Notes on practical ethics # 6 Why optimism?

While any “why” question can easily be dismissed by a simple “why not?”, times have been hard for many, and a general and individual pessimism is haunting many people these days. Indeed in my surrounding I recognise in many the focus on the general decreasing state of everything, the pending apocalypse, and the end of the world as we know it. I feel to be in a very privileged position indeed, because I will remain a radical optimist until the end. Here are my arguments.
Let us begin with the arguments against pessimism.
Pessimism has never made anything better. While this seems like a very easy line of argumentation, it is actually not. Many people argue that pessimism can make people fearful, and such a nudge will help people to recognise to change their behaviour. There is much research that nudges can actually change the behaviour of people. I would dispute this on two terms. How long does it work? What is the prize of a nudge? If a nudge would be catalytic, then it could turn the behaviour of a person completely around. While this is potentially true, there is less evidence of people changing their behaviour completely and long term because of a nudge. This is to some end empirically unfair, because long term research is hard to get funded. Still, I would dispute that there are many nudges that work on many people long term. On the other hand are the negative aspects of nudges only sparsely explored, and this links to the second point. We could agree to utilise nudges if we think that the end justifies the means. Under this assumption, nudges are not a means to an end, but are a prize we choose to pay to achieve a certain end. My main criticism of this would be that nudges make people less free. Nudges can be interpreted as a way to manipulate people, which will ultimately make them less happy. One could attempt to nudge people, and then afterwards reveal the nudge, yet it would be questionable if people would evaluate the act of nudging to be positive. I believe that many people would indeed evaluate the nudging to be not positive. Even worse, what would happen if people would find out by themselves that they were nudged? This would build a growing mistrust within society, and underlines how problematic it would be to upscale the strategy of nudging. Equally bad experience has been made with advertising, showing how people perceive being manipulated by the media. For this reason, the argument that pessimism helps us to “wake people up” is not a convincing argument. Many would argue that we do not need to do that, and that the mere “facts” are grim enough. There is however a very important difference between presenting information as we perceive it, and presenting it in a pessimistic narrative. I think this difference is extremely important, and many people should try to restrict themselves to the information how they perceive it, and also engage in exchange with others, which may change our perceptions. We manipulate others through pessimistic views. We can equally manipulate others though optimistic worldviews. This brings us to the next point.

Now let us continue with the arguments for pessimism. If we would choose to have a pessimistic worldview, then this would be clearly our normative choice. However many people have a pessimistic worldview which is rooted in their origin story or other emotional experiences. While it is understandable to have a grim worldview rooted in your biography, it is still no justification for a pessimistic worldview, but a mere explanation. After all, pessimistic worldview influence others, and especially people of power have to consider how they want to influence others. If our convincing of the powerful is rooted in fear, then history will not judge kindly on us, because it equally did not do so before. More importantly, the world will surely not become a better place if people are motivated by their fears. While hence pessimism and negative experiences that are part of our identity are well understandable, it is questionable if we need to pass this on to others. There are many positive examples where such endeavours led to a change for the better, yet there are equally negative examples. I believe that if we would start counting if the optimistic or the pessimistic prevail, it is already a lost cause.
Other arguments for pessimism are of more existential nature. Many people have a pessimistic worldview because of all the “bad” in the world. I would again argue that this is an emotional argument, and often a a biographical argument. In addition is it clear that people are not bad, but actions are. Hence we may judge actions of people, but I would clearly refrain from judging people. The world is not a fairytale, where the morals are clear cut. We should never hold negative experience against anyone, but instead try to help people to overcome their negative experiences if at all possible. It will otherwise be difficult to help people overcome their emotional arguments. Derek Parfit argued that the history of humankind could be like an unhappy childhood, yet the overall life might have been -on the whole- worth it. He continued to argue that we cannot know how future people are going to be. This brings us to the next point- arguments for radical optimism.

Radical optimism is just like any form of pessimism or optimism a normative choice. Martha Nussbaum rightly stated that hope is a practice, and a choice. The question would be then, if we can make this choice, and if we should. It is clear that this normative choice is an effort, and it is unclear who can actively make this choice, and who may merely not have the capability to make that choice. Having a positive outlook in life is nothing people can always choose, but depends on many diverse factors. People who have a generally negative outlook in life may try to seek professionally trained and educated helpers or programs, if they want to seek help. The world of psychiatry has luckily developed more and diverse approaches over the last decades for people in need, yet there is still much to be learned on how to help people with a generally negative outlook in life. Personally, everybody who struggles has my deepest compassion. This is obviously very important, not only for people who struggle, but also for society as a whole. There are other people who may have the capacity within them to gain a general positive outlook. However, shifting our eduction system further and enabling more parts of the educational aspects of society towards enabling a general positive outlook in people is a key challenge for the 21st century. If we would seize this opportunity, the next question would be, why we should make a choice for optimism? We are all interconnected. If one person has a pessimistic outlook, then it may pass on to other people. This argument may not convince everybody, and some people will not have the capacity to react to it. However, an optimistic outlook may equally translate to others, and may also help to create an open and reflective society that is better enabled to give support to people with a pessimistic worldview.
How do we keep learning to translate the everyday challenge into a something that does not lead to despair?
Being happy is a serendipity. Those who can be optimistic can consider themselves lucky, and have a responsibility towards others. This responsibility is a truly societal responsibility, because only if we can all enable everybody to be at peace may we overcome our deeply rooted problems. Our first and foremost priority will be to learn ways to marginalise minorities less, and help humans less privileged than us. We should never forget that optimism can obviously be also part of a privilege. I was privileged enough to see many different cultures, and remember that I saw optimistic and pessimistic world views in rich and poor. Yet this is easier said then lived, and only when all people can grow up with the capability to thrive in this world, and have their rights guarded will we surely and maybe finally be able to make the case for optimism. I for myself thrive towards this lack of inequality, and we have gotten closer over time. When my grandmother was born more than 100 years ago two thirds of all people lived in poverty. When my mother was born after the second world war it had hardly changed. When I was born in the mid-70s it was less than half of the people living on poverty. Today it is about 12%, depending on the threshold and how it is defined. The end of poverty will not mark the beginning of ultimate optimism, yet it is a path towards that. As long as I live I choose to throw all my might in contributing towards a world what is worthwhile our optimism, and this is what I call radical optimism. I cannot find an argument for me against it.

