Pre-2014 Home Page with “A Cocktail Party Version”

Hello and welcome!  This isn’t so much a blog (given that I’ve yet to begin writing posts), but rather a manifesto.  My position is essentially that we’ll need descriptive rather than prescriptive understandings of welfare, in order to figure out what’s good and bad for any any subject.

Thanks for taking a look!


“A Cocktail Party” Version

Consider existence from the perspective of a human, a dog, a plant, a computer, and finally a rock. For the computer and the rock, perhaps existence is perfectly “insignificant,” or perhaps events alter subjects such as these without having any personal relevance to them. Furthermore we generally treat plants as if they’re just as oblivious in a personal sense — regardless of what is done to this kind of life, perhaps existence occurs just as inconsequentially for these subjects, as it seems to for computers and for rocks. When the human and the dog are considered, however, it’s generally thought that events affect subjects such as these in a way that can have positive and negative personal implications to these subjects. This dynamic will thus be referred to here as “the good and bad” aspect of reality.

Though philosophers must have pondered this element of our nature from the time that humanity was quite young, there is still no generally accepted understanding of what good and bad essentially are — or that which gives existence an apparent positive/negative potential for the human, the dog, the bird, and so on, though not for subjects such as the plant and the computer. But given that this feature should also be quite fundamental, we may thus expected that the scientific community will need to figure this out in order to resolve various standard questions associated with our nature. I propose the following model of positive and negative personal existence:

In one regard there are just two “operating systems” by which a given subject may function. The more primary is motivated by factors other than “sensations,” and thus here dynamics like pain, beauty, frustration, humor, hatred, love, fear, and so on, are simply not “in play.” Presumably microbes, fungi, and plants experience no sensations, and thus they function purely by means of this first mechanism. I refer to it as “instinct.”

Under the complementary system, however, positive and negative sensations serve as punishment and reward from which to motivate function. Thus sensations like hunger, itchiness, hope, fun, anger, orgasm, heat, cold, and so on, constitute the essential nature of both “good” and “bad” — or effectively serve as an ideology from which to derive how these subjects may lead their lives and structure their societies “properly.” I refer to this sensations mechanism as “self.”

The difference between the subjects mentioned above from this perspective, is that the human and the dog seem to experience “sensations,” while the plant, the computer, and the rock, presumably do not. Once there is an accepted understanding of a personal relevance, or good/bad dynamic, then our mental and behavioral sciences (like Psychology, Sociology, Cognitive Science, and so on) should gain founding theory from which to function in this regard. Furthermore this achievement would bring our sciences an actual “ideology,” or a position from which to address all questions associated with living our lives and structuring our societies, in a manner which is theoretically “good” for a given subject.

Creative Commons License Physical Ethics by “Philosopher Eric” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

11 Comments on “Pre-2014 Home Page with “A Cocktail Party Version””

  1. I’m more than happy to find this page. I wanted to thank you for your time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely savored every part of it and I have you book-marked to look at new stuff in your blog. I have found following MCQ is really helpfull for CSE student

  2. jimpintoJim Pinto says:

    Eric :

    I heard from Merle that you are quite active on your blog. I’m delighted and will continue to stay in touch this way.

  3. davidlduffy says:

    You might look at David Gauthier’s book (1986) Morals By Agreement (Rational Contractualism), and the work of John Harsanyi (Utilitarianism). They both work from the the standpoint of the individual. Gauthier thinks that “the hypothetical [social] contract, the contract we would settle on if we were choosing the outcome together, represents morality”.
    Harsanyi holds that it is possible to mathematically prove that there is a utility function that represents moral goodness: the sum of the utility functions representing the good of each individual. Rather than measure the individual good, they rely on individuals having some idea of what this is, so we can estimate it from their choices. James Dreier wrote a nice summary in his chapter Decision Theory and Morality (Ch 9 of the Oxford Handbook of Rationality), that I am quoting above.

    • Wow, no comments of substance for two years, then two in a single day!

