Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Sadly, You Should Ignore Non-Peer Review Nutritional Opinions

I was genuinely disappointed today with what I thought were some reliable sources of nutritional information in the blogosphere. The tipping point came when I was reading an article from (self-titled) "Authority Nutrition" against the adoption of a vegan diet. The first argument was a deficiency argument and the claim was that:
...B12 deficiency is very common in vegans, one study showing that a whopping 92% of vegans are deficient in this critical nutrient (1).
 I admit that, in the past, I have had a poor track record of actually checking references. I guess I was just too trustworthy, but because of all my recent pub-med crawling, I thought I would click on the reference. And I was sad. The claim made by Authority Nutrition only resembled what the reference said and a clearly crucial fact had been omitted. What the reference actually says in the abstract (in other words, all I had to do was click on the reference, without even reading the article):
Among subjects who did not supplement their diets with vitamin B12 or multiple vitamin tablets, 92% of the vegans (total vegetarians), 64% of the lactovegetarians, 47% of the lacto-ovovegetarians and 20% of the semivegetarians had serum vitamin B12 levels < 200pg/ml (normal = 200–900 pg/ml). However, their complete blood count values did not deviate greatly from those found for nonvegetarians, even though some had been vegans or lactovegetarians for over 10 years.

It is surely quite a different figure when those bolded statements are made clear. I am far from a representative socialite, but among vegans that I know, all of them supplement with vitamin B12 in some form. I am not sure whether it is more charitable to impute ignorance, carelessness or willful manipulation of the reader to the writer of the article, but it does not matter.

The unfortunate truth is that nutritional "facts" from these sorts of sources, as it turns out, are almost always misleading at minimum and plainly false in the worst of cases. Even the ones that claim to be based on facts, from people qualified to give advice on the area, can be wrong or misled; the diet advice you can receive on a popular platform in a small readable chunk will almost invariably lack the nuance of the original research and will equally invariably over-generalise. Studies are often not even done on humans, or are done on particular segments of the population in particular controlled environments. There are studies done, in fact, that demonstrate how poorly the results of other studies generalise to other portions of the population.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that the nuance and precision employed in the scientific literature often makes reading that literature inaccessible to the layperson. It is certainly possible to pick up the technical know-how to read and research the literature by yourself - but it takes a lot of practice to even break into one small subfield of the literature. Trying to get a good grip on a single topic is an excellent exercise if only to understand the complexity of even simple nutritional issues and why the researchers can do this as a full time job (without any of the glamour of a popular nutrition personality). Even after becoming proficient, there are few truths in nutrition that manage to actually transcend the bounds of the demographic studied to the general population, and fewer still that can be conclusively tied to some reductionistic element of a food. For example, the blood sugar effects of different foods cannot be tied to a single macronutrient (this video explains the research on berries and blood sugar). This implies that reductionistic accounts of nutrition of the ubiquitous "this was shown to be good so eat these other foods containing the compound" fail to account for the richness and complexity of foods as whole substances. The ineffectiveness of supplemental antioxidants compared to food-derived antioxidants is further evidence of this.

I sadly have to admit to myself that, not only is most of my popular level nutrition knowledge probably vastly over-simplified to the point of uselessness, but I am also unable to learn by going to popular sources. They are too unreliable and too simple. If I want to know what to eat - and I do! - I have to do my own homework. I may well post some of my findings here, but if you believe anything I have said, you will have to check my references for yourself.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Paleo is Illogical but Maybe it is Still Healthy

When I first heard about the paleo diet's motivating principle, I was several notches short of impressed. The idea that we should eat what our ancestor's ate because it allegedly worked so well for them seemed to me to be a great joke. Here are a few reasons.

First of all, life expectancy back in the good old dietary days was quite a bit shorter than today. It's not like they lived an optimal lifestyle and now, with the addition of bread, we can barely live to middle age; the life of our paleolithic ancestors was best described by Hobbes as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (though he was not exactly talking about nutrition). It is true: modern humans live in a globalised community, are on average far richer, have developed more pro-social behaviour and live substantially longer than our cave-dwelling ancestors. But, if you would rather go back then, go for it. Of course, I am under no illusion that paleo dieters want to actually live like cavemen, just eat like them. But still, they were hardly paradigm cases of longevity, granted they did eat healthier than the standard Western diet.

