In reading Justice by Michael Sandel, I am reminded of the famous “trolley” question and all derivatives thereof. The question is something that has long plagued me, but I suddenly feel I’ve reached an answer that is at least internally consistent with my code of ethics.
I like thinking about situations in terms of structure. Both the initial trolley example in which the driver may derail the train killing one instead of five as well as the more painful “fat man” example are ultimately a trade off between the death of one and that of five, i.e. they are structurally identical.
However, it is important to stress that the numbers themselves cannot in a philosophically sound answer matter. If they do, we are forced to ask at which point is the uneasy act of pushing the fat man OK. If at a ratio of two to one, it is not, at three, not then when will it ever be ethical? At the judgement of one man versus humanity itself? No.
My answer rests on the assertion that “bad” and “not good” are inherently different, that is the latter is by design better than the former. Further, to develop my argument, I consider the act of killing one or five (in either situation) entirely divorced. That is, while one is physically contingent upon the other, it is not philosophically so.
Key to my argument for the first situation is that the trolley is initially headed towards the five and may be derailed towards the one. If the driver does nothing, the five die. Therefore, they die as a cause of Nature (perverted and unrealistic as it may be) and not at the hand of this poor driver. However, if the driver deliberately switches the track, the one man dies at the driver’s will. Sure, five are saved – a virtue if there ever was one – but one has died.
That is wrong.
The same argument applies to the “fat man” situation.
People may be quick to assassinate this argument as philosophical and entirely unemotional, but this is the very principle that governs much of our Western – affluent – lives. It is not wrong for me to buy a shirt, costing thirty dollars (not absurdly expensive by American standards), right? It is not absurd for me to demand of my parents this beautiful MacBook Pro? It is not absurd for me to go on vacation to Europe costing more in two weeks than most of the poor world earns in a decade.
No, it is not, but only so long as one accepts the argument I have supposed above. It is my free will to consume the money available to me in the way I see fit (or more appropriately, as my parents might – and they have, reluctantly or not, deemed fit all of the above).
The money spent on these endeavors via inaction result in the deaths of many more than five men. Many millions die of malnutrition and starvation every day, or cheaply preventable infections. Though the macroeconomy may not be zero-sum, my parent’s bank account most certainly is. Every dollar we spend on personal luxuries (including the ten-dollar purchase of Dr. Sandel’s book) is at some implicit level coming from the possibility of saving a poor boy.
But then there is a deluge of questions that make this argument, even if right, ultimately unsatisfactory, as I suppose all philosophical questions are. If we “saved” a boy from malnutrition into a life of mere subsistence, is that really a life? Is the life that would be robbed of the five miners, presumably financially and intellectually sound men, of higher station than of an African living in subsistence?
And here, I cop out. It is not for me to say what life is more worth living than the other. Perhaps in that hell of subsistence this boy (or girl) will find some spiritual happiness he would otherwise miss.
Ultimately, letting many die out of inaction is a sad reality of our lives. That is made all the more explicit in this philosophical and unrealistic example provided, but it is not any less different. Therefore, I take exception with the “majority” opinion that even in the first case it is wrong for the man to derail the train.
Is this just? Perhaps not. However, I also take exception with the very concoction of these hypotheticals as moral barometers. By virtue of using a situation that is tethered intimately with reality – otherwise, the situation could have been simply stated as the saving of five dollars at the cost of one, a mere utilitarian calculation – the alchemist of this world is giving in to the human condition.
Further, the assumptions of this hypothetical are too strong to bear any moral bearing whatsoever. To assume a world like this was just born, independent of any preordained actions, is absurd. I could equally ask whether it is right to kill one man to save all of humanity itself. Through the answer I crafted above perhaps one would reply in the negative, which itself highlights the absurdity of this world.
In reality, we need to ask the less-philosophical but ultimately more important question, for what reason are these men “unable” to move. Why are the breaks broken? Etc. These assumptions make this question as unlike the real world as the battle between five dollars and one, and therefore can yield no greater moral or philosophical insight, other than to incite a curiosity and passion in a reader like myself.
I do not have an opinion on gay rights – nothing, at all.
I was just speaking with a friend regarding LGBT marriage in the United States (and the world) and she told me that I clearly have an opinion. People who know me would scoff at this, I have an opinion on just about everything. But on this admittedly important topic, I actively do not have an opinion.
