Abusive Speech and the Purpose of Free Speech

Many people seem to take Freedom of Speech as expressed in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment as a kind of secular quasi-scripture, thinking that it gives them license to state anything at all, no matter how hurtful, belittling, or even damaging to others.

Of course there is the famous cliched exceptions of “wrongfully shouting ‘Fire! in a crowded theater”, slander, libel, publishing copyrighted material without proper reference or permission, and others. Beyond this, classified information also may be rightfully suppressed in the name of national security, especially to the extent that public knowledge of it may be considerably aid criminals or enemies of the United States. The same thing goes for judges “gag orders” to prohibit parties in a criminal trial from discussing the details of the charges before the case goes to trial, so as not to allow public prejudices or “trials by media” bias the jurors into pre-determining innocence or guilt in their own minds before the actual trial starts.

However, abusive speech itself also ought to be curtailed more than it is at present. I define abusive speech as “speech whose content or tone is clearly designed to degrade, humiliate, belittle, or belittle others when there is no compelling and just social or public interest to engage in such tones; especially if reasonable people would believe that the content or tone is plainly out of proportion to any wrong the target might have committed, or if the tone or content is likewise plainly unnecessary to produce the results the speaker wants to achieve”.

Admittedly, there is a very blurry boundary separating abusive speech as defined here and speech necessary to accomplish a task. Law enforcement, military, and general security practices come to mind here. In these situations, a case-by-case basis approach should suffice to distinguish whether or not enforcers cross the line from legitimate reestablishing of law and order into outright abuse. In situations in which physical security is clearly not at stake, it should be easier to distinguish between the two.

At this point, I will go beyond what is stated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as other nation’s constitutions regarding freedom of expression and ask a few basic questions: Why have freedom of speech at all? What purpose does it serve? In doing so, I intend to show that abusive speech is or ought not be defensible under freedom of speech as usually conceived by its most avid promoters.

Going back to basics, the purpose of communication itself (including speech) is to supply information that either increases net benefit or reduces net harm to the greatest extent reasonably and humanely possible and in the proportion appropriate for the circumstances. Speech communicating information that unjustly decreases benefit for society as a whole or especially creates net harm for the same is a net bad. Similarly, speech that increases benefit for society as a whole or decreases net harm for the same is a net good; but only to the extent that it does not lead to unreasonable levels of harm or injury to others’ body, mind, or spirit. This is especially true if neither the speaker nor the intended audience actually need the benefits of that speech in order to maintain a realistically humane levels of living (peace of mind, quality of life, financial security, etc.). This means speech should be free to the extent that the benefit it adds to one or many people plainly would outweigh the bad it causes others – with one exception.

That exception is information – even truthful information – whose tone or content causes to others degradation of esteem, peace of mind, or physical functionality clearly out of proportion of any offense or annoyance that other person may caused. This is still more true for such speech made merely to benefit others or mitigate against harm toward the same that collateral damage to others. All this is especially true when that speech likely will generate levels of physical or psychological hurt so intense that no amount of benefits gained by or harm mitigated against by the speech justifies imposing such high levels of harm on even one other person. Therefore, such speech, can justly be either modified or even restricted.

Malice, spite, belittlement, and similar such traits expressing derogatory views of a person or group (directly or indirectly) do not add any useful information about any matter beyond what polite, civil, and humane speech already supplies to the immediate direct audience or the broader society. This makes the former basket of traits ineffectual at adding useful truths to a person’s or society’s knowledge base. That means such speech has no substantive cultural, intellectual, scientific, or otherwise social value. Even any short-term happiness or satisfaction the speech supplies does not change the fact that that such speech has no rightful place in civilized society, because of its long-term counter-productivity to speeding the day when the commanding majority accepts the speakers position.

This being the case, the good coming from derogatory tones or content is trivial, so unnecessary, so ineffectual at adding new ideas and other content to the debate, and indeed so counterproductive at speeding the day that the majority comes to accept the speaker’s ideas, that any benefits gained from such speech, whether by the speaker or audience, are clearly inferior to the need to avoid inhumane, spiteful, and derogatory treatment of others.

Hence, I do support somewhat greater restrictions on Freedom of Speech, particularly with regard to hate speech and belittlement in general. This is especially true when much research over the past two decades shows that verbal abuse of others does indeed strongly affect the psychological health of many people. If the purpose of free speech is to allow an unobstructed flow of useful and substantive information between two or more parties, then I find it difficult to justify saying that the free speech mantras justly apply to speech that abuses the esteem of others. Hence, I do see a place for legislatures, courts, and chief executives to regulating speech plausibly said to be destructive to another’s dignity and esteem, especially speech that qualifies as abusive and indeed has a strong tendency to psychologically destroy those who are its targets.

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Why I Don’t Buy That “Stupid” People Deserve Belittlement

Rewritten November 21, 2014

Scorning people because they are in some way “stupid” (real or perceived) has quite a number of failure points, as listed and discussed below.

FUNDAMENTALLY IMPROPER USE OF SCORN

1. It starts from a basic misunderstanding of the proper purpose of scorn. Scorn’s legitimate role is limited to punishing people who clearly intend to cause hurt, harm, or indignity to others; or who clearly are willfully indifferent about the hurt, harm, or indignity reasonably likely to result from those types of words or acts. Even then, the scorn dealt out should not exceed the harm, hurt or indignity that the target of the scorn caused to others. Merely lacking intelligence, experience, street smarts, etc. does not mean an intent to hurt, harm, or disrespect others; or willful indifference about the same. Thus, mere being “stupid” fails to qualify as a fair target for scorn; especially if there was clearly no intent to cause any indignity, hurt, or harm (though in some cases that person may deserve a lesser penalty).

