Posted in Philosophy

Ticking Bomb Scenario

Imagine a situation where a terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in a major city and has it rigged to explode in 24 hours. Only he knows where the bomb is and how to disarm it. The authorities successfully capture him but he is not volunteering the information after hours of interrogation. Millions of lives are at stake because one man hides behind his rights and the control of his tongue. In such a scenario, is it morally justified to torture him until he gives away the information needed to prevent a catastrophe?

Torture is an unacceptable violation of a human being’s most fundamental rights. By inflicting pain and terror, the torturer systematically destroys the victim – physically, emotionally and psychologically. However, in the above scenario, not torturing the bomber will result in the death of countless innocent lives. Is the right of a murderous madman equivalent to a million other human beings? When asked this, the majority of people would answer that yes, in this scenario, torture can be justified.

However, this scenario is a hypothetical philosophical model to outline the argument that torture may be morally justified in certain situations. It is not a way to prove that governments should legally use torture as part of interrogations. The ticking bomb scenario has many weaknesses, such as the fact that such a scenario where all the elements line up so perfectly is highly unlikely to arise. But even so, it may be used as a base of a slippery slope, with people arguing that if a million lives can be saved by torturing an individual, what about a thousand lives? A hundred lives? Or even five lives? What if we have a legal system in place where a judge must issue a warrant after assessing the scenario? Then surely an argument can be made that in certain scenarios, there is no time for this process and lives are at stake. Ultimately, the legalisation of torture is an extremely dangerous slippery slope that can facilitate the violation of human rights with ease.

An alternative system is the so called Dirty Harry case. In this case, torture is still illegal, but a single individual in law enforcement decides to go rogue and takes the matter into his own hands. Because he decides to torture the suspect as an individual, not as part of an institution, he will be committing a crime for which he will be tried in the future. If the jury finds him guilty, he will be punished by being imprisoned. Therefore, the “Dirty Harry” must weigh the potential benefit of torturing the suspect (i.e. saving lives) versus the potential risks (i.e. going to prison), giving him incentive to make a more careful decision.

(Source: Check out this Reddit comment for a more elaborate explanation with references)

Posted in History & Literature

Demand And Supply

How does the economy function? On the surface, economics seems extremely complex and intricate, changing dynamically due to what appear to be insignificant factors. For example, one can predict a recession from the increasing attractiveness of waitresses. But economics relies largely on two simple laws: the law of demand and the law of supply.

The law of demand states that as the price of a good goes up, people demand less quantities of that good. This makes logical sense as (rational) consumers want to spend the least amount of money possible for something. When plotted on a graph with price (P) as the y-axis and quantity (Q) as the x-asis, we can show that demand (D) is a downward-sloping curve.

The law of supply states that as the price of a good goes up, people supply more quantities of that good. This makes logical sense as (rational) producers want to sell something for as much money as they can. When plotted on a graph with price (P) as the y-axis and quantity (Q) as the x-asis, we can show that demand (S) is a upward-sloping curve.

When we superimpose these two laws on the same graph, we get a nice X-shape as the two lines cross over. The point where they cross is called the market equilibrium and this is where the consumers demand exactly the right amount of goods that the producers are willing to supply at a given price. If a good is being sold at a price higher than the equilibrium price, consumers demand less of the good and producers are left with an excess. If the price is lower, then there is a shortage as demand exceeds supply. Over time, the price is pushed towards the market equilibrium. Thus, thanks to the laws of supply and demand, the market automatically adjusts to the price to accurately reflect the value of the good.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, called this the invisible hand – a force driven by the individual ambitions of consumers and producers to balance the market. This force is not found in centrally planned economies of communist states, as the price and quantity supplied is fixed by the government. A pure free market is only driven by the invisible hand. Most modern countries’ economies are mixed economies, usually in the form of free markets with some government intervention.

Although economics appears complicated, it essentially boils down to the laws of supply and demand. By understanding the principles of demand and supply, one can begin to understand more complicated economic theories such as aggregate demand and supply, elasticity, foreign currency exchange and trade. Real economic situations such as oil cartels, trade embargos and taxation can be broken down and modelled using PQ-diagrams (depicting the demand and supply curves).

The laws of supply and demand are two crucial laws of economics that everyone should have some understanding of, as it can be extremely useful in everyday life. Not only do they apply in obvious situations such as running a store or a business, or understanding how the economy works, but it can be applied to negotiating too. One of the fundamental principles of negotiating is finding the balance between what one person wants (demand) and what the other person is willing to do (supply). It is amazing how useful knowing that simply being slightly flexible is in negotiations.

Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Malevolence

Human beings are fundamentally evil. This was a theory concerning human nature put forward by Xunzi – a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, along with Confucius and Mencius. Xunzi stated that human beings naturally seek out only their own interests and greed, envying and hating each other so much that they are bound to fight if left alone. He suggested that people needed to learn etiquette and culture themselves to correct this.

Xunzi’s philosophies are on a background of the chaotic setting of the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period was a period when China was split into many different countries, all warring with each other to gain dominance over each other’s lands. During these wars, Xunzi saw countless cases of people looting and killing each other, which led him to the conclusion that people are naturally selfish beings. He believed that human beings focus on their greed and self-preservation from the moment of birth. He also believed that leaving people without order would indubitably lead to social chaos. Thus, to effectively rule over the people, a leader must place limits such as laws, ethics, etiquette and culture.

From an evolutionary point of view, the theory of fundamental malevolence (성악설, sung ak sul) makes sense. Would a starving lion mourn the death of a baby zebra? Protecting one’s own interests is a great way to increase your chance of survival and propagating your genes.

The more you carefully observe people’s behaviour, the more credibility the theory seems to gain. Human beings are selfish beings who become jealous of others for having more than themselves, kill someone because they tried to take away their love and engage in fratricidal war because others do not share their beliefs. You as the reader may state that you cannot imagine hurting anyone, let alone taking a life. In that case, let us examine the following thought experiment.

One day, you are kidnapped. When you come about, you find that you are trapped in a pitch-black room, tied to a pole. The room appears to be completely empty and you cannot see or hear anything. Suddenly, you hear a voice coming from the other side of the room. The voice talks about how it will murder you in a violent, excruciating way, over and over. The voice continues to threaten you in a macabre way for three days. Just when you are near your breaking point from the overwhelming fear of imminent death, another voice appears. The voice says: “If you nominate someone you are close to that I can kill in your stead, I will let you go and not harm you in any way”. Would you have the courage to not give a name?

Posted in Science & Nature

Clarke’s Three Laws Of Prediction

The following are three laws conjectured by acclaimed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, regarding predicting the future.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Posted in History & Literature

Zodiac: Libra

Libra is the Zodiac sign for those born between September 23 and October 21. The symbol for Libra is a pair of large, golden scales.

The model for Libra is the Scales of Justice used by Astraea, the goddess of justice. She would use these scales to compare the arguments of the defendant and the plaintiff in a trial to decide who was right. Interestingly, the concept of using scales in a trial can be found in other cultures such as Egyptian mythology. Anubis, the god of death, would take a person’s heart out when they died, put it on scales and compare the weight against the Feather of Truth. If the heart was lighter, the person’s soul would be sent to heaven; if it was heavier, he would be sent to hell. Astraea’s scales also became a constellation when she ascended to the heavens.

(Part of the Zodiac series:

Posted in Science & Nature

Three Laws Of Robotics

The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov regarding the functioning of robots as discussed in his novels about robots.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Posted in History & Literature


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will guard the guards?

One of the most basic instincts of a human being is to doubt. We do not easily extend our trust to strangers. This is a natural response that is very beneficial for your survival from an evolutionary perspective (consider the overfriendly dodos that were wiped out by humans). As civilisation has progressed and the size of societies grew, people devised legal systems to lower their vigilance against each other. This was because instead of wasting time being suspicious of others, we devised specialist roles who would do that for us, allowing us to live in peace with each other. These specialists who stay alert and guard us enforce the law and stabilise our society. However, what would happen if the people that protect us from evil become evil? Is it not a scary thought to think that there is no one that watches the watchmen?

Emperor Qin Shi Huang who united China to form the Qin dynasty divided up his people, setting up a mutual guard system to enforce his rule. Informing became a civil obligation. To not report illegal activities was illegal in itself. The system of informing was as follows: five families form a group with each group being watched by an official warden who reports on them. This official warden is carefully observed by an unofficial surveillant. Five groups come together to form a tribe. If it is found that at any level something was not reported, the blame was turned on every member of the group. Thus, a circle of surveillance is formed.

This method was extremely effective and Emperor Qin’s rule of terror was unstoppable. Crime rates plummeted while productivity rose. The problem was that the people’s quality of life was pathetic. Emperor Qin’s system of watching was later adopted by Nazi Germany. The people under the rule of the Nazis had to live in fear of being reported by their neighbours. This method is also seen being used by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Is this truly the best system to keep peace? Laws are put in place for the happiness and safety of the people, yet over-surveillance is an ironic concept that exists for those who hold power rather than the people.

How much should we trust another person? And who will watch the watchmen?

Posted in History & Literature

Noblesse Oblige

Noblesse oblige is a French term that literally translates to “nobility obliges”, stating that those with wealth and power must also take responsibility of the society they lead. Also, it requires the nobles to show a high level of morality, acting out the duties of a citizen. The etymology of this term dates back to the 14th century in the French city of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War.

