Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Sorry for the delay; this took a while by itself. Most of you that know me from Tom Bean and environs will have heard at least parts of this before, and anyone who has read my earlier entries will understand my interest in preventing conflict. You should understand from the beginning that, as logical as a lot of this will sound, my logic is not really very strict. My most stringent logic is reserved for justifying the main points. Also keep in mind that the best and most applicable of the ideas here don’t come up until the end.

First, we must take as a given that life is irreplaceable. This is a clearly secular (non-religious) viewpoint. Most religions teach that their followers will go on to some kind of afterlife, with the specifics usually dependent upon the person’s devotion to the teacher’s interpretation of the religion and its’ doctrine. For example, according to Christianity, people who love Jesus, believe that he died for their sins, and adhere to a host of other principles, will go to heaven when they die and live there in eternal happiness. Alternately, those who do not adequately follow these rules will go to hell when they die and spend eternity in pain and suffering. These beliefs were originally created to encourage the masses to do as their religious leaders told them; other faiths created similar doctrines for the same reason. Very cleverly, though, this kind of belief reduces the value of mortal life. After all, there is an infinite life after this one, so this one doesn’t really matter that much. I accept the possibility that my consciousness may continue to exist after I die, but given the lack of evidence of that, I live under the assumption that this is the only life I will ever have.

From there, I accept that all other lives are equally as irreplaceable as mine. This, I will readily admit, I must accept with a certain amount of faith, as I can never have direct knowledge of the circumstances of another person’s life. I can talk to them and see them live, but I cannot know what they experience.

I then conclude that, as lives cannot be replaced once they are gone (i.e. someone dies), lives must be preserved. This is a very general conclusion, with many necessary practical exceptions. However, each exception must be carefully justified before any action contrary to the general principle is taken. The obvious example of such an exception is defense of oneself from physical harm. Right away, we have a very delicate problem. It is extremely unfortunate that our current level of technology makes it so easy to kill a person but relatively difficult to prevent this killing. One of the many things I hope to contribute to creating is a reliable and effective way to incapacitate people from great distances without killing them. But, this is generally not possible, so my slightly less general principle for dealing with self defense is this: First, one must assess the magnitude of harm that they may incur. If this harm might be fatal, they must prevent it. This follows from the deduction that, if all lives must be preserved, one’s own life must be preserved. How to do this then becomes a problem. Let’s say someone has a gun and demonstrates that they intend to use it to kill you. You also have a gun. Your only way to guarantee that you preserve your life is to shoot your assailant and kill them. Should you do it? My answer is: absolutely yes. You didn’t ask to be threatened; that person made a choice to threaten you, so it makes sense that, if one of the two of you should suffer, it’s them. The overall problem here is that this situation is uselessly hypothetical. Too many constraints exist that would not in reality. So, in reality, what do you do? I, at least, try to prevent harm to myself and those around me by the least harmful means possible. So, if I can disarm the armed assailant with minimal risk to the people around me, I do that. If I can prevent that person from having the gun or from wanting to kill me, even better. I would only kill as a last resort, once all of my other options appeared to be exhausted.

It easily follows this reasoning that the person attacking you with a gun is always wrong. Deliberately doing anything harmful to another person when there will be no clear, positive result of this harm is always wrong. This idea can also be applied to many non-violent situations, which is most often how these ideas apply to the lives of me and most of the people I know. We (thankfully) rarely find ourselves in violent or dangerous situations. I feel extremely lucky that I have never had to but my principle of not killing except as a last resort to the test, and I hope I never have to. We do end up involved in a great many social conflicts, where emotional harm takes the place of physical harm. Obviously, no deaths are ever directly caused by emotional harm. Suicide, which seems intuitively to contradict that statement, is always a choice made by the person; their death is a result of that choice, which was only indirectly caused by whatever emotional trauma they experienced or believed they experienced. So, normally, social conflicts have nothing to do with life or death and would seem much less important. I generally agree, but no one likes being fought with or insulted, so we should still work to prevent these things.

