Monday, March 29, 2010

The bathroom dilemma: Yuck and Inconvenience

So last time, I presented the problem.  I've spent some time thinking about it, and in particular the false dilemma that I presented.

I presented the problem as a choice between the waterless urinal and the 1 gallon automatic flush urinal.  Many people have pointed out that I have a third option, the bushes by my office.  If I'm serious about saving water, and 2.5 minutes is too long to walk, then couldn't I water the bushes by my office as a compromise?  I did a little digging, and it turns out that it may actually beneficial to your plants (at least your tomato plants)!

But there is a pretty strong yuck factor involved in peeing in public.  So inconvenience versus yuck!  This is what ethicists are for!  First, generally, I don't think that yuck! is a justification.  If I said something like, "Peeing in public?  Yuck!"  That isn't good enough moral reason for me not to do it.  "Gays getting married?  Yuck!"  amounts to the same thing.  The argument from yuck is essentially:  This act disgusts me.  People should avoid doing disgusting acts.  Therefore I should not do this act.  Plug in anything that is disgusting and you have an argument.  But the relevancy of how an act makes us feel and whether we should do it is questionable.  I think barfing is disgusting, and cleaning up barf is probably more disgusting.  But I think I should do it (cleaning it up that is, not barfing per se).

But there is a difference between gay marriage and peeing in the bushes.  One issue has heavy "moral weight" and the other not.  I think something has "moral weight" when decisions made about x either affects a great deal of people, or affects some people in a great deal, in a significant way.  This is terribly vague I know, but I think the vagueness is necessary.  Gay marriage affects both a great deal of people, and some people in a great deal.  I'm not sure if peeing in the bushes would count in either sense.

So whats the point of this distinction?  I want to say that on issues that concern "everyday ethics," that is issues that have only a light "moral weight" do not require the same kinds of justifications as weighty moral issues.  "Yuck" may well be enough for me to  not to do something that that has little moral weight.  Why?  Yuck makes us unhappy, in a temporary sense, not in a lifelong sense.  When we engage in a something that is only yucky (cleaning up barf as opposed to torturing someone, which is both yucky and cruel), we usually don't think that this will ultimately affect our overall evaluation of our lives.  Everyday ethics deals with precisely that, a small wrong, not a wrong that will ultimately affect the overall moral evaluation of our lives.  The less weighty a moral issue, the more it can be affected by yuck!

So I'm not peeing in the bushes.  Why?  Because its not a morally weighty issue and it makes me go yuck! The burden of proof, I think, is on others to show why this is a morally weighty issue that forces me to discount yuck.   If we were talking about being a vegan versus being a vegetarian, would the yuck factor be enough to take veganism off the table?  I'm coming around to the possibility of it being morally light enough because the difference of moral weight between a vegan and a vegetarian is the difference between being a good person and a slightly better person.  But if we were talking about the difference between a vegetarian and a omnivore, even a conscientious one, the difference in weight is significantly larger because of reasonable doubts about where our food is coming from.  It turns the compassionate omnivore into a regular omnivore.

So what about the other possibility, that its too inconvenient?  If morally light issues can be overridden by yuck, could it be overridden by inconvenience?  I think it might.  But first we should compare yuck with inconvenience.  I think most people would pick something inconvenient over something yucky.  It may be inconvenient for me not to eat anything at this moment, but it sure beats eating something yucky.  So, yuck gives us better reasons to reject some moral proposition than inconvenience because it affects our lives in a greater magnitude than yuck (and remember I'm not saying that yuck or inconvenience is affecting our over all lives a great deal).  So if its merely inconvenient that I walk 2.5 minutes to the waterless urinal, then I should, since the ethical gain is worth it.  But what if I drank a cup of coffee at home, drove half an hour to work, and really needed to go?  I don't think people would typically label this an inconvenience.  We hyperbolically describe these situations as emergencies.  But what actually is happening is that we are faced with turning something inconvenient (walking 2.5 minutes) into something yucky (soiling ourselves).  The moral weight of the issue hasn't changed, but our justification for rejecting the 2.5 minute walk has.  Heck, even compared to the yuck of peeing in public and the yuck of soiling ourselves, peeing in public would be the more preferable option. 

