Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Recommendations ♯11: Philosophical Devices by David Papineau

(Series Index)

A quick book recommendation today. David Papineau is a reasonably famous philosopher of science. He is based at King’s College London, and has written some interesting books about consciousness and philosophical naturalism. Last year he released a book called Philosophical Devices, which is an extremely useful reference for anyone with more than a passing commitment to philosophy. I highly recommend it.

What the book does, in a series of terse and condensed chapters, is to provide the reader with a (technical) overview of the most important concepts in modern philosophy. Thus, the first part of the book covers naive set theory and orders of infinity; the second part covers analyticity, a prioricity, and necessity; the third part covers probability theory; and the fourth covers different logics. Why is this worthwhile? Well, if there is one thing that is noticeable about contemporary philosophy it is how technical it can sometimes be. Have you ever been puzzled when philosophers talk about possible worlds or counterfactuals? Do your eyes glaze over when people speak of something being de re or de dicto? Would you like to know more about conditionalisation, objective probability and Bayes theorem? If so, this is probably the ideal book for you. I know that I have found it a useful resource, reaching for its short and simple explanations of key concepts on many an occasion.

All that said, the book’s greatest strengths — its brevity and concision — are also possibly its biggest weaknesses. The book is masterclass in spare and functional prose. No word is wasted; everything contributes to the exposition of the key concepts. But there is only so much of this that a complete novice could take. If you know nothing about philosophy, or about the importance of the concepts discussed throughout the book, you would probably like a little more “colour”, a little more background about their origins and workings. I can’t say for sure, as I have some prior exposure to these ideas, but I suspect this renders the book less useful to the autodidact who is trying to learn about philosophy from scratch. Still, for those who are taking a course in philosophy, or who have a bit more familiarity with it, it will be invaluable.

Friday, October 18, 2013

New Paper: Necessary Moral Truths and Theistic Metaethics

A paper of mine has recently been accepted for publication in the journal SOPHIA. This one deals with what I call the "necessary truth objection" to theistic metaethics. The objection holds, roughly, that if a moral truth is necessary then it does not need or have an explanation, which is contrary to the central claim of theistic metaethics. In the paper, I try to defend the necessary truth objection from some of its recent critics. The paper is probably not as strong as I would like it to be, but I still think it makes some interesting points.

Here are the full details, along with links to preprint versions (I'll link to the published version once it becomes available):

Title: Necessary Moral Truths and Theistic Metaethics (Preprint on and
Journal: SOPHIA, DOI: 10.1007/s11841-013-0390-0 
Abstract: Theistic metaethics usually places one key restriction on the explanation of moral facts, namely: every moral fact must ultimately be explained by some fact about God. The problem is that the widely-held belief that some moral truths are necessary truths undermines this claim. If a moral truth is necessary, then it seems like it neither needs, nor has an explanation. Or so the objection typically goes. Recently, two proponents of theistic metaethics — William Lane Craig and Mark Murphy — have argued that this objection is flawed. They claim that even if a truth is necessary, it does not follow that it neither needs nor has an explanation. In this article, I challenge Craig and Murphy’s reasoning on three main grounds. First, I argue that the counterexamples they use to undermine the necessary truth objection to theistic metaethics are flawed. While they may provide some support for the notion that necessary truths can be explained, they do not provide support for the notion that necessary moral truths can be explained. Second, I argue that the principles of explanation that Murphy and Craig use to support theistic metaethics are either question-begging (in the case of Murphy) or improperly motivated (in the case of Craig). And third, I provide a general defence of the claim that necessary moral truths neither need nor have an explanation

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Benatar's Two Views of Sexual Ethics

In my recent reading-up about the ethics of sex and prostitution, I found one paper being mentioned over and over again. The paper was David Benatar’s “Two Views of Sexual Ethics”. Now, Benatar is a consistently provocative, and annoyingly careful, philosopher so I was intrigued. In the past, he has defended the anti-natalist thesis that coming into existence is a great harm, and more recently he has defended the notion of anti-male sexism. It is no surprise then to find that this particular paper defends an equally controversial conclusion, namely: that if we accept the permissibility of causal sex, we will struggle to explain the wrongness of paedophilia and rape.

In this post, I want to take a look at Benatar’s argument. Ultimately, I think it is wrong, largely because it conflates the permissibility of promiscuity with the permissibility of casual sex (as defined by Benatar), but, as I say above, Benatar is a careful philosopher and it is not always easy to locate the flaws in his reasoning. Hopefully, this post can do that by first elucidating the structure of his reasoning, and then subjecting it to some critical scrutiny.

1. Benatar’s Dilemma: casual sex has unpleasant implications
Benatar’s stated aim in his paper is to tease out the implications of two competing views about the ethics of sex. The two views are the significance view, and the casual view, which are defined in the following manner:

The Significance View: Sex is only permissible when it is romantically significant, i.e. when it expresses or cements a relationship of reciprocal love and affection between the sexual partners.
The Casual View: Sex need not be romantically significant in order to be permissible. It can be permissibly pursued in the manner of any other pleasure.

In this form, the casual view is somewhat opaque. What does it mean to say that sex can be permissibly pursued in the manner of any other pleasure? Isn’t the category of human pleasures too diverse to warrant such a broad-brush claim? I’m inclined to think so, and to think that the tendency to paint with a rather broad brush is what lends Benatar’s argument an unwarranted degree of credibility.

Still, to be fair to the guy, he does offer us an analogy to explain what he means by the casual view. The analogy is to the pleasure we derive from eating food. As he sees it, gastronomic pleasure can be pursued in many contexts, in many forms, and for many reasons. In some contexts it will be immoral, but that will only be because some more general moral principle applies, e.g. a prohibition on stealing food. In most cases it can be pursued without regret, shame or worry: we won’t deserve criticism for eating around, and we needn’t always enjoy the food we eat for it to be permissible. Benatar is claiming much the same for the casual view of sex.

In the modern era we have embraced the casual view of sex by embracing the permissibility of promiscuity, and Benatar thinks that this is problematic. To be precise, he thinks it gives rise to a dilemma, which can be stated in the following manner:

Benatar’s Dilemma: Either we embrace the significance view of sex, or we embrace the casual view:
(a) If we embrace the significance view, then we can easily explain the (special) wrongness of paedophilia and rape, but not the permissibility of promiscuity;
(b) If we embrace the casual view, then we can explain the permissibility of promiscuity but not the (special) wrongness of paedophilia and rape.

The twin horns of the dilemma are illustrated below.

As you can see, I’ve put the word “special” in brackets before “wrongness” on each of the horns of the dilemma. The reason for this is that the major alleged implication of the casual view is not that it forces us to accept paedophilia and rape, but rather that it forces us to view rape or paedophilia as equivalent in wrongness to other things that may or may not be all that wrong. Hopefully this will become clearer as we proceed.

