Category: Ethics

Fantastical Places and the Ethics of Architecture

Lemuria was a hypothetical answer to the problem of lemurs in Madagascar and India. It was a connective tissue for the naturalism observed during the formative years of naturalism itself. Only a few years had passed since Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out and the patterns of observations that drove Darwin’s daring hypothesis were resonating throughout the European intellectual landscape. Years later, the Pangaea supercontinent would replace the temporary placeholder of Lemuria and the concept would be relegated to mythologized abstractions alongside Atlantis and, well, Hyperborea.

I’m in Lemuria right now, but it is a different fantastical place. In this case, I’m in the Lemuria Earthship Biotecture near Taos, New Mexico. I rented it out on a whim. I needed to travel to Colorado to drop off some birthday cards for our son and thought I might come by and observe this ongoing architectural experiment that I’ve been tracking for decades but never visited. I was surprised to find that I could rent a unit.

First, though, you have to get here, which involves crossing the Rio Grande Gorge:

Once I arrived, I encountered throngs of tourists, including an extended Finnish family that I had to eavesdrop on to guess the language they were speaking. The Earthship project has a long history, but it is always a history of trying to create sustainable, off-the-grid structures that maximize the use of disposable aspects of our society. So the walls are tires filled with dirt or cut wine bottles embedded in cement. Photovoltaics charge batteries and gray water (shower and washing water) is reused to flush toilets and grow food plants. Black water (toilet water) flows into leachfields that support landscape plants. Rainwater is captured from the roof to fill the gray water reservoirs. And, amazingly, it all works very well.

Here’s my video on arrival at Lemuria. There is wind noise when I’m on the roof, but it dies off when I get inside.

Architecture and ethics have always had an uneasy truce. At the most basic, there are the ethical limits of not deceiving clients about materials, costs, or functionality. But the harder questions build around aesthetic value versus functional value. A space that is sculptural like a Calatrava train station or Frank Gehry music hall is a space that values aesthetics at least as highly as functionality. There is no reusability in curved magnesium panels.

Where experiements like the Earthship thrive is in finding a weighted balance that gives functional and sustainable solutions precedence over the purely conceptual aspects of architecture. What could be is grounded by ethical stewardship.

Lemuria is standing up to a heavy downpour quite well right now as the monsoonal storms lash over the high plateau. I think I can hear the water flowing into the cisterns and an occasional pump pushing water through filters. It almost seems more fantastical that we don’t build houses like this.

The Ethics of Knowing

In the modern American political climate, I’m constantly finding myself at sea in trying to unravel the motivations and thought processes of the Republican Party. The best summation I can arrive at involves the obvious manipulation of the electorate—but that is not terrifically new—combined with a persistent avoidance of evidence and facts.

In my day job, I research a range of topics trying to get enough of a grasp on what we do and do not know such that I can form a plan that innovates from the known facts towards the unknown. Here are a few recent investigations:

  • What is the state of thinking about the origins of logic? Logical rules form into broad classes that range from the uncontroversial (modus tollens, propositional logic, predicate calculus) to the speculative (multivalued and fuzzy logic, or quantum logic, for instance). In most cases we make an assumption based on linguistic convention that they are true and then demonstrate their extension, despite the observation that they are tautological. Synthetic knowledge has no similar limitations but is assumed to be girded by the logical basics.
  • What were the early Christian heresies, how did they arise, and what was their influence? Marcion of Sinope is perhaps the most interesting one of these, in parallel with the Gnostics, asserting that the cruel tribal god of the Old Testament was distinct from the New Testament Father, and proclaiming perhaps (see various discussions) a docetic Jesus figure. The leading “mythicists” like Robert Price are invaluable in this analysis (ignore first 15 minutes of nonsense). The thin braid of early Christian history and the constant humanity that arises in morphing the faith before settling down after Nicaea (well, and then after Martin Luther) reminds us that abstractions and faith have a remarkable persistence in the face of cultural change.
  • How do mathematical machines take on so many forms while achieving the same abstract goals? Machine learning, as a reificiation of human-like learning processes, can imitate neural networks (or an extreme sketch and caricature of what we know about real neural systems), or can be just a parameter slicing machine like Support Vector Machines or ID3, or can be a Bayesian network or mixture model of parameters.  We call them generative or non-generative, we categorize them as to discrete or continuous decision surfaces, and we label them in a range of useful ways. But why should they all achieve similar outcomes with similar ranges of error? Indeed, Random Forests were the belles of the ball until Deep Learning took its tiara.

