Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Posts of 2016

2016 -- Twenty sixteen -- generally regarded as a pretty bad year all around: Celebrities getting killed by old age, illness and substance abuse; long-cherished liberal democracies turning into reality shows etc etc... Rejoice! It is now over!

It wasn't a bad year on this blog though. Nothing spectacular, probably not as a good as 2015, but not awful. Here are the top ten posts going by page views from the past year (ignoring posts from previous years that continue to receive a lot of hits for unknown reasons):

  • Are we Heading Towards a Singularity of Crime? (March 2016) - My review and analysis of Marc Goodman's book Future Crimes, which introduces a fascinating argument that we are heading for a singularity of crime, but never defends it explicitly. I try to make up for that in this post.

  • Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life: Should we retreat from reality? (November 2016) - The text of a talk I gave in Germany in early November (the night that Donald Trump got elected to be precise). In it, I argue that we need to take the case for technological unemployment seriously and, more importantly, look for ways to address the deficit in meaning that might be caused by a lack of work. I explore, in particular, the possibility that virtual worlds will provide the necessary meaning.

  • The Value of Deep Work and How to Prioritise It (January 2016) - One of my self-helpy blog posts, looking at the ideas in Cal Newport's book Deep Work. I am a fan of the book. It's one of the few self-help books with an underlying philosophy of work that I agree with (though not entirely).

  • The Philosophy of Social Constructionism (December 2016) - Lots of people claim that gender and race are socially constructed, but what do they mean by this? This post looked at some philosophical attempts to clarify the answer. Based on the work of Esa Diaz-Leon.

  • Competitive Cognitive Artifacts and the Demise of Humanity (September 2016) - This was one of the more fun posts to write. It was my attempt to formalise and critique an argument by David Krakauer. He argued that artificial intelligences posed a threat to humanity because they compete with human intelligence rather than complement it.

  • Is Resistance Futile? Are we already Borg? (January 2016) - My analysis and critique of David Gunkel's argument about human cyborgification. Although I agree with Gunkel that humans are becoming cyborgs, I think his definition and understanding of cyborgification is too limited. I also interviewed David for my podcast. You can listen to that interview here.

  • Effective Altruism: A Taxonomy of Objections (January 2016) - The first in a long-ish series of posts about potential objections to effective altruism. The series riffed off Iason Gabriel's excellent article on the topic and ended with a contribution from Iason himself. You can read the full series here.

Podcasts and other Media Appearances 2016

As my penultimate end-of-year-review post, I thought I would provide links to some of the media appearances and mentions I had in the past year. I'm not going to list everything. For instance, my paper on sex work and technological unemployment was featured on several news websites but without anyone interviewing or talking to me first and often with its main thesis ignored -- I discussed this in my first newsletter back in September. So I'm really only including media appearances and mentions here that occurred with some contact between myself and the relevant outlets, or, exceptionally, where I felt they did a good job representing what I have written (Ronald Bailey's article, below, is the only real example of this).

Podcast Appearances

  • ’Algocracy’ - Interview about my research project and podcast on the Robot Overlordz Podcast, Episode 284




Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Algocracy and Transhumanism Podcast (Episodes 2016)

Guests in 2016. (Top row left to right: Aaron Wright; Laura Cabrera; Evan Selinger; Hannah Maslen; Karen Levy) (Middle row: James Hughes; Sabina Leonelli; Anders Sandberg; David Gunkel; Sven Nyholm; Brett Frischmann) (Bottom row: Tal Zarsky; Deborah Lupton; Nicole Vincent; Rachel O'Dwyer; Rick Searle)

I've been doing a podcast since April of this year (2016). It's part of a research project I am running at NUI Galway about algocracy and transhumanism. I think I've covered a broad range of interesting topics with my guests so far. Here's a list of all episodes to date. You can listen by clicking on the links or the player underneath the description. You can also subscribe to the podcast here and here.

#1 - Tal Zarsky on the Ethics of Big Data and Predictive Analytics: Covers basic definitions of big data and predictive analytics and then discusses issues surrounding the fairness and efficiency of such systems. Listen here or below.

#2 - James Hughes on the Transhumanist Political Project: Covers the history of transhumanist thought, its origins in the Enlightenment project, and its modern variations. Listen here or below.

#3 - Sven Nyholm on Love Drugs, Deep Brain Stimulation and Self Driving Cars: Covers the use of enhancement drugs to improve interpersonal relationships, the ways in which DBS can affect personal identity and why the trolley problem is a bad starting point for debates about self-driving cars. Listen here or below.

#4 - Evan Selinger on Algorithmic Outsourcing and the Value of Privacy: Covers the ethics of personal automation software and the critical question of whether privacy is dead in an age of mass surveillance. Listen here or below.

#5Hannah Maslen on the Ethics of Neurointerventions: Covers attempts to directly interfere with the brain and their ethical implications. Particular attention is paid to how neurointerventions affect autonomy, responsibility and regret. Listen here or below.

#6 - Deborah Lupton on Understanding the Quantified Self: Covers the emergence of the Quantified Self movement, its manifestations and its social and ethical consequences. Listen here o below.

#7 - Brett Frischmann on Reverse Turing Tests and Machine-Like Humans: Covers the classic Turing test (when is a machine like a human?) and Frischmann's proposed inverse test (when is a human like a machine?). Listen here or below.

#8 - Karen Levy on the Rise of Intimate Surveillance: Covers self-tracking technologies that are directed at intimate behaviours (finding partners, quantifying sex, romance and fertility, and covert surveillance of partners). Listen here or below.

#9 - Rachel O'Dwyer on Bitcoin, Blockchain and the Digital Commons: Covers the concept of the digital commons, the nature of money, the tracking of transactional data, and the potential for blockchain-based currencies. Listen here or below.

#10 - David Gunkel on Robots and Cyborgs: Covers robot personhood, responsibility and patiency, as well as the cyborgification of humans. Listen here or below.

#11 - Sabina Leonelli on Big Data and Science: Covers the ways in which big data systems are being used in scientific inquiry and challenges the claim that they are revolutionising the process. Listen here or below.

#12 - Rick Searle on the Dark Side of Transhumanism: Covers the political-philosophical musings of Zoltan Istvan, Steve Fuller and the neo-reactionary movements. Listen here or below.

#13 - Laura Cabrera on Enhancement, Communication and Human Values: Covers the potential impact of enhancement technologies on interpersonal communication and important human values. Listen here or below.

#14 - Aaron Wright on Blockchains and the Law: Covers the nature of blockchain technologies, its potential uses and its social and legal implications. Listen here or below.

#15 - Nicole Vincent on Neurointerventions and Happiness: Covers the philosophical definition of happiness, the role of scientific advice in the pursuit of happiness and the possibility of radical personal transformation. Listen here or below.

#16 - Anders Sandberg on the Ethics of Time Compression in Computing: Covers the increase in computing speed and the consequences of the widening speed mismatch between computers and humans. Listen here or below.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Academic Papers Published in 2016

It's that time of the year again. The time when all self-respecting bloggers construct self-congratulatory lists of their annual achievements. Here are all the articles I had accepted for publication in 2016 (I'm excluding some book chapters that aren't due out until next year):

Why Internal Moral Enhancement Might be Politically Better than External Moral Enhancement (2016) Neuroethics DOI: 10.1007/s12152-016-9273-8 - Technology could be used to improve morality but it could do so in different ways. Some technologies could augment and enhance moral behaviour externally by using external cues and signals to push and pull us towards morally appropriate behaviours. Other technologies could enhance moral behaviour internally by directly altering the way in which the brain captures and processes morally salient information or initiates moral action. The question is whether there is any reason to prefer one method over the other? In this article, I argue that there is. Specifically, I argue that internal moral enhancement is likely to be preferable to external moral enhancement, when it comes to the legitimacy of political decision-making processes. In fact, I go further than this and argue that the increasingly dominant forms of external moral enhancement (algorithm-assisted enhancement) may already be posing a significant threat to political legitimacy, one that we should try to address. Consequently, research and development of internal moral enhancements should be prioritised as a political project.