2. The scorn (sentiment or actual act) is out of proportion to the shortcoming. Any inconvenience, irritation, or disruption caused by “stupidity” of the type most people usually experience is highly unlikely to come with disrespectful or malicious intent. It also is not likely to threaten another’s dignity, human rights, physical or mental health, life, physical or mental functionality, political liberties, money, bank accounts, or property (even if of no meaningful monetary value). Thus, scorn or similarly hurtful disrespectful acts or words is an excessive punishment for mere “stupidity”.

3. Unfairly shifts the burden of responsibility to the “stupid”. In most cases, it is unjust to hold people responsible for matters beyond their control; including any lack of education, street smarts, so-called common knowledge, experience, etc.; especially if there was no realistic opportunity to acquire this beforehand. People should be held to account only when they clearly and consistently demonstrate the cognitive, emotional, and physical capacity to accomplish the task at issue. “Stupid” people usually lacked sufficient opportunity to learn what most people have already learned. Hence, it’s immoral to hold them responsible for their shortcomings, however annoying or inconvenient they may be for the rest of us.

NO REAL INSTRUCTIONAL AND CORRECTIVE VALUE

4. At most, the scorn tells the person they made an error in their thinking and nothing beyond that. It says nothing about how, when, or where the error came to be. This makes scorn as useful for correcting an error as is a password error return message – both say nothing about what the (or even ‘a’) right way to conduct matters. Even when scorn does accompany useful information, the scornful manner itself still conveys none of that information – only the basic wording of the facts can do so; which brings up the next point.

5. Other ways exists that correct the problem that do not involve belittlement. Simply conveying correct information about the matter is enough. Adding scorn to 5 X 7 = 28 does not make it more false, nor does that scorn make 5 X 7 = 35 more correct. That alone is sufficient to prove that scorn of the “stupid” is unnecessary, and hence simply an inelegant way to go about correcting a problem to a person who wants to do the correct or right thing. In short, scorn does nothing to decrease “stupidity” that polite tones aren’t already able to accomplish in the same amount of time (and in fact, do so quicker; due to scorn wasting time that could already be used for more productive purposes, if nothing else).

6. The attitude is counterproductive. Not only are scorn or other forms of belittlement inefficient on its face, but they are extremely likely to increase or prolong the “stupidity” precisely because “stupid” is such a demeaning (and hence hurtful) term. In fact, the attitude is counterproductive in large part precisely because it is hurtful. This creates an additional emotional barrier the “stupid” person must climb over in order to have the state of mind sufficient to think clearly and logically about their error. Toxic feelings in one’s psyche are well known to make it harder for the brain to properly process even useful information giving to him or her. In fact, many students do poorly in school or even drop out in large part due to being called “stupid”. When told this enough (especially scornfully), they start to take it to heart and thus leave them even less motivated to achieve high grades. After all, why put your whole heart into something supposedly too difficult to achieve?

INHERENTLY BIGOTED

7.  It is a hateful, classist, elitist, attitude. When all is said and done, the dismissive attitude demeans or intimidates people into either being quiet about a matter or to destroy the self-esteem of people whose opinions you very much disagree with. In fact, most damaging stereotypes about racial, ethnic, religious, or political groups are ultimately sourced in the idea that members of this group are “stupid” in some way. What better way to get rid of bigotry than the most basic one of all – bigotry against “stupid” people?

8. It assumes that intelligence, competence, education, “street smarts”, etc. trump other positive qualities in a person. There is nothing about these supposedly more admirable traits that prevents narrow-mindedness, callousness, intolerance, judgementalism, selfishness, and worst. Look no further than Nazi research physiologist Joseph Megele (medical experiments on humans), white supremacist William Pierce (Doctorate in Physics, taught at Oregon State University), and (more commonly) numerous politicians, businessmen, and other “pillars of society” whose acts brought ruin to millions of people (unethical business and political practices costing workers their retirement savings, pensions, corruption, etc.). By contrast, I think it’s not hard to find someone conventionally “stupid” in some way or another who not only does nothing to intentionally hurt anyone nor thinks to do such, but actually offers helping hands to people most in need (physically or emotionally).

9. The only use for the word is to express frustration, even contempt toward an undesirable “other”. This is even more true when considering that the sentiment, even when expressed openly to the person, does nothing to correct the undesirable trait; and in fact makes the “stupidity problem” (real or perceived) worse. The sentiment certainly does nothing worst toward someone who said or did something unwise or otherwise incorrect.

It violates a fundamental duty we have toward other human beings. It is senseless to scorn the “stupid” if we have a duty to avoid causing hurt to others to the greatest extent possible or reasonable, then is it ethical to even scorn in our minds “stupid” people, given that thoughts often lead to acts based on those thoughts? The truth is that there are other ways to convey that information to them that do not degrade or hurt their feelings. So even were scorning someone as “stupid” really useful in conveying proper information, the scorn accompanying it would still hurt others when there is no reason to do so.

Given all this, it seems clear that scorn, contempt, even polite condescension toward “stupid” people not only does nothing to cure people of their stupidity that polite, well-reasoned, genuinely open-minded discussion isn’t already just as able to accomplish – it actually perpetuates the very trait the scorner so strongly disdains in that person. Furthermore, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the label castigates people due to their intelligence level in some respect, rather than due to the content of their character. So it is that the sooner we as a society move away from such toxic, petty, judgmental attitudes toward people who are “stupid” (real or perceived), the more humane, happy, and prosperous this society will become in the long run.