In each case, I try to work my way, as carefully as possible, through the thicket of historical and intellectual concerns that provide point and counterpoint to the ideas. It feels ethically wrong to make a short, fast judgment about any such topics. I can’t imagine doing anything less with a topic as fraught as the US health care system. It’s complex, indeed, Mr. President.

So, I tracked down a foundational paper on this idea of ethics and epistemology. It dates to 1877 and provides a grounding for why and when we should believe in anything. William Clifford’s paper, The Ethics of Belief, tracks multiple lines of argumentation and the consequences of believing without clarity. Even tentative clarity comes with moral risk, as Clifford shows in his thought experiments.

In summary, though, there is no more important statement than Clifford’s final assertion that it is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence. It’s that simple. And it’s even more wrong to act on those beliefs.

The Dynamics of Dignity

My wife got a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon a few days back. It has necessitated a new education in off-road machinery like locking axles, low 4, and disconnectable sway bars. It seemed the right choice for our reinsertion into New Mexico, a land that was only partially accessible by cheap, whatever-you-can-afford, vehicles twenty years ago when we were grad students. So we had to start driving random off-road locations and found Faulkner’s Canyon in the Robledos. Billy the Kid used this area as a refuge at one point and we searched out his hidey-hole this morning but ran out of LTE coverage and couldn’t confirm the specific site until returning from our adventure. We will try another day!

Billy the Kid was, of course, a killer of questionable moral standing.

With the Neil Gorsuch nomination to SCOTUS, his role in the legal and moral philosophies surrounding assisted suicide has come under scrutiny. In everyday discussions, the topic often centers on the notion of dignity for the dying. Indeed, the autonomy of the person (and with it some assumption of rational choice) combines with a consideration of alternatives to the human-induced death based on pain, discomfort, loss of physical or mental faculties, and also the future-looking speculation about these possibilities.

Now I combined legal and moral in the same sentence because that is also one way to consider the way in which law is or ought to be formulated. But, in fact, one can also claim that the two don’t need to overlap; law can exist simply as a system of rules that does not include moral repercussions and, if the two have a similar effect on behavior, it is merely a happenstance. Insofar as they are not overlapping, a moral argument can be used to criticize a law.

In formulating a law, then, and regardless of its relationship to a moral norm, the language that is used performs a significant function in directing the limits of the application of the ideas involved. And the language goes further by often challenging the existing holistic relationships in our individual and mental representations of the term. This is also why objective morality seems so nonsensical: in making a moral proposition one is assuming that the language and terms are identifiably externally and internally referential to the objective basis. It is an impossible task that results in either everyday revisionary squeamishness (“Well, sure, ‘do not kill’ should be ‘do not murder,’ but that might exclude killing in warfare or retribution because, well, look at the fate of the Amalekites,”) or a reversion to personal feeling over the matters at hand. Hardly objective at all.

Dignity, then, should be considered as part of this dynamic definitional structure. It has evolved in the legal framework to have at least three meanings, as Lois Shepherd analyzes in some depth in her article, “Dignity and Autonomy after Washington v. Glucksberg: An Essay about Abortion, Death, and Crime,” in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. For the topic of assisted suicide or euthanasia, SCOTUS and lower courts have used a definition that is in accord with the notion that the individual should be allowed to avoid extreme discomfort and loss of faculties. In so doing, they preserve their physical and mental dignity that arises from their autonomous and rational selves. Any concerns over the latter bring additional scrutiny as to whether they can be said to have autonomy.

The other ideas of dignity, though, include the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to represent herself. And, if given assistance from a court-appointed attorney, the assistant must act in a manner that preserves the perception of the jury as to the dignity of the defendant. And, finally, again related to the autonomy of the individual with regard to medical decision-making, that there it interferes with the dignity of a woman when denied the right to abort a fetus because such an action imposes a barrier to her autonomy and that autonomy has precedence over any case for the fetus to, as yet, have legal status as an individual.

