Sunday, 25 April 2010

Desirism II

Martin's second post in our discussion on desirism, in which he tries to explain desirism to me further is up.

I think it's becoming a little clearer to me, but one of the problems with me trying to get my head around all this stuff is that I lack a succinct definition that I can begin to ask questions about. There is so much information in your posts that I struggle to see the wood for trees and can't pick out the crux of what it is all about. So I think I'd like to take you up on your offer of a short description of the basic principles or desirism. A single paragraph or around five bullets, would be sufficient I think. Try to imagine what the opening intro paragraph of a Wikipedia article about it might say. If you wish to further embellish or offer definitions after that, that's fine, but I'm looking for concise here; a rock on which I can anchor my flailing thoughts about the topic.

I do have a few questions though, from what has already been said:
  1. Since Desirism is sometimes called Desire Utilitarianism, does it agree that it is the outcome of an action that is important when determining its moral status and that an increase in the wellbeing, or reduction of suffering of sentient creatures, is the goal of moral actions?
    • Does Desirim dictate that there is a right thing to do in any given situation, regardless of the culture in which it is taken? Are there, as Sam Harris contends, "many peaks on the moral landscape", or is there one rule for all?
    • Are there grades of right and wrong rather than a binary decision?
    • Does Desirism resolve the ought-is problem, or does it have nothing to say about this and just work from the principle that we ought to be moral and only concern itself with the "how" rather than the "why"? 
    Sorry to throw the ball back into your court so strongly, but since the object of this discussion is for me to understand your position, I feel it is justified.

    Thursday, 22 April 2010

    If it ducks like a quack...

    When I was starting up the Brighton Skeptics in the Pub, I invited MEP, Brighton MP candidate and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas to come and speak in defence of the party's ludicrous health policies. These policies included a glowing endorsement of all alternative medicines, and the promise to ensure that, in particular, homeopathy and herbal medicine would not be subjected to same regulation and evidential claims as other medicines.
    Here's a few choice bits:
    HE300 Health services must be effective, efficient, comprehensive, accountable and equally available to all. Effective health services will deploy a broad range of interventions, operative at many levels: pharmaceuticals, surgery, psychological therapies, complementary and alternative medicine, and community and social interventions will be used where appropriate. All services will be available without charge at the time of need. 
    HE317 When assessing the degree of control required over the availability of medicines, a balance must be reached between the right of the individual to freedom of choice, and the duty of society to protect the individual from the consequences of unwise choices. We are concerned to protect users from unanticipated adverse effects of novel pharmaceutical compounds, some of which may not be evident until the drug has been in use for many years. The Green Party proposes the founding of a regulatory agency with responsibility for natural medicines, including nutritional supplements, medicinal plants and herbal remedies, essential oils and homeopathic remedies. This agency should be founded on the principles of:
    1. Freedom of information and full labelling of ingredients.
    2. High standards of safety in production methods.
    3. No animal testing.
    4. Strong encouragement towards organic production.
    5. A ban on GM ingredients.
    However when the drugs have been in use for many generations, as with many natural medicines, the need for statutory control is diminished. Measures will therefore be taken to protect the availability of established herbal and homeopathic remedies, subject to basic safeguards.
    There's also some rubbish about amalgam fillings being evil, but we won't go into that here.

    Lucas has also personally endorsed CAM on her blog. Again, in case google's cache expires, here's some choice pieces.
    ....the best treatment programmes probably dip into both conventional and alternative medicine (reliance on alternative alone would probably be unwise) the Green Party has been way ahead of the game for years in advocating this greater integration of complementary and alternative medicines into NHS services.
    Here in Brighton we are lucky to be served by an excellent network of complementary and alternative medicine practicioners.(sic)
    The Green Party would fully integrate their services and expertise into NHS treatment plans, not only improving patient choices but helping to boost this important sector of the local economy.
    Complementary and alternative medicine may be written off by drug companies and other sceptics as "mumbo jumbo" medicine, but recent evidence strongly contradicts such claims.
    Therapies offered included acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy administered by local practitioners. 
    Leaving aside the truth or falsehood of these claims for a moment, except to say that there is no good evidence that most of the mentioned treatments are good for much at all, what is most interesting is that all these references are now expunged from the websites they were once on. The party as a whole seems to have had a bit of an about-face on the topic, as is evidenced by this post by a pro-evidence green party blogger. They have abandoned the idea that anything will be exempt from regulation, and that any treatments are above needing to have evidence for their efficacy. Now of course we know what some people regard as sufficient evidence (fuck-all in many cases) so while this is encouraging, it doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. You see, I and a few of my sceptical friends, have strong sympathies with the Green Party's ethos, just not with certain specific policies. The problem really is that if they can't be trusted to seek out genuine evidence in the arena of medicine, it doesn't bode well for their ability to find proper scientific solutions to climate-change. I for one don't want to be betting the future of life on this planet on Chakras, chanting and dream-catchers.
    However, this just wasn't concrete enough for me. I wanted some statement from the party, not just a quiet removal of some idiotic statements. I need something that says "The Green Party, due to an examination of the evidence, have abandoned their goals of promoting and integrating alternative medicine except where it can be proven to work in properly controlled trials conducted with the rigour expected in the field of evidence-based medicine" so I wrote to Dr Lucas again:

    Hi Dr Lucas MEP,

    You may remember that some months ago I invited you to speak on the  topic of the green party's policies on alternative "medicine" at the newly formed Brighton "Skeptics in the Pub" meeting. I notice that all traces of these leanings have been expunged from your blog, the  website and stated policies? Does this mark a change in the direction on this topic for the party? Or merely that you no longer wish to publicise these goals in light of the recent negative publicity toward Homeopathy and Chiropractic?  If this is a genuine change in direction, and you could provide me with a statement to this effect, I would be more than happy to spread  it around the "Skeptical" community, which I suspect may gain you a  significant number of votes, my own among them.

    I fully expected to be ignored, as I had been the first time, so much to my surprise after 5 days I received this:

    Dear Tim,

    Thank you for your email. The offices here are exceptionally busy, so this  reply is simply to acknowledge receipt of your message and let you know that a full response will be sent as soon as possible.

    Kind regards,

    Cath Miller
    Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
    Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
    Green Party MEP for SE England
     Blimey, maybe I'd got her all wrong? Then, only 3 days later:

    Dear Tim,

    Thank you for your email, which Caroline has asked me to respond to on her  behalf.

    Neither she nor I quite understand what you mean when you state that all mention of alternative medicine and therapies have been removed from Caroline's website. Her blog on the MEP site was suspended recently for practical reasons but all past entries are available via the search option. Also, the only changes to the Green Party's policy website will be those that reflect the result of conference votes by members. I can tell you that our General Election manifesto contains a commitment to ensure that complementary medicines that are cost-effective and have been shown to work are made available on the NHS. Our supporting policy documents say that appropriate methods of assessment will be developed for both synthetic pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, involving practitioners expert in their respective uses. We want to make sure this process is driven by clinical need rather than either political or commercial influence and will also regulate all alternative healthcare practitioners.
    I hope that helps and thank you again for getting in touch.

    Kind regards,

    Cath Miller
    Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
    Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
    Green Party MEP for SE England
     So, we're left with a few possibilities; either:
    1. Dr Lucas and her coordinator do not know that the blog article in question has been removed from her website, or that the quack policies have gone.
    2. She is aware of the above and wants to cover it up, and was unaware that we could still read it on Google cache.
    I don't really like either of these options. My trepidation is further compounded by the fact that their new policy says this:

    H326 The safety and regulation of medicines will be controlled by a single agency. This agency will ensure that medicines meet minimum safety standards, provide clear labelling of both ingredients and side-effects. The agency will cover existing synthetic medicines as well as those considered as natural or alternative medicines.

    HE327 We shall improve the protection provided under the law to users of medicines. Prescribed and over-the-counter medicines will be monitored more rigorously with regard to both efficacy and toxicity. Appropriate methods of assessment will be developed for both synthetic pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, involving practitioners expert in their respective uses. Assessment will not be dependent on commercial interest in production. All information gathered during the process of assessment and licensing shall be publicly available.
    It is abundantly obvious that even "expert" CAM practitioners are in no position to judge the efficacy of their "remedies" or "therapies", since they believe that they work at all. This doesn't look like an about face; it looks like a cover-up.

    Tuesday, 20 April 2010

    WTF is Morality?

    Matin's reply to my "WTF is desirism" is up here.

    There's few terms I'm unfamiliar with in there and a ton of references, so I may be some time reading before I do another post on this topic.

    Saturday, 17 April 2010

    WTF is desirism?

    A little while ago on Facebook, fellow skeptic Martin Freedman posted a link to a quiz that was meant to tell you how "consistent" your moral philosophy is, based on a handful of trolleyology questions. We both came out as 100% consistent for different reasons. I killed the one man to save the many every time (note that the transplant dilemma was not one of the questions asked), as Martin pointed out "like a good utilitarian should", but mentioned that he himself did not as he favoured a philosophy called "Desirism" I hadn't heard the term before, and Wikipedia was no help. Martin helpfully provided references but most of if seemed to be to be too detailed or not pitched at the right level for me, so I struggled to get my head around the concepts.
    After a round of comments on one of Martin's posts defending desirism from an attacker we decided that we'd have a public exchange about it, so that he could explain it to me, and perhaps in the process explain it to others.

