Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Episode #38 - Schwartz on the Ethics of Space Exploration

  use Jim schwartz.jpg

In this episode I talk to Dr James Schwartz. James teaches philosophy at Wichita State University.  His primary area of research is philosophy and ethics of space exploration, where he defends a position according to which space exploration derives its value primarily from the importance of the scientific study of the Solar System.  He is editor (with Tony Milligan) of The Ethics of Space Exploration (Springer 2016) and his publications have appeared in Advances in Space Research, Space Policy, Acta Astronautica, Astropolitics, Environmental Ethics, Ethics & the Environment, and Philosophia Mathematica.  He has also contributed chapters to The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, Human Governance Beyond Earth, Dissent, Revolution and Liberty Beyond Earth (each edited by Charles Cockell), and to Yearbook on Space Policy 2015.  He is currently working on a book project, The Value of Space Science.  We talk about all things space-related, including the scientific case for space exploration and the myths that befuddle space advocacy.

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

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:40 - Why did James get interested in the philosophy of space?
  • 3:17 - Is interest in the philosophy and ethics of space exploration on the rise?
  • 6:05 - Do space ethicists always say "no"?
  • 8:20 - Do we have a duty to explore space? If so, what kind of duty is this?
  • 10:30 - Space exploration and the duty to ensure species survival
  • 16:16 - The link between space ethics and environmental ethics: between misanthrophy and anthropocentrism
  • 19:33 - How would space exploration help human survival?
  • 23:20 - The scientific value of space exploration: manned or unmanned?
  • 28:30 - Why does the scientific case for space exploration take priority?
  • 35:40 - Is it our destiny to explore space?
  • 38:46 - Thoughts on Elon Musk and the Colonisation Project
  • 44:34 - The Myths of Space Advocacy
  • 51:40 - From space philosophy to space policy: getting rid of the myths
  • 58:55 - The future of space philosophy

Relevant Links

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unjust Sex and the Opposite of Rape (2)

William Hogarth, After

(Part One)

This is the second part of my series on John Gardner’s article “The Opposite of Rape”. As I explained in part one, my goal in this series is to consider whether or not Gardner’s analysis in that article is problematic in some way. I tend to think it is not — with one possible exception — and I’m trying to justify that opinion here. The main justification is that Gardner’s analysis is quite similar to that offered by certain feminist scholars of sexual ethics. In this sense, it is not so much problematic as it is unoriginal. I set this up in part one by discussing Ann Cahill’s article ‘Unjust Sex vs Rape’. You should really read part one before proceeding any further…

…Still here? Good. As you will now, no doubt, remember I concluded part one by suggesting that Cahill’s analysis of ‘unjust sex’ can be taken to endorse two propositions:

Proposition 1: There is more to ‘bad’ (i.e. morally unwelcome) forms of sex than rape and sexual assault; or, to put it a different way, the mere presence of sexual consent is not enough to make a sexual interaction morally commendable.

Proposition 2: Because of this, an excessive focus on consent in discussions of sexual ethics can be misleading, and possibly unhelpful, because it does not move the needle sufficiently toward a normative ideal of male-female sexual relations.

My claim is that Gardner’s analysis can also be taken to endorse these two propositions. The main difference is that whereas Cahill starts with morally problematic sex, Gardner starts with morally commendable sex. This is what he means by the ‘opposite’ of rape. The choice of words may be a little unfortunate, but the inquiry itself seems perfectly legitimate: if rape is undeniably bad, what is undeniably good? Gardner has an answer for this.

1. Good Sex as a Kind of Teamwork
When we try to figure out what makes sex ‘good’ we confront an embarrassment of riches. There are many things that make sex good: it provides intense physical pleasure, it brings people closer together, it allows for playful experimentation and, in some cases, enables procreation. Gardner agrees with all this. He thinks there are many dimensions to good sex. Nevertheless, he wants to focus on just one. He does so because he thinks it is important when it comes to distinguishing good sex from rape/sexual assault. That dimension is the collaborative one. Good sex, according to Gardner, is a collaborative enterprise. It is when two (or more) people ‘come together’ as one (Gardner explicitly references the Beatle’s song and the possible double entendre in his article).

This is where the teamwork idea comes in. Teamwork is a collaborative enterprise par excellence. It happens when a group of people get together and coordinate their actions toward a common goal/purpose. But it is more than that. Commonality of purpose is not enough. The people in a team are responsive to one another: there is a ‘sustained interpersonal feedback loop’ (2017, 6) between them. Their collaboration is more the sum of its parts. There is a joint intention at play. They don’t just do things for themselves; they do things for the team, as a collective.

Gardner uses lots of examples to flesh this out. One, taken from Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, is about a group of people who spontaneously collaborate on trying to rescue someone from a hot air balloon (with tragic results for one person when the team disintegrates). Gardner makes much of this example in his article, but I’m not going to go through it here because it would take too long to explain and seems to me to be unnecessarily complicated. Other examples, which are much more straightforward, include an orchestra/band/jazz improv group working together to play music. Gardner particularly likes the jazz improv example because it involves spontaneous, playful collaboration, and not simply the repetition of rote-learned notes. Nevertheless, in each case, the group of musicians is working together with a joint intention to make good music.*

Good sex then, according to Gardner, is a kind of teamwork. It involves two or more people working together toward a joint end. What is that joint end? Well it could be many things but the most obvious (and the most intrinsic to the sexual activity itself) is mutual pleasure and satisfaction. The partners are, to put it bluntly, trying to ‘get off’ together:

…I propose that we think of good sex as a kind of team activity (for which ‘teamwork’ serves as a mere shorthand [because it is odd to think of sex as work]). Not only do the sexual partners have common intentions regarding the pleasure and satisfaction that each is to bring to the other and the general menu of ways in which that pleasure and satisfaction is to be achieved and such like; each also has a version of the infinitely reflexive intention I just described. Each intends that they do it together, that it be a joint pursuit and not just a pursuit in common… 
(Gardner 2017, 7)

Good sex is not, however, perfectly symmetrical. Being part of the same sexual team, doesn’t mean that the parties to the sex are doing the same things to each other and taking on the same roles. Teamwork sometimes has this feature but often does not. Usually there are different parts to be played by different team members — think, once again, of the jazz improv group and the different instruments being played. But teamwork is symmetrical in one critical respect: all parties to the activity are agents. They all take on some active role in achieving the common purpose; no one is a passive recipient of the actions of the other. Gardner expresses this in a typical philosophical way. He says that a good, two-party, sexual interaction is an agent-agent interaction; it is not an agent-patient interaction. It is two people doing something together not one person doing something to another.

It is worth noting how similar this is to Cahill’s analysis of ‘bad’ sex. As you’ll recall from part one, Cahill argues that bad sex — be it unjust or rape/sexual assault — is not characterised by symmetry of agency. Indeed, one of its distinctive features is that female sexual agency lacks the same power as male sexual agency. In the case of unjust sex, female sexual agency is extremely limited; in the case of rape/sexual assault, it is dismantled or disenabled. The fact that there is this similarity in the analysis — albeit arrived at from different directions — is one of the things that convinces me that Gardner’s analysis is in line with what Cahill says.

2. Gardner’s Dangerous Idea: Does consent matter?
There is, however, one aspect of Gardner’s analysis that could be problematic. Having concluded that good sex is distinguished by its collaborative (agent-agent) nature, Gardner proceeds to consider the role of consent in sexual ethics. He doesn’t define consent but does offer some general comments about it that are suggestive.

