Making the World a Better Place…
…by pondering what ‘better’ means on Thursdays.
That was the aim of my ‘Thursday Puzzles’ blog, which featured the twelve puzzles below. Each puzzle draws on an important question in philosophy. Good luck! But remember: some of them may not have an answer…
The record-breaking movie Frozen contains a song entitled ‘Reindeers Are Better than People’. Is this claim true?
The song highlights the facts that people are more likely to cheat you than reindeers, and that reindeers are generally smellier.
Reindeers kill fewer living animals than people, and if they do it is usually accidental. Reindeers also cause less environmental damage than humans, although they still cause some – they munch lichen in the winter and shrubs and grasses at other times, which can’t be nice for the plants which get eaten.
People, on the other hand, tend to act more thoughtfully than reindeers. They are more likely to think through the consequences of their actions, even if the option they choose is sometimes a selfish one. People are also more likely to follow religious codes.
So how do we decide if the song is true? Are reindeers better than people, and if so, why?
(And if they are better, does that mean we should ask people to be more like them?)
You and I are here because our ancestors survived and reproduced; they may have killed off some rivals too.
But think of those individuals and groups which didn’t survive – including most native Americans and the population of Gaul before Julius Caesar’s genocide. When they died, their ideas about right and wrong died with them. It means that modern ideas about right and wrong – even the ones we hold most dear – are the result of an arbitrary, accidental process. Does the knowledge that we are here by accident make our notions of right and wrong accidental, too?
Meet your evil twin, the ‘anti-you’. This person is just like you physically – age, height, and the way they flick their hair. But their views on right and wrong are the exact opposite of yours. You detest slavery, kicking babies and being mean to grasshoppers; they love all those things. Meanwhile, they think murder, theft and arson are fine; you think they’re shocking.
You argue with this person, trying to change their mind, but discover your only points of agreement are on issues where neither of you is for or against. And when you explore your evil twin’s ideas, you realise they are just as consistant (and inconsistant) as your own. But you remain convinced you’re right and they’re wrong.
So this week’s puzzle is: how do you know you’re right and what’s the best way to try to persuade your evil twin to accept your views?
Lidice, near Prague, is the site of a massacre. In June 1942, 173 men were executed in a brutal reprisal for the assassination of Nazi ‘Reich Protector’ Reinhard Heydrich (pictured – the taller man, on the left).
Nazis had issued a wicked promise to inflict disproportionate punishment: when a German soldier in an occupying country was killed, tens of local people would be slaughtered in revenge. And the case should still trouble us – not just because of the deaths, but because the dilemma is still relevant today.
So, would it still have been right to kill Heyrich if you knew, for sure, it would lead to 173 innocent deaths?
Most of us second-guess ourselves – just what is the right thing to do? Now imagine you knew what was right in every situation you faced, and that you could be sure. So you’d make perfect decisions and be right all the time. But would you be a better person? Know-alls in other spheres – from the classroom to the boardroom to the battlefield – usually overstretch themselves, then suffer hubris and ultimately defeat. Does the same fate await anyone who finds the perfect answers to ethics? And if so, would that mean solving ethical questions must be self-defeating?
“Things without all remedy should be without regard,” is a quote from Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Was she right?
After all, worrying about something you cannot change is a useless activity. And Lady Macbeth would find some unlikely support from the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, who famously said “Ought implies can.” Kant thought, if you ought to do something, you must be able to do it. If you flip his idea around, it becomes: if you can’t do something, there can’t be an ought – the same idea as Lady Macbeth.
But, even we can’t do something, are we entirely absolved from trying? In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth is trying to shut off her instincts; and many instincts serve us well. Should we at least worry about that which we cannot alter – if only to check there’s nothing we can do, or to show concern? Or, like Lady Macbeth, should we try to forget it?
Imagine you’re washed ashore on a desert island. You soon discover you’re not alone: the local Chief welcomes you. You are impressed by his English language skills, and become hopeful when he says he’s going to give you a great privilege. The Chief presents you with a large, bladed weapon, and says: ‘Use this weapon to kill one of my people’. Naturally, you refuse – you don’t want to kill anyone. Then the Chief turns angry, and says, ‘if you don’t kill one of my people, I will kill two of them.’
