Sunday, 19 December 2010


Related article by Céline: Dilemme... (in French)

Posted on behalf of Peter:


Dilemma as valid argument form
A dilemma can be an acceptable type of argument. We are offered alternative courses of action, each of which entails a certain set of consequences. We have to take one of the alternatives, so have to accept one set of consequences. If the consequences are true, and it is a matter of a straight choice between them, this is a valid dilemma.

Bogus dilemma
However, if there are other alternatives and / or the consequences are incorrect, then the dilemma is bogus. It can then be refuted as follows:
  1. Denying that the consequences of the choices as stated are correct. This is called ‘Grasping the dilemma by the horns’.
  2. Showing the choice is false – there are other options.  This is called ‘Going between the horns of the dilemma’.  
It often occurs with the fallacy of ‘bifurcation’ (‘either / or’, ‘black / white’). Example: ‘you are either with us or against us’…

How To Win Every Argument. The Use and Abuse of Logic (Madsen Pirie). Pub: Continuum.

Dilemmas can also be considered as complex decisions.

One of the best methods I’ve come across is the following:
1. Define the problem.
2. Specify your objectives.
3. Create alternatives.
4. Understand the consequences.
5. Grapple with tradeoffs between choices.
6. Clarify uncertainties.
7. Think about your risk tolerance.
8. Consider linked decisions.

Future prediction
It was pointed out in the meeting, quite rightly, that one cannot know the future. Some things are largely unpredictable e.g. the explosion of Facebook and other social networking sites, the Irish bank crisis etc.

However one can improve one’s odds in many decisions by using informed estimates on the probability of events happening: the whole purpose of the ‘risk industry’, in all its permutations, is to try and work out the best way to approach an uncertain future.. So in the sequence above, steps 4, 6 and 7 would entail some sort of (informed) probability estimation.

There’s a quote I like from the source book I have used here. “You can make a good decision and still get a bad outcome, due to something unpredictable / unpleasant happening. You can also make a bad decision and get a good outcome, due to pure luck” (e.g. you made a decision based on the flight pattern of starlings as they flew past your window, and it worked....)

Apples and oranges
Some dilemmas require choice between things that have no common base of comparison. If the question is ‘what holiday should I choose ?’, then comparison can be made on cost, weather etc. But what about ‘should I go on holiday, or get a new kitchen ?’ A good decision process will allow some weighting factors, to help prioritise (step 5 above).

Uncertainty (Donald Rumsfeld).
He was widely pilloried for his ‘things we know’ speech, given in the context of dealing with political uncertainty. It’s about the one thing he said I agreed with…I haven’t got around to checking the exact words, but it was broadly along the lines of:
1. There are things we know
2. There are things we think we know
3. There are things we know we don’t know
4. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
e.g. (1). Al Qaida are planning attacks (2) Possibly by end of the year (3) Don’t know the target (4) We ought to be paying attention to who is training in flying schools in the southern US.

Smart Choices (Hammond, Keeney, Raiffa). Pub: Harvard Business School Press.
This is the ‘sleep on it’ method. You get all the facts, try to come to a decision consciously, come to an impasse, then deliberately turn it over to the subconscious and forget about it. The answer may then come unexpectedly when you are driving, showering, making love, ironing, fleeing a burning building, performing neuro-surgery etc…

The issue here is: how does one trust one’s intuition ? The conventional wisdom is to ask yourself: ‘Did I put in enough prior work to give my subconscious the information it needed to work on?’ If I buy some shares based on decent research, it’s worth listening to my subconscious intuition. If I buy some shares based on one newspaper article I may lose money (I did…).

Some people will resolve some dilemmas by referring to their internal value system. ‘Should I give money to a street beggar ?’. A Christian will probably think ‘yes’.

However sometimes this leads to disaster – case the Credit Crunch. The dilemma was (and is): ‘How should we run the world’s financial systems ?’. For the last 20+ years the Chicago School inspired Efficient Market Hypothesis held sway, with unregulated markets being regarded as leading necessarily to the public good. This became conflated with the political view ‘state always bad, individuals always good’. It took the world economy to come within an inch of imploding for the moral position ‘leave it to the unregulated market in all cases’ to be questioned.


Related article by Celine: Dilemme... (in French)

Monday, 13 December 2010

Some thoughts on Freedom of Information

Dear Philosophers,

We are told that rights should apply equally to all human beings, and if one of them is allowed an action it would be illicit to deny another the same action. Except, of course, that the people who are supposed to guarantee our rights government officials are the ones who claim exemption from this rule of universality. The Wikileaks affair reveals strikingly how rights don't apply equally. Forget taxes, pension differentials, life employment and impunity from prosecution in many countries, and other markers of the difference between government and the governed. It is now the most immaterial of goods, information, that is at stake. Governments collect it in all possible forms, requiring records of all bank transactions, credit card payments and airline reservations, ordering Microsoft and other companies to give them backdoor entries into software systems, tracking all phone and internet conversations, and making it illegal to protect your privacy by encrypting your correspondence or keeping your assets invisible.

The fury when the table is turned and when some people do to a government what it does to all of us (spying) is the great entertainment of these last days of 2010. And these could well be the first days of a new era.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

Some thoughts on Democracy

Topic of the day: Can we reject Majority rule?
Majority rules – the basic principle of democracy. But are the majority always right? Does the government voted by majority represent the true interests of the majority? That’s the fundamental question. The majority arrive at their voting decision based on the information available given by the party campaigners even if that information is as absurd as the three slogans of the Ministry of Truth in the Orwellian world:
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Every political party of whatever persuasion has to have a gimmick or slogan to sell their soap powder to the great unwashed.