Pursue the Good or Avoid the Bad?

Sometimes declaring acts (or lack thereof) good or bad is a straight forward issue. Other times it is definitely complicated. That’s why the field of moral philosophy is so often contentious in the first place. Good and bad are complicated enough when dealing with how your act affects even only one other person beside yourself. Throw in how the act or lack thereof affects large groups of people (individually, collectively, on average, etc.) and ethics truly seems like a labyrinth one hardly learns to navigate for a very long time – if at all. Such is the life of the ethicist, adjudging acts as good or bad depends on how the act affects both the individual agent (i.e. performer of the act) and the others who are affected by the act in some way or another, whether profoundly or slightly.

Earlier I said that if “net good” is defined as the surplus of benefit over harm, then “net bad” is a surplus of harm over benefit. In that post, I used good and bad only because the words are sharp and easy to grasp. However, they are insufficient descriptors, for both have connotations of something more than mere “satisfaction” and “dissatisfaction”. They usually mean, respectively, more satisfaction than “mere satisfaction” and more dissatisfaction than “mere dissatisfaction”. Most often, calling something good means you find that thing more than merely adequate or satisfactory, it means you outright approve of it to a notable degree, even if it may still fall short of “excellent”. Good also means significantly better than not having that something (and sometimes not having a something that is considered bad ). Likewise, bad means something more than a mild irritation or merely “dissatisfactory”, it means either you outright disapprove of it to a significant degree or it is significantly worse than not having that something (or not having something that is good).

For example, it is good if you get to take a vacation to a locale you always wanted to visit, while it is bad if you lose $1,000 from a business transaction barely qualifying as legal. Likewise, it is often considered bad that you did not get to go on that vacation and good that you managed to avoid entering a deal in which you would have lost $1,000 via barely legal means.

From here, it is easy to distinguish between an outright good (actual gain of something) and an outright bad (actual loss of something) on one hand; and an indirect good and an indirect bad on the other. In this example, the vacation itself is the outright good while not getting ripped off is an indirect good. Likewise, the outright bad is getting ripped off while the indirect bad is simply not being able to take the vacation.

But is an outright bad really worse to have than only an indirect bad? Is it really worse to be ripped off of $3000 but no more, than it is to be denied a vacation of an equal or greater amount? If your denied the vacation in which you get $3000 worth of good memories by your own estimation, then you are neither worse off nor better off because you essentially exchanged $3000 of cash for $3000 by your estimation worth of good times. This is what is called in finance an asset exchange, you give up something to get something of equal value.

But suppose the vacation, should you take it, would give you $6000 worth of good times by your estimation. In this case, the vacation’s net value is by your estimation $3000: Getting $6000 worth of good times in return for surrendering $3000 in cash gives a net value of $3000. If we stop here, then the vacation would be worthwhile for you.

However, suppose you don’t actually need the vacation. That is, you don’t need it to be happy. In that case, if you’re denied the vacation then you are in one sense worse off, although you still do remain a reasonably happy person. Here, we can say that one didn’t actually lose anything because no money was lost nor good memories gained. While it is true that denied the opportunity for the vacation did cost you $3000 extra net worth of memories (subjectively self-assessed), you suffer only mild disappointment from not taking the vacation. Although the disappointment has a negative value (i.e. a value destroyer), it is not substantial enough to reduce your overall satisfaction with your life.

Now let’s look at you getting ripped off exactly the $3000. That is an outright loss for you. Unlike the nondestructive denial of not adding $3000, you actually are worse off by $3000. This doesn’t even get into the emotional damage (much worse than not taking the vacation). In fact, it usually leaves people feeling so emotionally degraded that in all likelihood, a hefty percentage of adults who could afford it would very likely pay $10,000 in cash to obtain the information or street smarts necessary to avoid the $3000 ripoff (assuming for the sake of argument that you could buy such information and the information is perfectly what you need to actually avoid the ripoff). In this case, foregoing $10,000 and getting ripped off may still leave you with a net $7000 in cash, but its safe to say that the person would still feel an emotional loss much greater than $7000. If this weren’t so, then the person wouldn’t have minded getting ripped off the $3000 in cash on the grounds that he or she saved $10,000 by not purchasing the information.

Yet another way of looking at this is, how much would you pay to avoid the sense of deprivation of not taking the vacation?

You do not so much receive actual benefit from not being ripped off so much as you do simply not receive a bad thing. This remains true even when you are aware that you did not get ripped off. After all, if you don’t get ripped off (i.e. still possess your money because you did not get an inferior quality good or service not worth the money sold for), you still don’t gain anything additionally from possessing that money – you’re simply gaining from that money what you already would have had anyway (including return on investments that would have happened anyway). By contrast, you don’t receive actual harm from failing to go on the vacation to your dream destination so much as you do simply don’t receive benefit from not going on it.

Even for all this, the knowledge that allowed you to prevent being ripped off is a good thing, for it prevented something worse from happening, even if it does not produce an actual good (barring risk consultants and consumer protection advocates who actually make their living advising their clients or the public about such things).

This brings up an interesting question: Which is more important, to achieve net betterment or avoid net diminishment?

