Monday, 22 August, 2011

Whom shall we vote for president? Part 3

A dreadful thought just occurred to me: We must not cast a negative vote -- it may become self-defeating. Let me explain.

There are four presidential candidates. Let us call them A, B, C and D. We decide we do not want A to be president. Hence, we decide to not vote for A. This is what I call a negative vote -- a vote we will not cast. We then randomly cast our vote for one of the other three candidates. Our positive votes therefore will be split among B, C and D. In this way, the result can be A: 30%, B: 25%, C: 25%, D: 20%. Even though A polls a mere 30%, A becomes president! Instead of ensuring that A does not become president, this way of voting could positively make him president! Our negative vote has become self-defeating.

There may be some who would say a candidate garnering such a low percentage of the valid votes does not have the mandate of the population. I disagree. The mandate of the population arises from the fact that the entire population was polled, and not from the percentage of the polled population which voted for the candidate. A winner with 30% of the valid votes does have the mandate of the population.

Thus, we must instead cast a positive vote. We must vote for the candidate whom we think will best be able to block any (in his view) bad decisions of the PAP government -- at least those within his power to veto. (I specify the PAP government only because that happens to be the present government. In principle, it could be government by any political party.) I have in my first post on this topic specified the questions we should ask and answer in determining our personal best candidates.

Let us all cast positive votes, not negative ones.


Friday, 19 August, 2011

Whom shall we vote for president? Part 2

I said in my previous post on this topic: "The originating principle behind the Elected Presidency is to have someone in place who can veto government proposals should the day come when the government makes a poor decision on certain specified matters."

Veto power is a negative power, a blocking power. It is the power to prevent something from happening -- quite different from the power to make something happen.

The candidates' respective campaigns are underway. Some candidates are telling us what they would do if they are elected president. These are indications of how they would exercise positive power, creative power. These are not indications of how they would exercise veto power.

What we need to hear from the respective candidates are what they would block the PAP government from doing should they feel such initiatives inappropriate or unwise. We need to hear from the respective candidates how they are prepared to exercise negative power should the need arise.

So far as I recall, only one candidate has said he is prepared to exercise negative power. But he has not yet indicated the kind of government initiatives he is prepared to veto. (Note that no initiative is in principle precluded from a veto, since reserves may be drawn upon for any purpose.)

In the days to follow, I shall be listening out for the respective candidates' thoughts on their prospective use of veto power. And so should every voter.


Tuesday, 16 August, 2011

Whom shall we vote for president?

I have some thoughts on Singapore's upcoming election for president.

The originating principle behind the Elected Presidency is to have someone in place who can veto government proposals should the day come when the government makes a poor decision on certain specified matters. We in Singapore call this the "second key". It is to confer such a mandate that the president is nationally elected. Following from the originating principle, the electorate should therefore choose someone who has the nerve to defy the government should the need arise. Would a candidate who had risen to the top in the PAP government have the nerve? Would a candidate with close ties to the PAP have the nerve? Would a candidate from outside the PAP have the nerve? Is nerve a function of party affiliation? Voters must ask themselves these questions, and answer them to their own satisfaction before they cast their votes.

Second, on the matter of a "silent" president. Let us assume that a day comes when the president deems a government proposal worthy of a veto. Should the president silently veto the proposal, or should the president publicly defend and justify his veto? Perhaps Singapore's Constitution does allow the president to speak on the certain specified matters listed in the Constitution. But the present debate focuses on matters outside this list. Should the president remain silent on those other matters?

Let us modify the above scenario. Let us assume that the government makes a proposal to draw on the reserves for a purpose outside the certain matters specified in the Constitution as pertaining to the role of the president. In such a case, should the president silently veto the proposal, or should the president publicly defend and justify his veto? Should the president remain silent on such matters until a related draw on the reserves is proposed? Should the president speak up as soon as he begins to feel uncomfortable about some policy directions? Which candidate can best keep silent or speak up? Voters must ask themselves these questions, and answer them to their own satisfaction before they cast their votes.

