Are we born evil? Being Human Conference 2013

Golden Rule the World

Bernard d'Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musé...

Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La Justice. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with “Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi” on one page and the Golden rule on the other page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger versions)

Some friends of the delightful and brilliant  Karen Armstrong recently started a website and a Facebook page called Golden Rule the World. This got me to thinking about the Golden Rule in more detail than usual…

The version most familiar to me is this:

So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you,  for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  (Matthew 7:12)

The Golden Rule is the simplest expression of two primal axioms of sociality, empathy and reciprocity. This is the basis of all that we call justice and morality. All that has been written on justice and morality over the ages almost seems to obfuscate those issues when compared directly with the Golden Rule. Maybe that’s why Jesus is quoted as saying  this single sentence “sums up the Law and the Profits.”

Without empathy, there could be no kindness or compassion. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are far more primal than religion, philosophy and ethics. Empathy has its own type of brain cell, called the mirror neuron, which is also found in other animals. This suggests that the evolution of empathy preceded human beings.

“The feeling of compassion is the beginning of humanity.”

Mencius, 372 – 289 BCE

But the Golden Rule doesn’t stop at empathy. It also includes reciprocity. Like empathy, reciprocity has its roots in pre-human evolution. It is involved in the process of natural selection. Empathy and reciprocity are the biological and  instinctive forces that make animals social and from which all complex human sociality evolved.

Somewhat like the principles on which it is based, the Golden Rule predates recorded history. It was around long before Christianity or Judaism or even religion. It may even predate language. Of course, it would. It is in our DNA — literally.

The Golden Problem

In practice there may be a bit of a rub to the Golden Rule. What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the way I might want to be treated, but the way in which they wish to be treated is perfectly reasonable and agreeable to me? Then perhaps I should do unto them the way I would want them to do unto me if I were them.  This would make the rule somewhat recursive.

Then, what if the way some people wish to be treated is bad for them? All responsible parents and guardians face this problem. The recursive property doesn’t help in this case. Nor can the parent necessarily treat the child the way the parent might wish to be treated if she is perfectly honest with herself. We are all a little too childish and selfish ourselves to follow the Golden Rule to the letter without indulging each other far too much. Another modification is needed.

"The Golden Rule" mosaic

“The Golden Rule” mosaic (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger version)

Golden Solution: Enlightenment

A certain amount of indulgence is good for us, especially as children, but enough is enough and too much is bad for the character (and often for the waistline, too). Responsible parents sometimes attempt to treat their children the way an enlightened person would want to be treated, hoping that such patterning helps a child to develop into that enlightened person. We can apply this to everybody, really, since all of us can stand to become a little more enlightened.

But what is enlightenment? Who is enlightened? What does an enlightened person want? How would they wish to be treated? I guess this is what all the books on justice and morality are about–maybe this is why we need them. They are trying to tell us what enlightened people should believe, what they should want, or how they should behave; and they are written (broadly speaking) by our best and brightest (i.e. most enlightened) minds.

But what good is the Golden Rule if we are still thrown back into this quagmire of disputed and contradictory theories of right and wrong? Is there no simple rule for enlightenment?

According to Emmanuel Kant, the Golden Rule could be formulated in a broad, general way that he called a categorical imperative. It is intended to minimize the subjective variations in what different people consider good behavior by removing the relative advantage of acting selfishly in the pursuit of one’s own personal good:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In other words, don’t do anything you aren’t willing for  everyone else to do right back at you. I don’t think it solves any of the above problems, though. Kant’s deontology still turns upon consequences. What are rules of behavior but after-the-fact consequentialism? Any practical kind of deontology or consequentialism must be derived from experience. What else could we base either one upon, unless we want to base or morality on legend, myth, or superstition; fictions which like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are more suitable for ignorant children than responsible adults.

Corollaries of the Golden Rule

I will propose several corollaries to the Golden Rule, which I hope will fill in some of the blanks and answer some of the questions left hanging by the Rule. To qualify they must be consistent with (if not directly implied by) the Rule, and they must share its simplicity of expression in plain language. The aim of this short list of corollaries is nothing less than to dispense with the rest of the Prophets and the Philosophers of law, which the Golden Rule failed to do on its own.

Utility – the greatest good for the greatest number

This corollary helps to answer some of the questions about enlightenment I asked above. I will do unto you what I would have you do unto me if it is also in your best interest and (as much as possible) for the greatest good of  the greatest number.

Enlightened self-interest

This is the principle that persons “do well by doing good.” This meansthat acting to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serves one’s own self-interest.

Turn the other cheek

When possible, respond to an aggressor without violence. The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament:

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV)

In the Gospel of Luke, as part of his command to “love your enemies“, Jesus says:

27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, 28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. 29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. 30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:27–31 KJV)
Note that in Luke 6:31 above, the doctrine of turning the other cheek is directly related to the Golden Rule. This principle, in less absolute or categorical terms, may also be the basis for certain versions of the legal doctrine of proportionality. But unlike the “eye for an eye” kind of proportionality, the New Testament kind of proportionality favors the least severe response necessary to satisfy a compassionate and forgiving standard of  justice and to maintain peace.
“A soft word turneth away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1 KJV)
BTW, by using bible quotes (familiar to many of my tribe) to illustrate some of my corollaries I don’t mean to imply that they depend on any religious authority. No. They have numerous secular expressions.
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes” (Joe South).
I recommend the full lyric and the video.
“Side B” for this this corollary is “Before you accuse me (take a look at yourself)” by Mr. Bo Diddly. (The Eric Clapton version is pretty sweet, too.)

Or, to put this another way, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” again from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1). Saint Matthew goes on to say:

3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

This is all about empathy and reciprocity, the foundations of the Golden Rule. But lest you doubt me, does Matthew 7:12 sound vaguely familiar:

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!

Literally translated, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”  This is the phrasing of Karl Marx, but the first known description of the principle was given by Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717 – ?) a French utopian thinker and novelist, but an otherwise “obscure tax official.” (Wikipedia) Morelly proposed in his 1755 Code of Nature :

  • Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.
  • Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws. (Wikipedia)

I don’t know (or care) much about Communism, but I think I know the Golden Rule when I see it. Who would not want to be treated in such a fashion, from each according to ability and to each according to need, unless they had previously been brainwashed by some cruel and perverse ideology (I won’t mention any names)?


This one is a little more technical, but its not complicated. Decisions and authority should be vested at the lowest practical level of an organization or institution. This is a clear “do unto others” corollary — do you want to maintain your human dignity in your place of work or your community?

Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions are better made where they have immediate effect. The idea is a key because it enables people to make decisions for themselves. Human Dignity demands more than becoming a cog in a wheel.”  (Solidarity With Salisbury)

subsidiarity [səbˌsɪdɪˈærɪtɪ]

1. (Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over

2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level


“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.” – Aurora Levins Morales


“Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.” ― D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

I’m going to stop on that note, but please suggest any other corollaries to the Golden Rule that you think should not be left out. The goal is not to include everything but the kitchen sink, but to include essential corollaries that keep the Golden Rule from being overly ambiguous, or from being too silent on important social issues..

