Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Fifteen Books I Enjoyed in 2018

Since we are coming up on the end of year, I thought it might be worth doing a few 'end of year' retrospectives, pulling together some of the highlights over the past 12 months. I'll start with a list of books that I enjoyed reading (or listening to) this year. As you'll see from the list, my reading tastes are somewhat eclectic and not always academic in nature. Furthermore, not all of these books were published in 2018. They are just ones that I happened to read and enjoy this past year.

1. Flanagan - The Geography of Morals

Oddly enough, I'm not sure that I enjoyed reading this book. I find Flanagan's prose style a bit laboured at times. Nevertheless, this book probably had the biggest intellectual influence on me this year. In it, Flanagan sketches a general theory of the varieties of moral possibility for human beings. What I particularly like about the book is its attempt to broaden the reader's horizons, to encourage them to appreciate that there are many different moral communities in which humans can thrive, without at the same time endorsing a crude moral relativism. The later chapters on value of anger and the ethics of the self were the highlights for me.

2. Fukuyama - The Origins of Political Order

Fukuyama gets a lot of flack for his infamous 'End of History' thesis. As a result, he is known more by reputation and caricature than substance. This was the first book of his that I actually read and I have to say I found it to be interesting, ambitious and informative. It presents a fascinating theory about the origins of political order, and supports this theory with a wealth of historical detail. I'm sure it is selective and biased in various ways (all grand historical theories are) but I definitely went away from this book with a different impression of Fukuyama than the one I get from the popular press. This book is the first of two volumes on political order and decay. I'm hoping to crack open the second volume in 2019.

3. Devlin - Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots

This is a thoughtful, fair-mined and fun read on the history and ethics of sex tech. It focuses in particular on robots, but has a broader remit than its subtitle might suggest. Obviously I have a vested interest in selling copies of my own book on this topic (co-edited with Neil McArthur), but to be honest, if I were to recommend a book that would introduce someone to the topic, this would be it. It's far more readable and accessible than anything I've ever written. That said, I am, hopelessly biased since I feature prominently in a couple of the chapters and Devlin does a very fair job in representing my views on the ethics of sex robots.

4. Muller - The Tyranny of Metrics

There is nothing particularly new in this book. Anyone who has been following debates about metricisation and target-setting in criminal justice, education and government will be familiar with Muller's critiques of the phenomenon. But Muller's book does have the virtue of brevity and concision. It's the best one-stop shop for the critique of metrics. The first two chapters are particularly good.

5. Snyder - The Philosophical Breakfast Club

This was a random pick-up at a second hand bookstore. It is a history of science in the early 1800s, focusing on the lives of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell and Richard Jones. All four were influential in developing an empirical, experimental and data-driven approach to scientific inquiry. The book is beautifully written and provides an excellent overview of the era. I enjoyed it a lot.

6. Warren - Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics

I read this book around the time my sister got sick and died in the early part of the year. I wrote about it at the time. The book is a rich exploration of the Epicurean arguments against the badness of death. Warren is detailed in both his historical exposition and philosophical evaluation. And yet, despite the depth of scholarship on display, I found the book to be extremely readable. This is probably my favourite book on the philosophy of death.

7. Gunkel - Robot Rights

I interviewed David Gunkel about this book in episode #48 of my podcast. As I said in that interview, I think this is a real 'zeitgeist' book. In it, Gunkel encourages us to think the unthinkable and consider recognising the rights of robots. The book is exceptionally detailed in its historical review of the literature on the idea of robot rights -- I was surprised to see how much has already been written about the topic. It also provided a very useful conceptual framework for thinking about robot rights, as well as lots of original insights and arguments of its own.

8. Bakewell - At the Existentialist Cafe

This was an audiobook listen for me. Sometimes I find audiobooks are worse than print editions; sometimes better. This may have worked better in print but, nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to it. It's an informative and personal introduction to existentialism, covering the lives and thoughts of all the major figures.

9. Smiley - Moo

This is a novel, cut from the classic 'campus novel' cloth. So you know what to expect: lots of satirical send-ups of academic life and campus politics. I enjoy reading these books because I see so much of my own life in them (I've probably read all the best known campus novels in my time). Smiley's novel is probably a cut above the usual campus novel in virtue of the breadth of characters she covers, as well as her sharp jabs at the corporatisation of the university (still resonant despite the fact that this was written in the mid-1990s).

10. Appiah - The Lies that Bind

Appiah is one of my favourite philosophical writers. He is more literary than most. This book is a thoughtful, sympathetic and erudite treatment of the philosophy of identity and identity politics. I learned more from a couple of weeks reading this than I did from a lifetime following the identity politics wars on twitter and online media.

11. Nozick - Philosophical Explorations

Nozick is probably best known for his work on political philosophy, particularly his defence of libertarianism. But he spent a lot of time writing about more fundamental issues in philosophy, including the nature of personal identity, epistemology, free will and ethics. This book, originally published in 1981, and coming in at just over 600 pages, is his magnum opus, covering a wealth of philosophical themes. It's a bit dated, but it's still worth reading just to get Nozick's very singular and distinctive take on some classic philosophical puzzles. The chapter on 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is my personal favourite. I still think Nozick's suggested answers to this question are under-appreciated.

12. Polson and Scott - AIQ

This book is story-based introduction to some of the basic mathematical principles and techniques underlying modern AI technology. I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. I think it would be a great introduction to AI for anyone who is intimidated or unsure of its technical details. (Relatedly, I also enjoyed David Sumpter's Outnumbered, which covers similar ground albeit in a slightly more opinionated manner).

13. Desai - The Wisdom of Finance

I really liked this book. It is an inventive and sympathetic introduction to finance. Finance plays such an important role in modern life and yet few people are aware of how it works. Desai makes it much more comprehensible by relating finance to everyday life, showing how you can use concepts like insurance and leverage to understand your own behaviour. The book is, unashamedly, a defence of the utility of finance in modern life. If you want something more critical of finance I'd suggest reading Adam Tooze's book Crashed, which is a magisterial history of the financial crisis of 2008 and its effect on global politics over the past decade.

14. Frischmann and Selinger - Re-engineering Humanity

I interviewed Frischmann and Selinger about this book on episode #39 of my podcast. The book is a detailed analysis (and I would say 'critique' -- though I think the authors dispute that characterisation to some extent) of modern techno-social engineering. Its main thesis is that modern techno-social engineering might be turning humans into simple stimulus-response machines, and thereby undermining our freedom and autonomy. My favourite parts of the book are the thought experiments they use to develop their thesis, in particular the reverse Turing test and the free will wager.

15. O'Connor - Idleness

It's probably odd to comment on the physical appearance of a book, but I have to say I really enjoyed the look and feel of the hardcover version of this book. It's a short read, so the book is not too heavy or unwieldy, and it also has wide margins, which is ideal for someone like me who loves making notes in books as I read them. I wish more publishers would accommodate readers like me. Anyway, the book itself is fascinating. It's a defence of idleness -- a way of being that is purposeless and free from social expectation and demand. The book is primarily a philosophical history, focusing on thinkers from the German Enlightenment/Romantic era and challenging their (mainly negative) take on the value of idleness.

I could go on and list at least a dozen more books that I enjoyed this year. Honourable mentions include: Minerva The Ethics of Cryonics; Vallor Technology and the Virtues; Kazez The Philosophical Parent, Rasmussen The Infidel and the Professor, Gottlieb The Dream of Enlightenment, Magee The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Dyson Turing's Cathedral, Holt When Einstein Walked with Godel, and many many more.

Unfortunately, all lists have to exclude some deserving candidates. There is, no doubt, an ethics of list-making that I have failed to live up to.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Frenetic Standstill: On Technological Change and Institutional Inertia

Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock is a classic of the futurist genre. The book makes a simple but striking argument: our world is changing too quickly for humans to keep up. Whatever the reality was in 1970, this is a sentiment that seems to be widely shared today. The internet and digital technologies have radically altered our political, social and economic landscape. Jobs that were once stable, life-long sources of employment have been automated away, while new and unusual jobs have come onstream; forms of communication and interaction that were once the norm have now become the exception; and elections have turned into hyperpolarised propaganda wars fought not between human beings but by bots and algorithms (acting, for now, at the behest of humans). It’s all a little dizzying and disconcerting.

