Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?

ambulance

Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

What Is the Value of a Human Life?

People are getting older and older and demand better and better (medical) care. Also, advancements in technology and medical knowledge allow what once seemed to be incurable illnesses to be cured – or at least treated. These trends result in an ever increasing rise in the medical expenditures of countries. This begs the question: how far should we go in saving a patient’s life? What is the value of a human life? Should we be prepared to save someone at all costs? Or should we think about the financial consequences of our decisions? And if so, what is the (financial) limit?

There are several ways in which this question can be answered. One response would be that we should go as far as possible in trying to save a person’s life. That is, as far as possible given the boundaries set by our medical and technological knowledge. And although this might cost us (as a society) a lot of money, the money spent on saving a person’s life is nothing compared to the value gained by prolonging their stay on our planet; the emotional gain experienced by the person – and not to forget his family – is of an extraordinary value: a value that can impossibly be expressed in terms of money. Therefore any means available should be employed in order to let people experience (an extension of) life.

However, given that the value of a human life would be ‘impossible to express in terms of money’, why then should we come to the conclusion that – because of that – we should be prepared to save a person’s life at all costs? Wouldn’t that be a rather arbitrary decision? After all, given that (human) life is of a such value that it is inexpressible in terms of money, why then even bother to make the transition to talk about costs? If a human life would truly be invaluable, it would be just as nonsensical to talk about trying to save a person’s life at all cost as it would be to say that we shouldn’t be prepared to pay any money in order to do so, right? The value of life is after all of an entirely different dimension; irreducible to monetary terms in any sense – no matter whether this value is in millions or pennies.

Well, that seems a little radical, doesn’t it? Another option would be to say that we should go as far as could be considered economically reasonable. In welfare countries where civilians have to pay relatively high taxes, that for a huge part are gobbled by the nation’s medical expenses, it seems fair to not only think in the interests of the patient and his family but to also consider the economic prospects of the relevant patient. After all: would it be reasonable for society to pay a huge sum of money to save someone’s life, while the person being saved might be unable to ‘repay’ (in terms of making an economic contribution to society) the medical expenses in any sense? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, this seems to be an unwise (and even a wrong) decision. Surely, it might be ‘fair’ to save the person’s life, in the sense that the person probably has paid taxes all his life (taxes that were used for paying the medical treatments of others). But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point in time, it would be unprofitable/utility-degrading to pay for the patient’s treatment.

A solution to cover this seemingly unfair attitude – although it might sound counter-intuitive – would be to make people decide for themselves how much they are prepared to pay for saving a patient’s life. Subsequently, it would be this amount of money that the person would contribute (in the form of taxes) for covering the country’s medical expenses. However, the other side of this plan would be that, whenever the tax payer himself would have to be treated in hospital, this person’s treatment costs will be compared with the amount of money he contributed to society for covering its medical expenditures/saving a person’s life. Based upon this comparison will be decided whether or not the person should be treated. When the contribution-fee is decided upfront – before the person ‘officially’ enters society (let’s say at the age of 18) – no conflict of interests can occur, and everyone’s wishes are taken into account.

A totally different option would be to shove the full responsibility for covering one’s medical expenditures down to someone’s own wallet: to make people pay for their own medical costs. After all: who would mind a person spending thousands of dollars coming from his own pocket? No-one I suppose. Unless, of course, this person is you. Because what to do if you don’t have the money required to cover your medical expenses? It doesn’t seem fair to let you die just because you haven’t earned as much money as the richest ten percent of the population, right? However, even if you would be the person becoming sick and having to pay for your own medical costs, you might still consider this libertarian attitude towards ‘paying my own costs’ to be the true righteous manner to live your life.

It is in no way an easy question. It is about much more than medical costs/finance: it’s about values/ethics, which implies that there is likely to be no definite answer to this question.

But what do you think?

I Find it Offensive that You Find it Offensive

A while ago, I was watching a YouTube video of Hans Teeuwen (a Dutch comedian) having a discussion with three Muslim women. The women invited him to talk about – as they claimed – his discriminatory beliefs about Muslims. Teeuwen is a comedian who intents to provoke, make you think and attack dogma – not only the Islam. At a certain point in the interview, the women asked Teeuwen: ‘Don’t you mind offending people?’ Teeuwen responded: ‘I don’t think I’m offending anyone. Who do you think I’m offending?’ The women said: ‘Well, us for example. We are offended by your claims about Allah.’ Teeuwen said: ‘Really? Well, I’m offended that you’re offended by my claims about Allah.’ ‘I think it’s of great importance to be able to say what you want in a democratic society, without people like you trying to silence me. That’s what I find offending.’

