Moral Philosophy Questions - Take the Test!

Do you divert the trolley?
Most people interested in ethics philosophy are aware of the Trolley Problem that is pretty much the go-to question and analogy for thinking about morality in terms of objectivism and relativism - or more precisely, utilitarianism.

If you haven't heard of the trolley case before, you can click here to check it out. (Yes, yes, it's a Wikipedia article but it's just as good for a brief overview of the case than any other article!)

Or if you'd like a quick, simple summary of the trolley problem, here it is:

Basically, there is a runaway trolley heading towards 5 people on the railway who have no way of escaping. You are standing in front of a switch that, if pressed, will divert the train onto another track where 1 person is unable to escape. The trolley will either kill 5 people or 1 person depending on which direction it goes. Is diverting the trolley the more ethical thing to do?

If you say yes, you've likely answered from a utilitarian perspective in that the act of diverting the trolley in order to minimise negative consequences is the moral thing to do.

A few years ago, I asked the question in a poll and as expected, most people answered that they would divert the trolley to kill 1 person and save 5 people. Unfortunately, the polls have been closed (and the live results wiped) for a few years now, but you can check out the results by clicking here.
Now, there are many variants to this trolley problem including the fat man and the fat villain. I use these cases as get-to-know-you-more-in-depth questions when I make new friends and become more interested in the way they perceive the world and the many situations that arise in life. While I might seem like the most boring person ever, the trolley problem really is a great way to find out more about a person.

So, what do you think you'll do?

You can explore this case a little deeper by answering a series of questions here: Should You Kill the Fat Man?.

I'd love to know your results and opinions so please share in the comments below!

Hilarious Short Story on Religion, Sexuality and Mystery

A college class was told they had to write a short story in as few words as possible. The instructions were that the story had to contain the following three things:

1. Religion
2. Sexuality
3. Mystery.

And the only short story that received an A+ in the entire class...?

Mystery Solved: How Ouija Boards Really Work

Damn you, BBC Future, for ruining one of the few "unbelievable stories" I have from my past to tell people when conversations die out!

When I was 15, my friends and I decided one Saturday night that we would give the Ouija board thing a go. We cut out a rectangle from a box lying around in the garage and wrote the alphabet on it with a black marker like the ones we found on Google. We got a shot glass from the parents' alcohol cabinet, turned the lights off, and we were all set. We "didn't want to trap the spirits in the room" so we left the door open (ha!).

Click for source
I didn't have high expectations. I always enjoyed good stories and spirituality was just that to me - a good story. So when the shot glass started moving and turning, it was just unbelievable and I couldn't believe my eyes. My friends and I looked around the room in panic and accused each other of moving the glass. The innocent and shocked looks on their faces were enough, though, to believe that it wasn't any of us; It was the doing of a spirit among us, in the same room, so keen to tell us its name, birth date, and its story.

If I remember correctly, the name of the "spirit" was Isaac something. He was born in the early 1900s and I think he said the cause of his death was murder (gasp!). This information was all my groups of friends talked about for a few weeks. Of course, I always kept my cool and tried to think of a scientific explanation.... No! I was totally fooled, too! More like I was the worst one out of all of us...

I can't say the experience has turned my world and my beliefs upside down. I always had doubts in the back of my mind and never fully believed that a spirit was moving the shot glass. Although it wasn't enough for me to change my beliefs, it did soften my attitudes towards spirituality, though. It went from "pffft, ok, yeah, whatever" to "pfft, ok, yeah, maybe..."

Nevertheless, it became my go-to topic to discuss whenever conversations turned to topics like spirituality, ghosts, and even religion. Nobody in my social circles ever told me it wasn't real, though. After reading Tom Stafford's article on BBC Future discussing the scientific phenomena that explain the whole mystery behind Ouija boards, though, I'm wondering whether my friends are as gullible as me or were just too polite to tell me that this exciting story of mine was in fact all based on lies..

