Monday, February 23, 2015

Create Best Index

Idea: Why do I have to tell the database what kind of index or key I want? I can't think of a situation where I wouldn't want the most selective key, but if that wasn't available, I'd want the next best.

Here's the list of index types in descending order of desirability:

  1. Primary key (and clustered in SQL Server)
  2. Unique key or index (allows nulls to be treated as distinct values)
  3. Non-unique index
So here's a script that simplifies my ETL a bit, since I create indexes on the temporary staging tables as they are continually dropped and recreated.

ALTER PROCEDURE [Controls].[Create Best Index]
 @Path NVARCHAR(1028)
, @ColumnNamesAsXML XML
 DECLARE @TableName AS NVARCHAR(1028) = '[' + PARSENAME(@Path, 1)
 DECLARE @ColumnNamesAsTbl Controls.StringList
 INSERT INTO @ColumnNamesAsTbl(string) SELECT ParamValues.ID.value('.','NVARCHAR(MAX)') FROM @ColumnNamesAsXML.nodes('/*') as ParamValues(ID) 
 DECLARE @ColumnList AS NVARCHAR(MAX) = (SELECT dbo.GROUP_CONCAT_DS(QUOTENAME(string), ', ', 1) FROM @ColumnNamesAsTbl)    -- Can't control order!
 DECLARE @IndexTag AS NVARCHAR(MAX) = (SELECT dbo.GROUP_CONCAT_DS(dbo.DeVowel(string), '+', 1) FROM @ColumnNamesAsTbl)

 SELECT @TableName = LTRIM(RTRIM(@TableName))

 IF RIGHT(@TableName, 1) = ']' SET @TableName = LEFT(@TableName, LEN(@TableName)-1)

 DECLARE @IndexName AS NVARCHAR(1034) 
 SELECT @IndexName = @TableName + '::pk.' + @IndexTag + ']'
 SELECT @SQL = CONCAT('ALTER TABLE ', @Path, 'ADD CONSTRAINT ', @IndexName, ' PRIMARY KEY(', @ColumnList, ')') -- Add where filter?
  SELECT @SQL = @SQL + ' WHERE ' + @Filter
  SELECT @IndexName = @TableName + '::ak.' + @IndexTag + ']'
  SELECT @SQL = CONCAT('CREATE UNIQUE INDEX ', @IndexName, ' ON ', @Path, '(', @ColumnList, ')') -- Add where filter?
  IF @Filter IS NOT NULL
   SELECT @SQL = @SQL + ' WHERE ' + @Filter
   SELECT @IndexName = @TableName + '::' + @IndexTag + ']'
   SELECT @SQL = CONCAT('CREATE INDEX ', @IndexName, ' ON ', @Path, '(', @ColumnList, ')') -- Add where filter?
   IF @Filter IS NOT NULL
    SELECT @SQL = @SQL + ' WHERE ' + @Filter



Thursday, June 20, 2013

NewLang lvl0 v2 band 0 and some of 1

Not the world's greatest post title, but I'm in a hurry. I feel I've achieved something of a small breakthrough. All points in life when we achieve something, we do not always notice the change. Sometimes I wonder if I've even contemplated the great changes in my life and what single moment in time could be identified that was the crux upon which all that followed depended.

Thinking upon it, I realize that there are very few points in life that I've contemplated. Once, a great dog escaped it's owner and charged me and my dog, and I faced it down with a mighty roar. What a decision to make in an instant: To run in terror, or to at least claim some measure of dignity. That time I made the right decision. Not many decisions can be said to be clearly right or wrong, but that one was.

So now I choose [again] to revisit an idea I started dreaming and obsessing about in 9th or 10th grade, maybe even earlier. I had seen the massive reference books at the UNM library, the miles of Who's who, encyclopedias, government listing, almanacs, top 100, most famous jazz musicians, and on and on. I thought: isn't it all the same stuff? They discovered the atom quite a ways back, and apparently most everything is made up of atoms, which is a quixotic idea, but yet we still persist in the illusion that information is somehow different. My list of top ten love songs from the 60s is a totally different thing than the number of proteins that react to low PH in soil in the Midwest. Totally different!

I know, a strange obsession for a kid. I wish I still had the miles of scribbled notes that I made during Algebra class on the topic.

But I always ended up with too complex of a model. I didn't call it a model then. I drew boxes and lines. After high-school, somehow I learned about ER diagramming. I really can't remember how I came about my knowledge. I know I had started to write some flat-file databases on my Atari 800 and then a TRaSh 80. I was amazed at the speed. I made a movie database. I just thought: You could do anything with a database! (I didn't call it a database.) Ironically, all my experiences with databases have been much slower than that first TurboBasic program. This is for me a clue about what is going wrong in computerland today. Apps shouldn't be getting slower and slower. It's sortof an inverted Moore's Law.

Another thing this movie database file did was proliferate in attributes. There was always just one more attribute that I wanted to add. I didn't fully understand defaults, and I tried to fill all the values in for every movie. As the database grew, the data got harder to manage. The speed was still good, but there were a few  pauses while paging, which annoyed me. The more complex the UI page got, the more difficult it was to visually process the information. It became less and less meaningful. As I added new movies, I began to skip over fields, realizing that they were almost always the same value, or that I didn't always know it. The data I wanted to add was what I had at the time, not necessarily what the UI ordered from left to right.

From this I've learned that UIs need to evolve and vary between users and groups. Eclipse does an excellent job of bringing in the idea of the perspective. You have a coding perspective and a debug perspective. As a user, you want to see different things when your in different modes of operation. Microsoft has never really accepted that. To them it just creates cost and cuts into profit.

I need to be able to manage the UI on the fly. When is the best time to edit a UI? Simple: When you the user are using it to do something real. Not during UAT, when you're irritated beyond belief at how late this project is, and how it has become irrelevant anyway, but you can't tell anyone because they've invested millions of hours in it, but it's their own damn fault, right, for taking so long.

So in UAT, you might not get it. Even at your best, you can't CAN'T look at the UI in the same way as when you're really working. Work mode is different. That's way NewLang (or BrahmaBase?) needs to class each data item with its mode. Is it an experiment? Even if it's production, do you realize people test in production??? Shock!

This has always bugged me. The way project planning works is that production is the FINAL product. Makes sense. EXCEPT. When you push your perfectly tested UAT app and data into PRODUCTION, it's brand new to that production environment. That production environment is (!!!) not identical to your UAT environment. Which is a big no-no. This I also don't understand: How is it, if, according to all the books, UAT and production have to be identical, that they never are identical? Doesn't that mean every single instance of this type of deployment cycle is broken?

Here's a rare thought: If UAT and PRODUCTION are identical, why do you bother to move anything from UAT to prod? Seeing as how they are identical. Oh, wait, they're not that identical. Just quasi-identical.

Ever seen a system admin back something out of production, and then the project manager says, "Should we back that out of UAT as well?" and the sysadm says, "Naw, probably people are using it." Oh, right. And so the systems get hairier and hairier.

But then I suppose there's a cool nifty app on your network that shows you a compare of staging, dev, test, UAT1, UAT2, and Prod. Right? No, probably not. Why would that matter? After all, our entire deployment strategy is dependent on their being quasi-identical - why would we need a tool to tell us how they're different?

One reason such a tool is almost impossible is that apps and databases and config files and registries aren't designed or built to support such comparisons. This is the flaw that will become bigger and bigger as software evolves.

So here's my new thought: What if I design the core of a new language first? Design it as a logical element that can be implemented in any number of ways. But, since I am a database guy, the first pass is as an E-R diagram and will be implemented in a database to experiment with. I hope to push it to UML and try and generate a code-based implementation.

But that seems to me to be the crux of the problem in software: Everything that will become important about a popular piece of code or a database design is not known specifically at the time of invention, and by the time it is known, it's too late to retrofit the original. It's like someone constantly chasing their tail. The more features that go out the door, the more change is required, and the longer the delay to the change correction. It's like seeing an iceberg 3 miles away and telling the engine room to change course, they change course finally after going 2 miles, only by then the iceberg has floated into the way  of the new path.

