A case for anger – Richard Pimentel

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not “man” in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure — that which arises from the expectation of revenge. For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, book II, chap. 2, 1378a)

Does this sound Greek to you? Well it should not. Extraordinary and disturbing manifestations of anger have been seen, heard, and read by many of us and it is a disturbing trend. We see it on the streets, at the store, on television, at work, and, for some, at home. We read about it in the newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Reality shows and uncensored videos display acts of violence that are highly disturbing such as high school girls ambushing a friend when she arrives at their home or a mother spraying high pressurized water on her 3 year old child at a car wash.

Then there are lesser known and sometimes too common moments such as a customer insulting a bank teller or a driver yelling at another driver for the smallest infraction. Events such as these show that anger is fashionable for some; that displaying your indignation is necessary for survival. Before someone thinks that they are not represented here, think twice. Many of us have also acted out in anger for reasons that, in retrospect, may be perplexing. Think of the occasions when we asked ourselves, “Why did I get so angry?” Anger is prevalent and brings great challenges to society but it is an emotion that cannot be ignored. What is this emotion all about?

Aristotle, that great philosophical figure who worked on such ethical problems, had an interesting view on anger. Under the proper conditions, Aristotle considered anger as a virtue. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote “The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised.” In addition, Aristotle argued that anger, as a virtue, has an excess and a deficiency and a mean. He wrote that the mean is gentleness. If one gets excessively angry then he is considered wrathful. If one is deficient in anger then he is timid.

Aristotle makes 3 significant points about anger. First, he contends that the proper object of anger must be the right people. It is not right to get angry with just anyone; you must direct your anger to the right person or persons. The second point is the reason for getting angry. Aristotle wrote that the motive for anger must be “conspicuous revenge.” What does this mean? When directing your anger towards the right person or persons, it must be noticeable in order to be seen as revenge. The recipient of the anger must be fully aware that anger is directed at them. Lastly, Aristotle is clear that anger can be excessive but if someone does not get angry at the right things, in the right way, and in the right time, then they are a fool. Aristotle was concerned that if someone does not react in anger if insulted or your friends insulted, they are considered unfeeling because they endured the insults. If Aristotle were alive today, what would he say about the modern-day expression of anger?

Of course we must be careful when attempting to “judge” expressions of anger. Certainly, we all are limited to analyzing only those acts to which we have appropriate access. It may be easy to jump to quick judgement when we hear stories about an angry act but prudence demands otherwise. We can really only evaluate and analyze actions, angry or otherwise, from within a fairly limited scope. Second, the motives in displays of anger can be difficult to discern. It can be problematic for the culprits themselves to admit why they got angry. Despite these restrictions, an attempt to assess anger according to Aristotle’s ideas is possible.

The objective of Aristotle’s writings on ethics, especially Nicomachean Ethics, was to promote the importance of virtuous living and character. This is vital to keep in mind when examining anger according to Aristotelian ethics. When he wrote negatively about anger, it was because it took away from this pursuit and when he wrote positively about anger (e.g. anger as a virtue), it was because it encouraged his objective. Presently, we witness so many expressions of anger that have been directed towards the wrong people and we have been guilty ourselves of this infraction. This violates one of Aristotle’s concepts of appropriate anger.

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Letter from Utopia: Talking to Nick Bostrom

Here, Bostrom and Andy Fitch discuss applications of his book across any number of fields — from history to philosophy to public policy to practices of everyday life (both now and in millennia to come)

ANDY FITCH: If we start from a working definition of superintelligence as “any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest,” and if we posit this superintelligence’s capacities to include an ability to learn, to deal with uncertainty and to calculate complex probabilistic information (perhaps also to assimilate sensory data and to pursue intuitive reasoning), and if we conceive of ourselves as fitfully approaching an intelligence explosion, one in which intelligent machines will design with increasing skill and speed ever more intelligent machines, and if we hypothesize the potential for this self-furthering machine intelligence to attain strategic dominance over us (the way that we possess such dominance over other species), and we recognize the potential existential risk within such a takeoff scenario (a situation which we must manage with great deftness on our first and only try), we can begin to trace the complicated rhetorical vector of this book — which apparently seeks both to foreground a great urgency, and to counsel a sober, cautious, carefully coordinated plan of long-term deliberative action. So, as we begin to outline Superintelligence’s broader arguments, could you also discuss its dexterous efforts at combining a call to public alarm and a proactive, context-shaping, transdisciplinary (philosophical, scientific, policy-oriented) blueprint for calm, clear, perspicacious decision-making at the highest levels? What types of anticipated and/or desired responses, from which types of readers, shaped your rhetorical calculus for this book?

