Surveillance and Morality

Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?“:


The upshot of these reflections is that the relation between surveillance and moral edification is complicated. In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from or obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action. And that ideal is worth keeping alive.

Some will object that the saintly ideal is utopian. And it is. But utopian ideals are valuable. It’s true that they do not help us deal with specific, concrete, short-term problems, such as how to keep drunk drivers off the road, or how to ensure that people pay their taxes. Rather, like a distant star, they provide a fixed point that we can use to navigate by. Ideals help us to take stock every so often of where we are, of where we’re going, and of whether we really want to head further in that direction.

Ultimately, the ideal college is one in which every student is genuinely interested in learning and needs neither extrinsic motivators to encourage study, nor surveillance to deter cheating. Ultimately, the ideal society is one in which, if taxes are necessary, everyone pays them as freely and cheerfully as they pay their dues to some club of which they are devoted members ­ where citizen and state can trust each other perfectly. We know our present society is a long way from such ideals, yet we should be wary of practices that take us ever further from them. One of the goals of moral education is to cultivate a conscience ­ the little voice inside telling us that we should do what is right because it is right. As surveillance becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, the chances are reduced that conscience will ever be anything more than the little voice inside telling us that someone, somewhere, may be watching.

Read the whole thing.

Posted on July 8, 2010 at 7:07 AM45 Comments


sophware July 8, 2010 7:44 AM

I’m no fan of big brother and believe that external monitoring can make you listen less to your own opinion of yourself. I’ll play devil’s advocate anyway: Have you considered the case of people living under the Soviet regime?

I lived with some of them for a short time in 1988 and after. It was almost, but not quite, too late to get a feel for the impact of surveillance.

They didn’t seem to have any lack of conscience. I have no doubt the surveillance was extremely detrimental to their well-being. The question is whether it disconnected them personally from the idealistic compass of disinterested action. I don’t think it did.

alreadyonthelist July 8, 2010 7:50 AM

Excellent article. The problem becomes what if people are under surveillance for different points of view, say about the war or torture? They can be morally good people with another point of view. So the relationship between state and citizen becomes abusive. Who is used to watch? Not police, contractors. Is the goal better citizens or to suppress dissent? What is the true goal of surveillance when privacy is violated routinely and people used to watch/surveill/observe are not watched by police? What is the goal when people are stalked in a predatory fashion and pointed at and called terrorists for a different point of view? What is the moral effect on the people who do the watching?

Surveillance in reality, versus in theory, is quite another matter. When I work at the homeless shelter where I have worked as a volunteer for 10 years, and a guest at the shelter comes up to me and takes a photo instead of a plate of food offered to him, what effect is that having? Or following me from room to room in the shelter with the cellphone saying “she’s going downstairs to get the laundry” Its not that I object to the guests getting money, it subverts the reason I am there. What moral good is being done here when my reasons for volunteering are smeared with suspicion?
We have to watch her, she must have an ulterior motive for working as a volunteer here. So what has been taken away from the watchers? The homeless folks they recruited? Their idea that they are disposable people is actually reinforced, why? Because why would anyone volunteer to work with us?

For me, the ongoing watching piece makes me want to stop going to the shelter, stop going to church. As a private person, it is a struggle for me to go out with the ongoing surveillance. It is easier to stay home. The perimeters, the discussion of the case by observers, actually serves to drive a person away from what some might call morally good things, working to help the homeless, going to public worship, etc. What effect does it have on the observers in church when they are told to form perimeters? I have overheard them, they are angry “they can do anything they want, we have to do it” this after a man was pulled out of his pew to sit next to me until the usher came back. When the usher returned after the collection, the man returned to his pew.
In a setting of public worship, in a Catholic church, the watchers are distracted from the purpose of the mass to watch someone. What moral good is being done here? The effect on the subject is suppressing. The effect on the observers is distracting and it makes them mad.

I think the reality of this sort of surveillance will not be known until more information becomes public about the observer program.

