Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Morality and the Law


Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

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Andy writes,
Bro, what's the relationship between morals and laws? It seems like the law reflects some moral code sometimes, but we don't all agree about a moral code. And some people's moral code is religious. Is that kosher (heh)?  Are they related intentionally, or just coincidentally?
Andy. Bro. Great question. If our laws aren't designed around a moral code, we've got one fucking incredible coincidence to explain. Maybe the major ethical systems disagree on tons of fringe shit, but pretty much any system worth its salt agrees that cold-blooded murder and rape are not okay, bro. And, surprise! those things are illegal, along with a host of other things generally frowned upon by society.


In fact, there's a legal principle called defeasibility, which just means that exceptions are allowed to any definition of a crime if there are circumstances which we think should excuse someone. For example, second-degree murder is usually described as murder that isn't premeditated, a "crime of passion". But what if some dude threatens you, and you're passionate about not getting stabbed? "Your honor, I was defending myself from getting the fuck stabbed" is a pretty good defense to accusations of murder, and for good reason - it seems ridiculous to punish someone for protecting himself. He's not morally responsible for that! What choice did he have, Earl? None! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mailbag Monday: What is the Greater Good?


Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

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Mascot writes,
My bros and I believe that, regardless of an omnipresentgod, each bro should live to benefit the greater good. Butthen, that got me thinking, "What does it mean to live forthe greater good? Does it just mean to live with goodintent?" Well, if Batman's parents were never murdered,there would be no Batman. Thousands of bros wouldend up suffering at the hand of criminals who would havenormally been stopped by the fearsome superhero.So, was the murderer of Batman's parents living for thegreater good? Or was he just a jackass?
Mascot, I'm a bro who knows his audience, and I have to tell you - coming out in rousing defense of the man who murdered Batman's parents is conceptual suicide. I mean, yeah, in the end he gave us the Batman - but that's like crediting Hitler for the development of synthetic rubber. Sure, WWII necessitated research into synthetic rubber by the Allied forces, and they successfully developed it. But surely the Axis doesn't get the win there; you know who gets credit for all the good the Batman does? The goddamn Batman, that's who. He's not right behind me, is he?


Seriously though, this is an important question in utilitarianism/consequentialist thought - what exactly does it mean to act for the greater good? Let's assume we know what the 'good' actually is - maybe it's pleasure, maybe it's the pleasure/pain ratio, whatever. Should we act in whatever way we think will maximize good, or should we act in the way that will actually maximize good?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mailbag Monday: The Chinese Room


Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

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Steven writes, 



What's good Philosophy Bro?
What are your thoughts on the Chinese room experiment by John Searle?  Seems like a problem that only PB could really get to the root of.
Steven, if it weren't summer I'd think you're trying to get me to write an essay for you, but today's your lucky day. The Chinese Room thought experiment is one of the most important thought experiments in philosophy of mind, especially in the project of duplicating intelligence. It's interesting as hell, too, which definitely helps your case.

Before I get into the experiment itself, here's the problem Searle is addressing - what does it mean for a machine to understand something? Is it possible we will ever produce a machine that can think on its own, that can learn and truly understand English? Offhand, it seems possible; after all, if we build a robot that speaks English as well as we do, who understands the nuances of language, who we just can't tell is a robot, then what exactly is the difference between his claim to know English and your best friend's claim to know English? This is the basis of the famous 'Turing Test' for AI - when we reach the point where we can no longer distinguish between a human and a computer when speaking to them, then we have truly achieved Artificial Intelligence.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Transhumanism and Personhood

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to philosophybro@gmail.com with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.
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John writes,


Would you be willing to do a piece on transhumanism? I've started to hear a lot about cyborgs and life extension and stuff, but it all sounds like science fiction. Is there anything to it, or is it all just hype?
Thanks!
Yeah bro, sure thing. Transhumanism is interesting as hell.

So, broadly transhumanism is a movement that seeks to move past our human limitations by using technology. Think of all the cool shit we can do - we are already giving injured bros robotic limbs. And not shitty arms that just open and close like they're trying to pick up a stuffed animal - these arms are getting more and more badass by the day. If we invent an arm strong enough to throw a car and articulate enough to write in cursive, why wait to lose an arm the hard way? Just tack that shit on. We've invented a drug that literally makes you a paper-writing machine for eight hours straight - you can do fucking anything when you take something like Adderall, and it's a felony in the US to take it unless you have a doctor's note. A lot of transhumanists think that's not cool at all - think how much smarter we could be if everyone had access to super-focus.

Of course, while no one wants to be weak or dumb, what no one really wants to be is dead. Plenty of bros, especially existentialists, have written about the human condition as it relates to death; mostly, that it's fucking inevitable, and if we don't get over our fear of that we're going to waste our lives cowering. But who says we can't conquer death?