Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poor Pete and Wealthy William

Poor Pete has only $100 dollars to his name. One day, Poor Pete sees a bum and gives this bum $10.

Wealthy William has a million dollars. One day, Wealthy William sees the same bum and gives this bum $20.

Which act was more moral (or perhaps morally praiseworthy)? Based solely on these actions, who was the better person?

This raises some other questions, such as charity given by countries. Which country is more praiseworthy, the country that gives more money but a smaller percent of their total budget, or the country that gives less money but a larger percent of their total budget?

And what about a theory like utilitarianism that wants to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Wouldn't such a theory be committed to saying that Wealthy William's donations was the better act? Does that seem correct?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Much Pudding is a Man's Life Worth?

How many of our super-market items are worth people dying for? What if I were to say that right now our actions and tolerance imply that products like pudding are worth people dying for?

I'm guessing Bill Cosby would not be the only one shocked by my claim and thinking that I'm crazy.

But consider this: in order for our stores to have as much variety in their products as they currently do, a lot of shipping of these products is needed. And with more trucks shipping, it is increasingly likely that traffic accidents will occur that will harm or even kill innocent people.

Therefore, to have things like pudding so widely available, we need to accept a system that will harm and even kill several innocent people year. Is pudding worth the lives of innocent people? If not, why do we think pudding is worth having a system that will lead to the deaths of innocent people?

This argument would of course extend to many products other than pudding. This argument would mean any product we don't feel is worth the loss of the lives of innocent people would not shipped. This would not leave much. Perhaps only things like medicine, and basic food and clothing would meet this standard.

So what are some problems that may come up for this argument? Is it that the lives being lost are from people who willingly risk them? For instance, the truck driver who takes the job of shipping the pudding willing takes the risk of losing his life while shipping the pudding. And this willingness negates much of the "badness" of the lives being lost.

But this response is only mildly effective as it's not just the willing truck drivers who die, but the people these truck drivers hit in traffic accidents while shipping, and those victims (or at least some of them) do not willingly take the risk that the truck drivers do.

Perhaps it's not the products like pudding that are worth lives being lost for, but the jobs that involve these products are worth dying for.

But even if these jobs were worth the lives being lost in shipping accidents, it is probably a false dichotomy to think that pudding truck driver either has to have his job shipping pudding or be without a job entirely. If one can get a job that would not involve a system that will cost several innocent lives every year, which seems possible, then this would seem to be the best option.

It's probably temping to attack my argument with a reductio ad absurdum, meaning that my argument would show something ridiculous to be true, and that would be a problem.

However, since this argument already embraces the idea that we need to either live without a large amount of items being widely available or accept that things like pudding are worth the lives of innocent people, it may be hard to think of something even more ridiculous that one who supports this argument would not want to accept.

The best way to attack my argument here I think is to either bite the bullet and say that having products like pudding be widely available really is worth the loss of several innocents lives each year, or to argue that even if we accept that shipping things like pudding will lead to innocent lives being lost, this does not mean the same as thinking that products like pudding are really worth the loss of innocent lives. That is, one can agree that things like pudding should keep being shipped, can accept that shipping these products will lead to innocent people losing their lives, but still deny that this means he must accept the idea that products like pudding are worth the loss of innocent people.

Perhaps there is potential in such a counter-argument, but I'm skeptical at how effectively one could argue that things like pudding aren't worth losing lives over while still thinking it's worth it to keep shipping things like pudding even if this will lead to people suffering or dying from traffic accidents.

Maybe this argument raises a more general topic of just what it means to say something is worth dying for...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's Worth Enduring for Humor?

A quick formal argument:

P1: Humor is similar in value to beauty.

P2: Beauty can be so valuable that it is worth experiencing pain or even death.
C: Therefore, humor can probably so valuable that it would be worth experiencing pain or even death for.
-Implication: A joke can be so funny that even if it hurts someone (perhaps to the point of suicide), it's possible in theory for a joke to be funny enough to be "worth it".

So I was thinking a bit about how certain types of humor can hurt people's feelings and increase bad attitudes and behaviors (like sexist and racist behaviors). There seems to be a growing number of people who are thinking that these types of humor are immoral because of the consequences mentioned.

This opposition to certain types of humor made me wonder if comedy being under-valued. This has made me think about a movie called Stranger Than Fiction.


It's about this author who is writing a book. The strange thing is that everything she writes about the main character is actually happening to a real person in real life. She comes up with the perfect ending to the book, but it would involve the main character dying, and thus, a real person would die if she went with this ending. The problem is that this death ending would make the book a masterpiece and one of the greatest tragedies ever written. Whereas if she doesn't have the main character die, it means the real person will live, but the story will just be of very average quality. So she has to make a choice between creating an absolutely wonderful piece of art that will lead to the death of a real person, or saving the real person but never creating an absolutely wonderful piece of art.