In the remainder of this post, I want to look at Benatar’s defence of the dilemma, and then offer some suggestions for where I think it goes wrong.

2. Benatar’s Defence of the Dilemma
Benatar doesn’t spend long on the first horn of the dilemma. He thinks it is pretty obviously true. If permissible sex must be romantically significant, then it is easy to see that rape and paedophilia must be wrong. Children, we can assume, are not emotionally mature enough to appreciate romantically significant sex, and in any event will be coerced into the sexual acts without much thought for their emotional needs. The same is true of rape: non-consensual sex will always lack the emotional reciprocity that is required by the significance view.

So the first horn of the dilemma looks pretty compelling. What about the second? This is the tricky one. Many people would like to hold that promiscuity is acceptable and that rape and paedophilia are not. Benatar has to overcome their resistance if his argument is to succeed. To do see if he does, we need to take the claims one at a time, starting with the least objectionable one: that the casual view entails the permissibility of promiscuity. This would seem obviously true. If there is nothing special about sex — if it’s like, say, singing in harmony with others — then you should be able to do it with whoever you like (subject, of course, to their consent, which is a background moral constraint).

Moving on then to paedophilia, an obvious way to block the alleged implication of the casual view would be to appeal to the just-mentioned consent principle. If children are not mature enough to consent to sex — and this is something of a default assumption — then paedophilia cannot be morally acceptable. And this is perfectly consistent with the permissibility of promiscuity since consent dictates the permissibility of casual sex as well. This is certainly the first response that occurred to me when I encountered Benatar’s argument.

The problem with this response is twofold. First, if we accept the casual view, it becomes far more difficult to explain why children cannot consent to sex. If sex is akin to singing in harmony, then why wouldn’t a child be able to consent to it? Furthermore, we seem to have inconsistent beliefs about this issue. Increasingly, legal authorities the world over apply a case-by-case capacity test to children to see whether they can consent to serious medical treatments and so forth. Sometimes they find that young children have the capacity to consent. But if they are deemed sufficiently competent to consent to these kinds of things, why not sex, especially if it is so insignificant? The second problem is that, even if children cannot consent, parents are generally allowed to coerce children into doing other things (or, to put it more diplomatically, to consent on their behalf). Benatar gives the examples of parents forcing children to take up sports, or to attend the opera in the interests of developing character and cultural sensitivity. Could similar arguments not apply to sex, especially if it is no more significant than those activities? Benatar seems to think they could.

An alternative way in which to block this alleged implication is to appeal to harmfulness. In other words, to claim that sexual relations between an adult and a child are particularly harmful. But, again, Benatar thinks there are two problems with this response. The first is that, if we are talking about physical harm, then not all sexual acts between an adult and a child will involve physical harm. The second is that, if we are talking about psychological harm, then it is not clear whether that is caused primarily by the sexual acts or by the cultural norms associated with paedophilia. Benatar does point to some research on this in his article which, allegedly, supports the latter explanation, but I’m not in a position to evaluate it here.

The net result is that Benatar thinks it is very difficult to explain the wrongness of paedophilia on the casual view of sex. Sure, you’ll be able to explain the wrongness of particular instances of paedophilia, but the general injunction against it? Not so easy.

That brings us to rape. Surprisingly enough, given the problems with explaining the wrongness of paedophilia, Benatar thinks it is actually possible to explain the wrongness of rape on the casual view. After all, rape is non-consensual sex, and the consent principle still governs the permissibility of casual sex, as we saw above. Furthermore, the notion of permissible coercion is not easily applied to adults, so this doesn’t interfere with our judgment of wrongness. But what is difficult to explain on the casual view is the especial wrongness of rape, i.e. the fact that non-consensual sex is deemed worse than other coerced activities. Benatar gives some strange analogies to make this point. For example, forcing someone to eat a tomato.

One could respond to this by suggesting that different beliefs about the permissibility of sex could modulate the wrongness of rape. Thus, for example, someone who believes in the significance view of sex is wronged to a greater degree than someone who believes in the casual view. Benatar gives the analogy here to a devout Muslim or Jew who is forced to eat pork. This might do some work, but it is not a promising way to account for the especial wrongness of rape, particularly given that it won’t apply to those who accept the casual view.

So the dilemma looks to be pretty robust. Doesn’t it?

3. Is Benatar Right?
I think there are at least three major problems with Benatar’s Dilemma. First, I think he gives the significance view too easy a time. Second, I think he conflates promiscuity with casual sex. And third, I think it may be possible to slide between the horns of the dilemma by adopting a moderate (or “embodied”) significance view of permissible sex.

On the first point, Benatar assumes too quickly that the significance view is free from the problems he attaches to the casual view. At a first pass, it does indeed seem like the significance view accounts for the wrongness of rape and paedophilia in a straightforward and persuasive manner, but on a second pass things are less clear. For starters, it’s not at all obvious why children are less likely to have the emotional maturity needed for romantically significant sex than they are to have the maturity for consent. In other words, it is not clear that the significance account of the wrongness of paedophilia is decisively better than the mere consent-based account. In addition to this, it seems like the significance view might create problems for the wrongness of rape as well. For instance, it could be that rape motivated by romantic desires is, on this view, less wrong than rape that is not. (Luke Roelofs makes this point in his critique of Benatar)

But worse than all this is the fact that the significance view - contra Benatar - does not actually rule out the permissibility of promiscuity. If by promiscuity we mean “sex with many different people”, then I see no reason for thinking that this is ruled out by the significance view. After all, it is possible that one could have romantically significant sex with multiple partners. It is only if “romantic significance” is taken to be semantically equivalent to “monogamous commitment” that the contrary is true. This, I think, is a major problem for Benatar’s argument. Throughout the paper seems to conflate promiscuity with the casual view. In other words, he thinks that in order to be promiscuous one must take a casual attitude toward all sexual encounters; treat them as being devoid of all meaning or emotional significance. But this isn’t necessarily so. One could be promiscuous without being casual.

This leads nicely to the third major problem with Benatar’s dilemma. If all we want to do is defend the permissibility of promiscuity, and not the casual view per se, then maybe it is possible to craft an intermediary position, between the extremes of significance and casualness, which avoids the pitfalls of the casual view and the restrictiveness of the significance view. We might call this the “moderate significance view”. According to this view, permissible sex requires some sort of reciprocal emotional bond between two people, but not necessarily a deep or lasting emotional commitment. This would account for the wrongness of rape and paedophilia. Admittedly, the latter is a little more difficult, if only because determining the cut-off age at which someone acquires the requisite emotional capacities is always tricky (and somewhat arbitrary). But this is just as much of a problem for the strong significance and consent-based accounts, as we have seen.