The freedom to be left alone, that Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of

thinker July 8, 2010 8:11 AM

@sophware: living in a regime does not mean constant surveillance. In those societies the private life of the most people was indeed this – private. Todays technology is a comlete different caliber. It is possible to automatically track people and there behaviour even in thier private sphere. In former times only suspected regime critics jusified the efford to trace theri life. Not so anymore – the costs (technology and manpower) are going down and it is not a problem to filter every phone call for trigger words and correlate this with phone patterns and social networks – a task which required in soviet times manpower and weeks of recon.
in short words: times have changend and one can not compare soviet surveillance with modern possibilities.

Clive Robinson July 8, 2010 8:27 AM

Why is it that those that set themselves up as societies moral and other guardians are usualy more degenerate than the common populous?

We hear excuse after excuse for our supposadly “betters” both politicaly and legaly when they show worse moral behaviour than you would expect of ally cats.

Their sort of morals I can cheerfully do without, as I expect most of us could.

Then of course we have those whos job it is to enforce our codified morals, and for them no moral outrage is of any use to curb their thirst for breaching the moral codes they are supposed to uphold.

As has been noted on this blog the LEO’s are running scared of camera phones etc and you realy have to ask what it is they are scared of?

Saddly as has often been pointed out,

“what is sauce for the gander is not of necescity sauce for the goose”.

Violet July 8, 2010 8:27 AM

This is the same issue as the privacy debate. When people say “If you are doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide.” Their error is assuming that the moral code currently in fashion is correct.

In reality the dominant moral code may contain gross errors, or give poor guidance in certain situations. It is for those situations that we need to be private — so that we can do the RIGHT THING when others would criticize us if they saw.

Brandioch Conner July 8, 2010 9:21 AM

So could surveillance be used to instill in a person a moral code different from what s/he already has?

That’s a rather thin article. It never looks at totalitarian regimes and the effects of surveillance there.

Or what happens when two moral systems clash.

Or what happens with exhibitionists.

spaceman spiff July 8, 2010 9:22 AM

Well, I think that ubiquitous surveillance forces ambiguous social behavior underground, resulting in even more pernicious activities. As an example, it has been shown (sorry, I have no reference material to back this up) that legalizing behavior such as marijuana smoking and prostitution actually reduces the prevalence of such activities, or at least makes it so that sources are safer and publicly scrutinized.

Honestly, the current trends in greater public surveillance, monitoring, and access to private communications scares the hell out of me! I think ‘1984’ has long since come to our society. 🙁

Broke July 8, 2010 9:28 AM

Dreams of a perfect society lay with those voting in the leadership, and right now we are far from a perfect society. As we continue moving forward we will all but give up our privacy in every way if people continue to listen to the elected officials telling us that’s what best.

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” – John Quincy Adams

Austringer July 8, 2010 9:46 AM

If I had a dollar for every cheesy novel / TV show / movie where the serial killer used to logic “through fear of me society will become stronger” to justify himself, I’d take this guy out for a nice lunch and explain that if you logic sounds like that of the serial killer from a cheesy novel / TV show / movie then you should probably rethink your position.

yosa July 8, 2010 9:48 AM

consider the preachers daughter, having to cowtow to an arbitrary code of ‘morals’ that keeps the rich secure and the poor insecure. Usually the preachers daughter is the wild one who rebels against the too cloying and ubiquitous morals of others who benefit by them. ‘respect your betters,richers, more powerful. etc.

systems of surveilance did not prevent the berlin wall falling, when repression is ubiquitous, its also universally despised and everything it stands for with it.

When you want to produce a population of sheep, expect to find black sheep among them. Much of what is suppose to ‘train’ people like training dogs, is only reinforcing avoidance.

billswift July 8, 2010 9:58 AM

@sophware: I dealt with several ex-Soviet Jews in 1979 through the early 1980s, who had recently escaped the Soviet Union as teens or young adults, and as far as I could tell they had no consciences at all; they would do anything they wanted anytime they thought they could get away with it. It was too small a sample to say anything reliably in general, but it was definitely not what you claim.

