Robot Has No Heart

Xavier Shay blogs here

A robot that does not have a heart

Insect Marketing

Steve recently posted a link to a company promoting their brand by attaching business cards to flies and have them fly around the conference room. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch a short snippet of the video now, so you know what I’m talking about, when I say:

Using flies for marketing purposes is not morally acceptable.

I wish a preface wasn’t necessary, but I’ve seen one too many logical fallacy to avoid one. This article is about a relatively unimportant moral issue, and many non-vegans may even find it ludicrous. That’s OK. What’s not OK, is making the leap to “since you have to care about flies, veganism is ludicrous”. That’s a logical fail, and totally missing the point. There is interesting ethical material here, no matter which side of the line you fall.

Replace flies with a familiar mammal – say pigs, or dogs – and the above statement is not particularly controversial. What makes mammals different from flies?

Unsurprisingly, there is little animal rights literature afforded to the use of insects for marketing purposes. Instead we can turn to an analogous problem, one of the most heated areas of debate within the vegan camp – can vegans eat honey? Zealots will flat out reject this question – bees are animals too, they say, and as such we have no right to exploit them. Unfortunately, “animal” is a tricky definition. The ocean sponge, despite having no brain nor nervous system and for nearly all purposes resembling a plant, is classified by science as an animal. Intuitively we see bees as living things, but we need to be more rigourous in our thinking in order to afford them rights.

Bees certainly are exploited in industrial farming – in that their natural behaviour and environment is subverted – both for honey and for pollination of other crops. If they can not be found deserving of rights however, this exploitation is by the by. It is no more morally relevant than the farming of vegetables. Replace the flies with a tiny mechanical ornithopter.

The classic “test” for determining animalhood is whether a being can suffer from pain. Intelligence, though handy, is not required. Insects are quite far removed from humans physically and mentally, so unlike mammals where we can apply familiar criteria for pain (distress, avoidance, etc…), far more extrapolation is required for flies. It is only in the past decade that research studies have started to find that insects do exhibit responses best classified as pain. Capability for physical pain though doesn’t necessarily present a problem in this scenario however. An electric shock is a very different type of stimulus than the distress of having your natural movement inhibited. This distress is easily observed in mammals, however it is less clear in the case of flies, whose movements are erratic at the best of times. It seems the jury is still out, though given our woeful track record of reasoning about other living beings, even within our own species (racism, sexism, homophobia), all other concerns aside it is prudent to give flies the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps we can learn something from our everyday behaviour towards insects. A child pulling the legs off a spider is generally considered negative, not for the pain it causes the spider, but from the callous disregard and use of another living being that was causing the child no harm. Indeed, it is the same judgment that mistreatment of a dog would attract. It is seen as abnormal behaviour – we associate disregard for animals with disregard for other humans. Instinctively we apply Tolstoy’s observation that “as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.” The welfare of the spider may be disregarded, but perhaps we need to consider our own? On the other hand, many of us would swat a fly without a second thought. This is often justified by the inconvenience the fly is causing us – its buzzing wings, its tickling feet. Overall this is an interesting consideration, but not relevant to the topic at hand where there is no need for compromise. Indeed, we would first need to address the “compromise” of using higher-order creatures for food and labour, a topic outside the particular scope of this essay. Using flies for marketing is actively seeking out and exploiting them, a very different circumstance.

It’s impossible to go through life never hurting a fly, as it were. As mentioned above, bees are used commercially to pollinate a large proportion of our edible plants. The classic definition of vegan as “not using animal products” is more usefully replaced with “"reasonably avoiding products that cause suffering to non-humans.": ” In the case of honey, it is neither an essential nutrient, nor the only sweetener of its kind. It is trivial to avoid, and as such should be. Which brings us in a rather large circle back to the case of insect marketing.

It sounds absurd when stated so directly, but flies are clearly not an essential component of any marketing strategy. In this case it may appear unique and novel, but this bears no significance on the moral acceptability of the act. Steve’s followup question “How else could your startup be promoted by living things other than humans?” is not worth dwelling on – exploitation of living things, even if you assign a low likelihood to their ability to feel pain, is trivially avoided in your marketing strategy, and as such should be.

