A Philosopher's Blog

Love Across the Possible Worlds

Posted in Metaphysics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2017

Kelly & Portal BloodyWhile true love is the subject of many tales, the metaphysical question of its foundation is rarely addressed. One interesting way to explore this question is to bring in another popular subject of fiction, that of possible worlds. Imagine, if you will, a bereaved lover seeking to replace their lost love by finding an exact counterpart in another world. This raises the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contend that this is just as rational as loving the original person and will argue for my case by using appeals to intuitions and analogies. In the interest of fairness, I will also consider and refute the transcendent argument for true love.

The metaphysics of Rick & Morty includes the existence of an infinite number of alternative worlds, each of which with its own Rick and Morty. The Rick and the Morty that are, one presumes, the true stars of the show have been forced to abandon their original reality a few times. However, they always end up living with “their” family (Beth, Summer and sometimes Jerry). While Rick often purports not to care, he repeatedly shows that he loves “his” daughter Beth and granddaughter Summer. However, as he and Morty themselves know, the Beth and Summer of their adopted world are not their Beth and Summer. They are daughter and granddaughter of the Rick of that world—a Rick who is (typically) dead.

CW’s The Flash show also makes use of the multiple world plot device as well, one that dates to the early days of comics. The DC comic universe features a multitude of different earths, most notably Earth 1 and Earth 2. Earth 2 was the home of the original Batman, Superman and others—it was used to maintain the timeline in which, for example, Superman was on earth in the 1930s. In a series of episodes of the TV show The Flash, Barry Allen (the Flash) travelled to Earth 2 and met the counterparts of people he knew and loved on his world, most especially his beloved Iris. On Earth 2, the normal Barry Allen 2 was married to Iris and Barry Allen 1 (from Earth 1) pretended to be Barry Allen 2 and was rather obsessed with her and her father, despite being explicitly told that the people of Earth 2 were obviously not the same people as those of Earth 1.

While people tend to feel how they do for no rational reason, there is a rather interesting question as to whether it makes sense to love someone because they happen to be the counterpart of someone you love. While this would be an interesting matter for psychology, the metaphysical aspect of this case is a question of whether the counterparts are such that it is rational to love or care about them because they are metaphysical counterparts of someone you love or care about.

For the sake of the discussion that follows, consider the following sci-fi scenario: Sam and Kelly met in graduate school, fell madly in love and were married shortly after their graduation. They were both hired by Kalikrates Dimensional, a startup dedicated to developing portals to other dimensions.

During an experiment, Sam was pulled into the blender dimension and ejected as a human smoothie. Unfortunately, he had neglected to keep up his premiums with Life Ensurance and had no backup. Distraught, Kelly considered cloning him anyway, but decided that without his memories and personalities, it would not be Sam.

Driven by her loss, she developed a safer portal system and then developed an Indexer that would scan and index the possible worlds. She programmed the Indexer to find a world just like her own, but where “she” rather than “Sam” would die in the portal accident. The Indexer labeled this world Earth 35765. Timing it perfectly, she popped through her portal just as the Kelly of 35765 would have returned, had she not been blended. The Kelly 35765 smoothie ended up in Kelly 1’s world, while Kelly 1 took over her life. Kelly 1 might have been happy with Sam 35765, but she was murdered and replaced a year later by the bereaved and insane Kelly 45765. Given this scenario, would it be rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 35765?

One way to look at this matter is to use an analogy to counterparts in this world. To be specific, there are unrelated people who look exactly alike other people in this world. And, of course, there are also identical twins. While a person might be fooled by a twin or a look-alike, they would probably not love them simply because they looked like someone they loved. The same, it could be argued, can be applied to counterparts in other worlds: they look like someone you love, but they are not the one you love.

I certainly agree that it would be irrational to love someone simply because they looked like someone one already loves. After all, the look-alike could be utterly horrible or at least utterly incompatible. As such, it would be foolish to love such a twin solely based on appearance. That sort of shallow love would be irrational even in this world.

However, it can be rational to love a counterpart that exactly resembles the original. Such a counterpart could have the qualities that would provide a rational foundation for love. For example, if Kelly 1 loved Sam 1 because of his personality, values, laugh, and such, then if Sam 35765 had these same qualities, then it would make sense for Kelly 1 to love him. After all, he has the same qualities. To use an analogy, if Kelly loves Cherry Breeze pie because of its qualities, then she is obviously not limited to loving the first Cherry Breeze pie she had—any adequately similar Cherry Breeze pie would suffice.

