Food for thought

readingsOur regular Friday diet of readings for the weekend:

Wittgenstein explains why we always misunderstand one another on the Internet. A truly interesting article for anyone interested about the intersection between philosophy of language and artificial (or even natural) intelligence.

A Stone (New York Times) essay on whether moral improvement is even a possibility, either for individual human beings or for our species as a whole.

So, Vox magazine refused to publish this article by a philosopher, after having commissioned it. It’s about the so-called “repugnant conclusion” in ethics. They were silly for not publishing it, but it’s not like the article makes a particularly good case for said conclusion. (I will probably write more about this in the near future.)

Should a college freshman (I can’t believe we are still using that particular word!) refuse to read a book assigned by the school, on the grounds that he morally objects to what he considers to be pornography?

The second installment of Richard Dawkins’ autobiography is apparently not that interesting. When I get older, remind me not to write my autobiography, no matter how interesting I will by then think my life has been.

28 thoughts on “Food for thought

  1. Thomas Jones

    Just read Tännsjö’s piece. Should Vox have published it? Maybe. Gawker’s introductory remarks state that the piece was “commissioned,” giving the impression that in refusing to publish it Vox might have transgressed in some way. But surely Vox reserves the right, for “whatever” reasons, not to publish a commissioned piece. Let’s just set aside Klein’s explanation. To me, Tannsjo’s thesis cannot be adequately addressed in so brief an essay. As a result, it strikes one as trivially provocative. In short, it’s neither compelling nor particularly insightful. That seems reason enough to me to decline to publish it.


  2. Massimo Post author

    Thomas, while I agree that the article’s thesis is not compelling (indeed, I don’t think it can be made compelling, no matter the length of the essay) I think Vox’s reason for rejecting was ludicrous, and they should be embarrassed about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. SocraticGadfly

    I agree that it was such a stupid argument for making babies that Francis the Talking Pope, or even John Paul II, wouldn’t have said it. (The Mormons, wanting to incarnate those celestial souls, are another story.)

    To go beyond that first comment (Massimo, I’m extending my lifespan with sarcasm, remember!), it read almost like a “Poe,” and specifically a Poe skewering consequentialism. I’ve written before, including comments at Sci Sal, about how I think consequentialism’s “view from nowhere” is untenable. Well, one way it’s untenable is if we don’t think of the not yet born!


  4. Thomas Jones

    Massimo, I don’t think there’s much meat on this bone for either of us. (Just a metaphor since I know you don’t indulge.) 🙂 Of course, Vox/Klein’s official reason is ludicrous. I imagine it is also rather an embarrassment to him that Gawker “published” it. It’d be my guess that Vox won’t be commissioning another from Tännsjö any day soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thomas Jones

    I have to add, though, that the thought did cross my mind when I read Tännsjö’s piece that it was a spoof, a failed attempt at something Swiftian.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. labnut

    Should a college freshman (I can’t believe we are still using that particular word!) refuse to read a book assigned by the school, on the grounds that he morally objects to what he considers to be pornography?

    Well, I have forced myself to read the nonsense written by Dawkins, Harris, Krauss and Hawking. There is a lot to be said for examining contrasting viewpoints, attitudes and experiences. I found that one can learn a great deal even if what one learns is invariably not what one expected to learn. It is called curiosity and is essential to the development of a sound critical faculty. But there is an opportunity cost, as I mention below.

    The real question in my mind is why on earth they prescribed “Fun Home“. Given the vast body of wonderful books in English it seems that prescribing such a book has a high opportunity cost.

    So, Vox magazine refused to publish this article by a philosopher, after having commissioned it. It’s about the so-called “repugnant conclusion” in ethics

    implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it’s not your intent, is a real concern

    Silencing once more rears its ugly head. This is a very dangerous trend. It is an example of illiberal liberalism.

    Torbjörn Tännsjö’s article has some interesting ideas. This is an important subject that deserves more careful treatment and I would not be so quick to dismiss this article even if his presentation was thin and lacking in nuance or context.

