Tuesday, March 13, 2012

University Essay Collection: Part I - Virtue and Self-Interest in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

During my time at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I have written a number of essays and reports. Some of them may be of interest to people other than the professors they were written for. This post is part of that collection, which includes several philosophical essays and one technical report.
Except for the technical report, all of these works deal with ideas that are highly subject to change as I learn more and my opinions and values shift. Most of them were written within a couple months of my first exposure to the corresponding source works. I also played devil's advocate with parts of a few of them. Because of this, there are some ideas in this selection that I don't agree with, so don't take this as an explication of my personal philosophy.

A couple of these pieces have previously appeared on this blog, but the professor they were written for asked me to take them down after multiple students plagiarized one of them. It's been long enough that I feel comfortable putting them back up, but I want to make the following warning very clear: If you present any of this work as your own in an academic or professional setting, you're an idiot. A simple Google search will suffice to discover your plagiarism, and this is the sort of thing that can do severe damage to your academic or professional career.

The following essay is dated 18 Sep 2009, and it is from a course on ethics.

Virtue and Self-Interest in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is one of the earliest philosophical works that is still taken seriously to this day. It is over two thousand years old, yet it is still considered by most to be one of the best and most vital philosophical works of all time. There are certainly some elements within it which most people today would find ridiculous – for example, the implication that women are inferior to men – but it is, for the most part, fundamentally sound. However, one of the vital pieces of Aristotle's whole system of ethics seems, at first glance, to be flawed. That is, Aristotle claims that virtue is an essential component to happiness, but certain virtuous acts seem to be entirely contrary to one's own self-interest and happiness. I will argue, however, that Aristotle is right in this regard – in other words, that being virtuous is in my own self-interest. I will start by providing an overview of the main themes of Nicomachean Ethics, with an emphasis on the connection between virtue and happiness, and then move on to more clearly stating the apparent problem in Aristotle's reasoning, and refuting that objection.
The central argument of Nicomachean Ethics is that the greatest good is happiness, and that each person should therefore pursue happiness as the central goal of their life. Aristotle comes to this conclusion, as well as a broad outline of what happiness is, in the introductory book (Book I). He claims that the greatest good must be the final end toward which everything else strives, and that it must be “always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” and must on its own “make life desirable and lacking in nothing” (Book I, Ch. 7). Happiness, Aristotle says, meets these requirements, because “we choose [it] always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves . . . [are chosen] also for the sake of happiness.” Happiness is thus the greatest good, the pinnacle of excellence toward which we should all direct our lives and actions.

Aristotle's notion of happiness is, however, considerably different from the modern definition. Indeed, eudaimonia, the Greek word which Aristotle uses that has been translated as 'happiness', seems really to carry a connotation which the word 'happiness' does not. That is, eudaimonia is not a feeling, but a state of being; something which does not change from moment to moment, but rather can be used to describe a person's entire life. Eudaimonia, according to Aristotle, is a broad concept, which encompasses all of the lesser good pursuits of life – including pleasure, honor, friendship, even material wealth – but above all else, virtue.

This idea of virtue being the most vital component of happiness stems from what is known as Aristotle's function argument (Book I, Ch. 7). Aristotle claims that what makes something good can be found by asking what that something is good for; that is, what its function is. For example, the function of an eye is to see, so a good eye is one which sees well, and what is good for an eye is that which helps it to see well, such as glasses. The function of man, Aristotle says, is that capacity which man does not share with anything else. It cannot, therefore, be life, for this “seems to be common even to plants”; or sensory perception, for this “seems to be common even to . . . every animal.” This leaves us, according to Aristotle, with reason, as that which is unique to man. Thus, the function of man is reason; and a good man is one who lives a life full of activities that are in accordance with reason, which Aristotle equates with virtue; so a virtuous man is a good man. Furthermore, being a good person is a central component to leading a good, or happy, life, by Aristotle's definition.