At the same time that all this change is underway, the institutions that govern our societies seem to be creeping to a standstill. Grand social reform projects seem be a thing of the past. Politicians are more concerned with advancing their careers, scoring points off one another, and enriching themselves and their cronies than in trying to get things done. So, in an era in which we need our governance institutions to be flexible, dynamic and adaptive, they are anything but. What explains this mismatch between institutional inertia and rapid technological change?

That’s a question that many social theorists have asked. In his article ‘Political Inertia and Social Acceleration’, Bart Zantvoort reviews the answers given by two prominent public intellectuals: Francis Fukuyama and Harmut Rosa. Both come at the problem from different theoretical perspectives. Fukuyama sees institutional inertia as a natural consequence of our evolved psychology; Rosa thinks it is something that is directly, and somewhat paradoxically, caused by technological change. Zantvoort thinks the true explanation may require some combination of both perspectives.
Let’s see why this might be the case by reviewing Fukuyama and Rosa’s explanations. Both of them are interesting in their own right, irrespective of whether you care about this issue or not.

1. Fukuyama’s Explanation: It’s evolution, stupid…
We’ll start with Fukuyama’s theory. In his two-volume treatise on political order and political decay, Fukuyama presents an elaborate (and historically detailed) theory of institutional decay. The theory is founded on two premises about our evolved psychology. The first is that we have a tendency to follow rules/norms without questioning - in other words, that we display ‘cognitive rigidity’ in rule following behaviour. The second is that we have natural tendency to prefer close family and friends over strangers — in other words, we are ‘patrimonialists’ in how we exercise power and privilege. The combination of both of these tendencies is what leads to institutional inertia.

To see how this works, let’s look into this idea of cognitive rigidity in more detail. Fukuyama argues that there is an evolutionary advantage to being able to follow group norms/rules. It allows for greater cooperation and coordination, and for the efficient allocation of resources within a society. It would be cognitively costly if we had to constantly re-evaluate the norms/rules every time we needed to decide whether to follow them or not. So instead we just default to following the norms/rules we have internalised. The problem is that we often embellish our default attachment to these rules with various myths about group and individual identity. We become emotionally invested in the rules. We see them as part of who we are and part of what makes our lives worthwhile. If this sounds abstract and airy-fairy, then think about how attached you are to certain ways of behaving and interacting with others. To use an example from my own experiences, I know many academics who are deeply invested in the hierarchical and deferential norms of higher education (e.g. forms of greeting and address and interaction with students), largely, I suspect, because they have internalised them over the course of their lives and don’t want to make the effort of calling them into question (I don’t exempt myself from this cognitive laziness).

While this default rule-following can be advantageous, it becomes a problem if a society has defaulted to a sub-optimal rule, or needs to adapt or change its way of doing things due to some external shock. The attachment to the old way of doing things is so deeply embedded in our way of thinking about the world that the institutions that emerge from (and perpetuate) this rule-following behaviour cannot respond quickly enough. There must be some revolution or social breakdown to shift to a new set of norms. Thus, for Fukuyama, our cognitive rigidity is directly responsible for the inertia of our institutions.

This inertia is exacerbated by the tendency toward patrimonialism. As Fukuyama puts it, all modern societies have to overcome the ‘tyranny of cousins’. Our evolved psychology is tuned to small scale forms of social organisation whose members we see as part of our extended family (even if they are not direct blood relatives). We have a natural tendency to prefer these people over others who we view as strangers Of course, modern societies are a long way from this traditional tribal form. We live in the era of megacities where tens of millions of people must find some way to live together in small urban spaces. To deal with this massive increase in the density and complexity of our social relations, we have developed a complex set of institutions (bureaucracies, laws, governments) and myths (national and religious identity) that shift us away from the tyranny of cousins.

The problem is that the tyranny of cousins is a natural attractor state. Even in the most complex of modern societies, there is often just a handful of elites who control the institutions of power and who use those institutions to benefit one another. These could include the party executive within some democratically elected government, and the wealthy business interests and lobbyists who fund their election campaigns. It could include small cadres of loyal henchmen in a more authoritarian state. Whatever the case may be, the voice and will of the masses is easily ignored in favour of this small group. We have to work hard to prevent society from being sucked back into this natural attractor state. We have to put in place lots of institutional safeguards: ethics watchdogs, fragmented branches of governments, mechanisms of accountability and transparency. And even then there is a tendency for those in power to revert to patrimonial style of governance. We see this everywhere today, even in so-called ‘mature democracies’ like the United States. If the patrimonial style becomes firmly embedded, we need some external shock or revolution to shake things up.

That’s Fukuyama’s theory in a nutshell: cognitive rigidity in rule following, combined with a tendency to repatrimonialisation, equals significant institutional inertia. It’s not something we can easily overcome without rewiring our minds (which, ironically, is something that Fukuyama is opposed to if his book Our Posthuman Future is anything to go by).

2. Rosa’s Explanation: It’s technology, stupid…
Where Fukuyama blames evolution for institutional inertia, Harmut Rosa blames technological modernity. Rosa is an accelerationist. He believes that a fundamental feature of modern life is the ever-quickening rate of social change. Somewhat paradoxically, he claims that this ever-quickening rate of social change is responsible for institutional inertia. Things are moving so fast that our social institutions cannot keep up. He has a nice term for describing this predicament. He calls it the ‘frenetic standstill’ which is a state of affairs in which there is “the sense that, while everything seems to change faster and faster, real or structural social change is no longer possible” (Zantvoort 2016, 9).

Rosa’s theory is quite interesting and worth unpacking. He claims that modern life is subject to three major accelerations: (i) technological acceleration, i.e. rapid changes in the technologies we use to manage our lives (particularly transport, communication and production technologies); (ii) social acceleration, i.e. changes in the institutions through which we bring order to our lives and (iii) acceleration in the pace of life, i.e. the general sense and experience of time and deadlines on a day-to-day basis. Zantvoort focuses on the first two and the relationship between them in his analysis.

The idea of technological acceleration is fairly straightforward. Humans are a technological species. We have lived in a techno-ecology for a very long time. We modern humans rarely interface directly with the natural world. Instead, we interact with a world of our own technological construction. Although this has always been true, there are obvious and dramatic changes in our technological ecology over the past 250 years, particularly since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The resultant growth in productivity and energy consumption per capital has been astounding, as have been the improvements in human well-being and lifespan.

This has knock-on repercussions for how we organise and manage our social lives. Human society depends on certain core institutions (work, family, education etc) for its own reproduction. These are stable institutions that provide us with values and norms, and add some narrative coherence to our lives. The problem is that these institutions are fraying as a result of techno-social acceleration. Once upon time the changes in attitudes, values and norms could be measured on an intergenerational timescale, often spanning many decades; then it started to get measured on a generational timescale (baby boomers vs generation X vs millenials); now it seems there are rapid changes within generations. One obvious manifestation of this is in the world of work. Where once upon a time people had stable jobs for life, and parents could easily imagine their children doing much the same kinds of work as they did themselves, we now see people change job multiple times in one life.

This has a number of interesting effects on individuals and societies. For the individual, there is a ‘contraction of the present’. The period of time during which an individual can take a certain way of doing things for granted, develop goals and priorities, and try to organise their lives in a way that can efficiently realise those goals and priorities, becomes shorter and shorter. The pace of change means we can no longer take a stable social order for granted. We become fragmented, situational selves, always reacting and responding to the changing demands of the world around us. To quote directly from Rosa’s work on this point:

The individual’s reaction to social acceleration…seems to result in a new, situational form of identity, in which the dynamism of classical modernity, characterized by a strong sense of direction (perceived as progress), is replaced by a sense of directionless, frantic motion that is in fact a form of inertia. 
(Rosa 2009, 101)

On a societal level we see the institutions that used to organise our lives grind to a halt. They can no longer reliably ’steer’ society. They become ‘desynchronised’ from the rapid social change taking place around them. This is what results in the ‘frenetic standstill’. There is a sense that everything is changing rapidly, but the basic organising principles and projects of society (liberal constitutionalism etc) remain the same. This desynchronisation may have significant negative repercussions for society. After all, a stable institutional order may very well have been one of the things that enabled the rapid technological and social progress we see. If that institutional order breaks down as a result of this progress, then this cycle of progress may also grind to a halt.

This may be the key conclusion of Rosa’s work: that the frenetic standstill in which we find ourselves is not a stable long-term equilibrium. Something has got to give.

3. Conclusion: The Ethics of Inertia
That, in a nutshell, is what both Fukuyama and Rosa have to say about institutional inertia and social change. The former sees inertia as a natural attractor state — an equilibrium that human societies tend to get sucked back into due to our evolved psychology. The latter sees inertia as a side effect of other forms of techno-social acceleration — an unstable state of affairs that may eventually undermine itself.