For one thing, Gardner is adamant that consensual activities often involve agent-patient asymmetry. Indeed, he hints that this is the most natural/normal form of consensual activity. If you consent to something it usually means that you are waiving your claim right to non-interference by another. For example, if I consent to being medically examined by my doctor, I am waiving my claim right to bodily integrity/privacy, and waiving his/her duty to respect my bodily integrity/privacy. The doctor then takes on the agent role — he/she performs the examination — and I take on the patient role (literally) — the examination is performed on me. It is not an active collaboration. I merely signal a willingness to forgo rights that I would otherwise have. It is this signalling that is the hallmark of consent.

Understood in this way, Gardner argues that people expect consent to do too much work in sexual ethics. Consent is a concept that applies to many different domains of human activity. It plays an important moral role across those domains. But it cannot morally vindicate sex because (a) it tends to presume the agent-patient asymmetry and (b) good sex involves agent-agent symmetry. So, while consent might make a sexual interaction permissible (barely and bleakly), it cannot make it commendable. This is true even of recent attempts to reform the concept of consent, e.g. the move towards affirmative consent or, even, ‘enthusiastic and willing’ consent. The former because it still allows for agent-patient asymmetry and the latter because it probably stretches the concept of consent too far. As Gardner himself puts it:

Taking the concept of consent to be the only legitimate currency for the evaluation of sex puts the concept under a lot of pressure to do a lot of work. Consequently, many have been tempted to reintroduce other currencies of evaluation indirectly by packing them into a ‘refurbished’ ideal of consent….One wonders how those who place such demanding restrictions on (valid) consent can possibly interact with their doctors, lawyers, electricians, taxi drivers, decorators, auto mechanics, hairstylists, dentists, bank tellers, dry-cleaners and the many others whose everyday interactions with them call for their consent. 
(Gardner 2017, 12)

But here’s where we get to Gardner’s potentially dangerous idea. All of the comments to this point suggest that there are at least two distinct ethical dimensions along which one can evaluate a sexual interaction: (i) the collaborative dimension and (ii) the consensual dimension. In other words, you can ask of any sexual interaction ‘Was it collaborative?’ and ‘Was it consensual?’. The following diagram captures the idea.

Now, from my perspective, this is an odd way to think about it. To me, it seems to make sense to collapse the consensual dimension into the collaborative one — that is, to assume that any collaborative sexual interaction must also be consensual. It would strike me as odd to suggest that two people had engaged in a collaborative sexual act (a ‘good’ sexual act) that was non-consensual. But Gardner doesn’t seem to see it that way. Although he is never explicit about it, he says several things that suggest that he views the consensual dimension as being distinct from the collaborative one. The clearest example of this is when he suggests that consent may be ‘unnecessary’ to good sex:

Here, I am advancing the more explosive proposition that, when the sexual going is good, consent is also unnecessary. Before you explode, bear in mind that my case proceeds, not from the thought that consent is too high an expectation for our sex lives, but rather from the thought that it is too low an expectation. Ideally, I suggest, the question of consent does not arise between sexual partners, for the question of consent belongs to sex individualistically, even solipsistically conceived… 
(Gardner 2017, 13)

I call this a ‘dangerous’ idea partly because it goes against so much of the orthodox thinking about sexual ethics. Nowadays, ‘consent’ is seen as the sine qua non of permissible sex. Consent simply must be present in order for sex to be permissible. But what Gardner suggests in this quote is that there are types of permissible (in fact, morally ideal) sex that do not involve consent. This not only goes against the orthodoxy, it also takes Gardner away from the Cahill-style argument about unjust sex — there was nothing in what Cahill said that suggested that consent was irrelevant/unnecessary to good sex (though she was skeptical about its central role in contempoary discussions of sex).

I appreciate, of course, what he is trying to say. People in long term intimate relationships have frequently told me that the giving and receiving of consent plays no explicit role in their ongoing sex lives. They just don’t think about it that way. But, of course, the mere fact that they don’t think about it in that way doesn’t mean that consent isn’t, at least implicitly, given. Furthermore, I think Gardner’s idea could be particularly dangerous if it is translated into practice. Say that there is some dispute as to the propriety of a sexual interaction. Gardner’s argument suggests that there are two ways to establish its propriety: (i) prove that it was consensual or (ii) prove that it was collaborative. But how do people prove that sex is collaborative? Is there a danger that a collaborative standard could be more subjective and prone to epistemic disputes of the he said/she said variety? This is a problem that has long afflicted debates about consent, of course, but there have been recent improvements in this regard with the introduction of evidential rules for proving the existence of non-consent. Would we need to create a new set of rules to make a collaborative standard workable?

3. Avoiding the Dangerous Idea
Gardner does not answer that question. The reason for this is that shortly after introducing his dangerous (“explosive”) idea, he marks out an escape route from its more unpalatable consequences. His escape route hinges on a distinction between agreement and consent. This is not a distinction I find useful, but I’ll try to explain what he says.

He argues that two people can agree to a collaborative enterprise without consenting to that enterprise. He gives the example of two people who agree to meet at a certain time and location. They both give undertakings to be at the relevant location at the relevant time. The meeting is a joint activity and exhibits agent-agent symmetry. But it would be strange indeed to suggest that it involved both parties consenting to be at the same location at the relevant time. The two parties do not signal and exchange consents with one another. Agreement is, thus, distinct from consent.

This gives us a way to avoid the unpalatable conclusion. Perhaps cases of permissible sex that do not involve consent do involve sexual agreement? Perhaps, as Gardner puts it, ‘when sexual consent is unnecessary that is only because we are lucky enough to have sexual agreement instead?’. That sounds plausible, but it then reframes the argument, particular when you think about it in terms of some practical dispute as to the priority of a sexual interaction. Instead of the dispute hinging on the epistemic signals needed for reasonable belief in consent it hinges on the epistemic signals needed for belief in agreement. It’s not entirely clear how different those are going to be from the current status quo — particularly since consent is often defined in terms of agreement (something Gardner is aware of and, not surprisingly, disagrees with).

Gardner isn’t entirely happy with this agreement vs consent, get-out-of-jail-free card. One problem he has with substituting agreement for consent is that he is still committed to the collaborative ideal and he thinks that some collaborative actions do not involve any prior agreement. There can be spontaneous collaboration in which there is joint activity and intention, but no prior exchange of undertakings. The balloon-rescue example from Ian McEwan’s novel is trotted out at this point again, as is spontaneous musical improvisation. Some people might suggest that you can imply agreement from spontaneous collaboration, but Gardner thinks we should resist this suggestion because it would neutralise the normative power of agreement.

By this point in the paper, Gardner seems to have painted himself into a corner. He has suggested that consent is not necessary for permissible sex (and not sufficient for ideal sex). He has spotted the unwelcome (‘explosive’) implications of this view and tried to avoid them by suggesting that we substitute agreement for consent, but then he has found that unsatisfactory. In the end, he hits upon the following solution to his dilemma. He distinguishes between two types of agreement (i) performative agreement and (ii) cognitive agreement. Performative agreement involves the actual making of an agreement with someone, i.e. the prior exchange of undertakings; cognitive agreement involves being in agreement with another, i.e. being of one mind/sympatico with them. The latter may be what arises in cases of spontaneous collaboration and it may be what saves Gardner’s position from it potentially unwelcome implications. Furthermore, Gardner argues that being of one mind with someone else requires an ‘ongoing consensus’, which suggests a need to check-in with your collaborator to see whether there still is agreement. This is similar to the view — common among consent theorists — that sexual consent in an ‘ongoing’ act, i.e. you retain the right to withdraw consent at any time. But Gardner doesn’t like this understanding of consent because he thinks it means that consent loses some of its distinctiveness as a normative concept. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that there would be no point to consent if it did not mean that you forego some of your rights to prevent/deny another person performing an act on you for some extended period of time.