LINKS: Official; Philpapers; Academia

An Evaluative Conservative Case for Biomedical Enhancement (2016) Journal of Medical Ethics 42:611-618 (Editor's Choice) - It is widely believed that a conservative moral outlook is opposed to biomedical forms of human enhancement. In this paper, I argue that this widespread belief is incorrect. Using Cohen’s evaluative conservatism as my starting point, I argue that there are strong conservative reasons to prioritise the development of biomedical enhancements. In particular, I suggest that biomedical enhancement may be essential if we are to maintain our current evaluative equilibrium (i.e. the set of values that undergird and permeate our current political, economic, and personal lives) against the threats to that equilibrium posed by external, non-biomedical forms of enhancement. I defend this view against modest conservatives who insist that biomedical enhancements pose a greater risk to our current evaluative equilibrium, and against those who see no principled distinction between the forms of human enhancement.

LINKS: Official; Philpapers; Academia

Should we use commitment contracts to regulate student use of cognitive enhancing drugs? (2016) Bioethics 30(8): 568-578 - Are universities justified in trying to regulate student use of cognitive enhancing drugs? In this paper I argue that they can be, but that the most appropriate kind of regulatory intervention is likely to be voluntary in nature. To be precise, I argue that universities could justifiably adopt a commitment contract system of regulation wherein students are encouraged to voluntarily commit to not using cognitive enhancing drugs (or to using them in a specific way). If they are found to breach that commitment, they should be penalised by, for example, forfeiting a number of marks on their assessments. To defend this model of regulation, I adopt a recently-proposed evaluative framework for determining the appropriateness of enhancement in specific domains of activity, and I focus on particular existing types of cognitive enhancement drugs, not hypothetical or potential forms. In this way, my argument is tailored to the specific features of university education, and common patterns of usage among students. It is not concerned with the general ethical propriety of using cognitive enhancing drugs.

LINKS: Official; Philpapers; Academia

Robots, Law and the Retribution Gap (2016) Ethics and Information Technology 18(4): 299-309 - We are living through an era of increased robotisation. Some authors have already begun to explore the impact of this robotisation on legal rules and practice. In doing so, many highlight potential liability gaps that might arise through robot misbehaviour. Although these gaps are interesting and socially significant, they do not exhaust the possible gaps that might be created by increased robotisation. In this article, I make the case for one of those alternative gaps: the retribution gap. This gap arises from a mismatch between the human desire for retribution and the absence of appropriate subjects of retributive blame. I argue for the potential existence of this gap in an era of increased robotisation; suggest that it is much harder to plug this gap than it is to plug those thus far explored in the literature; and then highlight three important social implications of this gap.

LINKS: Official; Philpapers; Academia

Will life be worth living in a world without work? (2016) Science and Engineering Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s11948-016-9770-5 - Suppose we are about to enter an era of increasing technological unemployment. What implications does this have for society? Two distinct ethical/social issues would seem to arise. The first is one of distributive justice: how will the (presumed) efficiency gains from automated labour be distributed through society? The second is one of personal fulfillment and meaning: if people no longer have to work, what will they do with their lives? In this article, I set aside the first issue and focus on the second. In doing so, I make three arguments. First, I argue that there are good reasons to embrace non-work and that these reasons become more compelling in an era of technological unemployment. Second, I argue that the technological advances that make widespread technological unemployment possible could still threaten or undermine human flourishing and meaning, especially if (as is to be expected) they do not remain confined to the economic sphere. And third, I argue that this threat could be contained if we adopt an integrative approach to our relationship with technology. In advancing these arguments, I draw on three distinct literatures: (i) the literature on technological unemployment and workplace automation; (ii) the antiwork critique — which I argue gives reasons to embrace technological unemployment; and (iii) the philosophical debate about the conditions for meaning in life — which I argue gives reasons for concern.

LINKS: Official; Philpapers; Academia

Moral Arguments for God (1): Evidential Forms

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God and morality are often thought to go hand in hand. Religious believers commonly presume to moral superiority over the atheist, sometimes proclaiming odd things like ‘if you don’t believe in God, what basis have you for not killing your neighbour [or other morally heinous act]’. From whence does this moral superiority spring?

Part of the answer is cultural and educational: when I challenge students to defend moral views they often appeal to religious edicts that they learned in school or from their parents. This suggests to me that —at least until they get to university — moral or ethical principles are typically conveyed to them in religious packaging. But part of the answer is philosophical too: over the centuries many philosophers have defended the notion that morality depends on the existence of God.

Let’s call anyone who defends such a dependency relationship a proponent of a ‘moral argument’ for God. What I want to consider in this post (and the next) is the various ways in which these proponents cash out this dependency-relation. In doing so, I’m heavily guided by an essay I recently read by Peter Byrne entitled ‘Kant and the Moral Argument’, which appears in Jeffrey Jordan’s edited collection Key Thinkers in Philosophy of Religion. As you might gather from the title, the essay is primarily about Kant’s moral argument for God, but in the process it has some interesting insights into the nature of moral arguments and their deficiencies.

1. A Taxonomy of Moral Arguments for God
Probably the most useful thing about Byrne’s essay is how he frames his discussion in terms of a taxonomy of moral arguments. He argues that religious defences of the relationship between God and morality tend to come in two main flavours: evidential and non-evidential. Similar distinctions are drawn in many branches of religious philosophy — think about the problem of evil and its logical and evidential varieties, or about the classic distinction between a priori and a posteriori proofs of God — but the ‘evidential’/‘non-evidential’ labels carry a somewhat specific meaning in the context of moral arguments.

We’ll start with the easier branch of the taxonomy:

Evidential Arguments: These are arguments that highlight the existence of some moral fact (E) and argue that God is the best explanation of E. This provides some support for the existence of God.

Examples of such arguments are abundant in the literature. We’ll discuss a general version in a moment, but the majority of moral arguments for the existence of God take this form. They start with the observation that moral facts have some curious property or attribute; they then proceed to argue that only God can explain that property or attribute.

The non-evidential branch is trickier:

Non-Evidential Arguments: These are arguments that highlight some moral goal or end and argue that God’s existence is necessary if that goal or end is to be achieved.

Non-evidential arguments are rarer. You may not be aware of it, but if you do a lot of reading about the philosophy of religion you are likely to have come across versions of this argument. Kant’s moral argument for God takes this form, for instance, and will be discussed in part two. William Lane Craig has also defended variations of this argument. He sometimes claims that justice or accountability are only possible if God exists. I’ve discussed his arguments to this effect on previous occasions.

That gives us the following taxonomy.

2. Evidential Moral Arguments
As I say, the majority of moral arguments for the existence of God take the evidential form. They start with some observation about moral facts, e.g. their alleged bindingness or obligatoriness, or with some puzzle about moral properties. e.g. their metaphysical queerness. They then claim that God is the best grounding/explanation for those puzzling properties. They all work from within a moral realist standpoint, i.e. from the assumption that moral facts are real.

Byrne uses the following version as the basis for his discussion. It comes from the work of Robert Adams:

  • (1) Moral facts exist.
  • (2) Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
  • (3) The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
  • (4) Therefore, the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking that theism is true.