This, of course, raises an important question about the ethics of inertia. Is institutional inertia something we should worry about and seek to change? That seems to be implied in much of the foregoing analysis, but to some extent it all depends on how attached you are to the current ‘evaluative equilibrium’ of society. Zantvoort says that Rosa is worried about the frenetic standstill because it is undermining the Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous self and replacing it with this ‘frantic’ and ‘situational’ self. Fukuyama also seems to imply a critique of inertia in his work. He is a champion of liberal democratic order and worries about the ways in which political inertia and decay undermine that value system. Part of his motivation in writing his work on political order and decay seems to be to diagnose the problem that is currently afflicting the social order he wants to preserve. In short, both Rosa and Fukuyama seem to be evaluative conservatives, i.e. people who want to keep our institutional structure roughly the same as it is right now.

I have adopted a similar form of evaluative conservatism in my work on biomedical enhancement, arguing that enhancing ourselves may be the best way to preserve what we currently like about our social order, in the fact of rapid technological change elsewhere. But I adopted this largely for the sake of argument — in particular to show that even a conservative (of a certain flavour) could favour a kind of transhumanism. But I am not sure that evaluative conservatism is necessarily the correct approach to take to the frenetic standstill. But maybe we should be more open to change and the breakdown of the old world order? Social institutions and values have changed repeatedly over human history, oftentimes for the better. I suspect the ‘possibility landscape’ of desirable human societies is much wider than we appreciate because we are so wedded to the current way of doing things. In this respect, rapid technological change and the fraying of our institutions may be something to embrace, not to fear.

Admittedly, however, that’s only true if you don’t accept Fukuyama’s other point about patrimonialism being the natural resting state of society. If you accept that idea, then you have fight hard to stave off the slide back into an evolutionarily earlier form of social organisation. But even if you do accept that idea, it does not follow that you should be sceptical of social and technological change. On the contrary, those changes may well be the ‘external shocks’ we need to avoid stagnation and decline.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Episode #49 - Maas on AI and the Future of International Law

In this episode I talk to Matthijs Maas. Matthijs is a doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen's 'AI and Legal Disruption' research unit, and a research affiliate with the Governance of AI Program at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute. His research focuses on safe and beneficial global governance strategies for emerging, transformative AI systems. This involves, in part, a study of the requirements and pitfalls of international regimes for technology arms control, non-proliferation and the conditions under which these are legitimate and effective. We talk about the phenomenon of 'globally disruptive AI' and the effect it will have on the international legal order.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).


Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 2:11 - International Law 101
  • 6:38 - How technology has repeatedly shaped the content of international law
  • 10:43 - The phenomenon of 'globally disruptive artificial intelligence' (GDAI)
  • 15:20 - GDAI and the development of international law
  • 18:05 - Will we need new laws?
  • 19:50 - Will GDAI result in lots of legal uncertainty?
  • 21:57 - Will the law be under/over-inclusive of GDAI?
  • 25:21 - Will GDAI render international law obsolete?
  • 31:00 - Could we have a tech-neutral international law?
  • 34:10 - Could we automate the monitoring and enforcement of international law?
  • 44:35 - Could we replace international legal institutions with technological systems of management?
  • 47:35 - Could GDAI lead to the end of the international legal order?
  • 57:23 - Could GDAI result in more isolationism and less multi-lateralism
  • 1:00:40 - So what will the future be?

Relevant Links

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Does Life Have Meaning if the Self Does not Exist?

Does life have meaning? This is a question that troubles many of us, but we usually ask it from a first-person perspective: Does my life have meaning? Do I matter? What will people say about me when I’m gone? This is natural. Most of us live inside our own heads. We run the inner newsreel all the time, trying to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But what if you think the self is an illusion? What if you don’t believe there is a coherent narrative centre of gravity? In short, what if you embrace the Buddhist ‘No-Self’ doctrine? Must you then become a nihilist?

That’s the question that Baptiste Le Bihan poses in his excellent paper ‘The No-Self View and the Meaning of Life’. This paper is a detailed unpacking of what the Buddhist doctrine of ‘No-Self’ entails for meaning. The paper is complex at times, starting out with an extended discussion of metaphysics and the difference between eliminativism and reductionism. It then progresses into a discussion of meaning and nihilism. I want to examine and evaluate its main arguments. I’ll try to keep things relatively simple. This means I will skip over some of the metaphysical stage-setting and focus specifically on the sections that deal with the meaning of life.

At the outset, it’s worth noting (as Le Bihan does) that this analysis won’t consider whether or not the No-Self doctrine is true. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that. The focus here is on what follows if it is true.

1. Clarifying the No-Self Doctrine
I promised not to get into the metaphysical weeds, but a little bit of this is necessary. If we are going to assess the consequences of the No-Self doctrine, then we’d better have some sense of what that doctrine actually states. You might have a passing familiarity with it. You might know the basic idea: the ‘self’, as traditionally conceived, does not exist. But that’s not particularly helpful since the ‘self’ is not always well-defined. So let’s just introduce a conceptual distinction between the ‘self’ and the ‘person’. On this distinction, the self is the conscious experiencer. As you read this article, the self is the one doing the reading; the one watching the movie unfold. The person is something else. The person is the extended self — the bundle of dispositions, desires, memories and traits that define who you are. The two are often, and for valid reasons, discussed side by side but it is worth keeping them distinct when understanding the debate about the No-Self doctrine.

Let’s now introduce another conceptual distinction: the distinction between eliminativism and reductionism. Eliminativism is a metaphysical theory that is applied to specific facts (or objects/states of affairs). It is the view that these facts do not exist. If I was an eliminativist about chairs, for instance, I would argue that chairs don’t really exist. All that actually exists is a particular arrangement of atoms or particles that we happen to call a ‘chair’ through linguistic or social convention. But this linguistic convention has no reality outside of our practices. It does not carve nature at its joints. This is to be contrasted with reductionism, which is the view that specific facts really exist, but they can be reduced to other facts. If I were a reductionist about chairs, for instance, I would argue that chairs really exist (they are more than a mere linguistic convention) but their existence is reducible to facts about the arrangement of matter. The distinction here might seem subtle, but it is significant.

Applying this distinction to the present context, eliminativism about the self is the view that the self does not exist — at all. In other words, there is no single conscious experiencer; there is no one watching the movie inside your head. There is just a concatenation of conscious thoughts popping in and out of existence. The sense that all of these thoughts are being thought by one single thing is just an illusion, one that can be dispelled through philosophical reflection, scientific investigation, meditation and/or the use of psychedelics. This kind of self-eliminativism is the essence of the No-Self doctrine. Reductionism about the self would be different. It would entail that the self has some reality, but is reducible to facts about particular conscious experiences and events.

Does eliminativism about the self entail eliminativism about the person? Not necessarily. Many people who espouse views that are sympathetic to the No-Self doctrine maintain that there is some reality to the person. In fact, eliminating the self and reducing the person may be the most common view among contemporary Buddhist philosophers (Le Bihan cites some examples). They don’t think that the person has some independent metaphysical existence. They think that the fact that you are you is reducible to facts about your mental and psychological makeup. These facts are then grouped under a single common label (‘you’ and ‘me’) by convention, but these conventions are not completely unwarranted.

Interestingly, Le Bihan rejects this common view. He thinks if you are an eliminativist about the self you should also be an eliminativist about the person. I won’t go into his argument here — the gist of it is that if you are an eliminativist about some conventional truths then you should be one about all conventional truths — but this is the stance he takes and it may be important when it comes to assessing his claims about meaning.

2. Thinking about Meaning
Now that we are bit clearer about the No-Self doctrine we’ll need to get a bit clearer about the nature of meaning. Le Bihan has a long discussion of this in his article. He follows the framework for understanding different theories of meaning that has been set out by Thaddeus Metz in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.