Poor Richard

Karen Armstrong: Let’s Revive The Golden Rule

Related PRA 2010 Posts

Related Articles

RSA Animate – 21st century enlightenment

General Utility 2.0

Three models of change in scientific theories,...

Image via Wikipedia

Towards a science of happiness and well-being

Stephen J Gould seems to have spoken for many when he proposed that science and religion, or the domains of “is” and “ought”, are “non-overlapping magisteria,” and opined that “science and religion do not glower at each other…but interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.”

But whether or not the “magisteria” of science and religion overlap is the question, (a version of the demarcation problem) not the answer. In my opinion they do overlap in the following way: religion, philosophy and science widely overlap in the domain of 1) asking questions about the world, and 2) interpreting evidence—although each may specialize in the types of questions it chooses to ask and the kinds of evidence it chooses to interpret.

The problem, and the glowering, arises when it comes to 3) the scientific method and the CRAFT of gathering and validating evidence, regardless of whether the evidence concerns atoms, evolution, or out-of-body experiences. One person’s justified belief is another person’s heresy.

More to the point of this essay, one person’s “ought” is another person’s “ought not”. Curiously, the difference between an ought and an ought-not often comes down to what “is”. My choice to give a panhandler some money or not may depend on whether we are standing in front of a cafe or a liquor store. The more complete our information about people and situations the better we can decide about the “right” thing to do, regardless of our moral framework.

The hypothesis on which this essay is based is this:  the more we know about the domain of what is, the smaller the gulf between “is and aught” becomes. I will approach the domain of what is, as it concerns happiness and well-being, through the lens and methods of science, without intending to question or threaten any beliefs that science may be silent about.

Reduction of a duck

Hopefully this will not be dismissed as scientism, positivism, reductionism, or materialism. These terms have various negative connotations but what they may all have in common is a criticism of scientific authority when it violates the parsimony principle. In other words, legitimate science crosses the line into scientism when it takes authoritative positions without sufficient empirical evidence to justify scientific conclusions. A lack of evidence for a proposition (the existence of a God, for example) is not proof of the contrary (negative) proposition. The legitimate scientific position where evidence is lacking is to abstain from drawing conclusions, period.

On the other hand, it is perfectly proper for science to evaluate the conclusions of scientists and non-scientists alike, the methods by which such conclusions are reached, and the evidence on which they are based; and to judge their scientific merit. There are many truth claims popular in modern times that are demonstrably false. I think it is important for people in all walks of life to have the opportunity to learn what science may say about the truth claims we are bombarded with all the time by our authority figures and peers. Even in those cases where science must remain parsimoniously silent, that silence may speak volumes.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Are we satisfied with people doing good for the wrong reasons or doing wrong for good reasons? Doing something for a wrong reason increases the risk of bad side-effects and unintended consequences, including but not limited to the consequence of reinforcing the fallacies behind the original motivation. The branch of moral philosophy known as consequentialism emphasizes the results or consequences of an action or rule over the importance of intentions or motives. What I like about consequentialism in general is a concern about unintended consequences because, after all, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It also accords with the aphorism that “By their fruits [i.e. results—not words, reputations, intentions, etc.] shall ye know them.” Results alone may not be sufficient to justify actions, but neither are intentions. Of the two, results may well be the more germane; and they are certainly the more easily quantifiable.

Wikipedia says:

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of one’s conduct are the true basis for any judgment about the morality of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.

Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behavior itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also distinguished from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself.

Obviously the glaring problem with that definition is “The ends justify the means.” We have a strong, intuitive, negative reaction to that. But consequentialism makes no such absolute, categorical dictum (in distinction to other schools of thought which might hold the contrary dictum that ends can never justify means). Consequentialism holds that both means and ends have consequences and that a valid utility calculation would include both. Would you tell a lie to save an innocent life? Would you kill someone to save your own life? Would you kill someone to save thousands of innocent lives? If so, you may be a consequentialist. Would you cheat, lie, and steal to win a political election? If so you may be a scumbag, but not necessarily a consequentialist.

The saying “the ends justify the means” is often used to justify means which are actually ends in themselves or which serve ends that are not explicitly stated by those who employ them. Or the stated ends may fail to include various “externalities” or side-effects, by-products, or other consequences which were unintended and/or unjustified.

I can’t prevent the concept of consequentialism from being applied euphemistically and disingenuously to provide cover for special interests and antisocial behaviors, but that is in direct contradiction to the aim of empirically and transparently accounting for all consequences—including side-effects and so-called externalities.

Consequentialism does not hold that results/ends matter more than methods/means but that consequences matter more than intentions. Methods and means are susceptible to empirical evaluation as to their consequences (both direct and incidental) and fitness for any given purpose, but intentions are not.

As goodgraydrab put it in a discussion at The Reason Project Forum, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”

We often fail to define and justify our “ends” in a full and explicit way. One goal often contradicts another goal. That is why we usually say the ends don’t justify the means. What this really says is that certain implicit goals, such as civil society (the rule of law), or the value of personal virtue, are considered axiomatic and must not be contradicted by the means used to achieve other goals, such as accumulation of personal wealth. The means for achieving one goal may violate or defeat achieving another, perhaps even more important, goal.  Means are properly justified (or judged) by all their consequences, intended or unintended; or to put it another way, by their effectiveness and by all their side effects. In consequentialism, no “externalities” can be sanctioned. To recognize one set of consequences and ignore others would be outright hypocrisy or subterfuge, not consequentialism.

The harder philosophical issue may be judging the merit of the desired “ends” or goals.

Goals can be classed as individual or collective. There is a natural tension between these two categories that can be difficult to resolve even by concepts of enlightened self interest and maximum utility. Human beings would not be well served by the deterministic rules of ant society. A model of maximum utility that includes human beings requires a certain amount of capability, freedom, and dignity, as well as some amount of inequality or disequilibrium. But when, where, why, and how much?

That is where a generic version of consequentialism, utilitarianism or utility theory that I call “general utility” comes in.

General Utility vs The Noble Savage and a Morality based on “Natural Law”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau…argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism [see anarcho-primitivism] and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution.”  (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)

IMO Rousseau actually WAS  enamored of the “noble savage” fantasy though he didn’t use the phrase. However, this controversial and highly speculative side-track to his thought is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the present social contract, not vague speculations about prehistory.

“For Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social compact, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.”  (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)

Civic/legal/moral equality is a relatively modern idea and derives little from evolution or ancient cultural traditions, with the possible exception of the old canard that we are all equal “in the sight of God.” We need to replace both the legacy of evolution and the “sight of God” with the insight of a humanity which bases its ethics on reason rather than appeals to authority, history, nature, or divine revelations.

All rights (including human rights, civil rights, and property rights) are the products of contract, the most fundamental of which is the “social contract.” Regulation and enforcement of contracts (and thus rights) is a matter of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. Law determines what rights may be inalienable in a given jurisdiction, just as law determines what contracts are legal or illegal. This is all a matter of LAW. Theories based on or derived from “natural law,” “natural rights,” or even on economics are irrelevant to the question of rights and property except to the extent that such ideas have been (and still are) toxic to the evolution of jurisprudence. Rousseau, Kant, and many, many others have tried to settle the rights question on the basis of some “natural law” which remains a speculative and unsettled theory.

