, it is a contract that will have among its content the penalty for transgressions. Other contractors are then empowered by the contract to hold transgressors to account. It might not be a necessary hurdle to jump, but contractarianism still does.

(Although this is something I like doing — explaining why I don’t have to answer a certain question because it doesn’t affect the credibility of the idea I’m discussing, and then answering the question anyway — I really should stop. There are a few commenters who are more interested in cheap debating tactics than open discussion, and this leaves me vulnerable to their silly little quips.)

Contractarianism: the view that a perfectly rational group with an interest in a society it shall return to, with no awareness of where in that society they shall return will write up a contract for that society that governs behaviour for the better ― and that such a document records moral values. It may run parallel to or lie causal to or completely replace my former moral explanations: the moral landscape. It is another, reasonable seeming, secular explanation of objective morality.

Do I really have to answer such absurd depictions of my view? Enlightenment values help discover morality and let it flourish

In a recent conversation with oldschoolcontemporary (OSC) about objective morality, we ran into many stumbling blocks to our ability to properly communicate with each other. So far as I could tell, OSC had immovable metrics in place by which to measure objective morality that were almost necessarily religious (redemption, salvation and infallible imposable authority) which were, so far as I can see, superfluous to morality. Morality, and hopefully we call all agree at at least this point, pertains to actions. But, this was borne out of what I suspect was a much bigger issue: OSC appeared to have an incredibly two-dimensional and uniform view of all morality that was ‘other’ to his own.

The morality I offered pertained to wellbeing (queue a million surprises), and the idea that we can progressively learn about this morality through open and honest discussion. The idea that we can learn about morality is based on what the Ancient Greeks initially spoke of, and which translates approximately to ‘Natural Law’. Natural Law is the concept that heavily informed the writing of the EU and UN documents on Human Rights. This concept of Natural Law has spanned cultural differences, national borders and religions. It is discoverable through the values we often related to the 17th Century Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment values are that of open enquiry, speech and the right of and to criticism. Those values have appeared in many places, and when they do they are accompanied by advances in civil rights and justice. The mini-Enlightenment of Ancient Greece, for example, laid the ground for for the first political use of democracy (at least, the first one that was recorded and those records have survived). Athenian democracy has its warts: only land-owning men were allowed to vote. Still, that was a great leap forward from where they were before. The Golden Age of Islam, for all its nonsense, did foster religious and cultural tolerance and intellectual freedoms.

My argument is that, given those conditions, human conversations nearly always (with the occasional bump; I’m not arguing this is perfect) conclude in social progress: wanting to extend liberties to other nationalities and ethnicities, to all genders, to other species; to the writing of human rights and the acknowledgements of war crimes; to freedom of sexuality and love, and to freedoms of migration.

OSC doesn’t accept any of that as necessarily ‘good’. To be a little more precise, OSC doesn’t accept that any of this meets the ‘grace of God’. This, apparently, is a key definition in what ‘good’ is, according to OSC. And that makes sense; that’s the only way to then demand the surrender of moral autonomy to a God and a love of Jesus and his sacrifice.

I attempted to address what I saw as shortcomings in OSC’s theistic morality from a base of common ground: this idea of God’s expectation of us being perfect, of authoritarian and tyrannical definitions, of the paradox regarding what ‘good’ actually is (God’s nature or something God ascribes to), the fact a human sacrifice is so contrary to human moral sensibilities (which presumably God made for us). This is why I was then surprised and frustrated to read OSC’s reply to me, where he demonstrated profound misunderstandings of what I said.

OSC attempted to define ‘wellbeing’ as narrowly as he possibly could, something that comes across as a dishonest strawman: he made it just about human wellbeing, but the expedient function of the human machine (i.e. “healthy” to the human body, with no regard even for psychological health). He converted the ideas of freedoms into “whims and fancy”, completely discarding the fact that humanity frequently agrees to extend these rights, even to people beyond your pragmatic interest (but, evidently, not beyond our moral interest). He set up an analogy where a religious person went to a humanist academy, and made the humanists into modernistic pragmatists with a disregard for experience and wonder, and gave those attributes to the religious character. This is despite those characteristics clearly belonging to the flourishing of wellbeing, and the people routinely going through predefined motions are those who define morality theistically.