The framework distinguishes between sources of meaning and conditions of meaning. If you are naturalist about meaning, then you think that meaning has to be sourced in facts and features of the natural world (i.e. the world in which we live and breathe, not some non-natural spiritual realm). If you are a supernaturalist about meaning, then you think that meaning has to be sourced in facts and features of some supernatural spiritual world (i.e. a world of spiritual beings and souls). Within naturalism, there are three main schools of thought concerning the conditions of meaning. There is the subjectivist school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you have the right kind of subjective experience and engagement with the world (e.g. you experience a lot of pleasure, satisfy your desires etc). There is the objectivist school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you make the right kinds of changes to the world around you (e.g. make the world a better place, discover some truth, create some work of art). And then, finally, there is the hybridist school of thought, which holds that some mix of subjective and objective conditions is required (e.g. you must be subjectively satisfied by making the right changes to the world around you). Within supernaturalism, there are also three main schools of thought. There is the ‘God-centred’ school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you satisfy some plan or condition that God (or many gods) has set out for you. There is the ‘soul-centred’ school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you maintain the purity and integrity of your immortal soul (e.g. if your soul has everlasting existence). And then, finally, there is another hybridist school of thought that claims that a bit of both is required (e.g. the standard Christian view that meaning is to be found by believing in God and living/worshipping him, forever, in heaven).

I have tried to illustrate these different approaches to meaning in the image below.

There is, of course, another school of thought that has been left out: nihilism. This is the view that life has no meaning. This has been deliberately left out even though it may be intellectually respectable. Why so? Because the purpose of Le Bihan’s article is to figure out if the No Self doctrine leads to nihilism. To do this, he needs to consider the knock-on implications of the No Self doctrine for all the non-nihilistic schools of thought. This is the task for the remainder of this post. If at the end of that we end up endorsing nihilism, so be it. We have to at least entertain the possibility of non-nihilism before we do that.

3. The No-Self View and the Traditional Accounts of Meaning
Let’s start by considering the compatibility between the No-Self doctrine and supernaturalist accounts of meaning. The No-Self doctrine is obviously incompatible with soul-centred theories of meaning. This is because the No-Self doctrine denies the existence of a soul. A soul is some metaphysically unique and unitary self that exists apart from the physical world. If you believe in the existence of a soul then you are, by default, denying that the self can be reduced or eliminated. You are saying that the self is an irreducible and metaphysically fundamental entity. If there is no self, then there is no soul and hence no soul-centred meaning. It follows from this that there cannot be a hybridist theory of supernatural meaning that is compatible with the No-Self doctrine (since hybridist theories also presuppose the existence of a soul).

God-centred theories of meaning are different. The essence of a God-centred theory is that meaning exists outside of the human world and the human self. It is something injected into our reality by a supernatural being. Meaning is, consequently, not dependent on any facts about the self — at least not necessarily. If God has some plan for the universe, then that plan could apply to a world lacking metaphysically unified selves. Le Bihan admits, however, that most traditional monotheistic views seem to rest great weight on the idea of a personal God who makes humans in his image. The question then arises: if we are not persons/selves in a metaphysically unique and fundamental way, how can we be made in God’s image? To the extent that this ‘personalist’ view of God is essential to meaning, then there could be some tension between God-centred views and the No-Self doctrine. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you get away from the idea of personal God, then a God-centred theory of meaning could make room for the No-Self view.

What about naturalist theories of meaning? Le Bihan is a firm believer in the compatibility between these theories and the No-Self doctrine. If you are a naturalist subjectivist, for instance, you probably think that meaning derives from subjective satisfaction or fulfillment. There is no reason why there must be a single, unitary self experiencing these states in order for these conditions to be satisfied. A bundle of discrete, moment-to-moment experiences can involve satisfaction or fulfillment. The same is true if you are an objectivist. In that case, you’ll think that meaning comes from producing the right kinds of causal effects in the world (making things better etc.). The meaning is, consequently, derived from something other than the self. You don’t need to have (or be) a self to have meaning. It follows from this that hybridist naturalism is also compatible with the No-Self doctrine.

There is, however, an obvious objection to this reasoning. You could argue that all naturalist theories of meaning presuppose the existence of a self. Even if it is not explicitly stated, the assumption is that there must be someone (some single entity) who is experiencing the satisfaction/fulfillment or causing the changes in the world. Le Bihan acknowledges that this could be a feature of many traditional naturalist accounts of meaning. So it’s not that embracing the No-Self doctrine requires absolutely no changes to how we think about meaning. It’s just that it is possible to reinterpret the traditional theories so as to accommodate the No-Self doctrine. As he puts it:

Perhaps one will object that naturalists like [Susan] Wolf do require a subject to be actively engaged in pursuing objective value. However, we may understand the situation in the following way: proper parts of the collections of entities we falsely identify as selves, may collectively instantiate normative properties, and may collectively pursue objective value. The search for meaning is genuine here— but this is not the quest of someone. This is the quest of a plurality that perceives—or thinks of—itself falsely as a singularity.

That’s the general overview of Le Bihan’s take on meaning in a world without selves. Can anything more specific be said?

4. The No-Self View and Transcendence Accounts of Meaning
Yes it can. The most interesting part of Le Bihan’s article — at least to me — is his discussion of the compatibility between the No-Self doctrine and a particular subset of theories of meaning that we can call ‘transcendence theories’. The examples discussed in Le Bihan’s article are all naturalistic in nature, though one could imagine supernaturalist versions of them as well. These theories share a common intuition: that in order for life to have meaning we must transcend our natural limits, i.e. somehow get beyond ourselves. Both Robert Nozick and Thaddeus Metz have defended versions of this.

Nozick’s theory is (as is typical for Nozick) both insightful and idiosyncratic. He holds that value arises from integration. The more integrated you are within your own boundaries, the more intrinsically valuable your existence is. Meaning, by way of contrast, comes from forging a connection between what is inside the boundary and the external world. As he puts it:

The problem of meaning itself is raised by the presence of limits. Thus, typically, people worry about the meaning of their lives when they see their existence as limited, perhaps because death will end them and so mark their final limit. To give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life. 
(Nozick 1989, 166-67)

He then goes on to suggest that there are two ways to transcend our limits: (i) by connecting with external things that remain external to us and (ii) by connecting with external things and either bringing them within us or integrating ourselves into some larger identity. This might sound obscure and abstract, but when you think about it in practical terms it resonates with how many people conceive of meaning. You derive meaning by being involved in some project (strategy (i)) or group (strategy (ii)) that is bigger than yourself and to which you make some important contribution. Think about the scientist trying to solve the riddles of existence or the soldier nobly sacrificing herself for the good of the nation. They are finding meaning in a very Nozickian way. Nozick seems particularly keen on the second strategy, suggesting that meaning really comes from transcending your limits by connecting with a ‘larger organic unity’.

Metz’s transcendence theory is a little bit more relatable. He defines transcendence in relation to our animal nature. We each have an animal nature, a relic of our evolutionary past. We are subject to its instincts, drives and emotions. Metz suggests that meaning comes from transcending the limits of this animal nature and realising a more rational, intellectual ideal. Of course, we all do this to some extent anyway, but Metz argues that true self-transcendence requires going beyond the animal self to a greater degree than normal people do.

There is lot to engage with in relation to both views (what does transcendence really mean? what is an organic unity? what is the distinction between animal/rational? is defensible?). The question before us is whether either is compatible with the No-Self doctrine. Again, one might argue that they are not because both views presuppose a self whose existence can be transcended in some way. But, as before, there might be a way to reinterpret both theories so that they are consistent with the No-Self doctrine. The trick is to think in terms of transcending an apparent self rather than an actual self. If you do this, not only does the No-Self doctrine become consistent with the self-transcendence ideal, it may actually be a way of realising it in practice. In other words, recognising the illusion of selfhood might be a way to transcend our perceived limits. Le Bihan makes this point explicitly in relation to Nozick’s view:

Thus, far from being at odds with eliminativism, Nozick’s naturalist transcendence view inherits an interesting interpretation…: a life is meaningful, to quote him again, by its “connecting with external things that remain external, and connecting with things so as somehow to incorporate these things, either within ourselves or into an enlarged identity”, but also, through a third path, by dissolving the very organic unity we are supposed to be, namely, by consciously erasing our perception and conception of the limits between the alleged self and the external world.

Le Bihan goes on then to argue that this is consistent with the traditional Buddhist view of enlightenment, i.e. we overcome our innate, animalistic suffering by dissolving the illusion of the self.