DayOwl July 8, 2010 10:21 AM

The song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes to mind here. We hold the specter of perpetual undetectable surveillance over the heads of children by an entity that has the power to punish or reward. On a larger scale, Christians are told that their god is all-seeing and knowing, and will punish for sins no mortal ever detects. The message is that even if the parents/state/society don’t detect your sins, there is a means of imposing their will anyway.

But, now that we have cameras, listening devices, trackers, and other sensors, we no longer need overarching entities impose behavioral restraints. Eliminating the middle man. Ahh…technology.

sophware July 8, 2010 10:29 AM

@thinker One can compare the two. In fact, I’m not sure the modern possibilities even look like much more than “possibilities” after the comparison.

Living in that regime did mean the perception of constant surveillance. Teachers, students, neighbors, children, parents, and spouses were the feared watchers. Imagine being turned in to the NKVD as an “Enemy of the People” by your own daughter. Does that qualify as “personal sphere?”

Sigint might have the capability of being efficient, massive, and automated (I’d argue the AI isn’t there yet); and, humint may be expensive and time-consuming. In the Soviet Union, however, they seemed to be able to use both well enough.

Put the arguments and specific comparisons aside, though, and you’ll have to agree they felt as if they were under constant surveillance. When thinking about surveillance and morality, do you think you can learn anything from their experience?

John July 8, 2010 11:06 AM

Great stuff, I had a wonderful laugh. Looks like even god is not satisfied with simply enforcing the rules of the road. Sir, please step out of the car. I see you have been using cruise control, can you explain your moral ambiguity? The unholy marriage of law enforcement, public policy (or is that politics or possibly religious dogma, hard to tell), and moral philosophy is a recipe for “How do I renounce my citizenship?”.

Resisting the temptation to launch into yet one more diatribe on the subject of privacy, security, and safety… I’ll simply repeat myself by saying: The moment the rules of the road or the process by which they are adjudicated become a matter of “State Security” it is time to find a different road.

kangaroo July 8, 2010 11:09 AM

Oh my God… you’re listening to philosophers now? Navel-gazers? Folks who have the temerity to mutter about “saintly ideals”?

Dude — this is a scientific question. As a matter of FACT, there is rafts of sociology papers showing that there is an optimal amount of surveillance or incentives that produce culturally expected behaviors. If you over-incentivize (or surveil), you actually produce worse behavior — because we’re not simple newtonian mechanism, but information processing machines. We kick back — we form our context as much as respond to our context.

Please, please don’t consider philosophers “interesting”. Philosophy was killed by Wittgenstein & Russel. Logic was taken from them by the latter; nature by the former. All that is left is showing that any question that seems philosophical in fact is either one of those two classes, or a grammatical error.

John July 8, 2010 11:14 AM

Would be entertaining to ask the author to rewrite his piece without the surveillance camera(s). If the forbidden fruit were protected by an electronic security leash. Think laptops at the big book retailer…

CF July 8, 2010 11:53 AM

@Billswift: That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read here. I am an ex-Soviet Jew who came to the US as a youth in the late 1970s. Neither I nor any of my family’s Russian friends and acquaintances even remotely fit the description you offer. If anything, today’s generation of wealthy New Russians (the crowd I have in mind is the group described in David Hoffman’s “The Oligarchs” and their ilk) is far more craven and less morally upstanding than those in my generation — but making broad, sweeping generalizations as you have is pretty foolish in any case.

Davi Ottenheimer July 8, 2010 12:14 PM

Bruce, look forward to your comments on this. I remember sparring with you a few years back on whether surveillance has any value at all — I think it was in response to cameras being peppered around Minneapolis but I haven’t searched for it.

We used to argue in the context of ROI. Why buy into surveillance? Does it help with prevention, detection or both?

I have implemented surveillance as a form of evidence gathering. Once a client knows they need audit trails, surveillance is added to the list of possible data to be collected and evaluated later.

I have not been in favor of budgeting for surveillance as a form of behavior modification. This is because in my experience some will alter their behavior when they think someone might be watching, but this does not make surveillance technology an effective deterrent. Instead I think it proves the point, as the old saying goes on morality, that locks keep the honest people out.

