Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Does Life Have Meaning if the Self Does not Exist?

Does life have meaning? This is a question that troubles many of us, but we usually ask it from a first-person perspective: Does my life have meaning? Do I matter? What will people say about me when I’m gone? This is natural. Most of us live inside our own heads. We run the inner newsreel all the time, trying to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But what if you think the self is an illusion? What if you don’t believe there is a coherent narrative centre of gravity? In short, what if you embrace the Buddhist ‘No-Self’ doctrine? Must you then become a nihilist?

That’s the question that Baptiste Le Bihan poses in his excellent paper ‘The No-Self View and the Meaning of Life’. This paper is a detailed unpacking of what the Buddhist doctrine of ‘No-Self’ entails for meaning. The paper is complex at times, starting out with an extended discussion of metaphysics and the difference between eliminativism and reductionism. It then progresses into a discussion of meaning and nihilism. I want to examine and evaluate its main arguments. I’ll try to keep things relatively simple. This means I will skip over some of the metaphysical stage-setting and focus specifically on the sections that deal with the meaning of life.

At the outset, it’s worth noting (as Le Bihan does) that this analysis won’t consider whether or not the No-Self doctrine is true. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that. The focus here is on what follows if it is true.

1. Clarifying the No-Self Doctrine
I promised not to get into the metaphysical weeds, but a little bit of this is necessary. If we are going to assess the consequences of the No-Self doctrine, then we’d better have some sense of what that doctrine actually states. You might have a passing familiarity with it. You might know the basic idea: the ‘self’, as traditionally conceived, does not exist. But that’s not particularly helpful since the ‘self’ is not always well-defined. So let’s just introduce a conceptual distinction between the ‘self’ and the ‘person’. On this distinction, the self is the conscious experiencer. As you read this article, the self is the one doing the reading; the one watching the movie unfold. The person is something else. The person is the extended self — the bundle of dispositions, desires, memories and traits that define who you are. The two are often, and for valid reasons, discussed side by side but it is worth keeping them distinct when understanding the debate about the No-Self doctrine.

Let’s now introduce another conceptual distinction: the distinction between eliminativism and reductionism. Eliminativism is a metaphysical theory that is applied to specific facts (or objects/states of affairs). It is the view that these facts do not exist. If I was an eliminativist about chairs, for instance, I would argue that chairs don’t really exist. All that actually exists is a particular arrangement of atoms or particles that we happen to call a ‘chair’ through linguistic or social convention. But this linguistic convention has no reality outside of our practices. It does not carve nature at its joints. This is to be contrasted with reductionism, which is the view that specific facts really exist, but they can be reduced to other facts. If I were a reductionist about chairs, for instance, I would argue that chairs really exist (they are more than a mere linguistic convention) but their existence is reducible to facts about the arrangement of matter. The distinction here might seem subtle, but it is significant.

Applying this distinction to the present context, eliminativism about the self is the view that the self does not exist — at all. In other words, there is no single conscious experiencer; there is no one watching the movie inside your head. There is just a concatenation of conscious thoughts popping in and out of existence. The sense that all of these thoughts are being thought by one single thing is just an illusion, one that can be dispelled through philosophical reflection, scientific investigation, meditation and/or the use of psychedelics. This kind of self-eliminativism is the essence of the No-Self doctrine. Reductionism about the self would be different. It would entail that the self has some reality, but is reducible to facts about particular conscious experiences and events.

Does eliminativism about the self entail eliminativism about the person? Not necessarily. Many people who espouse views that are sympathetic to the No-Self doctrine maintain that there is some reality to the person. In fact, eliminating the self and reducing the person may be the most common view among contemporary Buddhist philosophers (Le Bihan cites some examples). They don’t think that the person has some independent metaphysical existence. They think that the fact that you are you is reducible to facts about your mental and psychological makeup. These facts are then grouped under a single common label (‘you’ and ‘me’) by convention, but these conventions are not completely unwarranted.

Interestingly, Le Bihan rejects this common view. He thinks if you are an eliminativist about the self you should also be an eliminativist about the person. I won’t go into his argument here — the gist of it is that if you are an eliminativist about some conventional truths then you should be one about all conventional truths — but this is the stance he takes and it may be important when it comes to assessing his claims about meaning.

2. Thinking about Meaning
Now that we are bit clearer about the No-Self doctrine we’ll need to get a bit clearer about the nature of meaning. Le Bihan has a long discussion of this in his article. He follows the framework for understanding different theories of meaning that has been set out by Thaddeus Metz in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.

The framework distinguishes between sources of meaning and conditions of meaning. If you are naturalist about meaning, then you think that meaning has to be sourced in facts and features of the natural world (i.e. the world in which we live and breathe, not some non-natural spiritual realm). If you are a supernaturalist about meaning, then you think that meaning has to be sourced in facts and features of some supernatural spiritual world (i.e. a world of spiritual beings and souls). Within naturalism, there are three main schools of thought concerning the conditions of meaning. There is the subjectivist school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you have the right kind of subjective experience and engagement with the world (e.g. you experience a lot of pleasure, satisfy your desires etc). There is the objectivist school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you make the right kinds of changes to the world around you (e.g. make the world a better place, discover some truth, create some work of art). And then, finally, there is the hybridist school of thought, which holds that some mix of subjective and objective conditions is required (e.g. you must be subjectively satisfied by making the right changes to the world around you). Within supernaturalism, there are also three main schools of thought. There is the ‘God-centred’ school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you satisfy some plan or condition that God (or many gods) has set out for you. There is the ‘soul-centred’ school of thought, which holds that life has meaning if you maintain the purity and integrity of your immortal soul (e.g. if your soul has everlasting existence). And then, finally, there is another hybridist school of thought that claims that a bit of both is required (e.g. the standard Christian view that meaning is to be found by believing in God and living/worshipping him, forever, in heaven).

I have tried to illustrate these different approaches to meaning in the image below.

There is, of course, another school of thought that has been left out: nihilism. This is the view that life has no meaning. This has been deliberately left out even though it may be intellectually respectable. Why so? Because the purpose of Le Bihan’s article is to figure out if the No Self doctrine leads to nihilism. To do this, he needs to consider the knock-on implications of the No Self doctrine for all the non-nihilistic schools of thought. This is the task for the remainder of this post. If at the end of that we end up endorsing nihilism, so be it. We have to at least entertain the possibility of non-nihilism before we do that.

3. The No-Self View and the Traditional Accounts of Meaning
Let’s start by considering the compatibility between the No-Self doctrine and supernaturalist accounts of meaning. The No-Self doctrine is obviously incompatible with soul-centred theories of meaning. This is because the No-Self doctrine denies the existence of a soul. A soul is some metaphysically unique and unitary self that exists apart from the physical world. If you believe in the existence of a soul then you are, by default, denying that the self can be reduced or eliminated. You are saying that the self is an irreducible and metaphysically fundamental entity. If there is no self, then there is no soul and hence no soul-centred meaning. It follows from this that there cannot be a hybridist theory of supernatural meaning that is compatible with the No-Self doctrine (since hybridist theories also presuppose the existence of a soul).

God-centred theories of meaning are different. The essence of a God-centred theory is that meaning exists outside of the human world and the human self. It is something injected into our reality by a supernatural being. Meaning is, consequently, not dependent on any facts about the self — at least not necessarily. If God has some plan for the universe, then that plan could apply to a world lacking metaphysically unified selves. Le Bihan admits, however, that most traditional monotheistic views seem to rest great weight on the idea of a personal God who makes humans in his image. The question then arises: if we are not persons/selves in a metaphysically unique and fundamental way, how can we be made in God’s image? To the extent that this ‘personalist’ view of God is essential to meaning, then there could be some tension between God-centred views and the No-Self doctrine. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you get away from the idea of personal God, then a God-centred theory of meaning could make room for the No-Self view.