Notes on practical ethics # 5 – Relational wisdom

The relation between knowledge, experience and wisdom is one of the most fascinating intertwining of concepts one can engage with. On the other hand is wisdom a widely discredited and misused wording, and its definition is often subjective and based in emotional perception instead of clear conceptualisation. While knowledge is comparably clear to define, and experience links what we know to either direct observation or inference on the one hand, or direct practical application of knowledge, wisdom is much harder to tame. Long scholarly debates resolved since antiquity around wisdom, and basically all religions had a say in it. Even the different streams of the world religions got into fights on what consists wisdom in a person, and these days it is not always clear if calling a person wise is meant to honour or to mock them. Psychological research tried to dismantle wisdom into traits, namely social advising, emotional regulation, pro-social behaviours, insights, tolerance and decisiveness (Thomas et al. J Psychiatr Res. 2019 Jan;108:40-47). While it is admirable that there is an attempt to measure wisdom, we have to acknowledge that this is highly constructed, yet also may have some benefits. For instance can it empower to thrive and educate yourself towards these traits, yet it is clear that this would be a diverse and rather additive curriculum. Helpful tools would be keeping a diary to effect on your emotions, or active courses on tolerance. While these are examples of rather helpful approaches, it is clear that such measures of wisdom are constructed, it will be far fetched to assume that we could educationally or otherwise educate people to become wise. Is wisdom then something unpredictable, emergent and altogether just a serendipity that will befall some lucky few? This may be partly true, but also false.
People may become wise under certain circumstances. These are for instance reflected in the character traits listed above, yet we could also reduce wisdom to be based on the capability to develop knowledge and experience. If your life does not allow you to gain both knowledge as well as experience, how should wisdom emerge? Wisdom may thus be rooted in our brain, our initial upbringing by our parents, as well as the privilege of our education. The ability of our brain is actually a feeble criteria, because it cannot be tamed, obviously. We understand too little yet about the capacities of our brains, and any debate about key criteria or characteristics runs into a danger to discriminate against people who are wise after all, despite not meeting certain criteria. Equally did some people grew up under challenging circumstances, and still became wise. Something equal can be said about the diversity of educations different people had the privilege to have, yet others less fortunate still became wise.
How shall we solve this unpredictability? Psychology may give us the measures to identity wisdom in people, yet a list of six criteria is by far not a conceptual definition, but an empirical one. In other words, a psychological taming of wisdom may be admirable yet poses a substantial problem, because an epistemological approach may not be sufficient, as it is more of a bottom up approach. A conceptual definition is clearly something else. Therefore, wisdom may demand an ontological definition. Knowledge can be about perception or inference, and these are clearly epistemological dimensions. Experience may provide an ontological link, because it is experience that tells us how to apply knowledge. Based on experience, we also know when it would not make sense to use an approach based on a certain knowledge. In other words, it is experience that provides a relevant connection between epistemological knowledge and ontological concepts. How to make sense of our knowledge is however ultimately what ontology is all about. A wise person has to this end a clear bearing and relation concerning their own existence and reality as such, and are at peace with this knowledge. This ontological wisdom is sufficiently stable and sound that no additional knowledge can seriously threaten the state of wisdom. An important component hence comes to the link provided by experience, because it is the experience that enables as wise person to confess and articulate the limitations of their knowledge. The recognition of ones limitations is one of the defining elements of the ontological knowledge of a wise person, yet does not endanger their beliefs or identity.
The other defining element of a wise person is focussed on the ability to propel their wisdom to others. A wise person may hardly ever call themselves wise, but instead it is others who perceive their wisdom and benefit from it. At least this is how I perceive wise people, they always have a certain irony about themselves. Equally will a wise person be always open to perceive new knowledge from other people. In other words, the essence of a wise person is being equally a continuous learner, but also sharing advise and insight with other without any apparent benefit for themselves, including their ego. Wisdom is at its core a phenomena that can be best explained relationally, because wisdom can only arise out of learning form others, or at least not independently from others. This is even more important for declaring a person as wise, because this can only be done by others, and as already mentioned hardly by anyone themselves.
Wisdom could thus be seen as an subjective ontological state, which is however not true, if we consider that it only arises relationally. The last person on earth could not be wise, because of the lack of interaction with others. On the other hand can the state of a person being wise equally not be objective, because it is subjects who are in this state of being. Wisdom can therefore be seen as an example for non-duality. A wise person is rooted in an epistemological perception of or inference about the world. Experience allows a wise person to link to an objective reality which can be associated to ethics, metaphysics or reason, among other conceptual viewpoints. These are not necessarily objective, but they can be, and if these conceptual views were merely subjective, these would hardly be perceived to be wise. Just as a wise person would perceive themselves not as being wise, such a person might unite knowledge and experience, and would be aware of their limitations, and to extend both knowledge and experience continously. The key to such a state is thus life-long learning, and the clear perception that while one may be declared to be wise, one can and should never claim to be wise.