The second premise of this argument requires a little unpacking. Adams’s defence of it focuses on the contrast between natural, scientific facts and moral facts. Natural, scientific facts are clearly objective: they are capable of inter-subjective assessment and verification (or falsification if you prefer) and can be confirmed through observation and experimentation. Consider the case of water being H2. This is something that can be verified through chemical experimentation. A similar process of investigation and assessment is possible for other natural and objective facts. More importantly, the ontological properties of natural and objective facts have a distinctive character that makes them eligible for such investigation.

The problem is that moral facts feel very different from this. Where is the experiment that tells you that torture is wrong or that pleasure is good? Where do you ‘see’ the goodness and badness? It seems like moral facts are in a very different ontological ballpark to natural scientific facts. And yet, at the same time, statements like ‘torture is wrong’ and ‘pleasure is good’ seem like obvious, objective truths. Their objectivity must be grounded in something other than the natural world. That is the motivation underlying premise (2).

With premise (2) explained, the rest of the argument is relatively easy to follow (even if you reject it). Premise (3) claims that God is the best explanation for the objective and non-natural quality of moral facts. One reason for this is that he is (according to most conceptions of God) a non-natural being. Another is that he has the right kind of properties (authority, goodness etc) to create binding moral norms. Divine command theories are typically marshalled in to support this premise.

The conclusion would then follow on a probabilistic basis. Technically, a bridging premise would be needed — presumably along the lines of ‘if X is the best explanation for E, and E is a fact, then E provides good grounds for believing in X’ — and you might query that bridging premise, but I’ll ignore that technicality in what follows.

3. Responses to the Evidential Argument
So how does one respond to the evidential argument? Byrne identifies three main strategies.

The first is to challenge premise (1) or (2) and deny the existence of ‘objective’ moral facts. There are several different ways to develop this response. You could reject the entire stance of moral realism upon which the argument is founded. You could believe that moral facts are simply expressive of our attitudes or sentiments toward particular actions or states of affairs, for example. Alternatively, you could take issue with the objectivity of moral facts. It all depends on what ‘objectivity’ means, of course, but if we suppose it means something like ‘mind independence’ (i.e. moral facts exist independent of moral observers), then one common response would be to adopt a constructivist conception of moral facts. According to constructivism, moral facts are constructed out of mental attitudes. This doesn’t mean that moral facts are incapable of being true or false — rejecting objectivity doesn’t mean embracing abject relativism — it just means that they are ontologically dependent on certain mental states. Anyway, whatever its precise details, we can call all such responses to the argument irrealist responses because they tend to deny the traditional take on moral realism.

Another way to respond to the argument is to argue that there are alternative (better) explanations of moral facts. One possibility here is that moral naturalism is plausible. In other words, that moral properties are not as ontologically odd as they first appear. Just as water can be reduced to more fundamental chemical constituents, so too can moral facts like the badness of pain be reduced to natural facts. That, at any rate, is the promise of naturalistic theories like Frank Jackson’s moral functionalism. An alternative possibility, and one I have explored several times on this blog, is non-natural moral realism. According to this view, moral facts cannot be reduced to natural facts, but that doesn’t mean that they are best explained by God. On the contrary, they are a kind of sui generis, metaphysically basic, feature of reality. The common analogy is to mathematical realism of the Platonic sort.

Finally, you can respond to the argument by rejecting the claim that God provides a good explanation for moral facts. One superficial problem with appeals to God in this context is that they have a mysterian feel to them. Moral facts are held to be ontologically mysterious so, of course, they are to be explained by appealing to another ontologically mysterious entity (God). We can use the bigger mystery (God) to explain the smaller one (moral facts). This is unfair though since theists do attempt to provide some explanation for how God explains moral facts - often by appeal to some version of Divine Command Theory. The problem with such appeals is twofold:

Euthyphro problem: They are vulnerable to the classic Euthyphro dilemma, according to which divine commands cannot explain the non-contingency of moral facts. Theists defend against the classic Euthyphro by using modified Divine Command Theories. These modified theories hold that certain fundamental properties of God (specifically his divine nature) constrain the moral commands he can give, and hence allow them to avoid the problem of contingency. But these modified theories are vulnerable to revised versions of the Euthyphro dilemma. I’ve looked into this in more detail in the past.

Regress problem: In order for divine command theories to work, they seem to have to presuppose the existence of a more fundamental normative principle, namely: that we ought to obey the command of God (or of a perfectly good being). But then this more fundamental normative principle is objective and non-natural and hence also in need of an explanation. Theistic responses to this objection have to resort to some metaphysical buck-stopping argument. In other words, they have to accept that there are some metaphysically basic normative principles and simply explain why it makes more sense to stop at one’s that require the existence of God rather than others. This is also something I have got into in my discussions of non-natural moral realism.

For what it is worth, if I were to respond to an evidential argument, I would probably appeal to some version of all three responses. To start with, I would be inclined to forms of irrealism, particularly constructivism about moral obligations. This would, in turn, make me a naturalist about the explanation of some moral facts (they are reduced to 'natural' facts about human minds). But I tend to favour non-natural realism about other moral facts. I think some axiological truths (i.e. truths about fundamental categories of good and bad) are metaphysically basic, as well as some normative principles (i.e. principles of rationality and reason). My view is then that most concrete or specific normative principles are constructed out of these more metaphysically basic truths. There are many different ways in which this construction project can be undertaken, depending on circumstances of history and fact, meaning that there is some relativity to morality. But I think this is defensible. Not even the most ardent theist would deny that moral commands are sometimes situationally specific. I also think that theism is, in most cases, a bad explanation of moral facts. Indeed, I think that, in practice, theistic explanations of moral facts tend to collapse into some form of non-natural realism.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Episode #16 - Anders Sandberg on the Ethics of Time Compression in Computing


In this episode I talk to Anders Sandberg about the ethical implications of time compression - or the speeding up of computational tasks to quantum levels. Anders is research associate to the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. His research at the Future of Humanity Institute centres on management of low-probability high-impact risks, societal and ethical issues surrounding human enhancement, estimating the capabilities of future technologies, and very long-range futures. He is currently senior researcher in the FHI-Amlin collaboration on systemic risk of risk modelling. I ask Anders about his latest research on time compression in computing, and about the effects this might have on human values and society.

 You download the episode here. You can listen below. You can also subscribe on Stitcher and iTunes (via RSS).

Show Notes

  • 0.00 – Introduction
  • 1:00 – the future of humanity in the face of the Trump election
  • 3:50 – the ethics and risks of time compression in computing – speed, space and Moore’s law
  • 9:50 – quantum computing and its limits, the Margolus Levitin limit, the Beckenstein Bound, algorithmic complexity & the ultimate laptop
  • 18:40  - limits of cryptography and light speed
  • 28:20 – why speed and time matter in human life – the economics of productivity
  • 36:35 – the value of temporal location – being first/being last – winner takes all markets – hyperbolic discounting
  • 46:15  - automated trading & high frequency trading algorithms – instability, speed and space – flash crashes – algorithms and their sense of humour
  • 56:00 – speed inequalities & mismatches, loss of control, hard take-off scenarios - technological unemployment
  • 1:12:50  - can we speed up humans?

Relevant Links

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: a short podcast from Pip Thornton

[This is a cross-post from the Algocracy and Transhumanism blog. It's a short podcast by the Research Assistant on the Project - Pip Thornton. Check out her blog here]

I started work as the research assistant on the Algocracy and Transhumanism project in September, and John has invited me to record a short podcast about some of my own PhD research on Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction. You download the podcast here or listen above.


