Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Equality and its implications

12 June 2011 5 comments

This is an installment of my reading journal on ethics. The topic of this installment is the chapter “Equality and Its Implications” of the book Practical Ethics by Peter Singer [2, pp.16–54]. Compared to some authors on philosophy, I find Singer’s writing to be usually (but not always) approachable and mostly free of jargons that haunt the professional philosophy literature. This is hardly surprising. The title of the book itself speaks true to the style of presentation: clear and readable prose that touches on philosophical issues of immediate concern to anyone, not just arm chair philosophers. René Descartes’ Discourse on the Method [1] is an example of philosophy writings that are readable by anyone without training in philosophy. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find (and read) another book on philosophy that is mostly jargon-free and written, not for philosophers, but for anyone with sufficient intelligence to follow logical arguments.

The chapter “Equality and Its Implications” considers the principle underlying equality and explores some implications of this principle. Humans differ from each other in many respects. What then is a core principle that underlies equality between them? Singer posits that when making an ethical judgement we must go beyond our own personal or sectional interests and consider the interests of people who would be affected by our decision. This is much more than an entreaty for us to take stock of stakeholders who would be affected by our decisions and actions. It is I think a gentle reminder that our decisions and actions do not take place in a vacuum, that we need to think beyond our own personal and parochial interests. A core principle of equality then is the principle of equal consideration of interests of those affected by a moral decision. Here, Singer says, an interest is to be considered on its own merits without regard to whose interest it is. “The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. … What the principle really amounts to is this: an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be” [2, p.21]. In many cases, this principle agrees with the economic principle of declining marginal utility (diminishing returns?), but in special cases equal consideration can widen the welfare gap between people. The principle then is considered a minimal principle of equality.

With the principle of equal consideration of interests, Singer explores implications of this principle in the context of genetic diversity and justification of racism and sexism. Assuming for the sake of argument that there are specific genetic differences between racial groups so that, for example, one group has higher average IQ than another. Would this translate to a justification of racism? Or assuming that biological differences exist between female and male humans such that, say, males are more aggressive than females, etc. Would this mean that sexism is defensible? In both of these cases, justification of racism and sexism on genetic and biological grounds, it is not necessary for us to establish the validity of the theories we assume. We also do not assume that they are sound. We merely take the posited theories as is and explore how they relate to equality and their implications.

For the sake of exploring consequences, Singer first addresses the issue of racial differences and racial equality. Suppose that evidence accumulates to support the hypothesis of difference in intelligence between ethnic groups. That is, one group has a higher average IQ than another. What are implications of the hypothesis of genetically based differences in IQ between racial groups? First, this hypothesis does not imply that we should halt or reduce our efforts to overcome other manifestations or causes of inequality between people. Second, these average IQ scores are what they are: average scores that have little to no bearing on individuals. Third, the genetic hypothesis lends little to no credence to the justification of racism. In Singer’s view, “the principle of equality is not based on any actual equality that all people share. I have argued that the only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have also suggested that the most important human interests … are not affected by differences in intelligence” [2, p.31].

Next, Singer addresses the justification of sexual differences and sexual equality on biological terms. His reasons against this are similar to those offered in the case of justifying racism on grounds of genetic differences. Singer then moves on to the issue of equal opportunity and equal pay. “To work for wider recognition of the principle of payment according to needs and effort rather than inherited ability is both realistic and, I believe, right” [2, p.44].

The principle of equal consideration of interests is next explored in relation to affirmative action. “The important point is that affirmative action, whether by quotas or some other method, is not contrary to any sound principle of equality and does not violate any rights of those excluded by it. Properly applied, it is in keeping with equal consideration of interests, in its aspirations at least. The only real doubt is whether it will work. In the absence of more promising alternatives it seems worth a try” [2, p.51].


[1] Descartes. Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Penguin Books, 1968. Translated by F. E. Sutcliffe.

[2] P. Singer. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1993.

Categories: ethics, philosophy Tags: ,

Liar paradox in novel “Don Quixote”

14 February 2011 Leave a comment

While reading Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote [1], I came across the following version of the liar paradox. The quote is from Part II, Chapter 51, page 798.

Sir, a deep river divides a certain lord’s estate into two parts… Listen carefully, your worship, for the case is an important one and rather difficult. I must tell you, then, that over this river is a bridge, and at one end a gallows and a sort of courthouse, in which four judges sit to administer the law imposed by the owner of the river, the bridge and the estate. It runs like this: “Before anyone crosses this bridge, he must first state on oath where he is going and for what purpose. If he swears truly, he may be allowed to pass; but if he tells a lie, he shall suffer death by hanging on the gallows there displayed, without any hope of mercy.” Though they know the law and its rigorous conditions, many people cross the bridge and, as they clearly make true statements the judges let them pass freely. Now it happened that they once put a man on his oath, and he swore that he was going to die on the gallows there—and that was all. After due deliberation the judges pronounced as follows: “If we let this man pass freely he will have sworn a false oath and, according to the law, he must die; but he swore that he was going to die on the gallows, and if we hang him that will be the truth, so by the same law he should go free.”

[1] Cervantes. Don Quixote. Penguin Books, 1950.