Notes on Practical ethics #4 Cultural personal identity

It is well understood that we all are defined by our personal identity. The information that personal identity does not ultimately matter will not change that, and not knowing that our individual personal identity will end seems to be the easiest information we all learn to ignore early on in live. Very small children do not have a real personal identity. It seems as if personal identity is something that we discover, develop and/or learn. At a certain age, personal identity is being probed and framed, which is the age when most little children literally become a character. There are several reasons why this will surely not change even in the distant future, because it is part of our evolutionary development. In other words, personal identity is something we first have not, and then we have it. However, several people realise that their personal identity is indeed fleeting, which is not only the insight of the Buddha, but also Derek Parfit.

There are other people who could even flee into a world of non-identity. There is a prominent example Martin Pistorius. He was trapped for years in his own body, unable to move a muscle, and alter people in his surrounding that after years in a vegetative state, his consciousness had returned. In order to evade the agony of being trapped in his own body, he vanished into a place where “nothing existed”. Yet while he described this to be a rather dark place, he was also able to vanish into a world of phantasy. Cultural identity is equally such a place of phantasy, because it is not about who a person is, but about who we are as a united group, interacting with each other. Cultural identity would not make sense if you are alone. Cultural identity can be thus seen as a construct that helps us to belong, and create some sort of unity among a group of people. In the past, this unity was often inherited, yet today in a globalised world, there are many cultural groups that are not inherited. The world grew more diverse, and there is a larger recognition of many different facets of cultural identity. Culture is what makes us diverse and enables societies to thrive. Yet culture cannot be defined as a homogeneous entity, but instead builds on diversity within nested groups. For example may certain traditional houses be built following a localised culture within the construction, but there are often deviances or diversities. This is why art is so central to our lives, because it is “”when our senses are at their fullest” (Ken Robinson). Equally can art in a cultural context allow for a strong emotional unity. Many people find at the end of their own personal identity a great consolation that their culture goes on, and hence their contribution to this very culture will be preserved.

Cultural identity is therefore highly relevant, not only because of the emotional gratification to belong, but also because cultural identity can thus help people to make more sense of their personal identity, or the lack thereof, i.e. when we feel united. If we would have no cultural identity, and because we have no personal identity, we would have practically no identity at all. This would be clearly a societal problem, because people are ,as was outlined above, not able to live within parts of their development without any form of identity within the foreseeable future. Identity is an important part of our development stages during adolescents, and without such steps people would be lost and confused at this age, and probably also later.

However, we shall bot forget that some of the worst atrocities in the history of people can be associated to cultural identity. It is however not the exclusion of people that do not belong to an identity group, that is the actual problem. Instead it is the actions that may arise out of the exclusion of “others” from an identity group that is the true problem. Consequently, cultural identity should never enable members of a group to take negative actions against other people. This is in itself a very difficult assumption, not only because it would be hard to achieve. More importantly would it potentially elevate cultural dimensions onto the status of religion in a secular state. This is not my intention, yet I believe it is important to raise this issue as it would otherwise allow for critics to make the argument to raise concern. After all, culture is also about believes, and can be about values. Most would agree that culture should also not violate legal boundaries, and this matter is a description of many problems that rose in western democracies as part of the cancel culture and culture wars. Since culture builds on values and is set in the real world, it can also be about rights, and often is also about duties.
Starting with the latter, culture is often conserved by duties. These often follow a certain rhythm or are otherwise embedded into the calendar, or may be an action taken under given circumstances. For instance have many cultures certain actions that are taken in case of a solar eclipse. Such cultural actions often give an interpretation or coping mechanism to reality, and we all know many examples that are celebrations. To this end, culture can clearly give meaning to live. Duties within cultural rhymes or habits are thus often a privilege.
One of the most controversial points is the relation between culture and rights. While it should be clear that there needs to be a right for culture, which is the case in many countries, it is often less clear how to deal with cultural actions that violate rights or norms. For instance do many traditional cultures to this day catch whales, despite a global recognition of their protection status. Many controversies arise out of such contradictions between local cultures and laws and norms outside of the respective cultural hemisphere. Here, global responsibility should make the difficult negotiation to balance local culture and global responsibility, which is however in many cases a difficult task. Global initiatives such as the IBPES have highlighted the importance of preserving indigenous cultures. Their preservation could be compared to the cold war, when for instance during the Cuba crisis the world was literally a push of a button away from total annihilation. Equally, many indigenous cultures and first nations are one step away from perishing, and many have already perished. Their fate is not different to our potential fate during the cold war, because what is gone will not come back, and as their culture is smaller in extend, it is even more fragile. More research as well as legal and civil action is needed to preserve these cultures, and due to the dramatic situation it is clear that we need to increase our efforts. This thought cannot be more but a mere starting point.