IMO “Natural law” is simply a modern facade for divine law. It is a fiction. I do not support morality or ethical systems based on religion or fairy tales. I prefer jurisprudence based on empirical (quantifiable and verifiable) equity, and preferably in a framework of the greatest good for the greatest number (general utility). That is the only proper, objective (non-fictional) basis for morality, ethics, law, or enlightened self-interest. I only wish this were considered self-evident by more people. Instead we constantly debate rights on the basis of philosophy, religion, ideology, or economic theory, none of which provide a sound foundation for rational human rights, civil rights, or property rights.

But where do we get the right foundation for a modern and rational social contract? Not from any form of conventional deontological or consequentialist morality. Deontology and consequentialism are usually contrasted with one another:

“Consequentialism, we are told, judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by the desirability of the outcome it produces; a deontological system, on the other hand, judges actions by whether or not they adhere to certain rules (e.g. ‘don’t censor newspapers’).” (“All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist” by Noahpinion)

Deontology is really just after-the-fact consequentialism. If not prior experience (and thus appreciation of consequences), what would deontological rules and duties be based on other than some form of moral superstition or conjecture? One answer is that deontology is based on contract theory.

“Contract theory is the whole drama of deontology(intent) and ultilitarian(outcome) mergers.  Agential problems are the friction between the crude utlilitiarian measures/systems/incentives and the deontological issues of contracts, and when such problems are insurmountable at any given present, we have tension that can lead to revolution. ” ~Robert Ryan

Yes, the rules and duties of any deontology worth its salt are not merely unilateral assertions–they are social contracts. But the utility of a contract is not merely in its intent. The utility must also be judged by results. Both the intents and the results matter, in the same way that both the ends and the means matter; and both are embraced in the concept of general utility.

Bateson quote balance

General utility (my term for a generic form of consequentialism) is not arbitrary, authoritarian, philosophical, religious, ideological, historical, anthropological, or tradition-bound. Nor is it cruel or heartless. (What kind of madman would calculate well-being or “the greatest good” without taking subjective needs into account?) By general utility I mean much more (and less) than narrow market-based utility functions that are full of externalities.

The so-called “utility function” in economics and the many varieties of utilitarianism and consequentialism have their critics and their historical baggage. In philosophy, economics, and social science utility functions  have been formulated in overly vague, reductive, or simplistic ways often rife with primitive, pre-scientific assumptions and externalities.  Utilitarianism and consequentialism have countless variants each with its controversies. I assume a priori that any economic or philosophical school has historical baggage and needs to be reformulated to conform with a modern empirical framework. Henceforth I will refer to that scientific framework as General Utility 2.0 (GU2). I call it “general” utility to distinguish it from prior species of utility theory and utilitarianism which I characterize as  narrow or “special” versions of utility.

In theory, the GU2 framework is a multi-dimensional matrix of all variables that impact the well-being and flourishing of human life and everything on which it depends, including the biosphere.

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but I don’t think he is saying that well-being is only a matter of mental states. Things like organic health, economic well-being, and ecological fitness are important, too.

I hope that an empirical approach to ethics can breathe new life and scope into consequentialism and the utility function. In my opinion, “what is” and “what ought” are on a collision course, and Sam Harris may be one of the early pioneers of that convergence.

Objections to utility

The most compelling objection to consequentialism is that consequences are unpredictable or uncontrollable despite our best intentions and our best-laid plans. This is the problem of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty. But as a critique of consequentialism this is simply a special case of the repudiation of science in general. By a similar process of reasoning we would conclude that science is impractical and that reality is unknowable because it is not perfectly or completely knowable. I hope that pointing out this fallacy dispenses with the “unknowability of consequences” objection.

Perhaps the most common objections to consequentialism are those that simply assert a bias for other standards of morality that are thought to be morally superior. I argue that non-empirical standards, whether based on authority, history, or any other unfalsifiable theory, are no longer worthy of serious consideration in today’s world.

I already discussed the objection to “ends justifying means” but here is a particular example I recently came across:

“Utilitarianism cannot protect the rights of minorities if the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number.  Americans in the eighteenth century could justify slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans.  Certainly the majority benefited from cheap slave labor even though the lives of African slaves were much worse.”

Many objections to utility have to do with the difficulties in weighting, aggregating, and computing individual vs collective well-being.  Some methods can produce “repugnant” results for individuals and minorities, and even for the whole population in some instances. These are mostly methodological issues.

The biosphere and well-being of future generations must also be taken into account in GU2, and the means for achieving maximum utility must conform with certain axiomatic constraints such as justice and allowance for prior conditions. For example, if maximum utility prescribes a population smaller than presently exists, the population goal must be achieved via natural attrition rather than mass extermination.

Further, the goal of GU2 is not to force people autocratically into conformity with some computed state of maximum utility. The idea is make information about the consequences of possible choices available in the expectation that such information will affect the choosers. The GU2 model would allow the results of changes to any variable to be distributed across all knowledge domains and the consequences estimated.

As goodgraydrab put it so well, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”

Since in the end people still have to decide how to weigh variables and how apply GU2 information, the results of maximizing utility should not violently contradict generic, intuitive attitudes towards well-being. The hope is more that such empirical knowledge would SHAPE such attitudes for the better.

The following is little more than a brainstorming effort, but I think its helpful to have some concrete iteration of an idea to work from.

General Utility 2.0 Framework


I. Identity

  1. personal profile
  2. demographic info
  3. physical metrics and descriptors
  4. biographical info

II. Happiness (mental/emotional state)

Note: possibility of real-time monitoring of some factors

  1. vital signs
  2. galvanic skin resistance
  3. pupil dilation
  4. brain scans (qEEG, fMRI)
  5. hormone levels
  6. homeostasis
  7. presence/absence of stress or other happiness inhibitors
  8. subjective reports
  9. etc.

III. Health & longevity (many dimensions)

IV. Safety/security (ditto)

V. Freedom/constraint/capability (ditto)

VI. Information/communication

A. Education

  1. Formal education
  2. Self education

B. Self-knowledge

  1. implicit associations and biases
  2. conscious values/beliefs
  3. strengths and weaknesses
  4. habits
  5. effective/ineffective reinforcement history
  6. etc.

D. Beliefs and opinions

E. Cognitive and communication skills

  1. IQ
  2. verbal
  3. written
  4. logic
  5. cognitive deficits
  6. internet
  7. mobile
  8. etc

VII. Social matrix

  1. Status (gender, age, wealth, power, rank, position, fame, celebrity, etc.)
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Community
  5. Employment (job code, job satisfaction, working conditions, culture, co-worker relations, etc.)
  6. Memberships and affiliations
  7. On-line social networks
  8. Other support networks

VIII. Skills & abilities (academic, technical, mechanical, professional, athletic, parenting, housekeeping, etc.)

IX. Standard-of-living factors

  1. market basket
  2. assets & liabilities
  3. disposable income
  4. etc.

X. Other quality of life factors

  1. creative activities
  2. recreation
  3. exposure to nature
  4. etc.

XI. Contributions and Costs to the flourishing of others (including ecosystem impacts: carbon footprint, resource footprint, etc.)