Click for source
Below is the article that explains the science behind Ouija boards.

How the Ouija Board Really Moves

Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them. The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we're making them.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer "Yes" and anticlockwise for "No". Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There's no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul's Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it.

What is happening with Chevreul's Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without "owning" that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters.

This effect also underlies the sad case of "facilitated communication", a fad whereby carers believed they could help severely disabled children communicate by guiding their fingers around a keyboard. Research showed that the carers – completely innocently – were typing the messages themselves, rather than interpreting movements from their charges.

The interesting thing about the phenomenon is what it says about the mind. That we can make movements that we don't realise we're making suggests that we shouldn't be so confident in our other judgements about what movements we think are ours. Sure enough, in the right circumstances, you can get people to believe they have caused things that actually come from a completely independent source (something which shouldn't surprise anyone who has reflected on the madness of people who claim that it only started raining because they forget an umbrella).

You can read what this means for the nature of our minds inThe Illusion of Conscious Will by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month. Wegner argued that our normal sense of owning an action is an illusion, or – if you will – a construction. The mental processes which directly control our movements are not connected to the same processes which figure out what caused what, he claimed.

The situation is not that of a mental command-and-control structure like a disciplined army; whereby a general issues orders to the troops, they carry out the order and the general gets back a report saying "Sir! We did it. The right hand is moving into action!". The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he's never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we've made.

One of these principles is that cause has to be consistent with effect. If you think "I'll move my hand" and your hand moves, you're likely to automatically get the feeling that the movement was one you made. The principle is broken when the thought is different from the effect, such as with Chevreul's Pendulum. If you think "I'm not moving my hand", you are less inclined to connect any small movements you make with such large visual effects.

This maybe explains why kids can shout "It wasn't me!" after breaking something in plain sight. They thought to themselves "I'll just give this a little push", and when it falls off the table and breaks it doesn't feel like something they did.

Life is Absurd - Relativity, Absurdity, Time and Space

While browsing the internet, I came across an article on time, space, relativity, meaning and absurdity, and was so taken by it that I wanted to share the piece with you all. The writer, Rivka Weinberg, discusses the complex subjects mentioned above in a way that just makes sense.

Click for source

Why Life is Absurd

by Rivka Weinberg

A Consideration of Time, Space, Relativity, Meaning and Absurdity (Yep, All of It)

I. Relativity

DZIGAN: Professor Einstein said, "In the world, there is time. And just as there is time, there is another thing: space. Space and time, time and space. And these two things," he said, "are relative."

Do you know what "relative" means?

SHUMACHER: Sigh. Nu? The point? Continue.

DZIGAN: There is no person these days who doesn't know what "relative" means. I will explain it to you with an analogy and soon you will also know. Relativity is like this: If you have seven hairs on your head, it's very few but if you have seen hairs in your milk, it's very many.

To continue reading, click here to be redirected to the original article on The New York Times!

Rivka Weinberg is an associate professor of philosophy at Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif. She is the author of a book on procreative ethics, "The Risk of a Lifetime," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Person-First Language vs Identity-First Language (Survey)

In my last post, I asked everyone to get involved in a survey about language (You're still welcome to do the survey before reading this!). Well... I lied a little bit. Actually, it WAS about language, but not in the way it sounds; Not about spelling and grammar and syntax. It was about what is known as 'person-first language'.

Person-First Language

Although not many people might have heard of the term, it is pretty self-explanatory once you hear it. It is a form of the use of our language that puts the 'person' before an 'identity' in order to emphasise the individuality of people with disabilities.

For example:

Instead of saying "X is blind", you might say "X has a visual impairment"; And instead of "Y is schizophrenic", you'd say "Y has schizophrenia".

This is opposite to what is called the 'identity-first language', that puts the identity before the person in language, e.g. "Z is disabled".