So... unless I'm being pressed with a yucky situation, I have a moral obligation to use the waterless urinal.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


So if you haven't seen last night's episode and don't want things spoiled, stop reading now.

So we finally know what this whole show is about...  And its not really surprising, since they told us early on in the series (maybe the second episode when Locke talks to Walt about backgammon).

So here are my thoughts on last night's episode:
-Alpert gets one heckuva baptismal experience from Jacob.  This reinforces the idea that Jacob is the good guy and The Man in Black is the bad guy. 
-The exchange between Alpert and Jacob really is more telling than anything else.  Jacob says that he can't absolve Alpert of his sins... But  he's God....  Why can't he?  Simply put, because Jacob wants people to be responsible for their own actions.  If absolution of sins came for no reason, then the free will that Jacob so desperately wants people to exercise on the island is meaningless.
-The Man in Black tried the direct approach.  Ask Alpert to kill Jacob.  That clearly didn't work.  So his next attempt... the Long con.  Manipulate the people that Jacob brings to the island, to prove to the Man in Black (El Diablo) that people will choose to do the right thing, when faced with temptation, to show that people are not as good as Jacob believes they are. 
-But Jacob is dead....  And now that we know the motivations behind bringing people to the island, we might understand this to be an even larger allegory of Nietzschean philosophy.  God is dead.  Its the ultimate test of free will and morality.  Without Jacob there to provide guidance, to tell Richard how to advise the islanders, will they choose good over evil still?  Or will the islanders open up Pandora's box and let smokey leave the island?
-Finally... a future hope...  I really hope that Hurley takes Jacob's place.  Hurley represents the everyman throughout the show.  Hurley being promoted to the guardian of the island would be symbolic of the everyman being capable of triumphing over evil, overcoming themselves (Nietzsche again), transcending mere humanity into the director of their own fate and values.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

one more on food

Jamie Oliver, the naked chef, on his one wish.  He is not a vegetarian, but he is emphasizing that what we eat is killing us.

Factory Farming

Today I presented vegetarianism to my ethics class.  Here are some more links to help people understand factory farming.

And a couple of links to vegetarian health

I tried to avoid any site that is obviously biased (PETA etc,) and included sites that have good reputations (the humane society, mayo clinic).  And for the other side:

Although, I don't think that this book really presents the arguments fairly.  Cherry picked statistics and straw man arguments seem to miss the point about animal suffering.  Instead she focuses on the quacks (All animals should live, and we should protect animals from each other), and sympathy (animals die in making your lettuce).  I don't have a problem with animals dying.  They die all the time.  I just don't think that humans should inflict unnecessary suffering, which she doesn't seem to give much justice to, and seems to believe that if we all became vegetarians, that we would have need more farmland, rather than less, which even government statistics point out is plainly false.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More on poop

Living in California near the bay, I'm particularly concerned about what goes down the drain.  I think one of the greatest assets that California has is its spectacular coast line!  Recently, sea otter deaths have been linked to toxoplasmosis parasites found in cat feces that is either flushed into the toilet, or gets into the bay through runoff.  And although its not conclusive, its the likeliest source.  Last summer when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I started thinking about how I could reduce my cats' impact on the environment.  I wanted to do something about their litter waste.  We switched from a clay litter to a compostable litter, and started throwing away the litter in biodegradable bags.  But ultimately, I wanted to make sure that their poop didn't make it into the bay at all.  The easy way of doing this, was ensuring that the cats' poop never left my charge.  So last weekend I built an underground digester.