First, I will admit that there will be a strong subjective component to this one, insofar that some people will value making gains above making losses. Even so, common experience also shows that even the biggest risk takers will think twice before investing time, money, effort, and heart into something that will not guarantee a payoff commensurate to the risk. For example, I know of only few people who would run through a burning building to get $1 million (currently about 20 times the starting salary of an average fresh-out-of-college accountant with a degree in accounting). This is because there is a very high risk of death or serious disfigurement, possibly egregious discomfort, associated with running through a burning building. Still, many or perhaps most people go through highly painful experiences for a guaranteed payoff of that amount, perhaps for even as long as a month; given the risk of serious injury is that much slighter and it is highly unlikely to leave them with serious lifelong disfigurement.

Still, it seems obvious that most people, even rather poor people, would say that whatever bad things they do have, lacking a mansion in Beverly Hills or Belgravia and an income to match is not really one of them. This is easily seen in the fact that it is a lot easier to argue that millionaires and billionaires have an obligate to help stabilize the poor’s living situation (meaning help them achieve at least a minimally self-supporting lifestyle) than it is to argue that the poor should receive a solidly middle class lifestyle. This is because the non-poor yet non-middle-class have no need for help to maintain their ability to buy basic levels of humane qualities of the following: food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and household/personal communication equipment. So why give material aid to people who don’t need it?

All this seems to throw doubt on the notion that it’s always better to choose getting good over avoiding bad. This is especially true if the benefits to be gained are not worth the suffering endured to receive them. In the end, it is, as said, subject to considerable subjective judgment – even if most people will tend to choose one the other. Whatever your actual views are about any one matter, it seems that whether it is better to avoid the bad or to pursue the good depends on at least three aspects of the choice: the good to be gained relative to the effort, the severity of the pain produced by your pursuit of the gain, and the total amount of pain or pleasure of each. To determine what is good or bad (at least in areas where one can intelligently disagree), one has to consider these factors; not only for one’s self but also how others will assess each good factor’s goodness and bad factor’s badness.

The Matter of Ukraine

I’m interrupting the flow of blog topics for the sake of timely commentary.

Anybody watching the news lately knows good and well that Ukraine is teetering on the edge. I won’t recount the whole timeline of events because they are easily found all over the Internet, and can spell out what happened much better than I ever could.   This includes all the news and articles about ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians, plus where in Ukraine each tends to concentrate (basically it’s split on more or less a northeast-to-southwest axis, with Ukraininans living northwest of that line and the Russians to the southeast of it).  So I’ll concentrate on what Ukraine, Russia, Europe, etc. ought to be doing in the future, though I have no high hopes their governments will follow my advice.

The seizure of airports in the Crimea (on the coast) by as-of-now unidentified armed units is a clear challenge to Ukraine’s sovereignty in this strategic region, a large stretch of Ukraine’s coast that is both overwhelmingly ethnic Russian and home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet (this area was transferred from what was then the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s).  I believe Russia is serious about ensuring their own interests there remain unchanged.  Add to that the striking split between pro- and anti-Yanukovych supporters occurs largely along ethnic lines and you have real potential for civil war.

Both Ukrainians and Russian (both the nation and the ethnic groups) do have interests I consider interests legitimate for any sovereign nation. 

Ukraine and Ukrainians

  • Keep its territorial integrity (keep the Ukrainian nation whole)
  • Shape its own future with as little influence from the Russian behemoth as possible (i.e. have their leaders put Ukraine’s interests first, and not to be puppets of Moscow’s Kremlin).
  • Forge greater economic ties with the European Union (a subset of the previous point)
  • Move toward a truly democratic form of government
  • Purge corrupt elements from the system in order to allow for more fair competition in the Ukrainian economy.

Russia and Russians in Ukraine

  • Ensure the rights of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine (Russian Ukrainians have the power and ability to secure their legitimate interests as citizens of Ukraine, which requires a Ukrainian government that is sufficiently conscious of the interests of its Russian population)
  • Retain some degree of influence in a country which they have the strongest of historic ties to (as in the birth of their own nation).
  • Regain Great Power status by ensuring a free trade agreement with Ukraine
  • Make sure no foreign armies pose no threat to the vital interests of Russia itself (Ukraine, a huge chunk of the former Russian Empire and later USSR, is vital for protecting Russia itself from any foreign attack. Not surprisingly, it is in Moscow’s vital interests to ensure Ukraine is not allied with any foreign power that often goes against Russia)
  • Ensure Russia’s economic and geopolitical sphere of interests (the proposed Eurasian Union simply would not be effective without Ukraine – after Russia by far the most populous as well as the most economically significant nation of the former USSR. As one article put it, without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union would be merely Moscow plus some Central Asian dictatorships) .  
  • Assure Russian oil and gas does get to the markets which it is intended (the pipelines cross Ukraine).

Most important for both parties (and all other nations stating an interest in the issue, for that matter) is that Ukraine not devolve into civil war.  Not only would that create enormous humanitarian crises of all sorts (refugees, the inevitable atrocities, perpetuating or creating ethnic hatreds, etc.), it would be very tempting for one outside party to aid the other. In this case, Russia aiding pro-Yanukovych forces and ethnic Russians and NATO aiding the Ukrainians and pro-Reformer groups.  Temptation by either party to intervene here would be much greater than in Yugoslavia 20 years ago, and both parties did end up intervening in one important way or another. 

Even if the western Great Powers do not get involved, there are also many nations in the Balkans (next door to Ukraine) who might get sucked into the conflict. Romania in particular seems at risk, given that sandwiched between it and Ukraine is Moldova, another former Soviet republic with a large ethnic Russian population, specifically in the Trans-Niester region, which also has a history of agitating for some kind of autonomy (Moldovans themselves seem, to the best of my knowledge, ethnically indistinguishable from Romanians).