In my survey, I used terms like "an autistic boy", "a victim of stroke", "the disabled children", and even "normal children". Advocates of person-first language urge for the use of terms that treat individuals as anyone else, without diminishing their individuality, character, or abilities as people. So, aside from actually putting the 'person' before the disability in a sentence (i.e. a person with disability), person-first language advocates seek to educate people to stop using terms that seem to weaken the person (e.g., "victim") or to alienate them (e.g., "abnormal").

Person-first language, at first glance, seems like a more respectful way of referring to those with disabilities, and indeed, a lot of government and medical institutions advocate for its use. But as with anything else, it's not that easy.

Identity-First Language

Some disability communities actually prefer identity-first language because they celebrate their disability as a part of their identity, and there is no shame to it whatsoever. Some consider person-first language as having the opposite effect to what it's advocating as well. For example, by putting the disability after the person, and thus structuring the sentence to mean that "a person just happens to have ...", it can be seen as treating the disability as something negative, something to be avoided. That is, if having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of, there should be no need to tip toe around the word, as if it's a negative thing to say.

Also, some people consider identity-first language to be more accurate. Someone who is disabled isn't disabled by their physicality, but more so by society. For example, if a person in a wheelchair cannot access a building that doesn't have a ramp, that person is disabled by the architecture of the building, not by their own physical functions. In this respect, saying "X is disabled" would be accurate.

Our Survey

The survey I asked for your involvement in was quite interesting. Although there weren't enough responses to actually analyse the data, most people didn't seem to recognise the identity-first or person-first language being used. However, most, if not everyone, picked up on the word "normal" and suggested a replacement word. Which is actually great, because while person-first and identity-first language advocates have conflicting views regarding the order of words and what it means to say "disabled" and so on, I think it should go without saying that ableist terms such as "normal/abnormal" are not an acceptable way to refer to anybody.

There is no right or wrong here regarding person- or identity-first language, though, at least in my opinion. Most researchers, academics, and disability communities suggest that we should just ask the person what they prefer, if we don't know what kind of language to use. That sounds respectful enough, but doesn't that simultaneously alienate them, as if they need a special term to be referred to by, for they'll be so offended otherwise? Perhaps I'm going a bit too far.

I'm probably just going to use my judgment when talking or referring to people with disabilities, and depending on the situation and the person I'm speaking to, my language would have to change slightly, just because it never hurts to be considerate.

I'm curious what you think, though. As a person with or without disabilities, which (person-first or identity-first) do you prefer?

Survey - Get Involved!

Hi everyone!

I'm currently interested in a certain topic regarding language that I'm looking to get other people involved in.

Don't worry, this survey will NOT go towards anything and your answers are completely anonymous. It won't be published anywhere or used for any kind of academic research. It's purely for my own curiosity, and I'll share the results and the objectives of the survey once I get some responses!

Please take 2-3 minutes to take this survey :)

Philographics - Big Ideas in Simple Shapes

Genis Carreras, a graphic designer based in Barcelona, offers an easy way of organising philosophical ideas on his website. Philographics is a series of posters that explain big ideas in simple shapes along with simple statements describing the ideas.

Here is an example:

The Philographics really are a great way to get a grasp of some of the complex philosophical disciplines, and an even greater way to explain the ideas to people who are not familiar with philosophy. Take a look by clicking this link and enjoy!

Which Religion Cares the Most about the Homeless?

This is funny.
But it really speaks loudly about the way some people approach religion and their beliefs.

But hey.