So, through some elaborate conceptual engineering, Gardner is able to arrive at a position on collaboration and agreement that is not far from the mainstream view on sexual consent. Was it worth all the effort to end up in the same place? Maybe — maybe Gardner is right that our thinking about sexual consent has become hopelessly confused and that we need an alternative conceptual vocabulary to capture what is going on in cases of normatively bad and normatively ideal sex. My own sense is that it is unnecessarily confusing, particularly if we are to continue to accept, as Gardner seems to be urging, that there are two kinds of permissible sex: (i) consensual and (ii) collaborative (with cognitive agreement).

4. Conclusion
To briefly sum up, Gardner thinks that consent is not enough to morally vindicate sex. There is lots of (morally) bad (though not impermissible) sex that is consensual. Some additional ingredient is needed to move us from bad to good. That ingredient, according to Gardner, is teamwork. Good sex is a collaborative act in which two (or more people) work together to accomplish a common purpose (sexual pleasure/fulfillment) as a team. This does not mean that they take on symmetrical roles in the collaborative act, but it does mean that they are both agents. The problem with consensual sex is that it does not require both parties to be agents. Indeed, consent, as a concept, is more naturally applied to cases in which one party (the agent) does something to another (the patient). The danger with becoming fixated on the consent standard is that it could, consequently, perpetuate the gendered stereotype of women (the patients) giving up sex to men (the agents).

In saying all this, I think that Gardner is being consistent with a long-standing view among feminist critics of sex-under-patriarchy and the centrality of the consent standard in modern thinking about sexual ethics. I’ve tried to demonstrate this by illustrating the similarities between his views and the views of Ann Cahill. Where Gardner differs from this long-standing view is in his suggestion that consent may not be necessary for morally permissible sex. This is a more dangerous idea and one that could lead to problems in practice. Gardner tries to avoid these unwelcome implications by substituting the concept of agreement for that of consent. In doing so, he thinks he is being more conceptually precise, but he ends up endorsing a view that is not that dissimilar to the one endorsed by many consent theorists.

* Having played in bands that were prone to improvisation, this seems a little bit idealistic to me. In many instances, one member of the collective will try to dominate and hog the limelight. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Gardner is focused on ideals rather than realities in his article.

AEON Article - Embracing the robot: is a human-robot relationship wrong?

I have an article in the online magazine Aeon. It's about the moral/social desirability of human-robot relationships. Here are the first two paragraphs:
There is a heartbreaking scene in the middle of Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The hero of the movie, a replicant called K, lives a drab existence in a dystopian, future Los Angeles. The one bright spot in his life is his patient and sympathetic partner, Joi. They share many affectionate moments on screen. But then she is killed, in the midst of declaring her love, in one of the movie’s most gut-wrenching moments. I know I shed a tear when I first saw it. 
There is, however, something unusual about Joi. She is a mass-produced, artificially intelligent hologram, designed to be the perfect partner. She learns from her interactions with K, and shifts her personality to suit his moods. Her ‘death’, such as it is, is due to the fact that she can exist only in the presence of a particular holographic emanator. When it is destroyed, so is she....
You can read the full thing here.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Foundations of Conscientious Objection: Against Freedom and Autonomy

Along with my colleague and friend Yossi Nehushtan, I recently had a paper accepted for publication in the journal Jurisprudence. The paper deals with the philosophical grounding for toleration of conscientious objection. Contrary to a common view, we argue that conscientious objections ought not to be tolerated on the basis that they are expressions of autonomous/free choice. Check out the full details below:

Title: The Foundations of Conscientious Objection: Against Freedom and Autonomy
Journal: Jurisprudence
Links: Official; PhilPapers; Academia
Abstract: According to the common view, conscientious objection is grounded in autonomy or in ‘freedom of conscience’ and is tolerated out of respect for the objector's autonomy. Emphasising freedom of conscience or autonomy as a central concept within the issue of conscientious objection implies that the conscientious objector should have an independent choice among alternative beliefs, positions or values. In this paper it is argued that: (a) it is not true that the typical conscientious objector has such a choice when they decide to act upon their conscience and (b) it is not true that the typical conscientious objector exercises autonomy when developing or acquiring their conscience. Therefore, with regard to tolerating conscientious objection, we should apply the concept of autonomy with caution, as tolerating conscientious objection does not reflect respect for the conscientious objector’s right to choose but rather acknowledges their lack of real ability to choose their conscience and to refrain from acting upon their conscience. This has both normative and analytical implications for the treatment of conscientious objectors.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Unjust Sex and the Opposite of Rape (1)

William Hogarth, Before

The Opposite of Rape” is the title of an article by the legal philosopher John Gardner. It was published in late 2017 in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. In the article, Gardner tries to delineate the differences between good sex and rape. Doing so, he argues, helps to identify certain blindspots in contemporary debates about sexual ethics, particularly debates about importance of consent. For some reason, several people have asked me for my thoughts on this article. I’m not quite sure why. The subtext of each of these requests, at least as I read it, has been that there is something unusual or improper about Gardner’s analysis — that his discussion of ‘the opposite’ of rape is unwelcome. Initially, I thought nothing of this, and I put the article at the end of my already extensive reading list. But then the requests kept coming so I figured I better read the thing.

Now that I have done so, I’m not quite sure what the fuss was about. Obviously, many philosophical discussions of rape and sexual assault are fraught with risk. If you take a overly analytical perspective on the different ethical grades of sexual activity (good/bad/indifferent/permissible/forbidden), you risk sounding detached and unsympathetic to the plight of victims of sexual assault. If you use an inapt or awkward analogy, the risk escalates. Gardner might be guilty of some of these things. But, overall, I find his argument relatively unobjectionable. Indeed, if I had any complaint, it would be that it is not particularly original. What Gardner says about the distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘good’ sex, and about the dangers of focusing too much on consent in discussions of both, has been said already. What he adds is a particular conceptual framework for thinking about the distinction (viz. that ‘good sex’ is ‘teamwork’), which has one potentially controversial implication that he tries to avoid.

Over the next two posts, I want to justify my take on Gardner’s article. I do so by initially comparing it to another article — ‘Unjust Sex vs Rape’ by Ann Cahill — which I think advances a very similar thesis. This comparison should help to confirm my suspicion that Gardner’s argument is not hugely original. I will then consider the one potentially disturbing implication of Gardner’s argument and assess the extent to which he avoids it.

1. Sex in the Gray Area
”All sex is rape.” You have probably come across this quote. It is often attributed to the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, and it is usually held up as a reductio of the radicalist school of thought. Surely not all sex can be rape? The quote is, however, of dubious provenance. MacKinnon herself has denied ever saying it, and I have never seen a direct quote from her work confirming that she did. Nevertheless, there are aspects of her theory of sexuality that might be taken to endorse it, or something pretty close. It would take a long time to explain MacKinnon’s theory in full, but the gist of it is that women’s sexuality is shaped by patriarchal social structures. From an early age, women learn and internalise a certain understanding of their own sexuality and men learn and internalise a complementary understanding. Specifically, they learn that:

Women’s sexuality is, socially, a thing to be stolen, sold, bought, bartered, or exchanged by others. But women never own or possess it, and men never treat it, in law or in life, with the solicitude with which they treat property. To be property would be an improvement. 
(MacKinnon 1989, 172 - taken from Cahill 2016, 749)

In other words, women adopt a passive mode of sexuality and men an aggressive mode. Sex is something that men take from women; and it is something that is defined solely by reference to male desires and needs. While this doesn’t quite mean that all sex under conditions of patriarchy is equivalent to rape, it does mean that all sex under conditions of patriarchy should be treated with suspicion. Because women are indoctrinated by patriarchal norms, their own expressions of consent to sex are not necessarily dispositive. This puts MacKinnon in something of a bind as it seems like no heterosexual sex could be morally legitimate from the perspective of her critique. As Cahill puts it:

Although MacKinnon has vociferously denied that her theory of sexual violence entails the claim that all heterosexual sex under patriarchal conditions is rape, one cannot find in her work a detailed, compelling articulation of how any given heterosexual interaction could sufficiently escape the pernicious effects of patriarchal structures. 
(Cahill 2016, 749)

Cahill, and others, try to escape from this bind. Unlike MacKinnon, they think that there are circumstances in which sex can escape from the pernicious effects of patriarchy; but like MacKinnon, they think that some heterosexual sex, even if freely and affirmatively consented to by women, is normatively suspicious. As a result, they call for a more nuanced understanding of the spectrum of possible forms of heterosexual sex. At one of the spectrum lies rape and sexual assault — both of which are undoubtedly impermissible and rightly criminalised. At the other end lies ‘good’ sex — which is undoubtedly permissible and probably good. In between, there is a gray area where sex can be indifferent/‘meh’ or, if not quite as bad as rape and sexual assault, not good either. Cahill calls this latter type of gray area sex ’unjust sex’. It’s bad, but not as bad as rape and probably not worthy of criminalisation either (though, to be clear, in the article under discussion Cahill doesn’t discuss criminalisation and I am not sure what her opinion on it is).

What are the distinctive features of unjust sex? The feminist scholar Nicola Gavey interviewed women about the phenomenon in her 2005 book Just Sex?. In these interviews, the women all felt that they had not been raped, but they had had sex under conditions in which they felt unable to express their true desires not to have sex. As Gavey put it, each of these women ‘found herself going along with sex that was neither desired nor enjoyed because she did not feel it was her right to stop it or because she did not know how to refuse’ (2005, 136 - sourced from Cahill 2016, 748). Cahill argues that in cases of unjust sex women typically go along with having sex because it helped to ease tension that might otherwise arise between themselves and their partners, and/or because it was the quickest way to achieve their own desires, such as the desire to sleep.

These descriptions give us a general sense of what unjust sex involves. The question now is whether anything more can be said. Is there a philosophically richer analysis of unjust sex that explains why it is bad and why it is different from rape and sexual assault? Cahill has tried to answer that question in her work.

2. What makes sex unjust?
Rape* and unjust sex have some obvious similarities. They both lie on the negative end of sexual spectrum: they are, in other words, both ‘bad’ forms of sex. What justifies this joint designation? It cannot be the lack of consent. Although the absence of consent is usually taken to be hallmark of rape; it is not the hallmark of unjust sex. Cahill and Gavey are adamant about that. In cases of unjust sex, women do signal consent to sexual activity and, what’s more, take themselves to have signalled consent to sex. This is important because it suggests that consent — whatever its merits as a moral concept — does not automatically render sex morally commendable. This is something that Gardner is also keen to emphasise, as we shall see when we discuss his work.

So if it’s not the lack of consent that justifies the joint designation what does? The answer, according to Cahill, is the disregard for female sexual desire. In both rape and unjust sex, female sexual desire is weightless/powerless: its presence, or more importantly, its absence, makes no difference to whether the sexual interaction occurs or not. Rape adds to this a total disregard for female sexual agency.* In rape, the sexual interaction occurs against the will of the woman, not just against her desire. She experiences the total dismantling or disenabling of her sexual agency.

Unjust sex is different. In cases of unjust sex, female sexual agency is not dismantled. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of all the cases discussed by Gavey is that the women were usually explicitly or implicitly required to express their agency by signalling consent. The men with whom they had sex sought some input from them. Nevertheless, their agency was highly restricted. Cahill uses a nice metaphor to explain what happens. She suggests that in cases of unjust sex female sexual agency is ‘hijacked’. The men (or, more broadly, the patriarchal structures within which the sexual interaction takes place) hijack the woman’s agency and look for it to be expressed in a particular way: to accredit the sex and, if necessary, use this against the woman at a later point. Cahill puts it like this:

…the woman’s agency can be deployed only to facilitate the specific sexual interaction whose content (that is, the particular acts that will make up the interaction) is predetermined and remains largely unmarked by the specific quality of the woman’s sexual subjectivity. Her sexual agency is employed in a weak way, as a mere accreditation of the sexual interaction that is being offered to her. 
(Cahill 2016, 755)

How does this hijacking take place? What happens is that it is clear to the woman in the situation that there is only one valid way in which to express her agency, namely: to affirm the proposed sexual interaction. If she refuses or suggests an alternative, her response will be questioned and challenged, and she will be perceived as being difficult or obtuse. At this point actual coercion may be used to force her into the sexual activity, moving us from unjust sex to rape. This hijacking has an insidious effect on female sexual agency. Because there is no obvious dismantling or overpowering agency — as there is in cases of rape — female sexual agency does appear to make a causal difference to the sexual activity. But the difference it makes is minimal and so it’s true limitations are hidden.

3. Conclusions and Implications
That brings us to the end of part one. I have gone through Cahill analysis of unjust sex in some detail both because I think it is interesting and because it points in a very similar direction to Gardner’s analysis in ‘The Opposite of Rape’. I’ll explain why in part two, but to set up that discussion let me mention two important propositions that I think it is possible to draw out of Cahill’s analysis (even if she does not explicitly endorse them herself):

Proposition 1: There is more to ‘bad’ (i.e. morally unwelcome) forms of sex than rape and sexual assault; or, to put it a different way, the mere presence of sexual consent is not enough to make a sexual interaction morally commendable.

Proposition 2: Because of this, an excessive focus on consent in discussions of sexual ethics can be misleading, and possibly unhelpful, because it does not move the needle sufficiently toward a normative ideal of male-female sexual relations.

What I will argue in part two is that Gardner’s analysis leads him to endorse the same propositions, albeit from a different direction. Instead of starting with ‘unjust’ forms of sex he starts with ideal forms.

* Note: I’m just going to refer to ‘rape’ from here on out, rather than ‘rape and sexual assault’. This is not because I don’t appreciate the distinction between the two things, but simply for convenience since they can be lumped together for the purposes of this discussion.

Cahill, like other feminist scholars, uses the term ‘agency’ in contradistinction to the term ‘autonomy’. This is because ‘autonomy’, to her, connotes an atomistic individual acting apart from social institutions and relations; ‘agency’ is supposed to correct for this and refers to the powers and capacities that we have as a function of our interaction with social institutions and relations. There is a rich literature on this distinction though it should be noted that modern theories of autonomy (e.g. the theory of ‘relational autonomy’) are not that different from feminist theories of agency. A classic paper on the topic is Kathryn Abrams ‘From autonomy to agency: feminist perspectives on self-direction’.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Should we care about inequality? A Critical Analysis of Pinker's Optimism

There is a spectre haunting the developed world — the spectre of inequality. In the wake of Thomas Piketty’s surprising bestseller Capital in the 21st Century and the disruptive presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016, a consensus seems to have emerged: developed economies are growing more unequal. We went through a golden era in the middle part of the 20th century: economic growth and equality went hand in hand. The rising tide lifted all boats. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, things changed. From 1980 onwards, growth and equality diverged. Disproportionate shares of income went to the top. Today, the incomes of the top 0.1% are incomprehensible. In 2015, the richest 62 people in the world owned more than the bottom 3.5 billion. In 2017, the richest man in the world shattered the glass ceiling of $100 billion in personal wealth.

The rise in inequality is generally assumed to be a bad thing. Its effects have been felt most sharply among the middle classes, particularly in the USA. They have lost their steady, well-paying, jobs-for-life. China and automation have seen to that. They are struggling with debt and drug addiction. They feel shut out from politics and political processes. The wealthy buy their way to power and influence. They lobby hard for tax reforms that benefit them the most. The result is an increasingly polarised and violent polity. It’s hard to see any chink of light in this world.