What’s more, there could independent reasons for adopting this moderate view (i.e. reasons that are not linked to avoiding the dilemma). For example, it could be that the exceptional nature of sexual contact (which is not just like singing in harmony or playing squash or eating an apple), coupled with innate and difficult-to-override mechanisms of attachment, make it difficult to have sex without creating some emotional connection. Thus, in order to avoid being harmed by sexual contact, we would be well-advised to only have sex when we are reasonably sure that there is some reciprocal emotional commitment. (Again, Roelofs makes something like this point in his critique of Benatar)

Of course, Benatar is no fool. In his article he anticipates the possibility of people sliding between the horns of the dilemma, but argues that any such attempt will end up endorsing one or the other extreme view. Thus, he considers an intimacy/privacy based view of permissible sex, and finds it wanting on the grounds that any plausible defence of why sex must be intimate will tend collapse into the significance view. Similarly, he considers a “person-involving” view — which holds that sex is unlike other pleasures because it deeply affects the person/self — and finds it lacking because it won’t permit casual, no-strings-attached, sexual encounters. But there are two problems with this. First, it once again conflates the permissibility of promiscuity with the casual view. And second, the moderate significance view, at least as I imagine it, need not involve deep personal commitment, just a level of emotional commitment that goes beyond that involved in other bodily pleasures.

Just to be clear, I’m not necessarily endorsing the moderate significance view; I’m just saying that it might suffice to avoid Benatar’s dilemma.

4. Conclusion
Benatar’s “Two Views of Sexual Ethics” is certainly a provocative and disorienting piece: it really does force you to think again about the view you have of permissible sex. But I think it is not as challenging as it first seems. There are three reasons for this. First, Benatar assumes too easily that the significance view is devoid of the problems he throws at the casual view. Second, throughout the article, Benatar conflates promiscuity with the casual view. And third, it may be possible to adopt an intermediate view of permissible sex that avoids the two horns of the dilemma.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Ethics of Robot Sex

Human beings have long performed sexual acts with artifacts. Ancient religious rituals oftentimes involved the performance of sexual acts with statues, and down through the ages a vast array of devices for sexual stimulation and gratification have been created. Little wonder then that a perennial goal among roboticists and AI experts has been the creation of sex robots (“sexbots”): robots from whom we can receive sexual gratification, and with whom we may even be able achieve an emotional connection.

But is this something we should welcome? Or is it deeply worrying? David Levy has been at the forefront of research on this question, most notably in his book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. In this post, I want to take a look at some of the arguments he makes. Although I will use his book as a reference point, I will structure my discussion more around his article “The Ethics of Robot Prostitutes”, which appears in the edited collection Robot Ethics.

Levy makes two arguments in this piece. The first is a predictive argument, which holds that people will, as a matter of fact, have sex with robots in the future. The second is an ethical argument, which holds that there is nothing deeply ethically objectionable about sex.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Levy on the first argument, if only because people have already demonstrated their willingness to have sex with artifacts. On the second issue, I think Levy’s discussion is not as careful as it could be and I hope to rectify that. I think one needs to distinguish between the intrinsic and extrinsic ethical aspects of robot sex and treat them separately. This is because while there is probably nothing intrinsically wrong with having sex with robots, it may be extrinsically problematic. That said, I’m fairly agnostic about this issue because it requires us to predict the likely effects of sexbot usage and I’m not sure that we are well-placed to do that.

I’ll divide my discussion into four parts. First, I’ll look at Levy’s predictive argument, suggesting one plausible criticism of it. Second, I’ll look at the intrinsic ethics of robot sex. Third, I’ll look at the extrinsic ethics of robot sex. Finally, and largely in jest, I’ll look at the most plausible ethical objection to robot sex: the Futurama argument.

1. Will people have sex with robots?
Levy’s predictive argument is based on two main limbs. The first limb aims to show that the primary motivations for having sex with other human beings will transfer over to robots. The second limb aims to show, more narrowly, that the primary motivations for having sex with prostitutes will transfer over to robots.

You may well wonder why the second limb is needed. Surely if the reasons for having sex with humans will transfer over to robots, we have a decent predictive argument? But I think it is relatively easy to see what the problem is. Even if it is true that the primary motivations for having sex with other human beings will transfer over to robots, there is still the question of why people would opt for robots in preference to (or in addition to) ordinary human partners. The answer to this question can partly be resolved by looking at why people opt for prostitutes in preference to (or in addition to) “ordinary” human partners.

So let’s look at the first limb of the argument: why do people have sex with other humans? Levy discusses this issue at length in his book (but not in the article). He mentions three studies. The first coming from Barbara Leigh, the second from Valerie Hoffman and Ralph Bolton, and the third from Deborah Davis and colleagues. For some reason he doesn’t provide references for these studies; luckily, I was able to track them down and have linked to them in the text.

In any event, there is nothing especially dramatic about the findings from these studies. Each of them found that pleasure and emotional connectivity were the primary motivations for having sex (and, interestingly, that procreation ranked pretty low). Some of the other stated reasons could be significant in different contexts, but those two are the relevant ones for now because Levy’s argument, as you might guess, is simply that robot sex could satisfy both of them. Obviously enough, having sex with a robot could be pleasurable and it could help people obtain gratification and sexual release. Emotional connectivity is a trickier prospect, but Levy claims that sophisticated robots could respond with at least the facade of emotionality, and, furthermore, that people do become emotionally attached to robots (the first half of his book is pretty good on this point).

That brings us to the second limb of the argument: why would people have sex with robots in preference to (or in addition to) having sex with human beings? The evidence on why people have sex with prostitutes is thought to be revealing. Now, there is quite a bit of evidence on this topic (though most of it focuses on male-female interactions), so I’ll just list some of the relevant sources first before going into the actual reasons. Some of the sources are: McKeganey and Barnard 1996; Xantidis and McCabe, 2000; Monto 2001; Bernstein 2007; and Sanders 2008.

Moving onto the actual reasons, Levy breaks these down into three main categories (with a fourth being hinted at in his book): (i) the myth of mutuality - i.e. people have sex with prostitutes in order to secure some kind of emotional connection; (ii) variety - i.e. people have sex with prostitutes because they are willing to engage in sex acts that “ordinary” human partners are not (though this can change as sexual norms among the general population change); (iii) lack of complications and constraints; and (iv) lack of sexual success in “normal” life.

Once again, Levy’s claim is that all four reasons could be satisfied by sexbots. Indeed, one thing that sexbots may be better at than human prostitutes is cultivating the “fake” emotional connection. After all, robots could be programmed to dote upon, or even to fall in love with their owners, thus creating a connection that is more substantive than that found in typical prostitute-client relationships. Contrariwise, they could be programmed not to, if that is what the owner would prefer (lack of complications and constraints). Furthermore, variety and willingness to have sex with those who are otherwise sexually unsuccessful, should not be problem for robots.

