Aeon

Private gain must no longer be allowed to elbow out the public good

Adam Smith had an elegant idea when addressing the notorious difficulty that humans face in trying to be smart, efficient and moral. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he maintained that the baker bakes bread not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. No doubt, public benefits can result when people pursue what comes easiest: self-interest.

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Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?

‘Despite all our medical advances,’ my friend Jason used to quip, ‘the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.’

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Algorithms associating appearance and criminality have a dark past

‘Phrenology’ has an old-fashioned ring to it. It sounds like it belongs in a history book, filed somewhere between bloodletting and velocipedes. We’d like to think that judging people’s worth based on the size and shape of their skull is a practice that’s well behind us. However, phrenology is once again rearing its lumpy head.

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How should we react to climate change pessimism?

‘We’re doomed’: a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change. It signals an awareness that we cannot, strictly speaking, avert climate change. It is already here. All we can hope for is to minimise climate change by keeping global average temperature changes to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid rending consequences to global civilisation. It is still physically possible, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2018 special report – but ‘realising 1.5°C-consistent pathways would require rapid and systemic changes on unprecedented scales’.

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What Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy can offer in the Anthropocene

With our collapsing democracies and imploding biosphere, it’s no wonder that people despair. The Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl presciently described such sentiments in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). He wrote of something that ‘so many patients complain [about] today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. A nihilistic wisdom emerges when staring down the apocalypse. There’s something predictable in our current pandemics, from addiction to belief in pseudoscientific theories, for in Frankl’s analysis, ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation. Which is why Man’s Search for Meaning is the work to return to in these humid days of the Anthropocene.

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Find something morally sickening? Take a ginger pill

If I were to say that I’m thinking about having sex with my stepbrother, I guess you’d tell me to think again: sex with a sibling or even a stepsibling is just plain wrong – it’s not a morally acceptable action. The reason I’m posing this hypothetical proposition is because it’s worth considering why we find this kind of behaviour so wrong. Is this judgment based on a rationally derived principle about maximising good and minimising harm? Surely sex with my sibling would harm our relationship, not to mention the rest of our family’s relationship with each of us. Or is the moral judgment here based simply on the fact that sibling sex makes us more than a little queasy? In other words, are our moral beliefs merely gut feelings – quite literally stemming from our body’s tendency to become repulsed by certain human behaviours?

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Why are pop songs getting sadder than they used to be?

Are popular songs today happier or sadder than they were 50 years ago? In recent years, the availability of large digital datasets online and the relative ease of processing them means that we can now give precise and informed answers to questions such as this. A straightforward way to measure the emotional content of a text is just to count how many emotion words are present. How many times are negative-emotion words – ‘pain’, ‘hate’ or ‘sorrow’ – used? How many times are words associated with positive emotions – ‘love’, ‘joy’ or ‘happy’ – used? As simple as it sounds, this method works pretty well, given certain conditions (eg, the longer the available text is, the better the estimate of mood). This is a possible technique for what is called ‘sentiment analysis’. Sentiment analysis is often applied to social media posts, or contemporary political messages, but it can also be applied to longer timescales, such as decades of newspaper articles or centuries of literary works.

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