For those who still hold firm to the belief that the Party is always right and the War on Terror is fully justified (despite any unintended consequences), perhaps they should spare a thought to the words of Norman Mailer:
Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whore-house to get rid of the clap” (The Naked and the Dead, 1948)

May I also remind you, the motto of our beloved politicians:
Don’t treat people like Idiots. But never forget that they are Idiots!”

(Ne prenez pas les gens pour des cons, mais n’oubliez jamais qu’ils le sont. – F.Beigbeder, 99 francs, 2000)

Friday, 10 December 2010


Que faire s’il on vous offre un travail bien payé dans un pays étranger, mais que vous ne pouvez pas emmener avec vous la personne que vous aimez ? Choisissez-vous l’argent ou l’amour? Ecoutez-vous votre tête ou votre cœur ?

Lequel des deux médecins que vous consultez croire s’ils vous donnent deux diagnostiques et deux traitements différents?

Qui, de sa femme ou de sa maîtresse, un homme devrait-il emmener en vacances?

On parle de dilemme quand on trouve difficile de prendre une décision entre 2 ou plusieurs choix, mais qu’aucun n’est défendable. Que faire face à un dilemme ? Peser le pour et le contre de la situation. Habituellement, on choisit la meilleure option, mais le résultat peut être regrettable.

D’une part, on peut penser que le processus de prise de décision dépend de nos origines culturelles et de nos valeurs, elles-mêmes composées également de nos préjugés. Ceux qui ont été élevés dans un environnement chrétien prennent souvent des décisions basées sur le jugement moral. « Faire ce qui est juste », ainsi on trouve l’harmonie en soi, sans recriminations. Beaucoup de décisions sont influencées par les origines sociales de la personne concernée, et des livres que cette même personne a lus : la culture apportera la solution.

« Si les décisions que l’on a prises sont influencées par la culture, est-ce qu’on peut trouver la solution dans les livres qu’on a lu ? » Ceux qui ont lu des œuvres classiques sont-ils capables de résoudre les dilemmes dans leur vie quotidienne en utilisant ce qu’ils ont appris dans les livres ? Dans la tragédie « Hamlet », le prince du Danemark faisait face à l’énorme dilemme qui consistait à tuer son oncle et sa mère pour venger son père. Comment ce type de tragédie peut-il nous offrir une solution applicable dans notre vie quotidienne?

D’autre part, on peut penser que la définition d’un dilemme n’est pas seulement un choix difficile voire impossible à faire, mais qu’il s’agit également de ce dont on a foi. L’ancien philosophe Grec parlait souvent du dilemme entre le corps et l’esprit. Croit-on en nos corps ou en nos cœurs ? Autre exemple : une mère préfère un de ses fils à l’autre, mais le second lui dit que son préféré a planifié de la tuer. Qui doit-elle croire entre lui et son préféré ?

Cependant, quelqu’un a souligné qu’un « dilemme » n’est pas seulement un problème qui peut être résolu en prenant simplement une décision. Un dilemme représente un problème difficile, qu’il est pratiquement impossible de résoudre. Quelques fois, une bonne décision peut aboutir sur un mauvais résultat, et vice versa (une mauvaise décision peut avoir de bons résultats). Par exemple, que l’Ouest commence une guerre avec l’Iran peut être vu comme un dilemme pour les gens qui ont leurs doigts posés sur les détonateurs. Il y a toujours un élément de prise de risque dans toute décision cruciale du fait que le futur est imprévisible. Les conséquences de nos décisions peuvent être inconcevables. Le projet du CERN sur l’expérimentation de la théorie du “Big Bang” est vue comme un dilemme, car si elle s’avère vraie, l’Humanité résoudrait le mystère le plus grand: les origines de l’univers. Si c'est un échec, ça n’engage pas seulement la perte financière et scientifique de ressources humaines colossales, mais de manière plus importante, il court le risque de détruire la planète entière (si les critiques sont justes).

L’idéogramme chinois pour le mot « dilemme » est composé de 2 lettres, l’un qui est le symbole de la lance, l’autre qui représente le bouclier : la lance attaque, le bouclier défend, aucuns des deux ne gagne : c'est ce qu’on appelle un « dilemme » 矛盾
Related article by Peter: Dilemmas (in English)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Marriage Vs Love

Looking into the subject of marriage in the attempt to write something, I was amazed that most thoughts on this matter were rather humoristic and satirical. Indeed, what to think, just as examples, of George Bernard Shaw's "Marriage is the story of a young man and a young woman whom by picking a flower receive an avalanche on the head", or even of Montenoy's "People say that marriage is the grave of love"?

In the other quotes, it seems that the difference between marriage and love is very often brought forward. Isn't it important to differentiate the "idea" of marriage and its institution? And if so, can we think that, on the opposite of the ideal of marriage, which changes with the society and time, its institution is the only man-made creation which tries to give the notion of marriage some kind of consistency?

En essayant d’écrire quelques lignes sur le sujet de conversation de Samedi 20 Novembre, j’ai été surprise de voir que la majorité des dictons sur le mariage était humoristiques, voir amers. En effet, que penser de la citation de Georges Shaw « Le mariage, c'est l'histoire d'un jeune homme et d'une jeune fille qui cueillent une fleur et reçoivent une avalanche sur la tête », ou encore de Montenoy qui affirme que « le mariage est le tombeau de l’amour » ?

Dans les autres citations, le discernement entre l’amour est le mariage est souvent mit en avant. En effet, n’est-il pas important de séparer « l’idée » du mariage de son institution ? Dans ce cas, peut-on penser qu’au contraire de « l’idéal » du mariage qui change en fonction de la société et du temps dans laquelle nous vivons, son institution est la seule fabrication humaine qui tente d’apporter à la notion du mariage une certaine consistance ?