Everyone knows all that social contract theory or whatever. We’re all in some so called state of nature ready to kill each other… Blah blah blah… We form a government, trade security for liberty… Yada yada yada… And thusly comes the modern state (I’m sure I’ve made a whole bunch of philosophical flaws in the process so preemptive apologies to Locke and friends).
Ultimately, I feel the distinction between a free and authoritarian society lies in the method of legal execution. Is all that is not explicitly prohibited condoned or is all that is not explicitly condoned prohibited?
Of course, the United States is a shining example of the former. I am free to do what I will that is not explicitly made illegal by law like murder or, unfortunately, gay marriage in many of our states. In days of old vassalage or, sadly, slavery in my own country (or caste in my other one) the lives of many were subject to arbitrary subordination in which all that is not specifically allowed by the master is implicitly illegal.
There is something fundamentally better – philosophically and practically – about a culture based on negative liberty. Imagine writing laws for every minute act or utterance to ensure their legality?
I do have an opinion about taxes (which is the explicit negation of income). I do have an opinion on murder. Positive laws must exist only for the direst of needs. To maintain order. To maintain our state. In this sense, I suppose I am a libertarian. But I am a liberal because my idea of maintaining a state is a far cry from the sad cruelty of being deprived of modern prosperity by sheer luck of being born to a poor family. But I sympathize with the libertarian belief that only in overwhelming situations must positive law be enforced.
I have an opinion about drug addiction. I have an opinion about rape. I have an opinion about poverty. I have an opinion about national security.
I do not have an opinion about people buying chewing gum on a Friday night. I do not have an opinion about walking my pet on the Manhattan sidewalk. I do not have an opinion about wearing scarves at a Baseball game. I do not have an opinion about two men making love.
When I say that, I mean real capital (you know… that “K” stuff) not this new idea of social or “soft” capital. Last December, I was at Oxford for my interviews. On the last day, before my coach back to Heathrow, I stopped by this little market place. I don’t know what it’s called but it was a cute amalgam of a farmer’s market, a yard sale, and a used book sale.
The books were being sold on an honor code: please put in the box the noted amount for the books you take, we trust that you will not cheat us. I didn’t sit and observe, but I think we can all be sure that most, if not all, people did pay up. (I did, and I don’t think I’m that much more moral than anyone else who was there).
I’ve seen this kind of a set up so many times before – in the United States and Europe, at least. But maybe because this overlapped with those PPE interviews I actually started thinking about the whole system. The transaction between the buyer and the box is predicated on one assumption – trust (or at least a reasonably sufficient amount). If the bookseller did not expect to trust the consumers, he certainly would not have entertained such a exploitable set up.
Maybe this is a naiveté of experiencing a Western upbringing (I’ve never seen anything of the sort in India, where I live today… more on that later), but I venture to say that this degree of trust is not even significant by any means. In modern discourse we may disagree with one another about big things – god, the economy, Donald Trump’s hair – but we run our lives on the assumption that we can trust most people (high school girls don’t count).
We take this so for granted, but the economic payoff of this trust must be incredible (I haven’t done any real reading on this so I won’t say that it is). Because the bookseller can trust his friends, he does not himself have to sell the books or hire someone to do it for him. If his enterprise was full-time, just that he could trust his friends saves him a salary (implicitly his or explicitly his worker’s ) of maybe 30,000 pounds!
Modern supermarkets are more and more equipped with advanced physical capital that allows people to check out their own goods, lest a loud alarm sound. In the end, it achieves (for a much greater cost) nothing more than what simple trust would achieve. Forget “perfect competition” and “perfect information”. Imagine if we had “perfect trust”. The cost of every retailer (which is a huge component of many modern economies). All the structurally unemployed could then work on something of actual use, building something physical, something intellectual. Although their services were one day necessary the modern social structure should no longer demand a guarantor of fair transaction, the cultural capital that we have built should overcome such a need.
The trust of which I speak is not purely of benign intention, and that’s fine. Part of it, of course, is that we are all today part of a panopticon, each of us a guard and a prisoner. Perhaps in more isolated markets we would be more comfortable stealing (I know I would be). However, the gripping anxiety within us should ensure security.
The standard game-theoretic outcome of this all would be chaos. Because regardless of what “you” do, I’m better off if I steal. Then the dominant strategy for both of us would be to steal, and we’d all be a bunch of thieves – set the clock back to early 19th century New York. But I think we cooperate more than we compete, one of the many reasons some Western societies today are richer than the rest. An interesting example, especially pertinent to India, is the new idea of “kakonomics” , or the actual preference for bad outcomes! That’s completely irrational you would think, but the logic goes as such: “I don’t think you’ll do a good job, so I don’t want to do you a good job, but I also don’t want you to do a good job because if you do then I’ll feel bad that I didn’t!”
