‘Moral Logic’: a Guide for Political Decision Making?

Modal logic is – as far as I am concerned – all about what might possibly be the case (alethic logic) or about what we know (epistemic logic), but not about what we should or should not do. That is: ethics seems not to be grounded in modal logic – or any logic for that matter. And that’s a pity, for I believe that logic can play a valuable role in moral decision making, especially in politics. Let me illustrate this with an example:

Let’s say that a politician proposes a policy A (‘Taxes are increased’). Let’s suppose that it is common knowledge that A leads to B (‘A –> B’), with B being ‘The disposable income of the poor is decreased’. Now, let’s say the politician doesn’t want B, (we write ‘–B’). Then, you could reasonably say that, by letting ‘–’ follow the rules of negation, and by applying modus tollens, we get –A. That is: the politician does not want A.

This last step requires clarification. Suppose that we know that by increasing taxes (A), the disposable income of the poor will be decreased (B). Then knowing that the politician doesn’t want the income of the poor to be decreased, the politician should not increase taxes. Then, assuming that no-one wants to do something he should not do (we are dealing with very rational agents here), it follows that the politician does not want A (‘–A’).

This ‘logic’ is consequentialist in nature. That is, you decide whether to perform a certain action (A), by looking at its consequences (B). In case you want B, you are good. In case you don’t want B (–B), then – by modus tollens – it follows that you should not do A. Hence you don’t want A, giving –A. This logic is of of course very strict; it follows absolute rules, axioms or principles. Hence it might be suited best to model a moral system that is equally strict. Think about Kantian ethics. On the other hand, a system like utilitarian ethics might be better modelled by a different mathematical model.

Workings
Let’s dive a little deeper into the working of this moral logic. One way this logic might work is as follows.

(1) You start with a set of axioms; propositions you absolutely want, or absolutely don’t want to be the case:

A
–B
C

(2) Next you look at the actions available, and the consequences these actions entail:

D –> A
D –> B
E –> C.

(3) Then you choose an action (in this case either D or E), which does not have any consequences you absolutely don’t want. In this case you should not choose D, for D –> B, and you have –B, hence –D. That is, according to the rules laid down, we don’t want D; hence the only option that remains is E.

Extended
Of course, this ‘logic’ does not obey all the regular rules of logic; for instance, it does not obey the rule of modal logic that the two modal operators can be expressed in terms of each other – we don’t even have two modal operators. But still, by applying the very simple rules laid down above, applying this logic can be helpful. I find this logic particularly valuable in analysing arguments used in political decision making, for politics is a prime example of the interplay between actions (the antecedent of our material conditional) and normative consequences (the consequences).

The above logic can be extended to take into account degrees of preferences. You could make a hierarchy of consequences, with consequences higher at the hierarchy being morally superior to those below, so that – in case you have more than one action to choose from – you should choose the one having the consequences highest in the hierarchy. This would also suit Artificial Intelligence very well.

What do you guys think of the moral logic?

Why People with OCD Give Into their ‘Irrationalities’

I have got OCD. That is to say: I have intrusive thoughts flying into my head, which create anxiety, sparking in me the urge to perform certain actions (‘compulsions’), that relieve me of the anxiety. What kind of thoughts am I talking about? Well, it’s hard to explain. Fore example: whenever I touch something, let’s say a book, I have to have a certain ‘image’ in mind – usually of someone I look up to. Also, I have to do the ‘touch-don’t touch’ ritual a certain number of times. Not any number of course! No, only the numbers that ‘are right’. This is not an exact science, but the numbers are always even (unless it’s one, which is always good!), but not any even number will do…Makes sense right?

Is this weird? Absolutely. Would I die if I wouldn’t give into the urges? Absolutely not. Why then do I do it? Am I stupid? Or to put it differently: is it irrational to give into these urges?

Book
My first response would be: ‘Yes, this is very irrational.’ I perform certain actions which don’t add any value to my life. It is not like baking a cake, washing your car or taking a shower: activities that actually provide you with some sort of tangible effect. But it is even worse that: because besides the fact that my compulsions don’t add any value, they actually take (an awful long) time and energy. So actually it is very stupid to give into the urges. So why then do I do it? Am I stupid?

Well, it is actually very easy to explain…to those who smoke. If you are a smoker, you, after let’s say two hours of not-smoking, feel the urge to smoke. If you don’t give into that urge, you will get nervous, irritable, you cannot focus, and more. You know that smoking doesn’t add any value to your life; hell no, it’s even bad for you! Yet, even though you know this, you give into your urge to smoke, and take a cigarette. Why? Because in the short term, it’s the best thing to do. One more cigarette won’t harm you that much, while not taking the cigarette does harm you significantly – you get nervous, irritable, and you cannot put your mind to those issues you want to focus on, etc.

It’s the same with OCD. Let’s say I touch a book and put it away. Then I feel the urge to do this with a ‘good image’ in mind. Not giving into the urge makes me feel like there is a lock on my brain, like my cognitive capacities are severely limited, like I cannot think clearly (sounds familiar smokers?). This feeling is so unpleasant, that – even though I know it won’t add any value in the long term (if will even detract value due to the time and energy it takes) – I do the compulsion to get rid of the unpleasantness.

Furthermore, just like smoking, OCD is addictive. You either don’t do it, or you do it big time. For if you give into the urge, the urge will become stronger, and it will be harder to resist. But in case you don’t give in, the urge will get less and less. But in order not to give in, you have to resist the unpleasantness of the moment, and – as I explained above – that always seems the sup-optimal option.

