Thursday, 11 October 2018

Morality is sanctioned discrimination

With the question of religious freedom once again popping up, we get reminded that what people most want is the ability to discriminate against others.
In this case, religious schools want to be be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation in order to keep the school's environment within their set moral boundaries.
Similarly sitting the "I can't believe it's not a plebiscite" postal survey on gay marriage, a woman was fired for her "immoral" posting on Facebook against the proposition.
Or take the case of Louis C.K. His career definitely took a hit from the emergence of his masturbatory habits, but him performing again at all has some #MeToo advocates outraged. His punishment is deemed insufficient in that he's gone forever.
And even safe zones around abortion clinics draw this same ire as it prevents the moral crusaders from directly confronting the sinners using the service.
I could go all day with examples, and those examples would be from all across the political spectrum. But the point with the examples is to illustrate how morality is targeted at individuals and groups seen to break it.

Tolerance under "normal" conditions

A pluralistic society survives by allowing a personal moral compass - at least to the extent that is allowable by law. Our society can accommodate both those who choose to hunt animals and those who think it's immoral to do so. Each may teeth to convince the other of its validity, but there's no need to solve the problem via societal enforcement.
That's not to say there's no tension or coercion. Moral issues ignite our passions, after all, and invoke strong outrage. Impassioned pleas and organised protests are a healthy part of democracy.
Arguments are made in the public sphere in a variety of ways, and over time values can and do change. A majority of people in Australia choose to vote for gay marriage despite a majority seeing homosexuality as immoral less than a generation ago.
The key factor to my mind is tolerance - that we have learnt that our personal convictions most of the time are not necessarily what others hold it even ought to hold. This is not the same as relativism, though may be described as a pragmatic relativism. Christians and Muslims have truth as they see it, and they are allowed to practice those truths, insofar as they don't affect our ability to do the same. Likewise for vegans and hunters, capitalists and communists, etc.
We can argue passionately for our against these positions without the need to dictate how anyone lives within these bounds. This holds even when we vehemently disagree.

Localised sanctioned discrimination

The pluralism generally succeeds when the moral impulses are confined to limited areas where they are sanctioned. A church is a straight-forward example of this, as is a group of vegans. The organising principles of the group allow the group to police the behaviours of their own members irrespective of what those in the wider society believe.
When these sanctions aren't reflected in the wider society, there is a tension whenever these individuals deal with outsiders. The boundary of where discrimination is sanctioned can see seen where public services are provided, such as in businesses, or in schools.
When local groups create a bubble of like-minded individuals, the wider community can be seen as downright immoral for failing to grasp those moral truths. This raises the legitimate concern that outsiders are dehumanised, and that there is the threat of exertion of power. One strategy is playing the political game (and why abortion is a perennial issue), but others include shaming, ostracism, and even taking the law into their own hands.
The ideological bindings of the group shape the individual. There are few true lone wolves, but those who attack abortion clinic doctors, homosexuals, GM crops, politicians, civilian populations, etc. all share a common morality with a local group that holds them as moral and the outside society as dangerously immoral in need of rectification.

The rule of law as a proxy to justice

Law is the ultimate standard in any given society. While psychologically we may feel morality transcends law (we are all familiar with the notion of an unjust law), we know that the law is the arbiter of disputes.
Movements like #MeToo exist because of the failure of law to sufficiently address systemic problems. Conversely laws like anti-discrimination legislation exist because of a need to address systemic injustice in a society.
The law needs to be seen by enough of the population as being fair. Not perfect - no set of rules can be perfect, let alone satisfy the myriad of different moral beliefs - but good enough that major problems will be addressed so that we don't need to settle them ourselves. If enough see the law as insufficient or capricious, we get mob justice. And while mob justice might be satisfying when it comes to your beliefs (e.g. taking down serial sex offenders), it can be an outrage when it goes the other way (e.g. gay bashing).
The reason we have due process, innocent until proven guilty, tolerance, etc. is that the other way has been tried and it leads to more barbaric societies. It's not always satisfying to think that some can get away with immoral behaviour, but the alternative is far worse.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Happy Labour Day!