NICK BOSTROM:  I guess the answer is somewhat complex. There was a several-fold objective. One objective was to bring more attention to bear on the idea that if AI research were to succeed in its original ambition, this would be arguably the most important event in all of human history, and could be associated with an existential risk that should be taken seriously.Another goal was to try to make some progress on this problem, such that after this progress had been made, people could see more easily specific research projects to pursue. It’s one thing to think If machines become superintelligent, they could be very powerful, they could be risky. But where do you go from there? How do you actually start to make progress on the control problem? How could you produce academic research on this topic? So to begin to break down this big problem into smaller problems, to develop the concepts that you need in order to start thinking about this, to do some of that intellectual groundwork was the second objective.The third objective was just to fill in the picture in general for people who want to have more realistic views about what the future of humanity might look like, so that we can, perhaps, prioritize more wisely the scarce amount of research and attention that focuses on securing our long-term global future.Today, I would think of the first of these objectives as having been achieved. There is now much more attention focused on this problem, and many people (by no means all people) now take it seriously, including some technical people, some funders, and some other influential people in the AI world. Today, it’s not so much that the area needs more attention, that there needs to be a higher level of concern. The challenge is more to channel this in a constructive direction. Over the last couple of years the technical research agenda has emerged, so on this alignment problem the goal now is to ramp that up, to recruit some really bright researchers to start working on that, and to make sure it proceeds in the right direction. In parallel now, we need to start thinking about the policies and political critiques that arise or that will arise as we move closer towards this destination.Basically, the approach was to try to lay out the issues as clearly as I could in the way I saw them. I didn’t really have a target audience in mind when I wrote the book. I was kind of thinking of the target audience as an earlier version of myself: asking what I would have found useful, and then whether that would help other people. But as the conversation proceeds, I think that there is a balance that needs to be struck. It’s key for the AI-development community to be on the same side as the AI-safety community. The ideal is that these will fuse into just one community. That requires avoiding this obvious failure scenario, which, fortunately, has not yet materialized. But you could imagine, in another parallel universe, the AI-development community feeling threatened that they are being painted as villains, as doing something dangerous. Then they might begin to close rank and to deny that there could be any risk, so as not to give ammunition to the fear-mongers. That scenario would have made a dialogue impossible. That has not happened, but I think the possibility that the conversation could run off the tracks amid some adversarial dynamic remains a concern, so preventing that from happening remains a priority.

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Bostrom has an intellectual background in physics, computational neuroscience, mathematical logic, and philosophy. He has been listed on Foreign Policy‘s Top 100 Global Thinkers list, and on Prospect magazine’s World Thinkers list. 

Playlist of the Week

Metallica   —   Orion
Jeff Beck   —   Cause we’ve Ended as Lovers
Stevie Ray Vaughan   —   Little Wing
Santo & Johnny   —   Sleepwalk
Santana   —   Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)
Focus   —   Hocus Pocus
The Edgar Winter Group   —   Frankenstein
Joe Satriani   —   Always with Me, Always with You
Yngwie Malmsteen   —   Black Star
Van Halen   —   Eruption

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it.

Upon the Power of Certain Ideas by Frederick Turner

Now as the fulcrum holds, the forces come to bear,
The world obeys that rigorous conception
Which, having chosen out its sayer,
Shall bend the very axes of perception.
As in a martial art the body takes the print
Of some deep principle of torque and chih,
And in the stress of tournament
Exacts an excellence of purity,

Compelling both contender and antagonist
To trace the ancient pattern of a dance
Whose subtle leverage and twis
Wrung from the flesh of apes the human stance.