The real benefit and curse of surveillance is that you are recording and saving for later. It raises the usual moral questions related to data integrity and confidentiality issues caused by auditing.

From this I can confidently say the article you cite has several gaps.

First, as I mention above with locks, those who alter behavior when they encounter a control are already on course to alter behavior. The influence of a detection control at prevention is limited at best, since that is not what they are made for. I do not see this distinction made in the article. The examples it gives suggest only that detection is infallible and automated, which makes it a form of prevention.

Therefore, second, it misses the tough moral questions for surveillance — can it really be trustworthy and fair. We face deep and troubling moral issues around how detection controls are implemented and managed. That is what I believe Kant, Wittgenstein, etc. would bother themselves with most. The article could instead, for example, have delved into the vast differences between a surveillance system watched live or stored in a secure space with dual-controls and split-knowledge required for access.

While it is tempting to say “surveillance often signifies a lack of trust”, the same could be true of locks on doors. We accept locks. Why would surveillance be any different? It is because detection adds several more dimensions of what is considered moral behavior with a detection control. Thus I find the article really falls short by considering surveillance only from a prevention view.

I wrote more about the philosophy of Test Surveillance and Cheating here:

And I wrote more about behavior modification, the human will and Unconscious Threat here:

Mister Reiner July 8, 2010 1:14 PM

There are plenty of moral challenges in life that have nothing to do with breaking the law – and breaking the law is a challenge for only a small percentage of the population. The real deal is that true criminals commit crimes regardless of if surveillance is in place or not. And let’s face it, they’ll just get around whatever mechanism is preventing the car from going faster.

The real question for his Highway Star example is: Do people have the right to endanger their own lives or the lives of others?

Speed isn’t the only reason why accidents occur. Accidents also occur because people aren’t paying attention, they can’t brake in time (distance and/or worn out brakes), they change lanes without looking, they can’t see in a fog, they’re drunk, their driving on worn tires in the rain, etc.

The intent of monitoring or controlling speed is not to monitor someone’s morality, it’s to prevent accidents! And the only way to prevent accidents is to take humans of of the equation and have vehicles drive themselves. Would that be acceptable?

Dr. T July 8, 2010 1:17 PM

I believe that people have gradations of morality. Those with strong morals do not need laws, sins, admonitions, or surveillance to promote moral behavior. Those who are amoral do not care about laws, sins, and admonitions, and they work around surveillance when they engage in amoral behavior. Those with weak morals are the ones who need laws, sins, admonitions, and surveillance to keep them from behaving amorally. That’s why there are so many laws related solely to what some religions deem to be amoral: gambling, many kinds of sex, pornography, and use of mind- or mood-altering drugs. Labeling those actions as sinful is not enough of a deterrent for those with weak morals: they need laws, surveillance, and penalties in this life (instead of only in a hypothesized after-life).

A downside of controlling people with weak morals through laws and surveillance is that such people behave badly in situations where detection of amoral behavior is unlikely. Examples: Working under-the-table while collecting unemployment, buying low-priced goods that could have been stolen, pilfering office supplies, selling shoddy goods by mail order or internet, etc.

I believe that instilling strong morals in our children (with none of that moral relevance nonsense) pays off far better than enacting and enforcing thousands of laws against every possible moral failing. We should focus on three simple but strong moral principles: It is wrong to kill or harm others unless defending yourself or others from harm. It is wrong to steal or damage property that does not belong to you. It is wrong to break a contract. No other laws are needed.

Roy July 8, 2010 2:18 PM

We all have the potential to be good citizens when nobody’s watching.

Under total surveillance, citizenship vanishes for the very simple reason that the people watching, who the people watched must avoid offending, will all be weasels relishing their power. The weasels will of course be on the honor system.

Werner July 8, 2010 2:26 PM

So you don’t like philosophers. That’s ok with me.

But where did you find this:
“this is a scientific question. As a matter of FACT, there is rafts of sociology papers showing that there is an optimal amount of surveillance or incentives that produce culturally expected behaviors.”