Categories: humour, logic, philosophy Tags: , ,

Moral experts

7 September 2010 1 comment

Peter Singer‘s essay “Moral Experts” [1, pp.3–6] in Writings on An Ethical Life [1] originally appeared in Analysis, volume 32, pages 115–117, 1972. It is an attempt to respond to the statement that moral philosophers are not moral experts. A reason accounting for this view is that the role of a moral philosopher is different from that of a preacher. Another reason explains that moral judgements are purely emotive, that a person’s moral view is as good as anyone else’s (ethical relativism). Both of these reasons, Singer maintains, are lacking to some extent.

According to Singer [1, pp.3–6], a more plausible reason is that knowing the difference between right and wrong requires that we care about the issue at hand. It is not enough that we know; we also need to invest time and energy into investigating the moral fabric of an issue. A society whose moral code is perfect and undisputed obviates the need for a morally good person to reflect on the moral principles of that society. But in the absence of such a society, we need to decide for ourselves what we ought to do. This is an onerous task that requires substantial investment of time that we might not have.

A moral philosopher has several advantages over an ordinary person. First, the former’s training in philosophy equips her with skills in argument and detection of invalid inferences. Second, the experience of the moral philosopher enables her to understand moral concepts and the logic of moral arguments. Third, a moral philosopher has the advantage of being able to devote full-time to reflection on normative issues.

[1] P. Singer. Writings on An Ethical Life. Ecco, 2001.

Categories: ethics, philosophy Tags: ,

Ethics in open source software

28 August 2010 1 comment

This is a slightly edited version of my posting to the group sage-devel. It raises some issues concerning ethics in open source software. An excellent overview can be found in the paper (Grodzinsky et al. 2003) [1]. My response follows, with any email addresses removed.

Hi Mike,

On Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 1:07 AM, Mike Witt wrote:
> For whatever it’s worth I’d like to say that I emphatically agree
> that more attention to fixing bugs (presumably at the expense of
> adding features) would make Sage *much* more viable from my point
> of view. My point of view being as:
> (1) Not a developer, but simply a user.
> (2) Not a mathematician, but someone who is (late in the day 🙂
> slowly making my way through the undergrad math/physics
> sequence.
> (3) Someone who has tried unsuccessfully to get classmates and
> instructors interested in Sage as an alternative to certain
> other “M”s.
> (4) Someone who, not being particularly brilliant with this
> stuff, probably represents more of what a “typical” user
> would look like if Sage ever attained widespread use.
> Having said this, I can’t help but wonder what possible
> motivation there could be, among developers, to do something
> like a bug fix release? It sounds like of boring …

My response can be summarized in one word: accountability. As a first step in understanding accountability as it applies to computer software, let’s look at the notion of accountability in civil engineering. When a bridge collapsed, it is possible to trace accountability back to the company/individual who designed that bridge or to the construction company that built that bridge. The design or construction company/individual can be sued for negligence and so on.

But how does accountability come into play in software? First, a software license usually has an indemnification clause(s). An open source license usually has the explicit statement to the effect that the software concerned is provided as is and without any warranty whatsoever. What other factors can be barriers to accountability within the realm of software? Helen Nissenbaum can provide us with some insights into this question in her two papers:

  • Helen Nissenbaum. Computing and accountability. Communications of the ACM, 37(1):72–80, 1994.
  • Helen Nissenbaum. Accountability in a computerized society. Science and Engineering Ethics, 2(1):25–42, 1996.

In both of these papers, Nissenbaum identifies four barriers to accountability with respect to computer software: (1) the problem of many hands, (2) software bugs, (3) computer as a scapegoat, and (4) ownership without liability.

The problem of many hands can be understood when we consider a mishap with a piece of software. A complex software package is likely to be the result of many people. When the use of that software results in a mishap, on whom do we rest accountability? This issue is more concerned with closed source, proprietary software than it is with open source software. Individual accountability is built into the process of open source software development where one knows who wrote a patch that was accepted and integrated into the mainline source tree. An open source software contributor enjoys a greater degree of autonomy than is enjoyed by a closed source, proprietary counterpart. But it can be difficult for a bug to be fixed once its open source contributor has moved on or is unwilling to fix the bug.

Next comes the issue of software bugs. If you accept that bugs are inevitable, this raises a problem with regard to accountability for such a mentality can encourage sloppiness in how a software package is developed. The open source community treats the eradication of bugs as a group effort, as a group responsibility. Think of the famous phrase attributed to Linus Torvalds: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Once a bug is identified/reported, what can we do to get it fixed? How can we encourage people to be active contributors instead of users? Both groups of people are valuable to the success of an open source software project. But a small active contributor base is not likely to bring the number of open bugs down.

Thirdly, the problem of the computer as a scapegoat is a general problem and it is not specific to open or closed source software. I’ll leave this problem as it is and won’t discuss it any more in the context of open source software.

Finally, the issue of ownership without liability is not relevant to open source software. Any open source license must pass the test of the Open Source Definition, which characterizes open source software as something that is not owned by any one individual or company. Open source software according to my reading of the Open Source Definition is more properly a commons in the sense that the open air is a commons for anyone to enjoy, or that a public park is a commons for the use and enjoyment of the people of a community. There is no notion of anyone or any company owning an open source software package in the same way that no one owns the air or the public park. But without ownership, how does accountability comes into play in open source software? I think that comes down to one’s sense of ethics as an open source contributor. How can a person be a responsible open source contributor?

[1] F. S. Grodzinsky, K. Miller, and M. Wolf. Ethical issues in open source software. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics, 1(4):193–205, 2003.