These are arguable points as we all know in the struggles and opposition to abortion and assisted suicide rights. And it is just this dynamism in definitional limitations that has evolved through the legal engagement at the edge of dignity semantics.

(As a postscript to this post, I’ll just add that I’m not trying to specifically pull out legal positivism versus natural law distinctions. Instead, I think there may be an overlooked area of philosophy of language and its intersection with epistemology that could use some emphasis. Where the positivists might agree with me on the general disconnect between moral and legal justifications for laws, they might not have embraced the role of linguistic evolution that is apparent in the definition of terms like “dignity.” It is there, I suggest, that law gets shaped, as we can surmise from any consideration of “fairness” as a legal concept.)

A Big Data Jeremiad and the Moral Health of America

monopolydude2The average of polls were wrong. The past-performance-weighted, hyper-parameterized, stratified-sampled, Monte Carlo-ized collaborative predictions fell as critically short in the general election as they had in the Republican primary. There will be much soul searching to establish why that might have been; from ground game engagement to voter turnout, from pollster bias to sampling defects, the hit list will continue to grow.

Things were less predictable than it seemed. During the 2008 and 2012 elections, the losing party proxies held that the polls were inherently flawed, though they were ultimately predictive. Now, in 2016, they were inherently flawed and not at all predictive.

But what the polls showed was instructive even if their numbers were not quite right. Specifically, there was a remarkable turn-out for Trump among white, less-educated voters who long for radical change to their economic lives. The Democratic candidate was less clearly engaging.

Another difference emerged, however. Despite efforts to paint Hillary Clinton as corrupt or a liar, objective fact checkers concluded that she was, in fact, one of the most honest candidates in recent history, and that Donald Trump was one of the worst, only approximated by Michelle Bachman in utter mendacity. We can couple that with his race-bating, misogyny, hostility, divorces, anti-immigrant scapegoating, and other childish antics. Yet these moral failures did not prevent his supporters from voting for him in numbers.

But his moral failures may be precisely why his supporters found him appealing. Evangelicals decided for him because Clinton was a threat to overturning Roe v. Wade, while he was an unknown who said a few contradictory things in opposition. His other moral issues were less important—even forgivable. In reality, though, this particular divide is an exemplar for a broader division in the moral fabric of America. The white working class has been struggling in post-industrial America for decades. Coal mining gives way to fracked, super-abundant natural gas. A freer labor market moves assembly overseas. The continuous rise in productivity shifts value away from labor in the service of innovation to disintermediated innovation itself.

The economic results are largely a consequence of freedom, a value that becomes suffused in the polarized economy where factories close on egghead economic restructuring. Other values come into question as well. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, brought a controversial conservative lens to the loss of traditional values for working class America. In this world, marriage, church, and hard work have dissolved due to the influence of the 60s pernicious counter-cultural deconstruction that was revolutionary for the college-educated elite but destructive to the working class. What is left is a vacuum of virtues where the downtrodden lash out at the eggheads from the coasts. The moral failings of a scion of wealth itself are recognizable and forgivable because at least there is a sense of change and some simple diagnostics about what is wrong with our precious state.

So we are left with pussy grabbing, with the Chinese hoax of climate change, with impossible border walls, with a fornicator-in-chief misogynist, with a gloomy Jeremiad of divided America being exploited into oblivion. Even the statisticians were eggheaded speculators who were manipulating the world with their crazy polls. But at least it wasn’t her.

Desire and Other Matters

From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons
From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons

“What matters?” is a surprisingly interesting question. I think about it constantly since it weighs-in whenever plotting future choices, though often I seem to be more autopilot than consequentialist in these conceptions. It is an essential first consideration when trying to value one option versus another. I can narrow the question a bit to “what ideas matter?” This immediately externalizes the broad reality of actions that meaningfully improve lives, like helping others, but still leaves a solid core of concepts that are valued more abstractly. Does the traditional Western liberal tradition really matter? Do social theories? Are less intellectually-embellished virtues like consistency and trust more relevant and applicable than notions like, well, consequentialism?

Maybe it amounts to how to value certain intellectual systems against others?