It's always good to have a day off work, and public holidays are a great way to enshrine the balance between life and work into law. Labour Day is unique along public holidays in that it celebrates this victory for the rights of workers.

Yet it's another day off.

We don't really celebrate labour day here, not in the sense that we celebrate Anzac Day or Christmas. There's no reminder of what importance the day has, nor what it was like before for workers.

Yet it's another day off.

What was fought for and won by the labour movement is more important than ever at a time when wages are stagnant and working conditions are gradually being eroded in the name of efficiency (i.e. shareholder profits). We have a proven way to give better working conditions and help share the success of the economy among the people.

Unions should be using this as an opportunity to show their relevance, especially at a time when they are only ever in the media when there's corruption or strikes. Without collective bargaining, the forces of supply and demand fix wages. Unskilled or low-skilled work is vulnerable to tougher conditions, lower pay, and exploitation.

Yet it's another day off.

We need more attention given to why it is we have this day off because without that attention there's too much power for those who can gradually erode the gains made by the labour movement. We are seeing the effects of that already, and as technology and globalisation continue to push forward, we will see greater effects.

It's no wonder MAGA was a thing, or Brexit was a thing, or that far-right national parties around the world are taking more and more of the protest vote of vulnerable workers feeling betrayed and marginalised by a political system that seems to serve the wealthy. It's no wonder many young people see communism as a solution despite every implementation of communism being a dismal failure that made workers worse off than a market-driven economy.

Yet it's another day off.

Every company wants to maximise its profits, and that means trying to get the most out of the workers for the least amount of money. The human capital - our wellbeing and our lives above and beyond work - doesn't factor into it. That's our responsibility, and we can only get that as a greater society reflecting on itself.

Labour Day is important because it's a reminder of how everyone can be made better off by collective action, and that we as a society ought to be having the conversation of how we want to live. It's a reminder that conditions can improve and that we aren't fully beholden to the relentless pursuit of profit.

It's another day off, and that's worth celebrating.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Terrorism As A Theological Statement

What's important to remember about any religiously-motivated act of terrorism is that the act itself is a theological statement. Any such act must be countered swiftly and vehemently with the denial of the truth of their interpretation of the doctrine, such that the argument is put in its place once and for all. And the fact that it hasn't seemed to get through is all the more reason to repeat it loudly and often - such is the role of the layman in theological disputes.

And if that fails, there's always politics to fall back on, as true theology is never political in nature...

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Parable of the Atom Seeker

A young student grows up in a society that holds the belief where she, like everything else, is made up of tiny unseen particles called atoms. So after learning something about the methodologies of science, she decides to understand what the science is behind the atom.

What strikes her at first is how the explanations for the atom didn't fit at all into the scientific method, but relied heavily on everyday experience. Furthermore, no modern physicists have witnessed such experiences, but rely solely on the accounts of early physicists. Some physicists claimed to have experiences that tangentially supported the experiences of the original physicists, but none of them could produce any evidence remotely like that which holds for other theories.

Upon further investigation, she realises that physicists disagree among themselves as to which experiences count as evidence of the atom. Some physicists argue that the experiences are interpreted too literally, while others hold to as literal a reading as possible. Some argue that the experiences can only be understood in light of arcane mystic writings and ancient mythic tales, and there is disagreement among those physicists as to the process this takes.

The quality of evidence is further called into question when other physical theories adequately account for the evidence for atoms without needing to posit atomic theory. She finds physicists will admit this in parts, but again there is disagreement between physicists over which scientific phenomena explain away the need for atoms in any given case. Some physicists spoke of the atom in metaphor, some shrouded knowledge of atoms in mystery, and some asserted that certain experiences of atoms were brute facts.

