On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part II)

(Follow up to Part I)

To lead into the explanation of the second thought that my Galileo thermometer inspired, let me present my attempt (and this is the keyword :-)) at a monochromatic expression of some conflicting ideas related to it:


The most prominent feature that you will tend to notice is the crescent moon, looming large near the Alaska horizon. Aside from perhaps the lesser-known story of Linus Pauling (as told in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, which I highly recommend), I know of no better case study in societally impactful science than that of the U.S. moon landing.

It’s common knowledge that the Apollo program cost literal billions of dollars, so one can hardly fault the citizens who would have expressed indignation at this investment of their taxes. In hindsight, of course, the mission seems to have been worth it. Beyond the “that really makes our species look cool” factor and pure national solidarity the moon landing generated, the conveniences it spawned — from water filters and satellite-facilitated communication to ArterioVision and hearing aids — are impressive and often life-changing.

However, as I hope two details of this drawing illuminate, this sort of argument in favor of publicly funded research has its problems. Before we consider those, there are more immediate objections that come to mind. Most crucial to the theme of this mini-series of posts, we may fairly ask which criteria a research endeavor must meet to qualify as so likely to benefit the people, that our government ought to fund it. Well-directed investigations into cancer and CVD (diseases both severely detrimental to people’s well-being and expensive in terms of health care costs) cures are easy enough to justify, but how could anyone have foreseen the fruits of Pauling’s or NASA researchers’ inquiries?

That’s not a rhetorical question. If we honestly could not have predicted how useful some lines of natural questioning would prove, can we take any examples of ultimately quite beneficial research as adequate evidence of likely improvements other research might provide? This doesn’t appear to this writer a solid foundation upon which to build future investments of public resources, at least without a well-tested theory of initially useless utility. All of this is evident irrespective of how successful the moon landing was for humankind in fact.

Further, the suggestion that many life-improving inventions would not have arisen without the impetus of the space program may involve a flavor of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. That is, just because NASA yielded great societal utilities, this does not necessarily mean society could not have otherwise achieved greater utilities with the resources invested in NASA. Maybe this is a testament to my ignorance of the debates argued among legislators back in the 1960s, but there seems to be a large burden of proof on those who would claim that the aforementioned technologies (and Space Race morale) outweigh the good that could have been achieved charitably or through direct infrastructure, with those funds. Indeed, with the exception of satellites, none of these advances obviously require space travel in principle.

Hence, the disheveled home of a poor individual that lies not far from our young astronomer, who delights in the inspiration of the moon, blissfully unaware of the pavement of poverty with which the road to that rock has been built. Here I have taken the, ahem, artistic liberty of getting my point across with a term coined in a work of fiction I am currently revising. In my last update, my short video introduced a not-exactly novel yet disturbing idea — that the intrusion of increased automation into the workforce might multiply the economic burdens of most members of society. The “Go away Org” graffiti on the house shown above alludes to a similar but distinct consideration. Supposing that technology produced (by some time in the not-too-distant future which is this scene’s setting) exoskeletons capable of eliminating many of the inconveniences of the organic body, social selection against those without the wealth to possess them would surely arise. Why hire the average human who has to sleep eight hours a day?

If this all seems too pessimistic, the second of the details I mentioned vindicates the moon missions somewhat. Notice0 the small but unmistakable lit-up spot on the moon besides its naturally brightened crescent. This is, consistent with the time period, a sign of human civilization on the moon. Such colonization is also an idea that has floated around in greater minds than mine before, but I think it’s worth pondering nonetheless, for the practicalities of this for people’s well-being are substantial. All else being equal, the moon has no natural disasters. Think about that, and the lives that could be saved after leaping the hurdles of cosmic radiation and terraforming for food sources.

Regardless of how the debate settles, the implications are somewhat demoralizing either way. The avid astronauts may declare, “Can we put a price on freedom from ignorance?” Yet their critics can just as easily retort, “On freedom from poverty?”

Once again, the fog doesn’t seem much clearer than when we started. I do intend to pursue more precise answers, and to share them if I find anything particularly intriguing, but as I have said before, I don’t think the power of identifying the pertinent questions themselves (independent of the answers) should be underestimated.

ThatGuyWithHippyHair Recommends: Everyday Utilitarian

Today I’d like to recommend a site I think my readers will find compelling. It’s called Everyday Utilitarian, and while it’s about as low-budget as this blog, much of the content is likely to be thought-provoking to those interested in applied ethics and social justice. (Note well that its author, Peter Hurford, is not above treading the controversial waters of religion and politics at times in his writings, but on the whole his approach is exceptionally gracious and level-headed, and he isn’t self-righteous about the topics he covers.)