I found this a very accurate observation. Religious groups – but other minorities as well – have a tendency to act like they’re being victimized, like they’re are being attacked just because their beliefs differ from those of the mainstream. This is a trick they’ve taught themselves, and that they use as a shield whenever they’re being ‘attacked’ by non-believers because of whatever it is they happen to believe. They crawl back into their shell of convictions and claim to be offended, thereby hoping that the ‘offending’ party will stop throwing its beliefs at them, and just leave them alone.

But what if the beliefs of the offended party are considered to be offensive by other people? What if non-Muslims find headscarves to be a sign of suppression, a sign – religious or not – that should not be tolerated in a democratic society: a society in which equality of rights is considered to be a great good. What then? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who is the offender and who is the offended? Or are both parties occupying both roles at the same time?

This is an important question because it points to the heart of democracy. In a democracy – especially through freedom of speech – people should be able to express themselves and, as a logical consequence of that, should lend others this right as well. And since it’s impossible to say what claims are offensive in any absolute way (see the Teeuwen example) we should be tolerant towards all claims, and hope that the ones we find most reasonable will be the ones that become accepted by the majority. And, since democracy is such a widespread institution in this world of ours, it seems that the majority of people has the same set of fundamental beliefs as you and I have, one of which is freedom of speech: whether we find this offensive or not.

But what do you think?

Public Opinion and Information: A Dangerous Combination

‘That guy is an asshole. The way he treated his wife is absolutely disgusting. I’m glad she left him, she deserves better…much better.’ That’s the response of society when it finds out that a famous soccer player has hit his wife, and that the pair consequently decided to split the sheets. But based on what does society form this judgment, or any judgment for that matter? Based on information of course! It heard from the tabloids what has occurred, it processes this information, and then comes to the most ‘reasonable’ conclusion/judgment. It’s pretty much like science, in that it bases its conclusions on data and reasons. But the prime difference between science and gossip/public opinion is that the latter doesn’t actively try to refute its conclusions: it solely responds to the data it receives. And this has some striking consequences.

Because what happens whenever the data changes? What happens when one or two lines in a tabloid form a new and ‘shocking’ announcement? What if it appears that – while the football player and his wife were still together – the wife had an affair with another guy? Then suddently the whole situation changes. Then suddenly the wife deserved to be hit. Then suddenly a hit in the face was a mild punishment for what she did. Then suddenly most people would have done the same whenever confronted with the same situation. Suddenly there is new data that to be taken into account. But what are the implications of this observation?

The public opinion can be designed and molded by regulating the (limited) amount of information it receives. And this goes not only for gossip, but just as much for more urgent matters like politics and economics. It isn’t society’s duty to gather as much data as possible, compare evidence for and against positions, and come to the most reasonable conclusion. No, society only has to take the final step: forming the judgment. And if you understand how it is that this mechanism works, you can (ab)use it for your own good. You could if you were in politics ‘accidentally’ leak information about a conversation the prime minister had with his colleagues, and thereby change the political game. The prime minister will be forced to respond to these ‘rumors’, thereby validating the (seemingly) importance of the issue. For why else would he take the time to respond to it? And suddenly, for the rest of his days, he will be reminded for this rumor, whether it turns out to be true – as it was in Bill Clinton‘s case – or not: where there’s smoke, there is fire.

But let me ask you something: don’t you think that famous people make mistakes everyday? Even if only 1 percent of the wives would get hit by their famous husbands every year, that would still be more than enough to fill each tabloid for the entire year. But what if – from all the ‘beating cases’ – only one or two would become public a year? Then – and only then – the guy who did the hitting becomes a jerk. Why? Because even though it might have been the case that the guys hits his wife, even if we don’t know it, now we have the data to back up our judgement. And since we’re reasonable creatures who only jump to conclusions whenever we’ve got evidence to do so, we are suddenly morally allowed to do so.