On top of that, there is Poland, whose southeastern border is with Ukraine. Given Poland’s long history of Russian invasion and domination, any move by Russia into Ukraine will make Poland nervous.  Because Poland is a NATO ally, its concerns will definitely become NATO’s as well.  Similar things can be said about Slovakia and Hungary, both of which suffered from Soviet invasions in the past. Given that Putin is out to reassert some degree of control over former Soviet space, these three NATO allies have understandable reasons to be nervous; though Putin shows no indication whatsoever of violating the Central European trio, even after all those years in power.

So Ukraine’s troubles definitely are not isolated from the greater geopolitical arena.  What I propose is as follows. The first is what Ukraine ought to do about its own internal affairs, the second concerns Ukraine and the rest of the world, what others ought to agree to:

  • A new Ukrainian constitution based on Federalism (power sharing between the central government and the regions; similar to the Federal-State government distribution of power in the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, etc..  This would ensure the ethnic Russian regions greater control over their own affairs and interests without being at the mercy of Kiev’s say-so)
  • Concentrate large amounts of resources to combat corruption (law  enforcement, investigators, auditors, and pass laws making it much more difficult and/or painful for anyone to commit corruption in Ukraine.  Here, they don’t have to invent something new. They can simply look at systems that already work. The Scandinavian countries and Germany come to mind in this regard).
  • Tax laws designed to benefit the masses rather than the elites, i.e. fund programs that the people truly need rather than work for the elite’s non-essential interests.
  • Perhaps most of all – political parties from all over the spectrum should reach across ethnic lines.  History shows that countries are more stable when their political parties have memberships based on ideology rather than ethnicity (How can ethnic-based parties make any sense when their economic and political ideologies may have sympathizers with people of other ethnic groups?)

 

That’s what the citizens of Ukraine can do (all ethnicities).  What about the world, and Ukraine’s dealings with the world?

  • All interested foreign powers can agree that Ukraine should not have to choose either Russia or the EU or anyone else.  Why cannot Ukraine have comprehensive trade agreements with both realms? That would allow both parties to compete for influence in Ukraine.
  • Allow Russia to keep its Black Sea fleet in Ukraine’s Crimea region, as Russia itself does not have much of a coastline on the Black Sea.
  • Forbid Ukraine from joining either NATO or a defense agreement with Russia. Treat it as perpetually neutral territory.
  • Provide a joint Russia-EU-US economic package to Ukraine in order to help stabilize its economy, such as either partial debt forgiveness, renegotiation of debt terms, or direct grants for economic improvements (empty bellies and low qualities of life tend to inspire further unrest).

But what Ukraine’s only alternative to avoiding civil war or other ethnic unrest is to split the nation in two?  In this case, I will have to concede this might be best.  They can follow the model of Czechoslovakia when it split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in a quite amicable spirit.  As a result, there is no hatred between those two peoples that I am aware of, and in fact both are NATO members an part of the European Union.  If a country staying together is more likely to create war or otherwise tremendous bloodshed than splitting would, then perhaps it would be better if the predominately Ukrainian regions and the predominant Russian regions go their own way. 

If Ukraine does indeed split into two separate nations,  the reduced Ukraine (with ethnic Ukrainians) could forge closer relations with Europe while the other nation (let’s call it Azovia, after the Sea of Azov, on which the Russian protion would border) can either unite with Russia or join the proposed Eurasian union. In the latter’s case, it may not completely satisfy Putin, given he would only win only half the partner he seeks to rebuild Russia into a great power, but for him and Russia it is better than nothing.

Regardless of the drama’s outcome, it behooves the world community to do what it takes to reach an honorable agreement for all parties regarding the future of the largest nation in Europe after Russia (in land area) and with a population almost the size of France’s.  No proposal is likely to be completely satisfactory to any and all nations with a deep interest in Ukraine’s outcome, but the alternative to no agreement is likely to be much, much worse.

 

Good and Bad

As I said in my very first post, I don’t plan to get really academic about this, certainly not in the sense of citing scholarly papers and journal articles – this despite my likely regular detailed explanations of my own personal observations about on truth, society, science, social issues, etc.  So if you’re looking for really top-notched material even approach scholarly muster, my advice is to find a more appropriate site, read a high-quality book, take some classes, and similar such things.  With that said, I’ll discuss what good and bad mean.

 

DEFINITIONS

Good: that which imparts satisfaction or net satisfaction(i.e. satisfaction > dissatisfaction)

Bad: that which imparts dissatisfaction or net dissatisfaction (i.e. dissatisfaction > satisfaction)

 

OPPOSITES OR NOT?

Whether it’s sensible to describe Good and Bad in terms of what they are not is certainly debatable, even in strictly binary either-or situations.  For example, if X = a number below 100, then that certainly is a definition for it. On the other hand, if we said instead X is something not equal to 100 or greater, then by default X is a number below 100.  In other words, given a situation in which  only two opposite conditions can be present (say, light and dark), Is light the absence of darkness? If so, what is darkness (the absence of light)?  In this case, if we say an absence is zero of something, it can be said that that darkness = no light = 0 light.  Hence Light = 1, or the absence of no darkness, or the negation of 0 (i.e. the zeroing out of zero, meaning turning a zero state into a non-zero one).  In this case, I find it at least permissible, even sensible in the strict sense of the word. However, calling light the zeroing out of zero light (i.e. elimination of a state of no light, i.e. darkness) is messy despite whatever truth it may have.

Hence it is easier to say light in the common everyday sense of the word is photons at a frequency enabling the human eye to obtain meaningful information about the environment – which means the presence of photons.  Labeling darkness as the absence of such photons does make sense, for it is a straight-forward, simple way to describe the truth.