The podcast relates to a project called {poem}.py, which is explained in greater detail here on my blog. The project involves making visible the workings of linguistic capitalism by printing out receipts for poetry which has been passed through Google's advertising platform AdWords.


I have presented the project twice now - each time asking fellow presenters for their favourite poem or lyric which I can then process through the Keyword planner and print out on a receipt printer for them to take home. I often get asked what is the most expensive poem, and of course it depends on the length, but the winner so far is The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, which was requested by David Gunkel at the Algorithmic Brains to Algorithmic States workshop in September, and which came in at £1738.57 and several metres.

In the podcast I use 3 clips - an excerpt from The Wasteland, a performance poem by Jemima Foxtrot, and the introduction to  Billy Bragg's Between the Wars - and think about how the words contained in each piece might fare in the linguistic marketplace. You can watch Jemima's performance in full below.

Jemima Foxtrot - Bog Eye Man from Craig Bilham on Vimeo.

I also want to give a proper airing to Rita Ann Higgins' poem Our Killer City, which I reference in the podcast, but play an 'alternative' version of. You can watch Rita reciting her poem below.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Shame of Work

[This is a cross-post of an essay that previously appeared on the New Rambler book review website. I'm adding it here largely for archiving reasons, but it may be of interest to those who have not seen it before]

Review of The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work, by David Frayne

London: Zed Books, 2015

David Gelb’s 2013 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an unusual film. It is a vivid, memorable and beautifully-filmed portrait of Jiro Ono, the indomitable and indefatigable owner and head chef at the tiny, 10-seat Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant nestled in a Tokyo subway station. Although small and unassuming in size, the restaurant is world-renowned. It has received three Michelin stars and is regularly lauded by food critics. The owner is also a remarkable man. Now in his late 80s, he still dedicates his life to his work, following the same routine day-in and day-out, reluctantly breaking it only when there is a national holiday.

I have watched the film twice and had very different reactions each time. The first time I found it exhilarating and uplifting. Although stern and uncompromising, Jiro exuded a deep passion and commitment to his life’s work. He seemed to embody the Japanese spirit of the Shokunin, the master craftsman, constantly striving for perfection through slow and incremental improvement. There was a seriousness of purpose and an unapologetic dedication to what he was doing that was refreshing to my cynical and world-weary ways. Work is good, the movie seemed to be saying, and it can be great if you approach it with the right attitude.

Then I watched it for a second time. This time the movie was less uplifting. Gone was the paean to craftsmanship and the power of the work ethic. In its place was a somewhat nightmarish and dystopian warning call. The movie depicted the troubling apotheosis of capitalism. Jiro was dedicated to his craft but at what cost? He worked closely with his two sons, but there was virtually no representation of family or home life in the film. He only became close to them when they started to work for him, and after denying them a university education. Jiro’s wife is never mentioned; we get a fleeting glimpse of her in an old photograph. Jiro’s older son clearly wishes to take over the family restaurant, but his father refuses to retire. A trip to the fish market revels in the extractive horrors of capitalism. The sellers lament the low quantity and quality of fish on sale, a crisis being precipitated by the overfishing that supplies the rising demand for sushi. An old man at the market complains of being tired and worn out. He longs to retire. Why can’t he? We are never told. The colonizing and soul-crushing powers of work were suddenly brought into sharp relief.

The movie thus seemed to exist in a superposition of interpretive states, collapsing into one depending on the ideological lens through which it was viewed. The first time my ideological lens was influenced by the dominant ‘work is virtuous’ ethos of society. The second time my ideological lens was influenced by David Frayne’s book The Refusal of Work (Zed Books 2015). If ever a book was designed to help you question the value of the work ethic and look anew at our modern obsession with productivity and promotion, this is it. Frayne has accomplished something worthy of admiration. He has written the best primer and introduction to the anti-work philosophy; a fascinating ethnography of people who actively try to resist work; and has married this to some original and provocative insights into the contemporary workplace. What’s more, he has done all this without resorting to the stodgy, jargon-laden prose that is common among left-wing critics of work. It is all conveyed in a fluid and assured manner.

The book is very much of two halves. The first half is the provocation: the invitation to the reader to look at work with a more critical eye. The second half is the ethnography: insights culled from Frayne’s experiences of interviewing and living with people who actively resist work in the United Kingdom. The two halves are held together by a common set of themes and capped off with a concluding chapter that represents something of a ‘call to arms’.

Frayne starts by introducing the reader to the anti-work literature. This is a prominent though sometimes neglected strain within left-wing thought. Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul LaFargue is sometimes pinpointed as its literary founder. He penned the satirical pamphlet The Right to be Lazy from his jail cell in St Pélagie prison back in 1883 (21). But Frayne is not enthusiastic about LaFargue’s contribution to this genre (21-22). He is more enthusiastic about the contributions from Studs Terkel, André Gorz, Kathi Weeks and, to some extent, even Bertrand Russell and his famous essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’. He skillfully guides the reader through the main ideas from these (and other) authors in the opening stages of the book, often adding his own reflections and insights.

These authors share a general outlook on work. They view work as a limiting, compromising, and often depressing necessity. As Frayne puts it:

…[for many] work often represents a struggle against boredom, meaninglessness and exhaustion. A range of personal tactics help us to survive the working day: we remind ourselves that we are more interesting than the jobs we do, we stage imaginary rebellions against bosses and clients, or we hide away in shells of cynicism. Sometimes we construct elaborate escapes and compensations out of hours in an effort to forget (or ‘rebalance’, as the life coaches call it). (12)

The anti-work critics focus on the ‘work dogma’, i.e. the cultural belief that work is both necessary and virtuous. They long for a ‘post-work’ politics and the goal of their critique is to ‘de-naturalize’ work, i.e. encourage us to view work as a contingent feature of our current economic and political reality.

But what exactly do these authors mean by ‘work’? It is a tricky question. It is all too easy to get dragged into endless definitional quarrels about ‘work’ properly-so-called. For some people work is simply any physical intentional activity. For them, the notion of an ‘anti-work’ critique can seem like a nonsense. People are never going to stop working in this broad and expansive sense of the word. Fortunately, proponents of the anti-work philosophy do not have such an expansive definition in mind. They reserve their critical ire for what André Gorz has called ‘work in the economic sense’, i.e. tasks performed for payment or economic reward. This definition excludes many physical activities that people would like to have recognized as work (e.g. work in the home), but the exclusion makes sense since the critique is concerned with the characteristics of work in contemporary capitalistic societies.

And why exactly do these authors critique work in the economic sense? The answer is complex. In three successive chapters (2, 3 and 4), Frayne expands on the key arguments in the anti-work critique. They are: (a) that work is bad; (b) that it colonizes our lives; and (c) that we are publicly policed and shamed into thinking it is valuable.