Photo is Fly by Reini68

The CPRS will not save us

When Kevin Rudd says “it is now time to act”, he is not himself acting. When he says “failing to act today is to roll the dice on our children’s future”, he is throwing them down the chute and calling for lucky 7. This is PR. This is spin. This is not to be believed.

5% by 2020 is not “ambitious”. It’s not even close. We’re too late for 450ppm. This isn’t a problem we can softly softly approach. We’re already past the 350ppm limit our planet can maintain. We’re fat and about to have a heart attack. This isn’t the time ease into a healthy lifestyle. Give up the burgers, get to the gym – your only other choice is death.

I’m a big believer in markets, but a market can’t work if you’re monkeying about with it. There’s a time and place for subsidies, but propping up a dying industry is not one of them. Giving the most compensation to the biggest polluters is bullshit. It undermines the very goal the CPRS is supposed to achieve. There is no economic incentive to change if the government is offsetting your costs. The market doesn’t even cover one of the biggest polluters in the country – agriculture. Yes, there are complications in measuring emissions from farms, but the idea that it’s not possible is frankly an outright lie. A market so obstructed and distorted cannot function effectively.

Taking into account voluntary action for households is a token gesture. The direct measurable impact households can make is important psychologically, but in the scheme of things neglible. The real gains to be made – primarily dietary changes and reduced consumption – will not and should not be covered by an emissions trading scheme1. Don’t think for a second GreenPower absolves your responsibility to our planet.

It all comes down to risk.

If science is wrong and we do something, the precious “economy” slows a little as we move to renewables we’re going to need anyway2.

If science is right (current consensus) and we do nothing: Big capital-T Trouble.

Skepticism is important, but I’m not a betting man. And I’m not stupid. I’m not going to gamble on something this important. Keep asking questions, keep demanding proof, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we must act now. Real action, not KRudd-jumping-up-and-down-not-going-anywhere action.

What can you do? Start making some noise. Tweet about it, blog about it, write your local paper. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell the person you meet on the train. Get angry. The government’s job is to look after us. It’s time to demand they stop posturing and start doing their job. The Walk Against Warming is coming up on the 12th December. Get off your couch and come show them – and those complicit on the sideline – that we’ve had enough. The future is not to be gambled with.


1 Though it’d be neat to get some credits for being vegan…

2 Even if all the climate change research is bollocks, “renewables” will rear it’s head again in a few years anyways. Exponential growth does not play well with finite resources.

Pain free cows are not awesome

Check it out, science reckons it can make a cow that doesn’t feel physical pain. Celebrate progress! We can all eat meat guilt free now, right?

These are not the cows you eat

Not quite.

How do you think scientists develop a pain-free cow?

“When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards”

By inflicting pain. After mice, you work your way up the animal heirachy (each animal is different, you know) until eventually you arrive at livestock. There is a high moral cost, but also a high economic and opportunity cost – these scientists are smart guys, imagine what they could come up with if they weren’t busy torturing? We’re not even close to getting this working on larger mammals – behaviour in mice is not a good indicator for behaviour in more developed animals, not to mention all the regulatory barriers to actually marketing such an animal. At this point an actual robot cow is still a long way off.

Assuming we do eventually develop the perfect pain-free cow though, it really doesn’t solve the core problems. No matter what your views on animal rights, industrial farms cannot continue to exist. They cause tremendous amounts of pollution, both on a global the-seas-are-rising scale, and on a local my-whole-city-has-lung-problems scale. Current rates of meat consumption place an enormous burden on the health system – we produce far more meat than a healthy societly can consume. Pain-free research is a blatant misuse of resources.

Even if we allow that battery farms should continue to operate, a pain-free cow still isn’t necessarily a worthwhile goal. As evidenced by the neurotic behaviours developed by all battery farmed animals kept in confined spaces, the mental suffering of these animals is at least, if not greater, equal to the physical suffering endured. Confinement drives people crazy, it’s drives animals crazy too. A pain-free cow will still suffer. Strictly less than a normal cow perhaps, but the magnitude of this reduction would likely be less than many commentators are assuming.