All this I may have been willing to address and answer. In fact, I made some efforts. But, OSC’s comment persisting in deviating further into the absurd as the comment progressed. The first major transgression from anything I thought could even be argued an honest misunderstanding was the question of whether a wellbeing-based morality would permit a person to rape and torture 2 children, to save the lives of 3 children. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know all 5 children surviving, where two are raped and tortured is better than 2 children surviving without rape and torture, and three dying. (The fact I don’t know doesn’t stop that being an objective question. I also don’t know which is heavier: an average apple or an average nectarin.) But the thought experiment is so poorly thought-through. The person being indicted here the person who has to choose between the rape or the murder? Because it seems to be the person who should be indicted is the person who actually set-up this twisted little scenario. But, also, what is the Christian answer here? Should you permit 3 to death, or rape and torture 2? The failure of this thought experiment isn’t wellbeing, it’s that all options are heinous. Christianity fails to get a happy resolution to this, as well.

At some sort of tipping point, OSC stepped into politics. He started talking about utopianism, and how all ideas of utopia have been just-the-other-side of awful and heinous things. He started talking of the suppression of religious freedoms under the Soviets. He started talking about eugenics under the Nazis. He started talking about how my view―that of safeguarding wellbeing and having an open and frank discussion about what is good―would lead to horror and atrocity. I didn’t force his views―one of understanding morality through some epiphany or religious revelation in a relationship with God―into Crusades and Inquisitions or religious persecution and Witch Hunts. But, apparently, no such courtesy was extended to me. Everything that is not theistically defined morality, to OSC, is all Soviet oppression and Nazi eugenics.

Do I have to answer that? From a practical sense, are there people who read a conversation like that and will have OSC’s absurd strawman slip past their intellectual faculties? How much work is ahead of me when my interlocutor doesn’t get a single element of my proposal right and compares it to the complete antithesis of what I’ve said? I’ve got to restate my position, actively disavow and untangle that position from the smear and then start unpicking anything they presented as their own view. It’s overloading, putting work before me that I should never have to do.

My response to OSC was frustrated and angry. OSC is an elegant and intelligent writer, and for that reason I had been hooked into a long and time consuming discussion with him. Some of his religious views are nuanced, intricate and require considerable ruminations over, especially the epiphany-interpretation of Christianity I explored in my last post. This (along with the fact morality matters to me) is why I responded badly, having felt betrayed by OSC sudden descent into such insane argumentation.

The Buddhist Christian, on LSD

Any moral message that can be taken from Christianity is immediately undermined by the fact Christianity holds the loophole to entire avoid moral judgement: faith. A good person receives no rewards if they are not faithful, and a bad person receives no punishment if they are faithful. I’ve argued before that this is the catastrophic failure of Christian ethics: it claims to have moral messages, thus blocks real progress, but undermines itself to the point of permitting anything.

One commenter, oldschoolcontemporary (OSC), in an attempt to make sense of this for me, argued that upon conversion to Christianity or in a renewed finding of Christian faith, the new believer undergoes a sort of transformation. This transformation is one of the mind, where the believer develops an understanding of God’s law. It is important to note that OSC believes God’s law to be something that lines up very much with the moral sensibilities we all have. Although epiphanies of this sort are something that are familiar to me, I take umbrage with the assertion that one needs a believe in God, or Jesus specifically, to have such an epiphany.

A clear distinction was made early in OSC’s comment (read the comment here): the new believer will not develop an aversion to shellfish or fall in line with other ‘ceremonial’ laws, but instead this epiphany will relate only to God’s moral law; the idea of not wanting unnecessary harm to come to others. (We’ll gloss over the wiggle room permitted by “unnecessary”.) I have found it difficult to find anywhere in the Bible where this distinction between God’s moral law and ceremonial law is explicated. From what I can gather, where God’s law overlaps with what is known as “Natural Law”, that’s what we call moral law, and everything else that seem arbitrary or silly, that’s all ceremonial. Natural Law Theory, for those who don’t know, is a pre-Christian discovery meant to describe the preferred moral state of people; perhaps approximately summed up as ‘the moral intuition’ (which we seem to be able to identify in our selves as separate from selfish impulses).

