October 29, 2012

Big Ideas

ABC Television

Sam Harris (1967):
Values reduce to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. …
[We] are right to be more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects.
Because … there is an inner dimension there that can be modulated to a much greater degree by changes in the universe.
For changes in the universe to matter, they have to matter to some conscious system. …
(Can Science Determine Human Values?, 10 May 2011)

Mark Lewis [Lawyer]:
[The initial prosecution into phone hacking was the responsibility of] Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman.
[He subsequently left the Metropolitan Police to become] a journalist for The Times newspaper which belongs to Rupert Murdoch
[He] wrote an article which said, the phone hacking investigation in 2006 [— which uncovered one 'rogue reporter' —] was a 'proper' investigation [in which] 'not a stone was left unturned'. …
[His article was reprinted in the News of the World —] the very paper he should have been investigating …
(Politics and the Murdoch Press, 23 April 2012)

Contents


Shit Happens

Media Matters

The Heart of Democracy

The Science of Morality


BIG IDEAS


Waleed Aly (1978)

  • A Killer can be a Good Neighbour, 21 February 2014.
    Erwin James: Journalist.
  • The 21st Century is Australia's for the Taking, 25 November 2013.
    Rupert Murdoch.
  • Women in the Media, Andrew Olle Media Lecture, 14 November 2013.
    Lisa Wilkinson: media personality.

    Lisa Wilkinson:
    I despair when I see the young female radio DJ disappear from sight and unable to work after being caught up in a prank call to a London hospital that saw a troubled nurse take her own life.
    Meanwhile who male co-host gets promoted and is given a major industry award by his employer as:
    Top Jock of the Year.
    Turns out: shit happens!

    Wikipedia:
    The call … was answered by a nurse, Jacintha Saldanha [who then] transferred the call to the nurse treating the Duchess, who gave details of her health.
    [Michael] Christian, who had only started on the show a day earlier, proposed calling the hospital in the hope of getting the Duchess on the air.
    The stunt was cleared by 2Day FM lawyers prior to airing. …

    Saldanha had reportedly attempted suicide twice before. …
    (18 November 2013)

    BBC News [20/9/2013]:
    [A] confidential, preliminary report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) … said 2Day FM acted illegally by airing the phone call without consent.

    Lawyers for … Southern Cross Austereo, are seeking to block the report [arguing that] the ACMA does not have the power to make a criminal finding, only the courts do.
    Australian Federal Police are currently investigating the call.

    Nurse Jacintha Saldanha was found dead in December [2012], three days after DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian duped her into transferring a call to the Duchess of Cambridge's hospital ward.
    A ward nurse at King Edward VII's Hospital then gave the DJs details about the condition of the Duchess, who was being treated for severe morning sickness at the time.

    Christian returned to work two months after the prank call …
    Greig remains off air and is suing her employer for failing to provide a safe workplace.
    She is due to give evidence in person at the London inquest into Saldanha's death …

    peaceandlonglife:
    Shit happens.
    Like natural disasters or car accidents?
    The fact that Saldana was vulnerable does not mean her death was inevitable.
    Inadvertently triggering a suicide should, at the very least, prompt a degree of sober reflection.

    It was a breach of media ethics to air that story without seeking the consent of staff members who were "caught up" in the prank.
    And the choice of this particular incident to highlight the discriminatory treatment of a female media personalities was ill-considered.
    It was Saldanha and her family, not Grieg, who were the real collateral damage in mass media's pursuit of frivolous entertainment.

  • Foresight over Hindsight, Jack Beale Lecture, University of NSW, 21 October 2013.
    David Suzuki (1936).
  • Refugees: Where Do They Come From?, Perth Writers Festival, 18 March 2013.
  • Bashed, Sued, Celebrated, Revered, 3 September 2012.
    Bob Brown (1944): Former Leader, Australian Greens.
  • Political Animal: Tony Abbott, 28 September 2012.
    David Marr (1947): Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, Quarterly Essay, No 47, September 2012.
  • The War of the Sexes, 23 July 2012.
    Paul Seabright (1958): Professor of Economics, Toulouse School of Economics.
  • Understanding the Mind, 21 May 2012.
    Sogyal Rinpoche: Author, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

    We've lost the sense of being.
    [As Pascal said:]
    All of the men's problem arise from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself …
    Water, if you don't stir it, will become clear.
    Mind, if unaltered, will find true peace.