That gives us Levy’s predictive argument:

  • (1) If the motivations for having sex with ordinary human partners and prostitutes would carry over to sexbots, then people are highly likely to have sex with robots.
  • (2) The motivations for having sex with ordinary human partners and prostitutes would carry over to sexbots.
  • (3) Therefore, people are highly likely to have sex with robots.

As I said in the introduction, I’m inclined to agree with this predictive argument, partly for the reasons given by Levy but also partly because people have already demonstrated a willingness to have sex with artifacts. Still, there is at least one countervailing consideration to bear in mind: “the uncanny valley” effect. First mentioned by Masahiro Mori, the “uncanny valley” is the name given to the apparent revulsion people experience when they see an object that is almost, but not quite, human-like in appearance and function. A now-classic illustration of the phenomenon comes from Robert Zemeckis’s 2004 film The Polar Express. In that film, human actors were used to create computer simulations that were very close to being perfectly human-like in appearance. The result was that many viewers were uneasy about, and even slightly horrified by, the characters on screen. Having seen bits of the film myself (but never the whole thing) I can report a similar feeling of eerieness. (Note: I took this objection from Blay Whitby's article, which also appears in the Robot Ethics collection).

If the uncanny valley is a robust phenomenon — and it’s not at all clear to me that it is — then it might block the path to robot sex. The claim would be that as robots get more and more human-like in appearance and function, a point will be reached at which humans begin to experience severe revulsion toward them. This should make them less willing to have sex with them. It has to be noted, however, that the uncanny valley is just that: a dip in likeability before more complete human-likeness is reached. It may be little more than a speedbump on the road to rampant robot sex.

One final point that is worth mentioning is that one of the factors that might hasten the development and use of sexbots is a prohibitive attitude toward human prostitution. Levy gives the example of South Korean hotels that rent out “love dolls” to their patrons, largely because human sex work is prohibited in that country. This suggests that robot sex might be viewed as a viable alternative to human sex work in countries that prohibit human prostitution. That said, I’m not sure how credible this is given that human prostitution thrives in many countries with prohibitive laws.

2. Intrinsic Ethical Objections to Robot Sex
If we accept that increasingly sophisticated sexbots will be developed, and that people are likely to avail of them, then the question turns to the ethical. Is this a trend that should be welcomed, prevented or treated with indifference? Habitually, I tend toward indifference on questions like this, but let’s see if there are any objections to robot sex that ought to shake me out of that indifference.

Let’s start with intrinsic objections to robot sex. These are objections that claim that there is something inherently wrong about having sex with a human artifact, no matter how sophisticated it may be. I find this kind of objection hard to credit. Unless one adopts an extreme, Catholic, natural-law like view of permissible sex — in which only procreative or procreative-type sexual acts are permissible — there would seem to be little to object to in the notion of robot sex.

Still, there are better and worse arguments that can be made on this issue. In my opinion, Levy makes a bad one (in his article) by drawing an analogy between vibrators and sexbots (p. 227). Roughly, his argument is:

  • (4) Using vibrators to achieve orgasm is permissible.
  • (5) Using a sexbot to achieve orgasm is similar in all important respects to using a vibrator.
  • (6) Therefore, using a sexbot to achieve orgasm is permissible.

The problem here is that premise (5) may or may not be true. It depends on the degree of sophistication of the sexbot. If the sexbot is essentially a lifeless artifact with no autonomy, then the argument would be reasonably compelling. This may well be the position we are at with contemporary sex dolls and the like. But if the sexbot has some sophisticated AI, and some semblance of autonomy and personhood, the situation is rather different. In that case the conditions under which sex with robots is permissible, will tend to become equivalent to the conditions under which sex with ordinary human beings is permissible.

Levy seems to acknowledge this point later in his article when he discusses the possibility of artificially conscious robots. But I would say that any discussion of “consciousness” is a distraction here. Whether robots should be treated with the same ethical respect as humans does not depend on whether or not they are conscious (after all, how could even know this?). Rather, it depends on whether or not they display the external evidential marks of personhood. If they do, we should err on the side of caution and treat them equivalently to human beings (or so I believe).

One slight hiccup to bear in mind is Petersen’s “Robot Slave” argument, which I have covered on the blog before. If Petersen is right then it is permissible to create robot slaves and, naturally, this would cover robot sex slaves. I pass no judgment on the success of that argument here though.

3. Extrinsic Objections to Robot Sex
If there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having sex with robots, then we must consider the possibility that there is something extrinsically wrong about it. Levy mentions three possible extrinsic concerns. Let’s go through them briefly.

The first extrinsic concern that Levy mentions has to do with the stigma that might be experienced by the users of sexbots. Of course, this isn’t really an ethical concern. Whether or not users deserve to be stigmatised is something that is driven by ethical conclusions, not something that itself drives us toward ethical conclusions. At best, the likelihood of stigma makes engaging in robot sex prudentially unwise, which it may well be, but it doesn’t render it ethically impermissible.

The second extrinsic concern has to do with how ordinary human partners of sexbot users might feel. Will the use of sexbots be viewed as akin to infidelity? Will it harm ordinary human relationships? There are several things to be said on this matter. First, this will only be relevant to a certain sub-group of sexbot users, i.e. those with ordinary human partners. Second, the attitude toward sexbot use is likely to vary considerably across relationships. As Levy points out, some partners might feel threatened by it, but others may embrace it as it could free them up from sexual demands, or could be used to “spice things up”. In short, whether or not it is wrong to use a sexbot will have to be determined within the particular context of an actual relationship, and not in the abstract.

The third extrinsic concern has to do with the effect of sexbots on human sex workers. Is it possible that human sex workers will be rendered unemployed by the ready-availability of sexbots? Would this be a good or bad thing? I find this to be the most interesting extrinsic ethical concern, so much so that I’ve decided to write a paper on technological unemployment and sex work. Levy says relatively little about it in his article. He accepts that it might happen, but says that it might be good (if we think human sex work is morally objectionable), or bad (since human sex workers are a vulnerable sector of the population who might be rendered more vulnerable by technological unemployment). My own feeling is that sex work may be less vulnerable to technological unemployment than other industries, not least because technological unemployment in other industries may drive people into sex work. That could definitely have significant social and ethical implications, ones which I hope to explore in the paper I am writing.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with a set of objections to robot sex that are not particularly persuasive, partly because they are dependent on contingencies that cannot be evaluated in the abstract, and partly because they rely on difficult-to-make predictive arguments. (Edit, added on the 12/10/13: there are other extrinsic concerns one could raise. For example, one could claim that people are likely to be violent or extremely perverse in their relations with sexbots, and this might encourage them to be violent and perverse with human beings. But, again, this relies on dubious assumptions about how people are likely to behave with sexbots, and, in any event, could cut both ways: maybe having non-human robots upon whom we can act out our disturbing sexual fantasies will make things better for humans).

