Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Next Big Space Project

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan have written an opinion piece in USA Today accusing Obama of killing America's space program and destroying America's leadership in space.

(See: USA Today: Is Obama grounding JFK's space legacy?)

I hold the opposite view. Obama's vision for space development was the best things and most hopeful plan I have seen since Apollo – at least until Congress ran over it – severely wounding (though not entirely killing) it.

As I see it, Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan, as well as a great many space activists, are simply stuck in the past. They want to relive the glory days in which a President steps up to the microphone to announce to the nation another grand space project comparable to Apollo, whereby the nation rallies around the cause and agrees to devote massive amounts of will and resources reaching this grand and glorious goal.

Because Obama did not do that, he deserves their contempt. On the other hand, they had praise for Bush, who offered a plan that fit this model – the Constellation project.

However, these types of huge programs are substantially worthless.

The Apollo program was not worthless. It served its purpose as a proxy war with the Soviet Union that accomplished something great – much better than destroying half the world with a rain of nuclear weapons. However, we have no proxy war to fight now. That is precisely why we lack the public will to have another program like Apollo.

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the proxy war ended. We had won. Immediately after this – well before Apollo 13 even launched, the United States had moved it. The game was over. But, unfortunately, some of the players in that game have not gotten used to the idea that the game has ended. They want to keep playing the same old game.

It’s not difficult to understand this attitude. While the game was being played, they were national heroes. They still live in the glory of that wonderful victory that they pulled off against the Soviet Union. Wanting to relive (at least by proxy) their glory days, they demand more of the same. Because the President does not wish to provide it, they accuse the President of ruining America.

That game is over. It ended 40 years ago. It was a great effort. We won. That's something to be proud of (and something to feel a great deal of relief over). But that game has ended. It is time to move on.

Going forward, we need a space program that makes sense in the 21st century, not an instant replay of cold-war posturing.

The new space program does not consist of proxy-war projects headed by a government bureaucracy. It is to be found in the efforts of companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Bigalow, SpaceDev, and Armadillo.

I have intentionally left Lockheed and Boeing off of this list. These companies made a great deal of money supporting the proxy war of the 1960s and its aftermath. They have a great deal of incentive to see the proxy-war form of project continue. Their laziness and lack of innovation is exactly what makes the smaller companies listed in the previous program viable. The biggest threat those other companies face is that these giants might actually decide to become entrepreneurs again.

In saying this, it is also the case that space development is a public good that deserves some amount of public support. Ultimately, space development is the best hope we have for the long-term survival of the human race. The possibility of setting up a set of diverse and independent cultures will allow for a degree of social experimentation in different political and social models that we have not seen in nearly two centuries.

These benefits argue that governments should invest some money in these projects. However, that investment should be consistent with harvesting the public goods that space development promises to provide. This is NOT done by announcing another Apollo-style proxy war project. This is done by offering support for projects that lie in the same direction as the profit-making opportunities that private companies have identified.

America is in the forefront of the computer industry. However, we do not keep our lead by having the President announce hundred-billion dollar projects to build the largest and fastest computer. It happens because American entrepreneurs realize that there is a profit to be made in making and selling computers that serve real human needs. The effect of a hundred-billion dollar computer project would not be to ensure American leadership, but to divert a hundred billion dollars from productive computer development that serves human needs into a public computer project that exists merely for show.

We might get a few useful spinoffs from another proxy war type space project - but we would also get spinoffs from a hundred-billion project to dig the biggest hole we can dig in 10 years and filling it in again, or a hundred billion dollar project to make the largest possible ball of string (or pyramid).

Here, again, I come back to the notion that the Apollo program was a proxy war. Yes, the Apollo program produced a great many technological innovations that ultimately proved useful. But not nearly as many - and not in nearly as short a time - as did World War II. Proxy wars, like real wars, are great at producing these types of benefits. But that does not make them worth the cost.

We do not need, and it does not serve our national interests, to have another huge proxy-war space project. What we need is for the government to provide what help it can to whatever private initiatives people can imagine that aim to serve real needs and interests.

We need to stop living in the 1960s and start living in the 2010s.

Rewards and Punishments

Before I took a brief detour to discuss the rapture, I was posting about the fact that you are an intentional agent in the world with desires motivating you to realize that which you desire. You are surrounded by other intentional agents. However, the fact that you desire that P provides them with no motivation to realize P or to refrain from realizing not-P.

So, what can you do to get these other agents to realize P or, at least, refrain from realizing not-P?

I have looked at three options so far. Given an intentional agent in the community with a desire that Q, you might have an opportunity to realize P with any of the following:

(1) Bargaining: "If you act so as to realize P, then I will act so as to realize Q."

(2) Threats: "Unless you act so as to realize P, I will act so as to realize not-Q."

(3) Belief Modification: "The best way for you to realize Q is via Action A (which will realize P).

There are versions of each of these for getting other agents to refrain from realizing not-P.

In this post, I would like to discuss a fourth option.

Desire modification.

I want to begin by introducing another fact about those other intentional agents that you find yourself living with. For the most part, they each have a reward-learning system. The way this works is that, when an agent performs an act that produces a state called a "reward", their desire to perform that type of action gets stronger. And if an action produces a state of "punishment", an aversion to performing such an act grows stronger.

Furthermore, those other intentional agents have mirror neurons. This means that if Agent A experiences a reward or punishment, and agents B, C, and D witness it, then they will experience something very similar to the same state that A has experienced, with these same effects.

So, when A performs a type of action that would help to realize P, and you reward him in the presence of B, C, and D, then all four agents will likely acquire a slightly stronger desire to perform that type of act - contributing to the greater realization of P in the future.

The same is true if you punish A for acts that tend to realize not-P in the presence of B, C, and D.

In fact, you don't even need to have a real agent A performing a real action resulting in a real reward or punishment to have this effect on B, C, and D. Agent A might be a fictitious character, enduring fictitious rewards and punishments, while the community identifies him as somebody who would be worthy of rewards or punishments in the real world. The effect will still be to trigger the reward-learning system in the audience so as to promote some desires and inhibit others.