Some are obviously more true than others. So “dowsing belief systems” are less effective in a certain sense than “planetary science belief systems.” Yet there are a broader range of issues at work.

But there are some areas of the liberal arts that have a vexing relationship with the modern mind. Take linguistics. The field ranges from catalogers of disappearing languages to theorists concerned with how to structure syntactic trees. Among the latter are the linguists who have followed Noam Chomsky’s paradigm that explains language using a hierarchy of formal syntactic systems, all of which feature recursion as a central feature. What is interesting is that there have been very few impacts of this theory. It is very simple at its surface: languages are all alike and involve phrasal groups that embed in deep hierarchies. The specific ways in which the phrases and their relative embeddings take place may differ among languages, but they are alike in this abstract way.

And likewise we have to ask what the impact is of scholarship like René Girard’s theory of mimesis. The theory has a Victorian feel about it: a Freudian/Jungian essential psychological tendency girds all that we know, experience, and see. Violence is the triangulation of wanton desire as we try to mimic one another. That triangulation was suppressed—sublimated, if you will—by sacrifice that refocused the urge to violence on the sacrificial object. It would be unusual for such a theory to rise above the speculative scholarship that only queasily embraces empiricism without some prodding.

But maybe it is enough that ideas are influential at some level. So we have Ayn Rand, liberally called-out by American economic conservatives, at least until they are reminded of Rand’s staunch atheism. And we have Peter Thiel, from PayPal mafia to recent Gawker lawsuits, justifying his Facebook angel round based on Girard’s theory of mimesis. So we are all slaves of our desires to like, indirectly, a bunch of crap on the internet. But at least it is theoretically sound.

Quantum Field Is-Oughts

teleologySean Carroll’s Oxford lecture on Poetic Naturalism is worth watching (below). In many ways it just reiterates several common themes. First, it reinforces the is-ought barrier between values and observations about the natural world. It does so with particular depth, though, by identifying how coarse-grained theories at different levels of explanation can be equally compatible with quantum field theory. Second, and related, he shows how entropy is an emergent property of atomic theory and the interactions of quantum fields (that we think of as particles much of the time) and, importantly, that we can project the same notion of boundary conditions that result in entropy into the future resulting in a kind of effective teleology. That is, there can be some boundary conditions for the evolution of large-scale particle systems that form into configurations that we can label purposeful or purposeful-like. I still like the term “teleonomy” to describe this alternative notion, but the language largely doesn’t matter except as an educational and distinguishing tool against the semantic embeddings of old scholastic monks.

Finally, the poetry aspect resolves in value theories of the world. Many are compatible with descriptive theories, and our resolution of them is through opinion, reason, communications, and, yes, violence and war. There is no monopoly of policy theories, religious claims, or idealizations that hold sway. Instead we have interests and collective movements, and the above, all working together to define our moral frontiers.


Build Up That Wall

No, I’m not endorsing the construction of additional walls between the United States and Mexico. There are plenty of those and they may be of questionable value. Instead, it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and I’m quoting from Christopher Hitchens (who shared his birthday with Jefferson) in repurposing and inverting Reagan’s famous request of Gorbachev. Hitch promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of separating out the civic from the religious:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

from Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

A rather remarkable continuation of Enlightenment concepts that derive, typically, from a notion of “natural rights” and, even in the Virginia Statue, from religious concepts: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free.” With the following paragraphs noting that human rulers are fallible and have tended to create false religions down through time, apparently regardless of God’s wishes.

Natural rights are an interesting idea that re-occurs in the Declaration of Independence and were also championed by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The notion that natural rights did not extend to slaves was something that Jefferson was conflicted about, according to Hitchens, until the end of his life, with the issue of state’s rights a pragmatic basis for opposition to an institution that he both profited from and found morally repugnant.

Natural rights might also be derivable from something like Rawl’s  “veil of ignorance,” which, in this capacity, just reiterates what might be more simply considered a method for minimizing the interference of people in the behavior and thoughts of other people. This concedes that evolving perspectives on interference may reduce the universality of any claim concerning those rights. But an interference model only accounts for specific categories of rights.  The right to schooling provided via taxation would not be covered, nor would the right for equality in dealings in the civic space. In fairness, Rawls’ argument about rights is greater than this minimal fragment, but both show how jettisoning a deontological approach to ethics yields testable hypotheses.

