Sunday, October 21, 2012

The dilemma of population ethics

What's population ethics?

A while back I read through this excellent introduction to population ethics:

Popluation Ethics is about how to make ethical decisions that affect a whole population.

For example, if we introduce contraception to a starving country and this raises millions out of poverty by preventing the conception of millions of children, is that good or bad?

As the above link points out, we don't have a good answer to that question.  I've been trying to answer it for several months now, and haven't gotten very far, even after cornering half a dozen philosophy grads.

One standard approach to population ethics, adding up all the utility (or happiness) of all the people in the population, suggests that the population would be better without contraception -- even though they're still miserable, there are more of them, so their combined small utility outweighs the greater happiness of the much smaller population they'd have with contraception.  In fact, by this rule, a billion absolutely miserable people would be considered better off than a million happy, healthy people.

The opposite standard approach, of using average happiness instead of sum total happiness, favors contraception, since we divide total happiness by the number of people.  So the smaller nation full of happy people is considered better off.  But this too fails -- this rule would hold that a single, utterly ecstatic person would be better than a million happy people.

Population as a single organism?

But I think I've finally come across a useful approach: model the population as a single organism.  This opens the door to a lot of metaphorical reasoning using the tools we use for ethical questions about a single person.  (Of course, as always, we still have to check whether the conclusion still makes sense for the population, but at least it gives us a place to start reasoning).

Instead, what if we consider the population as a single organism?  We don't consider a 500 pound person healthier than a person of ideal weight, nor do we amputate a leg just because you have a weak knee (thus raising the average health of your remaining limbs).  

So far, that's pretty promising -- it looks like we can avoid the huge+miserable and the tiny+ecstatic problems the standard two approaches have.  So how should we answer the contraception question?

Well, how do we normally evaluate the health and value of an organism?

  • Life expectancy
  • Degree of impairment or illness
  • Interaction with its environment
These seem relevant to our contraception question:
  • Life expectancy: Does the smaller, wealthier country with contraception have a better chance of surviving in the long term than the larger poor country?  Probably, if they don't go overboard and stop having kids entirely.
  • Impairment/illness: This seems like the best approximation to poverty and hunger.  It's better to be small and healthy than huge and sick.
  • Environment: It's easy to miss this with the standard approaches, which tend to focus on the happiness of the individual.  But we immediately see the problem of a big elephant in a small cage, or a lion in with the lambs.
My favorite aspect of this approach is that it favors moderation: populations that have good prospects of long, healthy life.  Too big creates environmental and health problems, while too small makes you more likely to get eaten or stepped on.


I like this idea, but we should probably also consider the drawbacks.  The biggest ones I can think of are that the approach could tend toward fascism, and that it could be used to excuse genocide.  

Fascism is a risk because we don't normally worry about the rights of individual cells in our bodies; the whole is what's important, not the parts.  This is a real risk, and we saw it go badly for the countries that have tried it.  In a more general sense, though, most countries espouse the notion of eminent domain and other principles that allow the state to override the desires of an individual.  And we kill or sequester individuals who pose a threat to the well being of others.  So perhaps fascism is the same risk to a population that blind hedonism is to an individual -- in some sense the organism is seeking its own good, but damage to the pieces that make up the whole is deadly in the long run.

The risk of justifying genocide is related: the idea that if your right hand offends you, cut it off for the good of the whole.  Here again I think the problem lies in theory vs. practice.  Proponents of genocide in history always claim that the targeted population is hopelessly corrupt and dangerous, which has always been untrue.  But the more abstract principle, that certain people or groups are too deadly to be left alone (whether these are invading armies or serial killers running free), seems generally accepted.


I never thought I'd be the kind of guy to say "What we really need here is a philosopher!"  But it's really true; real, practical problems like how to handle foreign aid and what kinds of charity to support are rooted in population ethics.  I'm not sure how well my approach will hold up in the long run, but I like that it's something that doesn't immediately lead to absurdities.

What do you think?

Friday, October 12, 2012

AT&T (and SBC) sucks

Where I live, AT&T is the only company I can get basic phone service from, and I have to have basic phone service before I can get DSL from a decent ISP like Sonic (who won't go out of their way to throttle your connection, hijack your DNS, or share your surfing habits with the government).