But not all physicists even agreed that evidence was important. Some physicists argued from first principles alone, invoking philosophical arguments that spoke of the atom's necessity in some respect. There were multiple of these arguments, though physicists disagreed among themselves as to the validity and significance of various arguments. Entire classes of arguments were championed by some physicists, while others favoured a different kind of arguments. She found the arguments for the most part lacking in any detail, and where there was detail it contradicted other established science. There was just no way to reconcile the arguments with the claims made about atoms.

She found some physicists who disagreed with both the arguments and the evidential approach. Some argued for the beauty of the idea as proof of the reality of atoms. Other physicists argued that atoms fit with our emotional needs. Some argued that the atoms were needed to keep social order. Some argued that their emotional response to the theory is its proof. Finally, some physicists admitted that a belief in atoms is a matter of faith, which a few embracing the idea of atoms precisely because they are an absurd concept.

The only constant she found in the exercise was the belief itself. Physicists couldn't decide among themselves what the implications were, let alone any detail that could be subject to the same scrutiny that other physical theories have. What follows is that the consensus among physicists is an artificial one, with no two physicist sharing quite the same view of what an atom is or how we know about it. And, finally, the reasons and evidence given in favour of atomic theory were unlike the various successful epistemologies that she had learnt about. At that point, there was nothing to do for the idea of atoms than to just walk away until such time the concept became more scientific... though she doubts that would ever be the case.


The question "does God exist?" has been the focus of more than enough academic inquiry that the inquiry itself deserves to be taken seriously. In any given field, outsiders looking in are looking at the promise of a discipline to be able to provide satisfactory answers on the questions it purports to cover. This isn't always easy, as academic discourse tends to become self-sustaining making it harder for outsiders to be able to make sense of it. So some latitude must be given for outsiders simply not to "get it" when it comes to the validity of the questions and the approach to answers the discipline offers.

Two things to recognise are that a) no human endeavour is truly in isolation, and b) there are a lot of ways to spend a lot of time asking wrong questions. Astrology and alchemy good examples of both. The methods of astrologers and alchemists throughout the ages have overlap with the methods used in science and philosophy. And both astrology and alchemy are nonsense notions that had a lot of ink spilled over a long time by some very smart and learned people. Very few of us are astrologers today, and none are alchemists, yet as outsiders we feel sufficiently qualified to write off both intellectual disciplines as failed truth-telling endeavours about the universe. It could have turned out both were true. It turned out neither were.

What I tried to do in the parable above was highlight my own experiences trying to understand the question of God as believers see it, including what philosophers and theologians have said about the question. I grant the possibility that there could be a theologian out there who has a legitimate case for God's existence, but I don't see the worth of exploring the subject in any great detail. Despite the towering intellects and sheer amount of manpower thrown at the problem, there doesn't seem to be the same conversation among learned believers about what God is and does - let alone a case made with the successful epistemologies we have developed. This stands out in contrast to the actual atomic theory - or any other scientific theory - where the scientists have general agreement as to what theories are and the state of the evidence, even if they sometimes disagree on detail.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Cult of Health

A few days ago, someone in my Facebook feed shared an article about how psychiatrists want to classify an obsession with health as a mental illness. The impropriety! How could it possibly be that wanting to be healthy be a disorder?!

I don't know if the article was correct, and I certainly don't know the details of psychiatric diagnoses, or what should be a disorder or not. I'm not a psychiatrist. But the article did get me thinking about a more general concern I have - that the fixation on health isn't so much about actually being healthy.

Before I go into this, I need to take a few steps back.

A number of years back, I was browsing the health section in a book store. There were plenty of books to choose from, but almost all of them were complete crap. I left the the book store with two thoughts: people want to be healthy, and there's plenty of misinformation out there for anyone wanting to make that choice. For a society that demonises being fat, glorifies being fit and thin, what we've got is an industry dedicated to making money from it.

