Monday, September 16, 2013

The Ethics of Time Travel

In 2009 Stephen Hawking threw a party, but didn’t reveal the date, time, or place to anyone until after it already occurred. It was a simple time travel experiment; if people of the future with functioning time machines came across the invitation they could prove to our present society that time travel is eventually possible by going back and showing up to the party. Unfortunately, no one showed up.

If someone had, though, they would have maybe hung out only to chat a bit with the great physicist before going back home (after all, the invitation was only for a short party). Assuming Hawking convinced us that he really was visited by someone from the future, the only predictable effect the visitor’s appearance would have would be demonstrating that we will someday achieve the ability to travel back in time. Because we’re already trying to figure out today how to make time travel possible, a brief conversation at the party wouldn’t really change the course of history. Maybe her consumption there of a few cupcakes would mean a few more cupcake wrappers in a landfill than there otherwise would be, but the world would continue pretty much as it normally would.

But not all trips into the past would leave such a small footprint. When and where a traveller shows up, how long he stays and what he does all contribute to how much he’ll change the course of history. If someone goes back in time to the side of some lonely country road, flags down a car, and asks the driver for five bucks to pay for a meal, the driver may leave without enough money to fill up his car and arrive on time to meet his date at a restaurant. Because he misses her and doesn’t get another opportunity to see her again, he can’t go on to marry her and start a line of descendants that ultimately produces the person who plays a key role in preventing a nuclear armageddon.1 Borrowing that five bucks could mean covering the world in mushroom clouds.

That seems like a pretty extreme example, but tiny happenings have had huge impacts on the course of history. When Corporal Barton W. Mitchell picked up a random envelope of cigars on a campground that had been recently abandoned by Confederate soldiers in 1862, its contents gave the Union intelligence that helped it win the bloody, but crucial Battle of Antietam. That victory was huge for the Union and even gave President Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Today’s only super power could conceivably be two different countries had Mitchell paid a little less attention to where he was walking.

So it’s not hard to imagine that going back in time, even very briefly, could inadvertently change the course of history in a major way. If going back in time can cause so many potentially awful changes, could going back at all be morally permissible? If someone went back to assassinate Hitler as he was gearing up for World War II, he may succeed, but could inadvertently provoke, say, a psychotic Nazi colleague to take up the mantle and initiate a war just as devastating. Even good intentions could lead to bad outcomes.

But say someone does have the ability to go back and kill Hitler as he’s gearing up for war and does so, and averts World War II entirely. And say the guy going back somehow knows for certain beforehand that he’ll pull it off well enough to avoid igniting a conflict just as bad or worse. Does that assurance make it permissible? While some different people will inevitably die because of the new circumstances (maybe someone who would originally have been fed in the military was instead a civilian who died of hunger), the person’s trip back saved the lives of millions and millions of people.But because of the trip, millions, if not billions, of people to live since wouldn’t have been born. There would be others in their places, and the time traveller would go back to find many, if not most, of his friends and family to be very changed or different people entirely. People who had good fortune and happiness in the normal course of history could instead have poor lives in a new history — he may save millions, but he hurt some of those who were to originally be just fine.

I think the ethical permissibility of the travelling example from the last paragraph could come down to individual opinion and values. Would changing the natural course of history, even to prevent an enormous amount of suffering and thus completely transforming what constitutes the present, be okay?

But going back and changing history like that effectively kills off the possibility of what would have been. If Hitler had been killed early on, what we think of as the 1940s to the present would only be considered one random story within alternate history fiction. To put it another way, imagine that Hitler was originally going to be killed early on, but some psychopath from the future went back in time and saved him. The natural course of history, then, does not include a World War II or a Holocaust and all its lingering effects, but one of relative peace. That course to us today, however, is moot because we never experienced that would-have-been peace. So if what could have been peace stopped being a possibility because of the traveller and the alternate history of a World War II became the real and only course of events, does it matter to those of us in the relative past if someone goes back in time to change something? Would it matter more if we today knew who the meddler from the future is and what exactly she’d done?

I think the risk of screwing something up and making things worse than they otherwise would have been is enough to make travelling back to the past at least a bit unethical. Perhaps if we have good intentions and could be absolutely sure that everything will go well it would be okay since no one could know what life could have been like otherwise. But then again if someone from the future appears in the past then it seems to me like it would be a foregone conclusion that he’d have to go since the trip’s already happened — his appearance compels the trip and he may not have a say.

At the very least, time travel’s something that should probably be heavily regulated should we ever figure it out.

1 The person who would go back to borrow the five dollars could be killed by that nuclear war she caused before getting the chance to go back in time in the first place. So this doesn’t get too messy or convoluted, I’ll ignore time travelling paradoxes and the like in this article to simplify things.

This article was originally published at with the subtitle "Would it be morally permissible to meddle with the past?"