What are you talking about? Behaviourists? Or other dumb people who make up funny statistics and claim it to be science because there are numbers in it?

phred14 July 8, 2010 2:47 PM

The moral discussion is nice, but something else is being ignored here – utility. Your right to speed on the highway, and the moral aspects of surveillance of that speeding are all well and good. I can appreciate fostering your moral development by getting you to not speed for the right reasons.

But to adapt an old adage, your right to speed ends at my car.

Some surveillance, some infringement on your moral development, may become necessary in order to prevent you from infringing on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Right now, I’m thinking in terms of not getting wrapped in a hunk of twisted metal on the highway because I was being moral about my speed, and you were exercising your freedom and lost control at 100+ mph.

It’s a fine line, but it does exist. It doesn’t mean we need to live in the nanny state, where every action is watched. But it does mean that some actions need to be watched, and it most likely means that we need to be active in making sure that that fine line is carefully, practically, and morally drawn.

Joe July 8, 2010 5:51 PM

@Dr. T
“We should focus on three simple but strong moral principles: It is wrong to kill or harm others unless defending yourself or others from harm. It is wrong to steal or damage property that does not belong to you. It is wrong to break a contract. No other laws are needed.”

I would like to see those principles adhered to by those in power first. Otherwise its “do as I say, not as I do”.

kangaroo July 8, 2010 8:44 PM

Werner: What are you talking about? Behaviourists? Or other dumb people who make up funny statistics and claim it to be science because there are numbers in it?

Hmm, you got it backwards. Behaviorist papers are biased to showing that the relationship between incentive/punishment and conformity is monotonic — it’s their entire belief system.

It’s the anti-behaviorists from the last half-century who find the opposite — that even a rat figures out the game and tries to get around it.

There are plenty of comparisons of business practices — and the findings are pretty universal, that you’re better off simply giving someone a raise rather than giving them a bonus every 2 weeks as a “reward” and treating them like rats. That folks in offices with doors work better and more consistently than folks in cubes looking over their shoulders.

The link between productivity and being treated with respect — and not like a rat in a maze — is pretty consistent. Totalitarian systems are, in the long-term, economically unproductive not just for ostensibly economic system, but simply because people push back against being treated like machines.

You may have been also thinking of the early twentieth century work on “efficiency” applied by Ford — the consensus for quite a while has been that it’s totalitarian claptrap to think you can surveil and constrain your workers to a very high degree and get production out of them.

On the other hand, it’s also trivially true that if you never look in the office, or don’t pay folks for great work, they’ll also lose interest. So there is an “optimum” — somewhere in between treating folks like slaves and simply turning your business over to your employees and going on permanent vacation.

But “philosophers” have no place at all in the conversation. Or in almost any conversation — it’s their very usefulness centuries ago which makes them useless today.

Tom T. July 8, 2010 11:29 PM

Any chance of getting surveillance of Congress? … Their non-public meetings? Their sexual affairs?

Clive Robinson July 9, 2010 12:05 AM

@ kkangaroo,

Behaviourist -v- anti-behaviorist has a long history.

I cannot remember the paper that debunked the rats in a maze issue, but the author found all previous papers failed to take sufficient care in designing their experiments to rule out sound / smell and other ques the rats actually picked up on.

And this is a fundamental issue in all experiments involving living creatures capable of some degree of self determinism (which is a debate for another day).

The issue of “man as a cog in the wheel of the production machine” is still very much open.

Most studies show that complex tasks are more easily quickly and accuratly performed when broken down into small simple repetative tasks.

However as you rightly say all creatures with some degree of self determination require stimulation whilst they work to perform “optimaly” otherwise they go looking for it.

But importantly it is not clear if the stimulation actually needs to be part of the job in hand or the larger context of the direct environment the work is carried out or even the larger context of a segment of society.

And this debate has been going on since the Quakers and the manufacture of choclate products.

Part of this is the “sense of belonging” by an employee to the organisaion they work with, also the satisfaction or pride in doing a job well. And a whole heep of other intangables that a cost accountant or time and motion advisor does not see or take into account.