Even if they were extraordinarily healthy, are paleo dieters willing to go authentically paleo with their lifestyle? I can guarantee that paleolithic humans did not sit around counting calories, but I can also guarantee they burnt far more than almost anyone. There is quite a difference between scavenging and hunting for every morsel and scrap of food in their time and sneaking in a quick trip to the gym between bouts of sitting at a desk or on the couch. Maybe the paleo diet is the healthiest diet around if you spend almost all your waking hours walking, hunting, crawling and moving about.

So people do not live paleo lifestyles. Actually, they do not eat paleo diets, either. Apart from the more obvious cases (does anyone really think paleo muffins grow on treas?), the cartoonish version of paleo diets that is emulated by contemporary paleo dieters never really existed. Let me give an example from the first result I got when I searched for "Paleo Diet:"
Daily Sample Straight from Dr. Cordain’s The Paleo Answer:
  • Breakfast: Omega-3 or free ranging eggs scrambled in olive oil with chopped parsley. Grapefruit, or any fresh fruit in season, herbal tea
  • Snack: Sliced lean beef, fresh apricots or seasonal fruit
  • Lunch: Caesar salad with chicken (olive oil and lemon dressing), herbal tea
  • Snack: Apple slices, raw walnuts
  • Dinner: Tomato and avocado slices; grilled skinless turkey breast; steamed broccoli, carrots, and artichoke; bowl of fresh blueberries, raisins, and almonds; one glass white wine or mineral water. (Clearly, wine would never have been available to our ancestors, but the 85:15 rule allows you to consume three non-Paleo meals per week.)
Somehow, Dr Cordain seems to think that our ancestors got up, wandered over to their ancient stove and scrambled from their abundant stores of eggs (?) with their recently pressed olive oil (?) and parsley that happened to be on a nearby bush. Remember, the whole idea is that our diet went downhill when we started raising our own crops and animals. But it gets worse: practically every meal is a meat-lovers dream, indicating that our ancestors managed to find and kill a cow, a chicken (not before getting plenty of unfertilised eggs) and a turkey. Let's ignore that our ancestors probably couldn't have a cheat meal on the diet they were forced to eat by food availability.

In reality, we are entirely sure what they ate because they forgot to bequeath us any food logs. Our best bet is to guess from non-westernised populations that exist today and try and evaluate what remaining hunter-gatherer populations still survive. Of the ones that survive, it is crucial to remember that they survived. They were not wiped out by food shortage, a major feature of their lives which made agriculture so revolutionary.

Perhaps the closest population to paleolithic diets (in plural: their undoubtedly existed major variation regionally) is the Kitavan people. Whilst, as I said, their life expectancy is short (around 45 years of age), the ones that do live longer seem to enjoy a high quality of life into old age. But unlike Dr Cordain's suggestions, the Kitavans eat minimal (if any) land-based meat and around 70% carbohydrates coming from fruit and root vegetables primarily. They eat about 10% protein, a shockingly low amount compared to the above suggested "paleo" diet.

It might be objected that there are plenty of high-meat populations eating non-western diets, like the Maasai. This population seems to be polar opposite to the Kitavans (remember how I said that ancient diets would have been incredibly diverse?) with plenty of meat and milk (woops! Did they not get the memo that milk is non-paleo?). Even ignoring the crucial importance of non-paleo milk in their diet - mind you, their milk is unlike wimpy Western milk, with way more fat, cholesterol and protein, with less lactose - one important feature of the Maasai diet is that it contains barely any vegetables. Still not what today would pass for a paleo diet.

Perhaps a diet derived from our ancestors would have been basically vegetarian? I could go on with other populations that may be closer to the paleolithic times than us, but the point is that none of them ate what would today be considered a good paleo diet. Nor could we hope to emulate it in any practical sense today, since our food is not the same anyway. Just like the Maasai milk is not like our milk, our domesticated animals are not like paleolithic animals, our soils are not like the more nutrient rich paleolithic soils and our crops have been genetically modified by natural breeding for so long that we might not even recognise their paleolithic precursors - for instance, did you know that carrots were originally not orange?