Now imagine that there was one Cherry Breeze pie that Kelly loved above all others and that this pie could be duplicated to such a degree that every aspect of the pie would be indistinguishable from her most beloved pie. In this case, Kelly would love that exactly resembling pie as much as the original.

There is the obvious concern that there would be a fundamental difference between any counterpart and the original; namely that there would be no history or relationship with the counterpart. So, while Kelly 1 might love the qualities of Sam 35765, she has never done anything with him and thus has no history or relationship with him. She could develop that history and relationship, of course, but that would be falling in love with a new person. While it is true that Kelly 1 has no past relationship with Sam 35765, she selected the world in which Kelly 35765 and Sam 35765 did everything that Kelly 1 and Sam 1 did—there would be no distinguishable difference. Kelly 1 knows everything that happened between the other Kelly and Sam and will act exactly as Kelly 1 would have.

Going back to the pie analogy, while Kelly would have no established relationship with the new pie, the fact that it is (by hypothesis) exactly like the original pie in every way (other than being new) would intuitively entail that Kelly would love the new pie as much as the original. Everything discernable about the relationships with the pies would be the same other than their bare difference. If Kelly declared that she loved the original but did not care for the new pie, her claim would seem to be utterly unfounded—after all, she could point to no qualitative difference that would warrant her assertion.

It could even be contended that, in a way, Kelly does have a relationship with the pie—since it is exactly like the original pie, it would fit seamlessly into the relationship she had with the original pie. As such, it would be rational to love the exact counterpart of someone one loves.

Since I made the error of referencing true love, I opened the portal to easy and obvious objection to my position. One basic element of true love is that one person (Kelly 1) loves another (Sam 1) and not that person’s qualities. This is because qualities change and can be possessed by others. Intuitively, true love will not fade and cannot be transferred to another person that simply has the same qualities.

For example, if Kelly loves Sam because of his brilliance and humor. Then she would love someone else who had the same brilliance and humor. This sort of interchangeable love is not true love. If what is loved is not the qualities of a person, there is the question of what this might be.  What is wanted is something “beneath” all the qualities that makes the person the person they are and distinguished them from all other things. Fortunately, philosophy has just such a thing in stock: the metaphysical self. This, as should come as no surprise, takes the discussion into the realm of Kantian philosophy.

Kant split the world into noumena and phenomena.[i] The phenomena are the things as they appear to us. This is what we experience-such how good a person looks in a swim suit. We can have empirical knowledge of such things. The noumena are the things in themselves. Kant claimed the noumena cannot be known because they are beyond our experience.

On Kant’s view, it would be sensible to stick with the phenomena and not speculate about the noumena. But, Kant claims that cannot resists the sweet lure of the transcendent illusions of metaphysics.

The metaphysical self is the illusion that is needed here. Like David Hume, Kant thinks we have no impression of the metaphysical self. What we do have are impressions, via introspection, of the empirical self. The inner eye never sees that metaphysical self; it just encounters things like feelings and thoughts.

Unlike Hume, Kant argues that we must think of our experiences as if they occur within a unified self. This provides with a frame of reference for thought and it is thus useful to accept a metaphysical self. Since it is useful and we need the metaphysical self to make sense of things, Kant concludes that we should accept it. While Kant did not take the step of arguing for true love, I will do this now.

Applying his method to true love, true love would be impossible without the metaphysical self. As such, it is a necessary condition for true love. The metaphysical self is obviously beyond the realm of scientific proof. However, true love is irresistible because it seems to be a critical belief for our happiness and our conception of ourselves. As such, while Kelly 1 might feel that she loves Sam 35756, this would be irrational: Sam 35756 is not her true love. As would be imagined, in a tragically poignant Twilight Zone style sci-fi story, she would come to realize this.

While true love is appealing, the objection can be countered. This should not be surprising, since the argument itself acknowledges that it is appealing to an illusion. But, of course, what is needed is a substantive reply.

While the idea of a metaphysical self behind all the qualities sounds fancy, it is merely a repainted bare particular. It is bare because it does not have any qualities of its own beneath all the qualities that it possesses. It is a particular because there is only one of each (and each one can only be in one location at a time). In the ideal love of the objection, one loves the bare particularity of another as opposed to qualities that can change or be duplicated by another.