It is important to note that various instruments already exist to measure nearly all the parameters in the above table and thus create well-being “profiles” of individuals and groups.

The next level of developing the GU2 model would be to correlate every species of data in the profile so that a change in one variable would be reflected in any others where a relationship was known. So the GU2 framework is a model of both data and relational algorithms.

The GU2 framework might be thought of as analogous to the control board in a recording studio. All the individual parameters of the sounds on multiple “tracks” can be adjusted and combined in an infinite number of ways but somehow one particular set of levels gets chosen as the most pleasing combination. The old-school theories of philosophy, economics, politics, and social welfare might be  analogous to the generic rock/pop/jazz settings on a cheap acoustic equalizer.  GU2 encourages a much more granular, eclectic, and empirical approach to altering parameters and measuring results, either as simulations or as interventions in the real world.

What is the goal?

Everyone has multiple goals with some degree of overlap and conflict. The best way I know to express the overall goal of General Utility 2.0 is this: to enhance the process of evolution. What I mean by evolution is the on-going emergence of new and increased capacities and capabilities in the biosphere and its parts, including but not limited to ourselves.

What happens if we maximize the biomass of human neurons on the planet and minimize the mass of human fat cells? This is a far-fetched question even in the context of GU2. But the current impossibility of simulating such scenarios is not a bad reason for investing in GU2.

Utility is actually implicit in everything we do. The goal of GU2 is to make it explicit. This will seem like a bad idea to some. Many may feel, not without some justification, that such knowledge is dangerous. The funny thing about knowledge, though, is that a little bit is more dangerous than a lot.

The brain is a powerful utility-computing device, but it is an analog device with many eccentric, ad hoc methods for doing its job. An increasing number of brains are becoming aware of this limitation and they are developing science and technology to enhance the power and quality of utility computation. These rational cognitive prosthetics, enhancements, and quality controls are vital because the biological brain is not able to evolve rapidly enough to deal with changing environmental conditions.

Some rational utility computations will no doubt conflict with eccentric brain-based computations. Many of our human eccentricities may be relatively harmless. Some may be essential to who we are. Certainly some are beautiful to us and are deeply cherished. Unfortunately, some are also responsible for a great deal of human suffering and environmental damage. Sorting it all out will not be easy or painless but that is the goal of GU2.

I would also say that a goal of GU2 is for humanity to achieve greater moral-ethical maturity–i.e, to put away childish, pre-scientific notions of morality and to grow up.

Poor Richard

Related Articles and Resources:


Canadian Index of Wellbeing

The CIW goes beyond narrow economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides the only national index that will measure wellbeing across a wide spectrum of domains. The CIW identifies a set of key indicators that will track Canada’s progress in eight interconnected domains of wellbeing [with a total of 64 individual metrics]:

  • Community Vitality measures the strength, activity and inclusiveness of relationships between residents, private sector, public sector and civil society organizations that fosters individual and collective wellbeing.
  • Democratic Engagement measures the participation of citizens in public life and in governance; the functioning of Canadian governments; and the role Canadians and their institutions play as global citizens.
  • Education measures the literacy and skill levels of the population, including the ability of both children and adults to function in various contexts and plan for and adapt to future situations.
  • Environment measures the state of and the trends in Canada’s environment by looking at the stocks and flows of Canada’s environmental goods and services.
  • Healthy Populations measures the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of the population by looking at different aspects of health status and certain determinants of health.
  • Leisure & Culture measures activity in the very broad area of culture, which involves all forms of human expression; the more focused area of the arts; and recreational activities.
  • Living Standards measures the level and distribution of income and wealth, including trends in poverty; income volatility; and economic security, including the security of jobs, food, housing and the social safety net.
  • Time Use measures the use of time, how people experience time, what controls its use, and how it affects wellbeing.

The CIW currently provides detailed research reports on different categories of wellbeing that can be found at the CIW website.


Global Wellbeing and GNH Lab

“The GNH Centre’s purpose is to manifest in living practice Bhutan’s unique balanced development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which seeks to integrate equitable and sustainable socio-economic development with environmental conservation.

“In partnership with the GIZ Global Leadership Academy, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Presencing Institute has initiated a living laboratory exploring new ways of measuring and implementing wellbeing in societies worldwide.”

All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist (

Tools, apps, and projects of the global Quantified Self community

Lifelogging, An Inevitability

The goal of lifelogging: to record and archive all information in one’s life. This includes all text, all visual information, all audio, all media activity, as well as all biological data from sensors on one’s body. The information would be archived for the benefit of the lifelogger, and shared with others in various degrees as controlled by him/her.

  • Lifeloggers … typically wear computers in order to capture their entire lives, or large portions of their lives.
  • The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers  –a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there
  • The Data-Driven Life Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery.  Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.
  • Extreme Lifelogging  Memories are made of disks. In the future every conversation, every emotion will be committed to our computers’ hard drives. But some people have already started
  • Dr Cathal GurrinLecturer at the School of Computing, at Dublin City University, director of the Human Media Archives research group as well as being a collaborating investigator in the CLARITYCentre for Sensor Web Technologies.
    • Human Digital Memories – capturing, storing, understanding, searching, filtering, recommending and providing ubiquitous access to personal digital memories and personal multimedia collections. My work has focused on sensecam data, but also GPS and human sensing data. I have gathered a personal sensecam archive of 7 million photos (May 2011).
    • Multimedia Information Retrieval – indexing and retrieval of Multimedia data (video and image data). I have been heavily involved in the development of the Físchlár digital video suite & WWW search – Large scale search for WWW data.
    • Person and Environmental Sensing -sensing the person and the environment; developing search infrastructures and retrieval strategies to deal with such sensor streams.
  • The Second Annual SenseCam Symposium will bring together an inter-disciplinary mix of researchers, clinicians and practitioners all with an interest in visual lifelogging and its applications. The Symposium will include keynote talks, regular paper and poster presentations, and software and hardware demonstrations of visual lifelogging. The Symposium will be of interest to Computer Scientists, Neuropsychologists, Clinical Psychologists, Health Professionals, Rehabilitation specialists, Engineers, Cognitive Psychologists, Memory Scientists, Ethicists, Epidemiologists, Ethnographers, Lawyers, Archivists and Clinicians.

Category:P2P Accounting ( New metrics, evaluation and accounting methods appropriate for a collaborative, peer to peer economy.

The Happy Planet Index:

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

An Edge Conference

Sam Harris

Sam Harris, Author, Neuroscientist (Huffington Post)
Sam Harris (Wikipedia)
Toward a Science of Morality (Huffington Post  May 7, 2010)

Sam Harris at TED Conference

The Open Parachute Blog (

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality by Patricia Churchland

Video of Pat Churchland’s Gillford Lecture: Morality and the Mammalian Brain


Quality of Life (Wikipedia)

The term quality of life is used to evaluate the general well-being of individuals and societies. The term is used in a wide range of contexts, including the fields of international development, healthcare, and politics. Quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income. Instead, standard indicators of the quality of life include not only wealth and employment, but also the built environment, physical and mental health, education, recreation and leisure time, and social belonging.[1]

Quantitative measurement

Unlike per capita GDP or standard of living, both of which can be measured in financial terms, it is harder to make objective or long-term measurements of the quality of life experienced by nations or other groups of people. Researchers have begun in recent times to distinguish two aspects of personal well-being: Emotional well-being, in which respondents are asked about the quality of their everyday emotional experiences—the frequency and intensity of their experiences of, for example, joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection— and life evaluation, in which respondents are asked to think about their life in general and evaluate it against a scale.[6] Such and other systems and scales of measurement have been in use for some time.