Rational
But back to the question I asked at the start: is it irrational to give into the urges? Especially given that I know it won’t add any value to my  life? I say – and I have been ridiculed for this by my psychiatrist – it is not irrational. Because at each point in time, not giving into the urge leaves me with a bad feeling: an unpleasant feeling, a restriction on my thinking, that I don’t want. This feeling can literally last for hours, or even an entire day. Giving into the urge clears me of this bad feeling. And – even though the activity takes time and effort – that takes much less time and energy than that the negative feeling makes me feel bad. The only problem is that I know that, within now and a couple of seconds after having given into the urge, the next urge will be there, to which I will have to give in again…

Welcome inside of the mind of someone with OCD.

What do you think: is it utterly irrational to give in to the urges? Or would you say that – given the short term relief of the negative feeling – it is actually a rational thing to do?

The Butterfly Effect: How Small Decisions Can Change Your Life

The butterfly effect: a term often used within the context of ‘unpredictable systems‘ like the weather and other ‘natural’ systems. For those who don’t know it, the butterfly effect refers to a system being ‘(very) sensitive to changes in its initial conditions‘. As the name implies, think about a butterfly flapping his wings and, because of this small flapping, causes a hurricane to occur at a later point in time and possibly an entirely different region in space. The butterfly in this example is the symbol for how small changes in an earlier stage can cause huge changes to occur at a later point in time.

But can’t this concept be applied to life as well? Think about it: have you ever experienced a small phenomenon occurring – like you receiving a mail, you stumbling upon something on the internet or you meeting a person who happens to change the way you think – that, looking back, has influenced your life significantly? Let’s take the example of you talking to a person who made you change your mind. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely have had a couple of such experiences in my life. Let me give you an example of my life that illustrates the effect utter randomness can have on the course of your life:

I didn’t know what kind of Master to attend after finishing my Bachelors. While thinking about studying economics in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), I came in touch with a professor philosophy of science, who – at the time – was supervising my bachelor thesis. I had always though about attending a Master philosophy somewhere at a university, but I had difficulties with the ‘vague touch’ Philosophy masters tend to have; none of them seemed analytic or logical enough to me.

The professor and I – during one of our supervising sessions – accidentally stumbled on the question what I wanted to do after my Bachelor philosophy; so I told him about my plan to go to Rotterdam. When he asked me why I wanted to study Economics there, I didn’t really know what to say. I said, ‘Well, I always dreamed about studying abroad at a nice university; Oxford, Cambridge or something along those lines. But there don’t really seems to be Masters over there that suit my interests. That is: thinking about the world in a “non-vague” manner.’ He responded, `Have you tried the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science)? They have a Master Philosophy and Economics and a Master Philosophy of Science. Isn’t that something for you?’ ‘Also,’ he added, ‘A good friend of mine – someone I hang out with on a regular basis – is a member of the selection commission of that Master Philosophy of Science. It might be interesting for you.’ I took a look at this Master and I was sold right away. I applied, got accepted and have studied a year in London.

What if I wouldn’t have talked to this professor about my ambitions? What if I would have had a different thesis supervisor? What if I would have had a headache that day and didn’t feel like talking? Then my future would very likely have looked very differently.

So what can we – or what did I – learn from this story: I learned that I shouldn’t hesitate to take opportunities, no matter how small they might seem. Because those small opportunities might cause a stream of new possibilities to arise later on. And the same goes for the opposite: I should avoid bad actions, no matter how small. I remember that – a couple of years ago – I said something mean to my football trainer, and I have regret it ever since. In other words: small actions can have significant consequences.

But what do you think?

What Makes Someone Intelligent?

Who is more intelligent: (1) a construction worker voting for a progressive, responsible and tolerant party or (2) a mathematical whizkid working at a bank and voting for a party whose main goal it is to get rid of minorities? In other words: what is it that makes someone intelligent? Is it how good he is in calculating the inverse matrix of a particular order? Or is it how thoughtful he is about our community and whether or not he contributes to how we as a society might become a more loving/productive institution?

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who I believe belongs far more to category (2) than (1). He spoke to me about his discontent with pretty much every Moroccan around; including the ones he had never actually met. He considered it to be a good idea to send each and every Moroccan back to his country of origin.

In the same week I had a discussion with my uncle. My uncle is a very nice man – just like my friend by the way – and belongs far more to category (1) than (2). And although my uncle admitted to be rather slow in absorbing/processing information – reading, calculating etc. – he also told me the following: ‘Rob, you are free to do everything in life that you want to do. Truly. But please, promise me one thing: never ever vote for those discriminating parties. Ever. Will you?’

I ask you again: who is more intelligent?

Before we might be able to answer this question, we first have to explicate the notion of intelligence. I believe that someone’s intelligence ultimately comes down to his actions. Someone’s actions are, after all, the only objective criterium we have for judging what goes on in his mind. The fact that a friend of you might say, ‘I could have easily passed that English test if I hadn’t just started studying last night’ shows to me that – apparently – this person is not very intelligent. A truly intelligent person would have known better, right? And it is for the same reason that someone who is good in mathematics or physics, or any other discipline we usually associate with intelligence, is not necessarily intelligent. Look at the banking sector, I would say. Have those mathematical ‘geniuses‘ been acting very intelligently lately?

You could of course argue that I am mistaken the concept of intelligence for the concept of wisdom, where intelligence might be about the ‘processing power’ of one’s brain while wisdom might be about the reasonableness of one’s decisions. I would reply by saying that even the processing power of one’s brain can in the end only be judged by the manner in which the person acts. That is the only objective criterium we have for making any claims about that person’s intelligence. No matter how many areas of one’s brain turn yellow/green/red in a f-MRI scan, we are still unable to know the true processing power of the person’s brain. Maybe the person’s brain is just very inefficient, using a lot of brainpower for very little output. That is why the only true test of intelligence consists not of what one’s brain does, but what one does with his brain.

But what do you think?