There is one other objection we have yet to consider…

4. The Most Plausible Argument Against Sex with Robots?
Futurama fans will be aware of the ethical perils of robot sex. In the third season episode “I dated a robot”, Fry falls in love with a robot with the holographic personality and image of Lucy Liu. His colleagues and friends warn him that he is doing a terrible thing: one shouldn’t have an emotional and sexual relationship with a robot. But Fry isn’t aware of the perils, having only recently been transported from the 20th Century to the 30th.

To educate him about the problem, they play him an old public health film: “Don’t Date Robots”. As the film explains, everything that is good or worthwhile (and some of what is bad and not so worthwhile) about civilisation (art, music, science, technology, sport etc.), is actually driven by the motivation to find a willing (human) romantic and sexual partner. If you take away that motivation, civilisation collapses. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the ready-availability of robot partners does. If all one needs to do to find a willing partner is to download one from a database, and include in that download all of one’s preferred characteristics, then all the striving and yearning that made civilisation possible will disappear.

We can call this the Futurama argument against sex with robots:

  • (7) If we remove the motivation to find a willing (human) partner, civilisation will collapse.
  • (8) Engaging with a robot sexual partner will remove that motivation.
  • (9) Therefore, if we start having sex with robots, civilisation will collapse.

The Futurama Argument is undoubtedly silly and hyperbolic. But part of me thinks it might be onto something…

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Scientific Optimism, Techno-Utopianism and the Meaning of Life

Robert McCall the Prologue and the Promise

Historically, the possibility of true meaning in life has been tied to the religious worldview. That is to say: meaning has only been thought possible if there is a supernatural realm in which we can achieve eternal salvation, or from which a divine being bestows meaning upon our mortal human lives. With their rejection of supernaturalism, and its associated religious doctrines, naturalists are forced to abandon this conception of meaning.

But where does that leave them? Two options seem to arise: (i) they can embrace the possibility of meaning without the supernatural; or (ii) they can reject the possibility of meaning outright. Though the former option is, for many, more welcoming than the latter, it is still typically thought to require some re-orientation or re-conceptualisation of what meaningful life is: wholly naturalistic meaning is possible, but it is deflationary, and somehow less than supernaturalistic meaning. Thus are told we have to “create our own meaning” or that we have to “make do with worldly goods”. I have experimented with such deflationist views myself in the past.

But maybe there is no need for naturalists to be so deflationary when it comes to meaning? Dan Weijers makes this argument in his recently-published article “Optimistic Naturalism: Scientific Advancement and the Meaning of Life”. There, Weijers presents a novel, wholly naturalistic view of meaning, that blends contemporary techno-utopianism with classic philosophical debates about the meaning of life, to produce a robust, inflationary theory of meaning.

In the remainder of this post, I want to outline Weijers’s view, and subject it to some (mild) scrutiny. I break the discussion down into three parts. First, I offer a taxonomy of possible views about meaning in life. Second, I discuss two critiques of meaning within the naturalist worldview (which are explicitly mentioned by Weijers). And third, I examine Weijer’s view and the argument he presents in its favour, evaluating its premises as I go.

1. Meaning in Life: A Taxonomy of Views
There are several families of views about meaning in life. In his article, Weijers spends a good deal of time going over them. I’ll follow suit here. This will be familiar territory to anyone whose read my previous entries on the philosophy of meaning, but repetition can be useful.

As Weijers sees it, views about meaning in life break down into two overlapping taxonomies. The members of the first taxonomy have already been highlighted in the opening paragraphs to this post. They are:

Supernaturalism: Meaning in life requires the existence of some supernatural realm or supernatural beings. The classic example coming from Christian theology which argues that meaning is a function of both God (a supernatural being) and everlasting life in heaven (a supernatural realm).
Naturalism: Meaning in life (only) requires the existence of a natural realm and natural entities. Most modern, secular, theories of meaning belong to this family.
Nihilism: Meaning in life is not possible. This view comes in two distinct flavours: (i) naturalistic nihilism, which holds that meaning is not possible because there is no supernatural realm or being; and (ii) total nihilism, which holds that meaning is not possible no matter what the ultimate structure of reality is (i.e. whether it be wholly natural or whether it contain some supernatural elements).

The second taxonomy of views is more concerned with the person whose life it is and the conditions they must satisfy in order to live a meaningful life. The schools of thought within this taxonomy tend to presuppose that meaning is possible; they just differ in terms of the conditions that must be met in order for an individual life to be deemed meaningful. They can be consistent with supernaturalism or naturalism:

Subjectivism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must simply attain some subjective state, e.g. fulfil their desires, experience conscious pleasure, satisfy their interests etc.
Objectivism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must satisfy some objective conditions, e.g. they must produce morally valuable outcomes, or produce aesthetically valuable art etc.
Hybridism: In order to live a meaningful life, an individual must satisfy some set of objective and subjective conditions, e.g. they must be consciously fulfilled by producing morally valuable outcomes.

In a previous series, I looked at the problems with wholly subjectivist theories, and at a defence of a wholly objectivist one. My own personal feeling is that hybridist theories are most likely to be correct. So I think that the combination of subjective fulfillment and objective worthiness is what is needed to live a truly meaningful life. Weijers seems to concur insofar as the theory he defends belongs to the (naturalistic) hybridist camp. But as noted in the introduction, theories within this camp are often thought to be deflationary. Why is this?

2. The Naturalist Malaise
A predominant theme in existentialist literature and film is the gloominess and despondency that accompanies the naturalistic worldview. The view shared by many authors (and many auteurs) is that once we embrace the natural world and reject God, our lives lose the sheen they once had. What is it that provokes this reaction? Weijer looks at two concerns.

The first has to do with finitude. If we are nothing but natural beings then our lives are finite. We get about 80 years on this earth (give or take) and then that’s it: we shuffle off the mortal coil and slip into oblivion. All our projects and plans, our hopes and aspirations, our victories and achievements, effectively die with us. What’s more, it’s not just our lives that are finite, the planet upon which we live, and the universe in which we reside, is slowly winding-down to oblivion too. In a couple of billion years, our planet will be no more, and a few billion years after that the universe will go pass through its “heat death” (meaning it will no longer be able to sustain life, though something may continue to exist indefinitely). Whatever way we look at it, nothing we say or do will last forever. Many people find this to be a wholly disheartening fact (Weijers specifically cites Tolstoy as a proponent of this view, and Tolstoy’s realisation of finitude as being the reason why he slipped back into Christianity).

The second concern has to do with absurdity. This can be linked to finitude, but it is somewhat distinct. The classic exponent of the Absurd is Thomas Nagel, whose work on this topic I have covered before (LINK). Absurdity arises, for Nagel, when there is a persistent and inescapable discrepancy between aspiration and reality: between what wish to be the case, and what is really the case. Nagel argues that such a discrepancy arises in human life. As he sees it, we constantly strive to pursue projects and plans of unquestionable worth or merit. That is our hope. But the problem is that we can always step back from our petty human projects and plans and question their worth. This renders our lives absurd.