For instance the case of the “office door”, just about every study has shown that the ability to have some control over a workers immediate environment effects their performance. The less
control the more lowly they feel within their environment. Which has two immediate disadvantages for any reasonable employer. Firstly it encorages wastefull “trial by combat” amongst people who spend more time working out how to “get one up” or “making a point” than doing their job. And secondly “key worker loss” that is nearly all jobs including the apparently most mundaine require “knowledge” to carry out and this knowledge comes in two forms that which is related to the job or task and that which is related to the environment where the job or task is performed. When a worker leaves for whatever reason they take some or all that knowledge with them.

Now these two issues meet in “trade secrets” not just of the employer but of the individual employee. One way to get status is by being the only person who knows how to do a particular task and keeping it from others to retain a competative edge. Usually it is by protecting a “knack” of the job, that is say knowing that materials (such as wood) have non uniform properties and knowing how to use those properties to best effect both in the final product and in the value added process of doing the task with minimal wasteage / time etc. The loss of this knowledge to an employer can range from a minor inonveniance to a major loss of function and even the loss of the business.

However there is a hidden cost to society in this ability to be incontrol of the envionment of the individuals workplace. It manifests itself in many ways and is a way some people establish their position by inflicting it on others (it is a form of work place bullying). And importantly it is not just critical to the work performance of those being subjected to it but also to their long term health.

Primate studies have shown that things like arterial scrolosis and other “stress diseases” go up rapidly in those that lose status or control of their environment in some way.

But importantly these issues are only just starting to come into the light of science or logic, and we don’t even have measurands for them to work.

So how do such things come from the unknown darkness into the light of Man’s perception of nature and logic?

Well as Douglas Adams once put it “That’s the job of us working philosophers”.

The problem of both Wittgenstein & Russel was that their fundemental and unstated assumptions where wrong. Which gave rise to issues (the well known one being of Russel trying to prove 1+1…) which in turn gave rise to modifications to others assumptions.

Unlike the beliefs prevalent at their time we now know that mathmatics and logic have limitations and cannot provide us with all the answers (something the Hard AI bods spend their time fighting ;).

And in our turn we will find out that some of our fundamental assumptions are wrong the route by which we find this and the answers starts in what some may call “philosophical musings”.

RogerBW July 9, 2010 3:43 AM

I have met a number of Evangelical Christians who genuinely do not understand why anyone would be “good” if not for the fear of punishment (divine or otherwise). To them, the voice of conscience really does say “someone is watching you”.

It seems to me that the idea of doing something not because of fear but because of hope (as it might be, “nobody is watching me but this is still a sensible thing to do because it makes the world a fractionally better place”) has been rather lost in the panic over the devil-devil of the month (terrorism, paedophiles, etc.) and is something that the thinkers of the world, religious or otherwise, could usefully emphasise.

Davi Ottenheimer July 9, 2010 4:37 AM


Good observations but moral guidance by fear of harsh and permanent damnation (e.g. fundie-ism or Homo Phobius) is likely to be a factor for only certain forms of religious extremism.

I don’t think I can say it any better than the urban dictionary

“Fundie dogma, along with what has already been mentioned, includes the concepts that differences between individuals, differences often so insignificant as to be unnoticeable without spying, should be the basis for undying hatred of those who possess any of these horrible differences, and for their condemnation to eternal Hellfire.”

I think there is actually a movement away from this. Many religious leaders, including sects of Christianity, now take the opposite approach. Rewards come from practicing rules in the present life and an after-life is less or not at all relevant. Fear becomes unnecessary as a moral guide when success is a motivator in faith, and thus Hell fades from the sermons.

This could explain why a recent survey by Gallup in America says almost 90% in believe in God but less than 70% believe in Hell.

joj July 9, 2010 10:36 AM

@ roy, we already have weasels looking at everyone, and they carry the ad hoc death penalty in their holsters, and the badge of impunity. Weasels and bullies are the stuff of government. A protection racket.

BF Skinner July 9, 2010 11:40 AM

In general the best surveillence is what we carry around in our heads. THAT set of rules is what conforms our behavior to norms.

Who are the most dangerous people in our society? The sociopath. Why? He or she lacks the ‘moral sense’. ‘Sane’ for a given value of sane but is more than willing to treat people as things.