I don’t think it’s reliable for OSC to mandate the relationship with God a new or renewed believer would develop. There are plenty of Christians who I have no reason to doubt are  as sincere in their beliefs, who do wish to repeal the rights and shorten the lives of certain groups of people. There is no clear reason or evidence for a person becoming a new believer that would make them additionally apologetic for their actions. (There are seemingly sincere believers in other religions, too, who are guilty of the same thing, but they are not the point; if OSC is right, those people can’t have the epiphany because they have the wrong God.) What I think OSC is doing here is transposing either their experiences, or their romanticised idea of what experiences people should have, onto other people. So far as I can tell, people who sincerely believe in the Christian God have completely different experiences and moral epiphanies to the one OSC wants them to have.

I’ve experienced mild forms of this transformative moral epiphany OSC alludes to through meditation, and I’ve heard it many more times through the accounts of people using LSD. Both LSD and contemplative meditation appear to make the mind default to the description the ancient Greeks began a discussion of and that ultimately led to various developments in human rights: the Natural Law.

I believe there is some kind of a Natural Law. LSD users give surprisingly consistent account of their feelings of oneness and their moral insights, and those accounts do resonate with my experiences practising meditation and the professed experiences of Buddhists I met in Thailand. It is possible that this ‘Natural Law’ is nothing more than a consistency in neural networks (but I think it is more than that).

This ‘pseudo-Buddhist’ slant on Christianity is not unique to OSC, an interpretation where one has merely to reach this enlightened epiphany before death in order to go to Heaven. The moral trail one leaves behind is redundant. But that epiphany doesn’t have to be belief in Jesus, and belief in Jesus does not necessarily result in the epiphany OSC alludes to. This is part of the reason I don’t believe God owns the mansion we should be having moral discussion in.

Huel is the Future: ethical and nutritionally balanced, great tasting human fuel

Huel (human fuel, get it?) is a powdered, nutritionally complete, vegan food that can replace most of your meals. If food is, to you, little more than a way of satiating hunger and then making you feel guilty about your poor diet choices, Huel is the solution. It can sate your hunger, provide a healthy and guilt-free meal, while being affordable and pretty tasty. You consume Huel like you would a protein shake; add water and mix well. However, it’s not a supplement, it can―in very real terms―replace a meal. Or, all meals. And I think it is a genuine way forward on a planet where we’re running out of space for meat-farming and yet seem to object to super farms, vertical farming and GMOs.

I’ve been on Huel for about a month now, and it makes up approximately 70% of my food. I still occasionally eat with my family, basically for social reasons. If I lived alone or in a flat with people who didn’t like cooking as a group (literally every flat I have ever lived in), Huel would make up considerably more of my diet. (It would probably never make up 100%, as I still like the social side of eating with friends or making a full English breakfast after waking up, hungover, at a friend’s place.) Since starting Huel, I have felt healthy and full of energy, suggesting my previous diet was not as balanced as I had assumed. To a certain extent, that’s the point: having a truly balanced diet is not easy and takes more effort than I default to offering it, despite being more than averagely health-conscious.

We need to be upfront about food culture, at least here in the UK. We eat frozen pizzas, takeaway curries, kebabs and other food we don’t really enjoy except insofar as they sate our hunger. We are not really a nation of foodies who use spices and herbs and really focus on taste balancing. We over-salt and put a lot of cheese on our meals, if we ever do get around to creating one (instead of microwaving one). I’m not saying this as someone who prefers to behave that way, I’m saying that as someone who used to cook (and I am pretty good at it) and found other people found this a simply amazing fact.