Most naturalist theories have tended to embrace the challenge of finitude and the challenge of absurdity. In other words, they have tended to accept that our lives are finite and that our projects and plans are constantly open to question, but have tried to argue that meaning is possible nonetheless. Weijers tries to go one better. He tries to offer a naturalistic account of meaning that directly confronts the twin challenges of finitude and absurdity.

3. Scientific Optimism and Techno-Utopianism: A Viable Pathway to Meaning in Life?
Weijers’s case for a robust, inflationary form of naturalistic meaning can be expressed a simple argument:

  • (1) If we can be subjectively fulfilled by actions with infinite consequences, then we can live lives of true meaning (without succumbing to finitude or absurdity).
  • (2) Continual scientific and technological progress might allow for our actions to have infinite consequences in a wholly natural universe.
  • (3) We can be subjectively fulfilled by such actions.
  • (4) Therefore, continual scientific and technological progress might allow us to live lives of true meaning.

This will probably seem a little odd, so let’s go through it step-by-step. The first premise states the general conditions that Weijer thinks must be satisfied in order to live a truly meaningful live. The conditions are hybridist in nature. One of them refers to an objective state of affairs — namely: that our actions have infinite consequence — the other to a subjective state of affairs — namely: we must be fulfilled by those actions (find them pleasurable, satisfying etc.). The second premise holds that scientific optimism allows for the objective condition (infinite consequence) to be satisfied in a wholly natural universe. The third premise claims that we can indeed be subjectively fulfilled by actions of infinite consequence. The conclusion then follows, though it is modest: if scientific optimism is a credible stance, life could be truly meaningful.

Now let’s look at each premise in more depth, starting with the first. Is it really true to say that actions of infinite consequence are sufficient for meaning? [Note: Weijers means something like “everlasting” or “eternally recurrent” by the use of the term “infinite]. Weijers defends it by going back to the worries outlined above. He claims that if our actions have infinite consequence then, obviously, they cannot be challenged by the likes of Tolstoy for being merely temporary or ephemeral. And, similarly, he argues that they cannot be challenged by the likes of Nagel because no matter how “far” we step back from them they will still have significance. They will always and everywhere be judged worthwhile.

I’m a little bit sceptical about this. I’m not sure, for starters, that infinite consequences of either the everlasting or recurrent types is sufficient for meaning. I hate to do this, but I’m going to appeal to the example of Sisyphus to illustrate my point. Sisyphus, as we know, was condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. His actions, therefore, are of infinite consequence: they will repeatedly influence the causal structure of reality. But surely they are not meaningful? Certainly, for many his life is the epitome of a meaningless one. Likewise, couldn’t one perform actions that are of trivial infinite consequence but are nevertheless insufficient for meaning? If I move one pebble on the road tomorrow, and the universe continues to exist forever, then, in a very trivial and indirect way, my actions will have infinite consequences. But they are hardly sufficient for meaning. Weijers seems to be aware of this problem, and he rectifies it by insisting that the actions must be of infinite consequence for “life”, but I’m not sure that even that is enough. Sisyphus’s actions are of infinite consequence for his life, but they are still not meaningful. The solution here might be to say only actions that give rise to infinitely valuable consequences are sufficient for meaning. But then I would worry that is the value of the actions, not their infinitude that is doing all the work.

Other things strike me about Weijers’s defence of the infinite consequence condition too. One thing is that his specification of the condition avoids any appeal to immortality. In other words, he thinks that your actions must have infinite consequence in order for you to achieve true meaning, but that you don’t have to be around to appreciate those infinite consequences. That’s interesting to me because it means his view will be unappealing to those insist that immortality is a precondition for meaning (which would include a good number of scientific optimists and techno-utopians). But maybe that condition could just be added in and our stance of scientific optimism modified so as to include some appeal to death-defeating technologies. More problematic is the fact that the infinite consequence condition doesn’t really avoid Nagel’s Absurdity test. Indeed, that is one of the key points about Nagel’s account of absurdity: it is still possible to call into question that value of actions with infinite consequences. Nagel’s account doesn’t just endorse naturalistic nihilism, it endorses total nihilism: it holds that absurdity is unavoidable, no matter what your worldview. This is something that Steve Maitzen has illustrated in his discussion of theism and the meaning of life. (It should be noted that I have criticised Nagel’s test in the past.

So much for premise one. What about premise (2)? The problem with the premise is that it directly contradicts the scientific picture of the world that I outlined earlier in this post. Remember, according to the current models, the universe itself is a finite entity, one that is slowly winding down to oblivion. So even if we do manage to live longer, more consequential lives, and even if we do manage to escape our doomed planet, we will only do so for a few billion (or rather a sexdecillion) years: we will never achieve the infinite consequences to which Weijers appeals.

Weijers responds by highlighting the defeasibility of that scientific model of the universe. There are other “live” theories about the fate of the cosmos that allow for infinite consequence. For example, Eternal Inflation holds that new universes (or “areas” of the universe) can “bubble off” from the current one. We just need to find some way to create such bubbles and transfer over to them. This is a significant scientific and technological challenge, to be sure, but this is where “optimism” comes into play. The work of authors such as Michio Kaku and Ray Kurweil (both of whom are mentioned by Weijers) hints tantalising at the possibility of advanced human-machine intellects and advanced technologies that are almost within our grasp and that might give us what we need. Some people think these technologies are literally just around the corner, but we don’t them to be for Weijers’s theory to work. Purely linear, incremental improvement in science and technology is all that is required. The heat death of the universe is a long way away, and we only need the technology in place before that happens.

My problem with this is that it is a little bit too optimistic. Sure, Kaku and Kurzweil could be right, and so could Eternal Inflation, but they could also be wrong. To render a theory of meaning beholden to unknown scientific facts in this manner seems far too fragile for my liking. Furthermore, I’d worry that the need for optimism would be no better than the blind faith of the religious: it would make us unwilling to face unpleasant facts, and willing to ignore evidence that suggested that the universe was finite.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for techno-optimism. But for some reason I find the existentialist willingness to work within the (present) realities of death and finitude much more admirable than the utopian leap of faith that Weijers theory seems to command.

That leaves us with premise (3). I have relatively little to say about this, except to point out that Weijers clarifies the subjective condition of meaning in the following manner. Instead of holding that it is enough if a person is subjectively fulfilled for any reason whatsoever, he holds that the person must, at least in part, be fulfilled because they know that what they are doing will have infinite consequences. So, for example, the scientist who invents the inflation-manipulating-machine that allows us to continue life in a new universe must be fulfilled (partly) by the fact that he knows that this invention will have everlasting significance. I find this to be a plausible constraint. Indeed, I suspect that any hybridist theory of meaning will require the subjective and objective conditions of meaning to join-up in this manner.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, Weijers has presented us with a novel theory of true meaning in life. The theory is wholly naturalist, and yet not deflationary. It holds that we can achieve great meaning provided that we are subjectively fulfilled by actions of infinite consequence. It also holds that scientific and technological optimism give us some reason to think that our actions could be of infinite consequence.