We also encounter a problem of moral cushioning. As abolitionists are all too familiar with, in many cases the proliferation of “free range”, “organic” and other pretty labels are simply providing a convenient excuse for people to ignore (or even feel good about!) the consequences of their food choices. Is eating pain-free beef morally acceptable? Of course not. You are still eating an animal that suffered, you are still killing the earth. We need to be wary of providing excuses that will further delay any real moral progress.

We ought to reduce suffering, but as with any potential improvement the costs need to be weighed against the benefits. Pain-free free beef does not pass the grade.

Photo is Two Cows by kwerfeldein

Participation in the open source gift economy

Programmers should not use open source “for free”. If you are using open source code, you need to be thinking about your contribution back to the economy. Open source is a gift economy, and can only flourish with participation. While there is no legal or expected obligation for using open source code, there is an ethical duty to contribute to the health of the economy which you are benefiting from. The type of contribution you can make varies depending on what skills you can offer. Patches, documentation, advocacy, feedback, money – at least one of these is open to anyone (at a basic level) no matter what your level of competency, even to non-programmers. The most computer illiterate can still talk something up to his friends!

Programmers, at the opposite end of the spectrum, have an even greater ethical duty to contribute due to the dramatically lower cost options available to us. It is easy for us to give quick, specific, helpful feedback to many projects due to our understanding of the technical domain. Indeed, the cost can even be negative – I know many programmers (myself included) who have not only had their projects improved by releasing them open source, but have benefited dramatically from the social network and standing that this creates. In this case, we not only have an ethical motivation to contribute, but a selfish one as well!

Mandating a contribution back to every project you use may seem onerous, and I’d agree. The beauty of a gift economy is that you only need to contribute back to the system as a whole, rather than specific projects. A gift economy allows (encourages!) you to create value for needy projects that you only tangentially use, or to add value by releasing your own code. As opposed to a barter system, which is a direct exchange of value, the open source gift economy works without this reciprocity. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch someone else’s. This allowance makes it almost trivial to meet your ethical responsibility. It certainly isn’t a chore. Write some documentation, publish some code, talk about your latest find down at the pub. You’ll be creating a richer experience for everyone, including yourself.

What have you shared lately?

Shocking News From The Late News

A revolutionary new study reveals being obese increases your chance of cancer. Random fat member of public responds with “Pfft science. Everything gives you cancer these days.” The head of the meat industry claims we are eating nowhere near enough red meat and it absolutely essential that we get more steak in us.

This is why I don’t watch TV. The problem is everyone else does.

You gotta laugh else you get really fucking depressed.

Ethics of Zelda

It is the middle of the night, we find our hero, Link, stalking a woman through the streets. He is playing vigilante – she has been accused of stealing and Link plans to catch her in the act. The woman employs a host of devious tactics, but is unable to throw her tail. Eventually, we confront the woman as she attempts to steal from the open air market safe.

The woman tells her story of poverty – how her family riches were lost, how she is trying to “make it” by working during the day – But, oh! It is so good to talk to someone, I am so glad I ran into you! You have saved my soul, I will not steal any more!

Here, take this gift for listening to me

Xavier (Me): That, my friend, is the very definition of a bribe
Jared (Brother): Never! Nothing more than a genuine expression of gratitude!
X: You believe that cock and bull story?
J: All she needed was a sympathetic ear
X: You caught her committing a criminal offence. She clearly just bought you.
J: She won’t steal again. I reformed her. That’s true justice!
X: Civilians can’t take justice into their own hands! She was a case for the courts.
J: I don’t think Hyrule has much of a justice system…
X: I guess Link does do a lot of killin’…

Global Warming

Not IT related, but I recall a few byteclubbers are interested in this.

I have recently read two quite different views on global warming. The first is Peter Singer’s analysis in “One World: The Ethics of Globalization” (highly recommended, although I haven’t actually finished it yet…), which argues in support of the Kyoto protocol (in particular, why developing countries should be exempt). The second was linked to today by bbspot: I like extreme contrasts like this since they get you thinking. Ultimately, I find Peter Singer much more convincing. He presents a much more robust coverage of the issue (in particular considering the entire world rather than just the US), and tends to avoid loaded language (loaded language rings alarm bells for me – if it’s a convincing argument you should be able to present it without hyperbole). In addition, he makes it much easier to follow his sources – both authors claim scientific studies to support their claims.