What about naturalist theories of meaning? Le Bihan is a firm believer in the compatibility between these theories and the No-Self doctrine. If you are a naturalist subjectivist, for instance, you probably think that meaning derives from subjective satisfaction or fulfillment. There is no reason why there must be a single, unitary self experiencing these states in order for these conditions to be satisfied. A bundle of discrete, moment-to-moment experiences can involve satisfaction or fulfillment. The same is true if you are an objectivist. In that case, you’ll think that meaning comes from producing the right kinds of causal effects in the world (making things better etc.). The meaning is, consequently, derived from something other than the self. You don’t need to have (or be) a self to have meaning. It follows from this that hybridist naturalism is also compatible with the No-Self doctrine.

There is, however, an obvious objection to this reasoning. You could argue that all naturalist theories of meaning presuppose the existence of a self. Even if it is not explicitly stated, the assumption is that there must be someone (some single entity) who is experiencing the satisfaction/fulfillment or causing the changes in the world. Le Bihan acknowledges that this could be a feature of many traditional naturalist accounts of meaning. So it’s not that embracing the No-Self doctrine requires absolutely no changes to how we think about meaning. It’s just that it is possible to reinterpret the traditional theories so as to accommodate the No-Self doctrine. As he puts it:

Perhaps one will object that naturalists like [Susan] Wolf do require a subject to be actively engaged in pursuing objective value. However, we may understand the situation in the following way: proper parts of the collections of entities we falsely identify as selves, may collectively instantiate normative properties, and may collectively pursue objective value. The search for meaning is genuine here— but this is not the quest of someone. This is the quest of a plurality that perceives—or thinks of—itself falsely as a singularity.

That’s the general overview of Le Bihan’s take on meaning in a world without selves. Can anything more specific be said?

4. The No-Self View and Transcendence Accounts of Meaning
Yes it can. The most interesting part of Le Bihan’s article — at least to me — is his discussion of the compatibility between the No-Self doctrine and a particular subset of theories of meaning that we can call ‘transcendence theories’. The examples discussed in Le Bihan’s article are all naturalistic in nature, though one could imagine supernaturalist versions of them as well. These theories share a common intuition: that in order for life to have meaning we must transcend our natural limits, i.e. somehow get beyond ourselves. Both Robert Nozick and Thaddeus Metz have defended versions of this.

Nozick’s theory is (as is typical for Nozick) both insightful and idiosyncratic. He holds that value arises from integration. The more integrated you are within your own boundaries, the more intrinsically valuable your existence is. Meaning, by way of contrast, comes from forging a connection between what is inside the boundary and the external world. As he puts it:

The problem of meaning itself is raised by the presence of limits. Thus, typically, people worry about the meaning of their lives when they see their existence as limited, perhaps because death will end them and so mark their final limit. To give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life. 
(Nozick 1989, 166-67)

He then goes on to suggest that there are two ways to transcend our limits: (i) by connecting with external things that remain external to us and (ii) by connecting with external things and either bringing them within us or integrating ourselves into some larger identity. This might sound obscure and abstract, but when you think about it in practical terms it resonates with how many people conceive of meaning. You derive meaning by being involved in some project (strategy (i)) or group (strategy (ii)) that is bigger than yourself and to which you make some important contribution. Think about the scientist trying to solve the riddles of existence or the soldier nobly sacrificing herself for the good of the nation. They are finding meaning in a very Nozickian way. Nozick seems particularly keen on the second strategy, suggesting that meaning really comes from transcending your limits by connecting with a ‘larger organic unity’.

Metz’s transcendence theory is a little bit more relatable. He defines transcendence in relation to our animal nature. We each have an animal nature, a relic of our evolutionary past. We are subject to its instincts, drives and emotions. Metz suggests that meaning comes from transcending the limits of this animal nature and realising a more rational, intellectual ideal. Of course, we all do this to some extent anyway, but Metz argues that true self-transcendence requires going beyond the animal self to a greater degree than normal people do.

There is lot to engage with in relation to both views (what does transcendence really mean? what is an organic unity? what is the distinction between animal/rational? is defensible?). The question before us is whether either is compatible with the No-Self doctrine. Again, one might argue that they are not because both views presuppose a self whose existence can be transcended in some way. But, as before, there might be a way to reinterpret both theories so that they are consistent with the No-Self doctrine. The trick is to think in terms of transcending an apparent self rather than an actual self. If you do this, not only does the No-Self doctrine become consistent with the self-transcendence ideal, it may actually be a way of realising it in practice. In other words, recognising the illusion of selfhood might be a way to transcend our perceived limits. Le Bihan makes this point explicitly in relation to Nozick’s view:

Thus, far from being at odds with eliminativism, Nozick’s naturalist transcendence view inherits an interesting interpretation…: a life is meaningful, to quote him again, by its “connecting with external things that remain external, and connecting with things so as somehow to incorporate these things, either within ourselves or into an enlarged identity”, but also, through a third path, by dissolving the very organic unity we are supposed to be, namely, by consciously erasing our perception and conception of the limits between the alleged self and the external world.

Le Bihan goes on then to argue that this is consistent with the traditional Buddhist view of enlightenment, i.e. we overcome our innate, animalistic suffering by dissolving the illusion of the self.

5. Conclusion
In summary, our traditional conception of meaning can seem quite self-centred. We tend to care about meaning from a first person perspective, and tend to presuppose the existence of a coherent, unitary self when thinking about the topic. But if we scrutinise the traditional theories of meaning in a little more detail, we find that they are compatible with the non-existence of the self. Indeed, the only theory that is clearly inconsistent with the No-Self doctrine is the religious, soul-centred theory. Every other theory can be reinterpreted to accommodate the doctrine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Mill's Argument for Free Speech: A Guide

(Note to reader: These are lightly expanded notes for a class I once gave on freedom of speech. The notes are intended to explain the logic, structure and shortcomings of J.S. Mill’s defence of free speech. They are my take on the argument, not a definitive interpretation or analysis of Mill. Nevertheless, I hope they explicate the structure of Mill’s argument a bit better than some of the other online summaries. Suffice to say, all quotes in the following text come directly from Mill.)

The most famous defence of free speech in the Western philosophical canon is, undoubtedly, the argument from Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. In recent debates about freedom of expression on college campuses, it is amazing how frequently the opponents of campus speech codes, trigger warnings, no-platforming, de-platforming and other speech regulations reach for Mill’s essay. One of the most prominent recent examples of this is the publication of a lavish illustrated edition of Chapter 2 of On Liberty by the Heterodox Academy, an organisation dedicated to ensuring ‘viewpoint diversity’ on college campuses. So enamoured are they by Mill’s argument that they think it is important to make it accessible and attractive to a new generation.

What is it about Mill’s argument that appeals more than 150 years after it was first published? Well, Mill was undoubtedly a great writer, particularly in his more polemical essays (I could take or leave the Principles of Political Economy to be honest). On Liberty crackles with passion and verve. You can’t help but get swept up in Mill’s enthusiasm for liberty, and impatience with censors and oppressors, when you read it. What’s more, many of the issues and arguments raised still feel relevant today. For better or worse, modern liberal democracies live in the shadow of Mill’s reasoning. We still regularly debate issues around censorship, regulatory interference and the 'Nanny' state in terms that he first set down.

His argument for free speech is one of the best examples of this. The basic thrust of the argument is set out in a remarkably succinct form in the following passage:

..the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

Implied in this passage is the following general argument for freedom of speech:

  • (1) The truth (and a clear and lively impression thereof) is valuable; we ought to allow/enable people to arrive at true beliefs about the world.