The man is smart.
Click here for source

Unfairness in Sex Offender Registries: Theories by Zizek and Durkheim

Criminologists often contend that there are inequalities in criminal policies stemming from theoretical traditions, and one approach to understanding and potentially reducing the inequalities is to seek out theoretical alternatives (Braithwaite 1992). With this in mind, this essay discusses the unfairness apparent in policies of sex offender registry adopted by many nations.
Sex offender registries exist in various forms in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Newburn 2010, p.551). Established under the perception that sex offenders are highly likely to re-offend after release from prison (Yoder 2011, p.30), the registries aim to regulate previously convicted sex offenders by requiring them to keep authorities up to date on their identifying details either for a period of time or indefinitely. With the intentions to facilitate law enforcement and to protect the public (Salerno et al. 2010), the registries aimed to effectively reduce recidivism and deter would-be offenders from committing crimes (Powell et al. 2014). In the US and South Korea, notification laws - designed to inform the public about known offenders in the community to assist taking protective measures (Powell et al. 2014; Vess et al. 2013; Zgoba et al. 2008) - allow access of offenders’ information to the public (Shin and Lee 2005; Tewksbury 2006). In other nations such as Australia, Canada and the UK, only selected law enforcement agencies have access to such information (Newburn 2010).
Since the initial appearance of registration laws in the 1940s in the US, many criminologists have vocalised concern about the discriminatory concept of the offender registries, their over-inclusiveness, ineffectiveness and negative consequences (Meiners 2009; Prescott 2012; Yoder 2011). Yet, support for the implementation and accessibility of the registries remains high across the world (Chui, Cheng and Yoke-chan Ong 2015; Craun and Simmons 2012, p.2-3).
This essay contends that sex offender registration laws are inherently and consequentially unfair. Drawing on theories by Zizek and Durkheim, this paper considers the rationale for the persistence of inequality and public support surrounding sex offender registration laws. It suggests that the registries are fundamentally punitive, motivated by a false sense of security and justice. It concludes by suggesting a need for the shift towards a policy that operates on empirical evidence rather than emotional and symbolic responses.

