Where Is John Galt?

I’ve been talking about morality for the last few posts and we closed last time with a brief look into Utilitarianism, which states that moral actions are actions that maximize utility (usually defined as happiness) for everyone. While the theory has its flaws when you try to work out specifics, I think it’s basic grounding is pretty solid.

Ayn Rand thought it was total bullshit. I quote:

“The greatest good for the greatest number” is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity.


This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.


What is the definition of “the good” in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.


If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.

Heh. I don’t think Rand applies the Principle of Charity very well. Interestingly enough, Rand starts in a very similar place to Utilitarianism — an affirmation that Life and Consciousness are the fundamental starting points for any discussion of morality. The animal known as Man has in common with other animals the ultimate goal of survival but, unique to man, no instinct or automatic way to success. Our actions are marked by careful thought and deliberation; we have to rely on our reason, which is fallible. Rand argues that each individual alone is responsible for their own survival and the choice of what goals to pursue and values to hold on to is not subjective but an objective, metaphysical necessity due to the objective requirements of survival.

Rand is especially serious about responsibility. She is extremely disdainful of people who survive at the expense of others (either by imitation, moochers, or by violence, looters). The former are helpless and, eventually, doomed to be destroyed when they imitate the wrong person and the latter are pathetic creatures who can’t do anything for themselves and instead rely on others who actually are productive. Violence and oppression may work in the short term, but never in the long term. Want proof? Check out this image of night-lighting around Korea. The gulf between the two countries couldn’t be more obvious.

The best, most concise statement of Rand’s ethical philosophy, Objectivism (named after her belief that reality was completely objective and all this stuff was totally obvious if you just thought about it) comes from her character John Galt in Atlas Shrugged:

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

From this it’s probably clear why Rand finds Utilitarianism so offensive. You aren’t responsible for anyone else’s survival and, thus, you can’t be responsible for their happiness either. A moral system which places demands on the actions of others also lends itself to perverse incentives. A major point in Atlas Shrugged is that systems like “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” merely lead to minimizing your ability and maximizing your need. For utilitarianism, it would encourage making sure the needs of your happiness are more dire and important than anyone else’s.

Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, culminates in a complete endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism. No surprises there. Capitalism has a whole host of problems which I may get to later, but I think it’s enough to point out one really vicious problem that crops up all the time in game theory and has direct relavence to Rand’s promotion of self-interest as a universal good. You may have heard of it already; it’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (side note: if you already know what this is I encourage you to read this short article for an interesting take on it).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a situation where you have two players each with the choice to either cooperate with each other or defect. They are unaware of what the other is going to pick and, thanks to their recent reading of Atlas Shrugged, they are perfectly selfish (there are other assumptions we ought to make, but this is a good place to start). Here’s the payoff matrix in our fake “utils”:

Player B

Player A




A +1 / B +1

A -3 / B+5


A +5 / B -3

A +0 / B +0

Each prisoner separately chooses whether to cooperate or defect without knowledge of the other’s choices. Let’s say you’re Player A. Player B will either cooperate or defect. If he defects you can either cooperate (-3 utils) or you can defect (+0 utils). Defecting is your best option.

But if he cooperates…you can either cooperate (+1 util) or you can defect again (+5 utils). Defecting is still your best option. Both players have the same problem and, thus, each person pursuing their own self interest leads to an outcome (D,D) that is strictly worse than if they had both cooperated (C,C). Problems like this are actually pretty common in modern economics (they are known as Collective Action Problems) and it’s really unclear what an Objectivist is supposed to do about them.

For my own part, I think that a lot of Objectivism makes good intuitive sense but, like Utilitarianism, falls apart when you try to apply it in real life. It’s too easy for the pursuit of self-interest to fall into Relativism or Hedonism (both of which Ayn Rand was violently opposed to) and the demands she places on each individual seem to me to be too harsh. I can’t imagine how an Objectivist would deal with problems such as treatment of the mentally ill or infirm in a satisfactory way (though this may be due to a lack of imagination).

As a Catholic I also think Rand’s view of human nature is just wrong. Most of us get a lot of happiness and fulfillment out of helping others (something that Rand would see as downright evil) and I don’t think anyone has the sense that they’re the only important person in their own lives. Most human relationships, marriage especially, are built around shared help and mutual reliance.