    The second installment of Richard Dawkins’ autobiography

    Perhaps his autobiography should be more aptly be titled “The Failed Promise of a Damp Squib“.

    Can we improve?
    One reason that a profound moral improvement of humankind is hard to envision…

    If we take homicides as the most extreme manifestation of moral failure then it becomes a good proxy as a measure of moral change.
    My province(Eastern Cape), has a homicide rate of 47/100,000 while Britain has a homicide rate of 1.0/100,000. Obviously then our species is capable of great improvement. We can see this In my own province where the homicide rate has decreased from 77 to 47 homicides per 100,000.

    Our species has a unique capacity to learn and adapt its behaviour. The differences in homicide rate between my province and Britain illustrate this vividly and so obviously we can improve and we can greatly improve.

    It is very difficult to measure moral change, in part because we are not talking about one thing, in part because record keeping is quite poor and in part because we understand different things by the same terms. This makes comparisons between countries and over a period of time rather difficult. Homicides is one of those few things where we mostly agree about its meaning and record it quite well.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author

    That’s correct, I’m a pescatarian. I miss prosciutto, but I think it’s for a good cause.

    As for the Vox article, what I’m concerned with is that they won’t solicit any additional pieces from philosophers.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. labnut

    Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren’t comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it’s not your intent, is a real concern.

    We need contrarian thinking to provoke more debate which leads to deeper thinking about the issues. Contrarian thinkers create discomfort and we tend to flee from discomfort(as the above shows) but that is the wrong reaction. Here, in outline, are the thoughts that this matter provoked in me(in no particular order). Once one starts to think it through it is no longer obvious that promoting population growth is a bad thing and to call it a “repugnant conclusion” is in itself a repugnant act.

    1. Larger populations produce more outstanding thinkers.
    If outstanding thinkers are 1 in 500,000(an arbitrary ratio) then a population of one million will only produce 2 outstanding thinkers while a population of 100 million will produce 200 outstanding thinkers. (on average over a significant period of time, given a suitable environment).

    2. We all benefit hugely from the output of outstanding thinkers.
    More outstanding thinkers enrich society more, creating more science, literature, arts and culture in general.

    3. Population density over a critical mass fosters greater creativity and development.
    The concentration of population in large urban centers creates more interchange and greater stimulus, enriching society.

    4. Greater consumer market ensures greater variety of products, cultural and material.
    Our lives are thus enriched by greater choice and availability. This is the phenomenon of the long tail.

    5. Population growth ensures economic growth.
    Our economy demands growth. Once satiety is achieved economic growth can only come from population growth.

    6. Low birth rate and ageing population depresses the economy.
    Fewer consumers cause a decline in economic activity. Older consumers consume less(except for health products, invest in the pharmaceutical industry)

    7. Larger families share the burden of care.
    An ageing and long lived population is placing an unsupportable burden on the pensions, health and retirement industry. We will be forced to take a bigger role in the care of the elderly population. Larger families makes this burden more supportable.

    8. Advanced countries should supply more expatriates to bootstrap the poorer countries.
    Population growth will make more skilled expatriates available. I have personal experience of the great good that skilled expatriates can provide. One of the most far sighted decisions of all time was the decision by China to import large numbers of so-called ‘foreign experts‘ to bootstrap their economy into modernity. It was a painful and humiliating experience for them to admit this necessity and to endure the insensitive arrogance of the ‘foreign experts‘. I am filled with admiration for the intelligent way in which they executed this process. Modern China is the result.

    9. Larger populations are better able to absorb disasters and extinction events.

    10. Large populations have greater genetic variability and this will result in more survivors should our species be struck by deadly bacteria or virii.

    Yes, population growth creates problems of its own, such as resource usage, pollution, environmental destruction and social adjustment. Even so, our species is more than inventive enough and adaptable enough to overcome these problems, even if progress is slow and halting. We repeatedly stumble close to the cliff’s edge but always find a way back.


  9. labnut

    When I get older, remind me not to write my autobiography, no matter how interesting I will by then think my life has been.