At this point, paleo aficionados might be screeching that I am completely ignoring their main argument: nobody is saying to go back to the paleo diet just because, rather, the claim is that the paleo diet is better because we have evolved to eat it. This is problematic on all sorts of levels.

The first thought I had when I originally heard this claim was "so we must have evolved to love McDonald's" and I stand by that thought. Highly processed sugar and fat laden foods must be good for us, on this evolutionary view, because we evolved to want it so much. We never evolved to want dirt because dirt wasn't nutritious; our taste buds evolved to give us pleasure when we eat foods the body wants, and is at least neutral - if not disgusted - by foods we should avoid. The correlation between poisons and bitterness is not accidental, it is evolved. So given any possible food, this line of evolutionary thought would lead us to conclude that the standard Western diet is the best one, because only in the developed West with our panoply of culinary choice in supermarkets do we get close to being able to choose any possible food.

It is exactly this desire for the so-called unhealthy foods that led us to develop these foods, and at bottom, it is why the much maligned agricultural revolution took off. Granting the obviously true point that it is only now that we have been able to create these Frankenstein foods which mess with our in-built biology, agriculture cannot have led to a diet that kills us because we have been using agriculture for years without dying.

It is a trivially true evolutionary fact that the populations which developed agriculture out-competed the ones that did not. In other words, nature has cast her vote: agriculture beats non-agriculture in an evolutionary sense. However, even this is not an argument for agriculture being the best basis for a healthy diet because evolution is complicated and an enormous number of other variables exist.

It is crucial to understand how evolution works to see how misguided evolution-based arguments are for establishing nutritional facts. Evolution is slow - that is exactly the point raised - and it is so slow that it never reaches its end. Paleolithic humans were not built for whatever diet they ate, necessarily, since they evolved themselves from more primitive creates - ultimately, we all come from single-cell organisms! Natural selection works with what it gets and adaptations slowly add up to provide the best system given the circumstances.

One thing we learn from our evolutionary past is that, at bottom, humans are experts at making do with what we get. We are not built meat eaters, or vegans, or anything of the sort; we are scavengers. That is why so many varied diets seem to work. It is true that milk is not a staple of evolutionarily ancient diets, but we adapted to digesting lactose and some groups have managed to thrive from it. It is true that grains were not mainstays of ancestral diets, but most people can tolerate proteins like gluten just fine.

Paleo logic might work in cases like eating more fiber (because our digestive system would be adapted to "assuming" a high fiber intake), it successfully predicts that we might not have a limit on our sugar appetite (because sugar was scarce and all natural anyway back then) and it may imply that we are less likely to have defences for newer toxins than for older ones.

At the end of the day, the paleo diet may still be the healthiest diet. I am far from arguing against people eating the paleo diet. If what I say is true, in fact, you may do just fine on it. At bottom, whether or not the paleo diet works, it does so regardless of whether paleo logic is sound.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Success is Failing a Little Less

At bottom, all success is failure. In sports, even a world-record breaking, gold medal winning performance against a stacked field is a failure to go faster still. In business, the most innovative and successful product could have been even more so. In life, you could always have done better. If this were not true, no progress would ever occur anymore: if nobody could go faster than Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint, nobody would bother trying.

That sounds pretty bleak. But if you have been on the road for a while, perhaps you realise something: almost every important success came with a bunch of times of falling short of that win. So if we are honest with ourselves, the path to success is pretty bleak anyway.

Often it is hard to quantify how well or badly we do, but one benefit of swimming is how reliably merciless the clock is in doing it for me. After touching the wall at the end of the race I can always look up to see what time I did. At the end of the day the difference between a successful swim and an unsuccessful is entirely in my head: did I achieve what I wanted, the bar I set for myself? If not, it was a failure. Even a personal best could be a failure if it was not as good as I wanted.

But a personal best, even if it is below what I wanted, is still better than last time. I failed a little less. Let me put it in a slightly geeky way: nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). Therefore, the best upper limit for how fast someone can swim the 100m breaststroke is that nobody will ever exceed the speed of light (which means a time of about 333 nanoseconds, which is way below the 0.01 second accuracy of swimming clocks). So in a sense, anything more than that fastest time possible is a failure.

