Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Divine Command Theory and the Metre-Stick Analogy (Part One)

I’ve written about theistic metaethics and the critiques thereof before. In doing so, I think I’ve explored many of the best contemporary arguments for and against the particular brand of theistic metaethics known as divine command theory (or, more generally, “theological voluntarism”). Given this, and given that this is a debate that has raged on for a long time, one might be forgiven for thinking there is no need to write about it any further. But that’s naive; there is always more to learn and more ways in which to refine and articulate the arguments.

In this regard, Jeremy Koons’s recent paper “Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory?” caught my eye. In it, Koons takes up one of the most popular contemporary defences of DCT, and subjects it to a fairly withering critique. Over the next couple of posts, I want to explain this critique, both to further my own understanding and to share it with my readers.

The critique is targeted directly at William Alston’s particularist version of the divine goodness solution to the Euthyphro dilemma. Koons argues that Alston’s defence falls considerably short of the margin because it saves theistic metaethics at the expense of stripping the notion of “goodness” of all its significance, thereby opening the door to a revised version of the Euthyphro dilemma. This is a significant conclusion since Alston’s solution to the Euthyphro dilemma has won some admirers over the years.

To set up the discussion and analysis of Koons’s critique, this first post will outline the basic dialectical thrusts and parries in the literature. It does so by first by looking at the classic Euthyphro dilemma and the divine goodness solution to that dilemma. It then outlines Alston’s specific conceptualisation of divine goodness, and considers some of the problems it raises.

1. Theological Voluntarism, Euthyphro’s Dilemma and Divine Goodness?
The world consists of entities, activities and states of affairs. Any actually existent entity, activity or state of affairs can be referred to as a “fact”. A peculiar feature of the world is that some of facts have moral statuses attached to them. These statuses come in two distinct flavours: (i) value statuses, which ascribe the property of goodness/badness to things; and (ii) deontic statuses, which ascribe the property of rightness/wrongness to things. Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy concerned with explaining why facts have the morally statuses that they do. In other words, it tries to explain what grounds moral facts.

Proponents of theistic metaethics contend that moral facts cannot be grounded in the absence of God. Theological voluntarism is probably the most widespread and popular form of theistic metaethics. Theological voluntarists argue that moral statuses are explained by reference to one or more of God’s voluntary acts. Thus, for example, they might say that giving money to charity is good because God commands it, or desires it, or wills that it be good. Similarly, they might say that murder is wrong because God forbids it, desires that we not do it, or wills that it be not done.

Theological voluntarism runs into problems when it confronts the Euthyphro dilemma, which was first presented (in a somewhat odd form) in the Platonic dialogue the Euthyphro. The dilemma takes a particular moral status (say, the wrongness of killing) and asks: is killing wrong because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because it is wrong? If it’s wrong simply because God forbids it, then it seems like the wrongness of killing is arbitrary, something that God could reverse by changing his mind (which he has the power to do). Conversely, if God forbids it because it is wrong, then it seems like its wrongness is independent of God, something that is not welcome to the theist.

This gives us an argument against theological voluntarism, as follows:

  • (1) Either God commands X because it is right/good, or X is right/good because God commands it. 
  • (2) If God commands X because it is right/good, then rightness/goodness is independent from God. 
  • (3) If X is right/good because God commands it, then the rightness/goodness of X is purely arbitrary since God could command anything. 
  • (4) If theological voluntarism is to succeed, then rightness/goodness cannot be arbitrary and cannot be independent from God. 
  • (5) Therefore, theological voluntarism does not succeed.

Many challenge this argument by disputing the truth of premise (4), claiming that it does not matter too much if moral statuses are arbitrary. William of Ockham is famously said to have adopted this view. Others will challenge premise (1) by arguing that it presents a false dilemma because there is a third option that does not lead to the pitfalls mentioned. But by far the most popular contemporary solution to the dilemma is to challenge premise (3) by limiting the explanatory role of theological voluntarism to the deontic realm.

The solution works as follows. Theological voluntarists maintain their commitment to the view that moral rightness is explained by direct reference to one or more of God’s voluntary acts, most commonly his commands. Thus, killing is wrong if and only if God forbids it. But they then skirt the arbitrariness horn of the dilemma by arguing that God could never command anything that was morally abhorrent because God is essentially good. He is perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly just (and so on). Goodness supervenes on these characteristic properties and they prevent him from commanding anything that is wrong. The basic idea is illustrated below.

This resolves the Euthyphro dilemma, at least as it pertains to the explanation of moral obligations. But it seems to raise the possibility of a revised Euthyphro dilemma. It is in responding to this revised dilemma that Alston makes his main contribution to the debate. So let’s look at that next.

2. The Revised Euthyphro and Alston’s Solution
The revised version of the Euthyphro dilemma runs as follows. Those who favour the modified version of theological voluntarism that I just outlined claim that God is essentially good, and that this goodness supervenes on his character traits (lovingness, kindness etc.). But then the question arises: does this mean that God also provides an ontological grounding for moral goodness? Two options present themselves. Either God’s characteristic traits are good because they’re God’s, or God is good because he has those particular traits. If it’s the former, then we run into a significance problem (discussed more below). Contrariwise, if it’s the latter, then it seems like goodness is ontologically independent from God, which is unwelcome to those who seek to ground all moral statuses in God.

If we limit ourselves to the trait of “lovingkindness” we can pose the following argument:

  • (6) Either the property of lovingkindness is good-making because God happens to exemplify it, or God is good because he exemplifies the property of lovingkindness. 
  • (7) If lovingkindness is good-making because God happens to exemplify it, then any property could be good-making if God happened to exemplify it, which suggests that God’s goodness is an insignificant fact. 
  • (8) If God is good because he exemplifies the property of lovingkindness, then good-making properties are ontologically independent from God. 
  • (9) In order for there to be a successful theistic metaethics, two conditions must be met: (i) all moral statuses must be explained by God; and (ii) God’s goodness must be a significant fact. 
  • (10) Therefore, there can be no successful theistic metaethics.

The most important point to bear in mind is that this argument is subtly different from the preceding one. Both share a concern for the ontological dependence of moral statuses on God, but while the classic Euthyphro dilemma was concerned with the potential arbitrariness of moral rightness, this dilemma is concerned with the significance of God’s goodness. In other words, it is saying that the theistic claim that God is good, or that God serves as the ultimate standard of goodness, must be a significant claim. And that it can’t be a significant claim if good-making properties are simply explained by the fact that God exemplifies them.

What Alston does in his work is offer some clarification of the grounding relationship between God, the good, and the divine properties, before then moving on to show how this relationship does not make God’s goodness an insignificant fact. As we shall see, he is ultimately unsuccessful in this project, but it’s worth identifying exactly where his account goes wrong since it has seemed attractive to many theists (including William Lane Craig who has explicitly endorsed it).I’ll start by just sketching Alston’s account of the grounding relationship. In the next post I’ll present Koons’s criticisms of it.

Alston argues, importantly, that good-making properties such as lovingkindness are not ontologically independent from God. Instead, God is the ultimate standard of goodness, and his being the ultimate standard of goodness explains why the properties he instantiates are good-making. Thus, Alston is clear that the second horn of the dilemma (the independence horn) is avoided by his account.

But then what does it mean to say that God is good? Typically, we say that someone or something is good or bad in virtue of the properties they exemplify; we do not say they are good and bad simpliciter. If we did, we would rob the predicate “good” of all its meaning. In other words, we wouldn’t be offering any deep justification or account of why a person or an act was good or bad, we would simply be assuming that they are and demanding that others accept this view.