Third, on the matter of institutional support for candidates. Institutions and organisations do not have a vote in the election for president. No person, organisation or institution can instruct anyone how to vote in the election. Our votes are secret. Given these, "institutional support" is an oxymoron.

Finally, I have heard some people say they will vote for so-and-so because he is their relation or friend. Of course, people do behave in this way. This is the wrong way. We must vote for whomever among the candidates we think will do the job best.

These are my thoughts on our upcoming election. I hope we choose the best person from among the candidates.


Monday, 15 August, 2011

What death do you prefer?

Recently, I helped facilitate a philosophy dialogue at a local secondary school. The students were given the following scenario. Count Dracula makes an offer to a man: Remain mortal (and someday die) or remain at his present age immortally.

The discussion came down to a choice between length of life and meaning of life. Clearly, there are four combinations: a long and meaningful life, a short and meaningful life, a long and meaningless life, or a short and meaningless life. I asked the students to rank these four combinations. The first and last came readily. The most preferred is a long and meaningful life, and the least preferred is a short and meaningless life. I expected there to be vigorous debate over positions two and three. To my surprise, that did not happen. The unanimous preference was a short and meaningful life at position two, then a long and meaningless life at position three. Thus, we drew the philosophical conclusion that meaning in life is more important than longevity of life.

On another occasion, I encountered someone soliciting pledges for a cancer charity. I told this person that while it is good to try to help others in need, we must accept that people will die. The only questions are when and how – never whether.

Which brings us to another ranking, that of the manner of death. I rank (and I think most people would agree with me here) the top three as:

1. To die in one’s sleep.
2. To die under general anesthesia.
3. To die as a result of sudden trauma eg. an airplane crash, gunshot.

After these come the combinations of time, pain, debilitation, and dependence. There are 16 combinations. Readers are invited to ponder how to rank them.

But beware: Today’s society considers such a ranking exercise as politically incorrect – and hence irrelevant.


Wednesday, 13 July, 2011

Should we take the morality pill?

Headline: The moral dilemma
Author: Guy Kahane
Source: The Sunday Times, 10 July 2011

Scientists have not only identified some of the brain pathways that shape our ethical decisions, but also the chemical substances that modulate this neural activity. … Of course, no one is developing a “moral pill” that will transform us into saints. But the research is advancing fast, and it is almost certain to suggest new ways to shape our moral intuitions, sentiments, and motivations.

This sets out the background for what follows.

Should we use our growing scientific understanding of the basis of human morality to try to make people morally better? …

This presents the philosophically interesting question.

Many will agree … that our ability to distinguish right from wrong is something precious that we should safeguard, not a broken clock that scientists should fix. …

This is a premise in an incompletely presented argument (an enthymeme). Here is the complete argument:

Premise1: If (use science to make people morally better) then (we treat morality as a broken clock)
Premise2: Not-(we treat morality as a broken clock)
Conclusion: Hence, Not-(use science to make people morally better)

This is a Modus Tollens, a valid argument form. The only question then is: Are the premises true?

Even in the most advanced and affluent societies, a vast concentrated effort is needed to preserve even minimal decency: think of locks, security alarms, police, courts and prisons. …

This denies Premise2 in Comment3: We do treat morality as a broken clock – and we do try to fix it. The argument is rebutted. However, it does not follow from this that the conclusion is false. It is only that this conclusion cannot be reached via this argument.

Humans are born with the capacity to be moral, but it is a limited capacity which is ill equipped to deal with the ethical complexities of the modern world.

This makes a general statement, which I expect will be the premise to an argument. However, no argument is offered to support this general statement. We are left with intuition. I am not prepared to intuitively accept that “humans are born with the capacity to be moral”. I am also not prepared to intuitively accept that the human capacity to be moral is “a limited capacity which is ill equipped to deal with the ethical complexities of the modern world”.

