CRISPR Founders Win Nobel Prize

Hi Ethic Nutters,

As you may already know, Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier have won the Nobel Prize for their work discovering and developing the method of CRISPR-Cas9.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/nobel-prize-chemistry-2020-1.5753279

Congratulations!

Andrew

Tolerance

It is very common to hear in discussions on tolerance the phrase “I’m tolerant of everything except intolerance”. This is often proudly stated affirming the most progressive liberalism. But is it liberal?

I believe today such a view as tolerant of everything except intolerance is used primarily in normal discourse and media as a means to push aside, demonize, and invalidate those with a different opinion. Furthermore, that form of liberal intolerance to those who are said to be “intolerant” is detrimental to democracy, and peaceful communities. This rests upon the idea that those who are intolerant to one another cannot engage in meaningful discourse to resolve differences and that it is the resolving of differences which should be a core goal for communities and governments. Otherwise, the result is violence in the streets as we now see in America where both sides see the other, in ways, as intolerant. The need to use force in the form of violent protests to express an opinion shows that discourse as devolved.

At the core of the current strife on tolerance is holding very subjective beliefs and values as objective truths. There is no science that can point to whether someone should like or dislike another’s view on political and social matters. Social and Political scientists may disagree with that claim, wanting authority for their opinions, while biological, life, and physical scientists would agree, a person’s opinion is not an objective truth. Rather, a person’s opinion is built on differing social environments and experiences, formed largely in a way that reinforces and provides a sense of belonging to a community that they have chosen to follow. However, conflict arises when a person views their opinion as objective. When that is the case, often the person becomes less inclined to begin a dialogue with a different opinion on what should be put into policy. Instead attempts to teach and impose the “right” view that the person holds is the outcome.

The imposition of opinions and beliefs of the majority above those of the minority is a common story of power imbalances combined with a near fanatical desire at times to secure power to govern over populations. Opinions and beliefs have been imposed upon people who are not feasibly allowed to disagree through strict authoritarian legal structures. Additionally, great effort has been made to maintain agreement and a harmonious unity of opinions through subtle and ingrained propaganda campaigns both public and private that few can discern from advertising and public service announcements. It is not being said that these opinions and beliefs are harmful, merely that they are entrenched into societies each with the possibility of being entirely unique from one another. It is exceptionally difficult for those that are not tolerated to become accepted and enter the mainstream in the market places of opinion as it is now. When examined such market places of opinion including those in liberal democratic societies show intolerance to differences that fall outside of windows of the acceptable and jeopardizes freedom of expression and speech as a universal absolute right.

If we are not to jeopardize freedom of expression and speech, what obligations are there to be tolerant? We know that to not tolerate is to exclude from discussion, often push to the side, and ignore or worse criminalize. This is true of both those who are commonly said to be intolerant and those who are tolerant of everything except intolerance. A first obligation would be to accept that a person does not have authority on truth of opinion. This should immediately led to the understanding of why it is essential to listen rather than distance those with an opinion that differs. The second obligation is to listen to those with opinions that differ. It is only through listening to each other that progress can be made in terms of providing supportive needs and wants to a group other than the one a person belongs to, and ultimately foster progress towards a peaceful community. The third obligation is to build and foster an ongoing discourse among those who listen to each other with the aim that they then also understand the others opinion.

What if these obligations cannot be fulfilled? It is easy to accept the subjectivity of opinions although listening implies there is something to listen too. In addition, discourse implies that the other agrees to dialogue and is listening to a persons opinion in similar extent as the listener is of theirs. When the elements to meet these obligations are not present, effort should be made to bring the other into a state where it is desirable to voice an opinion, to listen, and to enter dialogue. Bringing about this state is not a necessity but it is beneficial. While it cannot be said all measure to create this state is warranted, great effort should be made to do so, recognizing its contribution to reaching an ideal state of peace. Otherwise, division, exclusion, and a hindering of full representation in society of multitudes of expression would remain.