In the end, it for me it comes down to acceptable risk. Yes, there may not be a robust scientific proof that global warming is caused by man, but there is sufficient correlation, and the risks too great (for non-developed countries, not so much the developed ones that Johnston focuses on) that we cannot afford to take a chance and do nothing.

Food Choices

UPDATE: As of easter 2008 I am vegan again. I need to write an updated version of this post since I don’t agree with much of it anymore. I’m leaving it here for history’s sake – it’s enlightening to see my progression in thought, I think.

I am a vegetarian. Inevitably, people ask me “why?”. I think it would be more productive for them to ask themselves why they are not, but that is by the by. For me the interesting question is “why am I not vegan?”, which I will get to after I briefly cover the first.

There were two distinct ideas that led to my change of diet (I was an omnivore until mid way through last year). The first was a realisation that living the “examined” life (as Socrates put it) actually led to a dramatic increase in my quality of life, and in a similar vein that I was responsible for everything in my life (Satre’s idea of freedom). This will be the subject of future writings, but it culminated in me trying to rid my life of “contradictions”, of which my food choices presented many.

For vegetarianism, the deciding scenario was first introduced to me by Peter Singer in a public lecture he delivered at Melbourne Uni. It appeals to me because it avoids the need to take a non-mainstream stance on animal rights, but rather draws logical conclusions from common attitudes towards animals. Activities that harm animals for entertainment – bull/cock/dog fighting, for instance – are frowned upon by our culture, evidenced by the fact that they are banned by law. However, the more widespread harm of animals for non-essential food – in the form of battery farming – is condoned. This is a contradiction that I could not allow to stand, and so vowed to avoid battery farmed produce. Theoretically it is possible to continue an omnivorous diet within this constraint, but in practice finding (and affording!) organic meat is non-trivial, so I chose to abstain from meat all together. In addition, on non-ethical grounds I wanted to try the purported health benefits of vegetarianism, and also wanted to expand my cooking repertoire, which was depressingly confined to omnivorous cuisine.

After getting comfortable with vegetarianism, I decided to try veganism. The only ethical justification for this was that livestock are an order of magnitude more expensive (in near all measures of the term) than grain and vegetable sources, and as such are a burden that our growing society simply cannot sustain. Contrary to many vegans, I do not believe that animals deserve the same rights as humans, drawing the (admittedly grey) line at self-reflection and higher order thought. To illustrate, the jury is still out on chimpanzees, but farmyard animals have not demonstrated to my satisfaction that they possess the necessary reasoning, desires or aspirations to be apportioned rights akin to our own.

To allow my body and habits to adjust I mandated a one month trial period. I discovered a number of new ways to cut animal products out of my diet, for example my sandwiches do not benefit for cheese or margarine, and soy milk is a much better alternative over cereal – adjustments I still hold to today. However my social life suffered. Not having any vegan friends, and knowing only one or two vegetarians, I found it difficult to eat out anywhere (since vegan meals are generally lacking if it is not the restaurant’s main trade), and while people will usually be all too happy to cook a vegetarian meal for you, they generally blanch at the prospect of not using cheese. Not to mention that it eliminates virtually all desserts(!), and many types of beer(!!). In addition, I felt my alertness waning, and could not find ways to affordably maintain an athlete’s diet (most notably protein sources – one can only eat so much peanut butter, and it is quite high in fat).

My quality of life diminished, both socially and in health, and I could not justify this by the one ethical tenet by which I had made my decision. I feel I can contribute more to activist and economical causes to offset such a choice if the rest of life is in order, so after a month of a vegan diet I returned to eggs and dairy (and choice beer).