To conclude, cultural identity could be seen as a starting point, and not an end in itself. Culture is dynamic, interconnected, and ideally flourishing. While many cultures have emerged over the last centuries, many have also emerged, and care needs to be taken to preserve them. More research and action is necessary to embed diverse cultures into the global community. However, as long as people grow up thriving to explore their own identity, and as well as people find meaning in their diverse cultures, cultural identity can be a beacon to belong.

Some thoughts on practical ethics #3 – What is better, what is worse, and does this matter?

One of the most frequent debates I witness in practical ethics is the question whether we can evaluate something to be better or worse. The people I often talk to are actually not exactly part of the academic community focussing on ethics, yet when I mention that some outcome can be best, thereby following Derek Parfit tripple theory, many of these people are baffled. Personally, I am baffled that they are baffled, and will try to unravel here some thoughts about their beliefs.

Utilitarianism claims to aim at the best (overall) outcome, yet our trouble to evaluate exactly what is better or worse is one of the most central mishaps -to me- in western thinking. To this end I believe we make two main mistakes, that are strangely intertwined and can best be condensed by two big words: Epistemology and deontology. We make an epistemological mistake by attempting to evaluate consequences of our actions through observational knowledge. The second fallacy we make is based on the error to ethically evaluate our actions against some higher rules, instead of the consequences of our actions, which is, simply put, a deontological mistake. Both problems riddle much of the debate that we have about better or worse, and have divided many in the western world since centuries. More explanations on both mistakes -the epistemological and the deontological- seem to be appropriate.

Deontology focussed on the evaluations of our actions based on the principles or rules these are based on instead of the consequences of our actions. While Bentham as an early advocate of utilitarianism was surely focussing on consequences instead of mere actions and their underlying principles, this problem has within societal debates hardly been resolved. Many religious groups and cults are obsessed with a rule based world up until today, and the current cancel culture and social media wars are a mirror of a similarly rule-obsessed world. These current critical realities and societal debates clearly show why deontology must fail, because as much as we try to act right, it almost aways seems we all fail. Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Einstein, Curie and many other people are long devalued by rule-based criticism, as are it seems all our current leaders and inspirers. It is fair to conclude that people make mistakes, yet while this should be a trivial insight, we have to acknowledge that we should not judge these mistakes if they were made with the aim and knowledge to result in consequences that would not be judged negatively. In other words, I reject the principle of deontology or a rule based evaluation, because is can do nothing but fail from an epistemological perspective.
Take the example of Robin Hood. Living in Sherwood Forest he took from the rich and gave to the poor. Who would judge that through a loss of taxes and stolen goods and values the government of Notthingham suffered severe losses? Obviously this would be a very bad interpretation of the story. We have to assume that these were the consequences of his actions, yet his rule to take from the rich and give to the poor is an admirable rule, predating Rawls by several centuries. However, we should not forget that Robin Hood broke many other rules while he acted, as do many protagonists in our favourite stories. The world is simply too messy and diverse to allow for an all rule based all-empirical evaluation.
When we now take the extreme opposite view to evaluate only the consequences of our actions, then we have to make one important pretext. We can only judge on the intentions of consequences. This seems to have been overall more acceptable in the East, and grew increasingly less acceptable in the West; this is of course a crude generalisation, yet still one important general difference.
Take the example where a group of people need to push a button every few hours to prevent a doomsday machine to explode, a story from the TV series Lost. At some point in the story, one of the protagonists decides that it is all a hoax, and that they should stop pressing the button. thereby discontinuing to follow the rule they were given. Next, the doomsday machine exploded, and the sad protagonist saw his mistake. Despite this bad outcome we can still sympathise with his action, because he was given a rule without and explanation or reason. Imagine if the world would be based on bizarre rules that we would never understand. Surely people would rebel against such rules, and rightly so, because we do not live in the times of the gods of old, who could dictate rules to us down from Mount Olympus. Instead, modern societies educate us to challenge rules that we do not understand, and the legal system in many democratic nations tries to negotiate exactly this. The ever growing canon of legal decisions hence gives testimony on how rules should be interpreted, and many would argue that most laws of most democratically elected governments are often understandable. Yet such political dimensions cannot ultimately be ethical dimensions, and this is part of our ontological fallacy. Ever since Spinoza, Kant and Hegel moved the western world out of the solemnly religious sphere, rules are not anymore god-given, and hence, were increasingly questioned. This devision led to a severe problem, because the centuries since could not clearly answer the question if there are rules to be followed by all people. In other words, we widely lost our ontological roots. Now I am far from making a plea for religion here, but simply want to highlight that we seem to have lost any glimpse of ontological truths that we could all agree upon. However, if we cannot agree on anything, then what matters? Critical realism clearly claims that there might be such ontological truths in the world, yet we may never find these principles. While critical realism is still widely restricted to the social dimensions, we can surely widen it to the world as such, and thus state that there are principles we may never observe, but there can be ontological principles that we may as well unravel. These may not be deontological rules, however. Instead it would be much easier that follow principles that do not violate any rules, instead of having our actions simply follow rules. This underlines a different between principles and rules, which is ultimately a matter of scale. The most capital mistake we do to this end is in my opinion to start with our differences, when we should start what unites us.
We have to conclude that our observational powers as well as the deviance of the real world from our expectations do not always give us sufficient reason for rules we can agree upon. We therefore need to take the intention of our actions into account, and thereby modify our viewpoint. Instead of a rule based world view or an act consequentialists world view we need to settle on an intention based worldview, where no one objects our intentions. Our intentions may follow certain rules, which in many cases cannot be neglected to give some general guideline. If we thus continue to agree to act based on certain rules, we equally need to teach the capacity or allow within a system to deviate from certain rules. This would allow both a reflexive setting as well as a clear documentation of the intentions of our actions, something that may seem hard to imagine for many today, yet may in the future just become a modus operandi towards transparency and evaluative competency. Naturally, we shall not need to write down everything we do, yet focus on these acts that actually have consequences. While this is hard to anticipate now, and we need to be aware even of very small, accumulated and interacting consequences, we shall for now lump sum this as part of the epistemological mist we will need to clear in the future, but not here.
Now let is take the extreme opposite viewpoint, that is assume that there are indeed rules to be followed, and how to find them. Many disagreement about rules are because of cultural values, experiential values or legal values. However the main disagreement on rules are not because of these different types of values, but instead because of the category of values. Many controversies cannot be resolved of cultural differences, yet it should be clear that if we all would have the same culture, the world would be clearly less diverse. Consequently one of the most rules we need to agree upon is to know, reflect and accept the values of other cultures. The alternative of a cultural homogenisation might be a side effect of globalisation, developments in communication et cetera, but will not be considered further here. Instead it is most relevant to honour cultural values of others, even if these values are alien to some of us. There are also examples of wider accepted rules. Humans have already evolved into proclaiming human rights, and these are a commitment of the global community for united values. From a historical viewpoint, it seems that these rights and conventions only emerged recently, and the vast majority of the legal apparatus still operates on national or local levels. This is however well put into perspective when comparing our current situation with the situation about 100 years ago. Humankind evolved clearly since then, and from a standpoint of human rights surely for the better, which is reason for optimism. Nevertheless, more steps need to be taken to allow for a greater implementation of human rights and other global values.
The biggest lack to date has probably been in recognising global inequalities. First attempts have been made, notably the global sustainability goals of the taxing of global cooperation that try to evade national tax laws. Yet while many global inequalities decreased, some inequalities such as global income disparity, have increased over the last decades. Pessimists claim we shall never overcome these inequalities, but that these inequalities would even increase. This claim does not only contradict past developments, but is also leading nowhere. If we claim that inequalities increase, what would be the aim of this argument? How would humankind need to devolve to become drastically less equal in terms of material resource distribution? It seems highly unlikely that the necessary totalitarian structures would be established, despite all the rumours conspiracy nutheads try to spread. Even if we would make the argument that such grim developments are already underway, action would need to be taken, since mere discussions have clearly less consequences. The global movements of the last years are to this end among the most hopeful initiatives that emerged, and prove the potential of the global community that can transcend diverse cultural values.
These global initiatives are thus clearly believing in what Derek Parfit called normative truths. There may be indeed some truths that can unite us, because we are able to not only act reasonable, but also responded to reason, underlining the importance of human interconnectedness. Personally, I prefer to live in a world where agency of people can in crease, and we can not only try to unravel what ought to be true, but even may be able to discover what we “might be able to make true” (Parfit). The alternative would be that nothing is true. Who ever opts for this scenario may become a prepper for the pending anarchistic apocalypse, where nothing matters. I hope you have a happy live.