The Objectivist notion of self-interest as the ultimate good and the “self-made man” being the ultimate goal also is sort of naive. A lot of study has gone into what it takes to be successful and success is always a product of factors beyond one’s own genius. The family you were born into, the society you grew up in, even the month on which you were born play into your success more than you might realize.

Rand’s “John Galt”, the completely competent self-made man, is a great example on paper and in a work of fiction, but I’ve never met any living person remotely like him and I don’t expect to. Humans just can’t live like that.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.


Reading this post will not maximize your happiness; look at this picture of a puppy instead

Puppy link here

I’m continuing from last time by introducing the moral theory of utilitarianism (light-hearted but well written FAQ here). Utilitarinism is the most well-known version of consequentialism which, generally, states that the only thing that makes an action moral is the consequence of that action. This alone seems deeply troubling to a lot of people; after all, most of us don’t believe that the ends always justify the means. However, the real interesting part of Utilitarianism comes later, so we’ll take consequentialism as a given for this article.

Utilitarianism is the stunningly simple idea that moral actions are actions that maximize good (sometimes referred to as “utility”) in the universe. Where utilitarianism gets interesting is attempts to define what the good really is.

Utilitarianism was first developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They formulated the main principle as “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The good, they argue, is pleasure and happiness and the bad is suffering.

It’s not too difficult to see why happiness was chosen as the ultimate good for a moral system (side note: if this seems obvious to you consider alternative goods such as fulfilling your duties (Kant) or maximizing your own happiness and not giving a damn about anyone else (Ayn Rand)). Happiness is something we all desire and suffering is something we all try to avoid. If our goal is to bring about the best consequences, maximizing happiness seems to be a great way to do it.

Here’s how it might work (we’ll use made-up numbers to try to “measure” the happiness in the system). Let’s say you and I are walking together and I have an ice cream cone. I’m getting 1 util (a “unit” of happiness) out of the ice cream cone. You, however, love ice cream and would get 5 utils out of it. Right now the system contains 1 util. In this case we could maximize utility by transferring my cone to you (system has 5 utils).

But wait! Maybe I’m a selfish person and I would actually suffer -5 utils by seeing you with the ice cream that I thought was mine. Now if I give you the ice cream cone I’m suffering -5 utils and you’re enjoying +5 for a net of 0 utils. The system has actually gone down in utility.

But wait! Maybe you’re something of a bully and you’d actually gain 3 utils from taking the ice cream from me. Now I’m suffering -5 utils and you’re enjoying 8 utils for a net of 3 (system has gone up).

As you can see, trying to “measure” happiness can get complicated fastHow could we possibly know how much enjoyment people get out of things? How can we possibly know how much people will suffer as a result of our action or inaction? Are there different kinds of happiness? Is the happiness you get out of, say, sex, better than the happiness of solving a difficult chemistry problem? How could you possibly know any of that?

The above example was for two people and it gets increasingly complicated with more. Would instituting a law that everyone has to purchase their internet from Comcast decrease happiness in the world? It’d sure anger all the customers but maybe Comcast would enjoy the profits enough to make it worthwhile.

As it is, utilitarianism seems unworkable. It requires a knowledge of other people’s subjective experience that we just don’t have and actually figuring out the exact consequences of an action are, even for normal actions, really hard. Someone like the President is going to have an impossible time figuring out the exact change in happiness as a result of, say, a new healthcare policy.

Can Utilitarianism do better than Jeremy Bentham’s formulation? Well, maybe. Preference Utilitarianism is a very popular formulation that states that, instead of maximizing people’s happiness, we ought to maximize the fulfillment of their preferences.

Even if it doesn’t sound like it, that’s a pretty substantial difference. We no longer have to stay awake wondering if our perfectly utilitarian society is just going to become a group of drugged-up wireheads; we can just poll people and ask “hey, would you like to be strapped to a chair with a machine stimulating the pleasure-centers of your brain for the rest of your natural life?” and listen when they say “umm, no?”.

Better still, while it is quite difficult to calculate happiness it’s much easier to calculate preferences. The field of Economics already has a whole host of tricks for doing so. We don’t have to ask people “how much, would you say, do you value the new iPhone5?” we can just set the price and see who buys it. People’s actions say a lot about their innate preferences.

On the other hand, what about situations where people’s preferences are harmful to them? Someone who is anorexic may prefer to starve themselves, but it doesn’t seem like fulfilling their preference is a good thing. It’s pretty foolish to suggest that people always know what’s best for them.

