On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part I)

Would you believe me if I said the object you see below made me question the decisions and priorities of my species, in not just one way but two?


I received this geeky apparatus as a gift earlier this year. Known as a Galileo thermometer, it uses the physics of density to display the approximate temperature of the environment. That’s neat and all, and every now and then I can derive from it a sense of awe at its scientific elegance, but the question I have to ask when I observe it is this: Was it worth the investment?

No, seriously — was it at all sensible for the givers of this present, good-willed though the gesture was, to spend on it dozens of dollars they surely could have directed towards more worthy ends? I don’t need my own thermometer, and so far this device hasn’t inspired any scientific epiphanies in me or anyone else (much less done so in a way that would require its physical presence in my room). I realize this isn’t a popular or comfortable idea, especially around this time of year in the United States. Surely it’s the thought that counts. Splurging helps the economy, right? People have the right to “waste” money on things with no secondary use, after all.

I wouldn’t endorse all these notions, and although it’s trivially true that we have that right, no one ever said rights were called rights because any exercise of them is right (that is, most wise or most helpful to the altruistic goals we tend to hold in the abstract). Whether it’s possible or desirable to mold our laws into actualizing such a definition of rights is its own interesting question, but the trouble remains. The costs (financial and social) of seemingly innocuous actions like giving a gift could very well outweigh the benefits.

And yes, the worst of these futile attempts to buy happiness (which some possessions can do indirectly, to be sure — without someone buying a typewriter, Stephen King would not have found the joy of publishing his novels — but not most) surface around the holidays. The thermometer was actually a birthday present, yet when I consider the mass of Christmas possessions I’ve found no use for that could not be performed by something better, the absurdity of this system becomes all too obvious.

How exactly have we convinced ourselves that this is sane? Expecting total commercial detachment from people is unrealistic, of course, and maybe even fortunately so, but ours is hardly a happy medium. I doubt this is a phenomenon unique to my history. Perhaps a degree of trivial distraction in our lives is psychologically healthy, but if it is, I’ll need more than just the bald hypothesis to accept that this is, in fact, the case.

I’ll be on the lookout for more satisfying answers and may post about them, but for now, this is all really quite mad.

To be clear, I don’t mean by any of this questioning to merely tear down the fun of the blue pill. My suspicion, rather, is that the blue pill isn’t even as fun in the first place as the more useful options we skip over constantly. If we admit this, we just might find ways of pursuing and producing more of what we value, than that which we accept as cheap substitutes for the best the world has to offer.

If your response to this is to point to science’s curious ability to become useful when we least expect it, you’ll want to stick around for my follow-up to this, in Part II.

Common Mistakes — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5c)

(Part XII of this series)

Recall that in Chapter 5, Locke has so far been attempting a defense of the right to property. Now, he is describing how it is both in the nature of humans to, in his terms, “cultivate” land and property from the common, and in our best interests to do so. Evidently, Locke distinguishes between two kinds of a “common.” In one sense, there is land that has not been marked as a part of any particular society’s dominion, which, therefore, there seems no apparent harm in letting people utilize at their leisure. The other sense is of property already designated the community’s common land, which an individual requires the direct consent of the society to claim for private purposes (which ideally don’t pose any threat to that society).

One major question arises at this consideration. Although the separation makes sense initially, we would do well to ask how much we actually apply such a philosophy in our manner of dealing with the land — obviously Native American tribes throughout two whole continents had their territories treated as if they were examples of the first, rather than the second, but there’s another, more modern-applicable case. Taking a “my right to extend my fist ends where your nose begins” approach is fair enough, but particularly in the realm of using natural resources wisely, it’s important not to let this principle become a caricature of itself. We mustn’t ignore the ways our fists reach to extents we can’t see merely with the naked eye.