Some thoughts on practical ethics #2 – Who am I?

The 20th century brought us a thriving of individuality and freedom to many ends, many of which are good. It seems as if we did not reach the heights of our individual personal identity as I write this in 2021 as of yet, and people thrive to explore their identities and find out who they are. From a philosophical standpoint, all this makes no sense, and this is the case since quiet some time, depending who you ask. It was Derek Parfit contribution through his first book “Reason and persons” to conclude that all personal identity is – in a nutshell- constructed, and does not make any sense.

Some people may argue about the continuity of memories, we are basically what we remember. Me, I forget many things, and I am sometimes even glad about it. In addition, memory is indeed very fleeting, and more often than not, our memories are plain wrong. When Bob Dylan wrote the first volume of his autobiography, some people pointed out that they remember some stories quite differently. The Master did not care. All of us are often the same. We think we have a memory, but in a nutshell, we made a memory up, or if you want to blame someone, your brain did that.

Our atoms, molecule and cells are constantly changing. Hence we cannot be the physical matter that builds us. How would you otherwise make sense of Elvis, who -many want to point out to me- yet I can hear his music and see him dancing on video. The King seems very much alive, as is his music. Bodily continuity ends at some point, and since all matter changes constantly all the time, it is indeed hard to defend personal identity via bodily matters.

Are we our cultures, then? Cultural identity is surely something that we could try to settle on, and should. However this is again hard to fix onto a single person, because the times when cultures resolved around one person have slowly come to and end. In ancient Egypt the Pharao had the mighty command to build the Pyramids, and while the Pyramids still remain, all of Egyptians ancient culture is long gone.