Throughout Book II, Aristotle goes on to describe in detail what virtue is. He starts (Book II, Ch. 1) by splitting virtue into two classes, intellectual virtue and moral virtue. He says that while intellectual virtue can be taught, moral virtue – the more important type in regard to happiness, as it is the type which is concerned with actions and day-to-day life – “comes about as a result of habit.” That is, living virtuously makes one a virtuous person, which then leads to more virtuous actions.

Aristotle moves on to show the difference between virtue and the arts, through which he draws a vital conclusion about virtue (Book II, Ch. 4). He says “the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves”; that is, art can be judged as good or bad simply by looking at it. On the contrary, according to Aristotle, virtue depends not only on the action, but also on the mental state of the one performing the action. “The agent . . . must have knowledge”; that is, he must know that he is doing something virtuous; “he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes”; that is, he must choose to do it because it is virtuous; and “his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character”; that is, it is not true virtue if he happens to do something good, but rather doing good things must be part of his character. Aristotle also makes the claim that a virtuous person takes pleasure in doing virtuous things (Book II, Ch. 3).

The most important component of Aristotle's definition of virtue, though, is known as the doctrine of the mean (Book II, Ch. 6-9). The basic concept here is that “virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate” (Book II, Ch. 6); that is, for all passions and actions – such as fear, pleasure, anger, and honor – there can be too much, too little, or just the right amount. For example, it is possible to have too much fear – that is, to be cowardly; but it is also possible to have too little fear – that is, to be reckless. The middle ground here is a healthy, intermediate degree of courage, such that one does not run away from fearsome things, but also does not pursue them. Aristotle goes on to say (Book II, Ch. 8-9) that, while both the excess and the deficiency are inferior to the mean, in most cases one of them is closer to it. For instance, Aristotle says that recklessness is closer to courage than cowardice is.
Ultimately, much of the question of what is virtuous or not virtuous in any given situation is left to the reader to decide; after all, it would be impossible for Aristotle to look at every possible set of circumstances and actions and decide what the virtuous course of action is. Thus, Aristotle leaves us with these basic principles, and tells us to pursue happiness as our primary self-interest, and to do so primarily through performing virtuous acts.

The most profound and reasonable objection that can be raised against the position that it is in my own self-interest to be virtuous , by Aristotle's definition, is that it requires a lot of self-sacrifice. For instance, in his discussion of self-love (Book IX, Ch. 8), Aristotle claims that a good man “does many acts for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary dies for them.” For me to sacrifice my life for the sake of someone else would be the ultimate sacrifice; and this seems at odds with my own self-interest, as well as self-love, which Aristotle is promoting when he makes this claim. If I were to do such a thing, I would certainly be seen as noble by most people; but what good does that do me if I'm dead? A selfish person would most likely not be willing to give their life for someone else, precisely because they would see such an act as being in conflict with their self-interest. This conflict, furthermore, is not limited to the sacrifice of life. Indeed, Aristotle goes on to say that a good man will also sacrifice wealth, honor and office to his friends; but someone acting with their own self-interest in mind would not likely do these things, either. This seems, at first glance, to be a fatal flaw in Aristotle's reasoning.

Upon closer examination, however, there are several clear and powerful responses to this objection which, taken together, thoroughly refute it. The first comes from Aristotle's concept of true friendship, as discussed throughout Books VIII and IX. This is relevant because, when Aristotle said sacrifice is often a necessary component of virtue, he was talking about sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or one's country, and by extension all of one's friends). In a true friendship, according to Aristotle, both parties want what is good for each other. Indeed, Aristotle says “those who wish well for their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally” (Book VIII, Ch. 3), and “as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also” (Book IX, Ch. 9). In other words, if I am virtuous and a good friend, what is good for my friend is what I want by nature, and is therefore in my self-interest. In light of this, my act of sacrificing my life for my friend no longer seems entirely contrary to my self-interest.

