ad astra per alia porci

its hard to be right sometimes

Ethical positions are often maintained because of intense vested interests that its holders have, even though their weak underlying moral justifications are exposed upon deeper cogitation. This is particularly evident in the area of animal rights and the moral justifications of eating meat. We probably all grew up eating meat, like the taste of flesh and have diets which centre around meat. It is easy to see why most of us persist in holding and defending the position that meat eating in its present state at least is correct, even though a closer examination suggests otherwise.

I just finished Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, the book that launched the animal rights movement and is labeled as the Bible of the movement. Singer argues for and advocates proper regard to be given to animal rights. His main thesis is that a subject can meaningfully be said to have rights and interests only if it has the capacity to suffer. Animals, like humans, have the capacity to suffer, and hence animals should have rights. Current farming techniques are cruel, and treat animals like commodities instead of beings with interests that should be respected.

Singer deplores the prevalent attitude of speciesism: treating organic beings differently on the basis of differing species membership. Humans as a species are given different rights and treatment from other animals and conversely animals are denied similar rights that humans have on the basis that they are of a different scientific genus. To Singer, treating animals differently on the basis of differences in species is untenable and arbitrary; it is no different from racism and is morally deplorable. The proper and moral basis for deciding whether one should treat an entity in a certain manner is not scientific class, but rather the capacity to suffer. In other words, the orthodox view has drawn the line at the wrong place.

The practical consequence of accepting Singer’s approach is that prevalent practises towards farming and animal testing must be altered to be more humane and sensitive to the suffering of animals, or abolished altogether. Humans do not like to be coped up in cramped cages and have affective requirements; concomitantly animals should not be kept in such conditions too and should be allowed to run free and socialise with other animals.

Due credit must be given to Singer for writing about philosophy and applied ethics in such an accessible manner. It is not often that one can find an academic, much less a philosopher, that can reach out to the layman without too much resort to jargon and technicalities.

There are however loopholes and inadequacies in Singer’s thesis. Before writing more about them, I find it appropriate to declare that I personally am a meat-eater. However, I have always had the niggling feeling that somehow it was morally wrong to breed, slaughter and eat animals, and somewhat inconsistent to say that it is not morally wrong to eat meat and it is morally wrong to eat one’s pet and human flesh. The thought of pigs squealing hysterically and cows bleeding to death after their throats are cut gave me the intuitive feeling that there is just something fundamentally wrong with killing another for sustenance.

My motivation for picking Animal Liberation off the library shelf was to find material that rationally explores and elucidates the issues surrounding the ethics of nutrition and enlighten me on the ethics of meat eating such that I can formulate my own position on this issue rationally instead of resorting to mere intuition or emotions.

The first criticism is that drawing the line at capacity to suffer requires further explanation and justification. One can argue that capacity to suffer is as arbitrary a basis as say, race, sex and species. In this sense Singer falls into the same problems as the speciesists.

The principle of minimising or eliminating suffering for those with capacity to suffer is itself not an absolute value. One can easily think of examples in practise where we do not eliminate suffering, and in fact actively encourage it. Boxing, sports, corporal punishment and criminal punishment are good examples of these. Indeed, we have no qualms about taking life when the situation calls for it; think of wars. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that wars are always morally just; the point I am trying to make is stated in the first sentence of this paragraph.

What is so intrinsically wrong with suffering? Suffering builds character, although this is not directly applicable to the rearing and slaughter of animals. The gist is that suffering requires further unpacking, and needs a proper justification. Singer seems to merely assert that capacity to suffer as the determinative golden factor.

It can even be argued that suffering may be trumped by other considerations and moral values. The drive to self-sustenance, which is self-interest or self-preservation in the most fundamental sense, may override the need to minimise or eliminate the suffering of animals with the capacity to suffer. It may be morally justified for humans to farm and eat animals in order to provide nutrition for themselves. This is analogous to the individualistic ideal that an individual is morally justified in preferring his interests over that of another person. We can, without contradiction, say that animals have the capacity to suffer and hence should be treated on the same level as humans generally are, and that humans may be put their interests over that of animals on the issue of self-sustenance.