I’m also not judging, time and price constraints make it very difficult to buy fresh ingredients and spend an hour and a half most nights cooking a meal. I’m not even saying we, as a nation, don’t visit fancy restaurants, because we do, but a majority Huel diet will still allow us to do that when we want to or the occasion calls for it.

In terms of culture-rich and exciting cooking, Huel is no worse than our normal eating habits. It’s not cuisine nouvelle, but how often do we really eat like that? Huel can easily replace shop-bought pizzas, oily takeaway curries, and that odd slop we often encourage ourselves to microwave, and if we really do want to cook for a date, go to a restaurant with friends or have an exciting night in of adventurous cooking, then there’s nothing stopping us having a traditional meal when we fancy it.

In almost all other respects, Huel is superior to our average eating habits. It’s a balanced meal, full of the generous supplies of the vitamins and minerals we need, while being low in salt and sugar. It’s very high protein (for those who worry a vegan diet will damage their fitness). And it’s incredibly convenient; even compared to 20 minutes in an oven or 5 minutes in a microwave, Huel is fast―it takes less than a minute to prepare. And, working out at around £6 per day (for a 2,500-calorie diet), a day on Huel is cheaper than your average single meal.

And, ethically―well, it’s vegan. It’s better in terms of animal welfare, efficient land use and the environment. And, unlike your best-intentions-shopping with 4 bags of carrots, 3 heads of broccoli and basket-load of mangoes, there’s no reason for Huel to go to waste. Huel has a shelf-life of 1 year, and everything delivered to you can be used.

Huel is even customisable. Huel comes with a gentle vanilla flavour, or plain. Both have an oaty texture and if you don’t like the taste (although I think Huel tastes great) the company also sells flavourings (which I haven’t tried) or you can add other food to Huel. Obviously, you affect the nutritional values when you add your own foods, but Huel is still an extraordinarily healthy base to your smoothie experiment.

My only problem with Huel is having to explain, every time I get out a bottle of powder and add water it to, why I am eating that and not joining them in the queue for the―quite frankly, wildly overpriced and disappointing―food available at my university’s canteen.

Falsification or positive evidence?

One of the questions posed by religious people is how atheists propose to disprove the existence of a God. On the face of it, the question is ridiculous as there is no reason to believe God would be the default position; it is not on the atheist to disprove God before positive evidence is given in favour of a God. From here, the conversation runs the risk of misunderstanding falsification and positive evidence.

Falsification was articulated by Karl Popper. His argument was that good ideas are ones that are prohibitive: if true, the idea draws a clear distinction between what can happen and what cannot. Anything an idea proposes cannot happen is then looked for. The standard example is swans: if the idea is that all swans are white, then the idea proposes no non-white swans can happen. Then, you seek a non-white swan. If you’ve looked hard enough and long enough and not found a non-white swan, but have found many more white swans, then you can provisionally accept that idea as knowledge.

This does not mean that for someone to reject an idea they must know how to falsify the idea and then do it. Falsification is actually a metric by which we see whether an idea is a valid one, even before we set out to disprove it. Falsification encourages us to define an idea well enough to know what we might see, should the idea be false. So, contrary to standard practice, the reasonable question is for atheists to ask religious people how they would disprove God. It is only in an intelligible answer to that question can we even be sure the idea the religious person is peddling is valid.

And this brings us to the opposite of falsification: positive evidence. This is evidence that conforms to the nature proposed by an idea. Given a sufficiently ill-defined idea, like Freudian psychology, everything fits the proposed nature of the idea. This is why the idea must first be defined in such a way as to explicitly prohibit something, as to be (possibly) falsified. Then, this well defined idea must have some positive evidence presented in its favour. An idea cannot be considered knowledge simply on the existence of this positive evidence; proper attempts at falsification must be made as well. But, without the evidence in favour of the idea ‘that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’.

So, it is religious people who must answer the question ‘how would you disprove a God’ to demonstrate their idea is an intellectually valid one, and then they must present positive evidence for that God. This may seem unfair, but if the religious person is presented a coherent case with a well-defined idea, it should be the easiest thing in the world.