Another reason sacrifice is in my self-interest is that acting virtuously is pleasant to the virtuous person, as mentioned earlier. This applies even to the extreme case of sacrificing my life for a friend; indeed, as Aristotle says in the very same sentence as he mentions dying for a friend (Book IX, Ch. 8), the good man “would prefer a short period of intense pleasure [brought about by his extremely virtuous act of self-sacrifice] to a long one of mild enjoyment.” In other words, if I am a virtuous person, then my one act of sacrificing my life for my friend will be the happiest moment of my life, and is thus in my own interest. Furthermore, if I shy away from the moral obligation of self-sacrifice, then I will have to live the rest of my life knowing that I did so. That would be a fate worse than death, and would permanently cripple my ability to find happiness in life; and going through with the sacrifice would be the only way to avoid that.
The final, and most profound, rebuttal to the apparent conflict between sacrifice and self-interest lies in the relation to society of my willingness to sacrifice for my friends or country. That is, the more people there are in society who are virtuous, to the point of being willing to sacrifice anything – even their lives – for their friends, the better off society as a whole is. In his discussion of political friendship or unanimity (Book IX, Ch. 6), Aristotle says bad men “aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share”; and clearly, the fewer of such men there are in society, the better. Conversely, then, what society needs is more people who are willing to be virtuous, even if it leads to them receiving less than they give. Furthermore, what is good for society is also good for me, because a better society would be more just, and would provide me with greater benefits. Therefore, my willingness to sacrifice myself for a friend if necessary is in society's interest, and by extension my own interest.

The argument that, because sacrifice is necessary for virtue, virtue is opposed to happiness and self-interest, certainly does at first glance seem to damage Aristotle's views. However, the closer inspection I have given to the issue has convinced me that his views clearly win over these objections. In my view, Aristotle's notions of virtue and happiness are not at all in conflict. That is, being virtuous is in my own self-interest.

University Essay Collection: Introduction

During my time at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I have written a number of essays and reports. Some of them may be of interest to people other than the professors they were written for. This post is the introduction to that collection, which will include several philosophical essays and one technical report.

Except for the technical report, all of these works deal with ideas that are highly subject to change as I learn more and my opinions and values shift. Most of them were written within a couple months of my first exposure to the corresponding source works. I also played devil's advocate with parts of a few of them. Because of this, there are some ideas in this selection that I don't agree with, so don't take this as an explication of my personal philosophy.

A couple of these pieces have previously appeared on this blog, but the professor they were written for asked me to take them down after multiple students plagiarized one of them. It's been long enough that I feel comfortable putting them back up, but I want to make the following warning very clear: If you present any of this work as your own in an academic or professional setting, you're an idiot. A simple Google search will suffice to discover your plagiarism, and this is the sort of thing that can do severe damage to your academic or professional career.

Expect to see these works posted on this blog within the next few days.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

spring 2010 grades

The spring semester at CU ended last week, and all of my grades have now come in:

Organic Chemistry 2 - B+
Organic Chemistry 2 Lab - A
Physical Chemistry for Engineers - B+
Chemical Engineering Fluid Mechanics - A
Introductory Logic - A

OChem 2 and PChem were two of the hardest courses I've ever had. I feel confident in my understanding of the material, and did well on the final exams. These two B+'s are the lowest grades I've received at CU, but I'm perfectly content with that fact. :)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

7 1/2 years later, more of the same intelligence failures

Note: This post takes a more in-depth look into a single document than I'd normally care to do, but I feel the way I've done it is the only way to make the conclusions clear.

"Information systems contribute to every aspect of homeland security. Although American information technology is the most advanced in the world, our country's information systems have not adequately supported the homeland security mission. Databases used for federal law enforcement, immigration, intelligence, public health surveillance, and emergency management have not been connected in ways that allow us to comprehend where information gaps or redundancies exist. . . . To secure the homeland better, we must link the vast amounts of knowledge residing within each government agency while ensuring adequate privacy."