There are two main criticisms that can be lodged against this line of thinking. The first is that intolerance leads to hate, which leads to hate crimes, which is abhorrent. To this it is easy to say not necessarily. A person can certainly be intolerant to someone without hating them, and that same person can certainly hate someone without committing a hate crime against them. At the same time, no one should be asked to tolerate hate or worse crimes. That is not what is being asked. Intolerance is to not accept another person’s opinion, view, or actions and behaviour that are otherwise legal. It is the acceptance of an intolerant mind that should tolerated. Criminalization of hate crimes is understandable and necessary but to push for criminalization of hate and intolerance should not be permitted. Enforcing tolerance leads to hegemony of thought, restricted expression and speech, and is a dystopian future. The right to a unique and individual opinion and expression of that opinion in a non-harmful manner is far greater a right than to not be offended.

A second critique is to say there is no reason to accept peace as being the core goal. While tolerating the intolerant might be good for peaceful coexistence a critic may say conflict is natural and we should not strive for something other than the realities of human society. Although conflict is a fact of nature, it is not a necessary truth of human nature. Furthermore, a continuous state of peace would be conducive to human flourishing in a manner that a state of conflict would not. Therefore, a goal for governments and communities other than peace would be contradictory to human flourishing and is arguably reducing the discussion to the absurd.

The intolerant must be tolerated. Institutions and laws allowing for freedom of expression whether they be of a tolerant or intolerant nature must be maintained. Only in such a state can there be equality of opinion. These qualities, freedom of expression and equality, are basic to a peaceful coexistence which is the only valid objective for governments and one which should be reached through peaceful means.

Lies, Lying, and Deception – An Armchair Ethics Post

There are many things people dislike with being lied to close to the top of the list. Not only is it deceptive and deceiving, but it does not provide the information that is sought. That being what actually is the fact of the matter. Everyone wants to know not some falsehood, but the truth. There is value in the truth in that it is, as we understand it, factual. Is lying always a bad thing though? Must we always have and provide “the facts”? I would say in fact we do not and any question to know objective truth is not founded on any known right.

In this post, for simplicity I will merely refer to lies and not distinguish between lies, the act of lying, and deception, as they are all interrelated and no distinction is necessary to share my thoughts on the matter. Furthermore, we are not washing the statements made in this article by taking the term lies to mean white lies. Lies in this context are bold face untruths meant in many cases to obscure the facts.

So what might be one reason why it is permissible to lie? I think first and foremost it would be when a person, group, or government is confronting you and is being unjustly hostile. A clear example of this would be a lesbian couple in the 1960’s when such behaviour was illegal and would cause not only lack of work, but could potentially result in imprisonment, or in actuality for lesbians, result in admission to a mental asylum. We know now that it would be clearly permissible for both of those women to lie in order to conceal a harmless behaviour however at the time many thought it necessary to “out” these couples and demonize them with punishments. Those punishments had in many cases deep consequences. Examples such as this can be used for unjustly stigmatized groups from all era’s including in society today.

Thinking about the example above, it is clear then that lying is not wrong in all instances and that includes when the lie is used to cover up a crime as was homosexuality at the time. So if we can agree that it is acceptable to lie in order to avoid punishment from an unjust law or hostile person, group, government, then it seems even more acceptable when you have not broken the law and are merely deciding not to tell the truth. Outside of the legal system telling the truth is a “nice to do” but what about within the legal system. There are even a few measures for people not to oblige with the truth and offer an alternative which is to plead the fifth and remain silent. In most contexts, however, remaining silent is often seen as a sign of guilt. When you are not guilty, outside of the legal system, and only wish to be free to act as you please, a lie may serve to dismiss unwanted probing into the private sphere of someone’s life in a practical and harmless way when remaining silent is not viable option although would be preferred.