Not getting to the speed of light in breaststroke is probably something you can be forgiven for, but such an insane "goal" highlights the point: standards are artificial. Real success is falling short a little less than before.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Chatting to God in Secular Atheology

One of the most recognizable religious practices is prayer. Prayer is in some way a communication between the person praying and the supernatural, where in major monotheistic religions that supernatural reality has a decidedly personal existence. Prayer hence has many elements: it can be supplication (asking for something), thanksgiving, adoration, confession (as in, statement of belief) and reception.

Though prayer is multifaceted, I want to single out one sort at the moment as particularly important: prayer as dialogue. Personal, unscripted prayer is a key element in the life of the devout believer and forms the basis of what is referred to as a "relationship with God." Indeed, relationship is often said to be the essence of a believer's religion, or even the substitute for any religion at all; to be spiritual but not religious can sometimes be seen as a relationship with God unmediated by any formalization in religion.

I claim that this type of prayer carries huge benefit because of the character of the communication to a being that is decidedly different from any that can be otherwise encountered. In particular, God has the "omnis" which distinguish God from other human beings and confer that unique place to prayer.

God is omnipotent, keeping the believer in a position of empowered humility, as they both recognise their inferiority to someone all-powerful (leading to humility), yet have direct access in communication to that person (and are thereby empowered). God is omniscient: praying to God necessarily requires honesty, because it is clearly understood that God cannot be deceived. This entails that prayers are even more honest than the believer's own thoughts, since self-deception can be substantially mitigated by actually putting into words (whether said aloud or not) what would otherwise be an unexamined thought.

God is omni-present, which means God is reachable at any time and in any place, allowing unrestricted access, also providing constancy to this process of prayer. Finally, God is omni-benevolent, meaning that once again the believer comes to God in humility (since they are not only inferior in power but in goodness), they come empowered (because God cares about the believer's interests) and God draws out the goodness in the person.

These characteristics make belief in God an incredibly powerful tool. This capacity of God to bring out the best in people is probably part of what is behind the various studies showing that priming a person with religious language can lead to pro-social (or in general "good") behaviour. But unfortunately, the effect is only reliably found in those with religious background. Probably my favourite aspect of prayer in this sense is the capacity to honestly self-reflect, make decisions and set goals. Lacking, however, such an omni-excellent being, how can secular theology provide a suitable alternative?

The most basic first step is to externalise your thought process and the things you want to "pray" about. When we externalise things by saying them out loud or writing them down, they can more easily pass from being unexamined and subconsciously affecting our ideas through to examinable. Writing can be particularly helpful in this regard because not only does writing slow us down to think about what we write, it is also easy to review once we finish writing or some time later, allowing us to more critically examine our thought process. On the other hand, vocalising our prayers provides a much more "real time" option, avoiding the tidying up effect that writing something down provides. Playing around with which works best for you, or combining them in different ways, will yield the best results.

Whilst externalising can provide the full benefit of this form of prayer for some, others are more skilled in self-deception, so will need to make the prayer more external still. This does not mean that you need to talk to another real person, you can talk to the same "person" that the believers do. After all, on secular atheology, the believer only thinks they are talking to God. In reality, they are speaking to a figment of their imagination. What stops you from doing the same? Imagining speaking or writing to God, once you have built up the practice, can be just as good as the "real" thing that theists do. It does take practice and an element of honesty with yourself to do this, because you will need to temporarily conjure up in your imagination a being that does not exist. Once you have practice, however (and this is essentially all that theists have: practice), you too can have your own fictional deity. Whatever your view of some other religion's God, your temporary religion is going to have whatever you think of as an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing being.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Diet for You

Maybe you made a New Year's resolution, and as part of that, you thought to go on a diet. Maybe you have a bit of flab around the midsection to move or barely any fat anywhere on your body - but no muscle, either. Perhaps your blood results came back with high cholesterol or pre-diabetes. Whatever the reason, you decided to go on a diet.