For thousands of years, humans have relied on education, persuasion, social institutions and the threat of real (or supernatural) punishment to make people behave decently. We could all be morally better, but it is clear that this traditional approach cannot take us further. It is not as if people would suddenly begin to behave better if we just gave them more facts and statistics, or better arguments.

This is a different claim from Quote5. This says we have exhausted all the traditional ways of making people behave decently. This makes no claim on a limited congenital capacity for morality. This is also not yet an argument.

So we should not be too quick to dismiss the suggestion that science might help – in the first instance, by helping us design more effective institutions, more inspiring moral education, or more persuasive ethical arguments.

This contradicts Quote6, which said “education, persuasion … [and] institutions … cannot take us further”.

But science might also offer more direct ways of influencing our brains. …

Following from Quote6, if all the traditional means have been exhausted, science offers a new alternative. Should this alternative be taken? This repeats the question presented in Quote2.

Governments must not be given the power to control its citizens’ moral code – we know that if they had such power, they would misuse it. …

This scientific alternative cannot be presented to the government, because it would abuse the instrument. This is a modus tollens argument. Can the alternative then be presented to the people?

It is not so obvious that people would really want to take pills that would make them morally better. It is not clear that people really want to be morally better. …

Well, we cannot count on people to voluntarily take the scientific alternative.

We do not yet know what is possible. But it is better to begin the ethical discussion too early than too late.

The question remains open. But let’s talk about it (even if the traditional method of discussion has been exhausted?)


Monday, 27 June, 2011

What is the role of a company board?

Headline: Hard for board to be brake and accelerator
Author: Lawrence Loh
Source: The Straits Times, 18 June 2011

The proposals in the Consultation Paper on revisions to the Code of Corporate Governance … drill down to the very mechanics of corporate supervision. … One issue that bears more discussion is the philosophical one of what the role of a company board is, in the context of corporate governance. …

This sets the context for the ensuing discussion, and pinpoints the matter of interest – the philosophical issue of the appropriate role of a company board. This falls clearly into the area of philosophy known as Business Ethics or Philosophy of Business.

In an entrepreneurial context, the board is often a vanguard, a torchbearer and a scout for the company. … The board assumes a key business function and helps to create value for the company. … But the worry is that boards may be constituted too much for control functions, and too little for value creation. …

This introduces the disjunction (an either-or situation) between a “value creation function” and a “control function” for the company’s board of directors. With reference to Quote1, the philosophical issue is clearly the relation between these two functions.

At its heart, there is an underlying tension in conceptions of the role of a company board. Is it meant as a control function (like a watchdog) or as a value creation function (to drive business)? A watchdog board will provide checks and balances on the management. … But there is a risk that this may impede agility that drives responsiveness and success. …

The disjunction is now clearly stated: Either (control) or (value creation). The stated risk suggests that the disjunction is exclusive (they cannot be both adopted). We now expect to see arguments for and against each disjunct.

No thanks to the recent spate of financial crises, the pendulum may have swung more towards control rather than value creation. Whether this is desirable is debatable. …

The disjunction, and the philosophical issue, is once again stated.

It will be hard to have a two-in-one role. It is like a car. It will be hard for a board to be both a brake and an accelerator at the same time.

The exclusive nature of the disjunction is repeated. It is a case of “either but not both”.

I am not advocating that we disregard the need for codes of governance in their current forms and thus throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The author does not completely reject the control function. Some control (the baby) is still needed. No explicit argument is presented for this. However, we can intuitively see that a company with no control function is untenable.

The more important consideration is to promote a code purposefully without losing sight of the essence of the business corporation. A code should not be so stifling as to kill the goose – the company – that lays the golden eggs.

On the other hand, ignoring the value creation function will result in the collapse of the company, and hence obviate any role for the board. This is an argumentum ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), leading to the conclusion that the value creation function must also be served. So we need some control (Quote6), and some value creation (Quote7). How much of each?

There may not necessarily be a conflict of interest between the control and value roles of any board in itself.