We find ourselves to be reasonable creatures for solely basing our judgments on the data we receive. We find this a better way to go than just claiming things even though we don’t know them for sure. And although this might very well be the reasonable way to go, we have to remind ourselves that we’re slaves to the data, and therefore vulnerable to those providing the data. We have to be aware that even though we don’t know about the cases we don’t have data about, this doesn’t imply that the cases aren’t there. It merely means that the parties involved – whether this is the (ex) wife of a famous soccer player or anyone else – saw no reason to leak the data. It only means that their interests were more aligned than they were opposed. And we should take people’s interests – and the politics behind it – into account when jumping to judgments based on the data we receive.

But what do you think?

Flipping the Hierarchy of the Sciences

There are different sciences, and each one is ‘appreciated’ for its own unique contribution to our collective knowledge pool. But some sciences are appreciated just a little more than others. Whether it be the social sciences that are regarded as the most complex and developed sciences, as Auguste Comte believed, or the natural sciences as being the ones coming closest to the ‘objective truth’, as people in our society – implicitly or explicitly – seem to presume: there’s always a certain hierarchy in our perception of the sciences.

It’s understandable why – at least in our society – the natural sciences are regarded to be ‘better’ or ‘more scientific’ than those ‘subjective’ social sciences. The natural sciences – physics, chemistry etc. – are related to Western industrialism and the inventions (steam engine, electricity, televisions etc.) it brought forth. And since natural sciences –> inventions –> money, and since money is good, the natural sciences are good too. At least better than the social sciences, for the latter won’t make us millionaires. But even though such hierarchies are understandable, they might have some negative implications for the manner in which the ‘lower’ sciences are being looked upon. They might, for example, lose their ‘scientific status’, and hence the respect that comes with this status. But there’s a remarkably easy way to solve this problem.

People are used to thinking in terms of higher and lower, at which ‘higher’ is associated with ‘better’ and ‘lower’ with ‘worse’. This vertical manner of thinking might be a relic from the past, in which religion was very prominent and in which higher meant closer to heaven, and in which heaven was good. But whatever metaphor was responsible for the pyramid-structured hierarchies we tend to visualize in our heads, it’s a fact that it’s omnipresent in our conceptual frameworks.

But let me ask you something: what would happen if we would turn this vertical hierarchy on its side? If we would obtain a horizontal ‘hierarchy’? Would we then still have a hierarchy? Probably not, for the distinction between higher and lower ranks would have disappeared. It’s just left and right, with left – for example – being the social sciences and right the natural sciences – in case you order the sciences based on a criteria such as ‘nature dominance’. Or you could put the natural sciences on the left hand side and the social sciences on the right – in case the variable of choice would be something like ‘people dominance’. Whatever criteria you use for ordering the sciences, the hierarchy will have disappeared, and hence the negative consequences for a science appearing at the bottom of the ranking.

It’s a very easy change in ordering the sciences, but one who doesn’t entail the negative consequences of a vertical hierarchy.

But what do you think?

Purpose, Purpose…Where Are You?

Life without a purpose is like shoes without strings: a burden you want to get rid of. An obstacle on your journey to happiness. A pointless gift you wished you’d never had. The only difference between shoes – either with of without strings – and life is that the former have been made for a purpose. They have been made to do something with. Whether it is supporting little children playing football or walking a pretty lady to the office. We haven’t been created with such a purpose. We are empty. We are – and we have to be – the creator of everything we experience, including the things we value: including our purpose.

What is life without a purpose? What is life devoid of any element that might be of any value? Probably more empty than a vacuum chamber. The only things there would be are our minds yelling at us, “Do something with your life!” And it is our duty – not our privilege – to decide what to do with our lives. And that’s the most difficult task we have. Because how can you know what your purpose is? How can you know what you’re true nature is; what your deepest desires and potentials are; what you’re here for on planet earth? And although you might not know, you have to choose. You’ve got only one life to live. You can of course fill your life with different journeys; the journey towards being a good man and the journey towards being a good writer . But there is always that demon of time looking over your shoulder telling you that all you do has to happen in time. No parallel universes exist. Only this world exists. And remember: time is ticking.

And still we only got one life. One life and so many opportunities; so many decisions to make. Each choice we make is a choice not to do something else. And who knows how that “something else” might have turned out? Maybe you are on the totally wrong track. Maybe you are living a life that could have been much better; you could have been much happier; you could have fulfilled your true nature. If only you would have picked the right track. But you don’t know. There’s no handbook telling you, “If you feel down, become a juggler and you’ll live happily ever after.” Or you must count in the Bible, although I haven’t read the passage about the juggler yet.