I guess you could call it feature management latency.

So I'm thinking of designing a generic core that can more easily be refactored to store the new information that can be expected to come after the product is deployed and hardened. Note that the new information is more important than the original, and yet the original design is always the most efficient. The new information always results in built-ons and strap-ons and kludges and duct tape and jury rigs. See how this is ass-backward?

Since you can't (yet) design a system based on the outcome of its future release, the best thing might be to design something that is capable of more easily redesigning itself when the new information comes.

Here's a first pass at a core:

Now the Atom becomes the absolute core, the 0.0000, as it were. Here's a closer view:

Starting at the beginning. First, AtmID. This is what is called a surrogate key or meaningless key. Typically these are integers, large integers that are generated by some sort of sequence generator supplied by the DBMS. These generators are cool because they can be guaranteed by the DBMS to be unique. If 5 clients all request a new ID simultaneously, it can divvy them out without accidentally duplicating one. Now as to guaranteeing they come out in any order, or are sequential and gapless, or don't discard rolled-back keys (or do), that is difficult to control.

For a generic core system, it doesn't seem to me to be a good idea to use integers in terms of storage types. This limits what can be stored there, and so incoming values must always be translated into binary values, and sequence engines must generate values for all these new records. ETL systems spend a portion of their time generating these keys. They also have to link incoming data's attributes to the surrogate keys of reference data tables, which requires an intensive scan of the identifiers (meaningful) of those reference tables.

In a production system I developed, I used meaningful values as keys, at least for reference data. For accounts, the ADP system generated 8-digit numbers and already had a sophisticated system for managing their uniqueness. So I just used those values. This reduced load time significantly. It also makes the raw data readable. 09805671 in the staging data and source data is the same value in the warehouse. How convenient! Now, when it came time to import what was called Bank-side data, this had an identifier called a GID, which was always 9 digits. It's obvious to even your average Chennai designer that 8-digit values will never collide with 9 digit values, especially if you store them as strings.

There are risks with meaningful values. When stock exchange codes changed from 5 characters to 7, all systems had to be upgraded. Ironically, in our warehouse, the new 7-digichar values were given new surrogate keys! So reports that looked at transaction data referencing both 5 and 7 digit exchange codes had to do a transliteration and merging anyways. So one of the features of surrogate keys is chimera on large databases.

So what is the value of a massive AtmID (NVARCHAR(400))? You can run just about any data into it. Integer keys can be run into it as varchar form, or they can be compressed to binary as well. This speeds loads. Which brings up Atmphystyp. This small key supplement is the provisio for having a flexikey in terms of storage format. All possible storage formats are listed in the IDPhysicalType table. I gave it a SMALLINT (32k) to encourage limited use as well as separate from the ID itself. Here we are not prepared to support IDs as part of the combination key, which is the ID. This obviously becomes a little difficult in terms of RI. Besides, there are what I call Bands. Band 0 is all the things necessary as a bare minimum (IFF) to support a flexikey system with logical attribution and relations among those items. The IDPhysicalType is a side-by-side sort of object. It deals with the physicality of the item, its physicality in terms of the implementation, not it's physical essence in the real world. Another words, it is not a business property, or not to a strong degree.

It is good to separate business information from implementation specifics. Here I want to further differentiate (and complicate) the fact that IDphystyp, though it seems to be purely implementation, it must extend across implementations. I need to be able to say SMALLINT and know that about 2 bytes of binary value is reserved in either memory or persistent storage, and that it will store numbers and not characters, and that it has a negative bit, probably two's complement. If an implementation can't do this, some hack would be in place to manage it. ERwin sucks to some degree in this area. There are some things that are "logical" in that they describe how we want this attribute implemented regardless of which OS or DBMS we choose. ERwin doesn't understand that one of the facets of design that I want it to manage is exactly this difficult quasi-area. I don't want it forcing me to choose between logical and physical layers. These should be ideal separations, and as much as possible is stuffed into the logical area. They physical layer should just show what "is" or things that extend the logical. But even that should be in a dialog exposing the merger of logical and physical portions. How can we understand such integrations if we can only look at one perspective at a time?

This is a vague object in terms of attributes for now. That's fine. It's a place holder. Things like Name and Description are stuffed in the other tables: Values, Names, DescriptiveText. Names are only stuffed in as Locked values. The italics indicates these are somewhat hypothetical/experimental in nature. This should be part of the DBMS as well as ERwin. How many attributes are created endlessly, with no thought given to whether they are useful. We need to separate obviously necessary attributes from ones the designer is considering and wants to see them in action. This is another reason why having a bunch of attributes in a row is somewhat silly. Attributes are all in different levels in their own lifecycles. Each evolves differently, at different speeds, and in different decay rates. But that's hard to see when they're spread out in a grid implying they stand in some sort of solidarity.

The green font is to indicate that these attributes are providing some sort of meaningful information. I probably will separate using coloration the attributes that are around how NL core is stored in the database, vs. attributes that store business information. There are situations where these cross over, FYI. I'm not ignoring that. But we can still (and must) make generalizations. We just have to be able to recover from the misinformed early generalizations. And don't give me crap about designing it all on paper first. That is ridiculous. For a car or a tank this is more true, but prototypes are still built and demolished. Ironically, in manufacturing more time and money is spent on smashing test product than in the programming field, where costs are so much less (no actual raw material used), and yet prototyping is frowned upon. Ridiculous! Or as someone said: Inconceivable!

So attributes: 
Readable: Is this key value human readable? If I looked at it, would it make sense, even if it is a surrogate value? Pretty straight forward. Much work in computers is spent converting non-readable to readable.
Operable: This should probably go away, though Values would have this property, in much more complexity. But IDs are not supposed to be operated on. I suppose it means is it a number in some way or form, and could I add 100 to it to segment off a 100 keys in reserve. (See IDBlock). But for IDBlock, I believe they only have to be sortable. There isn't much that isn't sortable. It doesn't even have to be discrete. IDBlock could segregate a range that includes an infinite number of values. You don't see that in many systems!
Varchar: This ID could be stored as a varchar. It doesn't use any UC2 characters that don't have a varchar representation. Should have a flag for an ISO-.... western character set.
Fixed: Has an exact decimal scale, like 32.20 and 3929.13 both have 2 decimals. If Y, then a field needs to be added for scale, which could include negatives, for 100,200,300, etc, would be -2. Integers would have a zero scale.
FixedLen: Could be stored in a CHAR or NCHAR, or a binary fixed-length, or integer specific size. Some fixed amount of storage. Then ArtificialMaxLen should be set.
ArtificialMaxLen: This has been changed to type DECIMAL(38,4). The scale portion represents the bit levels. This would again be more for values. A value may be 11 bits, for instance. Compacted this could save quite a bit of space, and speed scanning. SQL Server 2012 supports columns stored as streams now, but of course not at the bit level.
MaxValue: There may be cases where we know the key range is 0 to 9999. We should define that limit even if it is stored in 2 bytes and can store more.
Binary: Is it a binary value. Another words, not readable. But convertible to a readable number. a JPEG for example is binary and still not readable. A numeric representation would not make any sense, but would still be a key.

So each Atom must have a unique ID within that physical type. In addition, versions are assigned, so an ID could be duplicated within a physical type, provided it had a unique version. A constraint would be that all versions would start with 1 and unbroken continue upward to some point. A HUGE value is used, (an ERwin metatype) which in SQL Server is a bigint, 9 zillion. Negatives are reserved for archived types. This size is used to avoid having to even worry about exhaustion. Unused and sunset versions are pulled off the backend into archive or the bitbucket, so I suppose the 1-n rule is not true. It's just some positive set of whole numbers that is contiguous.