Asteroids and comets: a common good

The planet needs to decide who asteroids and comets belong to, because I don’t think they belong to the first person to send a rocket up to collect them. And, if we try to have that discussion after the mining of space has made Earth’s first trillionaire, then it will be just too late. That is exactly the lesson we should have learned from the fish stock.

Fish are unowned, and therefore we all have equal right to them. If you want to get a boat and paddle out to sea and fish, you’re entitled to. But something about this idea doesn’t work. Big fishing industries are exploiting that right and trawling the sea, depleting the fish stocks massively. To curb this, the EU imposed maximum quotas. These quotas gained a financial value; if your maximum quota exceeds what you can catch, you can sell your surplus quota. If you look at what surplus quotas sell for, you can calculate the value of the fish quotas the EU gave away for free. It is in the billions of pounds. By the time the EU noticed this and tried to implement laws to reverse the environmental damage and make the fisheries look after the common good and its environment, it was too late. The fishing industry was already a multi-billion pound industry and its momentum was too great to stop.

From this, we should have learned that we need to set up laws regarding resources that seem to be ‘common goods’ before related industries get massive financial momentum. It is for this reason, I think the world governments (US, EU, ASEAN, Australia, UN etc) should come together to write a global law regarding the mining of asteroids and comets. I’m not sure what the law should be, exactly, but it should take into account the following fact: the space debris is a common good with a value, and therefore returning it to Earth for use will incur import tax. I’d support the tax funding development aid and climate change mitigation.

This is probably my shortest post in a while, but I’m still going to summarise. The state of the fish stocks in our oceans is testament to the damage that can be done by not fully considering an industry before it gains financial momentum. The financial value of surplus fishing quota show that allowing industry to abstract common goods is a handout, because the common goods have value. We have an opportunity, now, to set in place a mechanism by which we can distribute the wealth created by abstracting our common goods.

Is Artificial Intelligence Entitled to Personhood?

AI is not alive. But, somehow it has the opportunity to live. Deepmind has produced art that sold for $8,000. AI can live in our computers or on the web and write sports articles and compose music. They seem to hold down jobs and be able to make critical decisions. The question of whether AI can feel becomes an interesting one, especially as AI becomes more able and more powerful and commonplace technology.

Conventionally, we afford rights to things that are living. That’s certainly the theme that underpins pro-choice argument (to which I align myself). And that is a meaningful criteria for being offered human rights. However, rights in general are slightly different. Animal rights activists argue that it is an animal’s interests that mean they should have rights. If animals can have interests, and therefore be pleased to achieve them or suffer if they fail. Fundamentally, it’s a wellbeing argument. And that may relate to AI.

Smaller AIs, like the one that writes sports articles, may not have the capacity to experience wellbeing. But as AI progresses, it may be that it develops qualia to compute and understand the world it exists in. That some AI, even in principle, may be able to experience wellbeing is odd, and many people object to it on the grounds that learning to mimic behaviour is not the same as experiencing it. Although this is true, it begs the question of whether the AI is just acting like it feels, or if it is actually feeling. What we would ask for, in terms of evidence, is difficult to imagine: what evidence does one require to establish that another person has feelings?

Personhood is slightly different from a wellbeing-based argument. Personhood is about whether the entity has personality, personal agendas: are they a person? Many species show personhood, which leads me to believe we should have some sort of gradated personhood rights, legally recognised. More interestingly (in this context), can an AI be a person? To do this, its behaviour must be personal, not the result of an external algorithm imposed by an external programmer. Whether this can happen―that the program re-writes a part of its own program based on its experiences―is something that can be understood by understanding its programming. If, in fact, AI does show behaviour in this way, then they would be people.

If AI does end up having the capacity to feel and has unique and personal behaviour, the question becomes one of what rights we would agree to afford to AI. I think that is a question we should have answers ready for, as the AI is coming. Refusing to get an answer ready until AI is already here may result in AI feeling oppressed and rising up. After all, we’re assuming they have feelings, and equality and anger would be a part of that.