5. Conclusion
In summary, our traditional conception of meaning can seem quite self-centred. We tend to care about meaning from a first person perspective, and tend to presuppose the existence of a coherent, unitary self when thinking about the topic. But if we scrutinise the traditional theories of meaning in a little more detail, we find that they are compatible with the non-existence of the self. Indeed, the only theory that is clearly inconsistent with the No-Self doctrine is the religious, soul-centred theory. Every other theory can be reinterpreted to accommodate the doctrine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Mill's Argument for Free Speech: A Guide

(Note to reader: These are lightly expanded notes for a class I once gave on freedom of speech. The notes are intended to explain the logic, structure and shortcomings of J.S. Mill’s defence of free speech. They are my take on the argument, not a definitive interpretation or analysis of Mill. Nevertheless, I hope they explicate the structure of Mill’s argument a bit better than some of the other online summaries. Suffice to say, all quotes in the following text come directly from Mill.)

The most famous defence of free speech in the Western philosophical canon is, undoubtedly, the argument from Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. In recent debates about freedom of expression on college campuses, it is amazing how frequently the opponents of campus speech codes, trigger warnings, no-platforming, de-platforming and other speech regulations reach for Mill’s essay. One of the most prominent recent examples of this is the publication of a lavish illustrated edition of Chapter 2 of On Liberty by the Heterodox Academy, an organisation dedicated to ensuring ‘viewpoint diversity’ on college campuses. So enamoured are they by Mill’s argument that they think it is important to make it accessible and attractive to a new generation.

What is it about Mill’s argument that appeals more than 150 years after it was first published? Well, Mill was undoubtedly a great writer, particularly in his more polemical essays (I could take or leave the Principles of Political Economy to be honest). On Liberty crackles with passion and verve. You can’t help but get swept up in Mill’s enthusiasm for liberty, and impatience with censors and oppressors, when you read it. What’s more, many of the issues and arguments raised still feel relevant today. For better or worse, modern liberal democracies live in the shadow of Mill’s reasoning. We still regularly debate issues around censorship, regulatory interference and the 'Nanny' state in terms that he first set down.

His argument for free speech is one of the best examples of this. The basic thrust of the argument is set out in a remarkably succinct form in the following passage:

..the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

Implied in this passage is the following general argument for freedom of speech:

  • (1) The truth (and a clear and lively impression thereof) is valuable; we ought to allow/enable people to arrive at true beliefs about the world.

  • (2) Freedom of speech enables/allows people to arrive at a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world (or, what is the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and lively understanding of true beliefs about the world).

  • (3) Therefore, we ought to promote freedom of speech (and prevent the silencing or censorship of expression).

Most of Mill’s time and energy is dedicated to the defence of the second premise of this argument. On a surface reading, he seems to think that guaranteeing freedom of expression is a truth-and-understanding generating mechanism. Or, to adopt the modern idiom, he seems to think that if we allow the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to unfold without interference, the truth will out. Of course, it’s a little difficult for those of us standing here today — in the post-truth, post-Trump era — to get fully onboard with this. This might be one reason why modern commentators are quick to reject Mill’s argument but I think they are wrong to do so on this surface reading. It involves a partial distortion of Mill’s view. Mill is not a rosy-eyed optimist about the marketplace of ideas. His argument for free speech has something in common with the Churchillian defence of democracy: it’s the worst system for ensuring truth and understanding, bar all the others.

Let’s see how this works by going through the sub-arguments that Mill provides in support of premise (2) of the main argument. These arguments are essentially summarised in the quoted passage above, and depending on who you ask, there are either two or three of them. I think there are really two important sub-arguments, with a third one that is kind of a mish-mash of the first two. I’ll go through each in turn and then come back to consider some general problems with Mill’s reasoning.

1. Mill’s First Argument: ‘If the opinion is right…’
Mill’s first argument in favour of free speech (and against censorship) is very straightforward. It is this:

  • (4) If we censor an expression, and if that expression is true, then people are denied the opportunity to exchange truth for error.

This directly supports premise (2) of the main argument. It is so straightforward that surely no one could object? But, of course, they do. The defender of censorship can respond to this point and argue that we can trust censors to filter out the true expressions from the false ones. That way we can have censorship, without denying people access to the truth.

Mill scoffs at this because it presumes that the censor is infallible. He says we have ample evidence (and common sense) to suggest that people are not infallible and capable of weeding out the truth from the falsehood. There is no perfect censor. History teaches us this lesson. In past ages, opinions and ideas were suppressed that we now know to be true (or, at least, accept as true). As Mill puts it ‘ages are no more infallible than individuals’.

Mill goes even further. He argues that the only check against our own fallibility is to promote the free expression of ideas. In other words, he thinks that the only way we can have confidence in our opinions and judgments is by testing them in the fire of free expression. So censorship doesn’t merely assume an implausible infallibility it also undermines the only means we have at our disposal to overcome our fallibility:

The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded… This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it.

Mill also dismisses, rightly in my view, the claim made by some people that truth can triumph over persecution. There is no guarantee of this. As Mill puts it:

Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.

I think this quote, in particular, highlights the point I made earlier: that Mill is not naive about the prospects of truth winning out in the marketplace of ideas. He recognises the fact that people are fallible and sometimes biased against the truth. He just thinks that adopting a censorious approach is worse than allowing for the free exchange of ideas.

Let’s try to draw together the logical steps of this reasoning and put it into an argument diagram. Here’s my interpretation of it (all of these follow from and either support or contradict premise (4)):

  • (5) Objection to (4): Censorship does not necessarily undermine the pursuit of truth: we could trust the censor to filter out the untrue opinions and allow the true ones to get through.

  • (6) Reply to (5): This assumes an infallible censor: we have ample evidence from our own experiences and from history to suggest that censors are not, and cannot be trusted to be, infallible.

  • (7) Reply to (5): The only check against infallibility (and the only reason to feel confident in our grasp of the truth) is the testing of our opinions in the fire of free expression.

  • (8) Objection to (4): Even if we did censor the truth, the truth will eventually win out over the censorship.

  • (9) Reply to (9): There is no guarantee of this. We are not more zealous for the truth than for error and if the social penalty is sufficiently high the truth will be blocked.

2. Mill’s Second Argument: ‘If the opinion is false…’
Mill’s second argument is slightly more complex. He asks us to imagine, if only for the sake of argument, a society in which all received opinion is true. Hard though that may be, imagine further that someone enters into this society and starts asserting falsehoods that contradict these truths. Would it be okay to censor that person? You might say ‘yes’ because it doesn’t deny people access to the truth (ignoring, for now, Mill’s concerns about our ability to tell the difference between truth and falsity). But this is where Mill’s second sub-argument comes into play. Recall from the main argument that it is not just about knowing the truth; it is also about having a clear and lively understanding of the truth. This is something we can only gain by considering and debating the contrary point of view. Without this contest and debate our beliefs will have the character of ‘dead dogmas’ and not ‘living truths’:

  • (10) If we censor expressions that are false, then our beliefs will be ‘held as a dead dogma[s], not living truth[s]', i.e. we will not have a clear and lively understanding of the truth.

Again, this reason is supposed to support premise (2) of the main argument. For what it is worth, I find this to be a credible claim. There are certain things I believe to be true (e.g. the theory of evolution, the non-existence of God as traditionally conceived, and the moral permissibility of homosexuality) that I really only first appreciated by systematically engaging with contrary points of view.

You might, however, disagree. You might argue that we can get a perfectly good grasp of the truth by just looking at the arguments in favour of the truth. Take for example, the truth of the Pythagorean theorem. Surely we can understanding this truth just by considering its proof? We don’t need to entertain the opinions of radical anti-Pythagoreans. There is no fear of dead dogmas here. The proof itself is all we need.

Mill accepts this counter-argument, but responds by pointing out that it is only a very narrow range of truths that can be grasped in this way. Mathematical truths are possibly the only example (and this ignores the fact that some mathematical proofs work by contradiction). In almost all other cases, particularly cases involving moral and political truths, understanding and appreciation is only possible if we entertain and engage with the contrary point of view. As Mill puts it:

So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

You might object that this still doesn’t make the case for free expression. Maybe only some people need to have access to contrary opinions (e.g. professors, politicians and other elites). They can test ideas out, get a full and lively impression of the truth, and then they can tell the rest of us about it.

Call these people the ‘epistemic elite’. In some of his writings Mill was sympathetic to the idea of an epistemic elite, once going so far as to suggest that the votes of the educated be given extra weight in elections. For all his radicalism he was a man of his times, and, as we saw above, he was sceptical about the cognitive powers of the great mass of humanity. But he wasn’t a fan of limiting freedom of expression (and note there would still need to be some freedom of expression) to an epistemic elite.