The use of versioning is important to allow objects to change, while linked objects can specify what exact version they originally linked to, and if they want to "float" upward with the AtmRollingVer, which each most recently created version would have set to 0.

It's a bit tricky, the RI logic. It is not something that can be done with FK constraints builtin to the DBMS. A spun off concretization, shall we say, will have a field like "AtmTypRefVer", some sort of RefVer that refers back to EITHER the real version (AtmRealVer), or the frozen version (AtmRollingVer). Since the value domains do not intersect, two joins must be attempted, and two indexes scanned. Depending on the DMBS's intelligence, if it can detect that the value cannot be in a range, by having hi and lo values, then in reality only one index scan will be necessary, unless you are joining heterogeneous data, which may end up (we'll see) more often than homogeneous.

It may seem like an unnecessary complification, but without it, each Atom cannot evolve safely without  the expectation that many or all of its dependencies will break. Nothing can evolve. Now if just versions are used, no child dependency can knowingly choose to allow evolution. By a child object having to choose a value of zero as its RefVer, its implementor can be assumed (safely) to be aware of the risk it is taking, and will hopefully build in more delicate operators. It will have to assume a series of links is subject to change.

As links stretch across many atoms and their sub-types, the type of refver values will likely vary. Some will link to current, others will link to a specific version. There is still heavy potential for breakage. If A links to B via a specific version, but B links to C by current version, and a chain connects A-B-C, that chain has to be careful not to assume that this chain is fixed just because A-B is linked by fixed version.

Every Atom has one AtomType. This is unfortunately necessary. Without it, there is no way to describe Atoms and crystalize more descriptive essences to its surface. Originally it was hoped that AtomType could exist as a joined atom in the Link table to some other Atom. It may be that we return to this. This would allow the AtomType to evolve more easily. Perhaps an AtomType would be represented by a group of type codes, for cases when first examination finds that an object is a type of X, but then we find that it exhibits properties of both X and Y. Is a Platypus a fish or a duck, or something else? Hybrids are difficult to categorize, and eventually everything becomes not what it was once defined as. Just give it enough time.

So the need for a singular AtomType comes about when we create a LinkChainTypeElement, which wants to state that the elements (links) in a chain are a set of specific AtomTypes, along with random instances of those or other AtomTypes. Another words, the AtomType is just stored as the Atom it is. There is no reason why the original way wouldn't work here, since AtomType is not explicitly joined to the AtomType table, but there is that implication, and the level of complexity with having an Atom's very nature completely loose on the sea might make creating effective Chain rules difficult or impossible. By having the AtomType locked in at Atom creation time (or we may tolerate nulls in some case), we can build rules that apply directly to those atomtypes. This allows the core set of chain rules to seem relatively simple. Rules built on top of those could get pretty hairy, but at least the initial rule set would not be broken by simply changing a link. The versioning would help, though, so I may be being a nervous ninnie. By having the AtomType as it is, I feel much better because I can visualize the relationships. Next iteration/phase can go into the shifting sands of migratory Typing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Hierarchy of Implication

In databases and applications, there must be a hierarchy of implication. There must be what is, and what that implies.  Without these two linked elements, nothing could be done.

In old-fashioned-speak, This is called input and output. Unfortunately, output becomes input to something else, or to itself, or the input that generated the output, yada yada yada.

But for rules, we speak a different language than input/output. We come up with precedence operators. But isn't it also a heirarchy of implication?

"IF Sky Is SUNNY (state), THEN play-outside". Rules trigger processes. But why excessively differentiate?? The state of the sky and sun implies that it would be fun to go outside. But if I am in a wheelchair, I might not be able to easily. So the COMMAND nature of control language like IF-THEN is too harsh and prevents programs from adapting to change.

By using chains of implication, we can act like the brain and merge these chains together, perhaps even using stream processing, which would be a huge performance win.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lessons learned from Slackware 14 Linux Distro

  1. Don't fight the process. Always a good lesson. No distro I tried liked the VESA onboard video controller with more than 2 GB of memory installed. But I need 4 GB! Who lives without 4 gig anymore? That's just not right. After fighting with Ubuntu, Gentoo, Salix, Slackware, and Fedora for the umpteenth time, I put in the NOISY video card. I hate noisy machines, but after that, everything was tolerant of 4 GB, plus the benefit of two video outputs. What is learned? Give up sooner.
  2. Install the stable binary first. After many attempts at raw builds of dependencies for this or that package, I noticed the README mentioned that bootstrapping was hard, and would say "If the package x is not already there, then jump through hoops a, b, and c." Why not just say: "Idiot! Install the binary!"
  3. Never stop thinking for alternatives. The thing you're trying to do may be possible from an easier direction. I finally found an answer (Always Google) to my guile 2.0 compilation problem with its PKG_CHECK_MODLUES(LIBFFI, libffi) by installing pkg-config from binary (source won't compile from bootstrap easily.) 
  4. autoreconf -iv occasionally. I'm not sure this is a great idea, but I do it anyways. A good luck charm.

This is all part of my goal to get gcc 4.9.0 instead of the stable 4.7.2 that comes with Slackware 14. I know that I could get 4.8.2 if I go with Slackware current, BUT I had a lot of problems with the 3.8 linux kernel. It's too smart for its own good. 3.2.29 works great for me. It detects HP Pavillion's RAID weirdness (unused) and goes on, whereas I'm not sure that 3.8 is ok with it. The nmi watchdog on 3.8 linux just goes nuts and there's no way to disable it. I really don't need my computer to be able to reboot itself right now.

Why gcc 4.9? Because I think c++11 and c++17 and C99 are going to blow Java out of the water. Scala is already eating into the VM world, and once you go Scala, you're already tenderized and properly positioned for the C++ jump. Now if you can just let go of your VM safety net.

Friday, January 4, 2013

1,818 American dollars buys you another peek

"Step right up, my man! Take a peek at some lovelies!" That's what I feel like when I go to college now, as an old guy. Some Peeping Tom looking to get his jollies by sifting through history's underwear drawer.

For $1,818.00 I get, among others, the next installment of "Western Civilization. When last we left you, Napoleon had just given Europe a new asshole, and Metternich told y'all how it was gonna be. Conservatism appeared to win the day - but did it? Find out in two weeks when Western Civ 102 starts up." The teacher is supposed to be hard but good, and what could a wayward lad like me want?

Besides that we have Calculus I, part one in a trilogy of the dark arts. It's a shame the Wiccans don't learn about derivatives and the area under a curve. They'd rather mumble spells and worry about warlocks than learn any real magic. Me, I love this stuff. My teacher is, sadly, one of the easier teachers, but I no longer have the time to fart around with self-challenging windmill-charging. I must move through this muck called college, and reach the other side before my head of steam condenses.

25 years ago, whilst attending a similar community college in another sector of the galaxy, I, for reasons lost in the mist, took Introduction to Business. I don't even like business. I mind my own, and wish the government would mind theirs. But I did take it, and then proceeded to regularly inattend. I was an unruly child. For my perspicacity, I was awarded an F, and now that F has migrated to BSU's transcripts. There is naught to do but expunge this. An F is an outlier of ghastly GPA-degrading effect. Right now I have a neatly, ungapped string of pearly-white As, and that F torpedoes the entire convoy down into the 3.75 region. The stain must be removed. The flood break between that foolish boy of the past must once more be shored up. My past lingers on, I suppose everyone's does. It must periodically be beaten back like weeds in a struggling garden. 

The Intro to Bus teacher has good references and has a standing in the business community, which means that even if I hate business, I will at least be getting a proper eyeful. My only interest in the business world is that of an agent behind enemy lines, trying to learn what the fascists have cooked up to screw the workers. I'm not a Marxist-Leninist (that ship's been sunk), but neither do I find Adam Smith's invisible hand to be the best guide for economic profundity.