Michael Boylan’s “Are there natural human rights?” in the Stone Reader covers the controversy in some detail, describing the agency and capability theories, as well as objections from Chinese and Islamic sources. The latter rise to the level of problematic, for if the individuals within a society complain that outside perspectives on natural rights are not their own, is there any sense of universality in natural rights? Oppressing women is Allah’s will, after all, and is therefore “natural.”

And so, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I have to commemorate one of the greatest contributions to our modern world: a secular state with definable rights of conscience and radical freedoms, regardless of how natural that might be.

Free Will and Thermodynamic Warts

Free WillyThe Stone at New York Times is a great resource for insights into both contemporary and rather ancient discussions in philosophy. Here’s William Irvin at King’s College discoursing on free will and moral decision-making. The central problem is one that we all discussed in high school: if our atomistic world is deterministic in that there is a chain of causation from one event to another (contingent in the last post), and therefore even our mental processes must be caused, then there is no free will in the expected sense (“libertarian free will” in the literature). This can be overcome by the simplest fix of proposing a non-material soul that somehow interacts with the material being and is inherently non-deterministic. This results in a dualism of matter and mind that doesn’t seem justifiable by any empirical results. For instance, we know that decision-making does appear to have a neuropsychological basis because we know about the effects of lesioning brains, neurotransmitters, and even how smells can influence decisions. Irving also claims that the realization of the potential loss of free will leaves us awash in some sense of hopelessness at the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical reality of an objective moral system. Without free will we seem off the hook for our decisions.

Compatibilists will disagree, and might even cite quantum indeterminacy as a rescue donut for pulling some notion of free will up out of the deep ocean of Irving’s despair. But the fix is perhaps even easier than that. Even though we might recognize that there are chains of causation at a microscopic scale, the macroscopic combinations of these events—even without quantum indeterminacy—becomes only predictable along broad contours of probabilistic outcomes. We start with complex initial conditions and things just get worse from there. By the time we get to exceedingly complex organisms deciding things, we also have elaborate control cycles influenced by childhood training, religion, and reason that cope with this ambiguity and complexity. The metaphysical reality of morality or free will may be gone, but there is no need for fictionalism. They are empirically real and any sense of loss is tied to merely overcoming the illusions arriving from these incompatibilities between everyday reasoning and the deeper appreciation of the world as it is, thermodynamic warts and all.

Neutered Inventiveness

I just received an award from my employer for getting more than five patents through the patent committee this year. Since I’m a member of the committee, it was easy enough. Just kidding: I was not, of course, allowed to vote on my own patents. The award I received leaves a bit to be desired, however. First, I have to say that it is a well-crafted glass block about 4″ x 3″ and has the kind of heft to it that would make it invaluable as a weapon in a game of Clue. That being said, I give you Exhibits 1 and 2:

Vitruvian Exhibits

Exhibit 1 is a cell-phone snap through the glass surface of my award at Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, so named because it was a tribute to the architect Vitruvius—or so Wikipedia tells me. Exhibit 2 is an image of the original sketch by da Vinci, also borrowed from Wikipedia.

And now, with only minimal scrutiny, my dear reader can see the fundamental problem in the borrowing and translation of old Vitruvius. While Vitruvius was deeply enamored of a sense of symmetry to the human body, and da Vinci took that sense of wonder as a basis for drawing his figure, we can rightly believe that the presence of all anatomical parts of the man was regarded as essential for the accurate portrayal of man’s elaborate architecture.

My inventions now seem somehow neutered and my sense of wonder castrated by this lesser man, no matter what the intent of the good people in charge of the production of the award. I reflect on their motivations in light of recent arguments concerning the proper role of the humanities in our modern lives. I have consulted with my wife, an expert on a range of obscure matters concerning art history, mythology, pagan traditions, and other scholarly things that enrich our lives but are sometimes hard to assign tangible value. She insists that penises should never be removed—nor inserted—just to make a point.

Further reflection suggests that the very choice of Vitruvian Man really wasn’t a very good one. How about this?


Shaft intact and all, it represents inventiveness far better than old Vitruvius’ meditations on the architecture of the body and the world.

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.