  • (2) Freedom of speech enables/allows people to arrive at a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world (or, what is the same thing, the silencing or censorship of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and lively understanding of true beliefs about the world).

  • (3) Therefore, we ought to promote freedom of speech (and prevent the silencing or censorship of expression).

Most of Mill’s time and energy is dedicated to the defence of the second premise of this argument. On a surface reading, he seems to think that guaranteeing freedom of expression is a truth-and-understanding generating mechanism. Or, to adopt the modern idiom, he seems to think that if we allow the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to unfold without interference, the truth will out. Of course, it’s a little difficult for those of us standing here today — in the post-truth, post-Trump era — to get fully onboard with this. This might be one reason why modern commentators are quick to reject Mill’s argument but I think they are wrong to do so on this surface reading. It involves a partial distortion of Mill’s view. Mill is not a rosy-eyed optimist about the marketplace of ideas. His argument for free speech has something in common with the Churchillian defence of democracy: it’s the worst system for ensuring truth and understanding, bar all the others.

Let’s see how this works by going through the sub-arguments that Mill provides in support of premise (2) of the main argument. These arguments are essentially summarised in the quoted passage above, and depending on who you ask, there are either two or three of them. I think there are really two important sub-arguments, with a third one that is kind of a mish-mash of the first two. I’ll go through each in turn and then come back to consider some general problems with Mill’s reasoning.

1. Mill’s First Argument: ‘If the opinion is right…’
Mill’s first argument in favour of free speech (and against censorship) is very straightforward. It is this:

  • (4) If we censor an expression, and if that expression is true, then people are denied the opportunity to exchange truth for error.

This directly supports premise (2) of the main argument. It is so straightforward that surely no one could object? But, of course, they do. The defender of censorship can respond to this point and argue that we can trust censors to filter out the true expressions from the false ones. That way we can have censorship, without denying people access to the truth.

Mill scoffs at this because it presumes that the censor is infallible. He says we have ample evidence (and common sense) to suggest that people are not infallible and capable of weeding out the truth from the falsehood. There is no perfect censor. History teaches us this lesson. In past ages, opinions and ideas were suppressed that we now know to be true (or, at least, accept as true). As Mill puts it ‘ages are no more infallible than individuals’.

Mill goes even further. He argues that the only check against our own fallibility is to promote the free expression of ideas. In other words, he thinks that the only way we can have confidence in our opinions and judgments is by testing them in the fire of free expression. So censorship doesn’t merely assume an implausible infallibility it also undermines the only means we have at our disposal to overcome our fallibility:

The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded… This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it.

Mill also dismisses, rightly in my view, the claim made by some people that truth can triumph over persecution. There is no guarantee of this. As Mill puts it:

Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.

I think this quote, in particular, highlights the point I made earlier: that Mill is not naive about the prospects of truth winning out in the marketplace of ideas. He recognises the fact that people are fallible and sometimes biased against the truth. He just thinks that adopting a censorious approach is worse than allowing for the free exchange of ideas.

Let’s try to draw together the logical steps of this reasoning and put it into an argument diagram. Here’s my interpretation of it (all of these follow from and either support or contradict premise (4)):

  • (5) Objection to (4): Censorship does not necessarily undermine the pursuit of truth: we could trust the censor to filter out the untrue opinions and allow the true ones to get through.

  • (6) Reply to (5): This assumes an infallible censor: we have ample evidence from our own experiences and from history to suggest that censors are not, and cannot be trusted to be, infallible.

  • (7) Reply to (5): The only check against infallibility (and the only reason to feel confident in our grasp of the truth) is the testing of our opinions in the fire of free expression.

  • (8) Objection to (4): Even if we did censor the truth, the truth will eventually win out over the censorship.

  • (9) Reply to (9): There is no guarantee of this. We are not more zealous for the truth than for error and if the social penalty is sufficiently high the truth will be blocked.

2. Mill’s Second Argument: ‘If the opinion is false…’
Mill’s second argument is slightly more complex. He asks us to imagine, if only for the sake of argument, a society in which all received opinion is true. Hard though that may be, imagine further that someone enters into this society and starts asserting falsehoods that contradict these truths. Would it be okay to censor that person? You might say ‘yes’ because it doesn’t deny people access to the truth (ignoring, for now, Mill’s concerns about our ability to tell the difference between truth and falsity). But this is where Mill’s second sub-argument comes into play. Recall from the main argument that it is not just about knowing the truth; it is also about having a clear and lively understanding of the truth. This is something we can only gain by considering and debating the contrary point of view. Without this contest and debate our beliefs will have the character of ‘dead dogmas’ and not ‘living truths’:

  • (10) If we censor expressions that are false, then our beliefs will be ‘held as a dead dogma[s], not living truth[s]', i.e. we will not have a clear and lively understanding of the truth.

Again, this reason is supposed to support premise (2) of the main argument. For what it is worth, I find this to be a credible claim. There are certain things I believe to be true (e.g. the theory of evolution, the non-existence of God as traditionally conceived, and the moral permissibility of homosexuality) that I really only first appreciated by systematically engaging with contrary points of view.

You might, however, disagree. You might argue that we can get a perfectly good grasp of the truth by just looking at the arguments in favour of the truth. Take for example, the truth of the Pythagorean theorem. Surely we can understanding this truth just by considering its proof? We don’t need to entertain the opinions of radical anti-Pythagoreans. There is no fear of dead dogmas here. The proof itself is all we need.

Mill accepts this counter-argument, but responds by pointing out that it is only a very narrow range of truths that can be grasped in this way. Mathematical truths are possibly the only example (and this ignores the fact that some mathematical proofs work by contradiction). In almost all other cases, particularly cases involving moral and political truths, understanding and appreciation is only possible if we entertain and engage with the contrary point of view. As Mill puts it:

So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

You might object that this still doesn’t make the case for free expression. Maybe only some people need to have access to contrary opinions (e.g. professors, politicians and other elites). They can test ideas out, get a full and lively impression of the truth, and then they can tell the rest of us about it.

Call these people the ‘epistemic elite’. In some of his writings Mill was sympathetic to the idea of an epistemic elite, once going so far as to suggest that the votes of the educated be given extra weight in elections. For all his radicalism he was a man of his times, and, as we saw above, he was sceptical about the cognitive powers of the great mass of humanity. But he wasn’t a fan of limiting freedom of expression (and note there would still need to be some freedom of expression) to an epistemic elite.

He seems to have two reasons for this. The first is that he felt that everyone needed the ongoing mental exercise to appreciate the meaning and significance of the truth. -- that this was good for their own self-actualisation The second is that he felt the world would lose something by not allowing everyone to pursue the truth in a vigorous and unencumbered way (I’m blurring sections of Mill’s argument by quoting this next bit, but so be it):

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?… Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.

Finally, even if you accept this you might worry that Mill’s argument demands too much. He seems to be saying that we must constantly and continually renew our conception of the truth through engagement with gadflies and contrarians. Surely that would be exhausting? Yes, but this is what the vigorous pursuit of the truth requires.

Let’s now try draw together the logical steps of this chain of reasoning:

  • (11) Objection to (10): We can get a clear and lively understanding of the truth by considering the arguments for the truth by themselves (i.e. without considering contrary falsehoods)

  • (12) Reply to (11): This is only possible in a narrow range of cases; in the great majority of cases understanding is only possible by considering and engaging with the contrary point of view.

  • (13) Objection to (10): Even if we need to engage falsehoods to grasp the truth, this does not support free expression: an epistemic elite could be given the task of engaging the falsehoods on our behalf.

  • (14) Reply to (13): There would still need to be some freedom of expression for this elite.