Using these tools, you have the ability to cause that intentional agent with the desire that Q to acquire a desire that R which, in turn, will help to realize P. Perhaps you can cause him to have a desire that P.

In my post on bargaining, I mentioned that bargains, where one person would complete their terms before the other, are doomed to failure. In these cases, you would be wise to seek out those with an aversion to breaking promises. And you have reason to acquire this property yourself so that others (with useful bargains to present) will have reason to seek you out.

Now, you have a way of promoting this aversion to breaking promises. By publicly rewarding and praising those who keep promises - and punishing and condemning those who do not, one can strengthen the desire to keep promises in the community at large. Stories in which the heroes keep promises even at great cost and villains break promises would also be useful.

The same methods can be used to promote an aversion to making threats and an aversion to lying.

Of course, you are not the only one in the community who has reason to trigger the reward-learning system to promote aversions to promise-breaking, threats, and lies. You should be able to convince a great many others that they have many and strong reasons to join you in this project.

Remember, false beliefs can seriously muck up this project.

If people get it into their head that eating with the left hand will offend the gods, who will punish the people with floods and famine, they might draw the false conclusion that they have reason to condemn - and to promote an aversion to - left-handed eating.

A fish-vendor might have difficulty convincing people to eat more fish, until he circulates a story about some divine power that will bestow blessings on the community whose people who eat fish on Friday - causing people to think that they have reason to praise those actions and punish non-compliance.

People, victims of foolish notions like prayer will bring rain or prevent terrorist attacks, or who come to think that God directs the course of hurricanes to punish the acceptance of homosexuality, might think that they have reason to direct the reward-learning system in directions that there is no real-world reason to travel.

It's rewards and punishments are unjustified.

Of course, the same is true of non-religious systems that are grounded on false premises - such as act-utilitarianism, Ayn Rand's Objectivism, intrinsic value theories, and any and all forms of social contract theory.

To avoid these unjustified rewards and punishments and the misdirection of our learned sentiments, we have reason to surround ourselves with people who have some aversion to making these mistakes.

People who have this aversion will be motivated to think twice about who they reward and who they punish. They will seek to double-check their work for possible errors. In the realm of punishment, they will want to presume innocence and will need to have guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The greater the punishment, the greater the strength of these presumptions.

Just as we have reason to promote in others an aversion to unjustified rewards and punishments, they have reason to promote this aversion in us.

Now, we have a way to promote this aversion to unjustified rewards and punishments. We do this by praising those who seek solid ground for their rewards and punishments, while we condemn those who assign praise and condemnation recklessly.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Apollo +50: The Space Race Begins

50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy started the space race.

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft.

We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior.

We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.

But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Let's be honest. This was a proxy-war with the Soviet Union. In an age of intercontinental missiles and nuclear warheads, people were reluctant to enter into a genuine shooting war. The Bay of Pigs Invasion happened only 5 weeks earlier - on April 17th. Five days before that, the Soviet Union had put a man into space. It seemed as if America was weak - scientifically and militarily.

And these two elements - science and military - were not distinct. It is important to note that the space race used the most modern military technology - missiles and satellites for weather, communication, and observation. One of the fears of the 1960s was that the Soviet Union could control "the high ground" of space.

Space activists tend to ignore this historic context in order to portray space exploration as a peaceful project aiming at the exploration and development of space. They do not understand why the same motivation does not exist today and wonder about what inspire a new generation to the same ends.

As a proxy war, Kennedy needed to pick an end that would provide a genuine test of the country's abilities and will. Landing a person on the moon by the end of the decade had a lot in common with the earlier task of defeating Germany and Japan - and doing so by 1945.

Another part of the context that it is necessary to understand is that, by May 25th, 1961, the United States had a total of 15 minutes of flight experience on space missions - and about 5 minutes of experience in space itself. There had been one (1) sub-orbital flight. That was it. NASA was charged with going from launching one astronaut to an altitude of 100 miles and letting him fall back to Earth, to putting people on the moon and bringing them back to Earth, and it had 8 years to do it in.

As for the timeline, I find it interesting to note that, while the decade did not actually end until 1970, the goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade took 1969 as its objective. This meant that the goal was to put a man on the moon and return him in 8.5 years - not in 10 years.

They would accomplish it in a little over 8 years.

So, on May 25th, Kennedy declared a proxy-war against the Soviet Union. Now, the challenge would be to see if we could win the war. It would take an investment in national effort, development, and technology that would be the rival of many violent conflicts. However, all things considered, it would prove to be far less costly - and far less destructive - than the alternative.

That depends, of course, on whether the American people were up to the challenge.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Science, Religion, and the Rapture

Let me identify what I hold to be the most significant difference between science and religion.

Science allows people to make useful predictions of the future. Religion does not.

Science says that the Sun will use up all of its hydrogen in five to seven billion years and swell in size - making life on Earth impossible at best, or consuming the Earth, unless steps are taken to change this future. It also tells us what steps can be taken and how to take them to increase our chances of success.

The vast majority of predictions we get from religion fall into two groups.

One group consists of predictions whose failure cannot be confirmed. The utter failure on the part of religion to make useful predictions on matters that can be confirmed suggests that we should expect the same failure rate with respect to these unverifiable predictions.

The other group consists of riddles of vague claims where a wide variety of results can be fit into the prediction after the fact. A willingness to stretch the meanings of words entirely out of shape means that there is no future event that cannot be fit into the "prediction' after the fact.

Of course, as any fortune teller will tell you, if you make enough predictions a few of them are going to turn out right simply by blind luck.

All of this is simply worthless nonsense. It has no practical value whatsoever.

Science has made our lives better off because, with science, people can make specific predictions and those predictions actually come true.

Think of the computer on which you are reading this posting. This act of reading what I wrote is the product of being able to accurately predict a huge set of events whereby what I put on this post now will show up on your screen at the time that you are reading this. The people who designed and built this computer did so by stringing together a massive set of predictions.