Another instance of when lying is acceptable is when there is no harm in telling a lie. We should not assume the absence of truth is negative and wrong. Not knowing whether a statement is true of false is not in itself wrong it’s simply being unsure. It itself is not bad, it merely is a state of knowledge. Furthermore, achieving a state of knowledge which is fact in all matters is far from necessary. There are instances when this state of unknowing is indeed wanted such as in the example already provided and many others. When no law has been broken in the act of lying, those who would pry themselves into a person’s private sphere to discover the truth that they have no objective right to and are unwanted, should be treated as criminals in this matter. A strangers desire to know, use of word desire used as there is no right to know, should never trump a citizen’s right to privacy. Caution should also be made with those who proclaim a right to know as I believe there is no justified foundation for such a claim. This lack of foundation may be due to how information is often used maliciously and the higher right to privacy. Lies that have been told to avoid malicious acts should never be said to be unethical and wrong. Our freedom and right to privacy allows for people to lie if they wish.

Should rules always be obeyed?

An interesting question to ask is whether rules, those guiding instructions we have in society to keep ever essential peace and order, should always be obeyed? When might it be needed to not obey the rules of society or in fact be essential to go against them? This short post provides opinions of mine on this subject.

It is clear that by and large rules should be obeyed. Without them we would live in conflict and chaos in a near state of nature and unable to function the way we have as a progressing society for the past millennia and longer. Knowing that we need rules to be obeyed for peace and order is only a base assertion of sorts. When we ask more questions we can see that there may be times when we should not obey rules or even that it is essential and important that we do not.

The first example that many think of when this question is posed is that the laws are unjust or that they are being used by an unjust government to suppress the population. An unjust law can be one that is out of date, not properly formulated and having an unintended consequence on a vulnerable population, or blatantly authoritarian such as censorship on the media and political opposition. Each of these examples can be such that it makes sense not only to not follow them, to disobey them, but also to take active measure i.e. legal challenges, protest, riot, to change the laws as written and enforced.

Another more complicated instance of when many say we should not obey laws is when a more basic law e.g. Constitutional Right, would be broken if the law were followed. I believe laws are intended to be designed so that this does not happen although laws “rules” can always be challenged.

So not only are there times when rules should not be obeyed, but it is also I think important at times for rules not to be followed and to challenge their application, foundation, and enforcement. While a rule may seem like an infallible decree, in truth they are riddled with flaws. It is essential in a liberal democracy to challenge through civil disobedience rules which cause more damage than good.

Metaethics – Foundations of Morality

Hi Ethic Nutters,

Crashcourse is a great resource for those getting into ethics. I wish I had these when I was in first year.

Of the many available I wanted to share the Metaethics video. See below.

Enjoy!

Andrew

A WEe Conflict of Interest

As many Canadians have become aware in the past week, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau is currently under investigation for a possible conflict of interest in awarding an extraordinarily lucrative contact to a not-for-profit that in the past has paid substantial amounts of speaker fees to both his mother and brother. The PM Trudeau for reasons that are still a mystery did not recuse himself of the decision in awarding a whopping $912 million dollar contract to the WE charity.

Conflicts of interest are commonplace in all countries. The need for businesses both profitable and not-for-profit to have decisions made in their favour pressures those with authority in these organizations, to exert influence upon those making the decisions that affect them. It is a fundamental human behaviour and one which can only be managed through objective oversight.

The influencing of politicians to go along with a vote in parliament, or typically awarding government projects to friends who have paid for campaigns is as old as perhaps government and politics itself. When the WE charity paid for PM Trudeau’s mother to speak at their events, it was certainly not intended so that this essentially pandemic project would be awarded to them. There was no intention on their part for this and given their role it would be difficult to say that a large government contract was their motivation. In this way, it was not akin to what some private sector actors are known to do in providing payments to family and friends for the right decisions. Nevertheless, the fact that PM Trudeau’s very own mother benefited greatly can be said to influence a decision to the extent were recusing yourself is warranted. Whereas the WE charity never hired the mother of PM Trudeau so that this pandemic related contract would be awarded, there was sufficient influence to sway a decision. Is the WE charity the best organization for the role that it has been given? Certainly. This decision, however, should have been made by far more objective government staffers. That they would have made the same decision does not mean the act of recusing oneself should not have been done.