  • (15) Reply to (13): We should not limit freedom of expression to an epistemic elite: everyone should be allowed to achieve the mental stature they are capable of; and we may be depriving the world of something by not encouraging promising intellects to vigorously pursue the truth.

3. Mill’s Third Argument: ‘If the opinion is partly true, partly false…'
The two preceding arguments constitute the backbone of Mill’s defence of free speech. However, Mill himself divides his argument into three parts. This is because the two preceding arguments presume the extreme — cases in which we are trying to suppress/censor an opinion that is wholly true or wholly false — and the reality is likely to be more nuanced. We are more likely to encounter opinions that are partly true and partly false. What should we do with them? Well, obviously we should allow for their free expression. The reason for doing so is a mish-mash of the two previous arguments: to do otherwise would deprive us of the partial truth and engaging with the partial lie will help with understanding.

I don’t think there is a distinctive argument here.

That said, in elaborating on this third possibility, Mill does more clearly reveal his pessimism about the ‘marketplace of ideas’. And this is where we get what I am calling the ‘Churchillian’ defence of free speech: it's the best of the worst. First, Mill accepts that free and open discussion may not lead to the truth but, rather, to a more partisan entrenchment of conflicting opinions:

I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest expression but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents.

This speaks to the present era just as much as it did to Mill’s. But then why favour free speech? Because the censorship of opinion would be even worse. Some people do benefit from listening into the partisan debates of the ideologues. They acquire a clearer and livelier impression of the truth. To suppress or censor opinion would deprive them of this benefit. In the overall balance, it is better to give them this than to try to avoid the evil of excessive partisanship:

… it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil. There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend to only to one that errors harden into prejudices.

In other words, freedom of speech is the lesser of two evils.

To summarise this chain of reasoning:

  • (16) Objection to (2): Allowing free expression of partial truths will simply lead to the polarisation and entrenchment of opinion.

  • (17) Reply to (16): This will only be true for certain ideologues and is the lesser of two evils: there is more hope and less chance of prejudice if people are forced to listen to both sides.

4. Some Final Critical Thoughts on Mill’s Argument
So that’s Mill’s argument. As you can see, it is a reasonably nuanced defence of the ideal of free speech. To reiterate what I have said already, I don’t see Mill as a rosy-eyed optimist. He doesn’t see free speech as a panacea for truth. He sees it as the least worst option. But even with that more nuanced understanding in place, there are many concerns one can have about the argument. I can’t list all of them, but here are a few of the more prominent criticisms.

First, one could question the value of truth. While I think most people would agree that truth has some value, I doubt they think it is the only thing of value. Individual welfare and well-being are also valuable, as is respect for people from diverse backgrounds. We may worry that prioritising the value of truth undermines these other values, on at least some occasions. Indeed, this perceived tension is, arguably, at the root of many contemporary debates about free speech. There is a fear that allowing any and every opinion to be expressed (even if true or partly true) has a negative impact on individual well-being and inclusiveness. Ironically, Mill himself grappled with this tension. He was a utilitarian and so did worry about whether truth was compatible with the principle of utility. He thought it was, but he may have been too quick to believe this.

Second, one could be generally sceptical about the existence of truth, at least in all domains of inquiry. Maybe there is no such thing as the truth in moral and political debates? Maybe there is only the endless back and forth of partisan opinion and what matters is how it makes you feel not whether it is true? If you believe this, you might be more open to censorship and Mill’s argument might hold no sway. I, myself, would reject this extreme form of scepticism. I’m more with Mill. I think there are some truths in moral and political life and that the only check we have against our own fallibility and prejudice is to engage with conflicting opinion.

Third, one could be concerned about the practical impossibility of Mill’s ideal. Some people interpret the ideal of free speech to entail ‘viewpoint neutrality’ when it comes to the regulation of speech, i.e. all views are to be treated equally and equally worthy of debate and consideration. But it’s not possible to be completely viewpoint neutral. As a society we are always, implicitly or explicitly, censoring some views. We decide that certain ideas and certain people are worth engaging with and others are not. The decision to invite one person to speak at an event is the decision to exclude another. The decision to include some topics on a course curriculum is the decision not to include others. And so on. We cannot stop this indirect censorship from taking place. At best, following Mill, we can try to check ourselves against narrow-mindedness.

Fourth, you might worry that even if we agree with Mill on the value of free speech, there is some need for (relatively) content-neutral rules to ensure that speech has its beneficial effects. If you organise a debate, and everyone just shouts over one another so that no opinion gets heard or properly evaluated, then it is hard to see how that is in keeping with the Millian ideal. And, of course, this is the big problem with speech in the modern era, particularly algorithmically regulated speech that we see online and in the media. As Brian Leiter points out in his essay ‘The Case Against Free Speech’, we tolerate procedural rules on what gets said and when in many domains of life (e.g. legal trials) and they clearly have some benefit. Why couldn’t they have benefit elsewhere? I have to say, I am a big fan of the idea of (relatively) content-neutral rules — I say ‘relatively’ because nothing is perfectly neutral — governing freedom of expression. But this idea runs into an obvious obstacle: who (or what) do you trust to be the speech-referee? We trust judges in legal trials, but then subject them to scrutiny and review. Could we do something similar in the public sphere or would it just slide into unwelcome forms of censorship? (Obviously, this ignores the fact that we do have many implicit speech referees in society already)

Fifth, and finally, it’s worth noting that Mill was not a ‘free speech absolutist’ and, indeed, that the notion of free speech absolutism does not make much sense. Mill thought that speech that directly incited violence to others should be prevented. And many other self-labelled ’absolutists’ accept similar restrictions. They argue that fraudulent speech or speech that amounts to common assault (i.e. causes fear of physical violence) should be subject to some legal restriction (as they have been for centuries). But once you allow for this you start to realise that the borders between permissible and impermissible forms of speech are highly contested. What counts as speech amounting to assault or fraud? What kinds of speech cause real harm? People have different opinions and different experiences. Perhaps that's the real argument for free speech: to allow people to air their different opinions about the value of free speech.

Okay, so that’s it. That’s all I have to say about Mill’s argument for free speech. Hopefully this clarified things for some people.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Am I a Hypocrite? A Philosophical Self-Assessment

I was recently called a hypocrite. I was talking to a friend and, as is my wont, I was complaining about another person who failed to respond to an email I had sent them a few days previously. My friend pointed out that I was in no position to make this complaint: I am a notorious non-responder to emails. I frequently procrastinate and dilly-dally in my correspondence with others. I often wait until the last possible minute to reply, or until I have received several follow-ups begging me for a response.

The accusation stung but my friend had a point. My complaint was pretty rich when you consider my own behaviour. But my instant reaction was not to accept what they had said but, rather, to make excuses. I argued that my friend didn’t understand why I was so bad at responding to emails. It wasn’t a moral failing, I told them, it was an illness. I have a chronic fear of making decisions (which is often required in responding to emails). I always worry that I will do or say the wrong thing. So I like to postpone making them for as long as possible. I get trapped in spirals of anxiety that can only be disrupted by last minute panic or repeated entreaties from others. I told them they should pity me, not condemn me.

It all sounds silly now. And although this particular accusation of hypocrisy wasn’t that serious, it did urge me to reflect on others ways in which I may be hypocritical. It’s something I was thinking about anyway, particularly in the aftermath of my sister’s death. As I noted in my previous writings about grief, I felt a lot of guilt after she died. I wasn’t the perfect brother by any stretch of the imagination. I frequently ignored her when she tried to make contact with me. And I didn’t appreciate (or tell her that I appreciated) all the generous things she did for me over the years. Her death eliminated any possibility of righting those past wrongs to her, but I did resolve to try to change my behaviour toward my surviving friends and family. I told myself I would be more appreciative of the time that I have left with them; that I wouldn’t be so quick to ignore them or procrastinate in my responses to them; that I would be less selfish and self-centred.