    One of the delusions of old age is that we fondly believe that our lives have been interesting. This is why library shelves are burdened with autobiographies that no-one reads. It is our last chance to air-brush our portraits and an opportunity to imbue our lives with retrospective meaning. We fear the narratives that others may create about us and thus attempt to seize control of the narrative.

    It is also a compensatory mechanism that we use to adapt to our growing irrelevance 🙂 We are all destined to discover that final and most discriminatory ‘ism’ of all, ageism.


  10. labnut

    I am a little displayed by the tone of the latest post and comments on Edward Feser’s blog and so I made the following comment over there:

    I have a lot of respect for Massimo and I think we should judge him charitably. His writing is thoughtful, nuanced and insightful. Nevertheless we have come to very different conclusions but we should respect the fact that these are honest differences, sincerely expressed. If he does not want to engage theists in debate, then so be it, even if he worded his refusal awkwardly. He has already been on the receiving end from some pretty tenacious new atheists and scientismists so I can understand his reluctance to wade into what he fears will be another debating swamp.

    Let’s respect that and show by our charitable behaviour that we can be productive debating partners when and if he chooses to engage us in conversation.


  11. Massimo Post author

    labnut, thanks, I appreciate it. I probably was a bit flippant in my Twitter comment, but it was a reflection of the fact that I’m at a point in my life whether I do not want to engage either theists or atheists as antagonists. I much prefer laying the ground for commonalities, as I’m trying to do here and over at my Stoic blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Philosopher Eric

    “Food for thought”? Yes a feast for me!

    Since I’ve more/less come to terms with Dan Kaufman’s interview with Ian Ground, I do now enjoy the subject of Wittgenstein. I certainly appreciate the man’s final position, though I suspect that we won’t truly be able to understand much about human dynamics without first addressing what it evolved from. Wittgenstein couldn’t have had good theory in this regard, I think, since even modern psychologists don’t yet seem to have strong general convictions about our fundamentals. My goal is to both get others to acknowledge our failure in this regard, as well as to promote the associated theory which I’ve developed.

    The Stone article was cutoff quick for me, though I require no further evidence to acknowledge that the human academic quest to make us “moral” against a tide of biological reality, happens to be quite unfortunate. Once we attempt to figure out what we are in this regard (ethics), rather than play with notions of what we would like ourselves to be (moral), our mental and behavioral sciences should finally begin to advance. (Obviously a young Christian may have extra associated problems, but does science itself as well? Yes I’d say so.)

    I think it’s quite right that Massimo didn’t take the bait and get sucked into a theist versus atheist debate regarding whatever was being discussed. I’ve recently chided my friend Coel for this same thing, both on his site and at SciSal. It simply makes no sense for two people to argue about something, when they’re beginning from fundamentally different premises.

    Massimo I’m sure you know that it’s “the repugnant conclusion” which interests me most here. For five months I’ve earnestly followed SciSal until its recent closing, and without a whiff of the now mentioned utilitarianism (beyond virtually all of my own comments). Furthermore it did seem rare for others to even challenge my position. In the end I wasn’t looking for fights however, but rather wanted others to challenge themselves in this regard. Surely if some decide that there is good reason that they’re unable to counter my ideas, then they should also tend to support this position for themselves? Well perhaps.

    I see two main reasons that total utilitarianism has not yet succeeded, and already mentioned the first above — academia seems quite focused upon figuring how we can become what we would like ourselves to be (moral), rather than what is actually good/bad for the conscious entity (ethics). The second of them concerns problems with subject identification. Derek Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion,” or “mere addition paradox,” does seem addressed once we acknowledge that different subjects naturally have somewhat different interests. If the subject happens to be the people of a given society, then someone who hurts it for personal gain, will indeed be “bad” to the magnitude of the diminished happiness of this subject. Nevertheless this “bad” may also be “good” for the individual that causes it, so let’s not pretend otherwise with notions of “immorality.” If we continue to formally deny qualia as the ultimate measure of good/bad for the conscious entity, not only shall ethics fail, but a vast array of associated sciences.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. labnut

    I will probably write more about this[repugnant conclusion] in the near future

    I hope you do. I am trying to untangle the argument with not much success.