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A lack of fairness is evident in both the concept and practical application of the registries. There is unfairness inherent in the very concept of the registry stemming from a seemingly utilitarian attitude from which standpoint "the most important thing [is to] keep our children safe [instead of giving] these offenders more protection" (said by Social Development Minister Anne Tolley in New Zealand; Jones 2015). The registration laws effectively embrace the dehumanisation of the registered by reinforcing the perception of offenders as the dangerous 'other' and removing their right to privacy and protection of the State.
Inequality also persists in the foundation and application of the registries. Contrary to common misconceptions, most child sex offenders know their victims (Hynes 2013, p.6; Richards 2011, p.2-3) and sex offender recidivism generally tends to be lower than that of other offenders (Powell et al. 2014, p.256; Tewksbury 2006, p.2). There is also no compelling evidence suggesting registries have contributed to a reduction in sex crime or recidivism (Shackley et al. 2013, p.553; Yoder 2011, p.30), and notification laws in the US are even considered to increase recidivism due to the lack of motivation in offenders to remain crime-free (Prescott and Rockoff 2011, p.165; Prescott 2012, p.50). Yet, the registries are still widely supported by the public and giving rise to cruder forms like juvenile sex offender registries, effectively ‘branding’ children for life (Parker 2014, p.193; Shackley et al. 2013).
The consequences of such blatant dismissal of opposing  evidence can be devastating with restrictions placed upon the offenders regarding housing, employment, and even parenting (Meiners 2009), resulting in offenders experiencing social exclusion, including harassment and homelessness (Jeglic, Mercado and Levenson 2011). With stakes as high as the livelihoods of a considerable segment of the population, the prevalent support for the registry and the inequalities persisting in its transnational expansion seemingly requires closer examinations for comprehension of the current status quo and consideration for better alternatives. The next sections will do so with reference to Zizek and Durkheim.
Without significant evidence, sex offender registration laws seemingly operate as a function of mere moral comfort; a relief from a culture of fear fuelled by imaginary yet perceived threats of “stranger danger”. Employing Zizek’s interpretations of the social and political world, the registries and their public support demonstrate the interworking of subjective and objective violence. Subjective violence is the perceivable violence shown on the streets (e.g., sex offences against women and children), whereas objective violence is inherent to, and invisible in, the normal state of things (Zizek 2008, p.2). It is suggested that the focus on subjective violence diverts attention from actual sources of trouble to allow not only the unintentional support of objective violence but active participation in it (p.9). The registries, in this regard, comprise of two modes of objective violence: ‘symbolic violence embodied in language’, and systemic violence embedded in economic and political systems (p.1).
The registration laws are symbolically violent through government, public and media discourse. The construction of sex offenders as the dangerous ‘other’ is manifested in a sense of dismissal, undermining the inequalities experienced by offenders with the sentiment that ‘it is not unreasonable to keep a register of where people are’ (by Anne Tolley; Jones 2015). Barbarising representations of sex offenders also invade formal and informal discussions through dehumanising terminologies and false accusations of their inability to be rehabilitated. Such discussions can lead to views that child sex offenders are ‘of a subhuman category [and] the least rehabilitatable [sic]’ (as said by one parliamentarian in South Australia; Bressington 2010). The violence embodied in this discourse produces the public’s indifference to the consequences of the registries, and unwarranted fear of “the stranger” - what Zizek frames ‘the fake sense of urgency’ and ‘a hypocritical sentiment of moral outrage’ (Zizek 2008, p.5).
According to Zizek, the exploitation of this sense of urgency underlies the systemic violence (p.5-6). The urgency demands security, and although the value of the latter is as unfounded as the former in the case of sex offender registries, it nevertheless provides comfort to the fearful justice seekers at the cost of the rights of offenders. And through these interdependent mechanisms of symbolic and systemic violence, a segment of a population can be systemically discriminated against and dehumanised, seemingly with no substantial public contest. However, it is far too simplistic to assign to lawmakers the agency that, in the face of public outrage, purposefully overlooks the indisputable inequality in the registries. Instead, Zizek points to the ‘purely ‘objective’, systemic, anonymous’ violence fundamental to capitalism and its concealed authoritarianism which, in its pursuit of profitability, sufficiently creates and neglects marginalised and disposable individuals (p.11-12). Indeed, studies (see Meiners 2009; Worley and Worley 2013) have linked the expansion of sex offender registries to the expansion, privatisation and profitability of the ‘prison industrial complex’ (PIC). In this respect, the contribution of the registries to creating fear in the public is understood with regards to the legitimation of the surveillance and incarceration, the two driving forces of the PIC (Meiners 2009, p.31-52).
It is not as straightforward, however, as ascribing to the public the role of an accidental supporter of the sex offender registration laws, simply mistaken and manipulated by the capitalist evil. Drawing on Durkheim’s analyses of social order, support for the registries is simultaneously driven by mechanisms of punishment. In the Durkheimian perspective, the legal codes of a society symbolically reflect common values held by the average citizen. In this view, punishment is a moral and emotive process which produces social solidarity by reaffirming collective morality, the ‘collective conscience’ (Garland 1991, p.122). The primary objective of the penal law, according to Durkheim, is not to deter and regulate criminals. Instead, it functions as a public reminder; a ritual expression of the collective conscience (Page 2004, p.360).