Several months later and, I regret to say, nothing has changed. I still think I should be more appreciative and communicative, but (deep down) I prefer to do my own thing and to pursue my own goals. Some people might argue that I am just being weak-willed, i.e. that I am failing to live up to my ideals due to short-term temptations or bad habits. But I think it is different. I think I might be deeply hypocritical about my personal values.

All of which has driven me to read the philosophical literature on hypocrisy in order to figure out how serious a moral failing it is, to determine whether I am in fact a hypocrite, and to figure out what I should do about it. I want to share some of my findings over the remainder of this post. I’ll start with the common view of hypocrisy as a moral failing and then work towards a more sympathetic view of hypocrisy as self-deception. I’ll conclude with a discussion of moral integrity. I’ll be peppering all of this with repeated self-assessments. You may find this nauseatingly self-indulgent, but I hope it resonates for some people.

1. The Common View: Hypocrisy is a Moral Failing
The common view among philosophers is that hypocrisy is a moral failing. Indeed, it is often viewed as one of the worst moral failings. Why is this? Christine McKinnon’s article ‘Hypocrisy, with a Note on Integrity’ provides a good, clear defence of this view. The article itself is a classic exercise in analytical philosophical psychology. It tries to clarify the structure of hypocrisy and explain why we should take it so seriously. It does so by arguing that there are certain behaviours, desires and dispositions that are the hallmark of the hypocrite and that these behaviours, desires and dispositions undermine our system of social norms.

McKinnon makes this case by considering some paradigmatic instances of hypocrisy, and identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions that allow us to label these as instances of hypocrisy. My opening example of my email behaviour probably fits this paradigmatic mode — despite my protestations to the contrary. A better example, however, might be religious hypocrisy. There have been many well-documented historical cases of this, but let’s not focus on these. Let’s instead imagine a case that closely parallels these historical examples. Suppose there is a devout fundamentalist Christian preacher. He regularly preaches about the evils of homosexuality and secularism and professes to be heterosexual and devout. He calls upon parents to disown their homosexual children or to subject them to ‘conversion therapy’. Then, one day, this preacher is discovered to himself be a homosexual. Not just that, it turns out he has a long-term male partner that he has kept hidden from the public for over 20 years, and that they were recently married in a non-religious humanist ceremony.

I think most people would call this preacher a hypocrite. But what is it about the preacher’s behaviour that warrants this label? Well, one obvious feature is his deception: he has been living a lie. He has professed and preached one kind of behaviour, but lived and done the opposite. The mismatch between his professions and actions seems to be one of the hallmarks of hypocrisy.

But it’s not just that. Deception, as McKinnon points out, might be a necessary condition for hypocrisy, but it’s not sufficient. People lie and dissemble all the time, but we don’t call them hypocrites for doing so. There needs to be something else. That something else is a complex intention or desire to use the deception to gain some moral advantage or reputation within a particular community. Again, look to what the preacher is doing. He isn’t just living a lie. He is actively preaching the contrary in order to attain the respect and status of the community of devout Christians in which he operates. He knows that they see him as an authority figure and will respond positively to his message. He uses this to his advantage. The complex intention consists in both an awareness of the community’s moral standards and how to manipulate them to one’s own advantage.

Putting this all together, McKinnon’s account of hypocrisy appears to be the following:

Hypocrite = A person who is dishonest about his/her true motives/intentions/behaviours in order to be perceived in a more favourable light by their moral community, where:
(a) The person knows that their motives (etc) are being judged;
(b) The person knows that they are manipulating the judgments of their audience.

On this account, it’s easy to see why hypocrisy is taken to be such a serious moral failing. The hypocrite, according to McKinnon, is not simply being inconsistent in their behaviour, they are subverting the system of social morality. Since social morality relies, to a large extent, on the good faith of all participants, hypocrites are a major problem because of their bad faith. They are not committed to genuine moral improvement or conformity. They are free riders on the system of social morality. In this sense, they are very different from the person of integrity (about whom there will be more discussion below). The person of integrity acts in good faith and tries to ensure coherence between their motives and actions. They may get it wrong, but at least they do not subvert the presumption of good faith by their efforts.

McKinnon is at pains to distinguish hypocrisy from other, closely-related phenomena. She says that hypocrisy is distinct from politeness. It may be possible to confuse the two. If you are at a dinner party and the host asks you whether or not you liked the meal, you might say that ‘it was lovely’ even though you thought it tasted like something scraped off the bottom of a well-worn shoe. The difference is that politeness is motivated by respect for the other person. You are trying to protect their feelings, not gain an advantage over them. That said, the distinction can be subtle and sometimes you may wonder whether what seems initially like politeness is, in fact, hypocrisy. You may even wonder this about your own behaviour.

In a similar vein, McKinnon argues that hypocrisy is not the same as self-deception (i.e. some compartmentalisation or sincere belief that one is consistent in one’s motives and behaviours). Indeed, she argues that the true or ‘professional’ hypocrite operates in the complete absence of self-deception: they know what their true motives are at all times. Still, she acknowledges that there might be a tendency for someone who starts out as a pure hypocrite to gradually descend into self-deception, but she thinks it is important to keep hypocrisy and self-deception conceptually distinct. More on this in a moment.

Finally, McKinnon also argues that hypocrisy may, on some occasions, be morally permissible. If the hypocrite is someone who manipulates social perceptions to gain an advantage within a given moral community, the morality of their behaviour must be judged relative to the standards of that community. If the community’s standards are themselves immoral, and if there is great risk to the individual if they don’t manipulate other people’s judgments of them (or if they can do more good by manipulating those judgments), then it is possible that their hypocrisy is permissible. Still, McKinnon is cautious about this assessment, and suggests that such people might be viewed as cowards for their hypocrisy. It would then depend on the particular case whether that cowardliness was morally blameworthy (she gives the example of someone living in Nazi Germany who goes along to get along).

2. The Sympathetic View: Hypocrisy as Self-Deception
McKinnon’s view is attractive and conceptually pure. The problem with it is that it is almost too harsh on the hypocrite. For her, a hypocrite is like a cartoon villain, a uniquely self-centred and manipulative abuser of social norms. We might wonder whether any such villains exist in the real world.

If I were to assess my own behaviour and attitudes using her framework, I would be very reluctant to call myself a hypocrite. I don’t think I am self-consciously and deceptively manipulating other people’s judgments through what I say or do. Maybe there is a little bit of that going on. You could argue that writing a blog post like this (or the series that I wrote shortly after my sister died) is a kind of virtue signalling. You could argue that in writing I am trying to make out that I am a better person than I really am. I’m playing the part of someone who publicly self-flagellates themselves in order to convince you of my moral seriousness when, behind the scenes, I’m pretty self-centred and unrepentant. But it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. It feels like a genuine inner torment — a war between different values — one that I resolve and rationalise in a way that makes me feel comfortable (and involves the least change).

In other words, what I refer to as my own hypocrisy seems to involve a good deal of self-deception and self-manipulation, not (just) the manipulation of others. That’s why I was relieved to read Michael Statman’s article on ‘Hypocrisy and Self-Deception’. Statman wants to get away from the idea of the hypocrite as moral cartoon character. Real people are way more interesting than that. As he sees it, the morally vicious form of hypocrisy that is the focus of McKinnon’s ire tends to overlap with and blur into self-deception much more frequently than she allows. The two things are not strongly dichotomous. Indeed, people can slide back and forth between them with relative ease: the self-deceived can slide into hypocrisy and the hypocrite can slide into self-deception.