So you go online, to a magazine or a diet book and you are floored by the possibilities: high carb, low carb, high protein, low protein, lettuce only, anything as long as its cabbage soup, high fat, low fat, only green foods...what do you choose? How do you pick among such an enormous array of options? They all promise to give you whatever you want in life, from living to a hundred through to winning Olympic gold and cover-model looks. They all promise great results...but they are not compatible. There is no way to go high and low fat at the same time.

Most of these diets sort of work: if you only eat lettuce, you will lose weight. But you won't live to be a hundred (you'll probably die much sooner than that), you won't gain muscle (you'll lose it), it won't be easy to follow long term (try it for a week and report back, if you like), and so on. For all that, though, if your goal is very rapid weight loss and you have the capacity to eat only lettuce for the (necessarily short-term) time required, then maybe it is the right diet for you at this point.

There is no such thing as the "best diet." There is only the "best diet for your current goals and where you are at right now." This implies two crucial questions: (1) what are your goals? and (2) how do you relate to food?

Your Goals

It makes no sense to adopt a diet for weight loss if you want to gain weight. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect good results from a diet aimed to lower blood pressure if your blood pressure is low. So the very first question to ask yourself before embarking on a dietary change is what it is you hope to achieve from it - and that will rule out the vast majority of diets which offer differing or even opposite goals. Do you want to lose, gain, or maintain weight? Do you have some kind of malady which you hope to address with the help of improved nutrition? Is there some fitness or performance objective that would guide your diet?

These are the sorts of questions that you need to ask yourself before you can decide on an appropriate diet. There is no use in simply deciding to eat "better", because the very word implies that you have some goal that the diet is better for. Your goals set up a framework within which you can start making value judgements about whether or not a food put in front of you is good or bad. Just as a clocks can be good for telling the time but are terrible for building a house out of, so too is a food good or bad depending on what you want it to do.

Your Relationship with Food

There is more to a diet than whether or not it works on someone generically in your state; will it work for you? There are two important elements to each person's relationship with food which need to be thought of when trying to make dietary changes: how a person relates to food physiologically and psychologically.

Your body may just react differently to one diet compared to another. As an example, for those of us who are lactose intolerant, it would be a pointless (and needlessly painful) experience to increase our high-lactose dairy consumption for our goal, completely independent of whether or not some identical person without the food intolerance would benefit from more dairy. You may have some other food allergy or intolerance. Yet there are finer details to your body's reaction to foods which are less obvious and perhaps even more important; factors such as your own gut microbiome, your sensitivity to (and secretion of) key hormones and even your genes can have crucial roles in how your body responds to food. Not to mention whether you are younger or older, fitter or fatter, male or female, what foods you grew up with and have eaten in the past...your uniqueness and individuality mean that even things that work for most people may not work for you - and the converse can be true! - things that do not work for most people do work for you. One thing you should always remember is that you are not a rat. So there's a good chance the highly developed field of what happens to rats - medicine's favourite test case for doing all sorts of things that would probably not pass an ethics committee for humans - does not apply to you. Keep that in mind next time you hear "science says that..."; science is probably not talking about humans anyway.

It is unlikely that all the myriad of relevant factors will ever be able to be accurately read off from some simple test, but there are ways to figure out what is more or less likely to work for you. You can get blood tests done to measure insulin sensitivity, which may give you some insight into how your body metabolises carbohydrates. The new field of nutrigenetics can give an idea of what your body was built for, so getting a gene test from companies like Nutrigenomix or DNAFit might help you - or it might not, I have never been tested myself so cannot comment. The idea at least is good.

Much more neglected but just as (if not more) important as your physiological relation with food is your psychological one. Even if your body would respond in the way you want it to with the new diet, can you keep to it? Some diets, even if reasonably healthy, seem impossible to some. Some diets seem objectionable on moral or religious grounds to some. Others may find that a particular dietary strategy does not fit in with their current lifestyle or schedule. For purely psychological reasons there may be differences in how frequently and how much a person wants to eat. These examples of psychological differences do not even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities when it comes to the plethora of ways that we relate to food; socially, culturally, as individuals, and so on.