Human Development Index

Perhaps the most commonly used international measure of development is the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines measures of life expectancy, education, and standard of living, in an attempt to quantify the options available to individuals within a given society. The HDI is used by the United Nations Development Programme in their Human Development Report.

Other measures

The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) is a measure developed by sociologist Morris David Morris in the 1970s, based on basic literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy. Although not as complex as other measures, and now essentially replaced by the Human Development Index, the PQLI is notable for Morris’s attempt to show a “less fatalistic pessimistic picture” by focussing on three areas where global quality of life was generally improving at the time, and ignoring Gross National Product and other possible indicators that were not improving.[7]

The Happy Planet Index, introduced in 2006, is unique among quality of life measures in that, in addition to standard determinants of well-being, it uses each country’s ecological footprint as an indicator. As a result, European and North American nations do not dominate this measure. The 2009 list is instead topped by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.[8]

Gallup researchers trying to find the world’s happiest countries found Denmark to be top of the list.[1]

A 2010 study by two Princeton University professors looked at 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents over an extended period. It concludes that their life evaluations, that is their considered evaluations of their life against a stated scale of one to ten, rise steadily with income. On the other hand, their reported quality of emotional daily experience (their reports of experiences of joy, affection, stress, sadness, or anger) levels off after a certain income level. The quality of their everyday experiences did not improve beyond approximately $75,000 a year. Below this income, respondents reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress; the pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty. Further income above $75,000, on the other hand, does not lead to more experiences of happiness nor to further relief of unhappiness or stress.[9]

The Well-being & Progress Index (WIP) introduced by Luca D’Acci (2010), includes several aspects of well-being and progress, like human rights, economic well-being, equality, education, research, quality of urban environment, ecological behaviours, subjective well-being, longevity, and violent crime. (Social Indicators Research, oct.2010, Springer)


The term quality of life is also used by politicians and economists to measure the liveability of a given city or nation. Two widely known measures of liveability are the Economist Intelligence Unit’s quality-of-life index and Mercer’s Quality of Living Reports. These two measures calculate the liveability of countries and cities around the world, respectively, through a combination of subjective life-satisfaction surveys and objective determinants of quality of life such as divorce rates, safety, and infrastructure. Such measures relate more broadly to the population of a city, state, or country, not to the individual level.


Within the field of healthcare, quality of life is often regarded in terms of how it is negatively affected, on an individual level, a debilitating illness that is not life-threatening, life-threatening illness that is not terminal, terminal illness, the predictable, natural decline in the health of an elder, an unforeseen mental/physical decline of a loved one, chronic, end-stage disease processes. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Quality of Life Research Unit define quality of life as “The degree to which a person enjoys the important possibilities of his or her life” (UofT). Their Quality of Life Model is based on the categories “being”, “belonging”, and “becoming”, respectively who one is, how one is connected to one’s environment, and whether one achieves one’s personal goals, hopes, and aspirations.[13][14]

See also


  1. ^ a b Gregory, Derek; Johnston, Ron; Pratt, Geraldine et al., eds (June 2009). “Quality of Life”. Dictionary of Human Geography (5th ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-3287-9.
  2. ^ Costanza, R. et. al. (2008) “An Integrative Approach to Quality of Life Measurement, Research, and Policy”. S.A.P.I.EN.S. 1 (1)
  3. ^ Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London: Penguin. 6 April 2006. ISBN 978-0141016900.
  4. ^ “The World Bank”. The World Bank. 2009. Retrieved October 20, 2009.
  5. ^ “Poverty – Overview”. The World Bank. 2009. Retrieved October 20, 2009.
  6. ^ . doi:10.1073/pnas.1011492107.
  7. ^ Morris, Morris David (January 1980), “The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI)”, Development Digest 1: 95–109
  8. ^ “The Happy Planet Index 2.0”. New Economics Foundation. 2009. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  9. ^ “Higher income improves life rating but not emotional well-being”. 7 September 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010.
  10. ^ Fitts, Catherine Austin. “Understanding the Popsicle Index”. SolariF. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  11. ^ “To lick crime, pass the Popsicle test”. The Virginian-Pilot. July 9, 2005. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  12. ^ Darling, John (January 2006). “Money in a Popsicle-Friendly World”. Sentient Times. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  13. ^ “Quality of Life: How Good is Life for You?”. University of Toronto Quality of Life Research Unit. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  14. ^
  15. ^ D’Acci Luca, Measuring Well-Being and Progress Social Indicators Research , oct 2010, Springer.

External links



The capability approach (aka capabilities approach) began life in the 1980s as an approach to welfare economics. In this approach, Amartya Sen brought together a range of ideas that were hitherto excluded from (or inadequately formulated in) traditional approaches to the economics of welfare.

Initially Sen argued for:

  • the importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage,
  • individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities,
  • the centrality of the distribution of welfare within society,
  • the multi-variate nature of activities that give rise to happiness,
  • against excessive materialism in the evaluation of human welfare.

Subsequently, and in collaboration particularly with political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, development economist Sudhir Anand and economic theorist James Foster, Sen has helped to make the capabilities approach predominant as a paradigm for policy debate in human development where it inspired the creation of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is a popular measure for capturing the multidimensionality of human development, as it also accounts for health and education. Furthermore, since the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association in the early 2000s, the approach has been much discussed by political theorists, philosophers and a range of social sciences, including those with a particular interest in human health.

The approach emphasizes functional capabilities (“substantive freedoms”, such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfilment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how human beings actually function but on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, to function in important ways if they so wish. Someone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.

This approach to human well-being emphasises the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional microeconomics consumer theory although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility based claims (see Sen (1979)).



What capabilities matter?

Nussbaum (2000) frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. This approach contrasts with a common view that sees development purely in terms of GNP growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation. It has been highly influential in development policy where it has shaped the evolution of the human development index HDI has been much discussed in philosophy and is increasingly influential in a range of social sciences.

The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
  6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
  7. Affiliation.
    1. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
    2. Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
  8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s Environment.
    1. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
    2. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

The approach was first fully articulated in Sen (1985) and discussed in Sen and Nussbaum (1993). Applications to development are discussed in Sen (1999), Nussbaum (2000), and Clark (2002, 2005) and are now numerous to the point where the capabilities approach is widely accepted as a paradigm in development.

Can capabilities be measured?

Applications to welfare economics and health in high income countries are now also beginning to emerge, Anand, Hunter and Smith (2005). A key dilemma for the capabilities approach has been how to measure what people could do, as opposed to what they actually do, and this has been the subject of a large international research project. Bringing together researchers from economics, philosophy and psychology, their work demonstrates that capability indicators can be found in standard data-sets and more significantly that it is possible to develop new survey instruments which operationalise Nussbaum’s list above. The project solves an important problem for the approach and will be of use to any researchers interested in measuring multi-dimensional aspects of poverty or quality of life. The main capabilities measurement instrument has over 60 indicators, is being used by a number of research groups and is discussed further in Anand et al. (2009) and Anand, Santos and Smith (2009).