Somewhat bizarrely, Alston thinks he avoids this problem. To quote:

Note that on this view, we are are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.(Alston “What Euthyphro Should have Said”, 2002 p. 292)

But this just sets up a circle (illustrated below). God goodness is explained by reference to his character traits, but the goodness of those character traits is explained by reference to the fact that they are the ones that God, as the supreme standard of goodness, happens to exemplify. This doesn’t make much sense.

Alston tries to quell these doubts by getting more sophisticated about the nature of predicates (such as “good” and “bad”) and the way they work in different contexts. First, he points out that there are at least two kinds of predicate with two associated criteria of application.

Platonic Predicates: The criterion for the application of a Platonic predicate is some general “Idea” or “essence”. An example might be the criterion for the application of the term “triangle”. Whether it makes sense to call a particular object or representation thereof a “triangle” depends on whether the object in question resembles the Platonic ideal of a triangle.
Particularist Predicates: The criterion for the application of a particularist predicate is determined by reference to one or more concrete individuals. An example might be the criterion for the application of the term “metre”. Whether it makes sense to say that a particular length is one metre long depends on whether it is isomorphic to the standard metre-stick which is kept in Paris.

Now, as it happens, the account of “metre-hood” offered here is historically inaccurate. It was not the case that a particular platinum-iridium bar was chosen to be standard against which all other purported metre-lengths would be judged. Rather, it was the case that a particular platinum-iridium bar was chosen because it most closely approximated the length of one metre (which was a measurement that was already being used). But this doesn’t matter. Suppose it was the other way round, then we would have an idea of what a particularist criterion for predicate application might involve.

The argument Alston then offers for our delectation is the following. It is perfectly coherent to suppose that “goodness” is a particularist predicate which is correctly applied by reference God. In other words, it is coherent to suppose that God is to goodness as the standard metre-stick is to the length of 1m.

But does this rebut premise (7)? Could it be true that God is like the divine moral metre-stick, and yet nevertheless it remains significant to say that God is good? We’ll try to answer that question in part two.

Doping and Competitive Advantage: Chwang's Argument (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in short series on Eric Chwang’s article “Why Athletic Doping Should be Banned?”. The article makes a somewhat novel argument for the banning of certain kinds of athletic doping. The argument is not based on notions of fairness and sporting integrity — both of which are common in the anti-doping literature — but on the notion that the doping ban is something that the athletes themselves would prefer but are unable to enforce from the bottom-up. This struck me as an interesting take on the whole doping debate, particularly in light of the Lance Armstrong saga.

Chwang’s argument, set out in detail in part one, is based on three key assumptions. The first assumption is that the strategic pressures that an athlete faces when deciding to dope are like the strategic pressures in the prisoners’ dilemma. In other words, athletes would be better off if they all chose not to dope, but this won’t happen because they can’t afford not to dope if their competitors are doing so. The second assumption is that doping will have unwelcome side effects and hence, in the absence of a clear competitive advantage (which will normally be absent if everyone is doping) is not worth doing. The third assumption is that, within certain contraints, sports should be regulated in a manner that respects what the athletes want.

Combined, these assumptions give us the following argument:

  • (1) Doping is, at least minimally, harmful to dopers. 
  • (2) Because of the rational incentives faced by elite athletes, doping is unlikely to deliver any competitive advantage (because of the Doper’s Dilemma). 
  • (3) An athlete would prefer, all things considered, to avoid doing something that is harmful unless it delivers a competitive advantage. 
  • (4) Therefore, athletes would prefer it if no one dopes. (from 1, 2, 3) 
  • (5) We should not enact any policy that gives some athletes permission to dope but not others. (Impartiality Premise) 
  • (6) Within some constraints, we should give athletes what they want (Beneficence Premise) 
  • (7) Therefore, we should ban doping. (from 4, 5 and 6)

We considered some of the potential weaknesses of this argument the last day. In the remainder of this post, we will consider two further objections to it. The first is that it is under-inclusive. The second is that it is over-inclusive. Let’s consider both in turn.

1. Is the argument under-inclusive?
The under-inclusiveness objection charges the argument with failing to support what seem to be intuitively justifiable bans. That is to say: there are, it is alleged, cases in which most people agree that there should be doping bans, but which would nevertheless be excluded from the range of justifiable bans by this argument.

This objection derives its force from some of the key premises of the argument. Recall that Chwang’s argument only justifies bans when two key conditions are met: (i) the doping practice in question is harmful and (ii) the doping does not deliver a clear competitive advantage. That implies that if those two conditions are not met, a doping ban should not be introduced. The matrix below illustrates the point.

But that can’t be right, can it? Surely it’s the safe drug, which delivers a clear competitive advantage to whomever takes it, that is most objectionable? Consider the cyclist who takes EPO (safely) when his competitors do not. He gets a clear competitive advantage as a result and suffers no unwelcome side effects. Surely his conduct is exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid?

As regards the first possibility — that a drug might be harmless — Chwang makes two observations. First, he claims that while it is true that certain forms of doping (he explicitly mentions EPO and certain kinds of steroid use) are harmless in low enough doses, the problem is that, in doping for competitive advantage, a kind of arms race mentality sets in. To gain the necessary advantage over their competitors, athletes will be inclined increase dosages and engage in riskier practices. Thus, what was once harmless may not stay that way for long.

A partial ban on those kinds of doping might solve this problem, i.e. by allowing low (harmless) doses but banning higher (harmful) doses we avoid Chwang’s argument. This is where his second observation comes into play. He claims that it would be very difficult to enforce a partial ban of this sort, so-much-so that a total ban would be more practicable. This is for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that there is usually no clear, binary cut-off between a safe and unsafe dose; and that the marginal cost of introducing a total ban, relative to a partial one, will be minimal (since both will require testing facilities, biological passports and so forth).

So, Chwang submits, his argument does not obviously, nor counter-intuitively exclude bans on harmless drugs. We just need to think more carefully about the potential harms and how they may arise. When we do so, we’ll see that it’s unlikely for a harmless drug to remain harmless for long. But what about drugs that deliver a clear competitive advantage? Is it not still the case that his argument fails to ban them? The scenario that suggests itself here is one in which a certain drug clearly benefits one athlete but, when taken by others, has no discernible or obvious advantage.

As regards this scenario, Chwang points out that even if it is true that some athletes benefit more than others from the use of certain drugs, there is typically no way for them to know this in advance. Thus, prior to taking those drugs, there is no reason for them to think that they will gain a competitive advantage over their peers who take the same drugs. This is significant because his argument does not rely on the actual lack of a competitive advantage, but on the expected lack. Hence, premise (2) of the argument is phrased in terms of what is “likely” to be the case, not what is actually the case.

Chwang goes on to argue that even if an athlete has some unique epistemic access to the likely effects of the doping on his or her performance, this still would not justify a ban. In making this case, Chwang gets into some pretty intricate reasoning. This is possibly one of the more interesting aspects of the paper, but it’s summary here would require too much elaboration. I advise the interested reader to consult the original paper.

2. Is the argument over-inclusive?
The second general objection to Chwang’s argument comes from the opposite direction. It claims that the argument counter-intuitively requires us to ban practices that we typically do not think should be banned. The problem comes from the fact that the argument justifies a ban provided there is some minimal level of harm, and some arms-race (or Prisoners’ Dilemma) style pressures on the athletes. But since those kinds of pressures are common (sport is competitive after all) the question arises as to how minimal can the level of harm required for a ban be?

As a first response to this, Chwang argues that the higher the level of harm, the more justified the regulatory intervention. He gives the example of helmets and padding in high-impact contact sports: the risks to athletes are so high that compulsory helmet-wearing can be legitimately justified. But does that still mean minimal levels of harm will justify intervention? One problem here is that the notion of “harm” is fuzzy. Obviously, there is a core meaning for that term, but does it encompass harm to an athlete’s finances, for example? If it did, then lots of practices that improve performance could be ruled out. Chwang doesn’t really respond to these worries except to reiterate: the bigger the harm, the more plausible the argument.