Although I am attracted to this view, Statman points out that it is a tough sell. On face value, hypocrisy and self-deception look to be very different. Consider some of the obvious differences: hypocrisy involves deception of others, whereas self-deception involves deception of the self; hypocrisy requires an audience and social context, whereas self-deception can happen in private; hypocrisy is voluntary whereas self deception is involuntary; and so on. The image below outlines further discrepancies between the two phenomena. When you consider them all, you’d be hard pressed to say that hypocrisy and self-deception are similar. They seem more like direct contradictions (or complements) to one another.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, you get a different impression. Self-deception is more like hypocrisy than we initially think. For starters, self-deception is partly voluntary, or at least sustained by voluntary acts. To be self-deceived over the long term requires the avoidance or suppression of evidence that contradicts the narrative you tell yourself. In my case, I like to think that I am a generous person, who respects and values my family and friends, but to sustain that self image I have to overlook my tendency to ignore phone calls and emails from those people, and to spend most of my time by myself doing what I most prefer. Furthermore, self-deception is also partly social. Other people support you in your self-interpretation or give you a free pass on the behaviour that contradicts that interpretation. I know this happens to me all the time: people forgive me for my self-centred conduct and tell me that I’m more generous than I know myself to be. All this makes the slide from self-deception to outright hypocrisy much easier than it seems.

Similarly, hypocrisy is much more like self-deception than we initially think. It’s very hard to consistently maintain the pretence demanded by outright hypocrisy. It’s much easier if we believe our own lies. If I want others to think of me as a generous, family-focused guy, and I want the reputation that entails, it’s much easier if I genuinely believe that to be true. It reduces the cognitive dissonance and enables better self-regulation. We can compartmentalise and sincerely believe the signals we send to others. Statman cites some empirical evidence for this, describing several psychological experiments which support the notion that liars tend to believe their own lies (and do better as a result).

You might accept all this and still insist that hypocrisy and self-deception are conceptually distinct. In other words, you might accept that self-deception can morph into hypocrisy and vice versa, but they are still very different things and it is important to maintain the conceptual barrier. Against this, Statman argues that maintaining the barrier wouldn’t be true to real life or to how we deploy the concept of hypocrisy in everyday speech.

As you might imagine, I am quite sympathetic to Statman’s account, partly because it allows me to interpret my own behaviour in a more sympathetic light. Maybe I am not the villain that others make me out to be? Maybe I am a victim of my own self-deception? Maybe I live most of my life in a delusory state, deceiving myself and others, but then occasionally chance upon windows of awareness where I realise what I am doing. My conversation with my friend about the emails, or my self-reflection about whether I have reformed my character after my sister’s death being two obvious examples of this. I guess the question then becomes: what do I do with those moments of self-awareness?

3. The Resolution: Pursuing Integrity
Up to this point, I have been trying to diagnose and classify my personal failings. Am I a hypocrite or self-deceived? Am I a villain or victim? The upshot of the preceding analysis is that I could be a bit of both. In a sense though, it doesn’t matter. At root, the problem is the same: there is an inconsistency in both my behaviour and my values (professed or otherwise), and this inconsistency is more than a simple case of being weak-willed. The challenge is to resolve this inconsistency.

How might this be done? The ideal of integrity points the way. I briefly alluded to this earlier on when discussing McKinnon’s view. I noted that she sees integrity as the direct opposite of hypocrisy. The person of integrity does not live the double life of the hypocrite. They try to achieve balance and harmony across all domains of their lives. And while it may not be possible for us to achieve perfect integrity, it is at least an ideal toward which we should aspire.

That is certainly what Alfred Archer argues in his article ‘Integrity and the Value of an Integrated Self’. The article serves a dual function. The first is to explain the practical nature of integrity; the second is to make the case for integrity as an ideal. The analysis is rich and rewarding. If you have the time, I recommend reading it. I’ll just summarise the gist of it for now.

Archer’s explication of integrity contrasts the ‘Integrated Self’ with the ‘Fragmented Self’. The integrated self has coherence and wholeness to its ‘projects, ambitions, values, emotions and desires’. It does not experience a conflict between self-interest and moral value. Furthermore, the integrated self’s personal ambitions are either aligned with, or not in tension with, one another. This doesn’t mean that the integrated self is narrow-minded and only interested in one thing, but it does mean that there is harmony among its different pursuits. This is to be contrasted with the experiences of the fragmented self, who pursues incompatible projects, engages in compartmentalisation between different domains of life, and succumbs to hypocrisy and self-deception. To live as a fragmented self is to live life on the edge of emotional breakdown.

Archer illustrates this distinction with two literary examples, both of whom are fictional doctors. The first is John Sassall, a country doctor in John Berger’s novel A Fortunate Man. Sassall is an integrated self. He ‘cures others to cure himself’. His professional life is in harmony with his private values. But this wasn’t always true. He once experienced tensions in his life due to overwork and ambition. He wanted to live a life of service but thought that this meant making the biggest difference to his patients. In believing this he prevented himself from truly serving his community, being dismissive of cases that weren’t serious enough to warrant his attention. He realised that he needed to reinterpret the ideal of service to bring it into line with what was both possible and necessary for him at his station in life.

The second example is Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch. Lydgate is a fragmented self. He has multiple conflicting ideals and dispositions. He wants to serve his community and to make important medical breakthroughs, but he is also something of a snob who needs to ingratiate himself with the influential and wealthy members of his community. This combination proves to be a recipe for disaster. He allows his need for wealthy benefactors to fund his scientific projects to cloud his medical judgment. This duplicitousness takes its toll. He has the outward trappings of success, but, as Eliot herself puts it, ‘always regarded himself as a failure’.

From these examples, we can get a pretty good handle on Archer’s account of integrity. But what about the value of integrity? Why is it important to aspire toward an integrated self? Archer’s argument is a modest one. There is no guarantee of value. He admits that it is possible to be an integrated moral monster, i.e. to have immoral ambitions, desires and projects that are perfectly coherent and balanced. He just thinks this is unlikely in practice (and indeed points to empirical research suggesting that moral exemplars are more likely to be well-integrated). The reason for this is the tension between self-interest and moral value. This is one of the main causes of individual moral failure. We all want to ‘succeed’, to get ahead in life, to acquire a reputation and social status; we also all have moral values, many of which tend to put a premium on kindness and generosity to others, selflessness and service to one’s community. If we pick the wrong ambitions, or the wrong values, there’s a danger of fragmentation. We get pulled in different directions, occasionally heeding the siren song of self-interest, and occasionally yielding to the nagging voice of conscience.

This certainly rings true for me. I think my problem — my feeling of inner hypocrisy — stems from a conflict between my ambitions and my values. I have chosen the life of an academic. That life rewards certain kinds of behaviours: publishing peer-reviewed papers, teaching classes, winning research grants, and gaining the respect of one’s peers. These are the status markers and indicators of success. I’m drawn to them because they let me know whether or not I’m winning the game I’ve chosen to play. I’m also drawn to them because I find some of them to be quite enjoyable (particularly writing and research). But I feel guilty about this because I think they contradict or undermine many of my moral values. I have said this before, in other ways, but I don’t think the work I do is of great social value. I’m not sure the world needs another paper about the ethics of AI, or, even if it did, that the paper I write will be a major contribution to knowledge or policy. I’m just one replaceable voice in the wilderness. I also have considerable doubts about the value of teaching and its practical impact. It might make some difference to some students but I suspect this is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, I feel that the pursuit of professional ambition draws me away from what things that really matters.