Still, I do not believe that good and bad are as simple as one or the absence of the other, for we all have experienced situations that are both good and bad at the same time, especially when both are necessary components of our overall experience (e.g. exercising is both good and bad: Good in that it strengthens your physical and mental health, bad in that it causes physical – and sometimes even mental – pain as well). Similar things go for standing up for your rights to someone you know can overpower you.  On one hand, it’s bad that you lost the fight, yet you feel good you stood up for yourself.  The same thing goes for working on an important project.  Sometimes it’s so hard that you’d rather be away from it (a bad thing), yet when you finish you feel proud of taking on a difficult task and doing it well (a good thing). In fact, the great majority of life’s situations are like this, so it’s usually (but not always) simplistic to call something entirely good or entirely bad.  As I just said, though – there certainly are exceptions.

So it is that good and bad are, strictly speaking, not so much the opposite of one another as they are different flavors of experience, sort of like chocolate and vanilla ice cream.  Sure, you can have different mixes of one another (more vanilla than chocolate is a ‘net good’, the opposite is a ‘net bad’), which can well be considered a kind of either-or in the sense that the overall mix of good and bad are either a net positive or net negative.  This still does not change the fact that most, though certainly not all, experiences are a mix of good and bad, whether we perceive them as such or not.  This is why I added the terms “net satisfaction” and “net dissatisfaction” to my definitions of good and bad respectively.  

Everybody knows that goodness (i.e. pure satisfaction ideally, but we usually settle for “net satisfaction”) is something to pursue while badness (even “net dissatisfaction”, let alone “pure dissatisfaction”) is something to avoid.  The temptation here is to say that it is senseless to not pursue a good thing and equally senseless to pursue a bad thing.  While true enough, there is a lot more to it than that, even without mistaken perceptions of something being one and not the other, even without the pursuit of a good thing that, if ‘caught’, remains a good thing for you but obtained at the price of imparting bad on other people (ditto for doing a bad-for-you thing if you think there’s a good chance you’ll enable others to receive a good-for-them thing – excluding exploitations of all severities, of course).  There is also the matter of whether it’s more important to gain a good or to avoid a bad, that is to gain increased net satisfaction or to avoid net dissatisfaction.

I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice to say this is also a complex subject.  

When Morality and/or Ethics Exists: My Speculations

The Origin of Morality is one of the great debates of philosophy, and has been for millennia. For what it’s worth, I’ll voice my own views on the origin of morality by considering how morality could exist in the first place.  Still, keep in mind what I said in my introductory post to this blog: I don’t plan to get  really academic about this, though I am open to suggestions to books or other web pages.  For now, though, back to the issue.

I think a reasonable basis for determining whether morality could exist, even in theory, is whether there exists a conscious agent with sufficient free will to choose whether to commit an action he or she knows can cause pain, harm, or suffering to another conscious person.  Another prerequisite is that the conscious agent him or herself has the same basic psychological makeup and/or body of knowledge that it is wrong to cause such pain, harm, or suffering to others (barring extraordinary or very narrowly specific circumstances).

 

Consider a hypothetical island completely devoid of sentient animal life yet bears an abundance of food items fit for human consumption, plus sufficient fresh water to support a few a fairly large group of humans (e.g.  possibly some Polynesian islands before humans arrived).  No morality can exist here, even in theory, for nobody exists here nor existed here in the past who could possibly cause harm to come nor be harmed by any act.

Now add one person to it, to create a Robinson Crusoe situation.  From here, we can start with three scenarios:  (1) Nobody else ever will be on the island at any time in the future after he dies, and “Robinson” knows this, (2) a second person will be on the island during his lifetime, and (3) a second person will be on the island after his lifetime. 

It is relevant to separate the situation in which someone exists into (2) and (3) because some acts we commit may well have effects on others after our death.  The best known examples of such acts are those leading to leading to environmental degradation and certain social issues. For the former, global warming and species extinction, plus by many indications Easter Island before Europeans discovered it.  For the latter, enslavement of Africans in the 17th century New World, which significantly impacts on ethnic relations to this very day.  

Instances (1) and (2) are, as far as I know, not debatable.  The former, of course can never be proven in reality, for there’s always the possibility that even one single person could visit that island later, however briefly and far into the future.  Furthermore,  the average person who is both thoughtful and honest should be well aware of this. Hence, I only bring up (1) for the sake of showing how it’s difficult to see how morality can exist if only one person had, does, or ever will exist in a particular place for all eternity.  If only one person and only one person will ever exist on this island and he knows this with all certainty, then nobody else could be affected by any actions he carries out.

In (2), morality clearly does exist because two people occupy the same place at the same time. Therefore, acts by one can easily affect the other, whether for good, ill, or neither.  Whether morality can still exist on this island after the death of one or the other person is more complex,  particularly when considering the passage of time and whether we can judge assign a moral or ethical value to acts outside the living existence of anyone alive today.

Using this “Robinson Crusoe” example, we can ask if morality still exist even after the death of either “Robinson” or the other person.  In this particular case, we can suppose “Robinson”, with malice aforethought, murdered the second person for whatever malicious reason.   He did so when the other person could have not in any reasonable way be regarded as having threatened  “Robinson’s” life, physical or mental health or functionality, fundamental human rights, dignity, or property.   Given that only “Robinson” remains alive, would his act suddenly become moral on account that the other person no longer is around to object to his act (and thus allow “Robinson” to put forth without any objections whatsoever his own interpretation, ‘spin’ if you will, on the circumstances and overall moral judgment of the island’s ‘history’, in the obviously loose sense of the word)?