      Hi David,

      Gauthier’s way of defining morality does seem perfectly reasonable to me in a standard sense, but what you may find strange is that my own theory regarding the nature of good/bad, doesn’t actually concern “morality.” (Or at least not in the “social construct” way that I understand the term to generally be interpreted. A friend has recently informed me that “normative morality” references an idea which isn’t socially defined however, so perhaps my ideas do apply in at least this regard?)

      Nevertheless, the concept which I’m referring to isn’t something which is in any way “decided,” but rather is an actual state of matter in itself, such as molecular composition, mass, and so on. If “morality” is defined to facilitate such a notion then I’ll take it, though otherwise I have no problem calling my theory “amoral.”

      So then what is my theory? It’s that the conscious mind produces a type of matter for which existence can be good/bad rather than inconsequential. Consider how we (non panpsychists) believe that most everything doesn’t matter to itself. Even for a living tree, I think, its own existence remains perfectly inconsequential to it. But when we ascend to something which is conscious (which I only know because I happen to be conscious) apparently personally relevant existence is produced in order for this kind of function to occur. “Sensation” is what I call this product of the conscious mind.

      As far as Harsanyi goes, he sounds like a “total utilitarian” like myself, and if so, then this is good! If he also keeps his position purely subjective, which is to say that the good of any given subject exists as the summation of positive to negative sensations which it experiences over a given period of time, then I endorse him even more!

  4. Philosopher Eric, I’m a long-time reader of Massimo’s blogs (though I seldom comment), but I’ve been following the comments threads lately and I think I see some striking similarities between your ideas and those of Joshua Greene.

    Greene was strongly influence by J.L. Mackie, Gilbert Harman, Richard Garner and Richard Joyce. (It seems to me that Greene’s dissertation is mostly Garner + updated neuroscience and psychology.) At any rate, I suggest Garner’s “Beyond Morality” and Greene’s dissertation, both of which are available online (just google them).

    • Hi Bored Nihilist,

      Thanks for the pointer to Greene. I suppose that he does have ideas somewhat like my own, though entirely bred from academia. Yes I can see value to viewing ourselves in terms of competing moral subsystems:

      Emotional, intuitive, deontological judgments (e.g., don’t push the fat man off the footbridge in the trolley problem)

      Rational, calculated, utilitarian judgments (e.g., push the fat man off to save more total lives).

      Nevertheless when compared against my own associated explanations, this does seem a bit simplistic. Consider the following:

      We are are entirely utilitarian in a conscious sense, meaning that each unit of positive sensation experienced contributes positive value to our existence, with the negative being the opposite. Nevertheless apparently our resulting perfect selfishness is effectively moderated by two other features that evolution provided us with. One is our “empathy,” or a means by which we experience sensations which correspond somewhat with the sensations that we perceive in others. Then the next concerns “theory of mind sensations” like shame, respect, pride, and other concerns about what others are thinking about us.

      So while I can see why Greene’s roughly emotional versus rational competing subsystems has been successful in academia, I present a conforming but continuous explanation regarding the trolley situations, and all others. From here we consciously behave exclusively out of the desire for personal happiness, which is effectively moderated by our empathy and theory of mind sensations.

      Moving now to Garner, I see that he’s trying to build “a system of behavior that will nurture our capabilities for love and language, for creation and cooperation.” I’d hate for anyone to misrepresent me with such a statement! My own ideas suggest that we are entirely selfish, technically manifested even through our empathy and theory of mind sensations. Instead of the “love and cooperation” stuff that we may want ourselves to be, my goal is to help us understand our true nature, even when we find it repugnant, so that we might use this understanding to better lead our lives and structure our societies.

  5. diagramforhumanmindaffectpdf

  6. Fizan says:

    Hey Philosopher Eric, just read this post. Your Theory is interesting. I believe what you are saying is that only certain organisms (dogs and humans) have consciousness of the sort that they have sensations. And these sensations are consequential in guiding their life.There are no claims to morality as such.
    But correct me if I’m wrong, you feel an understanding of this nature can help us shape and structure our society?