The topic of influencing politicians is an interesting one and the influencing certainly does not go in one direction. Some international political thinkers have posted about whether there is a difference between paying $20 to each villager for a vote in the “developing world”, to the promise of thousands in tax benefits for a vote in the “developed world”. Hard to see a practical difference. A union boss may after a night out or the typical side benefits, some tangible some not, may offer to push for support to a union several thousand members strong. The other side is equally as susceptible to coercion, whether it is a large annual donation, gifts, nights out, those influencing politicians offer then what they subsist on, votes or the means to get them. Donations and gifts turn into the opportunity to speak with the politician and that can translate into real action and tangible outcomes. The game is so dirty Henry Kissinger once said: “Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation”. A soft bit of realpolitik.

There is also the matter of foreign influence when a foreign entity exerts influence on a sovereign government for much of the same reasons as companies do locally. The same methods are used, direct payments, non-monetary favours, or indirect benefits such as a gift to a loved one who then passes on a strong suggestion to their child the politician. The widespread practice indicates it is effective or it would not be continued. Foreign influence, unlike standard corruption, has really nothing which stops a visit home overseas becoming an initiation into benefits for sharing information, or for favourable decisions. Nothing is out of reach so long as the person can keep their silence up.

Brain Creates Religion

Hello Ethic Nutters,

Recently found a philosopher by the name of Lionel Tiger who has several video’s on Youtube where he expresses his thoughts on the brain and its role in creating religion and idea’s such as God. Really interesting stuff for the summertime.

Links:

The Brain Creates Religion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5y5NfIiMqY 

Can Animals Be Religious https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGbGh86fQ_4

The World Is Becoming “More Dangerously Religious” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yI9UVvEY3Nc

This is some interesting watching. Clearly, some of this is up for debate with more than one side having good arguments. Hope you enjoy this little bit of education.

Best,

Andrew

Morality without Religion

Hi Ethic Nutters,

While some people consider Morality and Religion as one and the same, others see them as separate.

Here is a great short video on the above: Frans de Waal – Morality without Religion

Enjoy,

Andrew

Imposing Values and Ideas: When and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

The idea or desire to have everyone behave and act as you do is common and an underlying part of the human elements that make up who we are and how we interact. It is far easier to understand someone if they are “just like you” rather than something that is other or different. There is little effort needed to understand what motivates the person, what their needs and wants are, and what they are striving for in this life. Often today and especially more pronounced in the past, there has been an understanding that we should try and teach others to be more like us. To become “smarter” and behave the way we do which was seen as the best way to live and most advanced. Slowly in the late 20th century and into the 21st this idea that we should impose our values upon others to better them, has lost some prominence in the way people and nations interact. Now, common thinking is to learn about the other person and engage in a manner that values their unique identity.

At the same time as we can appreciate the other person or government as unique and from which lessons can be drawn, there are other times when the difference cannot be accepted. This is due to objective harms both major and minor that are caused by a particular behaviour, value, or idea. On the individual level, these behaviours can range from a generally rude and surly individual who puts down people that he comes across, to a husband who physically abuses his wife and bullies her into submission and servitude. At the national level, values and ideas that cannot be accepted are widely recognized as those which go against our fundamental human rights, cause harm to innocent citizens, and causes deadly international conflict.

With both a strong idea to allow for individuality and sovereignty and yet a desire to avoid harm and protect people from harm regardless of location, the question arises when can we impose our values and ideas on what is right and just. Knowing that such imposition requires justification, the reasons for why there can be this imposing upon another person should also be known. In the few paragraphs that follow, the example of an individual citizen will be used to explore what should be taken as a first approach when thinking of imposing values and ideas, the reasons for going beyond that first approach, and why it may be needed.