One of Singer’s rebuttal would be that humans can equally sustain themselves on non-animal food sources. However my discomfort with this is that animal sources of nutrition may not be replaceable with plant sources. A good example is omega-3 oils in oily fishes; there are no readily available and substantial plant sources of such oils. Another point is that dietary sciences have not fully unravelled the mystery of food chemistry, and indeed it has been discovered that foods contain countless different elements which we are yet to understand. So there may be nutrients in animal meat that humans need which are not discovered yet. Hence to continue eating meat would be to err on the side of caution in obtaining vital nutrients in one’s diet. Till science proves that humans can stay healthy without eating meat, it makes sense for humans to err on the side of caution.

An interesting point is that Singer’s thesis might allow animals to be eaten nevertheless, should science progress to an appropriate state. If a new scientific technique allows animals to be breed without the capacity to suffer (e.g. desensitising the nervous system), technically speaking it is neither correct nor wrong for us to breed such animals for food. Such animals have no capacity to suffer, and we cannot, as Singer would hold, intelligibly speak of them as having rights. We can breed them in horrible conditions and than eat them because they feel nothing.

Despite some loopholes, Singer ‘s work is important. It subjects the topic of animal rights to philosophical scrutiny, and draws much needed attention to this neglected area of philosophy and indeed general thought. It traces the history of anthropocentrism in philosophical and religious thought, and subjects the beliefs of the related philosophers and philosophies to rational scrutiny. As Singer points out, Judeo-Christian thought places Man at the centre of the universe and the Bible states that animals are subject to the dominion of man. Similar is state in the Koran. Even the rationalist philosopher Descartes opined that animals are automatons with no consciousness and no consequent ability to feel and understand pain. Singer very credibly opens up our eyes to our unstated assumptions and the history of misapprehension in relation to animal rights.

In my view, Singer exposes a tendency to bend backwards and invent reasons to forcibly and artificially support a anxiously-held conclusion that Man is superior to all other living things and should be granted superior rights and considerations, instead of finding reasons from the ground up to see if Man should be treated differently from animals. In short, we make up stories to justify why we are special and can dominate and unfairly treat other living things. What should be done is to construct rational grounds for our moral positions, instead of blindly assuming and (even worse) scrambling for reasons to support an emotive and selfish conclusion. While Singer himself tries to prove a new basis for determining animal rights and what we owe to them, his thesis is still incomplete and not totally convincing.

My personal response to Animal Liberation is not to change completely into a vegetarian or vegan, but to eat much less meat. Two of my three meals each day are vegetarian, and I am trying to wean myself off red meat. I am yet to pinpoint the philosophical basis of my decision, since the capacity to suffer basis is not totally convincing, and I have to say that my position remains largely based on emotive and intuitive grounds, that it is just wrong to eat so much animal meat. It is somehow just profoundly wrong to pet cows, rabbits and goats in a farm and squeal over how cute they are, before slitting their throats so that we can put them on our dinner table. That at least I know in my heart.


the problem of choice
July 11, 2009, 1:22 am
Filed under: diary, Lifeskills, miscellaneous | Tags: ,

I have just completed Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice at a very appropriate time. Somehow the reading of this book coincided with a period of time where I had to make several important choices, and I found the book to be rather illuminative and instructive. It helped me understand better the intricacies of choosing and gives me ideas on how I should go about selecting options and maximising happiness.

Perhaps maximising is not the right word to use. After all, Schwartz’s primary thesis in his book is that maximisers are more unhappy than satisficers, in this brave new world of endless choices.

He emphasises the distinction between the two; the former seeks to maximise utility and choose the optimal solution from all the options he has while the latter is happy to settle the moment he stumbles upon an option that meets his own internal standards.

Maximisers end up being unhappy because in this age of choice explosion, it is practically impossible to optimise. The ability of any human to imagine better outcomes (“if only I chose X, things would be so much better”) results in maximisers being constantly plagued by thoughts of alternative, better outcomes, hence reducing satisfaction with their present choices and circumstances.

I was able to immediately identify myself as a maximiser, within the first 50 pages of the book. I have a tendency to analyse all the options, and agonise over which is the optimal option before finally moving to select that option. And it has, as Schwartz predicted, been a source of unhappiness.

But I would not venture so far as to say that being a maximiser is an thoroughly unbeneficial enterprise. Yes, it results in a measure of unhappiness, especially where one has to choose from an extremely large pool of choices and/or the subject matter at hand is an important one.

