Category Archives: Philosophy

A Rich Ecosystem of Virtues

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s phrase, “a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived,” which I mentioned two posts ago, has been in my head lately and I’d like to share more of what he had to say on the subject.

He starts with the maxim from Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other. That’s one kind of virtue–how we treat each other. As Carroll says, you could do worse as a starting point for moral philosophy.

But the similar-sounding maxim, Make the world a more excellent place, also sounds good.

What’s the difference? Making the world more excellent is more of a big-picture view, less focused on individual relationships. You may have to be less than excellent to a few people along the way to creating a better world. For example, conservatives take this view when they say that in order to encourage individual responsibility (surely something we want in the world), the government may have to stop providing free health insurance. Liberals emphasize being excellent to each other by providing the insurance.

A third take is in the maxim, Be excellent. This is more about your motives: did you act “on the basis of virtues such as courage, responsibility, and wisdom”? Most of us believe that good intentions are not enough, but we also admire people who show great courage, even if it is in the service of the wrong cause.

Each maxim sounds good, but they can lead in very different directions. Sean Carroll says that we need people who emphasize all three types of excellence, and probably other types, too. When they are in conflict, the tug-and-pull of debate makes us stronger and better.

Just as a biological ecosystem is healthy when diverse species inhabit it and will die out if reduced to just one species, our ecosystem of virtues is healthiest when we have people who advocate a variety of perspectives.

Not Ready for Ten Commandments? How About Ten Considerations?

Perhaps God engraved the Ten Commandments with his finger on stone tablets because he knew they would become the touchstone of morality in the western world. (Come to think of it, is that where the word touchstone comes from?) Even Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the biblical ten, connected to them when he produced his own ten.

The Big PictureSean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, is an exposition of what he calls poetic naturalism. He has this to say about the Ten Commandments (page 420).

A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them fish for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something that we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve cauth them.

It makes sense, then, to put aside the concept of “commandments” and instead propose Ten Considerations

Here are his Ten Considerations with excerpts from his few paragraphs about each.

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How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 4

The Internet can leave the truth-seeker feeling pretty hopeless. For every website that says one thing, you can find another that says the opposite. How can you find the truth in over a billion websites of he-said/she-said?

The last three posts in this series suggested some ideas, but now I offer what I believe is the most important and reliable test:

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How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 3

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip across the country. Back then, I was firmly in the evangelical Christian camp. They were not, so we had some lively discussions.

During one of them, my grandfather asked what credentials one of my sources had earned. “Where had he gone to college? How about graduate school?”

“What does that matter?” I thought. “What’s important is whether his arguments are sound.”

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In 10 Years, Nobody Will Be Able to Lie (Part 4)

It has been fun to speculate for the last three posts about the near future, when reliable, unobtrusive lie detectors will be everywhere in our society. However, the sad truth is that most people do not care about the truth.

Throw whatever technology you want into the mix, and we’re still human beings, with most of us bearing emotional wounds whose reopening we want to prevent at all costs.

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In 10 Years, Nobody Will Be Able to Lie (Part 3)

In the last two posts, I’ve suggested that within 10 years, reliable, affordable, unobtrusive lie-detectors will be as much a part of life as smartphones are now. This could take our society in either of two directions: openness as we all learn to stop hiding from each other, or paranoia as we try harder and harder to keep our secrets. As with all the incredible technology coming at us faster than we can imagine, it’s impossible for us, in our relatively primitive world, to predict the social outcome.

Nevertheless, it’s fun to try. This time I’d like to consider the following dystopian question:

Will there be a guild of professional liars?

A certain percentage of today’s population is able to lie so convincingly that they seem absolutely convinced by their own lies. You’ve probably known such people. Even when caught dead to rights, they look you square in the face and tell you it isn’t so. One can imagine that people who can apparently evade their own conscience will be able to fool the external lie detectors of the future.

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In 10 Years, Nobody Will Be Able to Lie (Part 2)

The Singularity refers to that point in the closer-than-you-think future when technology will have so transformed our society that people from today would barely recognize life in the Singularity era. It borrows its name from the singularity at the center of a black hole, where the laws of physics as we know them break down.

In my last post, I forecast one piece of technology that will change society in ways we can’t predict: the ubiquitous, accurate lie detector. Now let’s start to consider how our lives might change when nearly every lie can be detected.

Even if you don’t buy my premise that we’ll have these devices, let’s have fun speculating together, for speculation is all that we can do. In fact, the consequences of these Singularity-era devices are so uncertain that maybe I should only ask questions. Let’s begin with this one:

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