Essentially, its just a hole in the ground, with a plastic lid over it, so that I can keep animals (like the cats) out.  I drop their used litter into the hole, add some septic tank enzymes into the hole, a bit of water, and voila!  The litter gets broken down, liquefied, and fertilizes the soil around it.  I'm still waiting for the first bag to break down, that I put in there.  Supposedly it should only take a few days.  Its been in there for now 2 days and I'm getting impatient.  If this works well, then maybe I'll start collecting my own waste and dropping it down the hole.  ;)  Or maybe not....  Some things really are too gross for me too. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Everyday Ethics: How far for a gallon?

So my last post got me thinking about how much we are willing to sacrifice for something that isn't worth all that much...  Clearly, people are willing to chip in when it isn't a big sacrifice (recycling).  The perceived gain from recycling is far greater than the actual gain. 

But there are real gains from small acts sometimes.  I think water conservation is a good example of this.  Small amounts of water saved every day could have dramatic effects on the local and extended environment.  So here's a real dilemma here for you.  The campus that I work on has recently opened a new building.  The new building is built with a green philosophy, so the men's bathrooms have waterless urinals.  However, my office is on the other side of campus.  It would take about 5 minutes to walk to the use the urinal, which would save exactly 1 gallon of water every time I did this.  A 10 minute round trip.  If I used the closest bathroom to my office, I could be done and back in probably 2 minutes.

Do I have a moral obligation to use the waterless urinal?   

Being green makes you mean?

There's a great post on Practical Ethics on how being green might just make a person more selfish.  This is not a new phenomenon, as it happens with world poverty as well.  Is it a bad phenomenon?  Savulescu suggests that it is because it distracts us from the problem.  We think we're doing good, when recycling has only a minor effect on the environment.  What we should really be doing is walking, biking, and taking public transit, rather than driving.  But because we sort our trash, we feel as if we've done our part. 

No doubt this is true...  but I hesitate to call it a bad thing.  We need positive reinforcement, otherwise we may not do anything at all.  We need to incentivize people to become exemplars for others.  Once we have done the some good, we should be encouraged to do more. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Avatar and philosophy

So my proposal to the forthcoming Avatar and philosophy volume was accepted!  Just like all my other official publications, its on ethics.  Specifically, what we can learn about our treatment of animals from the Na'vi. 

But I want to write about something besides animals and ethics here...  So if you haven't seen Avatar yet, and you don't want it spoiled, stop reading now.

So Jake at the end of the movie undergoes permanent relocation into his Avatar by a tree (it looks way better in the movie than this makes it sound).  Is Jake dead?  One might be inclined to say that his body is dead, but Jake isn't.  This presupposes a couple of things.... That Jake either has a soul that now inhabits his avatar, and that is why he is alive, because his soul is still around.  Or that Jake's consciousness/identity continues to persist in the avatar, and that is why he is alive.

If its the first, that Jake has a soul, then nobody really ever dies, assuming souls are the traditional immortal entity.  So we're just wrong when we say that ANYONE dies.  I think this is a little far-fetched, not to mention metaphysically problematic.  But the other alternative is just as problematic...  We could argue that Sigourney Weaver's character is not dead, just inside the aforementioned tree (I'm betting that in the future sequels [Cameron has already said he envisioned a trilogy] that she comes back via the tree).  Or we could argue that people who lose their memories or have a break in their consciousness (coma) have died and returned to the living.

It is easy to talk about biological death, but its much more difficult to talk about death of an identity...  Do identities die?  And isn't that what we normally talk about when we talk about people?  When I think of my wife, I'm not thinking of my wife's body.... I'm thinking of her identity.  Are they one and the same?  I don't think they're the same, but I find the problem of personal identity maddening on almost every level.... I guess thats why I'm so attracted to identity puzzles.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Miscarriages may become illegal

A law in Utah criminalize miscarriages, making it a felony homicide.  That means a woman could conceivably be put in prison for life because she has a miscarriage. 

Now I understand the intentions behind the bill...  It seems rather irresponsible to purposely bring about a miscarriage.  But this seems to criminalize spontaneous miscarriages that 1 out 4 pregnancies naturally result in without being irresponsible.  There has to be a better way to word this bill to exclude normal miscarriages, and include the irresponsible ones. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Black Blog

So I have a pretty dark blog.  I wonder if it hurts people's eyes when they read my blog.  That is generally why people write on light backgrounds with dark writing...  To ease eye strain.