In Quote3, the author says there is an “underlying tension” between the two roles. In Quote5, he says “it will be hard to have a two-in-one role”. Now we learn that this tension and difficulty is not necessarily so. Now it turns out that the disjunction is inclusive (either and possibly both).

The tradeoff has to be weighed intelligently and justified by its context, for any company to define the posture of the board.

It is possible to have both roles present, but they have a “zero sum” (tradeoff) relation. More of one will mean less of the other. Certainly the optimum must be sought intelligently. I am, however, perplexed by the phrase “justified by its context”. If each company’s optimum (between the board’s control and value roles) is particular to each company, then there is not much that a Code of Corporate Governance can specify.

The best prescription for companies is to do more with less, and create more value with less control.

The author’s philosophical position is now made clear: Boards of directors should play more of a value creation role than a control role. Given Quote9, the specific optimum point for each company is particular to that company. While the philosophical position is now clear, what about the supporting arguments? We have intuited an argument for the control role (Comment6). We have seen an argument for the value role (Comment7). We have not seen any argument supporting the claim that there is a tradeoff between the control and value roles. We have not seen any argument for the value role superceding the control role. The philosophical discussion is incomplete.


Wednesday, 22 June, 2011

Should we seek or lose our selves?

Headline: Losing yourself in the pursuit of life
Author: David Brooks
Source: The Straits Times,1 June 2011

If you sample some of the commencement addresses … these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

This is Brooks’ thesis: that the mantra misleads. His argument is inductive – it takes the form of several examples. We consider each in turn.

College graduates are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.

The mantra says “limitless possibilities” whilst the reality is “seriously tie oneself down”. What is a possibility? The word “possible” means “it can happen”, not “it is very likely to happen”. Thus, while the statistical probability is that new graduates will quickly begin to “seriously tie oneself down”, it can still happen that others will pursue their “limitless possibilities” – and some will succeed in their pursuit.

Today's graduates are also told to … find themselves first and then … live their quest. But … most people … are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The mantra says “find self, then live” whilst the reality is “live, then find self”. Brooks says most people are called by a problem. Problems are neutral. Any given problem will call some people, and not others. Who feels called by a problem is a function of the person’s self, not a function of the problem.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But … when you read a biography of someone you admire, it's rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness.… It's excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

The mantra says “seek happiness” whilst the reality is “we admire excellence, not happiness.” This reminds me of the hedonic paradox: that happiness cannot be pursued directly, only indirectly. Perhaps excellence is an indirect way of achieving happiness. Surely we cannot take the quote to mean that these people that we admire went actively in search of unhappiness – and that excellence was a by-product of that search.

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But … doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. … Being a good doctor often means being part of a team.

The mantra says “be independent minded” while the reality is “don’t”. Progress is possible only if initiated by people sufficiently independently minded to go against the wisdom of the day. Witness Galileo, Edison, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs etc.

Today’s graduates enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the centre of a life. But … they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the centre. Fulfilment is a by-product of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. … Life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself. -- New York Times.

The mantra says “self at centre of life” whilst the reality is “dissolve self into task”. Workaholism is a huge contributor to mid-life crises – when people suddenly realize they do not really know what they have been doing with their lives.

Taking an overall view, we must note that this is an inductive argument. It says that because the mantra misleads in so many cases, the mantra therefore misleads in general. I have considered the examples, and I am not convinced the mantra seriously misleads in these cases. But even if it did seriously mislead in these cases, there can still be uncited examples where the mantra does not mislead. What is needed in this argument is the additional premise that the cited examples cover the entire span of the mantra. However, such an additional premise is not provided.


Wednesday, 4 May, 2011

Patriotism and a political dilemma

Someone recently asked me what patriotism is in the context of a general elections. I answered that it is voting in the interest of the nation. This is in contrast to a commonly held view of voting in one's own interest. Voting in this latter way results in the interest of the majority being served, which is not necessarily identical with the interest of the nation being served. One key difference is that minority interests may be ignored or sidelined -- which is not in the nation's interest.