  • Alkire, S. (2002). Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Anand P, Hunter G and Smith R, (2005). Capabilities and Wellbeing: Evidence Based on the Sen-Nussbaum Approach to Welfare, Social Indicators Research, 74, 9-55.
  • Anand P, Hunter G, Carter I, Dowding K, van Hees M, (2009). The Development of Capability Indicators, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 10, 125-52.
  • Anand P, Santos C and Smith R, (2009). The Measurement of Capabilities in Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Basu K and Kanbur R (eds) (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
  • Clark, David A. (2002) Visions of Development: A Study of Human Values (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).
  • Kuklys, Wiebke (2005) Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications (Springer, Berlin).
  • Otto, H-U & Schneider, K.(2009) From Employability Towards Capability: Luxembourg
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000) Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. and Amartya Sen, eds. (1993). “The Quality of Life” Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Google book preview)
  • Sen, Amartya K. (1979) ‘Utilitarianism and Welfarism’, The Journal of Philosophy, LXXVI (1979), 463-489.
  • _____(1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (OUP description)

External links




Martha Nussbaum, The Capability approach

During the 1980s Nussbaum began a collaboration with economist Amartya Sen on issues of development and ethics which culminated in The Quality of Life, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press. Together with Sen and a group of younger scholars, Nussbaum founded the Human Development and Capability Association in 2003. With Sen, she promoted the “capabilities approach” to development, which views capabilities (“substantial freedoms”, such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities) as the constitutive parts of development, and poverty as capability-deprivation. This contrasts with traditional utilitarian views that see development purely in terms of economic growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation. It is also universalist, and therefore contrasts with relativist approaches to development. Much of the work is presented from an Aristotelian perspective.

Nussbaum furthered the capabilities approach in Frontiers of Justice (2006), to expand upon social contractarian explanations of justice, as developed most extensively by John Rawls‘ in his Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, The Law of Peoples, and related works. Nussbaum argues that standard social contractarianism, while far better than utilitarianism in providing a satisfactory framework for justice, relies on the belief and assumption that cooperation is pursued for the purpose of securing mutual advantage. Views deriving from the classical tradition of the social contract, she argues, have great difficulty dealing with issues of basic justice and substantial freedom in situations where there are great asymmetries of power between the parties. As such, Nussbaum argues that the procedural justice-based approach of contractarianism therefore fails to address areas in which symmetrical advantage does not exist, namely, in the context of justice for the disabled, transnational justice, and justice for non-human animals (“the three frontiers”).

Noting that Rawls himself acknowledged the failure of his theory of justice to comprehensively address these three frontiers, Nussbaum claims that Rawls’s attempt to expand his theory to address one of these areas — transnational justice — is “ultimately unsatisfying” because he fails to follow through with the essential elements developed in A Theory of Justice, namely, by relaxing some of the key assumptions about the parties to the original contract. Nussbaum argues that the contractarian approach cannot explain justice in the absence of free, equal and independent parties in an original position in which “all have something with which to bargain and none have too much” (with reference to Rousseau and Hume), concluding that the procedural perspective alone cannot provide an adequate theory of justice.

To address this perceived problem, Nussbaum introduces the capabilities approach, an outcome-oriented view that seeks to determine what basic principles, and adequate measure thereof, would fulfill a life of human dignity. She frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. Nussbaum posits that justice demands the pursuit, for all citizens, of a minimum threshold of these ten capabilities. She recently developed the idea of the threshold, with reference to constitutional law, in her Foreword to the 2007 Supreme Court issue of the Harvard Law Review, “Constitutions and Capabilities: ‘Perception’ Against Lofty Formalism,” which will ultimately appear in revised form as a book from Harvard University Press. Her book, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books 2008) explores the constitutional requirements of justice in the area of religious liberty. Nussbaum’s major current work-in-progress, projected in the final chapter of Frontiers of Justice, is a book on the moral psychology of the capabilities approach, which will bring together her work on the emotions with the analysis of social justice. This book is under contract to Cambridge University Press. The book entitled The Cosmopolitan Tradition is no longer under contract to Yale University Press


The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey

Author: Ingrid Robeynsa


This paper aims to present a theoretical survey of the capability approach in an interdisciplinary and accessible way. It focuses on the main conceptual and theoretical aspects of the capability approach, as developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. The capability approach is a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society. Its main characteristics are its highly interdisciplinary character, and the focus on the plural or multidimensional aspects of well-being. The approach highlights the difference between means and ends, and between substantive freedoms (capabilities) and outcomes (achieved functionings).


  1. Madoka Saito

Article first published online: 6 MAY 2003

DOI: 10.1111/1467-9752.3701002


Journal of Philosophy of Education

Journal of Philosophy of Education

Volume 37, Issue 1, pages 17–33, February 2003

Saito, M. (2003), Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to Education: A Critical Exploration. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37: 17–33. doi: 10.1111/1467-9752.3701002

This article examines the underexplored relationship between Amartya Sen’s ‘capability approach’ to human well-being and education. Two roles which education might play in relation to the development of capacities are given particular attention: (i) the enhancement of capacities and opportunities and (ii) the development of judgement in relation to the appropriate exercise of capacities.


A Sen – Development: Challenges for development, 2000 –
issues as objectivity) to the motivational, and it is not obvious that for substantive political and
social philosophy it is of weights (as I have tried to discuss in the context of the use of the capability
approach52), even the general rationale for using such an approach may be


The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause. Bentham, an ethical hedonist, believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced. The felicific calculus could, in principle at least, determine the moral status of any considered act. The algorithm is also known as the utility calculus, the hedonistic calculus and the hedonic calculus.

Variables, or vectors, of the pleasures and pains included in this calculation, which Bentham called “elements” or “dimensions“, were:[clarification needed]

  1. Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
  3. Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
  4. Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
  5. Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
  6. Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
  7. Extent: How many people will be affected?

Bentham’s instructions

* Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it: and take an account,
o Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
o Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
o Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.
o Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure.

* Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.

* Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole. Do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance which if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community

See also

The term ethical calculus, when used generally, refers to any method of determining a course of action in a circumstance that is not explicitly evaluated in one’s ethical code.

A formal philosophy of ethical calculus is a recent development in the study of ethics, combining elements of natural selection, self-organizing systems, emergence, and algorithm theory. Ethical calculus is based on the premise that moral and ethical codes are emergent algorithms, epiphenomena of large groups of sentient beings, and that a given moral code or ethical code behaves in organic ways, seeking to prolong itself.

According to ethical calculus, the most ethical course of action in a situation is an absolute, but rather than being based on a static ethical code, the ethical code itself is a function of circumstances. The ideal Ethic is the course of action taken in a given situation by an omnipotent, omniscient being. The optimal ethic is the best possible course of action taken by an individual with the given limitations. The standard of judgment is the continuation of situations in which ethics are relevant.

While ethical calculus is, in some ways, similar to moral relativism, the former finds its grounds in the circumstance while the latter depends on social and cultural context for moral judgment.