The first argument is defended in a chapter entitled ‘Working Pains’. Studs Terkel’s impressive oral history Working provides a rich seam of information about the daily experiences of workers. Frayne mines it for insights. What is noticeable about the experiences of the workers that Terkel interviewed is the extent to which they say that their work is dehumanizing. The worker is not treated as person; they are treated as a cog in a machine. Frayne quotes from Terkel’s interview with Steve Dubi, a steelworker:

You’re not regarded. You’re just a number out there. Just like a prisoner. When you report off you tell ‘em your badge number. A lotta people don’t know your name. They know you by your badge number. My number is 44-065. At the main office they don’t know who 44-065 is…they just know he’s 44-065. (Terkel, 2004, 554 - quoted in Frayne 2015, 46)

What these workers experience is the inevitable consequence of Taylorism, the scientific management philosophy developed by the industrial engineer Frederick Taylor in the nineteenth century. Taylorism tries to rationalize and mechanize as many elements in the industrial manufacturing process as it could. The worker is not allowed to demonstrate any creativity, initiative or autonomy. Everything is routinized. Everything is predictable. The workers are ‘interchangeable units of labor power’ (49). Frayne notes that some associate Taylorism solely with the manufacturing economy and extoll the benefits of the shift towards the ‘knowledge economy’ in the latter half of the twentieth century. The belief is that knowledge workers have greater flexibility and incentives to demonstrate their individuality and creativity. They are not performing routinized physical tasks; they are performing skilled cognitive tasks. But Frayne argues that this is misleading. Many knowledge jobs involve highly scripted forms of cognitive labor. The call center worker is the classic example. Beyond this, the knowledge worker is under severe external constraints. Much of their work is assisted or mediated through information technology, which contributes to a de-skilling of their cognitive labor. And on top of this they are expected to fully invest themselves in their jobs in a way that manufacturing laborers never did: they must demonstrate commitment above and beyond their contracted work hours, and express constant satisfaction and happiness about their work. The whole thing is exhausting.

This links into the colonizing powers of work, a problem that Frayne explores in the next chapter of the book. The argument he makes is straightforward: in the modern economy we are never released from the demands of work. The leisure time we have is not truly leisure time. It is recovery time: a brief interlude between periods of intense and high-commitment work when we have little energy for anything that could truly express our personalities. What’s more, modern technologies and 24-hour markets mean that we are always ‘on call’, answering emails late into the evenings, awaiting the summons back to the office to deal with some pressing crisis. This is compounded by the constant pressure of employability. Every worker has to take responsibility for their own employment prospects at a time when work is becoming more precarious and uncertain. Gone are the solid, dependable middle-class ‘jobs for life’; in their stead are the ‘gig economy’ and its associated nation of freelancers. People have to constantly improve their job ‘prospects by training, acquiring educational credentials, networking, learning how to project the right kind of personality, and gaining life experiences that match up with the values sought by employers’ (73). As I say, the argument is straightforward. What is most interesting and compelling about Frayne’s presentation of it is the examples he uses to support his case. One sticks in my mind:

Employability even occupies the minds of children. I recall something a twelve-year-old lad once said to me when I was assisting with research into an anti-smoking programme that had been carried out at his school. When I asked him why he had enjoyed the programme, he said ‘it will look good on my CV’. (75).

Why is there such an unrelenting emphasis on employability? One reason is the widespread conviction that work is virtuous, a key component of the work dogma that elites have used to police and shame the poor. Bertrand Russell complained about this phenomenon nearly a century ago, noting how his arguments for increased idleness often shocked the well-to-do. The rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, and the associated reforms of the welfare state, contributed further to this culture of the work ethic. The poor and unemployed were demonized; the hard-working middle and upper classes were celebrated. Non-work became a personal failing not a systemic one. David Cameron, a recent British Prime Minister, made this a central platform of his governmental policy. He promised that his would be ‘a government for hard-working people’ and depicted benefit claimants as wasters (99). But it wasn’t only the Conservative party that championed the benefits of hard work. Tony Blair’s New Labour government promised to ‘rebuild the welfare state around work’ back in 1997 (103). The unemployed had to demonstrate strong commitment to work if they wished to receive their welfare benefits. This culminated more recently in them being forced to take periods of unpaid work to maintain their access to welfare (104). It has also been coupled to an increasing ‘medicalization of work’. Work has been lauded for its public health benefits in reports from the UK government, despite the fact that experiences of work and worklessness are highly varied.

The first half of Frayne’s book is not unrelentingly critical. He does not think that all forms of work are soul-crushing acts of capitalistic vandalism. What he criticizes is the lack of choice created by our current economic reality. People are forced to work out of economic necessity, not because they want to. It is a pity then that Frayne does not engage with some of the philosophical and economic literature on both the desirability and practicality of the anti-work critique. What sense of freedom or autonomy is at stake in this debate? And how can proponents of the anti-work view respond to those who challenge its injustice? Are the workers expected to support the lifestyles of the idlers or will technological reforms render this moot? We get hints of these concerns from time to time, but no substantive and sustained response. Perhaps Frayne can be forgiven for skirting these issues. His intention in this portion of the book is to provoke, not give a detailed point-by-point defense of the anti-work position.

The second half of the book then shifts to an ethnography. Frayne introduces us to a ragtag group of characters, people he met through online fora or other social contacts, who either resist work in its entirety or who have ‘downshifted’ (i.e. started to work fewer hours or in less intensive jobs/careers). These work-resisters are spread throughout the United Kingdom and vary considerably in their experiences and attitudes. They flit in and out of the remainder of the book as Frayne mixes excerpts from his interviews with them with some theoretical reflections on their experiences. We meet Matthew and Lucy, a well-educated and reflective young couple who avoid paid work, and live in fear of losing their benefits; we meet Alan, an irrepressibly optimistic anti-worker, who undertakes occasional bouts of work in order to fuel his real passions; we meet Samantha, a woman in her thirties, who was once a successful corporate lawyer, but downshifted to become a part-time waitress; we meet Bruce, who tells us that he had to quit work because his body ‘just broke’ (149); along with many more, all with unique and interesting perspectives on our contemporary work-obsessed culture. This is the standout section of the book as Frayne tries to understand the lives of these people, focusing in particular on how they came to embrace the anti-work philosophy, the pleasures they derive from it, and the pressures and problems they face.

He starts by describing the ‘breaking point’, the point at which these people felt they could no longer play along with the work dogma. Although noting that experiences vary, he identifies three broad pathways into work-resistance. The first is the ‘rubbish job’. Several of the participants described experiences like those of Steve Dubi, the steelworker interviewed by Studs Terkel. They found work to be intensely dehumanizing, something that stifled their true passions and interests. The second is the ‘mini utopia’. Several of the participants found themselves reassessing the value of work after having been exposed to alternate realities. For some, this came from education or volunteer work: they met or interacted with people in an environment that allowed for a more authentic expression of humanity, without the relentless drive for income. And the third is the ‘broken body’. Several of the participants found work to be physically and mentally debilitating. Bruce, who I mentioned above, epitomizes this route to work-resistance.

Frayne then considers the pleasures that these people get from resisting work. It is a key element of the anti-work philosophy espoused in the first half of the book that resisting work is hard. The dominant culture reinforces the belief that work is necessary and virtuous. Consequently, those who resist it should be made to suffer. It is no surprise then that Frayne is a little bit dismissive of one of his interviewees, Alan, who finds work resistance easy, and criticizes those who don’t for their lack of skill and imagination. Alan works to fund his adventures; he plays the working game for a while; and then drops out to pursue what he wants to do. I found myself wanting to hear more about Alan, and get some deeper explanation for his irrepressible optimism. But apart from noting his own discomfort with Alan’s views, and suggesting that Alan might be more than a little bit naive, Frayne quickly moves on. His main contention is that there are many pleasures in non-work, but that these come from the work-resisters adopting an attitude of ‘alternative hedonism’. This is a theory defended by the philosopher Kate Soper and essentially involves rejecting the consumer hedonism of capitalism. Happiness for the work resisters is not to be found in accumulating consumer goods and achieving power and prestige. It is instead to be found in simple, slower and largely private pursuits: cooking meals with family, reading books, maintaining their homes, achieving some degree of self-sufficiency in the production of food, cherishing a few precious purchased items, making gifts, and playing games in a fully engaged and present manner. One of the key messages from this section of the book is that a working lifestyle costs a lot of money, whether it be in commuting, childcare or convenience foods. One thing that workers lack is time to take care of themselves and others. They have to pay for this. So despite the reduction (or lack) of income associated with non-work, those who embrace the lifestyle often find they can do more with less. It is something we should all keep in mind.