I have to say “Robinson’s” act would remain immoral, for no matter how situations change over time, the fact remains that the perpetrator deliberately and with malice in his mind caused an act that was avoidable, pointless, insufficiently compensatory to the target and/or the larger society (in this case two people), and served no higher purpose other than the perpetrators own self-interest or other satisfaction”. It doesn’t matter that the target is no longer around to object.   The only relevancy is that “Robinson” committed an act against another person who we can assume had no desire to die.  Were it necessary for the victim or any other contemporary to remain alive in order to judge an act moral or immoral, then we would have no basis for adjudging the Mongol’s atrocities at Baghdad or Kiev as immoral at all.

The same essential logic undoubtedly applies when still-living targets of acts they objected to yet did not speak out against –  just because the person doesn’t explicitly speak out against the act does not automatically give an ethical free pass to the perpetrator. Otherwise it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold abusive spouses or parents morally culpable for his or her acts against their own family members; or for that matter anyone blackmailed or extorted into performing an act on the perpetrator’s behalf, all while staying silent out of fear of being hurt by the information the blackmailer or extorter.

The temporality issue also operates forward in time, which brings up the next item: the discussion of  Instance (3).

Instance (3) is also more complex. If someone does visit the island after his death and if the visitor is injured or killed by something “Robinson” created or did while he was alive, then whether “Robinson” was immoral to the visitor in particular and to others in general depends on all the specific circumstances surrounding “Robinson’s” act(s) leading to the visitor’s injury or death.   This is where things start to get hairy.

As implied earlier, one would undoubtedly see that even if (2) never were to occur, (3) still has a chance of happening, however slight and far into the future.  Assuming “Robinson” is a likewise thoughtful and honest person, he would see that if he were to, for example, create a dangerous device or substance that could infest the whole island (say, futuristic nanotechnology or genetically-engineered microbes, regardless of how fanciful it sounds in the real world), then he would create a situation in which someone could very well be injured or killed due to his act of creating the said substance or microbes even if it 1,000 years pass before any injury or death does happen to a visitor.  This would remain true even if his only intent is to pass the time on his island, rather than hurt anyone in the future.  This would remain the case even if he believes nobody else will come to the island for at least 1,000 years after his death.   If in 1,001 years, someone does visit the island and is injured or killed from his by-that-time long-ago creation, “Robinson” can be said to be morally culpable for that person’s death for at least two reasons, despite cause and effect being separated by 1,001 years:

a)    He initiated the chain of events leading to person’s death, even if the first cause and the fatal effect are separated by a millennium.

b)    He was aware that his creations could very well be a danger to any future visitors of the island, no matter how distant.

Hence, one can intelligently argue that “Robinson” act was indeed immoral act despite the vast time gap between first cause and effect, on the grounds of willful indifference to the well-being of anyone who happened to visit, if nothing else.  Hence he remains morally culpable for the visitor’s death.

However, suppose “Robinson” did not do anything so fanciful as described above but instead built his dwelling in a valley leading down from a mountain that just happened to be a rarely-active volcano with no obvious indication of an eruption in the past. but it happened due to circumstances “Robinson” could not have reasonably foreseen. For example, the island is actually a rarely-active volcano, with no obvious indication of having erupted in even the geologically recent past.  Suppose our 1,001 years later visitor discovered the remains of a human residence and decided to investigate it. While digging in the remains, the volcano abruptly and unpredictably erupts – sending a juggernaut of ash and poisonous gases down the valley in which “Robinson” lived, killing the visitor. Even assuming the only way the visitor could have been within lethal range of the volcano’s by-products at all was to have been at the ruins of “Robinson’s” home,  it’s still hard to see how “Robinson” could in any way be morally culpable in the visitor’s death, even if he did indeed start chain of events that lead to that death; for “Robinson” could not have reasonably known that the island was peroidicaly volcanic at all, let alone been expected to know that the volcano would erupt that fateful day 1,001 years later.

 CONCLUSION

If all the above is correct, morality exists when at least two people exist and can act or say things that affect one or the other person.  In many, if not most, cases, it is also time-independent.  Immoral acts are still immoral even if nobody objects to the act, whether due to the death of all targeted person(s) or to silence on the targets’ part.  Likewise, one can rightfully adjudge any future unreasonable act of hurtfulness toward another as immoral, even if that act occurs future-ward of the lifetimes of all people alive at the time of the judger’s death. Last but not least, we can still rightfully adjudge a person’s act as moral or immoral even if cause and effect are separated by great stretches  of time, even if there is no possibility whatsoever of the two persons meeting one another.

What is Truth? A Personal Pondering and Observation

What is Truth?

The simplified version.

Truth is that which is so, or which exist independent of our perceptions.

That means truth is what is, rather than what we think we know. For example, someone sees a mirage on a hot day and happens to be is fooled into thinking it is water. The perception of the mirage as water does not make that mirage water. Nor does the fact that he sees something visually resembling water make the thing water. Only after further investigation will the thing prove to be a mirage (i.e., that credible and reliable maps show no such body of water exists as large as that suggested on the horizon at that location). Nevertheless, mirages do have traits that distinguish them from water bodies. If the phenomenon behaves in a way consistent with a mirage and not consistent with a real water body, then that is simply strong evidence that is a mirage and not a water body. To be sure, this evidence is important, and in fact have a lot of respect for this way of determining what is likely to be true. This still does not change the fact that a thing having traits consistent with the characteristic of a certain phenomenon does not prove it is indeed the said phenomenon.