An example for the purposes of this discussion is the following:

Jeremy is a church fairing catholic who very much lives up to the teaching of the church and is steadfast that the word of God is the truth. Knowing the importance of the word of God, he believes it is his mission to spread the teachings to everyone he meets so that as many people can be saved as possible and the greatest good can be achieved. The values and ideas of the church are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes is the right path in life.

Ken is a transitioned man who was kicked out of his household at a young age for his differences in values and ideas from his typical nuclear family that while did not go to church, followed standard Anglo-Saxon values and beliefs. Ken is open to differing opinions, values, and ideas, and started as a hobby a small Not-for-Profit to raise awareness of the barriers and struggle for those in his community. His main job is for the same insurance company as Jeremy and in the same office space. The values and ideas of the LGBTQ2+ are a part of his identity which he profoundly believes should be respected as a fundamental human right.

Jeremy and Ken are both top performers at their jobs. While Ken is apprehensive or Jeremy knowing he follows strictly the teachings of the church, there have been no disagreements and office life has been normal. After a church sermon that asks the congregation to try and save through the teachings of God someone you know, Jeremy asks to meet with Ken after work to talk. When Jeremy and Ken meet, Jeremy has the intention of trying to impose his values and ideas onto Ken. Knowing Jeremy, Ken figures that the point of the talk is to try and convert him, and intends to respond by attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy.

The first question for discussion is what either intends to do plainly wrong? The concept of negative freedom might lead one to say that it is wrong. Under negative freedom, we are free from others inhibitions on our free will. Jeremy would be attempting to impose his values and ideas onto Ken in a way that would constrain Ken’s way of life. It would also be true, however, that Ken’s attempt to impose his values and ideas onto Jeremy could be seen as inhibiting Jeremy’s free will. Is this taking it too far though? Can we not suggest to other people, perhaps not impose, but suggest and argue for a change in values? Much in the same was as one political party staffer might try and persuade a supporter of the opponent. It seems intuitive that it can be attempted and that this is part of our human nature. Perhaps we can say the discussion itself is not plainly wrong, but at what point should it stop? At what point has it actually constrained an individual’s free will.

When thinking of negative freedoms it cannot be said that merely the attempt to change a person’s values and ideas, and therefore, their way of life, is constraining their free will. It actually must be the case that the imposition was effective and has changed the values and ideas and the person’s free will. There is quite a long way from the discussion to actual realization. In a free society, the imposition should stop when the individual makes it clear no change in values and ideas is desired. This upholds their freedoms. Perhaps, Jeremy makes it clear to Ken that he will not change his Sunday routine of going to church and following its tenants. If Jeremey has his freedom, Ken should not take further action to change the values and ideas of Jeremy. Similarly, if Ken is steadfast with his values and ideas, upon letting it known no change will be made, attempts to do so should be stopped. No measure beyond persuasion through dialogue can rightly be justified and indeed dialogue should be ceased in order to be respectful of the other’s decision.

We each clearly have freedoms from others constraining our free will and what we hold as our values and ideas. Is there, however, times when going beyond just dialogue is justified. Can we say that although the individual wants the imposition to stop, it must continue until there is a change? Arguably it is when there is a known risk of physical or significant emotional harm. If either Jeremy or Ken held values or beliefs that would cause physical or significant emotional harm, it could be said that imposition of values and idea which do not cause those harms can be justified. Since neither Ken nor Jeremy holds values or beliefs that meet that criteria, both should be said to be allowed to live freely from someone imposing their values and ideas onto them. What if, however, there was an individual who if left to their free will, would cause harm to others? Then it would be permissible to impose values and ideas onto them to eliminate those harms.