Fast forward a little. A couple of years ago, I joined a gym in a somewhat futile effort to get in shape. One day, as I was trying to work my triceps, I looked up at the TV. There was an ad for some equipment that promised all the results without any of the effort. Here I am in agony making barely any inroads, yet there was a machine promising me everything I wanted without needing to engage in this masochistic endeavour. Naturally I'm dubious, so I kept my gym membership and did not get suckered in by the infomercial, but again there was that parasitism on the desire for being fit. (Ignoring, for a moment, the false promise that is a gym membership.)

About 18 months into the gym membership, and it was going reasonably well. I was losing weight, though not as much as I liked, and I was getting fitter. Then two things happened: I injured myself, meaning I had to cut back, and I took on some extra responsibility at work, which meant I was working longer hours and eating a lot of pizza (provided by the company). In a month, I had regained over half of the 11kg I had lost over the previous 18 months. There had to be a better way.

First, I read The Healthy Programmer - a book I had bought during a sale, but it sat on my virtual shelf for months. I read it in 4 days, and was eager to take my new-found knowledge and put it into action. Second, my mother told me about a website called MyFitnessPal, which I could use for tracking my food and exercise - something I took to quite obsessively. And between the diet and exercise, I've had really good results. I'm now normal weight for the first time in my adult life, and I recently beat the 10km mark in a run.