Unless you are Steven Pinker. In his recent book Enlightenment Now, Pinker casts doubt on the emerging consensus about inequality. He doesn’t deny the increase, but he calls for greater perspective and critical awareness about what it all means. In doing so, he offers two main objections to the emerging consensus: (i) a philosophical objection, which argues that the social/ethical significance of inequality has been overstated; and (ii) a measurement objection, which argues that the statistics that are bandied about in the debate can be misunderstood.

In this post, I want to examine both of these objections. I do so in a spirit of self-education and constructive criticism. I’m one of the people who has bought into the emerging consensus. Some of what Pinker says seems quite plausible to me; some less but so. I want to determine which parts of his critique have merit and which do not. That said, I have no desire to engage in the popular sport of Pinker-bashing. Several critical reviews of Pinker’s book have emerged in the past couple of weeks and I’ve been relatively unimpressed by the majority of them. For some odd reason, they all want to challenge Pinker’s interpretation of the Enlightenment and criticise his failure to engage more seriously with Enlightenment thinkers. This seems odd to me since Pinker clearly wasn’t trying to write an intellectual history. His book is about contemporary trends in human society. But, then, perhaps Pinker is a victim of his title. If he called his book ‘Optimism Now’ it might have been more accurate and he could have sidestepped some of this ire (though, no doubt, he would have attracted other kinds). Anyway, these issues are peripheral to this post. I’m not trying to offer an overall evaluation of his book. I just want to focus on the chapter about inequality.

[Interpretive Note: Throughout this post, when I refer to ‘inequality’ or ‘equality’ I am, unless I explicitly state otherwise, referring to inequality in outcomes, specifically the distribution of income, wealth or other material goods. I am not referring to inequality of opportunity or inequality of legal protection/rights etc.]

1. The Philosophical Objection: Inequality is not intrinsically bad
Is inequality a bad thing? That depends on what you mean by ‘bad’. Philosophers distinguish between two different senses in which something can be bad. Something can be intrinsically bad, i.e. bad in and of itself. Or something can be instrumentally bad, i.e. bad because of its consequences or effects. If the emerging consensus view is that inequality is a bad thing, in what sense is it bad?

Pinker’s primary philosophical objection to all the fretting that we do about inequality is that it fails to put the badness of inequality in its right place. Inequality might be instrumentally bad. It might, for example, have a negative impact on democratic politics. But it is not, according to Pinker, intrinsically bad, nor is its counterpart (equality) intrinsically good. This is a common enough philosophical view. Michael Huemer and Harry Frankfurt, to name but two philosophers, have defended it. Their thesis can be easily conveyed through a thought experiment (this is my invention not theirs). Imagine the following two scenarios and then ask yourself which is better:

Scenario 1: Yourself and two other people are stranded on a desert island. None of you have any resources when you arrive on the island. There is no food or shelter available and the island is exposed to repeated hurricanes.

Scenario 2: Yourself and two other people wash up on an island owned by a billionaire businessman. He welcomes you with open arms and allows you to live there. Everyone is given shelter and as much food as they desire, but the businessman prefers you to the others. He allows you to live in his main residence and to play with all his cool toys; he asks the others to live in smaller guest residences and stay away from the main house.

Scenario 1 exhibits perfect equality; scenario 2 exhibits considerable inequality. Nevertheless, few people would prefer Scenario 1 to Scenario 2. Why not? The answer is obvious: the equality in scenario 1 comes with a hefty price: it is equality of immiseration only. The argument made by Frankfurt and Huemer is that comparing these kinds of scenarios demonstrates that equality itself is not intrinsically valuable. What really matters is individual well-being. It’s important that people are given enough to survive and thrive, not that they are made perfectly equal. This is a position known as sufficientarianism. It is opposed to egalitarianism and it is Pinker’s philosophical starting point. I try to illustrate its logic in the diagrams below. The ‘sufficiency threshold’ in these diagrams is supposed to illustrate what is intrinsically valuable. The ‘bars’ indicating the distribution of wealth around that sufficiency threshold represent how equal or unequal the scenario is. The claim is that this lacks intrinsic value.

I would like to resist this critique. I would like to argue that equality is an intrinsic good, but it is not the only intrinsic good and that it can be overridden by others. Welfare and well-being are intrinsic goods that must be weighed against equality, and in certain circumstances they count for more. In a society in which everyone is below the sufficiency threshold, the most important thing to do is to bring everyone above it. But once that is achieved, the intrinsic value of equality might become more apparent and significant. For example, contrast Scenario 2 (above) with the following:

Scenario 3: Same as scenario 2 but when you arrive on the tropical island the billionaire decides to give everyone an equal share of his wealth and equal access to his resources.

I think most people would agree that scenario 3 is superior to scenario 2, and one possible explanation for this is that the intrinsic value of equality does matter above the sufficiency threshold. The problem with this is that there are other possible explanations for the superiority of scenario 3 over scenario 2. It could be that equalising wealth has the effect of increasing the overall level of utility or life satisfaction in the relevant world. But I tend to think you could run another version of the thought experiment in which the overall level of utility (above the sufficiency threshold) is kept constant but the distribution of utility is equalised. I think that world would still be better than one in which there is an unequal distribution of utility. This would again suggest that equality has intrinsic value, at least above a threshold of well-being. I’ve tried to illustrate this point in the diagram below, suggesting that we must compare the overall merits of a social arrangement along two dimensions: (i) the welfare dimension and (ii) the equality dimension, and that society A is preferable to B, even if B is preferable to C and D.

All of this may be academic, however, because I think Pinker’s larger point is that we do not live in a world in which everyone is above the sufficiency threshold, even though things are getting better, and so bringing people above that threshold should be our priority for the time being.

There are other ways to defend the intrinsic value of equality. Some people defend the intrinsic value of equality on the grounds that being treated equally is important in order to respect the agency/capacity of the individual. Shlomi Segall, for example, has argued that inequality in outcomes is intrinsically bad whenever it results from forces beyond the individual’s control. This implies that inequality might be tolerable when it results from forces within the individual’s control. What matters is that individual effort and responsibility determine one’s share in the social surplus. When this is not the case, inequality of outcomes is intrinsically bad.

Pinker has a response to this, although he does not flag it as such. He argues that this kind of critique results from a conflation of concepts. Specifically, he thinks people who make it are confusing inequality with theft or unfairness. Just because one person is richer than another does not mean that the former stole from the latter. Pinker uses the example of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, to make this point. She made a lot of money from those books, but she didn’t steal from anyone in the process, and the people who bought her books enjoyed them (or, at least, the majority did). She certainly gained a lot, but they all gained something too. It was a positive sum game in which more of the surplus flowed to her than to the individual readers. But there was no theft or underhand tactics involved. To bolster this point, Pinker cites experimental studies suggesting that people are content with unequal distributions of this sort, if they result from people getting what they deserve. If those who put in more effort get more in return, people seem to be happy with this.

I agree with Pinker that it is important to keep inequality conceptually distinct from theft and fairness. But it would be foolish to deny that they are often connected and that on at least some occasions inequality does result from theft or unfairness. Indeed, I take this to be one of the key arguments against current manifestations of inequality in the Western world. As Piketty points out in his discussion of income inequality, it is difficult to explain the high incomes of the CEOs of large corporations in meritocratic terms. It is highly improbable that they deserve to take home 50 to 100 times the salary of their workers. They certainly don’t add that much extra value to the output of their firms (this is obvious when you consider that financial CEOs still earned huge sums during the worst of the financial crisis). It’s more likely that they are taking an unfair share of their firm’s profits. This seems to be borne out by other evidence. Andrew Weil, for example, in his excellent book The Fissured Workplace argues that the increased use of precarious, outsourced, platform labour by companies results in an unfair distribution of the benefits and burdens of economic productivity. It is something that makes life much worse for most workers (less pay, less benefits, less security) and much better for company managers and shareholders (who take a greater share of firm profits as a result). The one moderating effect is that it may also make things better for consumers by charging them cheaper prices. Pinker makes much of this moderating effect, which we’ll return to later.