You are convinced the Chief is serious – he really will kill two of his people unless you kill just one. So – do you do what the Chief says?
(And if you’re confident in your answer, would it be different if any of the island dwellers who might die expressed a clear opinion?)
Ever heard of the mythical Greek hero Odysseus? His voyage home from Troy (his ‘Odyssey’ – that’s where the word comes from) took many years, and on the way Odysseus encountered many things – some lethal, some amazing, and some very testing indeed.
One of Odysseus’ most difficult moments came when his ship sailed near the island of the ‘Sirens’. These woman sang famously wonderful songs, but their voices enticed seafarers and their ships to disaster on nearby rocks. Odysseus wanted to hear the songs for himself but, to protect his men, he insisted that they plug their ears with beeswax, and that he be tied to the ship’s mast. When he heard the songs, he asked to be untied, but his crew honoured his earlier commands and refused.
Odysseus’ crew probably did the right thing by refusing to grant their captain’s request: Odysseus was bewitched by the siren’s songs. So this week’s Thursday puzzle is: When is it right to over-ride someone’s expressed desire, when what they want to do affects only them?
You’ve probably heard about free will before. Some people say we really do make our own choices – making decisions is what life is all about, and we can certainly influence our surroundings, from moving coffee cups to pulling triggers which fire guns. Others say it just feels like that; really, our choices are determined by evolution, processes in the brain, and other factors which we can’t control.
Free will gets more complicated when you compare your own mind to other people’s. You are acutely aware of your own thoughts, but never other people’s, which you only ever ‘see’ indirectly. And surely it would be wrong to extrapolate from a single example of thinking – your own – to assume that the same thing is happening in other people’s heads, too.
Now, here’s the trick. All the reasons for thinking free will is true apply to your mind, while all the reasons for thinking the opposite apply to other people. This means you, and only you, have free will.
OK, so it sounds absurd to believe that you have a unique ability to make choices while everybody else’s behaviour is caused by factors outside their control. But where is the flaw in this thinking?
We expect punishments to fit the crime, and for those we punish to be truly guilty.
But what does being guilty involve? Every criminal can claim they were a victim of circumstance – and many do, in courtrooms across the land every year. They were born at a certain time and place, of parents who didn’t teach them right from wrong – if any of those had been different, they wouldn’t be in the dock. Many simply took an (illegal) opportunity that came their way – if the opportunity wasn’t there, they wouldn’t have committed the act. And, they plead, they weren’t to blame for the opportunity being there…
It’s tempting to dismiss their claims. After all, many are untrustworthy, and they’re trying to escape punishment. But is it really that simple? It really does seem that anyone who is truly guilty also has a lot of bad luck: the misfortune of being born with a criminal character, and of coming across a criminal opportunity – as well as the bad luck of being caught.
So, is there any way to separate bad luck from guilt? Or does guilt always involve bad luck, in which case, shouldn’t we be a bit more charitable on those less fortunate than ourselves?
Einstein established that massive objects, like stars and planets, warp time and space. Do time and space warp right and wrong?
We like to think right and wrong are not affected by time and space. When something is wrong, it shouldn’t matter where or when it happens – it’s still wrong. Murder can’t be excused because you did it at night, or two miles to the East.
But our moral reactions do depend on time and space. We punish crimes immediately after they are committed, but we are often prepared to forgive them decades later. We feel a stronger duty to save someone drowning a few metres from us, than to keep alive people starving thousands of miles away.
So – time and space do affect our moral reactions, even though we hope right and wrong are independent of them, not relative. There seems to be a contradiction at the heart of almost everybody’s ethics. What’s the answer – should we let time and space warp right and wrong, or not?
12 Should Ethics Be Fun?
Fun holidays, fun food, fun people – fun is usually good, and making things more fun usually makes them better. So, should we try to make questions of right and wrong fun, too?
holidays, fun food, fun people – fun is usually good, and making things more fun usually makes them better. So, should we try to make questions of right and wrong fun, too?
The trouble is some things – like climate change, autopsies and bad breath – don’t really lend themselves to fun. And some ethical decisions, such as who should get life-saving drugs, aren’t fun to whoever misses out.
Does that matter? In which case, should we tackle each question of right and wrong twice, first asking how we should approach it, then actually answering it? Or should we try to make ethics fun anyway?