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Morality is relative but not subjective
Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten
The Law of Non-Contradiction, as stated by Aristotle: "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time."
Often, this is expressed in the formula: A ? ¬A, where "¬A" signifies "not A" or "not having quality A". (To prevent a common error, understand that it does NOT mean "the subset of everything except A." For example, to say that "an animal that is a cat cannot be, at the same time, a dog" is NOT an application of the law of non-contradiction. To say that "an animal that is a cat cannot, at the same time, also be a 'not cat'" IS to apply the law of non-contradiction.)
Worded a bit more clearly: Nothing can both have the quality of A and lack the quality of A at the same time. Before I get into the significant consequences this law of logic will have on morality, I'd like to begin with numerous examples of it applied to everyday life.
Imagine your kitchen table. Got the image in your head? All right, does it have any black paint on it? Your answer to this must naturally be either yes or no. It cannot both have black paint on it and not have black paint on it, at the same time. Whether or not it also has red paint or silver paint or a wood finish on it is irrelevant. And if you decide to paint it red immediately on arriving home tonight, that also makes no difference. All that matters, as far as the law of non-contradiction is concerned, is that your kitchen table cannot both possess and lack the quality of having black paint on it at any given moment.
This law also applies to certain subatomic behavior. An electron behaves in one of two ways: as a particle or as a wave. The way I understand it (though I'm no quantum physicist), when it is seen as a particle, it has all of characteristics of being a particle and none of being a wave. When it is seen as a wave, it has all of characteristics of being a wave and none of being a particle. However, it cannot both possess and lack the quality of being a particle at the same time. Same goes for its wave form.
Now, sometimes the law of non-contradiction is only as good as the quality of our definitions. For example, the traditional qualities of a mammal (warm-blooded vertebrate having hair-covered skin, bearing live young, and nursing offspring with milk) accurately describe the vast majority of animals categorized this way. But the duck-billed platypus mixes and matches qualities from other animal families (having a duck bill and laying eggs). Given that our definition embodies so many qualities, it's harder to assert that the platypus is absolutely either a mammal or not a mammal. That creature defies logical law in the face of our definition. Of course, its evolutionary relationship to other animals has placed it solidly within the mammals, despite its not exactly fitting in all respects.
The same goes for a person's sex. Yes, the traditional definition, based on genetics and on genitalia, works for the vast majority of people. However, there are exceptions. Some people are born with XXY or XXX chromosomes. Some people are born with genitalia of both genders (hermaphrodites). To frame the question as "Is this person male or female?" is to ignore the law of non-contradiction. To break it down into two questions ("Does this person have or lack male characteristics?" and "Does this person have or lack female characteristics?") is the law of non-contradiction properly applied.
Another example comes from politics. Being conservative on some issues (fiscal policy, national security, etc) in no way prevents someone from holding more liberal views on other issues (gay marriage, for example). The terms liberal and conservative embody a slew of ideas, and there is a continuum of attitudes toward them, from dictator-like conservatism to anarchic liberalism, and everything in between. To say that each individual person must be either a conservative or not a conservative (by the law of excluded middle) is ludicrous, and doesn't describe life as people live it. Such laws of logic only work when we get into the nitty gritty details of particular instances. For example, it would be easier to say whether or not a person actively supports a conservative decision made by a particular politician. (Of course, even in those instances, people often admit complexity and/or doubt about their beliefs, or simply don't care.)
Yet, do these failures of definition mean the law of non-contradiction is flawed? Not in the least. All that is necessary to reinstate the legitimacy of the law is to break things down into individual characteristics or a particular example. The platypus cannot both possess and lack the capacity to lay eggs at the same time (whether it is hairy, duck-billed, etc. as well is irrelevant). A human being cannot both possess and lack a penis at the same time (whether said person also has female genitalia or two X chromosomes, is irrelevant). A human being cannot both have and lack a conservative opinion about a particular ruling at the same time (whether they also understand that ruling from the liberal, or other, perspective as well, or have no opinion at all, is irrelevant).
So, what does all this mean for morality? It means, in any given moral dilemma, there can be any number of components which ultimately lead to a more moral, immoral, or amoral judgment. Here's a standard example: Someone develops a successful treatment for a deadly disease. They patent it, charge an arm and a leg for it, and won't let anyone develop a generic brand. Many of the people who need it can't afford it. Someone whose family member is dying of the disease steals the treatment and saves their loved one. Is there an immoral aspect to what this person has done? Yes, they stole from someone who legitimately and lawfully developed and patented a product. Is there a moral aspect to this person's behavior? Yes, they were trying to save the life of someone they loved. Is there an amoral aspect of this person's behavior? Yes, many: him or her driving their car to where the cure was held, continuing to breathe in and out as they walked, and many thousands of small, everyday decisions involved in the process of stealing the cure. Is the person's action ultimately moral, immoral, or amoral? Add up the positives and negatives of their intent and circumstances and see where this ends up on the spectrum of "greatest good" versus "greatest bad."