Madness, you might say, but it’s real. Though the Indian economy has a lot to look forward to, I feel a lot of its economic frailty is due to the fundamental lack of trust, especially among the service organizations. Kakonomics is the diametrical opposite of trust-based economics, and its results are as such. Instead of hiring one person, we hire five to do the same thing (in the formal sector, at least).
This same thinking can be extended to explain the littered streets and wretched public toilets. However, I don’t at all suggest that this is a cultural flaw. It is more a flaw of the situations in which people have been put (you give them a dirty street, they have no incentive to keep it clean). When there is a positive exogenous shock, people react well. For example, the new Delhi Metro. The same people who spit and litter on the road right outside the metro walk into the metro and guard it as if it’s their greatest creation (there is probably a panoptical force at work, too: you don’t want to be seen littering on clean ground in the presence of so many others). Because it was given to them as a clean, extremely well-built system, people acted as such.
If we could find ways not just to increase trust in the sociological way, but to put that trust to use in daily economic transactions, I think the outcome could be great. I think we have the cultural capital today to revolutionize the way we engage in transaction. Technologists, I’m sure, will find a way to overcome that with complex algorithms and cameras not too far in the future. But there is a fundamentally more human (and therefore better) way of doing it. With this great mutual trust we’ve built over the past many years, the structure of the economy could change as much, if not more, as it did with the advent of the internet.
Would the jobs of many be lost, especially in service-oriented countries like the United States? Certainly so. But the economic development would be tremendous, and this unemployment is only structural in nature. We could then with the great influx of financial capital incident upon us, educate the retailers and salesman for a fraction of the price. Some would become mechanics, some poets, some scientists, some businessmen, some academics, but all more gainfully employed.
As an addendum, before we can look forward to a truly trust-based economy, there are still many instances of cultural erosion. Cultural erosion is markedly different from immorality because it is largely accepted by society, and therefore the human panopticon cannot ensure fair practice. The best example to this effect is the incredible amount of pirating and torrenting on a daily basis.
And the prevalence of such activities doesn’t have to do with wealth, either. I went to an incredibly rich high school, and most of my friends (admittedly including myself, for a while) used to torrent all kinds of software, movies, and games (that they could easily afford). It is, unfortunately, not socially unacceptable. People today still get bootlegged Bollywood/Hollywood movies and shows for a fraction of the price.
This is cultural erosion. You can go to a classy party and talk about some expensive software you just bootlegged. You can’t talk about the Armani suit that you might have stolen. However, the lack of trust in this kind of a situation is also structurally different. At an online store, you don’t need an unskilled-yet-expensive cashier process your orders, the system does that for you. So a “download and I trust you to pay” system isn’t economically necessary to begin with.
I don’t want to discuss the economics of piracy. A lot of people defend it with ridiculous logic such as “I wouldn’t have bought it anyway, so what’s the harm?” Or, even worse, “These guys are already so rich!” These people are clearly the idiots who will never come up with anything brilliant themselves. More importantly, by pirating/stealing, one is just driving up the price of those who are rightfully paying, further dis-incentivizing morality.
So I live in India – where the “Green Revolution” really started. Many people – here and elsewhere – have a very critical opinion of the work of M.S. Swaminathan and Norman Borlaug (the fathers of the revolution). This criticism is usually presented along with a general criticism of genetically modified foods and other “unnatural” endeavors.
Broadly, the criticism levied falls into several categories:
- Socioeconomic: The Monsanto/Cargill empires are breaking down the “small farm” community that once thrived. Labor exploitation is on the rise and the corporations are reaping the profits from the poor farmers.
- Health: The pesticides in Green Revolution food are not healthy to eat and is a broad cause of lifestyle distress (I’ve heard claims/speculations as far reaching as that non-organic foods cause cancer from “reputable” news sources).
- Environmental: Modern agricultural practices are water-intensive and unsustainable at best – a means of “converting petroleum into food”.
There is some truth to each of the arguments made above. But to what extent does this justify a revolution to the past? To what extent has “modern agriculture” the devil that many make it out to be (and there are many such people here, especially in India).