    From Derek Parfit in ‘Repugnant Conclusion – Essays on Population Ethics‘, Jesper Ryberg, Torbjörn Tännsjö (editors)

    The Repugnant Conclusion: Compared with the existence of very many people—say, ten billion—all of whom have a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger number of people whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though these people would have lives that are barely worth living.

    This in turn is based on the hedonistic total principle:

    The Hedonistic Total Principle: If other things are equal, it is better if there is a greater total sum of happiness.

    This raises a question. How can an abstract greater total sum of happiness outweigh the real overall decreased happiness of the individual?

    The key assumption is that a sum of happiness has some kind of meaning and the greater the sum the greater is its value.

    And here my brain runs in circles as it tries to untangle this. I suspect the authors have unknowingly imported theological assumptions based on the idea that additional, minimally flourishing lives have intrinsic value, beyond their own value to themselves.

    I look forward to your post on the subject where I will comment more fully.


  14. SocraticGadfly

    Eric, I agree with you. That’s why, on the last several essays at Sci Sal, I basically just raised previous talking points with, and errata by, Coel, when responding to him. (sigh)


  15. Massimo Post author


    “Nevertheless this “bad” may also be “good” for the individual that causes it”

    You keep using words like “good” and “bad” in a non-normative, descriptive sense. The whole idea of “x is good for y (but detrimental to the rest of society)” is at odds with what moral philosophers (and, really, pretty much everyone) mean by good or bad in a moral (as opposed to instrumental) context.


    “I suspect the authors have unknowingly imported theological assumptions based on the idea that additional, minimally flourishing lives have intrinsic value, beyond their own value to themselves.”

    I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Rather they are quite explicitly adopting a utilitarian framework, within which the “repugnant conclusion” does indeed follow. But as you well know, I’m no utilitarian, so for me the “conclusion” simply doesn’t follow from my axioms about ethics.


  16. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Socratic,

    I suppose that you were simply agreeing with me that it’s senseless for people to begin from two fundamentally different premises (such as theist versus atheist), and then go on to argue various issues out as if those founding positions were inconsequential. I gladly accept such support! Of course I now wonder about your thoughts on other aspects of my position? I personally would prefer private discussions with you, but would take whatever I’m able to get. Email:

    Hi Massimo,

    I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this comment to me:

    You keep using words like “good” and “bad” in a non-normative, descriptive sense. The whole idea of “x is good for y (but detrimental to the rest of society)” is at odds with what moral philosophers (and, really, pretty much everyone) mean by good or bad in a moral (as opposed to instrumental) context.

    Yes thank you for formally noting that I’m discussing something which is related but not the same as what virtually everyone else is. Like you, I’m not a “moral” utilitarian, since in my opinion utilitarianism is repugnant. Instead I am a “instrumental” utilitarian. (I’ll continue to use this term of yours, if you don’t mind, since it does seem quite appropriate.) So here my question is, do you also consider yourself to be an instrumental utilitarian? Like me, do you consider qualia to constitute instrumental good/bad throughout existence?

    The problem which I perceive is not really that philosophers seem uncomfortable delving into instrumental good/bad, but rather that our mental and behavioral sciences display this same discomfort. When the question of good/bad comes up in them, their perspective seems to be “No we can’t go there, since that would take us beyond the scope of science and into ethics.” I mention this even though I’m quite aware that the science of economics happens to be founded upon utilitarianism itself. Back when I was an economics undergraduate, I clearly remember reading a disclaimer meant to suggest that the field wasn’t thus “repugnant.” It said something like “As a behavioral science, economics accepts utilitarianism merely as a principal from which to predict our behavior. But it does not further claim that utility happens to be good for us, as this position would involve ethics.” I’d obviously like to remove all such disclaimers, since it do consider utility to be the good/bad aspect of existence in an ontological manner.