AT&T, of course, would rather have you spend hundreds of dollars a month on crappy internet, phone, TV and wireless service.


  • AT&T's site, once you get to the part where you're signing up for basic phone service, is incredibly slow.  Literally minutes for each page to load.  Find something else to do while you wait.  Clicking "continue" multiple times will screw things up, so click it once and wait.  Sometimes you'll get a "loading" cursor, sometimes you won't.
  • After I made it all the way to the end, I learned that the second-to-last confirmation page doesn't work with Chrome.  So I got to restart with Firefox.  Yay.
  • Of course they're going to try to upsell you every step of the way, including charging you if you DON'T want to appear in the phone book.  (But at least you can list what name you show up under).
  • Metered rate service is the cheapest option.  Under this plan you actually have to pay for local calls.  Or something.  I don't care; I'm not even going to hook a phone up to it.  And of course they're not going to make that easy to find. 
Step by step:

  • Once you've put in your address, at the next page, mouseover "Home Phone" and click "Home Phone Plans".
  • Then click "Order now" under the "Start New Service with AT&T" on the right sidebar.
You can probably figure it out from there.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Mountain View City Council 2012 Election Forum

There are 4 slots and 6 candidates running for City Council in Mountain View, CA.  I went to a Q&A session with the candidates on 4 Oct 2012.

Overall impressions: (this is the only part of the post where I'm injecting my own opinions)

  • McAllister: "the politician" experienced political speaker, some buzzwords and self promotion
  • Inks: "the moderate". Moderately libertarian approach, government experience.
  • Neal: "the libertarian".  Strongly libertarian; limited government
  • Capriles: "the green candidate".  Said the most about environmental concerns.
  • Clark: "the economist".  Seems smart
  • Kasperzak: "the incumbent".  Current mayor.  Supports programs like plastic bag ban, narrowing El Camino Real.

Mike Kasperzak: incumbent Mayor.

  • Affordable housing
  • Transit & parking
  • Fiscal sustainability

Jim Neal: sysadmin

  • Limited government
  • Responsiveness to residents

Chris Clark: incumbent Planning Commission member, Planning Commission

  • Maintain fiscal prudence
  • Transportation infrastructure

John Inks: incumbent vice-Mayor.

  • Balanced budgets
  • Avoiding increased fees & taxes

John McAllister: incumbent Planning Commission member.

  • Financially strong city government
  • Strong negotiation
  • Effective transportation network

Margaret Capriles: data quality consultant at HP

  • Integrated solutions across neighborhoods
  • Transportation infrastructure
  • Fiscal responsibility