Consider, for instance, the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, Locke didn’t live even to see this age start up, but supposing a hypothetical society abiding by his principles contemplated the beginning of the revolution ethically, how would they have dealt with this? Perhaps the most important and disturbing query is this: Would anyone have known — much less had no excuse not to know — that industrialization could have potentially hazardous implications for the lower class, child labor, and our ecological stability? Was this anything resembling a moral question for some observers of the time, or was it an error that could only manifest its ugly head in hindsight, like our past failure to save countless lives through rudimentary hygienic practices in infant delivery?

I wish these could be more than rhetorical questions at the moment. Please share your thoughts, if you’re so inclined.

As a side note, readers who are following along doubtlessly notice Locke’s affinity for justifying his claims as reflections of the will of God. While those who say they speak for God have the unfortunate habit of projecting their own desires on a being they hardly comprehend, Locke’s contentions are generally (certainly not always, as we’ve seen) difficult to reject so far, provided we translate this tactic into “a perfectly rational being with our society’s collective well-being at heart would prescribe X.”

Looking at them this way, we may engage his arguments on their own merits. Though it’s the prerogative of any given believer in infallible scripture to consult it for ethical information, he or she can only hope to shape public policy around ideas that the majority can support independent of private beliefs; in practice, most religious social activists acknowledge this.

Quantity and Quality — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 4)

(Part IX of this series)

Continuing where we left off, Locke’s points in Chapter 4 are rather brief. Beyond reiterating in summary the idea that one’s liberty is maximized by a limited yet right-securing government, which derives its power from the consent of the people, he doesn’t add anything terribly revolutionary here. Today, let’s consider one particular quote:

“[Nobody] can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. … [N]o man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 4

This chapter being named “On Slavery,” we can see that Locke is stating that, in short, self-enslavement is impossible. The logic he uses to arrive at this conclusion is, once again, rather bizarre. He notes that, since freedom from slavery is so fundamental to life, to give the power to enslave oneself to another person is tantamount to terminating one’s own life. Since he starts from the premise that one cannot do the latter, he deduces that no one can self-enslave. Taking this generously — as I cannot believe Locke did not know what suicide is — he is apparently saying that no rational person would end one’s own life, so too would no rational person give oneself to slavery.

Both of which seem sensible at first impression, but as this blog has probably shown you by now if this isn’t my first post you’ve read, nothing is ever totally uncontroversial upon greater scrutiny. The irrationality of self-enslavement is as close as anything can get to the exception to that. However, what do we make of the former proposition?

Far be it for me to open up the Jack Kevorkian can of worms in this article (that’s a discussion worth addressing in its time; this is not yet such a time), but this matter raises some fairly open questions to chew on: Is the very state of conscious existence valuable in its own right? If so, how valuable? Valuable enough to outweigh considerations of quality of life? Part of the reason the debate over the “right to die” and related matters is so touchy, presumably, is that there are good arguments to be made on either side as to the expectation of future quality of life (or lack thereof). I hope the importance of this easily missed detail of Chapter 4 is clear. Social justice, after all, concerns the joy and suffering of conscious persons, and perhaps if we set aside our biases, we may agree on this much — that sentience provides the potential for an individual to experience a variety of pleasures and pains on a wide spectrum, which can be narrowed or shifted depending on circumstances that it would behoove us to consider, as a responsible society.

Teach a Kid to Fish (for Truth) …

Does this look like a familiar picture to you?


Granted, those educators guilty of this error tend to be honest enough to not claim they are teaching critical thinking, but the image’s message remains.  Evidently the artist is criticizing the educational status quo for its emphasis on teaching students to search for the “right answer,” from sources they are expected to trust unquestionably.  This is in contrast to teaching how to distinguish right answers from wrong ones using widely applicable mental skills, as is surely necessary in the sea of ambiguous information we find on the Internet (and more traditional sources as well).

I may do a more extensive post on the state of standard education in the U.S., but for now I’d like to hear your thoughts on this cartoon’s premise.  Is this a fair critique, or is there an effectiveness to the current educational system the artist is missing here? Even if you agree with it, do you think any clear, feasible alternatives present themselves?  I’m curious, because the many debates that rage on over educational structures fascinate me in their massive relevance to this blog’s focus.  Few social institutions could have greater influence over society’s well-being than the means by which new generations learn (or learn how to learn) information.