Thursday, August 22, 2013

George Zimmerman vs. Tyson Gay

Back in July I woke up one morning to the news that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter. The verdict of one of the most publicized trials in recent memory was one that was deeply unsettling for many people around the country while the trial itself helped to reignite debates over gun-related issues. It was a trial whose outcome would mean a lot to many, many people and had the potential to have an impact on the dynamics of American society.

I was disappointed when I heard the verdict, but I did not think too much of it afterward. A little later on that morning I heard some other news: U.S. sprinting star Tyson Gay tested positive for doping and was out of the World Track & Field Championships. To this news I felt much more disappointed, even going so far as to vocalize my disenchantment in a rare Facebook post, and spent the rest of the day trying to resign myself to the fact that there was now virtually no chance of seeing an American 100 meter champion and new national record.

While Gay's fall from glory is a huge disappointment for American track fans, it is a relatively minor disappointment compared to the Zimmerman verdict...or at least it should be. While Gay may very well never win another world championship nor set another record, he never killed an unarmed teenager like Zimmerman — he never ended a life nor has he shattered a family's life. While his positive test may help trigger debate about bettering drug testing in his sport, cheating athletes are not as dangerous nor degrading as gun violence or racial profiling — two problems that the trial had the potential to spark reform for.

So I should have been more upset by the Zimmerman verdict than Gay's doping revelation, but I wasn't and I have to ask myself why. I've never been racially profiled to my knowledge, no one I'm close to has ever had serious problems with racial profiling to my knowledge, and I nor no one I'm close to has ever had a problem with gun violence. I was, however, a four-year track and field athlete who follows the sport closely and admire many of its stars. Seeing one of my favorite athletes turn out to be a doper is naturally going to hit home more than the Zimmerman verdict.

Despite my heart's inability to reflexively muster up as much disappointment and frustration for the Zimmerman outcome, my brain still knows that that was really the issue that deserves the most attention. It's not just in myself, however, that I see this kind of disproportional administration of focus, but in everyone. Television media, which can be argued as a representation of what the public wants to watch and hear about, are another good example. On July 16, at least 23 primary school students in India died after eating a pesticide-contaminated lunch. Violent protests followed. While this did receive some news time in the U.S., TV media were focusing much more on the imminent birth of Prince William's first kid. Despite the shocking deaths of young Indian schoolkids and the resulting violent protesting, the media, and very likely many of its viewers, were more keen on reporting and learning trivial tidbits about the royal baby.

While most people cannot relate to British royalty as closely as I can relate to track & field, I figure that story still hits home for people closer than deaths in the village of Dharmashati Gandaman. The differences between the two stories' real human consequences, however, like in Zimmerman vs. Gay, are stark. The Indian deaths highlight serious problems in nourishing millions of children around that country and should help spark efforts to better the incredibly important lunch program. Nothing of urgent importance rides on the birth of a baby.

While we're all more than entitled to our own interests and hobby-horses, an obsession with the royal baby or a deep disappointment with our sports stars, we should all keep in mind that there are other stories and incidents, often remote from our locations and hearts, that deserve proper attention not just in the news, but from ourselves. It's important that we make an effort to understand why stories like the Zimmerman trial and the Indian schoolkid deaths are significant and try to honestly treat them as such. The consequences are going to be more important.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Quick Thought on the Political Spectrum and Age

Speaking rather generally, young people tend to be more liberal while older people tend to be more conservative. Why is that? Do people just become more conservative when they age or something?

Well, over time we've seen the country (and, I guess, most countries out there) become more liberal. By that I mean the U.S. (and most of the rest of the world) has gradually been achieving progressive goals as time goes on; in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed all the slaves of the South free, in 1935 Social Security became the country's first national welfare program, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled "separate but equal" unconstitutional, and in 2013 DOMA was effectively overturned, to name some examples.

So what was considered liberal, say, 60 years ago is probably now considered conservative. Even the very conservative folks of today would have seemed liberal and progressive at some point in the past. Maybe, rather than shifting to more conservative positions with age, people continue to hold the same positions but appear to become more conservative as the country around them becomes more progressive. A young liberal today may see his or her progressive goals reached soon, but will watch as the country gradually goes further than his or her objectives into territory that now makes him or her appear conservative.

So while I think people may become more conservative with age relative to society, they themselves are not shifting to more conservative positions.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Being Comfortable with Ambiguity

During my freshman year of college I took an introductory course to ethics. We learned Aristotle’s, Kant’s, and Mill’s theories of ethics and how they believed one should arrive at a moral decision when needing to make some sort of choice. While the three theories were all pretty different from each other, the three men all had one thing in common: They believed that there was some sort of comprehensive, reliable system one could use to always make ethical choices in life.