Socioeconomics From a socioeconomic perspective, I agree that modern farming might be resulting in greater income inequality between large farmers and the actual laborers. However, this is largely a structural flaw of any scaled enterprise. When the Industrial Revolution to foot in Europe and the United States the inequality between the robber-barons and the laborers skyrocketed. However, the general wealth of the population increased. Inequality, per se, is not bad, it can even be a great motivating force (I say this carefully, having fallen on the “right” side of inequality). I’m not trying to throw a free-market, Milton Friedman argument here – but I am saying that the effect on inequality per se is not justification enough.
Government regulation to ensure fair treatment of laborers through prevention of monopsonies is one partial solution. India is largely unmechanized (due to backward government policy encouraging manual work) – the number of agricultural workers in the future will hopefully decrease the need for there to be such a large disconnect between the “owners” and the “workers” in which mechanization allows the “owners” to work their own soil.
The day Facebook had its IPO, the income inequality in California (and the country, and the world) ever so slightly increased. Are we the worse of? Scalability and efficiency even if not ultimate goals benefit all of us.
I had a small epiphany the other day when I went to eat at a chai-kadai for lunch (something that is of questionable sense for someone who has lived in the US for fifteen years, as I have). I had a full, hearty, meal for Rs. 20 (eggs, tons of rice, beetroot – nutritious and healthy) as well as a cup of, well, chai. Rs. 20 is equivalent to less than 50 cents. Such affordable meals have allowed the Indian masses to put food on their tables. So yes, inequality has increased, but so has the ability for the common man to feed his family (a very patriarchal society indeed).
Naysayers of the revolution point to the fact that the Food Corporation of India wastes over half its grain each year – a result of India’s Green Revolution. This is probably a good example of reverse causality. We must a priori assume that India cannot store its food because there has been no investment in the technology needed to do so. A terrible cold-chain, no silos, etc. Therefore the Green Revolution has allowed a large portion of India to eat despite its terrible ability to preserve food.
In 1968, Ehrlich argued that millions would starve and die because “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred more million people by 1980”. No, not without science it could not. As a result of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat, India became self-sufficient in cereal production by 1974. You find that many of the pro-organic crowd here and elsewhere fall near the top of the socioeconomic spectrum – they’re not the ones who would pay the price when the country doesn’t have enough food. They’re not the ones for whom a lunch means three more hours worked, for whom putting food on the table means migrating away from the kids for maybe over eight months.
Health Organic sounds a lot healthier. And is a lot healthier if you don’t properly take care of the fruits and vegetables you are eating (washing it, etc.) However, thelargest scientific study on this issue – which used data from over 50 years of nutritional studies – noted that there is a negligible positive effect when one consumes organic food. This is not to say that organic is less healthy or that one should not consume organic food – there might be other reasons to do so. For example, animal welfare is generally a more important concern for organic farms than it is for conventional farms. However, this is again a tangent to the real question at hand.
Environment This is the big question, isn’t it? Now, let’s start with the facts. If we revert to Organic Farming, as Norman Borlaug has calculated, the world would be able to sustain ~4 billion people. Before we even consider organic farming, we should accept a priori that we are willing to pay the social cost of a Malthusian catastrophe. Indeed there is something deeply unsettling to me that the millions paying for this do not include those paying seven dollars for a gallon of milk.
I am the first to accept that the status quo, too, is unsustainable. There are states and farms in India that will probably loose the ability to remain fertile in about ten years, a result of modern agricultural practices. However, there do exist ways to sustainably farm using industrial methods. Can we not have major, scientific, research schemes that find ways to increase the productivity while at the same time decreasing the environmental cost? When there is large-scale investment in science (likely in times of war) we find that great advances do happen. We should inject warlike funding to such programs to allow for a more sustainable world.
A common question ignored is that modern farming allows you to receive a greater yield rate per acre, which allows you to till a lower surface area and thereby allowing you to conserve a greater portion of your total land. We would certainly have to increase our “area farmed” (and cut into untouched, pristine areas of nature) were we to abdicate efficient farming practices.
We must first make the steps that have the greatest impact per dollar spent. This means, for a country like India, to invest in high-quality silos, to teach farmers about the proper way to use herbicides, develop a high-quality cold-chain. This would do far more for the environment per dollar spent than investment in organic farming.
There are also simple steps we can take. Eat locally, from your farmers market… Don’t buy Kiwis (sorry New Zealand!) In fact there is some irony in the fact that Whole Foods imports from overseas (at great carbon cost) much of its organic produce in the winter when “conventional” food is available next door.