Technology, unless it can establish faith and assurity in the minds of all (or most) that it’ll respond every time a bad act occurs (not detected) will just be a hurdle to overcome.

Last year or two there was a guy here assaulting women in elevators in the projects. Every attack was well documented. There were camera’s in the elevators. Didn’t deter or catch him. He just kept his face turned away from the cameras.

Werner July 9, 2010 2:50 PM

I’m happy to hear that I have misunderstood what you wrote. Thanks for the correction.

I would agree with most of what you say in your answer except one point: the precondition.
In your example the objective of optimizing surveillence (or none-surveillence) is preset and simple. It is the interest of one person who happens to be – and not by chance – a businessmen.

But you earlier mentioned “culturally expected behaviors” and this threat is about what is optimal for the society (or all of us). There are no preset objectives, no eternal moral values or whatsoever that you could set as precondition. There is no scientific way to optimize that.

I don’t like morality because it usually turns out to be hypocrisy. You don’t like philosophers (though there are philosophers and there are philosophers). So let’s say we need responsible-minded citizens to care about the direction our society is heading.

But don’t believe that competing business men optimizing society along their interests is the way to go. “As a matter of FACT, there is rafts” of evidence showing that they are heading towards Armageddon.

kangaroo July 9, 2010 5:58 PM

@Clive: And in our turn we will find out that some of our fundamental assumptions are wrong the route by which we find this and the answers starts in what some may call “philosophical musings”.

Well, I reserve my ire for the “professional philosopher”. Douglas Adams is a much more powerful philosopher than the entire crop of top philosophers — I’d give you 3 Searles, 2 Tarskis and a Quine for 1 Adams.

I’d give you 5 Searles for a single good sociologist.

Maybe we need to develop an exchange rate?

kangaroo July 9, 2010 6:01 PM

Werner: But don’t believe that competing business men optimizing society along their interests is the way to go.

Oh, I’m no Libertarian — I’m not even a very good libertarian. But a lot of research does get funded for them, so we’d be silly to not learn from it. Clives comments were right on the money — and they’re not merely musings from introspection, but well-tested studies.

Even where common intuition says that authoritarianism works — in the workplace — common intuition is dead wrong.

How can anyone imagine that it would work for society in general?

AppSec July 10, 2010 12:04 AM

I read this elsewhere..

“OD Is Busy

If you don’t know GOD, don’t make stupid remarks!!!!! ! A United States Marine was attending some college courses between assignments. He had completed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan . One of the courses had a professor who was an avowed atheist, and a member of the ACLU.

One day the professor shocked the class when he came in. He looked to the ceiling and flatly stated, GOD if you are real then I want you to knock me off this platform. I’ll give you exactly 15 min.’ The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop.. Ten minutes went by and the professor proclaimed, ‘Here I am GOD, I’m still waiting.’

It got down to the last couple of minutes when the Marine got out of his chair, went up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him off the platform. The professor was out cold. The Marine went back to his seat and sat there, silently.

The other students were shocked and stunned, and sat there looking on in silence.. The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the Marine and asked, ‘What in the world is the matter with you? ‘Why did you do that?’ The Marine calmly replied, ‘GOD was too busy today protecting America ‘s soldiers who are protecting your right to say stupid stuff and act like an idiot. So He sent me.’

The classroom erupted in cheers! ”

Just thought it was funny.

Clive Robinson July 10, 2010 8:12 AM

@ Kangaroo,

“Maybe we need to develop an exchange rate?”

Nagh they take themselves to seriously as it is 😉

Any way I’d rate Douglas Adams as a sociologist as well so…

I think it was Donald Knuth who made a comment about the relative comfort of working environments for Mathmaticians and Philosophers.

If I remember correctly he was invited over one day and was totaly knocked back by the opulance size and comfort and lack of indication of work of the philosopher’s office compared to the busy ness of his own little functional office littered with papers books drafts and proceadings in that chaotic disposition of an active mind.

You get the feeling he ws shocked and disapointed not jealous.