Dealing with traffic on N. Bayshore
  • Kasperzak: paid parking, discouraging people from driving, personal rapid transit
  • Neal: Encourage housing in N. Bayshore, increase parking
  • Clark: Improved stoplights, bike & pedestrian overpasses, personal rapid transit
  • Capriles: There's a study in progress.  Can we get to 0 cars in MV?
  • McAllister: Ask local employees. Increased access points into N. Bayshore.  MV / Google / VTA collaboration.
  • Inks: There's a study in progress.  Increased access points into N. Bayshore
High speed rail.  For or against?
  • Inks: Against.  Too politicized, focused on "bookend" cities.
  • McAllister: Support in theory.  Lots of issues in practice
  • Capriles: Conceptually good.  Devil is in the details.  Current state "has me questioning"
  • Clark: Initially interested.  It has become a mess.  Let's take advantage of the electrification funds for VTA.
  • Neal: No brainer: against.  We can't afford it.  Report just came out showing it's ridiculously too expensive.
  • Kasperzak: Voted for it, California needs it.  Shot themselves in the foot with it.  Issue has already been decided; how will we deal with it in Mountain View?  Tries to be optimistic: people complained about Boston's Big Dig, but appreciate it now.
Stevens Creek bridge connecting Shoreline Business Park & Moffett Field?
  • Kasperzak: We need a bridge.
  • Neal: Haven't looked a lot at it; I'd need to research it.
  • Clark: Agrees with Kasperzak.  We need a bridge for public safety reasons.
  • Capriles: How and where we put a bridge are important.  Need to consider environmental concerns.
  • McAllister: Could help with N. Bayshore access issues.
  • Inks: Maybe a bridge, maybe not.
How would you create a more environmentally sustainable city?
  • Inks: We're on a path to sustainability.  Bike paths, reducing auto traffic.
  • McAllister: Need to make sure we can fund things.  In recent general plan we did recycling, public transit, got input from people.
  • Capriles: We're working toward zero waste.  Can we remodel buildings instead of tearing them down?
  • Clark: MV is on the right path, need to implement general plan.  Building near transit routes, green building standards, improving transportation infrastructure.
  • Neal: Getting traffic lights and public transit right would go a long way.  Took the bus to get to the event -- took 2 hours and $8.  Recycling pickups to once a week.
  • Kasperzak: Energy upgrade Mountain View program.  Lost a great opportunity by not including housing in N. Bayshore
Plastic bag ban
  • Kasperzak: I'll probably support it when the report comes out.  We need to change our habits.
  • Neal: Opposes "police state" mandates like this.
  • Clark: Negative externalities exist and we should compensate for them.  We'll look back in 50 years and marvel at how lazy we were.  Outright ban may be unnecessary; maybe something phased in.
  • Capriles: What's good for the whole?  We need to sacrifice and suffer for our children.
  • McAllister: My business uses paper bags.  Supports the ban.
  • Inks: Uses canvas bags himself, opposes the ban.  Plastic bags don't even show up on the list of major waste projects.
Google wants to build housing E of 101, city council voted it down.  Your opinion?
  • Inks: Housing proposal was generic, not google-specific.  Housing should have been considered, got sidelined.  Ultimately planners will decide.
  • McAllister: Voted against.  Lack of services would cause a lot of travel over the freeway.
  • Capriles: Opposed.  Saw no compelling reasons.  Environmental impact was unclear.
  • Clark: Supported it while on the commission.  Goes to work daily, services weekly.  Strongly opposed that the 20-year plan didn't include housing N of 101.
  • Neal: Supports it.  Google has services on-campus, what's the deal about lack of services?  Let people live close to work.
  • Kasperzak: Supported it, wanted it as part of public transit commitments.
Affordable housing?
  • Kasperzak: Supports subsidized housing.  
  • Neal: Would work with developers.  Would avoid bureaucracy where developers get stuck in government approvals process.
  • Clark: Overall housing supply needs to increase.  We had no new rental complexes for 10 years.  Look for long-term solution.  Truly "affordable" housing is pretty tough here.
  • Capriles: Need developers, employers and citizens to work together.
  • McAllister: Has employees who need affordable housing.  Need increased density, but we don't have enough density to support affordable housing.  If the community wants it, the community should support it, perhaps through tax.
  • Inks: Affordable housing is subsidized housing.  Public survey didn't support parcel tax.  Unfair to force developers to bear the costs.
Narrowing El Camino Real to 4 lanes?
  • Inks: Opposes. VTA proposal didn't make sense.
  • McAllister: Opposes.  VTA proposal is nonsense.
  • Capriles: Opposes.  Where would the cars go?  Good idea in theory.
  • Clark: Opposes.  Issue seems to be off the table.  We have other approaches in progress.
  • Neal: Opposes.  It'd create a huge mess.  Existing express buses aren't getting used. Opposes efforts by county and state to consolidate things; keep Mountain View unique.
  • Kasperzak: Lone supporter.
How would you use the Shoreline Community Fund?
  • Kasperzak: Supports sharing excess property tax income with local schools.
  • Neal: Complex issue, doesn't have a personal position.  Fund created in 1969 to redevelop this area.  Send it to the citizens for a vote.
  • Clark: Wants a longer term solution.  Supported the short term stopgap measure.  Make sure funds are first used for redevelopment, also schools secondarily.
  • Capriles: Supports the schools, but also important to consider whole picture.
  • McAllister: Supports sharing with schools after other budgetary concerns are considered.
  • Inks: Send it to the voters, agrees with Neal.  
Closing statements:
  • Inks: Solid record of protecting taxpayer dollars.  Constituent support.
  • McAllister: Residents first.
  • Capriles: cited HP experience, community service accolates.  Commitment to the community.
  • Clark: Represents young workers.  
  • Neal: Cares about representing local citizens, getting issues in front of voters.
  • Kasperzak: Has experience as the incumbent.