Fortunately for my position, there is a rather serious problem with this notion of love. When we interact with the world we interact with various qualities. For example, Kelly can see Sam’s quirky smile and experience his keen intelligence. But it seems impossible for her to be aware of his bare particularity. Since it has no qualities there would seem to be nothing to experience. It would thus be impossible for Kelly to be aware of Sam’s bare particularity to love him. As such, love must be about detectable qualities.

While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical true love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Kelly loves Sam, she loves his qualities. As such, if it was rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 1, then it is just as rational for Kelly 1 to love Same 35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Sams.

In the above essay, I considered the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contended that this is just as rational as loving the original person argued for my position by appealing to intuitions and using arguments from analogy. In the interest of fairness, I also considered the transcendent argument for true love. Thus, love is not only possible, it is possible across worlds.

 

Cherry Breeze Pie

Ingredients

 

Crust

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup butter or margarine — melted

or 1 pre-made graham cracker crust

 

Filling

1 package cream cheese — (8 ounces)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 can cherry pie filling — (1 pound, 5 ounces)

 

Directions

  1. Cook butter and sugar in saucepan over medium heat until mixture boils. Remove from heat and mix in graham cracker crumbs. Press mixture evenly and firmly into 9-inch pie plate to form a crust. Chill. (Or just buy a pre-made crust).

 

  1. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually mix in sweetened condensed milk, stir in lemon juice and vanilla. Spread in crust. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or until firm.

 

  1. Top with chilled cherry pie filling. To remove pie pieces easily, place hot wet towel around sides and bottom of pan before cutting.

 

 

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[i] Kant presents this distinction in I. Kant (1965), Critique of Pure Reason (trans. J. Ellington),  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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Natural Disasters & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2017
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Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency. One explanation, which is politically controversial, is that climate change is a contributing factor. What is not controversial is the fact that more people now live in at risk areas than ever before. As such, disasters that would have previously impacted few or even no people, now impact many people. In some cases, people are living in areas that are very desirable aside from their vulnerability. For example, coastal property is general very desirable, yet is often subject to risks of flooding and storm damage. In other cases, people are living in undesirable areas that are also risky areas. For example, poor people in developing cities sometimes live in areas that are prone to flooding.

There is also the fact that infrastructure is now more elaborate and expensive than ever before in human history.  For example, cities now have electrical systems, communication infrastructure and subways that are expensive to repair and replace after disasters. Because of this, the cost of damage done by disasters is far greater than it used to be in the past.

While some natural disasters are unlikely, strike unexpectedly and recur infrequently, there are many that are likely, predictable and occur frequently. While people do sometimes wisely decide to avoid such areas, they also often decide to rebuild repeatedly. For example, people in flood or hurricane prone regions often rebuild after each flood or storm. In some cases, this is because it is not practical for them to move somewhere else. In other cases, they do so because some of the cost of rebuilding is provided by the state. Rebuilding is also often funded by insurance; with people in lower risk areas contributing to the pool of money that covers those who life in high risk areas. This leads to the moral question of whether others should be responsible for helping people who elect to live in high risk areas repeatedly rebuild.

One way to look at civilization is that it should function as a form of insurance. That is, people in a civilization pool some of their resources to be used to help their fellows when they are in need. Laying aside moral motivations, there are very practical reasons to participate in this function of civilization. Cooperating in this way makes it more likely that others will help you when you are in need and it also helps sustain the system that provides the assistance. So, roughly put, self-interest gives me a reason to assist others in need—it costs me to help them, but this is the reasonable price I must pay to expect their help.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about free-riders. That is, people who do not contribute to this aspect of civilization but want to reap the benefits. This issue, however, goes far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, the usual reply to the free-rider problem is that the free riders will destroy the system they hope to benefit from.

There is also the concern about the independents. These can include people who are wealthy enough to not need the help of others when rebuilding and people who simply do not want the help of others. A case can certainly be made that people who decline using this benefit of civilization have a moral justification for not contributing—but, of course, they would need to be consistent about this. This is, of course, a far more general area of concern than that of the issue of repeatedly assisting people rebuild.

There is also the view that rejects the idea that civilization is supposed to function as a form of insurance. Some might instead regard civilization as a means of organizing and ensuring the flow of resources from the many at the bottom of the pyramid to the few elites at the top. Others might regard civilization as merely existing to provide basic functions of defense and law-enforcement and not help people rebuild.

Obviously enough, if there is no obligation to help people rebuild, then there is no obligation to help people continuously rebuild. As such, for the sake of the discussion that follows about assisting people rebuilding multiple times, it must be assumed (only for the sake of the argument) that there is at least the basic obligation to help people rebuild. The question is, then, whether even assuming the basic obligation, there is an obligation to assist people in multiple rebuilds.