I, for instance, have a minutely fine-tuned and considered diet when I have the liberty to pick and choose by myself, and work pretty well even when food supplies are not quite what I want - but I struggle to be healthy when eating with others. Others I know need to follow dietary plans which allow for less-than-ideal foods from a physiological perspective because, if they fall short in a rigid plan, they are inclined to engage in highly counter-productive behaviour like binge eating. Not everyone is inclined to the all-or-nothing mindset of binge eating, however, so should not be a consideration for everyone.

The Bottom Line

No diet is perfect as such. When making a dietary change, it is important to make a diet that fits your wants, your needs and your unique peculiarities. You should not feel forced into dietary choices because they worked for someone with different goals or because they worked for some statistical average; as an individual, if something is going to work it has to work for you.

The last caveat in closing is to note that, whatever your goal, chances are the reason you have not already achieved what you want is because it is difficult. For all the individual tailoring that must go into a diet for it to work, one thing that is close to guaranteed across the board is that finding and sticking what works for you is going to take effort. Perhaps the biggest reason unsustainable and impractical fad diets are popular is that they promise quick results for everyone in a short amount of time - and the biggest truism about a fad diet is that it fails. Find the diet for you. Stick to the diet for you until you reach your goal. Refine and repeat.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Secular Atheology

Religion, whether you like it or not, has been around for a very long time. If you believe in a particular religion (whatever that might mean) then you probably believe that your particular religion gets a lot of things right because of some sort of divine or supernatural assistance. Some deity may have revealed elements of that religion or inspired a prophet to speak authoritatively. But even if you do not believe any religion to have this special status of truth, I contend you should still believe in religion.

Religion, as an old artifact, has managed to amass in itself a large amount of time-tested wisdom; so much so, in fact, that it has stood the test of time. Religion has stood the test of time - but not all particular religions have. Why did the ones that have survived from ancient civilisations endured to this day? What has made Abrahamic religions, for instance, or Hinduism, so successful? These are religions that have managed to thrive across hundreds or even thousands of years and so, I contend, they must have something to them.

This argument is basically evolutionary: let us assume that it is, for whatever reason, a natural inclination of human beings to be religious. That seems fairly obvious from the global nature of religiosity. What makes one religion more successful than another? The first point to note - the crucial one, in fact, for the non-religious - is that the natural selection of ideas relates to behaviours and perspectives. If some religion were to assert without any knowledge of the content of the statement that "God is asdfghjk", then (without the enterprising theories of theologians that might say that God is fundamentally randomness on a keyboard or a mystery of technology - both of which were entirely unintended by my gibberish) it seems like that would have no actual practical content. That dogma would not have stood the test of time because of what those religionists believe or did as a consequence of it.

Take, on the other hand, the command to evangelise in Christianity. This is clearly a doctrine with important consequences for the lives of Christians. Or the need requirement to abstain from particular foods, or pray in a certain way at a certain time, or go on pilgrimages, or observe sacred periods in a prescribed manner - these are clearly doctrines with practical consequences.

The question about why religions thrive has to do with what flows from its dogmas and doctrines, not necessarily (or directly) from the dogmas themselves. Religions could be seen in this light as intellectual organisms of a sort with complex interweavings of orthodoxy and orthopraxis which evolve, thrive or die out in the intellectual space of human beings.

What makes a particular religion thrive? Part of it must have to do with its capacity to propagate. For some religions, creating a very strong sense of inside community within an ethnicity may prove a vital element of a religion's survival. For others, the fundamentality of spreading the religion may be its lifesource. The study of these different models might be very interesting for those wanting to work in marketing, for instance - time tested ideas for how to propagate a product and create consumer loyalty to it.

And yet, there is more to a religion than the fact of its transmission in time. I believe that part of why religion is such a worldwide phenomenon is that it helped in our own evolutionary past to aid the survival of human groups. Religions, it can be seen from basic sociology of religion, produce communities that operate in particular ways: church communities run differently in Catholicism and Protestant denominations, and Christian communities are different to Hindu communities. What elements of Christian thought and practice lead to successful communities? What elements of Hindu ones lead to their success? Focussing more on individuals, what is the role and benefits of personal religious practices?