In this post, I have challenged certain aspects of this theory. While I admire the attempt to knit together the literature on techno-optimism and the meaning of life (something I would like to see done more often), I’m sceptical about its particulars. The infinite consequence condition for meaning seems implausible. At the very least, it would be need to be revised so as to only include a specific sub-class of actions with infinite consequences. And even then it may not be enough. Furthermore, to hitch a theory of meaning to scientific optimism in the manner of Weijers doesn’t sit well with me: I fear it is too fragile and will encourage an unwillingness to face unpleasant facts.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Prostitution and the Argument from Sexual Autonomy

(Previous Series of Posts)

I have recently been looking into the ethics of prostitution. This started last week with my analysis and exposition of Ole Martin Moen’s article “Is Prostitution Harmful?” which appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Those of you who read the resultant series of posts will know that I had promised to look at some criticisms of Moen’s piece which appeared in the same journal. Having read those criticisms, and having reflected on their contents, I have now decided against this course of action. I don’t think the criticisms are sufficiently substantive to merit any extended discussion.

So, instead, I’m going to look at a more substantive argument in favour of the prohibition of prostitution. This one coming from Scott Anderson’s article “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy” which appeared in the journal Ethics back in 2002. (For what it’s worth: Anderson was one of the people who responded to Moen’s article and in his response he points to the argument made in this earlier piece).

The main focus of Anderson’s article is what might called “classical heterosexual prostitution”, i.e. the case in which a man pays a woman for sex. Although prostitution can take other forms, I don’t see anything too problematic about focusing on this case since it tends to be the norm. Anyway, Anderson’s article starts by contrasting the “liberal” and “radical” views on the regulation of this type of prostitution. Roughly speaking, these views can be characterised in the following manner:

Radicalist View: Prostitution is an inherently degrading and dehumanising institution, one which perpetuates social inequality between men and women. As such, it should be prohibited and restricted. This view is associated with certain members of the radical feminist movement, e.g. Andrea Dworkin.
Liberal View: There is nothing inherently degrading and dehumanising about the commodification of sex. What’s more, many of the harms that are currently associated with prostitution could be eliminated if it were decriminalised/normalised (i.e. treated the same as any other form of human labour). This view is associated with the likes of Martha Nussbaum.

Anderson’s stated goal is to provide an argument in favour of the prohibition of prostitution that addresses the concerns put forward by the radicals, while also taking seriously the suggestions of the liberals. The result is the argument from sexual autonomy, which holds that prostitution should be prohibited because its normalisation would undermine sexual autonomy.

In the remainder of this post, we will look at the supposed good of sexual autonomy; reconstruct the argument from sexual autonomy; and finally consider some problems with that argument.

1. Sexual Autonomy and Sexual Intimacy
I want to start with an interpretive point, one which may influence the overall strength of Anderson’s argument. Ostensibly, that argument is spelled out in terms of the desirability of preserving sexual autonomy. As a result, one might think it is solely about the good of sexual autonomy. There is, however, some room for confusion about the ultimate value judgments that motivate the argument. At least, I find myself somewhat confused about it even if others aren’t.

It seems to me that Anderson’s argument appeals, in the first instance, to the inherent value of sexual intimacy, and only secondarily to the value of sexual autonomy (see comments on pg. 759 for example). Since these two concepts are central to what I am about to say it will be worth defining them:

Sexual Intimacy: A type of human good achieved through intimate (maybe affectionate) sexual relations.
Sexual Autonomy: The right/capacity of each individual to decide the who, when, where and how of their sex lives.

The definition of sexual intimacy does not presuppose what we previously referred to as the “significance view” of sex. In other words, it does not assume that sex must be romantically significant in order to be valuable. That’s why the “maybe affectionate” bit is in brackets. The definition of sexual autonomy is pretty straightforward, and maps onto definitions of autonomy in other domains.

Reading between the lines somewhat, I think Anderson believes that the goods of sexual intimacy and sexual autonomy are linked in an important way. Roughly, he believes that one can only really gain access to the good of sexual intimacy if one has a robust right to sexual autonomy. Thus, protecting the latter serves as a pathway to the former. This is pretty standard liberal thinking: give people the freedom and capacity to choose and they will coordinate on the types of sexual interactions that are most valuable to themselves.

The problem, of course, is that this understanding of the connection between intimacy and autonomy might be wrong. It might be that a more paternalistic approach to sexual choice ensures greater access to the good of sexual intimacy. (I’m not suggesting that this is likely, merely that it is possible). Thus, if one interprets Anderson’s central argument as being about the link between autonomy and intimacy, it may seem weaker than it needs to be.

The solution may then be to interpret the argument as being about the intrinsic good of sexual autonomy, i.e. about the notion that sexual autonomy is good, in and of itself, irrespective of whether it leads to greater sexual intimacy. That is how I am going to interpret the argument. So in what follows I will not focus on the consequences of achieving sexual autonomy.

2. The Argument from Sexual Autonomy
To illustrate the intrinsic value of sexual autonomy, and the problems that might be associated with its erosion, it is worth considering how differently we approach sex as compared with other social gifts or exchanges. Anderson uses the example of a man and woman going on an expensive dinner date. Within some communities and cultures (increasingly historical, I suspect), this process follows certain social norms and expectations. Typically, the man pays for the dinner. In return for this, he may expect the woman to accede to (at least some of) his sexual overtures later in the evening…

…however — and this is crucial — the cultural norm/expectation does not extend so far as to allow the man to demand that the woman accede to his overtures, or to justify him in feeling aggrieved if she does not, or to allow others to look down upon her if she does not. This is rather different from other informal and formal social exchanges. For example, if I took a friend out for dinner, paid for it, and later asked him to return the favour by helping me with some aspect of my work, I might be more justified in feeling aggrieved if he refuses to accede to my request. Other informal exchanges incur similar obligations of reciprocity (e.g. buying rounds of drinks among friends). And, of course, formal exchanges incur even greater obligations. For example, the contractual exchange of goods and services creates legally enforceable rights and obligations.

The question, then, is why do we treat sex differently? Why are we so unwilling to impose obligations and demands in relation to sexual performance? The answer, Anderson suggests, is that we appreciate the good of sexual autonomy. We don’t impose obligations because we don’t want to interfere with or coerce people in their sexual choices. We recognise that this is something that should be entirely up to them.