    Back then I decided that I’d thus be forced to cultivate my ideas from an outside perspective, figuring that academia would naturally punish me for my own instrumental ideology of good/bad. So now a couple of decades later, with developed models from which to work, I do have a message that I’m quite able to defend. I believe that we must build an instrumental good/bad theory from which to found our still primitive mental/behavioral sciences. Notice that the subject of consciousness, for just one example, remains wide open today. I mean to either personally fill such voids with my own theory, or at least to demonstrate that a formally accepted instrumental good/bad theory will be required in order for true progress to be made.

    Massimo, I would very much like to demonstrate the nature of my own models to you, since if you did decide to take me under your wing, I do believe that we could cause a magnificent revolution in these fields. My offer shall stand beyond the time that you decide my ideas happen to be quite good. Regardless, I do thus remain at your disposal.


  17. labnut

    they are quite explicitly adopting a utilitarian framework,
    Yes, I see that he advocates hedonistic utilitarianism.

    within which the “repugnant conclusion does indeed follow.
    That’s the part I find hard to grasp since a ‘sum of happiness’ makes no sense to me, but I will wait for your post.

    …the “conclusion” simply doesn’t follow from my axioms about ethics.

    My thoughts are evolving 🙂
    1) virtue ethics is the framework that supplies the cohesion for an effective society.
    2) this framework is preserved and is most strongly felt in a small elite that supplies leadership to society.
    3) it is preserved in the small elite because the virtue framework gives them a strong sense of shared identity. The Romans and the British upper class are good examples of this even if they were very selective in which virtues they subscribed to.
    4) the virtue framework permeates downwards into the rest of society, to some extent.
    5) the virtue framework is what enables the leadership of the elite, making it acceptable. The leadership class need more than force to stay in power. They need the implicit agreement of the rest.
    6) this is why the aristocracy are also called the ‘nobility’ and this is what lies behind the British concept of a ‘gentleman’.

    Democracy is also a leadership of the elite(the parliamentarians) but the composition of the elite is variable and short lived. It thus cannot acquire and maintain a virtue framework. Thus its purpose, cohesion and leadership will be always be weak.

    A deadly new ingredient has been added to this mix, and that is hedonistic utilitarianism. This has become the de facto moral system of modern democracies. It is the natural end result of what Anthony Giddens called ‘the reflexive project of the self’.

    Democracies adjust to the problems this creates, with a growing thicket of laws and regulations and thus deontology reappears in another form. Hedonistic utilitarianism is being balanced by regulatory deontology.

    All of this is by way of reconsideration of a remark you made a long time ago, that leadership of the elite was the best form of government. I disagreed then and I only grudgingly agree now.


  18. Massimo Post author


    it’s an interesting proposal, but this is pretty far from my actual technical expertise, so I wouldn’t be a good mentor for such a project.


    “this framework is preserved and is most strongly felt in a small elite that supplies leadership to society”

    That’s the Aristotelian model of virtue ethics, which is somewhat aristocratic. But as you know I prefer the Stoic variety, which is accessible to all, and is truly cosmopolitan (a word the Cynics and Stoics invented and deployed in their philosophy).

    “hedonistic utilitarianism”

    I’m not sure it’s fair to label utilitarians as “hedonistic.” They wish to decrease pain and increase *happiness*, not pleasure. But you are correct when you state:

    “This has become the de facto moral system of modern democracies”

    Liked by 1 person

  19. SocraticGadfly

    Eric, yes, I agree with you. Again, per a link by Massimo from a couple of weeks ago, in part, it’s healthy living through sarcasm!

    Massimo, in a book I’ve cited before, I think Walter Kaufmann would partially disagree with you on the good and evil and definitions issue, considering that an Eric-like stance is exactly the stance he takes on the issues of guilt and justice. (And, I happen to largely agree with him on those two issues and words, at least.)