So, here’s the important part: how do we prevent social, emotionally harmful conflicts? It’s simple, really: don’t start them and don’t participate in the ones other people start. It really is that easy. Remember that physical harm is rare in such conflicts, so ignoring someone who insults you or spreads rumors has a very low chance of hurting you. If physical harm does become a possibility, the situation changes and appropriate defensive action must be taken. Short of that, though, ignoring social conflicts is a good idea. If we all committed ourselves just to never starting conflicts, we would never have to ignore them because none would exist. So don’t insult people, don’t spread degrading rumors about them, and ignore anyone who does do these things.

In all the things I do, whether I’m observing a squabble amongst friends, watching a physical fight, just talking to someone, playing a video game, or even writing in this blog, I follow the same overriding principle. In theory, at least, it should be fairly clear by now: I try to do the most good and the least harm possible. This idea, on some level, informs everything I do. I assess everything I know about a situation and do whatever, to my knowledge at the time, will cause the most good and least harm. There are many problems with this, which is why I said it should make sense in theory. First, I can never know everything there is to know about a given situation. That’s obvious. I can also never know, in advance, all of the effects that will result from the things I do. I only have a small part of the picture to work with, just like all of you. This is why everyone who has known me for more than a year or so should be able to easily think of something I have done that did not, in fact, cause more good than harm. It happens. Even more often, I try to do something good only to have it fail in a way no one ever notices. The bottom line is that I try, I try harder all the time, and I’m getting better at it. Feel free to help me get better, if you are so inclined. If I am doing something that causes some kind of harm with no apparent benefit, tell me so. Even better, explain how I can fix it. I am, morally and intellectually, a strong enough person to know that doing good things is more important than being right. Anyone who is willing to hold themselves to this standard (and to be held to this standard, as I will remember it) can feel free to remind me if I don’t seem to be living up to this in some way.

I am completely convinced that ideas are the most valuable things we can share with each other, so leave comments! Leave really long comments telling me about all the logical flaws you found in this, or about how offended you are that I don’t accept the afterlife as a given, or how stupid and pacifistic you think this whole line of reasoning is! Feel free even to tell me that you didn’t read a bit of it, if that’s the case! I will happily ignore (just like I just said, watch me) any unfriendly commentary and will really thoroughly appreciate any cool insights.


ALittleMad said...

The First Fractal== The Cantor Set, incase you were still trying to remember.

Now, I am not sure if it nonsecular-- Life is considered precious in most religions, despite the afterlife. It is true that certain strains of religion do throw this out the window, both in a bad way (extremists and the like) and the good way (self sacrafice(sp?) for the sake of others when necesary).

From the one of the posts before, you talked about how technology is used for bad. That is true, but is I must say, technology has done more bad than good. Unless it is something horendhous, it is better to let it out into the world and hope it does good. Besides, if you already have a gun pointed at your head, why worry about a seond gun? You just have to have faith it will work out-- and do all you can to keep things in check. In the end, you just have to hope humanity is smart enough not to kill itself.

Besides, though non-logical people might be finding creative ways to destroy ourselvs, I am sure logical people can find just as creative a way to prevent it. I know that sounds a little like it contradicts the last thing I said, but it doesn't, not the way I see it.... I hope I expressed that well....

One For Logic said...

Yeah, I remembered the Cantor Set. Thanks.

This is a good point, the sanctity of life could be interpreted to be important in many religions. However, the interpretations that martyrdom is noble and holy and, maybe more importantly, that God commands his followers to kill some "unholy" group are very common and, to me, very troubling. Self sacrifice is another interesting topic that I didn't really discuss... I may come back to that.

As I looked back myself I decided that the passage you seem to be referring to ended up sounding a lot more negative than I intended. You look like you meant "technology has done more good than bad". In general, I agree. I also think that it is important to emphasize that the tech is just a tool and that it's really the person that uses it badly that makes it bad. I may come back to that later, too. And I got what you meant in general. We should both advance our tech. in good faith and try to take precautions against misuse.