One approach, which is rather lazy, is to argue that if we are obligated to help others rebuild, then this obligation persists. To use an analogy, if a parent is obligated to provide clothing for their child, they are obligated to do so each time the child needs clothing and not just the first time. While this approach has some appeal, it falls apart quickly when another analogy is considered.

While a parent has an obligation to provide their child with clothing, consider a child who was wearing their nicest clothes when they got into the muck and mud. If this happens by accident or the unwarranted action of another, then the parent should replace the clothing (if they can afford to do so). However, if the child persists in playing near the muck while wearing their best clothing despite the warnings of their parents and thus repeatedly ruin their nice clothing, then the parent would no longer be obligated to replace the nice clothing.  This is because the child knows what is at risk and can easily avoid it by staying away from the muck or wearing muck appropriate clothing. Matters would, of course, be different if the child had no way to avoid the risk of the muck, such as if it surrounded their house.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to helping others rebuild by providing public money or having them in the insurance pool. If a person’s property is damaged unexpectedly or by the malice of another, then it seems reasonable to assist them. However, if they insist on remaining at risk and it is known that it is just a matter of time before they will need to rebuild again, then they are like the child who insists on playing near the muck and mud in their nice clothes. If they are willing to pay for their own rebuilding, then they are free to live in a risk prone area. Just as the child can risk their clothes as they wish, if they are paying for them. Naturally, if the person truly has no other option as to where they live, then this would not apply. However, people almost always have other options.

It could be objected that this approach is defective because anyone anywhere could be subject to repeat disasters. To simply say that the obligation to help others ends at some arbitrary repeat of the aid would seem to be unfair and even cruel. Going back to the clothes analogy, a child could have their clothes ruined on numerous occasions by pure chance. But, if the parents could afford the clothing, then it seems reasonable for them to replace the damaged clothing.

A reasonable reply is that it is not just a matter of repeat rebuilding, but also a matter of the predictability of the need to rebuild. For example, a person could be very unlucky and have their house damaged many times by different sorts of unlikely and unexpected natural disasters. In this case, they would not be responsible—they had no reason to expect the disasters to strike and were not knowingly engaging in risky living. As such, what should be considered beyond the numbers of rebuilds are such factors as the probability of the risk and what the property owner could reasonably be expected to know about it. If a person insists on living in an area of unusually high risk and is aware of the risk, then this reduces or eliminates the obligations of others. After all, they could avoid the risk and doing so is their responsibility. There is then the practical question of sorting out how much specific risks reduce the obligations of others, but this goes beyond the scope of this essay

This matter can be illuminated by an analogy to the Coast Guard. If a person goes out to sea on a normal day and takes reasonable precautions, but is swamped by a rogue wave, then the Coast Guard should rescue them and not bill them. If a person insists on doing something foolish and unnecessary, like taking a peddle powered boat far out into the ocean without preparing properly and they get in trouble, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them. The first time should, perhaps, still be free—this might be justified because the person might not know any better. If the person insists on doing it again, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them when they get in trouble, but it would be right to charge them for the rescue: they should know better and it is not something they need to do. People who insist on knowingly living in high risk areas are analogous to the person who insists on peddling out to sea—they might want to do this, but do not need to do it. As such, they should bear the cost of rebuilding when their property is damaged or destroyed.

There are, of course, cases in which people do put themselves knowingly at risk but have justifiable reasons for doing so. Sticking with the Coast Guard analogy, crews of cargo vessels and fishing vessels do put themselves at risk, but they do so because that is part of their job—they have good reasons to be out at sea. As such, if a fishing crew is rescued a few times over the course of their career because of bad luck, then the rescues should still be free.

By analogy, people could have adequate reasons that justify living in high risk areas that would maintain the obligation to assist them in rebuilding. Perhaps, for example, a person might live in a forest prone to fires because they do important work in the forest and living somewhere else would be impractical.  However, someone who simply wants to live on the coast or someplace pretty would not have this sort of justification—they want to live there, but doing so is not what they need to do.

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Reasoning & Natural Disasters II: Inductive Reasoning

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2017

Fortunately for my adopted state of Florida, Irma weakened considerably as it moved northward. When it reached my adopted city of Tallahassee, it was barely a tropical storm. While it did some damage, it was nothing compared to last year’s storm. While this was a good thing, there can be a very minor downside when dire predictions turn out to be not so dire.