My thoughts are what if the author was writing a fantastic comedy, instead of a tragedy, but was in the same situation where a person would die unless the book was changed to only be of average quality. What should the author do? Would it be crazy to even consider writing the fantastic comedy if it would mean a person would die?


Humor, like beauty, is an aesthetic quality. Perhaps humor is even a part of beauty. If art is a subsection of beauty, and theater is a subsection or art, and comedy is a subsection of theater, then comedy would be indeed be a part of beauty.

Humor also seems to be pretty unique to humans and persons, and this could be a good reason for finding comedy important. Things like rationality, complicated emotions like romantic love, the ability to create art and music, and free will have all had thoughts of their importance aided by the fact that they are unique to us. Humor being unique to us should give us a reason think that it is valuable.

Humor has also been a fairly good indicator of maturity and sophistication as we are able to watch people grow from liking fart jokes to more complicated types of humor like satire.

Humor and having a sense of humor has also helped us recognize how to balance the virtues. Take just about any virtue and give a character way too much or too little of that virtue and you'll have a character that you'll laugh at.

Humor is also wonderful when it comes to friendship. Even if you have nothing in common with someone, if you can make each other laugh you'll have a good time together.

Humor can also be used to show how strong a person is. The man who is able to make jokes at the gallows pole will be seen as having an unbreakable spirit. And even the men who are able to laugh at their mistakes and faults show they are strong enough to recognize and accept their problems.

If people had to choose between a world with beauty or a world with humor, maybe they would choose the world with beauty and maybe this would be the better choice. But beauty couldn't help us enjoy an unfunny world for being unfunny, but humor could help us enjoy an ugly world for being ugly.

By the way, the images throughout this post have been of famous paintings of rape. Is there still beauty in them? If it was shown that such paintings could hurt people's feelings, increase sexist attitudes, and perhaps even increase rape, would this be enough to show that these paintings should not be created, that similar future paintings should not be made, or that these paintings should no longer be shared? Or can the beauty and other aesthetic qualities outweigh these negative consequences? And even if these artists could have painted something of equal beauty that wouldn't have these negative consequences, like a sunset or the ocean, would we think that's what they ought to have done or that they were doing something wrong by painting the rape scenes instead?

If beauty can be worth these negative consequences, and if we don't think art should be changed even if they can be changed in a way that keeps the same amount of beauty while not having the negative consequences, can we really be so confident that another aesthetic quality like humor should not be treated the same?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Right to Inflict Pain: Physical vs. Emotional

People seem more tolerant of causing others emotional harm compared to physical harm. If you punch someone, you're thought to have done something worse than if you were to just insult them with name-calling. But why is this? What's the morally relevant difference between causing someone physical pain versus emotion pain? Is physical pain so much worse than emotional pain that it makes the former permissible but not the other? But certainly there are times where emotional pain feels worse than certain physical pains. If the level of pain is what determines the morality of the actions, then in situations where the emotional pain would hurt more than the physical pain, it would mean that it would be more immoral to cause the victim emotional pain. Perhaps it's because of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech makes us have a right to cause people certain emotional harm, but we don't have a similar freedom that gives us the right to cause people physical harm.

But isn't it still a little odd to have the right to cause some kind of pain to a person but not another kind, especially when emotional pain can feel as bad if not worse than the physical pain that we do not have a right to inflict? What if we had the right to cause pain by punching but not by kicking? Assuming we weren't in the middle of a boxing match, this would seem similarly odd as kicking can cause at least the same level of pain as punching, just as emotional pain can compared to physical pain.

Is it that it is more of the victim's fault for experiencing emotional pain than it is when he experiences physical pain? The victim shouldn't let things bother his mind so mind; he should have a thicker skin. If the victim is hurt emotionally, it's his fault for letting the situation get to him.

But could something similar be applied to argue that it's the victim's fault for experiencing physical pain? If the victim is punched in the stomach, it's his fault for feeling physical pain because he didn't work out to develop strong enough abs to allow him to ignore the punch. Would expecting the victim to have stronger abs be that different from expecting them to get emotionally thicker skin? Maybe getting thicker skin is easier than getting stronger abs, and that is why we can blame the victim for not having thicker skin but we can't blame them for not having stronger abs. This may not be true, but even if it was this would mean that if we could take a pill to instantly give a person super strong abs, we'd be able to blame the victim for feeling pain after getting punched in the stomach. And if it doesn't seem right to blame the victim in that case, then it would not seem to be relevant how easy it is for one to be able to ignore pain in order for it to be the victim's fault for feeling the pain.