However, to say that a claim needs to be verified in order to be true confuses a falsehood with an unknown truth. For example, suppose you were time warped back to 1980 and you told some people that there is a certain planet of a precisely mass orbiting a particular star in the sky (for example, the 0.5 Jupiter-mass sized planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi – the first planet discovered orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system). They would think you were crazy or high, but you would still be speaking the truth despite that the technology of the time could not detect anything even suggesting that there is a 0.5 Jupiter-massed planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. Therefore, while verifiability is indespensible to proving a claim true, it does not follow that verifiability is necessary for a claim to be true.  For credibility, yes; for actually being true, no. To claim that the planet around 51 Pegasi did not exist until we discovered implies humans were an active agent in causing the planet to come into existence, which is practically indistinguishable from believing in magic. So it is that verifiability is not a necessary element in a thing being a part of the truth, even if that part of the truth is not currently known to us.

So it seem that the truth is the nature of the thing and all things, plus their interactions with each other, even if there is no intellect around to perceive it. For example, 100,000 years after the Big Bang, there were photons, collapsing clouds of hydrogen and helium gas, the components of those said atoms, “dark energy”, (possibly) dark matter, the fundamental forces of nature, and little else. No intellect was present at the time to perceive all this (or at least it’s hard to see how any intellect could be present – barring supernatural belief systems), yet those things are from our perspective extremely likely to have indeed existed. If they existed at that time, then they did exist – regardless of the fact that nobody were around to perceive them. I suppose you can say that the presence of a self-aware intelligence who could perceive such things is a prerequisite for truth to exist, but I take an “outside looking in” perspective at the whole matter (picture a nonconscious data collector outside our universe recording what is going on in this “soap bubble” we inhabit – then by some accident downloaded all that data to the computers of a long-dead civilization).

Still, not everything can be proved mathematically (which essentially is what physical sciences and even much of biological science boils down to, especially in matters of human emotions and actions, quality of life, and so forth. The latter has both relative economic and emotional elements.

I suppose right now the issue is what is a fact, what is a truth, and is there any relevant difference between them? Perhaps one can say ‘truths are a set of facts that tie into each other’, I’m undecided at this point. OTOH, I could also argue that a single fact alone is also a truth, even in isolation from other facts that give it meaning (“meaning” is even more sticky, because we can ask if a fact still has meaning independent of the lack of observers, or if meaning is only relevant to sentient beings [i.e. humans where only this planet is concerned]).

Proving a Negative – Claiming you cannot prove a negative is true as far as it goes. Yet as discussed above, unproven or unprovable is altogether different from being false. Still, it is possible to disprove something to the satisfaction of reasonable people. For example, Captain Cook’s thorough exploration of the Pacific thoroughly disproved the existence of a continent in that ocean’ southern hemisphere tropics. This certainly was a case of proving a negative: proof that no continent exists in the southern tropics of the Pacific Ocean (meaning between Australia and South America).

Selective perception – (the tendency of our mind to filter out facts and data that contradict our viewpoints) causes us to have a distorted view of the truth, even if our view is based on actually true perceptions. Hence, we tend to have a “funhouse mirror” picture of the truth. However, our brain may subconsciously shove aside other relevant facts that present the truth in a less biased way. Hence, while it is certainly possible through training and life experience to will yourself to see past any personal whims you may have, it is likely not possible for humans to do so completely.

Subjectivity – While some truths out there may be subjective (mostly value judgments, especially those that only you and you alone experience), many, perhaps most truths appear to be objective fact – including statements about a person’s subjective beliefs.

Unless you operate within unprovable Solipsistic claims, I cannot see how truth in general is totally subjective (i.e. what’s true or not depends on your point of view). This is because in the case of verifiably true matters two different people can have contradictory points of view. E.g. Latitude 39 degrees north 100 degrees west: One believes it is in the USA, another believes it is not. The two people can’t both be right at the same time, though barring further knowledge or data it is in principle possible for one or the other claimant to be speaking the truth.*

Still, there is subjectivity in some matters but even here the subjectivity of one’s personal preferences can still be an objective description of reality. To say “Lemon cake tastes good” is a subjective claim. To say “Bob thinks lemon cake tastes good” is a claim about what the objective truth is. The former is just a personal opinion which some may disagree with. The latter is a claim about a particular person’s own tastes, in this case Bob’s. That claim about Bob may be either true or false (in this case, it’s true). Furthermore, “Bob likes spinach” is also a claim about what the objective truth is (which in this case is false – he can’t stand spinach).

*FYI, it is true. that lat/long is in NW Kansas.
Since 2500 years we know two kinds of TRUTH, the everyday truth and an existential one.

Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the outside world. As far as I can tell, that’s phrase is the correct translation for the Roman formula for an important relationship, which founded two main streams in philosophy – nominalism and idealism, basing on your perspective, which part of the two you think is depending from the other.

In the last century TRUTH usually has been seen as a logical function in the sense that Karl Popper formulated. All statements have to be verified or falsified. This encompasses all events in science and everyday life. When I say: “Tomorrow it will rain”, we can wait until tomorrow to prove or decline it.

All statements concerning our existential truth cannot be verified. If we suffer similar experiences than someone other, we can empathize and understand what the other person feels and means by suffering, but not prove or disprove it. The deepest moments in life are hard to communicate. Therefor humility in the big questions is the only right attitude, because there is no chance to verify or falsify any statement about existential experiences, visions, dramatic changes in life.

Speculations, thoughts, and my general musings about society, the world, and the universe.