Frederick Turner

From April Wind, © 1991.


Then there’s the idea of dissatisfaction. By this I don’t mean a pessimistic dissatisfaction of the world — we don’t like the way things are — I mean a constructive dissatisfaction. The idea could be expressed in the words, This is OK, but I think things could be done better. I think there is a neater way to do this. I think things could be improved a little. In other words, there is continually a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right; and I think that dissatisfaction in present days is a key driving force in good scientists.

–Claude Shannon

Michael Page on Non-obvious but Simple Solutions

Assume you’re trying to solve a problem that others also want to be solved, e.g., a problem that, if unsolved, negatively impacts a lot of people.

If the solution were obvious, it would be solved. So you know the solution isn’t obvious. That means you should look in non-obvious places. In practice, that might just mean looking where others aren’t looking for some reason — i.e., some failure in the ideas market.

But once you’ve found a non-obvious place to look, the best solution is probably among the more-obvious-seeming candidates.

Example: Solution requires thinking about problem from the perspective of two disjointed academic fields. Very few people think about anything from the perspective of those disjointed fields due to some weird aspect of how those fields developed — thus it’s a non-obvious place to look. But once you’ve started looking there, it’s probable that connecting the most-basic ideas between those fields is all you need.

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Julian Savulescu on Why We Should Play God

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu has a knack for provocation. Take human cloning. He says most of us would readily accept it if it benefited us. As for eugenics—creating smarter, stronger, more beautiful babies—he believes we have an ethical obligation to use advanced technology to select the best possible children.

So the idea that we could play god and tamper with the laws of nature, creating things that wouldn’t otherwise exist, is a red herring?

We’re playing god every day. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, the natural state for human beings is a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short. We play god when we vaccinate. We play god when we give women pain relief during labor. The challenge is to decide how to change the course of nature, not whether to change it. Our whole life is entirely unnatural. The correction of infertility is interfering in nature. Contraception is interfering in the most fundamental aspect of nature.

But using condoms has nowhere near the ethical complications of altering the genetic makeup of your future baby.

You alter the genetic makeup of your future baby when you smoke or drink alcohol. Viruses alter the human genome. So why would you single out one intentional act aimed at producing a beneficial outcome from all these other events that have far less beneficial outcomes? In my view, we should not only use tests to look for genes so a child is not disposed to a major genetic disorder, like Thalassemia or Cystic Fibrosis or Down syndrome, but also to look at genes correlated with greater advantages in life. My argument is we ought to select children who have opportunities for better lives. Most people say that’s fine when it comes to diseases, but we shouldn’t interfere in nature once you get into the healthy range.

This raises the specter of tinkering with our genes. You could create smarter, stronger, more beautiful children.

Indeed, you could. In my view, we should choose genes if those characteristics affect a person’s happiness. A rising percentage of kids today are on Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. But that’s not because there’s suddenly been some epidemic of ADHD. It’s because you’re crippled as a human being if you have poor impulse control and can’t concentrate long enough, if you can’t defer small rewards now for larger rewards in the future. Having self-control is extremely important to strategic planning, and Ritalin enhances that characteristic in children at the low end of impulse control. Now, if you were able to test for poor impulse control in embryos, I believe we should select ones with a better chance of having more choices in life, whether you want to be a plumber, a taxi driver, a lawyer, or the president.

It’s one thing to talk about impulse control and quite another to enhance the intelligence of a baby. Doesn’t this raise a whole new level of ethical concerns?

It does raise another level of ethical concerns, but we already aim to enhance intelligence through education. Computers and the Internet are also cognitive enhancers. We give children food supplements and better diets to enhance cognitive ability. So why should we treat a genetic mechanism differently than a dietary supplement or some external technology like the Internet? The only difference is gene therapy is really risky, and that’s why we don’t do it. But if it becomes safe, there’s no difference in ethical terms between gene therapy and any other sort of biological or social intervention. If science gives us the opportunity of improving people’s lives, we should use it.

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Julian Savulescu is an Australian philosopher and bioethicist.