Now we come to the political dilemma.

When one is caught on the horns of a dilemma, one has to choose between two undesirable options. This is true by definition. There are several ways of dealing with a dilemma. One can show that one of the two options is not undesirable (swallow a horn), or one can find a third option (go between the horns).

The presented dilemma is: Some voters have to choose between "losing a capable minister" and "having no opposition in parliament".

Swallowing the first horn can take the form of "the capable minister can be profitably re-deployed". Swallowing the second horn can take the form of "there can be alternative non-ruling-party members of parliament". Taking either route will render that option no longer undesirable, and hence may be chosen without discomfort.

Going between the horns can take the form of spoiling one's vote. Unfortunately, this means dropping out of the political process, as spoilt votes are not counted towards any candidate winning a seat.

There is a final way to deal with a dilemma -- choose the less of the two evils. Here, the voter has to ask himself or herself which option is less undesirable in the nation's interest: "losing a capable minister" or "having no opposition in parliament" -- then vote accordingly.


Friday, 29 April, 2011

Can consent be withdrawn?

Headline: The purse on the park bench
Author: Ong Soh Chin
Source: The Straits Times, 14 April 2011

In her 1991 essay, Rape and the Modern Sex War, controversial feminist writer Camille Paglia infamously blamed women for rape, citing the now well-known analogy of the purse on a park bench: One would not leave a purse unattended and expect it not to be stolen. Likewise, if a woman decides to get stonking drunk, wears a skimpy outfit or flirts excessively with a man, she should not be surprised if she gets assaulted.

This is an argument by analogy, the weakest form of argument there is. It is based on similarity, and will break down once similarity no longer obtains. The relevant question of logic here is: Does the similarity hold up long enough to arrive at the desired conclusion?

In 2008, actress Helen Mirren ... added that if a woman voluntarily ended up in a man's bedroom and engaged in sexual activity, she still had the right to say "no", but that if a man ignored that request it should not be considered rape. Mirren said: "I don't think she can take that man to court under those circumstances. I guess it is one of the subtle parts of the man/woman relationship that have to be negotiated and worked out between them."

Mirren makes a hypothetical (if-then) statement: If ((a woman voluntarily enters a man's bedroom) & (she engages in sexual activity)), then (the man cannot be accused of rape). We are not told of any argument supporting this statement. However, we are told that Mirren also simultaneously says this is a negotiable understanding between the woman and the man. Thus, no moral rule is laid down.

While women should definitely exercise plain common sense when dating -- like not getting so drunk that she goes home with a stranger -- a purse left on a park bench in a truly civilised society should be returned undisturbed to its rightful owner. I once left a shopping bag in a Tokyo department store for five hours. When I finally returned, it was still there, leaning against the pillar where I had left it. We should aspire to a moral universe benchmarked by Japan and not by some unruly cowboy town.

What makes a society "truly civilised"? If we answer "it is a society that leaves intact purses on park benches", then this becomes a circular argument -- one where the conclusion is contained in the premise. The argument would go: "In a society that leaves intact purses on park benches, purses left on park benches will not be touched". I do not see that the author offers any other definition of a "truly civilised society".

In a society that leaves intact purses on park benches, there should be no reason for a woman to worry about "getting so drunk that she goes home with a stranger". The purse will by definition not be touched.

What has not changed, however, are deep-rooted prejudices, chief of which is the notion that the woman is ultimately to blame. ... This line of reasoning is dangerous because it tacitly absolves men of their responsibility to practise self-restraint, tarring them as brutes with no self-control. This does a disservice to the many men out there who do treat women with respect.

Here is the argument, formally presented:

Premise1: If (we say the woman is ultimately to blame), then (we absolve men of responsibility for restraint, tarring them as brutes with no self-control).

Premise2: If (we absolve men of responsibility for restraint, tarring them as brutes with no self-control), then (we do a disservice to men who treat women with respect).