None of their systems are perfect, however. Eventually one will come across a circumstance that the theories can’t satisfactorily address. It became clear to me that, with the effectively infinite scenarios that could require one to try to reach a moral decision, there just cannot be one simple (or even complicated) ethics equation one can plug the situational variables into and reliably come up with a morally sound answer.

So my view on morality is that it is not absolute and there is no special equation we can rely on to tell us what is right. Morality to me is not a clear-cut thing  —  there’s probably a right answer to the majority of our moral choices, but we have to examine each choice individually, our judgement based upon some basic moral principles we find just, utilizing the principles we believe are most relevant to the decision at hand. The best moral answers to decisions can be arrived at in different ways (i.e., ambiguously).

Not having a clear, reliable formula for morality is fine for some, but appalling to others. Many (if not most) atheists, for example, don’t mind at all not having a specific moral equation and are comfortable with examining choices on an individual basis and trusting that others can do the same and still be moral. Very religious people on the other hand much prefer to see people use the often strict moral guidelines of their respective holy books and teachings, effectively appealing to authority and not making a moral decision at all.

The nonreligious in this case are more comfortable with moral uncertainty. For different reasons, including a distrust of archaic scriptures and self- or institution-proclaimed moral authorities, these people are generally more laid back in this respect and trusting of others’ ability to make autonomous moral decisions. The very religious, however, are not so trusting; one often hears them warning that without belief in God and his moral teachings society would become completely morally bankrupt and partake in all sorts of unchecked violence and debauchery. Obviously, with the very religious, there is a fear of a moral gray area that their nonreligious counterparts are comfortable dealing with  —  a gray area where they often think almost anything goes.

It’s not just morality, though, where we see this divide between the very religious and the nonreligious; we see it in science too. There are many phenomena that science has yet to fully explain, from the the mystery of dark matter to exactly how life began on Earth, that devout believers must have answers to. The very religious, probably more often than not, attribute them to the hand of God  —  there’s currently no perfectly concrete theory to describe it so it must be God.1 Boom  —  a solid answer and no more uncertainty to worry about. This is common even when science is quickly honing in on specific answers that demonstrably do not need a god behind them. Atheists on the other hand tend to be just fine not knowing the exact answers to these questions as well as the notion that morality is a human construct (likely with some basic memes built in by evolution) in a universe where morality is not inherent. The incomprehensibility of, say, much of the nature of quantum mechanics, which can leave us with as many new questions as answers, is not worrisome for atheists in the way it is for the religious.

How comfortable one is with uncertainty also helps determine whether one is politically/philosophically/attitudinally conservative or liberal. The definition of a conservative is one who favors the status quo; in other words, a person who wants to stick to policies whose effects and dynamics are already known. While liberals and progressives generally know what kind of changes they want to enact and how they think they will pan out, they obviously proceed with at least some degree of uncertainty if the policy changes are different from anything tried before. A discomfort with the uncertainty of how society will be is an important factor in why conservative folks do not feel comfortable changing the status quo.2

One specific political example worth mentioning could be drug legalization. Conservatives generally do not favor legalizing any drugs (the status quo) and prefer to continue making their possession, transportation, and transactions a punishable offense.3 Whether or not it’s the optimal policy for deterring drug use, it is what conservatives are most comfortable with. Many liberals, however, want to see many, if not all, drugs decriminalized and their victims treated rather than punished. While there is no clear idea of what the effects of such a huge change will be and whether or not it will deter drug use,4 liberals are still comfortable with this uncertainty if their goals are legalization and treatment rather than punishment.

While, as a whole, conservatives and the very religious (two groups that have some definite overlap) tend to be more uncomfortable with ambiguity, there is one particular ambiguity that the latter at least do not at all seem to mind: the way God supposedly works. Specifically, I’m talking about when, in theological discussion, people declare, “God works in mysterious ways.” While there is a strong desire to stamp an answer on mysterious phenomena, once God is credited as the answer, we need not worry further  —  this new uncertainty that arises suddenly becomes acceptable.

It’s understandable why people seek to banish ambiguity from their lives; it’s comforting knowing what exactly we should do and how exactly the world works. People have always striven to explain the world and the phenomena in it with simple, precise formulas and systems, from the Pythagorean theorem to mass-energy equivalence. It makes our lives simpler. Perhaps it is a matter of brain chemistry that causes some of us to be comfortable with these kinds of uncertainties and some of us not to be. Another possibility I believe to be pervasive throughout society is indoctrination, primarily religious and philosophical; people are all too often brought up being told that not knowing is inherently wrong if those who are telling them claim to have answers. Perhaps, in this more modern, secular, and progressive world that has evolved, many of us consider not necessarily knowing something nor strictly committing to a system perfectly fine. We trust ourselves to do the right thing and know there will be no punishment for admitting, “I don’t know."