Utilitarianism also has problems of narrow-mindedness. In focusing on happiness or fulfilling preferences it ignores a lot of what intuitively seems to be relevant to moral problems (for example, an individual’s duties and responsibilities). Some moral problems just don’t seem to be about happiness. New parents, in disciplining children for instance, often sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children (even if their decisions aren’t making the kid happy either).

If you find all the math and complicated scenarios frustrating, just remember that, at its core, Utilitarianism is about happiness. I think most utilitarians (and most Christians) would agree that if you live your life trying to make people happy you’re not going to screw up too badly.

Ultimately, I don’t find Utilitarianism convincing as a moral theory. The whole idea of needing to know the exact consequences of your actions seems unworkable in practice and utilitarianism conflicts with my intuitions in several different ways. On the other hand, I have great respect for utilitarians. It’s always a good thing when people seriously consider the consequences of their actions and it’s certainly a good thing when we care about what happens to others (sorry, Ayn Rand).

Speaking of Rand, next time we’ll talk about a very different moral system that starts from the a very similar place: the idea that maximizing your own happiness and self interest is the only moral principle.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.

The Hypocrisy of Moral Relativism

“The separation between science and human values is an illusion – and actually quite a dangerous one … the irony, from my perspective, is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues of one form or another”.  — Sam Harris

The above is from Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) in a TED Talk he gave in early 2010. In it he argues for the existence of objective morality and discusses whether or not science has anything to say about the problem. It’s well worth listening to in its entirety. While there are better arguments for utilitarianism (here’s an interesting and light-hearted FAQ about it) Sam Harris does an excellent job at laying out the main problem and explaining why morality is such an important topic.

Morality is especially important to me because it is part of my answer to the question of why I’m Catholic at all. I am not a materialist atheist because I think objective morality and free will exist, both of which I deem incompatible with a purely materialist universe. Obviously getting from “not atheist” to “Catholic” is a whole other jump and perhaps I will get into that in a later column.

Worldviews matter. They impact almost everything about our lives and the decisions we make and questions about Right and Wrong are especially important. Over the next few posts I want to spend some time going into different moral systems (with the goal of understanding them and not just criticizing them), but I want to start by defending the idea that objective morality exists.


Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man

Moral relativism has, I think, fallen somewhat out of vogue in serious philosophical circles, but it remains a popular notion. I think people are attracted to it because it sounds good. Claiming that morality is objective and iron-hard doesn’t allow for exceptions and complex situations.  The world just isn’t black and white. In addition, nearly every culture throughout all of history has their own idea about what’s right and wrong and the lack of consensus makes it hard to see how moral truths can be objective.

The lack of consensus on important moral truths is, I think, the strongest evidence for relativism, but ultimately I don’t find it convincing…and neither does Sam Harris.

 How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of [morality]?

If we tried to formalize the above argument for relativism it might look something like this:

  1. If people disagree on moral values then moral values cannot be objective.
  2. People disagree on moral values.
  3. Therefore, moral values cannot be objective.

Well, when you put it like that…it doesn’t seem so attractive any more. What if we tried to generalize the first premise?

  1. If people disagree on [topic X] then [topic X] cannot be objective

Now that looks just plain silly. Try telling that to your chemistry TA next time you get an answer wrong. “Clearly people have had disagreements as to what constitutes an ionic bond…therefore ionic bonds cannot exist!” Obviously the sheer fact that people disagree on a question does not imply that the question is meaningless or has no correct answer. The same is true of moral problems.

Ultimately, however, the reason that I don’t agree with moral relativism is that it seriously lacks explanatory power. If you examine human action you don’t observe questions of right and wrong as boiling down to opinions or preferences. Arguments about gay marriage, for instance,  feel very different from arguments about flavors of ice cream. Both sides on a moral question feel as if something is at stake, that some harm is being done by their opposition. You’re not going to impress anyone by telling them that their conviction that rape is evil is just an opinion.