After more than 6 months of vegetarianism, I look and feel healthier than I have ever been. (For balance, I have also been exercising regularly, but do not feel constrained by the lack of meat in my diet). I will potentially try veganism again in the future – I feel support from my social group would help in this regard (which I can’t see happening any time soon!) – and have no desire whatsoever to return to being an omnivore. I no longer crave steak, and the only time I feel my diet is restricted is in certain restaurants that do not pay enough attention to their menu.

To end with a quick rant, the “Real Men Eat Meat” mantra I so often encounter is, if you’ll excuse the term, bullshit, and used as a facade by those too lazy to take control of their lives. I can accept you eating meat, just show me you have actually made an informed choice rather than blindly digesting the empty catchphrases employed by your ignorant peers.


Is it unethical to participate in a debate opposing a belief you feel strongly about?

A debate is judged by an adjudicator, with the team that presents their case most effectively declared the victor. Participants are evaluated against many criteria, including presentation, structure of argument and use of language. Overall, it can be said that the winner of a debate is the most persuasive team.

It follows from this that when participating in a debate, one should aim to be as persuasive as possible to maximise their contribution to the team. In other words, your goal in a debate is to convince the audience (be that an auditorium or a single adjudicator) of the validity of your argument. We can see here a quandary emerging – if the topic you are assigned to argue is contrary to your beliefs (and to be thorough, a belief you believe others should hold), surely it is ethically irresponsible to attempt to persuade an audience otherwise?

While a debate may be understood by the audience to be an academic exercise, by very definition a competent debater should be able to persuade her audience outside of this context. The formal setting of a debate does not preclude any such persuasion taking place. Whether or not the debater is actually capable of persuading her audience is irrelevant – the potential for persuasion to take place is what matters.

However, if a belief that is held is well founded, then arguing for the negation of that belief, even to the best of your ability, would not be persuasive enough to convert a rational audience. This tenet assumes the opposing team to be of equal competence and possessing the ability to sufficiently rebut the opinions you present, since in order to be most persuasive, you will have to omit facts and arguments you feel to be supportive of your actual belief. Even with familiar knowledge of the opposing team, this is a high risk justification.

Deliberately not performing to the best of your ability is another possibility to be considered. The problems with this approach are two-fold. First, you are misrepresenting your own capability which may have greater repercussions in future interactions with your audience or team members. Secondly, by not presenting a robust case in the opposition of your primary belief, it may reduce the effectiveness of your oppositions argument since a position that can triumph over a strong attack is strengthened by this demonstrated resilience [citation?].

What remains is the recommended course of action: abstinence. Not participating in activities contrary to our ethical beliefs is of paramount importance – not only does it demonstrate the integrity required for ethical principles to be of maximal importance, in many cases it clearly signals to others our belief.

In this discussion we assume no extraordinary consequence resting on the outcome of the debate. Of course, in any real situation the consequence of not participating in the debate should be taken into consideration.

  • Posted on December 20, 2006
  • Tagged ethics

Hack the Planet

  1. Vegetarian – battery farms lose!
  2. Buy organic, fairtrade and/or local where possible
  3. No car, use public transport and feet, except where not possible (Geelong)
  4. Refuse plastic bags, although I think perversely our excessive number of green bags at home is soon to become an environmental risk
  5. I plan to vote, haven’t had the opportunity yet
  6. Spread the love. Bring politics into conversations. Getting people talking and thinking is the first step.

The last one is important. Preaching at people will never work – global awareness must come from within. We must provide the support and encouragement. Lead by example. It can be tough sometimes. I almost hit intolerable despair last night. Startling, raw, realisations: The pope – the most important man in Christianity – is a political retard, the most powerful man in the world is widely regarded an idiot, and you couldn’t have pulled the recent Naomi Robson story from Frontline… Politics, Religion, Media, the triple crown. The world is loco.

In other news, I’ve just commited some C Sharp tools to Ruby Rant , if you’re interested in a sweet build tool that lets you use ruby (XML loses!). I’m using it for a fairly decent project at work (multiple projects, resources, unit tests, etc) and find it a pleasure to work with. Note I’m talking about a replacement for the deprecated method described in the current documentation. I’m going to get that updated, but for now check the mailing list for info.

A pretty flower Another pretty flower