  • Positive Psychology, Happiness and Its Causes Convention, 30 April 2012.
    Martin Seligman (1942): Director, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania.

    What is wealth for?
    Why do we care about unemployment and GDP? …
    What we really care about is well-being …
    Money is in the service of wellbeing.


  • Murdoch and Political Power, 25 March 2012.
    David McKnight: Associate Professor of Journalism, University of NSW.
    Rupert Murdoch — An Investigation of Political Power, Allen & Unwin, February 2012.

    [David Cameron] released figures of meetings between his ministers and the media …
    [A] member of his cabinet saw a representative of News International [on average every 3 days during] the period when News International was trying to increase its stake in BSkyB.

  • Cultivating Genuine Altruism, 28 June 2011.
    Matthieu Ricard.
  • The Race to the Bottom in Politics and Journalism, Wallace Wurth Memorial Lecture, University of New South Wales, 7 June 2011.
    Kerry O'Brien: Journalist.
  • Can Science Determine Human Values?, FORA.tv, 10 May 2011.
    Sam Harris: Neuroscientist; Philosopher; Co-Founder and CEO, Project Reason.

    [Secular] people … seem to have [had] their convictions of moral truth eroded by something … in science and philosophy [over the last 200 years.]
    We are in danger of waking up in a world where the only people who are sure that moral truths exist are religious demagogues who think the universe is 6 000 years old.
    That is not a world we should be eager to live in. …

    I was at a conference a few years ago, talking about the link between morality and human wellbeing …
    We know that morality relates to human wellbeing.
    We know that human wellbeing relates to the facts that allow mind to emerge in the brain.
    And so it is constrained by truth claims, in some sense.
    And therefore we know, certain cultures are wrong about how to maximise human wellbeing.
    [They are] wrong in terms of what they value.
    I cited, as an example, life for women under the Taliban. …




    After I spoke, another speaker came up to me …
    How could you ever say that the compulsory veiling of women is wrong ‒ from the point of view of science?

    Well, the moment you link questions of right and wrong to questions of human wellbeing …
    Then it [is] clear that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags and beating them (or killing them) when they try to get out, is not a way of maximising wellbeing. …

    Well, that is just your opinion. …

    Let's imagine we found a culture that was removing the eyeballs of every third child.
    [Would you agree that such a culture] was not perfectly maximising human wellbeing?

    It would depend on why they were doing it. …

    Let's say they have a scripture which says:
    Every third should walk in darkness …
    Then you could never say they were wrong.
    This was a woman who had a background in science and philosophy.
    She's … on the President's council for bioethics …
    She had just delivered a … lecture on the moral implications … for the use of neuroscience in our courts.
    She was … worried that we have been developing lie detection technology, and that we were using this on captured terrorists.
    She viewed this as an invasion of cognitive liberty.
    So on one hand her moral scruples were finely calibrated to our own possible missteps in the War on Terror.
    [Yet] she was rather sanguine about the ritual enucleation of children, and terrifyingly detached from the very real suffering of millions of women in Afghanistan …
    This [astonishing] juxtaposition of views is something I am encountering a lot … among disproportionately well-educated and liberal people. …

    [It] has been said, over and over again, that there is a distinction between facts and values.
    [That] science, and rationality generally, can only … make truth claims about the former.
    [And facts] transcend culture in some basic sense. …

    Values are the domain of questions of right and wrong, and good and evil.
    And, inconveniently for us, this is the area where the most important questions in human life arise. …
    How should you raise your children?
    What goals should you strive for in life?
    What constitutes a good life?

    It is thought that science will never be able to tell us the right answers to these questions.
    Just as science is never going to tell you whether you should like chocolate over vanilla. …

    [This is] a dangerous illusion. …
    [One that] erodes the conviction of very smart people in the face of … barbaric practices which occasion needless human misery. …

    [In 1947, in] the immediate aftermath of World War II the UN put forward it's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. …
    American Anthropological Association:
    Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs and moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole …
    [This] is the best our social sciences could do with the crematoria of Auschwitz still smoking….