This post is already too long – and I don’t want to end on a negative note. I understand the merits of organic farming just I’ve heard too much lately about how modern agricultural has ruined the world and I don’t believe that is by itself true. Are we “borrowing from tomorrow”? Maybe. But with organic agriculture you would be borrowing from the many people that would not have existed today or be living on below-subsistence levels of food. To become better we do not need to look back, but look forward. What works about organic farming? How can that be incorporated into a modern and industrial model.
As a final note, when we for reasons of intuition and gut reject science – an evidence-based system – I think we are doing a disservice to our future. To question and challenge science in a rational and critical manner is one thing, but to damn it as a pawn of “big ag” is quite another.
Andrew Plotkin tells us that “if you already know what recursion is, just remember the answer. Otherwise, find someone who is standing closer to Douglas Hofstadter than you are; then ask him or her what recursion is.”
Recursion is a delight for any computer science student first learning it. There’s something magical about sorting a list by asking your program to sort the right half, left half, and then merge. There’s something magical about taking that ugly code festered with loops and switches and replacing it with two lines.
My high school computer science book (it sucked) kept telling me that “recursion” is inefficient but could never tell me why. Indeed, in terms of time complexity, sometimes a recursive solution is the best that exists (quick sort, for example). But as anyone with a slightly more nuanced understanding of memory allocation knows, the computer’s dashboard (if you will) looks a little bit like this:
Every time a method (function, subroutine, procedure, whatever you fancy) is called it’s placed on top of this so-called “stack”. The canonical explanation of a stack goes something along the line of having a stack (no, literally) of tasks to complete. You look at whatever’s on the top and begin with that, but when your boss drops by and adds another task you drop what you’re doing and work on that. As nerds say, LIFO (or last-in-first-out).
The problem with recursion is that each time a method recurses, another subroutine is added to the stack. Calling a method takes both memory and time, both of which are inconveniences that might not be relevant to one of those boring, old loops. Indeed failing recursion must be the inspiration of the famous website, StackOverflow, which is an eponym of maxing out your pre-allocated stack space.
So now let’s make the leap to real-life. For the most part, in computers, the time required to place a procedure on the call-stack is infinitesimal. So recursion is pretty cool, here, because you get a rich variety of data structures and algorithms that are elegant and effective.
Now about ten years ago, before Jimmy Wales invented Wikipedia (or hell, before Tim Berners-Lee conceived a hyperlink), imagine reading one of those terrible World Book Encyclopedias. I remember my Dad buying a whole, grand set, for god knows how many dollars when I was seven. I think I might have read two entries. It’s a better decoration to seem all polished and nuanced than anything else (much like an expensive globe).
When reading an article in one of these books, when you came across a term you didn’t know, chances are you just kept reading. The cost of finding out what that term means was just too high. You’d have to locate the volume or dictionary in which that entry would be stored, alphabetically navigate to that page, read it, and damnit there’s another term you don’t know… Before you know it, you have the whole bloody encyclopedia strewn on the floor and you haven’t learned a thing. Time for a beer.
So, knowing that it’s just not worth your time to find a small term, your algorithm might have looked something to the effect of:
define function -> readArticle(words):
while (not finished):
if (notUnderstood(word) and isImportant(word)):
And if you’re the average person the barrier to entry of “importance” will likely be quite high, lest you want to read the whole encyclopedia.
Wikipedia has fundamentally changed how we look at this algorithm. We’ve basically all but abdicated the qualifier of importance. The “cost of calling” a link, if you will, or recursing is barely anything anymore (except for my house in Chennai which might still be using dial-up). The old encyclopedia’s offered us one thing in return for their cumbersome and pretentious being, we were compelled to read only that which we need and that is important.
Today, I barely find myself reading whole Wikipedia pages anymore, and it’s a shame. I’m too busy reading an intermediary link because it’s so computationally cheap to do so.
Look I’m not a cognitive psychologist or a behavioral economist or whatever, but I wonder if this fundamentally changes the way our brains are wired – just as fundamentally as stacks are different from queues. The iPhone and Mountain Lion notification center draw your attention from whatever you were doing at a moment’s buzz.
Here’s the problem. We’re probably hitting something of the computational equivalent of stack overflow. Our brains don’t have that much memory (I read on the incredibly reliable source of YahooAnswers). Do you ever start researching for a paper, get lost in Wikipedia and then eventually just quit? Yeah, that’s probably stack overflow, or something…
Would we be more efficient if the cost of calling a function was greater, and if so, to what extent?