Overall then, Pinker thinks that concerns about inequality need to be put in their place. Inequality is not intrinsically bad, nor is it to be conflated with theft and unfairness. You could have perfectly equal societies in which everyone suffers terribly; and highly unequal societies in which everyone thrives. We should prefer the latter to the former. This is because individual welfare and well-being are the true intrinsic goods and count for far more in our moral deliberations. I agree with the overall spirit of this, but I would argue (a) that inequality might still be an intrinsic bad, just one that only becomes significant when societies cross a threshold of well-being; and (b) that some of the inequality we currently see in developed economies is caused by theft/unfairness.

2. The Measurement Objection: Lies, Damned Lies
The second part of Pinker’s critique focuses on measures of inequality. He claims that they are often misunderstood and misread. To understand his point, it’s worth briefly describing the two main measures of inequality that are used in contemporary debates:

Gini Coefficient: This is a measure of the statistical dispersion of values in a frequency distribution. Though it can be used to measure different types of statistical dispersion it is most commonly used to measure the dispersion in the values of incomes earned across a society. The Gini Coefficient is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. A society that scores 0 on the Gini coefficient is one of perfect equality, i.e. everyone in the society earns the same; a society that scores 1 is one of perfect inequality, i.e. one person gets everything. Developed economies typically have Gini coefficients that range from about 0.25 to 0.50.

Income Shares: This is a measure of the proportion of total income earned by different income cohorts across a society. The cohorts occupy different deciles or centiles in the distribution of incomes. If you have paid attention to recent debates about inequality you will be familiar with this lingo. It’s where all the talk of the top 10% or 1% comes from. What those labels mean in practice is that the top 10% (top decile) are those whose incomes that fall within the top 10% of the range of incomes; and the top 1% (top centile) are those whose incomes fall within the top 1% of the range of incomes earned. These cohorts can take different overall shares of the total income earned in a society in a given year. For example, Piketty presents data in his book suggesting that the top 10% of the income distribution in Europe take about 35% of the total income, whereas in the USA they take 50% (circa 2010).

It is typically these two measures that are used to bolster claims about increasing inequality in developed countries, though there are some others too. Pinker doesn’t deny the figures used by Piketty and others to support the emerging consensus: they really do show an increase in inequality in developed countries. He does think, however, that people misunderstand the significance of the figures. As I read him, he offers five correctives to the consensus view:

(a) Relative measures vs Absolute measures: The inequality figures track relative differences between people within a society not absolute differences. This gets back to his main philosophical objection. He thinks that how people are doing relative to one another is less important than how people are doing individually (i.e. in terms of their personal level of well-being). He thinks that poverty — which is usually measured in absolute terms (*though some countries use relative measures) — is a far more important measure than inequality. This seems to have been going down over the past fifty years.

(b) Global Inequality vs Developed World Inequality: The inequality figures reported by the likes of Piketty offer a biased snapshot of the global situation. If you look at measures of inequality across all countries, you see that there has been a marked decline. The increase is only seen in developed economies. The diagram below, which is taken from Pinker’s book, illustrates this point. It shows the percentage gain in real income across the different percentiles of the global income distribution between 1988-2008. As you can see, most income cohorts gained substantially in that period. It is only those in developed countries, who are between the top 30% and top 10% of the global income distribution who did not gain substantially (though they did gain something). They are now, relatively, worse off than their peers, particularly those in the top 10% in plight is real and should not be ignored, but it should be kept in perspective.

(c) Anonymous vs Individualised Measures: The measures, particularly the income share measures, do not track particular individuals across their lifetimes but, rather, track abstract income cohorts in any given year. This is important because the data consequently don’t account for income mobility, i.e. the ability of people to move from one income cohort to another. Pinker cites a study showing that half of all Americans find themselves within the top 10% for at least one year in their lives, which might be taken to indicate that income mobility is not so bad.

(d) Measures sometimes overlook the effect of social transfers: Most developed economies operate reasonably generous welfare systems. This corrects for some of the inequality in earned income and means that the situation of those in the bottom end of the income distribution may not be as bad as is first thought. When trying to assess the overall level of inequality it is important to include the effect of social transfers. For example, Pinker cites a study indicating that the US Gini coefficient was a relatively high 0.51 in 2013 before taxes and transfers, but a more moderate 0.38 after taxes and transfers.

(e) Measures ignore the impact of abundance economics: Inequality measures do not account for the effects of technology and globalisation on the volume, availability and cost of goods and services. This is one of Pinker’s main points in the book. He argues that globalisation, by reducing the cost of goods and services, increases their affordability even for those on very low incomes. Furthermore, he argues that gains in technology mean that people have access to luxuries that were formerly not available. As he puts it “a dollar today, no matter how heroically adjusted for inflation, buys far more betterment of life than a dollar yesterday.” (2018, 117) The lifestyles of those on moderate incomes today would have been envied by aristocrats in a former era.

Each of these points has some merit. It is undoubtedly true that inequality statistics must be interpreted sensibly. The mere fact that inequality is increasing in developed nations does not mean that the world is going to hell in a handbasket; and there are subtleties in the data that are easily glossed over. But I also think that Pinker’s criticisms of the statistics have to be interpreted sensibly too. While points (a) and (b) seem relatively sound to me, my reading of the literature suggests that points (c) - (e) are less compelling. Inequality researchers are not idiots and they have tried to address these points. The picture that emerges from their attempts to do so, indicate that things are less rosy than Pinker lets on.

For example, recent studies on income mobility are not entirely encouraging. Admittedly, a lot of this depends on how you define mobility. Jonathan Hopkin makes this point in relation to a 2014 Harvard study on social mobility which suggested that mobility had not changed much in the US in the past 50 years. The problem with this is that the study focused on mobility between different income cohorts, not on changes in how much income was earned by those cohorts. So, for example, the study showed that those who were born into the bottom 20% of the income distribution had an 8-9% likelihood of joining the top 20% in their lifetimes (not an altogether encouraging stat, even on face value), and that this figure hadn’t changed much since the 1970s. But this ignored the fact that the gap between incomes at the top and bottom has grown in this period of time, meaning that the starting difference counts for more than it did in 1971. In other words, we should be more concerned about the relative lack/ease of mobility nowadays due to stratification. On top of this, a more recent study from Raj Chetty and his colleagues suggests that ‘absolute income mobility’ in the US — i.e. the percentage of children earning more than their parents — has dropped quite dramatically when you compare children born in the 1940s with those born in the 1980s (from 90% to 50%).

In a similar vein, recent studies on the effect of social transfers on inequality are not entirely encouraging. Gabriel Zucman, writing with Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, has just published a paper that tries to assess the impact of social transfers on income inequality. It finds that the overall effect is negligible, doing very little to offset the massive increase in income inequality between the bottom 50% and the top 10%. The paper argues that the bottom 50% did see a 21% increase in post-tax income between 1980 and 2014, but this increase was less than the increase in national income (and should be compared to a 205% increase in income to the top 1% during the same period). Furthermore, real incomes after tax actually stagnated because most of the transfers went to the elderly and middle classes, and came in the form of in-kind health spending or public goods spending.