Not one of those predictions came out of scripture. You can't read scripture and come away with a set of reliable predictions. You can try to have faith that the unconfirmable predictions are reliable - but they are far more likely to be wrong than right.

Why is that?

Because there are simply far more options that fit in the category of "wrong".

You pick at a card out of a deck. I guess that you picked the King of Hearts. I can have faith that you picked the king of hearts. However, it is not the case that you're guess has a 50-50 chance of being right. Chances are, you are far more likely to be wrong than right. Given a sufficiently large deck (one with a near infinite number of cards), I can virtually guarantee that whatever card you guess without evidence to be the correct card, you are almost certainly wrong.

This is the source of my own confidence that the claims of any religion can be rejected. Religious claims draw a random card out of a nearly infinitely large deck. I don’t need to know what the card actually says to know that the religious person sitting next to me who, without the slightest evidence, claims to “know” what the card is, is almost certainly wrong.

The predictions we get from science are not perfect - and they almost certainly never will be. However, this does not change the fact that the predictions we get from science are the only truly useful and reliable predictions we have available.

I have often condemned people for making overly broad claims about religion. Yet, this is a claim about religion that I would not classify as overly broad. Religion has no ability to make useful predictions above and beyond those that science can provide.

If somebody wants to predict the end of the world using religion - they can pretty much be ignored. They know nothing, and their guess is almost certainly wrong. However, the predictions for the end of the world that science has given us can be accepted with the degree of precision that science allows. We've got serious problems ahead - a couple hundred million years down the road - and extremely serious problems to worry about in five to seven billion years.

It is possible - though unlikely - that we might meet our end earlier by colliding with another object in space. We could be hit by a passing star, a black hole, or a rogue planet thrown out of some other solar system and sent on a collision with Earth.

There are options that fall far short of destruction of the Earth that are still tragic - and still worth avoiding. But the ability to predict them and avoid them gains nothing from scripture. They come from science, or they do not come at all.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ethics After the Rapture

Since this rapture did not happen, I think it us now time to seek answers to a few questions.

I will start with these. . .

(1) How much money did Harold Camping's and its executive officers take in on this campaign?

(2) Did its decision makers act in any way as if the Rapture they claimed would happen was certain to take place? Did they disavow Camping's claims?

I am interested here in the possibility of fraud - perhaps not in the legal sense (making one subject to criminal penalties) but at least the moral sense (making one worthy of the condemnation and contempt of good people).

How much profit did those people realize? And what is the specific nature of their culpability?

Here's a question - why did they not sell off their broadcast license to those who denied the Rapture and use the money to set up the means to protect people they loved who might be "left behind"?

Would a lawsuit be able to compel them to release emails and other records detailing their activities in the months leading up to May 21? Would it be possible to see if they were delivering private assurances to friends that contradicted their public statements - planning vacations to places that should not exist? What is the relationship between what they claimed and what they actually believed?

Fraud identifies one level of culpability. Did these agents display the lack of aversion to making claims they believed to be false? As I mentioned in my previous post, we have reason to condemn such people to inhibit these traits - because of the harm that they do (a harm that is very much evidence in the effects that this failure will have on the lives of those who actually believed it). It certainly does us no good to construct a society in which people like this profit. If they profit, that will encourage others to pursue the same path, leading to more suffering.

Even if these agents are innocent of moral fraud, that does not clear them of the charge of intellectual recklessness.

The drunk driver may not be guilty of intentionally murdering the child he runs over on the way home from the bar, but that hardly proves that he is a moral saint. He is still guilty - still worthy of condemnation - because of the lack of concern with the risks he creates for others through his actions.

Here, I see no possible defense against this charge of moral recklessness - a type of intellectual laziness and disregard for the potential harm caused to others that others can certainly influence through condemnation.

Another facet of their moral culpability is exposed by asking the question, "What are they going to do for the people made worse off by their actions."

Family Radio owns over $100 million in assets - not counting the private wealth of its executives. Their actions lead people to quit their jobs and empty their retirement accounts (and send the money to Family Radio). They had to. The only way to be saved is to truly believe, and no person who held onto their assets could be thought of as "true believers". The threat was explicit. Believe, or suffer with the Earth through five months of hell until the world is destroyed. Prove your belief by acting as a person who believes the world will end on May 21st would act. Give away your worldly possessions - you will have no need of them. Of course, Family Radio is right there asking for donations.

Now that they have been proved wrong, and they have a large audience of loyal listeners made worse off by their actions - do they feel even a slight bit of shame and guilt, of moral responsibility, for the consequences of their ill-conceived actions? A true believer shows his belief through his actions - by acting as a person who believes that the world will end would act. A morally responsible person shows his moral character through his actions - by taking action to restore something to those that they have harmed.

So, is Family Radio going to take any percentage of its $100 million in assets and try to restore something at least to those harmed the most by putting trust in them? Or will they simply take what they were given, and ask for more? This tells us something of their moral character - something of what type of people they are.

Of course, the executives at Family Radio could respond, "It's not our responsibility. We did not force our listeners to drain their accounts and give us their money."

In one sense, this is not true. Threatening them with hell on earth is not much different than threatening them with a gun. Threatening them with hell is not much different than threatening them with a gun that is not loaded. It counts as force - when the gun is put to the head of somebody who does not already know that the gun is not loaded.

Even without this argument. Somebody trusted you, and now they are worse off because of it. You did not warn them of your possibilities of being wrong. You told them that you were certain you were right. You told them that they would suffer severe consequences if they did not listen. And, now, they are worse off then they were before. A decent person would feel some sense of responsibility for those results. A person who says, "Hey, tough luck. That's what you get for trusting me," deserves only our contempt.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Beliefs and Lies

You are an intentional agent in the world. You have desires that motivate you to act so as to create or preserve states of affairs in which the things that you desire are realized.

You are surrounded by other intentional agents with their own desires.

Furthermore, your “desire that P” does not, in itself, motivate anybody but you to realize states in which P is true.

How can you get others to act so as to realize states in which P is true or, at least, refrain from acting so as to realize states in which P is false?

