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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Morality and the Separateness of Persons: Some Radical Possibilities

Think about yourself in 20 years time for a moment. Imagine the person you might become. How do you feel about this person? Do you feel some important, intimate connection with them? Do you think you have a right to prioritise the life of ‘future-you’ over and above that of other people that are alive today? Does the person who lives 20 yards across the street warrant as much concern as yourself in 20 years time?

Figuring out the answer to questions like this is central to the task of moral philosophy. Most people think that each individual is a separate person (i.e. you-in-20-years is very different from the stranger living 20 yards down the street) and that this ‘separateness of persons’ is an important moral fact. This was first explicitly mentioned by John Rawls in his classic work A Theory of Justice, though the concept has much deeper roots. In essence, the idea is this: the fact that I am a distinct person from you and you from me, coupled with the fact that I have a unique, asymmetrical relationship with future versions of myself (and you with future versions of yourself) means that each individual is a special, separate unit of moral concern. We must respect individuals as ends in themselves and not use them as means to more desirable ends. This counts against utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophies and in favour of deontological theories.

There is, however, a dedicated opposition to this view. Derek Parfit, for example, has famously argued that the separateness of persons is a ‘shallow fact’ about human beings, not a ‘deep fact’. The distinction we draw between you-in-20-years and the stranger down the street is more an arbitrary matter of convention, than a deep truth about who you are. After all, you-in-20-years could have a very different personality and set of beliefs and values. He or she could be much more like the stranger down the street than you currently believe. Why give them more consideration than they deserve? Parfit’s view lends itself to a more utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophy. Everyone’s life counts as equal in the great felicific calculus.

In his 2009 paper, ‘Natural Separateness’, Tim Christie offers an interesting critique of Parfit’s view. He argues that even if Parfit is right that the separateness of persons is a shallow fact, it does not follow that it does not warrant special weight in our moral theories. On the contrary, a fact can be shallow and still warrant great weight. Christie also goes further and argues that if anyone wants to construct a moral theory that is fit for human beings, then they better respect the separateness of persons. To do otherwise, would be to construct a moral theory that is only fit for hypothetical, non-human beings. In the course of making this argument, Christie makes a number of interesting claims about moral theories in hypothethical alien societies. I want to look at his arguments in the remainder of this post.

1. Parfit on the Shallow/Deep Distinction
Before we go any further, we need to have a clearer sense of what Parfit actually argues, starting with his distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ facts. We can characterise that as follows:

Deep Facts: Facts that are part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. that are not human creations and do not depend on us for their existence.

Shallow Facts: Facts that are not part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. facts that arise from social convention and practice, and that do depend on us for their existence.

Take a simple example: the borders that exist between different countries. These are shallow facts. They really do exist and they have considerable practical and political importance, but they are the result of social convention and habit (albeit convention and habit that can have centuries of institutional inertia behind it). The borders are not deep facts about the world in which we live. In this sense they differ from geographical landmarks like rivers and mountains which, although subject to some human control and interference, and capable of changing over time, are pre-existent and not dependent on social convention.

One of Parfit’s motivating principles is that when we construct a moral theory, we should give deep facts pride of place. This gets interesting when he turns his attention to individual identity and the separateness of persons. As noted above, Parfit thinks that personal identity is a shallow fact, not a deep fact. The boundaries we draw between ourselves and others are more like the borders between different countries than geographical landmarks. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Parfit is a reductionist about personal identity. He does not believe in the existence of a separate metaphysical soul or person. He thinks that all claims about continuing personal identity are ultimately reducible to biological and psychological facts. In particular, he thinks that psychological facts are what matter to claims of continuing personal identity: if you-right-now share a sufficient number of overlapping psychological states (e.g. memories) with you-in-20-years-time, then you are the same person. If not, then you may really be different people. The fact that we still might think of you as the same person is purely conventional. This then brings us to Parfit’s second reason for favouring a ‘shallow’ view of personal identity. Through a series of ingenious and amusing thought experiments — many of them involving brain transplants and teleportation devices — Parfit thinks we can begin to see the arbitrariness of the conventional boundaries we draw between different selves. I won’t go through these thought experiments here, but you can easily find them online and they are worth reading. They suggest that, in at least some extreme cases, what we think of as a single continuing identity is anything but: it is possible for a single identity to ‘fission’ into two or more identities and for more than two identities to occupy the same body.

If the separateness of persons is not a deep fact, it follows for Parfit that it does not deserve pride of place in our moral theory (contra Kant and Rawls). But then what does? Parfit seems to think that subjective well-being and welfare are the important deep facts. We should focus on maximising or optimising those states of being, not on ensuring or protecting individual identity (except insofar as it contributes to well-being). This leads him to favour an impartial, consequentialist approach to morality. (I should add the obvious caveat that this is Parfit pre-On What Matters, which tries to reconcile consequentialism with other normative theories.)

2. So what if Identity is Shallow?
Tim Christie thinks that Parfit is wrong. He thinks that Parfit overstates the arbitrariness of identity and that even if the separateness of persons is not a deep metaphysical fact, it is still a fact that we ought to respect in our moral reasoning. In making this case, Christie draws inspiration from the work of Christine Korsgaard and Mark Johnston. Korsgaard accepts Parfit’s main point. She agrees that personal identity is not a deep fact. She thinks of it, instead, as practically necessary fact. As biological beings we are tied to the fate of one biological body (at least until we invent the fanciful mind-uploading and teleportation devices that Parfit imagines) and when occupying that body we have to adopt a deliberative standpoint, i.e. we must act as a single rational agent that reasons and acts over time, with the interests of this biological body in mind. So even if Parfit is right that the shallowness of identity emerges in certain extreme cases, there is no easy way to escape the practical necessity of viewing oneself as a single continuing identity. Johnston makes a similar point, highlighting the biological underpinning of the separateness of persons and pointing out that this underpinning is what supports many of our conventional ‘person practices’ (i.e. our practices of viewing and treating each other as separate persons). Johnston doesn’t think that this biological underpinning is our moral destiny, but it does provide a non-arbitrary underpinning to our day-to-day morality.

Christie runs with this critique. He challenges Parfit for his overreliance on fanciful thought experiments. While these thought experiments may provide some reason for us to revise our commitment to the separateness of persons in extreme cases, it does not follow that we ought to revise our commitment in non-extreme cases. Parfit commits the original sin of many analytic moral philosophers. He thinks that one logically consistent counterexample to a moral theory — no matter how distant from our current reality — is enough the undermine the entire moral theory. Sometimes counterexamples have that effect, but not always and not necessarily. The validity of a moral theory may be constrained by certain features of our present reality.

And this brings us to Christie’s main point. He thinks that if consequentialists like Parfit want to provide a theory that is compelling to creatures like us, then they ought to respect the separateness of persons, not dismiss it. It is a natural biological fact, that sets limits on what is credible when it comes to moral commitments and beliefs:

The separateness of human persons has a natural basis in the sense that humans have several natural features that constrain our person practices. First, all humans have a particular history. Access to the particulars of this history is a valuable resource for a human…Second, each human is an individual living organism: humans are physically separate from other things in ways similar to how all organisms are separate from other things. It is empirically false that humans are a ‘super organism’ like, e.g., a hive of bees or a colony of ants. Lastly, most humans are capable of rational prudence. The human ability to plan for the future allows humans not only to weather the tough times nature may throw our way, but also (possibly) to flourish. Planning for the future is one of the key evolutionary resources of our species. These natural features of humans place constraints on our person practices. 
(Christie 2009, 185)

But what if things were different?

3. Could our morality be very different? Some thought experiments
The first few sections of Christie’s paper make some important points. But it’s really towards the end that the paper comes to life. After articulating his basic position, Christie tries to further justify it by imagining some very different realities to our own. His argumentative strategy seems to be as follows: if the natural separateness of persons is morally significant (as he believes), then if you could imagine a world in which the natural separateness is no longer true, you would have to radically revise many of the moral commitments we take for granted. The fact that this radical revision would be required bolsters the idea that separateness is currently of great moral significance. In other words, Christie seems to be endorsing the following principle (though, to be clear, he never spells it out in this form).

Christie’s Test for Moral Significance: If a fact X is morally significant, then a world in which not-X were true would require radical moral revision (i.e. significant change to our moral values, duties, practices etc.).

I have no idea whether this test is sound. It seems superficially plausible to me, but I do wonder whether it begs the question against someone like Parfit. He might argue that morally significant facts are, in some sense, absolute and unchanging across possible worlds. So the fact of radical revision would be viewed as support for the claim that X is not morally significant. Nevertheless, and setting that to the side, the thought experiments that Christie uses to carry out his test for moral significance are what really interest me. They ask us to imagine how our moral practices would change in a world in which the natural separateness of persons no longer held true.

Christie runs two such thought experiments. The first is the ‘Merger’ thought experiment:

Merger Thought Experiment: “Imagine a race of beings exactly like humans except that they spontaneously merge bodies (the ‘mergers’). Once every few years, a merger would find him or herself to be a ‘single’ (an unattached merger). The moment two singles come in close physical proximity, the two individuals would reflexively and uncontrollably shake hands, and then the two hands would spontaneously merge. Once fused, the two beings would remain fused for several years; the health and life of each single would be hopelessly entangled with the other. Both members of the pair would be aware of what occurred to the shared appendage: if the appendage is tickled, they both laugh; if the appendage is cut, they both feel pain. Nonetheless, we may suppose that each member of the pair of mergers would still have the same sets of desires, intentions and preferences that he or she had previous to the current merging. Furthermore, consent from both mergers is not necessary for one merger to try to initiate an action, move about, etc., and each merger could thwart or cooperate as he or she saw fit. In most cases, mutual cooperation would be essential for a merger to live his or her day-to-day life. After three or four years as a pair, the beings would spontaneously split and the process would start all over again. Compared to human morality, would these beings’ morality be systematically different? ” 
(Christie 2009, 189)

The answer is ‘of course’. Many of our current moral practices fixate on the need for consent in cases of bodily interference, value and protect bodily integrity and privacy, and presume (or work to ensure) individual bodily autonomy. All of these commitments go out the window in the world of the mergers. You can no longer guarantee bodily integrity and privacy. You cannot always protect consent or presume autonomy. A much greater emphasis must be placed on cooperation, mutuality and compromise. When one half of a merger promises to do something for someone else, he or she must get the other half of the merger to go along with that promise. Promising is thus no longer an individual choice; it must be a social/cooperative bargain. Similarly, our practices of holding one another to account and punish wrongdoers would have to change. It would not be right to imprison or physically confine one half of a merger for former actions or deeds of the other half. All in all, in a world in which the biological separateness of persons breaks down, significant revision is indeed required to our moral code. That’s all that Christie needed to show to pass his test.

That said, the world of the mergers is not that alien or unusual. We have some documented cases of conjoined twins (who remain conjoined into adulthood) in which these issues have been raised and considered. These cases, though unusual, do stretch and revise our moral practices to some extent, but maybe they do not ‘radically’ revise our moral practices. That’s why the second thought experiment is more extreme:

Collective Thought Experiment: “Imagine a species of beings that have bodies just like ours but share a common mind: when one of the beings remembers something or imagines an image, the memory or image is common to all (the ‘collective’). When one member of the collective suggests to the common mind a course of action, all members of the collective know of the suggestion and a common intention is reached. All members of the collective are mentally transparent to each other. Benefits and burdens are experienced by all: one member’s pain is another’s. If one member of the collective wins the lottery, all of the members feel the elation of a large windfall. Similar science-fiction examples immediately come to mind (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Borg Collective’). For the collective, how would morality be different from ordinary human morality?” 
(Christie 2009, 191)

Christie admits that he finds it difficult to imagine what morality would be like for such a species. Individual bodies would no longer be units of moral concern - they would be more like the cells that make up a single collective agent. The collective agent would be what matters; the cells would be just part of the support network. Also, any ideals of individual moral responsibility or accountability would seem to go out the window. It is the collective that is the moral agent and that bears responsibility. Our current practices around corporate agency and responsibility might provide some guidance as to what this would be like, but the collective is very different from a corporation. It’s not just that they share some common goal or plan, they also share phenomenological experiences of the world. Christie thinks this would require a significant revision of our moral practices, which once again suggests that our current phenomenological separateness is morally significant.

4. Some concluding thoughts
I like Christie’s thought experiments. I like pushing the boundaries of our moral imaginations to consider radical possibilities. I think it is valuable to see how depended our current moral beliefs and practices may be on our current biological and social reality. It makes me wonder whether there are possible ‘ways of life’ that are morally valuable but that I just can’t appreciate now because my biological form has set limits on my imagination. That’s not, of course, what Christie was hoping I would get out of it. He was hoping that by considering these radical alternatives, I would appreciate the moral significance of my current biological form. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that; it’s just that I enjoy the imaginative exercise more.

All that said, I do have some doubts about Christie’s arguments and assumptions. I noted some concerns about the ‘test’ he applies for moral significance above. Related to that, I wonder whether he might overstate the radicalness of the worlds he imagines, even the collective world. Authors like Christine Rovane, for example, have argued that the Enlightenment ideal of selfhood is consistent with corporate/collective agency: it’s not that our moral practices are radically changed, they are just targeted at a different level. Similarly, there are long-standing cultural beliefs and practices that advocate in favour of something like the collective (and against the separateness of persons). My understanding of the Buddhist No-Self doctrine, for example, is that it denies the reality of a single phenomenological agent (possibly also a rational, deliberative agent if you follow the work of Monima Chadha) and is often associated with beliefs about the unity of reality and consciousness. So it may not be that radical an ideal for creatures like us.

Furthermore, I do wonder whether the collective thought experiment is logically consistent in its current form. It seems like every presentation of it — including the presentation in science fictional cases like the Borg — involves some retention of individual identity (however slight). Without that retention it wouldn’t really make sense to talk about ‘collective’ thoughts or ‘shared’ experience — if there is just one single thinker or experiencer then there is no sharing. It’s this retention of individuality that makes the possibility so scary or unpleasant. If you actually abandoned it, maybe it would less scary.

I guess that’s just another way of saying that we should imagine these possibilities more fully.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Nine Philosophical Lessons about Life and Death

The only serious philosophical question is suicide: should we live or should we die? This is what Albert Camus argued in his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and he's in pretty good company. The most famous dramatic speech in the Western literary 'canon' -- Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy -- grapples with the very same issue. While I have never, thankfully, felt suicidal, I do find myself drawn to the philosophical debate about the value of life and death. Is death bad? Should I want to live forever? How should I react when someone else dies?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have returned to these questions time and time again. Indeed, I've probably written somewhere in the region of 50-60 posts about them. It can be a little overwhelming to make sense of this morass of material. So I thought I would help by trying to distill nine key lessons that I have learned from my forays into the philosophy of life and death. I've divided these lessons into three groups of three, each of which is associated with a different philosophical stance or outlook. I don't provide much analytical detail in this post. I just state the lessons baldly and unapologetically. I then provide links to posts that flesh out and examine these lessons in more detail. So you can think of this as a descriptive table of contents for a mini-ebook.

A. The Epicurean: "Death is nothing to us"

Lesson 1: Death is not bad for the one who dies because it is an 'existential blank' (i.e. it is like nothing to the one who dies). Death may be 'less good' than some of the alternatives, but then again life is rarely ideal.
A lesson in four parts - Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

Lesson 2: It does make sense to view pre-natal non-existence in a similar light to post-mortem non-existence. If you are not troubled by the former, you need not be troubled by the latter.
A lesson in two parts - Part 1; Part 2

Lesson 3: The greatest tragedy of all is a premature death, but what counts as a 'premature' death depends on a number of personal and cultural factors. If they adopt the right frame of mind, even a very young person can treat their death with equanimity.
A lesson in two parts - Part 1; Part 2

B. The Immortalist: "I wanna live forever"

Lesson 4: Immortality may not be tedious, but it would be pretty weird. It's hard to say whether a genuinely immortal life would be 'recognisably human'. It may rob our lives of many of the goods (e.g. achievement) that we now take for granted.
A lesson in three parts - Part 1; Part 2; Part 3

Lesson 5: Even if immortality would be weird, this doesn't mean that death is what makes life meaningful, or that it is irrational to want to live a longer life.
A lesson in one part 

Lesson 6: You should be grateful for life and, under certain circumstances, grateful for death, even if you don't believe in God or any form of afterlife.
A lesson in one part 

C. The Stoic: "Get over it"

Lesson 7: When someone dies, you shouldn't wallow in grief or feel any need to be excessively mournful. Indeed, excessive grieving might be counterproductive and prevent you from properly fulfilling your duties to the living.
A lesson in one part 

Lesson 8: When someone close to you dies, it is okay to move on with your life and return to some semblance of normality. This need not say anything negative about your relationship with the deceased, nor about your moral character.
A lesson in one part 

Lesson 9: We don't think clearly about the ethics of suicide. In particular, we may be too quick to assume that it is irrational or a sign of mental illness.
A lesson in one part 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Episode #48 - Gunkel on Robot Rights

In this episode I talk to David Gunkel. David is a repeat guest, having first appeared on the show in Episode 10. David a Professor of Communication Studies at Northern Illinois University. He is a leading scholar in the philosophy of technology, having written extensively about cyborgification, robot rights and responsibilities, remix cultures, new political structures in the information age and much much more. He is the author of several books, including Hacking Cyberspace, The Machine Question, Of Remixology, Gaming the System and, most recently, Robot Rights. We have a long debate/conversation about whether or not robots should/could have rights.

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

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:52 - Isn't the idea of robot rights ridiculous?
  • 3:37 - What is a robot anyway? Is the concept too nebulous/diverse?
  • 7:43 - Has science fiction undermined our ability to think about robots clearly?
  • 11:01 - What would it mean to grant a robot rights? (A precis of Hohfeld's theory of rights)
  • 18:32 - The four positions/modalities one could take on the idea of robot rights
  • 21:32 - The First Modality: Robots Can't Have Rights therefore Shouldn't
  • 23:37 - The EPSRC guidelines on robotics as an example of this modality
  • 26:04 - Criticisms of the EPSRC approach
  • 28:27 - Other problems with the first modality
  • 31:32 - Europe vs Japan: why the Japanese might be more open to robot 'others'
  • 34:00 - The Second Modality: Robots Can Have Rights therefore Should (some day)
  • 39:53 - A debate between myself and David about the second modality (why I'm in favour it and he's against it)
  • 47:17 - The Third Modality: Robots Can Have Rights but Shouldn't (Bryson's view)
  • 53:48 - Can we dehumanise/depersonalise robots?
  • 58:10 - The Robot-Slave Metaphor and its Discontents
  • 1:04:30 - The Fourth Modality: Robots Cannot Have Rights but Should (Darling's view)
  • 1:07:53 - Criticisms of the fourth modality
  • 1:12:05 - The 'Thinking Otherwise' Approach (David's preferred approach)
  • 1:16:23 - When can robots take on a face?
  • 1:19:44 - Is there any possibility of reconciling my view with David's?
  • 1:24:42 - So did David waste his time writing this book?


Relevant Links

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

What do I believe? A thematic summary of my academic publications

I have published quite a number of academic papers in the past 7-8 years. It has gotten to the point now that I find myself trying to make sense of them all. If you were to read them, what would you learn about me and my beliefs? Are there any coherent themes and patterns within these papers? I think there are and this is my attempt to hunt them out. I'm sure this will seem self-indulgent to some of you. I can only apologise. It is a deliberately self-indulgent exercise, but hopefully the thematic organisation is of interest to people other than myself, and some of the arguments may be intriguing or pique your curiosity. I'm going to keep this overview updated.

Reading note: There is some overlap in content between the sections below since some papers belonged to more than one theme. Also, clicking on the titles of the papers will take you directly to an open access version of them.

Theme 1: Human Enhancement, Agency and Meaning

What impact does human enhancement technology have on our agency and our capacity to live meaningful lives? I have written several papers that deal with this theme:

    • Argument: Far from undermining our responsibility, advances in the neuroscience of behaviour may actually increase our responsibility due to enhanced control [not sure if I agree with this anymore: I have become something of a responsibility sceptic since writing this].

    • Argument: Enhancing people's cognitive faculties could increase the democratic legitimacy of the legal system.

    • Argument: Enhancement technologies may turn us into 'hyperagents' (i.e. agents that are capable of minutely controlling our beliefs, desires, attitudes and capacities) but this will not undermine the meaning of life.

    • Argument: Enhancement technologies need not undermine social solidarity and need not result in the unfair distribution of responsibility burdens.

    • Argument: Cognitive enhancement drugs may undermine educational assessment but not in the way that is typically thought, and the best way to regulate them may be through the use of commitment contracts.

    • Argument: We should prefer internal methods for enhancing moral conformity (i.e. drugs and brain implants) over external methods (nudges/AI assistance/automation).

    • Argument: There are strong conservative reasons (associated with agency and individual achievement) for favouring the use of enhancement technologies.

    • Argument: Moral enhancement technologies need not undermine our freedom + freedom of choice is not intrinsically valuable; it is, rather, an axiological catalyst.

Theme 2: The Ethics and Law of Sex Tech

How does technology enable new forms of sexual intimacy and connection? What are the ethical and legal consequences of these new technologies? Answering these questions has become a major theme of my work.

    • Argument: Contrary to what many people claim, sex work may remain relatively resilient to technological displacement. This is because technological displacement will (in the absence of some radical reform of the welfare system) drive potential workers to industries in which humans have some competitive advantage over machines. Sex work may be one of those industries.

    • Argument: There may be good reasons to criminalise robotic rape and robotic child sexual abuse (or, alternatively, reasons to reject widely-accepted rationales for criminalisation).

    • Argument: Consent apps are a bad idea because they produce distorted and decontextualised signals of consent, and may exacerbate other problems associated with sexual autonomy.

    • Argument: Quantified self technologies could improve the quality of our intimate relationships, but there are some legitimate concerns about the use of these technologies (contains a systematic evaluation of seven objections to the use of these technologies).

    • Argument: Response to the critics of the previous article.

    • Argument: No single argument defended in this paper. Instead it presents a framework for thinking about virtual sexual assault and examines the case for criminalising it. Focuses in particular on the distinction between virtual sexual assault and real world sexual assault, responsibility for virtual acts, and the problems with consent in virtual worlds.

    • Argument: Makes the case for taking sex robots seriously from an ethical and philosophical perspective.

  • Should we Campaign Against Sex Robots? (with Brian Earp and Anders Sandberg). In Danaher, J and McArthur, N. (eds) Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
    • Argument: A systematic evaluation and critique of the idea that we should campaign against the development of sex robots. 

    • Argument: There may be symbolic harms associated with the creation of sex robots but these are contingent and reformable and subordinate to the consequential harms; the consequential harms are unproven and difficult to prove; and so the best way to approach the development of sex robots is to adopt an experimental model.

    • Argument: The best response to the creation of objectifying and misogynistic sex robots is not to ban them or criminalise them but to build 'better' ones. In this respect, those who are concerned about sex robots can learn from the history of the feminist porn wars.

    • Argument: Humans can have loving intimate relationships with robots; this need not erode or distort our understanding of intimacy.

Theme 3: The Threat of Algocracy

What are the advantages and disadvantages of algorithmic governance in politics, law and everyday life? How does algorithmic governance affect individual choice and freedom? How does it affect the legitimacy of political decision-making? This has been another major theme of my work over the past few years (with several new papers on the way in the next few months).

    • Argument: Algorithmic governance poses a significant threat to the legitimacy of public decision-making and this threat is not easily resisted or accommodated.

    • Argument: Because algorithmic decision-support tools pose a threat to political legitimacy, we should favour the use of internal methods of moral enhancement.

    • Argument: The rise of smart machines to govern and manage our lives threatens to accentuate our moral patiency over our moral agency. This could be problematic because moral agency is central to modern civilisation.

    • Argument: No specific argument. The paper uses a collective intelligence methodology to generate a research agenda for the topic of algorithmic governance. This agenda is a detailed listing of research question and the methods by which to answer them.

    • Argument: An evaluation of some of the ways in which algorithmic governance technologies could be productively used by two or more people in intimate relationships.

    • Argument: Contrary to some of the popular criticisms, the use of AI assistants in everyday life does not lead to problematic forms of cognitive degeneration, significantly undermine individual autonomy, nor erode important interpersonal virtues. Nevertheless there are risks and we should develop a set of ethical principles for people who make use of these systems.

Theme 4: Automation, Work and the Meaning of Life

How will the rise of automating technologies affect the future of employment? What will humans do when (or if) they are no longer needed for economic production? I have written quite a number of papers on this theme over the past five years, as well as a long series of blog posts. It is also going to be the subject of a new book that I'm publishing in 2019, provisionally titled Automation and Utopia, with Harvard University Press.

    • Argument: Sex work may remain relatively resilient to technological displacement. This is because technological displacement will (in the absence of some radical reform of the welfare system) drive potential workers to industries in which humans have some competitive advantage over machines. Sex work may be one of those industries.

    • Argument: Technological unemployment does pose a major threat to the meaning of life, but this threat can be mitigated by pursuing an 'integrative' relationship with technology.

    • Argument: Partly an extended review of David Frayne's book The Refusal of Work; partly a defence of the claim that we should be more ashamed of the work that we do.

    • Argument: People who think that there is a major economic 'longevity dividend' to be earned through the pursuit of life extension fail to appropriately consider the impact of technological unemployment. That doesn't mean that life extension is not valuable; it just means the arguments in favour of it need to focus on the possibility of a 'post-work' future.

    • Argument: Does exactly what the title suggests. Argues that paid employment is structurally bad and getting worse. Consequently we should prefer not to work for a living.

Theme 5: Brain-Based Lie Detection and Scientific Evidence

Can brain-based lie detection tests (or concealed information tests) be forensically useful? How should the legal system approach scientific evidence? This was a major theme of my early research and I still occasionally publish on the topic.

    • Argument: Why lawyers need to be better informed about the nature and limitations of scientific evidence, using brain-based lie detection evidence as an illustration.

    • Argument: The use of blinding protocols could improve the quality of scientific evidence in law and overcome the problem of bias in expert testimony.

    • Argument: (a) Reliability tests for scientific evidence need to be more sensitive to the different kinds of error rate associated with that evidence; and (b) there is potential for brain-based lie detection to be used in a legal setting as long as we move away from classic 'control question' tests to 'concealed information' test.

    • Argument: The P300 concealed information test could be used to address the problem of innocent people pleading guilty to offences they did not commit.

    • Argument: A defence of a 'legitimacy enhancing test' for the responsible use of brain-based lie detection tests in the law.

Theme 6: God, Morality and the Problem of Evil

The philosophy of religion has been a major focus of this blog, and I have spun this interest into a handful of academic papers too. They all deal with the relationship between god and morality or the problem of evil. I keep an interest in this topic and may write more such papers in the future.

    • Argument: Skeptical theism has profound and problematic epistemic consequences. Attempts to resolve or ameliorate those consequences by drawing a distinction between our knowledge of what God permits and our knowledge of the overall value of an event/state of affairs don't work.

  • Necessary Moral Truths and Theistic Metaethics. (2013) SOPHIA, DOI 10.1007/s11841-013-0390-0.
    • Argument: Some theists argue that you need God to explain/ground necessary moral truths. I argue that necessary moral truths need no deeper explanation/grounding.

    • Argument: There is no obligation to worship God. Gwiazda's attempt to defend this by arguing that there is a distinction between threshold and non-threshold obligations doesn't work in the case of God.

    • Argument: An attempt to draw an analogy between the arguments of sceptical theists and the arguments of AI doomsayers like Nick Bostrom. Not really a philosophy of religion paper; more a paper about dubious epistemic strategies in debates about hypothetical beings. 

    • Argument: In order to work, divine command theories must incorporate an epistemic condition (viz. moral obligations do not exist unless they are successfully communicated to their subjects). This is problematic because certain people lack epistemic access to the content of moral obligations. While this argument has been criticised, I argue that it is quite effective.

Theme 7: Moral standards and legal interpretation

Is the interpretation of legal texts a factual/descriptive inquiry, or is it a moral/normative inquiry? I have written a couple of papers arguing that it is more the latter. Both of these papers focus on the 'originalist' theory of constitutional interpretation. 

    • Argument: If we analogise laws to speech acts, as many now do, then we must pay attention to the 'success conditions' associated with those speech acts. This means we necessarily engage in a normative/moral inquiry, not a factual one.

    • Argument: Legal utterances are always enriched by the pragmatic context in which they are uttered. Constitutional originalists try to rely on a common knowledge standard of enrichment; this standard fails, which once again opens to door to a normative/moral approach to legal interpretation.

Theme 8: Random

Papers that don't seem to fit in any particular thematic bucket.

    • Argument: A critical analysis of Matthew Kramer's defence of capital punishment. I argue that Kramer's defence fails the moral test that he himself sets for it.

    • Argument: The widespread deployment of autonomous robots will give rise to a 'retribution gap'. This gap is much harder to plug than the more widely discussed responsibility/liability gaps.

    • Argument: Using Samuel Scheffler's 'collective afterlife' thesis, I argue that we should commit to creating artificial offspring. Doing so might increase the meaning and purpose of our present lives.

    • Argument: Human identity is more of a social construction than a natural fact. This has a significant effect on the plausibility of certain techniques for 'mind-uploading'.

    • Argument: Our conscience is not a product of free will or autonomous choice. This has both analytical and normative implications for how we treat conscientious objectors.