The contention I am making is that religions have wealths of wisdom derived from their organic growth over time. There is no need to think of religions as fundamentally true to derive some kind of value from its practices and beliefs, and the traditional wisdom of communities may well provide a sort of cheat sheet for avoiding mistakes that have been costly for communities and individuals in the past. This does not mean that even a highly successful religion even has largely useful practices independent of that religion. Much like in biological evolution, it may well be that religions have largely obsolete, vestigial practices and survive mostly because of their enormous social capital. But I think much knowledge can be derived from religions to be secularised to suit our own needs and aims, and in the coming weeks I will write about many of the practices and beliefs - from prayer and yoga through to Trinitarian theology - which I think are worth our time to adapt. That adaptation of theology to secularity is secular atheology.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Right and Righteousness in Utilitarianism

One of the problems in utilitarianism is that the rightness of an action depends solely on the actual consequences of the action, rather than foreseeable or probable consequences of it. This means that a sincere utilitarian may try to increase overall happiness and end up doing the wrong thing, and conversely, someone describable as having a repugnant moral character might "accidentally" increase overall happiness by their actions and so have done the right thing both unknowingly and unwillingly. Given that our actions have repercussions into the far-flung future that are arrived at by long and complex causal-chains, it seems impossible even with hindsight to accurately determine whether an action is right or wrong - and trying to use foresight is even worse.

This problem of utilitarianism whereby the consequences of actions are so complicated that it is seemingly impossible to use utilitarianism as a practical ethical theory can be called the epistemic problem, because it is a problem with our knowledge of the world. It is much like trying to predict the weather far into the future: even if it may be possible in principle to do, it seems unattainable in practice with any modicum of precision.

So, it seems, it is impossible to declare any action to be right or wrong, even what may seems like obvious goods or evils. Only simple, isolated scenarios can even hope to be evaluated by utilitarianism and these only occur in our imaginations. From this it is straightforward to conclude that utilitarianism is perfectly useless in practice.

I disagree, but let me grant that argument for the sake of exploring a concept related to moral rightness which is usually wrongly lumped with it: moral character. Rightness is a concept that applies to actions but not to persons, whereas both persons and actions can be immoral. In English at least this distinction is clear, since describing someone as moral gives them a moral judgement (unsurprisingly) whereas describing someone as right seems to give them a judgement based on the content of their beliefs or assertions.

Utilitarianism gives in itself no grounds for describing the moral character of persons; it is a more conservative theory describing actions. However, our use of language allows us to ask another question: what makes a person good? A utilitarian may say that such a concept is undefined except by saying that a moral person is a person that does good. This seems unsatisfactory, however, because it seems obvious to most that describing the character of a person should have something to do with what they are like as persons, not whether their actions happen to be good (from the vantage point of some omniscient observer who can foresee the consequences of all possible actions in a scenario).

Confining utilitarianism to the description of actions, it can be defined that a moral person is someone who intends to maximise happiness. That is to say, they choose their actions based on what they perceive to be the action that would most increase happiness. Their righteousness, to use an unpopular term, is determined by their intentions and not the actual consequences of their actions.

I contend that this view of moral character is upheld sufficiently by our use of language without the need of further metaethical argumentation. What people mean when they say of someone that their character is good is that they intend to do good. This is illustrated clearly in the fact that people readily ignore that actual consequences of actions when they are suitably convinced that the agent did not intend them to come about.

This allows for one of the most important concepts in ethics: responsibility (and the corollary blame). A person is responsible for the consequences of their actions insofar as they can be reasonably expected to have foreseen them, and not responsible otherwise. Hence, a doctor is responsible for the known effects and side-effects of a drug they administer, but not for whether the life he is saving turns out many years down the line to be a serial killer. Similarly, the serial killer is responsible for the deaths of those they kill, but not responsible for the prevention of a terror attack that may result from their unknowing of a terrorist.

With this in mind, I think shift could be enacted from trying to maximise happiness to attempting to be a moral person. Where other theories have doing right and being righteous as the same thing (notably virtue ethics), utilitarianism may always have a decided tension between these two. Nonetheless, this line of reasoning can still provide the basis for moral function in a practical sense within a community.