Finally, although I am sympathetic to Pinker’s point about abundance economics, I think it too needs to be kept in perspective. There have undoubtedly been technological gains, and some things that have become cheaper and more abundant. But there are also some things that have massively increased in price. The obvious examples of this are healthcare, education, and housing. These increases are not insignificant. They are leading to the immiseration of younger generations who now graduate from college with increased levels of personal debt only to work in an economy that doesn’t provide jobs with the same kinds of health benefits that their parents enjoyed and doesn’t pay enough for them to be able to afford housing in the urban centres in which they are employed.

In sum, Pinker is right to urge caution with respect to inequality statistics. You need to know what they actually tell you to keep the information in perspective. Nevertheless, even if you take his observations onboard, I think there are reasons to think that the picture is less rosy than he claims.

4. Conclusion
According to the emerging consensus, inequality is increasing in developed economies and this is a bad thing. In this post, I have considered Steven Pinker’s criticisms of that emerging consensus. Although Pinker does not dispute the rise of inequality, and accepts that it creates serious problems in some societies, he thinks those problems need to be kept in perspective. This is partly because inequality is not intrinsically bad and its presence does not mean that you live in an unfair society (the Philosophical Objection); and it is partly because inequality statistics can be misunderstand (the Measurement objection).

I have evaluated both objections in this post. Although I agree with parts of what Pinker has to say, I think there are reasons to believe that inequality is intrinsically bad, and that its badness becomes more significant when you achieve a certain level of societal well-being. Furthermore, I think his critique of inequality measurements is not entirely fair. Researchers have addressed some of the issues he raises and when they do the picture is not as positive as he claims.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Extended Mind, Ethical Parity and the Replaceability Criterion: A Critical Analysis

I was recently watching Netflix’s sci-fi series Altered Carbon. The basic premise of the show — which is based on a series of books by Richard Morgan — is that future humans develop a technology for uploading their minds to digital ‘stacks’. These stacks preserve the identity (“soul”) of the individual and can be transferred between different physical bodies, even after one of them has been ‘killed’. This has many social repercussions, one of which is that biological death — i.e. the destruction or fatal mutilation of the body — becomes a relatively trivial event. An inconvenience rather than a tragedy. As long as the stack is preserved, the individual can survive by being transplanted to another body.

The triviality of biological form is explored in many ways in the show. Violence is common. There are various clubs that allow people to destroy one another’s bodies for sport. There is also considerable inequality when it comes to access to new bodies. The wealthy can afford to clone their preferred body types and routinely transfer between them; the poor have to rely on social distribution schemes, often ending up in the bodies of condemned prisoners. Bodies in general have become commodities: things to be ogled, prodded, bought and sold. The show has been criticised for its gratuitous nudity — the male and female performers are frequently displayed partially or fully nude — but the showrunner has defended this, arguing that it is what you would expect in a world in which the body has become disposable. I think there is some truth to this. I think our attitude toward our bodies would be radically different if they were readily ‘fungible’ (i.e. capable of being replaced by an identical or ‘as good’ item).

What if the same were true of our minds? What if we could swap out parts of our minds as readily as we swap out the batteries in an old remote control? Destroying a part of someone’s mind is currently held to be a pretty serious moral offence. If I intentionally damaged the part of your brain that allowed you to remember faces, you’d hardly take it in your stride. But suppose that as soon as I destroyed the face-recognition part you could quickly replace it with another, functionally equivalent part? Would it be so bad then?

These are not purely speculative questions. Neuroscientists and neurotechnologists are hard at work at ‘brain prosthetics’ that could enable us to swap out brain systems. Furthermore, there are plenty of philosophers and cognitive scientists who claim that we already routinely do this with parts of our minds. They take a broad interpretation of what counts as a part of a ‘mind’, claiming that our ‘minds’ extend beyond the boundaries of our bodies, arguing they are distributed between our brains, our bodies, and our surrounding environments. Some of them argue that if we take this cognitive extension seriously, it leads us to an ‘ethical parity’ thesis (Levy 2007). This thesis holds that interferences with the non-neural parts of our minds carries just as much moral weight as interfering with a neural part. This has two possible consequences, depending on the context and the nature of the interference: (i) it could mean that we ought to take non-neural interferences more seriously than we currently do; or (ii) that we should be less worried about neural interferences than we currently are.

In this post, I want to look at some arguments for taking the ethical parity thesis seriously. I do so by investigating an article by Jan-Hendrik Heinrichs which is skeptical of strong claims to ethical parity. I agree with much of what Heinrichs has to say, but his argument rests a lot of weight on the ‘replaceability’ criterion that I alluded to above and I’m not sure that this is a good idea. I want to explain why in what follows.

1. Understanding the Case for Ethical Parity
The ethical parity thesis (EPP) was originally formulated by Neil Levy in his 2007 book Neuroethics. It came in two forms (2007, 67), both of which were premised on accepting that mental processes/systems are not confined to the brain:

Strong Parity: Since the mind extends into the external environment, alterations of external props used for thinking are (ceteris paribus) ethically on a par with alterations of the brain.

Weak Parity: Alterations of external props are (ceteris paribus) ethically on a par with alterations of the brain, to the precise extent to which our reasons for finding alterations of the brain problematic are transferable to alterations of the environment in which it is embedded.

The Strong EPP works from something called the ‘extended mind hypothesis’, which holds that mental states can be constituted by a combination of the brain and the environment in which it is embedded. To use a simple example, the mental act of ‘remembering to pick up the milk’ could, according to the extended mind hypothesis, be constituted by the combined activity of my eyes/brain decoding the visual information on the screen of my phone and the device itself displaying a reminder that I need to pick up the milk. The use of the word ‘constituted’ is important here. The extended mind hypothesis doesn’t merely claim that the mental state of remembering to pick up the milk is caused by or dependent upon my looking at the phone; it claims that it is emergent from and grounded in the combination of brain and smartphone. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and I have examined the hypothesis in detail in previous blogposts. Suffice to say, proponents of the hypothesis don’t allow just any external prop to form part of the mind; they have some criteria for determining whether an external prop really is part of the mind and not just something that plays a causal role in it. I’ll return to this below.

Heinrichs thinks there is a major problem with the Strong EPP. He says that the argument for it is flawed. If you look back at the formulation given above, you’ll see that it presents an enythymeme. It claims that because the mind is extended, external mental ‘realisers’ (to use the jargon common in this debate) carry the same moral weight as internal mental realisers. But that inference can only be drawn if you accept another, hidden premise, as follows:

  • (1) The mind extends into the external environment, i.e. external props contribute (in a constitutive way) to mental processes.

  • [Hidden premise: (2) All contributors to mental processes are on a par when it comes to their moral value]

  • (3) Therefore, alterations of external mental props that contribute to mental processes are ethically on a par with alterations of the brain.

The problem is that the hidden premise is not persuasive. Not all contributors to mental processes are morally equivalent. Some contributors could be redundant, trivial or easily replaceable and that seems like it could make a difference. I could destroy your smartphone, but you might have another one with the exact same information recorded in it. You might have suffered some short-term harm from the destruction but to claim that it is on a par with, say, destroying your hippocampus, and thereby preventing you from ever remembering where you recorded the information about buying the milk, would seem extreme. So parity cannot be assumed, even if we accept the extended mind hypothesis.