Killing Over a Coat? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3b)

(Part VIII of this series)

If the reader found Locke’s unabashed eye-for-an-eye ethic regarding murderers excessive, what comes next in this chapter is even more bizarre a logical leap:

“This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 3

He at least gives a reason for this view, but it’s one we would unequivocally condemn for its rashness of judgment. Even if Locke refers not to petty theft here, but to serious embezzlements or bank robberies — being generous, since he in fact cites theft of a horse or coat as worth killing over — it seems hardly sensible to infer total hostility and non-negotiability from a willingness to steal property of a non-essential sort (not integral to a person’s well-being, that is). That’s a heavy burden of proof to shoulder when making claims about human nature upon which lives depend. Here we see a simple but important example of a way ethical and legal determinations concern probabilistic facts, given an agreed-upon premise of value.

As backward as Locke has gotten the details, his broader point stands fairly well: Without government, people are in a state of nature in which we may get along cooperatively to some respectable degree, delivering informal justice, and it is when one person threatens the crucial property of another that “war” is declared. Such is a circumstance in which one may suspend the general rules of non-harm for a greater good, although of course it would be wise not to use more force than is necessary for that good.

As the chapter concludes, Locke brings his points together, expressing the necessity of war as a proper response to an aggressor’s attempt to dodge justice. The bottom line in this theorizing about the state of war is that society emerges when people seek to minimize the frequency with which they must resort to war. Ideally, we implement a justice system by which harmful actions are discouraged or prevented by the deterrence, isolation, and/or rehabilitation of would-be dangerous individuals, without using the extreme force of war.

Now we have seen some reason to consider Locke as moderately fallible a thinker and moralist as we should expect any human to be, but delving into more of his treatise should prove fruitful in uncovering the essentials of how rights, laws, and justice work.

More Than “Just Because” — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2c)

(Part IV of this series)

Fair warning — this’ll be a rather philosophy-heavy update. If it seems like I’m getting away from the actual treatise we’re following, I hope you’ll see how these points actually relate to it. This abstract stuff will pay off in the long run.

Returning to normativity, I want to stress that any pretensions to know what ought to be done, in a given complex ethical situation, must rely on an argument from facts about the ways a valued or desired circumstance may be achieved.

Philosophically, this is known as consequentialism, although I’m not entirely happy with that label because of its connotations. People tend to take “consequentialism” to mean the notorious principle of “the ends justify the means” (as if the inherent undesirability of the means aren’t an end themselves). In my “Giving Peace a Chance” series, I briefly touched on this matter, but we have to consider it more thoroughly here before going any further with Locke’s treatise. Why? Because we can’t evaluate his argument properly without breaking down its logical structure, and if we want to understand how the conclusion he rightly defends follows from a stronger foundation than his, we need to know how normative arguments like his work.

This form of consequentialism is more broad than the stereotype suggests, so much so that it can scarcely be a controversial axiom for our purposes. This isn’t merely my bias speaking here: imagine any moral distinction you can think of, and ask yourself why you recognize that distinction. Murder? That has enormous consequences for the potential of the victim to carry out his/her wishes, and for the well-being of the victim’s loved ones. Slavery? Fewer consequences are more harmful than the elimination of autonomy. Deceit? Even “white lies” build the habit of dishonesty that causes more harm than it’s worth, and they carry risks of negative effects more substantial than the violation of some hollow maxim.

All of which is a thorough way of saying that, if you want to suggest that an action is unwise to undertake without explaining how that action actually causes anything detrimental to a worthy purpose, you frankly do not know what you’re talking about. Forgive me if it sounds condescending to say this should be obvious, but I raise this idea to underscore the gap in Locke’s argument. Notice that he never explains why, precisely, the equal creation of humans implies the normativity of equal rights. Intuitively, this seems appealing, and indeed in common discourse we argue this way to great success. Yet without elaborating the premises in question, Locke’s argument is on shaky ground. It amounts to a “just because” assertion riding on rhetorical aesthetics, with no attempt to convince the opposition with the tried and true method of identifying something they value, and arguing that the acquisition of this value depends on the application of what one is proposing.