He seems to have two reasons for this. The first is that he felt that everyone needed the ongoing mental exercise to appreciate the meaning and significance of the truth. -- that this was good for their own self-actualisation The second is that he felt the world would lose something by not allowing everyone to pursue the truth in a vigorous and unencumbered way (I’m blurring sections of Mill’s argument by quoting this next bit, but so be it):

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?… Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.

Finally, even if you accept this you might worry that Mill’s argument demands too much. He seems to be saying that we must constantly and continually renew our conception of the truth through engagement with gadflies and contrarians. Surely that would be exhausting? Yes, but this is what the vigorous pursuit of the truth requires.

Let’s now try draw together the logical steps of this chain of reasoning:

  • (11) Objection to (10): We can get a clear and lively understanding of the truth by considering the arguments for the truth by themselves (i.e. without considering contrary falsehoods)

  • (12) Reply to (11): This is only possible in a narrow range of cases; in the great majority of cases understanding is only possible by considering and engaging with the contrary point of view.

  • (13) Objection to (10): Even if we need to engage falsehoods to grasp the truth, this does not support free expression: an epistemic elite could be given the task of engaging the falsehoods on our behalf.

  • (14) Reply to (13): There would still need to be some freedom of expression for this elite.

  • (15) Reply to (13): We should not limit freedom of expression to an epistemic elite: everyone should be allowed to achieve the mental stature they are capable of; and we may be depriving the world of something by not encouraging promising intellects to vigorously pursue the truth.

3. Mill’s Third Argument: ‘If the opinion is partly true, partly false…'
The two preceding arguments constitute the backbone of Mill’s defence of free speech. However, Mill himself divides his argument into three parts. This is because the two preceding arguments presume the extreme — cases in which we are trying to suppress/censor an opinion that is wholly true or wholly false — and the reality is likely to be more nuanced. We are more likely to encounter opinions that are partly true and partly false. What should we do with them? Well, obviously we should allow for their free expression. The reason for doing so is a mish-mash of the two previous arguments: to do otherwise would deprive us of the partial truth and engaging with the partial lie will help with understanding.

I don’t think there is a distinctive argument here.

That said, in elaborating on this third possibility, Mill does more clearly reveal his pessimism about the ‘marketplace of ideas’. And this is where we get what I am calling the ‘Churchillian’ defence of free speech: it's the best of the worst. First, Mill accepts that free and open discussion may not lead to the truth but, rather, to a more partisan entrenchment of conflicting opinions:

I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest expression but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents.

This speaks to the present era just as much as it did to Mill’s. But then why favour free speech? Because the censorship of opinion would be even worse. Some people do benefit from listening into the partisan debates of the ideologues. They acquire a clearer and livelier impression of the truth. To suppress or censor opinion would deprive them of this benefit. In the overall balance, it is better to give them this than to try to avoid the evil of excessive partisanship:

… it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil. There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend to only to one that errors harden into prejudices.

In other words, freedom of speech is the lesser of two evils.

To summarise this chain of reasoning:

  • (16) Objection to (2): Allowing free expression of partial truths will simply lead to the polarisation and entrenchment of opinion.

  • (17) Reply to (16): This will only be true for certain ideologues and is the lesser of two evils: there is more hope and less chance of prejudice if people are forced to listen to both sides.

4. Some Final Critical Thoughts on Mill’s Argument
So that’s Mill’s argument. As you can see, it is a reasonably nuanced defence of the ideal of free speech. To reiterate what I have said already, I don’t see Mill as a rosy-eyed optimist. He doesn’t see free speech as a panacea for truth. He sees it as the least worst option. But even with that more nuanced understanding in place, there are many concerns one can have about the argument. I can’t list all of them, but here are a few of the more prominent criticisms.

First, one could question the value of truth. While I think most people would agree that truth has some value, I doubt they think it is the only thing of value. Individual welfare and well-being are also valuable, as is respect for people from diverse backgrounds. We may worry that prioritising the value of truth undermines these other values, on at least some occasions. Indeed, this perceived tension is, arguably, at the root of many contemporary debates about free speech. There is a fear that allowing any and every opinion to be expressed (even if true or partly true) has a negative impact on individual well-being and inclusiveness. Ironically, Mill himself grappled with this tension. He was a utilitarian and so did worry about whether truth was compatible with the principle of utility. He thought it was, but he may have been too quick to believe this.

Second, one could be generally sceptical about the existence of truth, at least in all domains of inquiry. Maybe there is no such thing as the truth in moral and political debates? Maybe there is only the endless back and forth of partisan opinion and what matters is how it makes you feel not whether it is true? If you believe this, you might be more open to censorship and Mill’s argument might hold no sway. I, myself, would reject this extreme form of scepticism. I’m more with Mill. I think there are some truths in moral and political life and that the only check we have against our own fallibility and prejudice is to engage with conflicting opinion.

Third, one could be concerned about the practical impossibility of Mill’s ideal. Some people interpret the ideal of free speech to entail ‘viewpoint neutrality’ when it comes to the regulation of speech, i.e. all views are to be treated equally and equally worthy of debate and consideration. But it’s not possible to be completely viewpoint neutral. As a society we are always, implicitly or explicitly, censoring some views. We decide that certain ideas and certain people are worth engaging with and others are not. The decision to invite one person to speak at an event is the decision to exclude another. The decision to include some topics on a course curriculum is the decision not to include others. And so on. We cannot stop this indirect censorship from taking place. At best, following Mill, we can try to check ourselves against narrow-mindedness.

Fourth, you might worry that even if we agree with Mill on the value of free speech, there is some need for (relatively) content-neutral rules to ensure that speech has its beneficial effects. If you organise a debate, and everyone just shouts over one another so that no opinion gets heard or properly evaluated, then it is hard to see how that is in keeping with the Millian ideal. And, of course, this is the big problem with speech in the modern era, particularly algorithmically regulated speech that we see online and in the media. As Brian Leiter points out in his essay ‘The Case Against Free Speech’, we tolerate procedural rules on what gets said and when in many domains of life (e.g. legal trials) and they clearly have some benefit. Why couldn’t they have benefit elsewhere? I have to say, I am a big fan of the idea of (relatively) content-neutral rules — I say ‘relatively’ because nothing is perfectly neutral — governing freedom of expression. But this idea runs into an obvious obstacle: who (or what) do you trust to be the speech-referee? We trust judges in legal trials, but then subject them to scrutiny and review. Could we do something similar in the public sphere or would it just slide into unwelcome forms of censorship? (Obviously, this ignores the fact that we do have many implicit speech referees in society already)

Fifth, and finally, it’s worth noting that Mill was not a ‘free speech absolutist’ and, indeed, that the notion of free speech absolutism does not make much sense. Mill thought that speech that directly incited violence to others should be prevented. And many other self-labelled ’absolutists’ accept similar restrictions. They argue that fraudulent speech or speech that amounts to common assault (i.e. causes fear of physical violence) should be subject to some legal restriction (as they have been for centuries). But once you allow for this you start to realise that the borders between permissible and impermissible forms of speech are highly contested. What counts as speech amounting to assault or fraud? What kinds of speech cause real harm? People have different opinions and different experiences. Perhaps that's the real argument for free speech: to allow people to air their different opinions about the value of free speech.

Okay, so that’s it. That’s all I have to say about Mill’s argument for free speech. Hopefully this clarified things for some people.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Am I a Hypocrite? A Philosophical Self-Assessment

I was recently called a hypocrite. I was talking to a friend and, as is my wont, I was complaining about another person who failed to respond to an email I had sent them a few days previously. My friend pointed out that I was in no position to make this complaint: I am a notorious non-responder to emails. I frequently procrastinate and dilly-dally in my correspondence with others. I often wait until the last possible minute to reply, or until I have received several follow-ups begging me for a response.

The accusation stung but my friend had a point. My complaint was pretty rich when you consider my own behaviour. But my instant reaction was not to accept what they had said but, rather, to make excuses. I argued that my friend didn’t understand why I was so bad at responding to emails. It wasn’t a moral failing, I told them, it was an illness. I have a chronic fear of making decisions (which is often required in responding to emails). I always worry that I will do or say the wrong thing. So I like to postpone making them for as long as possible. I get trapped in spirals of anxiety that can only be disrupted by last minute panic or repeated entreaties from others. I told them they should pity me, not condemn me.

It all sounds silly now. And although this particular accusation of hypocrisy wasn’t that serious, it did urge me to reflect on others ways in which I may be hypocritical. It’s something I was thinking about anyway, particularly in the aftermath of my sister’s death. As I noted in my previous writings about grief, I felt a lot of guilt after she died. I wasn’t the perfect brother by any stretch of the imagination. I frequently ignored her when she tried to make contact with me. And I didn’t appreciate (or tell her that I appreciated) all the generous things she did for me over the years. Her death eliminated any possibility of righting those past wrongs to her, but I did resolve to try to change my behaviour toward my surviving friends and family. I told myself I would be more appreciative of the time that I have left with them; that I wouldn’t be so quick to ignore them or procrastinate in my responses to them; that I would be less selfish and self-centred.

Several months later and, I regret to say, nothing has changed. I still think I should be more appreciative and communicative, but (deep down) I prefer to do my own thing and to pursue my own goals. Some people might argue that I am just being weak-willed, i.e. that I am failing to live up to my ideals due to short-term temptations or bad habits. But I think it is different. I think I might be deeply hypocritical about my personal values.

All of which has driven me to read the philosophical literature on hypocrisy in order to figure out how serious a moral failing it is, to determine whether I am in fact a hypocrite, and to figure out what I should do about it. I want to share some of my findings over the remainder of this post. I’ll start with the common view of hypocrisy as a moral failing and then work towards a more sympathetic view of hypocrisy as self-deception. I’ll conclude with a discussion of moral integrity. I’ll be peppering all of this with repeated self-assessments. You may find this nauseatingly self-indulgent, but I hope it resonates for some people.

1. The Common View: Hypocrisy is a Moral Failing
The common view among philosophers is that hypocrisy is a moral failing. Indeed, it is often viewed as one of the worst moral failings. Why is this? Christine McKinnon’s article ‘Hypocrisy, with a Note on Integrity’ provides a good, clear defence of this view. The article itself is a classic exercise in analytical philosophical psychology. It tries to clarify the structure of hypocrisy and explain why we should take it so seriously. It does so by arguing that there are certain behaviours, desires and dispositions that are the hallmark of the hypocrite and that these behaviours, desires and dispositions undermine our system of social norms.

McKinnon makes this case by considering some paradigmatic instances of hypocrisy, and identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions that allow us to label these as instances of hypocrisy. My opening example of my email behaviour probably fits this paradigmatic mode — despite my protestations to the contrary. A better example, however, might be religious hypocrisy. There have been many well-documented historical cases of this, but let’s not focus on these. Let’s instead imagine a case that closely parallels these historical examples. Suppose there is a devout fundamentalist Christian preacher. He regularly preaches about the evils of homosexuality and secularism and professes to be heterosexual and devout. He calls upon parents to disown their homosexual children or to subject them to ‘conversion therapy’. Then, one day, this preacher is discovered to himself be a homosexual. Not just that, it turns out he has a long-term male partner that he has kept hidden from the public for over 20 years, and that they were recently married in a non-religious humanist ceremony.

I think most people would call this preacher a hypocrite. But what is it about the preacher’s behaviour that warrants this label? Well, one obvious feature is his deception: he has been living a lie. He has professed and preached one kind of behaviour, but lived and done the opposite. The mismatch between his professions and actions seems to be one of the hallmarks of hypocrisy.

But it’s not just that. Deception, as McKinnon points out, might be a necessary condition for hypocrisy, but it’s not sufficient. People lie and dissemble all the time, but we don’t call them hypocrites for doing so. There needs to be something else. That something else is a complex intention or desire to use the deception to gain some moral advantage or reputation within a particular community. Again, look to what the preacher is doing. He isn’t just living a lie. He is actively preaching the contrary in order to attain the respect and status of the community of devout Christians in which he operates. He knows that they see him as an authority figure and will respond positively to his message. He uses this to his advantage. The complex intention consists in both an awareness of the community’s moral standards and how to manipulate them to one’s own advantage.

Putting this all together, McKinnon’s account of hypocrisy appears to be the following:

Hypocrite = A person who is dishonest about his/her true motives/intentions/behaviours in order to be perceived in a more favourable light by their moral community, where:
(a) The person knows that their motives (etc) are being judged;
(b) The person knows that they are manipulating the judgments of their audience.

On this account, it’s easy to see why hypocrisy is taken to be such a serious moral failing. The hypocrite, according to McKinnon, is not simply being inconsistent in their behaviour, they are subverting the system of social morality. Since social morality relies, to a large extent, on the good faith of all participants, hypocrites are a major problem because of their bad faith. They are not committed to genuine moral improvement or conformity. They are free riders on the system of social morality. In this sense, they are very different from the person of integrity (about whom there will be more discussion below). The person of integrity acts in good faith and tries to ensure coherence between their motives and actions. They may get it wrong, but at least they do not subvert the presumption of good faith by their efforts.

McKinnon is at pains to distinguish hypocrisy from other, closely-related phenomena. She says that hypocrisy is distinct from politeness. It may be possible to confuse the two. If you are at a dinner party and the host asks you whether or not you liked the meal, you might say that ‘it was lovely’ even though you thought it tasted like something scraped off the bottom of a well-worn shoe. The difference is that politeness is motivated by respect for the other person. You are trying to protect their feelings, not gain an advantage over them. That said, the distinction can be subtle and sometimes you may wonder whether what seems initially like politeness is, in fact, hypocrisy. You may even wonder this about your own behaviour.

In a similar vein, McKinnon argues that hypocrisy is not the same as self-deception (i.e. some compartmentalisation or sincere belief that one is consistent in one’s motives and behaviours). Indeed, she argues that the true or ‘professional’ hypocrite operates in the complete absence of self-deception: they know what their true motives are at all times. Still, she acknowledges that there might be a tendency for someone who starts out as a pure hypocrite to gradually descend into self-deception, but she thinks it is important to keep hypocrisy and self-deception conceptually distinct. More on this in a moment.

Finally, McKinnon also argues that hypocrisy may, on some occasions, be morally permissible. If the hypocrite is someone who manipulates social perceptions to gain an advantage within a given moral community, the morality of their behaviour must be judged relative to the standards of that community. If the community’s standards are themselves immoral, and if there is great risk to the individual if they don’t manipulate other people’s judgments of them (or if they can do more good by manipulating those judgments), then it is possible that their hypocrisy is permissible. Still, McKinnon is cautious about this assessment, and suggests that such people might be viewed as cowards for their hypocrisy. It would then depend on the particular case whether that cowardliness was morally blameworthy (she gives the example of someone living in Nazi Germany who goes along to get along).

2. The Sympathetic View: Hypocrisy as Self-Deception
McKinnon’s view is attractive and conceptually pure. The problem with it is that it is almost too harsh on the hypocrite. For her, a hypocrite is like a cartoon villain, a uniquely self-centred and manipulative abuser of social norms. We might wonder whether any such villains exist in the real world.

If I were to assess my own behaviour and attitudes using her framework, I would be very reluctant to call myself a hypocrite. I don’t think I am self-consciously and deceptively manipulating other people’s judgments through what I say or do. Maybe there is a little bit of that going on. You could argue that writing a blog post like this (or the series that I wrote shortly after my sister died) is a kind of virtue signalling. You could argue that in writing I am trying to make out that I am a better person than I really am. I’m playing the part of someone who publicly self-flagellates themselves in order to convince you of my moral seriousness when, behind the scenes, I’m pretty self-centred and unrepentant. But it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. It feels like a genuine inner torment — a war between different values — one that I resolve and rationalise in a way that makes me feel comfortable (and involves the least change).

In other words, what I refer to as my own hypocrisy seems to involve a good deal of self-deception and self-manipulation, not (just) the manipulation of others. That’s why I was relieved to read Michael Statman’s article on ‘Hypocrisy and Self-Deception’. Statman wants to get away from the idea of the hypocrite as moral cartoon character. Real people are way more interesting than that. As he sees it, the morally vicious form of hypocrisy that is the focus of McKinnon’s ire tends to overlap with and blur into self-deception much more frequently than she allows. The two things are not strongly dichotomous. Indeed, people can slide back and forth between them with relative ease: the self-deceived can slide into hypocrisy and the hypocrite can slide into self-deception.

Although I am attracted to this view, Statman points out that it is a tough sell. On face value, hypocrisy and self-deception look to be very different. Consider some of the obvious differences: hypocrisy involves deception of others, whereas self-deception involves deception of the self; hypocrisy requires an audience and social context, whereas self-deception can happen in private; hypocrisy is voluntary whereas self deception is involuntary; and so on. The image below outlines further discrepancies between the two phenomena. When you consider them all, you’d be hard pressed to say that hypocrisy and self-deception are similar. They seem more like direct contradictions (or complements) to one another.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, you get a different impression. Self-deception is more like hypocrisy than we initially think. For starters, self-deception is partly voluntary, or at least sustained by voluntary acts. To be self-deceived over the long term requires the avoidance or suppression of evidence that contradicts the narrative you tell yourself. In my case, I like to think that I am a generous person, who respects and values my family and friends, but to sustain that self image I have to overlook my tendency to ignore phone calls and emails from those people, and to spend most of my time by myself doing what I most prefer. Furthermore, self-deception is also partly social. Other people support you in your self-interpretation or give you a free pass on the behaviour that contradicts that interpretation. I know this happens to me all the time: people forgive me for my self-centred conduct and tell me that I’m more generous than I know myself to be. All this makes the slide from self-deception to outright hypocrisy much easier than it seems.

Similarly, hypocrisy is much more like self-deception than we initially think. It’s very hard to consistently maintain the pretence demanded by outright hypocrisy. It’s much easier if we believe our own lies. If I want others to think of me as a generous, family-focused guy, and I want the reputation that entails, it’s much easier if I genuinely believe that to be true. It reduces the cognitive dissonance and enables better self-regulation. We can compartmentalise and sincerely believe the signals we send to others. Statman cites some empirical evidence for this, describing several psychological experiments which support the notion that liars tend to believe their own lies (and do better as a result).

You might accept all this and still insist that hypocrisy and self-deception are conceptually distinct. In other words, you might accept that self-deception can morph into hypocrisy and vice versa, but they are still very different things and it is important to maintain the conceptual barrier. Against this, Statman argues that maintaining the barrier wouldn’t be true to real life or to how we deploy the concept of hypocrisy in everyday speech.

As you might imagine, I am quite sympathetic to Statman’s account, partly because it allows me to interpret my own behaviour in a more sympathetic light. Maybe I am not the villain that others make me out to be? Maybe I am a victim of my own self-deception? Maybe I live most of my life in a delusory state, deceiving myself and others, but then occasionally chance upon windows of awareness where I realise what I am doing. My conversation with my friend about the emails, or my self-reflection about whether I have reformed my character after my sister’s death being two obvious examples of this. I guess the question then becomes: what do I do with those moments of self-awareness?

3. The Resolution: Pursuing Integrity
Up to this point, I have been trying to diagnose and classify my personal failings. Am I a hypocrite or self-deceived? Am I a villain or victim? The upshot of the preceding analysis is that I could be a bit of both. In a sense though, it doesn’t matter. At root, the problem is the same: there is an inconsistency in both my behaviour and my values (professed or otherwise), and this inconsistency is more than a simple case of being weak-willed. The challenge is to resolve this inconsistency.

How might this be done? The ideal of integrity points the way. I briefly alluded to this earlier on when discussing McKinnon’s view. I noted that she sees integrity as the direct opposite of hypocrisy. The person of integrity does not live the double life of the hypocrite. They try to achieve balance and harmony across all domains of their lives. And while it may not be possible for us to achieve perfect integrity, it is at least an ideal toward which we should aspire.

That is certainly what Alfred Archer argues in his article ‘Integrity and the Value of an Integrated Self’. The article serves a dual function. The first is to explain the practical nature of integrity; the second is to make the case for integrity as an ideal. The analysis is rich and rewarding. If you have the time, I recommend reading it. I’ll just summarise the gist of it for now.

Archer’s explication of integrity contrasts the ‘Integrated Self’ with the ‘Fragmented Self’. The integrated self has coherence and wholeness to its ‘projects, ambitions, values, emotions and desires’. It does not experience a conflict between self-interest and moral value. Furthermore, the integrated self’s personal ambitions are either aligned with, or not in tension with, one another. This doesn’t mean that the integrated self is narrow-minded and only interested in one thing, but it does mean that there is harmony among its different pursuits. This is to be contrasted with the experiences of the fragmented self, who pursues incompatible projects, engages in compartmentalisation between different domains of life, and succumbs to hypocrisy and self-deception. To live as a fragmented self is to live life on the edge of emotional breakdown.

Archer illustrates this distinction with two literary examples, both of whom are fictional doctors. The first is John Sassall, a country doctor in John Berger’s novel A Fortunate Man. Sassall is an integrated self. He ‘cures others to cure himself’. His professional life is in harmony with his private values. But this wasn’t always true. He once experienced tensions in his life due to overwork and ambition. He wanted to live a life of service but thought that this meant making the biggest difference to his patients. In believing this he prevented himself from truly serving his community, being dismissive of cases that weren’t serious enough to warrant his attention. He realised that he needed to reinterpret the ideal of service to bring it into line with what was both possible and necessary for him at his station in life.

The second example is Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch. Lydgate is a fragmented self. He has multiple conflicting ideals and dispositions. He wants to serve his community and to make important medical breakthroughs, but he is also something of a snob who needs to ingratiate himself with the influential and wealthy members of his community. This combination proves to be a recipe for disaster. He allows his need for wealthy benefactors to fund his scientific projects to cloud his medical judgment. This duplicitousness takes its toll. He has the outward trappings of success, but, as Eliot herself puts it, ‘always regarded himself as a failure’.

From these examples, we can get a pretty good handle on Archer’s account of integrity. But what about the value of integrity? Why is it important to aspire toward an integrated self? Archer’s argument is a modest one. There is no guarantee of value. He admits that it is possible to be an integrated moral monster, i.e. to have immoral ambitions, desires and projects that are perfectly coherent and balanced. He just thinks this is unlikely in practice (and indeed points to empirical research suggesting that moral exemplars are more likely to be well-integrated). The reason for this is the tension between self-interest and moral value. This is one of the main causes of individual moral failure. We all want to ‘succeed’, to get ahead in life, to acquire a reputation and social status; we also all have moral values, many of which tend to put a premium on kindness and generosity to others, selflessness and service to one’s community. If we pick the wrong ambitions, or the wrong values, there’s a danger of fragmentation. We get pulled in different directions, occasionally heeding the siren song of self-interest, and occasionally yielding to the nagging voice of conscience.

This certainly rings true for me. I think my problem — my feeling of inner hypocrisy — stems from a conflict between my ambitions and my values. I have chosen the life of an academic. That life rewards certain kinds of behaviours: publishing peer-reviewed papers, teaching classes, winning research grants, and gaining the respect of one’s peers. These are the status markers and indicators of success. I’m drawn to them because they let me know whether or not I’m winning the game I’ve chosen to play. I’m also drawn to them because I find some of them to be quite enjoyable (particularly writing and research). But I feel guilty about this because I think they contradict or undermine many of my moral values. I have said this before, in other ways, but I don’t think the work I do is of great social value. I’m not sure the world needs another paper about the ethics of AI, or, even if it did, that the paper I write will be a major contribution to knowledge or policy. I’m just one replaceable voice in the wilderness. I also have considerable doubts about the value of teaching and its practical impact. It might make some difference to some students but I suspect this is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, I feel that the pursuit of professional ambition draws me away from what things that really matters.

I don’t doubt that these feelings are common, and I’m sure other people experience greater tension between success at work and moral value. Nevertheless, I think this tension is clearly at the root of my psychological malaise in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Her death crystallised, in a particularly extreme and painful way, the tension I had long suspected was there. Until that moment, I could ignore it and deceive myself into thinking that I was living a coherent and integrated life, that my personal ambitions were consistent with my moral aspirations. After that moment, the deception was not sustainable. The wool was lifted from my eyes; the emperor of my ego was revealed to be a naked fraud. I realised (and wrote about) it at the time, and that is why it is so frustrating to think that nothing has changed since then. I have just lapsed back into the same old patterns once more.

I’ll need to resolve this tension lest I end up like Tertius Lydgate. But this will be difficult to do. I have three main options. Either (a) I allow my current professional ambitions to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my moral values; (b) I allow my values to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my professional ambitions; or (c) I reform/reinterpret both. The first is the path of least resistance; the second would require a significant overhaul of my current priorities and habits; and the third is just difficult for me to assess at this juncture because its consequences are so unclear.

I think I am going to have to end this self-assessment here. If you have made it this far, I commend you. I have certainly benefitted from writing all this. I’ve learned something about the concepts of hypocrisy, self-deception and integrity, and I’ve used this to bring clarity and insight to my own life. The writing has been cathartic and therapeutic, even if it is only just a beginning. I hope you have got something out of it too.