Premise3 (implicit): "Disservice to men who treat women with respect" is an overwhelmingly undesirable consequence.

Conclusion (implicit): Hence, (by utilitarian ethics) we must not "say the woman is ultimately to blame".

This argument is a valid utilitarian argument: we should not adopt any course of action (or attitude) which leads to overwhelmingly undesirable consequences. Hence, we should examine the premises for truth, or the lack of it.

Consider Premise1. More simply expressed, it says: "If (we blame women), then (we say men need not hold back, cannot hold back)". But just because a man need not hold back does not mean he cannot hold back. The consequent (then portion) is false, making Premise1 false.

A sound argument must have every premise true. Since Premise1 is false, the argument fails.

Men should be treated as people with the ability and desire for respectful behaviour to women. Rape prevention should include educating men that "no" means No. One should not fixate only on how women behave or dress.

We need to recall Paglia's analogy: One would not leave a purse unattended and expect it not to be stolen. It is not a purse still hidden in the woman's handbag. We need to also recall Mirren's statement: If a woman voluntarily ended up in a man's bedroom and engaged in sexual activity, ... it should not be considered rape. She is not a woman who is merely walking along the street. The context of their views is significant and important. The woman had given every indication of interest and consent. It is in this context that she is "blamed" for what happens. Given this context, the question becomes: Can consent be withdrawn? Mirren clearly suggests the answer is "no, consent cannot be withdrawn". The author says men should be taught that "no" means No -- presumably even after having said "yes". In which case, the real question becomes: How is a respectful man in a civilised society to know when a woman's "yes" means Yes?


Friday, 17 December, 2010

To regulate synthetic biology?

Here’s a news item that caught my eye on 17 December 2010.

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- A White House panel said on Thursday the controversial field of synthetic biology, or manipulating the DNA of organisms to forge new life forms, poses limited risks and should be allowed to proceed. … The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues “concluded that synthetic biology is capable of significant but limited achievements posing limited risks. … Future developments may raise further objections, but the commission found no reason to endorse additional federal regulations or a moratorium on work in this field at this time.” …

This is a standard utilitarian approach to ethics: to consider the nett of pleasures and pains (in modern terms benefits and costs) when deciding if an act is moral. What is lacking here is anticipation – looking ahead to foresee that pleasures and pains could emerge from this new science, and then deciding which to permit or forbid. By the time the deed is done, it would be too late to forbid its doing. Ethics must stay ahead of technology, not bring up the rear when the genie is out of the bottle.

The 13-member panel of scientists, ethicists and public policy experts was created by [US President Barack] Obama last year. Its first order of business was to consider the issue of synthetic biology after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in May it had developed the first self-replicating bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome. Those opposed to Venter's techniques said the discovery was tantamount to “playing God.” … Announcing the creation of the “first synthetic cell,” lead researcher Craig Venter said at the time it “certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works.” But the commission said Venter’s team had not actually created life, since the work mainly involved altering an already existing life form. …

What is life? That is one question. The commission discounts “altering an existing life form” as creating life. Venter does not say what his new view of life is. Nor are we told what are the implications of "life".

A second question arising from this quote is: What is the meaning of the phrase “playing God?” Life is created by God. So goes the Judaeo-Christian belief. Thus, if man can create life, then man has done something that thus far has been done only by God. Is there also a claim that only God can create life? Or can the status “God” be claimed by any entity that can create life?

“We are disappointed that ‘business as usual’ has won out over precaution in the commission’s report,” said Eric Hoffman, biotechnology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth and of the signatories. “Self-regulation equates to no regulation.”

Generally, we trust individuals to regulate their own moral behaviour. We do not consider this to be “no regulation”. Thus, the claim that “self-regulation equates to no regulation” is simply not true. The question here is: Can scientists self-regulate? Or do they believe science is an amoral activity, and therefore exempt from regulation of any kind?