I don’t doubt that these feelings are common, and I’m sure other people experience greater tension between success at work and moral value. Nevertheless, I think this tension is clearly at the root of my psychological malaise in the aftermath of my sister’s death. Her death crystallised, in a particularly extreme and painful way, the tension I had long suspected was there. Until that moment, I could ignore it and deceive myself into thinking that I was living a coherent and integrated life, that my personal ambitions were consistent with my moral aspirations. After that moment, the deception was not sustainable. The wool was lifted from my eyes; the emperor of my ego was revealed to be a naked fraud. I realised (and wrote about) it at the time, and that is why it is so frustrating to think that nothing has changed since then. I have just lapsed back into the same old patterns once more.

I’ll need to resolve this tension lest I end up like Tertius Lydgate. But this will be difficult to do. I have three main options. Either (a) I allow my current professional ambitions to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my moral values; (b) I allow my values to take priority and use them to reform/reinterpret my professional ambitions; or (c) I reform/reinterpret both. The first is the path of least resistance; the second would require a significant overhaul of my current priorities and habits; and the third is just difficult for me to assess at this juncture because its consequences are so unclear.

I think I am going to have to end this self-assessment here. If you have made it this far, I commend you. I have certainly benefitted from writing all this. I’ve learned something about the concepts of hypocrisy, self-deception and integrity, and I’ve used this to bring clarity and insight to my own life. The writing has been cathartic and therapeutic, even if it is only just a beginning. I hope you have got something out of it too.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Morality and the Separateness of Persons: Some Radical Possibilities

Think about yourself in 20 years time for a moment. Imagine the person you might become. How do you feel about this person? Do you feel some important, intimate connection with them? Do you think you have a right to prioritise the life of ‘future-you’ over and above that of other people that are alive today? Does the person who lives 20 yards across the street warrant as much concern as yourself in 20 years time?

Figuring out the answer to questions like this is central to the task of moral philosophy. Most people think that each individual is a separate person (i.e. you-in-20-years is very different from the stranger living 20 yards down the street) and that this ‘separateness of persons’ is an important moral fact. This was first explicitly mentioned by John Rawls in his classic work A Theory of Justice, though the concept has much deeper roots. In essence, the idea is this: the fact that I am a distinct person from you and you from me, coupled with the fact that I have a unique, asymmetrical relationship with future versions of myself (and you with future versions of yourself) means that each individual is a special, separate unit of moral concern. We must respect individuals as ends in themselves and not use them as means to more desirable ends. This counts against utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophies and in favour of deontological theories.

There is, however, a dedicated opposition to this view. Derek Parfit, for example, has famously argued that the separateness of persons is a ‘shallow fact’ about human beings, not a ‘deep fact’. The distinction we draw between you-in-20-years and the stranger down the street is more an arbitrary matter of convention, than a deep truth about who you are. After all, you-in-20-years could have a very different personality and set of beliefs and values. He or she could be much more like the stranger down the street than you currently believe. Why give them more consideration than they deserve? Parfit’s view lends itself to a more utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophy. Everyone’s life counts as equal in the great felicific calculus.

In his 2009 paper, ‘Natural Separateness’, Tim Christie offers an interesting critique of Parfit’s view. He argues that even if Parfit is right that the separateness of persons is a shallow fact, it does not follow that it does not warrant special weight in our moral theories. On the contrary, a fact can be shallow and still warrant great weight. Christie also goes further and argues that if anyone wants to construct a moral theory that is fit for human beings, then they better respect the separateness of persons. To do otherwise, would be to construct a moral theory that is only fit for hypothetical, non-human beings. In the course of making this argument, Christie makes a number of interesting claims about moral theories in hypothethical alien societies. I want to look at his arguments in the remainder of this post.

1. Parfit on the Shallow/Deep Distinction
Before we go any further, we need to have a clearer sense of what Parfit actually argues, starting with his distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ facts. We can characterise that as follows:

Deep Facts: Facts that are part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. that are not human creations and do not depend on us for their existence.

Shallow Facts: Facts that are not part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. facts that arise from social convention and practice, and that do depend on us for their existence.

Take a simple example: the borders that exist between different countries. These are shallow facts. They really do exist and they have considerable practical and political importance, but they are the result of social convention and habit (albeit convention and habit that can have centuries of institutional inertia behind it). The borders are not deep facts about the world in which we live. In this sense they differ from geographical landmarks like rivers and mountains which, although subject to some human control and interference, and capable of changing over time, are pre-existent and not dependent on social convention.

One of Parfit’s motivating principles is that when we construct a moral theory, we should give deep facts pride of place. This gets interesting when he turns his attention to individual identity and the separateness of persons. As noted above, Parfit thinks that personal identity is a shallow fact, not a deep fact. The boundaries we draw between ourselves and others are more like the borders between different countries than geographical landmarks. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Parfit is a reductionist about personal identity. He does not believe in the existence of a separate metaphysical soul or person. He thinks that all claims about continuing personal identity are ultimately reducible to biological and psychological facts. In particular, he thinks that psychological facts are what matter to claims of continuing personal identity: if you-right-now share a sufficient number of overlapping psychological states (e.g. memories) with you-in-20-years-time, then you are the same person. If not, then you may really be different people. The fact that we still might think of you as the same person is purely conventional. This then brings us to Parfit’s second reason for favouring a ‘shallow’ view of personal identity. Through a series of ingenious and amusing thought experiments — many of them involving brain transplants and teleportation devices — Parfit thinks we can begin to see the arbitrariness of the conventional boundaries we draw between different selves. I won’t go through these thought experiments here, but you can easily find them online and they are worth reading. They suggest that, in at least some extreme cases, what we think of as a single continuing identity is anything but: it is possible for a single identity to ‘fission’ into two or more identities and for more than two identities to occupy the same body.

If the separateness of persons is not a deep fact, it follows for Parfit that it does not deserve pride of place in our moral theory (contra Kant and Rawls). But then what does? Parfit seems to think that subjective well-being and welfare are the important deep facts. We should focus on maximising or optimising those states of being, not on ensuring or protecting individual identity (except insofar as it contributes to well-being). This leads him to favour an impartial, consequentialist approach to morality. (I should add the obvious caveat that this is Parfit pre-On What Matters, which tries to reconcile consequentialism with other normative theories.)

2. So what if Identity is Shallow?
Tim Christie thinks that Parfit is wrong. He thinks that Parfit overstates the arbitrariness of identity and that even if the separateness of persons is not a deep metaphysical fact, it is still a fact that we ought to respect in our moral reasoning. In making this case, Christie draws inspiration from the work of Christine Korsgaard and Mark Johnston. Korsgaard accepts Parfit’s main point. She agrees that personal identity is not a deep fact. She thinks of it, instead, as practically necessary fact. As biological beings we are tied to the fate of one biological body (at least until we invent the fanciful mind-uploading and teleportation devices that Parfit imagines) and when occupying that body we have to adopt a deliberative standpoint, i.e. we must act as a single rational agent that reasons and acts over time, with the interests of this biological body in mind. So even if Parfit is right that the shallowness of identity emerges in certain extreme cases, there is no easy way to escape the practical necessity of viewing oneself as a single continuing identity. Johnston makes a similar point, highlighting the biological underpinning of the separateness of persons and pointing out that this underpinning is what supports many of our conventional ‘person practices’ (i.e. our practices of viewing and treating each other as separate persons). Johnston doesn’t think that this biological underpinning is our moral destiny, but it does provide a non-arbitrary underpinning to our day-to-day morality.

Christie runs with this critique. He challenges Parfit for his overreliance on fanciful thought experiments. While these thought experiments may provide some reason for us to revise our commitment to the separateness of persons in extreme cases, it does not follow that we ought to revise our commitment in non-extreme cases. Parfit commits the original sin of many analytic moral philosophers. He thinks that one logically consistent counterexample to a moral theory — no matter how distant from our current reality — is enough the undermine the entire moral theory. Sometimes counterexamples have that effect, but not always and not necessarily. The validity of a moral theory may be constrained by certain features of our present reality.