I have already discussed two options.

(1) Bargaining. “If you act so as to realize P, then I will act so as to realize Q.” You give the other person an instrumental reason to realize P – as a means to realizing Q.

(2) Threats. "Unless you act so as to realize P, I will act so as to realize not-Q."

In this post, I want to introduce another fact about intentional agents and discuss another way in which you might get them to realize P.

This fact us that, while desires motivate agents to realize states in which those desires are objectively fulfilled, their actions are mediated by their beliefs. If an agent is thirsty and believes that a pitcher contains clean, cool water, he will drink the water - perhaps discovering after the fact that his belief was mistaken.

So, as an intentional agent with a desire that P, one way you can get another intentional agent with a desire that Q to act to realize P is by altering his beliefs. If, given his beliefs, an act that realizes P will realize Q, he now has a motivating reason to perform the act that will realize P on his way to realizing Q.

This phrase, "reason to act so as to realize P" is intentionally ambiguous. He may be caused to intentionally realize P as a means to realizing Q. Or he may be caused to act in ways that realize P as an unintended side effect or realizing Q. Your desire that P is only concerned with the realization of P, not with how it is done (unless that is a part of P).

So, if you can convince another agent with a desire that Q to believe T, he will act so as to realize P. If you convince him to believe not-T, he will not act so as to realize P. Given these facts, in this simple model, your only motivation is to convince that agent to believe T. That is the only option that will realize P.

Is T true?

You have no motivation to even ask, let alone answer, that question in this simple model. The other agent's motivation to act depends only on believing T, not on whether T is true.

What is true of you in this case is true of every other agent out there giving you information. If convincing you to believe V will cause you to act so as to realize Q, then that other agent has a motivating reason to cause you to believe V. He has no reason at all to refrain from convincing you to believe V based on the fact that V is false - not unless this is built into Q or that agent has some other motivating reason to refrain from convincing others of falsehoods.

That other agent may have no motivating reason to consider the truth value of V in getting you to believe V, but you do. Your desire that P gives you a motivating reason to realize P. You use your beliefs to choose those actions (and inactions) most likely to realize P. You will act as if your beliefs are true. When they are not true, this will likely have an adverse effect on your ability to predict accurately. You might choose the action that realizes not-P.

You are thirsty. There is a glass of what you believe is clean, cool water free for the taking in the server tray. You drink from the glass. You are mistaken; it is not clean water. You end up being violently ill. If you had known that in advance, you would have never drank from the glass. Your lack of true and relevant beliefs would cause you to act in a way that you would not have acted if your relevant beliefs were true and complete. And, of the two actions, the one grounded in false beliefs was mistaken.

Your choice of actions that (you predict) will realize P will almost always (though, in important cases, not always) depend on having true beliefs. So, while that hypothetical other agent only has motivating reason to convince you of what will cause you to realize Q - whether true or false, you have a motivating reason to be convinced only of that which is true.

And while you only have a motivating reason to convince others of that which will cause them to realize P, they have motivating reasons to be convinced only of that which is true.

Now, while other people are motivated to tell you that which will help to objectively satisfy their desire that Q, what if their desires includes a particularly strong aversion to making false claims?

If such a person existed, that person would refrain from providing you with false information - or, at least, with information he thought to be false - even when he would otherwise benefit. Perhaps, when put up against something like his own aversion to death or the well-being of his child, he may be motivated to lie. However, where his aversion to lying is strong, it would take something like this to get him to lie.

Even here, a particularly strong aversion to lying would serve as a particularly strong motivation to find some other way - any way - to accomplish the same end without the lie. Here, too, the motivation is the same as that a person with a strong aversion to pain would have to find some option that promised not to involve pain before reluctantly settling on an option that does.

The instrumental value of identifying those with an aversion to lying would motivate agents to adopt methods that reliably identify agents as having or lacking this aversion to making false claims. This might include working with others to identify those who lack this aversion - perhaps identifying them as "liars".

And, if methods existed (e.g., by using the reward-learning system) to promote or strengthen this aversion to lying, your motivating reasons to acquire accurate information suggests that you employ these methods - and negotiate with others having the same interest - to promote this aversion to lying. A social institution for encouraging this aversion to lying, identifying those who do not have it, and labeling them publicly, could well be mutually beneficial.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Analysis of Threats

You are an intentional agent in the world. You have desires that motivate you to realize states of affairs in which the things that you desire have been realized.

You are surrounded by other intentional agents with their own desires (i.e, a “desire that Q”).

Furthermore, your “desire that P” does not, in itself, motivate anybody but you to realize states in which P is true.

How can you get others to act so as to realize states in which P is true or, at least, refrain from acting so as to realize states in which P is false?

I have already discussed one option.

Bargaining. “If you act so as to realize P, then I will act so as to realize Q.” You give the other person an instrumental reason to realize P – as a means to realizing Q. One problem with bargaining, however, is that as soon as one participant completes their part of the bargain, there is no more motivation for the other participant to complete their part. It loses its instrumental value. Some other motivation is needed – such as reputation or an aversion to breaking promises. Dealing with a person who lacks further motivation means it will be foolish to be the first to meet the terms of one’s agreement.

Today, I want to look at another option.

Threats. You find somebody with a desire that Q and say, "Unless you help to realize P, I will act so as to realize not-Q."

For example, "If you help me to rob this bank, or I will cause your child a great deal of pain.”

At first glance, threats are taken to be the opposite of bargains. However, a quick second glance shows us that they have a lot in common. Every bargain contains an implicit threat - "If you do not act so as to realize P, then I will not act so as to realize Q." Every threat can be expressed as a bargain - the proverbial "deal you can't refuse."

One of the problems with threats is that other agents also have motivation to make threats. You may find yourself faced with other intentional agents giving you the choice, “Either you act so as to realize Q, or I will act so as to realize not-P.” Such as, “Your money or your life,” or “The penalty for offending God or the King is death.”