Besides some logs of his personal endeavors in applied utilitarianism — basically, making a conscious effort to inform one’s decision-making with considerations of scientific probabilities and valid reasoning, rather than letting this process be a crapshoot of the conscience — Hurford shares some enticing thoughts on the application of reliable data to improving the world. He calls this effective altruism, suggesting that as a society, we tend to either oversimplify philanthropy into just throwing money at the problem, or worse, assume that making a difference is impossible in a world this complex (and thus we do nothing about the problem at all).

This blog’s essays are often chock-full of references to sociological studies worth looking into. Even when such sources don’t quite answer his own questions, as in this post, he does a fine job of revealing questions I didn’t even know I should be asking in the first place. At first glance, it seems obvious that humans would jump at any self-interested motive to help others (given how rare this combination seems to be, although I’d say it’s less so than we assume; I’ll probably address this in a coming post). Yet, as Hurford wisely notes, our psychology doesn’t work so simply, often throwing in the catalysts for paradoxes like those detailed in his article.

At the end of the latter post, Hurford proposes that the reader do his/her own investigation into this phenomenon. Of course, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but if the aspiring philanthropist finds that it works to remind people of the happiness they can expect from giving to a certain degree, more power to that person’s cause. If I’m feeling ambitious in the next few weeks, I just might take Hurford’s challenge. Regardless, I appreciate his rigor and cautiousness in thinking about subjects that are, in some ways, quite literally matters of life or death. Check out the Everyday Utilitarian. You might be surprised.

Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

(Part X of this series)

With Chapter 5, Locke seeks to establish a basic theory of property. In this update I’ll address his first major contention, namely that the resources of nature are the common property for all people’s utility, yet by investing his/her labor in acquiring a given resource, an individual may claim rightful ownership of that resource as his/her own property (provided this does not seize away the necessities of the community). He writes:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. … Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. … [For] this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. … He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. … And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common?”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine)

The essential points are bolded, serving as the premises of the summary above. Locke reasons that, provided we can agree that the best feasible societal foundation is something like the constitutional democracy he suggests, there must be some coherent way citizens of this society can manage the resources at their disposal fairly. Though he doesn’t deny that there are some limits to pursuit of property, when this precludes others from their rightful property, it’s clear that Locke’s ideal excludes socialism from the outset. Property is afforded on the basis of merit/work rather than need, at least as far as the law is concerned (that is, Locke would not likely have objections in principle to charity).

While this seems an intuitive philosophy, we’ll have to see how he hashes out the details. After all, where on this basis is there room for, say, taxation and public property? For today, I leave the reader to consider both that question and the further hints of anthropocentrism in Locke’s view.

Notice that in the first emphasized part of this quote, he deems all of the entities of Earth’s ecosystem the rightful property of humans. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an affront to environmental responsibility, as the preservation of non-sentient wildlife and natural resources is not only a worthy goal for its own sake, but also as far as this proves prudent for humanity’s own wishes in the long run. Basically, one saves the trees as much for the trees’ inherent value, as for the worth they have as one’s oxygen source. More troubling is the flippancy with which Locke denies any agency or value-as-an-end to conscious nonhuman creatures. Perhaps he took Descartes’s view of nonhumans as universally unconscious and machine-like, which is at least somewhat sympathetic when the state of seventeenth-century neurology was so undeveloped, but the familiarity of this perspective should give us pause. Who else, again, were denied fundamental liberties and protections because the powers that be saw them as property?

See the title of the preceding chapter for the answer.

Questions on My Mind

This post will be somewhat more informal today, folks. The same reasons for last article’s delay (sheer business) have restricted my freedom to write developed theses for this blog at the moment, so for now, I’d like to stop pretending I have answers to simply raise some questions. Hopefully this will spark some thought in you and me, and even if not, consider this a preview or syllabus of the sorts of topics we may explore here in weeks to come.

1.) To what extent is the good of society dependent on our understanding of the human mind, particularly of how it can be prone to error or destructive behavior due to biases and psychopathologies? What steps can we take towards acting upon this knowledge properly?

2.) Do accusations of “political correctness” and oversensitivity carry merit, or are these labels little more than excuses not to use the power of words wisely?

3.) What are some effective and evidentially supported methods of distributing charity? Is our problem in combatting world hunger and disease one merely of quantity, or are we approaching this the wrong way entirely?

4.) What are the ethical, economic, and social implications of the impending artificial intelligence explosion (this is one you’d be better off just web searching to get the idea; I recommend Goodsearch, a search engine that gradually raises money for a charity of your choice)? As far-fetched as the idea of a sci-fi-esque robot takeover seems, is the probability that artificial intelligence might work against human interests in more subtle ways one worth taking seriously?

5.) Regardless of the more personal ethical quandaries, is there any consistent legal case that can be made for the rights of certain nonhuman animals? If so, how far do these rights extend, and how does this relate to our food industry, scientific practices, and manufacture of other animal products?

I’d be delighted if you could comment with your thoughts on any of these questions, and if you have some of your own you’d like to raise (within reason), please share them!