And this brings us to Christie’s main point. He thinks that if consequentialists like Parfit want to provide a theory that is compelling to creatures like us, then they ought to respect the separateness of persons, not dismiss it. It is a natural biological fact, that sets limits on what is credible when it comes to moral commitments and beliefs:

The separateness of human persons has a natural basis in the sense that humans have several natural features that constrain our person practices. First, all humans have a particular history. Access to the particulars of this history is a valuable resource for a human…Second, each human is an individual living organism: humans are physically separate from other things in ways similar to how all organisms are separate from other things. It is empirically false that humans are a ‘super organism’ like, e.g., a hive of bees or a colony of ants. Lastly, most humans are capable of rational prudence. The human ability to plan for the future allows humans not only to weather the tough times nature may throw our way, but also (possibly) to flourish. Planning for the future is one of the key evolutionary resources of our species. These natural features of humans place constraints on our person practices. 
(Christie 2009, 185)

But what if things were different?

3. Could our morality be very different? Some thought experiments
The first few sections of Christie’s paper make some important points. But it’s really towards the end that the paper comes to life. After articulating his basic position, Christie tries to further justify it by imagining some very different realities to our own. His argumentative strategy seems to be as follows: if the natural separateness of persons is morally significant (as he believes), then if you could imagine a world in which the natural separateness is no longer true, you would have to radically revise many of the moral commitments we take for granted. The fact that this radical revision would be required bolsters the idea that separateness is currently of great moral significance. In other words, Christie seems to be endorsing the following principle (though, to be clear, he never spells it out in this form).

Christie’s Test for Moral Significance: If a fact X is morally significant, then a world in which not-X were true would require radical moral revision (i.e. significant change to our moral values, duties, practices etc.).

I have no idea whether this test is sound. It seems superficially plausible to me, but I do wonder whether it begs the question against someone like Parfit. He might argue that morally significant facts are, in some sense, absolute and unchanging across possible worlds. So the fact of radical revision would be viewed as support for the claim that X is not morally significant. Nevertheless, and setting that to the side, the thought experiments that Christie uses to carry out his test for moral significance are what really interest me. They ask us to imagine how our moral practices would change in a world in which the natural separateness of persons no longer held true.

Christie runs two such thought experiments. The first is the ‘Merger’ thought experiment:

Merger Thought Experiment: “Imagine a race of beings exactly like humans except that they spontaneously merge bodies (the ‘mergers’). Once every few years, a merger would find him or herself to be a ‘single’ (an unattached merger). The moment two singles come in close physical proximity, the two individuals would reflexively and uncontrollably shake hands, and then the two hands would spontaneously merge. Once fused, the two beings would remain fused for several years; the health and life of each single would be hopelessly entangled with the other. Both members of the pair would be aware of what occurred to the shared appendage: if the appendage is tickled, they both laugh; if the appendage is cut, they both feel pain. Nonetheless, we may suppose that each member of the pair of mergers would still have the same sets of desires, intentions and preferences that he or she had previous to the current merging. Furthermore, consent from both mergers is not necessary for one merger to try to initiate an action, move about, etc., and each merger could thwart or cooperate as he or she saw fit. In most cases, mutual cooperation would be essential for a merger to live his or her day-to-day life. After three or four years as a pair, the beings would spontaneously split and the process would start all over again. Compared to human morality, would these beings’ morality be systematically different? ” 
(Christie 2009, 189)

The answer is ‘of course’. Many of our current moral practices fixate on the need for consent in cases of bodily interference, value and protect bodily integrity and privacy, and presume (or work to ensure) individual bodily autonomy. All of these commitments go out the window in the world of the mergers. You can no longer guarantee bodily integrity and privacy. You cannot always protect consent or presume autonomy. A much greater emphasis must be placed on cooperation, mutuality and compromise. When one half of a merger promises to do something for someone else, he or she must get the other half of the merger to go along with that promise. Promising is thus no longer an individual choice; it must be a social/cooperative bargain. Similarly, our practices of holding one another to account and punish wrongdoers would have to change. It would not be right to imprison or physically confine one half of a merger for former actions or deeds of the other half. All in all, in a world in which the biological separateness of persons breaks down, significant revision is indeed required to our moral code. That’s all that Christie needed to show to pass his test.

That said, the world of the mergers is not that alien or unusual. We have some documented cases of conjoined twins (who remain conjoined into adulthood) in which these issues have been raised and considered. These cases, though unusual, do stretch and revise our moral practices to some extent, but maybe they do not ‘radically’ revise our moral practices. That’s why the second thought experiment is more extreme:

Collective Thought Experiment: “Imagine a species of beings that have bodies just like ours but share a common mind: when one of the beings remembers something or imagines an image, the memory or image is common to all (the ‘collective’). When one member of the collective suggests to the common mind a course of action, all members of the collective know of the suggestion and a common intention is reached. All members of the collective are mentally transparent to each other. Benefits and burdens are experienced by all: one member’s pain is another’s. If one member of the collective wins the lottery, all of the members feel the elation of a large windfall. Similar science-fiction examples immediately come to mind (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Borg Collective’). For the collective, how would morality be different from ordinary human morality?” 
(Christie 2009, 191)

Christie admits that he finds it difficult to imagine what morality would be like for such a species. Individual bodies would no longer be units of moral concern - they would be more like the cells that make up a single collective agent. The collective agent would be what matters; the cells would be just part of the support network. Also, any ideals of individual moral responsibility or accountability would seem to go out the window. It is the collective that is the moral agent and that bears responsibility. Our current practices around corporate agency and responsibility might provide some guidance as to what this would be like, but the collective is very different from a corporation. It’s not just that they share some common goal or plan, they also share phenomenological experiences of the world. Christie thinks this would require a significant revision of our moral practices, which once again suggests that our current phenomenological separateness is morally significant.

4. Some concluding thoughts
I like Christie’s thought experiments. I like pushing the boundaries of our moral imaginations to consider radical possibilities. I think it is valuable to see how depended our current moral beliefs and practices may be on our current biological and social reality. It makes me wonder whether there are possible ‘ways of life’ that are morally valuable but that I just can’t appreciate now because my biological form has set limits on my imagination. That’s not, of course, what Christie was hoping I would get out of it. He was hoping that by considering these radical alternatives, I would appreciate the moral significance of my current biological form. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that; it’s just that I enjoy the imaginative exercise more.

All that said, I do have some doubts about Christie’s arguments and assumptions. I noted some concerns about the ‘test’ he applies for moral significance above. Related to that, I wonder whether he might overstate the radicalness of the worlds he imagines, even the collective world. Authors like Christine Rovane, for example, have argued that the Enlightenment ideal of selfhood is consistent with corporate/collective agency: it’s not that our moral practices are radically changed, they are just targeted at a different level. Similarly, there are long-standing cultural beliefs and practices that advocate in favour of something like the collective (and against the separateness of persons). My understanding of the Buddhist No-Self doctrine, for example, is that it denies the reality of a single phenomenological agent (possibly also a rational, deliberative agent if you follow the work of Monima Chadha) and is often associated with beliefs about the unity of reality and consciousness. So it may not be that radical an ideal for creatures like us.

Furthermore, I do wonder whether the collective thought experiment is logically consistent in its current form. It seems like every presentation of it — including the presentation in science fictional cases like the Borg — involves some retention of individual identity (however slight). Without that retention it wouldn’t really make sense to talk about ‘collective’ thoughts or ‘shared’ experience — if there is just one single thinker or experiencer then there is no sharing. It’s this retention of individuality that makes the possibility so scary or unpleasant. If you actually abandoned it, maybe it would less scary.

I guess that’s just another way of saying that we should imagine these possibilities more fully.