The fact of the matter is – like it or not – threats have, and will continue to have, instrumental value. They will always be a means for people with a desire that Q, confronted with other agent with a desire that P, to get those others to realize states in which Q is true. This is not going to change.

So, let us assume that somebody is threatening you. If you do not act to realize Q, then he will act to realize not-P – where P is something that you want. You want your child to be free from pain, so the threatening agent says, “If you do not give me the money in your bank account, I will realize a state in which your child is not free from pain.”

One thing for you to look for is whether the agent has any reason to realize not-P other than your decision to help realize Q. Until you realize Q, then his restraint from realizing not-P has instrumental value – to motivate you to realize Q. Once you realize Q, then he loses any motivation to restrain from realizing not-P, and his other desires will dominate his action. If those other desires motivate him to realize not-P, then your realizing Q was for nothing.

Consider, for example, a bargain with your kidnapper. “If you give us $250,000, then you will get your child back.” You give them $250,000. Q, now, has been realized. They now have no more incentive to keep your child alive. It does not do them any good to do so – unless, somewhere, they have some other desire motivating them not to kill your child.

Just like with bargains, one possible motivation is reputation. If he wants to make useful threats in the future – to kidnap other people and collect ransom from them - it would be useful (have instrumental value to him) to be known as somebody who does not realize not-P when those he threatens realize Q.

However, the instrumental power of reputation requires that the agent wants to make future threats. If this is “the one big haul” through which the agent will be “set for life”, then it would be foolish to expect the threatening agent to keep their side of the bargain based on reputation. The same is true if the threat is made in secret, so that the threatening agent’s reputation cannot be affected.

Another possible source of motivation is an aversion to breaking promises. Here, threats are just like bargains. Whereas the instrumental value of the threat is what motivates the agent to make the threat, the aversion to breaking promises will motivate the agent to live up to their end of the bargain even after the person threatened has done what is demanded. If you can reliably determine if others have an aversion to breaking promises, you can reliably determine if the person threatening you will keep their end of the bargain after you have kept yours.

I have mentioned that the threat – or the restraint from doing that which was threatened - loses its instrumental value the instant you realize Q. It also loses its instrumental value the instant that you make the realization of Q impossible. If the agent threatens to kill your child unless you turn over the key to the vault, turning the key over to the threatening agent, or destroying the key, both eliminate the instrumental value of not killing your child. In many cases, the best option is neither to realize Q, nor to render Q impossible, but to stall and negotiate.

The last claim I want to make about threats in this post is to point out that, all things being equal, you have reason to surround yourself with people who have an aversion to making threats; or, at least, an aversion to threatening you. A person with an aversion to issuing threats will not come to you and say, “either you act so as to realize Q, I will act to realize not-P,” even when it would otherwise benefit them to do so. This is true in the same sense that a person with an aversion to pain will avoid states of affairs where he is in pain, even where he would otherwise benefit.

But, let's be honest, there will always be some people who deal in threat-making. Like I said earlier in this posting, threats will continue to have instrumental value. There will always be some motivation to generate threats. So, instead of the pipe dream of pursuing a universal aversion to making threats, perhaps an aversion to threatening non-threatening individuals will be more useful. There are a lot of details to work out as to exactly what this would look like. However, the general idea seems to make some sense.

And, as with bargains, people who can reliably detect whether others have this aversion to threatening non-threatening individuals will have reason to welcome those who have this property, and exclude those who do not. To obtain the benefits of belonging to such a community, it would be useful to acquire the property of having an aversion to threatening non-threatening individuals yourself.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bargaining and Promise Keeping

You are an intentional agent with desires that motivate you to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.

You are surrounded by other intentional agents.

However, desires only motivate the agents that have them. Therefore, the fact that you have these desires does not automatically give anybody a motivating reason to realize states of affairs that would objectively satisfy your desires. Going up to somebody and pleading, "I have a desire that P" can well lead to a shrug of indifference or even motivate the agent to realize not-P, if (for example) he hates you.

So, what options do you have in interacting with these other agents?

One option is the option to bargain or trade.

You find somebody with a desire that Q, where, that person can realize Q more efficiently with your help, and you say, "If you perform these acts for realizing P, then I will perform these other actions for realizing Q."

With this, you give that person a reason to realize P - by turning it into a means for realizing Q where he already had a motivating reason to realize Q.

Of course, this assumes that P and Q are jointly realizable. If P implies not-Q or Q implies not-P then there is a problem. But there are many cases in which “P and Q” is possible.

Unfortunately, under the assumptions we are making here, a substantial percentage of potential bargains are doomed to failure before they are even made. These are bargains where one agent fulfills his terms before the other one does. As soon as you complete your side of the bargain, and Q has been realized (or, at least, you have completed your steps for realizing Q), then his acting to realize P ceases to become a means for realizing Q. Consequently, his motivation for acting to as to realize P disappears.

You would be quite foolish to trust that he will realize P after you have completed your side of the bargain, unless he has some other motivation supporting the realization of P even after it is no longer an effective means for realizing Q.

One potential motivator could concern reputation. If he wants to enter into future bargains with others, he has reason to avoid being known as somebody who does not complete his side of a bargain. That would reduce his ability to enter into future bargains and reduce his ability to realize states that could best be realized through bargains.

However, this only applies if (1) the other agent has a reason to enter into future bargains, (2) you have the ability to threaten his reputation, and (3) you have the will to use that ability (which might be hindered by threats of violence or just a general aversion to causing trouble). Remove any of these elements, and your bargaining partner no longer faces the motivation of reputation.

Another potential motivator is an aversion to breaking promises. A person with a strong aversion to breaking promises will be strongly disposed to choose actions that will keep the proposition, "I have broken a promise" false. This is true in the same way that a person with a strong aversion to pain will be strongly disposed to keep the proposition, "I am in pain" false.

The person concerned solely with reputation will break a promise when he can get away with it. The person with an aversion to breaking promises will not break a promise even when he is the only person who will ever know about it. This is true in the same way that a person with a strong aversion to pain will avoid situations in which he is in great pain even when he will be the only person to know about the pain.