He does, however, address another worry at greater length. This is the worry that his argument is over-inclusive in that it would justify the ban of intensive training practices. These, after all, could be harmful to the athlete and could be implemented under the duress of the competitive arms race. To put this objection more clearly, although there is widespread opposition to doping in sport, there is no real opposition to intensive training regimes. Indeed, they are often encouraged and valued. So the challenge is to come up with some reason for thinking they are okay but doping is not. Chwang’s argument does not seem to meet this challenge.

Chwang makes two suggestions here. First, that the spectator’s interest in the sport has to be taken into consideration. Spectators would lose interest if athletes didn’t try to train to improve performance and gain competitive advantage over their peers. So at least some amount of training is desirable from their perspective. Second, unlike doping, athletes may actually enjoy intensive training, even if no clear competitive advantage arises from it. Since one of the conditions of Chwang’s argument was that the athletes themselves are opposed to doping, this would allow hard training to escape censure.

I have to say, I’m not entirely convinced by these arguments. It seems to me that whether the spectators interests dominate in this instance, or whether athletes’ desires should be respected in this instance, turns on what we think is distinctively valuable about sporting endeavour. One reason why training seems legitimate is that in encourages and develops the virtues we expect of elite athletes: commitment, dedication, hard work and so forth. And one reason why doping so often seems illegitimate is that it is thought to sidestep or shortcut the development of those virtues. (Note: that may or may not be true — in many cases it probably is not)

But Chwang explicitly tries to avoid discussion of the internal virtues or goods of sporting endeavour because he thinks they are fuzzy and highly contestable notions. And indeed they are. But I still think it’s difficult to reason about the ethics of sport without paying some attention to them.

3. Conclusion
Okay, so that brings us to the end of this particular series. As we have seen, Chwang’s argument presents us with a reason to ban doping whenever the doping in question is (at least minimally) harmful and delivers no clear (or can be expected to deliver no clear) competitive advantage. The argument is novel and interesting in that it tries to avoid some of the common principles trotted out in the doping debates, such as fairness and authenticity.

However, as I have just suggested, in responding to the criticisms that his argument is both under- and over-inclusive, it is difficult to see how Chwang can avoid notions of authentic or virtuous sporting performance. These notions clearly motivate many intuitions about what is legitimate and illegitimate in sport, even if they are fuzzy and highly contestable. Indeed, it is this very fuzziness and contestability that makes the doping debate so interesting: many of the proposed virtues of elite sport could, arguably, be sustained if doping were permitted. But that is an argument for another day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Doping and Competitive Advantage: Chwang's Argument (Part One)

In one sense, the Lance Armstrong scandal is now over. The USADA report, and accompanying testimony of his numerous teammates and confidants, proves beyond all reasonable doubt (in my mind at least) that Armstrong was guilty of sustained and continual use of banned performance enhancing substances. Within the rules of cycling, he is undoubtedly a “cheat”. A judgment reflected in USADA’s and the UCI’s decision to strip him of his titles.

But in another sense the Armstrong scandal rumbles on. In particular, debates over his legacy can be expected to continue for a long time. Is he still a great athlete, despite his doping? Or is his athletic reputation now in tatters? A common response to these questions is that, despite his doping, Armstrong remains a great athlete (though perhaps not a very nice one). After all, virtually every other top cyclist at the time was guilty of doping and Armstrong was still better than all of them. The playing field was level in terms of doping; what separated Armstrong from the pack was his natural ability and drive, i.e. the attributes we typically value in our elite athletes.

I pass no judgment on the merits of this particular response. I do, however, note that it raises the issue of what the official stance toward the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) should be within elite sport. The likes of Julian Suvalescu, who have long argued for a more liberal approach to PEDs in sport, have wasted no time in using the Armstrong case to support their view. Thus, they argue that, if sport is all about performance enhancement anyway, if athletes are going to do anything they can to enhance their performance, and if testers are always likely to be one-step behind the athletes, why not open up the rules and end the war on PEDs in elite sports?

There’s something to be said for this position. But in this post and the next I want to look at an opposing view. The view is set out in Eric Chwang’s article “Why Athletic Doping should be Banned” and over the next two posts I want to look at that article. In the remainder of this post I want to explain Chwang’s basic argument and the various caveats thereto. In the next post, I’ll see how he deals with the potential criticisms of his position. As we shall see, Chwang’s argument has limited applicability, so much so that it may not work in a sport like cycling, but it still provides interesting food for thought.

1. The Doper’s Dilemma
Chwang’s argument is that, given the right conditions, large athletic institutions (he gives the examples of Major League Baseball and the NCAA) ought to ban PED. Interestingly, he claims that this is for reasons that the athlete’s themselves are likely to agree with, and not due to typical anti-doping rationales such as a concern fairness, or the maintenance of authentic performance and the integrity the sporting enterprise.

His argument works from game theoretic premises. Put simply, his position is that, in very many cases, athletes dope because they are trapped in something like a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In other words, they do not particularly want to dope, and may often recognise risks to their health associated with doping, but they have to do it if they want to be competitive. To adapt the famous line from the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: it takes all the doping they can do just to stay in the same place.

If you’ve spent anytime reading the testimony of Armstrong’s former teammates over the past couple of weeks (see USADA REPORT), or, if you’ve read Paul Kimmage’s excellent (but dated) book Rough Ride, you’ll probably agree that this is a pretty accurate depiction of the situation in professional cycling. Perhaps more so than any other sport. But for the sake of completeness, we can actually try to model the game theoretic interaction imagined here.

Suppose we have two athletes (A, B), playing against each other in a competitive sport, with two choices (Stay Clean, Dope). If they both stay clean, the situation is as normal: what will separate their performances is a combination of natural ability, hard work, training and luck. If one of them dopes and the other doesn’t, the doper will gain a significant competitive advantage, while the clean athlete may well have to look for another line of work. In the parlance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, this represents a “Sucker’s Payoff” for the clean athlete. Conversely, if they both choose to dope, the competitive advantage is cut away and once again a combination of natural ability, hard work and training will decide the day.

Although the net result of both athletes doping is no different from the situation in which both stay clean, game theoretic axioms assume that the both doping scenario is more likely. This is because doping strictly dominates staying clean: the athlete that dopes does better, no matter what his opponent does. Using figures from Michael Shermer’s Scientific American article from a few years back, the diagram below depicts the Doper’s Dilemma. The figures include the potential costs of getting caught doping, hence the expected payoff of the both doping outcome is slightly less than the expected payoff of the both staying clean outcome. Nevertheless, the logic is the same.

2. Chwang’s Argument
You might be wondering: where is the anti-doping argument in all of this? After all, the Doper’s Dilemma is, in a sense, neutral as regards the pro or anti-doping positions. It is simply a model of rational behaviour that suggests, if there is a genuine competitive advantage to be gained from doping (not an insignificant assumption), we can expect the majority of athletes to do it, thereby erasing whatever competitive advantage it might have provided.

To get an anti-doping conclusion out of all this we need to add another crucial premise. Specifically, we need to assume that, all things considered, taking PEDs is harmful. That is to say, that there are certain risks associated with taking PEDs which, unless there is a competitive advantage to be won from using them, make it undesirable to use them. The harm does not have to be particularly great, but has to be there nonetheless.

As it happens, I’m not sure how harmful PEDs really are. Certainly, one hears horror stories about athletes, particularly young athletes, having serious health problems arising from their use. But often this is because they have to administer the drug clandestinely and without proper medical guidance. If PEDs were permitted, some of these risks would disappear. Nevertheless, the assumption that PEDs will be, at least minimally, harmful is an important one for Chwang’s argument, and I’m willing to run with it just to see where it’s all going.