However I believe that there is a strong correlation between being a maximiser and being a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist helps a person because it helps him strive for greater heights, instead of languishing and stagnating under the false comfort of previous achievements. And for the especially important areas of life, one should be a maximiser.

Conversely, being a satisficer is not all laughter and sunshine. If one is a satisficer in all areas of life, one will lead a distinctly… mediocre life. Imagine a person who has low standards for everything; he will be fine whether or not he receives proper service in a restaurant, achieves good grades in school or post a good time for his 5km race. And the emotional pitfalls of being a maximiser is similarly applicable where the satisficer adopts a standard that is too high. He will end up having to thrawl through countless options, seeking the one option that will meet his standards, which is probably going to be very rare indeed. What is the difference then, between being a maximiser and satisficer?

Hence we see the problem. Satisficers cannot set too high standards, and maximisers need to know when to stop. There are certain situations where being a maximiser would be very beneficial to oneself (e.g. career, caring for loved ones), and there are times where being a satisficer is pretty much alright (e.g. choosing a pair of jeans).

What is really important is self knowledge. We must know clearly what we want, in order to know how high we should set standards and when we should maximise or satisfice. To paraphrase Yogi Berra , if we don’t know where we want to go, we will not end up where you want to go. I think deep inside we all know what we want, it is a matter of unearthing and raising these deep wants and needs to the surface so that we can be consciously aware of them. Sadly in this fast and frantic modern age where everything is expedited, including education, most people end up being half-baked individuals who do not know what they really want in life and float aimlessly through each day. But we still should seek to find out what we really want.

Instead of being a pure satisficer or pure maximiser, we should strike a “golden mean”, as Artistotle would put it. The maximising and satisficing tendencies are essentially mindsets, attitudes that we apply to situations. They are tools that we can use, depending on the situation and what we feel are important in our lives.

So here’s my humble solution. Be a maximiser when it really matters, and be a satisficer when it really does not matter.

For me, my studies and career as well as my love for certain important people in my life are very important for me. I will adopt the maximising attitude in this areas of my life. Yes, I will agonise over decisions and spend much effort arriving at decisions, but this is the price to pay for the good things in life. Also, the process of maximising in relation to the important aspects of my life can be itself an experience that is instructive and educational.

As for the rest, like food and drink and clothing, I am content to be a satisficer. I just need plain, dark 5-pocket slim jeans with waist size of 28 inches, thank you very much. I wear a standard uniform of polo, jeans and sneakers or shirt, jeans and boat shoes. And certain aspects of my lif eis on autopilot: breakfast is muesli, always, while the BBC and Guardian website are my chief sources of foreign news.

That I feel, is the best solution to the problem of choice.

wise advice for intrepid travellers

I got this from the foreword of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel, penned by David Concannon of the Explorers Club. Rules of thumb that applies to travel, as well as life in general. They do say that life is travel.

Lesson #1: The unexpected usually happens
Lesson #2: Accept the things that are beyond your control.
Lesson #3: Always have a contingency plan.
Lesson #4: No matter how bad you think things are now, they can always get worse.

A quote from the Introduction:

The statistics are against you: more than 50 percent of all travellers run into problems.

thought-provoking documentary: The Century of the Self
December 24, 2007, 3:08 pm
Filed under: miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , ,

I am currently into psychology and I have read books on how techniques that take advantage of inherent human psychology can and are employed for personal gain and corporate profits. These include books on body language (Barbara and Allan Pease), reading people (David Liebermann is a good choice for Machiavellian techniques) and advertising (Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a must-read classic).

Recently I stumbled upon an interesting documentary by Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self on (where else?) Youtube. The documentary traces the development of the use of academic psychology (specifically Freud’s studies) in the world of consumerism and political persuasion. It puts what I have learned from my reading in a historical context.