For comic relief: Survey of Jazz & Pop Music. Seriously, this does meet a requirement for BSU's foundations. I would have preferred to take Art History, but those classes are booked and filled quickly as many students have the same idea. Art history is important to me, unlike these other faux students. Seeing Man's reflection of his mind in paint throughout time explains much about the human condition in a way that all the academic documents cannot. In my search to become an academic, it would be easy to forget the humanities, and the time crunch to become credentials is a horrific pressure, but the epigram "a picture is worth a thousand words" has some thread of truth. With enough background information, a painting or sculpture can reveal a shared humanity that transcends the time barrier. Language changes, but the mind's eye does not so much.

Which leads me to my pride and joy course: Painting I. I tried to avoid it, as it has no credit value for any major I am planning on. Painting has little to do with Computer Science or Engineering. But sometimes I dream of painting. I cannot avoid taking it, lest I suffer regret for another thousand years.

So much sloughs away, much of which I do not speak. "The slow burning away," as the Boss says. What is left is hard ceramic, enduring. It is the ideas of men throughout history, and my accrual and synthesis of those ideas. It is good to have a whetted appetite for my own future, even though it is bitterly too late to be much of a future. I have decided that to try to be in the race, long after the starting gun has been put away, is better than to give up and dine on ashes. Bruegel may have been right: Icarus was but a drop in the ocean, and of no consequence to the medieval world. But for himself, to not have flown so high, what would Icarus have been but an empty shell of a hollow dream? The world gives not one wit either way, so better to burn than to marry, to misquote St. Paul. In my case I do both.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Top 12 takeaways from Phil 101: My suggestions

I tried to find questions that, if I'm at a party and down by three cocktails, and Judge Judy asks me these, I'll be able to answer with great acumen.

1. What are the two opposing pillars of philosophical ideas that started with Plato and Aristotle? (Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Often your professors will classify people by these terms, and it's important to know the history that entails.)
2. Who said of religion that "It is the opium of the people?" (Karl Marx, an over-quoted epigram.)
3. Which philosopher created the metaphor of the Universe as a watch? (Paul Tillich. The idea of the watchmaker is a common metaphor throughout modern debate)
4. Who said, "Everything is water?" (Thales, the father of Western philosophy since he is the first known guy to consider non-theological cosmologies.)
5. What are Plato's Forms? (The perfect real objects which exist outside this plane, of which what we see are imperfect copies. Common reference about the nature of reality: Are things all there is, or is there something they move toward?)
6. For Nietzsche, what is truth? (Truth is error, in that all our claims are false from the start, and so we use things like power to discern which we like.)
7.  What is hermeneutics? (Trying to glean truth from what history shows us, and seeing it in the context of the times of the writer. This was an important 20th century move away from the ungrounded claims of the past.)
8. According to Sartre, where does our self-identity come from? (Our choices. This was a key for me understanding Sartre, and seeing existentialism as a freeing and practical philosophy.)
9. What is the most frequent complaint about dualism? (It is baffling when trying to find how mental events cause physical events. Dualism is still ubiquitous throughout professionals, and it is important to know how to combat it.)
10. T/F: Fatalism means we have no freedom to choose. (False, we can make choices, but the final outcome is unavoidable. People often confuse this with immediate unavoidability.)
11. What does Dewey suggest as being the purpose of morality? (More functional in specific situations, using scientific methods to evaluate what works. This is a great idea, worth remembering.)
12. Who conflated "justice" with "fairness?" (John Rawles,  a key inventor of progressive theories.)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Justice: Team America, Heck Yeah!

The last quiz of the class is on Justice. This topic busted my chops. I realized I haven't done enough thinking about what justice is and how it should be implemented.

Here's the essay question:

Justice can be said to be the balance between what two competing ideas? Which idea do you feel is more important and why? 

Since Man became recognizable as Man (we assume,) there has always been a struggle between the needs or rights of the individual and the needs of the group or society. Groups have a certain 'economy of scale' and so are required to defend against threats, organize large systems of agriculture (i.e., Sumeria,) as well as maintain a safe environment for all its members.

Which ideas is more important? The needs of the group outweigh the needs of the one, unfortunately. It is true that there would be no society without individuals, but neither would there be buildings with brick. The individual is the building block of the group. Without the group, and definitely without a strong and well-functioning group, the individual would be at the mercy of his neighbors as well subject to the whims of Nature.

It all depends on what we define as the highest good. If it is the freedom of the individual, or as Sen would say, the negative freedom, i.e., the lack of restrictions on movement, then anarchy is the best way to achieve it. Some tribal or mob structure would form, though. Locke and Aristotle are right when they say Man has always been politically motivated. Since grouping is unavoidable, it is best to assert some control over its formation.

Even if we could all live in agape love with each other, would we still be achieving the highest good? I include the marvels of Man in my definition of highest good, including the pyramids and going to the Moon. These things could not be done by individuals acting alone. They required large bureaucracies. The research to cure cancer and AIDS, for instance, and infant death - all these things require advanced levels of organization. 

The question of whether individuals can be happy within the mass structure of society is critical. I am not sure that a society can be said to be functioning well if the majority of its individuals are suffering. Here I lean towards the Utilitarian view. I do not think Rawls' idea of the lowest common denominator (the man with the least freedoms, liberties, etc.) is what we must focus our efforts on. Do we stop everything because we lose an eyelash, or if we get a bruise? If we are more than the sum of our parts, and society is more than the sum of its parts, then, even taken mathematically, the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts and is therefore due more, if we think in Aristotle's terms of more being due to those worthy of merit.

If society were to focus on reducing the suffering of the least among us, I am sure we would feel less guilty for a while, but to what ultimate gain? A society of the weak and disabled? Such a society would not long last.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Bitter last Post for Philosophy 101: Justice, Pah!

And so I leave the FB world, finally. If I cannot be my self, I'd rather not be [there].

On Justice, our teacher asks us to espew.

By now, we've all learned each other's core principles, those rock-solid unshakable beliefs that no philosopher can disturb. I didn't really change mine, but I did resolve and identify them in relation to what great men have thought over the second epoch of Man (the first I would call the Paleolithic.) Justice is no different. It is aptly dealt with last as it hinges on all the others. If I do not believe in God, whence issues divine justice? Without a self, what are individual rights? Without evil, do we need quite so many laws?
It has been interesting to watch as we all respond to each topic along predictable lines. I am no exception. There is no Justice but what we make (or Fate, for that matter.) Social contract? I don't remember signing any contract. Socrates, drink your hemlock and be quiet. Enough meddling. Some day men will say querously, "Socrates?" A truly great day that will be. In my admittedly absurd definition of a contract, there are two parties who consciously agree to a set of terms. Minors are not permitted to enter into contracts. Should we do away with this restriction? Should I walk into a nursery and sign every infant up for a lifetime subscription to Newsweek? There is no court that would honor such a contract. And yet, in the womb, somehow (perhaps divinely!) I entered into a contract with the State. Utter nonsense.

I am born into a system, a complex, intricate system that evolves somewhat out of individual men's desires, but mostly out of unconscious forces. Economic, geography, geological - so many come to play that the whims of Constitutionalists barely make the list. We lean on this script as if it were scripture, handed down from God. But life changes, and interpretations make a mockery of any Founding Fathers' ideals. The resulting spagetti of a structure that is real government is unwritten and unwritable. I obey it because it is there, and it is bigger than me. What other reasons are there? Because it is just?

Individuals interact in tribes, tribes construct communities, communities wrangle out agreements with other communities, political bodies form alliances, and soon we have the State. It is an unavoidable flowering from the bed filled with social minds. We try to control it, but it rather controls us. Chapter 8 is filled with delusions of control, some of which were made manifest.