    Firstly we thought, by way of introduction, we should explain why we are interested in ethics and morality. Perhaps least importantly, and as should be obvious from my other posts, I utterly reject the idea that what is moral is dictated by some Deity and that it is handed down to us in a holy book, which may need interpretation by a priesthood. For hundreds of years the morality espoused by the big three Abrahamic religions has lagged behind that of the general population. Those books may have been relevant in their time, though I'm not even convinced of that, but they are an anachronism now. As Bertrand Russell said "the moral objection [to religion] is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow." Even now, most of the major religions count homophobia and misogyny among their many faults, though they perceive them as virtues, not to mention the one that seems to think condom use and abortion are worse sins than child-rape and its subsequent cover-up.

    So with religion out of the equation what do we have left? How do we make moral decisions? Some religious persons will tell you that without a god there is no reason for atheists to be good. Well, it appears that natural selection has built at least a rudimentary grasp of morality into us. Compassion and empathy of a sort manifest at a very young age, and are also present in some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. These tendencies are strongly influenced by society as we grow, but the building blocks of our morality are apparently innate. The problem here is that the rules that evolution has given us were "designed" by that blind watchmaker to cope with the tribal life of early hominids, and have not kept pace well with the acceleration of change in the way we live our lives that has happened over the last ten thousand years or so. Rules of thumb that helped us propagate our genes by giving aid to those who are likely to share them do not scale up well to the global economy; they barely scale up to the complex nature of our own local social interactions. How can we tell if banning burkhas is a bad thing? If homophobic B&B owners have the right to refuse services to homosexuals? If starting a war against an oppressive and mass-murdering regime in a foreign country is the right thing to do? Our intuition, borne of evolution and coloured by our culture, no longer serves us well. How do we know if our instincts are "right"? Especially since many other people's instincts are different? Just because something is some way in human-nature, does not mean that this is how things ought to be, that is the naturalistic fallacy at work. Just how do we resolve these dilemmas?

    I've read a little of what various philosophers and other thinkers have to say on the subject of morality, and currently favour a variety of modified utilitarianism. Utilitarianism asserts that the moral worth of an action is determined by its utility, which is to say how much the results of that action increase the sum of happiness among all sentient beings.
    My reason for adopting a utilitarian view essentially goes something like this:
    • I know that I can suffer.
    • I assume that others are also capable of suffering (it certainly appears that they are).
    • The (apparent) suffering of others causes me suffering. 
    • I would prefer that others do not inflict suffering on me.
    • Others are less likely to inflict suffering on me, or on others who may subsequently inflict suffering on me, if I do not do so to them.
    • It therefore works in my favour, and everyone else's, for me to try to minimise the suffering of as many others as possible.
    In summary, it makes me feel good to be good, and what constitutes "good" is minimising suffering, and thereby maximising the pleasure/happiness/wellbeing of as many sentient beings as possible. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that gets the main point across. Some, particularly the religious, might say that this a selfish way of looking at morality, and to an extent they may be right, but Darwin and Dawkins have taught us that selfishness is in the root of our morality, in reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) and kin-selection (advanced-nepotism). And in any case, someone who is only good because of the promise of eternity in paradise or threat of eternity in torment is in no position to criticise.

    This still leaves me with a problem. How do I, in a world where the information available to me is often incomplete and imperfect, and all the results of my actions cannot be accurately predicted, decide which actions will minimise the suffering for the most sentient beings? Well, largely, like most people, I wing it. I make decisions based on the best information I have; if I don't think I have enough I seek more until I either have all that's available or I think I have enough, or the effort I would have to expend to get more goes beyond what I'm prepared to invest. I guess you could call it "guided intuition". Several people have tried to propose mathematical models for calculating or approximating the balance of  suffering/happiness, but they are all so far (IMHO) flawed.

    So then I hear of Desirism, apparently also sometimes called "Desire Utilitarianism" which, if I've understood it correctly, seems to want to offer an answer to this problem by approximating a method of minimising suffering and maximising wellbeing, with a rule of thumb that says we should foster behaviours that will, in most situations, fulfil the desires of the maximum number of people. Therefore we don't have to do complicated maths or reasoning every time we want to make a decision, we just have to do it for a set of given hypothetical situations, and then run our life by those rules, re-evaluating them as new evidence comes along.

    I have my doubts about it, which may simply be down to my lack of grasp of the theory, but before I express them, I'll hand over to Martin to tell me what Desirism is in his own words.