    Liked by 2 people

  20. SocraticGadfly

    Labnut: Everybody is selective as to which virtues he or she gives primacy, pretty much. Including on major issues. Note debates over abortion, the libertarian fetish over “freedom” to the exclusion of everything else, Singer’s radical extension of utilitarianism into animal rights and more.


  21. SocraticGadfly

    On Wittgenstein, he does have a lot of insght, but, I don’t ennoble him like Dan does.

    In part, that’s because one can go “meta” on his language games idea, as kind of hinted at here.

    1. Are we talking about descriptive or prescriptive use of a word, or words in general?
    2. Can we even agree on what “prescriptive” and “descriptive” mean, either in general or with a particular word?
    3. How do we make such judgments?

    In short, Wittgenstein’s idea on language games, in the real world, must be run through …

    Wait for it, those of you know one of my favorite philosophers …

    Wittgenstein must in some way be run through Ye Olde Philter of Induction, courtesy David Hume.


  22. Philosopher Eric


    I can see how you might suspect that you wouldn’t be a good mentor for me, given that you don’t yet grasp the nature of my theory. But since I do, and believe that I also understand just enough about you, I also think that I have a somewhat better understanding of what’s in my own best interest. Regardless, if I do ultimately show you how critical it will be for our mental/behavioral sciences to undergo an instrumental (rather than moral) ethics revolution, I also suspect that you’d either take me on yourself, or at least pass me over to an appropriate colleague. Thus my challenge is to effectively demonstrate the tremendous epistemic virtues of instrumental good/bad, even though “pretty much everyone” seems to neglect this concept.

    I did recently watch the video for your November 2013 discussion with Daniel Dennett and Lawrence Krauss. ( In my opinion you came out just fine, though I believe that you’d have really thrown them on their asses if you’d have taken my theory with you! Regardless, as long as you find no harm in me hanging around, I will continue to seek your interest, as well as the interest of your readers in general.


  23. labnut

    … it’s healthy living through sarcasm!

    There are two parties to this. Are you talking about your own health or the health of your targets?

    As always, the devil is in the details. More often than not sarcasm is used as a blunt tool to bludgeon the opponent. It becomes an expression of malice and does no good but merely increases polarisation and resentment.

    Then, are you talking about irony, satire, repartee or sarcasm? They are all related but have different emphases. Irony, satire and repartee are like the rapier of debate. They delight with the quickness and intelligence of the cut, thrust and parry in debate. They show insight that astounds and humour that entertains. By contrast sarcasm is the blunt and heavy club of malice, wielded thoughtlessly to inflict damage. Sarcasm is seldom intelligent and it is often unpleasant.

    Peterson and Seligman researched our understanding of virtue and discovered that it is nearly universally understood, across China, South Asia and the West, to be courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence(

    They then researched the importance of the virtues, across 54 nations and again discovered there is nearly universal agreement about the relative importance of the virtues(

    Note that the most highly regarded virtues(across all nations) were kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, judgment, love, and humor. Sarcasm has no useful role here.

    Finally they researched the relationship between virtue and wellbeing( They concluded “. Consistently and robustly associated with life satisfaction were hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity“.
    Partial correlations:
    Hope – .53*
    Zest – .52*
    Gratitude – .43*
    Curiosity – .39*
    Love – .35*
    Perspective/wisdom – .35*

    These three papers really are worth careful study. I list them again for your convenience:, and

    Finally I admit that sarcasm can be a useful tool on occasion as a means of puncturing an obdurate refusal to countenance a certain point of view. But then it must be used selectively and intelligently. It should never be a modus operandi. If talking about health it can be considered to be indirectly good for the health of the target if it restores to him a healthy perspective.

    This is where wisdom is seen to be the central virtue. It takes wisdom to discern when, where and how sarcasm should be deployed instead of irony, satire or repartee. It takes wisdom to determine whether love, kindness or fairness is a more appropriate response. It takes wisdom to understand the distinctions and their relevance. It takes wisdom to develop these character dispositions so that they become a natural response.

    Everybody is selective as to which virtues he or she gives primacy, pretty much.

    Read Peterson and Seligman’s papers.


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