Yet juggling is what we do; each and every day. We have all kinds of conflicting urges that we want to fulfill. All of them in the one life we’re living. We want to be social; we want to be spiritual; we want to learn; we want to be entrepreneurial…..we want so many things. And the advice we need about what to do should come from either our ignorant mind or our intuition. And our ignorant mind keeps telling us that it doesn’t know what to choose. Therefore we are forced to listen to our intuition for satisfying our longing for guidance. No matter how twisted its proposals might be. You simply don’t have a choice.

If only we could be rabbits. Just fucking around, not thinking about what to do. Just letting ourselves flow on the sea of urges; no interference of the Ego. But I’m afraid we can’t, so we just have to make the best of it.

But what do you think?

The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

The Panopticon was a prison designed to “allow a watchmen to observe all inmates of an institution, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Think of it as God watching – or not watching – from a cloud at what we’re doing and punishing us if we’ve behaved badly. The trick of the Panopticon is that – no matter whether someone (a watchmen or God) is actually watching – the “non-watchers” always feel like they’re being watched and therefore will try to make sure that they always stick to the rules.

Interesting concept, huh? An interesting question would be: how can we apply this fairly old idea into our modern societies? Well, there are many applications of Panopticon-like structures already in our modern Western civilization. Technologies like camera’s and sound recorders can make citizens – for example – feel like they’re being watched at all times. And it is this feeling – not the act of there being an observer actually watching them – that prevents them from doing bad stuff. Cost-efficient, right?

Now, let’s take a look at the workplace. Social media cost an employer an average of $65.000 dollars per year per employee. That’s some serious money, isn’t it? So you can understand that employers are looking for ways in which to reduce this – and many other – “work-distracting” activity. An option would be to block all “work-irrelevant” websites. But then the question is: what’s relevant and what’s not? Is checking the news relevant? It could be; it depends on what the news is, right? However, this option would have much less effect if an employee’s time-wasting activities would be performed outside of his computer-area.

Now let me ask you the following question: if you were an employee, and you would know that your boss could be watching what you were doing at any point in time, would you then still “check your Facebook-page” or send some “work-related” mails to you friends? Would you still be wasting your valuable working time if you would know that your boss would receive a message if you didn’t touch your keyboard for – let’s say – 10 minutes (except for the breaks, of course)? I doubt it.

So why isn’t it the Panopticon applied in the workplace yet (as far as we – or at least I – know)? Probably because people find it “wrong” for employers to do so. They find it wrong for employees to have the feeling of being watched all the time. But the question is: is this a legitimate reason for not implementing the concept? After all, a production worker is being watched all the time by his employer, right? So why not an employee sitting behind his computer? Is sitting behind a computer a free pass for just doing what you want in your working time? In the time you’re being paid by your employer? Thereby hurting your company’s profits and – indirectly – the security of your job and the job of your peers? I don’t think so.

But what do you think? Can we do this, or not?

Beliefs, Desires and Coming Up with Reasons

A normal logical inference looks something like the following: (1) C leads to A, (2) C leads to B, (3) A and B are present, so (4) C might be true. In other words, you have got reasons – (1), (2) and (3) – for believing something, and these reasons make you think that something else – (4) – might be true. This is an example of an inference to the best explanation. But do we always act so rationally? Do we always come up with reasons before we come up with the conclusion that is supposed to follow from the reasons? Or do we – sometimes – come up with the conclusions first and then start searching reasons for validating these conclusions? Like, when we really want to buy that television and then start reasoning why it would be good for us to have that television? Let’s take a look at that.

There’s a difference between having beliefs that are based upon reasons (like ‘I see rain dropping of the window’ + ‘I see people wearing trench coats’ so ‘It must be raining outside.’) and longings or desires (like ‘I want a television. Period.) Where we need reasons to believe the beliefs, the desires are just there. What we can see here is a difference in the chronological order for coming up with reasons for a belief or desire: in case of beliefs we come up with reasons before getting at the belief, and with desires we have desires s and then start coming up with reasons for why we should give into that desire.

But there is another difference – beside the difference in order – between ‘belief reasoning’ and ‘desire reasoning’. The belief reasoning eventually leads up to an idea, while the desire reasoning eventually ends up with an action (or not). The rational component – that is, the Ego – that has do deal with all the inputs or impulses entering our conscious and unconscious mind, is called for in different stages of the reasoning trajectory. Where the Ego is apparent in first stage of the belief reasoning – the part in which we’re thinking whether or not we consider a belief to be true – it becomes apparent in the desire reasoning only after the belief has settled.