The offender registration laws can then be examined in terms of a mode of social punishment, echoing and incorporating the general population’s consensus on holding sacred the innocence of children and protection of women, and the resulting contempt for anyone who threatens them, including those who already served time for their sins. The unfairness of the registries is unperceived or willingly ignored from the standpoint of ‘collective moral outrage and a passionate desire for vengeance’ (Garland 1991, p.122). The abundant evidence discrediting the effectiveness of the registries and challenging the general endorsement of myths about sex offenders is also irrelevant. Viewed as a symbolic segregation of the law abiding citizen and the ‘other’, the offender registries primarily aim to shame and socially ostracise by reaffirming social values (Ferrandino 2012, p.393), rather than to rehabilitate offenders.
The transition from the punitive pre-modern penal systems to the more liberal, rehabilitation- and rights-focused systems of late modernity, likewise, would not deter the emergence of such punitive policies as the registration laws. In Durkheim’s view, the transition does not reflect a shift in the functions of punishment; it simply demonstrates a change in the collective conscience that increasingly values the human life, including that of criminals (Garland 1991, p.123-4; 2001, p.95-101). That is, although in a less severe and more restricted form, the objectives of punishment remain unchanged.
Still, discriminatory laws targeting only particular groups seem out of place in societies that embrace difference. But perhaps it is this very pluralistic personality of modern society that provides the platform on which the physically merciful yet psychologically unforgiving forms of punishment can thrive. Durkheim suggested that complex and more advanced societies need efficient social organisation (Durkheim 1969; Garland 2001, p.100-101). In the absence of such, the collective though silenced frustration in response to the seemingly non-existent collective conscience of pluralistic societies is directed towards the violators of the few remaining, surely universal, values. And thus support for stricter crime control and segregation of particular groups can be vocalised, giving rise to meaner forms of punishment as in the case of the offender registries (p.102).
Tying together Zizek’s and Durkheim’s theories, the support and prompt disregard for the apparent inequalities created by sex offender registries are indicative of the violence and instability that persist in modern society. We may be too quick to accept the symbolic and systemic violence that dismantle our fellow citizens for their downfall satisfies our desire to crush those who dare to step out of line even in such forgiving and diverse times as now. However, reactionary penal systems don’t work, and especially so in capitalist societies (Garland 2001). And if one can indeed look at the rituals of punishment to infer how advanced a society is (Durkheim 1969), then it can only be hoped that policies such as sex offender registries will be left out of the assessment altogether.
To conclude, this essay explored the inequalities apparent in sex offender registration laws. Applying the criminological frameworks of Zizek and Durkheim in terms of the functions of violence and punishment, it analysed the ongoing public support for the registries that prevails even when challenged by lack of rational and scientific evidence. This paper maintains that the sex offender registration policies do not work, demonstrated in their apparent failure to achieve its aims of public safety and decreased offender recidivism. And when considering the interdependent dynamics of language, social order, crime control and the penal codes of society in search of a possible policy reform, it is not clear which direction the reform should take. The registration laws are irrational in that their reactionary form is all but positive and yet continues to thrive; but at the same time rational in that their emergence was seemingly inevitable in the logical order of the social changes in the last few decades and the underlying violence within them. Thus, a shift in approach to a more coherent and humane handling of sex offenders from the current punitive one requires the overcoming of the historical social frameworks that have shaped modern penal paradigms and even our very own instincts that push for vengeful control of the dangerous ‘other’. While arriving at the ideal system which ‘balance[s] protecting [the public] with offender privacy, rehabilitation, and social reintegration’ (Newburn 2010, p.549) seems far-fetched, there is some guidance: do nothing. When stuck at a crossroad like the current dilemma of rights of all versus comforting punishment, the ‘only truly ‘practical’ thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to ‘wait and see’ by means of a patient, critical analysis’ (Zizek 2008, p.6). This solution is far from perfect, but potential changes in a positive direction may be anticipated with a focus on empirical evidence and a recognition of the legitimate concerns from social academics.

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Bressington, A. (2010). Hansard: Criminal Law (Sentencing) (Mandatory Imprisonment of Child Sex Offenders) Amendment Bill. Adelaide: Legislative Council of South Australia.
Chui, W., Cheng, K. and Yoke-chan Ong, R. (2015). Attitudes of the Hong Kong Chinese public towards sex offending policies: The role of stereotypical views of sex offenders. Punishment & Society, 17(1), pp.94-113.
Craun, S. and Simmons, C. (2012). Taking a seat at the table: Sexual assault survivors' views of sex offender registries. Victims & Offenders, 7(3), pp.312-326.
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Yoder, S. (2011). Life on the list: State sex-offender registries were created to protect the public, but there's no evidence that they do--instead they are creating a second set of victims. The American Prospect, (4), pp.29-32.
Zgoba, K., Witt, P., Dalessandro, M. and Veysey, B. (2008). Megan's Law: Assessing the practical and monetary efficacy. U.S. Department of Justice, pp.1-44.
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