Frayne closes this section of the book with an analysis of the problems faced by work resisters. Unsurprisingly, many of the problems relate to income. But, interestingly, the major theme explored by Frayne is the feeling of shame. Time and time again his interviewees express feelings of shame. Samantha, the one-time corporate lawyer, tells us that she was made to feel ashamed of her decision to downshift to a less stressful career by her parents. They viewed her decision as a mark of immaturity: a regression to an idle, unserious, student-like lifestyle. Lucy, who along with her husband Matthew resists all paid work, breaks down in the course of one interview:

Lucy: I worry every day [long pause], all the time [sigh]. I just feel — I feel like I should get a job so that I don’t feel like I’m letting everybody else down, but I just [sigh] don’t know if I can do that. (196)

Frayne tells us that the problem is that these people have failed the ‘moral test of work’. They are viewed by the rest of society as parasites or as somehow incomplete (‘half a person’ according to one of the interviewees). They live in constant dread of the perennial dinner party question: what do you do? This causes them to seek out like-minded souls through the internet — a community of kindred spirits who make them feel more welcome.

Frayne ends the book by reflecting on the ‘unpolitical’ nature of most of his interviewees. They are busy living the anti-work lifestyle, sometimes struggling to get by. They form loose associations — such as the ‘Idlers’ Alliance’ — but these associations are primarily about socializing and community-building. They are not interested in actively campaigning for an alternative political or economic reality. This is where he steps in. The final chapter is a ‘call to arms’, urging us to adopt a ‘politics of time’, one that recognizes the temporal costs of work, and tries to campaign for a more just distribution of non-working hours.

The book is a challenging and insightful read, despite some omissions. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic. Four themes in particular struck me as I read, and I want to close by reflecting on them in slightly more detail. My goal is not to criticize what Frayne has presented but, rather, to consider ways in which the conversation about work can be advanced, and to do a little soul-searching about my own attitude toward work along the way.

The first theme has to do with the emancipatory potential of technology. It is difficult to avoid the recent hype around automation and the future of work. A spate of books have come out in the past 2-3 years — Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age; Ford’s The Rise of the Robots; Kaplan’s Humans Need not Apply; Chace’s The Economic Singularity; Srnicek and Williams’s Inventing the Future; and Cowen’s Average is Over — arguing that advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to have a dramatic impact on employment in the not-too-distant future. Some worry that this spells the death of capitalism; others rejoice in this fact; most agree that it will require a radical shift in the welfare state to something like a basic income guarantee. Srnicek and Williams, in particular, approach the looming threat of rampant automation in an optimistic, left-leaning light. They argue that it re-opens the space for a robust anti-work politics. This is not a new idea. It is as old as Marx himself. What is noticeable — and refreshing — about Frayne’s discussion of the anti-work philosophy is the extent to which he divorces it from this technological debate. He is aware of it and spends some time in the first chapter explaining its essence. But as he points out, an anti-work politics cannot thrive on technological dreams alone. It may be true that it has more pragmatic appeal in light of technological developments; but the moral and political case for an anti-work politics must be developed on its own.

I have a somewhat different view. My feeling is that advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning will impact upon an anti-work politics, but not in the way that the left-leaning supporters seem to assume. I agree with the likes of Srnicek and Williams (and presumably Frayne) that automation adds to the pragmatic appeal of anti-work arguments. If work in the economic sense really is a soul-crushing, freedom-undermining, waste of human potential, then it is an even greater waste if we continue to insist upon it in an era in which humans are no longer needed for most economic work. But technology does not always have predictable or desirable effects. A major part of the anti-work argument is that the market does not always match our talents and aspirations. We may be forced, through economic necessity, to take up work that is contrary to what we find meaningful and worthwhile. This is the experience of many of Frayne’s interviewees. Automation may provide some hope in this regard: it could release people from the yoke of economically necessary work. But will it make their lives go better as a result? Maybe not.

One has to remember that automating technologies do not replace jobs, they replace work-related tasks. For example, typing (a particular, work-related physical task) may be replaced by voice-to-text machines. This obviates the need for humans to perform that work-related task, but it doesn’t eliminate a job. Jobs tend to remain in the interstices between automating technologies; and some workers actually enhance their economic value through technological assistance. Those who question the likelihood of rampant technological unemployment highlight this fact (Autor 2015). They think it implies that humans will always be able to create jobs based on the tasks that are complemented by, or not replaced by, machines. But this ignores another reality. Technology’s ability to replace tasks and affect behavior is not limited to the economic sphere: it is conceivable that technologies will be created to replace any physical or cognitive task that can be performed by a human, be it economically productive or not. This is already happening: an array of automating devices are beginning to proliferate in the home, and technologies of entertainment have been created that limit our need to interact with the real world. These wider technological effects could undermine the central plank of the anti-work position. In freeing us from the economic necessity of work, we may find that technology also frees us from much else that we do as well, i.e. from work in the broader, non-economic sense. It’s not clear that this would result in a better world.

This ties into the second theme. What does it take to live a meaningful and flourishing life? It’s a question Frayne hints at several times in the book, often reverting to the classic philosophical formulation of meaning in terms of ‘the Good, the True and the Beautiful’. Humans long for meaning, not just well-being. They want to make some contribution to the Good, the True and the Beautiful. They want to resolve the moral failings of the world, make contributions to knowledge and understanding, and produce works of art that they and others can enjoy. The central contention of the anti-work position is that most people cannot do this through economically necessary work. And yet what is interesting about the lives of Frayne’s interviewees is how inward-looking and privately focused they are. Their alternative hedonism revolves around the home, friendship and leisure pursuits like reading, game-playing and hobbies. Frayne laments this to some extent. It is why he calls for a more outward-looking, political focus in the end. The hint here — and it is only that — is that the inward-looking life is not sufficiently meaningful. Indeed, it is, in many ways, selfish (something that Samantha, the one-time lawyer, echoes when she describes her lifestyle as ‘massively indulgent’ (161)). Are these work-resisters really pursuing the Good, the True and the Beautiful? And if the anti-work political movement that Frayne desires succeeds, will it result in a world in which people can live more meaningful lives? Here is where automating technologies could bite again. If machines are better than we are at finding out the truth (as is already happening in certainly fields of scientific inquiry), and if they get better at us in resolving social moral problems (e.g. by coming up with better algorithms for distributing excess resources from machine-based productivity), there may be relatively little left for us to do that fits within the model of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The inward-looking, private realm may be all there is. This might require some revision or reconceptualization of what a flourishing life is like in an automated, post-work age. Admittedly, this argument is not completely worked out here, but it is something I have considered in greater depth in some of my other writing.

The third theme is the role of shame in our work culture. As noted above, many of Frayne’s interviewees feel shame as a result of their work resistance. The explanation for this is the moralization of work: those who do not work are neither contributing their fair share to society nor are they succeeding according to the metrics we have set. But why does the culture of shame operate in this way? I am not convinced that shame is a positive emotional tool, but if it is going to exist at all why is that those who succeed at work can feel proud? Or do they actually feel proud? I for one cannot understand why more workers are not ashamed of what they do; and I confess that I myself feel shame about what I do on a not infrequent basis. I wonder why this is the case. I have friends who work in well-paying corporate jobs. They often work 14-hour days. They seem exhausted, but rarely ashamed. The hours they put into their work connects directly to the income they end up receiving. They often justify the time they sacrifice to work on this basis. This fits with Frayne’s claims about the moralization of the work ethic. Earning big bucks is validated and valorized in our society: even if my friends occasionally felt shame about the time they dedicate to propping up sometimes ethically dubious corporate activities (and hence the time they sacrifice to their relationships and other worthwhile pursuits), the interlocking network of social norms and values would soon set them straight. They would be asked to think about what that money can do, how it can support their families and friends, and so on. Even those social movements that include some critique of extravagant, wealthy lifestyles operate to reinforce the commitment to the work ethic. The much-debated effective altruist movement, for instance, now encourages the idea that one should ‘earn to give’, i.e. dedicate time and effort to earning lots of money so that one can give it to good causes that make the world a better place.