Then there is the soul. May it be the Abrahamic religions, yet also Hinduism and also other religions such as some of First nations, the soul is quite central to many beliefs people held, and some still hold. While this is totally up to them, it will be hard to settle on a proof about the existence of a soul. While hence such religions hold the soul as kind of the ultimate claim for personal identity, only in a believers beliefs can this claim hold any value. For everybody else is may not be convincing. The Buddha had a slightly different approach, because causal links do matter in Buddhism, yet the concept of Anatta -non-self- underlines in some lines of thinking any claim of identity or permanence.

Memories, matter, culture or the soul all can thus hold a key to some people concerning personal identity, yet I conclude for myself that if these are not universal answers to the problem of personal identity, then they hold no universal value at all. Do not misunderstand me. Many people get great help in difficult times by knowing that their culture will go on, that they think they will go to heaven, or they will never be forgotten. While all these can be pathways to diminish the sorrows of life, and especially life’s end, I agree with Derek Parfit that these forms of personal identity do not matter.

Interconnectedness is instead what really matters. We are all connected by our actions, and how these may create meaning for other beings. This is not about memories of our actions, or about some afterlife reward system. Instead it is about the general contribution our actions may have, and the consequences that may arise out of this. In other words, this is absolutely not about us as a person, but about life in total. If one of our actions leads to a better outcome overall, then we all get better. While some may see this as a grand overture to altruism, one might simply ask, what the alternative would be? A dog eat dog world, the good old hedonism, or maybe pessimism may lead to -you guessed it- nothing. Material gain will perish, the memory of you will perish, hell -even your soul may perish. Ok, the last one was a cheap shot.

I always think that the funniest scenario would be if everybody would get what they believed in. Imagine how thrilling the memory of you would be in a million years, given that it would never fade. Consider how you feel in heaven or hell after a million years? I could image it would get boring either way. Only on the continuity of culture I could somewhat settle, because cultures evolve. To me, the best scenario would be that I am gone, but that the bundle -as Hume called it- but the impact I had through relations with other remains. The Greek word “”trope”” comes to mind, which could be understood as “change”. If we changed things for the better, then we did good. This would as well be in line with the Buddha. What is however I think best about it, is that it is hard to deny that this would have meaning and truth. In other words, who could counter-argue the suggestion that we should leave the world a better place than as we arrived in it, and that this change was at least partly through our actions.

To conclude, personal identity was a nice construct that emerged as a way towards a greater freedom in societies that were often less free or not free before. Times are different today, as more and more people perceive the capability to become free. As part of this gained freedom, many explore ways towards our own personal identity. Much meaning was lost through that, and we may sometimes have even lost track of the ultimate goal, that is how we can change the world for the better. This is who I would like to be.

Some thoughts on practical ethics #1

I believe that the main challenge of the 21st century will be to align our actions with our ethics on why and how we act. The dawn of humans let us emerge from only being driven the need to survive and being guided by emotions, and evolved into a world of communication, culture and cooperation. Hence the dawn of humankind unraveled a world where we had the capability to act beyond our emotions, and consequently discovered reason, logic and goals transcending our personal surrounding. Human civilisations began to thrive, marking attempts in our history to create diverse cultures, and often also differentiating ourselves from our neighbours. It was often through these differences that progress was made, yet one should not oversee the conflicts rooted equally in such territorial identities. While such conflicts characterised the last century, these times may soon come to pass. The rate of conflicts and casualties has gradually decreased, and armed conflicts become more and more localised. On the other hand did many global challenges emerge calling for responsibility especially among the wealthy, and unity in diversity among all people on this planet. This would call as well for unity in our ethics, because not being united to this end would be a source for continuous and newly emerging conflicts. After all, it is one of the main sources of current conflicts, beside culture and resources. Only culture shall remain a source to honour our differences, yet our ethics-what some would call our moral compass- shall no longer divide us.
The thought of harmonised and unanimously accepted ethics has long preoccupied philosophers, yet it was especially during the last decades that this ambitious goal gained momentum. Building on these previous writing, basically no thought here is new, or even original. Instead I use this opportunity to order my thoughts when my thinking indeed needs order as a beacon towards the future. Any lapse in clarity, lack of grace or flaw of structure is thus nothing but a reflection of my failure towards an ordered overview towards a united ethics. Writing these texts -which I plan to do for the foreseeable future- anyway is thus a selfish act, but my need towards more clarity and freedom makes it important at least to me.

So you want a recommendation letter from me?