(From the first National Strategy for Homeland Security, released in July 2002. This document was commissioned by President Bush, and prepared by the Office of Homeland Security. That November, OHS was expanded into the Department of Homeland Security; one of its primary objectives was to fix the problems described above.)

Fast-forward 7 and a half years. The White House today released a preliminary analysis of the systemic failures that allowed for the failed Christmas day terrorist attack. It starts off like this:

"Though all of [the information needed to recognize the plot] was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected, and as a result, the problem appears to be more about a component failure to "connect the dots," rather than a lack of information sharing."

The point the review is trying to make here is that the systemic failures this time were different than the ones that led to 9-11, and later to the creation of the DHS. However, the following can be found later in the review:

"No single component of the CT [counter-terrorism] community assumed responsibility for the threat reporting and followed it through by ensuring that all necessary steps were taken to disrupt the threat. This argues that a process is needed to track terrorist threat reporting to ensure that departments and agencies are held accountable for running down all leads associated with high visibility and high priority plotting efforts, in particular against the U.S. Homeland."

In other words, everyone in the counter-terrorism community assumed someone else would handle it. Sounds to me like a failure of communication, of precisely the sort that the DHS was made to prevent.

This can be seen more clearly later in the review, when it gets into questions about the terrorist watch lists, saying that "Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was included in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the failure to include Mr. Abdulmutallab in a watchlist is part of the overall systemic failure." The watchlisting process is described in the review as follows: First, the NCTC "consolidates all information on known and suspected international terrorists in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. NCTC then makes this data available to the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which reviews nominations for inclusion in the master watchlist called the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB)."

This is the process that was used in considering whether Abdulmutallab should be placed on the watchlist. However, according to the review, "Hindsight suggests that the evaluation by watchlisting personnel of the information contained in the State cable nominating Mr. Abdulmutallab did not meet the minimum derogatory standard to watchlist. Watchlisting would have required all of the available information to be fused so that the derogatory information would have been sufficient . . . Watchlist personnel had access to additional derogatory information in databases that could have been connected to Mr. Abdulmutallab, but that access did not result in them uncovering the biographic information that would have been necessary for placement on the watchlist." (emphasis mine)

A bit of extra research led me to an audit of the FBI's watchlist nomination practices released in May 2009, which found, among other things, that "initial watchlist nominations created by FBI field offices often contained inaccuracies or were incomplete, leading to delays in the inclusion of known or suspected terrorists on the watchlist."

So, it seems the complete picture on the watchlist question is something like this: All the information necessary to secure a place on the watchlist for Abdulmutallab was available in intelligence databases. However, the nomination for his consideration (likely drawn up by someone at the FBI) did not include enough information to get him on the list. Those who reviewed the nomination likely assumed that it had all the pertinent information, and they found that it wasn't enough to put Abdulmutallab on the watchlist. Furthermore, this precise sort of problem has been recognized at least since last May, but the gap has not been fixed. The administration's review tries to confuse the issue and make it about individual failures to "connect the dots", but a careful analysis makes it clear that this is precisely the sort of communication problem that the DHS was supposed to make a thing of the past. The intelligence was there, but communication was so poor that nobody involved seemed to have known whose job it was to analyze it more thoroughly - those who drew up the nomination, or those who reviewed it.

The review itself even seems to concede that it's talking about the same old intelligence problems. In the very next paragraph, it states that while Abdulmutallab had a U.S. visa, revocation of it "would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of intelligence by the CT community, resulting in his being watchlisted." If "the CT community" failed to integrate intelligence, why try to frame the issue as failures of individual components?