Could it be that we are less sure what will cause someone emotional pain as opposed to having a pretty good idea what will cause someone physical pain? It is probably true that usually it is harder to predict when an act will cause emotional pain as opposed to physical pain, but this would not excuse cases where we can be pretty sure that our act will cause someone emotional pain. Further, if in the future we become just as good at predicting when an act will cause emotional pain as we are at predicting physical pain, then this explanation would no longer excuse causing emotional pain.

Maybe there are advantages that come from making it permissible to cause emotional pain but not physical pain. Maybe it's permissible to cause emotional pain because it lets people be more creative without being restrained by hurting someone's feelings.
The problem with that explanation is that while it may make it more permissible in a grand sense to be able to hurt someone emotionally compared to hurting someone physically, it does not seem to make any particular act of hurting someone's feelings permissible. It is like how the loss of life from driving accidents are acceptable because of the benefits that driving brings, but that does not mean that if I kill someone with my car that that was permissible because driving has general benefits.

There may be a significant difference that makes causing emotional pain more permissible than causing physical pain, but it hardly seems so obvious that people are justified in quickly brushing aside and ignoring the possible wrongness of hurting someone's feelings.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Deserving Heaven and Hell

Can a person ever deserve to spend eternity in heaven or hell?

Consider the idea that "the punishment should fit the crime." Things like a lifetime in prison for stealing bubblegum or a fine of five dollars for murder are both thought to be wrong because their punishments are not proportionate to the crimes being committed.

So it can be wrong to both under-punish and over-punish a person for a crime.

Perhaps a simple way to think of what would be a fair reward or punishment is in terms of pain and pleasure. If your immoral act causes x amount of pain, you deserve to be punished in a way where you'll receive x amount of pain. If your moral act causes y amount of pleasure, you deserved to be rewarded with y amount of pleasure.

Now it seems that actions can either cause a finite or an infinite amount of pain and pleasure.

If actions can cause a finite amount of pain and pleasure, then it means in our lifetimes we will only ever cause a finite amount of pain and pleasure. The problem with this is that if we cause a finite amount of pain and are punished with an infinite amount of pain, which is what hell would appear to do, then spending an eternity in hell is not a fair punishment because it will punish a person too harshly. Further, if we cause a finite amount of pleasure and are rewarded with an infinite amount of pleasure, which is what heaven would appear to do, then we would be overly-rewarded for our actions. Therefore, in this case, whether we go to heaven or hell, we will not be getting what we deserve.

But what about the second option? Can our actions cause an infinite amount of pain and pleasure?

First, I should say that I don't think it's like that are actions cause an infinite amount of pain or pleasure, at least in any reasonable sense. Take an act like murder, which is arguably the worst action a person can commit. Let's say I kill a person who is 20 years old. Let's be generous and say my victim would have lived to be 100 years old if I had not killed him. So I've taken away 80 years of his life, along with the pain of the murder itself. Perhaps it would be reasonable for me to be tortured in hell for every year I took away from my victim, plus a few extra years for the pain caused in the murder. But even if I try to go with a more extreme punishment, say one million years of the worst torture hell has to offer for every year of life I took away from my victim, this would still only lead to a fair punishment being 80 million years in hell, and punishing me with an eternity in hell when I deserve 80 million years in hell would not be just.

Second, even if our actions can cause an infinite amount of pain or pleasure, this could cause it's own problems. For example, what if I do one act that causes an infinite amount of pain, but then I do an act that causes an infinite amount of pleasure? Do I receive an afterlife where I experience both an infinite amount of pain and an infinite amount of pleasure? Do they cancel each other out? Perhaps these aren't huge problem and if it is the case that our actions can cause an infinite amount of pain and pleasure, this would solve the problem of deserving heaven or hell, but again, I do not think it's reasonable to think our actions cause an infinite amount of pain and pleasure.

Perhaps there is another sense of desert that can show how a person could deserve heaven or hell. For example, if I tell you that if you do x then y will happen, then you go ahead and do x anyway, it could be argued that you deserve y.

Imagine I'm talking to Jesus and I tell him that my room is being fumigated and if he goes in there, he's gonna become sick. Jesus responds, "Whatever" and goes into the room anyway and ends up getting sick. Jesus has never done anything wrong, but because I told him he'd get sick if he went into my room and he did it anyone, perhaps it's right to say that he deserved to get sick.

Maybe it is in this sense that a person can deserve to go to heaven or hell. Perhaps God could say, "Look, I told you all that if you do good things, you'll go to heaven for eternity. If you do bad things, you'll go to hell for eternity. If knowing that you still went and did bad things anyway, you deserve to go to hell. It's as simple as that."

This of course has its own problems, such as people who haven't been told that they will go to heaven or hell for eternity based on their actions and whether or not this is really "desert" and not something else, but maybe it can help solve this conflict between desert, heaven, and hell.

... But probably not.

Updates Incoming

Going to go through a lot of past facebook statuses I've had on philosophical topics and try to expand them into short bits of writing here soon.