There are many opportunities for students to apply for scholar ships, summer schools and other possibilities that help them to propel their track further. I am glad to support students to this end, as I think that it may offer a way to approach inequalities that still prevail in the system, supporting people with fewer possibilities. In addition, many scholarships are also offering networking and learning opportunities, which can be an exiting amendment to university education. In addition, more and more master programs ask for a support letter, and many students like to add it to their resume in general.
While this may be a helpful addition if it is specifically being asked for in the course of an application, I have to say that I never looked at such recommendation letters when people applied at position in my team. For legal reasons, these letters are rigged, as we can hardly write a true account of the person, but instead write something altogether positive that may even put the person under a lot of pressure. After all, who can live up to the high praise we generate in these letters of support. Therefore, it is very important to me to write these letter personally, and not to rely on generic statement, if at all possible. In order to achieve this, I typically interview the potential candidates that ask for a letter of support, and try to write a letter that is specially tailored for them. Since I teach the two large lectures in our bachelor program, and I am also active in three masters programs, I get many requests form students, about 1-2 per week at an average. I am able to put up with the time constraint, but if I support 10 candidates to one organisation in one round of applications, which is typically once or twice a year, letters of support may have a tendency to lack credibility. An organisation would probably consider it to be strange to receive so much praise about so many students from one professor, but this is only an assumption on my end.
What is however more difficult is that almost all scholarships are only handed to the best students. The margin is typically at 10 %, yet many organisations even expect the best 5 %. This is insofar difficult since many of the students wrote exams in my lectures, and I know their grade. For this simple reason, I can only support students that are at leats in the top 25 % of the respective exams. This is already quite a stretch compared to the best 5 %, but I am willing to use this criteria to enable more students to apply for scholarships. For those students that did not receive any grades yet -typically 1st semester students- I am glad to accept a motivation letter with no more than 500 words that clearly outlines how the scholarship or activity would benefit their career.
For those students who do not meet this criteria, I can make exceptions in two cases. First, if students engage themselves in the work of the student body, and actively participate in the management and development of the university, then I am also willing to support them. This does not include any work vaguely associated with the development of the university, but only elected positions as student representatives. I feel that if people run for office and are willing to actively contribute to the development of the university as a whole, I owe them my full support.
The second exception for people that are not among the best 25 % is for people that worked actively in my team, and that left a positive impression. If I am sure that the active and continuous efforts of a candidate merit a recommendation, I am glad to go through any lengths to support the person.
Now for those people who do not meet these criteria, I suggest that you may contact other teachers, ideally from seminars, who may support you. It is unfortunate that the institutions that write out scholarships or demand letters of support use grade as a baseline, but I guess they need to use some sort of threshold criteria, and for mere it is difficult to ignore this.
Generally I can only support people who contact me at least two weeks before the deadline. Since my responsibilities are numerous, and I rely on long term planning to match the diverse tasks I face, I expect the same from potential candidates interested in my support. If I deviate from this rule, it is ultimately my family that suffers, since my work time is tightly knit and integrates diversity of tasks with a thrive for efficiency to create solutions.

Seven reasons why we fail right now

We all keep watch of the current developments unfolding. I guess it is clear to most people by now that it does not look good. While many efforts are currently being made, I believe we still have a long way to go until we will get the numbers down. There are many reasons why we fail right now, and I hope we get these and the others problems we currently face into focus, which would be essential to get the numbers down. These are just my observations, and many might focus on other points. So take these suggestions with a grain of salt.

1) Most people do not understand the rules. The state and the media widely fail to explain the rules so that people are actually enabled to follow them. For instance are many rules in Germany right now related to the 7 day incidence, which indicates how many people were infected during the last 7 days. Most people do not get this index. Another example is the rule that you can only meet a total of 10 people form 2 households. Most people I asked think that you can meet 10 people today, and can meet another pack of 10 people tomorrow. This is not how the rule is intended, since i would argue that the higher rule is to meet as few people as possible. Meeting this many people makes only sense if it is documented, so that cases could be traced. As long as the rules are not understandable, we will continue to fail. More communication is need, or else stricter rules will fix the problem.

2) We do not acknowledge the emotional state of most of the people. Many people are shocked, and unstable. While this does not help, it is still a fact that is hardly addressed. We need to get a clearer debate of where everybody is at, and establish clearer safety nets to help people stay afloat. Otherwise people will break the rules, because they suffer too strongly in their misery of feeling isolated.

3) There is no such things as a zero risk. Many people constantly calculate their risk right now. Masks help. Regularly opening a window. Distance. Hand washing. All this helps, it is true. It minimises your risk. But it does not change the fact that your risk cannot be and will not be zero. You still have a risk, and people will keep rationalising this risk. More information would be needed, because the current development shows that the current rules are seemingly not enough.

4) We have no clear time line. Ok, yes, it is unclear how it is going to be in 6 months. However, there are experts that have a good understanding of what is going to happen. The next weeks are very clear. The next two months are fairly clear. And a lot can be said about the next six months. However, different experts and actors (there is often a difference) communicate different futures. We do need a larger debate to harmonise these predictions and scenarios. Otherwise it will only increase the insecurities and confusion.

5) It may get worse. Frost is at our doorstep, and as a father I know that this is sick season for many people with little kids, and this may propel to others. A wave of colds could camouflage the crisis, and the flu might amplify it. We should be aware that we are not out of the woods. This is unclarity that adds to the equation, and the emotional impact if it happens could be severe.

6) We need to talk about inequality. This crisis is like the great amplifier of all inequalities we face since a long time, and it also created new inequalities. Much of the frustration and fear we face is rooted in these inequalities. We need to start to discuss these, and fast. Otherwise it will not only make these inequalities worse, but also potentially the pandemic.

7) Stigmatisation may make the problem worse. More and more people get infected. People that we know may get infected. Beside illness and medical danger there is a high chance that these people may feel stigmatised. This may make them hide their disease if they show no symptoms, retreat from their friends to avoid judgement, or lead to other behaviour that can be bad for the pandemic, but also bad for their mental health. We need to acknowledge that under the current situation judgement will not bring us in anyway forward if someone is infected. Instead we need to support this person the best we can.

These are just some points I observed over the last days, and there are certainly more. I just wanted to raise awareness on thee issues, and hope that it can be a small contribution to the current debate. Thank you very much.