The central figure in this documentary is Edward Bernays, who is often seen as the father of public relations. He applied Freud’s theory of the ego, super-ego and id to his various propaganda and advertising jobs to great success. I must admit that prior to watching this documentary I had no idea who was Edward Bernays. He played a crucial role in transforming what used to be a economy of need to a economy of desire, in which corporations manipulate and capitalise on the inherent psychological desires of humans for their own profit. Consumers now buy on the basis of desire instead of needs, and this trend seem to be a permanent feature of our consumer landscape.

an attempt to calculate the ratio of females to males for universities in 2007
May 23, 2007, 8:20 am
Filed under: miscellaneous

At a class gathering last week one of my JC friends told me casually that the ratio of females to males for my batch of university students entering university this year is a whooping 7:3. That comment got me standing at attention (metaphorically) since it means that the girls outnumber the guys by 133.33%, which is absolutely fantastic from a guy’s (ok, to be more specific, bachelor’s) point of view. The economic laws of scarcity is working in our favour, 21-year-old manfolk of S’pore.

Fortunately MOE has this thing called the Education Statistic Digest, which I chanced upon after clicking around the Singstat website, which was my first destination when I wanted to find statistics. Here’s the link:

There is this part which lists pre-university enrolment by level. The dragon babies are born in the year 1988, and hence they should be in JC1 in the year 2005. Hence the number of female students enrolled in JC1 should be able to give us an approximation of the number of students that will be enrolling in university in 2007.

Let’s define a few variables first:

Let S be the number of female students in JC1 in 2005

Let E be the real number of female students entering university in 2007

Let X be the approximated number of female students entering university in 2007, using our standards of extrapolation and inferencing from previous data as will be shown later.

Let Y be the estimated number of female JC2 students in 2006.

The main problem is that E < S but there is no data source for E. Hence we are finding a approximate of E, which we label conveniently and provocatively as X.

Here’s a step by step methodology to find X from S.

  1. Find S from the data source
  2. Find the average percentage change in the number of female JC1 and JC2 students from year to year for 9 years (the data stops at 1996). Hence we will average the percentage change in number of female students from JC1 in 1996 to number of female students in JC2 in 1997, 1997 to 1998, 1998 to 1999 and so on. This will reveal a rough way of estimating the number of female JC2 students in 2006 by using the average percentage change to discount S.  I will name this discount rate the Dropout Rate.
  3. Find the average percentage of students who are in JC2 out of the number of university intake for the next year, from 2000 to 2005 (the inclusion of SMU intake in 2000 reduces the amount of accurate data we can use). Let’s call it the Intake Rate.
  4. Apply the average percentage in step 3 to Y to obtain X.

I can’t find data of the number of dragon females (sounds weird) who are in JC2 in 2006, which would have made a better approximate of E since there will be JC1 students who drop out of JC or are not allowed to progress on to JC2.

From data,

S = 8350

This is going to get real messy.

Dropout Rate = (1/9) x ( (100-(5269/5456)(100)) + (100-(5813/6064)(100)) + … )

= (1/9) x (3.427419355 + 4.139182058 + 4.251674194 + 3.607332939 + 4.34298441 + 5.781946794 + 6.38206739 + 7.319065512 + 6.658929349)

= (1/9)(45.910602)

= 5.101178%

Y = 8350 x ( 100 – 5.101178)(1/100) = 7924.051637

Intake Rate = (1/6) [ (5762/6148)(100) + (5854/6520)(100) + … ]

= (1/6)( 93.7215354 + 89.785276 + 95.2270081 + 94.32022197 + 94.8909562 + 89.0441061 )

= (1/6) (556.9891038)

= 92.8315173%


X = (Intake Rate)(Y)

   = 7356.017366

Continue reading

Taleb, you are a genius.
May 12, 2007, 4:11 pm
Filed under: miscellaneous, the arts

I am currently only half way (Chapter 9) through Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s latest book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which is the sequel to the fantabulous Fooled By Randomness and I am actually bothering to write a post to gush about just how great I think the book is.

Once again Taleb manages to open my eyes to the very human inability to grasp probabilities and the various mental quirks we have that reduces our ability to grasp the role of chance and randomness in our lives. The book confirms some ideas I already had regarding the role of randomness in our lives and for most of the time gives many perspectives on the same subject.

Taleb’s book is based on two pillars of thought that reinforces each other: the problem of induction and the human inability to view empirical reality without biases.