Here are some things that, as a relativist, it makes no sense to do:

  • Criticize other cultures or cultural values. This includes things like cannibalism, Nazism, or slavery.
  • Criticize any human choice. It’s possible to criticize the efficiency of something (if your goal was to get an A then you ought to have studied) but it would be senseless to oppose people’s preferences or desires (even someone like Ted Bundy)

And yet, in practice, we observe all of those things happening. We do have the intuitive sense that some values are wrong and some values are right, we do have the intuitive sense that some choices are wrong and some are right and this is best seen in our own actions. We’re all hypocrites to some extent, we all have values that we don’t live up to. We regret our choices and wish that we’d made better ones. We do argue, bitterly, about questions of right and wrong and we think that problems such as abortion aren’t just matters of opinion but actually matterOur actual observations don’t match up to what we would expect given relativism; they line up much better with what we’d expect to observe given an objective morality that isn’t always clear.

Someone may object that the common thread in the above examples is the notion of harm. If you aren’t hurting anyone else then you may do whatever you like.

Well, fine, but that isn’t moral relativism any more, it’s a moral system similar to utilitarianism based on the objective fact that harm done to others is always wrong. We’ll deal with utilitarianism next time.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.

The Principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria — Science vs Religion

What would it take for you to stop being Catholic?

Think about this for a bit; it’s a really important question.

When I ask friends or fellow Catholics this I often don’t get a satisfying answer. There’s something about this question that people are troubled by, and I think the reason for this has to do with something called the Principle of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA).

NOMA is an idea coined by Stephen Jay Gould which states that Science and Religion operate in two different spheres of human experience and the two don’t overlap. Science thus can’t “disprove” religion anymore then religion can “prove” scientific theories correct because neither discipline has anything to say about the other. Religion answers questions about why and Science answers questions about how. It seems like an innocuous and plausible notion and I think it’s commonly held to be true. Asking someone what observations would disprove their religion seems like a bad question and people are confused by it. Falsification is something that scientists do when thinking about hypothesis; religion doesn’t really deal with it.

Obviously this is a complicated topic, but let’s start by thinking about the ways the two disciplines approach knowledge.

Science begins with two assumptions. First, we take as an axiom that reality operates by consistent laws. Second, we assume that those laws have effects that we can observe. The problem is that mere observation can never guarantee exact knowledge of the underlying laws. Let’s say you have a hypothesis that explains all your current observations.  You continue to test it by trying experiments designed to disprove the hypothesis (side note: trying experiments to confirm your hypothesis is a rookie mistake), but your model of reality seems plausible. That’s great, except next week you might observe something your hypothesis totally failed to predict because your model isn’t exactly correct. There’s no way to know for sure before that happens. Science can’t ever deduce the underlying laws; all it can do is model realty with greater and greater accuracy.

On the other hand, Religion does claim to have absolute certainty. The Nicene Creed is a list of things that, as a Catholic, you must believe and hold to be true. Catholics are certain that there is a God, certain that there are three persons in one God, etc. The two sources of religious knowledge are Reason and Revelation, the latter of which is truth directly revealed by God (we assume that God is trustworthy and isn’t just pulling our leg). As a result, religion claims to be pretty damn certain about its beliefs.

From the two different ways of approaching knowledge it sure looks like Religion and Science are doing different things. They even answer different questions about the world. Religion deals with our purpose as humans, morality, the why questions of the world. Science answers the how questions: how things have mass, how atoms form bonds, how species differentiate, etc. You won’t really see priests preaching about molecular orbital theory and you won’t really see scientists trying to measure the difference between right and wrong. NOMA seems like a pretty good way to think about the world. Science and Religion both have their uses and no one has to fight about it.

Here’s the catch: most scientists and serous philosophers think that NOMA is garbage.

The reason why is that most of us don’t believe in a Deist God who created the Universe and then just sort of let it run, not interfering with it. Christianity believes in a God that lives and loves us and interacts with the world, answering prayers and performing miracles. All of these interactions with the physical are in principle falsifiable by scientific techniques. Catholicism is aware of this and has a promotor fidei (Devil’s Advocate) who attempts to falsify claims of miracles and sainthood, but it goes deeper than that.

We ought to anticipate different experiences based on our religious beliefs. A world where Christianity is true is going to look different from a world where Hinduism is true. If we didn’t expect different observations and experiences from different religions it would imply that we didn’t actually expect the spiritual to have any impact on the physical world. No miracles, no answered prayers, nothing. Any interaction, however slight, between the material world and the spiritual is open to scientific analysis and, thus, disproof.