    I think there are obviously going to be a number of issues to discuss first:
    First you have to argue the case of why only certain organisms have sensations. Along with this is the challenge to define the demarcation line between these types of systems.
    Secondly if we are going to use such an understanding to shape society then are we not implying a moral structure? Who decides this structure? if it can be based on your Theory then why not on a different theory?

    If we are selfishly driven by our own happiness how will we resolve issues of conflict between two people’s selfish drive. Is it going to be a democratic process or authoritative one. What about justice then? Don’t we want a just society rather than one driven by majority opinion or authority?

    I feel the shaping of society is more about power and popular opinions rather than being based on rational ideas.

    I would also like to share my two cents on the idea of ethics. It isn’t very thoroughly researched but comes from Daoist philosophy and I would love to hear your thoughts on it:
    Hindering of the natural inherent way of things is unjust. If an elephant is kept in a big zoo where it can socialise with other elephants and play in the water and walk about freely, then it isn’t unjust but if a bird is kept in the same zoo it is unjust because the bird’s inherent way is to fly in open vast spaces and migrate (if applicable) to other parts of the world. Such a way avoids having to deal with consciousness (one could argue the elephant is more conscious).
    It relates to an idea about suffering for the animal. Given all possibilities the bird’s way is to fly and migrate, it does so on it’s own. So does the elephant in moving freely, socialising, raising families and plying in the water. They do not do other things which otherwise is possible for them to do. So being prevented from doing what they inherently do, would amount to suffering for them.

    • Fizan,
      Thanks for stopping by. As I mentioned at your site, my site doesn’t seem to give people a good understanding of my beliefs. Furthermore you certainly haven’t made a liar of me — no that’s not how I see things at all. Rather than wade through each point however it would probably be best to begin again. I’m very encouraged however that your Daoist position does seem extremely consistent.

      I believe that for many kinds of life, perhaps even into the insect kingdom, the vast non-conscious mind produces punishing and rewarding feelings from which to motivate the function of a relatively small conscious form of mind/computer. I consider this punishment/ reward stuff to represent the complete welfare of anything. Lately I’ve been using the acronym of ASTU for my position.

      It is Amoral in the sense that this is theoretically beyond social beliefs and conventions. I consider it the “is” rather than “ought” of welfare — description rather than prescription. It is Subjective in the sense that it can only be in reference to some specified subject over a specified period of time. This could be me for an hour, or a country for a year, or a group of fish throughout their lives. In all cases a subject must be specified. Then finally it is Total Utilitarianism because this term represents a full aggregate compilation of reward minus the punishment for a given subject.

      I began messing with this concept as a kid, and from there developed all sorts of models regarding out nature.

  7. Fizan says:

    Thank you. It is difficult to grasp and I must admit I’m not well versed on the subject of ethics or social welfare. But perhaps one of my difficulties in understanding your position is not knowing your goal. Is there any utility to this theory or is it more to give insights into the nature of us and other things? (which is I suppose the utility then)

    • Actually Fizan, a generally educated person who hasn’t yet become invested in standard ethical dogma should have fewer difficulties understanding my theory. Last time I think I may have used too many speculative terms. I’ll try again. My position really is quite simple.

      If we go back to the zoo scenario that you mentioned above, the elephant could be very happy in a well maintained large zoo given its nature, while the bird could only suffer given the importance of free flight to it. I’m merely saying in addition to your observation that the aggregate happiness/unhappiness which something experiences over a given period, will represent its exact welfare over that period. Furthermore social welfare then becomes the aggregate happiness/unhappiness of any number of conscious subjects over a given period.

      Philosophers seem to bypass the notion of welfare altogether to instead address the nature of “morality” (which is to say, the social construct of rightness and wrongness). Scientists do not theorize the essential nature of welfare, I presume, given the morality paradigm, as well as their quest to be perceived as objective researchers.

      Fizan I suspect that you have lots of questions about my theory of welfare, and I’ll get to them regardless of how you answer the following question: If you were charged with defining the welfare of any specified individual or society, would you do so as I have, or rather in a different way?

      Yes my goal is as you suspect — to help us understand our nature. I believe that a great deal of the softness associated with our mental and behavioral sciences could be alleviated by means of a formal understanding of welfare for any given subject.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s