So what? Is this a problem? Well, not necessarily: not if the two types of reasoning stay completely separated. Not for as long as beliefs are preceded by reasons, and not for as long as desires are – or are not – acted upon based upon reasons. It only becomes dangerous when the two become intertwined: especially when we just happen to believe something and then start coming up with reasons for why it is that we just happen to believe this something. Since unlike desires, beliefs aren’t something you just have. Beliefs are there solely because you’ve got reasons for them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be beliefs, but merely desires.

So, what we can conclude from this? Well, a conclusion could be that you should watch out for those people that – in a discussion, for example – just seem to believe something and then start coming up with reasons for why it is that they just happen to believe this something. Since, if these people are confusing the notions of belief and desire, it can be very difficult – or even impossible – for you to change their (unreasonable) beliefs. After all, desires are just there, which is reason enough for having them, while beliefs require reasons. And if this isn’t realized, the discussion might get stuck at the level of implementation: the level at which is being decided how the belief should be implemented – that is: validated by society – instead of reasoning whether or not the belief is reasonable in the first place. And we don’t want that to happen, or that’s at least what I believe.

But what do you think?

The Subjective Nature of Scarcity

‘Mum, I want an iPad too!’, ‘Really?! You’ve got tickets for Glastonbury? Aah…I envy you so much right now!’, ‘You’ve gotten a bonus of 150.000 dollars?! Jesus…well, believe me: in a couple of years from now, I’ve got that too.’

More opportunities and more possibilities create more wants and more needs. Hence it is very plausible that we – the ‘rich people in the West’ – have more unsatisfied desires than the ‘poor in Africa’, numerous of which are starving each day due to a lack of food. After all, we want an iPad, MacBook and iPhone; they only want some bread and water. Hence we are the ones having more unsatisfied needs, thus we are less satisfied than the poor in Africa. Poor old us: it isn’t easy being rich…

Scarcity is defined as the ‘insufficiency of amount or supply’ of a good/service. Note the word insufficiency in this definition, since it is this word that points to the root of the problem. Unlike things as ‘supply’ or ‘amount’ – that are quantifiable and hence (at least partially) measurable or objective – ‘sufficiency‘ is an intrinsically subjective judgement. And the problem with something being subjective, is that it is relative; its ‘value’ is determined by means of comparison to what is going on in one’s surroundings. And if you’re living in a rich environment, an environment in which iPads and MacBooks are within reach for everyone, then this environment is likely to make you want different (read: less basic) goods than you would have wanted if you’d been living in, let’s say, the poorest regions of Africa.

Capitalism is a train, and profit is perishable. Yesterday’s profit is not today’s profit. And it is today’s profit that counts. Standing still is falling behind; you have to keep moving in order to keep your balance. That is the system we’re living in and that is the system we’re constantly trying to prevent from collapsing. Not because we want to keep it on its feet, but because we have to: after all, we are part of the system too, and we have got to make sure that we keep on our feet.

Sure: you could be stubborn and decide not to take part in the ever-continuing rat-race called ‘the economy’. But what then? Where do you – and where can you – turn to? Nowhere, right? You need your money in order to stay alive: in order to satisfy your iPad-needs, your longings, desires and deepest fetish-like obsessions, you have to keep on producing and buying. We’re locked up in a prison: a prison we’re painfully dependent upon.

We could of course turn to communism, an economic system without money. By doing away with money, we might do away with the vicious circle of making each other more horny and horny for bigger and bigger goods. A horniness without an organism to mark the end point of our satisfaction-seeking journey. No money means no satiable goals – or at least no goals that are within financial reach. And no satiable goals would prevent us from having feelings of insufficiency. But communism…hmm…that doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? No: we’d rather keep on hoping for that Lamborghini.

But what do you think?

Ethics and Mathematics: The Love for Absolute Rules

Ethics is not mathematics. For, unlike mathematics, ethics cannot function solely based on a set of axioms, or ‘absolutely true staring points for reasoning,’ like a + b = b + a. Based on axioms, we can build an entire world  (‘mathematics’) in which we can be sure that, only by following these rules of inference, we will always end up with the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth. Hence it’s understandable that philosophers have thought to themselves: ‘Damn, how cool would it be if we could apply the same trick to ethics; that we, confronted with any action, could decide whether the action would be right or wrong?’ Surely: society has tried to build its very own rule-based system, the system of law. But is this a truly axiomatic system? Are there truly fundamental rights from which the rules of justice can be inferred? Let’s take a look at that.