For me it feels different. I am an academic (working in Ireland). I have a full-time ‘permanent’ position. I am lucky in this respect. But relative to many of my peers, I do not earn much money — though proponents of effective altruism will be quick to remind me that I am in the global 5%-1%. Nevertheless, I feel ashamed of the amount that I do earn. After all, how do I justify what I get? I spend most of my days reading, writing, and thinking. I do some teaching (not a whole lot) and have some administrative duties, but they are relatively minor and of dubious social value. The teaching that I do may have some social value, but I doubt it. I would be hard pressed to prove any correlation (let alone causation) between what I do in the classroom and some positive outcome for my students or society at large. Someone might argue that the research I do has social value and could contribute to meaning, but I also doubt that. Much of what I research and write is for an audience of fellow academics. It’s usually about things I find interesting, not what is socially valuable. Even if it were, very few people read what I write and even fewer are prompted to do anything on foot of it. And yet I am strongly committed to what I do. I probably work as many 14-hour days as my friends. What for? The sad answer is that I am doing it for myself and I am just as willing to sacrifice relationships with family and friends because of it. This is a source of shame. I feel trapped between competing normative frameworks. The dominant social framework accepts and, to some extent, valorizes what I do (though as a public sector employee it does not do so as strongly as it might do for other workers). But my own personal framework is conflicted: I enjoy and value what I do, but I know that it is relatively unimportant. It is a guilty pleasure, something I don’t like to talk about in polite company. But why don’t others feel the same way? Selling the latest social media app to investors or helping companies avoid tax is not particularly important or valuable either. It is primarily done for selfish and oftentimes dubious motives. It cannot be (can it?) that income is sufficient to obliterate the feeling of shame. If shame is to be felt at all, it should be felt by the working population as much as by the work-resisters.

Not that I am asking for any sympathy. The final theme I wish to reflect upon is the idea of academia as a mini-utopia. For several of Frayne’s interviewees, educational experiences, particularly those in university, were the ‘mini-utopias’ that led them to work-resistance. This is strongest in the case of Matthew who rhapsodizes about a trip he undertook as a philosophy student:

We went on this trip to Weynon Priory, which is this gorgeous stately home…[T]he day was spent in lectures or just people doing talks about things — philosophical issues, stuff about the NHS, ethics, Nietzsche, all sorts, and then there would be tea and coffee breaks where you could just chat…It was so amazing to be walking around, then playing football, then having these really deep chats. It completely changed me. You just get a taste of what life could be like. (143)

It may be that Matthew’s experiences are atypical but they are fascinating to someone who has spent most of their adult life in universities. There is something idyllic about the experience. I cannot deny that. But does it really give a taste of what life could be like in some post-work utopia? The sad reality is that work as an academic is susceptible to all the same problems that Frayne outlines in his critique: the colonization of time; the metricization and quantification; the cognitive Taylorism; the pressure to be employable; the tendency toward more precarious forms of work; and the shift to a consumer culture. It would be nice to preserve the academy as a mini-utopia for future generations of students; it would be nice if life inside the ivory tower gave us a real sense of what a post-work society might look like. But then again I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Why Communication is Needed for Consent

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Consent is vital in a liberal society. According to basic liberal principles, I am master of my own domain. You are only entitled to interfere with this domain if I give you consent to do so. But what does it mean to give consent? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to this question in the philosophical literature:

Attitudinal View: To give consent to a particular act X is to subjectively assent to X (subjectively intend that X be done).

Performative View: To give consent to a particular act X is to publicly communicate one’s assent to X. (Note: ‘Public’ here does not mean communication to the public at large; it means communication at a minimum to the person doing X).

You might think that nothing much hangs on this distinction. Evidence of consent is going to be an important consideration in any case of disputed consent and it is very difficult to get evidence of someone’s subjective attitude unless there was a public communication. But the distinction might make a difference in some cases. It might, in particular, make a difference to how you feel about some ‘hot button’ disputes around consent to sexual relations. There has been a noticeable move towards ‘affirmative consent’ standards on US college campuses (and elsewhere) in recent years. These standards demand clear and unambiguous public communications of consent prior to any sexual contact. The introduction of these standards has proven to be relatively controversial. But one way of viewing them is that they are simply attempts to enshrine the performative view. In other words, if consent always requires public communication, then affirmative consent standards do little more than enshrine the morally correct approach to consent.* If, on the other hand, the attitudinal view is correct, then affirmative consent standards demand more than is morally required. They take a highly risk averse approach to sexual consent.

That, at any rate, is how Tom Dougherty frames the issue in his article ‘Yes means Yes: Consent as Communication’. The article defends the performative view of consent. And it presents a very detailed and nuanced case. I want to cover some of the arguments he presents in today’s post. I won’t be able to cover all of them. But the centrepiece is an analogy between promising and consenting and I want to explain that in what follows.

1. Promising and Consenting are Related
Dougherty’s main argument is, in effect, an argument from analogy. It works like this:

  • (1) Promising and consenting are similar in all important respects.
  • (2) Public communication is needed in the case of promising.
  • (3) Therefore we should (probably) demand public communication in the case of consenting.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing, this is a standard template for arguments from analogy that I have been using for some time. It comes from the work of Douglas Walton. Arguments from analogy are informal, defeasible arguments. They don’t provide logically ineluctable grounds for supporting their conclusions. Instead, they provide probabilistic and defeasible grounds. It’s always possible for someone to come along and point out important disanalogies between the two cases that thereby block the conclusion. Nevertheless, a well done argument from analogy can be pretty powerful. (And, in any event, Dougherty ends up providing something a bit stronger than an argument from analogy because he locates general principles that apply to both cases).

I’ll go through the two main premises of this argument in the remainder of this post, starting with the first: Why should we view promising and consenting as being similar?

The answer lies in how they structure relationships of rights and duties between two or more parties. Think about the nature of a promise. If I promise to do X for you, I am attempting to impose an obligation on myself. If you accept my promise, then you are accepting that you have a claim-right to my doing X for you. This results in my having a duty to do X. Suppose I promise to deliver heating oil to you tomorrow morning. You accept my promise. You now have a moral right to demand that I deliver the oil; and I have moral duty to do so. Whether I have a legal duty is a separate question: the law of contract, which is the closest thing we have to a law of promising, does not entitle you to legally enforce every promise, only those promises that meet certain conditions. In this sense, the law of contract is more restrictive than the morality of promising.

That’s by the by, the important point is the similarities between promising and consenting. Dougherty argues that they are inversions of one another. Where promising involves the creation of rights and duties, consenting involves the relaxation of pre-existing rights and duties. The default presumption in a liberal society is that I have a right to non-interference; and you have a duty to respect my right to non-interference. If I consent to your doing X to me, I am waiving my right and removing your duty. Suppose I consent to sexual relations with you. I am thereby waiving my right to bodily non-interference, and removing your duty not to touch my body.