The fact that many people within the CT community had access to databases with the information necessary for decisive action is commendable, but ultimately irrelevant. There was, nevertheless, a remarkable failure to communicate. There's a big difference between making a massive database of mostly useless information available to several agencies, and effective communication between those agencies regarding which pieces of that information are most relevant, and who has the responsibility for connecting each of the dots. For instance, if the concerns of the terrorist's own father that he was planning something of the sort had been communicated with the sort of priority any rational person would place on them, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't have shown up in the watchlist nomination, and even harder to imagine that it wouldn't be enough to get him on the watchlist.

People sometimes make mistakes. Systems sometimes fail. The men and women of the counter-terrorism community cannot be expected to be perfect. But the last thing they or any other American needs is an administration that passes off the same old failures that clearly ought to have been more thoroughly addressed in the past, as something completely different. This was a failure of inter-agency communication and cooperation, and must be discussed as such if anything good is to come of the intelligence review.

Update (1-8-10): It turns out the watchlist nomination was made by the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, after CIA officers there spoke with the suspect's father. However, the nomination seemed to suffer from the same problems detailed in the FBI audit, so the same point still stands.

Sources (all PDF files):

National Strategy for Homeland Security, Office of Homeland Security, July 2002

Summary of the White House Review of the December 25, 2009 Attempted Terrorist Attack

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Watchlist Nomination Practices; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Division; May 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fall '09 grades

Intro. to Differential Equations with Linear Algebra - A
Material and Energy Balances - A-
Organic Chemistry I - A-
Ethics - A

Term GPA - 3.86
Cumulative GPA - 3.95

Sure, it's the lowest term GPA I've had yet at CU, but I think it's quite alright. :)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

college announcements

I've done very well this semester, but none of my grades are determined until I make it through finals, this Saturday through next Tuesday.

My first final is on Saturday, and it is in differential equations, the last dedicated math course on the standard chemical or biological engineering curriculum.Of course, being in an engineering major means this won't by any means be the last I see of math. But I have had class time dedicated specifically to math in all the time I've been in school since I started kindergarten, and it will be strange to leave that behind.

I've decided to add a minor in philosophy to my planned coursework at college. I have always been interested in the field, and I've enjoyed my Ethics class this semester immensely. I'm signed up for two more philosophy courses next semester, and I'm very much looking forward to them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mission statement (work in progress), take 2

To remain actively engaged in life.

To look at the world with wonder, and embrace my natural desire to understand it more fully.

To embrace the full spectrum of my emotions, rather than running from the ones that make me uncomfortable.

To take full responsibility for my choices.

To try my best to understand others, fully realizing that everyone has hopes, fears, desires, and the other things which drive me.

To seek out kindred spirits, and to intensify life with and through mutual respect and understanding.

To maintain a true and independent identity by being true to myself above and before all else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The free market

The other day, I was paying for groceries with my debit card at one of the self-checkout lanes of a grocery store. It occurred to me that the entire process is incredibly bizarre.

After all, I walked into the store with nothing of value, left nothing of value behind, and left with enough food for a week. I did this without dealing with a single representative of the store or its interests. And this was perfectly legal.

Paper money works essentially the same way; but at least when cash changes hands, this is an exchange of a physical good which has a definite worth determined by the market. The only thing you have to have faith in when accepting cash is that it will be worth what you think it's worth when you decide to spend it.

With debit cards and the like, there is a virtual, rather than physical, exchange of money; so there are two layers of good faith involved in the exchange: faith in cash, and faith in the digital systems' ability to properly represent cash flow in a virtual environment.

Does it really make sense to rely on these two factors? With the state of the economy, the public debt, and the projected budget deficits for the next several years, it seems as though our nation's financial course is unsustainable. It's not difficult to imagine the total financial collapse of the Federal government, which would result (among other things) in a massive devaluation of American cash. Computer systems, furthermore, are accessible to all the immoral computer geeks of the world.

In short, on a daily basis, we place an enormous amount of faith on these two factors which seem fundamentally unworthy of our faith. Is this a sensible system; and, more to the point, is it a sustainable system?