The danger, according to Anderson, is that if we start to treat sex like other forms of commodified human labour, this right to sexual autonomy will start to dissipate. After all, other forms of labour reduce autonomy in other domains. If I choose to become a highly-paid corporate lawyer, I know that I will be subject to many demands on my time that I’m not entitled to refuse. Likewise, if I choose to become a prostitute, my sexual autonomy will be compromised. Furthermore, given the economic necessity of paid employment, this could have a broader impact on sexual autonomy, outside the class of “willing” prostitutes.

We can set out the argument in the following manner:

  • (1) Sexual autonomy is an important human good.
  • (2) The good of sexual autonomy is only available to us if there are certain restrictions placed on acceptable sexual demands and obligations (support: dinner date example)
  • (3) If prostitution is legalised/normalised, those restrictions would/could be eroded.
  • (4) Therefore, if prostitution is legalised/normalised, we will lose an important human good (viz. sexual autonomy).

The key to this argument is, of course, premise (3). In its current form it faces two problems. First, we need some more detailed reason for thinking that legalisation/normalisation undermines the restrictions needed for sexual autonomy. Second, we need to address the “would/could” equivocation. Using the term “would” suggests that this is something that is likely to occur; using the term “could” suggests that it is merely possible. Which is it and does this make a difference?

3. Defending the Argument from Sexual Autonomy
To defend premise (3), Anderson asks that we take seriously the liberal claim that sex is unexceptionable; that it should be treated like any other type of commodified human labour. Anderson thinks that three general infringements on sexual autonomy emerge if we take this claim seriously, each of which gives rise to a set of specific infringements. They are:

1. We will be expected to engage in sexual activity when certain economic incentives are present: Anderson gives three examples of this: (a) employees may find that the performance of sexual services is part of their contract or employment or that it is expected in order to achieve promotion; (b) those on welfare may be expected to engage in sex work if it is available; and (c) contracts for sexual labour may become enforceable in the same way as other contracts.
2. We will have less control over the who, what, where, when and how of our sexual lives: Again, three examples are given here: (a) large and aggressive corporations will start marketing and selling sexual services, and in the process will closely monitor (standardise) the sexual performance of their workers; (b) workers with sexual duties may be required to comply with non-discrimination statutes with respect to their clients and co-workers (i.e. they won’t be able to pick and choose who they have sex with); and (c) sex workers will become subject to government health and safety standards, and risky sexual practices (both on and off the job) may be prohibited.
3. Our sexual attitudes and values will be changed: Two examples are given here: (a) aggressive marketing and advertising of sexual services will alter the marketplace of ideas in relation to permissible sex; and (b) special vocational training and careers advice may target those who seem differentially suited to sex work.

The last category of infringements is a little odd to me, but later in the article Anderson says that the effect on sexual autonomy in these cases is more subtle and indirect. The point is that our sexual values and attitudes will become distorted by the changed legal landscape. In particular, we may find that the marketplace of ideas is saturated by sexual imagery and sex-related advertising. This may mean that we are constantly forced to confront the sexual aspects of our identities. And this would be bad because there are at least some occasions on which we would prefer not to attend to those aspects of our identities. Of course, one could argue that this is already true (to some extent) — that the marketplace of ideas is saturated by sexual imagery — but Anderson distinguishes the current marketplace from the hypothetical one on the grounds that at the moment sex is used as an instrument to sell other things, not as the thing that is itself being sold.

Now, I have some problems with Anderson’s examples. It seems to me that some of the things he points to might actually be advantages of legalisation; and, of course, the examples encourage us to attend to the negative more than the positive, which is always a problem with thought experiments like these. Nevertheless, I can agree that some of the examples would involve an unwelcome erosion of sexual autonomy. What’s really at issue for me is whether any of things he points to are likely, or necessary consequences of legalisation. He explicitly denies that they are:

My point in offering these scenarios is not to suggest that any of them is likely to come to pass in the wake of moves to normalize prostitution. Rather, these scenarios are simply exhibits of what it would mean to take the bold claim seriously—to treat sex as just another way to use the body to make a living… 
(Anderson, “Prostitution and Sexual Autonomy” p. 763)

I find this odd. As I understand it, the argument from sexual autonomy functions as a type of slippery slope argument: if we do one thing, unwelcome consequences follow. But if those consequences are not particularly likely, or, more importantly, if there are obvious ways in which to avoid them, then the argument is significantly weakened. Could we not have special exemptions from sex work (akin to, say, the conscientious objections available to other workers — in fairness, Anderson mentions this possibility)? Could the market for sexual services not be regulated like the market alcohol or cigarettes? In many countries, there are severe and increasing restrictions on the advertisement of these products, so they no longer control the marketplace of ideas (if they ever did). Why couldn’t something similar be done with prostitution.

In summary, I think Anderson’s argument is an interesting one, and I think the good of sexual autonomy is one that we should cherish and preserve. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that the argument in its current form provides any strong reason for favouring the legal prohibition of sex work. We would need a lot more evidence for thinking that legalisation leads to the unwelcome compromises that Anderson identifies before we could become convinced of that. And surely some such evidence is available? Prostitution is legal in several European countries and I’m not aware of any significant impact on sexual autonomy that has resulted from this, (despite some false reports to the contrary). If anyone knows of more detailed research, please share in the comments section.

Friday, October 4, 2013

New Paper: The P300 Memory Detection Test and the Legal Trial

I have been interested in brain-based "lie" detection technologies and other forms of technological mind-reading for a long time, publishing several papers on the topic. My latest paper is due to appear in an edited collection some time next year. The collection will be entitled Responsible Innovation Volume 2: Concepts, Approaches and Applications (Springer). The paper is an exploration of one possible way in which to deal with such technologies.

Anyway, here's the abstract, along with a link to an advance copy:

Full Title: Responsible Innovation in Social Epistemic Systems: The P300 Memory Detection Test and the Legal Trial
Abstract: Memory Detection Tests (MDTs) are a general class of psychophysiological tests that can be used to determine whether someone remembers a particular fact or datum. The P300 MDT is a type of MDT that relies on a presumed correlation between the presence of a detectable neural signal (the P300 “brainwave”) in a test subject, and the recognition of those facts in the subject’s mind. As such, the P300 MDT belongs to a class of brain-based forensic technologies which have proved popular and controversial in recent years. With such tests increasingly being proffered for use in the courtroom — to either support or call into question testimony — it would behoove the legal system to have some systematic framework for ensuring that they are used responsibly. In this paper, I defend one such framework for ensuring that this is the case: the legitimacy enhancing test. According to this test, it is appropriate to make use of technologies such as the P300 MDT whenever doing so would (probably) enhance the legitimacy of the trial. I argue that this test addresses tensions between scientific and legal norms of evidence, and exhibits a number of additional virtues including unification, simplicity and flexibility. Although the test is defended by considering the example of the P300 MDT, its significance is much broader than that. If it has the virtues I claim for it, it should provide a general framework for the responsible use of technologies, and the responsible innovation of social epistemic systems.