Because they both concern the nature of the rights and duties that subsist between individual, Dougherty thinks they are similar enough to get his argument off the ground. As he puts it, given their similarity, it would be odd if communication was necessary for one but not the other. He has a nice example that makes the point:

Suppose Paula and Tim agree that Tim can use Paula’s car while she is away, and Tim will water her plants. It would be odd to think that Paula can give this consent without communication, but Tim must communicate to establish the reciprocal promise. In addition, the same utterance can express both promise and consent. For example, Paula might write to Tim, allowing him to stay in her house, and promising that she will stock her fridge. It would be odd to think that she successfully issues her consent before she has set pen to paper, but she needs to communicate to make the promise. Instead, it is natural to think that both types of rights- transaction must be made in a common currency. 
(Dougherty 2015, 235)

The same symmetry of reasoning applies for the reversal of a promise/consent. It would be odd if you could reverse consent through subjective intention alone, but need to communicate to reverse a promise. Indeed, there is good case for saying that communication for the reversal of consent is even more important than communication of the reversal of a promise. It seems more wrong for me to continue to do something to you (or your property) when you have reinstated a duty of non-interference and less for me to continue doing something if you have released me from a promise without communication.

2. Communication is Necessary for Promising
These examples make the initial case. They suggest that a parity of reasoning applies and they hint at the fact that successful promising requires some public communication. But they don’t answer the deeper question: why is public communication necessary in the case of promising? Dougherty has an argument for this — one that is based on the idea of common knowledge.

Common knowledge is a familiar but complicated phenomenon. It arises when two or more parties have recursive knowledge of each other’s state of mind. Suppose you and I are looking at a red flower. I see you looking at the flower; you see me looking at the flower. In this scenario, there is common knowledge of the flower’s redness. I know that there is a red flower; you know that there is a red flower. I know that you know that there is a red flower; you know that I know that there is a red flower. I know that you know that I know that there is a red flower; you know that I know that you know that there is a red flower. And so on, ad infinitum.

Common knowledge is an important concept in social theory, though its importance is often dimly appreciated. Steven Pinker and James Lee (and their colleagues) have been doing some very interesting work on how common knowledge is psychologically encoded and the role it plays in social coordination. I urge you to check it out. But you don’t need the detail they provide to understand Dougherty’s argument. The relevance of common knowledge in the present context has to do with the role it plays in structuring our moral and legal relationships and its connection to communication.

It will help if we sketch out the rough form of Dougherty’s argument first. This is entirely my reconstruction but I think it runs a little something like this:

  • (4) Common knowledge is essential if promises are going to work.
  • (5) Public communication is the most reliable way to create common knowledge.
  • (6) Therefore, public communication is the most reliable way to get promises to work.

I have a few doubts about this reconstruction. I am not sure that ‘essential’ is the right word to use in premise (4). It may be that ‘very important’ is the right term. Why? Because, as we’ll see in a moment, Dougherty’s argument in favour of this view is largely consequentialist in nature and it allows for borderline cases of ‘not-quite’ promises. Also, you’ll notice that there is some distance between the conclusion (6) and premise (2) of the original argument from analogy. I think this is fair, however, because it’s pretty clear from Dougherty’s reasoning that communication is not necessary for common knowledge (it is logically conceivable for something to be common knowledge in the absence of a public communication). This might suggest that some weakening of the overarching argument from analogy is in order, but I think we could bridge the gap between premise (6) and (2) by appealing to the practical necessity of communication in the vast majority of cases. I won’t get into that now though.

I want to focus instead on the support for premises (4) and (5). Premise (4) is supported by considering once more how promises work. Remember, they create rights and duties where none previously existed. If I promise to look after your cat while you are away on holiday, I create a duty to look after the cat for myself, and you create a claim-right against me for that duty. If I fail to live up to the duty, you may even have a right to repair. Either way, I am accountable to you for the obligation entailed by the promise.

Dougherty’s argument is that promises perform three valuable functions in society and that they cannot do this without common knowledge of the rights and duties that are being created. The three functions are:

Informational functions: Promises create expectations that something is going to be done by the promisor and they encourage the promisee to rely upon that expectation. This has an important risk transferal function. If I promise to look after your cat, I create the expectation that I will do so, I invite you to rely upon that expectation by going on your holiday, and I thereby transfer risk to myself and away from you.

Agential functions: Promises expand the scope of the promisee’s agency. They allow the promisee to control the promisor’s actions and give them the authority to determine what the promisor does. This allows for greater certainty and predictability in the behaviour of others. When I promise to look after your cat, you have moral control over what I do for a period of time.

Relationship-building functions: Because promises create expectations, invite reliance, expand agency and increase predictability, they play an important role in relationship-building. They allow us to coordinate and cooperate with one another in valuable ways. They allow for greater trust. By promising to look after your cat, I enable you do something valuable (go on holiday) that you would not otherwise have done. If I succeed in looking after your cat, I further cement our bond of trust.

Promises can only perform these functions if both the promisor and promisee know what is demanded of them. If they do not have this knowledge, it is difficult to see how they could cooperate with another, create meaningful expectations, invite reliance, expand agency and so on.

That brings us to premise (5). This seems relatively easy to support. It is possible that common knowledge could be created through convention or custom. If I always look after your cat when you go away, without explicit agreement or communication, we may both, over time, come to believe that I have a duty to do so and you have a claim-right against me if I do not. But the problem here is a lack of certainty. It is much easier to create the common knowledge through a communicative act, i.e. by relying on some signal (verbal or otherwise) that carries the conventional meaning that a promise has been made.

Communication doesn’t solve everything of course. Some forms of communication can be vague or ambiguous. This might lead to doubts as to whether a promise has been made. Nevertheless, communication is more reliable than custom or convention. Furthermore, in high stakes scenarios, it would seem like nothing but a clear, unambiguous communication would suffice to create the requisite common knowledge.

3. Is Consent Any Different?
So much for promising and communication. Does the same reasoning apply to consent, or is consent sufficiently different from promising? Dougherty argues that the cases are similar.

Consent also performs valuable functions. Three are mentioned:

Enables Intimacy: As Dougherty puts it “Against a backdrop of duties shielding the private aspects of our lives, consent facilitates intimacy when it is invited.” (2013, 244).
Enables Alteration: By consenting to an action, I allow another party to alter my body or my property in potentially valuable (and potentially harmful) ways.
Enables Mutual Use: Consent allows two or more parties to use a common resource. This can include one’s property or one’s body. In this manner, consent also enables cooperation and coordination.

And, just like promising, consent can only perform these functions if there is common knowledge of the changes in rights and duties. It is only if we know that the usual duty of non-interference has been waived that we are able to engage in intimate acts of mutual value in a risk-free manner and to be accountable to one another for what happens.

And since, as we saw from the previous argument, common knowledge requires public communication, particularly in high stakes cases, it would seem to follow that public communication is required for consent.

4. Conclusion
That’s it for this post. To briefly recap, Dougherty’s argument is based on the similarities between promising and consenting. Where promising involves the creation of new rights and duties, consenting involves the relaxation of pre-existing rights and duties. They are inversions of one another, both altering the moral structure of the relationships we have with other people. The claim then is that because public communication is required for promises to do their moral work, it follows that public communication is also required for consent. The two are sufficiently similar to assume that the moral principles applying to the one apply to the other.

There is more to be said, of course. Dougherty’s argument is more carefully hedged than I am letting on here. He says a good deal more about the communicative standards that are required, allowing for implicit communication in some cases but not in others. He also discusses the possibility of silence sufficing for communication (short answer: it usually will not due to its ambiguity). I encourage you to read the full paper for those details.

* This isn’t quite right. Affirmative consent standards might just be attempting to enshrine the morally correct view, but they might fail to demand the right kind of public communication.