How should we count now?

The situation is messy. The cases of COVID rise. Accordingly, the governmental structures try to adapt, and there is a great debate how we ought to act best. This reminds me of a thought experiment by Derek Parfit with the morbid name of “the harmless torturers”.

Imagine the following scenario first: in the bad old days, a 1000 torturers turned a switch on some machine a 1000 times, giving an electric shock (or something similar) to their own victim each time, thereby affecting 1000 people badly. Each turning of the switch leads to an imperceptible pain, but the sum of all turnings over time leads to really severe pain. These torturers obviously act wrong.
Now consider that “The harmless torturers” is a slight modification. One by one, all torturers push a button which switches all thousand machines at once. All victims receive the ‘mild’ shock simultaneously by the same torturer. However, after all 1000 torturers have pushed the button, the result for the victims is the same. Yet, none of the torturers imposed any severe pain on any of the victims on his own. It was the collective action that caused the harm, not the individual person.

Derek Parfit used this example to illustrate that classical ethics fail to judge the harmless torturers, as we all agree that they act clearly wrong in both cases. This has always been a good example to me about sustainability, as it illustrates the shortcoming of utilitarianism, to give one example. Even acts that seem imperceptible can have consequences, for better or worse. I think this comes in handy when considering the Corona crisis. We tend to search for rules on how the virus is transmitted, and patterns clearly exist. There are high chances to get infected under certain risky behaviour, and low chances under other behaviour. However, the chances are certainly not zero under many of these behaviour rules. Take meeting outside. Chances based on current evidence to get infected by someone who is contagious are nineteen times lower than in a closed room. However, chances are not zero. Even if the negative effects of our individual actions are only negative on an almost imperceptible scale, they can still have consequences, and may even matter more in the long run.
At this point it should be noted that this is a very one-sided view of the world, since obviously and alarmingly, many people are mentally affected by the crisis though loneliness, anxiety and other effects. All this may matter even more, at least to some. The reason why I raise Derek‘s example here is not because I do not perceive the problems of others. Their challenges of others matter a lot to me. But I also have to highlight that although I would love to meet other people, I do not perceive a problem in not meeting others. This makes me in no way better or worse than anyone, or if so I ignore this here. Yet it enables me to make a simple contribution, and that is to create less – even imperceptibly less risks – as a contribution to society. Other people may need to meet other people for all sorts of reasons. Some people are essential workers. Others may need to meet people because they would feel bad being alone. In order to support these groups of people, I decide to minimise my risk for others, even if imperceptibly so. Derek clearly points out that every contribution may count, even if we cannot count or measure the contribution.
Do not misunderstand me, I would love nothing more but to met other people in person. But the fact that I am not doing this does not make me feel bad. I miss learning from others, I can clearly state that. I meet people once or twice a week outside, at least for now. I am however glad to have learned from Derek how to count right, because this may count right now, even if my contribution is imperceptible.

We are now as strong as our weakest

Corona is coming back. It is not like a distant set of numbers, a pattern that can be observed, an empathy that can be extended. Who would have thought that the good old “Winter is coming” would get so close to our reality now? In my surrounding, cases are slowly rising. People feel uncomfortable. We are like the frogs in a pot, the temperature slowly rising, feeling uneasy, but not knowing what to do. Where do we draw the line? How much is too much? To be fair, Germany is in a much better situation than many other countries. The inequalities between countries were never more clearly illustrated. The German medical system, including the response system, is keeping explosive rises in cases at bay – for now. We are much luckier than many of our neighbours. This does not make any country better than any other country, after all, Germans are privileged way beyond our medical system. Still, cases are on the rise, and in my surrounding, I had to witness only this week that some people do not face the responsibility that we all share now. It would be easy to judge these people. Why would they not be more careful? Why this selfish behaviour?

I think such a line of thinking is clearly wrong. We can be disappointed, yes. And we can realise that people could have acted differently. However, I came to the conclusion that in this pandemic, we are only as strong as our weakest link. If one person decides to bend or even ignore the rules, we all may pay the prize. I am impressed by the creativity that people have in rationalising their behaviour. However, if people act wrong -and there is a wrong in this pandemic-then this is our joined mistake. If we failed to explain this situation to everybody, then we have to pay the prize. It is our united burden that we will have to endure, pointing fingers will not lead to lower case numbers or less people dying. In other words, our joined suffering is only as large as our will to explain the situation to the selfish and ignorant. Only if we literally leave no one behind will we manage to solve this problem now. A vaccine may help us in a few months, but until then there is no way but to help everybody understand. Corona is like the ultimate learning catalyst. Only a path out of ignorance is a path towards right action.

I invite everybody with whom these lines resonate to join the cause and help to educate others. Only if we all try to convince our friends and family that this pandemic is happening, but there are ways out of this misery, will we be united. Until then, the actions of the few will temper with the success of the many. Never before did so few owe so much to so many. Most people are careful and try to do the right thing. Corona is almost like a mirror of our society, reflecting and magnifying the mistakes made by few. Do not let them down, because that would mean that we all ultimately loose. To me, the right for education was never better illustrated, because only people that understand what is right can act right. Every action counts, and that means that every person we can persuade to act right counts so much more. I kindly ask you to stand together and help us all to convince everybody of the severity of the situation. Thank you so much.