For that person, the instrumental value of the bargain - that realizing P becomes a means for realizing Q - is his motivation for making the promise. The aversion to breaking promises become his motivation for completing his side of the agreement even if you should finish your part first, and realizing P ceases to become useful for realizing Q.

To the degree that you can reliably detect this aversion to breaking promises in others, where you will complete your part of the bargain before the other party completes theirs, it makes the most sense to bargain with somebody who has this aversion to breaking promises. Furthermore, it would be in your interest to become a reliable detector of the aversion to breaking promises in others.

Now, you should also realize that, what is true of you in this case is true of others as well. Those other intentional agents that exist in the world around you also have reasons to enter into bargains. They have reason to prefer to bargain with people who have an aversion to breaking promises. And they have reason to work on improving their capacity to reliably detect who has this aversion – just as you do.

This means that, if you can acquire this aversion to breaking promises, then you will probably have a comparative advantage over others that those people would seek to bargain with.

At this point, I will not get into the question of whether it is possible to cultivate a desire or aversion. I will leave this discussion at the point that says that if it were possible to cultivate such an aversion, and others are reliable detectors of those who actually have such an aversion, then you almost certainly have a motivating reason to do so.

Of course, it is also true that if you can discover a way to exploit their detection methods and fool them into thinking you have this quality, you have reason to do that as well. Though it will also pay you to teach others how to reliably detect when others are using this technique, so that they can help in identifying and flagging those others.

This leads to a further implication of this system. Not only do you have reason to bargain with those who have an aversion to breaking promises, and to reliably detect those who have this aversion, you have reason to join with others in a campaign to identify and remove or, at least, flag those who lack this aversion to breaking promises. Of course, in doing so, you risk that they will flag you as such a person if you have not cultivated this aversion to breaking promises yourself.

Such is the nature of bargaining and promise-keeping under the assumptions we are working with here. People have no automatic reason to consider the desires of others, but they have reasons to enter into bargains. Bargains will fail where one person completes his terms of the bargain before the other one does – unless the other person faces some other motivation. Reputation is a good but flawed motivator in that people motivated by reputation will break promises they can get away with breaking. On the other hand, people with a strong aversion to breaking promises will keep promises they can get away with breaking. We have reason to prefer bargaining with those agents, with improving our ability to detect those agents, with cooperating with others in detecting those agents, and in being one of those agents.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Specific Claims About Desires

So, here you are, an agent in the world, surrounded by other agents, in which the following are true:

(1) Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

(3) A desire is only a motivating reason to act for the person who has it.

Which means that nobody around automatically has any motivating reason to consider your desires when performing their actions, whatsoever.

I want to go into the implications of this but, before I do, I need to refine this first statement a bit. I need tos specify some more facts about desires.

(1a) Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say that desires are mental states (attitudes) that take as their attitude a proposition (a sentence, capable of being true or false, such as "I am helping a sick child").

(1b) desires are motivating reasons in the sense that they motivate agents to intentionally choose actions that - if their relevant beliefs are true and complete - will realize (make real or make true) the propositions that are the objects of those desires (e.g., to make true the proposition, "I am helping a sick child").

Note that we are talking here about an agent's intentional actions - the actions that an agent chooses to perform or chooses to refrain from performing.

That desires motivate an agent to make a proposition true (realize a state of affairs in which the proposition is true) explains why agents are not motivated by experience machine options. A person with a desire to help sick children, if given the option of entering an experience machine that will stimulate her brain in ways such that she thinks that she is helping sick children - is almost entirely uninviting. This is because the experience machine cannot make the proposition, "I am helping a sick child" true, so it does not objectively satisfy the desire.

Luke Muehlhauser and I discuss this subject in Eposide 15 of Morality in the Real World

So, for the first stastement, it would be more precise to say:

(1) Desires are the only motivating end-reasons for intentional actions that exist.

Desires identify the ends or goals of intentional action - what the agent is aiming for - and motivate agents to realize (to make real) those ends.

So, let me restate your situation.

Here you are, an agent in the world, surrounded by other agents, in which the following are true:

(1) Desires are the only motivating end-reasons for intentional actions that exist.

(3) A desire is only a motivating end-reason for intentional action for the person who has it.

Which means that you are surrounded by agents choosing intentional actions who do not automatically have any motivating end-reasons for choosing intentional actions that realize the propositions that are your ends. In fact, they may have motivating reasons to choose intentional actions that will prevent the realization of your ends.

There ends might include propositions such as, "You are happy and healthy," but could also include propositions such as, "You are enduring a great deal of suffering" or they may seek states of affairs in which your suffering is a byproduct - and they might not care.

What can you do about it?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Desires Motivating Others

In my last posting, I presented two propositions:

(1) The only sensible answer to a "should" question (e.g., Why should I do X?) is to present the agent with some reason for action that exists, or some fact that ties the action or its consequence with some reason for action that exists.

(2) Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

This means that the only sensible and true response to a "should" question is one that relates that action or a consequence of that action to one or more desires.

I presented these against the idea that desirism has some hidden moral commands. These claims tell us something about "should" statements, but they are not, themselves, "should" statements. They tell us, in effect, what facts in the world to look at to provide true and relevant "should" statements.

Now, I want to add the proposition:

(3) Desires only directly motivate the people who have them.

This relates to another objection that I often hear - that desirism claims that each person has some sort of special motivating reason to consider the desires of all other people. The argument is that no such special motivating reason exists, so desirism is to be rejected.

So, actually, the important corrolary to this claim that I actually want to focus on is that desires do not directly motivate - or provide any direct reason for action - to those who do not have them. In order for Agent A's desire to motivate Agent B, then the fact of Agent A's desire must be seen as relating some how to a desire that Agent B has. This could be a desire to fulfill Agent A's desires, or a desire to negotiate with Agent A for mutual benefit, perhaps.

I may ask, "Why shouldn't I talk out loud at the movie theater?"

The answer may be that it disturbs the other customers.