Rousseau thought people were naturally good. He is, of course, quite wrong. There is no other way to put the matter. To look at the world and think otherwise is foolish. He wrote of the general will of the sovereign. Rousseau's dalliances were implemented beautifully by the French in 1792. "The Committee on Public Safety" was the perfect name, and we continue such doublethink today and forever.
Mill speaks of rights, and so it began; the mad rush of the unwashed to their God-given inalienable rights. Soon these became entitlements, and they continue. If the Declaration of Independence were written today, it would read "Life, Liberty, Motherhood, Freedom from Motherhood, Abortion, Affordable Health Care, Long Life, Disability, Bankruptcy, Low Mortgage Rates, Access to 24-hour Shopping, 3 Meals a day (including energy drinks), and Cable TV. And a Car and a Mobile Phone." We hold these truths to be SELF EVIDENT. Indeed. I probably missed a few.

There is no way for a man to treat his fellow man justly. We are not just. We have needs, wants, desires, fears. These are all that are real. All else is Man's fabrication in an attempt to gain power over his fellows. Each of these philosophers gained some measure of personal power from the level of adoption of their pet theory. No other purpose exists. We agree not to kill because there are more of them than of us, and because we are so conditioned. Our parents condition us because good children give them power, or they simply desire children, or it's become an unfortunate consequence of other actions.

We can devise structures, but my observations tell me that regardless of the stated principles, individuals adapt and form substrata that works around the defined "way things ought to be."

China is a Republic.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Teacher Asks: Are there any universal moral laws?

Finally! A juicy discussion with my teacher.

Jeff, The criticism you make of Kant's simplification of a system of ethics is also why it is so appealing to many. He gives an absolute rule to the messy situation of life, without using God to do so.  But, as you point out, instead of 'because God says' it becomes 'because I (the philosopher) said so.' We should think about Kant's categories and see if they might not be universal in spite of him claiming them as a limited person to be so, but as you point out, we can't really prove the universal nature of Kant's claims. Although now with new technology and communication, it would be an interesting world-wide survey to take...and find out if there are any universal moral laws for humans or not.

Greg, I suppose absolutes can make life easier, at least at first. I seriously see the flaw in absolutes and ideals from personal experience with their failure to solve major problems, like: Am I a bad person because I've done bad things? Can I strive and overcome adversity while viewing myself as a craven being? What is the negative effect on me if I do a bad thing and get away with it? Should I allow my parents, my government, or my church dictate what my duty is? Am I a coward because of one cowardly act, even though I've done brave things?

All these questions have come up early in my life, and I've had to come up with practical answers in order to be more than the disaster I was headed for. Very few of my answers are absolute, and even the absolutes may crumble under enough pressure. The cost of violating one's own moral rules is a level of shame and uncertainty, but these are, I believe, chemical reactions due to the way our brain works. We can overcome chemical stressors; we do not have to suppress them guiltily. 

Take a minor example, to avoid excessive embarrassment  I go to the store, the clerk gives me too much change, I'm in a hurry so I don't stop to think about it and keep the excess change. I'm late for work so I don't return the money. I moralize to myself that, if they're a bad clerk, then there are unemployed clerks with better skills who deserve that job, anyway, so it is good that their drawer will be short, and they'll get a reprimand. Besides, I have a little extra money, and that's never bad.

What are the consequences of my action? If I allow the delusion of moralizing to take root, there is the risk that my mind will begin to look for opportunities to engage in petty theft. Not return a loaned book purposely, make a false insurance claim. I risk a character-collapse in a way, but more due to the mental machinations than the actual act. If I accept that what I did was incorrect for me according to my contrived moral standards, then I can accept that it was an accident and move on. 

That is what I think the real problem of morality is. Not identifying the universal moral, but rather learning to deal with the inevitable collapse of any standard to deal with real life. Some deal with the problem by never bending their rules for any situation, and I think these people become incredibly hard and closed, as well as creating silos of locked-off guilt and doubt, simply because the mind is never of one mind about any circumstance. The mind is beautifully flexible and adaptable, and so rejects rigidity in the face of conflicting evidence.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Creed asks: What of Hitler?

The question of Hitler always comes up in ethical discussions. What if Hitler was right? It is a question that I've never seen satisfactorily answered.

Here is Creed's question:

Thank you Jeff, for explaining that so thoroughly for me. I now can completely see where you are coming from, and I completely agree. Morality I also believe does not exist people are not good or bad according to their actions, motives, or consequences. That kind of thing is a human perception much like that of the evil vs good dilemma. However that being said society has implications placed for these ideals. We are intolerate of people who do immoral and "bad" things. Even though in the end morality is not there we use it as a dictating law, a decisive judgement, a separator of mankind. So in a sense we can judge ourselves on the morality scale we have been taught even though that will matter naught but for our self esteem, or we will be judged by the people above us. Whose standards do we really go by? Why the government of course. It is like holding an invisible gun. Even though the gun is not there, it is pointed at you. 

 You said you can call yourself good or bad according to the things you have done. Well somehow Jeff I find that hard to believe. I do not know you, but you seem to have good manners, and are very literate and kind over cyber space. If we are good or bad according to the things we have done then that is also relative. If you are bad for stealing, what of the destitute, starving, or great need that made you steal? Is it only what we do or who we are that makes us good or bad? What if Hitler really did believe without a shadow of a doubt that ridding the world of Jewish, black, brown haired, big nosed, etc people would bring the world peace? What if Hitler was raised or found out that these people were in fact evil in the core and inhuman? Wouldn't he be a hero for ridding the world of excrement? I am not endorsing Hitler at all, he is just commonly seen as immoral and evil, and according to us, if there is no morality then there is argument for Hitler being not evil and not immoral only a choice maker. My point though slightly drifting is that Hitler's actions alter our perception so that we see him evil and immoral, but what if he thought he was saving us? What if he was doing it for the safety of the planet? Is there anything to be said from what is inside of you?  

My acerbic answer:

I see two questions in your response. One is, if there is no universal morality, what is the standard? You suggest that the government sets the standard, and that is true. We may not like our government, but history shows that society with weak government does not go well, especially in large populations. Like Hobbes says, government is a social contract that people make. You and I, in a sense, subject ourselves to the laws of this government by continuing to live in its scope. Granted, leaving is not practical, so it gets more complicated the more generations downstream from the original contract makers. Our founding fathers probably felt very close to the process, and what was "right" and "wrong" for the government to do was really obvious to them. 

But we who are born now, 200 years later, are in our own pickle. Socrates has a great final speech where he talks of his submission to government, and therefore his submission to its condemnation to death. This is a good thing to read for the Libertarian in us, just to give us a grounding, a starting place. I don't agree with Socrates' fatalistic attitude. I would have run away and live as a coward. Death is no great honor. 

But I still accept that government must be the provider "of last resort" for morality. The illegality of stealing and murder are supported at the government level, regardless what our teachers or parents say. These seem very practical, for a society that allows random murder and theft would be chaos. But it really stems first from morality. "Thou shalt not kill." This is in our hearts before we even wrote the law. How'd it get there? I believe that the community has evolved this by reiterating all scenarios. Some African tribes had ritualized murder. In Africa we find all sorts of social experiments, and they seem to have been stable before European civilization interfered. That social evolution did not result in the same outcomes in Africa or South America leads me to believe that this process of emerging social morality is very dependent on a myriad of factors. The isolation of villages and non-agrarian food basis may have led to wilder extremes. In the Fertile Crescent, we see larger city-states form, and more formal moral codes develop. Did the newness of the New World in combination with steel, industry, investment, Protestantism, and massive resource availability, did all this form a crucible for a new Republic? Europeans and Greeks had contemplated proper Republics for a long time, but there was never the space to fully test it. Note Machiavelli's letter to Francesco Vettori in 1513 as an early description of America's government. 

I like to think that society is constantly improving its moral framework. I believe that government, educators, and parents must construct this moral framework from whole cloth, i.e., make it up as they go along. Bag the Bible. It's ancient! Morality must evolve to meet the social needs.