During the war, the city of Calais was under siege from the English army. They fought valiantly for a year but ultimately surrendered to the English. The English desired to execute every citizen for making them fight for so long, but considering the bad press they instead announced that they would let the citizens live on the condition that six people take responsibility for the battle and are executed for it. The citizens were in agony. Who would sacrifice their life to protect the lives and safety of the other citizens? At that moment, Calais’ wealthiest man, Saint Pierre, volunteered to be sacrificed. Following his brave act, five other bourgeois of Calais, including the rich, noble and lawyers, put up their hands and stated that they would gladly give up their lives for the city. Moved by this sacrificial spirit, the queen of England convinced Edward the Third (then English king) to cancel the execution and have mercy. This story became the foundation of the noblesse oblige spirit of “those who are noble should take responsibility first”.

Although it is a very touching story, it is also an uncommon one. Instead, it is much more common to hear stories of the upper class fleeing the country and protecting their own lives when their country is in peril. A true developed nation should have those who lead a wealthy life work harder for the country than regular citizens. We should not be following the social Darwinistic belief of survival of the fittest, but rather show harmony where the strong help out the weak. In the case of the Roman Empire, nobles believed that what set themselves apart from slaves was not their status, but their ability to carry out social duties, having great pride in practising noblesse oblige.

The most common example of noblesse oblige would be the rich giving money to charity, but there are other duties of a citizen other than paying taxes (a way of redistributing wealth). A citizen must respect and follow the law, vote to practise democracy, pay their taxes, receive education and much more (in some countries, conscription is a duty too).

When the Korean War broke out, the first chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, sent his first son to participate in the war. After his son was killed in action and many people asked him why he sent his own son to war, he replied: “How could I as a leader ask my people to send away their sons to war when I am not willing to send my own son away?”.

The higher your social status, the more wealth and power you have, you should thoroughly upkeep your duties as a citizen and help out so that everyone can live happily.

(Les Bourgeois de Calais by Auguste Rodin, a sculpture depicting the six nobles of Calais who stepped up to be executed)

Posted in History & Literature

Crime And Punishment

Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine praevia lege poenali. 
No crime or punishment without a previous penal law. 

This is the backbone of modern criminal law, stating that the law defines what a crime is, and without the law, there can be no crime. Ergo, a crime in the past cannot be punished with the law of the present.

The principle has allowed for many loopholes where past crimes went unpunished as they were not subjected to new laws. An example is The Homicide Act of 1957 in English law, which never gave a statutory definition of murder. This led to no less than six appeals challenging the definition, using it as a defence.
It also protects criminals by allowing them to use a defence (e.g. provocation) even after it is outlawed, as long as the crime was committed before the law came in place.

If Wonderland’s legal system was based around nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege, then the King of Hearts would not have been able to impose his Rule #42: “all persons more than a mile high must leave the court immediately”, as he created the rule after Alice ate the mushrooms and grew in size.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Eleusis Game

The victory condition for this card game, named after an ancient Greek city, is quite simple: discover the pre-determined law via induction.
This game needs at least four people, with one person acting the position of God. God decides on a certain law (in the form of a single statement) and writes it down on a paper, thus creating the way of the universe
Next, the deck of cards is split evenly between the other players, then one person places a card in the centre. After “the world begins to exist”, God looks at the card and says “This card qualifies” or “This card fails”. The next player also places a card in the centre and the God judges whether it fits the way of the universe.

Players carefully study which cards qualify or fail to try discover the way of the universe. If someone thinks they figured the law out, he or she proclaims themself as the prophet, who begins to take over the role of God to announce whether the cards qualify or not. If at any point the prophet is wrong, he is dismissed. If the prophet correctly judges ten cards in a row, he states his hypothesised law and compares it to the piece of paper. The prophet wins if the two laws coincide, but is dismissed if it is not. When all 52 cards are played without a successful prophet, God becomes victorious.

However, as this is a game, the way of the universe cannot be too complex. To make it fun, the God player must devise a law that is simple yet difficult to discover. For example, the law “Alternate a card higher than 9 and a card lower than 9” is tricky as players tend to focus on picture cards or the colours of the cards. Also, laws such as “Only red cards qualify, except the tenth and thirtieth cards are disqualified” and “Accept all cards that are not the 7 of Hearts” are illegal, as they are too detailed. A God who comes up with such ways of the universe that cannot be found using logic and the scientific method loses his right to play the game. Ergo, the God must seek simplicity that is not easily conceived.

So what is the most successful strategy for this game? Even if there is the risk of being dismissed, proclaim yourself as the prophet as soon as possible for the best chance of winning.