Once we have the premise that PEDs deliver no competitive advantage, and we also have the premise that PEDs are minimally harmful, we have the skeleton we need for Chwang’s argument. The flesh can then be added to the skeleton in the following manner:

  • (1) Doping is, at least minimally, harmful to dopers. 
  • (2) Because of the rational incentives faced by elite athletes, doping is unlikely to deliver any competitive advantage (because of the Doper’s Dilemma). 
  • (3) An athlete would prefer, all things considered, to avoid doing something that is harmful unless it delivers a competitive advantage. 
  • (4) Therefore, athletes would prefer it if no one dopes. (from 1, 2, 3) 
  • (5) We should not enact any policy that gives some athletes permission to dope but not others. (Impartiality Premise) 
  • (6) Within some constraints, we should give athletes what they want (Beneficence Premise) 
  • (7) Therefore, we should ban doping. (from 4, 5 and 6)

With some modifications, this is how Chwang phrases his argument (pg. 35-6 of his article). Is it any good? Chwang suggests that one thing it has going for it is that it is more robust than the typical anti-doping arguments. For instance, fairness-based arguments, as has long been noted, don’t clearly support anti-doping policies, and integrity/authenticity-based arguments rely on opaque concepts of dubious normative relevance.

3. Some General Caveats
But still, the strength of Chwang’s argument can only really be judged after we look at his attempt to fend off certain obvious criticisms. In particular, criticisms suggesting that the argument is both over and under-inclusive. We will give those criticisms the space they deserve in the next post. For now, a few general caveats and warnings about the argument should be borne in mind.

The first caveat is that, as Chwang himself notes, the argument isn’t perfectly valid. Indeed, while my formulation is slightly more valid than the formulation offered by Chwang, there is still a considerable logical gap between the conclusion and the premises: the need for a ban does not follow from 4, 5 and 6. However, this gap can be plugged fairly easily. The reason why a ban is mandated, as opposed to some other policy, is that, following the logic of the Doper’s Dilemma, the athletes will not be able to enforce their own preferences among themselves. Top-down intervention is needed.

A second caveat is that the argument assumes that comparative results are more important than absolute results. In other words, it assumes that what really matters in sport is how the athletes rank relative to one another, not how they perform relative to some absolute standard (e.g. time). This may be true in some sports, but not in others. For example, it may be true that, in soccer (Football) what we care about is which team is better, not how many goals they score; but, conversely, it may be true that, in 100m sprinting say, what we care about is how fast the winning time is, not how the sprinters rank relative to one another. In sports in which the absolute outcome is more important than the relative one, Chwang’s argument may not apply.

A third caveat, and a fairly major one at that, is that the “within some constraints” clause of premise (6) is left unspecified. Athletes may want lots of things that it would be unreasonable to grant them, how do we determine where the borderline lies between what is reasonable and what is not? Chwang tries to address this problem when responding to the over-inclusiveness criticism of his argument. We’ll be looking at that, along with some other criticisms, the next day.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

New Natural Law, Homosexuality and Religion (Part Two)

John Finnis, one of the leading propoents of New Natural Law

(Part One)

This is the second (and final) part of my latest series on natural law and the ethics of same-sex relations. I’ve discussed this topic at length before. This series has a narrow focus. It is considering Bamforth and Richards’s argument (from their book Patriarchal Religion) that the new natural law argument (NNLA) against same-sex relations is inherently religious; that it cannot be embraced on purely secular grounds. This is significant in that several leading proponents of the NNLA (Finnis, George) argue that it can be embraced on secular grounds.

In part one, I explained what the NNLA was. I did this by first setting out the new natural law worldview. As noted, new natural law is a comprehensive ethical theory, consisting of a particular view of what kinds of things are valuable (basic goods) and how we ought to act in relation to those things (principles of practical reasonableness). I followed this explanation by setting out the structure of the NNLA. For convenience, we can restate that argument in full here:

  • (1) The marital good is a (basic) good: it is a one-flesh, multi-level union between a man and woman, oriented towards child-rearing, and consummated by ongoing procreative-type acts. 
  • (2) It is impermissible to act so as to destroy, damage, impede, violate or pursue an illusory form of a basic good. 
  • (3) Non-procreative sexual acts destroy, damage, impede, violate or instantiate an illusory form, of the marital good.
  • (4) Therefore, non-procreative sexual acts are impermissible (from 1, 2 and 3).

There are two key aspects to this argument. First, there is the claim (premise 1) that (a) there is such a thing as the marital good and (b) it must be consummated by procreative-type acts. And second, there is the claim (premise 3) that all non-procreative acts damage, impede or violate this good. What we must ask here — following Bamforth and Richards — is whether these claims are religious in character.

We’ll do this in three stages. We’ll start by setting out (briefly) the test that Bamforth and Richards use to investigate this issue. We’ll follow this by considering Bamforth and Richards’s argument that the NNLA has an essentially religious content (i.e. that its premises are taken directly from religious sources). And finally, and most importantly, we’ll consider their argument that the NNLA has an essentially religious justification (i.e. that it cannot be persuasive to the secular mind).

1. Audi’s Test for Religiosity
Bamforth and Richards’s book is a lengthy investigation of the merits and internal consistency of new natural law. It looks at the connection between new natural law and Catholic doctrine, between new natural law and Thomism, and at whether new natural law is externally justifiable. Their examination of the NNLA against same-sex relations is merely one part of the overall project. Nevertheless, this analysis inherits the methodology they use in the remainder of the book. As a result, it is necessary to briefly consider how this methodology works.

In assessing the religiosity of new natural law, Bamforth and Richards appeal to a test set out by Robert Audi. In formulating this test, Audi’s concern was to develop criteria for determining whether arguments offered in political debates were of a religious character. The test is as follows (my formulation):

Audi’s Test: To determine whether an argument is of a fundamentally religious character (or not), four criteria can be appealed to:
(a) Content Criterion: Is the substantive content of the argument religious in nature? Paradigmatically, an argument has religious content if it includes a theistic claim (e.g. a divine command) of some sort, but can also have substantive religious content if it appeals to scripture, revelation or Church teaching.
(b) Justification Criterion: Can the argument only be accepted if one accepts some set of substantive religious beliefs? In other words, is the inference being drawn or the warrant being appealed to, only persuasive to someone who shares the religious beliefs of the person making the argument?
c) Motivational Criterion: Is the person making the argument motivated by their religious beliefs when making that argument? Or, rather, are they trying to achieve some religious purpose in making their argument?
(d) Historical/Genetic Criterion: Is the argument linked, via some cognitive chain, to another set of religious arguments or beliefs?

Some of these four criteria are stronger than others. An argument that satisfies only the last two criteria could be deemed weakly religious, since it is still possible for such an argument to be reformulated in secular terms. Contrariwise, an argument that satisfies the first two would probably be strongly religious, since it really would take acceptance of the religious beliefs to make the argument credible.

Appropriately enough, Bamforth and Richards focus most of their energies on proving that the NNLA satisfies the first two criteria for religiosity, but they do spare some thought for the third and fourth criteria too. We’ll follow suit below, starting with the content criterion and then moving on the justification criterion.

2. Does the NNLA meet the Content Criterion?
The distinct branch of natural law theory under consideration here — new natural law — owes its origins to the work of Germain Grisez, a conservative Catholic theologian, whose work has quite of bit of clout in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. One of the more interesting aspects of Bamforth and Richards’s book — from an intellectual history standpoint — is their attempt to trace the influence of Germain Grisez’s highly theological work on the more secularised writings of Finnis and George. They do this with some pretty impressive documentary evidence — i.e. by closely analysing the text of Grisez’s work and showing how it is directly echoed or repeated in the work of Finnis and George. Only a fraction of that evidence can be considered here.