Take abortion for a hot-topic. Is it morally right or wrong? Good or evil? It is neither, accept in terms of its affect on society. Sparta engaged in regular infanticide of female infants, resulting eventually in population decline to the point where their powerful war engine collapsed. Infanticide also creates a brusqueness of character, it desensitizes people to the valuation of life, and makes arbitrary decisions to destroy life too easy.

Does that mean I believe there is an inherent value to life? No, not inherent. There is only what we arbitrarily assign. In the end, we must start from some a priori belief.

So, what to start with: Life is a good thing. This is a raw assertion. People believe this, but they rarely examine its complete lack of any foundation. Human life is the best kind of life. Nowadays people, typically San Franciscan, deny this. Buddhist's deny this. 

But, if we except that human life has value, then we can continue. Does all human life have equal value? No. Hitler, for example, decided that a mass group of humans were bad for humanity. I suspect if he'd won out, more groups of people would have met the criteria for undesirables, including Americans and English. All of China and Japan would have to go, as well as any Slavic people. He would have then started in on Germans. Half-Germans would go, then Quarter-German, and so on. Then by height, weight, size of ear, any deformity. The world would have deteriorated to one tiny subset vs. the entire rest of the world. 

So, one possible way to judge Hitler's actions would  be to look at it scientifically. Was there any basis for it? If anything, Jews are better adaptations than Germans. His criteria made no sense. Destroying functioning, contributing adults for no reason destroys social fabric. The sheer size of his attempt at social correction deformed the German psyche in reaction to this outrage. I don't know if I can make the difference clear. Hitler wasn't wrong for any simple good/bad reason. It was a confluence of factors. 

1. Poverty-stricken Germans were eager to blame the Jews. We face a similar situation in America where the poor are eager to blame the rich. Many blame Israel, interestingly.
2. Hitler used moralizing and emotional arguments, the very morality people defend as necessary. It was his take on morality that we disapprove, but not the idea of morality.
3. Hitler was a ball of psychosis, much as Stalin was. No great decisions turn out well at the hands of psychotic people. If he had said everyone should worship flowers, it would have been equally nonsense. So far, the best social constructs come from rational people, and often from a body of rational people, though monarchs have instituted some of the greatest good.
4. No science was behind it.
5. The actions taken struck at the emotional foundation of what we personally value. Personally we all cherish our own life. This is not morality, this is just a hard-coded function of our core. The termination of another life, puts us in mind of our own fears of losing life. Everybody gets more fearful, and more susceptible to mob behavior.
6. Mass action. If Hitler had killed a hundred Jews, we probably wouldn't be talking about it. The massivity created massive scarring. If you have a small bruise on your skin, you hardly notice it. It's an abberation and the body's healing system can correct for it. But if you experience 3rd degree burns over 1/5 of your skin, you probably will die. The experience is systemic, there is something wrong at the highest level. The grossness of so many being killed makes us wonder if there is something wrong with the human. We begin to wonder if there is no moral fiber in all of us.

The chief issue of wrongness or rightness is whether they are socially tolerable. Racism always tends to grow towards the ultimate solution. We fool ourselves when we name it a solution, because it cannot terminate there. If every racist got their wish, they would only be more rabid. This is the myth of appeasement. Concessions lead only to more demands.

Take "love one another." Loving one another tends to stabilize society, but not always. Sometimes love is blindingly ignorant of wrongs, and tends to whitewash problems needing correction. But in general it has no long-term evolution. We never see in history where mass love becomes infectious and an entire society stops working and goes into a love-in. The 60s may be a near example, and there were consequences. But in general, kindness solves so many problems in capitalism that laws cannot solve.

Society must construct rules that are simply empirically based on best outcomes, with simple axioms. You should check out the movie 'Freakonomics.' It has an excellent story on how Rowe vs. Wade resulted in the massive reduction of crime rates in inner cities in the 80s.

We simply educate - manipulate - our children to meet these fabricated laws of behavior. We embed the conscience. It is not innate. There is no need for it to be self-consistent. Consistency is the hobgoblin. "This is right, this is wrong." If someone comes up with another eugenic solution, only the pre-programming by parents and teachers and classmates will defend against those rising emotions. Even clergy have a role in the programming of a pragmatic morality. If only they weren't so religious about it.

"What if [Hitler] was doing it for the safety of the planet?" Is that too hypothetical? If in fact the planet could only be saved by exterminating the Jews, then perhaps the planet is doomed. One side-affect of programming ourselves with a pragmatic morality would be that it becomes indiscardable. We're stuck with it. That's the good and bad of social programming. But who among us would not see the sacrifice of the world as the noble thing to do, rather than committing atrocity? Via programming, we are able to simulate things like noble and virtuous. That is why Socrates' actions were virtuous, because they obeyed his moral program, and that programming was socially self-sustaining.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mocking the Liberal Agenduh

I have too much fun in my Philosophy class. Jim, a fellow student, is looking at Mill's philosophy.

The philosophers that I have a hard time agreeing with on their view of morality are the Utilitarians.Their motto is the "greatest good for the greatest number", which sounds like a noble concept but in reality could turn out quite different. For instance, if you were not included on the side of the "greatest number" you may feel that those who are, do not exactly have the greatest morals. I think of slave labor or wars and then using this concept to rationalize it. With this concept it seems that someone will always get the short end of the stick all for the good of the majority. Which will inevitably always leave someone in the minority. It is impossible for everyone to live the "good life", so what you do to create pleasure and not pain may come at someone else's expense, be it intentional or unintentional.

My snarky response (I'm bad!):

I agree. A better system would be "the greatest good for everyone." I'm surprised our book didn't mention Liberalism and Progressivism as important philosophies.

One problem with Utilitarianism is it allows for top-heaviness of "good." The greatest good turns out to be too much good for the top 1%, while everyone below them gets a little good, and the bottom 50% gets a lot of bad. Socialism should be looked at as an ethical system, where we take all that excess good from the top and spread it around. In this way the entirety of society gets a decent amount of good, and only the top few are a little miffed by giving up some of their good. In fact, if we look at it historically, and consider that the top has had its excessive good for far longer, upwards to 8,000 years, not counting prehistory. 

Considering the plight of the helots, reparations should be built in to any corrective ethical system, so that those receiving any good on the backs of the not-getting-goods should, in all fairness, receive an equivalent amount of bad, or a negative offsetting good to pay towards the due reparations. The debt, considering that no payment has been made over time, must be inestimably egregious, so an installment plan could be made, whereby the top 1% pay 110% of earnings (capital gains included) toward the restitution of equity to the remaining 99% for an equivalent number of generations that they defunded, with the payout being progressively and preferably geometric as it approaches those whose bad intake has been at intolerable levels for millennia.
Now is the time when we can finally achieve equity for all - why do we hesitate? I would think that the top 1% would have had enough of the guilt-burden, and joyfully partake of the goodness redistricting. I await my check.


My favorite line is, "Consider the plight of the helots." What Libtard wouldn't love that? Oh, the woe of the helot! We must make amends. Fortunately, Libs don't get the joke. I guess there isn't really a joke. Suffering sucks. It cries out to the weak-minded: Fix me! Proper analysis reveals it to be an unavoidable condition of humanity, but who has time to do proper analysis? Amazingly, throwing money at the problem creates more misery, but the results are always in the following generations. The immediate results of charity are some level of thankfulness. That goes away more and more as charity becomes simply what is due them, and we the givers adapt, accepting that there is no comfort for the wicked, even when we acquiesce to any demand. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Undue Simplicity of Categorical Imperatives

First, I suggest that Kant is, as usual, working backwards from his a priori belief in the ideal of our innate moral nature to fabricate the logic necessary to support that belief. This is yet another example demonstrating the non-trustworthiness of logic. Kant, being a religious fellow, is certain that moral behavior is important and necessary, and so he builds the logic dictated by the necessity of that belief. Of his own belief he never has doubts of its veracity.