Do some Saints really have incorruptible bodies? We could test for decay and decomposition. Did the Host miraculously turn into Flesh? We could test for human cellular makeup. Did we actually discover the burial shroud of Jesus? We could carbon date it and make sure the material was correct for the time and place.

So much for the principle of non-overlapping magisteria.

This is why the question I posed at the beginning of the post is so important. There are serious philosophical problems with beliefs that can’t be falsified, and if you don’t think there’s anything that could shake your faith or disprove your religion the actual implication is that your religion isn’t affecting your life at all. It isn’t making any predictions or providing expectations about the world around you; it isn’t having an observable impact on the world at all, and that’s completely against everything we believe about God as Catholics.

Some people may be afraid of such questions just as some people are scared by the implications of evolution, but they really shouldn’t be. Truth cannot contradict Truth. The disciplines of Science and Religion do overlap, but their relationship isn’t adversarial, it’s mutually beneficial.  Religious people can say stupid and harmful things and Science can help free Religion from superstition and incorrect interpretation of sacred texts. Religion can help guide the moral framework in which Science operates and put human pursuits in the correct context. Together they enrich our knowledge, experience, and build our love for God’s majesty. At the end of the day, they are both describing the same reality, the same universe, the same wonder that is God’s creation.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.

The Principle of Charity — Debating as a Catholic

Research into artificial intelligence began in earnest at Dartmouth College in the summer of 1956 shortly after the invention of the electronic computer and the development of stored computer programs. Many of the researchers present at an initial conference predicted that machines of equal or greater intelligence than humans would exist in at least a generation.

Obviously, they were wrong, and while AI research hasn’t produced what most would consider intelligence, it has made progress on many interesting problems. One of those problems involves the nature of intelligence. What is it and how do we know when we’re looking at it?

Alan Turing in a 1950s paper proposed a famous test (which now bears his name) that, while highly criticized, provides a good starting point. The Turing Test operates by setting up a blind conversation between a human tester and several unknown partners (which may be fellow humans or machines). If the tester can’t reliably tell the difference between the humans and the computers, one may safely ascribe human-level intelligence to the machines.

Atheist-turned-Catholic blogger Leah Libresco proposed a variation of the test called the Ideological Turing Test where atheists and Catholics masquerade as the opposite ideology and readers try to tell the difference between the real practitioners and the frauds. Success in such a test comes from an intimate understanding of your opposition and its perspective. Seeking that understanding should be at the heart of Catholic debate.

Here’s why: I think it’s a fact about the modern world that people aren’t really convinced by argument. It’s nice to think of yourself as a budding Aquinas, but people are probably swayed more by their peers, experience, and self-image than by careful point-by-point syllogisms. On the other hand, we are called to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). What’s the best way, as a Catholic, to make that defense?

St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”. The best way to argue for the truth of Catholicism is to be a good Catholic.  If you believe that religious morality is better for the human person then be a better person. If you believe that Catholicism encourages charity then be more charitable. If you believe that NFP is better for relationships than contraception then be a good spouse. Actions speak much louder than words; it’s better to work on what you’re practicing than to work on what you’re preaching.

In the actual discussion, being a good Catholic involves acting with charity towards your opponent. Avoid going into arguments with the intention of winning. When your goal is to win you start seeing your interlocutor as the enemy and you see his arguments as obstacles to ruthlessly destroy. You’re going to fail in charity if you try to bludgeon your opponent over the head with your views and you’re going to fail in logic if you try to destroy every single opposing argument and never admit uncertainty.

Being charitable in a debate involves giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to go after your opponent’s weak points and interpret his position in the worst possible light, but you don’t change minds that way. Your opponent will know that you aren’t representing his position fairly and will not thank you for it. Instead, go after their strongest points. You’ll make a better overall case and you’re more likely to act with compassion and empathy.

Treat every discussion as an opportunity to learn something. People aren’t often truly stupid and malicious, more often they are seeking something they incorrectly perceive as good or they’re pursuing a real good incorrectly. Try to understand those goods and you’ll have a more productive discussion and be able to argue more effectively.

Ask your opponent to clarify whenever possible and, if you’re not sure you understand him correctly, perhaps try to re-state his beliefs and ask him if you’re representing him properly. You’ll avoid a lot of frustration on both sides if you ensure you’re on the same page with disagreements.

Remember that, at the end of the day, your opponent is an individual loved by Christ and a child of God. Be respectful.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.