1 Of course, a fear of uncertainty or ambiguity is not the only reason most of the very religious decry an ongoing pursuit for answering questions that holy texts already claim to answer. Being told and told and told since childhood that God is responsible for everything often motivates the religious to reject the idea that we don’t yet have certain answers.
2 Of course, a fear of uncertainty or ambiguity is not the only reason most conservatives decry liberalism. Disdain for items of the liberal/progressive agenda such as more government regulation on business and same-sex marriage often motivates conservatives to want to maintain the status quo, if not revert back to older policies.
3 One could even go so far as to say that conservatives originally wanted to criminalize drugs because of their fear of the uncertainty of what their effects could have on society when they were still relatively new.
4 It’s not entirely true that there’s no clear idea of what the effects of drug decriminalization and treatment would be; Portugal initiated these things ten years ago and drug abuse there has been cut in half.

This article was originally published at with the subtitle "Ruminating on which kinds of people are comfortable with not knowing and which aren’t."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Perceptions of Adulthood

When I was a kid, adults sometimes seemed like a whole different species from my peers and me. Sure, they were taller, older-looking, and worldlier, but it was their behavior that seemed so peculiar. Adulthood seemed to be so refined — reading the newspaper, talking to friends about how business is going, doing taxes, partaking in romance. It seemed strange to me that those were things that adults enjoyed or understood. I, instead, enjoyed reading stories with pictures and talking to my friends about what cool things we’d do if we were superheroes … you know, fun stuff.

These things adults talked about and did seemed wholly uninteresting and complicated. What was it about the workings of business that made the topic so fascinating to talk about? How on earth does one acquire and maintain a bank account and health insurance? — two examples of responsibilities I did not look forward to having one day because there appeared to be so many hoops to jump through, bewildering paperwork to sort out, and all the related things to learn. My parents seemed hyper-intelligent to be able to juggle and complete such things while carrying on an in-depth conversation on mortgages (whatever the hell that was). How did one possibly learn and begin to appreciate such tasks and topics?

Adults also appeared to lack certain characteristics I would notice in myself and other kids. For example, while I doubted my ability to someday be able to handle these complicated responsibilities, adults seemed to take them all in stride. Grown-ups did not appear to suffer from very many worries or uncertainties that we kids were prone to having. While I could point out someone on the playground and say, “That kid there's just not sure how to approach dealing with such-and-such kid problem,” I doubted someone every needed to say about an adult, “That guy’s just not sure how to deal with such-and-such adult problem” — they just always knew what to do.

As I grew older, though, I obviously began to better see the gradual path that wound its way from childhood behavior and ability to adulthood behavior and ability. Rather than being a tall, rigid wall meant to somehow, someday be suddenly scaled, the difference between kid and grown-up transformed more into a gradual process, one that became easier to notice once I began to become more like an adult. In elementary school, I could not imagine myself partaking in high school prom — who wanted to dance with a girl and all that mushy stuff? When the time came, however, I could not imagine myself forgoing it. A hole had gradually been carved in that formidable wall between child and adult and I was glimpsing and understanding the other side and how and why that hole had been carved.

Now, as a 20 year old university student, I still have yet to set up my own health insurance and I still laugh and joke with my roommates if someone rips one, but I understand the interest in talking work and how to manage my bank account. I’ll be be speaking with a friend and find myself talking about what kind of hours we need to work in order to pay for food and rent or why Los Angeles is not fit for certain modes of public transportation and I’ll realize that we have been casually chatting away about topics I used to watch my parents and other adults speak of, topics I used to write off as boring and overly complicated, if not pointless. It was an interesting realization — I was now on the other side.

As I have grown and immersed myself in the responsibilities and dynamics of adulthood I also discovered that adults are not the perfect beings who always know how to approach or deal with any circumstance or problem that comes their way. Financial, familial, or and a whole host of other issues can and do leave adults at a loss for what to do. Grown-ups can suffer from emotional and behavioral faults the way their youthful counterparts can and when I finally began to interact with them on an adult-to-adult level it became clear that they can indeed be fallible.

All-in-all, experiencing adulthood has altered my childhood perceptions of it in two main ways: The sometimes intimidating, complicated responsibilities are indeed doable and serve as an interesting, purposeful topic of conversation and no matter how old one gets, one will at times have to wrestle with uncertainty and be imperfect in the way one goes about life. As a kid, not only do adults treat us differently and act differently toward us from the way they treat and act towards other adults, but we do not often perceive, whether we do not bother to or because it’s hidden from us, the way adult life works below the surface. Before maturing, learning, and developing skills that can only come with time and experience, adult responsibilities just do not seem interesting and are certainly not relevant yet.

I imagine someday my own kids will think of me like how I thought of my parents and all I’ll be able to do is smile and tell them it will all make sense with time.

This article was originally published at with the subtitle "The evolution of a child’s perception of adulthood into experiencing its characteristics firsthand."