The Weak EPP corrects for this problem with the Strong EPP by making moral reasons part and parcel of the parity claim. Although not stated clearly, the Weak EPP effectively says that (because of mental extension) the reasons for finding interferences with internal mental parts problematic transfer over to external mental parts, and vice versa. Furthermore, the Weak EPP doesn’t require the extended mind hypothesis, which many find implausible. It can work from more modest distributed/embodied theories of cognition, which hold that both the body and its surrounding environment play a critical causal role in certain mental processes, even if they aren’t technically part of the mind. An example here might be the use of a pen and paper while solving a mathematical problem. While in use, the pen and paper are critical to the resolution of the puzzle, so much so that it makes sense to say that the cognitive process of solving the puzzle is not confined to the brain but is rather distributed between the brain and the two external props. This is true even if you don’t think the pen and paper are part of the mind. There is, in other words, an important dependency relation between the two such that if you find it problematic to disrupt someone’s internal, math-solving, brain-module while they were trying to solve a problem, you should also find it problematic to do the same thing to their pen and paper when they are mid-solution (And vice versa).

But even the Weak EPP has its problems. When exactly do the reasons transfer over? What reasons could we have for finding internal and external interferences in mental processes problematic? In short: when might some form of weak ethical parity arise?

2. Three Criteria for Parity: Original Value, Integration and Replaceability
Heinrich’s article focuses on three criteria that he thinks are relevant when considering whether there is ethical parity. I want to consider each in turn.

The first criterion focuses on the distinction between original value and derivative value. It’s easy to explain the distinction; harder to defend it. Go back to the pen and paper example from the previous section. You could argue that the pen and paper have no original/intrinsic value in this scenario. The value that they have is entirely derivative: it derives from the fact that they are currently playing an important part in your mathematical problem-solving process. If you had acted differently, they would have no value. For example, if you transferred to a different pen and paper because you made a critical error the first time round, the original pen and paper would have no value; or if tried to solve the problem in your head, they would never acquire any value. In other words, you, and all your constituent parts, have original/intrinsic value: the value of the external props and artifacts is entirely dependent on the uses to which you put them. Focusing on this distinction scuppers most claims to ethical parity. External props can never have quite the same moral weight as internal mental realisers because they will always lack original value.

Original Value Criterion: You and your constituent parts have original/intrinsic value but external props and artifacts have merely derivative value. Thus there will always be an important ethical distinction between what’s internal to you and what’s not.

The criterion is easy to explain because it has intuitive pull: we probably do think about ourselves (and what is a proper part of ourselves) in this way. But I think it is slightly more difficult to defend because it depends on a number of contested claims. The first contested claim concerns what actually counts as a proper part of ourselves. If we accept the extended mind hypothesis, then external props could count as proper parts of our selves and hence could have the same original value as internal parts (Heinrichs seems to accept this point). The second contested claim follows from this and concerns whether or not internal parts are always intrinsically valuable. If we cast a more critical eye over our internal parts, we might find that some of them do not really count as proper parts of our selves because they do not form some essential or integral element of who were are. In that case their destruction could be ethically trivial. For example, the destruction of one of my neurons is hardly an ethical tragedy: I can survive perfectly fine without it. This suggests, to me, that a single neuron lacks intrinsic value: it is not an essential part of who I am, even if it is internal to my body/brain. The third contested claim concerns whether or not all external props lack intrinsic value. I think this could be challenged. Some external props might have their own, independent value, e.g. aesthetic beauty. Admittedly, this is a tangential point in this debate, but it is worth bearing in mind.

The second criterion for assessing ethical parity is the degree of integration between the user and the external prop. Even though Heinrichs makes much of the original/derivative distinction he acknowledges that some external props could be so closely integrated with a person’s cognitive processes that their value, even though derivative, could be very high. Consider the surgeon who relies on robotic arms to help her complete a delicate operation; or the blind person who uses a cane to help them navigate. There is a high degree of integration between the external props and the user in both of these cases. If you broke down the robotic arms, or stole the cane, you would be doing something with a lot of moral disvalue. This is because the user depends so heavily on the prop that you would seriously disrupt their mental/cognitive processes by interfering with it.

Integration Criterion: When a user is highly integrated with an external prop it can have a high degree of moral value.

But how do you assess degrees of integration? Various sub-criteria have been proposed over the years. Richard Heersmink has argued that there are eight sub-criteria of integration, including (i) the amount information that flows between the user and prop; (ii) the reliability of that information; (iii) the durability of the prop; (iv) the degree of trust placed in the prop; (v) the procedural transparency of the prop; (vi) the informational transparency of the prop; (vii) the degree of individualisation/customisation of the prop and (viii) how much the prop transforms the capabilities of the user. All of these seem sensible, and I agree that the more integrated a user is with the external prop the higher the moral value attached to it. But as Heinrichs points out, Heersmink’s criteria work best when we are dealing with information technologies, and not with other kinds of external props (e.g. brain stimulation devices).

This leads Heinrichs to consider another criterion, one that he thinks is particularly important: the replaceability criterion. To explain how he thinks about it, I will quote directly from his article:

Replaceability Criterion: “Generally, an irreplaceable contributor to one and the same cognitive process is, ceteris paribus, more important [i.e. carries more value] than a replaceable one.: (Heinrichs 2017, 11)

Using this criterion, Heinrichs suggests that many internal parts are irreplaceable and so their destruction carries a lot of moral weight, whereas many external props are replaceable and so their destruction carries less weight. That said, he also accepts that some external props could be irreplaceable which means that destroying them would mean doing a serious wrong to an agent. However, he argues that such irreplaceability needs to be assessed over two different timescales. An external prop might be irreplaceable in the short-term — when mid-activity — but not in the long-term. Someone could steal a blind person’s cane while they are walking home, thereby doing significant harm to them with respect to the performance of that activity, but the cane could be easily replaced in the long-term. The question is whether this kind of long-term replaceability makes any moral difference? Intuitively, it seems like it might. Destroying something that is irreplaceable in both the short and long-term would seem to be much worse than destroying something that is replaceable in the long-term. Both are undoubtedly wrong, but they are not ethically on a par.

This brings us, at last, to the question posed in the introduction. If technology continues to advance, and if we develop more external props that allow us to easily replace parts of our brains and bodies — if, in some sense, the component parts of all mental processes are readily fungible — will that mean that there is something trivial about the destruction of the original biological parts? Here’s where the replaceability criterion starts to get into trouble. If you accept that the degree of replaceability makes a moral difference, you start slipping down a slope to a world in which many of our commonsense moral beliefs lose traction. The destruction of limbs and brain parts could be greeted with equanimity because they can be easily replaced. The counterintuitive nature of this world has led others to argue that the replaceability criterion should be deployed with some caution in this context. It clearly doesn’t capture everything we care about when it comes to understanding interpersonal wrongs: there are intrinsic wrongs/harms associated with destroying parts of someone’s body or mental processes that need to be taken very seriously, even if those parts are easily replaceable. Replaceability cannot erase all wrongdoing.

But this suggests to me that more needs to said about when replaceability really matters and when it doesn’t. It’s possible, after all, that our moral intuitions about right and wrong should not be trusted in a world of perfect technological fungibility. One suggestion I have is that the intrinsic/instrumental value distinction could play an important role in determining when replaceability really matters. Some things are intrinsically value: any replacement with a functional equivalent will fail to provide the same level of value. Consider a beloved family pet. You could replace it with another pet, but it wouldn’t be the same. Other things are instrumentally valuable: replacement with a functional equivalent would provide the same level of value. Consider a knife or fork that you use to eat your food. If one falls on the ground and is replaced by functional equivalent we don’t lament the loss of the original.

So I think the critical question, then, is whether the parts of our cognitive/mental processes (or biological systems) have some intrinsic value, such that any replacement would fail to provide the same level of value, or whether they are merely instrumentally valuable: they matter because they help to sustain us in certain activities and, ultimately, sustain our personal identities. I tend to favour the instrumental view, which would imply that nostalgia for our original biological parts is irrational in a future of perfect technological fungibility. This does not mean that there is nothing wrong with attacking someone and interfering with those parts. It just means that it might be less wrong than it is in our current predicament.

That might be a disturbing conclusion for some.