The problem of induction has plagued philosophy and scientific thought ever since David Hume first used his example of the black swan in his writing. The simple explanation goes like this. Everyday, you might observe white swans in the lake outside your house in Europe. This might lead you to the conclusion that all swans are white. Then one day, you just happen to move to Australia, and when you look out the window of your house, you see a bunch of black swans. Which refutes the knowledge that you have arrived at through inductive methods. The problem with induction is that one can never ever be totally sure of the absolute truth and reliability of the conclusions derived through observations and inductive reasoning.

The problem of induction is related to our inherent biases when it comes to judging the impact of probability in our lives when it is combined with the flaws of the human (and very primitive) mind that has not evolved too much. Take the example of the fallacy of “beginners’ luck” in gambling, as cited in the book. Beginners’ luck do not exist because of the survivorship bias. If a new guy play one game and wins, he is said to be “lucky” or to have “skill”, but one cannot make any conclusions because of this single observation. And if the guy loses at the next round, he will probably quit. Those who keep winning will stay, and they are the ones who are most visible to most gamblers. This lead them to the flawed conclusion that beginners have all the luck, since they do not take into account the beginners who lose at their first games and subsequently leave the casino.

Of course, Taleb cites many flaws in human judgement of probabilistic outcomes. I am recording some here as a means of quick reference:

  1. Silent evidence: the selecting only positive outcomes and ignoring “failures” and negative outcomes. e.g. Assuming that to be a millionaire and successful entrepeuner one must possess certain qualities like preseverance and drive when those who fail to become successful have these qualities too. Basically ignoring evidence that states otherwise, hencing leading to false conclusions because positive evidence stands out much more than “non-evidence”.
  2. Confirmation bias: looking for evidence that supports a hypothesis, hence leading us to ignore evidence suggests the contrary.
  3. Treating absence of evidence as evidence of absence: Not having evidence that something is there doesn’t mean it is not there at all.
  4. The narrative fallacy: The human tendency to simplify reality and impute set chains of causation to make random event seem less random through the concoction of narratives. e.g. Historians.

There are more points but these are the main ones.

Humans like the tangible, the observable, the positive. Hence we tend to ignore the intangible, the unobserved, the non-event. Hence negative empiricism is a good way to compensate for biases by telling us that what is not true. Observing that green pens exist leads one to the conclusion that it’s wrong to believe that all pens are non-green. We almost always know what is wrong more confidently than what is right.

One of the paragraphs that touches me most is the one at the end of Chapter 8, in which Taleb wrote about the main problem about the present education system in most countries. Students are made too often to impute causations in events that they study, to simplify complex events by framing them awkwardly to fixed chains of causation.

This is one serious problem that has been plaguing the Singaporean education system. For example in History, students are made to write about the most important factor that led to say, the outbreak of World War II. Or the main reasons why Hitler was about to rise to power in Germany. Or how one event/factor/person caused the rise/fall/destruction/outbreak of X event. It is really a load of bull because firstly students are made to over-simplify reality, and secondly they are trained to give untruthful and unrigorous opinions and reasons without much thinking and research.

Which leads me to think about just how predictable world events and history is in general. Things always somehow seem to make sense when looked at backwards. Hindsight bias is everywhere in the study of history; historians magically fit seemingly-sound explanations for every historical event without ever pondering the non-linearity of the events. Think about it: if the world is really as predictable as it is shown to be in textbooks, why can’t historians predict historical events before it happens?

As I write this post, I flipped the papers and realised the recent tragedy of two of our national servicemen losing their lives in an accident in a training base in Taiwan. Months before, an old man died of infection by flesh-eating bacteria after being pricked by a crab. I can’t help but think that the world is truely a random place.

Even my own existence is a product of chance. For Earth to exist and the proper ecological conditions to exist for life to prosper, the Earth must be at precise distance from the Sun. For me to exist, the correct sperm must meet the correct egg. For the sperm and egg to meet, my parents must marry. For them to marry, they must somehow meet each other first. Of course, I am simplifying the chains of causation through my narrative here. For that I must apologise because it greatly understates the role of chance. But language and narration seems hard-wired in us and it seems to be the only way we can articulate and described an otherwise fluid and infintely complex reality, isn’t it?

Free software!
May 1, 2007, 1:59 am
Filed under: miscellaneous – Instant Messaging across many platforms – alternative to the other office – VLC Media Player – Image Editor – Gimp