Bamforth and Richards’s major contention is that both Finnis and George’s views on the goodness of marriage and the wrongness of non-procreative sex rely, almost entirely, on the views expressed in Grisez’s four-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus. All four of these volumes are available online for free, and they rest on explicitly religious premises. In their discussion, B & R pick some of the choicest comments from Grisez’s introduction to the 1st volume to prove this point. For example:

In this book, I assume that the reader accepts everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches. This book is not apologetics aimed at nonbelievers nor is it an attempt to rescue the faith of those who have serious doubts. (p. xxx)

Grisez also notes that the chief sources for his work are “are Scripture, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the writings of certain Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially St. Thomas Aquinas.” So in both its pretensions and its authorities, the work is explicitly religious in nature.

As regards the NNLA against same-sex relations, Bamforth and Richards find that the two key aspects of the argument are rooted in Grisez’s theological views. First, the explicit characterisation of the marital good, used by Finnis and George, is taken from Grisez’s work. Thus, for example, it is Grisez who describes the marital sexual act as “one-flesh union” in which man and woman literally become one organism. What’s more, he relies on scripture (specifically Genesis) and church teaching when doing so, and analogises it to communion with Jesus (see B & R, 108).

Second, in viewing non-procreative sexual acts as wrong, the connection is made to Grisez’s claim that human sexuality is part of the language that God uses to reveal himself to us. Every abuse of this language would distort the revelatory message of God and thus would be wrong. Or, rather, in Grisez’s terms, all intentional non-marital sexual acts, which are contrary to the revelatory message of God, are grave matters of sin.

Now, I have to say, I’m not sure that these connections (and I want to be clear that B & R cite many many more examples) really to prove that the NNLA satisfies the content criterion. It seems to me like they really only prove that it satisfies the genetical/historical criterion and that Finnis and George (in their presentations) show that it is possible to restate these views in a prima facie secular manner. Still, I’m willing to ignore this problem as the more serious issue is whether, even if stated in this prima facie secular manner, the argument can be persuasive on non-religious grounds. B & R think not.

3. Does the NNLA satisfy the Justification Criterion?
In claiming that the two key aspects of NNLA rely on religious grounds for their justification, B & R seem to me to be on firmer ground. We can see this by considering the two aspects in turn.

Looking first to the notion of the marital good, we have to pay serious attention to how this good is characterised. As noted in part one, and above, it is characterised as a multi-level, one-flesh union between a man and woman. In a more recent article, Girgis, George and Anderson noted that one of the key aspects of this view is that marriage is a “comprehensive” union. It involves union at the cognitive/behavioural levels and also at the physical level. Furthermore, the physical part of the union cannot consist in simply any old genital or other physical contact between the partners, it can only consist of vaginal (uncontracepted) intercourse. This is for a very particular reason. Only in vaginal intercourse do the partners coordinate to perform a biological function: reproduction. The fact that this coordinated biological activity is missing in non-procreative unions means they cannot be “comprehensive”.

From a secular point of view, the notion that “multi-level” unions are valuable seems mildly attractive. Certainly, I think goods arise from the mutual cooperation and affection typical of healthy relationships, and from the mutually pleasurable physical contact they often involve. But to claim that these unions can only be valuable if they are “comprehensive” and that this “comprehensiveness” is only possible if the partners engage in uncontracepted vaginal intercourse seems rather more far-fetched.

As Richard Yetter Chappell notes over on his blog, this view of the marital good is centred on a “bizarre and fetishistic appeal to the normative significance of biological functions.” This is unlikely to be persuasive to the non-religious. If there is one thing that is distinctive of the non-religious worldview (and I know I shouldn’t make claims on behalf of all its adherents) it is that the universe as a whole is morally indifferent. In other words, that there is no moral agency directing or guiding the natural world toward a morally desirable end. This view is deeply embedded in the Darwinian explanation of biological functions, which holds that although biological organs can display a teleology of sorts, this is not a normatively significant teleology. It follows from this worldview that biological functions do not necessarily have any intrinsic value. Consequently, any attempt to necessarily tie the good of multi-level unions to a coordinated biological function will seem odd to the non-religious mindset. Thus, it looks like B & R are correct in thinking that this aspect of the NNLA is justified by religious premises.

But, of course, the NNLA goes even further than this. Not only does it claim that the marital union is good (something I am willing to accept even if I disagree about what makes it good), it also claims that all other non-procreative physical unions are bad. Again, this seems bizarre. To illustrate the point, consider four possible relationships:

Marital Relationship: A heterosexual couple, bound together in a marital union which has the blessing of the Church, who provide behavioural and emotional support for one another, and only engage in uncontracepted vaginal intercourse.
Heterosexual Procreative Relationship: A heterosexual couple, not officially married, who provide behavioural and emotional support for one another, and only engage in uncontracepted vaginal intercourse.
Heterosexual Occasionally Non-Procreative Relationship: Same as above, but the couple also engage in non-procreative sexual acts.
Homosexual Relationship: A homosexual couple, who provide behavioural and emotional support for one another, and engage in non-procreative sexual acts.

Many more examples could be listed, but these will suffice for present purposes. According to the NNLA (in its most extreme form) only the first of these relationships is permissible. All the others are impermissible (though some NNLA proponents might concede some ground to the second relationship). And they are impermissible on the grounds that they actually impede or violate the good of the first relationship. But why on earth should we think that? All of the relationships consist in the realisation of some goods — companionship, love, mutual support and so forth; neither of two heterosexual relationships precludes the possibility of achieving a comprehensive union; and the partners in the homosexual relationship are gaining access to goods that would not be available to them in a heterosexual relationship (since they could not feel the same bonds of affection in such a relationship). Each of them seems perfectly permissible, even if they are not the same as the marital relationship.

It really does seem like the only way you could think that these other three relationships are impermissible is if you accepted something like Grisez’s view. In other words, if you believed that human sexuality is part of the language of God’s revelation, and that any “mispronunciation” or distortion of that language would defeat God’s purpose. And this, of course, would be to justify the argument on an explicitly religious ground.

4. Conclusion
If this is correct, then Bamforth and Richards have made their point. The NNLA is an essentially religious argument. Neither of its two key premises can be accepted on strictly secular grounds. But this raises the question: why do Finnis and George think that it does?

Bamforth and Richards speculate about this, and in doing so they draw attention to the ways in which the NNLA may satisfy the third of Audi’s criteria for a religious argument: the motivational criterion. As they see it, both Finnis and George are deeply religious men. Their entire worldview is pervaded by religious concepts and ideas, and premised on religious commitments. Consequently, it may be very difficult for them to peer through the veil of this religiosity and see what their arguments look like from the outside-in. Thus, they may miss the obvious religious connotations of what they say, and think they are expressing themselves in secular terms.

Of course, this is speculation. I can’t really say for sure how deeply religious Finnis and George actually are — though their published work is certainly of some evidentiary weight — nor can I say, with all honesty, that I am not guilty of something similar. The non-religious view to which I cling may cloud my perception too. But since the new natural lawyers are trying to build a bridge to the secular worldview, not vice versa, this is not at issue here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

New Natural Law, Homosexuality and Religion (Part One)

John Finnis, one of the leading defenders of New Natural Law

As most of my readers will be aware, a common argument against the legalisation of homosexual marriage, particularly in the U.S., is the new natural law argument (NNLA). In essence, the NNLA holds that homosexual marriage is impermissible because it is contrary to a basic human good — viz. the marital good — which can only be achieved through heterosexual unions involving ongoing acts of a procreative type.

I know I’ve written about this argument ad nauseum before. But I’m preparing some materials for a class on natural law next week and I thought it might be worth revisiting it from a slightly different angle. Specifically, from the angle taken by Bamforth and Richards in their book Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality and Gender: A Critique of New Natural Law, which considers whether the NNLA can be embraced on purely secular grounds (Note: their book does lots of other things besides this too).