So hopefully I've established that I do have an interest in health, in being healthy, and in leading a healthy lifestyle. I'm not at all opposed to the idea of people wanting to be healthy, and I don't care in the slightest if that interest in health for others is something related to wanting to look sexually desirable or simply wanting to avoid the prejudices our society has against the overweight. People spend far too much effort impugning and maligning the motives of others. (Again, the impropriety!)
  1. Health foods - There's an aisle in my local supermarket dedicated to what it calls "health" foods. It's good that there's an aisle for foods that don't contain foods with allergens, it's hard to grasp how the foods in that section are any healthier than the equivalents in different aisles. Are the organic almonds really better for me nutritionally than the regular almonds sitting with the other nuts? Are bars made of sesame seeds, condensed milk and honey? They taste good, don't get me wrong, but it's hard to know where the "health" comes into it. And of course, the "health" food is opposite the wall of vitamin pills and meal replacement powders. So we have an entire section of the supermarket dedicated to foods pretending to be better for us next to pills and powder that try to mimic food. Whatever happened to a balanced diet?
  2. Health food claims - Two aisles over from the wall of pills is the wall of sugar, which incidentally is my favourite wall because it has dark chocolate. But it's also the aisle that shows how health claims permeate all our subconscious desires. Because labels like "all natural" and "99% fat free" sit proudly on packets harbouring highly process sugar melded into fun shapes. No marketer is really trying to convince us that Starburst is actually healthy, but highlights the absurdity of the practice taken to an extreme. It's comical on that packet of Starburst, but pernicious on TV dinners with the brand "Healthy Choice".
  3. Superfoods - There's no such thing. There are basic micro and macronutrients we need to survive, and the best way to do that seems to be to eat a balanced diet. But beyond that, the idea that there are particular foods that are nutritionally-overcharged and really ought to be on our plates is nothing more than marketing hype. Our species survived and thrived long before the vitamin pill aisle, and we similarly did without kale salad dusted with quinoa and chia seeds and a side of acai berries.
  4. Calories - On the flip-side to superfoods is the dreaded notion of energy. So while most of us need ~2000 of these a day to survive, foods that are high calories are demonised despite having a good nutritional profile. One article talking about the nutritional content of almonds, for example, talked about all the nutrients it had in it, then warned people off them because they are very high in calories. Again, it seems to be the superfood thinking - that there's this one magic ingredient that we should consume copious quantities of, and it would be almonds if not for its caloric content.
  5. Ethical eaters - I can appreciate vegans being so for ethical reasons, or people not wanting to eat certain foods because of industrial practices. But it amazes me how these ethical considerations just happen to line up with what they think is healthy. Just a vegan's luck that not only is eating animals cruel to the animal, it's unhealthy for us. Just as organic has extra nutritional benefits, genetically modified food is a health crisis in waiting, and those "unnatural" artificial sweeteners are already a health crisis. It's great that there's a direct correlation between ethical eating and healthy eating...
  6. Diets - Inevitably I'm asked what kind of diet I'm on. I answer "none". After being looked at sceptically, I elaborate "I'm on the not overeating diet". After growing up in a world where fat was the enemy, now it's carbohydrates that are the enemy. We now should quit sugar, live like our paleo ancestors (with our modern foods), take two days a week for radical reduction in calories, or even kick-start our metabolism with coffee filled with butter and coconut oil! And when those techniques don't do anything to help with the obesity crisis, you can be sure there's going to be some new techniques complete with success testimonials just around the corner. Again, whatever happened to a balanced diet?
  7. Willpower and choice - Everywhere in the West seems to be in an obesity crisis right now. So while more adults all around the world are becoming overweight, the issue keeps coming down to choice. That is, if you are fat, then you chose to be fat. If you try to lose weight and fail, it's because you didn't have the willpower for it. In other words, you are the disgusting blob you are because you make bad choices and don't apply willpower properly. It strikes me as a post hoc justification for victim-blaming, and that's highlighted by how much this argument is used by junk food companies to oppose regulation, but it's prevalent nonetheless.
  8. Motivation-in-a-box - The internalisation of the willpower argument is the idea that a particular product is going to be the thing that finally motivates you into becoming healthy. Right now, it's activity trackers. A few years ago, it was Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution. For as long as I can remember, there's always been some product that plays to our recognition of our inactivity. Even at the gym, I see infomercials on the TV for products that will tone our body without the slightest strain.
  9. The shortcut - Since the dawn of our species, we've taken the effort to make us look better than we actually are. We want to give the impression of health, youth, and vitality. The beauty industry is the logical, albeit absurd, consequence of this fundamental drive. And, thankfully, for those who recognise that there's no such thing as a product that will get them the look they desire, there's a product that will give the illusion. Body-shaping clothes sitting atop of skin full of fake tan and anti-wrinkle cream, you can appear healthy to the ouside world.
  10. Purity - Perhaps the worst aspect of health as a commodity is the expectation that health should be the aspect of our being our actions revolve around. Why should it be that drinking a glass of red wine for its supposed health benefits is acceptable, while drinking a glass of red wine for the sheer pleasure not? This idea that we have to be obsessed with our health (and by extension, everyone else's) is something that's just assumed by the "my body is my temple" crowd. The flip-side of this language is the impurity of failing to live up to the same aspirations, thereby condemning the failure as having morally failed.
What's questionable to me is whether any of this is doing us any good. Do any of the products in the store that have health claims make for part of being healthy? Does the consumption of superfoods and avoidance of calories? Do any diets, ethical or otherwise, work? Does making it a matter of willpower? Or is the focus on the appearance of health creating the market for products that mimic the look? And are we just becoming self-righteous in the condemnation of others for the crime of not living to our ideals?

We can frame obesity in economic terms, as everything is these days, and deduce that it's a moral imperative from the sheer weight exerted on our medical systems - similar to how we've deduced the moral imperative to rid tobacco from the world. But while smoking has declined, decades of focus on the "obesity epidemic" has seen obesity soar, as if somehow obese people haven't gotten the message that it's really really really really bad to be obese.

It seems to me that the focus on health as this sole marker of societal (and therefore, human) worth needs to be vastly toned down, or at the very least addressed in the way other health crises have been addressed - by trying to root out the underlying factors. Because what we have right now is a self-aware society getting more obese doomed to failure by the memetic equivalent of snake oil. The focus on health, at least in the current environment should be considered a complete failure, because it has not led to healthy outcomes. It hasn't even led to a blueprint for health that people can at least try to follow, beyond eat less skittles and exercise more - with the purchasing of skittles thereby being a moral failing. Clearly something has gone horribly wrong!