Kant’s First Formulation states that we have "a perfect duty not to act by maxims that result in logical contradictions when we attempt to universalize them." I ignore the simple profundity of "perfect duty." However, I cannot ignore his over-simplification of the relationship between maxims for daily living and their universality. Ideas and concepts, when examined in different contexts and on different stages, will by necessity result in differing valuations. This is easily shown by one of Kant’s examples. He states that the moral proposition, "It's ok to steal," depends on the precept of property, and when we treat the said proposition as being true universally in all situations and times, property vanishes and makes the proposition self-contradictory. This has an intuitive appeal, undoubtedly. But we could make many propositions into monstrosities by converting them into universals. “It’s good to have babies” seems reasonable, or “Be fruitful and multiply” to use the more colloquial form. But if everyone (universally) has babies, the result would be catastrophic in one generation. Or the idea, “It’s ok not to have children.” The pending emptiness of the planet (if taken at a universal level) would be considered by most to be a diminishment.

Common sense, as dangerous as it is, does occasionally come in handy. The universality of a proposition has no bearing on the value of a proposition in some local scope. I’ve never understood why so many philosophers insist on the infinite scale. For one thing, it’s untestable. For another, it’s irrelevant to our personal experience. Should I steal bread if I’m destitute on the streets of Calcutta?

Kant consistently argues points using language that makes it seem that his arguments are more valuable simply because they are so artful. But I am not awestruck. I extract from the clutter the kernel of an idea he is expressing, and weigh it against my own understanding. It is purely on its naked value that I accept or discard it.

Kant attributes a moral worth to that which we do without any “regards to the ends.” This is horrific and inhuman. So much of human misery and suffering has been at the hands of duteous men. To act according to maxims rather than circumstances is to act in discordance with every situation to some degree, for no maxim (written in the past) can recognize the complexities of today. It is difficult and tiring both to the mind and body, most certainly, and that is why we shirk from analyzing every situation uniquely. We would rather have simple maxims for what perplexes us. Israel and the Middle East? “God will solve it,” “Allah is above all,” “ Good will win out,” “Might makes right,” or “Can’t we all just get along?”

Kant works so hard to come up with terms for ideas that a kindergartener  understands. “Categorical imperative” is just the dandification of “Because I said so!”

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My answer on the Philosophy Ch. 7 quiz

Was Glaucon right in his assessment of humanity?

It seems to be a more difficult question than that. Man displays a considerable range of actions in different environments. A man who has long been away from civilization, or who was raised in an uncivilized family, may well take from others if he could get away with it. To define some "natural" state as Rousseau does is to take a stand that our status in the Paleolithic period was more natural than it is in the modern age. But I cannot see any evidence for that. Humans have been in both states. They moved from the earlier to the current state over time. Did we deviate from or approach the Golden Mean? An answer may end up being completely arbitrary. A Utilitarian may try to measure happiness across the entire population, but what if the happiness (per capita) for those initial men would have been more consistent over the same amount of history? This may be unknowable. Some midpoint of civilization could be posited as being the most happy. We may not have reached it. To assume that this is the apex of human happiness would deny any reason for striving to change things.

Within a society in any period, whether tribal or urban, we see that people have to make some rules on their behavior in order to fit in. Lately, due to youtube, we see thinks like flash mobs where Glaucon is right about human behavior, but society as a whole condemns that action as a violation of some human norm. So even if some behave that way, or even if 52% majority of Americans behave in such a way, it does not change the requirement for a society, if it wishes to last, to maintain a balance of virtues toward each other. When we take on virtue, as taught by society and our parents, we become accustomed to it, and we don't easily throw it off. If I see a wallet on the ground, do I pick it up and take out the money? Perhaps I would, but I don't claim to be the most moral man on earth. Would I cheat on a test if I could get away with it? No. In fact, that capability exists in my History class'es BlackBoard, and some students do avail themselves to the loophole, but I choose not to. There are so many reasons, and some are not altruistic. One, I define myself by not doing things that I could get away with, simply because I could get away with them. My wife would tell you that I am overly concerned with returning shopping carts, because I see people who consider themselves moral simply leaving them in the parking lot and driving off. That is the evidence of immorality. Not what you do when your sorely tempted, but what you do when you think it doesn't matter.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ethics: Whence come they?

My answer to my Philosophy 101 teacher's challenge:
We have had several big philosophical battles over the semester, including Plato versus Aristotle, and Descartes versus Locke.  This week we want to compare the ideas of two followers of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi.  Mencius believed that people are at heart basically good, whereas Xunzi felt that people at heart are basically evil.  Of course, both might agree that humans are a mixture of the two, but they would give precedence of one motive over the other.  Using some of the arguments from the philosophers this week, which Confucian thinker would you side with, Mencius or Xunzi? Are people basically good or basically evil?  Support your answer with arguments from the textbook and some of your own observations of human nature as well.  And, remember to be fair and respectful of each other's ideas on this controversial subject.

Irascible as always: Mencius was a wise man (or a collective identity.) He had a habit of expressing common sense in clever ways. But common sense is such a misleading tool. So many Americans lean so heavily on it, and lose their way when ideas surpass their capabilities. "No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others." I accept this premise as true. But perception is subjective. It is heavily influenced by a person's beliefs and experiences and their own interests. It is also at the mercy of an emotional cortex that responds spasticly to inputs in ways that reason would deny. His example of the child about to fall into the well is a straight-forward one, and arguments from example for common sense are always able to be found. I can't think of a case where a reasonable-appearing example can't be brought up.

Take the following argument:
"It is good to make guns. Consider the man whose home is surrounded by unknown armed forces and his family is in danger. Should he not be able to protect himself?"

Then take a similar argument:
"It is bad to make guns. Consider the ATF having surrounded the home of a suspect known to be violent and in possession of an unknown number of weapons. Should they have to be put in such an state of anxiety due to suspects owning guns? Doesn't this make it more dangerous for everyone?"

I know that perfectly rational people can believe one or the other with no doubt of their belief's veracity. How can this be? The answer is that common sense is not an effective methodology for arriving at truth. It's very commonness may betray its primary issue.

Of course we don't want the child to fall in the well. But that does not mean that goodness and compassion is an accurate truth detector. I think it is good for all students to get a free and complete education to any attainment level they desire. I think it is good for people to own businesses and get compensation for their effort and risk. I think it is good that people should be able to set whatever price they wish on that which they have made or own. I think that it is bad to steal. I think it is bad to horde and keep essential goods from people in need. I think it is good that people get everything they need and want, even if they can't afford it. I think it is good for the government to pay. I think it is good for the rich to pay. I think it is good for people to be responsible for themselves and that they will take pride in achieving something for themselves.

I can easily think something is good or bad by imagining a scenario where that is true. This teaches me that my ability to convince myself of the reasonability of anything is not a reasoning process that is examining facts logically and weighing them against some strict standard.

This means that all Mencius's arguments are barely more than wind. Confucius said, "The best neighborhood is where benevolence is to be found." But perhaps the best neighborhood might be the one with the nicest weather, the best property values, the nearest to your work and school, the best utilities, the best-quality homes, the biggest yards. And how much benevolence do we need to find? I personally like my neighbors to stay out of my business. Is benevolence steel bands playing welcoming music all night? All these aphorisms fall short of meaning anything, which is why they are so quickly understood and accepted as the highest truth.

Xunzi seems just foolhardy. "The nature of man is evil; his goodness is acquired." This certainly agrees with Locke's theory of knowledge acquisition regarding goodness, and makes goodness a substance or quality that is acquirable. It cannot be a primary quality, though, as it is not an essential property (otherwise we would be born with it.) We must assume and induce from the second statement some degree of interpretation about the first statement, that the nature of man is evil. Since in the latter Xunzi is talking about the acquisition of a property, he must be referring to all that takes place after we are born, and since goodness is considered the opposite of evil, or badness, then we can assume that "the nature of man" is not gained through experience, but rather innate. As an opposite, it would make more common sense that evil was of the same form as good, another words, in the same way that black and white can be treated as qualities of pigment. In a possibly more real sense (or merely different) black is the absence of corpuscles, much as the way Augustine saw evil as the absence of good and therefore not of the Creator. However, if we accept tentatively that this is what Xunzi means, that "The nature of man is evil" means that we are born without good, then it would make more sense to simply say the second: "his goodness is acquired." By saying that "the nature of man is evil," it makes more sense to think that Xunzi meant that evil is a substance or quality our our nature, and is existent. I find his treatment of evil as an innate quality and goodness as an acquired quality to be inherently confusing, and therefore discardable.