This angle interests me because two of the leading defenders of new natural law (Finnis and George) are keen to stress its secular power. In other words, despite the fact that both men are devout Catholics, and despite the fact that natural law is deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition, both are keen to argue that their arguments can be embraced by those who do not share their religious views.

Bamforth and Richards take Finnis and George to task for this. They argue that the NNLA is religious, and cannot really be embraced on secular or non-religious grounds. I want to look at how they defend this claim in this post and the next. I’ll break the discussion down into four parts. First, I’ll lay out the basic methodological framework of new natural law (as set down by Finnis). Second, I’ll describe the NNLA against homosexual marriage (and, indeed, non-procreative sexual acts of all kinds). Third, I’ll consider Bamforth and Richards’s test for the religiosity of new natural law. And fourth, I’ll explain their argument for the religiosity of the NNLA. In the end, it will emerge that I’m not entirely convinced of the merits of their argument, but it’ll be a somewhat interesting ride along the way.

I’ll cover the first two parts of this discussion in the remainder of this post.

1. The Methodology of New Natural Law
New natural law is a comprehensive ethical theory, or at least it purports to be. Whether any ethical theory is truly comprehensive is another question for another day. What does a comprehensive ethical theory look like? Well, at a minimum it provides a theory of good and a theory of right. Let’s consider what both of these things are briefly before considering whether or not natural law has them.

Roughly speaking, a theory of good is that part of a comprehensive ethical theory that specifies the kinds of states of affairs in the world that are valuable or worth pursuing; whereas a theory of right is that which specifies how we ought act in relation to the good. Examples of things we think of as “good” might be sentient pleasure, the pursuit of our interests, the satisfaction of our desires, friendship, good food, long walks on the beach, and so forth (with some of these obviously being more serious than others). These goods come in two common forms: (i) intrinsic goods, which are worth having, obtaining, or experiencing for their own sake; and (ii) instrumental goods, which are worth having, obtaining or experiencing because of what they lead to. Similarly, theories of right come in two basic flavours: (a) consequentialism, which holds that we ought to act so as to achieve the most good, even if that means doing something that is itself bad; and (b) deontologism, which holds that we ought to honour the good in every act, even if that means doing something that gives rise to bad consequences. Comprehensive ethical theories will specify what type of things they think are good, and how we ought to act in relation to those things.

Does new natural law do this? Yes, indeed it does. To illustrate, I’ll use the example of John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights, which is probably the pre-eminent modern secular statement of new natural law theory. The theory does have its roots in Thomism and other, more contemporary, theological writings (specifically those of Germain Grisez) but those roots can be ignored for now. We’ll return to them later when assessing Bamforth and Richards’s argument.

Finnis’s theory of good is grounded in the notion of basic goods. These are things that are intrinsically valuable and form the intelligible ends of most human activities. In his original formulation, Finnis identified seven such goods. They were: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (defined broadly as the speculation about the order of things, or the ultimate ground of reality). Finnis’s contention is that the fact that these seven things are intrinsically good is self-evident or, in some cases, that it is self-contradictory to deny their goodness. To quote:

…if one attends carefully and honestly to the relevant human possibilities one can understand, without reasoning from any other judgment, that the realization of those possibilities [the seven basic goods] is, as such, good and desirable for the human person; and…one’s understanding needs no further justification.

There are many doubts one could express about this approach to identifying the good, however, I’m not inclined to express them here. As it happens, I’m broadly in agreement with Finnis’s approach, and think that the seven things listed are indeed basically good. In fact, I think most people agree with this (do you really think friendship or knowledge aren’t good?). To be sure, I might add things to the list (e.g. skilful work) but then it could be argued that those are already covered. I would also note that Finnis’s approach bears some similarity to the objective list approach in utilitarian ethics. Where the disagreement between my approach and Finnis’s arises is in relation to: (a) his belief that the goods are incommensurable; (b) his belief that marriage is a basic good (more on that anon) and (c) how he moves from the theory of good to the theory of right. After all, as Finnis says, most human activity, including immoral activity, can be understood in terms of the basic goods. What separates the moral person from immoral one are the principles they use to determine how to act in relation to the good.

Finnis's Moral Framework

In this regard, Finnis appeals to nine separate principles of practical reasonableness. The principles tell us how we ought to make decisions in relation to the basic goods. In other natural law theories these principles are sometimes referred to as “modes of responsibility” which, although the terminology is slightly different, are essentially the same thing. I won’t run through all nine principles here — they are in the diagram below if you’re interested — but they include things like not having arbitrary preferences among goods, following one’s conscience, developing a coherent life plan, and, most importantly, respecting every basic good in every act.

The last is the most important because it is what really drives the objection to homosexuality (and non-procreative sex of all kinds). Stated more formally, the principle reads something like the following:

Non-Violative Principle: One must respect every basic good in every act; that is to say one cannot act so as to destroy, damage, impede, violate or pursue an illusory form of a basic good.

This principle is non-consequentialist in nature. It implies that we cannot sacrifice one basic good for another, even if we think it serves a greater good. Indeed, the very notion of a greater good is somewhat anathema to the scheme of basic goods, each of which is intrinsically valuable, none of which can be reduced to the other. This, I suggest, creates problems when dealing with dilemmatic choices, i.e. choices that necessarily involve the sacrifice of at least one good. It’s not clear how much guidance (if any) natural law can provide in these cases.

Anyway, to sum up, new natural law is a comprehensive ethical theory. It includes a theory of good (the basic goods) and a theory of right (the principles of practical reasonableness). This suggests a two stage test that should be followed when deciding what to do. At stage one, you ask whether or not your acts are directed toward (at least one) of the basic goods. And at stage two, you ask whether the act is consistent with the principles of practical reasonableness. If you pass both stages, your act is permissible and possibly even superogatory. If you do not pass both stages, your act is (presumably, though we may need to challenge this) impermissible.

2. The Argument against Homosexuality
So how does all of this apply to the case of same-sex marriage? The first thing to note is that it doesn’t just apply to same-sex marriage. Rather, Finnis and George offer arguments against all non-marital forms of sexual activity, and they do so on the grounds that marriage is a good that has procreative sex as part of its essence and engaging in these other forms of sexual activity would be contrary to this good.

Let’s try to unpack this a little, starting with the notion that marriage is a good. The first thing we need to know about is what this good consists of. The definitions have varied slightly over the years, but the following captures the view:

The Marital Good: Marriage is the one-flesh multi-level union between a man and woman (spouses). The spouses unite both on behavioural-cognitive levels (through emotional commitment, support and mutual affection) and on a physical level (through ongoing reproductive-type acts). The union is oriented toward children, but it is not extrinsically good (i.e. good because of its role in child-rearing); it is intrinsically good.

Now, whether the marital good is basic, or derived, has been a matter of confusion over the years. As seen above, Finnis did not include it among his list of seven basic goods in the original edition of Natural Law and Natural Rights, arguing that it could be derived from the good of friendship or sociality, but he seems to have changed his view more recently and claimed that marriage is itself a basic good. His reasons for doing so feature as part of Bamforth and Richards’s argument so we’ll talk about them later.

If we accept that marriage is a good (preferably a basic good), then we next need to ask why homosexual marriages, and non-procreative sexual acts, are impermissible. After all, just because one thing is good, it does not follow that other non-equivalent acts are bad or impermissible. The key here is the non-violative principle. Finnis and George contend that if we acknowledge homosexual marriages or engage in homosexual sex, or if we engage in non-marital non-procreative type heterosexual acts (masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, contracepted sex or even uncontracepted pre-marital sex), we would be destroying, damaging, impeding, violating or pursuing an illusory form of the marital good.