There are several important necessities in life. At the top is freedom from harm. If there is only one reason why you can impose a change in the values and ideas of another person, the reason to be free from harm must be taken as absolute. If someone’s values and ideas may directly, and arguably even indirectly, cause harm, there is the right to change as best possible those values and ideas that would cause harm. If we think freedoms can be ranked, and perhaps not everyone does, but if we can, then freedom from harm must trump freedoms of belief and the values and ideas that accompany. A belief that causes harm should not be given freedom to propagate. Freedom from harm is a shared necessity as social animals. Those necessary benefits of security and freedom from harm, extend far beyond an individual, to neighborhood, city, country, region, and globally.

Freedom from harm, both physical and significant emotional harm, is such a core human right that all measures to be free from harm can be rightly seen as justified. Those measures include, as a base level, imposing values and ideas which would reduce future harm.

Throwing a person in front of a Trolley: When it’s Right and Why – An Armchair Ethics Post

Would you kill one person to save a group? Sounds like the worst choice anyone would ever have to make. How can you weigh one person’s life against another or multiple lives? Are all lives weighted in value equally? Are some people more worth saving than others, worth more than another person’s life? A commonly referenced moral dilemma that is used to explore this question is the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem is the following. Imagine yourself standing beside tracks with a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up people lying on the track. There is also a single person lying on a side track and you are close enough to the lever to change the direction of the trolley so that the five lives are saved and only the single person is killed. The standard question asked to students are:

Do you do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the track? or

Do you pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track with only the one individual?

In some examples, the person must actually be thrown in front of the trolley from an overpass. How do we make that decision? There are a number of factors that need to be considered and it should be noted that not all ethical theories come to the same conclusion. For those familiar with Utilitarianism, one of the leading ethical theories today, the answer to this dilemma may seem fairly simple.

Under Utilitarianism, every rational agent must seek to maximize utility. Bring about the greatest good. Utility being often taken to mean happiness and pleasure. Through our actions, the happiness and pleasure that is generated, which is part of the outcome, is measured as utility. For example, if I spend time feeding the homeless, a consequence of that is that more people are happy, there is a greater good generated, and there is a lot of utility. On the other hand, if I spend time feeding myself, a consequence is that I am happy, there is a greater good generated, but there is not too much utility. Feeding many homeless versus myself generates more good. Within this logic, it is very clear that we should save many people over just one. The good that is generated from multiple people outweighs the good generated for just the one person. But under Utilitarianism, we run into difficulty. A critique has always been that perhaps the one individual would generate far more good i.e. utility, in the long term through his or her actions than the other five combined.

If the person that is saved goes on to invent the cure to cancer or writes a literary masterpiece, while the five others do very little and contribute little to humanity, it intuitively now seems true that we should save the one person. In response, it seems clear that we should not play with hypotheticals. Whether the one person can generate more good in the future than the other five combined is entirely unknown. Since you could easily say one of the five, or even two of the five, can just as likely do the same as the one, we must make the decision on what is known. In this example as shared, the only thing that is known is that either five lives will be saved and one life ended, or five people will die. Based on what is known, while not a simple decision, a clear and rational mind would choose to save the five by diverting the trolley to the track with just the one person.

So we know that five lives trump one. But what about the moral agent? Does the action of pulling the lever, or throwing the person onto the track to derail the train, imply the moral agent is doing something that is wrong? Another way to look at the problem is that by doing nothing, events unfold along the path that they are currently on. It is a difference of letting something happen that kills people and actually taking action that would kill someone. Many people do see this as a determining factor in whether to throw the person onto the track to derail the train or pull the lever. It, however, does not seem reasonable that a person’s conscience should be more bothered by letting five people die than to pull a lever that they are standing beside to save the five lives. That is actually what is being done. Rather than see this dilemma as an act of killing because a life is taken, it should be seen in its true sense as the act of saving five lives. For the bystander who must take the action, they should know that pulling the lever, pushing the person on the track, is the right thing to do because lives are being saved in that action.