Archive for April, 2010

Have we equal worth?

April 21, 2010

I consider myself a utilitarian, which means that I believe an action is just to the extent it increases happiness in the world. I came across a utilitarian “Frequently Asked Questions” page earlier today that was very good, except for one paragraph. The problem is that the one paragraph contains a significant error, at least to my understanding of utilitarianism.

The FAQ was written by a man named Nigel Phillips, and it can be seen in full here. Phillips tackles the issue of forced organ donation. In short, the ethical dilemma is whether it is justifiable to kill a healthy human being for the purpose of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need his organs to live. Does utilitarianism require us to kill the one healthy person to save the five sick ones?

A common fear about utilitarianism is that the theory would require us to kill the healthy person. Phillips says “not so fast”, explaining that there are all kinds of negative consequences that would result from the murder, in addition to the death we would have caused.

Phillips: How could we pick a victim for our supplies, without generating fear and alarm in the community? If someone who goes to hospital with a minor complaint gets killed for his body parts by the doctors, would this not generate a fear of hospitals in the general populace… who would then refuse to enter one lest a similar situation occur again? And how, if we give doctors the power to decide who should die and who should live, do we stop doctors abusing their powers and becoming, for instance, extortionists?

So good, so far. But the next sentence Phillips writes should leave all utilitarians scratching their head.

There is also the assumption that different people’s lives necessarily have roughly equal worth… which is simply ridiculous from a utilitarian perspective. What if the two recipients are Hitler and Göring, and the forced donor is Martin Luther King?

The idea that people have equal worth is ridiculous? This is certainly not my belief. I believe that a person’s moral worth is a function of their ability to experience happiness in the future. It has nothing to do with their past actions. I feel comfortable with the idea that Hitler, Göring and King all have equal moral worth.

Now, before you leave any nasty comments, I do not believe that we should treat a mass murderer the same as a civil rights leader. How we assess a person’s moral worth and how we treat that person are separate issues. If punishing Hitler and Göring would have eased the pain of the holocaust survivors, or would have discouraged future wars or genocides, then those are good arguments for punishing them. I don’t think punishing King would ease anyone’s pain and it wouldn’t make war less likely, so he should be treated differently. But notice that the difference in treatment is due to a difference in expected consequences and not in the moral worth of the subjects.

As a matter of fact, Phillips embraces this very philosophy later on in the FAQ when discussing the issue of punishment.

Phillips: Utilitarianism does not accept that the “guilty” deserve “punishment” – it views punishment as a prima facie evil since it involves the infliction of harm. This harm can be justified if it has greater benefits in terms of maintaining order in the community, but the utilitarian position is that if punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.

I couldn’t agree more.


Looking back on 2010, in 200 years

April 11, 2010

It’s hard to believe that slavery was once an acceptable idea. A lot of ideas that were common in the past are unfathomable now. It appears to many people, including me, that the society we live in is constantly shredding old prejudices and irrational ways of thinking. I believe this process will continue for many more years, and will probably never end.

An interesting question, then, is what common beliefs from the year 2010 will be held in contempt 200 years from now. In the year 2200, will human beings look back on our civilization with the same kind of shame that we now feel toward the slave traders from the 18th century? What characteristic of our society will elicit shock and horror in future generations?

If society continues to progress in the direction it has been for the last few hundred years, I can venture a guess, and that is:

My prediction: I believe the commonly held view that a person’s moral worth comes from their citizenship is the most pernicious and depraved idea of our age.

It is responsible for cavalier attitudes to waging war on foreigners and an indifference and unwillingness to alleviate their suffering. I hope and pray that in the coming centuries this belief will be seen as just as wicked and perverted as we now view racism.

Here is an example of the depravity I am referring to. It is the Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian, writing shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, explaining why the United States should not allow in more Haitian refugees:

Krikorian: The impact on the job prospects of the less-skilled American workers that additional Haitians would be competing with in an environment of widespread unemployment is a matter of indifference to those whose main concern is the well-being of the foreign country rather than of the people whose interests they are supposed to be pursuing. In short, the place to help Haitians is in Haiti, not the United States.

I’m curious to know what my readers think, so I’ve made a poll with what I believe are the leading contenders for “currently common attitude most likely to offend the sensibilities of future generations.”

If I’ve left off an important one, feel free to share your own in the comments section.

Learning a foreign language? Keep it simple

April 1, 2010

Languages are complex. They have all kinds of confusing rules to remember. You may not notice this in your daily life when you speak your own native language, but I can assure you it becomes apparent when you try to learn a foreign one.

I have been interested in foreign languages for a number of years. I spent my senior year of college studying Spanish in Mexico. I had ample opportunity to use the Spanish I learned in class at the dinner table with my Mexican host family. I was learning new words everyday, and it was exciting to test out the vocabulary I acquired in the morning with my Mexican parents at night. That was when I began to question the usefulness of the Spanish I was learning.

One of the ways we Spanish students expanded our vocabulary was to read a few pages of an old literary text and then look up all the words we didn’t know. It turns out that may not be the best way to learn a language. I remember coming home for dinner one night and my parents asked me what I had learned in class that day. I said that I learned a few new words, including the word “omniscient,” which in Spanish is “omnisciente.” My host parents looked at each other in bewilderment because they had never heard the word before (the word means “all-knowing”). We were learning words the natives didn’t understand! I found that strange considering there were plenty of common words in Spanish that we didn’t know, and yet we skipped those words and began learning the ones no one had heard of.

When you’re learning a foreign language, you want to learn words in their order of importance. I’ll bet that you’ll need to use the word for “bathroom” a whole lot more than you will the word for “omniscient,” and not knowing “bathroom” can put you in a really uncomfortable spot.

I think most people understand this concept of a “lexical hierarchy,” where some words are more important for communication than other words. What interests me is that this hierarchy exists not just for common versus uncommon words, but for every aspect of language, including its grammar.

Take the sentence, “I am going to the store.” Ask yourself this question: What element of the sentence can I remove that least alters the sentence’s comprehensibility? In this instance, the direct article “the” can be eliminated, and while it renders an ungrammatical sentence, “I am going to store,” the meaning can still be inferred.

This exercise need not be limited to reducing the number of words. You will notice that English verbs change their form depending on who is doing them and when they are done. For example, “I go” but “he goes.” We are using the verb “to go” in both instances, but when I am the one doing it, it is conjugated as “go” and when he is doing it, it is conjugated as “goes.” Ask yourself: Is this conjugation necessary for comprehension? If I refrained from conjugating verbs and just said “he go to the store,” you would still be able to understand the message I wanted to convey. In fact, we could simplify the sentence even further to “he go store” and that construction is still intelligible, if perhaps a little more ambiguous.

The reason I bring all this up is because knowing the essential elements of a language is extremely valuable. An American who visits Paris for a few days is merely interested in getting her point across, not in speaking flawless French. To make herself understood, she does not need to know every word in the dictionary, nor does she need to follow every grammatical rule. She needs to know the basic elements of French.

To date, I have never come across a foreign language guide that discusses this issue. I would like to see a self-help book that teaches a simplified form of a language for people who only need it for traveling and sight-seeing. The book wouldn’t bother with things like verb conjugations or indefinite articles or any of the non-essential parts of a language, yet it would give people just enough tools so that they could navigate their way around a foreign land. Hmm. I see a marketing opportunity…