I will be honest though I can name many top people in many fields of endevor some who do dabble in philosohy. But modern philosophy on it’s own nagh I can not put a name or a face or even a paper from memory to that field of endevor alone.

And although many years ago I studied the subject as a way to improve my reasoning and rationalisation, I’ll be honest and say I did not get what I thought was value for money.

Amongst others the inocent questions of my son has caused me to look at the bigger picture and it is interesting to take a 20,000ft view (or philosophical musings of my own 😉

If you consider science and the quest for knowladge and reason, at one end we have the apparant randomness of quantum mechanics. We the progress through physics, chemistry,organic chemistry biology etc of the hard sciences. We then find the hard sciences giving way in turn to the softer sciences, eventualy passing through sociology we move out of the soft sciences. We pass through philosohy and arive at religion at the far end, where beliefs are almost the sole arbiter of judgment and of Newtonian science not a reliable sign is seen.

And sitting to the side and acting as a tool to all those who wish to pick up and use are the inventions of man’s mind, logic, reason and mathmatics, all very much cognizant of their known limitations and acutly aware of the failings of assumptions hidden or otherwise.

And of moe recent times the ideas of information that filters down into our physial universe to become knowledge for those that chose to seek it out.

One argument that bubbles up is the notion that the physical world is just a tiny subset of the information world and the implications this has for what we perceive as the randomness of noise that exists within all physical processes and our sole meaningfull measure of information which we call entropy which we need to stop thinking about in just terms of thermodynamics. Oddly if we look we find that we are not the first as is so often the case we can find that the Victorians considered this but did not have the ability to test it. In many ways Maxwell gave thought to information but it was not untill the time of Shanon that it gained importance.

Inerestingly if what some engineers and scientists are starting to think is true (have a look at Seth Lloyd [2]) then Douglas Adams story line about the Earth being an organic computer might just be a tads under stated 😉

However others [3] are seriously looking into how biology works at the quantum level.

One mathemetician and pert time philosopher of both note and notoriety Sir Roger Penrose [4] has put forward the idea that the human mind does in fact use quantum effects [5].

Which if true may explain in part why we can use our minds to reach beyond the limits of our ordinary biological systems. And importantly the limitations of Kurt Godel, Alonzo Church and Alan Turings little theorms on deterministic systems which organic chemistry indicates must be true of organic life (a point the hard AI bods still fail to answer except by arm waving 😉

All of which begs the question of if we have been cursed by the ancient Chinese and are indeed “living in interesting times”.


anon July 10, 2010 10:50 AM

“Who are the most dangerous people in our society? The sociopath. Why? He or she lacks the ‘moral sense’. ‘Sane’ for a given value of sane but is more than willing to treat people as things.”

I thought psychopaths were the ones lacking the moral sense. I thought sociopaths just ignored it.

D July 12, 2010 3:05 PM

Amazing. He managed to describe quite succinctly the same concepts it took Foucault an entire book to describe. That’s quite a feat. Why can’t more philosophy be this well explained?

George X July 15, 2010 1:02 PM

A new data point:

Thieves/vandals recently stole a sign from outside our local diner. But due to the 24-hour video surveillance outside the diner, they were quickly caught.

The sign, of course, said: “Warning: This Area Under 24-Hour Surveillance”.

Daniël W. Crompton August 6, 2010 12:51 AM

Was the article obvious flame bait? As God – if you believe in him – is all seeing and all knowing, why would he need CCTV in the garden of Eden?

Is Emrys Westacott just really stupid, or is he mixing parables and metaphors?

Pierre August 15, 2010 4:13 AM

The point of any rule-based system should first raise the question of WHO CAN AFFORD NOT TO PLAY BY THE RULES?

The answer is -sadly- often obvious: THOSE WHO DESIGN AND ENFORCE THE RULES.

Whether we are talking about religion, politics or laws, history should be enough to convince anybody that AUTHORITIES NEVER RESPECT THE RULES THEY IMPOSE TO OTHERS.

The only solution to this problem is to apply rules that cannot be broken. Such a system is technically viable. But no authority on Earth will ever accept it.

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