That it disturbed the other customers is a true statement. It is also true that the answer relates the act in question - talking out loud in the movie theater to reasons for action that exist. It this case, it relates the action to the desires of other movie-goers. So, it is a true and legitimate answer to the question.

However, this answer may not provide the talker with any motivation to quit talking.

The talker could simply not care that the other customers are disturbed. He may actually want to disturb the other customers - in which case telling him that talking during the movie disturbs the other customers will give him all the more motivation to talk during the movie.

This is all part of desirism.

There are two facts to note that correspond to this claim.

The reason that only my desires can motivate my action is because only my brain is hooked up to my body in the right way. My actions come from my brain and nowhere else.

The other, far more important fact to consider is that if somebody else's desires were in control of the movements of this body, then they would not even be my actions. If somebody were to hook up a device where they controlled my movements, then the actions of this body would be his, not mine. To say that the actions are mine says that they come from my brain, or my mind.

The objection that desirism asserts that each agent has a special motivating reason to consider the desires of others is false. Desirism denies the existence of any such reason. Furthermore, this denial actually plays an important role in the moral theory.

If agents really did have a direct motivation to consider the desires of others, then morality would not be necessary. The mere fact that actions fulfill or thwart the desires of others would directly motivate the actions of each of us, and give us no need for morality.

However, there is no such special motivation. Desires only provide motivating reasons for the agents who have them. The desires of other agents can be used to offer true and relevant answers to 'should' questions, but will only motivate the agent one is talking to according to how this fact of the desires of others fits with the desires of that agent.

The objection that desirism denies this fact - is a misplaced objection.

Let me say it gain to be clear.

Desires only directly motivate the people who have them.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Should Questions and Reasons for Action

Many people reading my postings on desirism do so under the assumption that it must start with a set of fundamental moral commandments. With this in mind, they then search for an interpretation that is consistent with this assumption. They find their commandment, then set about to criticize it.

However, their fundamental assumption is wrong, which means that their interpretation is incorrect. Consequently, the theory the criticize is not the theory that I wrote.

"Desires are the only reasons that exist" is not a commandment. It is a fact about the world. I do not see any evidence to support claims for the existence of any type of reason for action other than desires.

Also, desirism holds that "should" questions can only be answered by appeals to reasons for action. "Why should I do X?" No answer makes sense that is not a reason for action, or a fact that ties some consequence of the action to a reason for action.

If we tie these two claims together, we get the conclusion that all answers to "should" questions must, directly or indirectly, reference one or more desires. Where those claims appeal to facts, those facts are made relevant (or irrelevant) to the degree that they relate (or fail to relate) some state of affairs to desires.

This still is not a commandment. This is still a statement about what is true or false – though it is a statement about what is true or false regarding “should” statements.

Somebody who wants to dispute these claims either needs to explain how something other than a reason for action or facts that tie consequences to reasons for action can answer a "should" question. Or they need to show evidence of reasons for action that exist other than desires.

A third possible response, of course, is to show that there is a third option that I am overlooking. Between these three, this should exhaust the total set of possible answers.

On the other hand, if this position stands, the next question to ask is: “What follows from these facts that “should” questions are answered by appeals to reasons for action that exist and desires are the only reasons for action that exist?”

But this is a different set of questions. I could be wrong about the implications of these two claims – without being wrong about the claims themselves. So, objections raised to the implications that I draw from these claims do not imply that the claims themselves are false.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Celebration of Violence

One of the moral questions raised in the wake of the killing of Bin Laden is whether it is wrong to celebrate the killing of another person.

After the announcement that U.S. Forces killed Bin Laden, there was dancing in the street - dancing that made some people uncomfortable because it seemed an inappropriate response to killing.

For my part, I will begin by saying that I think I am a great deal safer in a community that does not celebrate killing. People who cheer killing and other forms of violence worry me. I do not know how far their love if violence will take them, or if there is enough aversion to violence to prevent them from acting out in a moment of frustration or anger.

The fact of the matter us, I am far more likely to lose a friend or family member to standard forms if violence - or to see them suffer great harm – then for them to become a victim of terrorism. More friends, relatives, neighbors, and innocent strangers will become victims of violence from the people around them then from foreign agents.

The immediate knee-jerk response to a comment like this tends to be, "Hey, just because I celebrate Bin Laden's death, this doesn't mean that I beat my children or that I will slash the tires of the neighbor who angers me."

No, it doesn't. I never said it did. This is a straw-man argument, though a type of counter-claim I hear most often.

What I said is that a person living in a community that celebrates violence is probably more likely to become the victim of violence than a person living in a community uncomfortable – or that actively condemns – the celebration of violence. That type of claim cannot be countered by asserting, “Well, I would never do such a thing.”

Furthermore, these celebrations of violence – broadcast on national television and made available to children - teach lessons to young minds. Not all young minds are going to learn the same lessons. Here, too, even if a small percentage of young minds are caused to have an affection for violence, or even have their aversion to violence weakened, as a result of seeing violence as something to be celebrated, others are put at greater risk as a result.

We should remember that Bin Laden himself, and most of those who did his bidding, were raised in a culture that embraces and celebrates violence. The cheering of violence is very common in that culture.

Some people might read this and jump to the conclusion that I object to the killing of Bin Laden. That would be false. If my advice had been asked, my advice would likely have been to kill him unless he obviously surrendered. My advice would have been to send in troops because air strikes tell the world that Americans have no aversion to slaughtering and maiming young children – a message we communicate to the world far too often. All things considered, I have no objections to the operation. However, I did not celebrate the killing of Bin Laden. It viewed it as a necessary evil.

There are a lot of empirical assumptions in this post about which I might be mistaken. Perhaps these celebrations promoted a stronger aversion to terrorism and, as a result, made the world safer. Perhaps those who are averse to the celebrations would be so reluctant to stand up to terrorists and tyrants that these evils would flourish in such a community. People would no doubt raise these objections – and they may be right. My answer will not be to dispute them, but I would assert any who expressed utter confidence that these are true to provide their basis for that confidence.

I am not strongly convinced that my conclusions here are correct.