Does this mean that there is no rule of law in the world and we cannot be expected to force adherence to any morality at all? Of course not. If I thought that, then I couldn't have even admitted that stealing was immoral, now could I? All I'm saying, regarding the relativity of morality, is that the rule of non-contradiction proves that it must be viewed as a spectrum concept, NOT with the common "that's right, that's wrong, and that's that" attitude. More importantly, the awareness of moral complexity that this brings must be used diligently to ascertain what moral and immoral aspects of a given act exist, and to recognize that true justice reacts with appropriate severity as a result.
Not coincidentally, that is exactly how the justice system in America works. It's why accidental manslaughter, second degree murder (done in the heat of a moment), and first degree murder (premeditated homicide) have progressively harsher punishments. The manner and intent of a killing matters. That isn't to say that our system is perfect; mistakes are often made, but at the very least it must be recognized that our system uses a continuum of morality based on circumstances and intent.
As yet another example, imagine walking a public path finding a wallet on the ground. Your potential reaction includes a wide variety of options: You could ignore the wallet and go on your merry way. You could pick up the wallet and try to find the owner. You could turn it in to a local official, hoping the owner will look for it there. You could steal the wallet and buy yourself a nice speed boat. You could use the driver's license in the wallet to hunt down the owner and murder their family while they sleep. Every single one of these options lie on a different location of the morality spectrum -- some much closer to the end of said lines than the others. I think it can be agreed that turning it in is morally superior to stealing it, and also that personally looking for the owner is morally superior to turning it in. And, to show how circumstances affect the state of an action's morality, I think it less moral for you to do so yourself if you had some greater responsibility that needed tending to (your child has wandered away, and you're responsible for ensuring they're not lost or kidnapped) but even more morally impressive if you inconvenienced yourself to do the kind act (you were eager to get home in time for the newest episode of House, but missed it so that you could ensure the wallet was returned).
Just to make a few parts of my own moral code clear, maliciousness or gratuitous acts of harm are always immoral in nature. Anything apart from that on the black vs. white moral spectrum will have shades of gray, though degrees of darkness and light from the opposing ends may be infinitesimally slight. Ultimately, the intent to do "harm" and acting on the desire to "damage" another living thing is evil. Good involves seeking to help or to do as little harm as possible.
There are two reasons I would bring this up in a blog dedicated to atheism. The first is to point out that in some religions, the argument is made that all "sin" is equally bad because it is all an offense to God, and all wrongs require an equal amount of forgiveness (that idea was said by at least one childhood friend of mine who was religious): this is plain wrong. I don't feel it's necessary to illustrate why murder is worse (and harder to forgive) than stealing someone's TV or spreading a mean rumor. I wanted to mention this issue, however, because I think there's a tendency when feelings run strong to ignore the complexities which intent and circumstance bring to all human interaction. This makes it far too easy to dismiss completely people for their bad behavior based on prejudices and knee-jerk reactions rather than an honest, thorough investigation of the intent and circumstances. This effect can be mitigated if we use this understanding to engender greater understanding and compassion for others, even those who wrong us gravely.
The second is that nothing said above requires divine mandate to establish moral legitimacy. (In fact, as Adam Lee recently pointed out, there is no such thing as a divine mandate regarding morality. And I would argue that even if an all-powerful deity did dictate a moral code to humanity, it would be no less arbitrary and no more meaningful than if a human did so... But that's far too extended a topic to get into in an already lengthy post.)
Since many people assume that all non-religious morality must be subjective in nature (in reality it is, of course, religious morality that's subjective), I want to make a VERY clear distinction between relativism from subjectivism. Relativism is what I've described above: admitting that there are degrees of right and wrong determined by intent and circumstance. Subjectivism is "whatever I think is good, that's what good is." That's just plain, self-important nonsense.
For example, say there's a mother who thinks that space aliens are coming to wipe out humanity so she decides to "save" her children by killing them before Martians start their invasion. That she thinks her act morally good is utterly irrelevant to its goodness or badness. That she sought to do harm to her children swings her act sharply towards the "morally wrong" end of the spectrum. In a court of law, her insanity might make her 'not guilty,' but that still won't make intentional harm morally good or neutral.
By the same token, if someone were to believe that stepping on blue floor tiles was morally wrong, would that make it wrong, for that person or for anybody else? Nope. Not unless you were seeking, in some way, to do harm by stepping on blue floor tiles — in which case the intent would be immoral, though the lack of any actual harm would mean your perception was a delusion.
Finally, let's say someone does unintentional harm. In that case the action was a wrong one, but not morally wrong for that person because they did not intend to do harm. The intention to harm is what's morally bad. Unintentional harm may be a regrettable mistake, but that doesn't make it morally bad (unless purposeful or lazy negligence were involved). Thinking that an act is good does not make it good. Seeking to help, or at least do as little harm as possible, makes an act morally better than its alternatives.
Finally, "sliding scale objectivism" or "fuzzy logic morality" would be other terms to describe this rather than relativism. For, though relativism is an accurate and useful term, it's too often confused with subjectivism, which is NOT what I'm arguing here. We may live in a morally relativistic world, but not in a moral void subject to the whims of every sentient entity. And that, as they say, is that. :-)
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.