Finnis offers a bunch of reasons in support of this view. I’ll just mention two. First, and most obviously, these other types of sexual activity will (with one exception) lack the procreative potential of marital sex. Second, whereas marital sex involves the multi-level union between a man and a woman (i.e. union at the personal and bodily levels), non marital sex does not. According to Finnis, it involves the partners (or the person themselves in the case of solo masturbation) disintegrating the personal and bodily levels. They end up treating their bodies merely as sources of pleasure: things to be manipulated for their own enjoyment. This, apparently, damages or impedes their ability (and the ability of others) to pursue the marital good.

That gives us the following argument:

  • (1) The marital good is a (basic) good: it is a one-flesh, multi-level union between a man and woman, oriented towards child-rearing, and consummated by ongoing procreative-type acts. 
  • (2) It is impermissible to act so as to destroy, damage, impede, violate or pursue an illusory form of a basic good. 
  • (3) Non-procreative sexual acts destroy, damage, impeded, violate or instantiate an illusory form, of the marital good. 
  • (4) Therefore, non-procreative sexual acts are impermissible (from 1, 2 and 3).

Frankly, I find all this bizarre. It’s very difficult for me to appreciate how this view could be persuasive to anyone, but that’s part of the problem that Bamforth and Richards raise, and I’ll discuss it the next day. For now, let me mention a couple of responses to the argument.

First there is the sterility objection: sterile married couples cannot engage in procreative type acts and yet no new natural lawyer thinks their sexual unions are impermissible. I’ve discussed this objection before (see HERE and HERE). Second, it's not really clear that the reasons Finnis offers in support of premise (3) are persuasive, even within the confines of his worldview. The personal-bodily disintegration to which he refers is certainly arguable, and the claim that non-procreative sex really damages or impedes marital sex is also doubtful.

A third objection, and one that I quite like, is slightly more meta-theoretical. It goes back to the problem I mentioned earlier with the non-violative principle, namely: sometimes the world presents you with dilemmatic (or tragic) choices. Anything you choose to do will lead to at least one basic good being violated, so anything you do is contrary to the non-violative principle. I suggest that, even if one accepts the natural law view, this is going to be true in the case of homosexual unions: a homosexual couple could achieve the bonds of mutual affection and emotional commitment through marriage so in denying it to them they are denied these goods. Thus, deeming those unions impermissible fails to respect the basic goods that could have been achieved by homosexual couples, even if it also protects other basic goods. The choice necessarily sacrifices some basic goods.

Now, to be clear, I don’t even think that much is true. In other words, I don’t actually think that there is any real loss of goods involved in the permission of homosexual unions. But that’s because I can’t grasp the metaphysical worldview that grounds the notion of the marital good. Bamforth and Richards suggest that this is because that view relies on religious concepts that will never be persuasive to secularists like me. I’ll cover their argument the next day.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Polygrapher's Dilemma: Ethics and Lie Detection

The Polygrapher’s Dilemma” is a short (probably shorter than this blog post in going to be) article by the psychophysiologist John Furedy. The article, which dates from 1993, presents a logico-ethical objection to classic lie detection test protocols. Specifically, it presents an objection to the Control Question Test (CQT) which is a type of lie detection test that relies on comparing a subject’s physiological responses to control and relevant questions. This is to be contrasted with something known as a Guilty Knowledge Test (GKT) which relies on a slightly different test protocol (more on this later). This post will discuss Furedy’s logico-ethical objection.

I have been interested in the merits (or de-merits) of lie detection tests for a long time. As part of my PhD research, I developed a side interest in whether there was anything to brain-based lie detector tests (which come in many forms, incidentally). This side interest blossomed into two research papers, which I published a couple of years back. The interest, however, was never purely technological or purely practical. As you might expect from someone writing a philosophy blog, brain-based lie detection interested me in part because it provided a testing ground for ideas in social epistemology and the philosophy of evidence. Some of these ideas have been discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Although I’ve been distracted by many other research projects over the past year or so, I am still interested in brain-based lie detection, and in order to prevent that interest from going stale, I am currently preparing a research paper that evaluates one such test using a number of concepts from epistemic systems theory, social epistemology and theories of democratic legitimacy. As part of my research for this paper, I’ve been collecting objections to lie detection tests that don’t focus purely on their epistemic or technological failings (important though they are). In this respect, Furedy’s paper caught my eye as it was an attempt by a leading psychophysiologist — and vociferous opponent of CQT lie detection — to present a largely ethical objection to the technology.

In the remainder of this post, I shall look at three things. First, I’ll explain, in rather cursory terms, how a CQT lie detection test works. Second, I’ll outline Furedy’s logico-ethical objection to the CQT. And third, I’ll try to evaluate Furedy’s objection before looking at the GKT and explaining why it might be a superior testing paradigm. As it turns out, it’s the GKT that most interests me, but it’s best introduced by way of contrast with the CQT.

1. What is a CQT Polygraph Test?
In some ways it is odd that the word “polygraph” has become synonymous with “lie detection”. Etymologically speaking, “polygraph” simply means “much writing”, which is an apt description of the output one receives from a lie-detector but which could equally well describe any device that records multiple data streams and displays them in a visual form. Nevertheless, the two have become synonymous and we must work with whatever linguistic quirks we have inherited.

The classic polygraph lie detector measures response profiles in the autonomic nervous system of a particular test subject. Thus, it will measure things like heart rate, galvanic skin response, systolic blood pressure and so on. Like any part of the nervous system (or body more generally) the autonomic nervous system is constantly active. So when one measures responses in that system, the visual output one receives will reveal a constantly variable level of activity, which can be displayed on a scrolling graph (as in the image below).

None of this gets us anywhere close to lie detection. For that, we need to ask test subjects questions, compare the response profiles associated with the answers to these questions, and we also need to make an assumption. The assumption is that when people lie their autonomic response profile will be markedly different than it is when they are telling the truth. There is some supporting theory here. The autonomic nervous system regulates the body’s fight-or-flight response: so if someone is distressed (as they might be when lying) we are likely to see increased activity in their autonomic system.
But other forms of distress, not indicative of lying, are likely to be associated with increased autonomic activity. This raises the disturbing possibility of a polygraph test resulting in many false positives, i.e. cases in which a person is identified as being deceptive even when they are not. A careful testing paradigm is needed to ensure that this does not happen. One of the key questions is whether the CQT is such a testing paradigm. Clearly, Furedy (and many others) think it is not. But before we prejudge the issue, let’s see what it is.

The CQT, in essence, consists in a test subject being asked two kinds of question: control questions and relevant question. The relevant questions cover whatever subject matter the tester is interested in. For example, if the tester is investigating a murder, the relevant question might be “did you shoot Mr X with a shotgun?”; if the tester is doing a background check for employment in the secret services, they might ask “are you, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?”. The control question is supposed to be a similarly valenced question, covering subject matter that innocent subjects are likely to lie about (hence, it is also sometimes called a “probable lie” question). An example might be “have you ever lied to get out of trouble?”.

The belief is that an innocent (non-deceptive subject) is likely to respond more strongly to the control question, because that’s the one they are likely to be lying about. By way of contrast, the belief is that the deceptive subject is likely to respond more strongly to the relevant question, since that, for them, is the more important lie. (Note: multiple pairs of control and relevant questions may be asked in a single test. For simplicity’s sake I assume the test involves one question only for the remainder of this post)

2. The Polygrapher’s Dilemma
With this background detail on the test out of the way, we can move on to consider Furedy’s dilemma proper. An ethical dilemma arises whenever we have two choices to make, each of which is morally problematic (for consequentialist or deontological reasons) and which cannot be avoided by choosing some third (intermediate) option. Furedy’s contention is that the person administering a CQT lie detection test faces two unpalatable choices, with no alternative (palatable) ones. What are these two choices?