This illustrates the fact that I think there is a science of morality and that there is research to be done to determine the moral facts. I am offering, at best, a hypothesis that we are safer among those who do not celebrate than we are in a community of those who do, and we have reason to bring social forces to bear to create more of the former and fewer of the latter.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Apollo +50 years: Freedom 7: Alan Shepard

50 years ago today, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He took a 15 minute flight involving 5 minutes of weightlessness in which he demonstrated that humans can survive and function efficiently in zero gravity for more than 30 seconds.

These conclusions were far from guaranteed. Up until this point, a human could experience only up to about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time – in an airplane on a parabolic flight. But without gravity, what would happen? Would the eyes cease to function? Would the flow of blood and body fluids from the legs to the head disrupt brain functions?

We had some evidence that humans could survive. After all, the Soviet Union had recently had an astronaut in space for over 90 minutes. But Yuri Gagarin – for all of his bravery (and he was a very brave human being) - didn’t do anything. He was a passenger riding inside of an airtight cannonball shot around the world. Shepherd was given a series of experiments to run through – observation experiments as well as proving the ability to maneuver his Freedom 7 spacecraft.

Ultimately, I hold that the accomplishments of NASA are worth celebrating more than those of the Soviet space program at the time.

The most important reason is because NASA’s successes and failures were open to the public. The Soviet space agency conducted its operations in secrecy, announcing only its successes to the world, or that which it could plausibly present as a success. NASA, on the other hand, had the news media present at every one of its launches. They saw not only the successes, but the failures. And NASA suffered some very embarrassing failures – failures that did nothing to boost American prestige.

Other than the prestige of being able to claim that we are an open society, while the Soviet Union was a closed and secretive society – which is very much something worth bragging about.

So where, in a sense, Gagarin’s near orbit of the earth lasted longer and went further than Shepard's 15 minute flight, Shepherd’s flight accomplished more. And Shepherd’s flight accomplished more – and was more worth celebrating.

However, the human brain does not seem to think that way. It takes distance and length of time as a measure of success – and holds that Americans did not match the Soviet accomplishment until John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962.

In fact, in our national consciousness, Glenn is more widely recognized than Shepard. Many people who do not study the history of space will tell you that Glenn was America’s first astronaut – the first American space hero. They cannot tell you even the names of the Shepard and Gus Grissom – at least in relation to the Mercury program. Shepherd will eventually land on the moon in Apollo 14. Grissom will die in a launch pad fire during a test of what became known as Apollo 1.

And, again, I do not wish to be thought of as claiming that Glenn’s flight is unworthy of honored – that it was “nothing” compared to Shepard. It was a next and substantially larger step than the one Shepard took. It was 4.5 hours spent in weightless space compared to Shepard’s five minutes – though the Soviets had put humans into space for over a day by the time the Americans reached orbit.

Gordon Cooper would be the first American to orbit the Earth for longer than a day – in 1963.

Eventually, the American system of test, study, change, and retest – the scientific-minded attitude that American applied to its space program – which allowed for no supernatural explanations but sought the real causes and effects of real-world changes - would prove superior to the Soviet attitude and methodology. In 8 years, 2 months, and 15 days from the time that this first 15 minute flight took place, NASA would launch a flight that lasted 2 weeks and put two humans on the moon, and returned them safely to earth.

It’s a very powerful way of approaching problems – one that tends to accomplish a lot more than brute force or faith.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Embrace Torture

The killing of Bin Laden has opened up the debate on the value of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (a.k.a. torture).

At the very start, it seems that people are "seeing what they want to see" in the evidence. Those who want to see it as having made a positive contribution look at the evidence and see what they want to see. So do those who say that it doesn't work.

As a matter of fact, no controlled experiments were conducted in which people were randomly assigned to "enhanced interrogation techniques" versus "alternative interrogation techniques" to reveal which group revealed the most and most useful information. The form of evidence that we have violates all of the rules of proof in a scientific sense, allowing room for all of the problems with non-scientific data such as confirmation bias - where agents assert that data that supports their position is solid and anything that contradicts their position is ignored as an anomaly.

But the issue in the ethics of "enhanced interrogation techniques" is not tied up in the question of whether or not it "works".

Murdering your spouse and disposing of her body - and getting away with it - may very well "work" if one's objective is to end a marriage while keeping all the property. But the question of the moral legitimacy of the practice is not tied up in whether or not it does (or could) "work" in a given situation. That is not the moral issue.

Raping a child and threatening to kill her family might be a successful way to rape a child. Threatening to kill her family might actually "work". Does it provide a justification?

Two criticisms can be raised against this.

One is that the Americans who engaged in torture were doing it for a noble reason, as opposed to the people in these examples. However, what counts as a noble reason? Is it or is it not the case that eliminating torture is a noble reason? Is it not the case that reducing or eliminating the all-to-common practice of government leaders torturing people they bring into custody a noble cause?

We judge people not only on the causes the pursue, but the methods they are willing to pursue to obtain those ends.

A person wishes to obtain a heart transplant for his dying wife. A noble cause. So, he kills her identical twin sister in such a way that the heart can be transplanted.

At best, this criticism begs the question and assumes that the elimination of torture is not, itself, a noble reason for action.

The other is that these two counter-examples involve attacks against innocent people. The Bin Laden informants were not innocent.

But who was tortured? And how often? And how many of them were innocent?

I'm not just asking about how many and how often American interrogators tortured people - and who among them proved to be innocent. I am asking about how many and how often people get tortured.

Because accepting and arguing for torture - being a culture that embraces torture and that tells other governments they may embrace torture as well - will undoubtedly result in a lot more torture in the world. We can well trust that those who engage in torture think they have a good reason to do so - just as those who fly airplanes into sky scrapers think they have a good reason for doing so.

So, do we tell the world to embrace this practice and to feel free to engage in it whenever they think it might "work" for them?

Because that is exactly what those who defend this practice are doing. They are telling the world, "Embrace torture. It works."

And what will the results of that be? How many innocent people will be saved when the world learns this lesson that they are to love and embrace torture?