Immanuel Kant made the distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. These are two ‘kinds of rules’, with the first ‘being applicable to someone dependent upon him having certain ends‘; for example, if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn. Thus we’ve got: desired end (‘knowledge’) + action (‘learning’) = rule. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, denote ‘an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.’ We can see that there is no desired end present in this kind of rule; only the ‘action = rule‘-part.

But how could a categorical imperative be applied in practice? A belief leading up to a categorical imperative could for example be: Gay marriage is okay. Period. That would imply that, you believe that, irrespective of the conditions present in a particular environment – thus no matter whether there is a republic or democratic regime, whether the economy is going great or not – gay marriage is okay. However, as it stands, it is not yet a categorical imperative, since this claim doesn’t urge you (not) to do something (such as ‘You shall not kill’, which is a categorical imperative). The rightful categorical imperative would be something like (G): ‘You should accept gay marriage.’ This is an unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself

Now: let’s assume that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t agree with (G). Because now it gets interesting, for now you have to make a decision: you either stick to (G) or you reformulate (G) into a hypothetical imperative. The first option is clear: you just say ‘I believe that gay marriage should be allowed always and everywhere. Period.’ Seems fair, right? But what if the person you’re talking to would respond by saying, ‘Okay…so even when citizens would democratically decide that gay marriage is unacceptable?’

Now you have got a problem, for this might be situation in which two of your categorical imperatives are contradictory, such as (G) and (D): ‘Decisions coming about through a democratic process should be accepted.’ Both (G) and (D) are unconditional rules: they should be acted on irrespective of the situation you’re in. But this is clearly impossible, for (G) forces you to accept gay marriage, while (D) forces you to do the opposite.

You could of course say that (G) is merely your belief (you believe that gay marriage should be accepted, not that this particular democratic society should find this too), but then you seem to fall into a form of moral relativism. Given that you don’t want that to happen, you have to decide which one is the true categorical imperative: (G) or (D)? And which one can be turned into ‘merely’ a hypothetical imperative?

You could of course decide to turn (D) into (D.a): ‘Only if you believe that a decision has come about through a democratic process and is a good decision, you should accept the decision.’ Or you could turn (G) into (G.a): ‘Only if the decision has come about through a democratic process, gay marriage should be accepted.’ But is this really how we form our moral judgements? Is (D.a) truly a rule you believe to be ‘fair’? And (G.a): do you truly believe that gay marriage is okay only if it is accepted by society? That is: do you make the moral value of gay marriage dependent upon the norms prevalent within a society? I doubt it.

So we are stuck; stuck into a paradox, a situation in which two absolute rules are contradictory, and the only way out is through turning at least one of them into an unintuitive and seemingly inadequate hypothetical imperative. So what to conclude? We’ve seen that categorical imperatives look powerful; as if they can truly guide our lives for once and for all; no more need to search for conditions that might be relevant to our judgements. But we’ve also seen that when two categorical imperatives are contradictory – that is, when two rules cannot be followed at the same time – changes have to be made: at least one of them has to be turned into a hypothetical imperative. In order to do so, a certain ‘value hierarchy’ is required, based upon which these categorization decisions can be made. Hence it seems that even Kant’s absolute ethics – with its absolute categorical imperatives – seems to be relative: relative to (the value of) other imperatives, that is. Therefore mathematical ethics, as presented above, seems to be impossible.

But what do you think?

Culture and People being Good or Bad

Are people intrinsically good or bad? If there wouldn’t be any laws or social conventions, would we start killing each other and stealing each other’s property – the state of war as Thomas Hobbes described it? Or would we “still” be loving and caring towards each other? Would we “still” be willing to share our well-earned income with others, even if we weren’t “forced” to do so by means of legislation; would we “still” be altruistic like our Christian brothers seem to hope for? Or aren’t there particularly “social” and particularly “anti-social” actions? Can’t actions be “absolutely” evil or “absolutely” good? Do the “demons” committing the “evil” actions believe they are fighting the good fight, that they are the angels, promoting the values they find to be worthwhile dying for? What, for example, about Al-Qaeda? We can assume that the terrorists flying into the World Trade Center at 9/11 did so because they believed that this was the right thing to do, right? Because their God, and their norms and values, promote this sort of behavior, right?