But why a dark blog?  I'm trying to save energy.  Not too long ago, a few people calculated what the energy savings would be if Google changed their homepage from a white background to a black background.  The energy savings would be something like 8.3 Megawatts of power per day. 

The more we become conscious about our energy use, the more we realize that we use a whole lot of energy when we're not even trying to. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

The moral status of plants

Its hard to talk about animal welfare without inevitably having people try to drag you down the slippery slope of the rights of plants.  If animals get equal consideration of interests, what about plants?

Its pretty tempting to say that a carrot being chopped, diced, then boiled, sauteed or just eaten alive, would be morally wrong.  But there are pretty clear relevant differences between plants and animals, the biggest being that animals are conscious, plants are not.  The burden of proof are on the defenders of vegetables that plants are conscious, not on me to show you that they are not.  But if you insist, consciousness as we know it, requires at the very least a central nervous system e.g. brain, that they lack completely.  Show me a plant with a brain, and then perhaps we can discuss the rights of the veggie.

BUT....  Switzerland has recently built it into their constitution that the moral status of plants must be considered.  So what is an ethicist to say about the moral status of plants? 
In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake." It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, "decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason."

There are a couple of points here that we need to parse out here.  First:  vegetarion has inherent value.  I'm not sure that it does.  Life for life's sake isn't particularly compelling to me, otherwise I would be happy when I find weeds in my lawn.  There's more vegetation!  I remember listening to the Ig Nobel awards (A satirical awards show that gives awards for the strangest research) last year, and hearing about the paper for the first time.  The recipient of the award said that if you ever had a house plant and felt bad about it dying, then you understand the inherent value of vegetation.  But I don't think I feel bad because of the plant's death, I feel bad because I've lost the aesthetic value of the plant, and its been replaced with something that creates ugliness. 

I do find that it is wrong to arbitraily harm plants...  But not because of an inherent value in plants, but because of the environmental impact (however small) that it will have.  If its a small impact, then the wrongness may be only a small one, that can be overlooked.  But done at a massive scale, the wrongness scales exponentially.  (Sheesh I really am a consequentialist arn't I?)

All of this is for a point however.  Switzerland doesn't want genetically modifiied crops in their country.  If GM crops are created, and typically they are created infertile so they can't spread their genetically modifiedness (its a word.... now.) around to other crops.  But if plants have dignity, then it would be wrong to deprive them from reproduction.

This is all dancing around the notion of the sanctity of life.  Tampering with life is wrong, strong period.  But this notion is pretty archaic in today's society.  We tamper with ourselves, just as much as we tamper with other beings, be it plastic surgery, cybornetic implants, or flu shots, we tamper with the way we function, and the way we are.  Peter Singer has a pretty good book that gets to the heart of this issue (unsanctifying human life).

If consequentialism gives us some reasons for protecting kinds of life from harm and not others, does that mean that some animals could conceivably be harmed just like plants?  Sure.  In fact, I'm not terribly sure I can muster a strong defense for keeping Panda Bears around on the planet beyond that they please humans aesthetically.... but ultimately that may be enough for a consequentialist.  If Pandas were to mutate into a non-aesthetic beast of a creature that did nothing but eat bamboo, and had no predators and no other ecological niche to fill, then extinction wouldn't be a loss at all. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Reason vs intuition

I get a lot of puzzled looks from students in my classes.  Sometimes its because I'm just weird.  Others times is because I present them something that is perfectly rational, but wildly non-intuitive.  So because its non-intuitive, the reasoning must be wrong.  They'll throw up objections and try to refute the argument, and I respond successfully, but they'll still reject the argument. 