This nature, Xunzi goes on to say, proginates a desire for gain, which eventually leads to barbarism. Xunzi seems to be declaring the soul of man to be guilt of being evil based on its final unfolding into a state of incivility, which we all know is evil. We are innately evil, then, due to what we will do eventually if nothing is done first to prevent that. In any good teleology, we can easily link future evil to past intent, and so we are satisfied that our harsh instruction is necessary.

So much can be fixed if we just look at its ending. If we could look at the ending of the book we are writing, and see how bad it was, then we could simply not begin such endeavor and in so doing avoid years of wasted effort. By knowing that I will do evil things in the future, I am more willing to subject myself to shame, religious instruction, all variety of suffering. By misapprehending our destiny, as if we could ever know such a thing, we are able to justify the greatest evils in correction.

This method of justifying a minor evil now to prevent a great evil later is a common implement of hazy religious leaders. If we recognize that, if we wanted to justify some specific action that the community would see as egregious, it would be good to think of a future and worse perfidy that is assured to come about if our corrective adjustment is not made. We must burn a witch, otherwise she will deceive all our children and take them to Hell.

All such arguments must be examined closely for plausibility. Is it plausible there is a substance within us called evil, that upon our birth itself gives birth to our desire for things, and that the pursuit of these desires leads us to barbarous and savage acts? Are we not catastrophizing? This could be seen as the fallacious argument of the slippery slope, but Xunzi is not so concerned with the beginnings of this ill desire. He mentions it in passing, where we in the West must examine with great gusto the nature of this evil. For Xunzi it is enough that it is there as the effective cause.

But we know now that desire is a necessary function of being human. If we do not follow our desires, we will not strife, that much is true, nor will we strive, and in which case nor will we achieve. Would Occam point out that it would be easier to see desire as a natural evolutionary product within all living things, else they would naught reproduce? How does Xunzi suggest that we attain anything at all if we do not desire it? Is it to be given to us, our elders always knowing what is best? Whence then did they derive this wisdom? Their elders? Did the knowledge of good evolve over time? But then it would be in the offspring and not the progenitors that the new traits would first show. And Xunzi clearly states that goodness is acquired. We now need a first cause of goodness. Perhaps he is who implanted the innate evil. He gave us evil at birth, and he gave our parents good so that they could instruct us. Perhaps the parent acquires this goodness over time through experience, but then we are back to how he was prevented from his evil desires. They must have been restrained by in turn the previous set of parents.

Here's another possibility: We evolved over time to innately have desires and the ability to judge and evaluation the limits of our environment. Our desire is a good and perfect thing. It is experience and parenting that mold us into proper exercising of our desires within the framework of a governing community. The nature of community has evolved from zero to what it is now. So has parenting. It is social and physical evolution that defines us. We are born with only desire and are in a state of pure good, if good is the execution of individual desire within the range of contextual societal norms. If a baby throws up on us, it is bad in one sense, but it is natural and good for it is expected and necessary for the child to survive and keep breathing, in order that someday it may contribute to society. That is why it is cute. Not because we like vomit.

Isn't this easier than the shame game, devising new torments for ourselves, looking for some way to be guilty for original sin, to be evil humans in need of divine bailout?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A question of ethics

A student:
The question is whether I think people are basically good or evil, whether I side with Mencius or Xunzi. I can see both sides of the argument here but I am going with Xunzi on this one. Although I would like to think that we are mostly all good it is obvious that humans have been the most evil creatures on Earth (I am trying to think of another species that uses it brainpower to develop weapons to use on each other.) For me it is hard not to look at all the horrible things that man has done to one another throughout history and if these things happened with a set of guidelines on how to treat each other, it makes me wonder what we would be like without them. The quote from Xunzi states that "All rules of decorum and righteousness are the products of the acquired virtue of the sage and not the products of the nature of man." Which brings up two good points: If man were naturally good why do we have a set of rules or commandments to live by in the first place that we have to live "up" to? Are we born on the bottom and have to live "up" and second, why would we have to be told and taught not to kill, steal, lie or covet? I am not saying all humans are evil, just seems that being good takes more work and education. To me this makes Xunzi harder to refute than Mencius.

My answer:

That's a great point, Jim. I never thought of it that way. "If man were naturally good why do we have a set of rules or commandments..." At most we would need training to recognize evil in case evil aliens invaded us. We would not understand their behavior at all.

Still, the ten commandments are easily refuted. Without the ability to kill, how would we defend ourselves from evil in others? Is it evil to defend oneself? The "love one another" gets bandied about due to its supposed irrefutability, but there are people I do not love. Am I evil? I would say I have no love for the vast majority of earthlings, outside of those few I am related to or interact with. Think of the two candidates in the recent election. Did anyone not hate one of them?

I find people who say they love everyone to be rather bland and colorless. If we love indiscriminately, then there is no specialness to being the recipient of their love. They would equally love the bum on the street. We become all equal to the lowest denominator.

And coveting? If we did not covet, what would we strive for? If men did not lie, there would be no mating. Stealing? I cannot name one American who feels guilty enough about living on stolen land to actually leave. So that would be at least 500 million thieves historically that feel pretty good about themselves. Who truly honors their mother and father? Americans no longer take their parents in when they are aged as they did in the past. Are we all evil, or just more in favor of our own comfort than theirs? Are the children of salmon evil because their birth leads to the death of their parents?

Some people think that homosexuals are evil. Or Democrats. Or Conservatives. Or Russians. Some people feel entire races are evil. Blacks think Whites are evil. They point to their own history. Whites think Blacks are evil. They point to crime statistics and poverty statistics and abuse statistics.

Evil is such a convenient way of labeling what we find distasteful. It seems to justify many violent responses. And yet we've never gotten it in a test tube. There are some ghastly actions we can describe as undeniably evil due to the suffering they incur on unwilling innocents. Is work evil? If work is painful, but makes us better and keeps us from sloth, then we say work is the greatest good! And yet it incurs so much suffering! Is pleasure good or ill? That's a hard one. Usually, if you enjoy something too much then it's evil. "Too much" is usually defined as anything beyond what we would personally require to be content. "Settle down," we'll tell people when their having more fun than we are. Are we evil to suppress their fun? Somehow "joy" gets a good rap over "fun," but only religious people can seem to discern the difference. Joy is deeper, they say, which makes no sense to me. Is it just pleasure that lasts longer and that you don't get in trouble for? I think it means "pleasure you're not supposed to feel guilty for."

(there was a ton more, but the crap computer at school deleted it, and all I had in the cut/paste buffer was this. I can guess at the rest.)

Augustine's definition of evil as the absence of God, and so not substance. So the rape gangs of Bosnia were just God being out of town. They didn't even exist, since they were not substantive. Get it? Such a genius this Augustine.

The example of Rome's Fall, growth of Europe, Black Death, gene against HIV. The vaccination against polio in Africa: Good or evil?

Good and evil are tiresome ideas that only people who can't think bother to believe in. We long to be comforted to think that evil is something that only happens due to evil people, but we can't say how they became evil, except that their parents must have been evil, which resolves the problem. Original sin is great.

The Hebrews clearly identify moral behavior in the ten commandments, including child sacrifice and sex with slaves - don't forget the massacre of men, women, children, infants, and goats being a delight to the eyes of God. Different times, I guess. Except morality is universal, right? So when it's ok for holy war, wake me up.