Watch it; we have got to prudent here. We’ve got to watch out for “a dangerous territory” we’re about to enter: the territory of cultural relativism, the view that “our ideas and convictions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” If cultural relativism would indeed be true, we would have no right whatsoever for claiming that our “Western” set of beliefs is superior to the “Islamic (extremist)” set of beliefs; they would be equally true or equally false; what people find good or bad simply depends on what they’ve been taught at school. And that’s it.

Although cultural relativism might appear to be counter-intuitive – after all, many of us seem to believe that murder is “just” wrong, irrespective of the culture one is raised in – what if it would be right? What if there indeed are no absolute values we could turn to in order to decide – for once and for all – what’s wrong and what’s not; what if each culture has its own set of “absolute” values to turn to; are we then still legitimized in saying that “those other cultures are just crazy”?

Maybe cultural relativism is more than “merely” a philosophic concept used to explore the absoluteness of our ethics and knowledge; maybe it’s the reality we live in. After all, what evidence do we have for there being absolute norms and values? The Bible? The Quran? These prove to be already two conflicting value systems,  so no absoluteness can be attained by following the religious path. What about science; what about empirical data? Isn’t it true that many societies consider things like “rape” and “murder” to be wrong? Isn’t that an indication of the absoluteness of value? Maybe, but what about war? Is murder – or even rape – still wrong in case of war? And If so, why are so many people still violating these rules while in war? These people don’t seem to find it wrong, do they?

Maybe we have to face the truth people, no matter how hard it might be. Maybe we have to accept that we aren’t always – or fully – right in our beliefs. That, even when “the enemy” does things we find absolutely disgusting, they do these things because they think they should do so. And why “do they think they should do so”? Because that’s what they consider to be the right way to act; that’s what you do in war; that’s what you do for defending your system of beliefs. So although we might differ in what actions we find good and bad, our intention is – no matter how twisted it might seem – always good. No matter whether others agree with this notion of “good”. And that’s a weird but true conclusion we have to live with.

Thus the answer to the question this article started with is “Good”.

But what do you think?

Nature: The Biggest Discriminator in the Workplace

Man and woman: two different ‘types’ of human. The one being the hunter, the other being the caretaker. The one being the fighter, the other being the lover. And there are many more differences (or stereotypes) you could come up with. But one thing is for sure: both types are needed in the production of human life. And another thing is clear as well: the workload isn’t shared evenly between the two types of human. And I’m not talking about workload in the sense of keeping our economy going; in the sense of working and contributing ‘profits’ or other kinds of financial value to society. No, I am talking about the natural workload: the workload we humans have been endowed with by Mother Nature. And whether we like it or not, women are the ones carrying the burden. And the reason for this is as simple as it is unfair: men can’t get pregnant.

Surely: we should strive for a society with equal rights for men and women. Surely: we should try to make sure that men and women get equal opportunities in the workplace. And surely we should make sure that no-one would be denied any job solely because of the ‘type’ of human he or she is. However, the truth of the matter is that we cannot equalize nature. By that I mean that we cannot make men carry babies and we cannot make women not carry babies. The implication of this damn obvious fact is that there will always remain a (big) difference between men and women; a difference we cannot solve by non-discriminating policies in the work space.

So – given this observation – isn’t it (more) understandable why women occupy merely 14.3 percent of the executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies? And given this observation, isn’t it (more) understandable why merely 16.6 percent of board seats are held by women? Maybe these low numbers don’t originate from a sense of discrimination by society; maybe they come up from a sense of discrimination by nature. And by that I am in no sense implying that women couldn’t be capable of reaching a representation of (at least) 50 percent in each of the aforementioned positions. I am only saying that it isn’t weird that women seem to have a harder time balancing their working- and private life. Especially when they’re pregnant, an ‘event’ preventing them (at least partially) from (temporarily) continuing their job-related obligations.

The consequence of this is that full equality, in the sense of equal representation of men and women in whatever kind of boards, might be an illusion. And again: not because men are better than women; because that is in no sense the case (just as women aren’t better than men). But simply because nature has put a burden on women; a burden that can’t be equally shared between them and their husbands.

But what do you think?