    If the word 'bad' is to mean anything, surely it applies to the worst possible misery for everyone. …
    [Therefore, if] we should do anything in the universe, we should avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.
    If you have the worst possible misery for everyone over here, and you have every other possible constellation of conscious experience, which, by definition, is better.
    So you have this continuum … of possible states of consciousness.
    And given that consciousness is … constrained by the laws of nature in some way ‒ there are going to be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum.
    There are going to be ways to think you're avoiding the worst possible misery and to fail.
    It is going to be possible to have erroneous beliefs about how best to move from your current space on this continuum to something better. …

    [This proposition] meets with objections of the following sort. …
    If a member of the Taliban wants to throw battery acid in the face of a little girl for the crime of wanting to learn to read.
    How could you convince him that he is as moral as you are? …
    This is a pseudo-problem. …
    This fundamental sceptical challenge about wellbeing not being worth valuing, and how could you convince someone [to value it] who doesn't …

    [Take] our notion of physical health. …
    We don't have a clear definition of health. …
    It has something to do with not dying too early.
    It has something to do with not always vomiting. …

    The fact that it can't be clearly tied down is not a problem for the science of medicine.
    You don't hear a philosophical challenge to medicine of the following sort:
    Who are you say that not always vomiting is healthy?
    What if you meet someone, who wants to always vomit, and wants to be dead tomorrow? …
    How would you convince a person with terminal small pox that he is not as healthy as you are?



    This kind of attack upon medicine would make no sense.
    And yet this is precisely the attack one hears from moral relativists and multiculturalists when you talk about the … needless and horrific misery of millions of people in situations that are anchored to pathological notions of good and evil. …

    Even the most basic, apparently value free, facts in science are also anchored to values, in a way that would never survive this kind of sceptical challenge you meet when you talk about morality. …

    Consider water …
    [It's] two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.
    What do we do when someone doubts that proposition? …
    Well that's not how I choose to think about water. …
    I'm a biblical chemist.
    You can get your chemistry from science, but I get my chemistry from the book of Genesis. …
    The only thing we can do … is appeal to …

    Scientific Values

    • understanding the world
    • respect for evidence
    • logical consistency
    • intellectual honesty
    • parsimony
    You have to value evidence.
    You have to value logical consistency. …
    If you don't value these things, the conversation stops.
    There is no convincing someone who doesn't value evidence, that they should value it.
    What evidence are you going to provide to convince someone that they should value evidence?
    What logical argument are you going to offer to convince them of the necessity of obeying the rules of logic? …

    You can't get an 'is' without and 'ought'.
    You cannot make the most basic scientific statement without conforming to the norms of scientific rationality. …
    [That] there is this division between facts and values in science [is a myth. …]

    Things can go disastrously wrong in human communities.
    But they go wrong for a reason.
    How we move from a state of absolute and needless misery to something much more idyllic.
    That movement is still constrained … by the dynamics of human psychology, and social systems, and economic incentives, and the rule of law …
    [It] is not merely culture that explains these movements.
    There are many levels at which … human wellbeing can be maximised. …
    We're talking about genetics, and neurobiology, and psychology, and sociology, and economics. …

    When I talk about science giving us an understanding of human values.
    I'm not [just] talking about … lab-coated experimentalists scanning brains.
    I'm talking about any area of human life where we make truth claims based on honest observation and clear reasoning about the nature of reality. …
    There are … right and wrong ways for human beings to seek to thrive. …




    [The] peaks correspond to the heights of wellbeing …
    [The valleys] to the lowest depths of suffering. …
    There are many different ways for human beings and human communities to thrive …
    [And] many more ways to not be on a peak. …

    [People worry that for] an ethical principle [to be] true, it has to always be true.
    [That] if you find a single exception … there's no such thing as moral truth. …

    Consider … the game of chess.
    The principle of no losing your queen is absolutely worth following almost all the time. …
    And yet, it admits nearly countless exceptions. …

    When the Nazi's come knocking on the door, asking whether you have Jews in the basement.
    That may be a time to forget about Kant and tell your first lie.
    The fact that there's a situational exception to the principle of not lying, does not mean there is no such thing as moral truth. …

    This model … also admits of the possibility of spiritual or mystical experience.
    The human mind is capable of having remarkable self-transcending experiences. …
    Many of which you have to have a talent (perhaps) [and training, (certainly)] to access.
    [Many] positive social emotions that we all experience can be brought a much higher register than we bring them. …