The reason most of us nonetheless find reasoning like Locke’s persuasive is that we carry assumptions into the ethical arena — decent assumptions, to be sure, but assumptions still. Perhaps Locke is engaging his readers on a level where the value of the well-being of persons is a given (one of the aforementioned assumptions), and that’s fair for the purposes of legislation, so long as he identifies what constitutes a person in this context. That he does so implicitly, and based strictly on species rather than the relevant features of the species (which may apply to others), leaves his thesis currently unconvincing to the contemporary reader, who tends to use the well-being of creatures capable of happiness and suffering as his/her moral thermometer.

This is where a connection to the animal rights debate, with which in mind we started this reading journey, emerges, but we’ll get to that later. I’d like to more directly address the text of Locke’s book in the next post. As it stands, we’ve considered some contextual philosophical concerns that cannot be overstated: while that which one ought to do is more than just a matter of arbitrary whim — rather, it is objective given facts about subjective beings — truths about such obligations, typically considered moral imperatives, cannot come from reason alone either.

Rather, provided some fundamental values (disputes over which may get particularly messy), moral truth upon which legal arguments like Locke’s are made have to concern the achievement of these values. This abstraction of natural law, as Locke sees it, has negligible normative force. So we can’t take his word for it that rights work the way he thinks they do, without some critical argument in favor of that view.

Great Ideas, Questionable Defenses — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2b)

(Part III of this series)

As Locke continues along his argumentative thread, the crux of his premises unfolds more clearly. He contends:

“[T]hough man in that state have an [uncontrollable] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. [R]eason … teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for [ours]. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station [willfully], so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (changes made strictly to modernize archaic spellings, or to adjust sentence structure without compromising any crucial context)

Basically, Locke begins with the assumption that all people (charitably interpreting the term “men”) are the equal creations of God, made to carry out this deity’s will. He supposes as well that humans alone retain this birthright, and that the “inferior ranks of creatures” were created for the purpose of serving human goals. From the former basis Locke concludes that we ought not thwart the life, liberty, and property of other humans, nor should we take places of domination over each other, provided such an action is not the necessary means to protect the well-being of innocents.

While I concur with this conclusion as a general rule and suspect the average reader does too, the logic from which Locke derives it is far from indubitable, regardless of the subject’s religious persuasion. Just because an idea is correct, that does not mean all of the ways one might arrive at that idea are accurate.

Consider the proposition, “The earth revolves around the sun.” This is true, but if someone were to say to you, “The earth revolves around the sun because Carl Sagan said so,” would you accept this as valid reasoning? Would you also accept the claim, “If you don’t believe that everything Carl Sagan says is true, you must not believe the earth revolves around the sun”? Of course not. The same fallacy is at work in the strikingly common meme that those who don’t accept Locke’s religious premises, much less that such premises have some logical connection to the conclusions he draws, are incapable of believing in the normativity of persons’ rights.

When I refer to “normativity,” this is a fancy term for the more awkwardly written “ought-ness.” A key principle I adhere to in this analysis that may need some explaining (and criticism, which is what the comments are for) is this: Given a desired state of affairs from the perspective of one or more subjects, and the facts relevant to the possible actualization of that state, there is an objective fact of the matter — however difficult to ascertain, as most objective truths are — as to what the subject(s) ought to do.

Why, exactly, am I belaboring this point, when I could simply say “people ought to have rights” and leave it at that? Well, as you may have deduced, I’m not comfortable smuggling truths in through doors of bad reasoning, nor would I recommend anyone else make a habit of this. I’ll unpack what I mean by that next update, but for now feel free to mull over this idea. It has numerous implications for the concept of rights that we’ll be exploring.