The problem is, of course, that people might take such dire predictions less seriously in the future. There is even a term for this: hurricane fatigue.  When people are warned numerous times about storms and they do not prove as bad as predicted, people tend to get tired of going through the process of preparation. Hence, they tend to slack off in their preparations—especially if they took the last prediction very seriously and engaged in extensive preparations. Such as buying absurd amounts of bottled water. The problem is, of course, that the storm a person does not prepare for properly might turn out to be as bad or worse than predicted. Interestingly enough, inductive reasoning is the heart of this matter in two ways.

Inductive reasoning is, of course, logic in which the premises provide some degree of support (but always less than complete) for the conclusion. Inductive arguments deal in probability and this places them in contrast with deductive arguments—they are supposed to deal in certainty. That is, having all true premises in a deductive argument is supposed to guarantee a true conclusion. While there are philosophers who believe that predictions about such things as the weather can be made deductively, the best current reasoning only allows inductive reasoning regarding weather prediction. To use a simple illustration, when a forecast says there is a 50% chance of rain, what is meant is that on 50% of the days like this one it rained. This is, in fact, an argument by analogy. With such a prediction, it should be no more surprising that it rains than it does not.

While the computer modeling of hurricanes is rather complex, the predictions are still inductive in nature: all the evidence used in the reasoning can be true while the conclusion can still be false. This is because of the famous problem of induction—the gap between the premises and the conclusion means that no matter how strong the reasoning of an inductive argument, the conclusion can still be false. As such, any weather prediction can turn out to be false—even if the prediction is 99.99% likely to be accurate.  As such, it should be expected that weather predictions will often be wrong—especially since the models do not have complete information and are limited by the available processing power. That is, there is also a gap between reality and the models. There is also the philosophical question of whether the world is deterministic or not—in a deterministic world, weather would be fully predictable if there was enough information and processing power available to create a perfect model of reality. In a non-deterministic world, even a perfect model could still fail to predict what will happen in the real world. As such, there is both a problem in epistemology (what do we know) and metaphysics (what is the nature of reality).

Interestingly enough, when people start to distrust predictions after past predictions turn out to be wrong, they are also engaging in inductive reasoning. To be specific, if many predictions have turned out to be wrong, then it can be reasonable to infer that the next prediction could be wrong. That is certainly reasonable and thinking that an inductive argument could have a false conclusion is no error.

Where people go wrong is when they place to much confidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. One way this can happen is through a variation in the gambler’s fallacy. In the classic gambler’s fallacy, a person assumes that a departure from what occurs on average or in the long term will be corrected in the short term. For example, if a person concludes that tails is due because they have gotten heads six times in a row, then they have committed this fallacy. In the case of the “hurricane fallacy” a person overconfidently infers that the streak of failed predictions must continue. The person could, of course, turn out to be right. The error lies in the overconfidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. Sorting out the confidence one should have in their doubt is a rather challenging matter because it requires understanding the accuracy of the predictions.

As a practical matter, one way to address hurricane fatigue is to follow some excellent advice: rather than going through mad bursts of last second preparation, always be prepared at the recommended minimum level. That is, have enough food and water on hand for three days and make basic preparations for being without power or evacuating. Much of this can easily be integrated into one’s normal life. For example, consuming and replacing canned and dried goods throughout the year means that one will have suitable food on hand. There are also one-time preparations, such as acquiring some crank-powered lights, a small solar panel for charging smart phones, and getting a basic camp stove and a few propane canisters to store.

This does lead to a final closing point, namely the cost of preparation. Since I have a decent income, I can afford to take the extra steps of being always ready for a disaster. That is, I can buy the lights, stove, propane, and such and store them. However, this is not true of everyone. When I was at Publix before the storm, I spoke to some people who said that it was hard for them to get ready for storms—they needed their money for other things and could not afford to have a stockpile of unused supplies let alone things like solar panels or generators. The upfront cost of stockpiling in preparation for the storm was also a challenge—there are, as far as I know, no emergency “storm loans” or rapid aid to help people gear up for impending storms. No doubt some folks would be terrified that storm moochers would be living fat on the public’s money during storms. However, storm aid does sound like decent idea and could even be cost saver for the state. After all, the better prepared people are before the storm, the less the state and others must do during and after the storm.

 

 

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Reasoning & Natural Disasters

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2017

As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.

While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.

Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.

People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.

Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?

As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.

Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:

 

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.

“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

 

While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.

There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.

To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.

 

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