    [Compassion] is best thought of as a skill.
    It's clearly trainable. …
    Our minds are to some degree plastic.
    You become what you pay attention to. …
    This is something a maturing science of the mind can put us in a position to understand. …

    The Catholic Church is simply more concerned about stopping contraception than about stopping the rape of children.
    This is a fact about the beliefs of [the Pope.]
    The use of his energy [and that of the Church] over the last several decades. …
    It is mind-boggling the effort that was not spent to protect children, and effort that was spent on sheltering the rapists from secular justice.
    The Catholic Church is [more concerned] about stopping gay marriage than stopping genocide.
    This is what its attention is on. …
    This is not an alternate moral framework that we have to take seriously. …

    If a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night …
    [You] must take her to her father's doorstep and stone her to death.
    (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
    When we go to scripture, we are the guarantors of the wisdom we find there.
    We find the Golden Rule, and we say “Ah Ha!” that's why you should read the bible. …
    [And we] ignore the rest of the book ‒ where the most mind numbing theocratic barbarism is recommended.
    We bowdlerise the book.
    [Our] moral tools are coming from outside the text. …

    There's also the inconvenient fact that the most important and easily resolved moral conundrums are conundrums that the Creator of the universe apparently gets wrong. …
    Slavery is supported in the Bible.
    Both in the Old Testament and the New.
    The God of Abraham never envisioned a time when humans ceased to keep slaves. …
    Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was right to point out that theology was on the side of the slave holders.
    It was despite theology, that we got rid of slavery. …

    People take the difficulties we have with answering moral problems as a sign that there can be no such thing as moral truth. …
    [But, just] as there are perceptual illusions, there are moral illusions.
    And these are illusions that we have to find a way to get behind. …

    Paul Slovak … asks groups of people how much would you give to help a little girl in need.
    And when you ask people that question you get a maximum rating of empathy, and a maximum donation.
    And if you ask people how much would you give to help a little boy in need, you get the same response …
    When you ask them how much they would give to a little girl and a little boy in need, you get a 25% diminishment in both self-reported empathy and material donation.
    Our concern goes down a quarter by adding another child.
    This is clearly … a bug [in our moral intuition], not a feature. …
    The more kids you add, the more altruism and empathy diminishes. …

    This explains, what Slovak has called “genocide neglect”. …
    [For example,] we have endless resources to pay attention to the story of one little girl trapped in a well. …
    For something like 120 hours, [baby Jessica] was in this well, and there was … wall to wall television coverage.
    Everyone with a television was desperate to see how this was going to turn out.
    [Yet,] 800 000 people can be hacked to death in Rwanda and, if it even makes the news, we can barely pay attention to.
    We have to engineer our better selves into our laws and our social institutions so that we can protect ourselves from our moment to moment failures of moral intuition.

    The moment we admit there are right answers to questions of human wellbeing.
    And that morality relates to this domain of facts.
    Then we have to admit that [it is possible to] care about the wrong things.
    [That] certain individuals, subcultures, and [perhaps] even whole cultures … care about things that [empirically] produce needless human misery. …

    There are undoubtedly ways of raising children, ways of talking to one another in the public sphere, and institutional mechanisms to put in place that encourage the greatest number of people to cooperate freely and non-oppressively, and creatively with everyone else.
    That's the challenge for us.
    We have to build a global civilisation that allows most of the people who want to do that, to do that.
    And there are obvious [foundational] principles …
    Things like: free speech; and the rights of women. …
    Yet many societies don't even have that.
    The most basic rudiments of … a sane sphere for public discourse. …

    The trade-offs between individuals and collective, between free speech and privacy …
    [These] are difficult ethical dilemmas that we can run into at the margins …
    But the biggest moves for us to make as whole cultures are so obvious.
    [They] are moves that would lift every boat with the same tide.
    Stomping nuclear proliferation.
    Stomping our contribution to climate change.
    Stomping the causes of war.
    Stomping pandemics.
    All of these things are good for everybody.
    You don't need divisive religious dogmatism to help that project along.
    In fact, it's one of the most obvious things standing in its way. …