Sometimes they'll just throw out reason.  The arguments are dumb!  Apparently dumb arguments are any argument whose conclusion are non-intuitive.  Why is it so difficult to accept that our intuitions can be wrong?  Its not a new experience that our intuitions are wrong.  I would venture to argue that all of our intuitions have been wrong several times in our lives.  Unfortunately, in those times when we've been wrong, often an experience refutes the intuition, instead of reason/argumentation.  In philosophy, we often can't just appeal to experience, in part because sometimes the experience itself is what is in question.

But I am comforted that philosophy isn't the only discipline to suffer from this problem.  Mathematics has its share of non-intuitive conclusions, that are firmly backed by reason.  For example: .999999999999...(an infinite string of 9s) is equal to 1.

Now intuition might tell us that it's not equal to 1, but only really close to one.  But in fact, 1 and .9999999999... are the same number, just two different ways of writing it.  2/2 is 1, 4/4 is 1 and .999999999... is 1. 

A simple proof can be done of this:
1/3 = .33333333333333333...
2/3= .66666666666666666...

1/3 + 2/3= 3/3 =1
.33333333333...+ .66666666666...=.99999999999...

By the rule of transitivity of identity, 1 =.999999999999...

Now if you're acquainted with who I am, you'll know I'm terrible at math, so maybe I'm making a mistake....  But I'm not mistaken.  I refer you to this blog post which has two follow up posts linked on the original post that explicates the proof in great detail. And the blogger has to deal with the same intuitive vs rational argument that I deal with on a regular basis in my courses.  So why is there such a resistance to give up our intuitions, and is there a better way to get people to give up their intuitions when dealing with something that can't be experienced?

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Okay my arm still hurts, and I don't know why....  I'm going to make an appointment to see the doctor today...

But back to looting.  Most people think that looting in general is wrong.  It would be wrong for me to take my class to Wal-Mart and by shear force of numbers overwhelm them and take their goods.  (I'm stipulating that looting is a group action.  You can't loot by yourself, you loot with other people.  Looting by yourself is just stealing or shoplifting....)

However, when we are faced with drastically different circumstances, is looting okay?  Some might simply say, "yes... because my survival is at stake."  But clearly this isn't going to be a good enough justification, ethically speaking.  To abide by some moral obligations, I may have to sacrifice my own life to fullfill them e.g. jumping on a grenade that threatens to kill the members of my platoon.

I want to say that looting is morally permissible under the following condition.... that those around you fail in their obligation to refrain from looting.  I see looting as a group responsibility.  Some group responsibilities decrease in obligation because many are failing to follow their duty.  E.g. if many people are walking on the grass, when there is a sign that is posted to not walk on the grass... as people fail in the duty, the obligation to not walk on the grass begins to erode.  Once people have pounded a pathway through the grass, its rather irrelevant that I continue to walk around the grass, rather than on the pounded pathway.

Now as people loot, the obligation for you to refrain from looting also gets pounded away.  The owner of the property will inevitably have ownership of all of his useful property looted. Now, it would be LESS advantageous for a single person to horde a great deal of resources in a disaster scenario, than for the resources to be spread amongst many people.  Aid will eventually come, whats needed is to bridge the interim time between the disaster and the response.  100 cans of beans is in all likelihood more than enough to get by on.  In fact, it would deprive others from being able to survive the interim, if you horde more than you need.  So once the looting begins, each individual who loots actually increases the utility of the act (looting).

One might respond that they have been responsible...  They piled up supplies before the earthquake in an event of an emergency.  Then arguably, one could still loot, and give the looted supplies to those who could benefit from them, and did not have the capability of looting because they were injured or trapped. 

Of course this all assumes life or death scenarios.  Looting wouldn't be permissible if the San Jose Sharks failed to win the Stanley Cup..... Again....

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I'm in some serious pain.  I'm not sure what exactly I did to my shoulder/back/neck, but its been hurting for a while now.  So I'm going to try to lay off the computer for a while... which is rather difficult for me.

So....  I'll give you guys something to discuss:

Looting after an 8.8 earthquake.  Go.