Ethical calculus would most accurately be regarded as a form of dynamic moral absolutism.

The science of morality describes an emerging debate in the media and in academia about whether morality can be, not just described, but prescribed scientifically. This debate includes discussion of the possible scientific methodologies behind such normative claims. Proponents include thinkers such as Sam Harris who argued in a lecture that “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science” discerning what humans ought to do by looking at what is. [1][2] Critics, such as Sean M. Carroll, argue that morality cannot be part of science.[3]

The term ‘Science of Morality’ is also sometimes used to describe the emergence of moral systems in different species. For a description of how moral intuitions have evolved in humans and other animals, see Moral psychology and the Evolution of morality.

A fact-value distinction has been traditionally used to argue that the scientific method cannot address “moral” questions beyond describing the norms of different civilizations. In contrast, some philosophers and scientists like John Dewey[4](and supporters of either Ethical naturalism, Positivism or a sort of scientism) have argued that the line between values and scientific facts is arbitrary and illusory; they suggest that the subject of morality can be re-conceptualized as a “budding science” [5] spanning various fields to provide instructions for organizing society. In time, an emerging discipline of the science of morality could expand the demarcation of science along the same lines as the psychology of happiness.

Philosopher John Dewey suggested a pragmatic approach to ethics, regarding them as a type of empirical inquiry.[6]

The science of morality is most readily justified according to the philosophy: Ethical naturalism. Many arguments for or against the science of morality are leveled towards that philosophical view. The science of morality also bears some resemblances to systems like Utilitarianism (more modern versions of which are advocated by philosophers like Peter Singer). Positivism and Pragmatism are also philosophies related to the science. Sam Harris proposed that one is essentially asking a complex empirical and somewhat utilitarian questions when they ask “what is good?”.[1] Harris suggests that this question might translate to something like “what are probably the best (and worst) ways for a group of individuals to meet each of their various basic needs, and preferably their wants as well, given the society’s present composition and situation. “Harris adds, however, that the science of morality should not be limited by any particular philosophical moral system.[8] He explains that the goals of this science mean carefully considering everything from emotions and thoughts to the actual actions and their consequences for all involved.

Operationally defining terms is an important part of science, as demonstrated by the attempts of Positive psychology to address topics about which many are opinionated. In such areas of science that overlap with philosophy or religion, arguments over the supposed essence of a word sometimes stand in the way of progress.[9] In this case, it bears reminding that objective concepts may certainly still possess subjective aspects to them. For instance, depression has been operationally defined and objectively studied, and yet it is also subjective (when depression is experienced by an individual).Harris admits that there may be disagreement over the exact definitions of happiness and suffering, but says that these disagreements should not be taken too seriously. Harris mentions that even a lack of firm agreement in the scientific community over terms like “life” or “health” has not prevented progress that is generally related to those ideas. In practice this is thanks to the fact that researchers can establish and agree on other clear ‘working definitions’.

Harris explains that we must admit that the question of what normally leads to human flourishing has objective, scientific answers. That is, certain beliefs, actions or legal systems may be proven to lead reliably to either human happiness or suffering. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson adds that, while some situations would still be very challenging to a science of morality, there are still many “moral no brainers”.[10]

Likewise, the science of morality should identify basic components required for human flourishing, drawing heavily on findings from positive psychology. For example, Abraham Maslow suggested a hierarchy of needs: basic physical survival, then social and self esteem needs, and lastly philosophical and self-actualization. Similarly, positive psychology’s Martin E. P. Seligman and Christopher Peterson wrote the Character Strengths and Virtues book, which discusses their early research into human values by which to live.

Sam Harris does not believe humans will create a machine that can answer all moral questions, or even that we will arrive at a simple set of rules that encompasses all situations. Instead, Harris explains that we can identify increasingly accurate “rules of thumb” about morality, for example, The Golden Rule, or the importance of certain rights like free speech to the pursuit of human flourishing.

Harris explains that there may exist moral gray areas that are difficult to study, but that this in no way refutes the existence of an objective truth.


Science has already begun connecting concepts like sadness with physical structure in the brain

Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel and researcher Cynthia Fu describe their findings that depression can be diagnosed very accurately just by looking at fMRI brain scans.[13] This is because researchers have made strides identifying neural correlates for, among other things, emotions. A doctor’s second opinion would still be used, they explain. But the two researchers suggest that mental illnesses may someday be diagnosable by looking at such brain scans alone.

Ethical naturalism (also called moral naturalism or naturalistic cognitivistic definism[1]) is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world can be reduced to some set of non-moral features.

This makes ethical naturalism a definist form of moral realism

Ethical naturalism does, however, reject the fact-value distinction: it suggests that inquiry into the natural world can increase our moral knowledge in just the same way it increases our scientific knowledge.

Ethical naturalism encompasses any reduction of ethical properties, such as ‘goodness’, to non-ethical properties; there are many different examples of such reductions, and thus many different varieties of ethical naturalism

Harris suggests that values amount to empirical statements about “the flourishing of conscious creatures in a society”. He argues that there are objective answers to moral questions, even if some are difficult or impossible to possess in practice. In this way, he says, science can tell us what to value. Harris adds that we do not demand absolute certainty from predictions in physics so we should not demand that of a science studying morality.[4]

Garner and Rosen say that a common definition of “natural property” is one “which can be discovered by sense observation or experience, experiment, or through any of the available means of science.” They also say that a good definition of “natural property” is problematic but that “it is only in criticism of naturalism, or in an attempt to distinguish between naturalistic and nonnaturalistic definist theories, that such a concept is needed.”[5] R. M. Hare also criticised ethical naturalism because of its fallacious definition of the terms ‘good’ or ‘right’ explaining how value-terms being part of our prescriptive moral language are not reducible to descriptive terms: “Value-terms have a special function in language, that of commending; and so they plainly cannot be defined in terms of other words which themselves do not perform this function”[6]

Moral nihilists maintain that any talk of an objective morality is incoherent and better off using other terms. Proponents of Moral Science like Ronald A. Lindsay have counter-argued that their way of understanding “morality” as a practical enterprise is the way we ought to have understood it in the first place. He holds the position that the alternative seems to be the elaborate philosophical reduction of the word “moral” into a vacuous, useless term[7]. Lindsay adds that it is important to reclaim the specific word “Morality” because of the connotations it holds with many individuals.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Moral Naturalism”, by James Lenman, first published Thu June 1, 2006; substantive revision Mon August 7, 2006




Average v total

Total utilitarianism advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the total utility of its members. According to Derek Parfit, this type of utilitarianism falls victim to the Repugnant Conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort. In other words, according to the theory, it is a moral good to breed more people on the world for as long as total happiness rises.[14]

Average utilitarianism, on the other hand, advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population. It avoids Parfit’s repugnant conclusion, but causes other problems like the Mere Addition Paradox. For example, bringing a moderately happy person in a very happy world would be seen as an immoral act; aside from this, the theory implies that it would be a moral good to eliminate all people whose happiness is below average, as this would raise the average happiness[15]

Predicting consequences

Daniel Dennett uses the case of the Three Mile Island accident as an example of the difficulty in calculating happiness.[20] Was the near-meltdown that occurred at this nuclear power plant a good or a bad thing (according to utilitarianism)? He points out that its long-term effects on nuclear policy would be considered beneficial by many and might outweigh the negative consequences. His conclusion is that it is still too early, 31 years after the event, for utilitarianism to weigh all the evidence and reach a definite conclusion. Utilitarians note that utilitarianism seems to be the unspoken principle used by both advocates and critics of nuclear power.[citation needed] That something cannot be determined at the moment is common in science and frequently resolved with later advancements.