    It's a very strange intuition that the most important questions in human life must fall outside of science.
    [That] when you become the most intellectually honest …
    When you get your wishful thinking out of the way …
    When you get biases out of the way …
    When you rely on clear reasoning and observation …
    That's precisely the mood you can't be in ‒ to address the most important questions in human life.
    That's weird …
    There is no other mood to be in to address the most important questions.
    [Again,] I don't define science narrowly.
    It's evidence based rational discussion.
    Where people's convictions are going to scale with the quality of convictions and the quality of the evidence.
    That is the antithesis of … religion. …

    [While] we converge on logical facts in a scientific understanding of the world, we don't converge perfectly.
    [In] certain situations … not even a majority of people … converge.
    25% of Americans think evolution is fact.
    The rest … don't.
    [Yet] biology can still thrive in that context.

    It possible that there are moral truths that even a majority may not be up to realising, but … may still be true. …
    [Just] as we want to empower biologists to talk about real biology.
    (Even though they would get voted out of office if their neighbors could.)
    We have to empower the people who really understand the danger of nuclear proliferation.
    [Who recognise] that it is worthy of our attention [while] gay marriage isn't.
    [And to] prioritise those things at the level of public policy. …

    What's the alternative?
    All we have is human conversation ‒ where we're trying to influence one another to share a common project of peaceful cooperation. …

    What I am [fighting] for is [for ethical] trade-offs [to be in] terms of human wellbeing.
    [Not] in terms of something else. …
    If you are going to oppose gay marriage … your side of the argument has to be:
    Here is all the suffering that gay marriage is going to cause.
    This is what is going to happen to children if they get adopted by gay people. …
    There is no burden on anyone to make that argument at the moment …
    [We] are living in a world in which the President of the United States can say:
    My faith tells me that marriage is between a man and a woman.
    End of argument.
    That is the move that should not be open to smart people.
    And certainly people with responsibility in our society.

  • Who says science has nothing to say about morality?   Richard Dawkins Foundation, Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford, 12 April 2011.
    Sam Harris & Richard Dawkins.

    Just as we don't have Christian physics, even though Christians invented physics.
    And we don't have Muslim algebra, even though Muslims invented algebra.
    At some point we will not have Christian and Muslim morality.
    The truth has to float free of these provincial ideas.
    What remains for us to discover are all the facts that relate to genuine questions of well-being. …

    How could we build a global civilisation in which the maximum number of people truly flourish?
    Solving that problem is not going to entail, working a billion people to death as slaves. …
    We are so deeply social.
    Our happiness is so heavily predicated on the creativity and flourishing of others. …
    We're not atomised selves [whose] selfishness can be maintained in opposition to all others.
    The only way to be wisely selfish in this world is to care about other, for all of our enjoyment. …
    These are intrinsically social and non-zero-sum concerns. …

    [In The Moral Landscape] I delineate three projects …
    • The first project is to understand how we came to be the way we are …
      [How] we became primates who have morally salient emotions …
      That's a story for evolutionary biology and psychology …
    • [The second] is we can figure out how we can experience the greatest well-being based on how conscious states arise in the brain and how they're impacted by the world. …
    • The third project is to convince people to drop all of the moral commitments that lead to unnecessary human misery.
      That's a political [project] and a project of persuasion. …

    … Kant's categorical imperative … only makes sense in a moral framework, if in fact, its consequences are good.
    If you have consequences that are obviously horrible, it would no longer count as a rule for morality.
    And so too with a Rawlsian analysis of justice. …
    It only counts as a moral precept because we recognise, and rightly, that fairness and justice are hugely beneficial to us.
    And we all tend to profit from the system in which fairness and justice rank very high on our list of moral concerns.
    But I think the cash value is always the consequences in terms of what I'm calling wellbeing.

    Wellbeing is like health.
    It can keep absorbing the next thing we care about.
    If you come forward and say:
    No, no, you don't understand, there's this other thing that's so important, that you're neglecting to consider.
    It's importance is always going to show up in terms of positive changes in the conscious states of any conscious creature that could experience that thing.

  • Scientists Who Lie, 19 March 2011.
    Naomi Oreskes.
  • Objectivity and the Climate Debate, George Munster Award Forum, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology, Sydney, 2 December 2010.
    Anne Henderson-Sellers, Sarah Clark, Ben Cubby and Philip Chubb.
  • The Future of Conservatism in Australia, 12 April 2010.
    Waleed Aly.

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