The answer comes from the structure of the CQT. As I just noted above, the CQT turns on the comparison of a subject’s responses to relevant R) and control C questions. If the response to the relevant question is greater than the response to the control question (R > C), then the subject is deemed “deceptive”. Contrariwise, if the response to the control question is greater than the response to the relevant question (C > R), then the subject is deemed “non-deceptive”.

One interesting feature of the CQT is that, in order for it to be effective, the tester has to formulate control questions that are emotionally similar to the relevant questions. The reason has to do with the danger of false positives. If the emotional valence of the relevant question is far higher than the emotional valence of the control question, then it’s likely to be highly disturbing to an “innocent” test subject and thus likely to elicit a higher physiological response. This will result in them being labelled deceptive despite the fact that they are not.

Furedy gives the example of the following control-relevant pairing from a case he was involved with:

Control Question: Have you ever done anything of which you were ashamed?
Relevant Question: Did you lick X’s vagina? (Where X was a four year old girl)

In this case, the emotional disparity between the control question and the relevant question is startling. The control question concerns something relatively innocuous and which is likely to garner assent; the relevant question concerns a serious criminal offence, and even an innocent person is likely to be placed under great stress when responding to it.

The thing is, the person administering the test is the one who formulates the control questions (usually after a pre-test interview) and so they have control over the emotional valence of the control questions. Because they have this choice, we get the first horn of our dilemma: if the tester formulates a control question which is markedly less emotionally disturbing than the relevant question, then they run the risk of false positive results. This is ethically undesirable because it could result in an innocent person being denied a job or arrested for a crime.

The second horn of the dilemma comes from the other choice that the polygrapher could make: trying to match the emotional valence of the two questions. Thus the polygrapher would ask a control question test that is either very similar to the relevant question or, more commonly, exploit the pre-test interview by convincing the test subject that certain minor offences or moral lapses have been proved (scientifically) to be linked to others (usually the subject of the relevant question). At this stage, the polygrapher will bandy about phony scientific claims that are designed to confuse the naive test subject in such a way that they can’t distinguish between the emotional valence of the control and relevant question.

Matching the emotional valence of the two questions in this manner should help to lower the rate of false positives (though, obviously, not eliminate it) but it does so at a cost. According to Furedy, the exploitative nature of the pre-test interview, coupled with the accusatory and high-pressure test environment, are likely to make the case of the matched-questions CQT traumatic to the innocent person. This is particularly so because the test subjects are not normally psychologically debriefed about the nature of the test. This is for good reason too (from the polygrapher’s perspective): explaining why they were questioned in that manner runs contrary to the spirit of the test, which is deliberately designed to encourage confusion about the nature and purpose of the questions being asked. If the test subject knows why they are questioned in a particular manner in advance, then they are likely to be able to cheat the test in various ways (by adopting “counter-measures”). Thus, maintaining a mystique about the test is important.

What’s more, there is no intermediate path that the polygrapher can take. If they adopt medium-strength questions, they are likely to get inconclusive test results, which are of no value. That gives us the Polygrapher’s dilemma, which can be formally stated as follows:

  • (1) If a person is faced with a choice between two courses of action (A, B) each of which is morally undesirable, then they are confronted with an ethical dilemma. 
  • (2) In administering a CQT, a polygrapher can either: (a) ask control questions that are markedly less disturbing than the relevant questions; or (b) ask control questions that are emotionally equivalent to the relevant questions. 
  • (3) If they ask control questions that are markedly less disturbing than the relevant questions, the test will result in a high number of false positives, which is undesirable for a variety of reasons.
  • (4) If they ask control questions that are emotionally equivalent to the relevant questions, the test is likely to be traumatic to the innocent test taker, which is undesirable for a variety of reasons.
  • (5) Therefore, in administering the CQT, the polygrapher faces an ethical dilemma.

Furedy is keen to point out that the polygraph test faces a number of scientific and empirical objections too, in addition to this ethical one, but he offers this argument nonetheless as it may persuade those who have, so far, been unperturbed by the scientific objections.

3. Evaluation and Way Forward
What I want to consider here is whether Furedy’s dilemma is a serious one. To evaluate this, I simply need to look at the premises of the preceding argument and work out whether there are good reasons to accept them. As regards the first horn of the dilemma — which we might call the false-positive horn — I am in agreement with Furedy. Creating that kind of emotional disparity between the two questions is likely to result in false positives and these are indeed morally undesirable for a variety of reasons (inculpation of the innocent, wasted resources and so on).

I’m rather less sure about the second horn of the dilemma — which we might call the traumatising horn. Is it really true that innocent test subjects are likely to be seriously emotionally harmed by the test? That looks like an arm-chair hypothesising to me. It does sound somewhat plausible, but one learns to be wary of what sounds plausible when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of human psychology. Any short-term trauma might be erased in the long-run. Also, one has to wonder whether all contexts in which a lie detection test are employed are likely to involve deeply disturbing questions of the sort alluded to above.

By itself, that mightn’t look like much of an objection to Furedy’s argument, but when you combine it with the fact that the CQT might be administered under certain extreme conditions — conditions in which a horrendous outcome might arise if the deceptive person is not located in a timely fashion — you might get a reason for favouring the test despite its traumatising effect. I have in mind here a kind of ticking bomb scenario, where a lie-detection test is used to identify those who are likely to have the information necessary to avert some disaster. The lie detection test would not actually provide you with the information needed to avert the disaster, but in separating out those who are likely to have it from those who are not likely to have, it could be a valuable first step in that direction. There are also other benefits that might result from weeding out the deceptive, and these might also compensate for the traumatising effect of the test.

Of course, whether or not a CQT lie detector could perform this function would depend on its scientific and empirical credibility, which is a topic for another day (quick answer: it seems to have little credibility). In this respect, it’s worth noting that there is an alternative testing paradigm, that is neither subject to Furedy’s logico-ethical dilemma, nor as scientifically dubious as the CQT. I refer to the Guilty Knowledge Test.

The GKT does not involve the comparison of responses to control and relevant question tests. Instead, it involves the comparison of physiological responses to multiple choice questions or multi-part stimuli. The goal of the test is to identify those who have “guilty” (or “relevant”) knowledge; not to identify those who are being deceptive (though that may be a side effect of the test). To give an example, suppose the police are investigating a murder, which took place in the victim’s kitchen. They might ask a suspect the following question as part of a GKT:

GKT Question: Where was the victim’s body found: (a) in the kitchen; (b) in the living room; or c) in the bedroom?

To the innocent person (provide these details are not widely known) each option would seem equally likely, and so when presented with the three options in sequence, the physiological response profile is likely to be the same. By way of contrast, the guilty suspect, who knows where the victim’s body was located, is likely to exhibit a greater response to option (a). This protocol does not involve the generation of potentially traumatic control questions, nor the exploitative and deceptive pre-test interview. Hence, it can avoid the worst excesses of the CQT.

To work effectively, the GKT requires certain information to be concealed from the innocent public, and also, most importantly, requires that there be some reliably detected physiological signal that encodes the distinction between “known” and “unknown” information. There are many such candidate signals, ranging from detectable brainwaves to autonomic responses but whether they are reliable or effective measures is a topic beyond the scope of this simple blog post.

What’s most interesting about the GKT is that many psychophysiologists, who are often quite dismissive of the classic polygraph lie detector, are quite ebullient about its potential uses in forensic and counter-terrorist contexts. For a collection of articles on this topic, I recommend Memory Detection: Theory and Application of the Concealed Information Test (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Monday, October 8, 2012



Apologies for the lack of updates recently. The start of semester here has cut into my blogging time, unfortunately. Will be posting new stuff again towards the end of this week (and finishing my series on drugs).

Your patience is appreciated.