Utilitarians, however, are not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. Utilitarians simply try their best to maximise happiness (or other forms of utility) and, to do this, make their best estimates of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it may make sense to follow an ethical rule that promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians also note that people trying to further their own interests frequently run into situations in which the consequences of their decisions are very unclear. This does not mean, however, that they are unable to make a decision; much the same applies to utilitarianism.


Health/Medical Information

Body organs can send status updates to your cellphone – 08 October 2010 – New Scientist.

Underutilization of information and knowledge in everyday medical practice: Evaluation of a computer-based solution, David Zakim et al

Patient-directed intelligent and interactive computer medical history-gathering systems: a utility and feasibility study in the emergency department, Benaroia M et al


Neurobiology Research


The Brain in Love (

–Fisher, H., et at., “Romantic Love: And fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice.”

–Ditzen, B., et al., “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.”



A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute)

How Neuroscience Is Changing the Law (

— Langleben, D., “Detection of deception with fMRI: Are we there yet?

— Jones, O. et al. “The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment.”

The Neurobiology of Evil (

— Gao, Yu, et al. “Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime.”

— Davidson, R. et al. “Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation — A Possible Prelude to Violence.”

— Raine, A., and Yang, Y. “Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.”

— DeLisi, M., et al. “The Criminology of the Amygdala.”

— Raine, A., et al. “A neurodevelopmental marker for limbic maldevelopment in antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy.”

— Raine, A. “From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science.”

Neuroethics & Law Blog

Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law (Santa Clara University)

The Neuroethics Project (The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE))


The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. 2009  PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272.

The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief (

—Borg, J., et al. “The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.”

—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”

—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence.”

Religion and visual attention. Also for an eyewitness? (Andrea Lavazza and Mario De Caro) (


Misc Links, recently added

Lifelogging, An Inevitability

URSULA stands for Unified Rating System, Universal Lifecycle Assessment

URSULA is a business intelligence system that provides a way to weight, harmonize and reuse different data sets, enabling that data to communicate, link up and form meaningful relationships with one another in ways never possible before.

URSULA allows data from different systems to communicate with and relate to one another. Using a standard of universal global sustainability enables us to do an “apples-to-apples” comparison of all kinds of data, whether it reflects social, economic, environmental, legal, technological or political elements of nature and humanity.

UNHAPPY CITIES by Edward L. Glaeser. Harvard University and NBER The study looks at things like income, education, sex, housing and age. New York City ranks as the unhappiest city.

A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method

The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) assesses how people spend their time and how they experience the various activities and settings of their lives, combining features of time-budget measurement and experience sampling. Participants systematically reconstruct their activities and experiences of the preceding day with procedures designed to reduce recall biases. The DRM’s utility is shown by documenting close correspondences between the DRM reports of 909 employed women and established results from experience sampling. An analysis of the hedonic treadmill shows the DRM’s potential for well-being research.

Neurobiology of Love, Ethics, and Religion

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

Image via Wikipedia

The articles below are just what I happen to have stumbled across lately–they are more a random sampling of material on the topics than a representative one.

Poor Richard


The Brain in Love (

–Fisher, H., et at., “Romantic Love: And fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice.”

–Ditzen, B., et al., “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.”


Sam Harris
Toward a Science of Morality, (Huffington Post, May 7, 2010)
Sam Harris, Author, Neuroscientist


A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute)

How Neuroscience Is Changing the Law (

— Langleben, D., “Detection of deception with fMRI: Are we there yet?

— Jones, O. et al. “The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment.”

The Neurobiology of Evil (

— Gao, Yu, et al. “Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime.”

— Davidson, R. et al. “Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation — A Possible Prelude to Violence.”

— Raine, A., and Yang, Y. “Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.”

— DeLisi, M., et al. “The Criminology of the Amygdala.”

— Raine, A., et al. “A neurodevelopmental marker for limbic maldevelopment in antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy.”

— Raine, A. “From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science.”

Neuroethics & Law Blog

Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law (Santa Clara University)

The Neuroethics Project (The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE))


The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. 2009  PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272.

The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief (

—Borg, J., et al. “The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.”

—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”

—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence.”

Religion and visual attention. Also for an eyewitness? (Andrea Lavazza and Mario De Caro) (

Proof Positive?

Classical Definition of Kno

Image via Wikipedia

“All the proof of a pudding is in the eating.”*

Is it?

That may be one point of view (the pudding eater’s), but what about the cook’s point of view? What about the server’s , the restaurant owner’s, or the health inspector’s points of view?

Wikipedia: “Perspectivism rejects objective metaphysics as impossible, and claims that there are no objective evaluations which transcend cultural formations or subjective designations. This means that there are no objective facts, and that there can be no knowledge of a thing in itself. This separates truth from a particular (or single) vantage point [or perspective], and means that there are no ethical or epistemological absolutes. This leads to constant reassessment of rules (i.e., those of philosophy, the scientific method, etc.) according to the circumstances of individual perspectives. ‘Truth’ is thus formalized as a whole that is created by integrating different vantage points together.” [my emphasis]

I differ with that definition of perspectivism a little: I’m agnostic about the actual existence of ethical and epistemological absolutes and about the possibility of proof positive. For example, a given point of view might (coincidentally) be perfectly objective even if no one could prove it with 100% certainty.

Its one of my favorite epistemological recipes none the less.

In contrast to moral relativism or cultural relativism, the recipe for perspectivism calls for wisely selecting, weighing, measuring, and combining diverse subjective, cultural, and empirical points of view and blending them all together to a creamy-smooth consistency. Top-quality ingredients (vantage points or perspectives), carefully chosen and thoroughly mixed together (integrated), will produce a fine, well-rounded pudding of noble character (approaching reality as closely as possible).

There is one important caveat, however: not all individual points of view are equally savory. Each must be carefully inspected for soundness and virtue before going into the pudding– or you can end up with a load of crap.

I always say, “A cup of sugar salvages a sour porridge, but a pound of poo makes a  piss-poor pudding.”

Poor Richard


* Proof of the pudding ( Related to: appearance; reality and illusion

Jt is ywrite that euery thing Hymself sheweth in the tastyng.
[c 1300 King Alisaunder (EETS) l. 4038]

All the proofe of a pudding, is in the eating.
[1623 W. Camden Remains concerning Britain (ed. 3) 266]

As they say at the winding up, or the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
[1666 G. Torriano Italian Proverbs 100 (note)]

The Proof of the Pudden is in the Eating.
[1738 Swift Polite Conversation ii. 132]


Pretty Good Truth (PRA 2.0)

Now for a perspective that’s completely different:

When the truth is found….to be….lies
And all of the joy within you dies…

%d bloggers like this: