Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Enhancement and Education: Lessons from the Kobayashi Maru (Part One)

(Series Index)

Okay, so this is going to be the last two-part entry in my series on the use of enhancement in sports and education, and since it’s the last I’ve decided to have a little fun with the topic. This post is going to be a, rather self-indulgent, philosophical analysis of a key component of the Star Trek canon: the Kobayashi Maru Test. (Don’t worry, I’ll be explaining for all the naifs.) I suppose I should apologise in advance to all those non-Star Trek fans, but I recommend persevering with these two entries anyway since I think they contains some interesting material. Then again, I would say that.

To set this up properly, I need to summarise the purpose of this series so far. The series was written to help me investigate whether the use of cognitive/performance enhancing technology is legitimate in the educational context. To make this investigation more interesting, and to draw upon an already rich philosophical literature, I’ve been considering the analogies between sports and education. I’ve done this over quite a number of posts. I don’t know if I have any particularly strong conclusions to draw so far. My basic feeling is that the use of some performance enhancers might be illegitimate in (some) sports because they either breach the constitutive regulations of that sport, or because they leads to inter-temporal unfairness. But as to whether that carries over to education, I’m really not too sure. There may be important disanalogies between the two fields that make this impossible.

The next two posts will focus on those potential disanalogies, but won’t directly touch upon the enhancement issue. At least, not until the end. The goal, instead, is to expand upon the notion that breaching the constitutive regulations of some activities is morally illegitimate by exploring the fictional example of James T Kirk’s alleged “success” on the infamous Kobayashi Maru test. Using what has been said about the test in two of the Trek films (Wrath of Khan and the more recent reboot film Star Trek), I’ll suggest that there are good arguments on both sides of the issue. So Kirk’s success might be legitimate or it might not; it’s a close run thing. And the fact that it’s a close run thing has some interesting implications for the enhancement debate.

The remainder of the series is structured as follows. In section one, I revisit the concept of a constitutive regulation and explain why it is normatively significant. In section two, I give a brief outline of the structure of the Kobayashi Maru test and explain the circumstances behind Kirk’s alleged “success” in it. In section three, I outline Spock’s argument (from Star Trek) as to why Kirk’s success was illegitimate. In section four, I outline Kirk’s counterargument as to why his success was legitimate. And finally, in section five, I draw out the lessons of all this for the enhancement debate.

I’ll cover sections one and two today; sections three, four and five the next day.

1. The Constitutive Rule Argument
Some time ago, John Searle set down a very simple taxonomy of rules. According to Searle, the kinds of rules we use to regulate and control our activities can be broken into two broad classes: (i) regulative rules; and (ii) constitutive rules. Regulative rules take a pre-existing activity or set of activities and set down some rules so as to signal to us the (normatively) best way to perform that activity or set of activities. Constitutive rules are different: they set down rules so as to constitute (i.e. create) a new type of activity, a type of activity that wouldn’t exist without the rules.

Compare the rules of driving and the rules of chess. Driving is an activity that does not need rules to exist: we all know what it is to drive a car without having someone tell us that we ought to drive a car in a particular manner or at a particular speed. The rules of driving simply tell us how best to perform that activity. So, for instance, it is possible to drive a car while intoxicated, but this is a normatively inferior way of driving a car, hence there is a rule telling us not to do this. Contrast that with chess. While it is true that moving carved wooden pieces around a board makes a certain amount of sense without the rules of chess; it is also true to say that without following those rules any such activity is not chess. The rules of chess don’t just tell us how we ought to move wooden pieces around a board, they also create a unique kind of activity which we call chess. In other words, the rules of chess constitute a particular activity, they don’t just regulate it.

There is something attractive about the constitutive rule concept when it comes to understanding sport (and perhaps education - we’ll get to that in a minute). For example, the rules of soccer (football to the Brits) don’t simply regulate the activity of kicking a ball around a pitch; they also constitute a particular kind of activity we call soccer. But there’s something slightly unsatisfactory about using the constitutive rule concept when making a normative argument about sport. The problem is this: because of their nature, constitutive rules seem to be descriptive not prescriptive in nature. Thus, any argument made by appealing to them will be factual, not normative. For example, if we play cricket with a baseball bat, we’re not playing a normatively inferior kind of cricket; we’re just not playing cricket at all.

Or so it seems. But David Lauer has made an interesting argument about this in a recent paper. Lauer suggests that constitutive rules can be used as the basis of a normative argument, provided we distinguish between two kinds of constitutive rule. They are:

Constitutive Standards: These are constitutive rules that tell us the conditions that one kind of activity (X) has to satisfy in order to count as another kind of activity (Y). For example, moving carved pieces of wood around a check-patterned board counts as chess, if the movements correspond to the rules of chess. In this form, the constitutive rules are purely descriptive, not normative.

Constitutive Regulations: These are constitutive rules that remind us how an already intelligible activity (X) ought to be done in order to count as a good instance of X (call this Y). For example, hitting someone with your fists is a kind of activity that makes sense without the need for rules, but when you add rules it might constitute a new phenomenon that we call “boxing”, whilst at the same time creating a normatively superior form of hitting someone with your fists. In this form, the constitutive rule is not purely descriptive, it is also partially normative too.

I’d recommend reading Lauer’s paper for more on this conceptual division and the kind of work it can do. For now, I’ll suggest that we could use the constitutive regulation concept as the basis for a normative argument. As follows:

  • (1) It is wrong to perform an activity whilst breaching the constitutive regulations of that activity.
  • (2) X breaches the constitutive regulations of an activity.
  • (3) Therefore, X is wrong.

The interesting question is whether educational activities — specifically assessments — come with constitutive regulations. I think the answer is “maybe”. If we follow contemporary teaching theory, then each course we teach should come with a number of intended learning outcomes (ILOs). These are things you want your students to be able to do at the end of the course (usually they are abilities or capacities you want them to develop). In essence, they are the normative goals of the course. If the course is well-designed, then the assessment should essentially be like a “game” in which students are forced to demonstrate that they have achieved the outcomes. If they do not, they fail.

Assessments of this sort should, I think, bear some resemblance to an activity or set of activities governed by constitutive regulations. The assessment-regulations will take an independently intelligible set of capabilities (e.g. memorisation, analysis, critical thinking) and, through the constraints of rules, create a scenario in which there is a normatively superior way of demonstrating those capacities. These will be the test conditions and parameters. Consequently, if one breaches the constitutive regulations of the test, one should be deemed to have both: (a) subverted the purpose of the test; and (b) if the ILOs are normatively significant (a point to which I shall return), one should also be deemed to have done something normatively illegitimate.

For the remainder of this series, the key issue is to see whether Kirk’s actions in “passing” the Kobayashi Maru test did, in fact, breach the constitutive regulations of that test.

2. What is the Kobayashi Maru Test?
To address this issue, we first need to know what the Kobayashi Maru (KM) test actually is. The following description is based on the one from Memory Alpha (the Star Trek-wiki).

The KM is a test given to all command-track cadets in Starfleet. The test takes place in a simulated version of the USS Enterprise’s bridge. The test candidate assumes the role of captain for the duration of the simulation. The simulated scenario is as follows. The Enterprise is on patrol near the neutral zone between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. It receives a distress call from a civilian freighter named The Kobayashi Maru. The freighter, which is located within the neutral zone, has struck a gravitic mine and needs to be rescued, otherwise the crew and passengers will perish. While rescuing the ship is what every commander would like to do, the problem is that entering the neutral zone risks a confrontation with the Klingons. Sure enough, this is exactly what happens: when the Enterprise enters the neutral zone, three Klingon battle cruisers decloak and attack.

The video below, taken from the Wrath of Khan, shows what the test looks like.

The test is programmed in such a way that, once you enter the neutral zone, there is no way to “win”. In other words, there is no way to successfully rescue the Kobayashi Maru while at the same time avoiding death at the hands of the Klingons. This renders the test more a test of character than a test of problem-solving. Everyone is supposed to fail the test, at least superficially.

Now, while I’m willing to accept that the KM-test is a no-win situation, I must point out at least one potential flaw in the set-up so far. Donning a moral philosophers cap for a moment, I think the KM can be viewed as a kind of moral dilemma. In fact, I think a moral dilemma is the quintessential no-win scenario. A moral dilemma, strictly defined, is any decision-making context in which one’s choices are limited to two (or more) equally bad courses of action. As such, there is no morally correct solution: no way to “win” from a moral perspective and a genuine tragedy associated with any choice you make.

But if we adopt a consequentialist ethic, I think the KM-test is not a true moral dilemma, and hence not a true no-win scenario. Look at it like this: in the initial phase of the test you have two options: (i) enter the neutral zone and attempt a rescue or (ii) do not enter the neutral zone and do not attempt a rescue. If you go for option (i), you will be killed and so too will the crew and passengers of the KM. If you go for option (ii), you will not be killed, but the crew and passengers of the KM will be. Presumably. And while ideally no one should die, it’s surely preferable that the crew of only one ship die than the crew of two ships. The two options are not equally bad. One seems clearly better than the other.

Admittedly, this is a controversial solution. It’s much like the classic kill-one-to-save-five scenario depicted in the trolley problem. But as I said at the outset, this is only a “potential” flaw in the structure of the KM-test. It could easily be repaired. For one thing, the solution just outlined only works if we assume the captain knows what will happen when he/she enters the neutral zone (i.e. if we assume perfect information); if we assume the opposite — that the captain does not know what will happen — then the solution I pointed out above becomes much less obvious. For another thing, the test designers could easily reprogramme it so that the initial choice — that of entering the neutral zone or not — is eliminated. This way one is landed immediately into the no-win dynamic of the rescue.

Of course, one the key bits of Star Trek lore is that Captain Kirk managed to “pass” the KM-test despite its no-win dynamic. How did he manage this? Well, as is reported in Wrath of Khan and depicted on screen in Star Trek, he “cheated”. He reprogrammed the test so that it was possible to defeat the Klingons and rescue the KM.

The question we need to ask is whether his “success” on the test was commendable or not. To do this, we’ll need to delve a little deeper into the ILOs and constitutive regulations of the KM-test, and assess their normative significance. We’ll do this in part two.

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